Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

2.5 stars

 

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Hello friend

51iiw2fcopl Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead (2015)

Opening line: “When she was eight years old, Bridget Barsamian woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she shouldn’t be alive.”

Bridge has two best friends, Em and Tab, and the three have been besties forever, partially because of their rule to never fight. But seventh grade has a lot of changes, including the policy that each student must join a club. However, the three musketeers have different interests, leading them to different clubs. Different clubs means different people, different people means less time for each other. And that might mean they might have to break their no-fighting rule.

One of the new people Bridge meets in her stage crew club is Sherm. Every few chapters we get a letter from Sherm written to his grandfather, a grandfather who used to be there, but no longer is, and the reader is really not sure why. And it’s not until we know more of Sherm’s backstory before the letters start making any sense.

And then we have a third narrator, a story of a teenage girl on Valentine’s Day, who, for some reason, is avoiding school. Or at least certain people at school.

These multiple perspectives weave in and out of each other, but without telling us directly how. On its own, Bridge’s story would have been a nice friendship/school middle grade novel. I probably would have enjoyed it. But it’s the multiple story lines that brings this novel up to the next level. The mystery and the various points-of-view (third person, second person, letter) the other two story lines provide bring this from a good novel to a great one. I loved it.

2.5 stars

Jammer Dreams

51mvuixhjelRoller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

Opening line: “If you really want to know, it began back in fifth grade. Back when Nicole and I were still best friends.”

Okay, so I’m seeing a startling similarity between this one and my last post, despite the fact that I didn’t pick up on it during the actual reading of the book. Perhaps there are just some themes that are important enough to middle school that they need LOTS of books about them. Like drifting friendships.

Many of us had that childhood best friend. We loved the same things, hated the same things, and did everything together. But with age, new people, and new experiences, that friendship can change. As it did with Astrid and Nicole. The girls attend a roller derby game one night with Astrid’s mom and Astrid falls in love with the intensity, the speed, and the crazy outfits. She assumes Nicole will sign up for the derby summer camp with her, and is surprised to learn Nicole has signed up for dance camp instead. With the worst girl in the world.

But Astrid is determined to become a derby girl. Unfortunately, the first day of derby camp shows that skating is NOT Astrid’s natural instinct. She’s pretty awful at it. Despite that, Astrid refuses to give up.

Great for fans of Raina Telgemeier’s and the only middle grade book I know about an increasingly popular sport!

2 stars.

I love this one to (Reese’s) pieces

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle (2013)

Opening line: “I’d rather not start with any backstory. I’m too busy for that right now: planning the escape, stealing my older brother’s fake ID (he’s lying about his height by the way) and strategizing high-protein snacks for an overnight voyage to the single most dangerous city on the earth.”

Sometimes when the author reads his/her own audiobook, it’s not great (see: Lord of the Flies). But sometimes it is. And this is one such example. So, so great. (And the Odyssey Award committee agreed.)

Nate is a budding actor. He loves musical theater and has been working for the past two plus years with his bff Libby to develop into the next Broadway star. When Libby tells him about the newest show to head to Broadway, E.T. the Musical, is looking for young male actors for the role of Elliot, Nate is willing to do whatever it takes to get that job. Including hightailing it out of Jankburg, Pennsylvania without his parents’ knowledge or permission and hitting the Big Apple all on his own. Of course, things don’t go exactly how he and Libby had planned, and hijinks ensue. But all along the way, Nate maintains his A-plus attitude readers can’t help but love.

There is some hi-LAR-ious writing in this book, and I basically never stopped grinning throughout the entire thing. The tween dialogue between Libby and Nate is spot on and I found myself wanting to be able to have Nate as one of my students. Loved it to pieces, and probably need to read the sequel now, Five, Six, Seven, Nate.

2.5 stars

Girl Problems, or something

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, by Liz Prince (2014)

Opening line: “No, Mommy!”

