Category Archives: review

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

I expected to like this book, I was surprised by how much I liked this book.

Grayson is a 6th grader who lives in downtown Chicago, and Grayson has a secret: inside, she* believes she is a girl, but she was born a boy. She wears baggy pants she can imagine into skirts, and long shirts he can pretend are dresses. She doodles disguised princesses in the margins of her notes.

It’s a simple but brave premise. LGBT issues are rare enough in young adult lit, they’re almost nonexistent in middle grade. This is mostly understandable: most LGBT books focus on the L, G, or B aspect, and physical attraction to another person is a key element to those stories. Middle grade readers aren’t as keen on reading about kissing as their YA counterparts. But being transgender does not depend on attraction to others, and we’re starting to understand how early kids assert themselves as transgender. (See: this video that went viral recently  of a family explaining their decision to allow their son, who was born girl, live the life he chose as a boy.)

And so at a time when the world is crying for more diverse books and LGBT rights, comes a beautifully written book with a complicated, tender, and thoughtful transgender main character.

Grayson’s world is populated by complicated and sympathetic characters who display a vast, believable range of reactions to Grayson as he reveals more and more of who she* really is. There are the confused, the uncomfortable, the fully-supportive, the ignorant, the tentatively-supportive, and a lot of other more more multi-faceted reactions. We watch all of these reactions through Grayson’s eyes and, like her, we have no idea how each person she reveals a small part of herself to will react. Every time a little more of her real self shows, the reader feels that little tightness in the chest about how this will go. Some characters surprise you with their kindness and some disappoint you with their bile. The way Polonsky builds empathy for Grayson through these moments is masterful, and what I think makes this book so important.

We need diverse books so we can empathize with people who are different from we are, and so people who have not previously seen themselves in books can see themselves and know they are not alone. Gracefully Grayson does both of those things, well, gracefully.

I can’t wait for a bunch of people to read this book! I only teach 3rd grade, but I will be buying a copy for my class library, where I hope it will teach a few (more advanced) readers some empathy or provide some comfort and inspiration.

*I went back and forth about whether to write this review with a male or female pronoun attached to Grayson. At first I had a female pronoun, but it seemed confusing, so I switched it back to the male pronoun. Then a person on Goodreads called me out on a excerpt from the review for using the male pronoun, and it seemed like he really had a point, so I switched it back. For the sake of clarity (sort of) for you, reader: throughout most of the book Grayson is perceived as a boy and anyone interacting with her would have used “him” or “he” when referring to her, but it seemed like the right thing to do to use “she” here.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

14goldfishThe Fourteenth Goldfish is sort of sci-fi, sort of magical realism. Sci-fi realism? On one level the book is about a grandfather who discovers a way to reverse age and becomes a teenager again. But mostly the book is just about family and coming-of-age. Not even in a that’s-just-the-theme way like just about every book for kids is about coming of age in some way and a lot of books are about family. Like, the real central plot of this book is about family, and the reverse aging thing is the secondary plot. And the glossing over of half the interesting stuff is why I had a hard time with this book that everyone else and their mom is totally in love with.

Continue reading

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

undertheeggThe book cover and every online summary/review compares Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s first book, Under the Egg, to Chasing Vermeer and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This comparison is perfectly apt! And in fact, I’d say that Under the Egg is actually better than one of those books. (I say this even as someone with a tattoo on my wrist from said book!)

The book opens with the somewhat gruesome death of Theodora Tenpenny’s grandfather, Jack. With his dying breath, he tells her there is a treasure “under the egg,” setting in motion a measured mystery about art, World War II, and sort-of-kind-of about self-discovery. Continue reading

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

halfachanceWhen I was going into 9th grade I had a summer reading assignment. My high school was notorious for these summer reading assignments. 3 required books with massive projects for each one. The whole thing took weeks to do. You couldn’t put this off until the last two days of summer. It was brutal.

One of the books we were assigned to read was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. It’s one of Bradbury’s lesser-known works mostly because it’s not science fiction. It’s a lovely coming-of-age story that takes place over the summer, loosely based on Bradbury’s childhood. It’s about all the simple joys of summer as a child: picking fox grapes and catching fireflies and wrestling with your brother on the soft grass and all that. Grown-ups love that stuff. But when we showed up for the first week of school with our summer reading assignments in hand and our English teachers asked us what we thought of it, pretty much every 9th grader declared this one of the lamest books they’d ever read.

“But it’s so beautiful!” our teachers exclaimed.

Sure, summer is beautiful. But we had just spent the last few weeks of our’s stuck inside reading this damn book and writing this essay about it, rather than running around and catching fireflies ourselves. What the hell?

I take you back to my 9th grade frustrations in this review of Cynthia Lord’s latest novel, Half a Chance because I think Half a Chance is basically Dandelion Wine, but not really in a good way. Continue reading

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

west of the moonWest of the Moon is historical fiction that weaves in so much folklore it sometimes feels like a folk tale itself.

Astri and her little sister live with their aunt, uncle, and cousins on a small farm in Norway. Astri’s mother is dead, and her father has gone to America. At the very beginning of the book, Astri’s aunt and uncle sell her to a hunchback goat herder as a servant girl, which sets in motion a sweeping almost-fantasy story as Astri plots her escape and tries to reunite with the rest of her family in America.

