The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

This was this year’s Newbery Award winner and honestly I hadn’t had much interest in reading it. BUT, like many other Newberys, I found myself reading this and loving it and nodding and saying “Ahh, I see why it won.” Not only did I read it, but I also picked it for my staff book club and got a few other teachers to read it so we could discuss it together.

One of the things that first captured my attention with this book was that in the descriptions it is mentioned that the book Dreamers by Yuyi Morales plays a pivotal role in it. I thought that was intriguing because Dreamers came out in 2018. It’s a great book, a picture book that won several awards. And in this story it is referenced as if it was as beloved and well known in a child’s life as The Cat in the Hat. So I was intrigued to see how this book would fit in.

One way it fits in is that this story is a science fiction story (intriguing for Newbery!) and takes place many years in the future, so Dreamers is an old beloved story.

There’s a pretty standard sci-fi premise-the world is going to end due to a comet, a small select population gets to leave Earth in spaceships will find another place for them to begin again. While on the ships everyone will be in stasis. Petra is lucky enough, along with her parents and brother, to get to leave Earth. She is heartbroken to leave her abuelita, who has taught her all she knows about stories and the power of storytelling. Petra also wants to be a storyteller. Well, Petra wakes up early and figures out all kinds of stuff did NOT go according to the plan.

This was so beautifully written-I can see why it won this year. This was my favorite thing about this book: there were many classic sci-fi elements that most readers would recognize, but with a wonderful unique spin on it , which is much like Petra herself is encouraged to make her cuentas her own by adding her unique elements!

And if you are a young reader who hasn’t encountered the classic sci-fi elements before, well then you get to be introduced to them here and these wonderful types of stories that have us wonder about civilizations, survival, space, and the power of storytelling.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian Heidicker

This was one of my FAVORITE books I read when school closed in the spring and I don’t know why I didn’t record it here. Here’s what I said on Goodreads: “Started this yesterday, couldn’t put down today. This was fantastic (would love to hear it on audio.) Truly spooky and kind of horrifying (one whole part felt like it was Misery) and somehow a perfect blend of anthropomorphizing + actual wildlife behavior and ultimately so sweet and charming.”
I’ll add that this was a Newbery Honor winner and, as I’ve often said here in a kind of “duh” manner-you can see why. This story is so beautifully crafted and written. First, it’s got that thing going for it that I just love and am in awe of-the author manages to suddenly bring everything together and you realize that it’s not really sudden at all, it was happening all along. Second, I do not like scary things and this was surprisingly gruesome/scary but in a totally manageable way. Third, it’s just a really solid great story. And it’s different. It’s not like the usual middle grade realistic fiction I read. I was completely caught up in this and highly recommend it.

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Oops, it’s been nearly a month since I read this. Actually, this book was started waaaaaaaaaay back on the brink of quarantine-as an audiobook my daughter and I listened to in the car. And then quarantine started and we listened a bit more, but then we didn’t. Finally last month I just sat down one day and read the whole book. Much more satisfying to take in the story all at once, rather than in fractured listening, drawn out over weeks. [I had planned ahead, bringing the book home from work.]
So this is another Newbery winner I’d never gotten around to reading. I thought it was very well written and particularly because the writer employed a technique I just love-a story told from different points of view and they end up meshing together. A View From Saturday by E.L.Konigsburg also does this and also won a Newbery. So maybe it always just feels really amazing when an author can weave together threads of stories. Some to think of it, Holes has dual storylines and so does The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Hmmm…

Anyway, as for the story I really enjoyed it and I really liked the characters, too. The bully character is truly a terrible individual, as is his father. Kind of reinforcing the sad truth that sometimes kids who are jerks grow up to be adults who are jerks who teach their kids to be jerks.

Spoiler alert:

 

 

 

 

I’m a bit torn about how I feel about the fact that there seemed to be no repercussions for the bully. I really wanted him to get into Major Trouble.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Here’s another book to file under the “why did I wait so long to read this? There’s a reason it won an award-it’s fantastic!”  I suppose, like a lot of good books, there’s nothing amazing sounding about it. I wasn’t dying to read it. I got myself to read it by picking it for my faculty book club and honestly, one I started I couldn’t stop. (In other good news, I got my reading mojo back!) Really, I read this most of the day Saturday.
Merci lives in a little house right in the middle of two other little identical houses and all together her whole family lives there: her mother and father and older brother, Roli; her grandmother and grandfather; her aunt and her little twin cousins.  They live in Florida and Merci and Roli both attend a private school on scholarship.  6th grader Merci feels pressure from her parents to make sure she’s an extra valuable student to the school. There are some mean girls at school but in one of the most mature and frank understandings at the end of the novel, they acknowledge that sometimes you just don’t like everyone or some people as much as other people.  There were a lot of threads here that were all woven together nicely: school, friendships, some boys and girls beginning to feel different about boy/girl friendships, family, family expectations, and her grandfather’s failing memory. [It was pure coincidence that I read two books this weekend and both featured grandfathers with Alzheimer’s disease.]
The whole story just felt so real to me. I loved it.

