Category Archives: fiction

Uni-sensors, FARTs, and Mr. X

incredible magicWow. Just wow.

Julian is special, but in so many ways that you don’t really even want to label them individually, because it might just make the greatness of who he is a little less.  His older sister Pookie is an angry teenage drama queen.  His moms have issues of their own.  And then there’s Mr. X, a neighbor who’s lost his wife and turns out to be special and mysterious in his own ways.

Julian is in the middle of all of them and on the outside all at once.  He loves science, space, and astronomers.  He wants to get a dog and name it Sirius after the Dog Star.  He wants to help his sister, his moms, and Mr. X, but he goes about it in ways that might be unexpected, funny, or slightly dangerous.

There’s a lot to like about this book—Julian’s funny and somewhat combative conversations with Mr. X, his “Facts and Random Thoughts,” also known as FARTS, Pookie’s fascination with Matt Damon and her biological father, the whole crazy family they are…

Just wow.

The Incredible Magic of Being by Katherine Erskine

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Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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Big hearts, big feet

little-bigfoot-big-city-9781481470773_lgIt’s kind of sweet that this book came out on Halloween, since several of the characters are putting on masks or wearing metaphorical disguises.  Those smartypants publishing folks were probably planning that whole connection, right?

Even if they had, it wouldn’t take away from this book.  Sequels and trilogies can be problematic – the characters don’t hold up with more observation, there’s a temptation to do too much, or you find yourself realizing that the future you imagined for a character after the first book is wildly different from the author’s.  Maybe, just maybe, you still think yours is better.

What’s nice about Little Bigfoot, Big City is that the characters do grow and change, and they do it in realistic ways that didn’t bug me.  There are challenges, moments of confusion, misunderstandings and many mistakes to be made.  Deep down, however, you believe that each one of the main characters wants to do what’s best and what’s right, even if that isn’t easy.  They might be on what look like opposite sides of an issue, but they are really trying.

And that’s all we can expect of ourselves some days.  Am I perfect?  No way.  But when I mess up, I try to make amends.  I try to see the other person’s point of view.  Does it matter if I’m Yare or human?  Maybe not.

Little Bigfoot, Big City by Jennifer Weiner

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Labyrinths, friends, being Bea

waytobeaMiddle school:  obstacle course or performance art?

It can be painful either way, right?  Bea is special and creative and perfect, but she doesn’t see that herself after she loses a friend over the summer before seventh grade.  She desperately wants to find a place for herself, but she questions everything.  These people can’t really like me!  No one will understand!  You almost wish you could jump ahead and know her as the really amazing young woman she’s going to turn out to be—the kind of friend who embraces the quirky in everyone and is kind and open-hearted and funny.

The Way to Bea is one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year, because it finds such simultaneously light and deep moments in its middle school characters at such a confusing, awkward, and sometimes painful point in their lives.  Our daily lives are not all extraordinary, but we might just be extraordinary once in a while.  It’s also very, very nice to see supportive and equally quirky teachers who are looking out for kids and not part of the problem.  I know so many great teachers that I find it kind of upsetting to read fiction that paints them as unfeeling, annoying, demanding, checked out, or creepy – the kinds of teachers who will always believe a bully because his dad is rich or just do not want to get involved at all.  I don’t know teachers like that – really – so it bugs me when writers use them as an easy target.

So read this one, and then spend a few minutes with Bea creating your own haiku.  Mine?

mazes and labyrinths

blind alleys or peaceful still

which path will you choose?

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

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Next time, just run.

van gogh deceptionThere is a lot of running in this book, mostly from bad guys.  Throw in a little amnesia, a lot of police officers, art thieves, and the occasional tranquilizer gun, and you’ll be swept up in it.

“Art” is a boy found in the National Gallery with no memory of his parents or why he’s there.  Over the course of a few chapters, we realize he’s somehow connected to a thrill-seeking bad guy who’s set up a plan to create what might just be the biggest fraud in history.  Fortunately, Art comes across Camille and her mom, and eventually figures out why people are trying to kidnap him.  Whew!

Definitely a fun, fast ride, and there are all kinds of mentions of great art and artists to boot.

The Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks

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Lonely ghostly derelict mystery

thornhillWell, I guess I can’t blame my reaction to this one on an irrational fear of clowns.  There are no clowns of any kind in Thornhill, although there appear to be quite a lot of puppets, which in the right light might look creepy.  Who is this girl with the diary, and why has it just been sitting around on a ledge for 35 years?  Who is this awful child tormenting her?  Have the adults in this book had absolutely no training for working with troubled children although it appears to be their line of work?  Really?

There is much to find troubling in this book.  It is riveting and scary and frightening, and you feel one girl’s fear of the THUMP THUMP THUMP intensely.  Frankly, I don’t even know why I read it after seeing the four words above — lonely ghostly derelict mystery — on the back of it, since I am a complete scaredy-cat.  Could I not pick out that it might be a little on the dark and creepy side of things?

However, two things made me read on:  my love of The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) and my love of Brian Selznick’s work.  This book has a combination of illustrations and text, like Brian Selznick’s work, and it is also a kind of gripping scary, like The Graveyard Book. 

