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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Throwback Thursday Review: Outside Your Window by Nicola Davies

On 28, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Outside Your WindowFrom GoodReads: The buzz of bees in summertime. The tracks of a bird in the winter snow. This beautiful book captures all the sights and sounds of a child’s interactions with nature, from planting acorns or biting into crisp apples to studying tide pools or lying back and watching the birds overhead. No matter what’s outside their windows — city streets or country meadows — kids will be inspired to explore the world around them.

I decided to include this title in my throwback series for a couple of reasons. First, I really love to use poetry to encourage kids to become readers. Second, I’ve been reading this with my daughter for more than a year now and we just love it.

As you probably already figured out, this is a collection of poems about nature. But what I have loved about is that the poems are organized around the seasons. There is a section each for spring, summer, fall and winter. This is the kind of book you can leave out in a classroom, on a nature table, or in a bedroom. You can pick it up whenever you have a few spare minutes and select a poem or two for your current season.

The poems themselves are really lovely and evocative. Not every child is going to have experienced all the nature in the book, but there is something for everyone from a window box on an apartment balcony to a farm. The illustrations are a mixture of collage, watercolor and probably a few other media thrown in. They really do a wonderful job complementing each poem. They are bright, cheerful with seasonally appropriate color palettes. The animals are all very charming and a nice enticement for many children. It’s a large book which I think encourages kids to open it out on the floor and pore over it. The paper is heavy and thick which adds to the sensorial experience of reading it.

The nice thing about a collection of poems like this is that you can dip in and out of if, like with a lot of nonfiction. Kids whose attention spans are short or who are having a hard time reading can choose a poem or two, look at the illustration and move on to something else. Reading doesn’t have to be torturously long. Very young children, who may not want to sit still for an entire picture book or story, are often willing to listen to a poem or two and the use of language and vocabulary in poetry is especially good at getting little ones to listen to spoken words. An all around great book for all ages (parents included!).

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…

On 27, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CircumnavigatedFrom GoodReads: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

I need to start by saying: OMG, this is the world’s longest title. It is also a little pretentious and very indicative of how the book goes. Which is whimsically, with a good vocabulary and just a little pretentiousness. In the best possible way.

It took me awhile to get into this one. At least the first 50 pages, if not more. The language and syntax initially made the story feel like it was trying very hard. I can’t say if that stopped eventually or I just got into the rhythm of the book, but I was sucked in to the point of wanting to finish. The book does have an excellent use of language going for it, which is partially to blame for the slow start. Is widdershins a word? Yes (it means counterclockwise, but sounds so much better), but it feels a bit arcane like some of the other vocabulary and syntax. To be clear the slow start and old fashioned vibe are not a count against the book, it just took me longer to move through it.

Fortunately both the characters and plot make you want to stay with the book. September is just a regular girl with a lot of doubt about why she ended up on this adventure. She meets a lot of characters like a trio of witches who explain what witches actually do (see the future), a cantankerous gnome, the green wind who is very fond of September, a leopard, a Wyvern whose father is a library and so he calls himself a Wyverary. The cast of characters alone is quite creative and most are good hearted or interesting. September decides to help one of the witches retrieve her spoon from the Marquess, the new ruler of Fairyland who rules with an iron fist, and this sets off a chain of events that pull September deeper and deeper into the troubles of Fairyland. She also becomes more attached to the friends she has made and more determined to help them.

The comparisons I’ve seen to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are apt, but at times, especially toward the beginning, it felt like the book was trying to be Alice which just made it feel contrived. On the other hand, it clearly wasn’t Alice. For starters September had a lot more presence of mind and was less of a ditz than Alice. September also makes friends and does things out of the goodness of her heart. To me, the adventure and language brought the book My Father’s Dragon to mind.

The difference between these, besides length and complexity, was how dark Circumnavigated was. September’s adventure is not all sunshine, rainbows, and friends. Things end well enough, but it is not without some unhappy revelations and discoveries. Things go awry in some awful ways and Valente doesn’t shy away from sharing them and how September reacts to them. September also becomes a bit contemplative about her situation at home with a mother who is constantly at work and a father who has disappeared to the war, a father who volunteered to disappear.

