I am the sort who roots for the underdog, uses Apple computers, knows that playing music is better than listening to it, believes chocolate is a food group, loves animals, swims like a fish, and stands up for people and things I believe in.
This is an engaging, often heartbreaking book with well-drawn characters. That said, this book would be better for children who had trouble learning to read if if it were set in middle school rather than elementary school, and if it were in a format that had better appeal for reluctant readers. Those who need to read it most, likely won’t.
To be a mischling carries the connotation of being a half-blood, a mongrel. And so with this epithet we are introduced to Stasha and Pearl, twin girls with blond ringlets and Jewish heritage whose best protection before the cattle cars was their fertile imaginations, their Zeyde’s intellectual games and pastimes, and their fragile mother’s drawings. When they arrive at Auschwitz, their mother quickly grasps that their duality is desirable and, in desperation, hands them over to the lunatic evil of Joseph Mengele, believing that to be their one chance at life. As the girls join his “zoo” their identities begin to separate through their different coping strategies and the horrors to which they are subjected. They must constantly fight to remain as much alike and to hold on to as much of their humanity as possible.
The subject matter of this book ensures that it will not be for everyone, however those who venture within will find both an important view of a horrific part of history as well as a testament to the spirits of even the smallest beings who endured and survived. The strengths of the book are in the quirky but engaging writing style, and in the carefully drawn characters of the children.
I won this book in a Netgalley contest and enjoyed it more than I expected to. The book features badass librarians who travel to parallel universes to steal books, and the adventures a certain librarian has along the way. There is sort of an Indiana Jones vibe, mixed with the fantasy elements of Seraphina. Looking forward to the rest of the series!
California Dreamin’ is a graphic novel biography of Cass from the Mamas and the Papas. It portrays Cass as a bon vivant whose exuberance and incredible voice opens doors just as fast as her size and struggles with her body image shuts them. Starting with Cass’ childhood, the book follows her as she becomes a pot smoking, LSD dropping, reluctant folkie, and ends as the Mamas and Papas begin to have real trouble as the guys fight over the beautiful, but far less talented, Michelle. The expressive illustrations work well as do shifts in the style of the written letters. A fun book for anyone interested in the 60’s music scene.
Valley of the Moon tells the story of a single mother whose heart straddles two worlds. Lux lives in San Francisco with her son, Benno. When Benno goes back east to visit Lux’s mother and estranged father, she goes camping and happens on Greengage, a utopian society that is stuck in the early 1900s, with no escape for its members. Lux is intrigued by the equality, the hard, fulfilling work, and the society’s leader, Joseph Bell. Lux visits Greengage again and again, always returning to the present to take care of her son. But on one tragic night, Lux misses the return window back to her world, wreaking havoc on her son’s life, enraging her parents, and causing her to re-evaluate the importance of Greengage in her own heart.
The strength of this book lies in its interesting people and plot. The writing, however, is not terribly elegant, and lacks the ability to find different voices for Lux and Joseph, who tell the story in alternate chapters. This book is a good escapist pick, or a beach or plane book.
Maddie’s having a rough year. Her grandfather, who was a scientist just like she wants to be, has just died, and the family is forced to sell his house. If that weren’t bad enough, middle school is starting and her best friend is going to a private school instead of the public school Maddie will attend. To cope, Maddie turns to her first love: microbiology. She swabs for samples, keeps a lab notebook (which includes observations about everything and everyone) and begs for lab time. In the meantime, she must navigate her new school, the smart but oddball group of possible friends, and her family’s medical problems. Clearly, Maddie has never read Harriet the Spy, because it’s about this time that the famous diary plot device rises up and smacks her in the face. It’ll take some maturity, help from family, and an assist from a fungi to make things right. Recommended for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders especially.
Ivan Isaenko is trapped. Trapped in his mutated body, trapped in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and trapped in the world he has built in his mind. He is well-read, self-deprecating, and intensely practical. Never having known any life other than that inside the hospital, Ivan develops a dry, dark sense of humor that rivals Frank McCourt’s. He also concocts routines that help him pass the boredom of his existence and help him to process the continuous horror of being surrounded by radiation-poisoned, mentally deficient, dying children. The only person he can really talk to is Nurse Natalya, who brings in books. His world is turned upside down when an orphaned leukemia patient is admitted in his 17th year. She’s smart, pretty, and a bit of a thief.
