Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine by Jo Rioux

Cat's Cradle

Information

Goodreads: Cat’s Cradle
Series: Cat’s Cradle #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2012, 2022

Summary

Suri is a street orphan who longs to be a monster hunter. What luck then that a heartless man drives up one day with a monster inside his wagon! This is the start of an adventure that just might take Suri to the place where all monsters cross to enter her country.

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Review

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine seems just the type of middle grade fantasy to appeal to a large audience, so I am unsure why the book, first published in 2012, apparently was never followed by the intended sequels. The book opens with the orphan Suri who lives in a traveling caravan and tells visitors tales of monsters–for a fee. Her true longing, however, is to be a monster hunter. And her opportunity comes when a strange man joins the caravan with one in his wagon. This, along with a chance encounter with a family of monsters who can take on the forms of humans, begins Suri’s adventures. Adventures that are sadly cut short when the book abruptly ends.

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine is one of those books that really just exists to set the stage for the following books. Readers receive an introduction to our spunky heroine Suri, learn that she lives in a country where monsters invade from across the mountains, and watch Suri fall afoul of a family of monsters and set herself up for a future encounter with the prince–who is a bit of a monster hunter himself. Characters are hastily drawn and the worldbuilding is sketchy. But none of that is supposed to matter, as long as readers get the gist of it. The true adventure will start later, when the mystery of the golden twine is revealed.

Unfortunately, however, as of my reading, book two of the series was never published. I tried to ascertain if the republishing of book one is meant to herald a new attempt to get readers for the series and justify publishing the rest of the series. But I could find no mention of book two online. So, while the book is just the type of thing I would want to recommend to tween lovers of fantasy, I feel awkward doing so as long as it seems readers will not be able to finish the story. Hopefully, things will change and we will receive news of book two. If you have any, feel free to share in the comments!

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine is a story I know I would have loved as a tween, and I was excited to enter its world of magic and adventure. I just wish I knew if there will be more magic in the future.

3 Stars

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew by Anthony Del Col, et al

The Death of Nancy Drew

Information

Goodreads: The Death of Nancy Drew
Series: Collects The Death of Nancy Drew #1-6
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Everyone says that Nancy Drew’s death was an accident. But Joe Hardy doesn’t believe it. Nancy died right after exposing a major crime organization in River Heights. And he’s determined to find out what really happened to her that fateful night.

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Review

The announcement for The Death of Nancy Drew, a noir-inspired comic series that picks up where The Big Lie left off, caused quite a stir in 2020 when outraged fans called the title an outrage to Nancy’s legacy. Of course, this naturally made me want to read it. This volume collects the six issues of the series, giving readers an edgy, modern version of Nancy Drew that seems meant to appeal to fans of CW dramas like Riverdale. I enjoyed the story, even though I’m not sure anything will ever capture my love for the original 56 Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.

I give the creators of The Death of Nancy Drew credit for at least trying to draw on nostalgia, and to hide as many Easter eggs as possible for fans. The crime organization Nancy Drew took down in The Big Lie is the Syndicate, clearly named after the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced the original Nancy Drew books. And the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s other creations seemingly all make appearances or at least get name dropped–the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and the Dana Girls, for instance, are a part of the story as much as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. At times, the name stuffing seems over the top, as do the attempts to shock readers by turning familiar, fairly bland or goody-goody characters into rebels and criminals. But, I get it. The creators were going for noir.

The mystery itself is fairly uninteresting. Someone wanted Nancy Drew dead, and Joe Hardy wants to figure out who.. The book raises and discards several suspects, and even tries to throw in a twist or two by having characters implicated, but not in the way readers might have suspected. To be honest, though, I did not really care who did it, even though I had a strong suspicion that I knew who had. The point of the book really seems to give readers a “dark” Nancy Drew, and writing a compelling mystery ends up being a secondary concern to experimenting with the characters.

