Review: The Other Side by Juan Pablo Villalobos

The Other SideTHE OTHER SIDE: Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Pablo Villalobos, with translation by Rosalind Harvey, is necessary reading. And for those with a functioning conscience and awareness of how some of the societal dangers and corruption were promoted, it will be difficult and guilt-ridden. It’s aimed at a 12+ audience, which is appropriate considering allusions to violence, including murder and sexual assault. There are few explicit episodes of violence, but many stories include tales of threats, intimidation, and fear caused by losing family members and friends to gang violence. While the narration style is inconsistent at times, the stories are both compelling and accessible to readers of many ability levels.

Each of the children and teens included in the narratives are from Central American countries, mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. The stories, few longer than several pages, are intense in that they clearly share the fear that created the need to leave home for a dangerous journey towards the USA. The uncertainty and dangers of the journey north are less frightening than the surety of being maimed or being murdered at home. Because each of the narrators is the same age as the targeted readers, it will be easy to “walk in their shoes.” Perhaps disturbingly easy.

Juan Pablo Villalobos calls this collection nonfiction because the stories were collected via first-person interviews. The name of each “character” has been changed, and they each seem intentionally white-washed, which promotes a level of safety for those willing to share their stories. While the narration can feel stilted at times, the deep emotion and pure humanity of each story will keep readers’ interest and hopefully help us all better understand the motivations of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Highly recommended.

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Review: Stargazing by Jen Wang

StargazingSTARGAZING is a heartfelt and beautifully told story of friendship, individuality, independence, and learning from differences. We are introduced to Christine, the main character, at a musical performance where she shows both insecurity in being seen as “not as talented” and different as well as a willingness to go (slightly) against the norm despite parental criticism. This sets up the relationship between Christine and Moon, a girl who is all confidence and impulse and…difference. The two become fast friends, and when conflicts arise, great lessons are learned.

Christine lives in a Chinese-American community where everyone seems to have similar values and likes and aspirations. Her parents are traditional and strict, but loving. When they invite Moon and her mother, who are going through difficult financial times, to live in a small apartment on their property, Christine learns that not every Chinese-American family has the same traditions and values. Moon and her mother are Buddhists and vegetarians, and Moon loves K-pop, doesn’t speak Chinese, talks about friendly celestial beings, and is allowed to paint her nails. Christine’s enchantment with Moon even allows her to overlook Moon’s violent response to another child’s mean behavior. With Moon’s encouragement, Christine tries out new foods, music, and styles.

When Christine’s grades slip, and she decides to focus on studying, Moon becomes close with another classmate, and invites her new friend to join a dance performance for the talent show that Christine and Moon had been planning. The building disappointment and resentment on Christine’s part is portrayed realistically and with compassion. And a sudden medical crisis, including its after-effects, is presented with such emotional clarity and honest questions that it is at once heartbreaking and rewarding.

STARGAZING leads readers through the evolution of a new friendship with moments that display great tenderness, empathy, and understanding even as discomfort, jealousy and regret appear. Jen Wang’s engaging and delightful artwork, which often stands without dialogue, conveys emotions all on its own, allowing the characters a depth influenced by readers’ own experiences.

Highly recommended.


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Review: GUTS by Raina Telgemeier

GUTSIn GUTS, Raina Telgemeier tells the story of her elementary school self to expertly depict how an innocent and common occurrence can spur anxiety that manifests in physical symptoms to become all but debilitating. When 4th Grade Raina catches the stomach flu, the experience of vomiting all night makes her terrified of getting sick again and having to relive the experience. As the year goes on and she enters 5th grade, her anxiety intertwines with school stress, social discomforts, and family chaos. The authentic storytelling and humor in GUTS will be relatable to many readers, and the graphic novel openly discusses topics like therapy, bodily changes, empathy, and self-advocacy.

Telgemeier’s depiction of how stress and anxiety can both creep up and suddenly pounce on young people is intense and visceral. The images of how anxiety surrounds young Raina are clouds and swirls of a sickly greens combined with physical reactions and worries like scared of surgery, not enough space, fear of vomit, mean people, war, drowning, stupidity… Included are so many of the events and worries that parents and caregivers don’t hear from their loved ones when they ask, “How was school today?”

