Tag: Juvenile Fic

by Forrest Carter

Story of a young boy who is left orphaned and raised by his grandparents in Appalachia. His grandmother is Cherokee and his grandfather half Cherokee. They live in a small house up on a mountainside, with a bunch of hound dogs that protect their corn patch and trail foxes (for amusement). They mostly live off the land, gathering herbs, acorns and wild greens, hunting deer, catching fish etc. But the grandfather also makes whiskey in an attempt to earn some cash, and young Little Tree is learning this skill. Something I never thought I’d read the details of, making moonshine! Most of the story takes place while Little Tree is six years old (he seems older than that though), and there’s other stories told by visitors and friends, or shared family history. The kid does his best to learn what his grandparents teach him- not only to live off what the land gives them, but also to read (his grandmother reads Shakespeare from the library, and has him studying the dictionary) and do simple math. He’s pretty well taught for a kid who’s never gone to school, but when out in public with his grandfather- at the store, on the bus, or sitting in church- it’s apparent that the white folks around them look down on his family for being poor in material goods, for going barefoot or wearing deerskin clothing. Although the kid himself never really catches on that he’s being mocked. Different kinds of people come to their little house- those representing authorities that have good interests at heart, are given the runaround (in some very hilarious scenes). Relatives, friends, and one Jewish peddler however, are welcomed into their home, and Little Tree learns compassion, patience, and other bits of wisdom from them.

Things happen, up and down the mountainside, and I was settling into the rhythm of their days, the picture of life in the backwoods this gave me, when suddenly authorities find out this kid is living with his grandparents and not in school. They pull him out of his home and send him to a religious boarding school. Where things are very unpleasant and oppressive, to say the least. I’m glad the kid made it out of there, but the ending had me feeling really sad.

This book brought two others to mind while I was reading it: Where the Red Fern Grows (because of the hound dogs) and Where the Lilies Bloom (the setting and overall style). But once again, it’s one that makes me grit my teeth when I look about online after and learn some facts. When this book was first published the author said it was autobiographical. Nope. He’s not even Native American. Before I was aware, I was enjoying the read and thought it a good story, but now I cringe at the things I didn’t question in the narrative, that are so blatantly wrong or stereotypical. Have to read with  doubt in mind now: American Indians in Children’s Literature made me aware of some issues with this one. I feel like I should remove it from my personal collection.

Rating: 2/5
216 pages, 1976

by Svetlana Chmakova

This one’s set in the same middle school as Awkward and Crush. The main character is a kid called Jensen, and there’s side characters that I recognize from the other books. It was nice to see them from other perspectives. Jensen is kind of introverted, a dreamer who’s interested in science, fantasizes about space adventures and making great discoveries- or saving the world from zombies and sunspots, ha ha. He struggles with math though, which makes his dream of one day being an astronaut seem unreachable, and other kids tease him (about his weight, and his sunspot obsession). Jensen is pretty easygoing, he mostly just keeps his head down and tries to avoid two boys who pick on him in the hall. He pictures his day as a video-game like obstacle course, a series of challenges to overcome on the way to a goal (the visuals for this are fun). But then Jensen gets involved with the newspaper team- and a “social experiment” they’re doing which includes raising awareness of bullying. They set up an interview with Jensen, asking him questions about how bullying has affected him, and he’s shocked: he never considered the teasing from other kids was actual harassment. He thought it was okay because “they’re my friends”. Newspaper girls’ handouts about bullying make him rethink everything. Are those kids he sits with at lunch really friends, when they constantly make jokes at his expense? He starts to see interactions between other kids in a new light- girls making fun of each other’s clothes, for example. Decides he has to do something, to make it stop. It’s hard to get up the nerve, though. Meanwhile there’s other things going on- struggles to do a group project when he has no knowledge of or interest in the topic (and feels intimidated by his group partner Jorge), gradual improvements in his math skills, weathering a bout of the flu, and finding himself in the middle when friction rises between the art club (his regular group of friends) and the newspaper kids (new friends). In the end, it was really pleasing to see how this character became aware that something wasn’t right, and he made an effort to stand up for himself, even though it was a scary move. I especially liked the final panels, where Jensen shows compassion towards one of the kids who used to pick on him. He had a big heart.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
248 pages, 2017