I enjoyed The Death of Nancy Drew as an experiment, but it was admittedly hard for me to see it as a Nancy Drew story, when so many of the characters seem so different. Ned as the mayor? Carson Drew implicated in a crime ring? George potentially on drugs and Bess almost nonexistent in the story? What was happening?? It’s dark and edgy, yes, but but so much so that it could have been any noir comic and not necessarily a Nancy Drew one, if the names had been changed. I think it was worth a read, but I do not feel particularly invested in seeing more of these stories.

3 Stars

Sorceline by Sylvia Douyé, Illustrated by Paola Antista

Sorceline

Information

GoodreadsSorceline
Series: Sorceline #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2018, 2022

Summary

Sorceline arrives at Professor Archibald Balzar’s school of cryptozoology determined to prove herself and earn a spot as one of the professor’s apprentices. Soon, however, students start disappearing. To solve the mystery, Sorceline will have to delve into her own past and uncover her own secrets.

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Review

Sorceline drew me in first with the promise of a magical world filled with fantastic creatures, and then once again when I saw how beautiful the illustrations are. However, even though I loved learning about all the wonders of Sorceline’s world, I found the plot to be disjointed and the characters lacking complexity and depth. I imagine the target audience will love this title a lot because of the magic. Personally, though, I was hoping for more cohesion in the narrative.

The premise of the story is absolutely wondrous; Sorceline travels to an island full of creatures that would seem to exist only in fantasy or in myth. But they are real, and she possesses a remarkable ability to identify them. Indeed, she seems destined to be top of her class, if only the resident mean girl would stop stealing her answers to impress the professor. Then, the students begin disappearing–or, more accurately, transforming into glass. Sorceline and her friends must work together to solve the mystery, while still fulfilling their duties as caretakers and healers of magical creatures. The only problem? Gaps in the plot.

At several points during the story, I had to pause and think back because it seemed as if I had missed something. Assumptions were being made by characters, theories advanced, and actions taken that did not make sense to me and that did not seem connected to anything that happened before. Initially, I thought the mistake must have been mine and that I had been reading too fast. Eventually, however, I realized that the gaps in the plot were a feature of the book itself.

The characterization also is lacking a bit. The characters seem to be built around types, such as the mean girl, her best friend who enables her, the Goth loner, the best friend who supports Sorceline, etc. Their backgrounds and motivations, however, are not really explored, and their relationships lack complexity. Mostly the characters seem around to be the catalyst for drama, whether that means school rivalies, best friend fights, or something more sinister.

Sorceline enchants with its premise and, most of all, its gorgeous illustrations. The plot does lack cohesion, however, and the characters, at least in this installment, do not yet seem full developed. Still, I think tweens will enjoy the book and I have hope that the sequel may improve.

3 Stars

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic by Cameron Chittock & Amanda Castillo

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic

Information

GoodreadsMapmakers and the Lost Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Alidade is tired of living in a small village ruled over by the cruel Night Coats, who prevent anyone from leaving. Running into the forest, she discovers a secret treehouse where a group of Mapmakers once worked to protect the Valley. Now, if Alidade wants to free her home from the Night Coats, she will have to take up the ancient art of mapmaking.

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Review

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic possesses an intriguing premise, but ultimately proves a lackluster story that relies on tired tropes and does nothing original with them. Alidade lives in a valley ruled by the Night Coats, a group of guards whose sole duty seems to put down the locals and make them dig dirt in a pit (for unknown reasons). Alidade longs for more, however. She longs for travel. And, so, after running away yet again, she stumbles upon a magic treehouse and learns that the valley was once free, and once guarded by the Mapmakers and their magical companions–now lost to time. Alidade has to unite the villagers to stand against the Night Coats and reclaim their land. It all sounds good. It just…feels really boring in practice.

The concept of a village that lives isolated from the rest of society and is oppressed by outsiders is nothing new. To stand out, Mapmakers and the Lost Magic really had to do something different, whether that meant creating especially lovable characters or providing a plot twist on the old tale. It does not. Alidade is a one-dimensional character whose sole point of interest is that she seems to be the only villager who has ever thought of leaving. Her friend is the standard homebody who distrusts adventure, but is loyal to Alidade. The plot is standard and predictable. Even the art does not make the story feel more magical.

