Book Review: The Summer Before Boys by Nora Raleigh Baskin


The Summer Before Boys by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Julia is spending the summer with Eliza, who is her age but is also her niece.  Julia’s mother has been sent overseas with the National Guard and her father can’t watch Julia and work.  So the two girls spend their summer together, often heading up to the hotel where Eliza’s father works.  The friends spend a lot of time playing pretend, imagining that they are back in time when girls wore long dresses.  But Julia is worried about her mother and the war.  She has also discovered a boy named Michael who seems interested in her too.  But pursuing Michael may mean leaving Eliza behind.

This is a book about changing from being a child to being a teen.  Baskin perfectly captures that transition, that tension that is achingly real here.  Her writing explores the changes, the new-sounding laughter of flirtation, the running both from and to boys at the same time, the loss of imagination, the setting aside of old priorities for new ones.  She allows us to see the friendship of the two girls first as it always has been with a comfort, a shorthand, a natural ease.  And then we watch it change before our eyes as one girl grows up faster than the other, and tensions begin to create cracks and shifts.

Julia is a beautifully crafted heroine who is honest, confused, and filled with a depth of feeling and awareness that makes the book so special.  I enjoyed seeing the world change through Julia’s eyes rather than having it be Eliza, the one being left behind, who was the first person voice.  And the ending, the ending!  It is exactly what the book needed, what all of us who have left childhood behind need to remember.  Lovely.

Highly recommended, this book is a stellar piece of tween fiction that captures that age with depth and beauty.  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Reviewed by


Finally by Wendy Mass

Mass returns to Willow Falls, the setting of 11 Birthdays.  This time it is Rory’s turn to have a birthday and she is finally turning twelve.  Her entire life her parents have told her that she could do things when she turned twelve.  She can have a pet, shave her legs, go to a girl/boy party, have a cell phone, get her ears pierced, and much more. But hours before her birthday, she finds herself stuck in a drainpipe and rescued by a little old lady who has surprising strength.  That women tells her, “You won’t get what you want, Rory Swenson, until you see what you need.”  Rory though is sure that her list of promises from her parents are exactly what she both wants and needs.  As Rory works her way through the list, her efforts meet with disaster.  It is especially bad when they start filming a movie at her school and all of her disasters could force her to give up her new job as an extra.  It just may take a gold allergy, an evil murderous bunny, and loss of skin on both legs for Rory to see what she needs.

Written with a strong voice in the first person, Rory’s take on life is wry, funny and always upbeat.  She is a great character whose disasters make for laugh-out-loud moments that are perfect for the tween age group.  Her personal wants may not match those of readers, but they will easily see themselves in her.  She is utterly understandable, completely accident prone, and simply delightful to spend time with.

This book reads quickly as readers move from one of her wishes to the next with Rory, each resulting in if not surprising, then very funny events.  Rory’s family members are just as vividly written.  Her parents are busy but involved and caring if a little overprotective.  Her toddler brother offers just the right amount of distraction and silliness too. 

Take humor, a zing of some sort of magic, and an accident prone tween, and you have this winning book.  The cover is bright, friendly and will invite children to pick it up and read it quickly.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) received from publisher.

Also reviewed by Kate Messner on her blog.

Looking Like Me

Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers

This father and son partnership has created a picture book that will work with a broad span of ages.   Walter Dean Myers’ poem explores everything that a person can be, all the various aspects of a person.  He focuses on what a person loves to do, relationships with others, and who that person really is.  It is an empowering message of both individuality and connections to others. 

The poetry in the book dances from one idea to the next with a jazzy rhythm and urban vibe.  Christopher Myers’ art is joyous, loose and loud.  The two work together to offer a book filled with rhythm and movement. 

This book is accessible enough to be used with children in elementary school, but may speak loudest to older children and teens who are asking themselves about their identity.  It begs to be used with students and reacted to in a personal way.  Appropriate for ages 7-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex

Steve was a great fan of the Bailey Brothers who star in a series of detective novels.  In fact, Steve considered their series and The Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook to be the best books ever.  But even though he had read their books through several times, Steve was very surprised when he went to the library to work on his report about early American needlework and was attacked!  Steve now had to recover a national treasure, evade secret-agent librarians, and clear his name of national treason.  Oh, and finish his report by Monday.

An amazing riff on and homage to classic detective series like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, this book is hilarious, exciting and just pure fun.  Barnett’s tone dances between tongue-in-cheek and sincerity with great ease.  Steve is a great protagonist, eagerly following the advice of the Bailey Brothers throughout his own adventure even though things rarely go as planned. 

