Tag Archives: middle grade

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi E’s dad start seriously dating, neither girl is very happy. After all, who’s ever heard of two Naomis in the same family? And it’s hard to be okay with big changes, especially when it seems like the adults involved don’t realize how tough it is on their kids. As their parents’ relationship develops, the two Naomis have to navigate a new definition of identity and family.

I’ve wanted to read Two Naomis because my friend Brandy has been talking it up basically since it was published in 2016. And with the sequel published last September, I figured I should finally pick it up!

Stories for middle grade readers are sometimes my favorites, because they don’t pull their punches. Sometimes adults think of books for kids as sweet and light–and there is certainly a place for those. But there is also a place for the books that really take a tough topic and look at it seriously from a kid’s perspective. Here, Rhuday-Perkovich and Vernick write a thoughtful and careful story of a blended family and adapting to change.

Naomi Marie and Naomi E do not instantly take to each other, and they both resent the fact that their parents are trying to push them together (or at least that’s how it feels to them). After all, they’re very different girls even if they do share a name. I was expecting a resolution a bit earlier, but as I thought about it, I actually really appreciated the fact that the story allows them the space to be sad and mad about what’s happening. It felt true and respectful to the kids who might need this story, and it gave the eventual resolution more weight.

I also loved how much the neighborhood shapes the setting of the story. I’ve lived in Midwestern cities for most of my life, and your neighborhood does play such an important part of your experience and perception of the city.

It’s worth mentioning that Naomi Marie is Black and Naomi E is white (as are Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick). Most of the plot doesn’t focus on race, but it comes up in a couple of subtle ways, like Naomi Marie’s little sister’s dolls. I don’t know how this would register for kids, especially white kids who aren’t already used to thinking about race, but I’m glad it wasn’t ignored.

All in all, this is a story that’s thoughtful and generous towards its characters and, by extension, its readers. Recommended for fans of The War that Saved My Life, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and Merci Suarez.

Other reviews:
Life Writings of a Reader
Novi books
YA Books Central

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Three Graphic Novels (2018)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry (2014)
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)

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Recent Reading: Yoon Ha Lee, Theodora Goss, and Sara Farizan

Oh boy, it’s been a weird, tough couple of weeks over here. Some sort of late-winter funk hit me pretty hard and I’m just now finding the motivation to write about books again, even though I’ve been reading the whole time. All three of these could easily be their own post but at this point I’m going to wrap them up and move on.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

The latest release from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint (an endeavor that I have 10,000 thoughts about and am endlessly fascinated by) and it’s by Yoon Ha Lee, whose adult fiction I’ve loved for years, and it’s a middle grade scifi? Obviously I was going to read this!

Initially, I found the story slightly baffling in places–there were several moments where I expected some emotional fallout or repercussions from a plot point that just…didn’t happen. But once I adjusted to that, the second half of the book was really lovely and the end made me choke up a little. There’s a glorious sense of wonder and eeriness that a lot of scifi I like conveys, and that’s present here too. This is science fantasy in a lot of ways, and yet I found the ship scenes and the fox magic equally compelling.

(It’s also all about siblings and friendship, those two eternal middle grade themes that are my favorites!)

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel planned for this one, but I could easily see it working–or letting it be a standalone with a beautiful ending full of love and loss and possibility.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

THIS IS SUCH A LONG BOOK.

Look, I liked the story a lot, and I’ll even say I liked the experience of reading this book, but IT’S SO LONG. And I both love long books and sometimes feel like they could have been edited down a lot. In this case I finished reading and still really think that the length wasn’t entirely earned. Especially in the middle section, there were a lot of “this happened and then this happened” details which moved the characters around the map to the places they needed to be but made the whole effect kind of plodding. I get that this is 1) very consciously hearkening back to the Victorian doorstoppers of yore and 2) very consciously a travelogue where details of traveling make a lot of sense. But still! I would have been fine with a few things not being spelled out and some pages being cut.

That said, I do really like the actual story. The concept of the Athena Club–the daughters and creations of the protagonists of Victorian SFF–is one that could be a bit hokey but is quite powerful in Goss’s hands. She allows the main characters to be brought together by affection, but mostly by circumstances. They have very different attitudes towards their fathers, towards the world, and towards themselves. And so the relationships between them are all complex, with disagreements and sometimes a feeling of almost being trapped together. At the same time, they’re learning how to be protagonists of their own story, rather than passive creations. And I enjoy the asides a lot!

So, despite the length, I’m still planning to read the third (and, I believe, final) volume of the Athena Club when it comes out!

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations from this book (sometimes I know exactly when and why I decided to read a book and other times I have no idea) but I ended up liking it quite a bit. It’s a book about race and prejudice, but equally about family and friendship and what it means to be part of a team. Without being a “redeem the racist bully” storyline at all, there are some surprises from a couple of characters and we get to see Bijan’s growth in his relationships as well.

Also, I just liked Bijan a lot. Since it’s a book that’s so focused on big, heavy topics, there’s always a chance that it could feel trite or forced. But Bijan has a nice snark to his narration that keeps the story feeling realistic overall.

