#BookReview: The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

#BookReview: The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

The Seventh WishThe Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

middle grade

A school uninvited Kate Messner from an author visit because her latest book, The Seventh Wish, deals with substance abuse. My father is an addict. I felt all of the fear, anger, and disappointment that Charlie feels when her sister’s heroin addiction starts to tear their family apart. Rebecca Stead meets Wonderfalls, this book uses magic to deal with a very real and common problem. Kids need access to this book.

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Book Review: The Mammoth Academy by Neal Layton

Book Review: The Mammoth Academy by Neal Layton

The Mammoth AcademyThe Mammoth Academy by Neal Layton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

transitional chapter book

Cute quick read with my daughter who loves sabertooth cats, owls, and the Ice Age. Possibly a little gender stereotyping (girls are neat and tidy… lol) and I always wish more animals were “she”, but we had fun reading this one together. She wants to read the next one.

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#BookReview: Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

#BookReview: Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

Grayling's SongGrayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

Coming June 2016!

middle grade fantasy

Grayling’s mother is a local wise woman that folks come to for ailments and problems. One day a mysterious magic roots her mother, and all of the other wise folk, to the ground, slowly turning them into a tree. And her grimorie, her book of spells and potions, has been taken. She sends Grayling to find it. But Grayling has no skills, powers, or real knowledge of her own. Or does she? She meets up with a band of powerful folk who haven’t been changed yet and they figure out how to save her mother, and all of the other wise folk. Grayling learns that perhaps she has some power after all… the most important of which is courage.

Though I wasn’t immediately grabbed by this one like some of her other titles, Cushman has done it again. It had a slow start and had some used themes, but in the end I really loved Grayling’s Song. This title set in an alternative medieval England, I always feel confident that the historical aspects of Cushman’s books are grounded in research . The mother-daughter relationship can be a difficult one and this does a great job of exploring it. Though Grayling doesn’t have a lot of confidence because her mother has called her feeble minded for many years, she ends up shining under pressure but not without much self-reflection and frustration. I also appreciate that, in the end, her mother treats her success as a matter of fact, saying that she knew we could handle herself, else why would she have sent her?

I think many mothers and daughters will be able to relate to this relationship. I would love to see this as part of a middle-grade Mother-Daughter book club reading. I think much discussion and personal growth would come from it.

Thanks to Edelweiss for this advanced readers copy!

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Book Review: The War that Saved My Life by Kimbery Brubaker Bradly

Book Review: The War that Saved My Life by Kimbery Brubaker Bradly

The War that Saved My LifeThe War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher: Penguin
2015

middle grade, historical fiction

Brother Jamie and sister Ada are brought up in poverty by their abusive mother in London. Ada was born with a club foot and their mother keeps her hidden away in their small flat, sometimes locking her cruelly in a small cupboard. When World War II begins, the children in her neighborhood are evacuated due to bomb scares. Ada, who wasn’t going to be allowed to go, sneaks off with her brother and they are the last children to be selected to live with a reluctant woman named Susan. She is wrestling with her own demons, but she quickly grows to be fond of and even love the children. They blossom under her care with lots of freedom, hygiene, good food, and love, none of which they have ever really had before. They end up saving each other as they deal with their own crippling pasts.

This is a great coming-of-age story as Ada goes from whimpering dependent to a strong, brave leading character. She endures quite a bit in a small amount of time and she comes through it shining. At first I thought the plot was coming along a little slowly and then I realized that Ada’s reaction to the big changes she has faced was delayed. The more she thought about her time with Susan coming to an end, the harder it became for her to cope with her past. She would revert back to her former self having panic attacks, but Susan was calm, patient, and understanding as she helped her make it through them. Similarly, Susan would turn inward when she missed her friend (partner?) Becky who passed away prior to the events of the story. Eventually, Ada helps coax her out of her funk in the same way.

I listened to the audiobook and it is clear why it won ALA’s Odyssey Award for excellence in audiobook production for children/young adults. Narrator Jayne Entwistle does a wonderful job giving voice to all of these characters. I could see the story playing in my head as I listened. If this is adapted to film, I fully expect to see Judi Dench as Susan. A close second would be Imelda Staunton.

The Secret Garden is mentioned as a book that Susan reads to the children and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Ada and Mary. Sickly and suddenly without parents, they are sent to live in foreign environments that end up saving them. And immediately after listening to The War that Saved My Life, I watched Tangled with my daughter. I was struck to the number of parallels to the story of Rapunzel.

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Book Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Book Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The MarvelsThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher: Scholastic
2015

middle grade

ONLY SLIGHTLY SPOILERY

This is a beautiful book. The physical book itself is breathtaking. Gold-edged pages with a striking blue-and-gold foil cover. The spine and back cover shows a drawing of the face of the protagonist, a Selznick signature. And the illustrations and text inside are just as lovely.

