GN LAR (Reviewing “All My Friends”)

So… a long break from reading for me. Mostly because I’m also running a small business on the side. Sewing took over for the last few months as I figured out what market season looks like as a vendor. I have a better idea of what my year will look like in the future from that side of things. So back to reading once in a while for me. I have a large list of books to chew through before September, so you might find that some of my posts for the foreseeable future will feature older texts. I wish I could do more “new” reading, but I have to power through the WEMTA Battle of the Books 2023 Middle School Division list, first.

A quick new-ish book for this post, though! “All My Friends” by Hope Larson is a quick, simple story following a young girl band called “Fancy Pink”.

Purple and pink cover with text "All My Friends". In center, girl with long black hair plays a electric guitar while a crowd beneath her lifts her up.
Cover for “All My Friends” by Hope Larson

The three girls in the band, Bina, Lora, and Kesi are 8th graders and have landed their first big gig opening for another band called Anne Surly. While the gig doesn’t go off without a hitch (broken guitar string and a fried distortion petal), they do well enough to get noticed and things start taking off for them – they land a deal to license one of their tracks for a streaming network show and then get offered a record deal, but just when everything looks like they’re taking flight, their parents squash their dreams, citing that they’re so young and everything is happening a little too fast. With their record label deal killed, the girls decide to record their first album on their own behind their parents backs. The one problem? Making an album costs money. Money that they definitely don’t have. So what do you do when the only thing standing in your way is cash? You find a way to get it. Oh, and there’s a little romance along the way. 🙂

3 Defects

  1. A negative as much as it is a positive, this story is simple and focused. If you’re hoping for a story with a lot of depth and deeper thinking, this isn’t the one you’re looking for. But I’ll praise the simplistic story in the delights part of this post, too, so to be clear, it’s only a defect if you’re looking for a more complex story.
  2. I feel like I’m missing juicy bits of the story because there isn’t as much detail as I would like. The plot is told almost exclusively through dialogue – there isn’t a whole lot of inner character thought throughout the book and I wish I had a little more.
  3. The story is all illustrated in shades of pink, white, and black. While this has a really interesting vibe, I would have loved more color like there is on the cover.

3 Delights

  1. Like I said up above, this story is simple and focused, which is both a negative and positive. If you’re looking for a book that focuses on the music and the band relationships, this is the one! While there are a couple of romance side angles, they don’t pull the story away from music driven plot.
  2. This is a girl power book with a girl centric story line and I’m here for it, especially in graphic novel format! Super appropriate for readers the same age as the main characters, but also great for younger readers, too! Solidly middle grade/middle school. Also features a diverse cast of characters.
  3. I appreciate that the graphic novel was easy to read – so many graphic artists will go for more eccentric layouts that can sometimes make their graphic novel difficult to read for someone who is new to the format. Larson layouts are varied enough to keep the story visually interesting, but simple enough to follow that the book could easily be someone’s first foray into the world of graphic novels.

All said and done, a solid, uncomplicated story that’s appropriate for middle grade to middle school readers.

FIC FEL (Reviewing “Wishing Upon the Same Stars”)

We changed our family schedule and it has led to the loss of reading time for me. It’s not a bad thing, it just means that it takes me a long time to get through a book now. So a book that would take me a couple days is now taking me a couple of weeks. I’m working to figure out how to regain the reading time I lost, but it will take me a bit, so bear with me!

This week’s read was “Wishing Upon the Same Stars” by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman. A great middle-grade text, this story touches deeply on the themes of family, friendship, community, and diversity.

