Monday, March 29, 2021

My Eyes Are Up Here, by Laura Zimmermann

Having a large chest presents all sorts of problems, ranging from finding a dress that fits to participating in sports comfortably to enduring unwanted attention from boys at school.  For Greer, who would be happiest just disappearing unnoticed into her oversized sweatshirts, her breasts bring her unwanted attention and prevent her from doing the things she wants, not to mention the physically discomfort and back pains!  But Greer is determined to join the school's volleyball team, go to the formal, and maybe even catch the attention of Jackson, a new boy at school.

In a story that is both hilarious and heartbreaking (but ultimately just inspiring), she deals with her anxieties and fears and overcomes them.  Whether it's basic practical actions (e.g., finding a decent sports bra or altering her team jersey to fit her), finding the strength to confront bullies in her class, or coming to understand what she loses from hiding herself away, Greer shows us how to accept what nature gave us and make the most of it.

While I obviously have no shared point of reference for Greer's particular struggle, the story and its message of body positivity was fun to read. I appreciated the fact that the characters were overwhelmingly supportive.  Greer, with her combination for snark and sudden vulnerability, was very likeable.  Her growth from shy isolation to confidence is predictable but satisfying.  All of which wraps up into a good book.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Blackbird Girls, by Anne Blankman

Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko can't stand each other.  To Valentina, Oksana is a bully who wants only to taunt her at school and is always getting her into trouble.  As a Jew in Russia, her mother has instilled in her the importance of keeping a low profile. For Oksana, it is more complicated:  her abusive father is jealous of Valentina's father because he is obsessed that Valentina's father "stole" his promotion.  It's the sort of thing that dirty cheating Jews do all the time, he insists.  Oksana is convinced that she can win back her father's love and stop her father's physical abuse by humiliating Valentina.

But this middle school drama is upstaged when the nuclear reactor near their little town of Pripyat experiences "an unsatisfactory radioactive situation." Valentina first notices that she no longer can find any birds or small animals, the air is full of blue smoke that tastes metallic, and the streets are filling up with policemen wearing gas masks. But life goes on and both girls go to school.  They can see the burning building, but they have faith that everything is under control.  Valentina and Oksana's fathers (who both work at the Chernobyl plant) have not returned home, but surely that means that they are simply busy doing their jobs?  Only after a day do they find out that they are being evacuated with their mothers.  In the chaos of that move, the girls are forced to separate from their family and are sent together to live with Valentina's estranged grandmother.  Once enemies divided by age-old prejudice, the two girls have only each other to rely on in their brave new world, set in the last years of the Soviet Union.

At the time depicted in this novel, I was studying Russian children and young adults for my senior thesis (and made a number of trips to the Soviet Union) so I know it well.  The chaotic response to the Chernobyl disaster is well-documented and makes for compelling drama (as shown by the recent mini-series) but I don't believe there has been a children's story set there before.  I have small quibbles about inaccuracies that don't detract from the story so much as distract me as a knowledgeable reader: an incorrect depiction of school uniforms or the odd age of Valentina's grandmother (while it is critical to the story that the grandmother was a young girl during the Great Patriotic War, it doesn't seem likely that she could have been as it sets the timeline off by at least ten years).  

This story struggles to find its target audience:  the protagonists are too young for YA, but the graphic child abuse scenes and threatening situations make it too intense for most middle grade readers.  The story's bigger flaw is its very busy little plot.  Two children escaping Chernobyl would be compelling enough reading, but the subplot about Valentina's grandmother fleeing Kiev during the German invasion is a bit much.  It gets tied in, but there really are two separate (and excellent) stories here to tell.  Attempting to tackle anti-Semitism and domestic violence at the same time on top of all this is just too much and neither topic is handled particularly well.  Lots of good stuff, but it is in desperate need of trimming and focusing.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Space Between Lost and Found, by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Cassie's mother used to be a bigger-than-life person. But since she started forgetting things, that energy seems to be slipping away.  She's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and her life is becoming ever more challenging.  Cassie and her father try to care for Mom but it is only a matter of time before they will be compelled to institutionalize her.

There are so many things they planned together and few (if any) of them are still possible.  Cassie knows one thing on Mom's bucket list that she and Mom can still do -- swim with the dolphins -- but Cassie's father is worried that Mom could get hurt.  Cassie pushes back, knowing that this may be their last chance before Mom is too far gone to do anything.

