Books Read in 2020: Four-Star Children's and Y.A.

 Not gonna lie, the early part of January was a bit of a struggle. Nothing really bad happened, but even the little-bit-bad things I just felt like I didn't have the emotional resilience to weather gracefully. The night before I was heading back to work I was already feeling kind of low. Every time I looked in the mirror I winced a little. Somehow my gray roots weren't so bad in the summer when it was sunny and they were kind of shiny. Now that it's dark and wintery, they're just sad. I was trying to decide if I should wash it, but it was only going to be me and the office ladies and the principal and vice principal on Monday because lockdown, so I figured I would just dry shampoo and wear something comfortable to put away the hundreds of books that came in just as we were going on Christmas holidays. 

Then I checked my school email and the vp had left me a message saying she would need my help with packaging up Chromebooks to give out to kids for at-home learning. Which, fine, happy to help, but she was listing the steps as if I am someone who is in the school all the time and knows where all the stuff is and how all the stuff works, and I'm not, I'm someone who is in the school very little and only in the library. I am exceedingly capable at a very small range of things. So, fine, I'm fifty freaking years old, why would I just not think "no problem, I will go in in the morning and explain that I need clarification on these points before I proceed with this fairly simple undertaking". Any other month I would. In this one, I had a panic attack that spiraled into extreme self-loathing and regressed to the awkward, morbidly self-conscious-and-terrified-of-disappointing-authority-figures ten-year-old I was forty years ago. I knew it was ridiculous, but it didn't matter. I washed my hair just to get control of something. I wore a damned dress and tights to a ninety-six-percent-empty school.

Anyway, it all went fine, which I'm sure comes as a huge shock to everyone. I untangled power cords and tested and packaged up eighty chromebooks with instructions and sign-out sheets.

Then we found out that Angus had to have a negative Covid test within three days of traveling back over the border to school. Again, fine, happy to comply, but it's no small feat to find a place that will do the test for travel and then get a slot for the required day. We got one, blessed our luck, then realized it was off by a day, so then we scrambled around trying to find another place (obtaining Angus's health card surreptitiously because we didn't want to stress him out again), did, got a spot, then realized that it wasn't actually a place that did tests for travel (it was very confusing), so got a test for after the week-end, which would mean he would have to go back later than he planned, which was not ideal but would work. Then at the last minute I decided to try the first place again. The procedure with this place is that you send an email with the date you would like the test in the subject email, which feels frantic and sure to fail, but had worked the first time. After half an hour I got an email back saying "I have moved your appointment to the next day at the same time, Elizabeth". SHE CHANGED THE APPOINTMENT FOR ME AFTER ONE EMAIL. SHE USED HER ACTUAL NAME. 

So everything has worked out fine (stay tuned for if we get the results in time, and also, the instructions ("Come alone. Do not approach the building until five minutes before your assigned time. Bring 185 dollars") sound like a ransom drop) and then yesterday I went for a walk on a beautiful snowy trail with two really good friends and then I bought doughnuts and bagels and then spent the afternoon making curried chicken and coconut rice and roast chicken and chicken stock, all on very little sleep, so by the time we were racing around doing the Covid test shuffle I was practically hallucinating, So considering that January is generally a rough month for me even pre-Covid, and that we're back in lockdown, I'm really not doing that badly. Plus I started re-watching Brooklyn Nine Nine when I started the book posts, and it makes me really happy. Plus doing the book posts is a pretty Zen activity, so thank-you for reading them.

Four-Star Children's and YA

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern: Synopsis from Goodreads: Fourth grade is not going at all how Benny Barrows hoped. He hasn’t found a new best friend. He’s still not a great bike rider—even though his brother George, who’s autistic, can do tricks. And worst of all, he worries his dad’s recent accident might be all his fault. Benny tries to take his mom’s advice and focus on helping others, and to take things one step at a time. But when his dad ends up in the hospital again, Benny doesn’t know how he and his family will overcome all the bad luck that life has thrown their way.

Just My Luck is a deeply moving and rewarding novel about a down-on-his-luck boy whose caring heart ultimately helps him find the strength to cope with tragedy and realize how much he truly has to offer his friends and family.

OH MY GOD I loved this. It reminded me a bit of Wonder, although it's not a first book - I actually now see that I read another book of hers in 2011 of which I have zero memory. It also involved an autistic child - I believe the afterword of this book said that one of the author's sons has autism, and there's definitely a flavour of writing what she knows here. Benny's voice is perfect and completely believable for a fourth-grader. The story flows so naturally, with some humour that is unforced and inherent to the situation. The lessons learned are also subtle and natural, but still affecting. It was just a really great story. 

The Hero of Crow's Crossing by Anne Schraff: Synopsis from Goodreads: Excellent teacher Mr. Ridley appears from nowhere and accepts a teaching job at the tiny and poor Crow s Crossing School. He s an excellent teacher, but questions swirl around him. Why is he here? Where did he come from? And most importantly, why is he digging holes on Shadow Hill? Tazmin doesn t care about all that. She s learning math. Her brother is learning how to read. But the truth has a way of revealing itself, much to Tazmin's dismay.

