Review: One Shadow on the Wall

“After he finished his prayers and left the mosque, he headed father away from the noise of the market. He was excited to spend the rest of the day with Oumar and his other friends, kicking the soccer ball and forgetting all he had to do – at least for a couple of hours.” page 228

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson.
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017.
MG contemporary/fantasy, 442 pages.
Lexile: 760L .
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 15.0 points) .

Orphaned Mor is a little concerned when he starts hearing the voice of his deceased father and seeing visions of his deceased mother, but he’s got bigger worries. His paternal aunt wants to take him and his two sisters away from their village and separate them, but she’s given him just three months to prove he can care for them all. Unfortunately, the Danka Boys also have their eye on him and will stop at nothing to get him to give up his family and join their gang.

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson.

I saw this book while compiling my first diverse middle grade fantasy novel list – the synopsis caught my eye but I mistakenly assumed the author was white. When later reading a review for The Magic of Changing Your Stars, the reviewer mentioned that it was ownvoices so I gave Henderson a second look, thankfully! True, this book is light on fantasy, with only one fantastical element, but that aspect is strongly present throughout and the book as a whole is gripping.

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Review: Betty Before X

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.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson.

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.

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Review: Fish in a Tree

A plethora of problematic details ultimately ruin this widely hyped pro-dyslexic novel. See review for quotations.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG realistic fiction, 276 pages + sketchbook of impossible things and excerpt.
Lexile:  550L  .
AR Level:  3.7 (worth 7.0 points)  .
NOTE:  This review is a lot longer than my usual.  If you’d just like a general opinion, scroll down to the final paragraphs.

Ally’s been to half a dozen different schools.  With a military dad and working mom, it’s easy to hide things from teachers, like not being able to read.  If trouble arises, she just goes with the laughs and builds on her trouble-making reputation.  But the new teacher is bringing light to her gifts and might illuminate her struggles also, if she lets him.

Fish in a Tree

I wanted to love this book.  It’s been on my wishlist for ages and I hoped this would be a good book to share with the kids.  Instead, I feel ambivalent.  None of the individual issues alone were major enough to ruin it; some parts I liked, but many aspects were problematic.

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Review: Gloom Town

“One melancholy voice rose in the air and he smiled. It was his mum, singing a sad sea ballad, one that she had sung to him when he was a child, and he knew the tune well” page 25

Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2020.
MG fantasy, 274 pages.
Lexile: 650L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.

I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.

Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.

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Review: Arcade & the Triple T Token

“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.

Arcade and the Triple T Token by Rashad Jennings, illustrated by Alan Brown.

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.

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Review: House in the Cerulean Sea

“Linus Baker, for what it was worth, did care about the children he was tasked with observing. He didn’t think one could do what he did and lack empathy, though he couldn’t understand how someone like Ms. Jenkins had ever been a caseworker…” page 88

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.
Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, Macmillian, New York, 2020.
YA/adult fantasy novel, 398 pages.
Not leveled.

Although not cruel or careless like many of his coworkers, Linus Baker is an uninspiring caseworker who’s given his life to the minute rules of the bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, down to the point of purchasing for personal reading (and occasionally quoting from memory) the official Rules and Regulations. So when an unusual and extremely delicate situation arises, he’s the only real choice. But what Linus finds at the island orphanage is so much more than he expected…

The House In the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune.

I’ve been excited to read this one because a book about a 40 year old civil servant monotonously documenting magically gifted youth and slowly coming alive to the true meaning of his work and life is exactly the sort of thing I would have loved at the target age (and still do today).

This book has an interesting dual nature of being both an engaging fantasy novel with several mysteries to unfold, and a very useful teaching tool for the process of learning to see systemic problems that are right in front of your face, so blatant they become invisible. I initially read hoping for a more complex, higher reading level but still MG appropriate diverse book to add for younger kids with high reading levels (like UnLunDun was on my last list). Unfortunately this wasn’t that.

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Review: Kozol’s Amazing Grace

“I do not think these many self-help efforts, as important as they are, can conceivably prevent these outcomes on more than a very limited scale and always in quite special situations, and I even feel a bit bewildered that a point like this needs to be made in the United States in 1995.” page 163

Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol.
Perennial, HarperCollins, New York, first published 1995, my edition 2000.
Adult non-fiction, 286 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTE: There are many books with the title Amazing Grace. Also, the initial note explains that there are some differences between editions – I read the paperback version.

A sociological narrative of how drug use and AIDs, among other things, impacted one community.

Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol.

Kozol attempts to cover many topics within these few hundred pages, touching on racism, classism, AIDs, poverty cycles, medical inequalities, drugs, politics, systemic injustice, religion, childhood, environmental racism, the justice system, hunger, bureaucracy, homelessness, cancer, and other topics. Needless to say, he doesn’t cover all of them fully.

This book and the vast popularity of it on initial publication likely informed many of the more recent, better coverage of these topics, and for that I am grateful. But Kozol meanders through many things without ever making any points, or systematically documenting any particular issue. It’s neither commentary nor journalism, and surely not academia.

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Board Book Review: Happy!

Our 21st board book delights parents and toddlers alike.

Happy by Pharrell Williams.
Putnam, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
Board book, 30 pages.
Lexile:  AD410L  ( What does AD mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  1.7 (worth 0.5 points)  .

A board book (also available in picture book format) based on the popular song.

Happy cover resized
Happy by Pharrell Williams.

I just love song picture books and board books because they have so many applications.  Toddlers can look at the pictures.  Older children can read the words independently.  And everybody in between can sing the song!  These are nice for allowing children to read at a bit higher level than they are ready for, because they can use prior knowledge of the song lyrics to decode the words.  They can also be helpful for engaging reluctant readers who love music.

However, this type of book is challenging to do well.  Luckily, Williams and his team have done a great job converting this song to board book format.  Now, I will say that if you’ve never heard the song, this book might not make so much sense to you – the lyrics don’t exactly coalesce into a story.  But take a minute and go listen to the song, I’ll wait!

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Review: Child, Please

“But in the quiet beneath the noise, I would wager that we are probably the most discreet, still, and discerning population on the face of the earth. And we keep many, many things on the low. Especially when it comes to motherhood.” page 43

Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness.
Jeremy P. Tarchen, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
Adult memoir, 302 pages.
Not leveled.

One mother’s journey to reconcile her own upbringing with modern parenting article advice.

Child, Please by Ylonda Gault Caviness.

As mentioned, I’ve been on a major nonfiction slump. Although reading required for classes and work has gotten done, I havn’t read any adult nonfiction for personal enjoyment in over a year. That’s longer than the break I took after graduating! A lot of that was Covid, blogging and other non-essential activities falling by the wayside, and since I strongly prefer fiction, what freedom I had went towards what was most fun.

I tried joining a challenge and buying new books but I still was just reading a chapter here and there, so looked back to my interests. Diverse of course. Biography/memoir. Parenting. Other areas I like to read about normally, like history, but lately just… couldn’t. Luckily, Caviness’ Child, Please was just right to remind me of the joys of a well-crafted true story.

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Review: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

“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 Punches a Hole in the Sky (Tristan Strong #1) by Kwame Mbalia.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 484 pages.
Lexile: HL680L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 15.0 points) .

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.

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