The first almost 400 pages are Selznick-signature pencil illustrations telling a story. This is followed by 200 pages of text that gives a new meaning to the illustrated story we thought we understood. This is followed by another 50 pages of illustrations to wrap up both stories.

A coming-of-age story wrapped in a mystery, we follow a boy named Joseph as he pieces together a series of clues to learn about his odd uncle and his family history. He feels such distance from his family that he feels he was born into the wrong family. The Marvels does a wonderful job at making readers realize that what they see is not always the truth. “You either see it or you don’t” is a motto throughout the book. The plot is suspenseful, surprising, and exciting.

Despite such a wonderful story, I had some problems with the female cast of characters. First of all, there aren’t many. And two that are present are sister (dresses like a boy, is confused for one for several chapters) or mother to a male character that is prominent despite the fact that he isn’t present during the actions of the story. The other is presented as cold and materialistic, though we don’t see much of Joseph’s mother. At one point, Joseph’s uncle has a throw away line of dialogue about his sister, Joseph’s mother, not needing a degree to be married to a millionaire. That could be chalked up to their perceived strained brother-sister relationship thought we don’t ever actually witness them together during the course of the book. These women see very little growth as characters, if any. Any other women in the story turn out to be fictional and mostly spoken about in the context of their relationship to a long lineage of male characters. Many will call this a good book for boys which makes this even more of a problem.

Though I hate to end on a negative note, it had to be said because this book will be/already is getting plenty of praise. But I gasped, I cried, and I poured over the illustrations referring back to them many times. Such a great story to read between Christmas and New Years as some of the present day story takes place during this time of year, too. As an anglophile, I love a story set in London in the winter filled with history, Shakespeare, and mystery.

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Book Review: Pilgrim Stories by Margaret Pumphrey

Book Review: Pilgrim Stories by Margaret Pumphrey

Pilgrim StoriesPilgrim Stories by Margaret Pumphrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher: Scholastic

middle grade, Thanksgiving

This title takes readers from the religious oppression the Separatists faced in England under King James to Holland to that incredibly difficult first winter in Plymoth to the treaty reached with Massasoit to the three-day long feast after the Pilgrims’ first harvest, the event that is often referred to as the “first Thanksgiving”.

As a parent, I struggle with how to talk to my children about those beginning days of our country’s history. So often we “whitewash” these stories for children leaving false ideas about the roles the English played. I really appreciate Howard Zinn’s People’s History to give a more balanced view of our country’s history. The pilgrim story is one of our less horrific moments as both people’s desperately needed to find a friend in each other for their own survival. Perhaps that is why we focus on this story over others.

Pumphrey’s Pilgrim Stories does a good job of giving an accessible overview of the Pilgrim story from oppression, their dark hardships and fight for survival, and the support they received from the Native Americans of the region. Unfortunately, readers are not given any insight into the point of view of the native population. We do get that the Pilgrims had heard stories of the Indians being savage (without any information as to why they would need to fight against an invasion of their land) and cruel, but that they are surprised to find that they can work with them. At times the narrative complained too much about “having too many Indian mouths to feed” and could have spent more time on the fact that they would have all died if they had not been taught how to farm, fish, and hunt by the Wampanoag.

This seemed a decent and accessible historical retelling of how this group of pilgrims came to America, learned how to live in a new world, and how their coming changed the land and people already living here. It can certainly be a jumping off point for discussion on the disease Europeans brought with them which killed the Patuxet and how the “friendly” relationship between the pilgrim and native people’s was not typical of the time.

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Book Review: Vampies Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey

Book Review: Vampies Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey

Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots (The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids, #1)Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

publisher: Scholastic

middle grade fantasy

A class of third grade students at Bailey Elementary School are getting a new teacher after they ran off Mrs. Deedee. They get Mrs. Jeepers, an woman from Romania that wears a strange green brooch that seems to glow when she rubs it. Over the course of the book, the students learn more about her which makes them question whether or not she is a vampire. But surely not, right? I mean, vampires don’t wear polka dots.

As I have recently said, I am getting to know several middle grade series that I am aware of but haven’t read before. This beginning of the Bailey School Kids series was… fine. There is nothing really remarkable going on here but for a child who loves a series, familiar characters, mystery, and fantasy, they will probably gobble this up.

My main problem is that it includes stereotypes. Romania is a real country with people that probably want to be known for more than Dracula and their “strange accent”. I have been looking at books for kids with an eye on diversity and representation and that really stuck out to me and made me uncomfortable. So while this series might be alright for some, I might try to find a good middle grade series that does a better job in that regard. I remember really loving Sachar’s Wayside books when I was young and wondered how those would read to me today as I attempt to examine through a diversity lens. Would those be a good alternative, although there are fewer books to the series? Perhaps I should revisit those soon!

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