Review: Sauerkraut

“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75

Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey.
Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 280 pages.
Lexile: 750L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .

A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair.  HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.

Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey.

Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).

HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.

I appreciated that adults got involved pretty quickly, and the practical way most handled the situation. HD’s mom did well and it was nice to see a reasonable, tightly-knit family. The annoying little brother felt very realistic.

Jones did so well with the tricky epistolary narrative format that my expectations for this first person story might have been too high. She struggles to find HD’s voice. While this book had appealing elements from the start, I didn’t start to feel strong connection with the characters until half a dozen chapters in – many readers don’t have that much patience.

A moment of bonding on page 225 of Sauerkraut.

Small irritations pushed me out of the story. For example, the main character’s full name is Hans Dieter Schenk. As is common in the USA, everyone has taken the paternal family name. It seems odd that his mom accepted a full ethnic German name, especially since his little brother’s name is Asad. And I can’t decide if I was excited about recognizing the unsubtle nod to Caroline Stevermer or bothered that it was so blatant.

A favorite aspect of Jones’ books are the MG appropriate realistic depictions of microaggressions. But it felt more forced as HD told us about previous microaggressions rather than processing recent experiences. Interestingly, Oma does not judge much (outside of sauerkraut) and while she has significant pauses, doesn’t take issue with having a Black great-great-grandson or a gay relative. HD continues the Jones tradition of mildly flawed, but essentially decent and likeable protagonists.

HD takes the goats to visit Mr. Ziedrich on page 21 of Sauerkraut.

The artwork was just okay, which upset me because Davey is a great artist. His cover expresses the theme and main characters perfectly, but the interior artwork was off in a way I struggle to articulate. It felt like layers were missing, or a file had been compressed too far and lost image quality, which still worked out fine in some images but was a real loss for others. For whatever reason, the interior artwork didn’t fully match up to the cover.

Where Jones shines here is matching mundane middle grade moments – a fight with a friend, choosing between two important events, creating a new family tradition – with low-key magical elements for a book that could appeal both to fantasy nerds and realistic fiction fans. (Caveat to forewarn both when handselling – leaving the cover on would prep realistic fiction readers, but students who love fantasy should beware that the magic only consists of one non-horrific, sauerkraut-obsessed Oma.)

HD and his ghostly Oma on page 251 of Sauerkraut.

HD has several strong mentors and adult supports. Mr. Z is the white retiree whose goats he cares for, but they have an even stronger bond over their love of computers. Harry, the Black librarian, keeps HD supplied with all kinds of books and articles and helps him with makerspace projects. Grace runs the electronic section of the town junkyard/hardware store.

Two smaller diverse aspects. HD’s parents met in the military; his father uses a prosthetic leg as a result of an injury. Hans Peter Schenk owns a business and is not at all defined by his disability. His brother Gregor is mostly offscreen on his honeymoon – with a man. Again, by far not the most important thing about him.

Although I preferred Jones’ previous MG fantasy series, this is still a solid entry. Techy nerds in rural communities will especially appreciate this one. While the other series has broader appeal, Sauerkraut works best for the intended middle grade audience. The ending could lead to a sequel or stand alone.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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