Monday, August 12, 2019

Review: Guts

Guts Guts by Raina Telgemeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on the author's childhood, Guts is a graphic novel about anxiety and stomach issues. After Raina catches a stomach bug, she develops a fear of vomiting. Even the word makes her feel sick. She begins missing school frequently for stomach problems. She feels sick, but the doctor says she is healthy as a horse. Raina's parents realize that she needs to talk over her fears with someone, so she begins seeing a therapist. She is worried about what her friends will think if they find out, so she tries to keep it a secret.

I have never personally dealt with anxiety, but my son does, so it was interesting for me to see what he might feel like when his anxiety is high. Students who are struggling with similar issues will appreciate Raina's honesty with her own anxiety. Fans of her other graphic novels are sure to enjoy the story and artwork in her newest book.

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Review: Maybe He Just Likes You

Maybe He Just Likes You Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When does harmless flirting cross the line and become sexual harassment? Mila knows that the basketball boys are giving her creepy feelings, so it can't be flirting. When she tries to describe some of the comments guys have been making and the inappropriate touching, one of her best friends counters with "maybe he just likes you." Why is it that we so often excuse a boy's bad behavior? We say "boys will be boys" like that makes anything they do okay. But the thing is, it's not okay. As a woman who was once a young girl with wide hips and a big butt, my body has been touched many times without my permission. I can vividly remember bending over to tie my shoe and having a male classmate grab a handful of my butt. He laughed, and the guys around him laughed, and I just kept on going with my day because it wasn't the first time it had happened, and I knew it wouldn't be the last. It wasn't always touching that crossed the line; as an adult, I often got suggestive emails or propositions from coworkers. None of this was ever okay, but I never felt brave enough to do anything about it.

Mila was in the same position as me. She knew what was happening to her wasn't right, but she didn't know what to do about it. Mila couldn't put the right word on what these boys were doing to her until she finally confesses everything to a teacher. Her teacher helps her understand that she is being sexually harassed and gives her the courage to confront her harassers. Barbara Dee's latest novel should be required reading for all middle school boys and girls, as well as teachers.

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Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: Redwood and Ponytail

Redwood and Ponytail Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What could a shoulder-punching volleyball player and a hair-flipping cheerleader have in common? In Redwood and Ponytail, it's that they have a crush on each other, and it seems to come as a surprise to both of them. Tam is tall like a Redwood, and Kate has perfect ponytail; these two girls run in different circles, but when they meet, it's electric. There's a spark there, and they both know it. Kate starts neglecting the rest of the cheerleading squad and spending all her time with Tam. They lose track of time when they are together, and their pinkies always seem to end up linked together, but what could that mean? Do pinkies "hugging" mean that Kate could be gay? When she confesses to her mother that she is 75% gay, her mom quickly tells her that she can't be. Kate is jealous of how comfortable Tam feels in her own skin, but what she doesn't know is that Tam feels like has never fit in anywhere. Kate is scared not to be perfect and do what everyone expects of her. Tam is just scared of losing Kate.

K.A. Holt's newest novel-in-verse is a much-needed addition for middle/high school libraries. Any girl who has questioned her sexuality will relate to Kate, but this book isn't just for girls who are attracted to other girls. Readers who have felt pressured to be someone other than who they want to be will also connect to Kate. Tam's character is sure to resonate with readers who feel like they just don't fit; maybe they don't like the same things most other girls like, or maybe they feel more comfortable around boys. No matter what the reader's background is, he or she is sure to find some way to connect to Tam and Kate.

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Review: Allies

Allies Allies by Alan Gratz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I think of Alan Gratz, I think of amazing historical fiction novels, and his upcoming book, Allies, is no exception. Gratz weaves together multiple stories, which all take place within one 24 hour period: D-Day. The book is divided into different operations, but as always, the characters within each operation connect in various ways throughout the book. We first meet Dee, a young "American" who is actually a German ex-patriot, fighting beside his best friend Sid who happens to be Jewish and does not know Dee's true identity. Gratz also introduces us to a Canadian soldier who enlisted after his town held a mock invasion by the Nazis. Another operation features a young Algerian-French girl whose mother is taken away by Nazi soldiers while trying to deliver a message to members of the French Resistance. One thing remains constant within the different operations: the characters are all young and scared; they all fear that this day may be their last one on Earth, but they all face their fears head-on because they know that the success of D-Day depends on each one of them and the success of their respective operations.

During my study abroad in France, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy; we toured the beaches where Allied soldiers landed and stood on the cliffs above German bunkers. Those beaches and cliffs are some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Standing in those picturesque spots, it's impossible to fathom the hell that Allied soldiers endured while storming those beaches. I wasn't able to visualize the atrocities of that day until I watched the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan, and Gratz's words reminded me of scenes from that movie. His novel does not shy away from the raw violence that took place on that horrible day during World War II, so it is most appropriate for 5th grade and up. If you teach WWII, Allies needs to be added to your classroom library.