I really wanted to see more depth in Mapmakers and the Lost Magic. I wanted to know more about the Night Coats, who they are, how they came to power, and what they are even doing bothering to police a small village of people who are not even interested in rebelling. What is their overall goal? Are they hiding something bigger? Is someone in the capital leading them in their nefarious deeds–whatever those are? I have no idea. The Night Coats are in Alidade’s village, and they are a nuisance, and aside from some commentary about humans always seeking power, that is all readers get because, in the end, the Night Coats are just around to give Alidade an antagonist.

The rest of the story is just as underdeveloped and lackluster. Politics and history are glossed over with the barest minimum needed to give Alidade a reason to try to become a Mapmaker. Her victory over the Night Coats is swift, confusing, and so easy it feels anti-climatic. Do I want to read a sequel to this book? No, not at all.

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic has a lot of promise, but it does not live up to that promise. If you are seeking an insightful book on politics, power, and oppression, other books have done a similar plotline and they have done it more effectively. With all the compelling middle grade graphic novels out there, this one is not really fleshed out enough or original enough to feel necessary.

2 star review

Remarkably Ruby by Terri Libenson

Information

GoodreadsRemarkably Ruby
Series: Emmie & Friends #6
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Ruby and Mia used to be best friends, but now Mia seems to find Ruby embarrassing. While Mia is sort of popular and running for student president, Ruby prefers to fade into the background. She’s even hesitant to join poetry club–even though she loves poetry. In this sixth installment of the Emmie & Friends series, the background character known as Baked Bean Girl finally gets to tell her own story.

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Review

I associate Terri Libenson’s Emmie & Friends series with empathetic looks at the middle school experience. The books (each one can be read as a standalone) generally focus on concerns like outgrowing friends and making new ones, finding one’s identity, and navigating one’s place in school and at home. So I was incredibly excited when I learned that the background character formerly known as Baked Bean Girl (because she was always running to the bathroom after having a fiber-filled snack) was finally getting her own book and her own story. I was not disappointed. Remarkably Ruby is a heartfelt story about repairing friendships and finding one’s voice.

As with most of the other books, Remarkably Ruby follows two perspectives. Ruby tells her side of the story–feeling lost now that her best friend Mia refuses to talk to her anymore. And Mia explains how, from her perspective, Ruby is just too embarrassing to have around, especially now that Mia is running for student president. Ruby wants things to go back to the way they were, while Mia just wishes Ruby would leave her alone. The dual narrative allows readers to see how Mia thinks she is right and reasonable, even though her actions clearly hurt Ruby.

Ruby, however, has a lot of growth of her own, making the leap to join the newly formed poetry club, and even volunteering to read some of her work aloud at the talent show. Ruby will feel relatable to many readers as she struggles to feel comfortable at school, especially since she towers over many of her peers and feels a bit awkward in her body. She just wants to find a place where she feels she belongs, and the empowering part of her story is that she does start to take steps to find that place. Ruby’s courage is inspirational, and thinking about it admittedly makes me feel a bit teary-eyed.

As with the other books, Remarkably Ruby ends with a twist that gives new meaning to the stories the readers just read. This one truly shocked me! So even readers who are accustomed to Libenson’s narratives may find this one a welcome surprise.

Remarkably Ruby is another engaging installment in the Emmie & Friends series. As always, I appreciated Libenson’s commitment to depicting all of her characters sympathetically, allowing readers to enter in their experiences and try to understand what they are going through. Middle school is not easy. But Libeson’s books invite readers to understand that everyone has their own unique story, and their own struggles. The books remind readers to be kind, and to not make assumptions about what other people are experiencing. I love that the series is ongoing, as the message to reach out and to choose empathy never grows old.