I found the ending very unsettling, and I’m not sure I can say I loved the book, because I am still a little freaked out by it.  But for readers who love ghost stories and chilling evil sorts of things – go for it!  It’s incredibly well-written and plotted, and you certainly won’t forget it soon.  And the puppets are not creepy at all.

Thornhill by Pam Smy

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Normal is overrated

tumble and blueIf you’ve been looking for a trip into the land of quirky relatives with curses or gifts, you should take a look here. Also think about checking out Savvy, Scumble, and Switch by Ingrid Law, A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, or A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff.

If you’ve been looking for a game-changing, mysterious, magical creature, also consider this one, and then read Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp or The Underneath if you’ve missed them before. (I might ask how that would even be possible, but not everyone out there is fangirling over Kathi Appelt like me.  Right.  Do something about that if it’s you.)

It’s the combination of these that makes Tumble and Blue such a nice escape from reality and such a wonderful follow-up for Circus Mirandus.  Tumble and Blue are strong characters (although they might not realize it) who become the deepest of friends in the most bizarre of situations.  You might think you’ve guessed the ending long before you get to it, but you might be wrong, and even if you’re right, the journey with Tumble and Blue is worth taking for all the wacky and quiet and human moments.

Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley

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patina-9781481450188_lgLike Ghost, Patina follows the challenges of a track athlete.  Different person, different problems—another opportunity to see the way the team works together, how they tease each other but also support each other, and how training is sometimes the one thing that can give a kid who needs it focus and drive.  Life might be falling to pieces outside of the track, but that one thing can save a kid.

What’s nice about this series from Jason Reynolds is that their stories ring so true.  Spend a few days with a new kid or one who’s living with their grandma or helping take care of siblings while Mom is in the hospital or jail, and Patina’s challenges will seem completely familiar.  Even kids who don’t seem to be struggling from the outside carry all kinds of burdens.

It’s nice to see stories about kids we can all recognize, kids who have a hard time finding a place to sit at lunch but who carry a dream and let it lift them beyond their burdens.

Patina (Track: Book 2) by Jason Reynolds

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Alison McGhee – Midwesterner, super-sneak, possible genius

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrI didn’t suspect anything until page 88.  Then it hit me that nothing had happened yet in Pablo and Birdy, at least not compared with the other middle grade books I’ve read lately.  That sounds like a complaint, but it’s not.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to read this book, and I’d made it to page 88 without realizing I’d been swept into Pablo’s world – Emmanuel and the other store owners, the Committee, Birdy, and a stray dog in search of a snack.  That Alison McGhee; she’s a sneaky one.  I admire that in an author, so of course I kept reading.

Isla is a quirky place – illustrated beautifully once in a while by Ana Juan – one where Pablo has found a home after the winds of change landed him, his kiddie pool, and Birdy on the shore.  Birdy is mostly silent.  Some of the other chatterbox birds in town, known as the Committee, are hilariously outspoken.  Everyone is a little obsessed with parrots.  There’s even a mythical parrot being tracked by a reporter who has a tip line going.  She’s just that determined to be the first to find it.

So there is stuff happening, but you don’t feel any frantic rush.  The characters are developed so well with so few words that long before page 88, I already had a clear picture in my mind of everyone important.  In some hands, the story would seem a little saccharine or cloying, but here, it’s simple and wonderful.  You have a sense of what will happen long before it does, but that doesn’t matter.

There’s so much going on just barely under the surface that would make it a great read-aloud, too.  Who is your family?  Why do people flee their homes and where do they go?  How can we best save endangered animals?  What does friendship mean?

Pretty good stuff.  So I’m not surprised that it’s written by someone from the state to the north of me. She’s sneaky, this Alison from Minnesota, but she might just be a genius.

Pablo and Birdy by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Ana Juan

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International buddy road trip – Amazon style

wwoman warbringerLike the recent Wonder Woman movie, this book lets Diana Prince be Wonder Woman with no apologies.  She’s fast and strong and can whip that lasso around and deflect bullets, too.  So what?  She’s been training for this moment her whole life, even if she might not have realized it.

Instead of saving a downed pilot, she saves Alia Keralis, a rich girl who turns out to be a Warbringer, a modern relative of Helen of Troy.  In saving Alia, Diana has messed things up for a whole island of Amazons and possibly the world, too.

And this is where it gets really fun.  After landing in New York by mistake, Alia reconnects with her brother Jason, his friend Theo, and her bestie Nim.  A gala is destroyed by bombs and dudes with semi-automatic weapons, and Diana must do what she can to protect Alia long enough to get her to a place that can cleanse her of her Warbringer heritage and fast enough to beat a deadline.

If your road trips usually involve wealthy people jetting off to Greece, morphing into gods of panic, and fighting off lots of men in tactical gear in black vehicles, more power to you.  For those of us who live much quieter lives, we can still enjoy the chase, worry about possible betrayals, and be happy about the conclusion.

There’s just enough information about Greek history and myths to keep it interesting and moving along, without seeming like we’re going to be tested on everything at the end.  And Wonder Woman?  She’s awesome – smart, funny, strong, strategic, and even kind – just like we’d expect her to be.

Wonder Woman:  Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

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