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

Many Points of Me

Author: Caroline Gertler

Publisher: Greenwillow

Release Date: January 12/21

Length: 352 pages

Reviewer: Laurie

A coming of age story dealing with grief, identity and friendship, Carolyn Gertler’s debut Many Points of Me places you in New York City sharing the love of art and a mystery for eleven-year-old Georgia. An extraordinary middle-grade debut read!

Georgia’s famous artistic father died a little over a year ago. She misses him but feels like she has had to share him and his death with the world and struggles with that. Her mother is busy planning a memorial exhibit at the Met, and Georgia’s father’s artwork is all over the apartment. When Georgia discovers some crude sketches on the back of a piece her father did of her when she was 10, she feels like she stumbled on the notes of his last unfinished painting and removes it, telling no one. Georgia hopes that this sketch will prove that the unfinished painting in his final asterism series was to be of her, demonstrating the importance of his relationship to her. At the same time, her BFF Theo is bugging her to join him in entering a piece into an art contest. When she refuses, he mistakenly enters the sketch Georgia found, thinking it was hers and not her father’s. Now not only is her friendship with Theo strained, but Georgia must get the sketch removed from the contest. Due to her frustration with her friendship with Theo, Georgia joins a new social circle. Hanging out with the popular girls doesn’t alleviate her friendship problems; instead, it creates additional ones. So now life has become even more complicated. 

Many Points of Me will resonate with middle-grade readers; the tension when friendships go awry, the longing of wanting to belong and the journey of figuring out who you are and where you fit in relationships. The grieving and healing that Georgia goes through trying to figure out how to move forward felt very real, and I believe it will help others in similar situations. This debut book, full of heart, has realistic relationships, self-discovery and is all mixed in with art, making it a welcome addition to classrooms and libraries.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Gr. 5+

Meow or Never

Author: Jazz Taylor

Publisher: Scholastics Inc.

Release Date: Jan 5/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and Scholastics Inc. for an eARC of this book.

I really enjoyed this story about Avery, a girl with social anxiety who signs up to be part of the school play to be around her crush and to calm her dad’s fears about her panic attacks, and is horrified to discover she is cast as the lead role. Avery has to first deal with her difficulty speaking to others, and then must figure out how to sing and act in front of an audience, with only 6 weeks until the play. Fortunately, she makes some friends along the way that support her, including a cat who lives in the closet of the school’s theatre. But will it be enough to help her get up on stage and perform the night of the play?

This is a very cute cover, but there’s a lot of depth to this book. I really appreciated that it’s a story about a Black girl written by Black author. I liked that Avery’s crush is on Nic, the prettiest girl in her school who also becomes her friend. I also felt the anxiety representation was very good. Avery’s friends learns to help her with her panic attacks, and offer support rather than judgment. We clearly see that her physical reactions are not a choice, and the process of preparing herself for the play feels very realistic. I especially like the resolution of the story. Avery works hard to face her fears, and many of the techniques she uses will be helpful for young readers. I loved watching her persistence and determination, continually making steps toward her goal even when it’s hard.

I think this is an excellent addition to middle grade collections, and I hope it’s available in Scholastic flyers so it reaches a larger audience.

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

The Sea in Winter

Author: Christine Day

Publisher: Heartdrum

Release: January 5/21

Reviewer: Kathie

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

I requested this eARC because I enjoyed the author’s first book, I CAN MAKE THIS PROMISE, and the cover on this book totally sucked me in. I’m so glad I did, because this is a book I’ll be recommending for several reasons. It’s also from a new publisher, Heartdrum, that’s focus is Native creators and their stories. I’m excited to read other releases from them, including an anthology entitled ANCESTOR APPROVED which comes out in Feb, 2021.

All Maisie wants to do is recover from her ACL injury, and get back to dancing. She has dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, and auditions are already taking place for summer intensives. But although she’s making strides, the injury is taking time to heal, and she’s frustrated, feeling alienated from the world that she feels is like a second home. Her mom and step-dad want to help her, but she has so many feelings inside that she starts directing them at the people she loves. A family hiking trip leads to emotions coming to a boil, just when Maisie is going to need her family the most.

I loved this story, partly because Maisie’s passion was so palpable, but also because the frustration, impatience, and longing to return to something she loved is so relatable. Many young athletes will face a setback at some point in their lives, and learning how to deal with the realities of it and looking outside the narrow path one has chosen is a valuable learning experience. I also really loved her relationship with her family, and how supportive her mom and step-dad try to be. There is a lot of love in this family, clearly visible even through the hurt and anger. I also really enjoyed Maisie connecting to her family heritage. Her mom is Makah, her father was Piscataway, and her step-dad, Jack, is from the Elwha Klallam Tribe. Jack knows a great deal about the Pacific Northwest history, and through his stories, and the stories of her mom during their hiking trip to her area where she grew up, there is a lot of valuable Native history taught through this story.

I will definitely be adding this book to my collection in the new year, and look forward to reading more from this author.

Recommended: Gr. 5-8

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

The Fabulous Zed Watson

Authors: Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: January 26/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the authors for sending me an ARC of this book to review.

This was my most anticipated read of 2021, and it exceeded my expectations. I first heard about it last year at NerdCampMI, when Kevin shared that he was writing a middle grade fiction book with his child, Basil. It was the same time that I learned Kevin’s picture book, Gargantua Jr., had a lot more depth than I realized because the main character’s gender was never discussed yet I had attributed one to them without realizing it. I was eager to read The Fabulous Zed Watson and see the world through the eyes of a nonbinary tween, not only for the perspective, but with the hope of expanding my own knowledge about the idea of gender. I was pleasantly surprised that the story did that, and also treated me to a funny, entertaining, and uplifting mystery about a road trip quest to discover the whereabouts of a long lost book.