In foreground, two girls hold hands while walking through a field of flowers. In the background is a river and hills and a night sky filled with stars. The text "Wishing Upon the Same Stars" is at the top of the image.
Cover of “Wishing Upon the Same Stars”

Twelve-year-old Yasmeen Khoury is the eldest child in her Palestinian-American family, living in Detroit, Michigan. When she learns that her family will be moving to San Antonio, she wishes for nothing more than to fit in, but she quickly realizes that unlike her Arab neighborhood in Detroit, she’s the only Palestinian girl in her new school and feels like she doesn’t really fit in. Yasmeen tries to navigate making friends at school, but finds herself the target of a group of mean girls. She also is forced to hide her budding friendship with her classmate and neighbor, Ayelet Cohen because Ayelet’s family is Israeli-American and both of their families still carry the pain and devastation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they experienced in the Middle East before they moved to America. Yasmeen must navigate not only the tension of this new friendship and the lies she’s keeping from her family, but must also navigate the expectations placed upon her by her family and what home and heritage mean to her now that she has been displaced herself.

Feldman’s text is autobiographical adjacent – her father was a Christian Palestinian raised in Jerusalem who immigrated to the United States. And like Yasmeen, she made a Jewish best friend at 18 years old (who later became her husband). Feldman’s deep connection to the story can be seen and felt in the text – it makes the world Yasmeen is experiencing rich and filled with detail and emotion.

3 Defects

These are going to be nit-picky. The book was really excellent and these are SMALL defects. The first of these small defects is that

  1. I felt like there was a little TOO much happening in the story – dance lessons, math competitions, mean girl drama, friendship crossing cultural borders, grandma moving in, keeping in touch with old friends, budding romances, etc. MAYBE some of the smaller side stories could have been cut down to focus the story a little more? It would have strengthened an already great book.
  2. Sometimes the 12-year-old characters describe or explain things in a very “grown up” way. One of the students refers to themselves as a Dreamer (as in Hispanic/Latinx Dreamer), another deeply describes traditions, etc. While the explanations are needed, especially in a book for middle grade readers, these explanations coming from student to student seem… “beyond their years” wise.
  3. Lots of mini climaxes in the book leading up to the big one – while this keeps the story moving, some younger readers may have trouble following along with the story, especially in exposition periods between the peaks.

3 Delights

  1. The level of “world building” that Feldman has done is fantastic! I feel like I’ve walked into Yasmeen’s house and I’ve met her family members just based on the level of description laid out in the story.
  2. I really appreciate how well all of the conflicts and deeper issues were described and dealt with in a middle grade appropriate way. The novel touches on a HUGE range of social issues in a way that the average middle schooler or upper elementary student can understand. The novel would be a great jumping off point for non-fiction pairings or a social issues unit. The novel has SO many possibilities social issue discussions!
  3. The story and characters are just so SOLID and beautifully written. I appreciate how deeply I could connect to what Yasmeen was thinking and feeling and how lovely the conclusion of the story was – sometimes it’s just really nice to read a novel that has a happy ending (even though some people might find it too idyllic). The novel ends in a place of hope and community and it’s great.

FIC PER (Reviewing “Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms”)

So I’m not sure if it was a change in schedule/routine around our home, my anxiety brain, or the book itself, but I had a really difficult time finishing “Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms” by Jamar J. Perry. The book itself was wonderfully middle grade and features an all Black cast of characters, which seems to be unusual for currently published middle grade fantasy novels (which SHOULDN’T BE THE CASE). I’ll lay down a quick summary and then give you my disappointments and delights as always.

Book cover with purple background with magical window of a city with flying creatures over it. In foreground, a boy stands with a floating, glowing, magical book. Gold text reads "Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms by Jamar J. Perry".
Book cover of “Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms”

Cameron Battle grew up reading and treasuring The Book of Chidani, a storybook about an African kingdom that removed itself from the world to save its people from the transatlantic slave trade (think Wakanda vibes, but magic instead of tech). The Book, passed from generation to generation in Cameron’s family, is precious to him as it’s one of the few reminders he has of his parents, who disappeared and were considered dead two years ago. Since their disappearance, his grandma has kept the book locked away in the attic. But during a thunderstorm, the power goes out and he and his friends Zion and Aliyah open the attic to find the electrical panel, but instead find themselves sucked into the book and transported to Chidani, where they learn that the kingdom is in grave danger and that Cameron is the last Descendant, brought to Chidani by the Book to save the kingdom (and the wider world) from destruction. Cameron and his friends find themselves set on a quest to recover the Queen’s three gifts from the Gods, stolen by her own sister, who wants to remove the barriers surrounding the timeless kingdom of Chidani.

