Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff

umbrella-summerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Umbrella Summer
Series:  None
Source: Gift
Published: 2000

SUMMARY

Ever since her brother Jared died from a rare heart condition, Annie Richards has been very careful.  Skin cancer, gangrene, or Ebola–anything could get you.  So she doesn’t ride her bike down the hill anymore, or race with her best friend Rebecca, or eat sugary cereal for breakfast.  Can a chance meeting with a new neighbor help Annie to find a way to live again?

Review

In Umbrella Summer, Lisa Graff sensitively explores the aftermath of the death of Annie’s eleven-year-old brother Jared.  Though the adults around her keep telling her she’s fine, ten-year-old Annie can’t help but worry.  They say that the chances of her getting skin cancer or other deadly diseases are slim.  But Jared died from a heart condition so rare no one bothered to check for it.  You have to be prepared, Annie thinks, because you never know.

I would say that this a lower middle-grade, so at times the writing and the story did feel a little simplistic to me.  I had to fill in some of the emotions, especially those of the adults, because while Graff does depict the effects of Jared’s death on Annie’s family, much of what happens occurs without comment.  Of course, this is partially because Annie narrates the story and she’s not very effective at articulating her own grief, and much less at understanding why her parents are behaving as they are.  (She is, after all, only ten.)  But it still feels like we’re offered only a glimpse of what is really happening, because if we looked at raw grief in its entirety, it might prove too overwhelming.

Still, this is an excellent story, one that has your heart reaching out to Annie as she tries to cope. It helps that Annie is not simply a victim.  She is strong and smart and funny and, well, a kid who likes to do kid things like spy on the neighbors or make up silly songs.  She’s a fun protagonist, one whose adventures you want to travel on even while you wish you could give her a hug and tell her it will be okay.

3 starsKrysta 64

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

The Crystal Ribbon

Information

Goodreads: The Crystal Ribbon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 31, 2017

Official Summary

In the village of Huanan, in medieval China, the deity that rules is the Great Huli Jing. Though twelve-year-old Li Jing’s name is a different character entirely from the Huli Jing, the sound is close enough to provide constant teasing-but maybe is also a source of greater destiny and power. Jing’s life isn’t easy. Her father is a poor tea farmer, and her family has come to the conclusion that in order for everyone to survive, Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold as a bride to the Koh family, where she will be the wife and nursemaid to their three-year-old son, Ju’nan. It’s not fair, and Jing feels this bitterly, especially when she is treated poorly by the Koh’s, and sold yet again into a worse situation that leads Jing to believe her only option is to run away, and find home again. With the help of a spider who weaves Jing a means to escape, and a nightingale who helps her find her way, Jing embarks on a quest back to Huanan–and to herself.

Review

This book, starting with the summary but continuing throughout the text itself, fixates so much on the idea that protagonist Jing has a “powerful destiny” that I was expecting an entirely different story from the one I got. People harp on Jing’s name and how it means “crystal” and how she’s fated for great things. I thought this was going to be an epic fantasy adventure where Jing is some type of Chosen One, a hero who changes the course of the world. Instead, it’s about Jing’s personal journey of finding inner strength, not even necessarily to do earth-shattering things, but just to have a life she’s happy with. This isn’t a bad plot, but, as I said, it is far from what I had been led to expect.

Because of my expectations, I thought the book was going to be structured differently than it is, and I wait a long time for the plot to reach a climax or for Jing to discover her great destiny. The plot, however, is fairly episodic, and it plays out pretty much in the way the jacket summary describes: Jing is sold off to be a young bride/babysitter to her three-year-old husband, then she’s sent off to an ever worse life, then she plans her escape. The book is fairly episodic in this way, though it does have a sort of “there and back again” structure to tie it altogether.

The historical aspects and the Chinese cultural aspects are incredibly interesting. It does seem a little heavy-handed at time, as the characters have to repeatedly explain what words mean, what certain objects are, what the local customs are, etc., but I probably would have been lost without a lot of these explanations, so I’ll admit that they’re probably necessary for a lot of readers, though I did think sometimes the info dumps distract from the story. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution here, however, and I’m sure the author and editor went back and forth on this issue a lot.

The characters are perhaps the stars of the novel. The “bad” characters come off a bit caricaturish in their unmitigated cruelty and apparent delight in doing anything nasty, sometimes just for the sake of nastiness, but protagonist Jing is multi-faceted, as are most of the other characters. I particularly enjoyed how Jing comes to see people in different lights as she gains more experience in the world. The jing (which often take the form of animals) are great fun to read and learn about.