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Friday, August 2, 2019

Review: A Monster Like Me

A Monster Like Me A Monster Like Me by Wendy S. Swore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sophie was completely normal when she was born, but as a baby, she developed a large hemangioma on her face. Sophie knows that this mark doesn't just make her look like a monster; it's a sign that she really is a monster on the inside. She must have been cursed by a witch. She carries around her big book of monsters at all times so she will be able to pick out any other demons and monsters. Sophie is often bullied because of her birthmark so she tries to hide it as much as possible. She is deathly afraid that her mother will find out she isn't really human, and if she does, there's no way she will still want to have Sophie as her daughter. Sophie and her friend Autumn try desperately to find a cure for Sophie so she can turn back into a human, but things keep getting in the way of her cure.

I liked the concept of this book: someone feeling like a monster because of the way she looks and the way people treat her. However, I felt like Sophie's character went too far. I couldn't imagine how someone her age would truly believe she was a monster and that others were demons, fairies, etc. That was just completely unbelievable to me. I think that one aspect tainted my appreciation for this book. I just couldn't get over that one point. I also struggled with the names of the monsters. I have always disliked reading books where I can't figure out how to pronounce the names/words; when that happens, the book just loses me.

This book has gotten lots of buzz and is on many mock Newbery lists, but it just wasn't for me. That being said, I will still add it to my school library because I'm sure there are plenty of students who will love Sophie's story.

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review: Roll with It

Roll with It Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved Ellie and her feisty nature. If you are a fan of Dusti Bowling's novel Life of a Cactus, you will be equally enamored with Roll With It. Ellie has cerebral palsy and must use a wheelchair. At school, she has an aid who helps her during class change and when she has to use the bathroom, which is extremely annoying to her. When Ellie's mom surprises her by moving them from Tennessee to Oklahoma, at first, Ellie is really excited. She doesn't really have friends in Nashville, and she will get to live with her grandparents. After her first day at our new school, she is ready to tap out. Fortunately, things start to get a little better at school, and she actually makes friends with two other kids who live in her trailer park. Ellie spends most of her free time trying to come with a great recipe for an upcoming bake-off. When the day of the bake-off arrives, Ellie is very confident in her creation, but when her grandfather disappears from the event, nothing else matters. This novel will make an excellent addition to middle-grade libraries and classrooms.

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Review: The Map from Here to There

The Map from Here to There The Map from Here to There by Emery Lord
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a fan of Emery Lord's novels, so I was super excited to get an ARC of The Map from Here to There. I usually don't enjoy sequels more than the first book in a series, but I truly liked this one more. My favorite aspect of this book is that it wasn't full of profanity or sex. I feel like most YA novels are all about sex or the pursuit of sex; if not that, they are full of rough profanity. I get that teenagers swear and have sex. I remember what high school was like, and I taught it for eleven years, so I'm not naive about what happens outside of school. However, I always feel uncomfortable telling a teen how much I love a certain book when it contains tons of sex or profanity. Lord's newest novel is one that I would feel extremely comfortable recommending to students or parents. She tackles first love and heartache without making it too mature for younger teen readers. This novel (and the first in the series, The Start of Me and You) would make a great read for mature middle schoolers and more innocent or sheltered high schoolers.

Readers who have dealt with anxiety and/or loss will connect to Paige and her worrisome nature. Lord's writing took me back to my first serious relationship in high school when every kiss and touch felt like magic, but it also reminded me of gut-wrenching those first fights and misunderstandings could be. Every decision felt so monumental at that time in my life, and Paige definitely feels that way. She truly loves Max, but she's to0 worried about how much it will hurt to lose him that she forgets to enjoy what they have. Any reader who has ever questioned the seriousness of their relationship will understand Paige's internal conflict.

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Review: Catherine's War

Catherine's War Catherine's War by Julia Billet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had really high hopes for this book because I love reading about World War II, the Holocaust, and the French Resistance. I just knew that a graphic novel about a French Jewish girl taking on a fake identity during WWII would be right up my alley. Catherine's War was originally a novel written in French. It has since been translated and adapted into a graphic novel. While the illustrations were beautiful, I think the story probably suffered in the adaptation. It felt like the plot jumped around too quickly, which meant there wasn't enough time to develop the characters and their relationships. I was honestly disappointed in the story, but I'm hopeful that I wouldn't feel that way after reading the original novel. If you teach WWII, this book would be a fine addition to your literature circles or book clubs, especially for struggling readers. However, I wouldn't recommend this book for upper elementary students. While there is no outright sexual content, there is a scene where French women are getting their heads shaved because they slept with German soldiers. Thes women are referred to as sluts and whores. I think that scene alone makes this book more appropriate for middle schoolers and up.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: Chirp

Chirp Chirp by Kate Messner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mia has just moved back to Vermont from Boston. She and her parents want to be closer to her grandmother who suffered a stroke a few months ago. Mia is really excited to be able to help her grandmother with her cricket farm. Unfortunately, things seem to be going mysteriously wrong left and right at the farm. Mia's grandmother suspects that someone is trying to sabotage the farm so she will be forced to sell it, but so far, there is no way to prove her theory.