GUTS is not all anxiety and gloom, however. The laughter and camaraderie of friendship, adolescent jokes, a delight in farts, descriptions of family dinners, and Raina’s joyful escape via creating comics all play a role. In addition, the calm of the therapist’s office, where Raina’s parents eventually take her, shows the relief and comfort of someone paying attention to you, and only to you. The honesty with which Telgemeier describes the chaotic world of her family’s apartment and the effects of self-doubt on someone still very young will help readers, both young and old, appreciate the challenges we all face.

With her usual self-deprecating and heart-warming style, Telgemeier leads readers through typical elementary school drama and difficulties. She also ensures that her audience is not only presented with the problems of the story, but also shown tools to help make the problems more manageable. GUTS is an entertaining graphic novel that straddles the gross-out joys of passing gas, various other bodily functions, and hints at upcoming physical changes. It is also a lesson in coping, empathy, and growing up.

Highly recommended.

Out September 17th, 2019

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Review: Wildfire by Rodman Philbrick

wildfire rodman philbrickThis novel, aimed at grades 3-7, is action-packed and exciting and full of kids taking on impossible challenges with perseverance and determination. WILDFIRE by Rodman Philbrick is about Sam and Delphy, two kids who get caught out in a terrifying and raging wildfire while they are attending summer camp in Maine. Both young people broke rules that put them in danger, but the novel doesn’t dwell on that. Rather, it focuses on how they figure out solutions and refuse to give up. There are truly scary and dangerous situations throughout the novel, but most readers will find the story more exciting than horrifying. In addition, the short chapters with cliffhanger endings will entice reluctant readers and encourage opportunities for read-alouds at home or in school.

As his camp is bring evacuated, 12-year-old Sam breaks away from the buses to try to find his cell phone so he can call his mom. Once he tries to return to the group, the fire has blocked his way and he must escape on his own. He uses instinct and advice from his father, who died in Afghanistan, to make it through the first night and find an old logging camp. With the fire bearing down on him, Sam encounters a life-saving tool — an old Jeep! He manages to figure out how to start the Jeep and fumble around driving it on an old logging road. Sam stops to pick up 14-year-old Delphy, who is also escaping the fire but has badly sprained her ankle. Together, the two come close to perishing again and again, escaping only by their wits, determination, and sheer luck.

Philbrick’s style in Wildfire may feel repetitive to higher-level readers, even with the constant adventure and cleverness of the main characters, but it’s a wonderful book to draw in readers who are struggling to broaden their subject matter. In addition, the short chapters will be a boon for young people who work best with brief periods of reading.

The characters are both interesting and inventive young people. They learn to work together and appreciate each other’s skills and vulnerabilities. Readers get to know Sam’s backstory quite well, and Philbrick weaves modern issues like losing a parent during wartime (Sam’s dad was a civilian truck driver) and having another parent addicted to opioids into the story through Sam’s inner monologues. Delphy shares her own self-doubts as they get to know each other better. However, the book turns out to be a solid “buddy adventure” as both Sam and Delphy take turns both saving their lives and making decisions that cause more problems.

The wildfire itself becomes a character as it seems to chase and taunt the kids throughout the novel. Rutted roads, a moose in the way, a black bear, and a lightning storm all serve to foil Sam and Delphy’s escape. However, it is the two dirt-bike-riding arsonists who become terrifying antagonists halfway through the novel. Borne out of a hatred of “outsiders,” the brothers set fires in evacuated homes of the wealthy and summer camps as they chant “If you’re from away, stay away!” A sentiment that’s surely applicable to current events, and sadly will probably not fade anytime soon.

Overall, the themes of determination and working together to overcome impossible odds keep this book popular with both kids and adults. The characters are likable and relatable, and the exciting events are sure to keep readers engaged. WILDFIRE is recommended for grades 3 and up, depending on reading level. It is out September 3rd, 2019.



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Review: Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler

9780545709484This new middle-grade novel by Carolyn Mackler is engaging, endearing, and informative. NOT IF I CAN HELP IT follows Willa, a 5th grader with Sensory Processing Disorder, as her comfortable and just-about-manageable world abruptly turns upside-down. The news that Willa’s father and her best friend Ruby’s mother are dating starts a series of challenges that Willa really, really, really doesn’t want to face. Written with humor, a main character who is at once maturely self-aware and childishly in denial, and a modern set of issues that include divorce, mean girls, blended families, and all the drama that comes with tweenhood, Not If I Can Help It will both entertain and help readers find empathy for fellow classmates (or themselves!) who sometimes behave in unusual ways or have seemingly odd habits.

