Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Invisible Emmie

Emmie is so shy she would rather blend into the background.  She doesn't want people to notice her.  Her brother and sister are both in college, and her parents work a lot which means she spends most of her time alone.  This suits her just fine because she can devote her free time to drawing.  School is a stress zone for Emmie because there are too many people and too much noise.  Plus, she only has homeroom and lunch with her best friend.

Katie is popular and outgoing.  She has tons of friends and everything always seems to work out her way.  Her parents are perfect, and she even gets the boy she wants.  But Katie's not so wrapped up in herself that she can't see another girl in trouble.

One day Emmie writes a pretend love letter to her crush.  She never meant for him to see it, but it fell out of her notebook, and now everyone knows about it.  This feels like the worst thing that could possibly happen!

People always tell Emmie should speak up for herself.  It's not that hard.  But for Emmie it is hard.  Can Emmie break out of her invisible shell now that the worst has happened?

This is a cute graphic novel using alternating styles for the two girls.  Terri Libenson takes her readers into the world of those quiet kids who mind their own business but who are maybe longing to break free.  There is a fun twist at the end.

Miles Morales

What?!  A Spider-Man book by Jason Reynolds!  I was excited to see what one of my favorite YA authors would do with this source material, and I was not disappointed!

Miles is just a kid from the poor side of town trying to make his parents proud.  Of course, he also has superpowers because he was bitten by a genetically engineered radioactive spider so that sometimes puts a damper on things.  The only people who know his secret are his father and his best friend and roommate, Ganke.

Miles and Ganke attend a private school called Brooklyn Vision Academy.  Miles is a sko-low (scholarship) kid; Ganke isn't, but that doesn't keep them from being practically brothers. Miles does his best to keep his grades up, but his history teacher, Mr. Chamberlain, doesn't make it easy.  He's always talking about how slavery was good for America and the true vision of the south.

Miles also has a serious crush on Alicia who is beautiful, seriously into poetry, and is basically old Harlem royalty, but he doesn't have the courage to do much about it.

Miles has been trying to ignore his spidey-sense lately since it seems to be way off and has gotten him in serious trouble.  It always goes crazy in Chamberlain's class where nothing other than crazy old guy seems to be wrong.  He's also having bad dreams, and when Mr. Chamberlain shows up in those dreams, he begins to wonder if maybe his spidey-sense isn't so crazy after all.

This book gives young readers a super-hero for today.  Miles is fighting bad guys and the momentum of his family's past.  His father turned his life around, but his uncle didn't, and Miles wonders if he is destined for prison.  There is plenty of regular fighting action, like when Miles goes after a street thug who is stealing kids' sneakers, but the real story here is about the dangers of institutionalized racism.  This book is successful in taking down a social issue personified as its villain, but also because it is clear that you always have a choice in how you react to life's challenged no matter how undeserved they are.  Reynolds takes Spider-Man beyond the realm of comic book action and into the present where he also must fight against prejudice and racism.  In this story real heroes don't just fight bad guys on the ground; they speak up against injustice.

Also, I love that Reynolds has created strong male characters who are comfortable with their emotions.  The friendship between Ganke and Miles is beautiful and real.  They aren't afraid to be real with each other even if that means sharing heartbreak.

Genius: The Game

Rex is the son of illegal immigrants living in the US where he is secretly a coding genius.  He has a wide following online, but no one in his real life knows the extent of his abilities.  He's also been focusing a lot of his time and energy writing a program to find his brother who disappeared telling Rex not to come looking for him.

Tunde and Rex are best friends even though they've never met in real life.  Tunde is the resident junk engineer and child genius in a small Nigerian village.  He can fix anything or build anything with scavenged tech.

Painted Wolf is the third member of their group.  She's an activist and blogger whose identity must remain secret since she spends her time uncovering corruption in Chinese business and government.

These three teens are invited to participate in a game by a global tech visionary.  The winners will get money and prestige, but there is more at stake for our heroes.  Tunde's family is being held hostage by a corrupt general who demands that Tunde win the game and build him a machine that will give him incredible power.  Rex needs a quantum computer to run the program that will find his brother, and there just happens to be one at the site of the competition.

But this is more than just a game, and our teenage heroes will have to find a way to win the game and uncover a terrorist plot.

Leopoldo Gout's series opener seems like the kind of book I would love--an international cast, plenty of intrigue, high tech, and high stakes.  But this just didn't grab me like I thought it would.  It reads more like a script than a novel, so that makes it difficult to immerse myself in the world.  Plus, it just didn't make a whole lot of sense.  All of these kid geniuses from all over the world are invited to a competition that seems to be mostly about coding and engineering.  I'm not sure what the art, biology, chemistry, etc. kids were supposed to get out of it or how they could possibly win.  It's a good idea.  It just wasn't developed enough.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Under Locker and Key

Jeremy Wilderson has a bit of a reputation at his school.  It's one he's cultivated to secure his legacy.  He's not a thief.  He's a retrieval specialist.  If someone steals something that belongs to you, Jeremy will get it back.

