Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Katherine Tegen, 2018

Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has been invited to join the elite Ellingham Academy – home to “creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators.” It’s a one of a kind school – completely free and allows the students to focus on their passions. In Stevie’s case that means crime detection. But not only is the school a top place to be educated, it also harbors a mystery: in 1936, the wife and daughter of founder and very rich person Arthur Ellingham are kidnapped. The body of Iris, his wife, and of a pupil from the school are found days later, but his daughter Alice is never found. As Stevie tries to investigate the decades old crime, there is a murder at the school and Stevie gets involved with that too.

The tone of the novel is both sharply modern but also manages to be fashionably retro. The plotting is smart and intriguing and the combination and connections of the old mystery and the new one is well done. As well as straightforward present-day narrative, there are perspectives from 1936 and FBI transcripts of interviews connected to the old mystery.

Stevie is an interesting character – very much at odds with what her parents would like and desperate for friendship from people who get her. Her new friends have a wide range of skin colors, sexualities, and gender expressions and are developed to varying degrees, mainly through the passions that have brought them to the school. Stevie also has a romance that feels completely unlikely and lacking in chemistry.

However, and this makes me so mad, this is the first book in a series and virtually nothing is resolved. You may disagree, but I do feel like a mystery should offer some closure within a book, even if there is an overarching bigger mystery, but that does not happen here – we are left completely hanging. And, while I’m complaining, Stevie manages to find a major clue in a large tin box that the police have somehow completely overlooked while searching a room – feels unlikely and convenient. So all in all, I have to say Truly Devious just felt unsatisfactory.

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick, 2018.

When Native American Louise’s Kansas high school theater announces a “color-conscious” production of The Wizard of Oz, the prejudices and lack of awareness of some of the school’s majority white community become apparent.

Last year, when Lou’s family moved to Kansas she fell into the social scene she had been used to in Texas – the popular jock-centered crowd. She dated one of the football team until he reveals his casual prejudice about Native Americans. Fast forward to senior year and Lou is determined to be more aware of the microagressions around her.

When Lou’s brother, freshman Hughie is cast as the Tin Man and two other students of color get major parts in the musical, the Parents Against Revisionist Theater campaign starts up, and the families gets hate letters, telling them to “go back to where you came from.” (Ironic, huh?)

Lou finds solace in her new family at Hive, the school newspaper and in the support of many teachers and students. She has all the idealism and self righteousness of her age but as she explores and solidifies her own Muscogee identity she finds that she herself can be unthinkingly prejudiced whether it is with her underprivileged friend Shelby or with her Lebanese-Scottish potential romantic interest Joey.

Though the novel can get a little didactic and there are too many underdeveloped secondary characters, Smith effectively brings to life a slice of Native American culture as well as exposing the often casual bigotry that people of color can face. Includes a Mvskoke-English glossary.

***Highly recommended by Debbie Reese***

Grenade by Alan Gratz

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Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018

Set in the final days of World War II, this intense middle grade/YA historical fiction takes place during the long and bloody battle of Okinawa. 14-year-old native Okinawan Hideki Kaneshiro is forcibly drafted into Japan’s Blood and Iron Student Corps. He is told that the American soldiers are monsters and given two grenades – one to kill the enemy with and one to kill himself. But when his destiny collides with that of young white Ray Majors, part of the invading American force, he chooses to abandon the fight and find his older sister, the only remaining member of his family.

Gratz (Refugee, 2017) graphically shows the terrors of war through the fears and reactions of his two protagonists. However, the implicit message that soldiers on both sides are ordinary men – husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers – put under such unbearable pressure that they become monsters seems a little disingenuous given Japan’s record of war atrocities.

There is a preliminary note explaining the use of the era’s now offensive terminology and, at the back, an author’s note helpfully elucidates why this island was so important to the US and Japan, what the outcome of this battle meant to both sides, and also provides context about Okinawa’s subjugation to Japan. There will also be a glossary, though this reader didn’t feel the need for one as the Okinawan words and beliefs are fully explained in the text.

Gratz clearly has a feel for this era and showing it through the eyes of teens on both sides makes it accessible history for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

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Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2018.

Poor Vera just doesn’t fit in anywhere. In this memoir, 9-year-old Russian immigrant tries to be like her affluent American friends but her mother ruins her perfect sleepover birthday party by getting the wrong sort of cake (with Russian writing on it!) and a non-Pizza Hut, non-stuffed crust pizza. And then her friends actually all get picked up in the middle of the night because they’re scared. Vera decides she wants to go to summer camp, just like her friends, and finds a Russian one, ORRA, where she believes she won’t feel “weird and different,” so she persuades her mother to find the money for both her and her reluctant younger brother Phil to go.

