Unsettled

Author: Reem Faruqi

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: May 11/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

5 stars!!! What an absolutely beautiful story. This novel in verse comes out in May 2021, and is perfect for fans of stories like Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga.

Nurah and her family live in Pakistan, but her father find works in the States and decides to move the family for job security and better schooling. Nurah doesn’t want to leave her grandparents, friends, or the life as she knows it. Although she already speak English, she feels like she stands out because of the way she dresses and the color of her skin. She joins the swim team at school, where she desperately wants to prove herself, but is always in the shadow of her athletic brother, Owais. Adjusting to life in the US is challenging for each member of her family in different ways, but like the stages of plant life referenced in the headings of the parts of the book, Nurah eventually finds a way to bloom in new soil.

This is one of the most poetic and beautifully written novels in verse I’ve read. I wrote down so many quotes that jumped out at me with vivid language. I loved not only the nature imagery, but also the way she describes skin colors. I’m amazed at how much the author was able to communicate with such few words, and the story moves very quickly because of the format. It’s inspired by many of the author’s real life experiences immigrating to the US, and the feelings ring true and honest. I love how watching Nurah grow, enduring challenges and disappointments, but continuing to develop into her own unique person.

Although I read the book in eARC form, the illustrations inside the book are absolutely beautiful. Soumbal Qureshi did the cover design, and I believe she was responsible for the artwork throughout the novel, which truly makes this book a work of art.

I highly recommend this story, and think it would be a wonderful read aloud for middle grade classrooms.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

Author: Payal Doshi

Publisher: Mango and Marigold Press

Release Date: May 2021

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the author and Edelweiss+ for an eARC of this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which is the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series by debut author Payal Doshi. Although this book doesn’t come out until May 2021, I’m excited to help spread this word about it and make sure that readers are aware of it.

Rea and her twin brother, Rohan, live in Darjeeling, India with their mother and grandmother. Rea resents the favoritism that Amma and Bajai show toward Rohan, and that Rohan isn’t including her in the secret birthday party he’s planning on THEIR special day. She crashes the midnight cricket party, but discovers the next morning that her brother didn’t make it home and has gone missing. Rea desperately wants to find Rohan, so she enlists the help of her friend, Leela, go with her to visit the fortune teller she knows Amma recently visited in the hope of finding out more about his disappearance. She and Leela are given clues that lead them through a portal into the magical world of Astranthia, where they enlist the help of a barrow boy named Xeranther. Their quest to free Rohan involves battling deadly monsters, finding a missing flower petal, and wielding magic that Rea didn’t even know she possessed to stop the queen from using Rohan in her nefarious plans. But Rea also learns Amma and Bajai have been keeping a very big secret from her and Rohan, and suddenly her entire family, and the future of Astranthia, is in jeopardy.

I love stories that are set in countries different from my own, and seeing characters from different cultures be the heroes of stories. There is a lot of Indian culture that runs throughout this book, while incorporating fantasy elements such as magic, deadly creatures, and the necessity of developing special powers for good to triumph over evil. At the same time, it’s a story about family, friendship, betrayal, and taking risks to protect the people that you love. This story is so immersive because of the world that the author created, and how her descriptions were rich, imaginative, and detailed. I will be anxiously awaiting the next book in the series so I can revisit Astranthia and these wonderful characters.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the Kiranmala series by Sayantani DasGupta, Aru Shah series by Roshani Chokshi (or any of the Rick Riordan Presents books, although this story is not based on Indian mythology) or anyone who loves reading an adventurous fantasy rooted in culture.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

Author: Kaela Rivera

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: April 13/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Cece and her family live in the small desert community of Tierra de Sol. She hasn’t fit in since her encounter with the criatura, Tzitzimitl, who many believe cursed her when she was seven. Now that her older sister, Juana, has been invited to do the Amenazante dance on Noche de Muerte to scare away the powerful spirits who threaten her community during the criatura months, Cece doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to prove herself and live up to the example of her sister. But when Juana is kidnapped by El Sombreron, Cece is determined to find a way to get her back. To gain entry into Devil’s Alley, she will have prove that she is a bruja, a witch, and find a criatura to control who will make it to the final round of the Bruja Fights. Cece doesn’t want to become a bruja, but she doesn’t know another way to save her sister. She manages to enlist the help of Coyote, and although he wins the first round, there is a major setback. Cece must discover how she can stay true to herself while developing trust with others to help her, especially once there is suspicion about her true motives and the stakes are raised.

