Category Archives: middle grade

Akata Witch (Akata Witch #1)

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12-year-old Sunny moved to Nigeria from New York City three years ago. Albino and sensitive to the sun, she can’t do what she wants.  Which is to play football in the sun with her brothers, avoid her father’s temper, and have a friend at school.  But instead, she is left out of the games, beaten by her father when he is displeased with her, and constantly bullied at school for being different.

Until the day after she sees the end of the world in the flame of her candle. Her classmate Orlu sides with her during her daily humiliation at school, standing up to the bullies, and then takes her under his wing.  He suspects what she is and introduces her to Chichi and Sasha and Anatov, and suddenly Sunny learns that all her strangeness and differences mean one thing: she is a Leopard Person, and she has power. Great, mystical power.  As part of this ancient community, she is finally accepted, even sought after, for who she is.

This novel is fantastic. An African-based fantasy in which learning and reading are rewarded, where tradition is interwoven with fantasy and magic, and the main character is an athletic, curious girl who goes against all stereotypes and expectations, without any of it seeming forced.

Sunny has had a life of challenges. She looks different, feels different, and must be treated differently that the other children her age. She has to carry an umbrella to shade her skin from the sun, and her pale brown skin stands out from the ebony of her classmates and family. Her classmates call her “akata” which means “bush animal,” slang for foreign-born blacks.

But when Sunny realizes that she is different, that she has magic and knowledge that is restricted to a very few, she handles it pretty much how any normal 12-year-old would.  She has moments of fear and disbelief, she lets it take over in a moment of anger, she learns the responsibility that comes with it, and she embraces the opportunity to learn and grow.  I love her.  She leads a double life as she studies juju and magic and learns to call her spirit face, all the while still going to school and keeping her new-found abilities a secret from the Lambs, or non-magical population.

All the characters aside from Sunny have distinct personalities and roles which move the story along while building the group of friends into a coven of power.  Chichi is blunt and superior but underneath understanding of Sunny’s reluctance and nervousness. Orlu is the peacemaker and the surprisingly powerful yet humble member of the foursome, while Sasha is the brash American, sent home to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble, which gives him great opportunity to find new mischief.

Leopard Knocks, the gathering place of the Leopard People, is a world within a world and is world-building at its absolute best. Visitors to the mystical town must summon their spirit faces, or true selves, in order to see the bridge that leads in.  Once across it, there are shops and cafes to visit, buildings that look like only magic can keep them from toppling over and the Obi Library containing knowledge and power. The people who both live there and visit understand the power of the Leopard People, and celebrate the differences that make everyone unique.

All the while there is an element of danger just below the surface. Not only is the four’s coven tasked to hunt down a serial killer, but even the training they go through can be deadly. But to counter the darkness is light, falling bronze chittim (magical currency) when a new skill is learned, a football game with other Leopard children that strikes a blow for girls’ rights, and an artist wasp that creates sculpture and craves applause and praise.

I love how author Nnedi Okorafor included Fast Facts for Free Agents, a book-within-a-book that Sunny reads to learn more about the Leopard People and her own powers. Written in a patronizing and arrogant tone, the informative book gives Sunny a starting off point for catching up with all she needs to know about herself, while also providing background for the reader without it seeming like an info dump.

This is a coming-of-age story about a young girl discovering power within herself. Sunny learns what she is capable of even as she learns what it means to be part of a community and family. These are common elements enough to any YA or middle-grade fantasy story, but Okorafor takes them and writes twists to make the story surprising and fresh.

Akata Witch was published April 14th, 2011 by Viking Children’s Press.

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One Half from the East

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Happy 2017, everyone!! Here’s to a great year of reading.

In many places, life is just easier if you are a boy. For you and for your family. Afghanistan is one such place.

10-year-old Obayda lives in Kabul with her mother, father and three older sisters. She loves to go to school and wear dresses and dance and swing her beautiful hair around. Her father is a respected policeman, and the family is content and prosperous. Her future looks bright. But the future cannot always be predicted. 

One day, as she waits outside the pharmacy for her father to pick up a prescription for her illness, a bomb blows up and changes everything. Her father lost a leg and his will to live, and the family had to leave their life in Kabul to move in with his family in a small village.  Life is so different now. Her father refuses to leave his room and barely speaks to the girls.

