Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

Information

Goodreads: Break the Fall
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: February 18, 2020

Official Summary

Audrey Lee is going to the Olympics.

A year ago, she could barely do a push up as she recovered from a spine surgery, one that could have paralyzed her. And now? She’s made the United States’ gymnastics team with her best friend, Emma, just like they both dreamed about since they were kids. She’s on top of the world.

The pressure for perfection is higher than ever when horrifying news rips the team apart. Audrey is desperate to advocate for her teammate who has been hurt by the one person they trusted most–but not all the gymnasts are as supportive.

With the team on the verge of collapse, the one bright spot in training is Leo, her new coach’s ridiculously cute son. And while Audrey probably (okay, definitely) shouldn’t date him until after the games, would it really be the end of the world?

Balancing the tenuous relationship between her teammates with unparalleled expectations, Audrey doesn’t need any more distractions. No matter what it takes, she’s not going to let anyone bring them down. But with painful revelations, incredible odds, and the very real possibility of falling at every turn, will Audrey’s determination be enough?

Star Divider

Review

Break the Fall is a timely book, one that addresses sexual assault in elite gymnastics, clearly inspired by recent events. And while part of me finds it a bit odd to fictionalize the trauma that professional athletes have experienced, I do think Iacopelli addresses the topic with immense sympathy and understanding. She also tells a riveting story about the ins and outs of elite gymnastics in general and about her protagonist’s personal struggles to overcome a back injury and to deal with the troubles the USA gymnastics team is facing.

Audrey Lee is a compelling main character. She’s not the best gymnast on her team and she knows it, but she has her strengths and is determined to make her final season a memorable one. It’s her one–and only, thanks to her back injury–to achieve her lifelong dream of going to the Olympics. And, of course, winning some medals. The idea that her dream could be derailed by scandal or some petty backstabbing team members never occurred to her, however, and she finds herself tested by a surprising number of obstacles.

One of those obstacles is simply how she should react to the accusations of sexual assault leveled against a powerful man. Audrey believes the victim but must navigate the best ways to show support, and Iacopelli handles that discussion and Audrey’s struggles thoughtfully, ultimately offering the characters all a bit of hope, as well.

Of course, there are also gymnastics in the book, and various competitions and finals are described in detail–enough that I, a casual gymnastics fan, didn’t feel lost or overwhelmed but probably also enough to satisfy a more avid, knowledgeable fan. The only oddity is the setting at the 2020 Olympics–something the author and readers could have foreseen being cancelled just weeks after the book’s publication! Still, it’s nice to read about an alternate 2020 where life is proceeding normally.

The only real flaw of the book is the romance, which is essentially instalove and didn’t really engage me. I have no idea why Audrey is interested in this guy, besides that he seems generally nice. I see why the author chose to put a romance into the book instead of focusing only on gymnastics, which could have felt a bit narrow, but it needed to be better developed.

If you like gymnastics or sports stories or strong female characters in contemporary fiction, check out Break the Fall.

Briana
4 stars

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Information

Goodreads: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 2020

Summary

Coyote and her father have been on the road for five years, traveling in a remodeled school bus. Her mother and two sisters died in a car crash five years ago, and they are determined never to look back. However, when Coyote learns that the park where she and mom and sisters buried a time capsule is going to be paved over, she knows she has to return home. She can’t lose another piece of them. Now she has to figure out how to make her way across the country before the demolition–all without her father noticing where they are going.

Star Divider

Review

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is one of those shining books where the heroes capture your heart and the story makes you believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity. Thirteen-year-old Coyote Sunshine and her father rodeo set out to travel the country after her mom and her two sisters died in a car crash. Now, however, Coyote needs to return home if she is to save the memory box they buried together in a park. The catch is, Rodeo never wants to go back. To succeed in making it across the U.S. without her father’s knowledge, Coyote will need the help of the band of individuals she picks up along the way. Each has their own story to tell, a reason why they are running, or why they need to move forward. Together, they create a tapestry of the human condition, reminding readers that things may get tough, but there will always be someone to pick you up.