The book may appeal to upper elementary students, but it would take a strong reader to get through it or a highly motivated/interested one. The reading level was surprisingly low, but the vocabulary and sentence structure made it feel more difficult. (Or maybe that was just me?) I would suggest it as a good read aloud, especially for parents looking for a book that would appeal to them too. Otherwise this one is good for kids who like adventure, quirk, and whimsy. Readers who like twists on fairy tales may also find something to enjoy in the mythical creatures, witches, and September’s quest.


There was a swoony bit right at the end. September has traveled with Saturday through much of her adventure. As a marid he experiences time differently, all at once and not chronologically. He explains that marids know to get married when they start seeing their children around and they find their spouse based on who their children look like. Just before September is whisked back home, Saturday asks if she saw their daughter. I think the anticipation of them falling in love in future books (there are two more in the series) is really sweet.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Review: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

On 26, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Tiny SunbirdsFrom GoodReads: When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.
   But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.

I absolutely loved this book and then I realized the author was white. And now I’m not sure if that changes how I view the book. Which isn’t to say an author has to limit themselves to their own gender, culture, experience, etc. but their research needs to be solid. If the relationships and themes are authentic and transcend anything superficial then the author has succeeded.

This was such an easy book to fall into. The setting was finely drawn.The life before and after the father’s affair is discovered. The living situation at the grandfather’s compound. The political situation in the delta region. The characters were likable and had depth. The slightly kooky grandfather. The grandmother who had learned to work within the traditional system to earn freedoms. The new wife who was loud and unabashed.

But Tiny Sunbirds is really the story of Blessing’s ascendency. She begins as rather shy and retiring, passive even. Used to a life with enough to eat, running water, a flush toilet, private schools, and air conditioning. The move to Warri breaks her away from this world and becomes an eye opening experience. Girls are not highly valued. Ultimately, when money runs thin, Blessing is pulled out of school, where she wasn’t especially welcome anyway. Instead of wilting away, though, Blessing connects with her grandmother who begins to teach her to be a midwife. Through this Blessing finds a purpose and a future. She comes to grips with the physical violence of her old home. Slowly she comes out of her shell and begins to see and understand the world around her, including some of the choices her mother makes.

In counterpoint to this is her brother  Ezikiel. It is painful to watch Ezikiel flounder. He has already lost his father, a poor role model to begin with, at a critical time, so he probably suffers the most as his mother slips aways. His grandfather means well, but does not take Ezikiel under his wing the way the grandmother does Blessing. Ezikiel has a severe allergy to groundnuts which makes eating nearly impossible. There are few alternatives to the groundnut oil used to fry food that cannot be kept refrigerated and no one seems to understand the severity of the allergy. When money runs short Ezikiel’s medication supply nearly runs out, leaving him in constant danger. As a boy, a lot of pressure is placed on him to do well in school and to learn to lead the family. Ezikiel tries to rise the occasion and although we don’t hear his internal struggles, it is clear he places a lot of stress on himself. Add to this Blessing beginning medical training when that is what Ezikiel wants and her growth when his seems stunted. It’s a toxic recipe. Because he is older he may have a better understanding of what went on in their house before their mother left their father and may have a better grasp on how their mother may be earning money to pay for his medicine and school. When he fails his school exams that would lead to medical school his downward spiral really begins.

I really felt for their mother. She is between a rock and hard place. She has endured physical abuse at the hands of a man she broke with her family over. When she discovers his affair, she returns home with her tail between her legs and her two children in tow. The family desperately needs money, so she goes to work. While she deals with the emotional fall out of her marriage, most of which we can only assume she is dealing with, she is forced to work more and more. The ones who suffer most are her children, whom she has little time for. She sees the money she is providing, that puts food on the table and pays school fees, as a substitute for her presence and attention; poor substitute, but a necessary one. Of course her children want more, but I doubt she could have given more under the circumstances. It is never entirely clear whether some of the money she earns comes from prostitution, but she clearly struggles with the option. She also watches her daughter grow away from her and need her less, which must have been hard. She watches as Blessing connects more with the mother she never fully understood. Blessing assumes her mother sees her father in her and dislikes that reminder, but I think what really troubles her mother is seeing her grandmother in her. Someone she did not connect or agree with for most of her life.

