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?

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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: The Dragon of Ynys

“Of course the dragon would try to distract him if it really was guilty. But Violet wouldn’t let it. He was a professional, specialised in dragon crimes. This dragon’s crimes.” page 15

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen.
Atthis Arts, Detroit, Michigan, my edition 2020, originally published 2018.
All ages fantasy, 132 pages including back matter.
Not leveled.

Sir Violet’s duties as knight have fallen into a familiar pattern – he goes to the dragon’s cave, and after some banter a missing item is returned. Until instead of his morning cinnamon roll, he finds the baker’s wife distraught – Juniper is missing! This sends Sir Violet on a quest for not only the missing baker, but a few other things he didn’t know he was missing.

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen.

I bought this book entirely because of a post; I didn’t realize the age level until it crossed my feed. Not that this is only for kids, it’s especially written as All Ages – a rare find!

Much like the dragon, I’m a collector, only my hoard is books. I like the collection to fit together in various pleasing ways and am always looking for new releases that fit categories seldom seen in diverse MG fantasy. Three areas have been elusive -stories set in South America or Australia, LGBTQ+ representation, and indigenous stories. We are finally seeing movement on the latter two, so I have high hopes for more English-language South American MG fantasy in the next five years.

I was initially disappointed at the length. The main story is only 118 pages with generous spacing. MG fantasy novels (which this isn’t, but is the comparative genre I’ve been most heavily immersed in lately) tend to run longer, so on my first reading this was at the back of my mind… until the fairly detailed back matter. Knowing that the $13 list price goes towards fair payment for editors, sensitivity readers, and others made me much happier about the price versus length.

Although the book is smaller, it’s well formatted. The cover, while not especially exciting, conveys the gist and is nicely laid out. Simple works better than wrong! As someone who personally and professionally handles dozens to hundreds of books daily, I can tell it’s not from a mainstream publisher – but nowadays well made titles aren’t obviously POD to most casual readers.

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Review: Children of the Longhouse

“Suddenly he heard a sound like pebbles being shaken in a hollow gourd. His heart leaped into his throat as he threw himself to one side to keep from stepping on the huge rattlesnake that was coiled in the middle of the trail.” page 78

Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac.
Puffin, Penguin Group, New York, 1996.
MG historical fiction, 154 pages.
Lexile:  950L  .
AR Level:  5.5 (worth 5.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.

Follow twins Ohkwa’ri and his sister Otsi:stia as they navigate peers who are trying to break the peace treaty, coming of age, and a sacred game of lacrosse.

Children of the Longhouse cover resized
Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac.

It’s worth noting that this is NOT an #ownvoices book.  Bruchac is Abenaki, a neighboring group to the twins – but the main characters are all Mohawk, members of the Iroquois League of Peace.  This book was originally included in a 2006 recommendation list on AICL, but I noticed that as of this writing, Bruchac was conspicuously absent from the August 2020 list of historical fiction recommendations on AICL.  This makes sense given that AICL has recently had several neutral or negative reviews of his work, especially when working outside of his own nation.  However, given the glowing reviews some of his books have previously gotten, it’s hard to know if he’s still a generally suggested author or not. Continue reading “Review: Children of the Longhouse”

Review: The Dragon Thief

“We’re almost the same shade of brown, but Aunty’s wrinkly skin is a bit darker than mine. I reach up and tug at one of the tightly coiled curls that frame her face.” page 23

The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.
Penguin Random House, New York, 2019.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 170 pages.
Lexile:  700L  .
AR Level:  not yet leveled  .
NOTE: The review of this direct sequel contains spoilers for the ending of Dragons in a Bag.

Kavita has a dragon now, and Jaxon is desperate to get it back. But with Ma out of commission, Kavita gone missing, and a magical trickster interested in that dragon, it won’t be easy for the children or any of their new friends.

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The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliot, illustrated by Geneva B.

I was happy to see Kavita featured in this, but less thrilled about a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall that multiple voice novels are not my favorite – too difficult to balance and often unwieldy. Luckily Elliott is strong enough to carry two voices.

Kavita considers her actions in the last book and feels remorse over stealing the baby dragon. Aunty sort of supplies the grandmotherly role in this book, although not a biological relative – she was Vik’s father’s ayah, or nanny, when he was growing up in India. As such, she’s able to give us a little bit of history – specifically about the Siddi people who were enslaved and brought to India. I had never heard of this and appreciated Elliott including it.

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Review: Dragons in a Bag

“I stare at the box so my grandmother won’t see that I’m annoyed. People never expect a kid like me to know anything about anything. I’m used to it, but it still bothers me sometimes.” p. 9

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B
Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 154 pages.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  4.7 (worth 4.0 points)  .

It’s bad enough that Jaxon’s mother dropped him off with a stranger who she calls Ma, but then it turns out Ma is a real witch…

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Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.

