Saturday, November 21, 2020

MG review of Freya & Zoose by Emily Butler, illustrations by Jennifer Thermes

Freya and Zoose by Emily Butler
Format:  ARC paperback
Publisher:  Crown Books for Young Readers
Number of pages:  186
Published:  January 29th, 2019
Source: Author in exchange for an honest review 

Opening Lines:  "There was no question in Freya's mind that this was her last chance.  Either she would find a way onto the balloon, or she would live out the rest of her days on this miserable rock."

Freya has always craved a bit of adventure but has lacked the courage to actually give it a try, but once she starts reading Hints to Lady Travellers, she is inspired to stowaway aboard Captain Salomon August Andre's hot-air balloon expedition to the North Pole.  Zoose, on the other hand, has always wanted to be the first mouse explorer to reach the North Pole and he has no qualms in telling anyone who will listen about it.  Moments after sneaking aboard the balloon, the two come face to face when they're tossed about as the balloon has difficulties staying airborne.  Freya is dignified and lady like where Zoose is uncouth and ill mannered, needless to say they don't initially hit it off.  However, when the hot-air balloon crash lands in the Artic, they start to realize that they need one another more than the thought.  

At first glance, I was expecting a light hearted story about an unlikely friendship between a rockhopper penguin and a mouse.  What surprised me was the adventure they had aboard Captain Salomon August Andre's hot-air balloon, and that it is based on the real events of the Swedish polar explorer's expedition to reach the North Pole with a hydrogen balloon in 1897.  While the story does provide some of the historical details of their attempt to reach the North Pole, the story is told primarily from the vantage point of Freya and Zoose viewing the explorers progress.  Meaning they don't really interact with the humans but do observe them building sledges, discussing what supplies to abandon after they crash land, and they witness the difficulties the crew experience being stranded in the Artic.  There are several tense moments when the crew and Freya and Zoose are thrown overboard from the boat, risking drowning, as well as a polar bear attack on their tent.  Again the kinds of things one would expect with such a challenging expedition, but would require picking just the right kind of reader for the story.  This is not merely an adventure friendship story, it also includes huge feats of survival and themes of death and dying.         

Freya and Zoose are such polar opposites.  Freya has impeccable manners and feels bad about trying to stowaway on the crews boat after they crash land, thinking that they'll just add to their load.  However, Zoose doesn't seem to be bothered by taking what he can from the crew and would just abandon them all together and go it alone if need be.  The friendship that develops between the two was my favorite part of the story.  The way that they learned more about each other's past and found that they had more in common then just stowing away together.  Included in the story are several black and white illustrations by Jennifer Thermes which are quite delightful in the way that they capture Freya and Zoose in action.  Especially the one where the boat tips over and Freya is gliding through the water to rescue Zoose.   While I was surprised at first about the historical aspects of Captain Andre's expedition the story illustrates how a rockhopper penguin and mouse can form an unlikely friendship and develop a home for themselves.  

**Thank you Emily Butler for my review copy**

Favorite line:  "I never worry about what I'll do.  Doing is what happens along the way."  

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

MG review of Toro by Andrew Avner

Toro by Andrew Avner 
Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Black Rose Writing
Number of pages:  114
Published:  September 17th, 2020
Source: Herrea Agency in exchange for an honest review 

Opening Lines:  "Bright rays of sun bore down on sharp young shadows at the break of dawn."

Toro is set in Pamplona, Spain just before Feria del Toro or the Festival of the Bulls is to begin.   Alicía Catalina Cortés has a dream to take after her father and compete in the running of the bulls.  She has the speed, tenacity and will, but given she's a cow, it's forbidden for her to compete.  Per tradition, only the bulls have the honor of representing their family and running in the race.  Alicía's father, Don Cortés tries to get her to "embrace her fate" by marrying her off to Don Juliaín, but Alicía can't bear the thought of being forced into marriage, so she runs away.   

Diego Del Toro is a bull who is being forced to run in Pamplona, when his dream is to perform in an American rodeo.  Despite his family wanting him to compete, his heart is just not in the race so Diego also runs away.  Along the way, Diego witnesses Don Juliaín attacking Alicía for running away from him, and Diego helps her to escape.  As the two begin to talk about their dreams,  Alicía begins to see an opportunity to replace Diego in the race by disguising herself as a bull.  Diego is free to find a rodeo to perform in and she can go on to Pamplona to live out her dream.  Yet unbeknownst to Alicía there is still something she doesn't know about the race, a secret her father never mentioned about the race, and by planning to run with the bulls she is putting herself in grave danger.

I think at one time or another everyone has heard of Pamplona's Running of the Bulls, or maybe even seen images of the bulls chasing down spectators and participants during the race.  It's a rite of passage, or perhaps a personal challenge, but I don't think there are many that have seen it from Avner's perspective, or from the perspective of a Vaca or cow.  This certainly was an interesting way to present the theme of overcoming obstacles, striving for your dreams, and gender equality.  

