Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There’s no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again. Crenshaw is a cat. He’s large, he’s outspoken, and he’s imaginary. He has come back into Jackson’s life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?
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For a quick read, this book manages to cover heavy issues like poverty and homelessness. The impact on children is an important topic to include in juvenile fiction; however, the parents in this story really irritated me. Rather than seek out all the possible sources of help, they let pride stand in the way. In turn, the children developed major anxiety and their bellies growled of hunger. Jackson even turns to shoplifting to feed his hungry sister.

In addition to Jackson’s parents, I was also annoyed with Jackson’s imaginary friend, Crenshaw. Crenshaw the cat seems to appear when Jackson experiences anxiety. As shown in flashbacks, this anxiety stems from his family’s financial situation. Since I’ve never had an imaginary friend, I’m not really sure how Crenshaw helps Jackson. Crenshaw explains, “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again (p. 222).” While this is a lovely thought, Crenshaw has little personality, and doesn’t provide Jackson with wise advice, or comic relief. He’s barely even in the book! Overall, Crenshaw was a bit of a disappointment, but I’ve been told Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan is better.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

sun

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.

sunny

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.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

snicker

A Snicker of Magic had been sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf for a while.   As a librarian, and lover of words, I immediately fell for this charming middle grade read. Set in the magical town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, readers are introduced to a variety of quirky characters.  I found it hard to keep track of the cast of characters, as they were mostly introduced with a long back story.   Besides the excess characters, one very special little lady stood out; the narrator, 12 year-old Felicity Pickle.  I could relate to her love of words and social anxiety. She explains, “… I like words; I collect them. I like poems, songs, stories…everything. But words never sound right when I try to string them together and say them out load. They’re just for me to keep (p.38)”. Felicity sees words, and they appear in a variety of different ways. My favourite was for ‘believe’- “The letters were made of melted sunshine. They dropped down the window glass, warm and tingly against our faces (pg.8)”.Although I enjoyed her visions of hovering words, I got irritated with the overuse of her word ‘spindiddly’ (better than awesome).

Overall, it’s a positive, uplifting tale of the magic of words and stories.  I loved the hopeful and satisfying epilogue in which Felicity asserts, “

“…I’m convinced Midnight Gulch can’t be the only magical town in the world. I bet there’s a snicker of magic on every street, in every old building, every broken heart, every word of a story. Maybe it’s hidden away and you need to look harder for it. Or maybe the magic is right there, right in front of you, and all you have to do is believe (p.309)”

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

rain

I (eye) adored this contemporary middle grade read about a girl with high functioning autism and her dog, Rain (Reign). Rose is in fifth grade, and obsessed with homonyms (words that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently), rules and numbers (especially prime ones).   Told from Rose’s point of view, readers learn the struggles of living with OCD and Aspergers in school and at home.  While Rose’s dad may want to do well, he lacks patience and understanding for raising a special needs daughter. So when Rose’s dad brings home a stray dog as a present, Rose is overjoyed and forms a special bond with the dog (Rain) immediately.  When Rain goes missing after a storm, her kind uncle Weldon helps in the search. Eventually Rain is found, but a search for Rain’s original owners must now begin.

It’s the relationships in this book that really tug at your heart. I wished that Rose’s grief stricken father would get some professional help, and to try to understand his daughter instead of spending his time at the bar. Luckily, Rose has a kind and thoughtful uncle and Rain to make life more bearable.  As a huge animal lover, I totally understand the special bond between a dog and child.  I know how difficult it would have been to be brave and ‘do the right thing’ by giving back Rain to her rightful owners.  Rose is one special fifth grader for sure. Her voice is authentic, and it is obvious Martin did quite a bit of research to pull it off flawlessly. The frustrations and reactions to Rose’s behaviour and outbursts can help children understand what life is like for someone with Autism. This in turn, may help readers stand up to bullying, and be more accepting of differences.

Overall, Rain Reign is a beautiful tale of love, loss, and hope.  The ending was perfect, with readers optimistic about Rose’s future.  As a total standout for the year, I would recommend this book to readers of all ages.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

A beautiful and distinguished family.

A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE

 

we were liars

We Were Liars  has received so much hype, including the top May 2014 Library Reads choice.  This contemporary, suspense story was an extremely quick read.  The first few pages include a map of Beechwood Island, and The Sinclair Family Tree, which were much appreciated.  There are lots of privileged family members and houses to keep track of, so at the beginning I referred to those pages quite a bit. The story mostly surrounds ‘the liars’ consisting of Cadence (the narrator), her cousins Johnny, Mirren and love interest, Gat.   Cadence and the cousins are from the wealthy and ‘perfect’ Sinclair family, while Gat refers to himself as the Healthcliff of the family.

Summer fifteen is featured heavily because it is during that summer that Cadence has an accident, leaving her with memory loss and terrible migraines. Her migraines are often the subject of some very dramatic imagery “Migraines left my blood spreading across unfamiliar hotel sheets, dripping on the floors, oozing into carpets, soaking through leftover croissants and Italian lace cookies (p. 35)”.  Broken into five parts, the writing also includes Once Upon A Time fairy tale stories that emulate her family’s bickering over money, inheritance and possessions.  Choppy sentences are also used for dramatics:

There was nowhere

nowhere

nowhere

nowhere now to go

but down (p. 207).

