Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My LifeLaura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life
by Shelley Tougas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We moved all the time, but always to real cities with malls and movie theaters and bus lines; never to a place like this, a land so quiet and empty the wind had nothing to blow. Rose was no help. She hadn’t wanted to leave Lexington, either, but she never complained. Mom and Rose were all sunshine, all the time, the Florida of moods.

At age 12, Charlotte is tired of moving from place to place. Most recently, her mother has brought Charlotte, her twin brother Freddy, and their younger sister Rose from Lexington, Kentucky, to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Their mother wants to write a book about a prairie girl, and she’s decided the former hometown of Laura Ingalls (Wilder) is the place to do it. While Rose has always been relentlessly optimistic, like their mother, Charlotte has always had Freddy on her side, but something seems to be pulling him away from her now, too.

This contemporary novel explores the ideas of what home, family, and friendship mean, touching on experiences of racism and poverty, without feeling didactic. Charlotte is smart and prickly, trying to shield herself from being hurt by others by not letting others get close to her. Her first-person narration reveals her weaknesses as well as her strengths; there are moments you can see clearly that her perceptions are about to lead her astray, but you understand her feelings. Because of the limited perspective, some of the secondary characters, especially the adults, read flat and cartoonish, though.

But the book isn’t all inner conflict and introspection. There’s also a bit of a mystery that Charlotte has to solve that is fun for the reader, if not for the character. At various points throughout the book, the Ingalls family and the way they were portrayed in the beloved children’s books and television show are examined in light of historical facts in a way that may pique some readers’ interest to find out more.

There are quite a few references to events in the Little House books (can they really be called spoilers when the book is over 80 years old?), so be aware of that when recommending to young readers. And do recommend this book, because it is an entertaining contemporary read, told with humor and heart.

Source: Checked out from my public library (I had a NetGalley e-ARC, but I didn’t get to it in time!)

Challenges: None

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You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

You Go FirstYou Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard balanced an unopened Dr Pepper upright on her hand and thought: This is what it feels like to hold my dad’s heart.

She’d read online that the heart weighed about twelve ounces.

Same as the Dr Pepper.

(Somebody should probably mention to Charlotte that there’s a difference between ounces (mass) and fluid ounces (volume). Although Google tells me that a 12-ounce can of soda weighs about 13-14 ounces, so it’s pretty close!)

I’d been especially looking forward to this book since reading Kelly’s Newbery-winning Hello, Universe in February. This book has much of the charm of that book, with its painfully realistic middle-schoolers, but without the magical realism that was a part of Virgil’s story.

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard is dealing with her dad’s sudden health problem and the way her best friend seems to be drifting away from her now that they’ve started the seventh grade. Eleven-year-old Ben Boxer has just found out his parents are divorcing, and he doesn’t know how to talk to them about the troubles he’s been having fit in at middle school. Charlotte and Ben play online Scrabble against each other regularly. It’s their only interaction: Charlotte lives in Pennsylvania, and Ben lives in Louisiana. They’ve never met in person. But they have more in common than they think, and they might just be able to help one another.

Kelly captures the agonies of middle school perfectly – as a mom myself, I just wanted to hug both Charlotte and Ben. Their struggles are so familiar. At an age when they’re just starting to figure out who they are, the world seems to be suddenly rearranging itself all around them. The chapters alternate perspective between Charlotte and Ben, revealing the parallels in their lives to the reader before they really connect with other as more than word game adversaries. They’re both smart and awkward, and there are a lot of kids who will recognize themselves. Like in Hello, Universe, there isn’t a lot of action on the page; the development is emotional and psychological rather than physical. For those who enjoy character-driven stories, though, it’s a gem.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Challenges: None.

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Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, UniverseHello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade.

It’s the beginning of summer vacation, and the lives of four middle-schoolers are about to cross in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is small and quiet in a family of loud, large personalities. Kaori Tanaka is determined to use her gift of the “second sight” to help other kids. Valencia Somerset loves nature, but doesn’t really want to spend as much time alone as she does. Chet Bullens wants to impress people, especially his father, and believes to make himself bigger he must make others small.

I hadn’t heard about this book before it won the Newbery (though I did have Kelly’s two previous middle-grade books on the shelf at my library), so I really didn’t know what to expect.

I loved this book. It’s sweet and funny, and it captures so much of what it means to be at that age, just on the precipice of teenager-hood, when you’re figuring out who you are and what you believe.

