Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

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Bridge is an accident survivor who’s wondering why she’s still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody’s games–or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?  This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl–as a friend?  On Valentine’s Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Goodbye Stranger just wasn’t for me.  I found the multiple points of view (including a mystery narrator) and switching of time periods very confusing. It’s a slow story dealing with heavy issues, and I found myself wondering whether it would be better received by teens than middle schoolers.  Sure, the world has changed and tackling internet safety is important, but middle school sexting?  Even more alarming is the character’s lack of remorse for sending racy photos to her crush.  The story concluded without any life or moral lessons.  Overall, the fuzzy plot line and mature issues totally put me off and I quickly lost interest in the story’s outcome.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. Why does happiness have to be so hard?

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I’ve been struggling to get back into YA lately, but thankfully, More Happy Than Not has renewed my love in teen fiction. I find it hard to put into words how wonderful yet sad this story is. Readers should know there are heavy  topics (homophobia, depression, suicide) explored and scenes with potential to cause distress.  Despite this, Silvera is able to maintain a level of hopefulness for his main character, Aaron as he considers a memory-alteration procedure to forget he’s gay.  This leads to many thought provoking questions and ideas regarding sexuality.  Can erasing memories truly change who you are, and who you’re meant to be?

Along with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, the powerful and thought-provoking, More Happy Than Not is definitely one of my favourite LGBTQ books.  It’s important authors continue to write real LGBTQ stories for youth.  I’m so happy I have some amazing stories I can connect readers to.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

Eleven years old. The beginning of everything!

For Maggie Mayfield, turning eleven means she’s one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. It’s time for her to pull herself up by her bootstraps (the family motto) and think about more than after school snacks and why her older sisters are too hot for their own good. Because something mysterious is going on with her cool dude Dad, whose legs have permanently fallen asleep, and Maggie is going to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it. After all, nothing’s impossible when you’re future president of the United States of America, fifth grade science fair champion, and a shareholder in Coca-Cola, right?

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This middle grade book is essentially a memoir of eleven-year-old, Maggie Mayfield’s year. It is a life changing year for this very intelligent protagonist; she discovers that her father is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While it does deal with a serious topic, the story is mostly upbeat. It also doesn’t hurt that Maggie’s quirky voice is so distinctively funny, that readers will be laughing along. Maggie also includes footnotes throughout the story for extra laughs!

Maggie’s family dynamics are also explored through her relationship with her older sisters, Layla and Tiffany. I thought their relationship was completely realistic. Although Maggie takes vitamins, reads the paper, and owns stock, there are still moments where she is naive and immature. She states, “I’d thought knowing where the sidewalk ended and where the red fern grew and where the wild things were would help me figure out LIFE (p.243).” However, she quickly learns that everyone in the family, must “pull up their bootstraps” to assist their dad.

Although the story is set in 1988, it feels very contemporary. I totally missed the old library stamp card on the front cover! Besides the few dated references, it’s ultimately a timeless story about growing up.

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day. But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier–even if it’s the last thing he ever does.

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Readers are introduced to the story with an author note explaining that the book was written in honor of a friend that passed away from cancer.  A nice gesture of course, but the book just didn’t do it for me.  This quick middle grade read is utterly depressing.  Basically, a suicidal boy diagnosed with cancer runs away from home to climb a mountain with his dog.  His best friend has a good idea of where he is and experiences an internal struggle of whether or not to spill the secret to his family and the police.  Oh, and his dog almost dies.

The phrase ‘that’s the truth’ was so over-used, that it irritated the heck out of me.  Another repetitious section was Jessie’s (the best friend) struggle of whether to maintain her loyalty to Mark or save his life.

My thoughts on the book matched Mark’s viewpoint on dying: “I’d never felt more ready. I’d had enough of everything. I just wanted it all to be over (p.161).”

 

Slappy’s Tales of Horror (Goosebumps Graphix) by R.L. Stine

Four Goosebumps Graphix tales by master of horror R. L. Stine are adapted into full-color comics and feature a brand-new Slappy story by bestselling author, Dave Roman.

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I’ve always been a huge fan of the Goosebumps book and TV series, so I was super excited to receive this advanced reading copy from Scholastic.

The well-known ventriloquist dummy Slappy introduces the four stories and returns in between them to taunt the reader. They illustrators vary in their style, so it was an interesting approach to mesh them together in one book. The stories also range in ‘scariness’. I found the third story “Ghost Beach” was the most terrifying; specifically the ghost/skeleton image of the three cousins on page 120. I think fans of scary reads and R.L. Stine will eat up this graphic novel; especially as the release date of the Goosebumps film draws near. Pick up this quick, middle grade read on August 25, 2015.

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf

In 1942, eleven-year-old Milada is taken from her home in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, along with other blond, blue-eyed children to a Lebensborn center in Poland. There she is trained to be a “proper German” for adoption by a German family, and all the while she struggles to remember her true identity.

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An older book, but an important story and one that shouldn’t be missed. I’ve read other historical fiction books detailing the holocaust, but this book stands out. It was interesting to read about Milada (later renamed Eva) being chosen to attend a special school because of her Aryan looks (blonde hair, blue eyes).

Although the book does offer a glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust, I think the author did a fantastic job at writing the story for the intended audience of middle graders. The content was handled sensitively yet does not shy away from some more disturbing aspects; like when Eva wonders what the horrible smell is, and is told by her adoptive sister “Prisoners, well, prisoners die. And there isn’t room to bury them. So the smokestacks—“ (p. 134). Understandably, Eva doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. But if readers want to find out more, historical facts are also included in the author’s note.

