Review: Into the Tall Tall Grass

“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…

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.

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.

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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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Review: Sarai & the Meaning of Awesome

“… 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?

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome cover resized
Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.

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.

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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: The Wild Book

“In that neighborhood, some of the houses had been knocked down to construct modern buildings, others were about to fall apart all by themselves, and some had their balconies strapped firmly to their walls lest they drop off and split open the heads of passerby on the street.” page 22

The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, illustrated by Eko, translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Yonder, Restless Books, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 234 pages.
Lexile: 750L .
AR Level: not leveled
*The Spanish-language version has an AR of 4.8, worth 7.0 points.
NOTE: This Mexican novel was first published in 2008, my review is of the 2017 translation.

Juan’s father is building a Parisian bridge, and his distraught mother is finding a new home. While his sister gets to spend the summer with her best friend, Juan’s shipped off to his strange uncle who lives within a labyrinth of books. There he learns that he’s got an unusual power to make books magically respond to him.

The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Illustrated by Eko.

I’ve been searching and searching for MG fantasy novels set outside the US or in translation. Several are available from Asia, few from Africa, and I’ve found some great works by American authors of Latinx heritage, but mostly still set in the US. After finally finding this book and waiting some time for the mail, I immediately started reading. Unfortunately I didn’t end with the same enthusiasm.

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Review: Dragon of the Lost Sea

“But to my annoyance, he did not seem in the least bit frightened. In fact, I seemed to amuse him – just as an elderly, eccentric aunt might have.” p110

Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep.
Charlotte Zolotow, HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, my edition 1988, originally published 1982.
MG fantasy, 214 pages.
Lexile: 830L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 6.0) .
NOTE: First of a quartet, see review for the relationship this has with other Yep books.

An unremarkable human boy with a generous spirit and a magical dragon princess team up on a quest for revenge and restoration that doesn’t go how either of them expect.

Dragon of the Lost Sea is the first volume in Laurence Yep’s classic middle grade fantasy quartet.

This was one of those Yep books that always gave me a pause since his books with Dragon in the title could be either fantasy or historical fiction. Thankfully, this one has a dragon front and center on the cover, so it’s pretty clear that it’s a fantasy novel – which is probably also why I’d never read it before, since most Yep books I read were in order to catalog them properly.

Yep opens with the main viewpoint character as an elderly, impoverished woman traveling a beaten, broken down land, who smells something strange in a small village. It’s pretty clear within a few chapters that this is going to be high fantasy, and I am excited. We meet the main character Thorn, about whom several things will seem very obvious to experienced or adult readers and probably less so to the intended middle grade audience.

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Review: Jumbie God’s Revenge

“She stared at the ceiling as little white wood lizards darted up the walls and over her head, stopping every time the house shook. She wanted to tell them it would be all right, but the truth was, she wasn’t so sure.” page 35

The Jumbie God’s Revenge (Jumbies #3) by Tracey Baptiste.
Algonquin Young Readers, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019.
MG fantasy, 264 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 8.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the third book in the Jumbies series so this review will include spoilers for the previous volumes.

Corinne has defeated Severine, brokered a peace with Mama D’Leau and Papa Bois, and still has to face some fellow islanders who distrust her because she is part jumbie. And now there is a new problem – dangerous out of season storms are brewing, laced with lightning and an angry face in the clouds.

The Jumbie God’s Revenge by Tracey Baptiste.

After the last Jumbies book gave me all the feels, I wasn’t sure of two things – first, how Baptiste could possibly manage to up the ante, and second, if this would be a trilogy or continuing story. But this book answered both questions.

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Review: The Farthest Shore

“I do not like waste and destruction. I do not want an enemy. If I must have an enemy, I do not want to seek him, and find him, and meet him. … If one must hunt, the prize should be a treasure, not a detestable thing.” page 113

The Farthest Shore (Earthsea Cycle #3) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
Fantasy, 260 pages.
Lexile: 920L .
AR Level: 6.1 (worth 10.0 points) .
NOTES: Please see review for age appropriateness. See my other posts under the Earthsea tag for more information on this series.

Arren travels with his idol Ged to solve the mystery of why magic is slowly disappearing from the islands of Earthsea.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for children’s books in 1973 and is still in print today.

The Farthest Shore is not without problems. Female characters continue to be minor or even unnamed. One secondary character suffers from mental illness and I had so many thoughts on that subplot they might not all fit in this post.

Parents and teachers should be aware of several aspects before handing this to a child. First, Arren has a crush on Ged. I read this as the sort of schoolchild hero worship that many children experience during puberty, but other readers have seen an unrequited romantic love. The text supports either interpretation. Ged absolutely does not have romantic or sexual feelings towards Arren, and their slightly forced companionship grows into mutual respect and esteem as events progress.

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Review: Us In Progress

“Her choice to flee the United States and spare her sons further repercussions, rather than tell her story, left me unsettled. I firmly believed this story needed to be told.” page viii

Us In Progress: Short Stories about Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction, 242 pages.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 5.0 points)  .

A collection of stories about young Latinos from various backgrounds.

Us In Progress cover
Us In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.

This is a unique collection in many ways.  One is that the author is also the illustrator.  Delacre’s Introduction is an important part of the book as it explains some of the nuances behind the artwork and writing, including the three layers used on each piece.

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Review: A Crack in the Sea

“Kinchen pursed her lips, thinking. She never told anyone about Pip’s strangeness with people; not wanting anyone to make fun of her brother, she covered up for him.” page 61

A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 11.0 points)  .

A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.

A Crack in the Sea cover resized
A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.

I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous.  A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel?  Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.

But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief.  So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.

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