Meanwhile, Cassie struggles to find any sort of balance in her life.  Dealing with her mother's declining health has caused her to neglect her best friend.  At school, she buries herself in math and art classes, which are the other things that make sense to her anymore.  How can she sort out a world her mother cannot even reemember her name anymore?

A touching middle-grade reader about dealing with memory loss.  There are no solutions or happy endings here, but the book does a good job of showing a young family coping with an old person's disease.  The book doesn't offer many surprises (although the inevitable stealing-Mom-away-to-take-her-on-her-last-hurrah episode does provide predictable tension), but the tale is well told.  Cassie herself gets to make some brave choices about the extent to which she can accept the changes her mother is going through.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Letters from Cuba, by Ruth Behar

By the late 1930s, thanks to economic pressures and the rise of anti-Semitism, it was becoming clear that Esther's family could not stay much longer in Poland.  But where to go?   The United States was a dream, but Jews were generally not welcome.  So, Esther's father decides that they should go to Cuba and heads out in advance to establish a foothold there for the family.  The plan was that he would then bring over his eldest son to help him, but when he contacts them, Esther convinces him to allow her to come next instead. Missing her family (and her sister Malka most of all), Esther starts a series of letters to Malka that recount her difficult journey across Europe and the Atlantic, and the process of settling in her new homeland. While Esther and her father manage well enough, they are under pressure to earn the money the need to buy tickets and bring the rest of the family over before the doors close.

Cuba is a delightful place, but complicated and so very different from Poland!  There are so many different cultures, ranging from the wealthy descendants of Spanish landowners to the people whose ancestors were brought as slaves.  And there are also immigrants from all over the world, like Esther, trying to build new homes.  Cuba is a place where the nearby shop is owned by Chinese who sell her Polish tea!  Even in the small town where they live, there are a dizzying array of traditions ranging from the Catholics to the Afro-Caribbean tribal beliefs brought by the slaves.  But as friendly and kind as their welcoming is, the forces of anti-Semitism are present even here.

In general, Esther and her father have incredible luck and good fortune generally follows them.  The story is soft and kind and mostly stress-free.  That can make things dull.  Esther herself is nearly perfect in every way, from her ability to sew beautiful well-fitted dresses with no assistance to her talent with befriending just about anyone, it is hard to see her as an eleven year-old girl.  A few minor flaws would have fleshed out her character and humanized her.

The real charm of the book is its subject matter.  Having never realized that pre-Revolutionary Cuba had a sizable Jewish contingent, I found this book utterly fascinating.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Time Travel for Love and Profit, by Sarah Lariviere

When Nephele enters ninth grade, she discovers that her obsession with math is no longer cute.  In fact, it's decidedly un-cool.  Her best friend deserts her for dance and the rest of her class turns against her and treats her like some sort of freak.  Looking back, she wants to figure out a way to have a do-over.  So, it seems like destiny when, in the stacks of her parent's book store, amidst the steamy romance novels she likes to read, she finds the solution:  a self-published guide called Time Travel for Love & Profit.  Promising that time travel is the ultimate way to improve one's life, Nephele is convinced. While the book is a bit thin on details, Nephele is confident that she can work on the quantum theory (it's only math, after all!)  So, she spends the summer building a time travel device in her smartphone, with only the company of an old photograph that Nephele believes can talk.  Just before the first day of school, she sends herself back to the start of Ninth grade so she can set everything right.

But things don't go so well.  She sends herself back, but the rest of the world continues forward.  Yes, she's a ninth grader again, but her former classmates are now in tenth grade.  In meddling with the timeline, she has disrupted events and created paradoxes that interfere with reality.  So focused on fixing her life, she has changed more than she expected.  So, after a year of redesigning her "timeship," she has to go back again to fix things.  And when that makes the situation even worse, she's stuck doing it again and again....  By the time she's tweaked her calculations ten times (reliving her first year of high school each time), space time has grown so warped and distorted by paradoxes that life itself is threatened.  And that is when she meets a strange and peculiar boy named JJ who will change her life.

