Monthly Archives: August 2015

George by Alex Gino

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georgeGeorge by Alex Gino
Scholastic, 2015.

10 year-old George is a girl in the body of a boy. As her class puts on a performance of Charlotte’s Web, George finds a connection with Charlotte that gives her the courage to tell her family and close friend that she’s transgender.

George faces a plethora of different reactions. Her best friend, Kelly, is initially unsure but then embraces her revelation with enthusiasm. Her mother, again ambivalent if not hostile to start with, explains that if she was the ‘ordinary’ sort of gay, she’d feel OK about it, but she is concerned about her well-being: “The world isn’t always good to people who are different. I just don’t want you to make your road any harder than it has to be.”

At school, the responses from the adults varies – her teacher doesn’t show any understanding, though the principal does: “You can’t control who your children are, but you can certainly support them.” The other students have mixed, often negative, reactions, from uncomprehending to contempt.

George/Melissa is a great role model for transgender tweens, or indeed any tween that feels different. Her courage and determination are nicely drawn, and her certainty about her gender in the face of others’ questioning will encourage others.

This is obviously a very au courant topic, and it’s an engaging tale intended and appropriate for upper elementary/lower middle school kids. But here’s my problem – this is an important and significant book, but I just didn’t find it that well-written – it’s occasionally clunky and, other than George, the characters feel like they only exist to express an opinion of George’s gender (though, don’t forget, I was reading an ARC, it may have been tightened up for publication). If this were a realistic tween cisgender novel, I’d give it three stars and move along. But because of its subject matter, I feel it deserves more attention than that, and would recommend it for all library collections for elementary and middle school kids.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

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NEED by Joelle Charbonneau

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NEEDNEED by Joelle Charbonneau
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, due out November 3, 2015.

In this creepy and atmospheric page-turner, a new social media craze is sweeping Nottawa High School – NEED. You just tell the site what you need – money, jewelry, sports equipment – and you’re given a task to perform to get it. At first the tasks are simple, but then they start to get strange – delivering cookies to a girl, taking a photo of your Dad’s medical insurance. And then people start dying.

Kaylee Dunham is a social pariah – her brother DJ needs a kidney transplant and she would do anything to find the right donor, but has alienated most of her classmates and many people in their small town in her efforts. She is wary of NEED, but feels it’s worth giving it a go, though when she sees what it’s doing to people she knows, she becomes deeply suspicious of the motives behind it.

The novel is cleverly and tightly plotted, though leaves credibility behind on more than a few occasions, and is told from multiple viewpoints, all in third person except Kaylee. This is a little confusing at first as few of the characters are distinct, but gradually a handful emerge to drive the story along. The examination of what a teen will do when anonymity removes all social shackles is a fascinating one (and has a whiff of the Stanford prison experiment), and Charbonneau (The Testing trilogy) has come up with a gripping way of marrying this with the intense relationship with social media that current teens have.

I really liked that Kaylee is a smart protagonist and does not do the all-too-often literary ignoring of blatant clues, but keeps pace with the reader. Her relationship with her mother and her brother is sharply drawn and her frequent self-examination rarely becomes tiring; though it does stall the action a little it does justify some of her actions.

This is a fun read that may leave teen readers asking themselves just what they would do to get what they want.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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orbiting jupiterOrbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion, due out November 3, 2015.

I’ve had this on my iPad for a while and have been circling around it – would it be the Gary D. Schmidt of the great Wednesday Wars/Okay for Now or would it be the Gary D. Schmidt of fantasy twaddle What Came from the Stars? Well, the good news is that we are back in the literary and physical territory of Holling Hoodhood and Doug Swieteck (whose brother is a PE coach in this one), though Mr Schmidt doesn’t quite hit it out of the park.

14 year old Joseph Brooks is a troubled boy who has been through the works: an abusive father, mind-shattering drugs, and time spent in the horrific Stone Mountain juvenile detention centre. And at 13 he became a father, though the mother, Maddie, died in childbirth and the baby is now up for adoption. Joseph gets a break when he is fostered by the Hurd family, and he desperately wants to connect with baby Jupiter whom he has never seen.

