fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.

Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.

RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.

This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.

His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)

This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw by Mark Crilley

I stumbled upon The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw by Mark Crilley (Watson-Guptill, 2016) a few weeks ago while looking for books on how to draw. My daughter is fully remote at school and everyone does art remotely, and at the beginning of the year, she expressed anxiety over having to do art by herself. So, not having done art since I was a kid, I decided to jump in there with her and bought myself a sketch book and some colored pencils. It’s been…interesting. I enjoy the process, though I definitely need more practice, but I’ve been looking for some help, and I definitely found it in this sweet little graphic novel.

David is a young kid who wants nothing more than to draw better than his school nemesis when he stumbles upon illustrator Becky drawing in the park. He pesters her enough to give him a drawing lesson, and with that, she becomes his somewhat reluctant mentor, giving advice on perspective, shading, background, and more. As David’s art skills develop, so does Becky’s affection for him, and by the end of the book, they’ve both grown and benefitted from these art lessons.

What a sweet, sweet little book. I read it all in one setting but absorbed a lot of the advice Mark Crilley gave in the pages. David is an eager, somewhat pestery little character, and Becky’s mild (most of the time!) irritation is well-deserved, but they work together well and David is receptive to Becky’s criticism, providing an excellent example for younger (and heck, even older) readers. Aspiring artists would do well to follow this book for some awesome do-it-at-home art lessons. I wish I had time to do exactly that, but even just reading it, I feel as though I’ve learned a lot. (Some of the instruction echoes what I’ve heard from my daughter’s art teacher, which is neat!) We’ll see if my art improves this week! If you’re learning to draw, or would like to draw better, you shouldn’t miss this one.

Apparently Mark Crilley has a YouTube channel as well; I definitely need to find time to check out his drawing lessons there!

Visit Mark Crilley’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman

One of the last tasks I had to complete for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge– until my library holds come in, that is!- was to read the first book I touch on a shelf with my eyes closed. That happened to be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (Puffin Books, 2005). I ran across this book earlier this year, pre-pandemic, at a local thrift store. It’s a late middle-grade book and the title intrigued me. I checked the book out on Goodreads before purchasing, however; I wasn’t looking for a faith-based novel (not my particular cup of tea, personally, though I’ve read a few okay ones in the past), but the reviews didn’t trend in that direction, so I coughed up a quarter and took it home (I love that thrift store so much).

Justine Silver has recently moved out of New York City and to the suburbs, where her new best friend, Mary Catherine, is Catholic. Justine’s intrigued, and so while Mary Catherine gives up chocolate for Lent, Justine decides…to give up being Jewish. Her secret practice of Catholicism, which takes place quite literally in her bedroom closet, involves confessing her sins to her teddy-bear-turned-priest, reciting the Hail Mary (just without the Jesus parts) and taking communion, which is made up of grape juice and last Passover’s matzoh. Close enough. Justine, whose family isn’t all that observant, is looking for religion she can connect with, and she’s hoping this is where she finds it.

Stress is running high in the Silver household, however. Bubbe, her grandmother, has just had a stroke. Justine’s worried she’s not going to get better. Her search for religious understanding causes even more disruption during this turbulent time, but it’s Bubbe who restores the family’s peace and helps Justine toward the path of ultimate understanding.

So. I really enjoyed this novel about a tween’s search for religious understanding. Justine is EveryKid at age eleven, quirky, awkward, nervous about all the changes in her life, and unsure of her place in this world. She’s searching for answers and meaning, and her parents haven’t done the best job of educating her in their own traditions in a way that grounds her. She sets off on a clandestine examination of her best friend’s faith, which seems mysterious and beautiful to her, testing it out in the only way she knows how, and when her secret practice is discovered, her parents aren’t happy. Justine’s grandmother intervenes the best she can, but ultimately it’s Justine who takes the reins and finds where she belongs on her own.

