Cuba in My Pocket by Adrianna Cuevas

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Cuba in My Pocket: Cuevas, Adrianna: 9780374314675: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  12-year-old Cumba has lived all his life in Cuba, but when the Bay of Pigs invasion fails, he and his family are in danger.  Cumba is being recruited to join the Young Rebels and possibly be sent to the Soviet Union for military training.  His parents manage to smuggle him out of Cuba to live with a cousin in Miami.  There he deals with homesickness, an unfamiliar culture, and the struggle to learn English, but he also meets some new friends who help him to find his way.  His 7-year-old brother Pepito keeps him apprised of the harrowing events back home in Cuba through letters.  Seven months after Cumba’s arrival, he is thrilled to learn that his family has found a way to join him, and in the final chapter he gathers with his new friends at the airport to welcome his family to the United States.  Includes an author’s note about her father, whose early life inspired this book.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Belpré honoree Adrianna Cuevas may be in line for another award with this engaging story that weaves in a lot of 20th-century Cuban history.  

Cons:  Pepito’s letters seemed like they were written by someone a few years older than seven.

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

A Place to Hang the Moon: Albus, Kate: 9780823447053: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  We first meet William, Edmund, and Anna at the funeral of their grandmother, a cold woman no one really misses, except for the fact that she was their last living relative.  The three orphans are determined to stay together, and decide to take the advice of their solicitor and evacuate London with a group of children from a local school, hoping to find a permanent family.  Their first foster parents seem okay, but have twin sons who are nasty bullies.  When Edmund puts a dead snake in one of their beds, the boy takes revenge in a way that gets all three kids kicked out of the house.  They next land at the home of an impoverished woman with four small children whose husband is at war, and whose hard circumstances make her unloving at best and downright cruel at worst.  Their one refuge is the library and the kind librarian, Mrs. Műller, who’s shunned by the village because her missing husband is suspected to have Nazi sympathies.  When disaster strikes at the second foster home, the children naturally gravitate to Mrs. Műller, hoping to finally find a family with her.  Includes a list of the many books mentioned in the story.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Please do not even attempt to read this book until you have access to a cozy fire, warm slippers, and a nice cup of tea.  Then settle in and prepare yourself for this year’s most enjoyable comfort read.  If The War That Saved My Life was a little heavy for you, this will be absolutely perfect.  I’m not sure that it’s quite Newbery caliber, but it is #8 on the Goodreads list right now.

Cons:  The ending was a little predictable…although totally satisfying.

Root Magic by Eden Royce

Published by Walden Pond Press

Root Magic: Royce, Eden: 9780062899590: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  11-year-old twins Jezebel and Jay have recently lost their grandmother, a woman well-known in their South Carolina island community for her rootwork, the use of potions and herbs for healing and magic.  It’s 1963, and the civil rights movement is just starting to reach the island, personified by a concerned new sheriff, but other law officers, particularly Deputy Collins, still terrorize the Black population.  Jay’s not much of a student, but has plenty of friends, while Jezebel has skipped the fifth grade and is struggling with a pack of mean girls in the sixth.  A new girl named Susie is a fellow outsider, and, although she seems a little odd, Jez welcomes her friendship.  When the twins’ uncle Doc starts teaching them rootwork, Jez discovers magical powers that no one in her family has suspected she possessed.  The family needs every bit of knowledge and magic they can muster as threats start to come at them from both the material and the spiritual worlds.  352 pages; grade 4-7.

Pros:  Is it horror, historical fiction, realistic fiction, or fantasy?  This powerful novel encompasses all those genres and will surely be considered for both Newbery and Coretta Scott King recognition.  As mentioned below, it’s taken me awhile to get around to reading this, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it, as it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in 2021.

Cons:  The dark cover didn’t really grab me, and although this book came out in January, it’s taken until now (and it’s place on several Newbery prediction lists) to get me to read it. 

