Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest

NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU is Kristin Forest’s second YA novel, and it is a lively and enjoyable read appropriate for ages 12 and up. The novel follows Evie, an 18-year-old budding actor on the verge of stardom when a leaked video brings her down and she goes into mortified seclusion. Evie’s character is self-centered and privileged, but being the granddaughter of an ultra-famous Hollywood star and the only child of an award-winning documentary team will do that to anyone. Young Adult audiences will appreciate the novel’s central message about shaking off public opinion and learning to trust oneself and others.

Burned by her best — and only — friend, Evie emerges from a months-long hibernation hopeful that an appearance with Gigi, her famous grandmother, will re-start her career. She travels from California to NYC to present an award and convince Gigi to give her blessing to a new project. However, the appearance of Milo, a live-in friend and helper to her grandmother and sudden (but voluntary) disappearance of Gigi interrupts the plans. What follows is a fun, delightfully adventurous week during which Evie learns more about herself and her grandmother she ever thought possible. 

Milo is an endearing character, and readers root for him throughout the novel. His calm and bemused responses to Evie’s scattered, sometimes snobbish manner also help us have more patience with her. The slowly emerging but resisted romance is told from Evie’s point of view, but Milo’s character is well-developed, and he is an effective foil and support to Evie. 

Peripheral characters serve as a fabulous, active, backdrop to the events in NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU. Milo’s bandmates are a collection of goofy but believable personalities who grow into solid characters. Evie’s former best friend Simone begins the story’s action, but she also gets a few appearances later in the novel that round out her character. Evie’s agent, Kerri, is a likable and reliable support throughout the novel. 

Kristina Forest’s sophomore YA novel is a breath of fresh air with minor use of harsh language, light romantic kissing, and no violence. It reminded me of IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY in its ability to delve into interpersonal drama without passing canceling judgment on any characters.  The point comes across as self-affirmation and deserved joy in a firmly Black-centered world of drama, family, and growth. It is a joy to read.

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Review: Quintessence by Jess Redman

This lovely novel mixes fantasy with science lessons and friendship with quests to create a story that middle grade readers will find both comforting and inspiring. QUINTESSENCE, by Jess Redman, centers on Alma, a recently transplanted 12-year-old, as she navigates her anxiety and works on “growing her light.” The balance of the STEM-based quest Alma finds herself on and the hardships of middle school and changing family relationships works to keep the novel fresh and relatable.

Alma’s family has recently moved to the town of Four Points due to her parents’ careers, and her older brother is now away at college. The changes have brought on panic attacks that Alma soon learns to hide from her parents to avoid disappointing them. Redman’s sympathetic portrayal of Alma’s anxiety is center to the novel, and it reminded me of how Alyson Gerber described ADHD in FOCUSED. Alma’s ability to keep trying, despite emotional and social setbacks, is a testament to how middle school entangles the hope and brightness of pre-adolescence with the conflict and challenges of impending adulthood.

Even though the premise of the novel is fantasy (saving a fallen starling!), the quests and adventures (midnight mountain climbing and spelunking!) are a throwback to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys tales, plus a dash of modern social drama. Readers are allowed to get ahead of the characters when it comes to recognizing connections and anticipating story developments. The developing friendships between an unlikely foursome provide much of the novel’s authenticity. Alma, Shirin, Hugo, and eventually Dustin all have their perceived weaknesses, but they all discover “elements” that bring them together. The developing relationships feel familiar, and the awkward and sometimes aggressive interactions ring true to middle school. Readers will eventually feel sympathy with each character even when they create hurt feelings or harm. The heartwarming growth in each of the adventurers feels honest, with room to continue.

The short chapters ensure that both voracious and reluctant readers will be able to pace themselves for binge-reading or short dips into the story. At times the storyline can feel slow, but there are enough details to maintain interest in the plot and the characters. Not to be pushed aside, the Shopkeeper will definitely pull at some heartstrings as the novel concludes. QUINTESSENCE is a delight.