I’m not sure if this would have appealed to me at the age it’s meant for. It might have; I did enjoy reading explorations of religion even back then, but there are times when I felt that Kid Me might have found the story a little too esoteric for my maturity levels at that age. This is the type of book that I think would work best as a parent-child read, where you read it together and discuss afterwards. There are a lot of good topics to cover here: are we obligated to stay with the faith we’re born into, even if it doesn’t feel like home? What does it mean to try on a new faith? At what point should kids be able to make their own religious decisions? How should a family handle a child’s religious exploration, both of their own faith (if applicable) and of one that interests only the child? This should lead to some really great parent/child or family discussions, if everyone feels free to speak openly and honestly, without fear of retribution or shame.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a sweet book about a girl searching for a religious identity. I’m pleased to see that Sarah Darer Littman has written a plethora of other books; I really felt she covered a lot of the bases of a religiously questioning tween here and am looking forward to seeing if her obviously deep understanding of kids that age extends to other topics and ages. Have you read this or her other works? I’d love to hear about it! 🙂

(I feel like this review isn’t up to my normal standards; we bought a patio swing last week, and it turns out my old lady inner ears can no longer tolerate swinging for long periods of time. I’ve felt like I’ve been swinging for two days now, even though it’s been two days since I last got on the swing. Guess there’s a time limit for me! All that to say, it’s hard to come up with words when my brain and ears are making me feel slightly dizzy even when I’m sitting, so please forgive me.)

Visit Sarah Darer Littman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

middle grade · nonfiction

Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice- Veronica Chambers

I went to the library (I’m sure you’re shocked) a few weeks ago with a list of books for my daughter. As I was passing through the nonfiction shelves, I came upon a copy of Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers (Harper Collins, 2018). Curiosity piqued, I grabbed it off the shelf and flipped through it. It looked right up my alley, so into the pile of 37482374983289 books for my daughter it went!

(I’m sure you’ll also be super surprised that the bag actually ripped as I was walking out to the car. 100% serious here! Whoops.)

Resist begins with an inspiring foreword by Senator Cory Booker, about how one person’s resistance to injustice made his entire life possible. Ms. Chambers then serves up short profiles of 35 historical and modern figures, each who fought or are fighting for the rights of those who have been oppressed. There are blasts from the distant past, including Joan of Arc and Martin Luther, the more recent past, like Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, and current rainmakers such as Malala Yousafzai and (much to my delight) Janet Mock. Civil rights, women’s rights, religious rights, migrant rights and more are covered in this stirring, yet easy-to-digest middle grade nonfiction book.

This is a cool little book that would make for a fabulous parent-child read, especially for when your kids overhear some of the terrible things on the news these days and they come to you, worried and scared about their futures. Ms. Chambers has chosen an excellent motley batch of people who have struggled and fought to bring justice to the masses, with little victories and big, with small losses, along with those who lost their lives fighting. Reading Resist, it’s possible to show your child that throughout history, there have always been brave people willing to step forward and do what’s right, even when it’s difficult, and there are still people working hard for the sake of justice today. These profiles of courageous people- adults and kids!- might help kids have a little hope for what seems like an increasingly uncertain future.

This is something I’ll head back to in a few years when my daughter is older. It’s something we can read together, either with me reading out loud to her, or with us sharing the reading-out-loud duties. There’s a lot of fodder for great parent-child discussions here too, so I’m looking forward to the day that she’s old enough to take part in discussing these stories about the lives of such brave people and what their actions meant to both the people in their lifetimes and to us today. Maybe she’ll even be inspired by them. I hope so.

Resist is a great biographical overview of what courage means and looks like, and for me, it was not only inspiring, it’s a good reminder that the middle grade section has a lot of hidden gems that I need to dig up more often. 😉

Visit Veronica Chamber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

middle grade · nonfiction

Titanic: Voices From the Disaster- Deborah Hopkinson

Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feeeeeeeeeeeeel you…

Okay, not THAT kind of Titanic. I didn’t actually see the Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio movie until it had been out for something like three or four years (I’m never in a hurry for new releases!). I’ve never been a huge movie buff, but I do enjoy history, and I was in awe when we visited the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri this summer. It’s an odd choice for a museum in a landlocked state, and I was worried it would be a little cheesy, but it really wasn’t. (No pictures were allowed of the inside, so I don’t have any to share.) The entryway to the upstairs is an exact replica of the one on the Titanic itself; looking at pictures of the Titanic’s grand staircases weirds me out a little, having walked up and down these staircases multiple times! The museum itself is a fascinating, yet somber adventure; everything about the tour is respectful of the lives lost and devastated, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re looking for something to do in Branson.