Obayda’s aunt, the nosy, bossy one, has an idea to change the family’s luck. Obayda is to becomes Obayd, a bacha posh, or girl who dresses and acts and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a boy.  Because a boy in the family brings luck. And maybe, just maybe, Obayd can turn the family’s bad fortune around.

This is a fascinating story, and I wasn’t sure whether it was based in fact, or was just an incredible idea. I had never heard of such a thing. But a quick google search gave me a ton of information. (I do miss the trek to the library to research, I have to admit, although my would-rather-spend-a-snowy-day-inside-in-pyjamas self has no complaints about the internet). Having a bacha posh in the family is not an unusual practice in Afghanistan. Not to say that every family does it, but it is not uncommon.

In Afghanistan, decisions are made by men. Women and girls have comparatively less value, and an Afghan girl is born with little control over her own life. She looks forward to a life of essentially servitude, having her life in the hands of first her father, then her brothers or husband. This would affect a family with no sons. So in some families, mothers dress a daughter as a boy, give her a short haircut and boys’ clothing, and treat her as a son. To the world outside the home, and even within the home, bacha posh are boys.

For the Afghan girl chosen to become a boy, a whole new world is before her. She can now get a job, run around without an escort, play sports, go to school. She gets to live a life unknown to Afghan women.

Obayd is one such bacha posh. She becomes he, not only in the eyes of the village, but in her family’s as well. He is given the first choice of meat at the table at dinner, is not expected to help with chores, but to run off and explore and play. He goes to school with boys, he is a boy. But at first, it is not that easy. Obayd is sure that everyone knows, and, having no brothers and an absentee father, is unsure how to behave. But then he meets Rashim, who knows at a glance what he is, and the two become inseparable. Rashim teaches Obayd how to be a boy, how to embrace the freedom, and Obayd enters a world he never knew existed.

Author Nadia Hashimi got right into the mind of a young girl and her portrayal of the conflicts that Obayd/a faces are honest and poignant. With Obayda’s change of clothes and hairstyle, she also gets a change in perception and potential. She can now do things that before no one thought her capable of trying. Sports, designing and building a crutch for her father, shopping in a store by herself. But with the new advantages also comes a certain loss; she can no longer be one of the sisters, she is now more worthy than they and their former close comradery is ruined. Obayda sees the oppression she lives under with new eyes, as she gets the rare chance to leave it behind and live it from the other side. Her character has the true flaws and childishness that makes her authentic, she has the excitement of trying something otherwise forbidden. The new experience also gives her a new maturity to face her life when she realizes the freedom may end.

The other characters were as well drawn and real as Obayda, and round out her experience beautifully.  Her sisters go from close confidants to remote roommates. Her father takes a new pride in her, her mother sees the problems and the rewards.  Her friends are wonderful; while they may suspect her true nature, they treat her as a boy without question.

Hashimi also transports the reader right into Afghanistan with her impeccable and polished prose. The story is told without ever obviously dumping information, but rather minute details are woven throughout about the culture and traditions and landscape that bring the novel and the people within to life. She draws vivid pictures of the dusty roads and crowded market, the separate buildings for boys and girls to attend school, the religious practices, the mealtimes and division of chores, and the visceral terror the population has of the warlord that reigns over the village.

The pacing of the novel is equal to the characters and setting; it moves quickly through Obayda’s transformation and education as a bacha posh, the freedoms attained as a boy, the realization that it might not last, and the desperation to make the newfound liberty permanent.

The questions this book raises about gender and perception and equality are relevant for any age to consider. While this is a middle-grade novel, it is a fantastic read for everyone. I couldn’t put it down.

One Half from the East was published September 6th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

Projekt 1065

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13-year-old Michael O’Shaunessey is the only son of an Irish diplomat and his wife, living in Nazi Germany during WWII.  Michael is a member of the Hitler Youth.

But not only is he a member of the Hitler Youth. He is a member of the most elite arm of the organization, the SRD. He is one of the boys other boys run from. His presence invokes terror and respect. Because all who see him know that he would die for Hitler, that his life means nothing to him. He was born to serve the Nazi Party.