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

Published by Kokila

The Legend of Auntie Po: Khor, Shing Yin: 9780525554882: Amazon.com: Books
The Legend of Auntie Po: Khor, Shing Yin: 9780525554882: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  It’s 1885, and 13-year-old Mei is working as an assistant cook, helping her father in a logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas.  The stories she makes up about Auntie Po, a larger-than-life character inspired by Paul Bunyan, entertain the other kids and help her to celebrate her Chinese heritage.  Prejudice against her father and other Chinese workers leads to their dismissal and Mei’s anger at her helplessness.  When the White workers strike to protest their bad food, the boss is forced to hire back Mei’s father.  The two men are friends, as are the boss’s daughter and Mei (who sometimes dreams of something more than a friendship), but Mei and her father frequently have to remind the White man and his daughter of the privileges they have that the Chinese don’t.  A tragedy forces Mei to question her belief in Auntie Po, but eventually brings about a chain of events that give her and her father hope for a brighter future.  Includes an author’s note and bibliography.  304 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  It’s not often that I’m actually reading a book when it’s announced as a National Book Award finalist (okay, that has never happened to me before and probably never will again).  There’s so much here: historical fiction, folklore, explorations of racism and privilege, coming of age, LGBTQ issues…plus a great story with outstanding artwork.  I’m guessing this will be considered for a Newbery or maybe a Printz award.  It would definitely have appeal for either age group.

Cons:  There are a lot of characters and storylines to keep track of, and I felt like I missed some of the subtleties in my first reading.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

Published by Balzer + Bray

Ophie's Ghosts: Ireland, Justina: 9780062915894: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Ophie learns that she can see ghosts the night her father is killed by a lynch mob, and his spirit directs her how to save herself and her mother.  The two of them flee to Pittsburgh, where they stay with relatives.  The cousins bully Ophie, but her Aunt Rose, who also has the ability to see ghosts, instructs Ophie how to use her gift.  When Ophie and her mother start working at Daffodil Manor, Ophie has her hands full serving mean old Mrs. Carruthers and trying to figure out with the various “haints” that occupy the house.  One spirit in particular, a beautiful young woman named Clara, is kind and helpful to Ophie.  Clara was killed in the house, but has no recollection of how it happened, and enlists Ophie to help her solve the mystery.  Although Clara seems kind, she’s a ghost, and Aunt Rose has warned Ophie that ghosts can always be dangerous no matter how friendly they seem.  As Ophie begins to unravel Clara’s mystery and close in on the murderer, it starts to seem as though danger is waiting for her in every corner of the spooky old mansion.  336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Part ghost story, part historical fiction, this engaging story will draw readers in from the suspenseful prologue, and keep them guessing all the way to the end.  Ophie’s life as a Black girl in the 1920’s, first in Georgia and then in Pittsburgh, is filled with injustice and hardship, and it takes all her strength and special gifts to turn things around for her and her mother.  I hope this book will get some award consideration.

Cons:  Not really a con, but more of a warning: if you don’t like spooky stories or aren’t quite ready for Halloween just yet, you may want to take this week off from reading the blog! 😉

Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Published by Candlewick

Amazon.com: Amber and Clay (9781536201222): Schlitz, Laura Amy, Iredale,  Julia: Books
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, Julia Iredale, Hardcover | Barnes &  Noble®

Summary:  Rhaskos is a slave in ancient Greece, separated from his mother at an early age.  His mother is taken away to live in a household that includes Melisto, a girl whose wealthy father loves her, but whose mother despises her.  When Melisto joins a group of young girls serving the goddess Artemis, her life takes an unexpected turn and becomes entwined with Rhaskos’s.  Rhaskos’s mother finds a way for Melisto to obtain Rhaskos’s freedom…but it will take years and many strange turns that involve gods, goddesses, and the great philosopher Sokrates.  Includes exhibits of ancient Greek artifacts with museum-type descriptions interspersed throughout the book; each of these plays a role in the story.  Also, an author’s note with additional information about Greek words, verse, and history; and an extensive bibliography.  545 pages; grades 5-8.  ó

Pros and Cons:  I honestly don’t know where to begin with this book.  It truly is a masterpiece, written mostly in verse, but with some sections in prose, and an incredible attention to historical detail.  I can’t even fathom the research that must have gone into writing it, and I can’t imagine any other publisher besides Candlewick producing this.

Having said that, I feel like this is a book with very, very limited appeal.  Looking back over my 21 years of being a school librarian, I can think of two middle school girls who might have been interested in this book.  I had to really push myself to read it (it’s over 500 pages!), although it was pretty absorbing once I started.