This makes him a bit of an underground hero to the kids at Scottsville Middle School, but not to Becca Mills, favorite of the school staff and future FBI agent.  Becca's always watching trying to catch Jeremy in the act of thieving.

When an older student tricks Jeremy into retrieving something that doesn't really belong to him, Jeremy knows he has to make it right.  What did he take?  The master key to all the lockers in the school.  But how can he retrieve something when the mark knows he's a target?

Becca is already on the case of the missing key, and Jeremy convinces her to team up with him for what could be his last job ever.

Allison K. Hymas's debut book is a cute middle school caper with lots of wordplay.  Recommended for fans of The Fourth Stall and The Great Green Heist.


Josef is a Jewish boy living in Germany in the 1930's.  On Kristallnacht, his father is one of several men rounded up and taken to a concentration camp.  Josef's family isn't sure what will happen to their home, but they know it is time to escape.  They board a ship headed to the other side of the world, seeking refuge in a new country with a new language.

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994.  There are riots in the street protesting Fidel Castro, and the police are watching her father.  When Castro announces that anyone wishes to leave should do so, Isabel sees her family's chance for escape.  She and her family board a homemade boat with her best friend's family headed for Miami.  They will face many dangers on the ocean as they seek a new home where they will not be persecuted and where they can find food and opportunities.

Mahmoud loves his home in Syria, but by 2015 the country is torn apart by violence.  When his family's apartment building is bombed, they know it is time to escape.  Germany is their best hope, but they will have to travel far through dangerous territory with criminals and thieves on every side.  Why can't people understand Mahmoud just wants his family to be safe?

Alan Gratz's newest book is his best yet.  He has a massive following among middle schoolers, and they will devour this title, as well.  As I read this book, I thought of one of my favorite quotes by Madeline L'Engle, "You have to write the book that wants to be written, and if the book will be too difficult for grown ups, then you write it for children."  Refugee should be required reading for every child, teen, and adult.  Gratz excels at humanizing the refugees in his story and gently reminds his readers that no one wants to be a refugee.  Highly recommended!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Wild Bird

Wren is awakened from an alcohol and drug induced stupor and forced from her California home to the Utah desert.  Her parents can't take her wild behavior anymore, and they are sending her to a wilderness program to get clean.

Wren is enraged.  She feels like her family just wants to get rid of her so they don't have to deal with her anymore.  When she does the math and realizes she will be stuck in the desert for most of the rest of the school year and her birthday, she is furious.  It seems like her parents are trying to get revenge.

As she sits isolated in her tent for the first few days, she can only think about how miserable and abused she is.  Wren is stubborn and slow to make any progress.  She can't help wondering what her friends are doing back home while she is dirty and dehydrated in the desert.  Meadow has been her best and only friend since the 7th grade.  They used to cut class and hide in the bathroom to smoke weed.  Nico is the cute older boy who provides alcohol and weed in exchange for Wren making deliveries.  They would think this whole camp is a joke.

It's not until Wren has a personal wrestle with her own mortality that her heart starts to change.  Her willfulness has always been a negative to other people, but out in the desert, that stubbornness can be put to good use.  It may be the only thing that can help her survive the wilderness and her own addictions.

This is another great book from Wendelin Van Draanen.  The author deftly illustrates how easily a normal kid can get caught up in drug and alcohol abuse and how addiction changes a person.  She also hints that cell phone addiction and our culture of convenience and waste feed into those behaviors.  Perhaps one of Wren's greatest realizations is when she finally admits to herself that Meadow was never really her friend.

I love that this book is not about shocking the reader with horrifying scenes.  It's about Wren's personal journey to accepting responsibility for her actions and to understanding herself.  Highly recommended!

Friday, September 1, 2017


Lou's life is swimming, and as she starts her race in the Olympic Time Trials, so feels amazing.  This is her day.  She and her best friend, Hannah, will qualify, and they will both get to transfer to a High Performance Training Camp where it will be all swimming, all the time...with brief moments of school in between.

But...Lou doesn't just lose; she comes in last.  She is not training for the Olympics, she's off the swim team, and she has no friends. Hannah is her only friend, and Hannah qualified.  Lou wants to be supportive, but her heart is broken.

As she returns to school feeling completely out of place.  Her efforts to make new friends are falling flat.  When she sneaks into the pool one afternoon for a comfort swim, she meets three older, cooler guys who are amazed by her underwater skills.  Gabe, Roman, and Pete want to get famous on Britain's Hidden Talent, but they need a novel talent.

That's how a six-foot gangly girl who is clumsy out of the water and who has no friends ends up as...acquaintances?...with three cool guys.  As they work on creating underwater dancing, Hannah is getting more and more stressed out at Training Camp, and Lou isn't sure how to help her.

Nat Luurtsema's novel is a hilarious journey through new beginnings and new friends. My only concern is the quick resolution of Hannah's anxiety and eating disorder.  It's not the main point of the plot, and there is a lot her to enjoy dispite this flaw.  Recommended for grades 8 and up.