3 Defects

  1. For me, the text moved both too slowly and too quickly. Too slow in the beginning – the exposition, which I usually don’t mind in a book, was longer than I felt it needed to be, but also sometimes too fast – sometimes I wanted more depth to the challenges they faced along the journey and more thought into what happening to the characters and their feelings and emotions.
  2. There was a lot of repetition in this book, to the point where some of the ideas/facts were hammered in so often, it became annoying to me as an adult reader. It was a similar feeling to the one I experienced when reading “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” where I kept saying “Okay, Harry, I get it. Draco’s horrible and he’s doing something bad”. I felt like saying to Cameron during this book “Okay, Cameron, I get it, your parents are dead, you don’t want to be here, you don’t want your friends in peril, etc.” But for a pre-teen reader, this may not bother them in the same way. If they’re an avid fantasy reader, though, and they enjoy tackling things like Riordan or Rowling novels, this may lead to them feeling #3.
  3. The story felt “awkward” to me sometimes – the action didn’t flow in the way that I want a fantasy novel to flow. Sometimes things felt stilted or you weren’t sure what the POV was or where the magic was happening. And this might also be impacted by too many characters and/or world building that felt “unnatural” or rushed in some ways.

3 Delights

  1. A full Black/African cast of characters in a fantasy novel! Whooo! It’s sad that this is unfortunately an “oddity” and not a norm, but for a kid who’s looking to see a representation of themselves in a fantasy novel, this is fantastic!
  2. West African mythology is represented in a way that makes me want to learn more outside of the text on my own, but presented with enough information in the text that I know enough of the mythology that I can understand the gods/goddesses in the way the novel needs me to.
  3. Magical fighting styles, physical trials, special powers, hero’s journey type trials are all there. It makes the book rather action packed and would be a good hand off to readers who enjoy Rick Riordan or CS Lewis.

FIC RHU (Reviewing “Operation Sisterhood”)

I’m finally back to reading and reviewing books! I took a long break after leaving my job, starting a new job, and launching a small business (I’m not even joking) and now that 2022 is here, I’m jumping back on the reading horse, so to speak.

My goals are to read new books in the month that they are released, trying to hit at least one middle grade and one young adult novel each month (and then just picking what looks interesting). My goals are to write at least once a week (likely Sunday nights) for the WHOLE YEAR (eek!).

The first book off the list for January 2022 was “Operation Sisterhood” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

Cover image of “Operation Sisterhood”

In “Operation Sisterhood”, 11-year-old Bo, short for Tokunbo, and her mom (who she calls “Mum”) have always been each other’s everything – they relied on each other through thick and thin. But when her mom’s boyfriend, Bill, proposes marriage, Bo and her Mum leave their tiny 1-room apartment and move to a large Harlem brownstone that houses not just Bill and his daughter Sunday, but also identical twins, Lil and Lee, their parents, Hope and Charles, and a whole assortment of animals (chickens, cats, dogs, lizards, etc.). Thrust into instant sisterhood after being an only child for 11 years, Bo struggles to adapt to free-schooling, shared spaces, constant noise, and having to share her Mum with others. Bo must find herself and where she belongs in her new, vibrant “patchwork family”.

I felt like this novel was a love story to both New York City and Black girls everywhere. Rhuday-Perkovich fills this book with humor, Black history, and a whole lot of positivity and love. Even though Bo struggles to find herself and her role in her new family, she learns lessons about love, sisterhood, strength, and unapologetically being who you are along the way. While the book definitely falls on the younger side of middle grade readers (probably most appropriate for 4th-6th graders), it was lovely to read as a grown up!