Willa and her best friend Ruby originally bonded over a shared love of gummy bears. Their friendship thrives amid shared jokes and moments and a patience for each other’s quirks. However, Willa keeps her Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) a secret from Ruby, afraid that her friend will think she’s too weird or too much trouble. When Willa’s dad and Ruby’s mom share that they are dating…and worse…they are IN LOVE, Willa’s response seems to be the only negative one, which begins to drive a wedge between the girls. Throughout the novel’s build up of additional pressures and looming changes to Willa’s structured world, Ruby’s patient and calm responses to Willa belie her own secrets, which eventually help both girls open up and support one another more fully.

For readers unfamiliar with SPD, Not If I Can Help It will introduce them to different coping mechanisms and therapies used in some school districts and with occupational therapists. Willa has support from both parents (she spends every weekend with her mother who lives two hours away), a twice-weekly visit with her occupational therapist, and a school system that finds ways to help Willa feel more comfortable and even directly useful to a younger student with her own challenges. Similar to FOCUSED by Alyson Gerber, Willa’s experience seems a little too perfect with the support she receives and the resolutions to her conflicts in the novel. However, in presenting a situation to which parents, friends, and school systems should aspire, the novel provides both hope for and a normalization of differences like Sensory Processing Disorder.

The novel’s drama doesn’t all stem from Willa’s responses to her father’s romance with her best friend’s mother. An annoying little brother, a mean girl at school, stress about leaving elementary school for middle school, convincing her dad to get a dog, and making big decisions like whether or not to move to her mom and stepdad’s place all factor in to Willa’s life. In addition, Willa is testing her independence and coping strategies even as she is always aware of her SPD and how it affects her routine. Most middle grade readers will find a lot to relate to during Willa’s day-to-day adventures, and they’ll learn about the stresses other kids experience as well.

NOT IF I CAN HELP IT is accessible and fun despite dealing with some heavy middle-grade topics. Highly recommended.

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Review: SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson

SHOUTFor long-time readers of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novels, particularly SPEAK, this new book, SHOUT – a memoir in verse, will give insight and depth to both Anderson’s life, including traumatic events that have informed her fiction, and the aftermath of writing books that hold truths and a wrought release for so many readers. For those as yet unacquainted with Anderson’s work, the biographical poems will still be interesting and moving; the themes and detailed expression are highly relatable and accessible.

In Anderson’s brief introduction, she references advice her father gave her for writing about other people’s lives: “we must be gentle with the living, but the dead own their truth and are fearless.” Following this guideline, the poems of the first section are at times painfully honest about her parents and the sometimes chaotic and violent home in which Anderson grew up. Alcoholism, PTSD, domestic violence, neglect all factor in. In the wider world, Anderson unhaltingly presents us with scenes that may prick at memories long dulled: groups of boys honing in on younger girls at a pool, childhood accidents involving bikes and broken bones, getting lost coming home from school on the first day. And the real life version of the pre-high school rape and the trauma-filled school year that followed that was fictionalized in 1999’s SPEAK and more recently as a graphic novel.

But the full power in Part One isn’t in the trauma; it’s in the slow and suffering healing. A year abroad in Denmark, working in the cold and dark on a dairy farm to pay for college,   reporting for a newspaper on another’s woman’s rape, and listening to the advice of “Auntie Laurie” who told her to follow nightmares, not dreams, in order to slay them. It’s a solid lead in to Part Two, which focuses on the responses to the publication and success of SPEAK.

Censorship in classrooms, libraries, towns, an outpouring of thanks intertwined with a “tsunami” of teens sharing their own experiences with sexual assault, rescinded invitations to speak at schools, society’s denial that rape happens and happens and happens, unexpected (but not surprising) moments of confession by manly men who have lived with their trauma for too, too long all have a place in the second section of SHOUT. Angry, indignant poems take their place beside stridently humorous poems and gently forgiving of self poems. All the while a storyline takes shape of what the years following the publication of Anderson’s first novel was like. It is powerful and exhausting, hopeful and cathartic.

