Review: Facing the Lion

“Every time school closed for the vacation, I had to find my way home. That was one of the hardest things: the village might be 5 miles away, or it might be 50.” page 51

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, with Herman Viola.
National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2003.
MG autobiography, 128 pages.
Lexile:  720L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 4.0 points)  .

A unique story of a nomadic Maasai boy in Kenya who went to school and eventually came to America.

Facing the Lion cover resized
Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton with Herman Viola.

This is one of those books (of which, thankfully, I keep finding more and more) that I cannot recommend highly enough.  There are few books in English that tell about African life in an unbiased and non-colonial manner.  When you add to that a middle grade, non-fiction book about nomadic peoples?  I cannot think of any other.  Lekuton has lived that rare combination of an extraordinary life and a perfectly ordinary one.  Luckily for us, he’s also decided to put it into an autobiography for middle grade readers.

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Review: The Blind Side

“The holes in his mind were obvious enough. He was still working well below grade level. He would probably never read a book for pleasure.” page 211

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis.
W.W. Norton and Company, New York, orig. pub. 2006, my edition 2009.
Adult nonfiction, 340 pages.
Lexile: 980L .
AR Level: 7.2 (worth 19.0 points) .

The story of how the blind side revolutionized football, and a personal story giving one example of the new kind of recruit who is most highly sought after these days in American football.

The Blind Side (movie tie-in cover) by Michael Lewis.

Before getting into the review, I’ll tell you that I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’ other books – a relative is a fan.  This one deals with race and adoption, which is part of why I’ve chosen to review it here.  I was given a free copy of this book and decided to read it in part because of the sport enthusiasts I know who enjoyed it, but I myself am not much of a sports fan, which surely colors my opinion.

I think the major problem I had with this book was that Lewis starts out from a white perspective, and really never leaves that viewpoint, even when he’s purportedly trying to get into the minds of his POC characters.  The point where this was startlingly clear to me was the first paragraph of Chapter Three, where Big Tony is dramatically driving the boys out of poverty.

Lewis states “Memphis could make you wonder why anyone ever bothered to create laws segregating the races.  More than a million people making many millions of individual choices generated an outcome not so different from a law forbidding black people and white people from mingling.” (page 45).  The ignorance is startling – clearly Lewis has never heard of redlining and didn’t bother to do even basic research on Black history before writing a book where race has a major influence!

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Review: A Festival of Ghosts

“School buses disgorged students at the front entrance. Rosa and Jasper kept to the very back of the crowd, and the crowd moved to keep well clear of them. No one wanted to be knocked over by the inhospitable door.” page 173

A Festival of Ghosts (Ingot #2) by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2018, my paperback edition 2019.
MG fantasy, 264 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 610L .
AR Level: 4.5 (worth 6.0 points) .
NOTE: This book is a direct sequel to A Properly Unhaunted Place and this review will contain major spoilers for that novel.
FURTHER NOTE: Pictures on this review are part of the pink posts.

The continuing adventures of Rosa Diaz, from a family of librarians who specialize in ghost appeasement, and Jasper Chevalier, native to the unhaunted town of Ingot and the son of two Renaissance Faire leaders.

A Festival of Ghosts by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy

We enjoyed the previous book, so I was happy to continue this story, although it wasn’t immediately obvious where this one would go. After all, I felt the previous book worked well as a stand alone novel. However there was one thread left unteased, and of course that was pulled in to this new story, along with a number of new problems.

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Review: Double Trouble

“I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. Because as soon as her hand touched me, I was plunged into another vision.
Real Lavender faced away. Overlaid on top of her was a brighter version of Lavender, this one dressed in a a white polka-dotted two-piece swimsuit.” page 111

Double Trouble (Twintuition #2) by Tia and Tamera Mowry.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 202 pages +excerpt.
Lexile: 590L .
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 4.0 points) .
NOTE: Review contains mild spoilers for the previous book in the series.

As identical twins Caitlyn and Cassie get closer to their twelfth birthday, their unexpected visions of the future are only getting stronger. Can it have something to do with the father who died when they were young? In Double Trouble, the girls have reconnected, made peace with their new hometown and between their two very different friend groups, and are now planning their birthday party. They receive a strange package that seems to have something to do with their powers…

Twintuition: Double Trouble by Tia and Tamera Mowry.

True confession: after finishing my review of the first book, I originally accidentally picked up the third book instead of this second installment. It was slightly confusing but I was excited that the plot moved forward so vigorously… until noticing the 3 on the spine. My main complaint here is the same as the previous book – the pace is incredibly slow and the plot oversimplified. I’ve been struggling to get a handle on what the intended age range for these is – the stories seem a bit simple even for lower MG, but I don’t see elementary students wanting to read about football games, crushes, and tween interpersonal drama. Maybe hi-lo readers?

The two voices didn’t bother me as much in this book. It’s still not my favorite, but at least I can tell the twins apart now. Caitlyn also stopped being quite so saccharine and showed her opinions. While most kids this age would probably have more interest in the friendship drama, I’m more interested in the fantasy aspect, which only mildly develops in this particular installment.

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Review: Double Vision

“I had a feeling I wasn’t going to have much of a social life in this remote town. This did not look like a place fun ever visited.” page 5

Double Vision (Twintuition #1) by Tia and Tamera Mowry.
Scholastic, HarperCollins, New York, 2016.
Tween fantasy novel, 204 pages.
Lexile: 690L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .

Identical twins Cassie and Caitlyn Waters are both struggling with their mom’s sudden move to small town Aura, Texas. Nerdy Caitlyn’s eternal optimism is strained, while pessimistic, fashion-conscious Cassie is trying both to break in to the popular crowd and to convince their mom to move back to the big city. But as their twelfth birthday nears, both girls start having strange visions of the future…

Twintuition: Double Vision by Tia and Tamera Mowry.

We first got this book when it was released, around when I started this blog. This review was challenging. You all know how I feel about novels in two voices. I have loved some, but those tend to be few and far between. While I intellectually understand the need for shared narration, it just didn’t work for me here. The story moves back and forth between the two twins who have some commonalities (family, love of music, having strange visions) and many differences (messy vs. clean, nerdy vs. fashionista, optimistic vs. pessimistic). Yet I never felt like the two voices were fully distinguished and was constantly checking to see whose viewpoint we were in. Thankfully that was announced in the header of each chapter – I just wished the main characters had more specific voices.

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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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