I believe this book has now supplanted Freak the Mighty as the best book for impact-to-page-number-ratio that I have ever read. It's so short. It's so stark and simple. And it still made me cry. I see that the author has a couple of young-adult series, which I will be checking out. 

Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock: Synopsis from Goodreads: When a segregated North Carolina town gets its first black teacher, two girls--one black, one white--come face-to-face with how prejudice affects their friendship. Everything's changing for Sarah Beth Willis. After Robin's tragic accident, everyone seems different somehow. Days on the farm aren't the same, and the simple fun of riding a bike or playing outside can be scary. And there's talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly--Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She's the first African American teacher. It's 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening. For Sarah Beth, there are so many unanswered questions. What is all this talk about Freedom Riders and school integration? Why can't she and Ruby become best friends? And who says school isn't for anybody who wants to learn--or teach? In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.

Very well done story about family and race relations, pitched perfectly at its audience. I liked that Sarah Beth's privilege relative to Ruby's was made very clear, in an almost uncomfortable way, rather than everything between them being sweet and perfect. 

There's a Boy in the Girls Bathroom by Louis Sachar: Synopsis from Goodreads: Bradley Chalkers is the oldest kid in the fifth grade. He tells enormous lies. He picks fights with girls. No one likes him—except Carla, the new school counselor. She thinks Bradley is sensitive and generous, and knows that Bradley could change, if only he weren't afraid to try. But when you feel like the most-hated kid in the whole school, believing in yourself can be the hardest thing in the world..

I actually forgot to record this one and only remembered reading it when I was back at work Monday and saw it on the desk. It's really, really good - it's hard for me to envision what it would be like reading it as a child, but it seems to me that it captures how 'problem children' are so much more than just their bad behaviour in a way that is comprehensible to young people as well as older - the way that profound loneliness and despair can manifest as nastiness and anger. I wish every school and every Bradley had a Carla. The only thing I dislike is the title - the incident it refers to is vanishingly small in the greater plot and theme, and it seems an odd choice.

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White: Synopsis from Goodreads: Like the rest of his family, Louis is a trumpeter swan. But unlike his four brothers and sisters, Louis can't trumpet joyfully. In fact, he can't even make a sound. And since he can't trumpet his love, the beautiful swan Serena pays absolutely no attention to him.Louis tries everything he can think of to win Serena's affection—he even goes to school to learn to read and write. But nothing seems to work. Then his father steals him a real brass trumpet. Is a musical instrument the key to winning Louis his love?

How did I miss this? How high was she while writing this? Why can't I find the blog post I could have sworn I wrote about it? So many questions. The book starts with the introduction of Sam Beaver, a lovely contemplative nature-loving boy, and a description of swans arriving at the pond and looking for a good place to make a nest. All very Nature Special. Then it goes completely fucking nuts. There's a mansplaining male swan and his wife who keeps calling him on it ("Here I glide, swanlike, while earth is bathed in wonder and beauty" "Of course you glide like a swan. How else would you glide? You couldn't glide like a moose, could you?") Then Louis the swan baby is born and has no honk. So his dad flies to the city and smashes through the window of a music store and steals him a trumpet. Then Louis finds a teacher to teach him how to write. Then he saves a boy from drowning at summer camp. Then he gets a job playing trumpet for swan boats in Boston and at a night club in Philadelphia (Louis has a slate, a trumpet, a chalk pencil and a medal around his neck. “I’m beginning to get overloaded with stuff around my neck. I”m beginning to look like a hippie. I hope I’ll still be able to fly when my flight feathers grow in again.”) He makes enough money to pay back the music store owner. It is super freaking trippy. I loved it so much.

One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus: Synopsis from Goodreads: The highly anticipated sequel to the New York Times bestselling thriller everyone is talking about, One of Us Is Lying! There's a new mystery to solve at Bayview High, and there's a whole new set of rules.Come on, Bayview, you know you've missed this.A ton of copycat gossip apps have popped up since Simon died, but in the year since the Bayview four were cleared of his shocking death, no one's been able to fill the gossip void quite like he could. The problem is no one has the facts.Until now.This time it's not an app, though—it's a game.Truth or Dare. Phoebe's the first target. If you choose not to play, it's a truth. And hers is dark.Then comes Maeve and she should know better—always choose the dare.But by the time Knox is about to be tagged, things have gotten dangerous. The dares have become deadly, and if Maeve learned anything from Bronwyn last year, it's that they can't count on the police for help. Or protection.Simon's gone, but someone's determined to keep his legacy at Bayview High alive. And this time, there's a whole new set of rules.