Zetta Elliott is finally getting some long-deserved recognition, and it’s nice to see her promoted through a major publisher.  I’ve marked this book with both middle grade and elementary because it fits that tricky in-between stage.  This is definitely interesting enough for MG readers, especially in the 4th to 6th range, but it’s also a book that you could read aloud to a much younger group, even as low as kindergarten.  Continue reading “Review: Dragons in a Bag”

Review: The Magic Paintbrush

“When Steve grasped the painting, it tingled against his fingertips. He felt as if he had rubbed his shoes fast over a carpet.” p. 19

The Magic Paintbrush by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 2000.
Historical fantasy, 90 pages.
Lexile:  530L  .
AR Level:  3.8 (worth 2.0 points)  .

Eight-year-old Steve’s parents and all of his belongings are gone after a tragic fire, and now he shares a single room in Chinatown with his grandfather and Uncle Fong (no relation but a childhood friend of Grandfather’s).  They are so poor that after his paintbrush split in art class, he’s afraid to go home and tell his Grandfather, knowing that a new one is not possible.

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The Magic Paintbrush by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang.

For a book with magic in the title, this book takes a while to get to the fantasy part.  The first chapters are all about establishing the setting – early 1960s San Francisco – and characters.  The tale of a magic paintbrush given to a poor boy who uses it to spread happiness is a Chinese story that has been retold many times, mostly in picture books.  Yep has a unique historical Chinese-American spin to his version though.

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Review: Hooray for Anna Hibiscus!

“But the aunties’ heads must be so hard by now, Anna thought. After centuries of pulling and tugging and yanking, their heads must be as hard as concrete.” page 39

Hooray for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.
Kane Miller, EDC Publishing, Tulsa, OK, 2010.  (First published in London, 2008.)
Elementary chapter book fiction, 112 pages.
Lexile:  660L  .
AR Level:  4.1 (worth 1.0 points)  .
NOTE:  This is the second book in the Anna Hibiscus chapter book series.

The continued adventures of Anna Hibiscus and her family in amazing Africa.

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Hooray for Anna HIbiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.

I wrote a few years ago about the first book in this series, simply titled Anna Hibiscus.  While I loved the story and one of my older children read it independently, at the time of that review, they hadn’t enjoyed it as a read-aloud.  Well, it was indeed just a moody day, because we have since been loving this series as a whole-family read aloud choice.

Much like the first, this book is actually four interconnected short stories which could be read individually.

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Review: Away West

“Everett had been wandering around for almost an hour. His body ached from the cold, and he had no idea where to go.” page 19

Away West (Scraps of Time 1879) by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon James.
Puffin Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, New York, 2006.
Elementary historical fiction, 121 pages.
Lexile:  510L  .
AR Level:  3.4 (worth 1.0)  .

The Scraps of Time series is built around the idea of a grandmother and three grandchildren building a scrapbook about their family from items kept in their grandmother’s attic.  One of the children finds something and asks Gee about it, and then the story proper begins as she tells them the story behind that item.

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Scraps of Time 1879 Away West by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon C. James.

In this case the item is a Civil War army medal, although the story does not deal directly with the Civil War.  Instead, Gee tells them about her grandfather, Everett Turner.  The youngest of three brothers, he was determined to find his place in the West.

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Review: Mochi Queen

“In the kitchen, the rice cookers set on timers were already steaming, filling the kitchen with the smell of rice. My mouth watered.” p. 53

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (Jasmine Toguchi #1) by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic.
Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillian, New York, 2017.
Elementary fiction, 115 pages.
Lexile:  560L  .
AR Level:  3.6 (worth 1.0 points)  .

Jasmine and her Japanese-American family are getting ready for the New Year.  That means lots of cousins, mochi-tsuki, Obaachan coming to visit, and two more years before Jasmine is old enough to make mochi with the women.  Rather than wait two whole years, she has an idea…

Jasmine Toguchi 1 Mochi Queen

In the last few years we’ve been seeing a big rise in the number of early elementary chapter book series featuring diverse characters, and I am over the moon about it.  As you’ve heard me rant before, it’s crucial to have diverse books at every reading level, including the very earliest.  Working a little understanding of different cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles into early fiction also helps students out when they later encounter the same topics in middle school or high school, and it sets a foundation for tolerance and acceptance.

Series like this one are particularly great because they can be read aloud to children over a range of ages, and information about Japanese-American culture is seamlessly woven into the storyline.

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Review: Only One Year

” ‘We have to go to work, go to school. We cannot pay so much attention to our little boy.’ Her voice cracks. ‘We have to do what is best for Di Di,’ she whispers, ‘not what is best for us.’ ” p. 8

Only One Year by Andrea Cheng, illustrations by Nicole Wong.
Lee & Low Books, New York, 2010.
Elementary realistic fiction, 97 pages.
Lexile:  620L  .
AR Level:  3.3 (worth 1.0 points)  .

Di Di is leaving to spend a year in China with his grandparents and extended family, but Sharon and middle sister Mary aren’t so sure about that.  A year is a long time, and they miss him at first, but then get busy with their own lives.  When Di Di returns, it is a difficult adjustment for everyone.

Only One Year cover

I actually was familiar with this idea through friends of mine, who lived in their family’s country of origin from the time they were weaned until preschool and then flew back each year to live there over the summer.  However, for many readers it will be new.  This topic is also briefly explored from a different perspective in American Panda.  In that book, the father decided to send the children to his family in China against their mother’s wishes, and it was challenging for the family.

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