All that is to say that as soon as we got home, I started combing Goodreads for books about the Titanic (because, let’s face it, I’m a huge nerd). One that looked interesting, was well-rated, and was available at my library was Titanic: Voices From the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson (Scholastic Press, 2012). Some of the best, most informative nonfiction books I’ve read have been meant for younger audiences, so I had zero qualms about picking this 289-page hardcover up from my library’s children’s section.

The book does start out a little dry; it’s heavy on information on the company that built the ship and on shipbuilding itself, but it does pick up quickly, as the main focus is on the people- those who built it, those who steer and command it, those who are passengers on it. Ms. Hopkinson paints a stunning picture of a grandiose ship so massive, both newspapers and its builders claimed it to be ‘practically unsinkable.’ (Famous last words there, folks…) Drawing from interviews, letters, and historical documents, she recreates its journey in its entirety, from its brief sail from Belfast to Southampton, to its terrible sinking in the icy waters of the Atlantic. She then follows a handful of its survivors, briefly chronicling their lives after the tragedy and how they carried on.

The descriptions of the disaster are utterly sobering. The descriptions of the sounds, the horrible roaring sounds as the ship broke apart and people screaming as they fell or jumped to their deaths are absolutely devastating, a testament to both Ms. Hopkinson’s skill as a writer and the strength of the survivors that they could even bear to recount such horrors. I stopped to reread several times, and a few of the passages had me close to tears. What a terrible, unspeakable tragedy, with such a monstrous loss of life.

I learned a few new things from this book that I hadn’t know about the Titanic disaster before. The New York Times achieved status as a major national newspaper due to its early breaking coverage of the tragedy, which I thought was interesting. And Violet Jessop, a stewardess who survived the sinking, continued to work as a stewardess at sea, returning to serving on board another ship just weeks after the Titanic went down. She later barely survived the sinking of the Brittanic, Titanic‘s sister ship- not only that, but she still continued to work at sea until she retired in 1950. Brave? Foolhardy? I’m not sure, but she definitely made different choices than I would have!

One quote had me rolling my eyes practically down the road:

‘The United States Senate lost no time in calling for an investigation of the Titanic disaster. After all, some of the wealthiest men of business and most prominent members of society had perished.’

An investigation was definitely necessary; the lack of lifeboats on board was appalling (and is something I think of often whenever someone is moaning about how regulation is killing us. Perhaps if there had been more regulation on board the Titanic, those 1500+ people would have lived…). But jumping to it because wealthy and famous people died? Just another reminder that so often in society, our worth and how much the powerful care about us is determined not by the contents of our character, but by the contents of our bank account.

I’m working my way through another book on the Titanic right now, and the more in-depth content of that book makes me realize that this book definitely is meant for a younger set, but it’s still a fabulous overview of the disaster and its aftermath, told in the voices of the survivors. If you had a childhood interest in Titanic that has carried over to adulthood at least a little, or you have an older child who has discovered this deeply fascinating catastrophe, Titanic: Voices From the Disaster should be on your list.

Visit Deborah Hopkinson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel · middle grade

Awkward- Svetlana Chmakova

Fun story about this book.

A year or so ago, my daughter and I were cleaning out the car, and she pulls a copy of Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova (JY, 2015) out of the pockets on the back of one of the front seats. “Mama!” she gasped. “Is this Brother’s book???” (Even looking at the screen right now, she said, “Hey, Brother has that book!”)

“Probably,” I said, and tossed it in the bag. Apparently my son had left it stuffed in the seat pocket at some point. It looked new-ish; in 2015, he would’ve been 12/13, so this book would’ve been perfect for him back then. Since he’d already read it (we asked him about it later on), it went on my shelf, and I picked it up one night after I’d run out of library books. (*horror music*)

Peppi’s the new girl in town, and right away, she makes a major flub, tripping and falling into a nerdy guy in the hallway, earning herself the nickname of “nerder girlfriend.” And how does she handle it? By shoving the nerdy guy so hard that he falls. NOT one of her finest moments, and Peppi feels terrible about it, so terrible, in fact, that she can’t figure out how to apologize, even after Jaime- that’s the nerdy guy- is assigned as her science tutor.

