Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews April, 2023

Bookcase Bizarro Header, Kids Reading Books in a Line Along the Bottom Edge.

Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer

Table of Contents:
Picture Books
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Middle Grade Novel

Welcome to the April edition of Bookcase Bizarro!

I’ve taken a bit of a break this month to rest, do my taxes and set up a new information management system to help keep me digitally organized for the busy year ahead.

I also took some time to set up a new (refurbished) computer to use as my backup machine in case Old Faithful here goes on the fritz. ‘Set up” to me means installing a new Linux operating system, in this case MX Linux, for those of you who are interested. The end result? My refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad T480S runs like The Flash with plenty of hard drive space left over for storage. (Old Faithful here is another speed demon running Linux Zorin OS 16.2 on a 1TB hard drive.) Yes folks, this is what I do for fun when I’m not writing.

In other author news, I received a cheque for my creative nonfiction article: ‘The Murakami Method: Rewriting Long COVID,” which I sold to Penizen Collective for inclusion in their anthology, Bad Artist: Essays on Unconventional Creativity.

The piece chronicles how long COVID robbed me of my ability to read and write (and basically live), and explores how I rebuilt my life using an organizing technique taught to me by my grade 5 teacher. It will be published later this year.

And how great is it that Kate Beaton’s Ducks (A GRAPHIC NOVEL) won the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Canada Reads competition for 2023?

This month, we find out how much we learn in the first years of life, conquer our fear of diving, worry about whether our first crush will be reciprocated or not, defend our right to love our own hair, attend a global and diverse magical boarding school and fight alongside two foster kids for a place in a loving home on Cape Cod Island.

So put that freshly-picked bouquet of flowers into a vase and join us as we dig into this month’s picks.

A quick note to new readers: books that are available from the Toronto Public Library will be marked #TPL, because books don’t have to be new or owned in order to be loved.

Picture Books

Book cover showing a bi-racial family walking hand in hand through a spring forest with a big, yellow dog at their side.

When You Were New, by Jennifer Harris. Illustrated by Lenny Wen. (Harper Collins, 2023.)

This month, we’ve got two picture books sitting at opposite ends of the audience pool: younger readers, who are more at home in the shallow end of the pool will enjoy When You Were New while older PB readers in search of deeper water will gravitate towards Jabari Jumps.

This isn’t to insinuate that When You Were New is a shallow book. Far from it! Jennifer Harris pushes the boundaries of younger picture books with a strategic placement of beautifully poetic prose perfectly shaped for young ears:

‘Sometimes you peel yourself out of (a cuddle) and other times you lean into them, cocooned in the weight of a wet towel.’

Delight in language is a bit of a trademark for Harris, and you will also find it in her book for older PB readers, She Stitched the Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt, which we reviewed here. When You Were New reads like a song or maybe a lullaby that chronicles the growth and discoveries a small child makes in their first years, while never outgrowing the love of their parents.

Lenny Wen uses gouache, coloured pencil and Adobe Photoshop and a pallet of colour, movement and size to create an immersive feeling on every page, shifting perspectives between the parents and child to invite the outside reader into each scene.

Another perfect bedtime read. (#TPL)

Book cover showing a young Black boy wearing swim goggles nervously poised at the edge of a diving board, staring down at the book's title, coloured a bubbly blue like swimming pool water.

Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall. (Candlewick, 2017)

Jabari is excited to go to the swimming pool with his father and little sister. Now that he’s passed his swimming test, he’s eager to join the other kids jumping off the high diving board. It looks easy from the ground but when Jabari climbs the high ladder himself, he’s not so sure he’s ready to take the leap.

Gaia Cornwall loves swimming and it shows. From the moment Jabari exits the change rooms to when he climbs the ladder to the diving board, the pool is there, spreading it’s vastness everywhere. When Jabari first climbs the ladder, the pool seems about to swamp him. When he finally stands at the edge of the diving board, his toes curled hesitantly around the end, a large blue rectangle stares back at him. The relationship between Jabari and his father is tender and encouraging. When Jabari’s father empathizes with his fears, Jabari finds an inner courage he didn’t know that he possessed.

