Tag Archives: middle grade

November 2018 books

The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware 11.29

This was on the NPR Book Concierge and it sounded like the kind of mystery I’d like. It was! I’m always a sucker for the “assuming someone’s identity” trope, and Ware plays nicely with that here. I also liked Harriet a lot. It feels very old-fashioned on several levels, I think intentionally, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that aspect.

Pride Ibi Zoboi 11.29  (review tomorrow)

Girl at the Grave Teri Bailey Black 11.25 [review]

Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram 11.17  [review]

The Language of Power Rosemary Kirstein 11.16  [review]

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road Sheba Karim 11.14  [review]

Making Friends Kristen Gudsnuk 11. 9  

The Witch Boy Molly Knox Ostertag 11.8 

The Proposal Jasmine Guillory 11.9  [review]

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Deborah Hopkinson 11.7  [review]

 

Total books read: 10

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Pride
  • Witch Boy

Weekly reading roundups:

I kind of stopped doing the weekly roundups towards the end of this month, but I could be persuaded to try them again if anyone is interested!

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Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson weaves together first person narratives from passengers and crew of the Titanic, to give a picture of the first and last voyage of the ship. It’s published for children, but written in an accessible enough way that adults might enjoy reading it as well.

I read this one because I had scheduled it for my homeschool book club at work and then realized I’d never read it. Due to reasons, I ended up reading most of it as an ebook.

Reading Titanic so soon after reading Patricia Sutton’s Capsized! was an interesting experience. There are certainly some similiarities between the books–children’s non-fiction focusing on a disaster, with an emphasis on the experiences of the survivors. Obviously, the sinking of the Titanic is much more well known than the sinking of the Eastland, and therefore the amount of material available to Hopkinson makes for what I think is a slightly more complex read.

I will say that although I’m familiar with the story of the Titanic, the progression of events has never quite sunk in for me. Having the information presented the way Hopkinson does here was actually very helpful and informative! It does make for a tough emotional read because, whoo boy, a lot of this tragedy could have been mitigated had things turned out slightly differently.

Overall, Hopkinson focuses on narratives from survivors, which makes sense on several levels. First, because there were almost no things saved from the Titanic–unsent letters, diaries, etc, most likely went down with the ship. Second, because it’s obviously the survivors who afterwards contributed the most to the historical record of narratives and remembrances. But also, I thought it made a nice way to approach this story for kids, in a way that engages with the reality of the disaster and the effects it had on the people who were present without being too horrifying.

The book also includes some information about myths that have sprung up around the Titanic and its sinking, with a quick summary of what historians and primary narratives say actually happened. I liked the approach here, which wasn’t to spend too much time on the myths while also debunking them.

I’d say that Hopkinson is a very strong writer of narrative non-fiction. There’s a decent balance of different types of people represented here, including some of the crew and some third-class passengers. I haven’t read a lot of Titanic non-fiction to know how she compares to others. But I’d recommend Titanic: Voices from the Disaster as a solid primer on what happened to the Titanic, or for any fans of non-fiction with an emphasis on the people involved.

See also: Capsized! by Patricia Sutton 

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Previously, on By Singing Light

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (2014)
What to read After Howl’s Moving Castle (2013)
The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (2009)

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October 2018 books

A Scholar of Magics Caroline Stevermer 10.31

Fake Blood Whitney Gardner 10.28

Border Kapka Kassapova 10.27 [review]

Exit Strategy Martha Wells 10.26

Jade City Fonda Lee 10.23 [review]

Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman 10.21 [review]

Capsized! Patricia Sutton 10.18 [review]

Monstrous Regiment of Women Laurie Russell King 10.17

Drum Roll Please Lisa Jenn Bigelow 10.14

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie Russell King 10.13

The Wild Dead Carrie Vaughn

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 10.12

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea Lynn Rae Perkins 10.12

Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 10.9

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) Ann Hood 10.9

The Lost Scroll: The Book of Kings Sarah Prineas 10.4

 

Total books read: 16

Total rereads: 1

Favorites:

  • Spinning Silver
  • Midnight Robber
  • Drum Roll Please
  • Border
  • Exit Strategy

Weekly reading roundups:

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Capsized! by Patricia Sutton

Capsized!: The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster by Patricia Sutton (Chicago Review Press, July 2018) is a children’s non-fiction book about a largely forgotten disaster–the capsizing of a passenger-laden steamboat in the Chicago River in 1915. It’s a fairly slim book with a fair number of contemporary photos of both the people and the actual events of the capsizing. Sutton’s author’s note indicates that she has been fascinated with the story for a long time and I’d say this book shows how much research she has done to uncover eyewitness accounts and reports.