I really enjoyed this book based on the stories of Mexican folklore that the author’s abuelo told her when she was young. I love learning about cultures different from my own, and the stories that are told as part of it. I loved that Cece was committed to rescuing her sister on her own terms, and used her kindness to succeed rather than succumbing to darker emotions. I also liked watching her discover what she was capable of, and connecting to her soul. We watched her grow into her power with the support of her criaturas, and demonstrate her bravery by being scared by persevering against the odds. The setting of the desert was unique, and I love how the preparations for Noche de Muerte helped us understand Cece’s culture and some of their beliefs.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoy fantasy stories based on mythology, with courageous female protagonists determined to prove good can triumph over evil.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

All You Knead is Love

Author: Tanya Guerrero

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Release Date: March 31/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

I loved the author’s debut book, How to Make Friends With The Sea, so I was delighted to get a chance to read this book before its publication date. There are many things I enjoyed about this upper middle grade story, including all the BREAD!

Alba’s mother unexpectedly sends her to live with her estranged grandmother in Spain for a while. Feeling rejected, Alba is surprised to arrive in Barcelona and find a welcoming and loving grandmother who accepts Alba’s short hair, rock band T-shirts, and desire to dress for comfort rather than fashion. Alba also befriends a baker whom she later discovers was her mother’s childhood best friend. He mentors her in the kitchen and gives Alba an opportunity to focus on learning the art of breadmaking while providing support Alba never received from her own father. Just when Alba thinks her life is turning around, her mother shows up and announces that she’s left Alba’s father, who has been abusing her for several years. Alba struggles with learning about her mom’s past, reconciling that with the parent that’s raised her, and finding a way to move forward with the one her mother now wants to be. In the midst of all this, the bakery that Alba loves is threatened with closure, and she desperately wants to find a way to hold on to a place that matters so much to her.

I loved Alba’s grandmother, Abuela Lola, and her strong, loving presence in Alba’s life. Alba blossomed in her home, and the supportive community of people with whom she was connected offered Alba the acceptance and support she so desperately needed. I also really enjoyed how much culture there was in this story, and how beautifully it was described. The streets of Barcelona really came alive for me with the sights, sounds, and smells that were described. Food was a integral part of the story, and not only did Alba connect to her Filipino heritage, but Spanish and Chinese dishes play important roles in fostering community. I appreciated that Abuela Lola asked Alba shortly after she arrived what gender she identified with, and Alba communicated that she identified as a girl but dressed the way that made her comfortable.

I think young readers will find many ways to relate to Alba and her trust issues, while also finding hope from her story.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

Take Back The Block

Author: Chrystal D. Giles

Publisher: Random House

Release Date: January 26/20

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the author and publisher for an eARC of this book.

Here’s an example of a great debut middle grade novel; it’s an excellent length at 240 pages, has short chapters, and tells a story that focuses on community and taking action to protect things that matter. It sheds light on the important issue of Black neighborhoods that are being sold and transformed into middle or upper class areas, and the history that is lost in the process.

Wes has grown up in Kensington Oaks, in the same house his mom grew up in, and that his grandfather spent ten years saving to purchase. He knows his neighbors, his friends all live here, and he’s got lots of wonderful memories from his neighborhood. But things start to change when a development group offers to buy the homes in the area to make way for new ventures. Not only does it divide the residents as people wonder what to do, but it also starts to break up Wes’s group of friends. Wes tries to bring everyone together in an effort to Take Back The Block and save it from being demolished, but even with hard work there are some changes that just can’t be prevented. Wes and his friendships are transformed, as is Kensington Oaks, in ways that no one could have predicted.

There are a lot of elements of this story that I really liked. I loved the sense of community that existed in Kensington Oaks, even when people where fighting over whether to stay or leave. Seeing a close-knit Black community in a positive light, with little crime and families who cared about their neighbors, broke many stereotypes that we often find in books (I loved that the Black police officers used to coach the baseball teams). I also loved that the history of the neighborhood was tied to the only Black lumber mill owner, and that his legacy is remembered as the story unfolds. The characters come from very different family situations and backgrounds, so we get a chance to see a wide-range of experiences, while the group of friends maintain their connections. The involvement of Wes and his family in protests for different causes, Wes’s social studies project on a modern issue in today’s society, and his involvement with Save Our City and other aid organizations is inspiring for young readers who desperately want to find ways to bring about change.