This book would be a great choice for kids who are hesitant to try new experiences, and will give them a way to frame their fears. (#TPL)

The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection

Books to Grow Into is a Browne family tradition. When I was young, my parents put books that were too hard for me to read in a special place on my bookshelf. These books occupied an honoured position on the upper left-hand corner until the day came when I discovered that I could read them – a thrill all by itself.

Each month, I select a Book to Grow Into in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne. This month’s selection is:

Book cover showing Anne and Diana lying side by side, with their school books and knapsacks spread out around them. They are wearing jeans and sneakers.

Anne: An Adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (Sort Of), by Kathleen Gros. Quill Tree/Harper Collins, 2022)

12-year old Anne Shirley is nervous about her new foster placement but when Matthew Cuthbert arrives to pick her up and drive her to the beautiful Avon-Lea, an apartment building framed by white flowers, Anne is overjoyed. Matthew’s sister, Marilla, is less than happy to foster a teenager but since there’s nowhere else for Anne to go, the Cuthberts agree to keep her.

For now.

Anne worries about how the Cuthberts will react to her impulsivity and tendency to get herself into trouble, which Marilla witnesses first hand when Anne explodes at the blunt, judgemental Rachel Lynde. Marilla introduces Anne to Diana Berry, who also lives in the building,a gesture that changes the lives of both girls for the better. They soon become fast friends, which helps Anne adjust to school life and survive continual teasing from the odious Gilbert Blythe.

But when Anne starts to develop feelings for Diana and wants to invite her to the winter dance, she worries. What if Diana doesn’t feel the same way?

Like any devotee of Anne of Green Gables, I was thrilled by the inventive and creative ways Gros recreates favourite scenes, characters and locations from the L.M. Montgomery book. Inspired by Vancouver, Gros wanted to explore the ‘cool ecosystems’ of apartment buildings, so the Avon-Lea apartment complex stands in for the fictional PEI village of Avonlea in L.M. Montgomery’s book. I laughed out loud during the confrontation between Anne and Rachel Lynde. Gilbert Blythe is recast as an insensitive and immature popular boy, and Anne calls him out spectacularly when they are both sent to the principal’s office after Anne breaks a whiteboard over his head. And who can ever forget about the Green Hair Incident?

The only wrong note in this delightful modern adaptation is struck by a far too open and understanding Marilla Cuthbert, who is almost unrecognizable in the guise of a stay-at-home bookkeeper. Remember how closed and unyielding the pre-Anne Marilla was in the original story? It was precisely this hesitancy and the tension it created between Marilla and Anne that was so powerful and transformative when tragedy struck and the two of them had to come together. In this modern version, the tragedy is neatly re-worked but it fails to be transformational because none of the original Marilla’s rigidity and reserve survives Gros’ alterations. Gros does capture Matthew Cuthbert’s shyness and love for Anne perfectly.

A delightful LGBTQ+ graphic novel re-telling of a beloved Canadian story. (#TPL)

Middle Grade Graphic Novel

Book cover showing a Latinx girl standing on a rooftop framed by a sunset with her frizzy hair radiating out out around her. Pink-hued buildings and skyscrapers push up in the background.

Frizzy, by Claribel A. Ortega. Illustrated by Rose Bousamra. (First Second, 2022.)

Marlene is sick and tired of being told that she has ‘bad’ hair.

It’s bad enough that her mother takes her to the dreaded salon every Sunday to straighten her wild curls, but when she attends her mean cousin’s quinceanera and becomes the butt of her family’s judgemental looks and endless comments about ‘bad’ hair, Marlene begins to doubt herself. The self-doubt deepens when kids at school stick tape in her hair and her mother puts her hair in loathsome braids to ‘control’ it.

When Marlene visits her cool Tia Ruby, who has hair just as curly as her own, Marlene begins to discover a way of embracing not only her hair but herself as a person. But will she ever be able to convince her mother that curly hair is just as good as straight hair?

I just want to say that I could personally live in Tia Ruby’s apartment forever. She has a cool, rooftop pad with an A-MAZING garden and a smart resident chicken to boot. Bousamra’s colourful drawings create an oasis for the emotionally bruised and battered Marlene, and readers may breathe a visceral sigh of relief whenever she’s at Ruby’s.

Marlene’s mother is a complex woman who insists that she’s only trying to help every time she drags Marlene to the salon or painfully yanks a brush though her hair. It would be easy to dislike her but Ortega asks us to look deeper at the reasons behind her behaviour, and offers compassionate insight from Tia Ruby along with the explanation.