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

basilIt’s been two months since I posted and while I have read books in that time, there has definitely been a lull. I found myself in a few weeks long reading rut, which was just terrible. So now it’s time to play catch-up and I’m going to not necessarily go in order, but start with the book that helped me get out of the rut. Nothing was capturing my attention. I checked books out and returned them. I was distracted and uninterested. But mopey because I wanted to be reading. I had taken my son to a doctor’s appointment and put my old copy of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler in my purse because I thought that he might finally like to read it. Instead, I opened it up and started it myself. And, oh! Wasn’t it just what I needed? A tried and true story, one that I knew I’d love, but also had been so long since I read it that it was wonderful to get reacquainted with.  The funny thing is, as I read I kept recognizing things as particular parts/styles that I had loved as a kid.  For example, Claudia keeps getting mad at her brother Jamie’s ungrammatical sentences and saying “What kind of sentence is that?!” I wouldn’t have remembered that on my own, but as soon as I saw it in print remembered that I had loved that part very much. (I still found it funny.) The book was a lot shorter than I remembered. It seems that all the things I thought of as the “highlights of the book I still remember” actually are, simply, all the parts of the book.
There’s a reason this book won the Newbery Award and remains a classic. It’s so marvelously well-written. Konigsburg doesn’t shy away from great sentences, language, and vocabulary.  And Jamie and Claudia are neither perfect nor perfectly wicked. In fact, I can remember taking great pleasure then (and did this time too) whenever their less than attractive traits were described. And then, of course, there’s the whole premise. I have never visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I did not imagine Jamie and Claudia bathing in the fountain, or imagine what I myself would do if I were hiding in the museum.
For now my son still hasn’t read it, but I sure hope he does because, while things like the automat are a bit dated, it’s still a great story.

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

[Hub reading challenge; Morris award]

belleThis was a good book with a fascinating premise, but I just didn’t give it the attention it deserved. It took me forever to read and I read four other books in between starting and finishing it. I suppose that means that I just wan’t engaged enough in the story if I was so easily able to keep putting it down, but I would say I did like it.

Set in Paris in 1888 it made me want to take out Woody Allen’s marvelous film, Midnight in Paris, and watch it again.  Maude is a young woman who has escaped a dreary country life for the glamour of Paris. Unfortunately it’s not very glamorous when you are barely making a living. She is approached by a gentleman who runs a special agency and agrees to employment there. Maude is hired as a repouissoir-one who literally “repulses.” She and other plain (or homely) women are hired by aristocracy to attend social events with them. Their presence will make their clients shine and sparkle by comparison.  It’s a humiliating position, but it pays well.  When Maude is hired for the entire season by a countess she thinks she has hit gold.  She gets to dress up in beautiful clothes and is introduced to a luxurious world of wealth and culture she would never have been part of otherwise.  The countess has hired Maude in secret to accompany her daughter Isabelle, whom she would like to know Maude as just a friend.  Her further instructions to Maude are to help Isabelle become agreeable to a good marriage.  Unfortunately Maude becomes genuine friends with Isabelle, who is intelligent and wishes to attend the Sorbonne to study science, and is conflicted by loyalty, friendship, and finance.

I enjoyed the details of Paris, Maude’s mingling with the Bohemian set, and the details of luxury.  The repouissoir business was fascinating, too.

And the winners are…

Today was a much anticipated day in the book community–the Youth Media Awards.  This is the press conference where the prestigious awards in children’s and young adult literature are given out-Printz, Newbery, Caldecott, and many more.  This is such an exciting event to attend in person, but now that I don’t attend it, it’s equally fun to watch the live streaming video of it. (And I will add that getting to announce the YALSA awards at that event was a true highlight in my career.) Would you believe I haven’t read a single one of the Printz award books? In fact, there were so few titles I read throughout all the awards (with the exception of ALSC’s Theodore Geisel and Caldecott awards-and I wrote about those over at Fourteen Bears) that one wonders what exactly I’ve been reading this past year. I was very pleased to see that Rose Under Fire was recognized by winning a Schneider Family Book Award.  This award is for books portraying disabilities. Here was my review of it.  You can get the complete lists of honored titles in all the categories here.

In addition to those prominent awards, RUSA also publishes a list of their top picks in genre fiction.  This is a great way to find good books to read, so be sure to check out that list here. (Of their choices I had read and loved the top Romance pick-Any Duchess Will Do, disliked the top Women’s Fiction pick, but liked a lot of the read-alikes.)

Happy Reading in 2014!

