Tag Archives: middle grade

ARC Review – Give and Take by Elly Swartz

Title: Give & Take

Author: Elly Swartz

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Maggie knows her new baby sister who smells like powder isn’t her sister for keeps. Izzie is a foster baby awaiting adoption. So in a day or a week, she’ll go to her forever family and all that sweetness will be gone. Except for those things Maggie’s secretly saving in the cardboard boxes in her closet and under her bed. Baby socks, binkies, and a button from Bud the Bear. Rocks, sticks, and candy wrappers. Maggie holds on tight. To her things. Her pet turtle. Her memories of Nana. And her friends. But when Maggie has to say goodbye to Izzie, and her friend gets bumped from their all-girl trapshooting squad to make room for a boy, Maggie’s hoarding grows far beyond her control and she needs to find the courage to let go.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am clearly a huge fan of books featuring turtle pets in them.

All hail Bert the Turtle.

Anyways,

Years ago, I read Elly Swartz’s debut novel Finding Perfect, and adored it. Swartz has this amazing ability to tackle tough subjects in middle grade in such a way where it is both gentle and effective. Give & Take looks at twelve-year-old Maggie, who falls in love with a baby her parents are fostering, but is forced to learn that not everything in permanent and change can be challenging.

What I love about this book is it’s portrayal of coping mechanisms. In this story Maggie hordes anything and everything. She has an compulsion to keep things like candy wrappers and garbage, but treats it with the utmost care. She knows where everything is in her room, and throughout the story is grasping with two concepts: the idea that she has a lot of things but struggles to part with them, and the understanding that she attributes value to items that are deemed valueless. When Izzie, the baby her parents are fostering comes and goes in the story, Maggie’s triggers become clearer in the story and she is aware in a lot of ways that she is grieving something beyond her control.

This book is beautiful and sad, but super hopeful as well. Maggie learning to manage herself is difficult to read at times, but Swartz does it in a way where the reader is rooting for her. We want to see her succeed, we want to see her grow, we want her to know that grieving is a natural thing. There’s a lot of emotional impact in this story, but it’s very subtle throughout.

Give & Take is a fantastic read for those who love gentler books but want them to still have an emotional punch. This book took me awhile to read, and that’s mainly because I was so absorbed in Maggie’s world and wanting to understand her and her thought process. I think many readers will be able to identify with Maggie in some way, and her voice and charm really do make her the MVP of this very emotional read.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

Title: Anya and the Dragon

Author: Sofiya Pasternack

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Headstrong Anya is the daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of Fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough—until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I enjoyed Anya and the Dragon. It weirdly reminded me of the 1996 film Dragonheart. This book features a Russian-Jewish heroine who is trying to protect her family’s livelihood. Anya is lured by a group called The Fools into finding the last dragon in exchange to be able to provide for her family. She accepts, but doesn’t realize what the mission is truly about.

I want to stress a few things about this book: this book is slow and thoughtful. If you are not a patient reader, this book is 100% not for you. Everything takes a lot of time to develop and the build is very thoughtful throughout. Anya’s relationship with the dragon is easily the best part of the book, and those moments show the more subtle side to the story. There were times due to pacing where I was definitely into the story and curious about where it was going to move, and other times where I admit, I was bored and skimmed. For me, it wasn’t a story that was consistently interesting, and that is okay.

But I will say there are some excellent themes in this story — particularly what it means to love and protect your family, being brave when you’ve never had to, and finding courage to speak up and speak out against injustice. The friendship between Anya and Ivan and the dragon is easily one of the most heartwarming and charming I’ve ever read about, and it was easily some of my favourite moments in the story.

Anya and the Dragon is a great debut for a specific kind of reader. I think if you’re someone who loves a gentler story and doesn’t mind a slow pace, this book will hook you very easily. If you’re like me and you need a bit more movement and flow, this book can feel a bit rocky at times. In spite of my criticisms, I think overall it’s an interesting debut, and I’d definitely read another book from Sofiya Pasternack in the future.

ARC Review – The Humiliations of Pipi McGee by Beth Vrabel

Title: The Humiliations of Pipi McGee

Author: Beth Vrabel

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: From her kindergarten self-portrait as a bacon with boobs, to fourth grade when she peed her pants in the library thanks to a stuck zipper to seventh grade where…well, she doesn’t talk about seventh grade. Ever.

