Tag: Juvenile Fic

by Sonya Hartnett

I read another book off my eleven-year-old’s library stack. And this one was really good. Now I’m going to look for all other books my library might have by this author. I love her way with words, and the characters are so well drawn. The style and wording makes me think of both Frances Hodgson Burnett and Helen Griffiths- a rich setting, people who are both kindly and cruel, sharpness in the turn of phrase and keen observation of children’s natures.

It’s set during both WWII and much further back in history- a story is told within this story, and eventually you see how they interconnect (though the ending was a bit vague). Two siblings, Jeremy and Cecily, are sent with their mother away from the dangers of London to stay in the countryside with an uncle, who has a grand old house. Another child evacuee joins them, due to Cecily’s whim to help out, her desire for a playmate and, to be honest- to have someone she can boss around. (Only it doesn’t work out that way!) Cecily is not the smartest child, and not always the nicest, either. But she felt so real to me. She and May wander the grounds, while Jeremy frets about not being allowed to go fight, or at least do something for the war effort. On the edges of the estate in the forest, the children discover a ruined castle. And two boys hiding there. At first they think the boys are also evacuees from the city, run away from their host family perhaps. But their manner is odd, their clothing too fine and out of style . . . May is the one who realizes who they might be, when the uncle tells them about two princes who were shut up in a tower four hundred years ago and never seen again . . . a piece of history I had heard before, but never quite with this slant. I wasn’t expecting a ghost story- but by the time the book got that far, I was too interested in the characters to leave it be. Cecily struggles to face difficulties and hardships, Jeremy fights with his mother and runs away, the boys in the ruined castle are sometimes there and sometimes not, fading and fretful. There are discussions and debates about war- the morality of killing an enemy, the wastefulness of lives, suffering and destruction. A lot about power. How power corrupts, how powerless the children feel in the throes of larger events and especially, told more subtly through the actions of the children themselves, how power can only be held over someone who allows you to. Sometimes it gets a bit dark for a children’s story. Although troublesome and sad in parts, with children who act unpleasantly, it was beautifully told. The ambiguous ending puzzles rather than annoys me. I’m glad to have read it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2012

by Molly Knox Ostertag

I really liked this book. Read it in one sitting. It’s about a teenager living on a small island who is keeping a secret from her family and friends: that she’s lesbian. She can’t wait to get away from the small town where everyone knows everybody- but nobody really knows her. Plus there’s some family issues (divorced parents, little brother gets on her nerves). Then one night, upset about something, she runs down to the water’s edge and meets a strange girl who comes out of the ocean. Thinking it must be a dream, Morgan admits how attractive she finds this girl- and gives her a kiss. Turns out the girl is a selkie- can shapeshift from a seal form, and Morgan’s kiss gives her the ability to walk on land. Morgan is enamoured of her new friend, but also doesn’t quite believe she’s a seal, and wants to keep this relationship a secret from her regular group of friends, and her family. When they do finally all meet, things are awkward. Trying to balance her new romance with her old friends is tricky, and more issues come up with a wealthy classmate’s big party on a yacht- that might just threaten the selkie’s seal family. I thought all the parts fit together so nicely, the issues of friendships and secrets and coming out, the environmental impact and small-town life in conflict with some people’s larger dreams. Morgan’s struggles to come to terms with herself and be more honest are particularly on point when she realizes the selkie had secrets from her too, and how hurt that made her feel. The only part that made me laugh with how improbable it seemed, was how quickly the selkie professed true love- it was really immediate. It fit with her forthright, outspoken character though. I really liked the artwork, and the included sketches at the end of the book.