 Alicía is feisty, strong willed and determined to break away from her father and the festival's tradition.  Early on we see her skills as she races her brothers across the farm, she's faster and very capable.  When her father forbids her from competing, she's upset with how he infers she's not able to do what they do and instead should embrace breeding strong sons and learn to obey her soon to be husband.  Alicía is an empowering character who never backs down, even when she's bruised and battered by Don Juliaín.  I quite liked Diego as well.  Especially when he makes the distinction between "what you are" and "who you are." Which you'll have to read the book to understand for yourself.    Overall Toro was a highly entertaining read and I especially enjoyed learning more about the Spanish tradition of running of the bulls and containing both the Spanish and English translations for the various words used added to my overall enjoyment of the story.  From the reviews I've read the audiobook is also very well done.  TORO  has been nominated for a Cybils Award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category, for which I am a second round judge, and is being considered for the Odyssey AwardNewbery Medal, and National Book Award.  ** Thank you to the author and Herrea Agency for my review copy. ** 

MG Historical Ficiton review of Malcolm and Me: A Novel by Robin Farmer

Malcolm and Me: A Novel by Robin Farmer 
Format:  E-ARC 
Publisher: SparkPress 
Number of Pages: 240 
Publishing:  November 17th, 2020 
Source: Publisher via Negalley 

Opening Lines:  "The penguin is in a wicked mood today, Geoffrey whispers, as he passes my desk in eighth grade history class on the way to the pencil sharpener." 

Malcom and Me takes place in 1973 in Philadelphia, some time after the Watergate Scandal broke.   Roberta Forest attends a private Catholic school and is excited about her upcoming thirteenth birthday, as well as a writing contest that she can't wait to enter.  Roberta generally enjoys school, but dislikes that she is only one of a few black girls who attend.    In school they've been learning about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson.  During one of their group discussions, Roberta refers to the former president as a hypocrite for saying that "all men are created equal" while at the same time owning slaves.  Her comment doesn't sit well with Sister Elizabeth who responds by using a racist insult and then proceeds to slap Roberta.  When Roberta tries to defend herself, she is kicked out of class and sent to Mother Superior.  Following their disagreement, Sister Elizabeth takes ill and Roberta's faith in God is shaken.  Angry, hurt and feeling a little guilty about what transpired, Roberta turns to the words of Malcolm X and starts reading his autobiography.  She also writes poetry to help her cope with her feelings.  While at home, her relationship with her mother becomes further strained, and her parents begin to argue making an already difficult situation that much worse.  After her suspension from school is over, Roberta learns that she is no longer eligible to compete in the school's writing contest.  Devastated by the news, Roberta once again feels hurt that she seems to be the center of everything going wrong in her life.

Malcolm and Me is based off of an experience the author had in the sixth grade.  It's an impactful story that discusses issues of racism, religion and parental separation.  At first glance, the cover makes this look as if it's a YA book, but it's really geared toward middle grade, those kids who are interested in more meaty topics with engaging characters.  Roberta is a talented, strong minded girl, who's very proud of being black.  Sister Elizabeth see's her as being defiant, willful or rebellious, someone in need of discipline.  Even Roberta's mother calls her mouthy and they both try to punish her, hoping it will bring her under control.  I really liked Roberta, the way she stands up for what she believes in.   She is instrumental in getting the school to reevaluate some of their practices.  The events that transpire are seen through Roberta's perspective, providing a glimpse of what it is like to be a teenage girl of color during the time period of hot pants, ten speed bikes, Mission Impossible and Kool-Aid.  I really felt sorry for Roberta as she began to question her faith in God, wondering whether the Catholic school was the right place for her.  Her sadness over her parents arguing was also palpable.  I'd pair Malcolm and Me with Blended by Sharon Draper or maybe The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert.  A lovely #ownvoices story that draws inspiration from the authors own lived experience.    

Monday, November 2, 2020

MG Contemporary Review of On A Good Horse by Darby Karchut

On A Good Horse by Darby Karchut
Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Owl Hollow Press
Number of pages:  246
Publishing:  November 10th, 2020
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Opening Lines:  "The sorrel horse eyed the man.  Not foe, but not friend.  Nope.  Not even a little.  Well not yet, anyway." 

After Alex Nash's mom suddenly dies, his father flies him out to Colorado to live with him for the summer.  Initially it's only meant to be a temporary solution, or at least until custody can be determined.  Alex is very apprehensive at first.  Wondering why he can't just stay in New York with his Aunt and Uncle?  They clearly prefer that he live with them.  Alex hardly even knows his father,  Rob Nash,  he's just the man that he shares DNA with.  All this is happening while Alex is still trying to process his mom's death and dealing with his own grief.  He's even questioning whether living with his dad was something his mom would have ever wanted.  Then Alex's dad surprises with a very special gift, his very own horse named  Rio.  Rio is meant as a peace offering between the two, but maybe it can turn into just the something that they both needed.  

On A Good Horse is told in the dual perspective of Alex mixed in with chapters that feature the internal dialogue of Rio.  Rio is sympathetic to Alex's grief and always expresses a desire in wanting to help him overcome his sadness.  Rio's also the first to recognize that Alex and his father need to mend their relationship.  He's sort of a link between the two where they can share information and Alex can become more "horse savvy."  For Rio he just wants to ride fast across the open range and share that feeling with Alex.   Karchut wonderfully captures that feeling of what riding a horse feels like for the very first time.  The nervousness, anticipation and slight fear.  For Alex it's developing a trust between the two.    As Alex begins to take over more and more of the daily chores and care of Rio, he starts to learn more about his father, what his job entails,  why his parents split apart and just what kind of man his father is.  The relationship between Alex and his father and even Rio and Alex grows slowly.  At first there are those awkward pauses and silences, even misunderstandings between father and son, and then you start to see these beautiful moments where they begin to connect with one another on a more personal level.  This is such a beautiful story, about family and the things that connect us, I just adored the relationship that developed between Alex and his dad.  Especially the moments when Alex's dad was teaching him how to shoe a horse, talking him through the steps, teaching him how to do one and then allowing him to take over and do one of his own.  On A Good Horse will appeal to readers who love reading books about horses, and is perfect for someone who enjoys the complexity of familial relationships and stories about repairing the relationship between a father and son. 

**A huge thank you to Owl Hollow Press and NetGalley for the E-ARC **