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Review: Eleanor Makes Her Mark by Barbara Kerley

ELEANOR MAKES HER MARK by Barbara Kerley is a whirlwind trip through Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments as a life-long public servant. The picture book follows her community exposure and good works that taught her about the world’s travails well beyond her privileged childhood. Neither ignoring nor dwelling on Eleanor’s personal relationships, the focus of the story is how she reached out to and empathized with those outside of her inner circle.

The reenactment of Eleanor Roosevelt’s forging of a new path and purpose for the position of First Lady is packed with trips into mines, visiting jails, inspecting worksites, and touring housing projects behind-the-scenes. Relaying the needs and abuses she witnessed during her trips back to her husband, the President, meant her direct experience could influence positive policy. And after her husband’s death, she went on to serve as delegate to the United Nations General Assembly where she lead the committee that created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham, who has worked with Barbara Kerley many times, convey the constant movement and frenetic energy throughout Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. Whether she is depicted as flying through the air, chatting with a whirlwind of community members, or feeding the hungry, the illustrations manage to share the energetic leadership and emotion in the story.

ELEANOR MAKES HER MARK is a wonderful picture book to introduce elementary and even pre-school readers to the life and service of Eleanor Roosevelt. A scrapbook at the end has photographs and captions that add detail to the events mentioned throughout the story. And there is a section that encourages readers to make their own mark by finding their passion and thinking about how to solve problems in their own communities and beyond. Highly recommended.

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Review: True or False – A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis

Hey, guess what? You’ve fallen victim to “fake news” of some kind, and it’s probably happened more than once. We’ve all made the mistake of believing something too good (or horrific!) to be true, and sometimes we’ve even spread it to others. No judgement! In the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Luckily, there is a better way to consume and share news. In Cindy L. Otis’ book TRUE OF FALSE: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News readers are taught to know better and hopefully do a lot better when it comes to swallowing and spreading news that makes us feel intensely without a tether to reality.

Aimed at teens, TRUE OR FALSE is for everyone. Otis’ writing style and historical examples are enlightening, accessible, and fun to read. And that fun is often at the reader’s own expense. Misconceptions about Jack the Ripper, Ramses II, and Eleanor Roosevelt blend into modern examples of Mexican child organ harvests, a Syrian icon (who never existed), and Pizzagate. Starting with historical examples helps us feel less foolish when examples that we may still believe are shown to be fictions created for fun or profit.

Despite its understanding tone, TRUE OR FALSE doesn’t let readers off the hook for unquestionable loyalty to fake news, but it does delve into how fake content creators aimed particular types of accounts at different demographics. It highlights examples like Duterte in The Philippines and repercussions in Egypt and beyond. Fake News is a world-wide, historical scourge. Fighting back isn’t easy, but each reader can do their part. Understanding fact versus opinion, recognizing bias in news sources, figuring out statistics, and identifying photoshopped images and parody sites all have a section in this book.

The images and citations throughout the book include photographs, memes, examples of social media, newspapers, and websites. The variety helps readers to see how varied and widespread the issue is. In addition, readers will notice repeated trends and techniques in images that will help them flag fake news in the future. The twenty pages of end notes show not only the deep research into the topic, but also how readers can continue to seek out more information to avoid being taken in by fake news. Exercises at the end of the book help readers practice their awareness of real versus fake.

Otis acknowledges the exhausting emotional work of sifting through fake news that attempts to keep us constantly enraged and horrified. One chapter focuses on “Managing the Chaos of the Breaking News Cycle,” and another give tips on the power of memes to spread fake news and how to spot photos and videos that have been altered. There is even a section on cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. She also encourages us not to distrust all news sources, explaining that that is the goal of many fake news pushers. Sharing the tips and information in this book, she says, helps readers to consider their own biases when searching for the truth — just like information analysts do. The goal, Otis says, is to avoid discounting facts just because we don’t agree with them. It’s work, but it’s doable as long as we are vigilant.

TRUE OR FALSE is highly recommended!