5 stars

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

Information

GoodreadsSwim Team
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Bree cannot wait to start at her new school, Enith Brigitha, and join the Math Club. But then she learns that the only elective still open is Swimming 101–and Bree can’t swim. With the help of her elderly neighbor Etta, however, Bree takes the plunge and even joins the school swim team. The Mighty Manatees are counting on her and her teammates to bring home the State Championship, and save the pool from being sold for a smoothie shop. But the team is having growing pains, and if they cannot work together outside the pool, they may not be able to work together in the pool.

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Review

Swim Team is the perfect middle grade graphic novel! With an endearing protagonist, relatable middle school experiences, and fun look at the trials and triumphs of competing on the school swim team, this book takes the classic tale of friendship growing pains and makes it feel fresh. I adored meeting Bree and all her friends, and especially loved the relationships both between Bree and her father, and between Bree and her elderly neighbor Etta. This is a story about community and courage–and I definitely want more!

Swim Team hooked me from the start when it opened with Bree and her father moving to a new home in Florida–and showed Bree excited for her first day of school instead of dreading it. Her upbeat, can-do attitude, even with a bit of first day jitters, intrigued me, showing that Johnnie Christmas might be doing something a bit different here. Bree’s winning personality really grounds the story, as readers get to see her struggling with relatable scenarios like the fear of embarrassing herself in front of her classmates, or disappointment when her dad has to work all the time and barely gets to spend time with her anymore. Bree’s story shows that everyone experiences difficulty and disappointment, but, with the help of her friends, her community, and her courage, she can make it through.

So this is a feel-good story from the start, but all the characters just make it better and better. The book shows Bree’s friendship drama with the girls on the swim team–an aspect of most contemporary books set in middle school–but I truly adored Bree’s relationship with her elderly neighbor Etta. Intergenerational friendships are not often shown in books, and it was truly moving to watch Etta agree to mentor and train Bree, so that Bree could have opportunities she was denied. Etta is shown as a full person, with her own interests, friendships struggles, and memories. She’s not just some stereotypical old person that happens to live in Bree’s building, nor is she a convenient plot device to get Bree on the swim team. I love Etta. Maybe Etta should get her own book. Just a thought.

I highly recommend Swim Team! It’s a heartwarming story with a winning protagonist and a relatable storyline. It is sure to charm readers of all ages!

5 stars

Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos

Isla to Island

Information

GoodreadsIsla to Island
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

When political upheaval comes to Cuba, Marisol must travel to Brooklyn–on her own–to start a new life. But the city seems bleak and harsh compared to her old home. Can Marisol make a place for herself in Brooklyn?

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Review

Isla to Island is a poignant graphic novel about feeling lost in a new place.  When political unrest occurs in Cuba, Marisol’s parents take advantage of a program that rehomes Cuban children in the United States.  Thus, a young Marisol sets out alone to live under the care of a foster couple.  Though her foster parents try hard to make her feel comfortable, Marisol naturally misses her home and her family, and struggles to find a place where she belongs.  Watching Marisol struggle to understand English, struggle to make friends, and struggle to find anything that seems familiar and beautiful is heart-wrenching.  But Alexis Castellanos gives this story a happy ending, ultimately giving the message that happiness can be found anywhere, and love will carry us through.

The graphic novel is wonderfully done, with the images carrying the narrative and the bulk of the (minimal)  text occurring in Spanish.  Thus, readers get a glimpse of what Marisol is experiencing.  Readers who do not understand Spanish have to guess at meanings through the images.  And even readers who do know Spanish have to decode most of the book through the actions and facial expressions of the people, since the book is mostly wordless.  Just as Marisol has to work to interpret what is happening around her, so do readers.   

The images are beautifully done, as well, with colors being used to convey meaning.  When Marisol feels sad, her world is gray.  But when she is happy, or glimpses an object that makes her happy, the panels or the object appear in color.  Color is also used to great effect when Marisol has her first period; the blood leaps off the page in vivid red, highlighting Marisol’s confusion and fear.  These types of color signatures guide readers through the book, making meaning more obvious when words do not appear.