Per her mother, Mia has to pick two summer activities: one for her body and one for her brain. She decides to participate in Launch camp (a maker space for kids) and Warrior camp so she can learn the tricks behind one of her favorite tv shows. Warrior camp happens to be right beside a gymnastics facility. We learn that Mia was a great gymnast in Boston, but after breaking her arm and undergoing surgery, she hasn't wanted to compete again. It's obvious that something bad happened to her at her old gym other than breaking her arm, but it takes a while to learn that her former coach was very inappropriate with her.

After forming new friendships with girls and women who have also been the victims of sexual harassment or inappropriate touch, Mia finds her voice and finally confides in her mother. At the same time, these friends help her figure out who is the mysterious mishaps at the cricket farm. These friendships allow Mia to rediscover the joy in her life and regain a part of her old self.

When I first heard that Kate Messner's upcoming novel was about a cricket farm, I thought that was really strange. I have loved every book of hers that I've read, but I couldn't see myself feeling super enthusiastic about this one. We all know the old adage "don't judge a book by its cover;" my new philosophy is going to be don't judge a book based on its setting or plot. Messner uses female crickets as a symbol for women who are scared to be vocal when men are misogynistic or inappropriate with them. She delicately unravels Mia's suffering for the reader without making it too graphic for her intended middle-grade audience. This book is so important for young girls to read. I imagine that every woman has been the victim of some type of sexual harassment during her life. We would love to think that it doesn't happen to girls in elementary school, but it does. I can say that confidently from my first-hand experience. It happened to me in first grade; a few boys touched my butt on the playground. In fourth grade, a male classmate asked me if I was a virgin. I, of course, had no idea what that meant, but I knew that it was a question he shouldn't be asking me. Now, I don't think those boys were being sexual predators; looking back on it now, I think they were probably doing things that they had seen or heard older boys or men doing, but it made me feel dirty, even though I had done nothing wrong. It's important for young girls to know that they are not in the wrong in these situations. This book is also important for young boys because they need to know that there are lines that should never be crossed. Messner does an excellent job of sensitively teaching both those lessons.

Chirp needs to be in every elementary and middle school library, and I'm not just talking to librarians who have a robust budget. Buy this with your own money if you must; it's that important for our children to read.

*Review based on an ARC given to #BookPosse.

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: Count Me In

Count Me In Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After witnessing her grandfather and friend be attacked by an angry racist man, Karina becomes an "accidental activist" by sharing pictures from the scene of the crime, her grandfather's recovery, as well as a picture of him and her grandmother not long after they immigrated to the United States. She begins tagging her posts with #CountMeIn. When asked by a reporter what her hashtag means, she shares that she will no longer be silent; she can be counted on to speak up against hate and intolerance. While Karina's parents and grandfather are at first upset that she is choosing to share so much of their private life with the world, she helps them understand that social media is her "drum," and she wants "the drums to be loud, so that everyone will hear our outrage."

Bajaj's novel shows both positive and negative aspects of social media in today's society. Karina feels encouraged and supported by the outpouring of positive comments that her photos receive, but the few negative comments from haters really get to her. While she is happy when her first #CountMeIn post goes viral, she quickly realizes that the media is relentless, and they will not leave her family alone until they agree to give an interview about the attack. At one point, Karina posts a photo with the caption "what is an American?" This question will hopefully spark important conversations amongst teachers, students, and parents. I am a white woman whose ancestors immigrated from England, Scotland, and various other European countries in the late 1600s. Why should I be considered more American than a second or third generation American? I assume that my ancestors came to the colonies looking for a better life; more recent immigrants likely have similar stories. During today's sermon at my church, the pastor asked us to look at our lives and evaluate our righteousness resume. We all have some aspect of our life that gives us validation. For some people, it might be work righteousness, and others might feel righteous in their parenting. It has become very apparent that there are those who are righteous in their race or in their generations of heritage. We really all just need to get ourselves; this book reminds us of the importance to look for what we have in common instead of what makes us different.