This book is recommended to readers with interest in historical fiction. That being said, I would not endorse the cover shown on Goodreads. It does not do a great job at ‘selling’ the book. I think the publisher quickly realized this too, as my edition has a more appealing cover.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in.   “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”   Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.

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I listened to the audiobook.  On the upside, the narrator does a great job at creating unique voices for the full cast of characters. On the downside, clocking in at nearly six hours, the story totally ran longer than required.  I thought the story was resolved at disc three, but was surprised to learn there were still another two discs to go! As a story about dyslexia, I could see the length being frustrating for those with similar reading difficulties.

It is a charming, sweet story, but just didn’t touch me the way it has others. I’m sure teachers will eat this one up, as it’s set almost entirely in a school setting, and features the world’s most inspiring teacher, Mr. Daniels. He patiently works with Ally to improve her reading, and in turn, she begins to bloom and gain confidence.  I did like the emphasis on different learning styles, and appreciated the various problem solving techniques Mr.Daniels uses like chess, and brain games.

This is a book that reminds us of the power of words, and to embrace each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Overall, a feel- good middle grade story.

More reviews:

* “Unforgettable and uplifting. . . . Deals with the hardships of middle school in a funny, yet realistic and thoughtful manner. Ally has a great voice, she is an unforgettable, plucky protagonist that the reader roots for from page one. This novel is a must-have.”—School Library Connection, STARRED REVIEW *

“Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.”—Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

Well the hype over this YA title did not disappoint! Often recommended for fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, this book is about art, life, love and pain. The story is told via the alternative voices of twins, Noah and Jude. Noah’s story is told from a 13 year old perspective; Jude at 16.  The three years in between detail the transformation of their relationship.  Each plot unraveling, whether fueled by jealousy or love is done in such an intricate way, for both the characters and readers.

As fictional characters, both Noah and Jude felt so alive. Yes, they were both extremely flawed and broken but readers are able to invest in them and their complex story.  The only thing that irritated me was Noah’s captioning of almost every scene with a portrait title, ex: SELF-PORTRAIT: Boy Gets Fed Piece by Piece to a Swarm of Fire Ants (p.19).  Also, I don’t like long chapters.

Prepare to feel happy, sad, and every emotion in between when reading this beautiful book.  It reminds us of our connectedness, and I too believe that ‘maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story” (p.365).  Thanks Jandy Nelson for sharing NoahandJude’s.

SUNNY SIDE UP by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

From the groundbreaking and award-winning sister-brother team behind Babymouse comes a middle-grade, semi-autobiographical graphic novel. Following the lives of kids whose older brother’s delinquent behavior has thrown their family into chaos, Sunny Side Up is at once a compelling “problem” story and a love letter to the comic books that help the protagonist make sense of her world.

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Thanks Scholastic for sending an advanced reading copy of this serious yet funny middle-grade graphic novel.  The book definitely has the look and feel of Raina Telgemeier, and she is actually quoted on the front cover, “Heartbreaking and hopeful, SUNNY SIDE UP is just the thing to chase away the clouds.” I agree, Raina!

Ten-year-old, Sunshine (Sunny), is sent to spend the summer with her Gramps in a retirement complex in Florida. Through flashbacks, readers learn the reason for her visit. Sunny’s brother, Dale is struggling with substance abuse and had accidently punched Sunny when she tried to intervene. Rather than keeping secrets, Sunny realizes it’s better to discuss her feelings, and is able to do that with her Gramps.  It’s a good lesson to learn and I think it was done appropriately for the target age group.

While there are serious moments, there are plenty of funny bits with her Gramps and her new friend, Buzz. I laughed when “the girls” are introduced, and gift her with the Barbie toiler roll holder.  I also enjoyed that Sunny and Buzz bond over a shared love of comic books.  Full page spreads of popular comic heroes are featured; in fact, my favourite illustration is on page 176, of Sunny imagining her brother Dale turning into the Hulk!

Pick up this quick read on August 25, 2015.

Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman and fine artist Lorenzo Mattotti join forces to create Hansel & Gretel, a stunning book that’s at once as familiar as a dream and as evocative as a nightmare. Mattotti’s sweeping ink illustrations capture the terror and longing found in the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Gaiman crafts an original text filled with his signature wit and pathos that is sure to become a favorite of readers everywhere, young and old.

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Immediately, the atmospheric silhouette cover hints at the darkness inside this classic fairy tale. Since Neil Gaiman is known for his creepy storytelling, like The Graveyard Book, I was expecting something more than a basic retelling of Hansel & Gretel.  I was hoping for an interesting twist or surprise!

Luckily, between the text pages, interesting black and white spreads visually capture the reader.  The scratchy dark images look like a nightmare. Perfect for lines like, “They slept as deeply and soundly as if their food had been drugged. And it had (pg36).” How eerie yet fun would that be to read aloud to brave kids?

Upon the story’s conclusion, readers are treated to a bonus in the publisher’s note.   The note details the historical origin of Hansel & Gretel, including a bibliography.  I had never heard of the other folk tales, like “Nennillo and Nennella”.   If you liked Hansel & Gretel, try A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.   It’s also a dark tale with the same sort of creepy black and white illustrations throughout.

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