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: 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: Aru Shah and the Song of Death

“Aru knew that not all parents stick around – not all can, for whatever reason. It isn’t the kid’s fault, and sometimes it isn’t even the parent’s, either.” page 306

Aru Shah and the Song of Death (Pandava Series #2) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 381 pages including glossary.
Lexile:  700L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 13.0 points)  .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.

Aru Shah and her friend Mini are back – and need to clear Aru’s name quick after a thief wearing her form stole the god of love’s bow and arrows.  In order to stop the thief’s horde of heartless zombies, they’ll have to team up with extra-strength Brynne and that unusual guy from across the street.

Aru Shah and the Song of Death cover resized
Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi.

This installment of the Pandava series introduces two new characters, sidelines some who were main players in the first book (mostly Boo) and involves a lot of courtly intrigue.

The underworld apparently operates under the idea of guilty until proven innocent, so even though there’s a picture proving that a malicious doppelganger stole the bow and arrows, not Aru, she still has to quest to clear her name by finding the real thief and retrieving the stolen goods.  Plus some of the people they’re battling have the favors of the gods, and Aru and friends don’t get extra help while they’re considered criminals.

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Review: Just Mercy

“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile:  1130L  .
AR Level:  not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.

The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.

Just Mercy cover resized

Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing.  His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it.  Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.

That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later.  This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book.  If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.

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Review: Clean Getaway

“And that guy’s not the only one: bouncing his eyes around the room, Scoob realizes a bunch of people are looking at him and G’ma funny. One lady he makes eye contact with openly sneers at him like he’s done something wrong.” page 19

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone.
Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House Childrens, Penguin, New York, 2020.
MG fiction, 227 pages.
Lexile:  780L .
AR Level: not leveled

When William’s grandmother proposes a little trip, he’s all too happy about the loophole in his strict father’s grounding.  But as they get further and further from home, and G’ma is acting stranger and stranger, he begins to believe that there is more to this unexpected road trip than he realized.

Clean Getaway resized
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile.

I hovered over this book a while, confused about the premise, because this doesn’t easily conform to a synopsis.  So much happens without  ever feeling overwhelming.  The main characters are elderly white G’ma and William, who’s Black, eleven, and on spring break.  Normally his father would take him on vacation, but some trouble at school led to the trip being cancelled and him grounded.  It’s also been part of a larger miscommunication with his father.

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Review: Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

“One of the things I hate most in life is people telling me to calm down, as if I’m some out-of-control lunatic who isn’t entitled to have feelings.” page 160

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez.
Ember, Random House Children’s Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
YA fiction, 362 pages.
Lexile:  HL730L
AR Level:  4.7 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Julia is not the perfect Mexican daughter.  That was her sister, Olga – until she died in a tragic accident that left everyone reeling.  Now her already strained relationship with her mother has shattered, her father is a lump, and Julia is obsessed with investigating her sister’s life, trying to get to know the sister who was ignored when she was alive.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter resized

Because the majority of this book is about the unfolding drama of Julia’s quest to understand her sister Olga’s life, it’s incredibly difficult to discuss this book in any depth without spoilers.   The action spans a space of just about two years, from a few months after Olga’s death, through Julia’s high school graduation.

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Review: Aru Shah and the End of Time

“Words did have power. When she said the word Pandava, all the feelings that came from discovering who she really was uncoiled like a spring jumping to life.” p. 33

Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Series #1) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 356 pages including glossary.
Lexile:  630L  .
AR Level:  4.7  (worth 12.0 points)  .

Aru didn’t mean to bring about the end of the universe.  She was just trying to impress the so-called friends who caught her in a lie.  But then it also turns out that she’s been learning all those old folktales from her mom for a reason.

Aru Shah and the End of Time cover

I’m constantly shocked when I go to look up my review for this book and then realize that I’ve never yet reviewed it, although I’ve been referencing it since this May 2018 review.  We’ve actually read it several times already too.  Clearly it’s past time that I review this novel!

Aru Shah was the story that kicked off the much-anticipated Riordan Presents imprint, so it got a lot of buzz.  The first volume was well-received and by this time the third has been announced.  Beyond the obvious critical reviews, our family has also highly enjoyed reading Aru’s adventures.

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Graphic Novel Review: Sunny Side Up

“We wrote this book so that young readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did. When someone in a family struggles with substance abuse, the whole family struggles.” p. 219

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, coloring by Lark Pien.
Graphix, Scholastic, New York, 2015.
MG historical fiction, 220 pages.
Lexile:  GN490L  .
AR Level:  2.4 (worth 0.5 points)  .

Sunshine Lewin is spending the summer in Florida visiting her grandfather, who lives in a retirement community there.  But that wasn’t the plan for this summer, and there’s something going on that she isn’t talking about.

Sunny Side Up cover resized

This series gotten a lot of buzz, both positive and negative.  The Holm duo are already well-known for their Babymouse series, but this is aimed at a slightly older crowd.  There will be some spoilers for this book discussed in my review, if you want to avoid them please scroll down to the final paragraph for my general opinion.

It’s historical fiction set in 1976, but some parents take issue with the fact that drug addiction and smoking are portrayed.  It’s difficult to tell from online hysteria whether or not a book is actually suitable for a certain age range or group of students, so I decided to see for myself.

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Review: The Last Black Unicorn

“I know this, but honestly, part of me still feels like I could end up homeless again at any point in time, and then all I’m going to have is a bag with a dog on it. ” page 265

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Hadish.
Gallery books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017.
Memoir/autobiography, 276 pages.
Not leveled.

The life of comedian Tiffany Hadish from foster care to Hollywood stardom.

The Last Black Unicorn

Yet another Target pick.  I’ve been finding some gems (and a few duds) randomly choosing books at Target that have POC on the cover.  Before reading this book, I didn’t think Hadish was familiar to me, but then realized I’d seen her before.  I’m not very informed on pop culture so the name wasn’t as recognizable to me as it might be for others.

Although the cover isn’t particularly fantasy-ish, the unicorn of the title interested me.  Alas, it’s a comedian’s memoir, not a fantasy novel.  But the last comedy memoir I read from Target was excellent, so I decided to give this one a try.  This is the story of Hadish’s life from high school until her more recent Hollywood success.

The twelve chapters are topical, arranged in roughly chronological order.  Some of her stories are laugh-out-loud funny, while others, particularly the chapter about her ex-husband, are much more serious.  Hadish has been through a lot, and she’s open about her experiences both negative and positive.

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Review: The Underground Railroad

“His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.” p. 124

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile:  890L  .
AR Level: not yet leveled

Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him.  Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) resized

It took me a good while to get to this one.  I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this).  Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.

Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away.  It’s a very difficult book to classify.  Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.

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