But Peppi’s got bigger problems. Her school home is Art Club, and the problem is that this year, Art Club isn’t being allowed a table at the school’s club fair because, the principal said, they haven’t contributed enough to the school. SO not fair, especially since Science Club, Art Club’s arch rivals, will be getting a table. Or, uh, they would have been getting a table, until the Art Club/Science Club shenanigans got Science Club booted, too. A competition to regain a table gets heated in ways that Peppi never expected, and along with learning about friendship, hard work, and support, she and the other members of Art Club will learn a lot about compromise.

Awkward is an adorable graphic novel that captures the weirdness that is middle school and places it in a not-so-likely-but-still-fun-to-read scenario. Svetlana Chmakova’s style is reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier, so if you enjoy her books (and I do!), this is definitely in your wheelhouse. Peppi is a typical middle schooler, making wrong decisions, feeling terrible about it, and then having no clue how to remedy the situation. She’s scared, she’s brave, she’s terrified, she’s outgoing, she’s all of us at that age, a million different people in one ever-changing body. The lessons she learns aren’t necessarily ones that most middle schoolers are often ready to take to heart in their own lives (it’s really, really not easy having to be the odd man out in order to stand up for a friend or a stranger, for example), but reading them in entertaining graphic novels like Awkward that aren’t at all preachy certainly helps foment better understanding of the consequences and outcomes.

The Art Club/Science Club rivalry was fun to read, although not all that realistic in terms of the club rivalry (at least in any school I’ve ever been to), but who says that needs to be a thing? Kids form all sorts of rivalries in school and take just about any chance to ‘other’ kids for any reason- cool kids verses the losers, jocks verses nerds, etc- maybe this rivalry will mean something to a reader who sees themselves on one side or the other.

(Very small content warning for a secondary character whose father calls said character’s mother a bitch in front of the child, without the mother present. There’s some marital fighting spoken about, I believe- I don’t have the book in front of me right now. I don’t *think* the fighting is depicted, but I very well may be misremembering- and the character and her mother end up leaving. I mention this not as a spoiler, but if you’re passing this book along to a younger child to read, you may want to read that section first- the name-calling is somewhere around halfway-ish through, and the fighting and leaving is towards the end- so that you’re prepared for any questions, or to bring it up and discuss with your child.)

Awkward is primarily written for middle schoolers, but this really works for all ages. Ms. Chmakova really captures that awkward middle school feeling, when you’re responsible for so much but in control of so little, and the future seems both blossoming with possibility and like something out a horror movie, all at the same time. Super fun book, and I’m glad I spent an evening curled up with it.

Visit Svetlana Chmakova’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Mandy- Julie Andrews Edwards

One of the best parts of having kids is getting to reread my childhood favorites. I don’t believe in ‘girl books’ or ‘boy books,’ just different books for different kids. That said, Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (HarperCollins, first published 1971) (and yes, THAT Julie Andrews! The hills are alive with the sound of beautifully written children’s books, y’all!) wasn’t something that would have appealed to my son when he was young, so I was delighted that I was able to share it with my daughter. Hopping back into the world of a favorite childhood book is always a little scary; will it have held up? Will there be cringeworthy moments that have you wincing and thanking the literary gods that we’ve moved on from that? I’m happy to say that Mandy, fortunately, has stood the test of time.

Ten-year-old Mandy has lived almost her entire life in an orphanage, under the care of Matron Bridie and the other staff. Despite the obvious affection of the people tasked to care for her, it’s a comfortable but emotionally barren life, and Mandy often finds herself falling into depression, desperate for something to call her own. An adventure over the orphanage wall and into the woods leads to the discovery of a long-abandoned cottage, and Mandy is elated. Here is the place she can turn into her very own refuge, a place of quiet and solitude amongst her life lived with so many other children.

