Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.
As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.
Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.
This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.
A World of Cities written and illustrated by James Brown
Candlewick Studio, October 2018
This delightful oversized picture book has gorgeous retro illustrations and is stuffed full of fascinating facts about 30 cities from around the world.
Each city is featured on a double page spread, showing a significant building surrounded by iconic symbols and graphic decoration evocative to the place, with bold colors and fonts further linking to the location. Information runs around the edge of each poster-style spread, and more random facts are artfully inserted on and around the illustrations. Other than the size of the population, which is given for every city, the types of information are inconsistent and include historical facts, quotes, and topical tidbits. No sources are listed, though a note does reassure the reader that “reliable” ones were used.
The cities include the obvious such as London, New York, and Paris, as well as more unusual choices such as Seoul, Dubai, and Prague. However, there are only two cities from Africa (Cape Town and Cairo) and two from Latin America (Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City) and there is no world map showing where the cities are.
Along with the contents, the size and thick matte pages will make this a sumptuous book for elementary school (and older) kids to browse.
The Button War by Avi
At the start of World War I, in a Russian-occupied remote Polish village, a gang of 11 and 12 year-old boys start a game that quickly spins into something much more serious and dangerous.
The boys set out to “get” buttons from the succession of soldiers of different nationalities that come into their village. Whoever secures the best one (though that is never defined) will become the Button King and all the others will have to bow down to him. The dare is initiated by Jurek, a masterful portrait of a controlling and manipulative bully who knows all the right buttons to push to get the others to follow him. Jurek is powerless in the world, a poor orphan who lives with his uninterested sister, but has great power in the microcosm of the gang. Jurek controls the game, even as the others try to claim victory or walk away: “Jurek invented rules faster than any human being in the world. And they were always about what he wanted.” Like Lord of the Flies, it is easy to forget that these are just young boys.
The others, including the narrator Patryk, all persuade themselves that they’re playing so that they can beat Jurek, but none of them have the agency to turn away from Jurek as he goads them into compliance. Even though Patryk is physically bigger than Jurek, he doesn’t have the single-minded ambition and rage that the other boy is driven by.
The adults that are present are either parents or soldiers. Parents are mostly ineffectual and out of their depth; they know little or nothing of the “far world” (everything outside their village), and have no clue about the tides of history that have washed up in their lives. The soldiers are cruel, thoughtless, and entirely, and deliberately, interchangeable.
This short and stylized novel is a clear allegory for the futility of war, often exemplified by the battlefields of WWI in which hundreds of thousands of men died fighting over a few muddy yards of a field. As one nationality after another comes into the village – Germans, Austrians, French, English, Cossacks – the fallout from the game becomes increasingly serious and becomes one of life and death. This is a pitch-black and thought-provoking novel that doesn’t have an uplifting ending or resolution, so it doesn’t feel particularly suitable or appealing for kids but is an extraordinary work nonetheless.
Best of my 2018 reading
Here is my annual list of books I have most enjoyed this year (excluding adult books which are outside the purview of this blog). As ever, they are books that I have given 5 stars to in Goodreads and are in no particular order because that’s too much like hard work.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (graphic memoir)
The Button War by Avi (historical – review to come)
My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver (historical)
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater (nonfiction)
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (historical speculative)
Lighter than my Shadow by Katie Green (graphic memoir)
Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone (realistic)
Lost Soul, Be at Peace by Maggie Thrash (graphic memoir/fantasy)
Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson (realistic)
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (realistic)
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge (speculative)
Speak: A Graphic Novel (graphic realistic fiction – review to come)
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner (speculative)
And there’s still time to nip out to your local bookstore to score a fab present for the teenager or middle grader in your life!
Grenade by Alan Gratz
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
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
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.