Monday, August 27, 2018

MG Realistic Fiction: The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

37570559The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser  
Format:  E ARC 
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers 
Number of Pages: 336 
Publishing:  September 25th, 2018 
Source:  E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  "This is the most boring summer in the whole history of the world, nine-year-old Oliver Vanderbeeker  announced." 

The story begins as most summer vacation's do with a bit of boredom.  Isa is away at an orchestra camp and siblings Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney are trying hard to entertain themselves around their lovely brownstone in Harlem.  Their upstairs neighbor, Miss. Josie has been suggesting everything from reading a book to trying to get them interested in making a community garden in the unused land next to a church, but so far they haven't shown any interest.  When Mr. Jeets unexpectedly has a serious medical emergency, the children hatch a secret plan to create a beautiful garden for him as a special surprise for when he is discharged from the hospital. 

I must confess that I've never read The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall, but imagine them to be something like The Vanderbeekers.  A large tightknit family, with siblings who each have unique personalities and who despite an occasional bicker, love, and care for one another tremendously.  It's the kind of story that makes me very nostalgic about my own childhood, missing my extended family, friends, relatives, and neighbors.  It just gives you that warm feeling of family and community and is such a sweet story.  

This is the second book in the series, and it could be read as a stand-alone but I certainly would encourage you to start with the first book.  I really enjoyed how the book is formatted with short chapters consisting of mini outings where the children are planning and preparing their garden while also dealing with the challenges and obstacles that come up along the way.  Realistic problems like where to come up with the money to buy the plants and what to do when they find out that the land might be sold.  The illustrations are charming and the story would work really well as a read aloud.  There is some sadness when Mr. Jeets has his second stroke and has to go to the hospital, you can see how much the children care and worry about him.  However, Yan Glaser handles the subject with such care and sensitivity, even interjecting humor at just the right moment keeping things light.  

Oh, and The Vanderbeeker children, it's so difficult to come up with a favorite.  I think this time around I really enjoyed Hyacinth, how she seems to see the good in people.  Even recognizing that Herman Huxley has some wonderful qualities that her brother Oliver doesn't see.  Or maybe it's just because they both seem to bond over a shared enjoyment in knitting.  And who couldn't love Laney and her pet bunny Paganini?  Despite being the youngest, she's quite clever and has the biggest heart.   There's one particular moment of mischievousness that had me laughing out loud.   A truly cozy story with memorable characters and a classic feel that I won't soon forget.  Can't wait to read the next installment in The Vanderbeekers series, I'm hoping for something with a holiday theme.  

Monday, August 13, 2018

MG Mystery: Otherwood by Pete Hautman

38256488Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Format:  ARC 
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  320
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Lines:  
"Years later, people still talked about it. 
It came out of nowhere, they said.
Middle of the day.
Black as night.
Sideways rain.
Trees bent and twisted like blades of grass."

The last book of Pete Hautman's I've read and enjoyed was Slider, it's a book about a boy who enters a competitive eating contest to pay off an online auction he entered but couldn't afford.  Not only was it a humorous story, I really liked the way that 
David's relationship with his younger brother Mal, who has autism was so realistically portrayed.   So, when I read the premise of how Otherwood is a "book about memory and loss and the destructive nature of secrets, but also about the way friendship, truth, and perseverance have the ability to knit a torn-apart world back together." Yep, I jumped at the chance to read it.  

When Stuey was eight years old, a terrible storm came through his town.  While Stuey and his mom went and hid in the cellar, Stuey's grandfather decided to wait it out in his cottage guarding a book he had been writing.  After the storm subsided, Stuey found the pages of his grandfather's book strewed around the room and that his beloved grandfather had passed away.  Since then, Stuey likes to explore the families orchard, wander through the meadow and spend time in his favorite spot within the poplar grove where nestled among the trees he found the remnants of a golf course, originally built by his great-grandfather.  Hidden even further in is also a deadfall or a group of five entangled trees creating a spot where just the right size kid can crawl inside.  A secret fort.   
Stuey is a slightly shy and lonely boy, until the summer he meets Elly Rose.  Elly lives on the other side of the woods and shares the same birthday as Stuey.  They both have quite the imagination.  At first, Stuey doesn't know what to think of Elly Rose, especially after she says they're to become "soul mates" and starts talking about a magical kingdom within the woods.  However, Elly's stories about Castle Rose win him over.  Not only does Stuey share his special spot with Elly the two quickly bond and become the best of friends.  Then one day while playing in the woods, Elly vanishes before Stuey's eyes. 

As the story progresses, we learn of a feud that existed between Elly and Stuey's family dating back to their great-grandfathers.  Stuey's great-grandfather was a bootlegger who tried to go legit by building a country club and golf course.  However, he had horribly discriminatory practices in his admissions to the club.  Elly's great-grandfather was a district attorney and sought to put Stuey's in jail.  In the end, both of them went missing following a horrible disagreement.  Thus, setting up the mystery surrounding what exactly happened to the two of them. 

The overall plot is slowly revealed with a huge twist somewhere around the middle that I never saw coming.  It totally blew me away with how the direction of the story changed from not just being a mystery about the past.  I really don't want to say too much more about it, cause spoilers, but wow Hautman had me guessing as to how things were going to resolve.  Otherwood's a much deeper read than I was expecting.  At first, I thought it was going to be along the lines of something like Bridge to Terabithia, a fantastical tale of kids creating a hidden world in the forest.  Which is a very small part of this story, but there are also ghosts, themes of the loss of a grandparent, discrimination, grief of a missing friend, mans impact on the environment, reality, perception, memory, secrets and holding onto a friendship.   Hautman's afterword where he states how the book was a "eulogy to the woods that live now only in my memory" leaves you with a lot to think about. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Historical Fiction Review: Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon

38256472Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  272
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Favorite Lines:  "There are two kinds of memory.  One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went...   The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong."  

