Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Published by Scholastic Press

Show Me a Sign: LeZotte, Ann Clare: 9781338255812: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  11-year-old Mary Lambert lives in Chilmark, a community on Martha’s Vineyard, where, in 1805, many of the residents are deaf.  Mary and her father are deaf; her mother is hearing, as was her brother George, who died recently in an accident that Mary feels she caused.  Their community is somewhat uneasily intertwined with the Wampanoag and black freedmen, and Mary is aware of the racism expressed by some of the people closest to her.  Everyone in Mary’s life communicates through a sign language that has evolved on the island making the community distinctive enough to draw the attention of scientists.  One of them, Andrew Noble, arrives from Boston to stay with the local minister and study the population in hopes of better understanding the cause of deafness.  When Mary accidentally discovers a letter to Andrew asking him for a live specimen, she doesn’t realize that she is soon to become that specimen, kidnapped and taken to Boston for further study.  Mary awakens to the fact that most of the deaf population outside of Martha’s Vineyard are treated as less than fully human, and she becomes desperate to find a way to communicate and get help.  The story concludes with healing for Mary and her family, and with a vision of a brighter future for the deaf community.  Includes six pages of notes about the history of Martha’s Vineyard, deaf education, sign language, and the Wampanoag.  288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This is honestly a masterpiece of historical fiction that tackles so many different topics and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.  Mary’s mother and best friend both have racist beliefs that don’t change by the end of the story, yet also have qualities that Mary loves.  This would make an excellent book club selection.

Cons:  I found the beginning a little slow going as there was so much to introduce.

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Twins by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright

Published by Graphix (Released October 6)

Twins (Twins #1) (1): Johnson, Varian, Wright, Shannon ...

Review: Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright | 100 Scope Notes

Summary:  Twins Mauren and Francine are starting middle school.  Maureen, who’s the narrator, is known as the thinking twin, while Francine’s reputation is as the talking twin.  Francine, now calling herself Fran, seems to be reinventing herself with tons of friends and not much time for Maureen.  Although Maureen excels in her classes, she struggles to connect with other kids and ends up eating lunch in the library.  Everything changes, though when the twins decide to run against each other for class president.  Although their parents try to keep things civil, emotions run high as each twin assembles a campaign staff and decides on a platform.  The tension finally leads to a heart-to-heart conversation where each girl is able to share her own insecurities and see what her sister is going through.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another fun graphic novel from Graphix, this one written by Coretta Scott King honoree Varian Johnson.  A fast-paced middle school story, excellent artwork, and a multicultural cast of characters will make this a popular choice for sure.  This book is billed as book 1, so we can hope there will be more to come in the Francine/Maureen saga.

Cons:  Although Shannon Wright did a commendable job of giving Francine and Maureen distinctive characteristics, it was sometimes a little difficult telling the identical twins apart in the illustrations. 

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Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Published by Dutton Books

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: 9780525555568 | PenguinRandomHouse ...

Summary:  Ellie’s family has moved to a farm on a mountain in Maine after losing almost all their money in the Great Depression.  Ellie and her father love the self-sufficiency of the farm, while her mother and older sister Esther hate it.  When their father is hit by a falling tree and lapses into a coma, it falls on Ellie to do much of the work he did.  Feeling alone, she wanders up the mountain to the home of a legendary “hag”, who turns out to be an ordinary old woman named Cate with a life-threatening leg injury.  Ellie learns some occasionally stomach-turning healing techniques (maggots, vinegar poured into the wound) from Cate as she works to save her.  Cate’s grandson, Larkin, becomes a good friend, and Ellie is finally able to tell someone her secret: she didn’t cause her father’s accident, as her family thinks, but she’s letting them believe it to protect Esther and her younger brother Samuel.  While Ellie’s mother is suspicious of Cate, Ellie finds her friendship with the older woman and her grandson a lifeline, and is certain they can help wake up her father and restore him to health.  368 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Lauren Wolk has crafted another beautifully written historical fiction novel featuring a strong girl protagonist with a unique perspective and set of talents.  This is sure to be considered for a second Newbery (like Wolf Hollow) or Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction (like Beyond the Blue Sea)

Cons:  Usually I am a big Lauren Wolk fan, but this one didn’t grab me as much as her previous two.  I found Cate, with her endless store of sage wisdom, a little too good to be true.  It’s gotten starred reviews in journals and lots of 5-starred ones on Amazon, though so clearly I’m in the minority.

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96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles - Kindle edition by Esplin, J. L.. Children Kindle eBooks ...

