February 21, 2018

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Middle Grade: Michael Morpurgo’s Retelling of “Oz,” David Barclay Moore’s Stellar Debut, & More | October 2017 Xpress Reviews

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Carney-Coston, Barbara. To the Copper Country: Mihaela’s Journey. 128p. (Great Lakes Books). photos. Wayne State Univ. Sept. 2017. pap. ISBN 9780814343630.

Gr 3-6 –In the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder, this novel follows Mihaela and her family as they adapt to life in Michigan. Set in the early 19th century, the book details the journey from Croatia to the United States and the life of miners. Mihaela’s father has been working in Michigan for a couple of years; life had been very hard in Croatia and food was scarce. He sends for his wife and family in hopes that Mihaela’s mother can heal his eyes, as the doctor has failed to help. Various Croatian words are interspersed throughout and defined in the pages preceding the narrative. Also included are pictures of Michigan from this time in history and family recipes of dishes that Mihaela and her family make. While pleasant, there are some plot points that lack development. The use of herbs for healing helps drive the narrative, but the book often meanders, making for a weaker tale. VERDICT A fair read for fans of historical fiction. Buy only where there is regional interest.–Maureen Sullivan, Calumet City Public Library, IL

Hart, Christine. Secrets from Myself. 216p. Cormorant/Dancing Cat. Sept. 2017. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781770864900.

Gr 5 Up –Twelve-year-old Katelyn has been experiencing fugue states in which she is Akasha, a Sikh girl stowing away on a ship headed to Canada 1914. During these episodes, Katelyn writes in Akasha’s handwriting in her diary, and she even “flashes” into Akasha during the day. Katelyn’s mother checks her into a residential home for mental health treatment as Katelyn races to solve the mystery of who and what Akasha is to her. With little to no growth or introspection, this mix of historical fiction and psychological mystery drags and has a focus on mundane conversations that don’t add to the plot or give clues to the mystery. Bryce’s father blows up at Katelyn randomly, the counselor at the house gets irrationally angry and readers never learn why. Katelyn is suddenly released from treatment without explanation or a cure. Most importantly, Katelyn does not sound or talk like a 12-year-old. She continuously refers to herself as a “kid” and the writing style comes across as patronizing. VERDICT A confused and problematic novel. Not recommended.–Rachel Reinwald, Lake Villa District Library, IL

Homzie, Hillary. Pumpkin Spice Secrets. 240p. Sky Pony. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781510730458; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781510730076.

Gr 5-7 –At the very end of the summer before seventh grade, Maddie experiences one of the most important moments of her life: at a coffee shop, she accidentally dumps her pumpkin spice frappe all over Jacob, a gorgeous new student at Northborough Middle School. He’s Maddie’s first crush. She can barely contain her excitement, but before she can tell her best friend, Jana Patel, Jana announces her crush on Jacob. According to the BFF code, that makes Jacob off limits. Maddie does her best to put him out of her mind, but it’s hard when he’s her partner for a school debate project—and she thinks he might be interested in her, too. Although Jacob is a little too good to be true, tweens will swoon over him, and the author adeptly shows Maddie’s angst in being caught between her loyalty to Jana and her crush on Jacob. The author resists the temptation to vilify Jana and turn her into a mean girl caricature—instead, she briefly examines the motives behind Jana’s behavior. VERDICT Light on nutritional substance, but frothy and sweet enough that tween readers will drink it right up.–Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO

Howland, Leila. Rapunzel and the Lost Lagoon: A Tangled Novel. 288p. Disney-Hyperion. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781484787236.

Gr 5-8 –Another novel based on the movie, this one for a slightly older audience and written by the author of the popular “Silver Sisters” trilogy. Eighteen-year-old Rapunzel, an aspiring artist and the lost (recently found, actually) princess of Corona, finds a friend in the captain of the guard’s daughter Cassandra, an aspiring soldier and the princess’s lady in waiting. Together they uncover a mystery and doggedly follow the clues, all for the good of Corona. A host of one-dimensional secondary characters help advance the plot without adding much complexity or interest. The perspective switches between the two main characters, but their voices, while peppy and easy to read, are impossible to distinguish from one another without continually referring to the chapter heading. Inconsistencies tangle the story. In an early chapter, Cassandra walks behind Rapunzel in waist-deep water. Several chapters later, Rapunzel coaches Cassandra past her fear of putting a toe in the water. VERDICT An additional purchase only where the previous book is popular or where fans of the Disney film abound.–Hillary Perelyubskiy, Los Angeles Public Library

Lundquist, Jenny. The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby. 272p. S. & S./Aladdin. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481460354; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781481460347.

Gr 4-6 –Violet has a lot to figure out. Like what to do about the fact that her new stepmom teaches at her school. Or what she should do if she likes the same boy as her best friend. Or what words to add to her “Words I Love” list after looking them up and highlighting them in the dictionary. Most importantly, she has to figure out how to get through the second Christmas since her mom passed away. Through a “Christmas To-Do” list her mom left, Violet learns that “it’s possible to find beauty in the new pattern” and leans on her friends to help her through the rough times. Lundquist keeps the chapters short, allowing readers to move quickly and acknowledge the sadness but not get dragged down by it. The letters that Violet writes to her mother are poignant; her confusion about her new life and the depth of her emotions will resonate with readers. There are no perfect people here, but well-rounded characters with flaws that are just as real and acceptable as their strengths. VERDICT A great realistic fiction or Christmas-themed buy that will be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.–Kerri Williams, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

Mobley, Jeannie. Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element. 240p. Holiday House. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780823437818.