The final section of poems come back to Anderson’s family and what life is like after-healing, if healing ever really has an “after.” These poems read as more relaxed, less urgent, even when the topic is deeply personal. The histories and deaths of her mother and father, Anderson’s sense of identity, and a reassuring sense of passing on the torch, as in “reminder,” is at once stimulating and comforting. Of course, being Laurie Halse Anderson, the end of SHOUT includes resources for Sexual Assault and Mental Health.

This memoir in verse is recommended for teens and up, and it’s a necessary and topical book to include in any classroom and library. Highly recommended.

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Review: FOCUSED by Alyson Gerber

Focused Alyson GeberMy 10-year-old read this before I did, and she told me I MUST READ IT. So I dutifully picked up Alyson Gerber’s FOCUSED, and read it. My 10-year-old gives good advice.

The novel, aimed at 8-12 year olds, follows Clea, a newly minted 7th grader struggling with the growing responsibility and expectations of middle school. Told in the first person from Clea’s perspective, readers are immersed into the stop-and-start thoughts and distractions Clea faces every day. Her academic struggles and behavior lead to Clea being tested for and diagnosed with ADHD. Focused ensures that kids with ADHD will recognize some of their own experiences, and it is an important read for neurotypical readers, including family, teachers and community leaders, who care about the kids around them.

As Gerber explains in the Author’s Note, her personal experiences with ADHD informed the thoughtful and detailed descriptions of Clea’s reactions and concerns throughout the novel. The frustration and helplessness she feels come through particularly well, especially involving schoolwork and the distractions that contribute to derailing her from success. As a former classroom teacher, I recognized many of the traits and reactions Clea exhibits, and I wish I’d had some of the insights shared back then.

Also important in the details about Clea and her symptoms is the attention paid to her friendships and interactions with peers. Her outbursts and repeatedly calling herself stupid wear on her best friend, who is also going through adolescent trauma at home. Clea’s distractions keep her from being a reliable friend, and even push her to reveal sensitive secrets in an incident she immediately regrets. Clea’s attempts at a new friendship and navigating “mean girls” show a vulnerability sometimes overlooked in children who act tough or apathetic to protect themselves. In fact, more than one supporting character shows similar dynamics and growth in their personalities.

Clea’s experience, albeit frustrating, becomes relatively smooth once the diagnosis process begins, which is not every child’s experience. Clea’s teachers are understanding and happy to accommodate her needs, the school has a skilled and caring “middle school learning specialist” whose office is cozy and calm, her family is patient, willing to have her tested, and generally available for appointments, and her doctor is child-focused and able to explain Clea’s needs in a kind and straightforward way. In addition, Clea starts a medication that seems a perfect fit right away, despite a few days of stomach aches. However, these fairytale aspects of the novel don’t take away from the importance of demystifying and destigmatizing neural processes that challenge our traditional structures. In fact, this condensed success story will encourage more educators and parents to read the novel and learn more about the reality of growing up with ADHD.

Other topics broached in the novel include divorce and its effects on children, bullying, crushes, and friendship’s ups-and-downs. Clea’s younger sister has a speech impediment, which is a physical challenge that contrasts to Clea’s “unseen” challenges. The interactions Clea has with her friends and family, especially he young sister, are wonderful supports to the main theme of learning to adapt and accept an ADHD diagnosis.

FOCUSED in an important novel for kids with ADHD to feel seen, but it’s just as important for educators and caregivers to understand the frustrations and upheaval ADHD can cause in children’s lives.

Highly recommended.


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Review: For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

for black girls like meMakeda June Kirkland, “Keda,” is an 11-year-old transracial adoptee (she is Black, her parents and sister are white) whose family moves across the country and far away from her home, her school, and her best friend. That disruption would be enough to fill a middle-grade debut novel, but FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME author Mariama J. Lockington smoothly enlaces each of those challenges with heightened wrinkles and jags that push Keda to find strength and vulnerability and resolve in ways that make her both admirable and relatable for readers.

This novel is a treasure, but the title tells me that the book is not for me. FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME doesn’t owe me, a white, middle-aged, East Coast living mom-of-two anything. So I didn’t expect to be wrapped up in the storyline and immersed in main character Keda’s challenges and ups-and-downs and middle school drama, but I was. As an adoptee, and as a parent and former classroom teacher and human, I got so much from this debut novel by Mariama J. Lockington. I’m actually teary-eyed typing this.