More opinions: Pages Unbound
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by Svetlana Chmakova

Set in the same middle school as Awkward, this graphic novel has a different cast of characters. It’s from Jorge’s viewpoint- a guy who somewhat unwillingly has become known as “the sheriff” among the other kids at school. Simply because he’s bigger than the other boys, and steps in when he sees kids getting picked on- the bullies always back down, feeling intimidated. But there’s so much more to Jorge- he’s a really good guy, just doesn’t talk much. And when a certain girl is around, he finds himself even more tongue-tied. The reader gets to see his inner narrative as Jorge is annoyed at others pulling pranks or sidestepping responsibilities, his confusion at what he feels about the girl, his desire to just be able to talk to her- or get her phone number- or figure out what he’s supposed to do next when he finally asks her to a school dance! Meanwhile he’s navigating all this drama stirred up by his friends- one kid who caves when a popular jock vies for his attention and manipulates situations, girls having petty disagreements with their boyfriends, a group chat that goes awry and paints Jorge as the bad guy. It gets kinda complicated but all turns out alright in the end. I was glad to see some of the naysayers and weasels get caught out, and the kids who meant well finally getting noticed for that.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
240 pages, 2018

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by Kat Leyh

This was great. In fact I liked it so much I read it all over again before sitting down to write here. It’s about a fierce, somewhat sullen kid who gets picked on in school for being different- she’s rough around the edges but so determined just to be herself. She lives in a trailer park and becomes friends with a boy next door who is quite her opposite- he likes glitter and pink nail polish and eventually through the arc of the story comes to feel comfortable wearing skirts and being called Lulu instead of Louis. Which is presented as just a side detail but so easily woven into the narrative. (And they love watching horror movies together.) For her part, Snapdragon (named after her mother’s favorite flower) is getting to know this old lady in the woods who lives in a creepy house and isn’t at all upset that people call her a witch- it keeps them off her porch so to speak. She rescued Snap’s dog, so when some schoolkids find a dead possum and Snapdragon gathers up the orphaned babies, she takes them to the witch. The old lady promises to care for the little possums (or rather, teach Snap how to do so) if Snapdragon will help in with her work. Which is gathering roadkilled animals, burying them to let nature clean them down to bones, and then reassembling the skeletons to sell online. Snap is so awestruck by how creepy and scientific this is. She’s eager to help, but even more amazed when finds out the old lady actually is a witch as the town rumors her to be. Except not in the way people guess. More in a way that honors the dead animals’ spirits.

So much to this book I can’t tell it all (nor would I want to). It surprised me at nearly every turn. And I don’t usually like stories that have ghosts or magical realism (I think that’s how you’d categorize this one)! More of a surprise is the connection Snap’s family history has with the witch. Easy inclusion of many difficult topics and non-conforming people. Not the least of which, Snapdragon is bi-racial, turns out the witch is a lesbian and her grandmother was bisexual. Her mom has a nasty ex-boyfriend who comes around and threatens people, her dog looses a leg . . . etc.

I just loved Snap’s character. And the possums! And get this, my kid’s favorite scene in the book is when Snap goes with her mother (who works long hours and is studying to be a firefighter) to a bookstore. Snap picks out a technical-looking book on comparative anatomy and when the shop lady sweetly says “oh, honey this isn’t a nice book for little girls- we have a lot of cute books about animals!” Snap and her mother both scowl, her mother firmly insists she’ll buy the book, and Snap eagerly absorbs information and facts from it all the way home. Ha!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
240 pages, 2020

illustrated by Jen Wang

by Cory Doctorow

From my pre-teen’s stack again. Her books just keep tempting me. This one is about an ordinary girl in a rather dull life, who plays a fantasy MMORPG. In the game, her alter ego is a fighter. She starts out in a girls-only guild (organized to encourage girls to play as girls, instead of taking male roles in the game). Builds her skills and gains some attention. Makes a new friend who encourages her to help with an offensive against gold farmers- people who gather materials in the game and sell them to other gamers for real money. I’d heard of this. It was something else to see it play out in a story, what the real situation might be like. Our girl Anda is outraged that these gold farmers enable others to get ahead in the game, without doing the hard work. Cheating! But then- she actually talks to one of the gold farmers. Finds out that he’s a poor kid in China, working long hours for little pay. She’s outraged all over again- that he doesn’t have proper health care, doesn’t get enough sleep, doesn’t make a decent wage, etc. Determined to help him, she looks up some info and questions her dad about a strike he’s going through at work, then tells the kid to organize a strike at his workplace. Meanwhile her mother finds out she’s been receiving money from other gamers- literal strangers- for the work she did going after the gold farmers. She gets banned from playing, but sneaks out and goes to an internet cafe to maintain contact with her online friends. Finds out that things went badly for the Chinese kid. Thinks she’ll never see him again. That’s what should have happened, IMHO.