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Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Lush, detailed, and pointedly aware of social and political influences, DARK AND DEEPEST RED by Anna-Marie McLemore is a wonderful novel for strong middle-grade and young adult readers. The world-building, character development, and emphasis on relationships is wonderfully detailed and create a magical realism storyline that switches between 16th century Austria and modern-day USA. With themes of oppression, LGBTQ identity, pride in ethnicity, misogyny, xenophobia and discrimination, Dark and Deepest Red feels at once anchored in today’s issues with echoes in history and folklore.

from the publisher:

Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

The story of Lala is more compelling than Rosella’s storyline, but the work wonderfully together. Lala is Romani, but must hide her identity in 16th century Strasbourg for fear of being blamed for the outbreak of a “dancing plague” afflicting women in her area. The story references both the bigotry against the Romani and previous purges of Jewish residents who were scapegoated for their religion. Lala’s love interest, Alifair, has his own secrets that he and Lala must protect against local prejudice, vigilantes, and the courts during the plague. Rosella’s story is more personal, but leads her to a connection with Emil who provides a direct thread to Lala’s story.

Readers who love historical fiction and those who appreciate magical realism will enjoy exploring the complexity and modern sensibilities set up in this novel. The emphasis on empathy for feeling like “the other” will allow readers to relate to Lala’s choice to deny her heritage for survival and Rosella’s feeling of being singled out for her brown skin and traditions. Readers of all backgrounds will find moments with which to connect and from which to learn.

Dark and Deepest Red is made up of short chapters that bounce between 1518 Strasbourg and the modern day USA. Some readers may find the temporal shifts confusing or even frustrating. However, for motivated readers the story will allow them to immerse themselves in the worlds McLemore has created.

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Review: Class Act by Jerry Craft

This will be quick: Just go get a copy of CLASS ACT, the new graphic novel written and illustrated by Jerry Craft. Seriously. It’s that good.

As soon as our household heard that Jerry Craft was writing a follow-up to NEW KID, we’ve been eager to get our hands on CLASS ACT. My kids had no doubt that they would love the second in the series, but I had my doubts. How could Craft best his efforts in New Kid? Well, I’m thrilled to report that CLASS ACT has assuaged my fears. It dives right back into exposing and illuminating race and class issues including micro-aggressions, challenging friends to be better, assumptions and biases, and conflicting feelings from everyone involved. Craft’s text and graphics – again – work together to draw out difficult and uncomfortable topics with humor, empathy, and a firm insistence on fully facing the issues.

Class Act explores these topics further, this time focusing on Drew, who has darker skin, less money, and an unwillingness to trust himself to follow his own desires. Drew’s family is made up of his hard-working grandmother, he lives in a neighborhood where he’s teased about being “bougie,” and he is reluctant to try out for the Riverdale Academy basketball team (despite loving basketball!) because he doesn’t want to fit into the “Black kid” stereotype. His conversations with Jordan, Alex and her hand-puppet, and Liam exhibit true vulnerability and introspection.

True to its name, Class Act focuses more directly on a variety of class issues than New Kid did. Drew’s discomfort with Liam’s wealth (an indoor, heated pool?!), and a visiting group of public school students’ comparisons of their school’s library and facilities (or lack thereof) to the private Riverdale Academy Day School, spotlight inequities. At one point, Drew discusses Liam how his own grandmother works all the time, often leaving him alone in his apartment, while Liam’s mother, a lawyer, no longer collects a paycheck and has time for yoga and tennis. Liam’s chauffeur, Mr. Pierre, who is more like a father-figure to Liam than his own father, has a larger role in Class Act, providing an entirely different perspective of class and its implications. The layers of awareness these 8th graders experience is both complicated and all too familiar.

Deep conversations are juxtaposed with humorous body odor imagery.

