Closer to Nowhere

Author: Ellen Hopkins

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Release Date: October 6/20

Reviewer: Laurie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and G.P. Putman’s Son’s for a digital eARC of this book.

As a first time reader of author Ellen Hopkins, I truly hope that she will continue to share stories for middle grade readers, her MG debut is gut-wrenchingly powerful. A story told in verse, we meet Cal and Hannah who are cousins who have their worlds turned upside down when Cal comes to live with Hannah’s family. Hannah’s mom and Cal’s mom were identical twins and with the death of Cal’s mom due to cancer and his father being in prison, he has come to live with Hannah’s family.

Hannah and Cal could not be more different personally – Hannah has a stable predictable life as an only child and is a high achiever in particular with her gymnastics, while Cal is a prankster and a reader with a wild imagination allowing him to intermix his real life with his fascinating ideas to cover for the life of turmoil he has led.

Hopkins allows the reader to see the personalities of the characters by setting up all of Cal’s sections of the book with a Fact or Fiction topic heading followed by the answer from Cal and his creative details that follow the answer.l This is juxtaposed to Hannah’s section using the logical headings of Definitions to explain and provide the details as defined by Hannah.

Through these two perspectives we see real life dynamics and tension of learning to live together as a new blended family which is compounded by the fact that Cal has been diagnosed with PTSD. Hopkins slowly unravels the true guts of what Cal has had to live through and when family truths are revealed at Thanksgiving, it no longer can be ignored. The growth of both characters as they gain new knowledge and insight about so many topics that so many middle grade readers are living themselves (blended families, privilege, addiction, incarceration, mental health, and death) is tackled with empathy while staying real and not sugar-coating or talking down to the reader. This would work well as a read aloud and provide lots of opportunities to open dialogues on some tough but real topics. Although some may say a bit long (over 400 pages) – it does not and will not read this length. This is a book that once is in the hands of one reader will be passed along to the next.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Crank Trilogy, People Kill People, Tilt, Collateral


The King of Jam Sandwiches

Author: Eric Walters

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Release Date: September 22, 2020

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the author and publisher for sending #bookportage an ARC of this book.

This upper middle grade, character-driven story is raw and powerful. 13-year-old Robbie is a smart kid who excels in school, but hides his dysfunctional home life from everyone around him. He deals with his father’s emotional instability and unpredictability by planning for the future, until he meets Harmony, a new girl who is living with a foster family. They quickly form a bond and Robbie starts to open up to her about his situation. Robbie wants to be a friend to Harmony, but learning to trust the other with their secrets is a challenge for both of them. Can Robbie and Harmony handle having someone else know so much about them, and what does that mean when things get really tough for each of them?

I really appreciate how the author opens up that this is based on his own story. Many kids will be able to relate to growing up in unstable homes, and becoming responsible for themselves or their families at a young age. It’s easy to pass judgement on a kid who comes to school with clothes that don’t fit, or eating the same jam sandwiches for lunch every day, but this story helps the reader see what could be going on behind the scenes.

I predict this book will be a hit with my patrons; Eric has written over 100 books for children, and is a very well known and popular Canadian author for children. My favorite middle grade book by him is ELEPHANT SECRET.

Land of the Cranes

Author: Aida Salazar

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Release Date: September 15/20

Reviewer: Kathie

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

This beautiful yet heartbreaking story is a must read for 2020. It’s a timely novel in verse that looks at the experience of Betita and the struggles of her family when her father is deported, and later she and her mother are held in a family detention center near the US/Mexico border.

What I loved most about this story is the hope that manages to stay alive even when things are bleak. Throughout the deplorable conditions and Betita’s struggle to come to terms with her situation, she holds on to the stories of her papi about being a crane and finding freedom. Betita’s mami connects with and teaches the young people until Betita find herself alone and must endure the conditions on her own. She uses art as a way to express her feelings, and its through this that the biggest change comes for her and those around her.

I would recommend this story to kids who have enjoyed Efren Divided, and to educators who are looking for ways to address current social issues in the classroom through fiction. It’s an excellent example of a story that one child could identify with, while another could learn empathy and understanding. I also adored the author’s debut novel THE MOON WITHIN and highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t read it yet.