Zed is part of an online fandom for The Monster’s Castle, a manuscript written by H.K. Taylor that was buried several years ago by the author when he was told the world was not ready for his book’s storylines. Zed and the other fandom members are left to try and crack the code of the poem left behind, unsure if the manuscript even truly exists, but full of hope that it’s waiting to be found. When a discussion leads to a breakthrough, Zed desperately wants to take a road trip to follow the clues and look for it. They team up with their neighbor, Gabe, and his sister, Sam, on her return trip to college to head off on their quest. Although the trip is far from easy with three very different personalities in a small space, the trio not only learn to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies but have a lot of fun (and SO much ice cream!) along the way. They discover they are on the right track, and have interesting experiences at each of their stops as they start to put together clues to the location of their final destination. But they discover they are not the only ones searching for the manuscript, and it becomes a race to see who can find the book first.

My favorite thing about this story was how positive and fun it was to read. I was expecting an “issues” book which often come across as heavy and serious, but this was a joy-filled adventure that still communicated who Zed is and what they experience. Zed has a big personality but Gabe accepts them and tries to understand them rather than judging them. Gabe struggles with having interests that aren’t accepted by everyone around him, but Zed provides support and respect for his interests. It’s a story about friendship, but also about identity and acceptance.

There are so few ownvoices middle grade stories with nonbinary characters, so I sincerely hope this book will make its way into as many classrooms, libraries, and homes as possible. Although this is Basil’s debut, Kevin has a wide range of books for kids all ages. My personal favorite is the science fiction MiNRS series, but his latest is a humorous chapter book series called Hockey Super Six about a team of hockey players with special powers. Both The Puck Drops Here and On Thin Ice are available now in Canada from Scholastic.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

Dear Justyce

Author: Nic Stone

Narrator: Dion Graham

Publisher: Crown

Release Date: September 29/20

Page Length: 288 pages, Audiobook 4 hrs. 45 min.

Reviewer: Laurie

I first became familiar with author Nic Stone when I was part of Jennifer LaGuardia’s and Jennifer Northrup’s #2jennsbookclub, and one of the selections to read was her debut, Dear Martin.  I listened to the audiobook of Dear Martin narrated by Dion Graham, and my white-privileged eyes became wide open as the story unfolded. As much as I thought Dear Martin is a book that needed to be read and unpacked with young adults and adults, I believe Dear Justyce is on an even higher plane because it will connect to more readers personally as it either reflects their own story or, of someone they know. It is not necessary to read Dear Martin first, but it will provide more context to Dear Justyce.

Right from the opening, we hear Nic Stone introducing in her voice Dear Reader and how she never intended to write this book. It came about from a series of texts from some boys that she had met writing Dear Martin. The boys shared the fact that they are so very different from Justyce, how they needed their story told and how Nic Stone was their voice. From there, she realized that there was a character from Dear Martin, Vernelle LaQuan Bank Jr., who had a story that readers needed to hear.

Similar in format to Dear Martin, Vernelle LaQuan Bank Jr. (known as Quan) reveals his story in a series of flashbacks and letters. This time the letters’ recipient is Justyce, who now is in law school. Quan is in a holding cell awaiting trial for the murder of a police officer, although innocent. As he sits in jail, we see the injustice of all the systems that failed to support him and countless other Black kids that leads to where he sits now.

Dion Graham’s narrated both books that added to the story as he created a variety of different voices and used his pacing to create tension and to indicate how quickly events were happening. The various inflections used in specific characters also made certain scenes more dynamic. As I listened, you could hear the many emotions that Quan experienced and felt like you were listening to dialogue from a movie as hard as it was to listen to Quan’s story.

Gutwrenching and hard to read because it so accurately portrays what is happening today and not just in America. It is yet another wake-up call to expose the systemic racism that exists and begs us to change our ways so that Quan’s story is fictional rather than being almost biographical.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Dear Martin (Dear Martin, #1), Clean Getaway, and Shuri: A Black Panther Novel 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Gr. 8+

Clues to the Universe

Author: Christina Li

Publisher: Quill Tree Books

Release Date: January 12/21

Reviewer: Kathie

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

This story is told in the alternating voices of Ro and Benji. Ro is starting a new school and is reeling from the death of her father a few months ago. Benji’s best friend moved away and he’s immersed himself in the world of his comics. When they accidentally switch purple folders during science class, they get a glimpse into the other’s lives, and are brought together when they return the folders and decide to work together to find Benji’s dad, and build Ro’s rocket for their science fair project. But things don’t run smoothly with either project, and the pair will have to accept that sometimes plans don’t always turn out the way you expect, and less than perfect may be good enough.

I really love the characters in this story, and the alternating viewpoints makes this a richer story with the perspective of both kids. I also love that Mr. Voltz, an elderly neighbor of Ro and the boss of Benji’s brother, Daniel, is connected to each of them in the beginning but plays a unifying role as the story develops. Ro’s family is Chinese American, and Benji gets to spend Chinese New Year with them, so I enjoyed the inclusion of the cultural details. I also saw a lot of myself in Ro, including her tenacity, her inability to give up on an idea, and wanting things to turn out perfect or the way they are “supposed” to be. There’s a lot that these characters can teach each other, and their influence on each other is powerful.

I would recommend this book for middle grade classrooms and libraries, and I look forward to reading more from this debut author.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7