Mandy immediately sets out to turn the cottage into a home, clearing the garden of weeds, planting flowers using money she earns working Saturdays at a store in town, and cleaning away years of dust and grime. It’s not always easy to get away- although she’s allowed more freedom than most girls, she still has to account for her time and constantly give her best friend the slip. More and more, she’s finding it difficult to live a double life, but it all comes to a head when notes begin appearing at the cottage from AN ADMIRER, and Mandy comes down with a terrible chest cold. Tragedy is barely averted, but the outcome will change Mandy’s life forever.

Mandy has remained a delightful read. After the first few chapters, I turned to ask my daughter what she thought of it. Eyes wide, she whispered, almost reverently, “I love it.” We sat in our giant reading chair in the living room, sometimes reading for nearly an hour at a time, she enjoyed it so much. Mandy is a plucky little girl: she works hard to turn her run-down cottage into a place of calm and comfort, sneaking away, engaging in some petty theft (which she feels terrible about and eventually owns up to), and she’s a fabulous problem-solver. Julie Andrews Edwards doesn’t shy away from going heavy on the emotions in this story; Mandy is described as falling into dark funks from time to time, and though she’s only ten, ultimately the word ‘depression’ is used, which is pretty amazing for a book that was first published in 1971. Mandy is desperate for closeness and a sense of family, and Andrews Edwards masterfully suffuses Mandy’s every action with these desires, making Mandy an incredibly sympathetic character.

I was a little worried my daughter would find Mandy’s orphan status upsetting (there is a mention of her parents dying, but only one; Mandy remembers nothing but the orphanage her whole life, so there are no tragic or distressing death scenes), but she handled it just fine, though she did require an explanation of what an orphanage is. I seem to remember reading a lot of books set at orphanages when I was younger, but I can’t put my finger on any more titles…

If you’re looking for a lovely middle grade book with a determined female character searching for a sense of home, Mandy makes a fabulous choice, and I hope there are still little girls (and boys!) out there who find their way to this book. I’m so happy that it retained the charm I remember it having during my own childhood.

Visit Julie Andrews Edwards’ page at HarperCollins here.

fiction · middle grade · YA

Summer of the Mariposas- Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Another task on Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge is to read an #ownvoices novel set in Mexico or Central America. I always read through the suggestions, make note of what looks interesting, and then check to see what’s available at my libraries. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall looked like an interesting choice, and it was available at the library in the next town over, so onto the list it went.

Odilia and her four sisters (Juanita, twins Velia and Delia, and Pita, the youngest) are out swimming at their forbidden swimming hole when they discover a dead man floating in the water. They don’t want to call the authorities, because that would mean constant surveillance of their beloved swimming hole; telling their exhausted, overworked, newly single mother would only get them in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to be swimming in the first place. Instead, the girls decide to load up their father’s car (he left a year ago, he’s not using it anyway) with the body and drive it to the dead man’s home address in Mexico, which they discover on the ID stuffed into a pocket, along with a stack of cash.

But it won’t be a simple trip. A ghostly weeping woman known as La Llorona informs Odilia that this is going to be a journey that will transform all of them. She gives Odilia a magical ear pendant to help her along the way, and the girls set off towards adventure. When dropping off the body doesn’t exactly herald the reception they thought it would, they continue on to their abuelita’s house, meeting a witch, a fortune-telling blind woman, a warlock disguised as a donkey, a seriously creepy pack of owls, and a chupacabras. La Llorona appears on and off throughout the story to guide them, and the Aztec queen Tonantzin offers magical assistance through the gifted ear pendant, but what they really find throughout their journey is the strength of their bond and the deep love that exists between them and their mother.

Phew. There’s a LOT going on in this book. The inside flap of this book pitches this as ‘a Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey,’ and I think a big part of the reason I failed to connect to this book is that it’s been…somewhere around twenty-four years since I had anything to do with that particular piece. I really wish I’d been able to draw the parallels between the stories, but it’s been far too long. I also lack any kind of background in any Mexican or Aztec folklore, so that definitely didn’t help. Had I been more fully versed in these things, I think reading this book would have been a different experience and I would’ve felt more connected and more deeply invested.