In a way, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is an “issues” book, and one can see why that would make it the type of read that had people speculating it could have won the 2020 Newbery. (Jerry Craft’s New Kid ultimately took the medal.) Coyote herself is dealing with loss and an inability to process her grief fully. But the people she and Rodeo pick up have their own troubles–some are escaping from domestic violence, one has been kicked out of the house for coming out, one is dealing with a difficult romantic relationship while trying to figure out who he is. On the one hand, all of this crammed into one book could arguably be overwhelming. On the other hand, it is completely on trend these days for contemporary MG novels to try to deal with as many difficult topics as possible. Cue Newbery speculation.

Personally, I think the number of difficult topics in this book works because the overall idea is that all the people are going on a journey–but they need to do it together in order to make it. It feels like there is a certain unity to all the stories, unlike in many MG books where different characters are introduced and revealed to have problems seemingly just so the author can check off a list of hot topics to discuss. Here, each character gets their chance in the spotlight, and their tales ultimately intertwine as they listen to each other, learn from each other, and support each other.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is a tearjerker, for sure, but it is also a book full of hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that people will choose the right thing. I cried for Coyote, but I closed the book feeling uplifted. And I think the world needs plenty of uplifting books.

5 stars

The Memory Keeper by Jennifer Camiccia

The Memory Keeper

Information

Goodreads: The Memory Keeper
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Official Summary

A story about long-buried secrets, the power of memory, and the bond between a girl and her gram.

All Lulu Carter wants is to be seen. But her parents are lost in their own worlds, and Lulu has learned the hard way that having something as rare as HSAM—the ability to remember almost every single moment in her life—won’t make you popular in school.

At least Lulu has Gram, who knows the truth about Lulu’s memory and loves her all the more for it. But Gram has started becoming absentminded, and the more lost she gets, the more she depends on Lulu…until Lulu realizes her memory holds the very key to fixing Gram’s forgetfulness. Once Lulu learns that trauma can cause amnesia, all she needs to do to cure Gram is hunt down that one painful moment in Gram’s life.

With her friends Olivia and Max, Lulu digs into Gram’s mysterious past. But they soon realize some secrets should stay buried, and Lulu wonders if she ever knew Gram at all. It’s up to Lulu to uncover the truth before the only person who truly sees her slips away.

Star Divider

Review

For a book that is often heartfelt and which had the potential to be quite maudlin, being about a girl and her beloved grandmother who is developing Alzheimer’s, The Memory Keeper is really a wild ride. As Lulu and her friends seek to uncover her grandmother’s mysterious past, in an effort to help her retain her own memories, the truth is often more interesting than their crazy theories.

Although Lulu has a highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), which allows her to remember literally anything that ever happened to her and to replay and look around memories as if she’s there again, the book is not really about her extraordinary memory but rather about how she thinks she might have been gifted such a memory in order to help her grandmother–who seems to be losing hers. That is, the book had a chance to become a bit scientific (and it does open each chapter with a fact about the brain) or to focus on the protagonist’s unique ability, but instead the focus is on the bond between Lulu and her grandmother, who essentially raised her after her mother and father spiraled into a depression when Lulu’s little sister died. She uses her memory to recall beautiful moments with her grandmother, but also as a sleuthing tool, as she recalls moments and conversations from her past to piece together her grandmother’s past–which doesn’t seem to be quite what she has always claimed it was.

I did have some guesses as to what grandmother’s past truly was, but the book continuously surprised me with new layers and revelations. I also appreciated that not everything was beautiful about the past or had a storybook resolution. The Memory Keeper is a perfect example of a middle grade book willing to deal with some gritty bits of reality.

The Memory Keeper is a unique story with a complex cast of characters that explores memory and relationships and what it means to be a family.

Briana
4 stars

Chirp by Kate Messner

Chirp by Kate Messner

Information

Goodreads: Chirp
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Mia’s family moves back to Vermont to help her grandmother sell her cricket farm, but, her grandmother is not ready to sell. She wants to expand. But she is convinced someone is trying to sabotage her. Can Mia find out the truth–and be brave enough to speak out?