After hearing the guidance counselor lecturing them on how high school will be a clean slate for everyone, Pipi–fearing that her eight humiliations will follow her into the halls of Northbrook High School–decides to use her last year in middle school to right the wrongs of her early education and save other innocents from the same picked-on, laughed-at fate. Pipi McGee is seeking redemption, but she’ll take revenge, too.

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

Sam’s Review:

I think everyone may be able to relate to having middle school blunders. While I don’t think a lot of drew ourselves as bacon with boobs in kindergarten only to have it haunt you on your first day of grade eight, I The Humiliations of Pipi McGee is a book that will make you laugh, smile, and empathize.

Pipi McGee is a girl who has had some struggles throughout her middle school career. Some of them infamous, others more subtle, and Pipi just can’t catch a break. Moving into eighth grade, Pipi is hoping for a fresh start, especially because she will not talk about seventh grade no matter how hard you try. Armed with Myrtle the Turtle and her best friend, Tasha, Pipi is hoping for a prank free year.

This book is genuine on so many levels. It’s humour is delightful, the characters are recognizable and ones you can sympathize with throughout. Pipi’s hardships are difficult, yet this story is very gentle in how it handles issues of humiliation and discouragement. Pipi spends a lot of the novel having to learn with her past mistakes, while also grow as an individual. She does awful things in the story, often ending up flat on her butt as punishment, and yet she is always learning, and that makes a great character. This book also features such a diverse cast of friends and family, and I like that Pipi has a close support network with her family. Her dad made me chuckle a few times!

This is a great read for middle graders who are struggling to figure out who they want to be in a time where they are moving to high school. Pipi is funny, quirky, and totally adorable as a heroine. This book is definitely recommend for readers who love Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but who also recognize that Greg is a terrible friend, where Pipi is not. Fast-paced and cheekily written, The Humiliations of Pipi McGee is a memorable romp in surviving the last year of middle school.

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

Title: The Other Half of Happy

Author: Rebecca Balcárcel

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I really enjoyed The Other Half of Happy! It was my first time reading a story with a Guatemalan protagonist. Quijiana is a wonderful heroine to follow — she cannot speak Spanish, she doesn’t know how to play guitar, and she spends a lot of the novel fighting her family’s traditions.

This book tells the story of someone who is clearly Americanized but learning how to preserve her family’s culture. When the novel is about Quijana’s family, her interactions with her grandmother or the fights with her father, this book is fabulous and raw. Some of my favourite moments in particular, were any cases where Quijana would text her grandmother for advice or when she was feeling down. It was so pure and sweet! I also love the scenes with Quijana’s father, mainly because I feel for him — he wants to share his family’s heritage and get Quijana to appreciate his roots but he struggles to communicate these feelings to her and so they clash. The way in which family is portrayed in The Other Half of Happyis what makes this story feel so special.

The other half of the novel regarding Quijana’s school life and her crush… I admit, I didn’t dig those parts as much. The parts of the story regarding her crush didn’t add anything special to the story for me, but perhaps for another reader I could see it working for them. I just found those parts of the story to meander and not add anything special to the overarching theme, which was family and cultural identity. I wish I loved that part as much of the rest of the book, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me.

Do I still recommend The Other Half of Happy? Absolutely! I feel like many younger readers will definitely find the story engaging, and I think Quijana is a character many readers will be able to relate to. This is a fantastic story about growing up, accepting parts of your roots, and coming to terms with cultural differences. This is a great book for readers who love a good family-centered narrative.

ARC Review – Stargazing by Jen Wang

Title: Stargazing

Author: Jen Wang

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When Moon’s family moves in next door to Christine’s, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend―maybe even the perfect friend. The girls share their favorite music videos, paint their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around, and make plans to enter the school talent show together. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she sometimes has visions of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

But when they’re least expecting it, catastrophe strikes. After relying on Moon for everything, can Christine find it in herself to be the friend Moon needs?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Jen Wang does no wrong in my eyes. I’ve loved every single graphic novel she has put out and her art style and stories are always engaging. Stargazing is an amazing story about friendship, and it packs a surprise gut punch that the reader won’t see coming.