I also like the second wife, Celestine. The grandfather decides, at some point, that he wants a son and needs to take a younger, second wife. When Celestine arrives she is obnoxious. No one can stand her and yet she persists. She is poorly educated and because she is older than Blessing and married to a much older man you forget that she can’t be more than 18 or 19, a child herself. As the story progresses, however, she really comes into her own. She makes plenty of foolish mistakes along the way, some that are funny, some that are heartbreaking, some that are cringe-inducing. But she learns and she becomes a part of the family, accepted and accepting.

This is technically an adult book and it deals with some very mature themes, like female genital mutilation and physical abuse, that I think younger audiences need someone to walk them through, but Blessing is a charming character. This would be a good suggestion for more mature readers who like serious books, readers interested in Nigeria, or as an English class option. Although Blessing finds herself in a different situation from most Americans, I think the theme of finding yourself in very different circumstances and with a sink-or-swim dilemma is universal. Did Watson succeed in writing a book that was true to the culture of Nigeria, I don’t know. In terms of characters and themes I think she did, though.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

On 25, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Year of Billy Miler

From GoodReads: When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad. Newbery Honor author and Caldecott Medalist Kevin Henkes delivers a short, satisfying, laugh-out-loud-funny school and family story that features a diorama homework assignment, a school poetry slam, cancelled sleepovers, and epic sibling temper tantrums. This is a perfect short novel for the early elementary grades.

I need to get two things off my chest with this book.

One, it has been likened to Frindle and the Clementine series. I have not read either of these. In fact I haven’t read a whole lot of those transitional chapter books. Mostly because prior to this I have found them incredibly boring. I have read a total of two Magic Treehouse books and I wish I hadn’t. But I also know that these books are wonderful for hooking readers, building confidence and building fluency. I can’t compare or even make too many read alike suggestions. I can say second graders, especially ones for whom reading is starting to take off will probably like this book. It’s easy but long enough to make them feel important for reading a chapter book.

Second, I just really wanted Billy to slap that little girl Emma Sparks. She is such a self-important braggart. Of course, I’m sure there’s a backstory for why she is such a brat, but my visceral reaction was to want him to slap her. Just to be clear, I don’t condone slapping children. Obviously. She is a book character so I felt okay having that reaction.

This was a family and friends book. Not much action here. I loved the approach of looking at Billy’s year through the lens of his different family members. Billy’s voice, worries, and actions felt very much like a second grader.  The secondary characters in the book were not very well fleshed out, but I think for the target audience that wouldn’t matter. I also think it fits well with the second grade world view. They aren’t nearly as self centered as they were at two or three, but eight-year-olds are still fairly self absorbed. (Totally developmentally appropriately, I think.)

One content warning: At one point Billy wants to stay up all night and when he is feeling sleepy he tries to keep himself awake by imagining something scary and horrible. It ends up being some kind of rotting corpse or monster or something. I’m a big chicken and it kinda freaked me out, so if you have a kid who is easily frightened skip that bit.

All in all, an enjoyable story about a boy.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

On 22, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

A Time To DanceFrom GoodReads: Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyamdance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

This was a lovely, quick novel. Ever since I read my first novel in verse I have kept my eye out for them. I find them to be really enjoyable as the story feels as though it is told through little vignettes or pictures. They are quick to read, but the sparseness of the language that is required, even by free verse, really emphasizes the language chosen and makes for impactful reading.

A Time to Dance reminded me a lot, a lot, of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanan, but I clicked a lot more with Veda. I think I preferred her struggle to find a more spiritual connection with her dance after her accident instead of focusing on winning competitions. By the end of the story she really found peace with what happened to her emotionally and to her body.