Sadly, and heart-squeezingly, camp is nothing like Vera was expecting. She gets put with much older and more sophisticated girls who are not at all interested in bra-less bespectacled Vera. And the bathrooms! Meanwhile, Phil seems to be having a ball. The author does not shy away from the absolute misery of most of her time at ORRA, while still making it funny for the reader. Though things improve after Vera goes on a hiking trip and makes friend with a younger girl, her wretchedness when her mother asks her to stay another two weeks is palpable. The only pleasure Vera finds is in sketching and she uses this talent to “buy” friendship by drawing the other campers, though this backfires on her.

The illustrations, in black and shades of olive green manage to evoke all the misery and occasional bright spot of camp, as well as the explosion of happiness at leaving and never having to go back. The illustrations of the glum owl-bespectacled Vera trudging through her days at camp and comparing her suffering to that of the Russian peasants, are touching and humorous, and sharply contrast with her exuberant joy when she finds a pal.

Included at the back of the book is a genuIne letter that Vera sent her mother from camp. I cannot imagine being on the receiving end of such a misery-filled missive. My kids have had their ups and downs at camp but have at least managed a somewhat cheerful postcard.

We leave Vera about to move to London – dare we hope for further installments?

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager

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Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
Candlewick, 2017.

11 year-old Fidelia Quail, bereft from the death of her parents for which she blames herself, is captured by a pirate, Merrick the Monstrous, in order to help him reclaim his treasure which is buried in a cave at the bottom of the sea.

Eager does a great job with the main characters. Fidelia is a curious, inventive, persistent, and confident girl. She takes some major emotional knocks but keeps going. Her parents’ passion was marine biology and Fidelia shares that with them but adds her prowess at invention to aid the study of the underwater world. Her “water-eaters” should give her the ability to stay under water long enough to get Merrick’s treasure, if only they’d work. Merrick is more than just a arrrr-spouting pirate: he has an interestingly complicated backstory and fatalistic view on his future. There’s more even to Fidelia’s guardian, Aunt Julia, than the stereotypical librarian she presents to the world.

I found the setting a little confusing. It seems to be in the Caribbean in a vaguely Victorian steampunky era, but all main characters are white and some of the technology that Fidelia is working with seems supermodern.

What I really liked about this book is that it defies expectations. I spent a good chunk of the novel assuming that Fidelia parents weren’t really dead but guess what (sorry, spoiler) they are! There is a genuine sense of loss in this story that is rare for middle grade novels as everything is not alright in the end, just like life.</span

Middle graders looking for a pirate adventure might be surprised by some of the twists, but will be rewarded by the story of a feisty girl who overcomes many obstacles.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
HarperCollins, 2018.

Very occasionally I will read a book that just affects my mood for several days and this is one of them. Rising 8th grader Claudia Coleman returns from a summer with her grandmother, ready to see her best (and only) friend Monday so they can get back into their groove ready for school. Only Monday isn’t there. Claudia, against her parents’ rules, goes to Monday’s house on the wrong side of town only to be fobbed off by her mother. And that pattern persists – all the adults that Claudia talks to express concern but then do nothing about it. Even when Claudia goes to the police, she is dismissively shown a board covered with missing black girls and told not to waste police time if her friend isn’t really missing, and we are told that social services didn’t follow up requests for an investigation either. The theme, skillfully shown not told, is that the disappearance of black girls happens but nobody much cares.

As the novel moves back in time, we learn much more about the girls’ friendship and mutual dependency. Claudia depends on Monday to help her hide her learning disability and Monday spends time with Claudia’s family, so unlike her own broken one. There are already cracks showing in their friendship – Monday is much more interested in boys than Claudia is, and will do anything to make herself visible leading to some intense drama at school. In the present, Claudia quietly starts to find her own way, though never letting go of her quest to find Monday. She makes connections with some girls at her dance school and, after her grades plummet, gets help with her dyslexia.

Claudia’s desperation and frustration about her lack of agency in searching for her friend is what stayed with me from this wonderful and wrenching novel. Her kind and loving parents do their best to help her but there is so much they don’t know or don’t seem to understand, though they are not quite as clueless as they first appear.

While focused on Claudia and Monday, the novel also tackles some other substantial issues. The neighborhood in Washington DC where Monday lives is in upheaval as the gentrifiers want to evict the tenants and turn the neighborhood into something more pleasing to middle class white people. This puts tremendous pressure on an already ragged community, stressed by poverty and drugs.

One minor quibble: The novel has a complicated (and to me, unnecessary) time scheme and twist that goes with it. It didn’t add anything for me and just made things a little more complicated than I felt they needed to be. But that doesn’t in any way detract from this completely absorbing and important novel and I shall most certainly be seeking out Ms Jackson’s first novel Allegedly.