A sensitive exploration of how internalized racism gets passed down in families. Bonus points for making an urban farmer one of the most important secondary characters. Highly recommended.(#TPL)

Middle Grade Novel

Book cover showing three students (one white, two of colour), standing on a street in a Marveller city, with streetcars flying overhead.

The Marvellers, by Dhonielle Clayton. (Henry Holt, 2022)

Ella Durand is the first Conjuror to attend the exclusive Arcana Training Institute, where Marvellers from all over the world come to discover and get trained in their particular magical gifts. Although Ella is welcomed by kindly teacher Masterji Thacker, many at the school do not welcome this ‘intrusion’ of a Conjuror into the Marveller world.

Tensions begin to mount when Masterji Thacker disappears and a dangerous criminal who once belonged to an exclusive – and destructive – ATI secret society called The Aces breaks out of prison. All eyes are focused on Ella. Along with her new friends and fellow school misfits, Brigit and Jason, Ella must find out what happened to Masterji Thacker before she loses her place at ATI for good.

I really, really wanted to like this book. For months, I looked forward to reading it, excited by the enthusiastic reviews I found posted everywhere as well as its endorsement by Rick Riordan. Disappointingly, this story about a global magical boarding school didn’t live up to my expectations (which may not be the fault of the book).

In a recent interview, Clayton said that she wanted to create a global magical school to address all the BAME and LGBTQ+ kids who might have felt excluded from Hogwarts. At the same time, she lamented the comparisons people tend to make between her own writing and that of J.K. Rowling’s.

Let’s talk about those Hogwarts comparisons for a minute.

I might find Clayton’s objections more convincing if the Arcana Training Institute didn’t have a kindly teacher who takes Ella under his wing (mirroring Hagrid’s adoption of the orphaned Harry), if it didn’t have a Scottish-accented stand-in for Professor McGonagall (Headmarveller MacDonald) or a machine that sorts kids into their prospective houses instead of a talking hat. There’s even a Tom Riddle-like villain. Comparisons to Hogwarts are made because they are there, and because Clayton’s deliberately attempting a magical boarding school rewrite in a post-Harry Potter world – a fact that she admits to in this interview.

The book’s biggest problems however, have to do with character motivation and pacing. Ella doesn’t have any goal or motivating desire for the entire first half of the book. Why does she want to go to a school that so actively shuns Conjurors? Her own determination to be the first and the best? This could have been more fully developed to provide Ella with some much-needed motivation and the story with more conflict, especially with the members of her family, many of whom don’t want Ella to attend ATI in the first place. Ella’s determination to prove them wrong could have kept her stubbornly fighting for a place at the school when things started to go south – which they do almost immediately, with students and teachers making it clear that she is not welcome.

Here Clayton is to be commended for her very convincing portrayal of the double standards, favouritism and microagressions that some teachers use to target the kids they want to exclude and silence. Students who’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment will find their experiences affirmed. When Ella decides to save her teacher, the plot picks up but the pacing is still off due to the fact that the book is already half-over.

The differences between the Conjurors and Marvellers, as well as their the politics and history are never fully explained in the story and are never integrated into the plot or Ella’s character arc. As a result, Clayton’s world-building never felt immersive to me except for the scenes involving Ella’s family and the Conjuror world, which were easily the strongest scenes in the book.

I get the feeling that Clayton spent far more time developing the Conjuror world than the world of the Marvellers. The Marvellers could have been a much stronger book if Clayton had chosen to root her story in the Conjuror world instead of straining to reinvent a more global, diverse, alternative to Hogwarts.

All criticisms aside, The Marvellers will still appeal to MG readers who love magical boarding school stories. (#TPL)

Short Review

Book cover showing a beach scene.  A white girl wearing a blue striped T-shirt and red shorts stand in the water with her arms spread overhead, like bird's wings. A girl with light olive skin hangs back, hands in pockets. A row of brightly painted cottages hovers in the distance.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths, By Sara Pennypacker. (Balzer and Bray, 2012)

Stella loves living with her great-aunt Louise on Cape Cod but she doesn’t like Angel, the foster kid Louise has taken in. When disaster strikes, Stella and Angel must team up to keep child protective services at bay and to keep on living in the only home they know. That means managing – and cleaning – an entire suite of rental cottages all by themselves for the entire summer without any help – and without attracting the notice of adults, especially George, the owner of Linger Longer cottages, who is sweet on Louise.

