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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Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place

“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?

A Properly Unhaunted Place cover resized
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.

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”

Announcement: New Tags

Yes, another housekeeping post.

At one point, I didn’t tag any of the books with Black content because that was the primary content of this blog, but it was recently brought to my attention that since the original scope of Colorful Book Reviews has greatly expanded, I should probably start using that tag.

After some reflection, I’ve decided to add the following tags:

Black
African American
white/presumed white
Afro-Latinx

It was also brought to my attention that I probably should be tagging books with biracial main characters also. After some conversations, what I’ve decided to do is tag each ethnicity as well as using biracial tags. I understand that the biracial people in my life are not necessarily representative of all biracial people everywhere, and that some might differ in opinion. For now I’ll be making two tags, biracial (white) and biracial (nonwhite). This is not to diminish the importance of literature about biracial people from two different nonwhite cultures, but simply to reflect the reality that far more children’s literature currently exists including biracial characters with partially white heritage.

While embarking on this tag clean up project, I’m also toying with the idea of region-specific tags for Africa, and will probably consolidate the Caribbean tags since I just don’t post enough about most countries there.

It will probably be May or June before I have time to actually start implementing these changes on past posts in the blog, since my main priority continues to be reading and writing reviews. But I wanted to mention it early to have a chance for feedback before all these changes.

Review: City of Islands

“She tried to keep her voice light, as though she wasn’t asking the most important question she had ever asked.” page 23

City of Islands by Kali Wallace.
Katherine Tegen imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 328 pages.
Lexile:  not leveled
AR Level:  5.8 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Mara has been orphaned twice over – once when she survived her family’s shipwreck, and again when the bone mage who raised her was killed by a rival.  Now she’s a diver for the Lady of the Tides, but worried about finding herself homeless again if they keep coming up empty-handed.  A chance tip has her trying a new location where she finds a pile of strange spelled bones that don’t make sense.  Her dream is to study magic with the Lady, but instead she’s rewarded with a challenge – find a way to break in to the impregnable Winter Blade fortress island.

City of Islands cover
City of Islands by Kali Wallace.

Before I finished this book and started to write this review and checked the back flap of the book cover and got around to looking the author up, I knew that she would be white.  By the time I was halfway through the book it was obvious, and here’s why – the hair.  Wallace’s heroine, Mara, is a diver by profession.  She lives on a small island in an archipelago where most everyone grows up swimming and boating and generally transitioning from water to not with ease.

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Review: You Can Fly

“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile:  910L .
AR Level:  6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.

This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.

You Can Fly cover
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

I did not expect to like this book.  A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about.  Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well.  Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.

First, let’s discuss the illustrations.  There is one illustration on almost every other page.  A few are full page, but most are half or less.  They interact nicely with the text.  Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration.  At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.

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Review: Zahrah the Windseeker

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that!” page vii

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.
Graphia, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.
MG or YA fantasy (see review), 308 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 11.0 points) .

Zahrah Tsami was born dada, with vines that grow amongst her hair. She doesn’t spend time with anyone other than her family and her best friend Dari, a charismatic boy newly obsessed with the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their town. For much of her life she’s kept to herself and quietly tried her best to fit in, but puberty brings many changes. Can Zahrah complete a dangerous quest that only she is suited for? Could she ever accept her own unique self?

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

Every so often I come to this blog to look up a review and realize I never actually wrote one, as with this excellent Afrocentric fantasy novel for young readers which really should have been on my first diverse middle grade fantasy booklist, but will have to wait for the next one instead.

Classifying works by genre is something I probably spend too much time considering. It interests me personally and professionally, especially when there isn’t a clear answer. Zahrah the Windseeker definitely fits into a category – science fantasy. But that category doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the science fiction | fantasy divide!

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