Except that he wasn’t. He and his family despise everything the Nazis represent. Ireland may be officially neutral, but Michael and his parents aren’t.  His mum is a spy, and she trains Michael to do the work with her. His photographic memory and innocent eager demeanor prove valuable in their clandestine fight against Germany. But when an unlikely friendship leads him to the discovery of Projekt 1065, it puts him in the dangerous position of having to prove his loyalty to Hitler.

The characters in this novel are interesting. Michael came to Germany as a young boy, and having Irish parents, is not indoctrinated into the Nazi beliefs. But he still must survive in Germany and must blend in so as not call attention to his mother’s activities. The boy has a strong moral compass and knows he is witnessing evil firsthand. But he is still a boy and still craves friendship and action.

He is faced with moral dilemmas ranging from witnessing the killing of Jews on Kristallnacht to the mistreatment of a teacher by fellow Hitler Youth. But he is so immersed in the romance and adventure of playing spy that it isn’t until a person he deeply cares for is sacrificed does he realize that it truly is not a game. He learns that choices have to be made for the greater good, no matter the personal cost, which can sometimes be unbelievably high.

His parents are present throughout the story, and his father constantly questions the need for his son to be further endangered. But his mother recognizes the value of a child is in the intelligence game is that no one would suspect him, leaving him free to listen and look where others couldn’t.

Fritz is Michael’s friend and ally in the Hitler Youth, although Michael has a hard time believing that someone who likes western detective novels and has a hard time participating in the book burnings can ever be a true believer. But Fritz is, and his fanaticism is spot on. He and the other boys with whom Michael interacts are blindly devoted to Hitler, and willing to die for the ideology of the Third Reich.

The plot is engaging and fast moving. With a setting like Nazi Germany during the war, it can hardly be anything else! The story takes place over just a few weeks, with everything from the discovery of the plans to the rescue of a downed pilot, his escape, and Michael’s urgent trip to Switzerland crammed in.

All this is good. But there are still a couple of weaknesses in the novel that make it a good read when it could be a great one.

The first problem is stylistic. Chapters are short, sometimes only a page in length, and did not always need to be broken up. Which made me think that either the author had trouble moving from one scene to the next, or just liked the look of short passages. Although the war is a great setting and things changed so quickly, it made for choppy reading.

The second criticism is of the content. Nazis were bad. I know that, you know that, I think even those unfamiliar with WWII and all its details know that. But author Gratz felt the need to make sure that Michael said or thought, almost once every very short chapter, that he hated the Nazis and everything they stood for and he couldn’t believe that some people worshipped Hitler. I do not need to be beaten over the head with the information. It felt like Gratz was trying to force me to find Michael likeable. Michael is likeable. But he is also a boy that has lived half his young life surrounded by Nazi propaganda. While his parents can set an example and tell him that Nazis are bad, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that he get a bit caught up in SOME of it, while still recognizing the inherent evil.  And that would not make him bad. It would make him human.

In World War II Nazi Germany all boys were compelled to serve in the Hitler Youth. In fact, many prominent world figures of the past half-century were forced to serve in the various units. This novel makes a really good middle-grade companion to the non-fiction histories written about the time. Well researched, it is packed full of action and adventure and is an interesting way to learn about a fascinating and fanatical organization.

Projekt 1065 was published October 11th, 2016 by Scholastic Press.

My Name is Not Easy

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In 1960’s Alaska, many communities had no educational system and the children had to leave home to attend school. Sacred Heart was one such institution, populated by children who had no school in their remote northern homes.

On Luke’s first day at Sacred Heart, hundreds of miles from his home on the tundra in the Arctic, the 12-year-old learns that his Inupiaq language is forbidden. He has the marks from Father Mullen’s ruler across his hands to remind him. So he leaves his language and name behind, keeping only his 10-year-old brother Bunna with him as a reminder of home and a different life.

But while the cafeteria and classes start out divided, Luke and Bunna now stand beside Amiq, Sonny, Junior, Chickie and Donna, a new family made up of Indian, Eskimo, and white children. All are trying to figure out their own place not only at the school but also in the world that is changing at such a fast pace. And they find that they are stronger together.

