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 SHA (Reviewing “The Light at the Bottom of the World”)

Though it took me longer to read than a book typically would thanks to the constant interruption of a 4-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed London Shah’s “The Light at the Bottom of the World”.

Cover image of the book "The Light at the Bottom of the World"

Leyla McQueen is a sixteen-year-old submersible racer living in the ruins of London, which was “lost” beneath the sea after climate change and an apocalyptic level asteroid strike destroyed the world above the sea, causing massive tidal waves and global flooding and forcing humans beneath the waves to survive. Living independently after the death of her mother and the wrongful arrest of her father, Leyla is offered the opportunity to race in the city’s annual submersible marathon. If she wins, Leyla would be able to ask for “the Ultimate Prize”, which for her would be the release of her father from whatever prison he’s being held in.

When the race takes a surprising turn, Leyla finds herself in deeper water than she could have fathomed: facing a corrupt government, finding the truth about what has happened to her father, and having her previously black and white world turned upside down.

Shah’s writing is engaging and deep. She doesn’t pull punches and lets her characters face dark truths in a young YA appropriate way. The character of Leyla feels appropriately “teen” and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is hopefully in the works. *crosses fingers*

3 Defects

  1. There are a LOT of side stories in the novel, to the point where following/tracking all of them becomes a little tricky. I realize that Shah is world building in this premier novel, which lends itself to some amount of exposition throughout the book, but I think some of the side stories could have been eliminated.
  2. Teenage girls and emotions, man. I get it – possible love interest, angst, the whole deal – is usually a turn on for YA readers. As an adult reading YA, sometimes I’d love to do without it. The way Shah’s Leyla suddenly develops feelings for a boy isn’t my cup of tea, but I get why she wrote it the way she did.
  3. There’s a prologue that’s important but nearly forgotten because it takes awhile for us to understand why it’s important in the course of the story. Prologue is page one, revelation of why it’s important isn’t until after page 200. I wish the revelation would have come sooner so I didn’t almost forget the prologue AND my #2 defect about how quickly feelings for a boy develop would have had more time to be explored in the book.

3 Delights

  1. Shah’s universe is delightfully diverse. Her main character is a practicing Muslim of Middle Eastern descent (though born in the underwater world). Shah doesn’t shy away from Leyla reading the Koran, using Arabic phrases, and having her pray. I can appreciate that in a world where religion could so easily be done away with due to the post-apocalyptic nature of the story, Shah allows it to thrive and be somewhat integral to the main character (and even be a discussion point later in the story).
  2. The story is FAST PACED. There isn’t a lot of “down time” for the reader and exposition is handled throughout the novel instead of concentrated too heavily at the beginning. This book will instantly engage readers and I wouldn’t have to tell someone to “give it at least 50 pages”. By page 50, we’ve already lived an epic battle of a prologue, a fast paced, “illegal” race through the city of London, and nearing the start of the marathon.
  3. The underwater twist to a post-apocalyptic world isn’t something I’ve read recently and Shah does it very well. I appreciate the diversity of ocean life and the real “fear of the abyss” that works itself into the novel. It has a similar eeriness to deep space novels that I’ve read and the crushing depth of the water really plays with the main character’s head and heart.

Overall, this novel gets 4 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something I’d easily recommend to my students grades 7 and up.