I thought that I picked Capsized!  up because I had challenged myself a while back to try to read (or at least attempt) the middle grade books from the Publisher’s Weekly best books of summer 2018 list. But it turns out, it’s not on that list! It did receive a Kirkus star, so I may have seen the review there and thought it looked interesting.

The SS Eastland story is one I think I was vaguely familiar with but certainly didn’t know much about. And oh wow, this is a tough one! The details of the disaster are pretty much horrifying. It’s one of those examples of how a bunch of small mistakes can build up to a situation that goes really, really awry. So the first part of the book is full of a sense of impending doom since you know what’s about to happen and all the people in the book are blithely getting ready for a company picnic.

Part of what’s so devastating is the fact that most of the victims were from a very close-knit community who lived in neighborhoods around the Western Electric factory where they or their families worked. Towards the end of the book, Sutton mentions that on one street there was not a single house without mourning ribbons on the door. The narrative follows a couple of families, giving a sense of how they fit into the overall picture of Western Electric employees and families, through their part in the disaster, and wrapping up with what happened to them later. The inclusion of photographs from the capsizing and the aftermath strengthen the power of the text nicely.

The book does an excellent job of painting the background picture: the history of the SS Eastland, the immigrant communities that many of the workers were part of, the pressure from the management of Western Electric to attend the picnic. That being said, I felt that the bulk of the book focused on the lead-up to the accident, and I wished that a little more time had been spent on what happened afterwards, although since Sutton notes that war news replaced the reporting on the capsizing almost immediately this may be partly an issue with the historical record.

Overall, this is a powerful and devastating read that I would recommend for grades 5+. Hand this one to anyone who loves reading about forgotten history or disasters, especially the kids who are into the Titanic and ready to branch out.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (2013)
Libraries and Life Preservers (2014)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2015)
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (2016)

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August 2018 books

This was a pretty good month for books! I didn’t love everything equally, but I did have a couple of really strong reads and that’s always nice. I’m hoping to finish up the Steerswoman series in September and keep reading the Astreiant books. Just as a reminder, I always post each book I finish on Instagram, so if you’d like to stay up to date on what I’m most currently reading, head over there.

Summer of Salt Katrina Leno 8.31

Point of Hopes Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett 8.29

The Bookshop on the Corner Jenny Colgan 8.27

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Louis Sachar 8.26

The Lost Steersman Rosemary Kirstein 8.25

A College of Magics Caroline Stevermer (reread) 8.20

The Kiss Quotient Helen Hoang 8.18 [review]

Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany Jackson 8.18

Last Shot DJ Older 8.18 [review]

Recipes for Love and Murder Sally Andrews 8.17

Where the Watermelons Grow Cindy Baldwin 8.13 [review]

Black Panther Long Live the King 8.13

Rogue Protocol Martha Wells 8.10

Cafe by the Sea Jenny Colgan 8.9

Starless Jacqueline Carey 8.7 [review]

Valley Girls Sarah Nicole Lemon 8.1 [review]

 

Total books read: 15

Total rereads: 1

 

Favorites:

  • Valley Girls
  • Cafe by the Sea
  • Rogue Protocol
  • Monday’s Not Coming
  • Point of Hopes
  • Summer of Salt

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Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

I’ve been trying to keep up with some middle grade books beyond the fantasy I gravitate towards, which is the reason I picked this one up. Having finished it, I have very mixed thoughts.  There are some aspects that are great, some aspects that didn’t work as well for me personally, and one big thing that I have some real issues with and think is potentially harmful.

Where the Watermelons Grow is contemporary and…mostly realistic (more on that in a sec).  It’s the story of Della Kelly, the summer she’s 12, when a drought hits her area of North Carolina and her world falls apart. Her daddy’s farm isn’t growing well because of the drought, her baby sister is a whirlwind, and her mother is showing signs that her schizophrenia is returning as it has twice before. Della decides that rather than let her family disintegrate, she has to do something to fix it.

There’s also a small town, Della’s best friend Arden who moved from up North, and a spinster lady with magical honey that can cure anything. Except Della’s Mamma.