The ending felt too pat. Things turned out too neatly. She happens to meet up with him in another location, suddenly he can speak English better (they were using a translator before), and tells her he got a new job, basically there was a bit of closure and then everything was fine. For a relatively simple book that I practically read in one sitting, this was okay. Personally I wished for a lot more depth, but for my ten-year-old, it was a great book with just the right amount of detail addressing some complicated issues. I did really like the artwork, and the portrayal of the balance between gaming- where everything seems to happen, all the fun and connections and feeling of achievement are- and the ordinary everyday world. The two seem so far apart, but really they can be closely connected.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
178 pages, 2014

by Svetlana Chmakova

Once again sidetracked from the book I’ve been reading, to pick up a few graphic novels off my ten-year-old’s library pile. I really liked Awkward. It’s set in a middle school. Penelope is new there, and on the first day shoves a nice kid away who tries to help her when she drops all her stuff, because some mean kids tease that she’s his boyfriend. They call Jaime “nerder” because he’s quiet and geeky. I thought he was charming! He’s in the science club, and Penelope is in art club. The two organizations have a rivalry going on, heightened by the shortage of tables available for the school science fair- whichever club does the best project to help their school community, will get the table spot. It starts out as a friendly competition, but gets out of hand. Meanwhile Penelope is busy trying to complete assignments for various classes on time, attending some tutoring, draw comics on a deadline for the school newspaper, and help out her friends. Through all this, she’s nagged by guilt for that interaction on the first day of school- really wants to apologize to Jaime but doesn’t know how. Eventually she works things out, and starts to build a friendship with him- but it’s strained because of their clubs’ rivalry. Can Penelope find a way to bring everyone together instead?

This was cute. And relatable (especially the art club scenes, for me). And- odd at times, too. At first I thought the drawing style was exaggerated, and some of the teachers’ characterizations made me roll my eyes- the art teacher is depicted as being totally clueless and disorganized- but then I just shrugged and enjoyed it. I would readily pick up another book by this author. I think she has a series of them set in the same middle school environment. As a little bonus, I discovered by reading the back section by the author, there’s a little raccoon in the background on some pages. I had noticed him only once or twice, wondered what he was doing there, and just moved on. He’s on twenty pages! I thumbed back through just looking for the raccoon, but only found him about ten times- so there’s a fun game trying to spot all his appearances.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
224 pages, 2015

adapted by Mariah Marsden

Funny how my ten-year-old came to read Anne of Green Gables, in this reduced, adapted version illustrated by Brenna Thummler. I think the original novels are still a bit above her reading level, but several years ago I tried to get her to watch the tv version from 1985, which I remembered so well from my childhood. Not successful- she found the pace too slow. Later I watched Netflix’s Anne with an E and enjoyed it immensely- tried to get my teenager to watch that version with me, no go. Sigh. But- a week ago my youngest read another graphic novel that had a character quoting from Anne of Green Gables a lot- which inspired her to give this a try. I’m glad she did, but hope she’ll also read the original someday.