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Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review: The Inside Battle

The Inside Battle The Inside Battle by Melanie Sumrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Melanie Sumrow's second novel continues in the same vein as her first, The Prophet Calls, in that it tackles difficult topics. In The Inside Battle, publishing March of 2020, Rebel Mercer's father is suffering from PTSD, and he has become disillusioned with society. He decides that the best thing for him and Rebel is to go live in the middle of nowhere with a militia group called the Flag Bearers. Rebel quickly realizes that the Flag Bearers are dangerous, hateful people. While avoiding his dad, Rebel meets a young African American girl named Calliope, and they hit it off. Unfortunately, when Rebel's dad discovers that his new friend is not white, he makes quite a scene in public. Rebel is faced with an extremely difficult choice: stand up to his dad and tell him he doesn't agree with his beliefs or say nothing and lose his friendship with Calliope. When Rebel finds out what the Flag Bearers' secret mission is, he has to take a long hard look at his dad, and decide if the man he used to know is still there, or has he become someone who could hurt innocent people.

Sumrow's first novel featured a very strong-willed and opinionated young girl as her main character. I quickly fell in love with Gentry's character because of her feisty nature. It took longer for me to like Rebel. Rebel is afraid of speaking his mind, so he often stands by and says nothing even when he sees something bad happening. This aspect of his character made him harder to like, but I was rooting for him all along to speak up to his father. The publishers have suggested this book for children ages 12 and up. While there are not any scenes of graphic violence of profane language, it is probably better suited for the upper middle-grade crowd. This book would make for an interesting companion to a novel like Ghost Boys. I think students would be able to have important discussions about racism and hate. I also think that Sumrow's novel will show students the importance of "if you see something, say something." In the aftermath of a violent act, we often see that there could have been warning signs that the perpetrator was planning to harm others. Students will hopefully see that even though it may be hard to speak out against a loved one or friend, sometimes it's the only thing you can do to help that person.

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Review: Each Tiny Spark

Each Tiny Spark Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emilia has a hard time focusing on topics that don't interest her, but when she is interested in something, she becomes laser-focused on it. This neuro-diversity makes school challenging; her mom tries to help her compensate by planning out her school week for her and staying on top of her assignments. How is Emilia supposed to cope when her mom goes out of town for business at the exact same time her father is returning from deployment. To make matters worse, her grandmother is becoming super annoying; all she wants to talk about is how Emilia is going to be a young lady soon. Gross! Abuela wants to buy Emilia dresses and start prepping for her quinceanera, which is only three years away. Emilia would rather spend her time fixing up old cars with her dad or making horror movies with her best friend Gus.

When her favorite teacher asks her class to come up with a tourism guide for their hometown, Emilia discovers disturbing information about the treatment of immigrants in her state and community. This information along with a highly contested district rezoning makes her see her community and old friends in a new light. Is Emilia willing to stand by and let things happen to those she loves, or will she take a stand for what is right?

Pablo Cartaya's latest novel is very timely. His main character learns that immigrants were asked to come to Atlanta to help build the Olympic park and stadium; however, once their work was done, people expected them to leave. With immigration reform at the forefront of the next presidential election, this book may help middle-grade students develop their own opinions about the topic. I think it would be really interesting for teachers to use this book as a catalyst to inspire students to research their own communities and the contributions immigrants have made to them.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review: The Miraculous

The Miraculous The Miraculous by Jess Redman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When we meet Wunder, we learn that he no longer believes in miracles, even though he has been a "miracologist" most of his life. He collected miracles and documented them in a notebook, but something heartbreaking has happened to his family, and they are all in a place dark enough to make him think that miracles no longer exist. In the midst of his grief, he befriends a unique girl named Faye. Faye believes that all things are possible because she knows enough to know that she doesn't know everything. She and Wunder encounter an old woman who might be a witch and begin delivering letters for her. They aren't really sure what this strange lady has planned, but they know she wants to make a miracle happen for their town. Faye and "the witch" are the only things tethering Wunder to the world around him, and if they have anything to say about it, they are going to prove that miracles do exist.

I don't have the words to do this book justice, so I will simply say it is one of the best novels I've ever read, and I've read a lot! Jess Redman's debut is a beautiful reminder that we are all connected by grief and miracles. Every single person has experienced some type of personal tragedy, whether that be the physical death of a loved one or the death of a life imagined. At the very same time, all humans have experienced some type of miracle, be they big or small. While it is easy for people to connect with each other over miraculous events, we often suffer alone in grief. We don't know how to reach out to someone who is in the deepest dark; why bother saying anything when you know your words cannot bring back their loved one? Even if it is uncomfortable, we need to reach out to those around us who are grieving to remind them they are not alone and that their love will never end. No matter how long you have loved someone, your grief over their loss is valid. As Faye tells Wunder, "what does time have to do with love?" This book is a must-read for children and adults alike. I cannot wait to share this novel with teachers and students at my new school. I will sing its praises near and far. It publishes July 30th, so go ahead and pre-order it now. It will be the best the book you read this summer.

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