Will this book receive Newbery consideration?  Absolutely, and there is no question that the writing and research of that caliber.  Do I hope it wins?  To be honest, no. Call me a simpleton, but I would rather see a book win that is going to appeal to a much greater audience of young readers.

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau

Published by Random House Graphic

Amazon.com: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel (9780593126318): Holm,  Jennifer L., Ganucheau, Savanna: Books
Amazon.com: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel (9780593126318): Holm,  Jennifer L., Ganucheau, Savanna: Books

Summary:  Turtle’s gotten her nickname from being hard-shelled, but a new friend guesses that she also has a soft underbelly.  This proves to be the case when her mother sends her to live with her aunt in Depression-era Key West, Florida.  Her overworked aunt wasn’t expecting her, and Turtle finds herself spending her days with her boy cousins and their friends, a group that calls themselves the Diaper Gang because of their abilities to calm babies and cure diaper rash.  An unusual friendship with Turtle’s newly-discovered grandmother leads Turtle to a discovery that results in near-tragedy, but ultimately triumph (and treasure!).  Just when Turtle thinks she’s on her way to a home and family with her mother, another unexpected twist destroys their plans.  But in the final few pages, Turtle and her mother learn the value of their Key West family, and it looks like they have found a home after all.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Based on the 2010 Newbery honor book by Jennifer Holm, this graphic novel is told in vignettes which I assume are similar to the original (which I haven’t read).  The story and artwork are engaging, providing a look at the impoverished Key West before it became a tourist destination.  Fans of Raina Telgemier, Victoria Jamieson, and Holm’s other graphic novels are sure to want to read this one.

Cons:  Like I said, I haven’t read the original, but I did read the prequel Full of Beans, and I felt like some of the interesting historical details were lost in the transition to a graphic format. 

Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh

Published by HarperCollins

Finding Junie Kim: Oh, Ellen: 9780062987983: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Junie’s strategy for getting through middle school is to keep her head down and her mouth shut, even when a boy bullies her for being Korean.  When racist graffiti starts appearing in her school, her friends want to take a stand, but Junie’s not so sure.  But when she starts recording her grandfather’s stories about the Korean War for a school project, she sees the price that can be paid for not standing up for what is right.  After a family tragedy, her grandmother finally agrees to talk about her childhood, and Junie gets another lesson in courage.  Their inspiration leads Junie to confront her bully and to find her own way to lead the conversation about racism at school. Includes an author’s note about how her own family members’ stories inspired this book.  368 pages; grades 5-8.  

Pros:  The rich narrative shifts from Junie’s Trump-era story to her grandfather’s as a young boy and then her grandmother’s as a young girl.  Each one has its own fascinating cast of characters, and the Korean War sections will undoubtedly provide an education for readers, as they did for me.  This would be an amazing book to read and discuss with middle schoolers.

Cons:  The grandparents’ stories, especially her grandfather’s, revealed the motivation for the bullying behavior.  I wish there had been more of that for the bullies in Junie’s life, who just seemed like terrible MAGA hat-wearing boys.

Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11 by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

Image result for ground zero gratz

Summary:  Brandon has been suspended from school and is spending the day of September 11, 2001 with his dad, who works at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.  When his father isn’t looking, Brandon sneaks out to buy a toy in the mall.  The World Trade Center is hit by a jet while Brandon is in the elevator, and he must find his way down 89 floors to escape–after trying to go back up to rescue his father.  In alternating chapters, readers spend the day of September 11, 2019 with Reshmina, a girl in Afghanistan who rescues an American soldier and pays a price when the Taliban finds out.  The two protagonists’ stories intersect at the end of the book, and each one gains a new perspective from meeting the other.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Alan Gratz has produced another historical fiction novel filled with compelling characters and heart-pounding action.  In his characteristic style, he ends each chapter with a cliff-hanger, then picks up the narrative of the other character.  In his author’s note he mentions that it has taken him 20 years to feel ready to write about 9/11, and I think he was wise to wait.  The takeaway message questioning the ongoing American presence in Afghanistan might have been quite different a decade ago.

Cons:  I found Brandon’s story much more compelling and suspenseful than Reshmina’s, which had to provide a lot of context about Afghanistan that took away from the action.

Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Amazon.com: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388: Amazon.com:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Amazon.com: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Amazon.com: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632: Amazon.com:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Amazon.com: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.