This is a solid book, a nice look at Chinese history and one girl’s personal journey to fight for her own happiness.

Briana

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Information

Goodreads: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
Series: The Two Princesses of Bamarre 0.5
Source: Purchased
Published: May 2, 2017

Official Summary

In this compelling and thought-provoking fantasy set in the world of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Newbery Honor-winning author Gail Carson Levine introduces a spirited heroine who must overcome deeply rooted prejudice—including her own—to heal her broken country.

Peregrine strives to live up to the ideal of her people, the Latki—and to impress her parents: affectionate Lord Tove, who despises only the Bamarre, and stern Lady Klausine. Perry runs the fastest, speaks her mind, and doesn’t give much thought to the castle’s Bamarre servants, whom she knows to be weak and cowardly.

But just as she’s about to join her father on the front lines, she is visited by the fairy Halina, who reveals that Perry isn’t Latki-born. She is Bamarre. The fairy issues a daunting challenge: against the Lakti power, Perry must free her people from tyranny.

Review

Although I have not re-read it in several years, The Two Princesses of Bamarre has always been my favorite Gail Carson Levine book, so I was ecstatic to learn Levine was publishing another book about Bamarre this May.  The slight catch:  This stories takes place many years before The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the kingdom featured is not quite the one that fans know and love.  In fact, the Bamarre people are subjugated under the Lakti, forced to wear tassels and work only as servants rather than free people, and the beautiful land across the Eskerns is only a dream they have.

This is a book that explores identity and prejudice.  The protagonist is raised as a Lakti and taught to consider the Bamarre beneath her– a people who are weak and unimportant in comparison to the aggressive Lakti.  The story is partially a journey of her coming to realize that was she has been taught may not quite be the truth.  While I was initially tempted to take some issue with the fact the Perry seems able to see the good in the Bamarre only because she is actually Bamarre by birth herself (there’s some nature vs. nurture problem here), some of the other Lakti’s views on the matter also turn out to be complex and changeable, which helped.

The book isn’t bleak, however; there’s plenty of the heart and magic that readers expect from Gail Carson Levine.  There are also a number of allusions to people, objects, etc. that appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, though I’m sure I missed some of them due to not having read the book recently.  Expect a fun treasure hunt of allusions if you’re already a Bamarre fan, but don’t worry about recognizing these small nods if you’re not; they’re not crucial to understanding the plot in any way.

I did think the plot lagged in places because Perry has to slow down and do some learning before she can go on to great and exciting things, but overall the book was interesting.  The characters also shine.  Both the Lakti and the Bamarre are complex, and Levine puts great effort into developing and describing their histories and cultures.  No one is one-dimensional in this novel.

I’ve been looking forward to a new Gail Carson Levine book for a while, and this does not disappoint.

4 stars Briana

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf HollowInformation

Goodreads: Wolf Hollow
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 3, 2016

Official Summary

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Review

Wolf Hollow brings readers to rural western Pennsylvania, where World War II is hovering ominously in the background but has mostly passed young protagonist Annabelle by.  Rather, her biggest issue is the new girl at school, Betty, who seems determined to make her life miserable.

The setting of Wolf Hollow is definitely one of its strong points. I found it fascinating to read about a place that, technically, is the middle of the 1940s, but because of it’s rural location often looks like something out of an L.M. Montgomery novel (late 1800s/early 1900s).  While the characters have electricity and other conveniences we would recognize today, the children still attend school in a one-room schoolhouse and seem primarily invested in playing and helping out on the family farm.  I also was intrigued by how the ongoing war seemed both present and absent in the novel, something Annabelle is aware of but isn’t directly affected by.

The characters are interesting and sharply drawn.  I felt like most of them are round, and most are willing to change their habits or opinions when new information presented itself; they have recognizable characteristics, but they never get into a rut.  Protagonist Annabelle is spunky and brave, even when she is sure she is not, and her friendship with Toby is one of the highlights of the novel.  Her family, schoolmates, and neighbors, all come equally to life, however.

