Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Title: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Author: Dusti Bowling

Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1-4549-2345-9

It’s hard not to instantly connect with the main character of this book, 13-year-old Aven Green, when she begins by sharing some of the stories she  makes up when she’s tired of “telling (people) the same boring story about being born without arms”. Right from the beginning, we know that Aven’s focused on what she can do, not what she can’t do. And thanks to her adoptive parents she’s learned to do a lot on her own. So much so, that there were times while I was reading that I forgot Aven”lacked Armagh”.

Because Aven has always gone to the same Kansas school, her friends and fellow students have stopped seeing her differently as well. But when Aven’s family moves to Arizona so her parents can manage Stagecoach Pass, a worn down, wild west theme park, everything changes. But even as befriends a boy with Tourette’s syndrome who’s really struggling with what he describes as a disability, her attitude remains almost too good to be true.

The story includes a mystery and a satisfying (if farfetched) ending, while providing various perspectives on ability and disability. There were times when I felt that Aven and her friends acted younger than their age but I really enjoyed seeing the world through their eyes. Recommended for aged 9 to 13.

 

 

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Hello, Universe

Title: Hello, Universe

Author: Erin Entrada Kelly

Publisher: HarperCollins (Greenwillow Books)

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0-062-41415-1

This book starts slowly. My 12-year-old son gave up after ten pages because he was confused. If it hadn’t been a Newbery winner, I might’ve given up myself. I’m glad I didn’t because half way through, there is a shocking twist that is somewhat foreshadowed by the cover art but still took me totally by surprise. After that, I could not put the book down (and even convinced my 12-year-old to give it another go).

In retrospect, the story gets off to a slow and confusing start because it is told from the point of view of four different characters (one in first person, the rest in third). The author does a fabulous job of creating four nuanced, unique and diverse characters. This takes time and it pays off in the end as each character gets their own fairly complete arc.

The weakest character is the bully, Chet. He doesn’t change much through the course of the book but the reader does get some insight into why he is the way he is (and he is really awful). Kaori doesn’t change much either but she does put her psychic skills to good use, makes a friend/potential business partner, and provides some much needed levity (as does her sister). Virgil, who’s called “turtle” by his family because he’s so timid, shy and quiet, changes in a predictable way but I liked that he wasn’t immediately transformed by his life threatening experience. My favourite character, Valencia, is realistically portrayed as someone with a hearing loss. Through the story, she realizes how lonely she is and takes some huge steps toward fixing it but does not resolve her relationship with her mother.

Not every character evolves and not every problem gets resolved, which prevents the novel’s plot from getting tied up a little too nicely. I know I’m being vague about the story itself but I really don’t want to give too much away. The entire book takes place in the first few days of summer holidays after the four main characters finish 6th grade. There are not a lot of big plot points but the one big event is enough to set a lot of things in motion. Hello,Universe is a character driven novel with a lot of heart. It did not quite live up to my high expectations after winning the Newbery but I think it would be a great classroom read aloud.

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The War That Saved My Life

Title: The War That Saved My Life

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Publisher: Dial Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780803740815

I can’t believe I’m so late in reviewing this book that I absolutely LOVED!! I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook version of it, in anticipation of the sequel, The War I Finally Won, and just have to share it now.

The War That Saved My Life was a Newbery Honor book in 2016 and won multiple other awards, so I’m not alone in thinking this title is one of the greatest historical middle grade novels ever written. When I first read it, my sons (ten-years-old at the time) were turned off by the dark beginning. And it truly is dark – the main character’s mom locks her in the closet under the sink, calls her terrible names and won’t let her go outside because of her club foot. Once she is evacuated from London during the blitz, things start to change for Ada but the change is slow, nuanced and very realistic.

It is the characters that truly make this book special. I LOVED them all so much and they came alive for me even more when listening to the audiobook. My sons (now twelve) also really enjoyed the audiobook version and have already read the sequel. I can’t wait to spend more time with Ada and will post a review of The War I Finally Won as soon as I can (but if I don’t like it, you may here nothing… see my review of A World Below). Fingers crossed my expectations are not too high!!

 

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A World Below

Title: A World Below

Author: Wesley King

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781481478229

I’m a very strong believer in the phrase “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. I also think that if you DO have something nice to say, you should SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS (especially on Valentine’s Day)!! This world view totally informs what books I review on this blog – if I like it, you’ll hear about it; it I don’t, you won’t.

