Sunday, March 29, 2020

My Jasper June, by Laurel Snyder

At the start of the summer, Leah feels lost.  Her town and her family have so many traditions and none of them feel right anymore.  Since her little brother died last summer at camp, Leah and her family have simply drifted.  School kept Leah busy, but with a long empty summer ahead of her, there is nothing to do and nothing to which to look forward. 

Then Leah meets Jaspar, a mysterious girl living in an abandoned house in the woods.  Jaspar is fun and exciting, and most important of all Jaspar doesn't look at her with the pity that everyone else does.  Through the friendship that develops between them, Leah finds the will to move beyond her grief and see with a clear eye how encumbered it has made her and her family.  But Jaspar's situation is dire.  Can Leah help her in return or are some problems simply too big to take care of?

A lot of loss and pain in this book but in the end a lot of hope as well.  Snyder avoids easy solutions and no one person saves the others.  Instead it becomes a team effort where adults and children come together and teach and learn from each other at the same time.  The end result is a moving story about taking risks and committing to others in order to break through unhealthy coping mechanisms. While elements of the plot are tired and familiar, the strength of this novel comes in its affirming and inspirational message, well written and effectively delivered.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker

While her father's hunting accident has left middleschooler Zen an orphan, the decision for her to come live with her Aunts provides an opportunity to finally become the girl she has always known herself to be.  With a new town and anew school, Zen has decided that she'll present as female and not even tell anyone that she's trans.

Being a girl proves harder than she expected.  There's the natural worries of passing, but Zen also find that being a girl involves tricky social skills with which she is not familiar.  She knows that being a girl feels right, but doing it right does not always come to her.  She doesn't know to be wary around queen bee Natalie.  While prim Margaret seems like she would make a good buddy, her conservative religious family proves to be a no-go.  For safety and comfort, Zen is drawn to a group of misfits, made up of racial and sexual minorities trying to fit in.

Zen is far more than a trans girl.  She has major computer skills.  When a hacker defaces the school's website with racist and transphobic graffiti, Zen leaps into action, helping the school track down the perpetrator.  All along the way she worries about finding out that the person who did this is likely someone she knows, someone who may not even realize that they have attacked her.

A complicated collection of ideas that surprisingly works.  The major plot line of Zen learning how to be a girl is handled quite well.  Zen both addresses her frustrations with the boy parts of her (she's well aware that as she enters puberty that things will get harder) and with learning the skills to reinforce and validate her femininity.  Related to this, there's a lovely series of interludes where various characters describe how Zen appears to them, with even the most reluctant observer agreeing that Zen is a girl.  Subplots about tolerance of cultural pluralism (Muslims in one instance and homosexuals in the other) neatly intertwine.  Zen's two aunts, their marriage, and the overall non-traditional family they form is another component.  

I also appreciate the things that the story doesn't do.  No traumatic outing scene.  No widespread bullying at school (mean girl Natalie aside!).  No family screaming match.  No grand gestures or speeches.  It all ends on a high note and, while little external has actually changed, we get the sense that Zen is just a bit closer to her happy place.  That opens us to a sequel or just a nice slice of Zen's growth.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

A story of two young Africans.  Nya and her family live in a parched desert.  For half of the year, she spends her entire day making two round trips to fetch water for her family.  For the other half, she digs in mud for water that is frequently disease-ridden.

Salva is a young South Sudanese boy who is forced to flee for his life when soldiers attack while he is at school.  Separated from his family, he struggles to survive, crossing inhospitable terrain and ending up in a series of refugee camps and dreaming of a better life.  Told in alternating voices, the stories of Nya and Salva eventually connect in a surprising and dramatically appealing way.

Almost certainly, this book is read more often for a classroom assignment than for leisure, but it is easy and quick to read.  Largely based on the real-life experiences of Salva Dut, one of the "lost boys" of Sudan who were rescued from Kenyan refugee camps and resettled in the United States, the book is pretty intense reading.  People get killed and die horrible deaths.  While retold in an entertaining way, the mood is factual and it reads like non-fiction.