So, there’s a lot happening in this book and I’m not sure it all worked together very well. On the positive side, Baldwin nails the feeling that a lot of kids have when there is something really big and scary going on in their adults’ lives: I must have caused this somehow. It’s my fault and my responsibility to fix. Della becomes increasingly scattered over the course of the book as she tries different ways to cure her mother, once and for all.  I certainly recognized it from when I was young, and I appreciated seeing it in a story for 11-12-year-olds. It’s an age when you’re starting to understand hard things but when you often don’t have the ability to process them adequately without some help.

I didn’t love the magical realism aspect, which didn’t feel integrated into the story as fully as I would have wished. And none of the minor characters seemed to have any life beyond Della and her perspective–which is fine if that’s a authorial choice. I’m not sure it was here. Baldwin seemed to be reaching for the “quirky Southern town” theme we’ve seen in some other middle grade recently. These aren’t ever my favorite books, but here the quirkiness felt undercut by the seriousness of the rest of the story, neither quite leavening it with humor or working to reinforce it.

However, the biggest problem that I have is the portrayal of Della’s mother. I struggled with this, because I absolutely think that a story about a child whose parent has a mental illness can be helpful and vital. I really liked This Is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky, for instance. This can be a really tough thing to grow up with and experience, especially when our society is still so far from real understanding or support for people with mental illnesses. And middle grade is a perfect time to address this.

But–but–I really struggled throughout this story with how Suzanne, Della’s mom, is shown. I acknowledge that this story is entirely through Della’s eyes, and that we’re meant to read along and grow with her.  I also acknowledge that the book very explicitly supports medication for mental illnesses, and tries to break down some of the stigmas of hospitalization.

That being said, Della over and over says that she wants a “normal mother,” and she wants to cure her mom. That’s understandable from a kid’s perspective, but it still stung to read. What’s worse, for me, is that both Della and her father express exasperation with her mother, feeling how much of a burden she is to them. I think we’re meant to sympathize with Della’s father as he is struggling to raise two kids and keep the farm going in the middle of a drought. But to me all of his interactions came across as patronizing or outright unkind towards his wife. And the idea that people with mental illnesses are burdens to their loved ones is very much a real life issue that’s incredibly hurtful. I disliked seeing it perpetuated here without much interrogation.

It’s also unfortunate that Suzanne has absolutely no personality aside from her mental illnesses. (While Della talks about schizophrenia by name several times, it also sounds like Suzanne has another OCD-like disorder which is not specifically named.) Towards the very end of the book, she sings once and Della says she’s always loved her mother’s voice, but that thread isn’t present anywhere else in the book. We know almost nothing about her likes or dislikes, who she essentially is as a person. She exists almost entirely as a negative force, her illness the antagonist that’s keeping Della from being happy, “normal,” like her friend Arden. She is explained over and over by Della’s father, but we never get to see her explain herself. Part of this is due to the tight focus of the book, which starts when she is already experiencing more symptoms, but part of it is also due to a lack of characterization which keeps her from ever being seen as a real person.

I also kept wondering as I was reading what this book is saying to kids who have mental illnesses. If you are 12 and have anxiety, if you are 13 and have depression, how would it feel to see the only character with a mental illness be shown in such a relentlessly negative light? How would it feel to see that your pain is a burden?

This isn’t exactly a bad book, and I’d be curious to read whatever Baldwin writes next. Showing kids who are struggling with feeling the weight of the world that it’s not always their fault, that they’re allowed to seek help from trusted adults, and that they’re allowed to be upset is a good thing. But because of the depiction of mental illness and the way Della’s mom is never given her own voice, I don’t think I could recommend it.

Books I do recommend:
When I Find Her by Sara Polsky (upper middle-grade/YA)
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand (middle-grade)
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (YA)
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Previously on By Singing Light:
“On the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope”: why I love Galadriel (2016)
Patricia McKillip Reading Notes: The Book of Atrix Wolfe (2015)
Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols (2013)

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July 2018 books

Most Wanted Rae Carson 7.26

Dread Nation Justina Ireland 7.22

Always Never Yours Emily Wibberley and Austen Siegemund-Broka 7.22

By Your Side Kasie West 7.12

Listen to Your Heart Kasie West 7.10

Front Desk Kelly Yang 7.10

All Summer Long Hope Larson 7.10

The Girl with the Red Balloon Katherine Locke 7.9

Unicorn Rescue Society: The Creature of the Pines Adam Gidwitz 7.6

Puddin’ Julie Murphy 7.2

The Beauty That Remains Ashley Woodfolk 7.2

 

Total books read: 11
Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • The Girl with the Red Balloon
  • All Summer Long
  • Front Desk
  • Listen To Your Heart

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