This is an elegantly written, moving book, and the character of narrator Jack Hurd is a beautifully sketched portrait of a boy growing up and finding his own set of rules. Joseph is also wonderfully drawn, as a smart, loving boy who has stoically suffered many misfortunes and is now, finally, in a position to flourish.

But compared to Mr. Schmidt’s previous great books, this seems very slight, not just because it’s short but it also feels like it lacks substance. There are no shaded areas – the characters are either saintly – the Hurd parents, some of the teachers, the cows on the farm – or vile – Joseph’s father, the 8th grade bullies. How much more of an interesting exploration of fatherhood this could have been if there were complexity.

Additionally, I found my credulity somewhat strained by Joseph’s relationship with Maddie. I know many 13-year-old boys and, while I’m not saying it isn’t possible, this intense romance just felt like it would happen to a much older teen. And there is some melodrama at the end which comes out of left field and feels like a bit of a cop out.

While this is pitched as a YA novel, it feels more like a middle grade book, though, as I have a slight concern about the early teen pregnancy and the unstated suggestion that Joseph was raped in Stone Mountain, it would probably be better for mature middle graders.

Thanks to Clarion and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Rise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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Rise-of-the-WolfRise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Mark of the Thief series; bk. 2
Scholastic, due out January 26, 2016.

Part two of Jennifer A. Nielsen week!

In this satisfying and exciting sequel to Mark of the Thief, “runaway slave with magic” Nic continues his fight against the Praetors in Ancient Rome. Having stolen a magical bulla from Caeser’s tomb, Nic is now on the trail of the powerful Malice of Mars, which is buried in a temple that only he has the key to – at least everyone thinks he has the key, though Nic has no idea what or where it is.

Ms Nielsen writes terrific action scenes – they’re grippingly exciting, particularly the chariot race at the Ludi Romani, which races along with dramatic twists and turns, and the climax in the temple, which is chilling and cinematic.

Nic remains an engaging narrator with his sharp wit and intelligence, and other characters re-appear, and have developed depth and complexity: Aurelia, the feisty plebeian, continues to joust with Nic in a way that can only mean that they’re destined for each other; Crispus more clearly emerges as the straight man to Nic’s magic and quips; Livia, Nic’s sister, stops being a drip (mostly); and their grandfather General Radulf develops a second dimension.

However, there isn’t as much interesting stuff about Ancient Rome as there was in the previous book, and, I must admit, I got a little lost in the ins and outs of the back story to all the magical items, though it was fine to just roll with it. The plot is probably more complicated than I’d like, but it rattles along with some good twists and reveals. And I do dislike a cliffhanger ending – I feel novels should be complete in themselves, even when part of a series.

Nonetheless, this is a very solid sequel, which middle grade fantasy action readers are sure to enjoy and I look forward to the final book of the trilogy.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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night dividedA Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, due out August 25, 2015.

I’m back from my summer hols in Norfolk and Barcelona and ready to blog. I read a bunch while I was away and have a substantial backlog of books to post about, so let’s get to it! This week turns out to be Jennifer A. Nielsen week. Later this week I’ll write about the second book in the Mark of the Thief series, and today I’m looking at her first venture away from fantasy adventure and into historical fiction.

This slightly leaden story of the Cold War is set in 1965 Berlin, which has been physically divided for four years. 12 year old Gerta’s family is also physically divided – her father and one brother are in the West and she, her mother, and other brother, Fritz, are in the East. Gerta longs for the freedom she believes she’ll find in the West and, after her father sends her an elaborate message, she and Fritz start digging a tunnel that will go under the Death Strip and the Wall and into West Berlin.

The novel initially plods along, much like the digging of the tunnel, and the siblings face and overcome one setback after another, but I became much more engaged in the outcome when the pace picks up as the pressure mounts on them to break through before the net closes around them.

Nielsen does a good job of capturing the oppressive regime in East Berlin, with citizens spying and informing on each other, and where the State feels it should be able to control what you think, do and say. Greta and family encounter the Stasi, the feared secret police, several chilling times.