Gr 5-8 –Like a speeding train, Mobley moves through the plot with direct intent. Robert E. Lee Claremont is a 13-year-old criminal who has just escaped from the Sisters of Charitable Mercy with his pockets full from the poor box. Bobby Lee is hoping that his charm and luck will take him to Chicago where a life of crime is one of ease and rewards. It is 1923, Bobby Lee has just lost his mother to a hard life of labor, and he is looking for a new life like one he has read about in the newspaper. Unfortunately, Bobby Lee finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery where the major suspect is the beautiful and talented wife of the deceased, Mrs. Nanette O’Halloran. The historical backdrop of the story helps readers understand the complex realities of the racial and financial inequities of the 1920s. Readers will find Bobby Lee to be an optimistic and idealistic hero they can relate to and root for. VERDICT An action-packed story that will inform as much as it entertains. A strong choice for historical fiction shelves.–Christina Paolozzi, Bonaire Elementary School, GA

redstarMoore, David Barclay. The Stars Beneath Our Feet. 304p. Knopf. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524701246.

Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Lolly, a resident of Harlem’s St. Nicholas projects, has had a tough few months. His older brother, Jermaine, died as the result of gang-related violence. Still reeling from grief, Lolly now must contend with two neighborhood teens who’ve begun following, threatening, and stealing from Lolly and his best friend Vega. Following in his brother’s footsteps and taking violent revenge is tempting. His obsession with LEGOs and a burgeoning dream of becoming an architect just might see Lolly through, though, especially after his mother’s girlfriend starts bringing him garbage bags full of bricks from her job in a toy store. This gift prompts Lolly to begin building a huge LEGO city, one that quickly outgrows his apartment and has to be moved to the storage room of the community center, where he strikes up a friendship with Rose, a girl with autism who shares his passion for building. This well-honed debut novel paints a vivid picture of Lolly and the choices that he must make, but beyond that, it introduces a cast of memorable, fully realized characters, each of whom will stay with readers long beyond the closing page. What’s more, it offers a three-dimensional portrayal of a neighborhood too frequently shown in one-dimensional terms. As this novel makes clear, it is a vibrant community, home to a majority of people who care deeply about their neighbors. VERDICT A strongly recommended purchase for all middle grade collections.–Eileen Makoff, P.S. 90 Edna Cohen School, NY

Morpurgo, Michael. Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz. illus. by Emma Chichester Clark. 284p. HarperCollins/Harper. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780008252564.

Gr 2-5 –Celebrated author Morpurgo has penned a new adaptation of a beloved classic, featuring the little dog Toto as the narrator. The whole grand adventure is told from the viewpoint of Dorothy’s feisty dog as he recounts his fantastical and sometimes frightening experiences to his puppies. They call him Papa Toto and the “Wizard” story is one of their all-time favorites. Toto’s voice is folksy and he speaks directly to the puppies, sometimes admonishing them for fidgeting or warning them when a frightening part is about to begin. Readers unfamiliar with the original tale will be introduced for the first time to characters such as the Queen of the Field Mice and the Kalidahs, who never made an appearance in the famous film. For the most part, the book is loyal to the original text without any significant changes. Award-winning illustrator Chichester Clark provides colorful, appealing illustrations that pair well with the story. VERDICT Toto as the narrator coupled with the tenor of the tale make this a good choice for a read-aloud and is an optional purchase where the original series is popular.–Amy Nolan, St. Joseph Public Library, MI

redstarPuldio, Pamela. El misterioso aire azul. illus. by Pepe Ávalos. 64p. Uranito. Jan. 2017. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9786079344849.

Gr 3-6 –Erick and his Abuelo and Abuela love Halloween and Día de los Muertos, which they celebrate together as “Hellomuertos.” When Erick falls off a ladder while trying to place his mummy, Dracula, and zombie figurines on their altar, he awakes to find he is able to see a mysterious blue air that seems to float out of the body of a butterfly. He realizes he has gained the ability to see almas, or souls, but why? When Abuelo falls and doesn’t get back up, Erick thinks it is just another of his bromas, but the news from the doctor at the hospital is very grave. Erick realizes why he has been given the gift to see the souls of others: it must be because he, like Victor Frankenstein, must perform his own experiments to make sure Abuelo’s soul stays inside his body, and that Abuelo stays with Erick forever. Beautifully written with breathtaking observations about life, those we love, and the things around us, this story is sure to make readers young and old pause to consider Erick’s predicament–and their own lives. VERDICT Perfect for young lovers of science, science fiction, monsters, Halloween, and the Day of the Dead; recommended for those who have experienced the loss of a treasured loved one, no matter what age.–Selenia Paz, Helen Hall Library, League City, TX

Vivat, Booki. Ordinary Mishaps and Inevitable Catastrophes. 208p. (Frazzled: Bk. 2). HarperCollins/Harper. Sept. 2017. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780062398819.

Gr 4-6 –Abbie Wu has started middle school, and finally gets her own locker! But there’s a catch: She’s forced to share it with the new girl. Then Abbie’s teacher assigns her a science project partner—and it’s the very same girl. At home, things aren’t any better. Abbie’s family has a new cat named Felix who hates her. Vivat’s second entry into the “Frazzled” series has Abbie’s relatable adventures punctuated on each page with doodles. The charming art style will appeal to fans of popular series such as “Big Nate” or “Dork Diaries.” While there are plenty of middle grade series about starting middle school and the various trials and tribulations that go along with it, this is a bit gentler than most. VERDICT Funny, relatable, and fast-paced. Ideal for reluctant readers or any kids who enjoy hybrid novels.–Jessica Ko, Los Angeles Public Library

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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