Summary:  “Dad always said if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl.”  When we meet John and his younger brother Stew, they are indeed scooping water out of a toilet; things have obviously gotten desperate.  Their father is away on a business trip, and the power grid over much of the U.S. has been out for weeks.  Dad is a bit of a survivalist, but unfortunately his reputation was well-known.  When some unsavory neighbors learned the boys were on their own, their food and water supplies were stolen one night.  Now they’re stocking up on toilet water to make a 96-mile hike through the Nevada desert to the one place they know of that might save them.  Another pair of siblings, Cleverly and Will, who are also trying to stay alive, find them in the bathroom.  Stew convinces a reluctant John to let them come along, and the four of them start out.  For reasons that are not clear until well past the halfway point of the book, they have to make the trip in three days, and even John and Stew’s survivalist training may not be enough to get all four of them safely to their destination.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Holy cow!  Once I got about a third of the way through, nothing would do but to read all the way to the end.  Unlike many survival stories, the situations felt fairly realistic, as did the knowledge the kids had.  The characters were interesting and reasonably well-developed, and the pace did not let up from page one until the very end.

Cons:  I had a very unproductive Saturday morning, thanks to this book.

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Wink by Rob Harrell

Published by Dial Books

Wink: Harrell, Rob: 9781984815149: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Ross just wants to slink through seventh grade with as little attention as possible, but the diagnosis of a rare, aggressive form of cancer in his eye makes that impossible.  The story opens with his first radiation treatment, then brings the reader up to date with a series of flashbacks that describe his diagnosis and surgery.  Thanks to the radiation, he has to wear a hat at all times and constantly apply a goopy ointment to the eye that no longer has tear ducts.  One of his best friends has stopped talking to him and the other one, Abby, finds out that her family is moving in just a few weeks.  Music saves Ross, as he’s introduced to a whole new way of listening by one of his radiation technicians, Frank, who turns out to be an excellent guitar teacher and mentor.  When Ross, Abby, and an unlikely third kid form a band, Ross gets a chance to express everything he’s been feeling about the changes in his life, and learns not to shrink from the spotlight.  The author’s acknowledgements mention his own experiences with the kind of cancer Ross has.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  From the cover to the irreverent middle-school voice to the illustrations (including some full-page comics), this is a book that will appeal to reluctant upper elementary and middle school readers.  There’s plenty of substance, though, as Ross overcomes a life-threatening illness and finds his own voice and talents.

Cons:  Having witnessed my own guitar-enthusiast daughters taking months to learn to play simple songs, it seemed unlikely that Ross would be performing with a band after just a few weeks.

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A Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Lindsay Moore

Published by Greenwillow Books (Released September 1)

A Whale of the Wild: Parry, Rosanne, Moore, Lindsay: 9780062995926 ...

Summary:  Vega and her orca family live in the waters near land, taking care of each other and hunting for the salmon that sustains them.  Vega is learning to be a wayfinder, taught by her mother and grandmother in the matriarchal orca society.  When an earthquake and tsunami separate the family, Vega must keep herself and her younger brother Deneb safe.  They wind up in a much deeper part of the ocean, where they discover sights and creatures they have never seen before.  A harrowing journey back to their home reunites them with a couple of family members and gives them hope that they may find the rest of their kin some day.  Includes maps; facts about orcas; the real orcas who inspired the story; and additional information about salmon, the various habitats in the story, earthquakes and tsunamis, and how to help the orcas (not seen by me in the advanced review copy I got).  336 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another fascinating animal adventure by the author of A Wolf Called Wander, probably my top book club book in 2019.  Readers will learn a lot about the orcas and their ocean environment, as well as the threat humans pose to them.  I was sorry not to get to see Lindsay Moore’s illustrations (who is oddly not credited on the cover), which I’m sure are beautiful based on her work in Sea Bear.

Cons:  I found myself struggling a bit to get through this book, although it is beautifully written and has plenty of action.  I hope I’ll get to try it out on kids soon to see if they enjoy it as much as Wander

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A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faru

Published by Quill Tree Books (Released October 6)

A Thousand Questions - Saadia Faruqi - Hardcover

Summary:  Mimi’s not thrilled to be visiting the grandparents she’s never met in Karachi, Pakistan, but her mom has decided it’s time to go back after a long estrangement.  Sakima helps her father cook in Mimi’s grandparents’ house, but dreams of going to school if she can improve her English.  At first, Sakima can’t imagine being friendly to the wealthy, spoiled visitor from America, but slowly the girls begin to find ways to communicate in broken English and Urdu.  Mimi offers to tutor Sakina in English, and in return, Sakina helps Mimi find the father who left her several years ago.  As the weeks go by, the two families’ lives become intertwined.  By the end of the summer, much has changed for both Mimi and Sakina, but their new friendship promises to last even when they are living half a world away from each other.  Includes an author’s note about Karachi, where she grew up and a glossary.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Kids will learn a lot about life in Pakistan, and the inequities between the rich and the poor.  The characters are interesting and well-developed, not only the two girls, but their family members as well.

