Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

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This one’s moving up my roster

 QB 1, by Mike Lupica (2013)

Opening line: “If you were a high school quarterback, a Texas high school quarterback, this was the moment you imagined for yourself from the first time somebody said you had some arm on you.”

I don’t know why I keep being surprised by the fact that I love middle grade sports fiction. I never pick one up unless it’s on a state awards lists, and yet, I am always happy I do.

Jake Cullen starts the football season as third-string quarterback, a position he is very familiar with. His whole life he’s been playing third-string behind his older brother Wyatt and, before him, his father Troy, the man the football stadium at Granger High is named after. The Cullen name means quarterback gold. And here Jake is, freshman at Granger after brother Wyatt has finished his four perfect years as QB 1 and recruited as starter to the Texas Longhorns. Jake is comfortable with his reality, ready to wait his turn, to do the work and put in the effort. But in the first game of the season, the first-string quarterback tears his ACL. And suddenly QB 1 is wide open.

It’s a sort of classic underdog story. But in this one, it’s not so much about Jake overcoming the odds. The odds are stacked graciously in his favor. He’s been living and breathing football since infancy, he’s got a head for tracking plays and seeing outcomes, and he’s even taller than his brother, even at 14. Instead, it’s about Jake finding his one place, his place outside the Great Cullen Shadow.

Plus, it’s got great football action that is not dumbed down for us novices out there. (I felt like I could totally talk football now after reading this.) The author reminds the reader (or perhaps explains to the non-sports-aficionado reader) why we keep coming back for more:

“This was why you played. This kind of night, this kind of opponent, stakes like these. Didn’t matter if you grew up in Granger or Redding, Laredo or Huntsville or Abilene. This was the kind of game you grew up seeing somebody else play at the same time you were dreaming about playing it yourself… This was the town in the stands, families, friends, and strangers alike, every one of them feeling like they were a part of something, that they were going to somehow help you win tonight.” (p. 199)

That’s the thing about sports stories. They make fans out of non-fans, they bring the readers, the characters, the author, that moment all together, cheering for the same thing. They make us all a part of something. And that’s what reading stories is all about, isn’t it?

2 stars

Go ahead, judge this one by it’s cover.

Lost in the Sun, by Lisa Graff (2015)

Opening line: “When we were real little kids, Mom used to take Aaron and Doug and me to Sal’s Pizzeria for dinner almost every Tuesday, which is when they had their Family Night Special.”

First of all. How gorgeous is this cover? I’m in love with the colors and design. Nice work Andrew Bannecker.

Second of all. The story. Lovely. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. All the good things go into this story. Trent is starting 6th grade, which is hard enough for any kid. But six months ago Trent joined a pick up game of hockey, hit a puck into another kid’s chest (a kid who evidently had a heart condition), and that kid died. While a complete accident, Trent has not been able to forgive himself, and he’s pretty sure no one else has forgiven him either. His former friends are shunning him, his new teachers hate him, and worst of all, his father thinks he’s a waste of space (or so it seems to Trent). It doesn’t help that anytime he picks up a baseball or a basketball or any other piece of sporting equipment, his hands get clammy and he can’t breathe.

Then he meets Fallon Little, the girl with the horrible scar across her face, one that came either from a frisbee hitting her in the noggin, or a lightning bolt striking her, or being attacked by a soulless beast while scuba diving. Depends on which story she’s telling that day. Fallon is unlike anyone Trent has met before, and as much as he tries to dislike her strangeness, he can’t help but notice they way she laughs with her whole body and the way her smile tucks into the edge of her scar. And as much as Fallon jokes away her scar with extravagant storytelling, something happened there, something she doesn’t like to talk about.

This story is packed with wonderful characters and honest emotions, a nearly perfect middle grade novel.

2 stars

Interestingly, it’s a companion novel to Umbrella Summer, which is from the point of view of the younger sister of Jared, this kid killed by the hockey puck. She plays an important role in Trent’s story too, so I’m sure seeing the story from her eyes would be interesting as well. Cover’s not nearly as good though. 🙂

Baskets and Beats

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander (2014)

Opening Line: “Josh Bell / is my name / but Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame.”

I’m not one to pick up a sports novel without a good reason. I don’t have to read Mike Lupica or Tim Green to know their easy sells to my boys and a few of my more athletic girls (although Green’s Unstoppable surprised me in a good way). But after hearing about this one at the ISLMA conference this year,  “I can do a sports novel-in-verse.”

Like is probably true of most sports books, The Crossover is about way more than basketball. It’s about family, brothers, trauma, loss, and the magic of language. This book screams to be read aloud. In fact, I did read it aloud quite a bit (although under my breath so the mister wouldn’t hear me from the next room and roll his eyes). Josh is not only a master on the court, where he and his twin brother, J B, lead their junior high team to the championships. He’s also a master of verse, as he plays with rhyme, tempo, voice, rhythm, and structure on the page, allowing the reader to feel his story as well as read it.

This will be an easy sell in my library, and one I can actually push from firsthand experience!

Quick read, a perfect mix of goofy fun and honest emotion. 2 stars.