Recommended: Gr. 5-8

What I Carry

Author: Jennifer Longo

Publisher: Random House

Release Date: January 21/20 (Audio July 31/20)

Reviewed by Laurie

I knew I would be listening/reading this book when I heard it being compared to Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree a story about siblings and adoption that I loved. I actually borrowed the book from my local public library and then was excited to hear it would be an audiobook and so waited for it. Totally worth it as Reba Buhr’s interpretations of the various characters was just spot on and Francine was my favourite characterization, but the main character Muir will stay with me for a very long time.

Abandoned at birth in a hospital, Muir begins life there named by the nurses after the John Muir Medical Center in California. Although Child Services lists her name as Muiriel she goes by Muir as she has deep rooted connections to her namesake John Muir, as she too has a deep rooted love for the outdoors and prefers to be in the woods. (For those unfamiliar with Muir, he was a naturalist and considered the Father of the National Parks).

Despite her love for the outdoors, Muir has lived her entire life in a variety of foster homes and has one more year until she “ages out” As a result, she has learned to pack light and not carry any additional baggage – items and people. Her case worker Jonelle is the only consistent person in her life and her last care home is to be off the coast of Seattle on a small island and Joellen has asked her to please try to be in one place for just one year and Muir has promised she would try.

As Muir begins life on the island, Luango cleverly reveals her past foster homes by Muir sharing an item in her expertly lightly packed suitcase. We learn the story of where she has lived , through a thimble, a ceramic polar bear from a box of Red Rose tea, an Allen wrench and a delicate gold chain tangled, but not broken. All of these back stories provide us insight to Muir and just how strong and resilient she is, the walls she has built and why she does not want to be dependent on anyone. All she has to do is get through this one year and then she will be free.

Except now that she is on the island, she is encountering new people who make Muir let her guard down. Her foster mother Francine seems to know exactly what Muir needs and her sense of timing to provide advice or space is allowing Muir to actually think about unpacking her suitcase. She also meets Kira also her age at the local coffee shop and she too seems to be able to disarmer Muir’s walls and finally there is Sean who shares her passion for nature and has had his own struggles. All of these characters want her to stay, but will she?

This book has strong character development and I found myself cheering all four of these characters on as they each tackled individual struggles along with trying to break down Muir’s walls. Readers will learn and hopefully connect to what it means to be a true friend. Really listening to your friend, which Kira does so well, but more importantly calls Muir on her irrational thinking when it comes to having friends and a boyfriend with humour and compassion. The relationship between Sean and Muir is also presented in a respectful manner and young adults need to see more of these meaningful and deep interactions. I especially was drawn to the way the two had two polar heroes in the area of the environment and how they would spar back and forth and then it is Sean who provides another way for the two to become closer. Finally, the relationship between Francine, and Muir are perhaps my favourite – as it is Francine who is the catalyst to make things different for Muir by giving her space but having boundaries and the manner in which she speaks to her. We all need a Francine in our lives to show us how we can be loved in different ways.

Not only is the character development so strong but also the topics in the various plots – Longo explores the systematic failure of the current foster system and adoption, along with bullying, racism, addiction and the environment. All of these topics deepen our understanding of the characters, but also remind us that there are serious problems that need to be addressed in real life.

As I was reading this story I was mindful and wondering if this would turn out to be an #ownvoices novel and waited until the end to read the Author’s Note. I was relieved and grateful to find out it Jenifer Luango’s connection to this story and how she wasn’t sure she should tell the story. I appreciated the research and the hard conversations Longo had with foster kids to write this beautiful book and share this story that needs to be told. In addition to there are various links placed at the end to answer any other questions and for further investigation.

Muir is a character that will stay with me for a long time for her resiliency, her love of nature, and for standing up for what is right in a system filled with so many wrongs. This is a MUST ADD and one of the few books I would say worth listening to the audio versus reading.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Six Feet Over It  and Up to This Pointe 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for your YA collection (some language and sexual content)