Cons:  The girls seemed to communicate remarkably well, considering neither one of them was particularly fluent in the other’s language.

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Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée, illustrated by Bre Indigo

Published by Balzer+Bray

Something to Say - Kindle edition by Ramée, Lisa Moore. Children ...

Summary:  Jenae is starting middle school expecting it to be a lot like elementary school: no friends, keeping to herself, and desperately struggling to get out of any kind of public speaking.  When a new boy, Aubrey, refuses to give up on his friendly overtures, Jenae isn’t sure how to handle it, alternately pushing him away and welcoming his friendship.  Things at home are also difficult for her, with a brother who’s suffered an injury that may have ended his basketball dreams, a grandfather who’s just had a stroke, and a harried mother who doesn’t have much time or sympathy for Jenae.  Jenae’s new English teacher is big on public speaking, and Aubrey eagerly invites her to pair up with him for a debate.  Their topic is a controversy that has their whole school buzzing: whether to keep the school’s current namesake John Wayne, or to change the name to honor Sylvia Mendez.  There’s a lot going on for Jenae, but she slowly faces her fears one by one and learns to bravely embrace the changes that middle school brings.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Lisa Moore Ramée’s shares in a note at the beginning of the book that she experienced many of the same anxieties as Jenae when she was a girl.  Jenae’s insecurities and beliefs that she caused her brother’s and grandfather’s health issues are a bit frustrating at times, but also very realistic.  Introverts everywhere will understand her dual urges to push away and embrace a new friend.  

Cons:  The quick resolution of Jenae’s deep fear of public speaking didn’t really ring true.

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Ways to Make Sunshine (A Ryan Hart Novel, book 1) by Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Ways to Make Sunshine (A Ryan Hart Novel) - Kindle edition by ...

Summary:  Ryan Hart is a fourth grader–and yes, she’s a girl, “a girl with a name that a lot of boys have.”  Her name means “king”, and her parents often remind her to live up to that name by being a leader, which can be tough at times.  Her dad recently lost his job at the post office, and has taken another job working the midnight shift, which also pays less.  At the beginning of the book, when Ryan’s parents offer her and her older brother Ray ice cream before dinner, Ryan knows there must be bad news coming.  It turns out the family is moving.  The new house is much smaller, which takes some getting used to, especially when one of Ryan’s best friends moves to a much bigger, fancier house.  As spring turns into summer, Ryan deals with other ups and downs: stage fright about reciting a speech in church on Easter, figuring out what to do with her hair, and trying to decide what to do in the fourth grade talent show.  The end of school brings the biggest surprise of all, but Ryan takes it (pretty much) in stride, and paves the way for book 2.  192 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This book is being compared to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books: it takes place in Portland, Oregon, features a spunky girl protagonist, and offers slice-of-life stories instead of one major plot.  Ryan is funny, honest, and endearing; her insights into family, friendship, and race ring true for a ten-year-old.  This book would be just right for a third- or fourth-grade book club; the illustrations and larger font make it feel manageable, but there’s also plenty for kids to relate to and want to discuss.

Cons:  Some kids might be turned off by the slightly sappy title.

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Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley (Peapod Farm book 1)

Published by Random House

Stepping Stones (Peapod Farm): Knisley, Lucy: 9781984896858 ...

Stepping Stones (Peapod Farm): Knisley, Lucy: 9781984896841 ...

Summary:  Jen’s having a difficult adjustment from city life to country life, compounded by her parents’ divorce and her mom’s new boyfriend Walter.  When Walter’s two daughters start spending weekends on the farm, Jen has more changes to deal with.  Andy is bossy and seems to be better at everything than Jen (or at least to think she is), and Reese is a bit of a whiner, prone to tantrums when things don’t go her way.  Jen’s mom has always wanted to live on a farm, but Jen’s not so sure about it as she helps out at the farmer’s market, takes care of the new chickens, and performs other chores, sometimes with the help of Andy and Reese.  Things aren’t perfect by the end of the story, but the three kids and their parents are beginning to be something resembling a family.  Includes an author’s note about her childhood, which inspired Jen’s stories 224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another fun graphic memoir for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Shannon Hale, and Jennifer Holm.  Kids will relate to Jen’s family issues, and there’s a relatively happy ending that seems to pave the way for a sequel.

Cons:  Walter seems at best insensitive and at worst, verbally abusive.  I hope he gets a chance to redeem himself in book 2, but in the author’s note, Lucy Knisley refers to the real-life Walter as “loud, bossy, and annoying” and “annoying and beloved until his dying day”, so I don’t have a lot of hope.

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