Usually I catch on quickly to the surprise twist, but I was genuinely surprised by the ending. For that reason, I would recommend this quick (and fairly short) contemporary mystery to teens.

This One Summer- Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

 

Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It’s their getaway, their refuge. Rosie’s friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose’s mom and dad won’t stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. It’s a summer of secrets and sorrow and growing up, and it’s a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

 

one summer

Set during summer vacation in a small town, This One Summer is a coming of age graphic novel.  Windy and Rose are growing up and on the verge of becoming teenagers.  Rather than spending time building forts, they become fascinated with older teens, and partake in gossiping, swearing, and watching horror movies to appear cool to their movie-store crush.  I was sad to see the term ‘slut’ tossed around quite a bit by Windy/Rose, even calling girls they don’t know sluts.  Sex is a topic that interests them, but mostly they fixate on what their bodies will look like, repeatedly talking about their breasts, including the last line of the book, “boobs would be cool (p. 319)”  Overall, there isn’t too much of a plot besides the increasing tension between Rose’s parents that has stemmed from a miscarriage.  Rose picks up on the tension- “I thought that things would get back to normal. I guess they sort of are. Except they’re not talking (p.300)”.  Only in the last few pages do readers find out why the water is such a trigger for Rose’s mother. I wonder what Awago Beach will have in store for Windy and Rose next summer as they continue to grow both emotionally and physically.

The whole graphic novel has wonderful art done in shadowed blues. The full spread pages were my absolute favourite, especially the underwater illustrations (p.160) and Windy’s krunking moves (p.174.). I completely enjoyed this alternative format as a treat in between lengthy novels. It’s a quick read, and easy to devour in one sitting.

 

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle

Nate Foster has big dreams. His whole life, he’s wanted to star in a Broadway show. (Heck, he’d settle for *seeing* a Broadway show.) But how is Nate supposed to make his dreams come true when he’s stuck in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where no one (except his best pal Libby) appreciates a good show tune? With Libby’s help, Nate plans a daring overnight escape to New York. There’s an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical, and Nate knows this could be the difference between small-town blues and big-time stardom.

nate

Better Nate Than Ever has racked up an impressive list of honors and awards. Although targeted at middle graders, readers of all ages will enjoy this hilarious book.  Through Nate’s eyes, readers are given a glimpse of how fabulous New York City can be. It brought back memories of navigating the busy streets, and experiencing the wonder and magic of the bright lights, loud noises and interesting smells!

Nate’s NYC audition adventure reminds us all the have the courage and heart to follow our dreams.  He is quite the comedian, and I found myself laughing a long with him. Although there are plenty of laughs to be had, Federle also covers serious ground through Nate’s questioning sexuality and his mothers’ unresolved family conflict that has hindered Nate’s relationship with his Aunt Heidi. I too have experienced family tension with an estranged aunt, so I could totally connect with Nate and cheer for their reconciliation.

I thought both serious matters were handled perfectly and age appropriately. Although Nate hints at his sexuality, it is never declared. In fact, Nate asserts, “I am undecided… and frankly don’t want to declare anything other than ‘Hey, jerks. I’m thirteen. Leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favourite food-how would I know who I want to hook up with? (p.27)” YES! I think Federle deserves a BIG round of applause for including that line.

I urge you to pick up this hilarious and inspiring book. I can’t wait to read the sequel- Five, Six, Seven, Nate!  to find out about Nate’s showbiz debut!

 

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan’s friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they’re best friends — which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep getting in each other’s way. Guys won’t ask Macallan out because they think she’s with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Macallan, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can’t help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

better

My Scholastic Rep knows my reading preferences, and swore I’d LOVE this book. She sent me an advanced reading copy, and I immediately dove in to this sweet, contemporary story.  Throughout high school, I too had a very close male friend and I’m sure our families wondered if, at some point, it would turn romantic. For us, we truly were and ARE better off friends! However, it was still fun reading this fairly predictable (but cute) story about two best friends falling in love.

Every chapter switches between Levi and Macallan’s perspective.  Although they have distinct voices, readers are clued into the change with two visuals.  The first is a greyed out male/female image mirroring the front cover, and the other is a different font.  The start of each chapter begins with Levi and Macallan’s flirty banter as they look back at the progression of their relationship.  Even in the earlier chapters, it’s obvious that crush signs were there.  “If I had only one goal in life, it would be to make her laugh loudly everyday (pg.82)”.  Pretty sure that’s not a typical ‘friend’ statement.

Besides the romance, I loved the emphasis on the family. Both Levi’s and Macallan’s family are consistently involved throughout the book. As Levi and Macallan become inseperable, their welcoming, supportive, and protective families also grow tight. It was refreshing to read about teens that understand and embrace the importance of family.

Overall, I enjoyed this wholesome (no booze, sex, or swearing!), high school romance. Although it was my first Elizabeth Eulberg read, I’m sure it won’t be my last.  Look for Better Off Friends in February 2014.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

ketchup clouds

A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

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