Isla to Island is ultimately an emotional journey, one that will draw readers in from the start as they see Marisol’s happy family life slowly crumble under the pressures of political unrest.  Her subsequent years in the U.S. are also tinged with a bit of sadness; even as she acclimates to her new life, she remains separated from her parents.  But Castellanos does not let her readers despair.  Little bits of happiness occur along the way, ultimately leading to an emotionally satisfying ending.

3 Stars

Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms by Rey Terciero & Megan Kearney

Swan Lake Quest for the Kingdoms Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Odette and Dillie are the princesses of two kingdoms that have been on the brink of war for years.  Then, the two have a chance encounter, and realize that the other nation and their people might not be so bad, after all.  Soon, Odette and Dillie are off on an adventure to lift the curse that has Odette turning into a talking swan during the day.  They will encounter many perils on their journey, but the greatest test will come at the end.  Because both princesses have a wish–but only one can come true.

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Review

Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms reimagines the ballet of Swan Lake with two feuding princesses who bridge their differences and come to value each other for who they are.  Odette is the princess of Bloom, but her parents keep her alone and trapped in her tower, so no one can learn that she is cursed to be a swan during the day.  Dillie is the princess of Rotbart, upset that her mother wants her to sit in a throne room all day instead of having adventures.  Though tensions right high between their countries, the princesses bond over their parents who just do not seem to understand them.  And this is the start of a fun retold tale sure to charm audiences not only with its fast paced action and colorful illustrations, but also with its determination to overturn stereotypical gender roles.

The beauty of Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms is the way in which it presents differences not as something to be tolerated, but as something to be celebrated.  The kingdom of Bloom is full of cute butterflies and plenty of color, and Princess Odette is a more feminine character who wears pink dresses and wishes she could be a ballerina.  The kingdom of Rotbart, meanwhile, is a grey and dismal place where the people dislike and even fear cute things like butterflies and kittens.  Dillie is a princess who prefers swordfights to sitting on a throne.  But the book makes it clear that no way is better than the other way.  It is okay to like cute things and to like ballet.  It is also okay not to like cute things and to like adventures and quests. Additionally, they meet a prince who eschews the toxic masculinity that says only a killer of beasts is worthy to rule the throne, and who proves that bravery goes beyond hunting wildlife. The entire book shouts the message that individuals do not need to adhere to stereotypical gender roles to be valued.

Readers will fall in love with more than the characters, however. The action is fast paced with a hint of old-fashioned fairy tale magic, as the three protagonists must pass three tests in order to complete their quest. And the images are fun and vibrant– just the thing to appeal to tween audiences. The worldbuilding relies mostly on contrasting the colors of Bloom with the greys of Rotbart, but readers still glimpse enough magic to make the world seem wonderful. Altogether, this is a book that begs for a sequel!

With so many middle grade comics flooding the market, sometimes it feels harder to find that sparkling gem among the rest. Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms, however, captures that magic I love, from its colorful illustrations to its action-packed quest.

4 stars

The Emerald Gate by Mark Siegal, et al

5 Worlds The Emerald Gate Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Emerald Gate
Series: 5 Worlds #5
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Oona and her friends just have to light the final beacon, so they are off to the moss-covered world of Grimbo (E)–but first they need to find it. Meanwhile, Stan Moon is determined to stop them. Can Oona and her friends save the five worlds?

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Review

The Emerald Gate is one of those books that unfortunately suffered because of my lack of memory in regards to the previous installments.  As book five, this should be the most exciting, most dramatic story as all the people Oona and her friends have met on the five worlds come together to battle Stan Moon.  I should have been excited.  I should have been on the edge of my seat.  Mostly, I just felt confused.

The Five Worlds series is one of those quest novels where the protagonists have to travel from place to place to collect objects or fulfill a mini quest before the final showdown, sort of like Avatar: The Last Airbender.  In this case, Oona and her friends had to light five beacons on five different planets in order to save their worlds from utter destruction.  The books love delving into the culture and geography of each planet, in a semi-superficial way.  Each planet is more or less color-coded and each seems to have an indigenous species or some sort of cultural marker like a love of singing or kinship with nature.  This last book focuses on the green planet, Grimbo (E), which is fittingly covered with moss–moss that just happens to eat just about anything that it comes in contact with. This should be interesting, but a lot of it feels too fast-paced to be truly intriguing.  