I was reminded many times of TIGHT by Torrey Maldonado and his books that focus on young middle graders, while at the same time I thought of SO DONE by Paula Chase and her characters that dealt with Black friendships and the bonds of the neighborhood. I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading more from the author.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

Real

Authors: Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard

Publisher: Shadow Mountain Publishing

Release Date: February 2/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

I have learned to shy away from reviewing books about neurodiversity. Well-meaning friends have reached out to me on more than one occasion and told me a book I’ve reviewed did not have good representation (for which I’m very grateful). I do not have family members or friends who openly discuss their neurodivergence, nor do I work in an environment where I get to build close relationships with kids who think differently than I do. Although I enjoy reading and learning about topics such as autism through middle grade books, I listen to conversations but rarely share my thoughts anymore.

But this book touched me so deeply that I bumped the post I had scheduled for today to tell you about it. In a similar way that Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, REAL by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard is the new title I will add to that list. The beauty of this story is that it is based on Peyton’s life, who was nonverbal and unable to speak or control her body as a child. She went through experiences similar to that of Charity, the main character in the story, and suffered neglect and abuse at the school she attended. At the age of 22, her mom learned about supported typing, and Peyton was finally given the opportunity to use words to communicate. The extent of her intelligence was revealed, and she soaked up the education she was given, graduating as the valedictorian from college.

REAL is told from the perspective of Charity, a thirteen year old girl who is autistic and nonverbal. She is unable to control her body, which makes it difficult for all but her closest family members to understand how smart she is. She is enrolled in Borden Academy, a school that is supposed to support alternative learning, but has a secret and dark reality. Charity’s behavioral changes prompt a surprise visit from her mom, who discovers the truth and immediately removes her from Borden. She advocates for Charity to attend a local public school, where Charity meets a wonderful, supportive team of individuals who teach her new skills and help her participate in regular classes. When one of Charity’s team suggests they try supported typing, it’s discovered that Charity is an intelligent girl with a gift for math. Charity make new friends, and impresses both the teachers and students with her thoughtful comments communicated through her device with the help of her aid. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy to have Charity included in their classes, and on the basketball team, and she faces bullying both online and in person. Charity is determined to speak up for those who do not have a voice, especially those individuals like her friend Isabella who is still at Borden, but she has many obstacles she must overcome to do it.

This story is not an easy one to read, but I believe some of the ones we most need to hear aren’t. The voice is perfect for a middle grade audience, but the subject matter makes it an excellent book to discuss with an older audience as well. I think it’s so important that students have an opportunity to understand the individuals or classmates in their schools with whom they are unable to communicate, and to see interactions through a perspective like Charity’s. The publisher includes inclusion tips from the authors to help facilitate classroom discussions, and I would love to see this book shared as a read aloud.

I highly recommend this story, and hope that your compassion, empathy, and understanding are fueled by it the way mine were.

Recommended by publisher: Ages 8-11

Amari and the Night Brothers

Author: B.B. Alston

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

Release Date: January 19/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

The cover of Amari and the Night Brothers is one of my favorites for 2021 so far, and was the first thing that drew me to this book. The second was all the positive buzz I’d heard about it, all of which is deserved. I admit that the 416 page length put me off reading it for a while, but I quickly found myself engaged in the story.

Amari’s brother, Quinton, has been missing, but no one knows what’s happened to him. When she finds a briefcase he left for her in his closet, she discovers that the summer camp he used to attend was a cover for his training at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, and he’s nominated her to try out for a spot there, too. Amari desperately wants to find her brother, but first she has to discover what he was working on, and who might be holding him. She’s thrown into a world of magic, and must compete against other kids who know much more than her in three separate tryouts. On top of that, she has high expectations placed on her, and discovers her supernatural ability is one that’s illegal and makes her even more unpopular. She has to figure out who she can trust, how to get classified information, and battle her own insecurities to save her brother, all while an evil magician is trying to destroy the whole supernatural world.

This high-action story reminded me a lot of Harry Potter, with a main character suddenly thrown into a magical world where many felt she didn’t belong, and with great things expected of her. I loved watching mentors and friends support Amari while she grew in confidence and ability, and the unexpected twists kept me wondering what was coming next. I really loved seeing a female Black character develop her own power, and despite its length, I will definitely by purchasing it to add to my library’s collection.

This is the author’s debut novel, but I’m so glad this is the start of a new series. The second book is slated for release in 2022, with the third following in 2023.