I have seen numerous comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I agree the themes of othering and judgement are similar, this is a hard sell for me because To Kill a Mockingbird just seems like a better book. It’s well-written, in prose and structure, and it treats its themes with an amazing blend of empathy, complexity, and subtlety.  Wolf Hollow has solid prose, so no complaints there, but the treatment of tough, complicated themes simply isn’t on the same level.  The narration often states things explicitly in the sense of “People don’t trust citizens of German heritage because the US is at war with Germany,” but without any real delving into the issue.  In fact, I think this book in large part about bullying more than it is about some of the more political themes it alludes to, ones relating to the current World War II and ones related to the aftermath of World War I.  Those things are there, but the narrative is so very much on the new girl at school being a jerk and a bully to everyone around her, with or without motivation.

Other readers have commented on how dark the book is, and I grant that (even as I’m arguing that it seems to skirt some of the darkest issues).  I disagree, however, with assertions that this necessarily means the book is not appropriate for children or is somehow not “really” a middle grade book.  It is, indeed, different from much of the middle grade on the market–but I think that’s a feature, not a flaw.  Readers don’t want books to seem factory produced, to feel that there’s only one aesthetic for a middle grade book.  Certainly, if you’re considering giving this book to a child, take into account their individual ability to read about dark topics and depressing events.  Not all the loose ends tie up nice and rosy here.  But I think this is very much a middle grade book that will find middle school age readers.

4 stars Briana

Izzy Kline Has Butterflies by Beth Ain

Izzy Kline Has Butterflies

Information

Goodreads: Izzy Kline Has Butterflies
Series: None
Source: Publisher for review
Published: March 7, 2017

Official Summary

Fourth grade is here, and Izzy Kline is nervous! There are plenty of reasons for the butterflies in her stomach to flap their wings. There’s a new girl in her class who might be a new best friend. The whole grade is performing Free to Be . . . You and Me–and Izzy really wants a starring role. And new changes at home are making Izzy feel like her family is falling apart. First-day jitters, new friends, an audition . . . How many butterfly problems can one fourth grader take?

Review

Middle grade verse novels seem to be becoming increasingly popular, and they are a nice way to give impressions—both small and big moments—of an entire academic year in a short space. Personally, I struggled with the fact that this one is written in first person. The voice seems wrong for a fourth grader; I cannot imagine someone who is ten years old sitting down and putting her thoughts into verse of this form, nor can I imagine her making some of the observations she does. Indeed, some of the thoughts seem more like reflections from the older author, realizing in retrospect things about fourth grade she did not entirely understand at the time, than like thoughts springing from the mind of an actual child.

Beyond the voice issue, however, the book is a charming one and covers topics and situations that will be relatable to many young readers. Izzy deals with everything from the divorce of her parents to practicing to audition for a part in a school performance to navigating the tricky waters of friendship. Small milestones are marked: the first day of the new school year, a friend’s birthday party, the day of the performance. Even if readers have not experienced some of these things themselves, they surely know other students who have.

Izzy herself is a wonderfully realistic character. She has many admirable qualities, such as caring about her friends and knowing when to laugh at herself, but she also has some common fears, like not really knowing what the right thing to do is sometimes. While I do think parts of the book sound like they are coming from someone older than Izzy, there are other times Ain gets fourth grade just right; she clearly remembers what it feels like to be a child learning to navigate the world.

The book is framed around Free to Be…You and Me, which is a “children’s entertainment project” (according to Wikipedia) that I had never even heard of. (A reviewer on Goodreads remarked that it was popular in the 1980s.) While familiarity with Free to Be…You and Me is not necessary to understand the novel—I got the gist that it’s supposed to be empowering and the title might be alluding to it—I could not help but wonder if the book would be more powerful if I actually understood the references and connections. I also doubt the target audience for the book will know it, and I do question the decision to center the novel on an allusion many readers will not recognize, as this creates distance between readers and the text. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is odd.

Overall, however, Izzy Kline Has Butterflies is a relatable yet charming snapshot of Izzy’s year in fourth grade. I don’t think the book has enormous crossover appeal for adults, but I do believe it will be a hit with its target audience of young readers. It could also be a great discussion starter about poetry, since verse tends to be prevalent in picture books but peters away with middle grade.

4 starsBriana

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

Information

Goodreads: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods
Series: Warren the 13th #2
Source: Quirk Books for Review
Published: March 21, 2017

Official Summary

This sequel to Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye begins soon after the first book’s conclusion.Twelve-year-old Warren has learned that his beloved hotel can walk, and now it’s ferrying guests around the countryside, transporting tourists to strange and foreign destinations. But when an unexpected detour brings everyone into the dark and sinister Malwoods, Warren finds himself separated from his hotel and his friends and racing after them on foot through a forest teeming with witches, snakes, talking trees, and mind-boggling riddles. Once again, you can expect stunning illustrations and gorgeous design from Will Staehle on every page along with plenty of nonstop action and adventure!

