Thursday, September 28, 2017

Dreidels on the Brain

Joel is the only Jewish kid at his California school, it's Hannukah 1971, and he's looking for a miracle.  Snow in California?  A deal with God over a spinning dreidel?  Maybe just a miracle for his father who has a debilitating form of arthritis that has bent his spine and limited his ability to walk would be enough.

Joel dreams of being a superhero, Normalman.  Fat chance for a weird look kid with braces, hideous glasses, and a father whose joints make clicking noises when he walks.  Plus, his family is always broke.  His father was laid off from his engineering job, and his ingenious inventions never seem to make it off the ground. 

He's a pretty good magician and quick with the jokes, but life and maybe God seems determined to get him down.  As bad as things are, this Hannukah will bring even more problems.  One of his favorite stories is the tale of the Schlemiel.  The Schlemiel is the guy always spills his soup.  The Schlamazel is the guy the Schlemeil spills his soup on.  Joel doesn't want to be either, but at least things work out in the end for the Schlemeil.

This new book by Joel ben Izzy is a touching and funny exploration of family, faith, and being a twelve-year-old boy.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Piecing Me Together

Everyone thinks Jade has to get out of her poor neighborhood to succeed.  She has a scholarship to a fancy private school, and she does OK, but she can't help thinking sometimes that her community isn't all bad.

When her school counselor offers her a place in a mentoring program, Jade is hesitant, but when she learns there's a scholarship involved, she's all in.  Jade isn't quite sure what to think of Maxine who misses their first meeting.  Is she serious about this?  Is Jade just some kind of project to her?

Plus, a lot of the meetings seem to be about eating healthy and dating.  Jade wants some mentoring she can really use--like how to make a budget or start a business.

Jade has self-respect and confidence in her art, but it seems like the world tries to tear her apart every day, and she has to put the pieces back together each night.  Despite her belief that her community is good and that she has things to offer, no one else seems to think so.  That's the mentoring lesson she needs most of all--how to not give up on people and fold in on yourself when relationships get difficult.

This is a great book by Renee Watson in the vein of The Hate U Give but with gentler language that makes it good for middle school readers.  Seeing subtle acts of racism through Jade's eyes will help readers become more self-aware.  I also love that Jade's neighborhood is poor, but it's not all bad.  She has real friends and a sense of community there, and the local public school may not have as many electives as Jade's private school, but when an incidence of police brutality strikes close to home, the public school handles the situation by giving students a voice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Last Man Out

Tommy loves playing defense, and he's great at thanks to his dad.  Dad has taught Tommy to know the field, know where the ball is, and to protect his team.  Thanks to all that training, he's one of the best on the team.

When Tommy's fireman dad dies saving a little girl from a fire, his world is shattered.  He wants to keep playing, but the anger and sadness he's trying to push down keep coming out on the field.  When his new friend, Mike, introduces him to skateboarding, it feels like a great outlet to get his adrenaline going.

Tommy's mom is doing the best she can to deal with her own sadness, but she's more worried about her kids.  Tommy's little sister, Em, quit her soccer team and is spending all her time in her bedroom.  Tommy wants to be the man of the house, but he's just a kid himself, and he doesn't know how to help Em.

Mike Lupica's newest book has all the sports action, his readers have come to expect with a more serious plot about dealing with grief.  I don't think this will have wide appeal beyond sports readers, but it is a great pick for those devoted to the genre.

Lucky in Love

Maddie family has been struggling to make ends meet since her dad lost his job.  Her mom is working all the time, but there still isn't enough to go around.  Her dad is depressed, and her parents are fighting all the time.  Her brother dropped out of college because he ran out of money, but he just seems to be spending all day sleeping and all late watching tv.

Maddie is going to college.  She is in line to be the salutatorian (behind her best friend Blaire), and she's determined to get a scholarship.  If she gets into UCLA, she can live at home to save money.  Plus, she's worried about going too far when her family is in such a state.

Maddie isn't much of a social butterfly, but she has her two best friends, Blaire the genius and the bubbly Elise.  She also sort of has Seth.  They work together at the zoo, and Maddie isn't ready to admit just yet she has a crush on him.

After a particularly terrible eighteenth birthday, Maddie buys a lottery ticket on a whim...and wins!  Now all her problems are solved, right?  Maddie is about to learn that money doesn't solve everything, but it will certainly help you figure out who you can trust even if you have to get your heart broken a few times to figure it out.

And what about Seth?  He was grounded from electronics when the winner was announced, and Maddie just can't bring herself to tell him just yet.  Their friendship is the only one that hasn't been touched by her money...yet.

This is a cute and sweet romance from Kasie West.  It's not particularly deep or realistic, but it will do just fine for a quick dose of escapism.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Saving Red

Molly is still wracked with guilt over what happened to her brother last year, but she's not ready to talk about yet.  Maybe never.  She's lost all her friends and her sense of who she is.  Her best friend is Pixel, the therapy dog.  He didn't start out as Molly's dog, but her therapist thought it could help.  Now, Pixel and Molly go everywhere together.

Her parents have their own way of dealing with their grief.  Her mother smokes marijuana and buys junk from the home shopping channel.  Her dad just buries himself in work so much he's rarely home.

One day a chance meeting with a homeless girl changes everything for Molly.  The girl has wild red hair and loves to dance.  It doesn't take long for Molly to realize Red isn't quite right.  One minute she seems normal enough, and the next she's dashing off into the street or talking to herself.

Molly decides to reunite Red with her family for Christmas.  That gives her two weeks.  It won't be easy, but the fact that her parents barely know she's alive makes it easier to go out at all hours.  Molly thought she was going to be Red's savior, but the more time they spend together, the more Red feels like a real friend.  This isn't just about helping some girl she feels sorry for.  It's about helping a friend in a vulnerable situation.

This new book by Sonya Sones is a fast-paced story that cuts right to the heart of mental illness and the challenges of living with mental illness for those who suffer and their families.  The ending ties up a bit too quickly, and I could have done without the love subplot, but this is definitely a book kids will love!

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.