The characters are diverse in a way that feels totally natural, and none of them are one-sided. The perspective rotates among Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet, giving the reader a wealth of information not available to the individual characters. Valencia’s chapters are written in first person, while the other three are all third-person. (I am curious about that choice!) Chet’s chapters, in particular, were a little heart-breaking to me as an adult (and the parent of an eleven-year-old). While the book is very much centered on the kids, I thought the glimpses of the adults in their lives were really interesting. And Lola is just fabulous.

The action of the novel takes place over just a day or two, so a lot of the “action” is internal, with the characters confronting their own ideas. There’s more than a touch of magical realism, too, giving the book an added dimension, but not drawing the story over the line into fantasy. Are these converging events nothing more than coincidence, or is the universe trying to get the characters’ attention?

This is a lovely little book that touches on big themes – friendship, bullying, standing up for yourself and others. If things seems to wrap up just a little bit too neatly, well, that’s the universe for you.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Newbery Reading Challenge (Medal Winner: 3 points).

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Sounder by William H. Armstrong

Sounder

Sounder by William H. Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tall man stood at the edge of the porch. The roof sagged from the two rough posts which held it, almost closing the gap between his head and the rafters.

Somewhere in the deep South, a young black boy lives with his family in a small cabin. One morning, he is surprised to discover pork sausage and ham cooking. For a family of impoverished sharecroppers, this is an unexpected luxury. Even their hound/bulldog mix, Sounder, gets a treat. The joy is short-lived, however, as the white Sheriff and his deputies arrive at their door and take the boy’s father away in chains. The boy grows into a young man with Sounder by his side.

I’ll start by noting the elephant in the room: this book, published in 1969 (and winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal), is a story about a black family written by a white man. The book opens with an author’s note beginning, “Fifty years ago, I learned to read at a round table in the center of a large, sweet-smelling, steam-softened kitchen. My teacher was a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away from where we lived in the Green Hill district of the county.” This would have been in the late 1910s; Armstrong was born in Virginia in 1911. He goes on to explain that his teacher told him many stories, including “the story of Sounder, a coon dog.” This book is, says Armstrong, “the black man’s story, not mine.”

Perhaps that is why none of the characters, other than the dog, are given names. For that matter, the place is never specified. Or maybe the vagueness is intended to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination.  In any case, our protagonist is always referred to as simply “the boy” – which feels a little awkward and uncomfortable. The particular racist use of the term is touched on in the novel itself: “‘Stick out your hands, boy,’ ordered the second man. The boy started to raise his hands, but the man was already reaching over the stove, snapping handcuffs on the outstretched wrists of his father.”

Throughout the short novel, we see the institutional and casual racism of the place and time through the boy’s eyes. He’s led a fairly sheltered life, rarely leaving the warm circle of his own family. His interactions with the people he encounters over the years reflect the prevailing attitudes.

I think this would be a great book to read with a group (a classroom or a book group) paired with an Own Voices book like Linda Williams Jackson’s Midnight without a Moon or Sharon M. Draper’s Stella by Starlight.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Old School Kidlit Challenge (published 1969), the Newbery Reading Challenge (Medal Winner: 3 points), and Read Harder (Task 11: A children’s classic published before 1980).

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Book Review: The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match by Elizabeth Eulberg

The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match (The Great Shelby Holmes, #2)
The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match by Elizabeth Eulberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what worried me more: that there was something the great Shelby Holmes didn’t know, or that she marched right up to the new teacher and dropped to the floor to start examining him from the shoes up.

Synopsis: It’s been three weeks since eleven-year-old John Watson moved to Harlem with his mom and met their nine-year-old genius neighbor, Shelby Holmes. It’s also the first day of school at Harlem Academy of the Arts, where they are both starting the sixth grade. While John is trying to settle in, get a handle on his homework, and spend at least a little time playing basketball or video games with some other guys, Shelby senses a mystery that needs solving. Someone needs her help, and John is immediately in for the adventure (and the material for his writing class). It quickly seems he’ll get more than he bargained for, as the case is more complicated than it appears, and it looks like there might be someone in the world who is a match for even the great Shelby Holmes.

Review: Like the first book, this novel is told in first person from the perspective of John Watson, an eleven-year-old African-American boy who has recently moved to New York. After a lifetime of moving from base to base as a military brat, he is adapting to life in a city apartment with his mom and adapting to life apart from his dad, who has remained in Kentucky. He has a strong narrative voice, witty and often self-deprecating, an average kid who finds himself in some not-so-average situations. He is a likeable, friendly kid, and his friendship with Shelby – which could seem very unlikely indeed – is understandable when seen through his eyes.