From the time she was a toddler (actually, she says from the time she left the womb), Liz knew that she wasn’t like other girls. She didn’t want to wear dresses, she didn’t want to play with dolls, and she didn’t really like playing with other girls either. Her heroes were Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. She played baseball on a team with all boys (until the day they made everyone put on cups). She very strongly felt that she was more like a boy than a girl, or at least any girl that anyone else saw. And although we have a shared experience of being called a boy in the school cafeteria (thanks for insisting on that haircut, mom), we were horrified for different reasons. Me, because I was most definitely a girl and wanted to be seen as such; her, because she wanted to be able to be seen as herself.

I guess those are similar.

This graphic memoir is such a wonderful contribution to YA lit. Whether you identify with Liz, where your normal is different from what the world tells you is normal, or whether you are confused by all the transgender issues in the news today (to be clear: Liz does not identify as transgender), or whether you are wanting a way to show others that their normal is okay, this book is for you! It gives such an honest portrayal of what we all know is a very confusing time, when all of us try to figure out just who we are and how we fit, and how the image other people see of us is often not how we see ourselves. (Interestingly, the photo of Liz in the author’s blurb looks nothing like the way she draws herself, minus the short hair and glasses. Perhaps the two shall never meet.) Liz is an amazingly resilient character with lots of sass to combat the endless bullying she encounters, a great example for many to aspire to. We need more like her, and more like Tomboy.

2 stars

The lazy hazy days of summer

This One Summer, story by Jillian Tamaki, art by Mariko Tamaki (2014)

Opening line: “Okay. So. Awago Beach is this place.”

When I was a kid, my parents took us on these wonderful camping trips across the country, visiting all the national parks, monuments, and seasides along the way. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time (I’m particularly remembering a visit to the Badlands that I did not appreciate), but I feel incredibly lucky to have seen and experienced all the things that we did. However, in the “grass is always greener” sense of things, I always kind of wished for a vacation more like the one Rose’s family goes on each year in This One Summer. 

Each year, Rose’s family goes to a cottage on Awago Beach for the summer. It’s a lazy summer town, with nothing to worry about besides collecting firewood for beach bonfires and figuring out the best snacks to take with you on the tubes that won’t get wet. Rose has a best friend on Awago Beach, too, Windy, whose mom and grandma also have a cottage they visit each year.

This year seems different, though. Windy and Rose are approaching their teenage years, and are suddenly thinking about bra sizes, horror movies, and the drama of the older kids at the convenience store. This story tells of that one summer when the girls lives are changing, balancing between digging just-because holes in the sand and thinking about teen pregnancies and broken hearts. Through beautiful artwork (even earning a Caldecott nod) and conversations that feel very authentically tween and teen, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki let us remember just how strange and unique that time was for all of us, figuring out where we belong, who we are, who we want to be. By the end of the summer, as Windy and Rose head their separate ways, nothing monumental has changed. And yet, everything has.

A beautiful and delightful way to spend a Sunday morning on the front porch. 2.5 stars

Another South Carolinian Debutante

Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch (2008)

Opening Line: “If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston’s other good girls and boys, than Wednesday night is a busy night for you.”

For some reason, the opening line to Katie Crouch’s debut novel reminds me of the opening line to Pride and Prejudice. They’re really not that similar, but the impression is somewhat complementary: If you grow up in this society, you will be paired with someone and you will like it. Pairing up is not an option, but a necessity. And that is what seems to plague poor Sarah Walters throughout her life (and the life of this novel).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in what feels like the late 70s/early 80s, Sarah is a hesitant debutante at best. Part of the Charleston Camellias, a prestigious society of ladies, she is expected to become a good Southern woman, following the path laid out for her by generations of previous Camellias. Instead, Sarah follows in the path of her older sister Eloise, and jets up north for college to get away from it all. While this seems like a whole new wonderful world to Sarah, reality sets in, and she finds that a self-directed path is not as easy as she hoped. And despite her desire to get away from the debutante matchmaking, her failed relationships and search for the perfect man dominate her life anyway. It isn’t until a family tragedy brings Sarah home that she begins to see that maybe a life in the South wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, and as a brand new South Carolinian. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, and was unnecessarily complicated by strange shifts in point of view/voice. However, Crouch does give us snippets of unexpected humor sprinkled where they are needed to keep us from spiraling into Sarah’s despair, which helped keep me turning the pages.

1.5 stars