Monday, June 27, 2022

J.R. Silver Writes Her World by Melissa Dassori, illustrations by Chelen Ecija

J.R. Silver Writes Her World by Melissa Dassori and illustrations by Chelen Ecija
Format:  E- ARC
Publisher:  Christy Ottaviano Books/Little Brown BYR
Number of pages:  272
Publishing:  July 19th, 2022
Source:  Edelweiss+ 

Opening Line: "That one, said Violet as she stepped so close to the railing that a blue-suited guard waved her back."

It's the summer before sixth grade and Josephine Rose Silver, J.R. for short, is visiting the MET or Metropolitain Museum of Art with her best friend, Violet.  Violet and J.R. are kindred spirits for the classics, sharing a love for Little Women and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, they've even acted out scenes from the book while visiting the museum.   They know each other's likes and dislikes, and both their moms are even best friends who work together at the museum.  However, ever since Violet returned from summer camp things have been strained.  Violet has been constantly distracted by her phone, texting, social media, and Ava Arls, the most popular girl in their grade, who also happened to be at the same summer camp as Violet.   J.R.'s parents are stricter than Violet's, they haven't even agreed to let her walk home without parental supervision and said no to her getting a phone.  J.R. feels like her and Violet don't have as much in common anymore.  Then J.R.'s teacher, Ms. Kline takes out her collection of Gothamite magazines and assigns them a creative writing assignment utilizing the iconic covers as a writing prompt.  J.R. pours her heart and dreams into her short stories, and when one of them actually comes true, she's overjoyed but plays it off as just a coincidence, but the more she writes things into reality, the more she believes that she can use her writing assignments as a tool to fix her and Violet's relationship.  But like all magic it's important to remember to be careful what you wish for.          

J.R. Silver Writes Her World poses the question, what if you could write your dreams into reality with the stroke of a pen?  Man was this such a wonderful read, I just devoured it, and it's one of my favorite reads so far this year.  It included so many of my favorite things, a main character who wants to be a writer, bookstores, shout outs to other authors and books (Rick Riordan, Linda Sue Park and Jacqueline Woodson) and is also set in New York and parts of it take place at the Metropolitain Museum of Art (MET).  I so would've loved this book as a kid, not only for the creative writing assignments using magazine covers but also for the getting words out and onto the page.  I love that the author drew inspiration for the story from her own fourth grade teacher who used the New Yorker magazines for their creative writing assignments.  It was an especially special read for me because I also used magazine covers, Norman Rockwell's in my own speech therapy practice and it brought back some happy memories.

While reading, I so related to J.R.'s feelings and felt the story wonderfully captures the awkwardness of a friend having moved on, and the feeling of being left behind.  Which happened to me quite a few times as a kid.   The pains of watching Violet making new friends and not including you in her plans.  I so felt for J.R. and was happy that she eventually was able to convey her feelings to Violet.  Having those tough conversations are never easy, especially when it involves your friend, but the message here shows the importance of being honest and having that tough talk.  

 Anyone who knows me also knows that I love stories with wonderful teachers.  Teachers who inspire, find all the great qualities in their students, or ones that just support them achieve their dreams.  J.R.'s teacher, Ms. Kline was absolutely wonderful.  I'd agree she felt similar to Mary Poppin's, and I just adored her.  She never provides J.R. all the answers about her stories coming to reality, but gently guides her to improve her stories to get a better outcome.  I've always had a soft spot for teachers, and I'd put Ms. Kline up there with Ms. Bixby from John David Anderson's Ms. Bixby's Last Day.  Overall, this was a fabulous debut that focuses on language arts and captures the ebbs and flows of friendships.  I'd highly recommend this to an aspiring writer, and this would make a wonderful read aloud.            

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Secret of the Shadow Beasts by Diane Magras

 Secret of the Shadow Beasts by Diane Magras
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Dial Books
Number of pages:  336
Publishing:  June 14th, 2022
Source:  Books Forward and publisher in exchange for an honest review  

Opening Line:  "When the light is gone, the dark things come:  creeping from shadows, their cruel minds afire." 

Nora and her mother live in Brannland, a city besieged by terrifying beasts called Umbrae, who only appear during gloaming or at dusk.  The Umbrae can take on many forms, but mostly they appear as these shadowy spiders, wolves and worms.    One single bite from an Umbrae can kill an adult, but some children have developed an immunity to their venom.  Usually, children are tested at seven and those who are immune go to Noye's Hill, a castle made over into a training facility for the knights.  Despite being immune, Nora's father refused to allow her to be trained, but now he's gone.  At twelve years of age, after having narrowly escaped with her mother from an Umbrae attack, Nora decides it's time to be tested and see if she has the skills to join.  Once at the castle, Nora participates in a battle simulation and surprises everyone, including herself with her skills.  She not only has extraordinary talent, but has quick reflexes, can gauge her opponents next moves and with her quick speed, she can easily destroy almost any Umbrae she encounters.   Nora quickly settles in with her new team but is still homesick for her mother and best friend, Wilfred.  When their first two-week mission approaches, the tension among the group begins to mount and everyone will need to stay on high alert and protect each other's back.  While their mission is successful, other teams begin to have difficulties and when one of their outings exposes a potential source for the Umbrae, Nora and her team are sent out to not only fight but to hopefully destroy the cause of the problem.

I quite enjoyed the Secret of the Shadow Beasts.  Nora is a fun main character and I liked how the story emphasized some positives about her playing videogames, namely her quick reflexes and how playing the games developed her into this natural fighter.  She's quite agile and despite being so skilled, she's also quite humble.  She cares about her fellow team, as they too grow to care about her.  The teamwork is one of my favorite aspects of the story.  How they each cared and supported each other, there was a sense of vulnerability and love amongst the group, a family bond and deep sense of trust.  How they would hug and encourage each other, such a wonderful caring group.  The pacing of the story was also so spot on, there's plenty of battles against the Umbrae and quiet moments in-between to reflect and train.  And the monsters of the story, well with them coming out at dusk, it really added a creepy vibe that I especially liked.  Overall, this was a fun adventure and had a good resolution, although I'm hoping there will be more stories featuring Nora in the future.  This will certainly appeal to fans of Magras' The Mad Wolf's Daughter and the sequel, The Hunt For The Mad Wolf's Daughter.  Or perhaps even as a companion read to Lockwood and Company.