I liked the romance in this book. It felt very authentic. There were a few fireworks but even though Veda and Govinda were physically attracted their connection felt like it was based more on shared interests and passions. They also balanced each other well. Govinda was softer with the sharp edges taken down, a people pleaser to some extent. While Veda was hard, direct, and intent on dong what she felt was right for herself, not what is expected.

Now I know novels in verse are technically poetry and poetry can be a hard sell, especially with the YA set. They start thinking about all those boring, overwrought poems they’ve had to dissect ad nauseum in English class. Novels in verse never feel pretentious to me and if you can get them past the idea that it’s poetry, novels in verse are great for reluctant readers.

The audience for this one is wide: dancers, kids who like diverse characters, fans of India, reluctant readers. Although, based on Veda’s age this is YA, I could certainly see this appealing to older MG readers (say 7th and 8th grade). There isn’t anything that is remotely questionable in content. Even the scene with the accident is not particularly jarring.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Throwback Thursday Review: The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

On 21, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I’m going to start posting reviews on Thursdays of books that I have read and never gotten around to reviewing properly. I may also use it to post reviews of books that were not published recently.

Pepper RouxFrom GoodReads: Pepper’s fourteenth birthday is a momentous one. It’s the day he’s supposed to die. Everyone seems resigned to it—even Pepper, although he would much prefer to live. But can you sidestep Fate? Jump sideways into a different life? Naïve and trusting, Pepper sets a course through dangerous waters, inviting disaster and mayhem at every turn, one eye on the sky for fear of angels, one on the magnificent possibilities of being alive.

It took me two tries to get through this book. It has a rough start that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (or so I thought). However, I was REALLY glad I stuck with it the second time around.

On his 14th birthday Pepper picks up his father’s jacket and, believing his superstitious aunt who has always told him this would be the day he died, he heads down to his father’s boat. Here is where I was lost the first time. Wearing his father’s coat seems to convince people that he must be his father and everyone begins to treat him as the captain. Despite the fact that they are seeing a 14 year old boy in a man’s coat. This happens again and again as he side steps from one adventure and life into the next. People simply assume because he is in a certain place, say behind a deli counter or in a newspaper room, that he belongs there and is either someone they know or should know and they simply go along with it. You have to let the absurdity of it wash over you and accept it and once you do, it’s actually quite enjoyable how Pepper hops from one adventure to the next.

I think ultimately there were a couple themes and messages in this book, none of them blatant. First Pepper learns to question what his aunt has been saying all these years. She is the one who has claimed to have seen a religions vision that proclaims that Pepper will die on his 14th birthday. As he gets more experience of the world it puts his life so far into perspective and his aunt (and parents to some extent) seem more and more ridiculous and tied to the idea that your destiny simply happens to you while you passively wait for it. From this Pepper also learns that you make your own luck and fate. He goes out and has experiences, meets good people, bad people, all kinds of people and he begins to take actions based on what he feels is right. This leads to more experiences and to building a family. A number of the characters he encounters stick around or keep popping up. And at one point he steps into the life of one of his sailors from his first adventure on his father’s boat. The man had died and left a widow, a woman whom he was very cruel to. Pepper steps in and is kind to her, takes care of her and their home. She grows to love him, but not as a husband. As a son. With her and his father’s former first mate Pepper find parents that are willing to love and care for him unlike his own who mostly wrung their hands over his impending death. He also has some friends that he has accumulated and they too become part of the family. So it is also a story about the chosen family.

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is a quirky book. It would take a quirky, whimsical kid to really appreciate it (and probably finish it). In some ways it reminds me of Ophelia and the Magic Boy except Pepper isn’t such a sad sack. I would say kids who wonder about other people’s lives may find this of interest and honestly some adults may enjoy this too. Adults who were quirky whimsical kids. But I’m rather at a loss for any other books that this is like, which I guess is to say it’s unlike anything else, to my knowledge.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

On 20, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Thing About Luck

From GoodReads: Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.

The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.

Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.