The fast pace also sort of hampers the emotional impact.  In this final installment, Oona has to travel to Grimbo (E), locate the beacon, light the beacon, face a series of several trials, and then have the final showdown with Stan Moon.  Her adventures are interspersed with the adventures of her friends on other planets, who are dealing with their own problems, like being held prisoner or wondering if they should stop Oona from completing her quest.  In other words, there is A LOT happening in this book.  Too much.  And it did not help that I could barely remember who some of these characters were or what was happening to them, and why or if I should even care.

I did enjoy the previous installments of this series, and vaguely remember awaiting the final volume with anticipation.  Now that it has arrived, however, I find my personal reaction to be less enthusiastic than I had hoped.  I had no sense of drama because I could not remember what was happening!  I suggest other readers get all five books at once and read them in a row.  The full arc of the story should be more apparent that way, and less confusion will be had!  And less confusion will likely result in a stronger emotional connection to the characters and their stories.

3 Stars

Anne of West Philly by Ivy Noelle Weir, Illustrated by Myisha Haynes

Anne of West Philly

Information

GoodreadsAnne of West Philly
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Siblings Matthew and Marilla decide to foster a teenage girl for the first time–and upbeat Anne Shirley immediately makes a place for herself in their West Philadelphia home. She makes friends with Diana, joins the robotics club, and soon is enrolled in STEM competition with her rival Gilbert. But can West Philly be Anne’s home forever?

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Review

Anne of West Philly reimagines L. M. Montgomery’s beloved children’s book for a contemporary audience.  Set in the present day, the book follows teenage orphan Anne as siblings Marilla and Matthew decide to foster her in their West Philadelphia home.  Anne falls in love with her new life at once, finding beauty all around her, and quickly making friends with Diana and the members of the school’s robotics club.  However, while it is interesting to see what changes were considered necessary for a modern adaptation, Anne of West Philly falls just a little bit flat.  It feels, indeed, like an experiment in adaptation and not quite like a fully fleshed-out story of its own.

Most of the book’s fun admittedly comes from seeing how the authors decided to update the tale for the children of today.  To make Anne relatable, the creators transplant Anne into an American setting where she engages in trendy STEAM activities like building robot obstacle courses and coding wearable technology.  Diana is also now Anne’s crush, for all the readers who have longed for the two to be more than just best friends.  (Sorry, Gilbert.)  Other aspects of the book are softened, so readers never have to feel suspense or worry.  Marilla, for instance, is nervous about fostering a teen, but kindhearted and not overly strict.  Matthew has health problems, but is obviously going to be okay.  Even Rachel Lynde’s claws are covered.  All this seems to be on trend for modern children’s adaptations, where the authors seem hesitant to lean into the darker elements of the original source material.

All of this is interesting, but the book does not exactly possess that special something that has made Anne of Green Gables a beloved book, handed down from mothers to daughters through the generations.  No doubt some of this stems from the book’s reluctance to acknowledge the original’s darker side; it is  harder for a story to have an emotional impact when everyone is kind or just misunderstood, and nothing truly bad ever happens to anyone for long.  But, also, Anne of West Philly does not have that love of place that Anne of Green Gables does.  One never feels that Anne is a part of her home, and that it is a part of her.  Honestly, the book could have been set in just about any city in America–there is not anything that feels uniquely like Philadelphia in this story, nor is there much indication that Anne loves Philadelphia more than anywhere else in the world.

Adapting classics for contemporary audiences is always a fun endeavor.  Often, such adaptations reveal a lot about a certain time period’s concerns, their priorities, and their viewpoints on what is “good” for children to consume.  Anne of West Philly certainly feels like a product of its time, with lessons on kindness, inclusion, and the importance of women in STEM.  This is interesting, but it was not enough for me to fall in love with the characters, the setting, or the story.

3 Stars