Monthly Archives: March 2019

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

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Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Yellow Jacket, 2018.

There were two historical novels on the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist and they ended up at the bottom of our list – not because they weren’t good, but because we felt that the genre just lacks appeal to many middle grade readers. Skylark and Wallcreeper mixes past and present to interesting effect, whereas Anne Nesbet’s The Orphan Band of Springdale is set wholly in the past. I have enjoyed Ms Nesbet’s books in the past, particularly Cloud and Wallfish but also her earlier fantasies, and I read this one a while ago but did not take sufficient notes for me to write a review. Sorry. Anyway onto a book that I did take notes on.

In 2012, 12yo Lily helps to move her granny, Collette, and the other residents when they are evacuated to the Brooklyn Armory as Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc on their nursing home in Queens. In the confusion of the move and settling in, Lily loses a fountain pen that is mysteriously precious to her granny and goes in search of it. In a second storyline, Collette is a 12yo in Brume, Southern France, in the final years of World War II and is an active member of the French Resistance.

Parallels can easily be drawn between the two protagonists. They are both persistent, resourceful, independent, and spunky, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals, though clearly there is a lot more actual danger to Colette. They even look alike, with short hair, as they bicycle around their neighborhoods. Both stories are set in emergency situations in which these young girls are at liberty to make decisions and take actions that they would not normally be able to. Neither girl is given much background or context, though we learn more about Lily’s regular life than Colette’s.

Colette’s chapters are a series of vignettes of her Resistance missions, from the time she is first recruited into “Noah’s Ark” as Wallcreeper. She meets Marguerite, aka Skylark, and together they undertake deliveries, sending messages, and spying, right up to their derailing of a German train. While exciting, this lack of background makes Collette less of a fully-developed character.

Particularly notable is Lily’s empathy and kindness to the dementia-inflicted Colette and the other elderly nursing home residents. But she (and the author) are clear-eyed about these seniors – they are not the cute and funny characters of many books and movies – but are nonetheless regular people with a million stories to tell. However, Lily’s pursuit of the fountain pen is rather forced and there’s an overabundance of coincidences leading to the satisfying conclusion.

Though historical novels can be a tough sell to kids, particularly ones that are not rooted in their own history, they might find the idea of the Resistance has contemporary parallels. The author carefully explains the repugnance felt towards collaborators, and the particular contempt felt towards the Milice, the French military police that supported the Germans. There’s not much light and shade here: the Resistance is good and the collaborators were bad.

I’m not sure how much kid appeal Wallcreeper actually has, and this is not helped by being printed in a large font, making the size of the book potentially quite daunting. However, those who like historical fiction, strong girl characters, and/or exciting adventures will find something to enjoy here.

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The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz

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The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz
Sourcebooks, 2018.

This fourth book from the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist is a little like a doughnut itself – delicious but not very nutritious or substantial. However, just because it’s not likely to win an award doesn’t mean it won’t bring delight to many kids, and may even get them to start a business or bake a chocolate lava cake.

When 12 year-old Tris’s dad loses his job, the family move from New York City to a ”broken-down, grape-colored house with windows popping out in all the wrong places” in Petersville in upstate New York. Tris and his sister, 10yo, Jeanine are adamantly against this move: they have friends and activities in the city that Petersville just doesn’t offer. Then to make matters worse, they move in the middle of November but won’t start school till January, so their Dad says they each have to come up with a project to fill the time. Gifted and Talented Jeanine decides to do a field study of the land around their house, but Tris is at a loss until he comes across a sign at the local store saying “Yes, we do have chocolate cream doughnuts!” but they no longer serve them. So his project becomes bringing back chocolate cream doughnuts to the town.

In many ways this is a fantasy novel dressed up as a realistic one, though it’s not the sort of fantasy with dragons and fairies but more the sort where you wish life could be just like that. The town is peopled with (all white) whimsical characters: Winnie, the doughnut witch, Dr Charney who dedicates his life to small-town medicine and is also an artist, Riley who takes over his family’s dairy farm and makes artisanal cheese. Even Tris’s new friend Josh, son of the town librarian, is a little too good to be true.

The author tries to root Tris’s project in the real world, by getting him a copy of Starting Your Own Business for Dummies and having him work through the stages of creating a business plan and a budget, finding and negotiating with suppliers, making a presentation to his investors – all of which is really grounded. However, we never get to see the actual figures so we have no idea of how much Tris is making with his doughnuts, nor it is clear how viable it really is for him to get up at 4.30am to make 40 doughnuts on a regular basis.

For me the heart of the novel is the relationship between Tris and Jeanine (there is a younger sister, 4yo Zoe who I find to be a cutesy middle grade novel version of a real 4 yo). As the start of the novel, Tris feels like he’s second fiddle to Jeanine with her math star power and Gifted and Talented status. But after their move, and with his project, Tris realizes that what he has brought to his project and the community of Petersville has equal if different value, though it takes Jeanine to point that out to him.

This is a charming read with Tris’s narration perfectly pitched as a smart (if not math smart) middle grader. He is warm and funny, and very honest, recognizing that not all his impulses and behaviors are what a model 12 year-old should have. As he settles into Petersville, he drops his best friend from the city, believing that they have nothing left in common (though he never tests that). He will occasionally break the 4th wall to directly address the reader, and that feels natural.

Not much of this is particularly original – the theme of a kid discovering his or her way in a new place was pretty central to all our shortlisted books – but I loved the voice and was delighted to be transported to this alternate reality for a few hours.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic, 2018.

Week three of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist. Front Desk was my personal number two and was well-liked by some but not all of the other judges.

It’s 1993 and 10-year old Mia Tang and her parents moved from China to the US two years ago. It has not been what they expected: “My parents had told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburger till we were red in the face.” Now they are managing the Calivista Motel in Orange County for the despotic Mr Yao and, apart from the occasional shared burger, none of their dreams have been fulfilled.

Mia takes on managing the front desk, learning from her mistakes as she goes along. She and her parents work hard but the abusive owner allows them barely enough to scrape by on. As one of the few Chinese kids at her new school, Mia has to face bullies and uncomprehending teachers. Even her mother is unsupportive, telling her she should focus on math as she can be a native at that but not at the English writing that Mia loves.

Mia is a go-getting optimist with a kind heart and a strong sense of justice. As her confidence grows and her natural abilities flourish, she starts to writes letters to help set things right – whether for African American Hank, one of the motel’s “weeklies”, for some of the Chinese immigrants that her parents secretly shelter at the motel, or to counter a racist policy adopted by local motels and stores.

Drawing on the author’s own childhood experiences, this novel looks at the important topics of poverty, racism, and the oppression and exploitation that prevents people from breaking out of the cycles they’re stuck in, but does so with a light hand and integrated into a charming and empowering story. Though the ending trails off a little into fantasy, middle grade readers will feel that Mia is rewarded for all that she has endured and for all that she has done to make her community a better place.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.