Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Lost Girl

I knew The Lost Girl  by Anne Ursu was going to hold a special place in my heart just a couple chapters in. About half way through I had a feeling it would be the book of 2019 that I would try to shove into the hands of any and all who expressed slightest interest in a book recommendation. By the time I was finished with it, I knew it would be a book that would stay with me always. Then comes this part. The part where I want to tell the world why. I kept thinking that I needed to give my emotions time to settle. That I needed to be able to approach it with calm rationale. But you know what? That is nonsense. This book made me feel. That is part of its power. So this isn't going to be objective. I doubt I will ever be able to think about this book objectively.

Iris and Lark are identical twins. Though they might look the same they are completely different people. However, they are also two halves of a whole. A pair. A team. When fifth grade begins, they discover the powers in their lives have decided it is time for them to learn to navigate life without the other one to rely on. They are in separate classes for the first time ever. They are being forced into separate after school activities. Practical, rational, fierce Iris finds she lacks the confidence she once had. She is quieter. Less in command. As if in not being able to speak for Lark, she has lost her voice. Lark shrinks further into herself unsure of how to navigate a teacher who terrifies her, the grade bully, and an environment that doesn't value her creativity without her sister there to help her. And then things start going missing. Small things at home. Big things around the city. And. a mysterious shop opens up that seems to hold both questions and answers and has a strange pull on Iris.

One of the reasons I can't really look at this book objectively is Iris. The story mainly follows her. We have far more insight into her activities and thoughts than we do into Lark's world. It is a brilliant narrative choice on Ursu's part. The mysterious narrator begins the novel discussing both girls and slowly narrows the focus to Iris. Because Lark is such an integral part of Iris, she's there too, but we aren't in her head nearly as often. I identify with Iris so thoroughly that it is almost scary. There are so many pages with so many quotes that felt pulled directly from my own head. I get Iris on a molecular level, so it was inevitable that I would be invested in thoroughly invested in her story. In her. Iris is prickly, values rationality, knows she is smart (but probably shouldn't say it out loud), has trouble making friends, is confident but introverted, and is a unilateral problem solver. She doesn't consult others, but acts when and how she deems it necessary. And speaks her mind without thinking of all the consequences. That she ends up  in trouble is unsurprising though how she gets there is in many ways. Lark is the creative one. She makes up stories, is an artist, and sees the world in beautiful ways. She has a talent for seeing the light in the dark and twisting the tale to show that the monsters are weak and beatable. Lark does have trouble navigating the world the way it is in many aspects, but she has an inner strength and courage all her own. The girls have a beautiful relationship, and I felt every bit of their anger, fear, and resentment at being separated.

The story itself is highly relatable for all readers. No one likes change. No one likes feeling out of control. Any person who has ever felt lonely, isolated, abandoned, or lost will find something in this book with which to relate. All of the day to day to school and family problems are typical of any child. I loved how well Ursu gets the dichotomy between kids and adults though. Sometimes you read a MG book and know that it is being written by someone who is remembering being a kid and not really spending time getting to know actual kids. Then sometimes you a read a book that gets it so exactly right, and this is one of them. It's one of those books I want to hand to adults and say, "Read this so you understand them. Read this so you remember they are beings with feelings and emotions all their own and not just an extension of you." A place this is really obvious is in the generational differences in how the characters speak and handle problems. I love that the college student who is in charge of Iris's after school club is often flabbergasted by her young charges and what they know and can converse about. It's not a wide age gap, and yet the difference is staggering, which is very true to what I see in my own experience working with a wide range of ages. The way the girls at the library club discuss both super-heroes and fairy tales is very true to Gen Z (or whatever we're calling the current crop of elementary students now).

The other major reason I can't think objectively about this book lies in its very premise and resolution. It's hard to discuss thoroughly without spoilers. Suffice it to say that the villain is one any girl will recognize from ten paces out, but it is also completely understandable why Iris is not more wary. What Ursu did with that whole part of the plot is nothing short of phenomenal crafting. Read it as it is and accept its surface value and it has so much power. Stop and thinking about all the possible symbolism there, and it packs a whole other punch. Either way, it will have an impact. And the way that evil is finally defeated even more so. I sobbed my way through last the pages of the novel. Cried all over it. It was good crying. The sort that has a power all of its own and is renewing.

I want to put this book in every girl's hands so they know that they are not alone.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Future Favorites Friday March-19

I take the 2nd Friday of every month to highlight some upcoming releases I am looking forward to that I hope are Future Favorites. Feel free to do your own post, just please link back to my blog and tell me about your post in the comments.

Ibi Zoboi wrote a MG novel? With that synopsis? Yes please and thank you!