This book has been sitting in my head for a couple of weeks now. It is challenging to find the words to review it (although you know I’m going to ramble on for quite awhile anyway) because it tells so many stories that it is difficult to know where to start.

This book is semi-biographical; author Debby Dahl Edwardson based it on her husband’s own real-life experiences growing up in the 60’s in northern Alaska, and going off to school hundreds of miles from home. He was Luke. And Bunna was his brother. Edwardson’s love of the land and people are shine through in her writing. She handles the subject of Native and Inuit children forced to leave their homes with sensitivity and honesty.

There are so many heartbreaking moments in the story, from the loss of little brother Issac through a forced adoption, to words of anger between brothers as they go their separate ways for the first time in their lives, to the moment when the children at the school finally recognize the injustice they are forced to live.

In equal measure are the uplifting moments. The development of a family at the school, discovering skills they didn’t know they possessed, the realization that each has the others’ backs, learning that they are capable of inciting change if they stand together.

The school is a microcosm of the world at large in the 60’s. There is change happening at such an incredible rate that no one seems able to keep up. Even the Fathers and Sisters that run the school seem lost and confused at times when faced with situations unfamiliar to them.

The novel tells so many stories at once, with so many different narrators, that I often lost track of who belonged to which one. It jumped around in time and tense, and I learned very quickly to note the date at each chapter heading, or a lot of the novel would not have made sense to me. It seems almost as if Edwardson had more stories than she had pages to fill, and had trouble choosing which were most important. But understandably so. Each character is distinct and comes to the school from a unique background, bringing a particular perspective to the story.

The disjointed feeling I had while reading, however, is an amazing way to illustrate even a faint echo of the feeling the children must have experienced when taken from their home and family and forced to turn their backs on their own language and culture. Where do I turn, who do I trust, why am I here? I do not think I am overstating it to call it a form of cultural genocide.

A lot of the experiences seemed disconnected, with no obvious outcome or result. And the final chapters, with the huge climax, seem to come out of left field.

All that said, the author’s notes at the end of the book tie it all together nicely. She gives historical facts and background to a lot of the events that are missing from the book, most likely because they would have been difficult to fit in from the childrens’ perspectives. They wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the information first hand.

It is a complex story about events in history that have been but a footnote in most texts. It should be read by everyone.

My Name is Not Easy was published October 1st, 2011 by Skyscape.

Esperanza Rising

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This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.

Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.

They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.

The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.

Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.

Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.

Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.

Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.

Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.

Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones

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Paco Jones is a bi-racial 13-year-old, half Mexican and half white, and the new kid at his fancy private school. Nicknamed ‘Taco’ by his less-then-friendly wealthy white classmates, Paco is looking at a few years of isolation and ridicule. It might be different if he stood out for something other than his name and skin colour, like talent on the basketball court, or brilliance in the classroom. But no, he’s just a regular student and benchwarmer on the team. And he gets pooped on by a bird his first week. Great.

But the poop leads him to meet Naomi Fox, an African-American girl in his grade, beautiful, popular, and his soulmate. Of course, he can’t tell her he’s in love, as she is dating Trent, the most popular boy in the school. But at least he finds a friend. And then he spikes the punch at a dance on a dare, kids get drunk, and suddenly he has a newfound popularity.

This book is written as a flashback from Paco’s perspective as he himself is a middle-grade teacher, years later. Because of that, I think the characters and behaviours are a bit more mature than I would have expected from a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. Naomi and Paco were wonderful characters, but they aren’t written as young teens.

Paco is very relatable for anyone who didn’t quite fit in during those middle school years. Which I think was more of us than not. He is trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in, both at school and in life. He is aware of his parents’ expectations for him and follows in the footsteps of an older brother who didn’t want to follow that route. He gives in a little more easily to peer pressure than I would have liked, but in his circumstances, probably most would.

Naomi is a lovely, self-assured girl who also deals with racism and peer pressure. Trent is pushing for sex and she wants to wait, but she lets people think they are, to boost his reputation. She finds an understanding friend in Paco and the two form a bond that goes beyond shared bullying and pressures at school.