Review

I immensely enjoyed the first book in this series, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, and I was excited to join back up with the characters for another adventure in this sequel.

I am not among the alarmists who believe that print books will cease to be produced, but in an age where e-books and digital materials continue to grow in popularity, I’ve been thinking a lot about what would persuade people to buy a print book rather an e-version.  The Warren the 13th series is one answer to that question for me.  The books are not only about the story, but about the design, from the feel of the book in your hands (square! with a great heft to it) to the way the pages are laid out.  These book are ones you’ll want to take off the shelf and flip through, if not to reread, at least to look at.  They’re beautiful, and the design adds to the experience.

In this installment, Warren and company get stuck in the formidable Malwoods–home of some the world’s most powerful and frightening witches.  I really liked that the witch theme continued in this book, even as some new magical elements and creatures were introduced.  The book has the right balance of continuity and novelty.  Similarly, readers get to see all their old favorite characters, and a couple new ones are added to the mix, which I think may be a theme as the series continues.

The plot is fun and has a delightful number of surprises.  I was kept guessing about what was going to happen next.  While I generally expect the protagonists of middle grade novels to win, I like when I can’t quite figure out how they will achieve it.  As with the first book, I think this one does have space to be a bit more interactive for the readers than it is, but there are a couple riddles and one quick code that Warren has to figure out  as he journeys to save his beloved hotel.

This series is fun, unique, and beautifully illustrated.  I look forward to reading the next adventure Warren takes on.

4 stars Briana

DC Super Hero Girls Vol. 1: Finals Crisis by Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat

dc-super-hero-girls-1INFORMATION

Goodreads: Finals Crisis
Series:  DC Super Hero Girls Graphic Novels #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Bumblebee, and the rest are preparing for finals at Super Hero High.  But when heroes start disappearing, they might not be able to pass!

Review

This graphic novel take on the DC heroes (and villains) is cute and colorful, making even traditionally sexy characters like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy age appropriate so younger audiences can enjoy the characters.  Further, plenty of changes are made so traditional villains like Lady Shiva or Cat Woman walk the halls of Super Hero High.  This apparently allows for the largest possible cast so, no matter who your favorite characters are, you can share them with a younger reader.  Indeed, the cast is diverse enough that I had to look up many of the characters since I don’t read the comics and so only a few names are familiar to me.

But though the characters must necessarily change to be appropriate, there are plenty of nods to their original roles.  Batgirl is always prepared, Harley  Quinn likes jokes and parties, and Poison Ivy would rather spend time with her plants. Steve Trevor makes an appearance as the barista at a local shake shop.  I’m not really sure what this does for his character other than make him seem really normal and not that important compared to the superheroes.  Sometimes they need to rescue him from the villains on a lunch run.  Basically, the entire book is very G-rated and very concerned with the types of things young readers might be concerned about–grabbing a smoothie, studying for a test,  dealing with bullies, or trying to get extra credit.

The storyline itself is fun because it showcases seven characters, each with their own storyline that then connects into a larger narrative–Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Bumblebee, Katana, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn.  No matter who you like best or whom you identify with more, you have a chance at seeing them featured as the protagonist for a time.  You also have the opportunity to learn more about other characters you might not be as familiar with.

My only complaint is the ending, which only makes sense if you assume dialogue happened that isn’t contained in the panels.  I can assume, of course, that these conversations happened somewhere in the gutters, but I’d prefer not to have to do that. [Spoilers for the end.] Basically, the principal determines that all the girls have admitted to breaking the rules even though they say stuff like, “I was fixing the smoothie machine” and “I wanted fertilizer.”  Last I checked, neither are against the rules.  Bumblebee takes an instrument from school without permission to fix the  machine, but does not say so.  And Poison Ivy?  I’m still sure why it was wrong for her to buy fertilizer? Is it because she went alone?  At any rate, you have to assume that somewhere they spilled all these details if you want to justify the principal punishing them.

Still, it’s a fun book and sure to delight young readers who love superheroes.  I can see this becoming a much-loved franchise for girls.

4 starsKrysta 64