I did personally find one aspect of the storyline to be wrapped up a little too simply. But aside from that, Here to Stay does a great job of tackling some really important topics in a way felt thoughtful and genuine, while also being a kind and funny look at one boy’s story.

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The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

girl with the dragon heartSilke may not feel at home in the city of Drachenburg, but she does have a place there. She has a friend who is also a dragon, and she helps in a magical chocolate shop. She tells stories and writes handbills. But then the fairies who stole her parents away arrive and Silke has to confront her past and spy on them if she wants to stop their plots.

I loved the first book in this series, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and I was really curious to see how the shift in perspective would translate. Also, I like Stephanie Burgis a lot as a writer and a person.

Silke has really had some traumatic things happen and the story doesn’t shy away from showing that. Her family has been lost and her place in Drachenburg feels tenuous, always under threat from the established citizens who might turn on her community at any moment. But there are moments of warmth and companionship as well. It felt more serious tonally than we sometimes get in middle grade, without being grim.

Silke herself is a smart, thoughtful character who is competent and knows her own strengths. But she also doesn’t just seem like an adult in disguise. She’s full of competing desires and tensions in a way that seemed very appropriate for someone who has been forced to grow up very quickly but who is still a child.

I loved the fact that Silke is a storyteller, who uses her ability to protect herself and the people she cares about. But that ability is also what brings her to the attention of the Crown Princess who pressures her into spying on the fairy royalty during their visit. Ultimately, Silke will have to find out if she can tell her own story or if it will always be told for her.

The story also asks some big questions about family and home. How do you define your family? How do you know what your true home looks like? But also, what would you do to protect them, and what wouldn’t you do? We see these questions play out across several sets of families within the story, including the Crown Princess and her sister, and the fairy King and Queen. But most of all, we see it in Silke, who has a complicated relationship with her brother and has lost her parents but who also isn’t ready to trust the promise of belonging that the chocolate shop and Aventurine hold out to her.

All in all, I really enjoyed this one and found it an unexpectedly deep look at some big questions of belonging, the tension between expectation and identity, and the importance of diplomacy. While as an adult I could guess that our current geo-political situation prompted some of the storytelling choices, that in no way overwhelmed the integrity of the story. There’s a third book focusing on Princess Sofia that’s coming out next year and I can’t wait!

Other reviews of this book:
The Story Sanctuary
Fantasy Literature
Foreward Reviews

Other Stephanie Burgis reviews here:
Masks and Shadows (2016)
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading Mystery Round Up (2018)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2017)
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (2016)
Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand (2015)
Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier (2014)
Letters from Berlin (2013)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (2011)

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January 2019 reading

I did not read as much as I wanted to this month, but I read some really awesome books. A few of these I suspect will end up on my end-of-year favorites list! As I mentioned the other day, I’m trying out a new system for my active TBR, and I’m hoping it will result in getting more books either read or passed on.

The Winged Histories –  Sofia Samatar [review]
Sawkill Girls  – Claire Legrand [review]
The Prince & the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
Nate Expectations – Tim Federle
I, Claudia – Mary McCoy [review]
Frederica – Georgette Heyer
Begone the Raggedy Witches – Celine Kiernan [review]
Merci Suarez Changes Gears – Meg Medina
The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams
Sanity and Tallulah – Molly Brooks
A Spark of White Fire – Sangu Mandanna [review]
The Girl with the Dragon Heart – Stephanie Burgis

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 2

Favorites:

  • The Winged Histories
  • I, Claudia
  • Begone the Raggedy Witches
  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears
  • Sanity & Tallulah
  • A Spark of White Fire
  • The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Other posts:

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Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

Mup has always taken her Aunty’s rules for granted (don’t go into the forest, don’t talk about your grandmother). After all, she lives a safe, comfortable life with her parents and little brother Tipper. But then her Aunty passes away and the raggedy witches appear and Mup’s dad disappears. Suddenly nothing is safe or comfortable, and Mup and her family must be courageous and strong if they’re going to get their dad back.

Begone the Raggedy Witches (Candlewick, 2018) is written by Celine Kiernan, an Irish author. Although it’s not mentioned specifically, I believe the story is mostly set in Ireland. As far as I know, the story is not based on a specific folktale, but it does feel infused with deep folk beliefs and images (a bit like Tiffany Aching). Likewise, Kiernan trusts her readers to follow her into another world without specifically calling it fairyland. I liked this approach a lot; it allows the story to stand independently while also giving the imagery a feeling of depth and meaning. I also found it kind of a fresh take on a portal fantasy.

Mostly, I really loved Mup and her determination. When she knows she’s going into the realm of the raggedy witches, she dresses in her brightest, shiniest clothes in a little bit of defiance. And this moment is a nice example of the courage she shows throughout the story. But she also cares deeply about her family and the people she meets, especially those who have no one else to care about them. I got the sense that she really wants to understand people and why they approach the world the way they do. The character-building here is fantastic and since I am almost always a character-driven reader, I really appreciated this.