In the summer of 1984, 12-year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet makes the trip from Huntsville, Alabama, to Harlem, where she’ll spend a few weeks with her father while her mother deals with some trouble that’s arisen for Ebony-Grace’s beloved grandfather, Jeremiah. Jeremiah Norfleet is a bit of a celebrity in Huntsville, where he was one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA two decades earlier. And ever since his granddaughter came to live with him when she was little, he’s nurtured her love of all things outer space and science fiction—especially Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which she’s watched dozens of time on Grandaddady’s Betamax machine. So even as Ebony-Grace struggled to make friends among her peers, she could always rely on her grandfather and the imaginary worlds they created together. In Harlem, however, she faces a whole new challenge. Harlem in 1984 is an exciting and terrifying place for a sheltered girl from Hunstville, and her first instinct is to retreat into her imagination. But soon 126th Street begins to reveal that it has more in common with her beloved sci-fi adventures than she ever thought possible, and by summer’s end, Ebony-Grace discovers that gritty and graffitied Harlem has a place for a girl whose eyes are always on the stars.

Release Date: August 27, 2019 from Dutton Publishers for Young Readers

There's another new Renée Watson book coming out this Fall as well. Two in one year! 

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.
This is a powerful story about family, the places that make us who we are, and how we find ways to connect to our history across time and distance.

Release Date: September 3, 2019 from Bloomsbury Children's Books

We know how I feel about Pride and Prejudice redos.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.
Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco’s most acclaimed neurosurgeon. But that’s not enough for the Rajes, her influential immigrant family who’s achieved power by making its own non-negotiable rules:
·       Never trust an outsider
·       Never do anything to jeopardize your brother’s political aspirations
·       And never, ever, defy your family
Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules. But now she has a chance to redeem herself. So long as she doesn’t repeat old mistakes.
Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and place pedigree above character. He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer, but he values his pride too much to indulge Trisha’s arrogance. And then he discovers that she’s the only surgeon who can save his sister’s life.
As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ’s stunning desserts. But before a future can be savored there’s a past to be reckoned with...
A family trying to build home in a new land.
A man who has never felt at home anywhere.
And a choice to be made between the two.

Release Date: May 7, 2019

Friday, March 1, 2019

February 2019 Stats

I didn't get quite as many new books in this past month. I'm still encouraged as it wasn't due to a lack of wanting to read, but a combination of prep work for school and a never ending roundabout of sickness the kids and I were sharing.

The February Favorites:

A look at my February Reading in Numbers:

MG: 7
YA: 3
Adult: 2

Fiction: 12
Non-Fiction: 0
Realistic Fiction: 7

Onward and Forward!

I have decided that March is going to be a Read the Books You Own month. I'm not putting any more library books on hold. I've managed to get my outstanding holds down to two, so I should have plenty of time to dedicate to this. Since my most anticipated release of this month is a book I've already pre-ordered, it will slip right into this.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Shorter Musings (MG Fantasy)

Here are some shorter musings on some recent MG Fantasy reads.

Angel and Bavar by Amy Wilson
Writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast for a MG audience is no mean feat, yet Wilson pulls it off brilliantly here. The themes of "Beauty and the Beast" are such that making them both palatable and relatable for this age bracket is a challenge. In this version the "beast" is a young boy born to fight monsters and hold them back from humanity thanks to a family curse and ancestors who didn't know when enough was enough. The "beauty" is a young girl who can see the magic and is drawn in due to the trauma of her past. Angel and Bavar team up to try and find a way to stop the monsters forever and allow Bavar to live a more normal life. They are drawn to each other out of loneliness and a shared trauma, but they build a real friendship from that and make a great team. This is a retelling that works on every level, and I really enjoyed it.

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
The Book of Boy takes place in the medieval era. It is a story about Boy who goes on a pilgrimage with a strange man who seems to see to the core of everyone he meets and is on a strange quest. From a literary perspective, this is an excellently well-written book. Murdock manages to maintain her medieval language style, which is not always an easy task when writing from a modern perspective. It is definitely a credit to her craft and a plus for readers who enjoy being fully immersed in a setting. I just was not the audience for this book. I don't like medieval style or era fiction in general, and the style of the writing was more of an annoyance to me than anything. I also figured everything out in the first two chapters. (I am NOT saying this is a flaw with the book or the writing. The intended audience will not. I'm just an adult with an extensive experience in this subject area so...). For me, it did diminish my personal enjoyment as I couldn't invest much interest in the characters after that. I don't like books on that particular subject either. I guess I can see from a sentence level writing perspective why it was given a Newbery Honor, but I was largely underwhelmed and can't say I will be talking it up to many students. This book will require a particular reader.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty
This was cute. It has a rather old-fashioned feel to it in many ways, but just enough that it will still appeal to MG readers who aren't into that as much. The story in many ways is absurd, but in a delightful way that is sure to appeal to its target audience. How many 11 year olds wish they could go on an adventure all by themselves like Bronte? I like how the adults weren't at all okay with this turn of events in most cases, and that there was an explanation for why Bronte had to travel alone. She was still well looked out for. The book is full of fantastical creatures, pirates, magic, and all sorts of zany situations that gives Bronte experience and wisdom. It looks like this will be the first in a series. I'm not sure I would want to read beyond this volume, but I will definitely be recommending it to my middle schoolers.

Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ogre Enchanted is a prequel to Ella Enchanted. It follows a young healer named Evie who is turned into an Ogre by Lucinda. This is Evie's punishment for refusing a marriage proposal from her best friend Wormie. Honestly, I found the story to be rather slow in many places, and it was hard to not roll my eyes frequently at both the way Evie talked and at her antics as she believes herself to be in love with a person she meets as an ogre. I admit it didn't help knowing who that person was. I do wonder how readers who are experiencing the world of Frell for the first time in this book will feel about the world and characters. Unfortunately, I can't undo my years long love of Ella Enchanted and view it as its own thing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

I adore Meg Medina's YA novels. I feel like all of them (especially Burn Baby Burndo not get the love and accolades they fully deserve. I was so excited when I discovered she was writing a MG novel. The switch from YA to MG is not as easy as it would first appear, but Medina also has two delightful picture books to her name, so I knew she had the range. I was over the moon when she won the Newbery even though I had not yet read Merci Suárez Changes Gears. It couldn't have happened to a better author. Now that I have read the book, I know it won on its merits.

Merci is a 6th grader at a private school in southern Florida. Unlike the majority of her classmates, Merci doesn't take fancy vacations or have a big house or own a boat or two. She is a scholarship student. Her family is hard-working, but definitely not rich. Merci works hard and is smart, but knows she doesn't compare to her older brother in the genius department. Merci loves to play soccer, spend time with her Lolo, and paint for her family's business. Her life suddenly has a lot of confusing changes as she starts 6th grade, has to take on some community service she is disinterested in, and has family drama she doesn't quite understand.

Merci is an excellent character. She is the perfect book version of a 6th grader. She is so perfect it was easy to lose sight of the fact that she was a book character. She makes some poor decisions, acts on impulse, doesn't see herself or others clearly, avoids some responsibilities, and feels things strongly. There are points in the book when she's not necessarily likable, but there was never a point when I wasn't completely on her side. Even when she was being her most dramatic or petty, I understood her motivations and emotions so well. And my anger was directed at the people who were causing her emotions. I can only imagine how much more invested in her life reader's in the target audience will be. I loved how Merci's problems were so fully relatable too. Middle school is a time of massive transition for everyone. Friendships shift as do adult expectations of you. It is often sudden and doesn't take into consideration all the hormonal shifts happening at the same time. Medina uses this to showcase Merci's struggles not only with school changes but also at home. Her brother is a senior, so he will be leaving soon. Her grandfather is acting strange: forgetting things, wandering off, and falling more. All the adults in Merci's family are worried and stressed, which is, of course, affecting Merci too. Especially as no one is explaining anything to her.

What really sets this novel apart is the community aspect of it. Merci is always in a tight community. Her school community is small, and there is quite a bit of forced (and natural) camaraderie there. Her family is her most important community though. Merci lives in a house next to her grandparents' house which is next to the house of her Tía and two young cousins. As she says toward the end, she lives in her house but the rest is sort of flexible. There is no knocking. The food in one house is food for everyone. The closeness of the family is shown in all of its hard moments and its wonderful, strong ones.

The school part of the book was particularly strong for me. As a teacher, I could actually see all these kids as real people who I could see interacting in the ways kids actually act. A lot of contemporary MG books dealing with realistic elements in schools have an almost after school special feel about them. Like the adults writing them are seeing kids' interactions through the long lens of their memories and not seeing them as they are now. Medina gets the way kids actually interact and all the layers of and webs of their social interactions. It isn't simple. Sixth grade is a time when for various reasons friendships undergo a major shift. Often it isn't so clear cut and simple as, "this person was my friend and now they'r not". Merci is trying to fit in, to find her place at this school she's already been at a year. The shifting dynamics everyone is undergoing makes that more of a challenge. Medina  faces the complexities of MG social interactions head on with realism and true heart.

I will be enthusiastically  recommending Merci Suarez Changes Gears to all my students.