Very unusual, that I read this one so soon after putting it on my TBR list. But really, that list had been started early January, I just lagged in finally posting it. When I saw this come up on the library catalog adjacent to another search, I put it on hold impulsively, and am glad I did. Going to hand it to my ten-year-old, who has on her stack Fish Girl which I want to read all over again now. (There’s a slight similarity in the titles- both the selkie and the mermaid in Fish Girl can talk to seals, fishes, etc- which talk back but not in words that are portrayed in the narrative).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
253 pages, 2021

by Thornton W. Burgess

This little book is about a family of quail, or bobwhites. The pair move to live near Peter Rabbit, are quite friendly but refuse to tell him where their nest is hidden. Of course Peter is nosy and keeps trying to find it- so do Reddy Fox, a hawk and the skunk. Peter means no harm, but the others would eat the eggs or chicks, so Bob White stoutly refuses to give up his secret. His wife cleverly hides the nest right next to a path the predators frequently travel on, betting they will never look in a place so close to danger. Mr. Bob White makes himself visible far from the nest, so the others are always looking in that area instead. (Funnily enough, this reminded me acutely of the two women who escaped in the last book I read, how they hid in the last place anyone would think to look). Pretty soon the quail eggs hatch, and the mother leads her chicks to places where they can find seed and insects to eat. Peter admires their thoroughness in cleaning the briar patch of creeping things. Later, the bobwhite family moves into fields and the nearby garden, where Farmer Brown’s boy observes them. He finds out quickly enough that his garden is flourishing this year (while the neighbors’ gardens are overrun with pests) because the quail family eats so many insects. He even does math and comes up with some impressive numbers. So happy to have the birds helping, that he tries to protect them against hunters. One hunter laughs at the boy, thinking he’s just being tender-hearted at rescuing an injured bird, but the farmer’s boy indignantly points out that the birds are a main reason his garden is so productive, and he’d be a fool to kill and eat them after that. I wasn’t expecting this slim little book to include details on the life habits of quail and how beneficial they are in the ecosystem, eating numerous small insects (beneficial if you’re growing a garden that is). As I’m just starting to plan out this year’s garden, it brought to mind all the birds I’ve seen visit my own garden, and I remembered many fond quiet moments watching them methodically search the beds for insects (my personal favorite is the grey catbird).

Rating: 3/5
117 pages, 1919

Keeper of the Lost Cities

by Shannon Messenger

Sorry (to my ten-year-old) I really tried, but this series is just not for me. My daughter said the sequel was even better than the first book, so I agreed to read it, even though I wasn’t terrible keen. All the things that make this more exciting for her- the continual uncovering of new secrets, cryptic messages, threats from kidnappers, mysteries to solve that lead to more mysteries- just bore me. I don’t know how to explain it, but mysteries and exciting action-packed crime films usually bore me in the same way. In this book, Sophie finds out more about her past, but it’s also disturbing. She’s discovered (spoilers if you haven’t read the first book) that she has so many special talents and exceptional abilities because basically she was genetically engineered by some secret entity, for an unknown purpose, but they’re obviously manipulating her life. She’s starting to resent this, and also has reactions to things that don’t bother others- bright lights, intense headaches (not related to her telepathic abilities), passes out a lot- starts to think there’s something flawed in her makeup because she thinks ought to be able to solve all these problems and heal people from mental breakdowns caused by a kind of telepathic interrogation- urgh, it gets so complicated and I don’t even care.

What got to me was the inane way people talk to each other in these books. The kids act like kids- though full of self-importance and Sophie in particular keeps leaping into dangerous situations to save the day even when adults repeatedly warn her not to- which is fine, but the adults all talk in this immature, snarky way too. There’s so much eye-rolling and biting remarks and then buckets of tears over things nobody can even bear to say out loud I just got tired of it. Around page three hundred I started seriously skimming. Was able to glean enough of the storyline to have a brief conversation with my kid (who was thrilled to repeat jokes from the book to me) about it, without letting her know I hadn’t actually finished. I did force myself to read the last two chapters in their entirely.

One original idea that stood out to me, was the special trees planted on the elf graves- that each manifest a unique characteristic of the deceased. Really liked that. Except creepy that Sophie and one of her friends have their own trees already planted, because after the kidnapping in previous book everyone actually thought they were dead and had a funeral. I keep wondering if something will happen with her special tree later on in the series. A lot of the other ideas in these books seem repetitive from other fantasy worlds already out there, but this was different.