It’s a lovely, well-written book, although I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in the beginning to accept that the sisters would all just pick up and leave with what seemed like no concern for how their mother would react to them having left without even a note. And that’s not even considering the fact that the girls were seemingly okay with riding in a stuffy car in the summer heat with a waterlogged dead body. Talking owls and donkeys, sure, I’ll buy that; teenage girls chill with sitting next to a dead body for a lengthy car ride? Mmmm, no. The relationship between the girls and their grandmother is lovely, however, and their reunion with their mother and eventual showdown with their father are both handled extremely well. And I absolutely adored the bits of Spanish sprinkled throughout the story (there’s a glossary in back), and the chance to see Mexico through the sisters’ eyes.

So this wasn’t quite the book for me, but if you enjoy retellings, stories of bonding between sisters, and stories with magical and fantastical elements, it may be the book for you!

Visit Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Ahimsa- Supriya Kelkar

I love books set in India. It seems like such a diverse, complex place, and the Indian authors I’ve read always do such a wonderful job of surrounding me with the sights and sounds and colors of their country. And the descriptions of the food are almost always enough to send me running to my favorite local Indian restaurant (fun fact: when I was pregnant with my daughter and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically ‘morning’ sickness that can kill you, I was reading a book set in India and the descriptions of food had me feeling like I could actually eat that food and not be sick. And it was true! It was only a small amount, really, but it was delicious and that made me so, so happy, because I could barely eat anything else at all). All that to say that in the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, one of their suggestions for a children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009 was Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar, and I was happy to discover that one of my local libraries had it waiting on the shelves for me.

It’s 1942 and India is still under British rule (and once I picked this book up, I realized I’d gone from one book about colonization to another…). Mahatma Gandhi has asked families to give one family member each to the fight for freedom, and ten-year-old Anjali is horrified to learn that it’s her mother who will be that one person. While the movement is centered around ahimsa, or non-violence, Anjali knows people who have died and can’t imagine losing her mother. Her becoming a freedom fighter means big changes for the family, starting with discarding all the clothing made from the Indian cotton that the British spun in England and sold back to Indians at a high price, in favor of wearing only homespun Indian garments. Anjali isn’t happy about this at all, nor is she thrilled when her mother begins working with the Untouchables, the people of the lowest caste. Because it’s not just the British who need to change; Indian society must make changes of their own, as Anjali and her family learn.

This is a story of one step forward, two steps back, as it seems every story about the struggle for freedom is. Anjali’s parents make mistakes and eventually correct themselves and grow; Anjali begins to question things she’s been taught her entire life to be true. While Anjali is Hindu, her best friend Irfaan is Muslim, and though their differences have never been an issue in the past, they become a source of strain as Hindu-Muslim tensions rise under the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

This is a fascinating look at India in its final years of British rule, as seen through the eyes of a child and her family who are learning to question everything. It’s lovely and intense and frustrating and frightening all at the same time. Anjali is a typical headstrong ten-year-old who is forced to grow up a little too quickly thanks to the times, and her parents are inspiring, both for their dedication to the cause of a self-ruling India and for their growth and their ability to admit when they’re wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set in this particular time period in India, so Ahimsa opened my eyes to both the struggle for freedom and that gap in my knowledge (and I’m definitely interested in learning more). This would be a really great parent-child read-aloud for anyone interested in India (or for homeschoolers doing a unit study on the country). It’s a complex book, and while I think I would have enjoyed at when I was younger, I think a lot of it would have gone over my head.

If this review isn’t up to my usual standards, I apologize. I was all ready to write this up on Monday and then my daughter started throwing up…and then I started throwing up. It’s been pure misery around here, and even sitting up for too long is exhausting (and I’ve got two more reviews to write). I haven’t gotten any reading done because holding the book has been too difficult! Like I said, MISERY. I’m ready to feel better soon! Needless to say, I probably won’t be running off to my favorite Indian restaurant quite yet, mostly because even just walking across the room makes me dizzy and out of breath. Maybe when I get better. 🙂

Do you find that there’s a particular country you just really love reading about? I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Supriya Kelkar’s website here. (And she has a new book coming out in 2020 that looks AWESOME, so I’m looking forward that!!!)

Follow her on Twitter here.