There's Something About Sweetie, by Sandhya Menon

Sweetie is a fat girl and she doesn't mind if you think that of her.  After all, her body size is an established fact.  But if you try to tell her that being fat is somehow a bad thing, she'll point out that she can outrun any girl or boy on the school's track team.  Far from being a slur, Sweetie has embraced her bigness as a source of pride and a sign of beauty.  Now, if she could only get her mother to agree and stop acting so embarrassed of her daughter's appearance.

Ashish is a formidable basketball player.  Popular and friendly, he has a way with girls.  They love him and he has flitted from one relationship to another.  When he is cruelly dumped by Celia, however, things are different.  He really liked her and the rejection sends him into a funk.  He simply can't get over her.  With his charm failing him, he throws himself at his parents for help.  They are convinced that they can find him the perfect girl and Ashish is just desperate enough to take them up on the offer.  They find Sweetie.

Ashish and Sweetie actually have chemistry, but Sweetie's mother puts the kibosh on the whole idea.  Afraid that her daughter will become the butt of jokes and be humiliated because no one as handsome as Ashish could possibly want her overweight daughter, she forbids them from being together.  But they end up going behind her back.  Ashish's parents, less than thrilled at the idea, force them to go on a series of unusual dates (the first of which is to the temple) that surprisingly solidify the respectful relationship that develops between Ashish and Sweetie.

The result is a sexy romance that strikes all the right notes:  a couple of kids with a very mature perspective on what makes a relationship work; a healthy respect for tradition, family, and (gasp!) even religion; and a heartwarming story about people who truly don't let bodyshaming control their lives.  As with When Dimple Met Rishi, Menon has created a joyful story filled with contemporary Desi characters that transcend stereotypes, while remaining true and respectful of those cultures.  This is an all-round winner!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein, by Jennifer Roy (with Ali Fadhill)

In this slightly fictionalized autobiography, Ali Fadhill recalls his life in Basra Iraq during the forty-two days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Only eleven years old at the time, the war was a period when his family worried about his father on the front and tried to adjust to living life under siege.

And for a child, the things that mattered most were often trivial.  Ali's strongest memory of the day the bombs started to drop was of knocking his brother off the top score on their favorite video game.  And while he would witness atrocities like summary executions, his mother's decision to burn his comic books when they ran out of fuel made a bigger impact at the time.

The book is more of a memoir than a children's story.  Reading it,  I tried to picture whether a modern child could even relate to this moment in history.  It's too recent to be considered history and too long ago for even their parents to remember.  Admittedly it's fascinating to read the first-hand account. I'm always interested in seeing how children process the horrors of war.  Overall, though, the writing is stark and functional and there's not much of a story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Her Royal Highness, by Rachel Hawkins

Running from an unfaithful girlfriend, Millie decides that she needs to make a big break and applies to go to an exclusive boarding school in Scotland.  With students that include the Scottish royal family, she's about as far from Texas as she can get.  And when she is accepted and her roommate turns out to be the actual Princess of Scotland, Millie knows she is in the deep end.  At first, she can't stand her roomie, but over time they warm to each other until the inevitable romance develops.  But the course of love never runs smooth when royalty are involved!

Silly princess fantasy stuff for fans of The Princess Diaries.  We'll keep on hold the non-existence of the Scottish royal family or any of the far-too-easy way that Millie manages to become chummy with them.  Instead, we'll just enjoy this funny rom-com about two pretty girls in the Highlands.  The dialogue is smart, the story briskly paced, and Millie makes a perfect doe-in-the-headlights for this make believe fairy tale.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

I, Lorelei, by Yeardley Smith

After her cat dies, eleven year-old Lorelei starts writing letters to him, telling her late fur friend about her daily life.  She's acting in the school play, negotiating a friendship with an unpopular girl in her class, dealing with the fallout from her best friend, and watching her parents' marriage come apart.  At times lighthearted and funny, but also sobering and poignant, the letters show Lorelei dealing with lots of changes.