Christine has grown up with strict parents and a lack of fun in her life — that was until Moon and her family become her next door neighbors. Moon is a Buddhist, she is a vegetarian, she’s tough, and assertive. She’s everything Christine isn’t, and yet they create a very unlikely friendship. This book looks at how friendships are formed, even in the strangest of circumstances and how being different gives us strength. Both girls are characters I think readers will be able to relate to, and I feel like they will offering dueling perspectives for those trying to understand what it means to be unique.

As always, Wang’s artwork is vibrant and gorgeous, with such beautifully fleshed out characters. I loved both Christine and Moon and I found I could relate to them even if I’m much older than the characters in the story. Seriously, though, the plot twist in this book — it killed me! I loved it and was so surprised by it as well. Stargazing is an amazing edition to anyone’s graphic novel collection, as this heartfelt book packs an emotional and memorable gut punch that will remind readers how powerful friendship and empathy can be.

ARC Review – Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson

Title: Some Places More Than Others

Author: Renée Watson

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: All Amara wants is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. Her wish comes true when her dad decides to bring her along on a business trip. She can’t wait to finally meet her extended family and stay in the brownstone where her dad grew up. Plus, she wants to visit every landmark from the Apollo to Langston Hughes’s home.

But her family, and even the city, is not quite what Amara thought. Her dad doesn’t speak to her grandpa, and the crowded streets can be suffocating as well as inspiring. But as she learns more and more about Harlem—and her father’s history—Amara realizes how, in some ways more than others, she can connect with this other home and family.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love getting a new Renee Watson book. There is something about her characters that I am always drawn to, and Amara in Some Places More Than Others is no exception. This story follows Amara’s journey to New York City, to spend time with family members whom she is unfamiliar with. This story looks at family dynamics, how we can be both so close and yet so far away from those we care about, and what it means to be apart of something bigger than yourself.

Grandpa Earl was probably my favourite character in this story. I liked his charisma and his desire to help Amara see the best parts of herself. I love how Amara has to learn about the complicated relationship between her grandfather and father, and how she has a desire to get them to reconcile. It’s interesting because it’s not like they hate each other, but Amara recognizes differences in both of them that it’s troubling. There’s also a lot of poetry sprinkled into this book and how the power of words can give someone unfounded strength.

Some Places More Than Others is a quick read, but a powerful one. I appreciate Watson’s deeper look into the complications of family and how she connects it with the crowdedness and discomfort that New York City can provide to newcomers. I think Amara’s story is one that will definitely resonate with a lot of younger readers.

Books I Reviewed For the Library – Issue #1

One thing I now have to do as part of my job is review and curate our Fave Books of the Month lists. I do reviews for both our middle grade selections and young adult, and it’s easily one of the more interesting parts of my job because essentially I am reviewing titles that I want to see succeed in the library’s collection. I’ve also actively been picking titles I don’t have ARCs for or items that have already released so our customers can enjoy them right away. Here’s two reviews I did for our collection maintenance. 🙂


Tilly and the Bookwanderers (Pages & Co. #1) by Anna James – Have you ever wanted the ability to travel into your favourite books? Anna James’ “Tilly and the Bookwanderers” is a bookworm’s dream! Tilly is a young girl who lives in her grandfather’s book shop, spending her days reading and devouring stories. When she accidentally meets Anne Shirley from “Anne of Green Gables,” shenanigans begin, and Tilly must come to terms with the fact that her favourite stories have come to life and that perhaps, there’s a larger mystery afoot. “Tilly and the Bookwanders” is filled with magic on every page, and is one of those books that feels like a nice warm hug when you read it. One of my favourite elements of this story was anticipating who Tilly would meet next! This is a love-letter to bookworms everywhere, and is a complete must read for those who love to dream about their favourite stories.


Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell – Freddie and Laura have a routine – they fight, the break up, they kiss and then they make up. At least, that was the story for awhile. When Freddie catches Laura in the act of cheating, she begins to question the healthiness of their relationship and what kind of a friend it makes her. This book is an emotional roller-coaster, especially for anyone who has dealt with a toxic relationship. Freddie is forced to question her actions and determine the kind of person she wants to be, which I think many readers will be able to relate to. The artwork in this graphic novel is gorgeous and flows beautifully with the story as well. “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is about finding your support networks and reminding yourself that you don’t have to put up with people treating you like crap.