Recommended: Gr. 5-8

Hockey Night in Kenya

Authors: Danson Mutinda and Eric Walters

Illustrated by Claudia Dávila

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Release Date: October 13, 2020

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Eric Walters for sending me an eARC of this story.

This is a story I will definitely be adding to my collection. It’s a chapter book set in Kenya where two boys, Kitoo and Nigosi, share with the reader what life looks like for them in their orphanage. Kitoo loves books and reading, Nigosi loves soccer and learning to fix trucks. Kitoo learns about hockey from a book about sports around the world, and dreams of playing some day. When he comes across a pair of broken and discarded roller blades, and some players offer to share spare parts, Nigosi helps fix up a pair of skates so Kitoo can learn how to play. One thing leads to another, and Kitoo’s dream of learning to play ice hockey may be closer than he thinks.

There are too few realistic chapter books with Black male protagonists, and I really loved that this book took a sport that many Canadian children take for granted, and shows readers a new perspective of it. Danson Mutinda, one of the authors of this books, grew up in Kenya, and I cannot think of another ownvoices chapter book that’s available to Canadian readers that would show them a world so different from their own. I also love how supportive Kitoo and Nigosi are of each other; though they have different interests, they respect and acknowledge what’s important to the other person.

This is a must add to school and public libraries in Canada, but I think it’s relatable enough that I’d love to see it find an audience beyond that our borders.

RECOMMENDED: Gr. 2-5

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Author: Eiko Kadono

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Release Date: January 7, 2020

Reviewer: Kathie

I’m so grateful for recommendations that come to me from social media, especially when they’re such a delightful story like this one. Although I knew Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe was inspired by a classic story (a story that I really enjoyed this year), it wasn’t until Melissa from Crate Expectations mentioned it on Twitter as the feature book in their monthly subscription box that I took a closer look at it, and found a copy in my local indie. I’m SO glad I did, as it was just the kind of story I love to read.

Originally published in Japan in 1985 as Majyo no Takkyubin, this is the story of 13 year old Kiki, who is sets out to fulfill her mission as a witch and find a new town to call her home. She and her cat, Jiji, travel to the seaside town of Koriko, where she hopes to find a way to use her powers as a flying witch to help the community. But gaining the trust of the locals is a challenge, and Kiki must use her patience and kind heart to win them over, while building her own confidence in herself and what she has to offer.

I often feel that contemporary middle grade stories feel they have something to prove, or must teach a lesson, rather than just being a sweet story to entertain readers. I love heartwarming stories that make me feel good from start to finish, and this is exactly that type of story. Kiki finds support from her neighbor from the moment she arrives, and though not everything is smooth sailing for her, there wasn’t the emotional rollercoaster that you often find in today’s middle grade fiction. The translation was very well done as it flowed fairly smoothly in English, and at only 193 pages I think it will be easy to recommend to my patrons.

The book is also an animated film available on Netflix, so young readers may also watch to check out this version.

RECOMMENDED: Gr. 4 – 6

Flying Over Water

Authors: N.H. Senzai, Shannon Hitchcock

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Release Date: October 20/20

Reviewer: Laurie

Thank you to N.H. Senzai, Shannon Hitchcock and publisher Scholastic Press and Edelwiess+ for a digital ARC of this book.
Another two point perspective entering into the world in October, this is valuable and important read to add to classrooms and libraries.
Jordyn and Noura’s lives intersect when Jordyn’s family volunteers to help Noura’s family after being granted asylum after spending two years in a Turkish refugee camp. Both girls are dealing with more than what typical middle school students experience. Jordyn, a stong competitive swimmer has been off the mark since her mother’s miscarriage that occured during one of her meets and Noura is struggling with adapting to a new life and an intense fear of water after her best friend drowned in the Mediterranean in an attempt to flee Syria.


Told in alternating chapters, we get a glimpse into what their life is like separately and as the two girls realize they have a lot in common. Their developing friendship both in school and between their families came across authentically. Readers are introduced to cultures, architecture and religion along with mental health issues and strategies to cope. This is a timely book set just after the ban to restrict Muslims from entering the States and again readers get to see the different perspectives and how individuals rise to do the right thing. This well written this book allows readers to have windows and mirrors into the lives of others. This will be a popular and welcome addition to classrooms and libraries.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Escape from Aleppo, Ticket to India, and Saving Kabul Corner

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: One True Way, Ruby Lee and Me and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Gr 5+