Tag Archives: middle grade

Late to the Party ARC Review – Freeing Finch by Ginny Rorby

Title: Freeing Finch

Author: Ginny Rorby

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When her father leaves and her mother passes away soon afterward, Finch can’t help feeling abandoned. Now she’s stuck living with her stepfather and his new wife. They’re mostly nice, but they don’t believe the one true thing Finch knows about herself: that she’s a girl, even though she was born in a boy’s body.

Thankfully, she has Maddy, a neighbor and animal rescuer who accepts her for who she is. Finch helps Maddy care for a menagerie of lost and lonely creatures, including a scared, stray dog who needs a family and home as much as she does. As she earns the dog’s trust, Finch realizes she must also learn to trust the people in her life–even if they are the last people she expected to love her and help her to be true to herself. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Freeing Finch is an important story about a young trans-girl who has lost her mother, is forced to live with her step-father, and who is learning to come into her own. It’s the story of unlikely friendships, how to cope with being different, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable moments from bullying, to trans-shaming, to just uncomfortable dialogue.

I want to stress this is not a bad book, but it is a book that is written with very specific intentions. It concerns me that Finch is forced to stay with an abusive parent (and then is weirdly just okay with him later on), and there’s just a lot of disturbing instances in this story that I wondered a bit about. The bits with Finch and her dog were wonderful and I wanted to cry, but her interactions with other people outside of her neighbor Maddy were difficult to read about. There is a lot of misgendering in this story, and there’s so much tragedy in this story to the point where it felt like torture and it was too much at times. I think given the author was not writing from experience, there may have been instances where she missed the mark on the subjects she was trying to display in the story.

This was a quick read, regardless of my complaints. I read it in two sittings and there was moments that I did genuinely enjoy, mainly which were the interactions with Maddie and her step-mother actually admitting her failures of misgendering and standing up for Finch in the story. I just wish this story hadn’t entirely been all about abusing Finch as a character, because there is so little hope in this story, and for middle grade readers — we need some hope!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Title: Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey

Author: Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Who is to say what this word means? For Magda Newman, it was a goal. She wanted her son Nathaniel to be able to play on the playground, swim at the beach, enjoy the moments his friends took for granted. But Nathaniel’s severe Treacher Collins syndrome–a craniofacial condition–meant that other concerns came first. Could he eat without the aid of a gastrointestinal tube? Could he hear? Would he ever be able to breathe effortlessly? But Nathaniel looks at “normal” from a completely different perspective.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Normal is a memoir by a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrom, a craniofacial condition that is very unique. Written from the dual perspective of Nathaniel and Magda Newman, this book follows Nathaniel’s life growing up with TC and being the inspiration for R.J Palacio’s “Auggie” in her famous book Wonder!

This was a fast and compulsive read. What I enjoyed about this book was the honest and difficultly that comes with talking about such a subject matter, and I loved particularly Nathaniel’s parts given he is very forthcoming about how he was treated by other kids, how he handles his condition, and ultimately how Wonder helped a generation of kids learn to accept people born with unique differences. There’s a lot of good conversation starters for kids in this book, and I think there’s a lot of value in learning about how someone survives given unique circumstances. This family clearly has had hardship, but they also show amazing resilience as well.

I think for younger readers who are curious about the inspiration for Wonder will definitely find some enjoyment here. I don’t know how much of a book there would have been given the importance of Wonder in this family’s life, but I think Normal is a good and accessible memoir for younger readers, and I think Nathaniel’s struggles and triumph’s will definitely resonate for many people.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Taylor Before and After by Jennie Englund

Title: Taylor Before and After

Author: Jennie Englund

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Before, Taylor Harper is finally popular, sitting with the cool kids at lunch, and maybe, just maybe, getting invited to the biggest, most exclusive party of the year.

After, no one talks to her.

Before, she’s friends with Brielle Branson, the coolest girl in school.

After, Brielle has become a bully, and Taylor’s her favorite target.

Before, home isn’t perfect, but at least her family is together.

After, Mom won’t get out of bed, Dad won’t stop yelling, and Eli…

Eli’s gone.

Through everything, Taylor has her notebook, a diary of the year that one fatal accident tears her life apart. In entries alternating between the first and second semester of her eighth-grade year, she navigates joy and grief, gain and loss, hope and depression.