Star Divider

Review

In her latest book, Kate Messner tackles yet another difficult issue facing young people today: sexual harassment. As always, Messner’s treatment is sensitive and age appropriate. Readers will not find graphic descriptions of assault here, even though the book is clearly inspired by the Larry Nassar case, as well as by the #MeToo movement. Rather, Messner allows a wide range of women and girls to voice the ways in which they have been harassed, bullied, and victimized by those who should have been protecting and supporting them. In so doing, Messner opens up an important conversation young people need to have and reminds girls that they are not alone.

Chirp, however, is more than an important message. It is a heartwarming story with a fun, quirky premise–saving a cricket farm by convincing a town they should eat bugs to be healthier and live a more sustainable life style. And it is full of a rich, diverse cast of characters who each bring a unique perspective to the tale. Readers will find themselves cheering on Mia and her friends as they band together to solve the mystery of the saboteur–inspired by their own favorite mystery novels–and spread the word of the cricket-eating lifestyle. It might even inspire some intrepid readers to try out crickets for themselves!

Kate Messner is one of my favorite middle grade authors writer today and I always await her latest releases with anticipation. She has a history of dealing with important topics from child homelessness to the heroin epidemic. She recognizes that young people are facing difficult moments in their own lives, and so she does not seek to protect them from a reality they already know. Instead, she acknowledges their reality and she offers understanding, empathy, and hope. Her books have surely been an invaluable help to many a reader who thought they were alone. I hope that we continue to see many more books from Messenger in the future.

5 stars

Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann

Information

Goodreads: Go with the Flow
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are sophomores at Hazelton High and they are tired of the tampon/pad dispensers always being empty. If the school can afford new football uniforms, they can stock the restrooms with free menstrual products. They are on a mission to destigmatize periods. But not all of them are as enthusiastic as their leader and, when she goes too far for the cause, their friendship is in jeopardy.

Star Divider

Review

Go with the Flow is an uplifting graphic novel about friendship and period positivity for middle schoolers and young teens. Friends Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha begin advocating for free menstrual products in their high school, while also discussing related period issues. Why do some girls have heavy flows or cramps and others nothing? What is a regular period? Why do people think periods are taboo when so many people have them? Should pads and tampons be taxed? The book is obviously trying to teach a message about the importance of talking about menstruation and trying to educate girls about their bodies. But Go with the Flow is also a good story about what it means to be friends.

The main flaw with Go with the Flow may be that it tries to tackle too many issues in one book. For example, the main story line is driven by the desire to have free period products available in school restrooms. But there is also a line about period products being taxed. This tax could be discussed at length, but is raised and dismissed in one speech bubble. Perhaps the authors simply feel that there is nothing to be discussed–the tax is unfair and stupid. But it seems odd to raise a concern and then to drop it so quickly. Other secondary issues get more discussion, such as one girl’s unusually painful period, and the health issues that might be causing it, get a little more coverage, but it does feel like none of the topics raised gets covered fully.

The book’s main concern, however, just seems to be to talk about periods and to make talking about periods normal. Presumably this is the type of book parents will want to hand their children so they can learn more in an fun, accessible way. Of course, there is the question of whether the average tween reader is going to pick up a book about periods and check it out of the library or read it in front of other people. Periods are, after all, still a source of great embarrassment in schools. But, if the intended audience is willing to read Go with the Flow, I think they will enjoy it. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a book about periods cheekily illustrated in tones of red?

Go with the Flow is the type of book certain to be lauded by adults who wished they had had such a book in their own youth. And it is an important book. It is also a good story about friends supporting each other, through periods and everything else. I am really interested to know, however, how many tween readers will pick this up and give it a chance. Will reading a book about periods just be too awkward?