The Thing About Luck had a lot of interesting pieces to the story, but what really shone for me was the relationships between Summer and her grandparents. Summer always feels like she is disappointing her grandmother and isn’t very sure her grandmother loves her. Although in the past year when she had malaria she knows her grandmother wouldn’t leave her side at the hospital and she overhears her grandmother crying about Summer growing up too fast. She just can’t seem to get that caring grandmother to line up with the ornery, more distant grandmother she seems to disappoint everyday. I think a lot kids can really relate to trying very hard to be good and do the right thing, but still feeling as though they have failed a parent or grandparent. Summer is, however, close to her grandfather who is much more patient and gentle. She feels close with him and secure in his love. The juxtaposition of these two relationships really begins teaching Summer how love can mean different things and look very different without being diminished.

Summer really learns a lot about love over the few weeks the book spans. She assesses her relationship with her brother Jaz, who at times provokes and irritates because he is so different (he’s probably Asperger’s), but realizes she loves him all the same. She experiences the heartbreak of rejection when her crush decides he would rather spend time with the daughter of one of the farmers instead of her. But she also sees that rejection can be a lot worse when she talks with one of the other harvesters whose fiancee left him. Summer is a reflective kid standing on the cusp of young adulthood, knowing she still feels like a child but having a growing awareness of the world and how it works and taking a more active role in it.

On another note, Summer and her family are Japanese and Japanese-American, I never felt like that was “an issue” or even really a focus. I suppose it may have determined what kind of work the grandparents could get, but Summer mentions plenty of other types of people who take jobs as harvesters. And being an immigrant was not a common thread. I really appreciated that the diversity felt authentic and organic. It didn’t feel like a check box, nor was it discussed and dissected at great length. There is a time and place and book for that, but I don’t think that was the point of Summer’s story.

I would give this to kids who liked grandparent-grandchild relationship in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. It would also be good for kids who like family stories where the family ties are strong, but not without strife. This is certainly middle grade, but could skew a bit younger (4th or 5th grade) depending on interest.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Round Up: Miscellany

On 19, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

More Summer Reading

A disparate selection of titles I read this summer. Again, for the sake of brevity I have linked to their GoodReads page where you can read the synopsis.

Zebra Crossing / Meg Vandermerwe: I picked this one up because it had three diversity points- Zimbabwean emigrants, South African setting, and an albino. The story didn’t sound exactly upbeat, but it sounded interesting and appealing. Turns out it was downright depressing. I really liked the main character, Chipo. She had not had an easy life, but she was a friendly girl with capable of making friends and feeling deeply. She could have stood to be more assertive, but I think she always intended to be, but wasn’t given the chance. I liked the book, but it would take a special reader to really click with this one because it is so sad. (YA)

School for Good and Evil / Soman Chainani: This was a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. The premise of the book was actually very clever and I can see a lot of fairytale elements which is what attracted me to it in the first place. I just had a really hard time connecting with the characters. More often than not I found myself frustrated by Agatha’s willful blindness to the fact that Sophie is a terrible friend and Sophie’s blindness to what a good friend Agatha could be. The message that looks can be deceiving also felt heavy handed to me. Plus I got at least 100 pages in and not much had happened to really further the plot enough for my tastes. However! I think had I made it to the end, things would have worked themselves out. This felt a lot like a case of me clearly not being the target audience. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to kids who like friendship stories and fairytales. Especially fractured fairy tales. There are even a few Harry Potter elements mixed in here. (MG & younger YA)

Claire of the Sea Light / Edwidge Danticat: This is technically an adult novel and I didn’t pick it up because it was touted as a crossover, but any teen who likes literary novels and diversity could easily slip into this novel. It was not especially long either, which is often a plus with teen readers who are pressed for time. I cannot say how much I loved this novel. Danticat’s writing style is so lyrical and lovely, but not dense at all. The stories in this book, that follow a variety of people from the town Ville Rose around, felt like peeking into secret parts of people’s lives. Like when you see people driving and wonder where they are going and who they are. It was a sad novel, but not without hope. It also embraced the idea that things in life can come full circle. (YA)