Time Travel for Love and Profit is hands down the weirdest book of the year. It lacks the cuteness of the film Groundhog Day or Wendy Mass's novel 11 Birthdays, and instead probes the creepy side of time travel (think the 2004 math geek film, Primer).  Time travel makes less sense the more you think about it so the most entertaining stories in the genre have succeeded by thinking about the math as little as possible.  Lariviere, on the other hand, goes the other direction:  thinking so hard about the causes, effects, and ramifications of distorting the progression of time that just about everything (ranging from people's memories of Nephele to the progress of humanity) breaks down.  The outer manifestation of this is the disintegration of the narrative itself.  By the end of the book, the story itself has pretty much lost its coherency.  On one hand, that's pretty effective story telling, but for me, a self-destructive novel isn't really entertaining.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Echo Mountain, by Lauren Wolk

When the Great Depression came, Ellie's family lost everything and were forced to move out of town and into the woods, to live on the side of Echo Mountain.  It's a hard transition for Ellie's older sister and mother, but for Ellie and her little brother, life in the woods comes naturally.  Ellie's mother worries that Ellie is growing "wild," which is her way of noting that Ellie is braver and more assertive than Mom and her sister.  But after her father is injured and falls into a coma for months, these are useful traits to have as everyone has to step forward.  Because Ellie is blamed for her father's injury, she feels a particular obligation to bear the burdens of taking care of things and she rises humbly to the challenge.  It's a hard life but Ellie finds small joys in helping her neighbors and taking care of a puppy.

One day in the woods she encounters an old dog she doesn't recognize who leads her up the mountain, where she has never been (although her father always said that there was a "hag" up there).  Instead of a witch, Ellie finds an old lady who needs her help.  Helping her, in turn, opens up Ellie's world, revealing a talent for healing, an intuitive sense of how to fix what is broken, and insight to recognize what physical and psychic ailments people carry with them but are reluctant to share.

In this beautifully written novel, Lauren Wolk creates a story of a girl rescuing her neighbor, her family, and ultimately herself.  I read so many dystopian novels full of suffering, issue books about people with creepy problems, and message books exposing the hypocrisies of the adult world, that I forget that there are children's books like this:  about people living amidst each other, doing normal things, and making their small part of the world a better place.  The book comes with lots of adventure, a resourceful and humble-to-a-fault heroine, and a feel-good message about how neighbors can help neighbors.  While set in the Great Depression amongst rural poor people without a penny to their name, the story itself is timeless.  A deceptively simple story of a girl growing up (just a little) that illustrates the true power of children's literature to entertain and enlighten.  Obviously recommended!

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Assignment, by Liza Wiemer

Cade and Logan are shocked when their World History teacher assigns the class the opportunity to debate the Nazi's Final Solution.  The assignment, which the teacher argues is a chance to get inside the head of the men who made the decision to exterminate millions of people's lives, seems to Cade and Logan misguided at best and downright immoral.  More shocking than the assignment, though, are the reactions of their fellow classmates, ranging from treating it like a joke to exposing deep seated racism.  Cade and Logan want the teacher to cancel the project, but when he refuses to do so, they go to the media, which leads to greater ramifications than anyone ever imagined.

A tense, fast-reading novel that tackles an all-too-real issue in contemporary society.  Stories of similarly ill-thought-out classroom activities hit the news seemingly every month (and many more go unreported), making the premise particularly relevant.  Wiemer does a particularly nice job of slowly unfolding the nature of the threat.  As the story begins, I did entertain my doubts.  The teacher seemed pretty reasonable and the assignment (as he explained it) had pedagogical merit (although it was quickly subverted by racist students).  The administrative ambivalence felt realistic and it was a bit easy to eye the kids as hot heads.  The gradual crystallization of the fundamental problem with the assignment, combined with the way the community got sucked in by its poison is what really makes the novel effective.  And by the end, any ambiguity is lost:  the danger as clear as day.  Wiemer throws in a bit extra in the end, which in my mind is not really necessary, but it works.  The message that hate ultimately corrupts and destroys itself is realized.  It's probably fodder for an assigned reading in a classroom, but that should not detract from the fact that I  enjoyed the book and found that it gave me things to think about.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

B*Witch, by Paige McKenzie and Nancy Ohlin

What if all those spell books and guides to witchcraft you checked out of the library and studied had actually worked?  Where lighting candles with your besties and doing incantations could keep your little sister from barging in or get your parents to forget a bad grade?  How would your life be different practicing magic in middle school?

