Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson. Square Fish, Macmillan, New York, 2018. MG historical fiction, 250 pages. Lexile: 810L . AR Level: 4.9 (worth 5.0 points) .
The life of one preteen girl in Detroit in 1945 – who later become the wife of Malcolm X. Betty wants nothing more than to be loved by her biological mother, but they disagree at every turn. She believes strongly in justice and fair treatment for all, but not everyone will stand with her.
So much is happening in this book yet all balanced very well. Reading the prologue introduces several of the issues that will become themes throughout. When just five pages in, first-person narrator Betty tells us about seeing a lynching as a young girl in Georgia, it is immediately clear that this book will be sensitive but not dishonest.
The fostering/adoption/kinship narratives are also handled well. The prologue briefly covers Betty’s early life. At one year old, she was taken from her teenaged mother by her grandmother, and raised lovingly by her aunt. After her aunt’s sudden death, she moved in with her biological mother and learned that she has three half-sisters and two step-brothers.
Her role ends up being more like a caretaker to the seven other members of her family; she constantly feels unappreciated and faces harsh punishments and constant misunderstandings. Church is a source of hope and light for Betty – her Christian faith and involvement with various activities at Bethel AME specifically are a major part of the book.
“Ah, dear Winthrop! I called him Lucky, because that was what he was, after wandering away from his father’s hired riverboat and into the Malaysian jungle.” page 11
A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Dragon’s Guide #1) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015. MG fantasy, 152 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Ms. Drake is mourning the loss of her beloved pet Fluffy when a near-feral new critter barges rudely into her den. She’d planned to spend a few decades in retirement before getting a new pet, but will Winnie convince her otherwise?
So, first I need to clear up a mistake I made back in my review of Dragon of the Lost Sea. That book is the first in the Dragon Quartet, and at the time I reviewed it, I’d started this trilogy but hadn’t decided whether to review it for this blog. The voice of the dragon Shimmer from that book, and Miss Drake in this story, were so markedly similar that I thought they were the same character in two different stories. However, upon rereading this book it’s clear that couldn’t be the case – because they are different colors!
For the record, I still think it would have been neat if this was the same character appearing across different settings and time periods. Even the naming (Ms. Drake is basically a word for dragon with an honorific) led me to think these were the same characters, and that would have been a nice nod to his previous work. However, it’s also understandable that across publishers and editors, Yep may not have been able to include the same character even if that was his desire.
“I feel for the mugwort in my pocket, but it’s gone – and in a flash of orange and black, the tiger disappears, too.” page 147
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. Random House, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 298 pages. Lexile: 590L . AR Level: 4.1 (worth 8.0 points) .
Lily, her older sister Samantha, and their mother have left California to live with Halmoni (grandmother), which Sam resents and Lily quietly accepts. But as they arrive, Lily begins to see something nobody else does – a tiger who can talk and walk through buildings and strike bargains, who wants something from her family.
I had gotten this book, read and enjoyed it, started a review, and was in my second reading when… it won the Newberry. All of a sudden everyone was reading and reviewing it! I frequently am surprised by, or disagree with, the Newberry awards – but it isn’t often my reaction is disbelief that others chose a book I personally loved.
“My cousin is the same age as me, and we’ve been best friends pretty much since birth. And that’s another reason why I hated this move to New York.” page 48
Arcade and the Triple T Token (Coin Slot Chronicles #1) by Rashad Jennings, illustrated by Alan Brown. Zonderkidz, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019. MG Christian fantasy, 254 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 3.7 (worth 7.0) . NOTE: Despite the low AR level, there is enough peril and plot complexity that I wouldn’t generally suggest this for children below third grade.
Eleven year old Arcade Livingston just moved from Virginia to New York City and is struggling to fit in and avoid the class bullies when a woman in the library gives him a mysterious token – that lets him time travel! But his teenaged sister wants him to stop, or at least take her along.
For several years I’ve been avidly seeking diverse fantasy books, but surprisingly had never heard of this series before. After reading, it was clear why – it’s Christian. (I could have figured this out sooner if I’d been paying attention; Zondervan is an explicitly Christian publisher although some of their titles appeal to a broader demographic.)
Although Narnia is probably what most people think of when they consider Christian fantasy, there’s more available. For children especially time travel stories seem to be popular. But I’ve never reviewed a Christian fantasy on this blog before because most tend to be very white.