Rex’s illustrations are vintage Hardy Boys, done in black and white with gray washes of shadow.  Just as with the novel itself, Rex plays with the format, making it modern but vintage at the same time. 

Highly recommended for all libraries, this book begs to be shared with others.  It would make a super read aloud for elementary school classes, because of its episodic nature and cliffhanging chapters.  Appropriate for ages 9-13.

Reviewed from copy received from publisher.

Also reviewed by Book Trends, TheHappyNappyBookseller, and Fuse #8.

Running on the Cracks

Running on the Cracks by Julia Donaldson

Leo just can’t stay at her aunt and uncle’s house any more.  Her parents are both dead, so she heads to Glasgow to search for her grandparents using only a few clues that her father had given her over the years.  After a few days of homelessness, Leo is rescued by Mary, a recent psychiatric patient, who tends to take in waifs and strays.  The newspapers carry stories of Leo’s disappearance, so she is forced to hide in Mary’s apartment and only goes out at dawn to sketch.  Finlay, a teen who wants to be tougher than he really is, meets Leo when she steals doughnuts from a cart he works at.  He recognizes her as the missing girl and only later becomes a friend and protector.   As Leo continues to hide from the authorities, her group of friends become more like family to her.  But just when she begins to relax a bit, her uncle appears and the dangers of living with him become clear.

This story mixes tension with a story that is deep and moving.  The tension of pursuit is constantly present in the story, but the meat of the book is really Leo’s search for her family and for a safe haven and the people she encounters and bonds with in that journey.  Leo is a great biracial character.  Her Chinese background plays an important role in the story and in her search for her family.  She is a well-written character who shows great strength and ingenuity in the face of so many difficulties.  It is also wonderful to see a male protagonist in Finlay who is just as strongly written and interesting as Leo.  The pairing makes this a great choice for all readers.

Another aspect of the novel is the character of Mary who suffers from mental illness.  She offers Leo protection and a home, but her moods and actions become more and more disorganized as the novel goes on.  Her illness is portrayed with honesty and not hostility, which is refreshing.

I am not a fan of the cover.  I wish it showed more of Leo and Finlay who make an intriguing pair of friends.

A fast-paced novel, this book reads quickly and despite darker themes is more about the positive side of life.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy received from publisher.

Luv Ya Bunches

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle

Yes, this is the book that was not included in Scholastic Book Fairs because one of the characters has lesbian parents.  Sheesh!  That has since changed and they will be carrying the title

This book though is so much more than the subject of that controversy!  It’s funny, smart, and simply wonderful.

It all starts with a big gesture in the hallway made by Katie-Rose, who slams into Milla, sending her backpack and everything in it skittering across the floor.  Katie-Rose skulks away, so Yasaman is blamed for the event though she had nothing to do with it.  Violet, the new girl, saw it all and is the one who discovers a tiny toy turtle left behind on the floor.  The mean Modessa and her lackey Quin are a large part of the bad things that happen next, but you will have to read the book to find out what that is!  Let’s just say that friendship will triumph in the end.

The book is told from the point of view of all four girls and as in Myracle’s previous books incorporates online chatting.  It also has her trademark ease with dialogue as well as her deep understanding of tweens.  The four main characters are distinct, unique and interesting.  They all have their own insecurities, moments of bravery, and challenges.  Each girl approaches school and creating friendships differently.  All four girls are racially different and this book nicely avoids any stereotyping of them. 

And just for the record, the same-sex parents are seen in passing just like the rest of the parents in the story.  They drop off, pick up, make costumes, etc.  They are not the focus of the story at all.  Another thing that makes this book so refreshing and real.

This is a fun, candid book that will have late elementary school girls hooked before the first page ends.  The issues faced by the girls are real, tangible, and very intriguing.  It only gets better when readers learn at the end that there will be more in the series!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from publisher.

Also reviewed by Welcome to My Tweendom and TheHappyNappyBookseller.

The Indigo Notebook

The Indigo Notebook by Laura Resau

Released October 13, 2009.

Fifteen-year-old Zeeta has lived all over the world with her mother who teachers English.  She has been raised to dance in the middle of the night, bathe in mystic pools, and embrace the world and its mysteries.  Her mother spouts the poetry of Rami all the time and doesn’t believe in rules at all.  Zeeta has spent most of her life wishing that she had a normal family.  Now the two are in Ecuador.  Zeeta meets American teen, Wendell, at the market place and is drawn into a quest to find his birth parents with only the clue of a crystal that was placed in his blankets as a baby.  They journey together to a neighboring small village where the answers are hidden in time and everyone seems to have a secret.  As she tries to help Wendell on his quest, Zeeta’s home life starts to change after her mother nearly dies.  Her mother gets a normal boyfriend and starts to watch TV, set rules, and think about returning to the states.  Could it be that everything you really wish for you already have?  The first in a new series.