3 Defects

  1. This book has a LOT of characters. For a younger reader, this may prove problematic, as tracking all of those characters can be difficult! While all the characters are lovely and “real”, some readers will struggle with the myriad of names and remembering how everyone is related.
  2. So many details! While this is ALSO one of my Delights about this book, the depth of detail in the description may be confusing for some readers who would like or need a faster paced read.
  3. There are many side stories/small climaxes on the way to the larger climax of the book. While this sometimes builds suspense, these side stories also slow the pace of the book. As a reader who prefers high action novels (I’m sorry, I just like fantasy/science fiction/dystopian novels…), this book felt a little “slow”, pace wise. I didn’t have cliff hanger moments with the title, or pieces of the story where I felt like I couldn’t put it down.

3 Delights

  1. This story discusses the Black Lives Matter movement, the importance of learning and knowing Black history and culture, and understanding African diaspora in a way that is appropriate for mid/upper elementary students. Bo’s blended family (and Bo’s family friends) has a wide range of cultural heritages and Rhuday-Perkovich depicts all she can with love and understanding. There is so much to be learned from the novel – I was looking up new songs, books, and historical figures as I read, learning parts of Black American and African history that I never touched before!
  2. This book is gentle. So often what I read is not (remember, fan of dystopian lit?). Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that doesn’t have swear words, jokes made by one character at the expense of another character, or any sort of violence. It would be easy to recommend this book to a teacher who is looking for a gentle social issues text!
  3. The writing is beautifully detailed, making the story feel rich and real. I can distinctly picture the family brownstone (inside and out) and its surrounding Harlem neighborhood. Rhuday-Perkovich doesn’t shy away from filling the page richly, and as an adult reader, this was really nice coming from a middle grade book (sometimes I find description lacking in lower level texts).

FIC CAR (Reviewing “The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora”)

A brief warning – this is a reread for me. It’s part of the 2020-2021 Wisconsin Battle of the Books list for the middle school level and I am on the BOB committee. Typically, I am a speed reader; I sometimes miss the finer details in a story because I glaze over them as I’m speeding through the plot on my merry way. But when you have to stop every few paragraphs or pages to write a question, you catch things you missed on your first speed through. I always find a second read of books enjoyable slightly because of my tendency to speed through the text.

“The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora” written by Pablo Cartaya, is a 2018 Pura Belpre Honor Book. In the story, Arturo is part of a large extended family, all of whom work in or support the work of his Abuela’s restaurant. When the lot next to the restaurant becomes available for development, Arturo’s family jumps at the chance to submit their plan for the lot to the city; they want to build a room for parties, weddings, and other events. But they soon discover that they’re not the only applicant for the lot. A developer by the name of Wilfrido Pipo has also applied for the chance to build on the lot, and when Arturo and Carmen (the girl Arturo has a major crush on) start to dig deeper into the glorious “community center” of a high rise that Pipo has promised, they realize that the building isn’t going to just be built on the empty lot, but also on the land where the family restaurant stands. Arturo, with the help of his friends and family, tries to save the family restaurant and the neighborhood.

Themes include: family, community, gentrification, and social justice

3 Defects

  1. This book uses quite a bit of Spanish, which makes TOTAL sense for the character and his family, but it doesn’t provide much direction translation and depends on the reader to use the context clues to figure out what was said. For an adept reader, this won’t be an issue at all and adds to the depth of the character, but it may make for difficult reading for readers who struggle to use context clues to decipher text.
  2. Arturo has a couple of friends who feature briefly in the book, but interaction between the friends is fairly minimal. I would have liked to see the characters a little more? Super nit-picky, though.
  3. The villain is pretty ‘one note’ and stereotypical (but so too, are some business people I can think of…). We also have some plot holes that would be lovely additions to the novel if they were filled.