Actually, reading this one made me remember that I haven’t read the original myself! Which is probably why I don’t feel as disappointed by it as some. It has all the basics of the story- orphaned Anne Shirley arrives on a Prince Edward Island farm to live with an elderly brother and sister who need assistance. They were intending to adopt a boy, but got Anne instead. She is nearly sent back, but then is allowed to stay- and slowly settles in with her new adopted parents. Matthew Cuthbert is soft-spoken and mostly silent, Marilla a very no-nonsense person, but Anne is imaginative, full of spirit and a flow of words. I know there’s more to her character than that, but in this book it mostly comes across that Anne likes to talk a lot with descriptive language, applying her imagination to everything (my daughter said “it was really wordy“). She struggles to fit in, gets teased at school (for her hair color and hot temper) but is also a high achiever. There were so many scenes in here I remember well- walking on the ridgepole of the roof, floating in the boat and getting rescued by Gilbert, accidentally dying her hair green, innocently getting her best friend Diana drunk on wine (I thought it was sherry?) competing for top place in class with the boy she despised- Gilbert- though eventually she does forgive him. There were a few moments I didn’t recognize, which made me realize I hadn’t yet read L.M. Montgomery’s original, but it also made me notice that the pacing isn’t great- those moments felt awkward because there was little flow to how they fit into the story. The rest of it was so dear and familiar to me I hardly noticed, however to someone who hasn’t encountered the story before, (or a reader with keener memory than myself) it could come across as uneven. Also the blank eyes of all the characters are a bit unsettling at first. But overall I really liked it, brushing aside my personal criticism.

And I do hope that if my kid reads L.M. Mongomery’s novel someday, she’ll find it dear and familiar in the opposite way, because she enjoyed it first in this visual story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
230 pages, 2017

by Ursula Murray Husted

My ten-year-old and I both liked this one a lot. It is a very touching story about two young cats who live on an island in Malta (the seaside setting made me think of The Cats of Lamu). Betto is content with their lot- sleeping under a fisherman’s boat and eating fish scraps on the docks. But Cilla wants more in life- a comfortable home with humans perhaps. Another cat tells her about the quiet garden, from an old kitten tale, where humans are always kind and food is plentiful. Cilla is determined to find the garden. Betto doesn’t believe it exists but goes along to make sure his friend is safe. Their journey takes them far from home, through many encounters. They navigate the streets, jump on a bus, ride a ferryboat, have a mishap on the sea, and meet several cats who give them directions. One particularly speaks in obscure riddles. When Cilla finally locates what they think is the quiet garden, it isn’t exactly the paradise they were hoping to find. A poodle tells them a story suggesting they shouldn’t be in want of anything at all. Later when the cats are discouraged and confused, hiding from the rain and feeling their quest failed, they comfort themselves by telling their own story to each other- a story of friendship above all.

I won’t tell you the ending- I did find it satisfying whereas others might think the narrative just went nowhere. But this book is philosophical more than anything else. It’s a story within a story, it’s about finding out what’s important in life. It has nods to The Little Prince and delightfully, pictorial homage to many famous works of art. Sometimes these are in the background as the cats journey through their world, on other pages the cats are actually walking through the art- a tropical fantasy painted by Rousseau, the Bayeux tapestry, ancient tiles from Persia, cave paintings from Lascaux etc- many I recognized, some I did not. On certain pages the artwork depicted seemed to fit what was happening in the cats’ story, but other times it appeared to be a random choice, so I just shrugged and went with it. The author explained in the back which artworks she had chosen to depict, which I appreciated reading. Her own style- well, let’s just say sometimes I thought it looked a bit rushed with awkward lines or poses- occasionally the drawings even appeared childish, but it started to grow on me. They’re certainly very expressive and lively, and there’s lots of detail in the surroundings. Mostly I just really liked the story about the cats, their little arguments, observations on humans, and earnestness in their quest to find what ‘home’ means.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
182 pages, 2020

by Terri Libenson

Another book off my kid’s stack. She thought it boring, didn’t read far and put it in our return pile. It has some issues, but for the most part, I really connected with the main character so overlooked some awkward things. It’s obviously a humorous look at how awful middle school can be, but some things just seemed too over the top. (Wet paper towels stuck to the wall and kids that spit on the floor, okay. Dead rats in the hall? what?) It’s kind of a merge between graphic novel and illustrated chapter book. The story is told in alternate viewpoints- Emmie’s has explanatory paragraphs with lots of illustrations, whereas Katie’s pages are pure comic-book style. Emmie is very shy and quiet. She has a lonely home life (both parents work), likes drawing (but doesn’t hang out with the art club kids) and often doesn’t know what to say when other kids are chatting away. She mostly tries to avoid being noticed at school, but then wonders why nobody sees her. Her contrast Katie is popular, pretty and surrounded by gossiping friends- a girl who seems to have it all, but isn’t snobby about it and tries to be nice to others. Through the story each girl is seen in the background of the other’s pages, and then they intersect over a boy Emmie has a crush on. Emmie wrote a love poem to him in jest, but she drops it and another kid picks it up- and of course he shares it around. Emmie is mortified. Then her crush asks Katie out, which complicates things. Will she suffer in silence? or finally speak up for herself?

