Category Archives: fiction

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***

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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

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.

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby

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The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby
Candlewick, 2018.

In this middle-grade historical fantasy, set in World War II, the ghosts of London attempt to foil a Nazi plot. Throw in a little Indiana Jones and you have a rather jumbled but sweet tale set during the Blitz.

12 year old Flossie died 16 years ago and is now the turnkey, or protector of the dead, in Highgate Cemetery – one of London’s “Magnificent Seven”. On her wanderings around London she sees a mysterious ghost in an SS uniform who seems to be able to do things that the dead aren’t usually able to. She investigates further and with the aid of the other turnkeys and several Chelsea Pensioners (retired veterans of the British army) she starts to find out what the Nazi has planned. There is also an affecting secondary plot about a young girl whose house is bombed and who hovers between life and death.

Rushby has created an interesting world, though its one in which the rules seem to be made up to suit the plot and coincidences abound. The kindly and gentle characters, all dead and white, seem to come from a nostalgic past in which stiff upper lips and the Blitz spirit were the norm, with the exception, of course, of the irredeemably evil Nazis. The Mayan crystal skull that the SS officer is using has more than a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Although clearly a labor of love for the author who weaves in many of her personal passions, this feels like it could have been written in the 1950’s and seems like it will have little appeal to American kids.

Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger

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Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger
Charlesbridge, 2018

Everything is out of joint for 12 year old Izzy Shepherd: her father, who now lives with his new wife in Boston, doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her anymore, and her uncle and his 10-year-old son Oliver are staying with her and her mother after Aunt Felicia killed herself. Now the reputedly mean 16-year-old Ben Gustino is staying in their basement while his father, her mother’s new boyfriend, is out of town and his mother has left them in live in California.

Initially Izzy is a bit of a pill about this, as you might expect any tween to be – all the changes imposed on her and out of her control are upsetting. It’s only when Uncle Henderson disappears, and she, Ben, and Oliver run away to search for him, that she starts to develop empathy for the situations of the other two and realizes that though her life is tough, Ben and Oliver have it much worse. As she and Ben bristle at each other, they bond over their shared desire to lessen the load for Oliver and realize that they have much more in common than was apparent.

At the start, Izzy (who is white as are all the other main characters) is trying out new identities as she feels herself becoming invisible to her friends who are suddenly much more interested in boys and clothes. She buys some silver shoes that are too small for her. Without overflogging the metaphor, Wittlinger uses shoes to show that you have to be both comfortable with yourself and that walking in someone’s else’s shoes is a gift. By the end of their roadtrip, Izzy has new sneakers and realizes “What a great thing it was to have shoes, finally, that fit”

Izzy is an aspiring comedian and as she relaxes more with her new family, her gift shows and she finds the power to make people laugh can be cathartic, though her touchpoints of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Degeneres feel a little dated (And as a Brit I have to tell you that Jerry Seinfeld is also just not very funny).

The adults are realistically shown as broken by the loss or separation from their spouses and can be selfish, make mistakes, and fail to understand what is going on with their children, though ultimately (and don’t forget that this is a middle grade book) their hearts are in the right place. Izzy’s mother, in particular, seems a bit clueless, not realizing the burden her daughter is under or the troubles that Oliver is having at school. Her expectations seem unreasonable to Izzy and maybe even to us – why is she so much more sympathetic to Oliver and Ben? It’s only the kids who appear to understand the weight they are all carrying and that the face people present to the world may not be who they really are.

This is a decent book about loss and empathy that will appeal to middle grade readers who enjoy sad realistic stories with (not necessarily entirely credible) happy endings.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Delacorte Press, September 2018.

Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old gothic horror Frankenstein story is given a YA feminist update in this stirring retelling from the point of view of 17-year-old Elizabeth Lavenza, a minor character in the original tale. White (And I Darken series) largely hews to the original tale, albeit told through a lens in which smart women are suppressed and trapped by contemporary norms, but deftly twists the ending to bring a whole new light to our understanding of the characters.

At the age of five the orphan Elizabeth is brought into the Frankenstein household to befriend and, it emerges, to help socialize the out of control genius Victor. Elizabeth sees this as a way of assuring a safe future for herself and makes herself look “fragile and sweet, incapable of harm and deceit” while chafing at being forced into this subservient and dependent role. Years later when Victor cuts off all contact with them while he is studying at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth pursues him there, scared that he has abandoned her, but is horrified at what she discovers.

Elizabeth reveals far more perception, emotion, and intelligence than her society allows her and her narration has the elegant formality of the 19th century while flowing swiftly, moving between the past and present. Though the reader will probably be aware of the monstrous experiments that Victor is undertaking, Elizabeth’s dawning realization is artfully drawn.

This novel happily stands alone for those who have never read the original; however, those who have read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (or have read the Wikipedia précis like I did) will thrill to the subtle and profound changes the author has made.

Reviewed from an ARC.