Tag Archives: school

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.

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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.

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.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.