What follows is a complicated weaving of retellings of Scandinavian folk tales as reimagined and relived by Astri. Nothing that actually happens in the book is unrealistic, but because every step of Astri’s journey mirrors an event from a folk tale, it feels fantastic. Continue reading

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Those Newberys are getting a little dry! I’m trying to pepper in at least one non-Newbery read a week, and I’m trying to keep it to things published in 2014, just to keep things extra fresh. This week: James Klise’s new YA novel The Art of Secrets.

art of secrets

The Chicago scene is pretty buzzy about this book. Klise is a librarian at a charter school in Chicago. The geographical and career proximity tickles me. When I bought my copy of this book from City Lit the bookseller was very enthusiastic. All reasons to get very excited!

The book takes place at a fictional private school in Chicago located downtown. This allows Klise to pull his characters from neighborhoods all over Chicago, which is a fun detail for locals, and allows for a reasonably diverse cast of characters. The story centers on Saba Khan, a Pakistani girl from Rogers Park, whose apartment is set on fire while her family is at Saba’s tennis match. The rest of the novel revolves around trying to figure out how this fire started, and the school’s effort to help Saba and her family recover from the fire. This ALSO leads us to another plot involving legendary Chicago outsider-artist Henry Darger. Some students who are collecting items for an auction to raise money for Saba’s family come across a set of paintings possibly painted by Darger. We spend the novel bouncing between the perspectives of Saba; Saba’s dad; Steve, Saba’s new boyfriend; Javier, an exchange student from Spain; the school principal; Kendra, the new girl who is organizing the fund raiser to help Saba; Kevin, Kendra’s brother; the gym teacher; an English teacher; and the art teacher. Its… a lot of perspectives. Somehow this all works, though! Continue reading

Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes clearly gets kids. His picture books nail various aspects of kid-dom straight on the head. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is a perfect portrait of the first time you get in trouble. When parents came into the bookstore asking for my-kid-is-getting-a-sibling books (and in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, they came in looking for that a lot) I always recommended Julius, the Baby of the World first. Which was why I was so surprised that much of Junonia didn’t seem to understand kids at all.

Junonia is the story of Alice, a trip to Florida, and her tenth birthday. It is a big one. It’s the last time you will be able to count your age on your fingers. It’s the first time you’re in double digits. But the birthday/vacation starts to quickly fall apart as more and more things that Alice loves about their yearly Florida trips are changed or taken away. At its core I love this kind of story: a simple coming-of-age story where kids deal with very everyday problems. They usually make for the sweet, quiet, touching story that adults who love kids’ books gravitate towards. And therein lies this problem: I think this is a book for adults who like kids books.

The first half of the book is just buried in things that are glaringly un-kid-like. “At that moment, Alice loved her mother so completely she thought they might fuse together and melt away.” Parents hope that their children feel like this sometimes, and on some level most kids do feel this at some point, but they do not articulate it, and I would go so far as to say that they do not want this sentiment articulated for them. This kind of love for parents is not something kids want to be self-aware about. Same goes for “How could she ever be as old as Mrs. Wishmeier? she wondered. It seemed impossible. What would she look like when she was her mother’s age?”

The summer before I started high school I had a lengthy summer reading project to do for school. One of the books I had to read was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I hated it. It became clear when it was time to discuss the novel in class that I was not the only one. The book is a nostalgic portrayal of childhood summers. Our teachers could not believe we did not see the beauty in its descriptions and sentiment. We were children who had to read this book over the summer instead of doing the things described in the book. We were not nostalgic for childhood summers yet. The whole point of the book was lost on us.

There are worse things in the world than being compared to Ray Bradbury. But the first half of this book was that experience all over again. Kids are not nostalgic for their summers in Florida searching for seashells.

But then it starts to turn it around. Alice is deeply stung by a comment one of the older characters makes. When talking about Mallory, the younger, vaguely-obnoxious new vacation neighbor, he says “That little blond one sure is a screamer, but she is the prettiest girl I ever saw.” All of us realize we are not the prettiest or smartest or funniest or nicest girl ever. Such a thing does not really exist. But it still hurts in a very special way when someone else is singled out for being especially pretty, smart, funny, or nice over you. And Alice’s lingering reaction to this comment was genuine and touching. There are a couple more moments that stood out for me in the same way. Following the “prettiest girl” incident, Alice’s father asks if she would like a little “bed supper.” This is the greatest idea in the history of sullen child parenting. It’s the most comforting thing I can imagine and I want someone to make me bed supper. There was also the walk through the cemetery, which some authors might have painted as creepy or depressing, but here Kevin Henkes just says she was bored. Which is exactly what most kids feel when they’re made to walk through a cemetery. It’s so boring.

The letter from the publisher at the beginning of this galley positions this book squarely in the early chapter book market, hoping to bridge the gap between the Wemberly Worried and Olive’s Ocean sets. Other than the fact that this book is so startlingly short, though, it has no business being there. The language is flowery with difficult vocabulary. The sentiments, I mentioned already, are distinctly un-7-year-old.

In the beginning I thought this would be a two-star book, but some of the later genuine kid moments bumped it up to three. It’s released tomorrow, May 24th. Give it to an especially precocious 7-year-old or your grandmother who used to be a children’s librarian who is now retired and lives in Florida. They’ll both love it.