Paco’s parents are a present and strong force in the book and in the boy’s life. They are aware of the pressures they place on him and the abuse he takes at school, but also believe that he can live up to their expectations, and rise above the other petty behaviour. They do not dismiss the bullying and racism, but realize, sadly, that it isn’t going to end anytime soon, and Paco must figure out a way to deal with it. They see his schooling as a great opportunity and want him to realize it as well.

The cast of secondary adult characters really contributes to the novel. The teachers and coaches and principal of the school all bring their own baggage and ideas to the story, and Paco takes away lessons from each encounter with them.

This is an uplifting story about a young boy who is learning about himself and his place in the world. (And the cover is GORGEOUS). Author Dominic Carrillo talks about peer pressure and the fleetingness of fame and popularity, and how in the end, you must be yourself. It is a nice, fast read for anyone, and a great story for kids trying to find out where they fit in.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones was published March 27th, 2016 by CSP-Createspace.

A Mango-Shaped Space

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This is a difficult book to review, and I am not entirely sure why. It was an easy read with lovely writing and interesting characters, it made me cry absolute buckets of tears by the end, but I am having trouble distilling the main message. Be true to yourself? Those who love you never leave you? Don’t be so wrapped up in your own thoughts that you ignore others? Maybe it’s all of them and more. It seems to start one way and meander over to an entirely different path by the end. This may be a short review. Or I may ramble on ad nauseam. Probably the latter, who’s kidding who.

By the way. It is a wonderful story.

13-year-old Mia Winchell is entering 8th grade, and she dreads it. Math is impossible, she has to learn Spanish, which is just not going to happen, and she lives in fear of her secret getting out. No one knows about her, not even her best friend Jenna. No one knows that she sees sounds and words and numbers and names all in colour. No one knows that their names have colour. No one knows that their voices make shapes in the air. And no one knows that Mango got his name because his little meow is mango-coloured. Mia’s grandfather died a year ago, the same day that Mango appeared. She is pretty convinced a piece of her grandfather’s soul is in the cat.

Then a fight with her best friend and two big purple Fs on math tests lead to her secret getting out, and nothing will be the same again.

Mia has synesthesia – she perceives sounds and letters and numbers as colour. I hadn’t heard of this before, but after a bit of research, found out that it is not uncommon in the population. There are a lot of different forms of it, and essentially it means “blended senses.” But when Mia tried to tell people abut it in grade three, her fellow students laughed at her, and the adults didn’t believe her. So she figured it wasn’t normal, and has kept it a secret her whole life.

I like Mia. She is a middle-school girl with all the normal angsts and worries of any 13-year-old, she has her best friend and her squad of girls that have always hung out together. She is starting to notice things changing, and isn’t sure if she likes what she sees. And she is starting to notice boys. She is also self-absorbed and ready to blow off plans if they interfere with something she wants more. In short, she sounds pretty normal.

Basically, I found all the teen characters fit that description. Her brother Zack is obsessed with superstitions, but is quirky and fun, rather than obnoxious. BFF Jenna deals with loss and heartbreak, and needs Mia to need her. Roger is sweet and bashful and vulnerable.

This is a story of a few months in their lives, when they are all dealing with different changes and losses.

A couple things bothered me about the story. One is that her mother, a scientist, was sceptical when Mia told her about her synesthesia, and wanted her “cured.” This isn’t the Middle Ages, we aren’t afraid of black magic, I cannot understand why she wouldn’t just say “ok, this changes the way you learn and see things, let’s figure out a way for you to learn math…” Why her parents treated it as a disorder or a serious condition is confusing to me, other than just to give the author a way to move the story in a certain direction.

The next is that it came a big surprise to everyone. I have three children, and if they saw letters as colours or tasted sound or anything, I would have heard about it long before grade three. Because kids talk about everything. And a four-year-old would tell you your name sounds purple or the dog barks green. And it would be normal to them, because everything is normal to a child. So I have trouble buying that Mia kept it a secret and no one knew.

Those few issues aside, author Wendy Mass tells a lovely story. There is love and acceptance and friendship and a LOT of tears, both happy and sad, by the end. It is a nice read for anyone. Just have tissues handy.

A Mango-Shaped Space was published October 19th 2005 by Little, Brown and Company