How can Taylor pick up the pieces of what used to be her social life? How can her house ever feel like home again after everything that’s happened? And how can she move forward if she can’t stop looking back?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Ho boy, this book. For a book that is considered middle grade, this actually feels like it should have been categorized in young adult. I want to stress that this book goes over a lot of difficult subject matters, and I am not saying a middle grader can’t comprehend them, but what I am saying is just be aware that this is a wonderful but difficult book with some hard conversations attached.

Taylor Before and After is told in a unique “before” and “after” style, alternating between two timelines. It’s a style that even with the journal entries will take a bit of getting used to. This is a story of friendships going wrong, family relationships crumbling at the seams, and one girl’s attempt to comprehend all of it as she compares her past to her present. Taylor is difficult, she’ not the most open of protagonists, and often the journal entries require a bit of detective work to get the whole story of why she is friendless or why her brother is missing. It’s done very well, might I add, and Taylor is a character you definitely can empathize with.

I want to add this book is very hopeful, and the style is inviting to say the least. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was happening between the timelines and piece together the large part of this story. It’s a bit of a mystery, which I appreciate, but it’s also a story that rings true I think for a lot of kids who may be coping with too much happening at once and are struggling to articulate it. Taylor Before and After is a very rewarding read, and one I’ll happily recommend to those who love difficult stories with complex kids at the heart of it.

Late to the Party ARC Review – A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O Dulemba

Title: A Bird on Water Street

Author: Elizabeth O Dulemba

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Living in Coppertown is like living on the moon. Everything is bare-there are no trees, no birds, no signs of nature at all. And while Jack loves his town, he hates the dangerous mines that have ruined the land with years of pollution. When the miners go on strike and the mines are forced to close, Jack’s life-long wish comes true: the land has the chance to heal.

But not everyone in town is happy about the change. Without the mines, Jack’s dad is out of work and the family might have to leave Coppertown. Just when new life begins to creep back into town, Jack might lose his friends, his home, and everything he’s ever known.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

A Bird on Water Street was a quick read, but that might be all it has going for it. I was interested in reading it because it’s a book about unions, lack of equality, and has a strong environmental theme running through it.

Here’s the thing: the bits about climate change and the political elements of this book were great, I will not take that away from the book. However, the writing style is flat, and while I read this book quickly, I wasn’t in love with or interested in a lot of what was happening. Jack, the protagonist in this story learns so much so quickly, yet he doesn’t feel like a real kid in the story for me. When he feels like a kid in the story, it’s very wooden and he lacks a lot of personality. If I am being honest, I barely remember Jack having much of a personality in this story.

I feel bad being harsh regarding A Bird on Water Street, but it’s one of those middle grade books that for me is one that teacher’s and schools will love, but I don’t actually know how many middle grade kids would actually pick this book up. I think it has a lot of valuable messages, but don’t come to this book looking for a character you can connect with, because Jack is simply not that.

ARC Review – The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Title: The Only Black Girls in Town

Author: Brandy Colbert

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems. 

Huge thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Want to read a wonderful book with great characters and a good mystery? The Only Black Girls in Town is Brandy Colbert’s middle grade debut, and my goodness was it a chef’s kiss of a story.

Albert and her family for the longest time, were the only black family in town. Her best friend, Laramie, though wonderful, cannot necessarily understand everything that Alberta goes through in terms of how differently at times she is treated by others. When Alberta learns that a new black girl has moved to town, she is elated. While Alberta is hoping that she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends, she starts to learn that Edie is struggling with being homesick for Brooklyn, New York. When the girls begin to explore Edie’s new home, they find old journals sharing painful secrets of someone’s life who was left behind.

I loved this book! I loved the distinct voices between Alberta and Edie. I love how genuine both girls are with each other and how they don’t shame others for not necessarily knowing what it’s like to be black — in fact this story has the characters doing a great job of educating others! The best parts of the story were the girls reading the journals that had been left behind and having the desire to find out who they in fact belonged to. There’s a really good mystery there, and I loved the end results of the story because the payoff was very good.

This is a great middle grade debut that offers a lot to younger readers. It’s a great story about being different and yet having your differences be complimented and wanted. I love how so many elements, such as Alberta having two dads, is very normalized in the story, and I loved and wanted to hug Edie when she felt homesick. Definitely check out this book if you love a good contemporary story!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai

Title: Under a Broken Sky

Author: Mariko Nagai

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Natsu and her family live a quiet farm life in Manchuria, near the border of the Soviet Union. But the life they’ve known begins to unravel when her father is recruited to the Japanese army, and Natsu and her little sister, Asa, are left orphaned and destitute.