Returning to this specific title, their family moved so Mr. Livingston can pursue a career as a set designer. It’s a big adjustment for the kids to both move to a big city and go from having a stay-at-home parent to being more personally responsible for things like getting themselves to school. Arcade handles the transition by finding the closest library and spending all his time there.
“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: 660L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…
Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.
I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.
“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69
The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner. HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.) Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages. Lexile: 680L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.
So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.
I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.
Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.
“… but our whole family lives in New Jersey now. So we are really, truly Americans – North, South, and Central!” page 7
Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 108 pages.
Lexile: 690L .
AR Level: 3.8 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the first book in the Sarai series.
Sarai Gonzalez is awesome. She can do anything she sets her mind to, right? But when her grandparents are about to lose their home, can she solve that problem?
I absolutely adored this book and am looking forward to reading more in the series. Sarai is like a modern-day, Latina Pollyanna without the syrupy sweetness. She radiates positivity and a can-do attitude, but also makes mistakes and sometimes meets problems she can’t solve (yet).
A large part of my love for this book was due to the incredibly appealing artwork, which brings me to the biggest problem, which is that the artist is not appropriately credited. Christine Almeda’s name appears only on the back cover and copyright page, and that in small print. Since this is a book with two co-authors (teen Sarai on whose real life the series is based and experienced author Monica Brown), it would be easy for young readers to mistake the cover credits for author and illustrator.
“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.
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.
“The far wall of the glade exploded in a shower of broken branches and fetterlings. More butterflies took to the air as the largest fetterling I could’ve ever imagined tried to squeeze through a gap like a T. rex.” page 181
Tristan Strong’s lost his first big match as a boxer and is sent to stay with his grandparents in Alabama. His deceased friend Eddie’s journal, with a mysterious glow only he can see, keeps ending up in his bag although he didn’t pack it. When a strange thief tries to steal the book, Tristan fights back… even if it means disturbing a bottle tree, unleashing an ancient evil, and falling into the land of Alke.
Confession: I liked this book very much, but didn’t love it, and can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps I’m burnt out on MG fantasy? Over the past three years, I’ve read more than a hundred, so MG fantasy has taken up a larger than normal portion of my free reading lately. So many aspects I loved, somehow didn’t quite coalesce for me. Three times I put this down to finish reading another book that felt more compelling. Yet at the same time, I kept coming back and wanting to finish. I’ll definitely get the next book in the series.
Mbalia’s worldbuilding is excellent. His villains in particular strike the perfect balance for middle grade – the stuff of nightmares but not invincible, firmly grounded in myth, history, and real fears, and many with complex backstory or growth patterns. I loved the endpaper maps of Alke and want a poster for my wall!
Also, I appreciated that he didn’t follow the RRP template. This far in to the imprint, plus reading widely in the genre, there is definitely a difference between those who write a Riordan-style series with different cultural trappings, and authors with their own unique ideas. Both are important but the latter tend to have more longevity.
“Rosa said nothing. She said it loudly. Rosa was not impressed with the basement apartment, or the library above it, or the town of Ingot. She missed their old place in the city.” page 1
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017, my paperback edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 184 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 640L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Rosa Diaz has been training her whole life to one day be a librarian specializing in ghost appeasement, so she’s disgusted when her mother moves them to the only unhaunted place in the world. Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot and never seen a ghost, so when one appears his world turns upside down. Can these unlikely friends solve the mystery of their oddly unhaunted hometown before it turns on them?
The mythology and worldbuilding of this is extensive. Alexander has imagined an entire alternate universe where ghosts are a normal part of everyday life and always have been, outside of Ingot, at least. The way he uses Ingot to introduce us to this world is clever – Jasper gasps at everything and Rosa is constantly annoyed or saddened by the small differences between Ingot and the properly haunted places that she’s used to living. This then gives Alexander a reason to constantly be telling us all those little details that build up into a coherent alternate world.
Both kids have unique family situations. As the only child of two founders, Jasper is the lead of the ren faire kid pack. Rosa is something that doesn’t quite exist in our world, perhaps a cross of homeschooled and army brat? She’s comfortable with every kind of ghost, but less familiar with people. Her knowledge is excellent but scattered, based on the books she’s been reading and had interest in. As the child of appeasement librarians, she has always lived in libraries and had a much different upbringing than Jasper. Continue reading “Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place”