The story is peppered with Canonical references, from character names to plot twists. As an adaptation of the Holmes stories for kids, this is a knock-out. The characters are more diverse, the setting is modern, and the cases tend to involve fewer murders, but Holmes and Watson remain Holmes and Watson. Eulberg nails the friendship between Shelby and John, making it clear why these two opposites will always come back to each other.

Personal Thoughts: I adore this series. A third book is said to be in the works; I can’t wait!

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

MooMoo by Sharon Creech
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The truth is, she was ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to a n y b o d y, and selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust, and moody: you’d better watch it or she’d knock you flat.

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Reena has always been a city girl, and she doesn’t know what to expect when her family moves to rural Maine. She certainly doesn’t expect, along with her seven-year-old brother, Luke, to be volunteered by their parents to help out a cranky elderly lady. Mrs. Falala lives alone, except for a pig, a cat, a parrot, a snake, and a cow. The cow is Zora, and Reena and Luke are tasked with grooming her for an upcoming fair.

Review: There are a few short chapters written in prose, but most of the book is in free verse and concrete poetry. This writing style, packed with sensory details, brings the reader well into Reena’s experience. Reena and Luke are believable city kids plunked down in an unfamiliar rural setting, and Reena’s thoughts and feelings will resonate especially with (sub)urban kids who are curious about life in the country. It’s a quiet book, focused more on emotions and personal growth than action. The poetic style and short chapters make it a faster read than it appears at first glance. There is a good deal of gentle humor, but be prepared for some realistic sad moments.

Personal Thoughts: I wanted to read the book based on some information given at a Book Buzz segment at an ALA Conference. By the time I got it, I mistook this book for another book that I also heard about at the same presentation, with left me a little bit confused for a chapter or three! But I was quickly engaged by Reena’s story. I grew up in the suburbs, and I clearly remember the first few times I encountered a real, live cow; Reena’s reactions rang true. I also loved the moment Reena and Luke realize where hamburgers come from, as well as the follow-up discussions with local boy Zep, their tutor in things livestock-showing-related, and with their parents. This would be a great choice for a parent-child book club.

Source: Borrowed from my public library.

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Book Review: Roller Girl

Roller Girl
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


At first I couldn’t tell what was going on – just a bunch of skating, hitting, and falling.

Synopsis: Astrid and Nicole have been best friends since first grade, after an incident involving the class Mean Girl, Rachel. They do everything together. Astrid assumes this means that they’ll spend the summer following fifth grade together at Roller Derby Camp – Astrid’s newfound passion. She is stunned to discover that Nicole has other plans, namely, Dance Camp… with Rachel. With middle school looming and things changing all around her, Astrid rolls into the toughest summer of her life.

Review: A smart and funny realistic look at that stage so familiar to anyone who was once an almost-teenager, when friends start growing into their own people, and sometimes growing apart. Astrid speaks, thinks, and feels like a regular kid, someone you might know (or remember). She likes the way things are and doesn’t want them to change, but she ultimately faces those changes with good humor and strength. There are lessons in her story about growing up, accepting yourself and others for who they are, and working hard to achieve a dream, even when it doesn’t turn out quite the way you hoped, but it avoids didactic condescension easily. Totally charming.

Personal Thoughts: I happen to love roller skating, and I am a little sad that I didn’t encounter the whole roller derby phenomenon at an age/time/place when I might have joined in. I’ll just have to live vicariously through Astrid, I suppose. I loved everything about this book, from the painfully realistic depictions of the way pre-teen girls interact to the wonderful relationship between Astrid and her mother. (There’s a fourth-wall-breaking moment in which Astrid literally winks at the reader about an interaction with her mother that cracked me up.) I adore this book.

Recommend to: Fans of Raina Telgemeier… and pretty much any tween girl, actually. (Although I’d *love* to see some tween boys reading this one.)

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1)

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries, #1)The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would very much like to know why my mother named me “Enola,” which, backwards, spells alone.