I really wanted to like the winged unicorn (excuse me, alicorn) better. Nice that the alicorn, in spite of being beautiful and majestic, didn’t smell like roses and speak wisdom to Sophie’s mind (they have a telepathic connection). Instead, the alicorn can only use a few words and mostly puts images or feelings into Sophie’s head. And she’s stubborn, has bad breath and splatters sparkly manure on people. Which made me laugh. But Sophie was supposed to be training the alicorn (to accept captivity, mostly) and there was really very little of that. So even that aspect of the story was boring.

Don’t get me started on the disturbing trends in the elves’ society that nobody comments on, or how many secrets everybody is hiding, or how the teachers in the school torture their students (as part of a lesson?) and nobody cares, or how many times Sophie nearly dies but then bounces right back ready to fight the next bad guy who might actually be on her side after all, or how annoyingly Sophie’s three friends who are boys glare daggers at each other and vie for her attention all the time- sigh. My ten-year-old found the “romance” (feeling heart-throbs and holding hands) in the story thrilling. It’s just the right kind of book for her- and I’m glad she’s enjoying them- but I’m just too old and this isn’t my type of adventure fantasy anyway.

Borrowed from my kid.

Rating: Abandoned
568 pages, 2013

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

by Shannon Messenger

I read this one at my ten-year-old’s urging. Yes it’s over four hundred pages, but the pace moves incredibly quick so it didn’t feel all that hefty. It’s perfectly tailored for middle-grade readers. My kid is so excited about this series and has been pestering everyone in the house to read it- including my husband who mostly reads philosophy and history. I wasn’t really in the mood for fantasy but went ahead and you know, I can see why she likes it so much. The story is exciting and fast-paced, the main character is really appealing to preteens, and it has enough unique ideas to feel like something new (though some of them are decidedly odd, like the kids having to lick a small panel on their lockers to open them – it reads their DNA).

Sophie is twelve when she finds out she has special powers (beyond her super smarts- she’s a high school senior at twelve). The headaches she’s always suffered from are because she’s telepathic and can’t block out the thoughts of all those around her. Then she meets a slightly older boy who’s also telepathic- and finds out she’s not human after all. She’s an elf, and someone has been searching for her. Sophie is quickly taken to the hidden cities of the elves, where she’s relieved to find she can’t hear everyone’s thoughts (elves are good at blocking, and have lots of strict rules about using magic abilities on others) then struggles to fit in all over again. Here, she doesn’t know the strange customs, hasn’t had the magical training, but still stands out for having unusual talents and special powers. Some resent her for this, so she has to deal with jealous girls at school (very much a Harry Potter-like setting) and an instructor who is nasty to her. But she also has a personal mentor, makes some new friends pretty easily, and soon has the attention of several boys. There’s some confusion over where she will live, one elf family wants to adopt her but they are still struggling with overcoming a loss of their own many years ago (elves live practically forever so death is rare and no one seems to know how to act towards the grieving couple).

So. Most of the story is Sophie navigating her new school, learning how to handle some of her powers, and struggling to master new skills that the other kids kinda take for granted. The people she lives with keep magical and rare creatures (including brilliantly feathered dinosaurs!) which felt more like background decoration than anything else. I guess I expected too much of that part. There’s school competitions and sports that use telekinesis, and a very nice-sounding tradition where kids give each other gifts at the end of finals. A lot of fun and quirky details. But! There’s also all this angst over hidden information. Sophie apparently has memories and knowledge locked in her brain by some unknown entity, and a rebel elf group is apparently trying to manipulate her and/or extract the info from her head. There’s a big mystery about her past, spies and intrigue, and a kidnapping. It quickly became the kind of story I’m not really keen on, but I finished it so that I could discuss with my kid, who is well into book three of the series and eager to have me read along with her! Let’s see how far I get.

Borrowed from my daughter (she bought the entire eight-book set).

Rating: 3/5
488 pages, 2012

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

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 don’t 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
anyone else?

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

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
anyone else?

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

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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