In a desperate move to keep her sister alive, Natsu sells Asa to a Russian family following the 1945 Soviet occupation. The journey to redemption for Natsu’s broken family is rife with struggles, but Natsu is tenacious and will stop at nothing to get her little sister back.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

While I am not a huge lover of historical fiction, Under the Broken Sky caught my eye because it’s a book rooted in Japanese history. More specifically, the 1945 Soviet occupation, which ended up pushing so many Japanese family apart for a variety of reasons, none of them good.

Under the Broken Sky is a story written in verse, as it looks as twelve-year-old Natsu, who has lived with her family near the Manchurian/Soviet border for her entire life. When the Russian began to push into Manchuria, Natsu and her sister Asa are forced to flee, and become orphaned in the process. Even worse is in this period upon which they are destitute, Natsu is forced to sell her sister Asa to a Russian Family in order to ensure her survival.

This story is heartbreaking from start to finish. It’s a difficult tale of losing everything and having to cope with so much happening at a young age. Natsu’s story is horrific, and you feel for both the destruction that she witnesses, and the sacrifices she must make being only twelve-years-old. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to younger middle grade readers, I feel confident that older readers will enjoy the story. It’s a challenging story to stomach at times, but it’s also a very valuable one to say the least.

ARC Review – Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith

Title: Gloom Town

Author: Ronald L. Smith

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When twelve-year-old Rory applies for a job at a spooky old mansion in his gloomy seaside town, he finds the owner, Lord Foxglove, odd and unpleasant. But he and his mom need the money, so he takes the job anyway. Rory soon finds out that his new boss is not just strange, he’s not even human—and he’s trying to steal the townspeople’s shadows. Together, Rory and his friend Isabella set out to uncover exactly what Foxglove and his otherworldly accomplices are planning and devise a strategy to defeat them. But can two kids defeat a group of ancient evil beings who are determined to take over the world?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Gloom Town is the story of twelve-year-old Rory, who decided to apply for a job at a spooky mansion called Foxglove, as a means to help out his mother who is financially struggling. Rory thinks the job should be easy, until he uncovers that their may be something more sinister going on at the manor. Rory finds out that his new employer is a shadowy figure who likes to steal people’s shadows — he’s not even human! Rory and his new friend Izzy must stop the crazy cultists of Foxglove Manor before more people potentially lose their shadows!

This book was a lot of fun and I quite enjoyed it. It definitely has a spooky Harriet The Spy vibe floating through the narrative and Rory and Izzy make for fun investigators to follow. I sort of wished the big bad in this story felt like a real big bad, but I appreciate the effort that went into this book for understanding that cultists might in fact be hard to pitch to a middle grade audience. The friendship between Izzy and Rory is easily the book’s strongest element, especially as they are trying to uncover the big bad, but I just wish that the big bad and it’s reveal had been stronger.

I do think this is going to be a great book to recommend to middle grader fans, if only because it moves at such a quick pace and the mystery element is good, even if the payoff isn’t as strong. There is a lot of fun and quirkiness in this story, and I truly enjoyed my time reading it.

Two Fantastic Graphic Novels

One o f my goals this year is to try and highlight more awesome, standalone graphic novels. Here are two recent reads I absolutely adored!


Title: The Okay Witch

Author: Emma Steinkellner

Published: September 3rd 2019 by Aladdin

Thoughts: I loved this graphic novel! There’s the right amount of magic and whimsy! There is also a fantastic message about loving the skin your in and building your self-confidence. Reminded me a bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service, aka my favourite Studio Ghibli movie! This graphic novel is great for anyone who loves a witchy tale or about personal growth (and magic usage!)

 

Title: Go With the Flow

Author: Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann

Published: January 14th 2020 by First Second

Thoughts: Essential reading that needs to be in every public and school library. This book is amazing! It is a fantastic friendship story, it’s also a great book that looks at how unique and different each woman’s period is. This book is all about ensuring equal access to feminine hygiene products in all schools with the hope of ensuring that girls everywhere can get the support they need. This book is funny, it is gorgeously illustrated, and it’s clever as all heck.


What are some great, recent graphic novels on your radar?

ARC Review – The Newspaper Club by Beth Vrabel

Title: The Newspaper Club

Author: Beth Vrabel

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Shortly after Nellie Murrow, named for one of the fiercest journalists who ever lived and daughter of two (former) newspaper reporters, move to sleepy Bear Creek, Maine, rumors of vandalism and attacks at the only park in town are keeping Nellie saddled to the house.