The Martian / Andy Weir: This book was incredible. It was so good I made my husband read it. It was so good he, who reads a book every couple of years, finished it in two days. It was that good. It was definitely a plot driven novel, but there was enough character development to make it interesting for the people in the book. While it’s a survival story, Mark Watney is a funny guy. His quips and general attitude toward his situation make for good reading. And he is so clever in solving problems that seem insurmountable, like surviving on Mars. Interestingly, everything he talks about is technically possible and all of the equipment and technology is currently available even if it can’t quite be used to get to Mars just yet, so there is a realistic bent to a story that seems impossible. Another adult novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a YA audience. I would even give it to a middle schooler who is nuts about space travel, just be aware that there is a mention of sex (although no actual sex) and several swear words. (YA)

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: I Put a Spell On You by Adam Selzer

On 18, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I Put a Spell on YouFrom GoodReads: Come spelling bee season, the tiny town of Preston erupts in excitement: the bee is televised, and the hottest ticket in town. This year, an assortment of sixth-grade miscreants is going for the top prize: Jennifer, an overscheduled free spirit whose parents are obsessed with her college applications; Mutual, a previously home-schooled outsider who’s enrolled in public school for the first time in order to participate in the bee; Harlan, the class clown who has spectacular plans for making the most of his time in the spotlight; and Chrissie, the constant observer, who suspects something is off at the bee and will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Principal Floren is acting shady to everyone—but, as he insists, “I am not a crook.”

Part mystery, part spoof, I Put a Spell On You was really clever. The story is told several ways. First, Chrissie Woodward, who has been investigating the odd events surrounding the annual spelling bee, tells her story through her observations. Second, Chrissie has taken depositions of a number of the kids in her class. Third, series of interoffice memos between the principal, his assistant, the sixth grade class teacher, and all school. Each chapter is one of these narratives. Finally, through notes passed between Jason and Amber.

Not only does this make the story a little more interesting to read than a single, straight narrative, it gives you insight into a variety of the characters involved. It adds depth to them in a type of story that usually chooses plot over character.

And these characters were funny! Jennifer loves Shakespeare but her parents are always pushing into clubs and activities to make her look good to colleges (nevermind that she’s only in sixth grade). She uses the spelling bee to get out the activities and studies by reading Shakespeare. Mutual has nutty parents who have homeschooled him to protect him from corruption. He’s all too happy to be corrupted, though, once he starts at public school. Of course he isn’t actually corrupted. He simply learns that maybe his parents are always right about things (turns out heavy metal doesn’t make you a murder) and appearances aren’t what they seem. Harlan is looking to be a class clown so people remember him because he keeps thinking about his own mortality. This could be dark and depressing, but it’s handled as a carpe diem kind of mentality. Then there are the two goth kids who sit in the back of the room and befriend Mutual. Principal Floren is a shady character who bribes kids and staff with extra cookies from the lunchroom. Jake is the lunch lady’s son that wants to become a professional chef. Except he’ll eat anything for a dollar, which sounds at odds with his dream. But he explains that he’s hoping he’ll discover a new flavor combination. He enters the bee to win the gift certificate that’s been donated by the local appliance store who has a cookware set he really wants. So while the story is very funny, the characters really make the book.

I have grouped this into my Kidlit pile based on the ages of the kids in the book (sixth grade), but I would say it could appeal into the middle grade area too. It isn’t quite as sophisticated as some middle grade novels can be, but there’s a lot here to like.

*Swear word alert*, the word “crap” appears two or three times. Just in case you want to hand this book to a younger audience or have a more conservative community.

I would give this one to kids who enjoyed Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Peeled by Joan Bauer, and Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip. You may also want to recommend it to kids who like Michael Beil’s The Red Blazer Girls or that may be a series to move on to from this one. The mixed narratives reminded me a lot of The Westing Game, too.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Mambo in ChinatownFrom GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.

Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all. ;)

Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.

Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).

Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.

I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.

There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.

My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.

Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.


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