Tag Archives: family

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer

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To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Dial/Dutton, February 2019

I have enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s adult and YA novels very much, and found her a delightful and thoughtful raconteur when I saw her interviewed recently. I have been less keen on Holly Goldberg Sloan’s novels, they are still pretty good. It’s an interesting pairing and this interview talks about their friendship and their process.

Bett and Avery are both 12 and they both have single gay dads but little else in common. Bett lives in Venice, California, loves skateboarding, surfing outdoors and animals, and is not a great follower of rules. Her father is African American and her birth mother is Brazilian. Avery lives in New York, is vegetarian, loves science and reading and has “excessive worries”. Her dad is “Jewish Caucasian” and she knows nothing about her mother. So when their dads meet, fall in love, and decide to go to China for a motorcycling vacation, they want their daughters to go to camp together and get to know each other and the girls HATE the idea.  

As we find out through this novel told, mostly, in emails between the two girls some things work out according to plan and some things don’t. The two girls have funny and credible voices but though Bett feels authentic, Avery feels like a little like a caricature of a neurotic New York Jewish intellectual (though maybe not something middle schoolers will likely be aware of unless they watch Woody Allen movies).

Unfortunately the epistolary format means there is somewhat superficial character development and the authors load up on plot instead of emotional depth. The novel skims over a lot of ground very quickly and frequently leaves credibility behind on its way as it takes some surprising and often farfetched turns. But at its core, as a picture of the development of an unlikely friendship between two very different and initially reluctant girls, it works charmingly.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2019.

After the wonderful One of Us is Lying (2017) I had high expectations for Ms McManus’s new murder mystery. And while it is very good it’s much less nuanced than her previous novel – still highly recommended but not go-out-of-your way to read.

Twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran have to spend the first four months of their senior year living in Echo Ridge, Vermont with their Nana, while their mother, Sadie, is in rehab. Twenty years ago, Sadie’s twin sister disappeared and has never been found, five years ago, homecoming queen Lacey was found murdered. This crime was never solved but the town has decided that Lacey’s ex-boyfriend, Declan Kelly was responsible. As Ellery and Ezra settle into school, there is a new wave of threats against the three candidates for homecoming queen and then one of them disappears. Is this all connected?

The story is told from the perspective of Ellery, a true-crime aficionado, and Declan’s brother, Malcolm – two fully fleshed out and interestingly quirky characters. However, it would have been nice if Ellery had had a bit more agency, and that’s a bit of an issue with all the female characters. The twins, Malcolm, and new friend Korean American Mia do some investigating of their own which may or may not help the police and now Malcolm is getting the same kind of suspicious looks as his brother did five years ago.

The author does a great job with a pretty straightforward murder mystery plot and adds in a couple of interesting layers. Echo Ridge is wealthy and almost wholly white, and Mia and her sister Daisy have felt the pressure of being outside that. There is a Latinx police officer too and the twins, who don’t know who their father is, are biracial – is it just coincidence that all these non-majority culture people are tangled up in this mystery? The novel also takes a sharp look at the role of the media is generating suspicions and fanning the flames of the threat story.

There are plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists before an unexpected resolution is reached. This is a fast-paced and tightly plotted novel that will grip YA mystery fans.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

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On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2019

This stunning second novel from Angie Thomas is set in Garden Heights, the same fictional neighborhood as The Hate U Give (2017). 16yo Bri raps to express her feelings, but when an opportunity arises to be able to make money from her rapping, she has to decide whether the price she’ll pay is worth it.

Bri lives with her mother and brother, somehow just about scraping by. The author paints a warm portrait of a loving home: Bri’s mother is an ex-drug addict who is barely coping but is committed to raising her children to a better way of life; when she loses her job the fragile hold they have on managing is broken. Her brother has graduated from university but can’t get any better job than working at a pizza place. Meanwhile the gang members, including her Aunt Pooh have plenty of money.

Bri goes to an arts school in a more affluent part of town and is part of a small group of brown and blacks students, which enables the school to maintain its funding. But the security guards seem to single out these students for searches, and when one of them tries to search Bri’s backpack, her frustration at the situation explodes. Then the video of a part of this exchange gets onto social media and assumptions are made about what the search was for.

All this make Bri feel powerless: She wants to take control of her destiny and take the power away from other people over her. For Bri getting the “come-up” and making it means money initially, but it becomes more complex and nuanced.

As the daughter of now deceased local rap legend Lawless, Bri already has a certain kudos in the neighborhood, and her brilliant performance at a rap battle helps to solidify that. So when she records an anger-fueled rap that plays with black stereotypes that’s taken at face value, she has a tough decision to take: does she want to persist with this potentially lucrative “hoodlum” image or does she stay true to herself.

Thomas brilliantly plays with the theme of perceptions: the perception others have of Bri because she is black, because she is angry, because she is a girl, because she is a teen and all the combinations of those. Bri’s perception of herself and the persona that she wants to present move and coalesce over the course of the novel.

I was a little fearful about a novel with rap in it: I’m a middle-aged white woman and it’s not really my thing. I have frequently found rap or spoken word poetry in YA novels to be excruciating and have hastily skipped over them. But Bri’s raps jump off the page with rhythm and edge and while they read well on the page, I suspect the audiobook rendition would be on a whole other level.

This is another fantastic, intelligent, and powerful novel from Ms Thomas and will cement her position at the front of the YA pack.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen, 2018.

Here’s my last review of the books I read for the 2nd round of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. Harbor Me probably generated more discussion than any of the other books and was more divisive. But here’s the great thing about the Cybils: the shortlist can include the cozy wish fulfillment of, say, The Doughnut Fix and as well as the gritty reality of Harbor Me. It’s a hard job comparing the two, but was most gratifying, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to read about the winner, The Parker Inheritance, now’s your chance!

A class of 6 special education 5th/6th grade kids are given a weekly opportunity by their teacher, “tall and soft-spoken and patient Ms. Laverne” to just talk to each other about anything without any adult supervision. Over the course of the novel, we get to know these kids and what they’re going through.

Biracial narrator Haley is dealing with an upheaval in her life as her uncle, who has been her only parent while her dad was in jail, is moving out when her father is released. Latinx Esteban’s father has been detained by ICE and the rest of his family are fearful about what has happened to him and what might happen to them. Ashton, the only white kid in the grade, is being physically bullied by other kids. African American Holly, Haley’s best friend, has ADHD and can’t sit still. Native American Taino and African American Amari have both faced racism and prejudice.

This sounds like a list of “issues” but Ms Woodson is such a skilled writer that the kids’ problems are integrated very naturally into the novel and are only part of their story and who they are. As they go to the art room, which they re-name the ARTT (a room to talk), each week they gradually form a deep bond as they tell their truths and start looking out for each other, fulfilling Ms Laverne’s request that they be a harbor for people who need it.

Overlaying all of their individual family and social situations is that they are a special education class and, though they pretend not to, they do care about what other kids say. Even though the teacher tells them “how special we were, how smart, how kind, how beautiful – how tons of successful people had different ways of learning…some days it got inside us.”

I found it particularly interesting how the author takes on race through Ashton who has the “white pass” but is now in a school with mostly brown and black kids. He’d never thought about being white before but now he is as aware of the color of his skin as his classmates have already had to be and the other kids in the ARTT help him to thresh through those feelings.

These are real kids who are not defined by their problems but who have to deal with them as part of their daily lives. And let us not forgot, as the cover reminds us, these are all American kids, no matter their ethnicity or family origins. The reader will care about all of them and it’s a wonder that Ms Woodson manages to cram so much into such a short novel (less than 200 pages!) without it feeling in any way forced.

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.

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.