I love MG reads that involve kids running their own businesses but Pennypacker infuses this particular venture with a desperation that brings Stella and Angel’s plight to life with a scary immediacy. The nail-biting tension lasts right up until the end.

I put on the audiobook version to listen to while spring cleaning and couldn’t turn it off. Highly recommended. (#TPL)

Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!

#IMWAYR is a weekly blog hop hosted by Unleashing Readers and Teach Mentor Texts. Its focus is to share the love of KIDLIT and recommend KIDLIT books to readers of all ages.

Greg Pattridge also hosts weekly MG blog hop MMGM every Monday at his website, Always in the Middle.

Professional Reader

16 thoughts on “Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews April, 2023

  1. Hi Linda! I enjoyed your ideas about all the books and the only one I have read is Jabari Jumps, loved it, think it would give a boost to anyone who needs support for something scary. Frizzy sounds interesting and one I know would be a good one to know about. I didn’t know about the new Anne, will try to find it. Thanks for so many good ones! I’m sorry about your challenges with Long Covid & glad for you that you are figuring out how to overcome them. Happy reading!

    • Thanks, Linda! I’m so glad you found some new titles for your own TBR pile. Yes, Long Covid certainly was a trial but I’m one of the fortunate ones – I recovered.

  2. Very interesting review of The Marvellers – I’ve only seen very enthusiastic reviews, though tbh I wasn’t tempted to add it to my TBR, I think because it felt like it’s been done before… Love your monthly bookcase bizarro!

    • Thanks, Valinora! I’d only ever seen good reviews of The Marvellers too, so I was quite surprised to find some real problems with the structure. However, other reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere (I’m talking about the thoughtful reviewers here) have pointed out similar structural problems in Clayton’s other books.

      I wonder if, eager to capitalize on the success of THE BELLES (Clayton’s first – and breakout – book) her publishers aren’t as concerned about her development as a writer as they are about getting the next book out.

    • You’re welcome, Natalie. I haven’t read many critical reviews of The Marvellers and the ones that I’ve come across have been written by either bloggers or readers. All of the editorial reviewers have raved about the book. Not sure that this means anything in particular, except that maybe you’ll like the book.

  3. There’s so much interesting stuff to unpack in this post, as always, Linda! I really enjoyed She Stitched the Stars, so it’s exciting to see a new picture book from the same author. And I made note of Frizzy, which I keep hearing about!

    I also really appreciate your thoughtful review of The Marvellers. I haven’t read that book, but I do get the feeling that some MG fantasy stories are getting churned out without as much revision as they might benefit from.

    Also, congratulations on selling your essay on long COVID for an anthology! It sounds like you’ve walked a really challenging road, recovering from that condition and trying to get back to normal life, and I appreciate you sharing your experiences on that front.

    And I love that you have several computers set up using Linux! I know vaguely what Linux is, and I’ve met like one or two people who use it on their own computers, but I’m probably not brave enough to try it myself!

    Thanks so much for the wonderful post!

    • Hi, Max! Thanks so much for taking the time to drop by. I always enjoy your comments and your posts this month? Unbelievable! Especially your Rebecca Stead tribute, which I thoroughly loved.

      I agree with you that it seems as if more and more books are getting churned out without the editing they deserve. I’m noticing it across the board. Dhonielle Clayton is a NYTimes bestselling author, so maybe the publishers are more focused on pushing her books out to readers than investing in her as a writer.

      I feel very fortunate to have my health back. You have been very wisely pacing yourself, too. We’re pressured to do too much, all the time which is not only unsustainable but very damaging. I’m trying to pay much better attention to my energy levels instead of always going full throttle.

      RE Linux: I knew nothing, NOTHING about installing an alternative operating system a year ago. I’ve had really good experiences with two distributions: Zorin 16 and MX Linux. Both are great for beginners, which is pretty much what I consider myself to be. The best part of it is that you get to keep your ‘old’ computer. I HATED having to replace my machine because of a bloated operating system!

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