The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley

Cover image for The Robber Girl.

The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley (9780763669560)

The Robber Girl was rescued by Gentleman Jack when her family abandoned her. Now she is riding with him and his gang into the Indigo Heart to rob the stagecoach and get Gentleman Jack the bars of gold it carries so he can regain his birthright. Robber Girl has her own dagger, double-edged and sharp, that speaks directly to her in a pointed way that criticizes many of her choices. But the stagecoach is actually a ruse to capture Gentleman Jack. Now for the first time in her memory, Robber Girl is staying in a home. She is dedicated to rescuing Gentleman Jack from the jail, assuring him that she will never turn on him. At her new home, she discovers a dollhouse that is a miniature of the house, one with dolls who talk with her and set her three tasks. As Robber Girl stays longer, she starts to remember scraps of local songs, melodies and the truth, but the dagger’s voice stays just as pointed in her head, insisting that she keep it all forgotten.

The author of Chime returns with a middle grade novel that is a tremendous read. The Robber Girl is one of the best written unreliable narrators I have seen in a book for children. She fully believes what she has been told by Gentleman Jack, though readers will immediately realize that there are holes in the stories. As both the readers and the girl find clues to her past, the largest puzzle of the book is the girl herself and whether she can recover from denial and trauma enough to set her own course before being swept away again by the lies.

Billingsley has written great secondary characters as well. Gentleman Jack is tremendously charming and manipulative. The judge, who takes the girl in, and his grieving wife have real depth to their characters and their stories. They add another look at coping with loss and trauma to the novel. Even the children of the village, who may seem to be bullies, have other levels to them and reveal them over time. It’s an exquisite look at trauma, faith and belonging.

A stellar middle-grade novel that is a tantalizing puzzle of trauma and truth laced with a touch of fantasy. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf (9780593302279)

Aniyah and her brother are new in the foster-care system. At ten-years-old, Aniyah grew up in a family where they worked hard to placate her father’s temper and eventually hid from him with her mother and little brother. Now her mother is gone, but Aniyah knows she isn’t gone forever. When Aniyah hears that a new star has been found in the sky, she knows that it is her mother transformed. But the international contest to name the star will get it wrong! Aniyah, her brother and two of the other foster kids in the house set out on a wild Halloween-night journey to London and the Royal Observatory to make sure that the star is named after Aniyah’s mother after all.

This is the second book by the author of the award-winning The Boy at the Back of the Class. It is a story of familial abuse and terror, but told through the eyes of a ten-year-old whose mother tried to shelter her from what was actually happening. Aniyah has stories built around all of the noises she heard, from “moving furniture” to “playing hide and seek.” It makes the truth of the matter all the more haunting for readers who will understand what happened to Aniyah’s mother long before the character does.

It creates a deep tenderness between the reader and the main protagonist. Aniyah and her little brother are voices of pure innocence in the book, accompanied by other children who have been warned not to reveal the truth to her. Their lengthy experience in foster care contrasts profoundly with Aniyah’s demonstrating to the reader how special their foster mother is and how traumatic many of the children’s lives are.

A fine weaving of grief, innocence and trauma. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Cover image for Watch Over Me

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour (9780593108970)

Mila has aged out of the foster care system and has found a job teaching at a remote farm in Northern California. The farm is owned by a couple who have taken in over 40 foster children over the years as well as offering internships, like the one Mila has gotten. Mila finds herself on a beautiful farm and warmly welcomed by the owners. She only has one pupil, 9-year-old Lee, who comes from a traumatized background just as Mila does. But no one told Mila about the ghosts on the farm, about how they would fill dance across the fields and play games together at night. As Mila gets more involved with helping on the farm, learning about the flowers and crops, and helping Lee face his trauma, she finds that her own memories are threatening to overwhelm her as her past continues to haunt her.

This new book from the Printz-award winner is another dynamite read. It’s a novel with such an unusual setting, haunting and remote. It echoes with elements of Jane Eyre and Rebecca while standing completely modern and unique. It may not be classically gothic with its warm and sunny rooms, merry meals together, and companionship, but other moments are pure gothic with the sea, the cliffs, and the ghosts. It’s a tantalizing mixture of sun and shadow.

Mila is a character to fall hard for. She is clearly traumatized by what happened to her before she entered the foster care system, setting herself apart from others even as she longs to be closer to people. She is careful, conscientious, and amazingly kind, everything that her past has her thinking she is not. She is a marvel of layers that the novel reveals with gothic precision at just the right times.

Gorgeously written and filled with icy darkness and glowing warmth, this novel is a triumph. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

sex and violence

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

Evan had always been the new kid at school, but he found advantages to that.  In each new school, he knew just which girls would be the ones to say “yes” and have sex with him.  That all changes when he picks the wrong girl at a private school in North Carolina and ends up savagely beaten in a boys’ restroom.  Evan’s father, who has been absent physically and emotionally since his mother’s death when he was a child, moves them to a lakeside cabin in Pearl Lake, Minnesota.  As his body starts to heal and scars start to form, Evan also has to deal with the damage to his mind.  He can no longer take showers because they evoke the same terror as the attack.  And even sex is so mixed with guilt and fear that it holds little appeal.  Pearl Lake is quiet but also filled with teens who know everything about one another but nothing about Evan, and that’s just the way he likes it.  Or is it?

This novel looks deep into what happens psychologically after a physical trauma.  Mesrobian handles dark issues with a certain tenderness, yet never shies away from the trauma itself.  While details of the attack are shared in snippets throughout the novel, they are not lingered over and sensationalized.  This is far more a book about a boy who survives and grows, combined with the agonies of change along the way. 

Evan is a wonderfully flawed protagonist.  The book begins just before the attack but with a prologue that foreshadows what is going to happen.  Evan is entirely detestable at this stage, a boy who screws girls just for fun, feeling little to no connection with them emotionally.  He convinces himself he is right about the way he is treating Collette.  Then early in the book, the attack comes, and Evan is transformed in a matter of pages into a character worthy of sympathy.  This sort of complexity runs throughout the novel which provides no easy answers but lots to think about.

Another great character is Baker.  She is a smart senior who is sexually active and even describes herself as sexually aggressive.  She and Evan almost immediately form a friendship that deepens over the summer.  She stands as one of the most honest and beautifully written teen girls I have read in a long time.  I love that she is not scared of expressing her sexuality, that her life doesn’t fall apart because of it, and that she is still feminine, smart and kind.  Amazing characterization!

This novel asks tough questions, changes underneath you, demands that you think and never gives concrete answers to the questions it asks.  Beautifully written, complex and brilliant.  Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from library copy.