Smith (better known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) dabbles here with a enjoyable but unremarkable middle grade book.  Lorelei is a sympathetic companion and full of insights about her friends and family. The struggles she engages with will feel familiar and readers will instantly relate.  Given the rather lengthy nature of the book (340 pages), it is frustrating that nothing really get resolved.  Instead, we must settle for the satisfaction that Lorelei by the end is beginning to learn how to cope and accept responsibility for the things that are within her power to change.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, by Ally Condie

Two years ago, Poe Blythe was captaining a dredging operation on the river to extract gold for the Admiral.  A heady assignment for a fifteen year-old, but she had her wits about her and she had her best friend Call.  But then Raiders attacked and captured the boat and killed Call.  Poe barely escaped with her life.  Now, the Admiral wants to send her out on the same mission.  He wants more gold.  She wants revenge.

Defended with special custom armor that Poe herself designed, their dredging vessel should be impregnable.  But from the start, bad signs abound.  There is at least one saboteur on board and Poe needs to find them.  She'll fail.  And as events spin out of control and the mission collapses, Poe finds herself thrown by events far greater than even she imagined.  In the end, the thirst for vengeance will be replaced with a much higher calling.

Fast-paced action and adventure with a young cast of characters in a post-apocalyptic world.  There's not much time here to dwell on adolescence in a story where characters betray each other every other  page and the plot twists and turns.  Instead, like all decent adventure stories, this is all about the hero(ine)'s growth from callow and emotionally-unfocused youth to true leader.  Poe is tough as nails, brave, and inspirational.  The story is exciting.  The setting is exotic enough to be interesting.

My only complaint:  I wanted a schematic of the dredger -- which is a character in its own right -- in the book.  Condie's descriptions were never quite enough for me to picture where the vast majority of the action takes place.  Having it to reference throughout the story would have helped.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Roll, by Darcy Miller

Eleven year-old Ren isn't thrilled about his family's recent move into the country.  And he's not so sure about starting cross country running in the fall, especially when it is clear that his father is so much better at running than he'll ever be.  But a girl next door and her weird hobby does catch his interest. She flies Birmingham Rollers, a type of pigeon which performs spectacular diving feats, and she's training her flock for a regional competition.  Ren's captivated by the birds and gets caught up in helping her train them.

While he's gained a new friend and a new interest, he's aware that he losing things too.  His best friend Aiden is going out for basketball and seems to want to spend all of his time with other boys on the team. The differences between them seem to be becoming a bigger and bigger deal.  And Ren needs to come clean with his father who is training Ren to get him ready.  But how does Ren tell his father he's no longer interested?

I always like a story that has something to teach and I had certainly never heard of training pigeons, let alone birds who could do these tricks (it's worth Googling!).  I also liked having a book about a boy that wasn't adventures and gross-out.  There are so many books out for girls about losing childhood friends in middle school years, but really not much about boys (who go through many of the same changes).  It's nice to see someone create one.

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Quiet You Carry, by Nikki Barthelmass

The story opens with Victoria thrown out on the street at 3am.  Her father, accusing her of sexually attacking him, wants her sent away.  Victoria finds herself thrown into foster care, with no home or family.  Up to now a star student, her education is in jeopardy.

She ends up being placed in a foster home two hours away, dealing with an incompetent and overloaded social worker and an abusive foster mother.  She is worried that her father is going to hurt her stepsister.  But as much as these problems are not her fault, it is Victoria who has to rescue herself.

The novel does that annoying thing where the heroine refuses to help themselves.  Through all the suffering, she can't bring herself to accuse her father of abuse (yet grows angry that no one will help her).  The thing that she is carrying – the truth—could have been spoken earlier and created a much shorter story.  But the device bothered me less in this case because Victoria kept fighting even when she wasn’t doing the right thing.  And she recognized early that staying silent was hurting herself and others.

Enthralling and hard to put down, Barthelemass portrays the hard reality of foster care where adults don’t always do what they are supposed to do.  Against these seemingly insurmountable odds, Victoria comes through as inspirational.  I also appreciated that not every adult was evil.  Even the harsh foster mom reveal subtleties that make her, while not nice, at least human.  A good read.