Gerta is a spunky, obstinate protagonist who drives her family into this plan, preferring to take the risk for freedom than live a life dominated by fear and caution. Gerta finds herself lying, deceiving and betraying, but assures herself that it is justified by the potential end result.

Middle grade readers will learn about the Cold War and life in Eastern Berlin from an inside perspective, though more background and context notes along with suggested further reading would be helpful.

Reviewed from an ARC.

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

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XX by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Candlewick, 2015

X is the story of Malcolm Little’s formative years, before he became Malcolm X and a renowned human rights activist. Written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz (Growing Up X, One World, 2003), and Coretta Scott King honoree Kekla Magoon (How It Went Down, Holt, 2014), this captivating book captures the rhythm and the groove of early 1940’s Roxbury and Harlem, as the charismatic Malcolm hustles his way through the world, before going to jail and eventually converting to Islam.

There are twin voices in Malcolm’s head throughput this period. On the one hand, his family and particularly his father Earl Little, a civil rights activist who was murdered when Malcolm was only 6, believe in the strength, power and dignity of black people. But, in Malcolm’s mind, this conviction is countered by a teacher who casually tells him that he’s “just a nigger.” (I thought long and hard about including the word nigger here – but the importance of this phrase, used several times in the book, to Malcolm’s picture of himself is paramount and, really, the power word in the phrase is actually “just”).

Perhaps because of Earl Little’s early death, Malcolm spends many years latching on to different father figures to guide him including Shorty, a saxophone player in Boston, Sammy the Pimp in Harlem, and John Bembry in jail. Though many lead him astray, they all act as protectors and teachers.

Clearly Malcolm makes many questionable choices in his lifestyle and his activities, and these are not in any way glossed over. Rather, the authors keep bringing us back to the core beliefs of his family about the abilities and pride of black people, which Malcolm interprets in his own, somewhat twisted, way before coming full circle to accept them as intended. It seems he needed these explorations of the darker side of life to be able to truly understand what his parents felt so strongly.

The authors are clear that this is a novelization – minor characters are composites, there are some simplifications, and the dialog is invented – but it remains true to the journey that Malcolm X undertook in his early life. A timeline, notes on historical context and further reading suggestions are also included.

Though X only covers the years before Malcolm rose to prominence, it will give teen readers an enthralling picture of both the era, and the development of one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

If You Find This by Matthew Baker

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if you find thisIf You Find This by Matthew Baker
Little Brown, 2015

This strange and rather lovely book looks and feels like it’s a fantasy, but is actually a poignant story about families especially fathers, friendship, growing up and growing old, and the subjectivity of memory.

11 year-old Nicholas Funes’ family is falling apart: his father has had to move away to get a job and now his mother is selling their house, but Nicholas can’t countenance leaving there as his still-born brother is buried in the garden under a tree. So when his Grandpa Rose appears with wild tales of priceless hidden family heirlooms and clues as to their whereabouts, Nicholas thinks he may have found a way to stay. A misfit himself, Nicholas teams up with two other social outcasts to try and solve the puzzle and find the treasure.

Nicholas is a math and music prodigy, and his quirky narrative style includes using musical dynamics to refer to the volume or sound of a voice or noise eg “murmured piano.” In all honesty I’m not sure how much this really adds to the text, but it’s quite cool. Much more illuminating, is when Nicholas uses a similar technique to insert unsaid words, for example, when he is describing his new friends: “But all of us were freaks. I was a misfitbrainy, Zeke was a misfitweird, Jordan was a misfitmean. We were all misfits of some power.”

If You Find This gives a very sympathetic portrait of the dignity and indignity of old age, as both Grandpa Rose and Jordan’s grandfather face the ends of their lives. Mr. Baker also writes with sharp honesty about family dynamics, particularly the role of fathers. The three boys are at a challenging age: “Before you’re eleven, you’ll believe whatever your parents tell you, but once you’re eleven you have to start choosing what to believe, and sometimes that puts you at odds with your parents.” They don’t always make good choices, and there aren’t always consequences for this, but it is possible to see the form of the young men that they want to become emerge.

The cover and set-up will likely draw in upper elementary/middle grade readers, but I think they may find it’s not exactly what they were anticipating – will they stick with it? I hope so.