While it’s got a lot of detail, this story covers only one school day. The ending surprised me. I was glad to see Emmie find ways to stand up for herself, but I was thrown off by the final reveal (Katie’s not real. She’s a character Emmie drew). There was a clue earlier on, I just didn’t pick up on it. For all that, what I really liked about it was Emmie’s character. Because I was like that in middle and high school. I was the super quiet one that preferred drawing to watching television, and couldn’t manage to make small talk. Other kids on the bus even made jokes that I was mute, because they never heard me talking to anyone. And this wasn’t a thing when I was a kid obviously- but I’m the one now who has an ‘ancient’ flip phone! haha.

This book is part of a series, but the others don’t look quite as appealing to me. Probably because it’s the Emmie character I related to most, and some reviewers have said all the books have a similar kind of twist ending. Not sure I’m in the mood for that. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
185 pages, 2017

More opinions: Pages Unbound
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by Nova Weetman

Another book I picked up off my daughter’s library pile, taking a break in the middle of a chunkster. This is a middle-grade fiction about two girls in sixth grade. They’re facing the end of elementary school with mixed feelings (I rather appreciated the negative comments on the grade school “graduation” celebration, haha- having that opinion myself). The girls are not really friends but cross paths when they’re in the nurse’s office for different reasons.  Riley has type I diabetes and often has to stop in with the nurse to manage her condition. She has an overbearing mother and is in a group of popular girls who pressure her to do unsafe things, not understanding how serious diabetes really is. Meg on the other hand, is neglected. Her mother suffers from severe depression after her father died, rarely leaving the house (or even her bed) and Meg often goes hungry and doesn’t have new clothes to wear. She has panic attacks, but also hangs out in the nurse’s office because the nurse will give her food from the teacher’s lounge. Meg doesn’t really have friends, yet starts to have a tentative connection with Riley, which gets rocky when Riley’s popular friends tease and harass Meg. Both girls are having a hard time with things emotional and physical and their contrasting issues with parents. Riley wants to take care of her diabetes by herself instead of her mother micromanaging it- even though she’s not doing a great job with the things she is responsible for- whereas Meg wishes her mom would do anything for her at all.

When I saw the bright cover of this book, I thought it was going to be a light, maybe silly story. Not at all. It addresses some serious issues- kids having to live with a medical condition, mental illness, dealing with grief over the death of a parent, difficulties with friendships, and more (there’s another kid in the story who has asthma). I expected at the start that the girls would quickly become friends, but they don’t begin interacting much until near the end of the book- which felt like a realistic development. The story feels very current, full of phrases kids use nowadays (that didn’t exist when I was that age!) And yet something felt a bit off to me. The portrayal of what Meg went through when she wasn’t at school- I kept thinking, is that what it’s really like, for a child living in poverty? I wondered why nobody at the school noticed she was wearing the same clothes day after day, or insisted she put on proper shoes instead of slippers (my child’s school is pretty adamant about shoes) and why other adults didn’t investigate the situation when it was clear Meg often came to school hungry. On the other hand, a review I read written by someone who actually has diabetes, had criticism about how Riley’s story was portrayed. And there’s the questionable revelation at the end, that sometimes Meg is faking her panic attacks to avoid situations. I’m sure there’s kids who would do this, but it didn’t sit well with me.

On a better note, there’s the delightful inclusion of many quotes from Anne of Green Gables. Meg is an avid fan, has read the book many times, and quotes lines from it to people in conversation which throws them off but made me giggle. This prompted my ten-year-old to request a graphic novel version of Anne of Green Gables from the library. I’m glad she’ll finally access the story. I’ve tried to get her to sit and watch a movie version with me- one I’d seen and loved as a teenager- with no success. She thought the story moved way too slow. The novels are a bit beyond her reading level yet, but a graphic novel might be a great introduction.

Borrowed from the public library. Originally this was published in Australia with the title Sick Bay.

Rating: 3/5
244 pages, 2019

More opinions: Kids’ Book Review
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DISCLAIMER:

All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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