Some scenes take on a somber tone. Jordan’s dad is pulled over, and despite the police officer being “nice,” as Jordan says, it is a tense and charged scene. The tone deafness of the officer (“I was just messing with you, buddy.”) emphasizes the very different worlds Black and white people inhabit. In another scene, Drew almost gets into a physical fight with his neighborhood friends over name-calling; the emotions portrayed on his face are intensely angry and just tired. During a discussion between Drew and Liam, the difficult honest of the conversation is injected with humor via drawings showing the harsh scent coming from the characters’ armpits.

Interspersed with these heavier topics are concerns about middle-school dating, worries about not physically maturing, bumbling albeit well-meaning attempts to be inclusive and woke (notice the acronym of the teachers’ conference…), and worries about family conflicts. Jerry Craft manages to be at once gentle and demanding towards his readers. As with New Kid, I hope that families will read this graphic novel together, and I hope that teachers of adolescents will keep CLASS ACT handy for themselves and their students.

Very highly recommended.

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Review: Dung for Dinner by Christine Virnig

With gleeful and mischievous joy, Dr. Christine Virnig takes readers of DUNG FOR DINNER on a wild ride of poop, pee, vomit and secretions used in disgusting and “stomach-churning” — but useful! — ways throughout human history. This repulsive book is grotesquely fun, nauseatingly accessible, and revoltingly perfect for every household.

The middle grade readers at whom this book is aimed will delight in the detailed descriptions of teeth whitener made of urine, diarrhea treatments made of…well…dung, and delicacies made of bird saliva and maggot poop. Matter-of-fact details about what’s hiding in our peanut butter, cheese, and beauty products are interspersed with interesting facts about plagues, history, and medical advancements. Corny, groan-worthy jokes end each chapter, and the sidebars and illustrations are just as informative (and gross!) as the main text.

One especially fantastic aspect of DUNG FOR DINNER is its focus on not just where the poop, pee, vomit, and secretions come from, but also how they are obtained. Kids will probably want to look up shark fins, swiftling nests, and civet poop to read more about the harmful side effects of “delicacies.” Adults will also learn a lot about the world around them and the products we ingest — unintentionally or not!

DUNG FOR DINNER is as fabulous as it is nauseating. Highly recommended!

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Review: The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Córdova

This new middle grade chapter book is touching, adventurous, and magical. THE WAY TO RIO LUNA by Zoraida Córdova is a quick read with well-developed main characters and a solid amount of world building. Friendships, perseverance, finding support in times of despair, and belief in hope and magic combine to create an adventure that is fantastical but keeps its feet on the ground. Readers who love fairy tales and adventure books (Narnia and Neverland are both referenced) will find themselves immersed in a modern day journey into magical realms.

Danny and his older sister Pili have each other, and that’s it. Living together with foster families and in group homes, Danny depended on Pili’s storytelling and support. When he is placed in a foster home without her, he clings to hope of being reunited with Pili, who has apparently run away from the group home, and he comforts himself with the book she always read to him, The Way to Rio Luna. In one placement, his beloved book is tossed in the trash, and in another placement the foster siblings torment Danny horribly. When Danny has an opportunity to search for both a version of his book and his sister, he takes it and sneaks away from a school field trip. And that’s when a new set of adventures begin.

With the help of his new friend, Glory, and her aunt, Danny discovers how real magic is and works to solve the mystery of his favorite book and where his sister has gone. His belief in Pili and magic keep him going even when doubt begins to creep in. Traveling to Ecuador, Brazil, and finally Ireland and confronting obstacles and discovering the origins of the folktales he loved throughout his childhood mean Danny does a lot of growing up throughout this novel. Still, he maintains his belief and his sense of self throughout.

Danny and Glory are well developed characters, and they play off each other naturally in terms of emphasizing the themes of hope, belief in magic, and friendship. However, readers will have to suspend a solid amount of disbelief because uneven plot points (a news story about Danny’s disappearance, being able to travel internationally at a moment’s notice) beg questions as the story becomes more complex. Considering that it’s Danny’s quest to find his sister that fuels the novel, readers are left not disappointed, but a little let down at the ending. Even so, the story will be an adventure of magical events and creatures tangled with middle grade feelings and growth. Hopefully, THE WAY TO RIO LUNA is the first in a series of adventures for Danny and his friends.

