Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

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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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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Speed of Life

9781492654490Speed of Life

Author: Carole Weston

Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781492654490

This is another title for the middle grade grows up category. The main character, Sofia, is fourteen-years-old – right on the line between middle grade and young adult. It was shelved in the middle grade section of my local library but has some very young adult content, mainly about sex (although none of it is graphic). On Goodreads it is recommended for ages 11-15, which seems appropriate. My 11-year-old son chose not to read it when he got to ABCs of Adolescence but I think he was already put off by the first line “WARNING: This is kind of a sad story”.

Regardless of what category this title falls into (and despite the sadness factor, or perhaps because of it), Speed of Life a wonderful read. It is impossible not to cheer for Sofia as she grieves the loss of her mother and adjusts to her dad’s new relationship. Along the way, Sofia moves from the city to the suburbs and finds romance. Some of the coincidences – Dear Kate and Sam – are a little too coincidental but the characters are memorable and authentic enough to make up of this minor quibble.

The message – even though you never forget losing those you love, life without them slowly gets easier – is beautifully conveyed. This book is both heart breaking and heart warming all at the same time. Recommended.

 

 

 

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Real Friends

Real Friends

Author: Shannon Hale

Illustrator: LeUyen Pham

Publisher: First Second

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 1626727856

I don’t often review graphic novels but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them! I’m a big fan of letting children read everything and anything and I think graphic novels add to the diversity of choices in a truly great way. In addition, I don’t think graphic novels appeal only to those of lower reading ability of interest level. In fact, it’s possible that even for the most advance readers, picking up a graphic novel can challenge their brain in new and creative ways.

On to Real Friends! It is possible that I’m biased about this book because it’s set in the mid-80s and the main character, Shannon, was born in the same year as me! But really, kids of all ages will be able to relate to the ups and downs Shannon experiences as she tries to fit in with ‘the group’ while staying true to her own beliefs. Although this book focuses on friendships, it also deftly touches on other topics such as bullying, family dynamics, mental and behavioural health issues.

Shannon Hale’s portrayal of her own childhood is brave and unflinching. In an author’s note at the back, she explains where the story has been fictionalized, how the relationship with her sister has evolved since elementary school and why she felt it was important to share her experiences. I love her final message to readers:

“Friendship in younger years can be especially hard because our worlds are small. In high school and beyond, I found many supportive, lifelong friends. If you haven’t found your ‘group’ yet, hang in there. Your world will keep growing larger and wider. You deserve to have real friends, the kind who treat you well and get how amazing you are.”

The pictures compliment the story beautifully, with vibrant colours and emotional detail that drip from the page. As LeUyen Pham says in her acknowledgments, Shannon has penned a story that feels like it was ripped out of my own memories and insecurities as a child and her drawings bring those feelings alive in a compelling and engaging way.

A wonderful collaboration!

 

 

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Call Me Sunflower

Call-Me-SunflowerTitle: Call Me Sunflower

Author: Miriam Spitzer Franklin

Publisher: Sky Pony Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781510711792

Sunny’s heart is in the right place – all she wants to do is to get her parents back together so she can move back to New Jersey with her mom and her sister. As she goes through each step of “Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”, readers will laugh and then cringe at her attempts to re-ignite their romance.

I love that this novel features a non-conventual family, Odyssey of the Mind and an animal rights subplot. And the secret Sunny uncovers when she finds a photo that makes her question her mom’s relationship with Scott – the only dad she’s ever known – provides just the right amount of tension and intrigue.

Another heart-warming middle grade novel by my my critique partner and writing friend, Miriam Spitzer Franklin. Highly recommended!

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