Struts & Frets by Jon Skovron

(Reading Challenge: Popular Paperbacks)

strutsThis is the sort of YA book I really enjoy-straight up realistic fiction ( I say realistic but the truth is in my adolescent I saw none of this in me or my friends, but, like with movies, that’s why it’s fiction) with some conflicts, some happy resolutions, and personal growth. I especially liked that the main character was a boy because even as an adult now I am still fascinated by the secret look into a boy’s point of view. Sammy, the boy, is a pretty well-adjusted kid. He lives with his single mom, is an aspiring musician, has some nice solid friends, is great friends with a girl who he thinks he might like to have be a girlfriend,  and is in a band.  Unfortunately his band is kind of a mess, especially because the lead singer is an enraged loose cannon. There several different threads to the story that all tie nicely together. One thread is his connection to his grandfather who is mentally slipping away into dementia. But the moments of clarity provide for some wonderful bonding, as his grandfather was a professional musician.  Then there’s the girl situation. I thought this was resolved pretty easily, which was, frankly, refreshing. And the losing their virginity part was very nicely done and very positive. Again, refreshing.

I especially liked seeing Sammy’s relationship with his male friends, including his best friend Rick, who is gay. Although Rick is out to Sammy he hasn’t dated anyone yet and doesn’t really want to discuss it. Sammy points out that this makes their relationship lopsided because if they’re friends and he can go on and on about wanting Jen5 (such a novel affectation-who do you know in real life who names themselves with a number? made me think of another book about Su5an Smith), shouldn’t Rick be able to dump on Sammy about his own dating angst? I thought Sammy was really sweet to Rick and I really liked their friendship.

The music in the story is great-Sammy’s description of what it’s like when he plays, his songwriting, the bands that get mentioned, the prospect of a career in music (the part where he sees a fairly successful guy he looks up to behind the counter of a coffee shop is great.)  And I loved it that at the end all the referenced songs were compiled in a playlist! I’m fairly certain that in my husband’s music library we’ve got all those songs and I’m going to ask him to make me a disc of it so I can have a listen. It was a nice touch to a nice book.

 

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

(Reading Challenge:  Great Graphic Novels)

trinityThis was a fascinating book. And, since there is another big winner about the atomic bomb this year it looks like I’ll be learning a lot about this important event.

It covers the development of the bomb from the start, identifying the key scientific thinkers across the world who were figuring out atoms and fission. Then it comes to Robert Oppenheimer and the U.S.’s quest to built the first bomb.  This part was really interesting to me (the part explaining actual fission, not so much, despite the author and illustrator’s best attempts to simplify and explain clearly-I simply don’t get it!). Did you know that thousands of people in the U.S. were employed in this project-yet they didn’t know what they were working on? That it was so compartmentalized that no one could put the pieces together to figure out that’s what the project was? And this top secret method was so successful the CIA emulated in the future? That whole towns and factories were built just to produce parts that would be used in making the bomb? I didn’t know any of that and it was fascinating. Some other fascinating and horrible things I learned? That so much nuclear testing has gone on around the world that we all have a little radioactivity inside us. Can’t escape it. Also? That although we think of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the most terrible things to happen in terms of warfare and death tolls, the firebombing campaign of Japan actually had a higher loss of life. It was a more drawn out attack, but worse.

I thought of the book as having two parts-the creation of the bomb and then the use of it. The latter section shows Truman considering the decision to use the weapon, the horror of the bomb, and Oppenheimer and the world’s realization that nothing would ever be the same politically because of this dreadful threat of nuclear war.

In clear words and pictures this very complicated and big event and subsequent topic is brought to life to the reader.  I really liked this and wish it had been around when I was in high school because I think it would have been very useful to read in history class!

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

helen(Reading Challenge: Great Graphic Novels)

Although I know the basic facts about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, this book taught me a whole lot that I didn’t know.  It begins when Annie Sullivan arrives at the Keller house to begin teacher Helen and continues in a chronological fashion that is interrupted by flashbacks to Annie’s childhood. Turns out that Annie had a lousy early life-orphaned, kept in a home for the poor that was later the target of investigations for the horrible treatment people in it received, her only sibling dying from TB, and then finally getting sent to the Perkins School for the Blind.  She was smart and capable, but you get the impression that she was a difficult person to get along with.  Which may have made her just the right teacher for Helen, who was a wild thing when they first meet.

I liked how when Helen and Annie talked to each other their hands are shown signing into each other and then the words were above. Not speech bubbles unless someone was actually speaking aloud.  Much of the story is also told by Annie’s letters to her mentor, who is at the school for the blind.  The process of teaching Helen was fascinating.  I find it really hard to get my head around imagining being blind and deaf. In fact, it’s so distressing for me that when I do imagine it I have to quickly make myself stop.

There is more to the story, though, then just the whole “miracle worker” part.  Quite a bit of drama comes when Helen is older and she and Annie return to Perkins.  Although not students there, her old mentor wants to use their fame and publicity for the school and that makes Annie resentful and drives a wedge between them.  Then there is a fascinating plagiarism story that was apparently quite the scandal.

I liked this quite a bit, especially because I learned so much more to the Helen Keller story than I already knew.  There is a helpful afterward that gives even more information about different elements of the story.