There is a lot of complexity in Begone the Raggedy Witches, between the fraught history between Mup’s mother and her Aunty and the political and social tensions in Witches’ Borough. And Kiernan doesn’t water this down for kids at all. There’s a lot of thought about what it means to be complicit in someone else’s horrible actions and what it happens when you take away someone else’s choices even out of good intentions. But it’s also a hopeful book, with an emphasis on renewal and regeneration. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there are some lovely scenes about the return of magic that worked really well for me.

Scary books seem to be popular with kids right now, and this one would be great to recommend to a kid who doesn’t truly want to be scared but doesn’t mind something a little bit creepy. The raggedy witches are pretty terrifying at first, and the evil Queen of Witches’ Borough (who also happens to be Mup’s grandmother) is spine-chilling. The consequences are pretty real and not everything is happily resolved by the end. But it would be perfect for the reader who’s comfortable with a mature look at power in a fantasy world, with some funny moments and an overall empowering feel.

Finally, I really loved Kiernan’s prose in this book. There’s a crisp vividness to the descriptions and everything stays grounded in Mup’s perspective which helps the reader discover the world as she does. It’s poetic in maybe my favorite sense: not necessarily flowery but with a turn of phrase that illuminates and makes everything strange and beautiful. This was just a lovely read, from the gorgeous cover through to the ending.

Other reviews:
Charlotte (who, unsurprisingly, also liked it)
Kate Forsyth
Celine Kiernan answers some questions
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Thief (2012)
Bujold Week: Brothers in Arms (2014)
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (2015)
Booklist: Books that have been helping me lately (2017)

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December 2018 reading

I was in the middle of a reading slump for most of December, so I really didn’t get as many books finished as I wanted. But I did go out with some pretty strong titles!

Also, some of you know that I had surgery last December–I finally wrote up everything that happened and shared it. If you’d like to learn more, that document is here.

Mistletoe and Murder Robin Stevens 12.27 175

Arabella Georgette Heyer 12.25 174

For a Muse of Fire Heidi Heilig 12.24 173

The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller 12.22 172

Cousin Kate Georgette Heyer 12.18 171

The Word for World is Forest Ursula K Le Guin 12.18 170

Keeper of the Isis Light Monica Hughes 12.12 169

The House on Chicken Legs Sophie Anderson 12.11 168

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead 12.7 167

Lumberjanes v. 7 12.6  164-166

Lumberjanes v. 8

Lumberjanes v. 9

 

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 3 (When You Reach Me; Cousin Kate; Arabella)

Favorites:

  • For a Muse of Fire
  • The Song of Achilles

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The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson and Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I’m still in the middle of a reading slump, but I wanted to write quick reviews for a couple of books that I did manage to finish recently. Neither were quite to my taste, just fyi!

Also, I wrote a newsletter recently about some 2018 favorites, not including books. If that’s of interest to you, check it out!

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

Marinka has grown up as a Yaga, traveling around the world with her Baba in their house with chicken legs. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about becoming the next Guardian and guiding the souls of the dead. When she makes some rebellious choices and things don’t pan out the way she hoped, Marinka is left to figure what her place in the world can be.

I have a longstanding affection for the Baba Yaga stories, and therefore any take on that folktale has some interest for me. Also, I think some people I follow on Twitter liked this one, though now that I’m saying it, I don’t remember who they were.

Anyway, The House With Chicken Legs has an interesting premise and take on the folktale, with the Yagas becoming a loosely connected group who guide the souls of the recently dead to the next world. Within that premise, though, I struggled with a couple of aspects. First, if the Yagas truly travel through the whole world, I wasn’t sure why they would all have Eastern European names and apparent backgrounds. For myself, I really wanted some more depth and consideration when it came to the worldbuilding. Second, I found the general emotional tone and arc of this story to be fairly muddled. It wasn’t always clear to me why Marinka responded to events the way she did, and a lot of times she seemed to be rebelling against something without it being clear what that was. Because of this, the emotional payoff just wasn’t there for me, unfortunately.

If the premise sounds interesting, I’d still recommend giving this one a try. It’s entirely possible that it caught me on a grumpy day, or just wasn’t the book for me.

Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

Olwen lives on the planet Isis with her Guardian, the only two people in the whole world. The landscape is dangerous, but she follows her Guardian’s rules and plays with her pet, Hobbit. Then a ship full of new humans arrives to settle the planet, just as Olwen leaves childhood behind. Suddenly everything she thought she knew about her world, the Guardian, and herself are called into question.

I’ve been trying to read some of the older books on my TBR list, and I knew this one was considered somewhat of a classic.

As it turns out, I’ve got a bunch of problems with this one! It’s startling to me to realize that it was only published in 1980, as it feels much more old-fashioned–and not in a remotely good way. There’s literally a magical negro child (aka the only one who understands Olwen) who is also described in fairly racialized language, Olwen herself is sexualized in a way that reads as really, really creepy in this year of 2018. And of course Olwen’s awakening to the differences between her and the other humans happens in large part because she falls in love with one of the teenage boys who’s part of the settlement.

All in all, while there a few interesting ideas in the mix, this book mostly just felt regressive and frustrating to me. On the other hand, I revisited The Book Smugglers’ review and Thea had a much different perspective than I did, so if you’d like to check out a positive take on this title, read what she has to say.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (2015)
The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier (2016)

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