3 Stars

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Information

Goodreads: The Sun Is Also a Star
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: November 1, 2016

Official Summary

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Star Divider

Review

The Sun Is Also a Star is a compelling story about how two teens’ lives collide on a single day where they feel like anything can happen.  The plot is an interesting mix of realism in depicting the protagonists’ struggles (one is an undocumented immigrate whose family is about to be deported; the other is facing pressure from his parents to go to Yale to become a doctor so he can live the American dream) and pure fantasy (they fall wildly in love within a matter of hours and have some unexpected adventures).  The end result is a book that doesn’t always feel cohesive but which will likely make readers think…and occasionally smile.

It did take me a while to get into the book purely because of the number of POV switches.  There are the two protagonists, of course, Natasha and Daniel, and in the beginning the POV changes every page or so, barely giving readers time to get their bearings before being swept off somewhere else.  Then the authors adds POVs from the universe in general explaining things like science facts (which I think I would have really liked as a teen but liked a bit less as an adult, since the information was familiar rather than revelatory to me) and POVs from random people the main characters encounter in the course of their day. 

I struggled the most with this last POV category because the overwhelming effect was highly cynical.  Nearly all of these people had something majorly wrong going on with their lives: suicidal thoughts, death of a loved one, divorce, an affair, etc.  I think the author might have been going for commentary about how everyone has problems that other people often know nothing about (so, someone’s depression explains their “weird” behavior at work, for instance, which might make others more sympathetic and less judgmental if they knew about the struggles this person was facing), but the fact that everyone had some major issue that was preventing their happiness was a bit much for me.  Seriously, I’m not sure there was a genuinely happy person in the entire book, and all readers are left with is the hope that things will somehow work out for Natasha and Daniel by the end.  (Though, as an adult reader, I would have quite liked to think hope and happy endings weren’t just for the teen characters!)

However, the book doesn’t actually feel dark in spite of this scatter cynicism.  The premise, after all, is based on instalove, the idea that Natasha and Daniel can find something amazingly special in each other in just a single day, after they met by chance.  That’s definitely optimism.  And in spite of their very real problems with their parents, their identities, and their uncertain futures, they find joy in things, talking together, going out to eat, exploring New York City.  The fact that they’ve each found “the One” will be a hard sell for readers who don’t like instalove, but the book makes it hard not to root for them.  Why can’t they have this happiness, and why can’t it last?

Somehow I don’t know exactly how I feel about The Sun Is Also a Star as a whole because the cynicism and the optimism clash, but maybe that’s the point.  They’re both extreme emotions, but they’re both real, and maybe it’s difficult to fully reconcile them into something cohesive that “makes sense.”  I do know I enjoyed reading the book more than I originally thought I would.

Briana
4 stars

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington book cover

Information

Goodreads: From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 14, 2020

Official Summary

Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?

A crime he says he never committed.

Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

Star Divider

Review

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an engaging story about a daughter connecting with a father accused of a terrible crime, and a story that manages to remain hopeful even as the protagonist deals with complicated family relationships and becomes more aware of the systemic racism that can lead to the imprisonment of innocent people.

The colorful, quirky cover of From the Desk of Zoe Washington, as well as a sideplot about Zoe’s aspirations to become a kid baker on one of her favorite television shows might lead readers to believe this is a “fun” book.  In many ways it is.  The baking, and the music playlists Zoe receives from her father, and the adventures Zoe gets into with her grandmother and her best friend all help to balance the narrative and make it fairly light and optimistic. 

Yet there are also some heavy themes here.  Zoe goes from having no communication with her father at all (fair, considering what he has been convicted of) to communicating with him in secret to wondering if his attestations that he’s innocent can possibly be true.  She discovers the Innocence Project and talks with her grandmother about the injustices of the judicial system and attempts to uncover the truth for herself.  So there’s some “normal” kid stuff like sneaking behind her mother’s back to post letters to her father mixed with hard truths about racism and failures of systems that are supposed to protect everyone, as well as an undercurrent of doubt.  Some people in prison are innocent—but is Zoe’s father?

I enjoyed this look at a topic I haven’t seen addressed in middle grade (or YA) before, and I do think the author does a good job of not letting the hard stuff overwhelm the book or Zoe’s life.  The ending is a bit rushed and a bit neat, in my opinion, but the overall narrative is approachable, compelling, and informative.

Briana
4 stars