Some townspeople say the attacks are gang recruitments. Others blame a vagrant spotted on the hiking trails around town. But when Nellie thinks like a reporter, none of those explanations make sense. Something is happening at the park, but what? All of the fake online news and rumors are clouding the real news.

Nellie wants to break the story–and break free from the front yard-but she can’t do it alone. She needs a whole club if she’s going to start the town’s first independent newspaper–The Cub Report. Creating a newspaper from scratch is going to be tough; but for Nellie, making friends is even harder.

Huge thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I loved and read Beth Vrabel’s The Humiliations of Pipi McGee last year, and thought it was such a fun and fantastic middle grade novel. Humour and character connection is definitely a strong point for Vrabel, so I was excited to dig into her latest book, The Newspaper Club.

The Newspaper Club focuses on Nellie Murrow, a talented and up-and-coming journalist, who comes from a long line of news writers and enthusiasts. With rumours of vandalism swirling around Bear Creek, townspeople have become concerned about the safety of their small town. Nellie decides that the larger newspapers aren’t going to look into this situation, she will!

This book is adorable and spunky. Nellie is such a fun heroine! She is inquisitive, clever, almost Harriet the Spy-esque in terms of her abilities. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and seek the truth, something she feels all good reporters should be able to do. When Nellie starts to realize that this story is bigger than her, she creates a club that encourages other children to be apart of.

This is a fantastic story about community engagement and loving your town. There is civic pride, and I love that Nellie is a character who chooses to ask for help because she recognizes that this story is bigger than she can handle on her own. There are strong themes of friendship and camaraderie. While the mystery element is core to the plot, I feel like this book is more about just building relationships and strengthening community.

The Newspaper Club is a fun and fast romp into media. It’s book that you can easily read in a day because it’s just so charming and entertaining.

ARC Review – A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Title: A Galaxy of Sea Stars

Author: Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: At a time when everything in her small town of Seaside, Rhode Island, seems like it’s changing, eleven-year-old Izzy Vitale wants things to stay the same. She wants her dad to start acting like he did before he was deployed to Afghanistan, she wants her mom to move back to the marina where they live, but most of all, she wants best friends – Piper and Zelda (dubbed the Sea Star Posse by their kindergarten teacher) – to stay best friends as they begin sixth grade at the regional middle school.

Then, Izzy’s father invites his former Army interpreter from Afghanistan and his whole family – including eleven-year-old Sitara — to move into the upstairs apartment at the marina. Izzy doesn’t know what to make of Sitara with her hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food. She does know that her constant presence has become like a rogue wave disrupting the normally easy flow of the Sea Star Posse. But as Izzy gets to know Sitara, she can’t help but admire her self-confidence and pride in her Muslim faith. Little by little, Izzy begins to realize there exists a world much larger than her safe but insulated harbor in Seaside.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Last year, I fell in love with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo’s debut Ruby in the Sky — it was an emotional story about a girl whose mother was potential on her way to prison. It was touching, heart-breaking, and full of feelings. This year, she released A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and showed she is going to be a great new voice in middle grade.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars tells the story of Izzy, a girl with many friends, but who wants life to stay the same. She wishes her dad would go back to normal, but he suffers from PTSD after being deployed in Afghanistan, her mom hasn’t been the same either, and she meet a new friend in Sitara, who’s father was an former Army interpreter from Afghanistan, and with him comes his daughter Sitara, who changes Izzy’s life forever.

This book is a hard read, but it depicts middle grade difficulties with gentleness and looks are issues in a very direct way. Izzy and Sitara’s relationship is amazing to read about, and the trials and tribulations of it feel very real. Izzy’s failures at being a good friend to Sitara are uncomfortable, but show great moments for growth and learning. The way in which Izzy’s friends treat Sitara are horrific and uncomfortable, and this book looks at how do you stand up to injustice when you’ve never had to before? Izzy learns so much in this story, and the wrongs that she has done are great learning points for this age group.

This is a story of becoming comfortable in your own skin, finding and championing social inequality, and speaking important truths. It’s about understanding that the world will never be stagnant, and that things always change, and that no person’s course in life stays the same. A Galaxy of Sea Stars offers so much to readers of all ages, and tackles these subject matters effortlessly. I even cried a few times!