The addition of Polina and the inevitable love story that follows will remind many of The Fault in Our Stars. These teens, however, are unattractive, intensely awkward, and starkly alone without each other. There will be no wish-making, no answers, and only a bit of lyricism; just a few stolen moments that might make leaping into the abyss a little less terrifying.
If you liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Angela’s Ashes, you’d like this, too.
The Time Museum is a fun graphic novel in which Delia, an awkward but smart teenager, finds friends and community in The Time Museum. Delia’s uncle is a time traveler who has put together a museum of everything that ever has and ever will exist. But he needs help in the museum, and so begins his intern search. When Delia arrives at the museum, she quickly befriends a girl from the future and they, along with four other teens are off on 3 trials to see who can win the internship. Along the way, the team encounters angry dinosaurs, possible saboteurs, and anachronisms. The teens must learn to value each other’s contributions and to work together, but these lessons are organically learned and not preachy in nature. Perfect for upper elementary and middle school students, but particularly well suited for 6th grade topics.
Science Comics: Bats, Learning to Fly is an upbeat stream of information on bats. The information is presented through a plot: a teen is dragged to a night hike and is embarrassed by her parents’ reaction to, and subsequent injury of a bat. The bat is transported to a wildlife rescue station and meets every other type of bat you can think of. The teen shows up at the rescue to volunteer. The plot isn’t boring, however there is just enough of it to carry the information along. The information is presented in short bites, with lots of very informative and accurate pictures. The one issue I have with this comic is the odd look of all the humans. Their noses seem to be lower and larger than usual, giving them a gargoyle appearance. The bats, however look fine. This would work for kids in 3rd grade and up, but the addition of the teen character makes this perfect for an ELL middle school classroom.
The Other Einstein is Mileva Maric, who starts out as a shy, mildly disabled, bookish girl traveling to Zurich to start college as a physics and math student. At the beginning, her story is a joy—meeting new friends, fighting back, rather successfully against the established norm that women have no place in academics, and taking advantage of the opportunities a big city has to offer. Soon she meets Albert Einstein, of whom everyone seems to disapprove. A whirlwind courtship follows anyhow, Mileva constantly surprised that Einstein would be interested in her.
And then it happens. The apocalypse. Oh, rather, she sleeps with him, and becomes pregnant, but really, the overall effect is the same. And at that moment the book seems to flip from a more progressive look at a capable woman in science to the typical woman wronged. The pregnancy and the resulting illegitimate daughter manage to ruin Mileva’s hopes, dreams, and marriage. Almost immediately, Einstein’s previously charming persona disappears and he becomes the Mr. Hyde of the physics set, refusing to see his own daughter, taking his sweet time marrying Mileva, taking credit for her work, and eventually, even abusing her. This last third of the book is a slog, and the feel of it echoes Einstein’s complaint, that Mileva sucks the joy out of everything. Starting this book was enjoyable, but finishing was a chore.
And so we toss Mileva Maric on the pile of Cautionary Tales for Literary Women, a capital I for insecurity emblazoned on her chest.
Serafina is back, keeping the Biltmore Estate safe from rats and other evil creatures. This sequel finds Serafina exploring her unusual heritage and looking for a place to truly belong. Along the way, there are heart stopping chases, new friends, and an even more terrifying enemy than before. This time Serafina is fighting against an sorcerer who uses a twisted staff to control the forest’s animals and turn them into fanged weapons. It’s up to Serafina and Braeden to discover who they are fighting—and why—before Biltmore and its inhabitants are destroyed.
The strength of this book is in its wild, engaging pacing, its unique characters, and its ability to describe the Biltmore Estate and important people of the turn of the century without ever sounding “educational.” Serafina’s struggle to understand who she is, how to interact with all kinds of people, and how to present herself is interesting and handled well. Kids who are interested in or feel an affinity with animals will particularly enjoy Serafina and Braeden’s special abilities.