The Cursed Ground is the second book in the Zora &  Me series.  Unfortunately, I missed out on the first book, but both appear to be the historical fictionalized accounts of author Zora Neale Hurston's early childhood.   The story is initially narrated by Carrie and set in 1903 in Eatonville, Florida.   Late one night while sleeping over at her friend Zora's house, Carrie hears horses running wild outside the bedroom window.  She suspects that they belong to Mr. Polk's farm.  Zora immediately wants to investigate and convinces Carrie to come with.  Upon reaching the farm, they find Mr. Polk with a long gash on his arm.  Shortly after, Old Lady Bronson, the local healer or seer shows up and tends to his wound.  When Lady Bronson and Mr. Polk communicate in a language the girls don't understand, they're flabbergasted as Mr. Polk is well known for being mute.  Mrs. Bronson makes a deal with the girls, she'll tell them a story in exchange for their silence about Mr. Polk being able to speak.  

From there the story shifts back in time to 1855 where our second narrator,  Lucia, an orphan serving girl and Prisca, the daughter to the gentleman Don Federico have just found out that Prisca's father has taken a new wife and they will be leaving the Dominican Republic to travel to their new home in Westin, Florida.   Lucia has been a companion for Prisca for most of her life, the two are the best of friends, spending almost every waking moment in each others company.  Yet, following the move to Florida, Lucia becomes a slave within the household.  No longer can the two friends play together, now Lucia has chores and punishments if she doesn't perform her duties.  Lucia tries to adapt to her new life, learning to survive by keeping her emotions and feelings in check but also lives in fear of angering those around her and having the atrocities she witnesses befall her.  She tries very hard not to jeopardize the other slaves around her by not drawing attention to herself.  

Zora & Me is really a story within a story that spans two time periods.  In 1903, we find out the events that led to the attack on Mr. Polk and in 1855 learn about Lucia's life and struggles in Florida.  I found Lucia's story to be the most impactful because of how accurately it portrayed the brutality of slavery, the emotions, feelings, and pain.   The story makes slavery not just something that happened in the past, somewhere else, but something tangible.  Images and characters that you won't forget.  Some parts are sad, heartwrenching and difficult to read, but it is a very important story.  I especially enjoyed the strong theme that "history is a living history, not something you just read in a book, that it is everything your life stood on."  That even in 1903, the girls are facing events that occurred from the past, how they begin to see that the history of slavery is one based on a"hate and desire to have control or power over something seen as inferior."  There are so many powerful messages within Zora & Me making this a valuable teaching tool.   

The ending came together rather quickly for me, partially because I was so engrossed in Lucia's story, but it was important for the reader to be brought up to speed with the historical details of the Jim Crow Laws and Reconstruction to ensure they had the context to be able to follow the events occurring in Zora's hometown.  I read this book in one sitting, it has such a riveting plot and I loved how Lucia's and Carrie's stories intertwined. 

 "History ain't in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives."

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Graphic Novel Reveiw: Illegal by Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Author:  Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Sourcebooks
Number of Pages:  144
Publishing:  August 7th, 2018
Source:  Edelweiss Above the TreeLine

Synopsis from Goodreads:

This is a powerful and timely story about one boy's epic journey across Africa to Europe, a graphic novel for all children with glorious colour artwork throughout. From Eoin Colfer, previously Irish Children's Laureate, and the team behind his bestselling Artemis Fowl graphic novels.
Ebo: alone.
His sister left months ago. Now his brother has disappeared too, and Ebo knows it can only be to make the hazardous journey to Europe.
Ebo's epic journey takes him across the Sahara Desert to the dangerous streets of Tripoli, and finally out to the merciless sea. But with every step he holds on to his hope for a new life, and a reunion with his sister.

I haven't read a graphic novel in quite some time, but when I heard about Illegal, I knew that it would be the kind of book that I wanted to read.  The first thing that hits you is the illustrations by Giovanni Rigano, the deep blue of the ocean at the very beginning really grips you and places you in the reality of that moment, the feeling of being alone in the deep ocean on nothing but a small raft.   Then contrast that with the colors of the desert in Africa as Ebo tries to find his brother Kwame in the city, giving you the expansive feel of the task he's set for himself.    Illegal alternates between Ebo's current situation and his past, explaining why first his sister and now his brother left Africa to immigrate to Europe.  It's a touching story that not only highlights the dangers that refugee's faced, but what their hopes and dreams were for the future if they could survive the journey.  Ebo is intelligent, and resourceful, and determined to find his brother, which isn't a small task when he makes it to the larger city.  While there isn't a lot of dialogue, the story will hold a lasting impression.  The full-page illustration alone with a boat filled to the brim with people and Ebo in this small raft that's falling apart at the seams kept me riveted flipping pages to see how it ends.   Illegal is a realistic story, full of all the potential hazards and risks you might expect, there was a particularly heartbreaking moment that had me shedding a few tears.  Not a story I will soon forget, and I really hope there will be a discussion guide to accompany this so that it can be adapted for an educational setting.  I found this video on Youtube and it will give you an idea of the illustrations.  Illegal is a story that you won't want to miss.