Not that one would do so out in the open.  Technically, practicing witchcraft is against the law in this alt reality, but until the arrival of the current populist president and his "antima" (anti-magic) goons, it was something which you could get away with.  But his movement to crack down on witches has gained a lot of attention nationally and violence against witches is on the uptick so you can't be too careful.

There are two covens surreptitiously operating at school.  Greta's group has three members who use their magic to help each other, whereas the rival coven (headed by Greta's ex-bestie Div) use their magic for less nice things.  When two new girls show up who both show a knack for witchcraft, the two covens compete with each other to try to recruit them.  But when a series of threats surface, they realize that they have bigger issues to deal with and it is time to band together.

A fun romp that imagines how magic would change middle school.  Populated with well-drawn characters, the authors do a fine job of capturing young adolescents in a way that will make them imminently relatable to readers.  It's chock full of clever ideas and packed with satire.  But ultimately the book is burdened by trying to do too much.  One of the girls is on the spectrum.  One of them is trans (and uses her magic to pass as a CIS girl).  Racial and ethnic diversity is represented.  Criticism of MAGA is made.  All boxes are checked.  But in trying to do so much (and throwing in a large number of fed herrings along the way), the literally anti-climactic resolution is underwhelming.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Dear Universe, by Florence Gonsalves

Senior year and a life of avoiding life's questions has left Cham (short for Chamomile) with anger issues and a serious case of writer's block on her college essay.  Her father is dying of Parkinson's but Cham would rather think about Prom and graduation.  The problem is that neither of those goals address her growing sense of ennui.  With a tongue-in-cheek nod to Camus and a lot of sass, Cham ponders the many questions she wants to ask the universe, ranging from why her father has to do to whether her dress makes her boobs look big?

There are some great moments of humor and no small number of lovely insights here, but it takes a bit to extract them out of an aimless novel.  Cham's cynical and vulgar humor makes her entertaining as a protagonist and brings an edgy (and raunchy) quality to the novel that I normally associate with male protagonists.  But once you move beyond the things that make her funny, she comes off initially as shallow.  It really is not until two hundred pages have gone by that I started to warm to her when I realized that the shallowness was really just denial.  By that point, I was almost too far gone to care.

For a book about dying, it's strange that dealing with grief and coming to terms with death (the two usual themes for a dying-person book) are barely addressed at all.  In fact, resolution is largely lacking from the story.  By the end of the story, Cham hasn't exactly found any answers to her questions and she is pretty much as paralyzed by her ennui as she was at the beginning.  Clever and funny, but ultimately without resolution or conclusion, existential dread for adolescents does not make much of a story.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

A Place at the Table, by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan

Now that they are in middle school, Elizabeth worries that her best friend Maddie is drifting apart from her.  Maddie no longer seems to enjoy Dr. Who marathons and is always hanging out with snooty Stephanie instead of her.  And even though they signed up for cooking class together, Maddie just sits around and makes fun of the teacher Mrs. Hameed, her spicy cooking, and her Pakistani funny accent.  However, Elizabeth has to agree with Maddie that the teacher's daughter, Sara (who just transferred in this year) really is weird.

Sara, meanwhile, isn't thrilled to be dragged to her mother's new job teaching cooking.  Being shown off isn't going to help her fit in or make new friends.  In any case, she gets more than her fill of cooking at home, where her mother runs a catering business out of their kitchen.  The kids are rude and disrespectful. She'd rather be working on her drawing.

So, when the two girls end up getting paired together in the class, they aren't thrilled.  Yet, as they get to know each other, they find that they have a lot in common.  Elizabeth's mother is English and, like Sara's mother, studying for her citizenship test.  Both mothers are struggling, a fact of which both daughters are aware.  Elizabeth's grandmother has recently died and her mother struggles with depression.  Sara's mother is trying to keep the catering business afloat.  Racism and xenophobia are a big factor for Sara's family, but Elizabeth's mother faces discrimination as a foreigner and as a converted Jew.  Both girl's deal with the sense of belonging in two different worlds:  the homeland and their home.

What brings everyone together in the end is food and a love for cooking.  The cooking class and an international food fair at the end of the story serve as a catalyst for exploring differences and similarities.  And while the writing can get heavy handed and the premise sounds saccharine, it is deftly handled.  If nothing else, reading will give you serious craving for a curry!  