But don’t misunderstand. This is not a treacly middle grade romance where light-hearted complications resolve neatly. There are serious and grown-up issues Keda, her family, and her friends face throughout the novel including identity issues that stem from both adoption and being Black in a white family, racist bullying, heavy mental health challenges, and family dynamics. Throughout it all, and through journal entries, dream sequences, inner thoughts, blog posts, and conversations, Keda shares her honest emotions, responses, let-downs, hopes, fears, doubts, and dreams with the reader.

A few stand-out scenes include Keda’s first visit to a natural hair salon for “the chop,” and  where her mother is clearly the odd one out…and treated that way. A painful scene in a locker room and later in a community center where Keda is called hateful names. The first incident allows her to try to advocate for herself, unsuccessfully due to the teacher’s unwillingness to address hate speech, and the second shows Keda retaliating with hateful words herself, and feeling the “heaviness” of her actions. Another particularly moving scene involves Keda and her sister Eve finding their mother in distress; Keda’s confusion, doubt, and helplessness are both painful and poignant. Lockington’s ability to look hard situations in the eye and share them without watering them down is marvelously effective.

Aimed at readers ages 8-12, For Black Girls Like Me will also be enjoyed and learned from by readers older (in some cases much older, ahem). Parents, especially of adoptees, teachers, and just about everyone else should consider picking up this novel and reading deeply. TW: Suicide Attempt, Mental Health

Highly recommended.

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Review: The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner

The Bone Garden Heather KassnerHeather Kassner’s debut novel, THE BONE GARDEN, is a creepy, eerie, hopeful read that includes themes of identity, perseverance, friendship, and courage wrapped in the horror of fairy tales before Disney cleaned them up. Kassner’s dedication is to her “gram, who read me Grimm,” so it’s not wonder. With a true villain and a sympathetic protagonist, readers will weave their way through the story hoping for the best even when the events force them to expect the worst.

We meet Irréelle as she travels through tunnels underneath a graveyard, looking for bones. Her respectful treatment of the skeletons and the descriptions of her humility and self-doubt ensure that readers will at once like her and want to protect her. Her creator (Irréelle is made of “dust and bone and imagination”) and tormentor, Miss Vesper, is the opposite. Cruel both physically and emotionally, she embodies both the attitude of the witch in Hansel & Gretel and The Queen in Snow White. There is also a dash of Dr. Finklestein in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is the growth Irréelle experiences during the novel as she learns to resist and stand up to Miss Vesper that drives the emotional storyline.

Other characters include more of Miss Vesper’s bone and dust creations. Guy, self-named because Miss Vesper simply called him Boy, was her first helper — but he disobeyed her and was punished. Lass was created after Irréelle, and she has plenty of the courage and strength Irréelle longs to possess. There is also Hand, a disembodied creation readers who have seen The Addams Family will immediately appreciate. The bonds of friendship and trust that eventually connect them are lovingly developed throughout the novel.

The storyline includes elements of horror, mystery, adventure, and complicated interactions, but it takes a good third of the book for the pace to match the expectation. Even so, descriptions like Miss Vesper’s “brightening” after drinking her bone dust tea and the troublesome bats who explode into dirt are marvelous. Young imaginations will truly enjoy them even as they are left wanting for more detail about Miss Vesper’s magic abilities.

THE BONE GARDEN will entice middle grade readers who love magic and mystery and horror. Recommended for ages 10-14. Available August 6th, 2019.


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Review: All of Me by Chris Baron

all of meALL OF ME by Chris Baron is the wrenchingly honest and raw story of Ari, a gentle, sensitive, Jewish boy who is also fat. More than a coming-of-age story, All of Me is a “becoming yourself” story. The gentle arc of Ari’s journey is filled with events, both small and large, that each contribute to Ari’s realization of who he wants to become. The story, written in verse, touches on self-image, friendship, family conflicts, self-harm, bullying, and navigating expectations and identity.

The events flow seamlessly thanks to the “chapter” titles of each section of verse, and Ari’s voice begins and remains wonderfully true and authentic throughout. The book begins when Ari’s family moves across the country to San Francisco, and fault lines between Ari’s parents being to show almost immediately. On top of taunting emotional and physical bullying about his weight and religious background, Ari deals with awkward and challenging friendships, his parents’ crumbling relationship, and resisting the expectations of what it means to be masculine. Continue reading

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