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Review: A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade novel, A GALAXY OF SEA STARS by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo, packs many of the usual adolescent issues into a tender story about Izzy, who is about to enter the sixth grade, grappling with friendship, her parents’ relationship, and sudden, unwanted changes all around her. When an Afghani refugee family moves in to the apartment above Izzy’s apartment, she learns to appreciate different experiences and perspectives even when she doesn’t feel brave.

Ferruolo creates a relatable world of middle school concerns and is able to intertwine a believable scenario that addresses Islamophobia, bullying, and PTSD in addition to the insecurities and social drama of moving into adolescence. As the reader follows Izzy’s realization that her mother may not be returning to live with her family, we see how ways that parents try to protect children actually give them additional stress. The anxious feeling of chaos in the tween years comes through authentically as bus rides, the cafeteria, classrooms, and even after-school clubs all build up into mini-crises that feel like the end of the world.

Impressively, Ferruolo inserts Sitara, who is also starting anew but in a much more fundamental way, smoothly into Izzy’s world and allows us to see how bravery sometimes covers deep scars. As Sitara shares more of what she has lost and the changes she has endured, Izzy is able to find the strength to respond with courage to her own disappointments and fears as well. In fact, the power of words and the importance of speaking up is emphasized several times throughout the novel.

The one area that felt weak was the revealed timeline of Izzy’s father’s service and injuries in Afghanistan and the events of the novel. We are expected to believe that Izzy’s father and Sitara’s father were attacked in Afghanistan by a VBIED in January of the same year the novel’s September events take place. No wonder Izzy felt like changes were happening too quickly!

I found A GALAXY OF SEA STARS a wonderful read, appropriate for ages 8+. I highly recommend it as a family read, so that children and the adults in their lives can discuss the issues brought up throughout.

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Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I enjoyed this novel. I cringed through this novel. I related to several characters in this novel. I was repelled by several characters in this novel. And yes, there was overlap to all those feelings. SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid has received a tremendous amount of acclaim and attention for good reason. It’s readable, relatable, it feels like a peek into other people’s lives, and it’s timely in its treatment of both race and class-based bias. While some of the dialogue feels uneven, it also moves the story forward smoothly and develops characters without slogging through narration. The two main characters, Emira and Alix, a Black babysitter and her white employer, are at once recognizable and surprising as we get to know them. Neither makes all the best choices during the novel, although depending on a reader’s life experience, sympathy and understanding will appear and waver. Overall, this debut novel will make readers think and hopefully examine their own biases even as they enjoy the story.

The writing is fantastic and dances along the lines of class and race and gender and coming-of-age on so many levels. The opening scene jumps right out of current events when Emira, who is Black, takes her white, almost three-year-old, babysitting charge to a high-end grocery store and is accused of kidnapping the child by the white security guard. He doesn’t allow her to leave, and the tension is palpable and recognizable. A white man records the interaction on his phone, and that factors heavily into the ending, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are two different friend groups on which readers eavesdrop during the novel. Emira’s friends like to go out, tease each other, lend each other clothes, drinks, and advice, and they are supportive if ignorant to the realities of money troubles in Emira’s life. Alix’s friend group has become long distance since she moved to Philadelphia from NYC, and the texts and in person discussions are less naturally crafted, but still deepen our understanding of their relationships with one another.

The novel weaves together so many awkward interactions that some readers may be tempted to escape by putting down the book — but don’t! It’s worth reading if only to argue with friends about who is the hero and who is the villain. The author’s gift to us is flashbacks and internal monologues that allow for understanding of character motivation, if not agreement. My suspicion is the Reid sees no one as a hero or a villain, and she hopes we will recognize reflections of ourselves in many different scenes. In my reading, I didn’t like anyone in the novel that much, but I sympathized with everyone. It was an unsteady feeling that felt a lot like real life. And I truly look forward to Kiley Reid’s second novel.

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