There's some obligatory effort made to explore xenophobia and racism.  That's probably the clunkiest part of the story, as Elizabeth's friend Maddie says some pretty extreme things that get quickly shut down by both adults and children in a bit of wishful thinking.  Far more effective is the portrayal of the Home Ec teacher's prejudice and micro aggressions from children and teachers that Sara and Elizabeth call out.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the cooking of course, but also the way that the girls got to talk about their mixed feelings about their heritage in an unforced way. Given the title, the obvious focus is about how everyone will come together in the end and they do, marveling over the differences and similarities in world cuisine and people.  The symbolism of the fusion dish that the two girl's concoct cements this message.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Tune It Out, by Jamie Sumner

Lou has a great singing voice, which her mother likes to put out front and center when they are busking.  It brings in better tips and, heavens knows, living out of their truck that they can use all the money they can get.  But performing in front of people is hard for Lou.  Loud noises hurt, being touched by strangers is painful, and crowds freak her out.  Lou has tried to explain that it's much worse than stage fright, but Mom won't listen to her.  And there really is no choice since they need the money to get by.

But when a snowstorm and an auto accident brings Lou's living situation to the attention of Child Protective Services, Lou gets sent to live with an aunt and uncle she barely knows.  They turn out to be quite well off and generous and, for the first time in years, she is able to go to school (which is both a blessing and a curse since schools are noisy places).  There, a counselor helps Lou explore the possibility that she may struggle with Sensory Perception Disorder, which would explain why public performance is so hard for her.

Lou is a strong (albeit stubborn) character and I liked her.  She's bright and the conversations she has and the questions she asks are insightful (to the point that they sometimes seem uncharacteristically mature for the alleged age).  In the context of a middle reader, that just makes thing simpler, the questions to be answered more direct, and the story ultimately more satisfying.

Ostensibly, there is very little new and original in this book.  Neglectful parenting, living out of cars, and skirting the law (usually combined with a fortuitous wealthy bailout) is a popular genre.  We certainly have plenty of books these days about children on the Autism Spectrum.  That said, this is a competent rendering of the familiar story.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

If These Wings Could Fly, by Kyrie McCauley

The town of Auburn is struggling under a freak migration of crows.  Thousands and thousands of the birds have arrived and cover everything.  With their penchant for stealing things and getting into mischief, the residents see them as a tremendous nuisance.  But Leighton has bigger problems to deal with:  a desire to graduate and move away, a reluctance to open her heart to others, and a lack of safety at home.

Bearing the festering emotional wound of being the boy who lost the town's last chance at a football championship nineteen years ago, her father has grown from a hurt young man into a violent and abusive father.  In her younger years, his outbursts were infrequent but now they happen nearly constantly.  In her last year at home before she hopefully goes away for college, Leighton tries to encourage her mother to stand up to him.  But when Mom refuses to do so, Leighton has to focus on keeping her younger sisters safe from their father's rampages.  

In this bleak environment, Leighton cannot count on adults for help.  The grownups of Auburn largely turn their backs and ignore the problem.  Instead, she finds comfort in her boyfriend Liam and from two stranger sources:  her home itself (a house with walls that repair themselves and protect the girls) and the birds.  Crows are intelligent creatures with the capacity to remember slights and the ability to understand reciprocity.  Somehow, these birds seem to understand what is happening and help Leighton and her family but stealing things from Dad or leaving useful gifts.  So, while the town sees the crows as a nuisance, Leighton comes to understand that they are crucial for her survival.

A well-written, albeit terribly grim and depressing, story of domestic abuse.  McCauley's foray into magical realism, through the birds and the house is ambitious and fraught with creative tension.  On one hand, she wants to create a manifesto against domestic violence and the text occasionally digresses into policy.  But on the other, McCauley is taken in by the literary majesty of the crows and the house as extended metaphors and even crucial plot devices.  This conflict of purpose is most pronounced in the ending, where a literal reading of the resolution is almost impossible.  Does the house itself rid Leighton of her father's abuse?  Do the birds really physically interfere?  Or is it all metaphor for the family rising up and standing up against the father?  There's no way to really know and that leaves the otherwise fairly sober analysis of the causes for domestic violence and the societal forces that allow it to flourish subject to a literary whimsy -- poetic and beautiful but perhaps off-message?