Synopsis: Enola receives three fourteenth birthday gifts from her mother: a drawing kit, a copy of The Meanings of Flowers: Including Also Notes Upon the Messages Conveyed by Fans, Handkerchiefs, Sealing-Wax, and Postage Stamps, and a small hand-made book of ciphers. The same day, her mother vanishes without a trace, and Enola must contact her much older brothers in London – Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. Dismayed by the way the grounds of the estate (and Enola, in his opinion) have been left neglected, Mycroft makes plans to send his sister to boarding school for an education befitting a proper young lady of the late 1800s. Enola has no interest in such an education (or, for that matter, being a proper young lady), so she makes her own plan to escape to London and search for their mother on her own. As if eluding her brothers and keeping herself out of danger weren’t enough, she quickly finds herself tangled up in the mystery of a missing young Lord as well.

Review: With a smart and feisty teen-age heroine, this historical mystery is a pretty easy sell. Enola’s free-thinking ways stand out against her brothers’ much more of-the-time views on women. The period as well as the varied settings are evoked with strong, carefully chosen details. My only complaint is the choice of “Marquess” for the missing boy’s title, since that term is particularly confusing for American kids, but that’s a bit of a nitpick. The very real dangers faced by a young girl (and a young boy) in London are portrayed in an age-appropriate yet suspenseful way. This first volume of six wraps up one mystery while leaving enough dangling ends to make the reader want to have the next volume handy.

Recommend to: Historical and mystery fans ages 8 and up.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: Mysteries According to Humphrey (According to Humphrey #8)

Mysteries According to Humphrey

Mysteries According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A mystery is like a puzzle. It can be something unsqueakably scary, like a thing that goes THUMP in the night.

Synopsis: It’s hamster Humphrey’s second year in room 26 of Longfellow School, and by the beginning of October, he’s getting to know his new classmates. Mrs. Brisbane has just started reading “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Humphrey is just as disappointed as everyone else when she stops in the middle of the story to move on to another lesson. Disappointment turns to dismay when Mrs. Brisbane doesn’t return to school the next day, then is replaced (temporarily, Humphrey hopes!) by a substitute teacher named Mr. E., who seems to want to play with the students instead of teach them. Humphrey decides to follow the example of Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate Mrs. Brisbane’s disappearance as well as a few other mysteries as only a determined class pet in a cage with a lock-that-doesn’t-lock can. And, maybe, along the way, he’ll find out just what happens in that story about the man with the red hair.

Review: This is the eighth installment of the “According to Humphrey” series, and he is just as charming as ever. Fans of the series will enjoy this new adventure, but reading all the previous volumes isn’t strictly necessary. At the end of each short chapter, Humphrey shares something he’s learned in his “Detectionary”, and there is a list of the “Top 10 Tips for Beginning Detectives” at the end of the book.

Recommend to: Middle grade readers looking for a fun and funny light mystery, as well as fans of books in this series and other animal fiction series.

Source: E-book checked out from my public library (via Overdrive).

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Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Please allow the SPFD to welcome you more formally. Go to The Dancing Men (if you’re hungry, they make an excellent ploughman’s lunch) and ask for a saucer of milk for your snake. Then all will be revealed.

Synopsis:
Twelve-year-old Xena is sitting on the front steps of a London hotel with her little brother, Xander, when a strange man presses a note into her hand. The kids barely have time to read the peculiar message before the ink disappears from the paper. Once they learn that “The Dancing Men” is a nearby pub (and that a “ploughman’s lunch” is something they might actually like), they can’t ignore their curiosity about it. The clever siblings might be a bit more curious than most, though, since they happen to be the American descendants of the famous Sherlock Holmes. After inheriting his casebook of unsolved problems, they quickly find themselves on the trail of a century-old mystery the Great Detective himself never solved.

Review:
Barrett introduces a pair of protagonists with immediate appeal for young readers. Like any siblings, Xena and Xander occasionally bicker and even embarrass each other, but when push comes to shove, each has the other’s back. Because they are American kids newly arrived in London, explanations of British culture and customs come up naturally in the narrative, rather than as awkward exposition for the reader. Nods to the original Sherlock Holmes stories are sprinkled throughout and sometimes explained (the saucer of milk for snake reference slips right by, but the Irregulars get a quick description). The mystery itself is very simple, and the characters never face any real danger or violence, making this a great selection for newly independent chapter-book readers as well as slightly older mystery fans. Once they’ve finished this quick-paced adventure, readers can continue to follow the Holmes siblings in three more series installments: The Beast of Blackslope, The Case that Time Forgot, and The Missing Heir.

Recommend to: Fans of mystery and adventure ages 8-12.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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