3 Delights

  1. Arturo is such a lovely, gentle character who embraces family, embraces his identity, and discovers that he holds power, even when it feels like he has none. Family is a CENTRAL theme in this book and Arturo feels confident in his place/roll in the family and it shows through his gentle introspection.
  2. This book is appropriate for a WIDE range of students. From 4th grade (as long as you don’t mind a little “crush” and a kiss for this age group) all the way through 8th, I think students will connect with the novel on a variety of facets. The reading level sits solidly at a W, but if you have a young reader who needs an “appropriate” W text, this is a great one.
  3. All of Cartaya’s characters (minus our villain) feel authentic, even those we see for very brief moments throughout the novel. You really get a feel for the Canal Grove neighborhood where Arturo’s family lives. Without the supporting cast of characters, the story wouldn’t mean as much; Arturo wouldn’t be a great without the family and friends who support and bolster him.

FIC LAI (Reviewing “Pie in the Sky”)

“Pie in the Sky” by Remy Lai is what I like to call an “illustrated novel”. Living somewhere between a graphic novel and a typical novel, the book bounces back and forth between illustrations and comic-like storytelling and traditional novel text. Much like its other ‘illustrated novel’ counterparts like Libenson’s “Invisible Emmie” and Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, Lai’s “Pie in the Sky” is easily accessible to a middle grade reader, particularly the 5th or 6th grade reader, who I think the novel is perfect for.

11-year-old Jingwen feels like he’s landed on another planet after his family moves to Australia shortly after the death of his father. Feeling a bit like an alien, he struggles with learning English, making friends, and finding his own way through the grief he’s still living after his father’s death. Trying to fill the loneliness and sadness, Jingwen decides that he is going to bake all of the cakes his father was planning to have on the menu at the bakery he was planning on opening in Australia when they arrived. The only problem with the plan is that his mother, who works a late shift at a bakery, has forbidden Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao, from using the oven while she’s at work.

Jingwen decides that baking is more important than telling his mother lies and he and his brother hatch a plan to secretly bake the entire “Pie in the Sky” menu while their mother is at work. But as any lie does, things start to quickly get out of hand for Jingwen as he struggles to keep the cakes a secret from his mother.

3 Defects

  1. For a reader unaccustomed to jumping back and forth between traditional text and comic/graphic novel illustration, this may be difficult to read in some parts, as the illustrations are as important as the text is. While the layout is solid for MOST of the novel, there are a couple of passages where it is more difficult to make the transition back and forth and a reader may lose understanding.
  2. SMALL defect here, but our main character and almost all of the supporting characters of the same age in the story are male. I don’t think that this detracts at all from the story, but I could see how this might be a turn off for readers who are looking for a female protagonist or side-kick.
  3. I’m a little sad that we never really know where Jingwen’s home before Australia actually is. We, as readers, can make some guesses based on names and descriptions, but a part of me would have liked it explicitly stated.

3 Delights

  1. This book has a perfect balance of deep, heartfelt emotion and humor. Readers will resonate with Jingwen’s guilt, loneliness, confusion, frustration, and grief while at the same time have the opportunity to laugh at the bickering and humorous relationship between Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao. Lai juxtaposes the two sides to the story beautifully in the novel.
  2. The illustrations are beautifully simple. I especially enjoy when the illustrations are used for flashbacks to a time before Jingwen’s father’s death and their interaction together baking cakes. Characters are emotive in the illustrations, making it easy to decipher the deeper meaning within each picture.
  3. The story falls beautifully into the #OwnVoices category, as Lai emigrated to Australia from Singapore, where she grew up. The story doesn’t shy away from what it feels like to be “other” in a new country and it honestly and deeply discusses the immigrant experience.

Overall, this novel gets a 4.5 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something that I would easily recommend to readers in grades 4 and up.