Except…

I recently entered a Goodreads giveaway for Wesley King’s new middle grade novel, A World Below, because I LOVED his book OCDaniel (see my review). Unfortunately, I did not enjoy A World Below nearly as much, mostly because it’s just not my kind of book (see my Goodreads review).

The reason I’m posting about it anyway is because I do have something good to say about A World Below. Despite the fact that it is not my kind of book, I think a lot of middle graders will like this action packed adventure with an element of fantasy (including my own sons, who are reading it now). This brings up an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in terms of book reviewing. First, that it is highly subjective. Second, that most reviews of books written for kids are done by adults. And finally, that expectation can totally influence your enjoyment of a book. In this case, I had very high expectations because I enjoyed the last book I read by this author and because the blurb makes it sound contemporary. In retrospect, a lot of Wesley King’s other writing has not really been “my kind of books” and the title art does imply some kind of fantasy element.

I hope readers of this blog have enjoyed some of my book reviews and are perhaps following me because we have similar taste in literature. I will continue to post about the books I truly love – my version of shouting from the rooftops. But I will also try to go into future reads with a more open mind. Today, my local library is offering blind dates with a book (where you pick a book wrapped in brown paper and give it a try) and I think I’ll see what enjoyment I can get out of a book where I have zero expectations.

ALSO – as a form of unconditional love for myself and my art – I will try to remember how subjective a business this is when reading (or avoiding) reviews of my own books.

In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day and happy reading!!

 

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The End of the Wild

Title: The End of the Wild

Author: Nicole Helget

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0-316-24511-1

This tender middle grade book covers a lot of ground from fracking and rural poverty to PTSD and grief to foster care, custody and divorce. It might seem like a lot but each issue folds into the other and the overall story provides balance and hope without shying away from tough issues that many readers will relate to.

Eleven-year-old Fern helps to feed her impoverished rural family by foraging for food in the woods outside the home she shares with her stepdad and two younger brothers. She lost her mom in a tragic accident the year before and her grandpa has been trying to get custody. When a fracking company comes to town it brings jobs, providing security to Fern’s family and her best friend, Fern must figure out how to save the forest.

As in life, there are no easy answers for Fern and while the author does simplify things to some extent, she doesn’t provide easy solutions. Great for budding environmentalists and chefs (although vegetarians beware – the woods around Fern’s house does not just provide mushrooms and nuts).

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The Pants Project

Title: The Pants Project

Author: Cat Clarke

Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

I love the premise of this book: 11-year-old Liv likes the uniform at her new middle school (especially the tie) but hates wearing the skirt. Right from the start, it’s impossible not to see the dress code is sexist and archaic. But when we learn that it is especially difficult for Liv to wear a skirt because she’s really a boy, readers are even more more inclined to cheer for Liv as he challenges the rules.

Liv makes three attempts to change the dress code. First, by wearing pants under the skirt. Second, by talking to the principal (who’s response is totally unrealistic and unhelpful). And then, by starting a petition. It’s the fourth plan that actually succeeds but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Complicating things for Liv is the school bully, Jade, who makes fun of his two moms, and his best friend choosing to hang out with the popular kids (including Jade) instead of Liv. We never really understand why Jade is so mean to everyone but it’s great that Liv tries to protect others and eventually stands up to Jade. Along the way, Liv gets a lot of support from Jacob who makes a bad first impression (asking “what kind of name is Liv?” and “isn’t it a bit too butch for you?”) before becoming Liv’s best friend. Jacob is at times too good to be true (making a lot of very mature statements and observations) and also has secrets of his own.

The main theme of this book is being yourself. Liv first tells Jacob that he’s trans and then his moms but the conversations remain on the surface. Even though Liv is older than George, there’s no urgency around puberty – yet. For now, Liv’s just happy wearing pants. “Before you know it, lots of small steps can cover a lot of ground.”

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George

Title: George

Author: Alex Gino

Publisher: Scholastic

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0-545-81254-2

To be honest, George is not the most well written middle grade book I’ve ever read. But the topic is very important and the story is engaging so I recommend it – especially for teachers and librarians. It’s a quick read that would be great for a classroom read aloud followed by a group discussion about gender identity.