In this many layered, complex work, Resau has created a fascinating heroine who speaks multiple languages, is at ease approaching strangers, and Can move across the world and in a few weeks feel at home.  Zeeta is an engaging heroine whose life may seem blissful when seen from afar, but living it takes more skill that one would expect.  She is nicely balanced in the story by Wendell, who has left the US for the first time since his adoption.  Their romance is well done, with nothing beyond kissing, and an obvious deep connection to one another. 

The depiction of Ecuador is done without cleaning it up and making it pretty.  There is poverty, begging, alcoholism, deceit, and broken families.  But there are also women who are mothers of the entire village, wise healers, friendly people at the market, generosity, and beauty.  Resau does not make it simple and easy.  She revels in the complexity, creating a real world for readers to immerse themselves in.

Resau’s writing is filled with imagery.  Here is a description of the mountains from Page 98 of the ARC:

Each of the mountains has its own personality. Some beam down at you, gently, like a big-bosomed grandma.  Some are sexy, slinking around in the lacy clouds.  Others shoot up, jagged and fierce, with a passionate energy.  Some guard magical realms, their smiles silent and secret.  No wonder the locals say that the mountains are gods.

With this, her setting is built and strengthened.  Ecuador comes alive in her writing.  One can almost smell the popcorn in the air, the fresh bread baking, and the potato soup. 

Highly recommended for tween and teen readers who are looking to travel.  This book brings a place to life so vividly it is almost like being there.  Add a little romance and it becomes irresistible.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from an ARC.  The quote used should be checked against the final version for accuracy.

Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Gee would much rather be out running than sitting and hearing about the leaf project that is due next week.  Her place in sectionals is in jeopardy though, if she doesn’t get this project in on time.  But her life is more complicated than that and she has always had problems with deadlines.  Now with her grandmother’s health in decline, Gee has very serious things on her mind.  Plus her relationship with one of her best friends could be turning into something other than friendship.  And another girl is out to steal her place on the team.  Sometimes a girl just can’t catch a break! 

Perfectly set during the glory of changing autumn, Messner captures the season’s sounds, smells and feeling.  As Gee faces difficult situations that have her world changing, nature too is in mid-change.  Messner manages to capture this with a delicate hand, allowing readers to connect the two themselves. 

Gee is a wonderful heroine.  The combination of athlete and artist is an unusual one that works very well.  The characterization is very strong for not only Gee, but all of the people around her.  Nonna, the grandmother, is captured with a warm and heart that is exceptional.  The passages about her becoming more foggy and forgetful are written with a beauty and grace that is breathtaking. 

This is a pre-teen book that is not about kissing, not boy-crazy, and not pink!  It is a book that will work for many kids who are looking for something real and beautiful.  And who isn’t?!  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from publisher.

Also reviewed on A Patchwork of Books, Writing and Ruminating, Jen Robinson’s Book Page, and Welcome to My Tweendom.

Check out Kate Messner’s blog.

Once a Witch

Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough

Tamsin comes from a family with magical Talents, but she doesn’t have any herself.  While working in her family’s bookstore, she is asked to help find a lost object, something others in her family do for people.  Tamsin is tired of being overlooked and pretends to be her older and very Talented sister Rowena and takes the job.  She goes to boarding school in New York City, against her family’s recommendations, and finds that the man looking for a unique clock also lives there.  He’s a professor at NYC.  At the same time, a Talented childhood friend reappears into Tamsin’s life and agrees to help her find the clock.  But all is not what it seems in this twisting book filled with romance, magic, and danger.

This book is light and lovely.  It is a refreshing fantasy filled with enough angst and action to move it along briskly.  There is also enough danger to make it difficult to put down, enough mystery to keep the pages turning, and enough romantic tension to keep any romance-lover happy.  MacCullough has created a protagonist who is bright, snarky and very funny.  Tasmin is the brilliant star of the novel even though she feels ordinary and dull.  MacCullough’s light touch keeps the book breezy and a pleasure to read.

Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight, this novel is simply a lot of fun to read with its captivating blend of fantasy and romance.  A light and lovely book appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from publisher.

Also reviewed by A Patchwork of Books.