Fourth grader George has always felt like a girl. The book doesn’t go into much detail about this but the author shows her conviction through use of the pronoun “she” and “her”.  George keeps fashion magazines hidden in her room and considers the girls on the pages her friends.  She’s researched transgender online but never shared her secret with real friends or family. When she wants to play Charlotte in the class play of Charlotte’s Web instead of Wilber, her true identity is finally revealed.

I didn’t think that the students in this book behaved like normal 4th graders. But I loved George’s best friend, Kelly, and her reaction to George being a girl. Not only does Kelly quickly accept George as Melissa, she shares her role as Charlotte and helps Melissa dress up for a trip to the zoo.

I have no idea what it is like to be transgendered but I felt like there was a stereotypical message here about what it’s like to be a “good girl” (interested in clothes and make up) and a “good boy” (interested in tough stuff like violent video games). Also, things seemed to happened a bit too easily for George/Melissa. Her mom and brother are both accepting, although not quite as enthusiastic as Kelly. There is really only one bully at school that teases her and one teacher that doesn’t want her to play Charlotte.

I have mixed feelings about this. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s very realistic. But I also think it’s important for middle grade stories to provide a positive message. George serves as a model for how people should react to a transgendered family member, friend or classmate. And I hope that transgendered youth who read this book will be encouraged to be themselves – regardless of the consequences.

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Ghost

Title: Ghost

Author: Jason Reynolds

Publisher:Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1-4814-5015-7

Well, I knew this book would be good – it was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, after all –  but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it is. Suitable for grades five and up, Ghost is about 7th grader Castle Cranshaw (who nicknamed himself Ghost after the way he looked the night his dad chased him and his mom out of the house with a gun). No doubt, Ghost has a tough life and makes some bad choices but Jason Reynolds handles the issues with the perfect amount of sensitivity and empathy for a middle grade audience.

Over a one week period, Ghost discovers his natural talent for running, joins a track team and befriends the coach. The book then skips ahead a few weeks to show how Ghost has bonded with his teammates and must pay the consequence of shoplifting. The story ends with him competing in this first race.

It might sound like a sports story cliche but Reynolds takes it to the next level with an amazing cast of characters. Ghost is flawed but extremely likeable and easy to cheer for (even when stealing and beating up the school bully). He has a good relationship with his hard-working mom and Mr. Charles who owns the store where Ghost buys his sunflower seeds. Coach is the typical ‘I see potential in you’ father figure that Ghost needs but has his own unique backstory as well. And the other newbies on the team – Lu who has albinism, Sunny who lost his mom, and Patty who’s adopted – are all interesting enough to warrant their own stories, which is what I’m going to read next (along with everything else that Jason Reynolds has ever written).

Highly recommended – especially for fans of sports novels.

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SCBWI Book Stop

If you are looking for a good book for yourself or a young person in your life, check out this great list at the SCBWI Book Stop. The page I created for Inside Hudson Pickle is here, if you want to take a look. Happy Reading!!

 

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House Arrest

Title: House Arrest

Author: K.A. Holt

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1452156484

This middle grade novel in verse is about a seventh grader who’s been put under house arrest after stealing a wallet to help pay for his brother’s care. This is just the beginning of how Timothy shows his love for his 9-month-old brother, Levi, who was born with serious health issues that require expensive medication, a trach tube to help him breathe, and full-time nursing care.

To avoid juvie, Timothy must check in with his probation officer and meet with a therapist who both read the journal he’s been assigned to write by the judge. Through Timothy’s entries, which are divided by seasons, we see the family’s financial challenges, the worsening of Levi’s condition, and how Timothy’s Dad leaving has affected them all.

It might sound heavy but the author provides moments of humour and supporting characters that give hope and support. Timothy’s unwavering love for his brother, and fierce need to protect him, lead him to make some though choices – some good and some bad – and leave the reader to decide whether the means justify the ends (in this case breaking the law to save a life).

I’m a bit late in reviewing House Arrest, which was published in 2015. But I’m hoping for a follow up book told from the perspective of Levi when he reaches 12-years-old. It’s not that Timothy and Levi’s story is incomplete. It’s just that I loved this novel so much that I want more. K.A. Holt if you’re reading – pretty, pretty please!?!

 

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