After three books, I am firmly in the 'I will follow this author anywhere' camp. The mysteries are totally fine, but the characters and relationships are the real draw. My friend's daughter recommended the first one to me and now we take turns alerting each other when there's a new one (The Cousins is the next one!) I didn't feel like the first book needed a sequel, but this was wholly satisfying and I liked revisiting the characters. Side despairing note: On Goodreads there's a spot where people can ask and answer questions about books. Someone asked if this was Pretty Little Liars fan-fiction because "the title is basically the theme song". Yes, the title is Two Can Keep a Secret, like the theme song Secret, which is from the statement "Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead" by BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. This, along with the people who read two books and, if there are any similarities in plot at all are there to yell PLAGIARISM. Don't they know there are only six basic plots? Or is it seven? I know I sound snobby, it's only because dumb people annoy me. Ha ha, don't mind me, my daughter just made me take a Narcissistic Personality Inventory Test "for research purposes" and I was a little dismayed by how much it highlighted my lack of self-esteem, so I'm trying to be a little more arrogant, let me know if you think it works for me. Or don't, no pressure, never mind, it's stupid, I'm stupid.

Destroy All Monsters by Sam McManus: Synopsis from Goodreads: A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth—together.Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

This was very strange and also quite beautiful. The contrast between the real world and Darkside is a bit jarring, which I suppose is part of the point. There's an affecting Darkside narrative, along with stellar world-building, and also some unsettlingly real issues affecting young people in the real world. 

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty: Synopsis from Goodreads: The second in Jaclyn Moriarty's brilliant, acclaimed fantasy trilogy, THE COLOURS OF MADELEINE!Princess Ko's been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can't get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence may be a devastating war. So under the guise of a publicity stunt she gathers a group of teens -- each with a special ability -- from across the kingdom to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello. Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined than ever to find his own father. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot's value to the Alliance is clear: He's the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine.Through notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home. The stakes are high, and the writing by turns hilarious and suspenseful, as only Jaclyn Moriarty can be. 

I reread the entire trilogy, but Goodreads makes it hard to record rereadings without losing previous readings. This is a series that never lets me down no matter how many times I go back. The real-world setting and the Kingdom of Cello are both vividly and beautifully drawn. The characters are fantastic. The story and various subplots are completely engaging, and every book builds on the one before while introducing compelling new elements. It's exactly what a magical children's series should be, and makes me feel like I'm discovering the magic and wonder of reading again, and I love it so much. I gave Eve the first book and now she loves it too and it's a giant part of our mother-daughter vocabulary (this is not at all true, she read three chapters and said it was confusing, I don't get it, I thought she was smart).

Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz: Synopsis from Goodreads: Lost meets Stranger Things in this eerie, immersive YA thriller, thrusting seventeen-year-old Sia into a reality where the waters in front of her and the jungle behind her are as dangerous as the survivors alongside her.Sia practically grew up in the water scuba diving, and wreck dives are run of the mill. Take the tourists out. Explore the reef. Uncover the secrets locked in the sunken craft. But this time ... the dive goes terribly wrong.Attacked by a mysterious creature, Sia's boat is sunk, her customers are killed, and she washes up on a deserted island with no sign of rescue in sight. Waiting in the water is a seemingly unstoppable monster that is still hungry. In the jungle just off the beach are dangers best left untested. When Sia reunites with a handful of survivors, she sees it as the first sign of light. Sia is wrong.Between the gulf of deadly seawater in front of her and suffocating depth of the jungle behind her, even the island isn't what it seems.Haunted by her own mistakes and an inescapable dread, Sia's best hope for finding answers may rest in the center of the island, at the bottom of a flooded sinkhole that only she has the skills to navigate. But even if the creature lurking in the depths doesn't swallow her and the other survivors, the secrets of their fractured reality on the island might.Fractured Tide• Is and eerie and immersive YA thriller told through journal entries from a daughter to her father• Unfolds through the eyes of a narrator who keeps you guessing until the final pages Is a gripping mix of suspense and horror; Is perfect for readers ages 13 and up.

Fun and fast-paced and well-written. Sia is a thoughtful, troubled character and her voice is clear and compelling, and the interpersonal dynamics are just as thorny as the appealingly science-y (and timey wimey) mystery. Great read for middle grades. 

Last Things by Jacqueline West: Synopsis from Goodreads: When strange things start happening to local music idol Anders Thorson, everyone blames his number-one-fan, Thea. But is she out to hurt him? Or protect him?High school senior Anders Thorson is unusually gifted. His band, Last Things, is legendary in their northern Minnesota hometown. With guitar skills that would amaze even if he weren’t only eighteen, Anders is the focus of head-turning admiration. And Thea Malcom, a newcomer to the insular town, is one of his admirers. Thea seems to turn up everywhere Anders goes: gigs at the local coffeehouse, guitar lessons, even in the woods near Anders’s home. When strange things start happening to Anders—including the disappearance of his beloved cat, then his sort-of girlfriend, and, somehow, his musical talent—blame immediately falls on Thea. But is she trying to hurt him? Or save him? Can he trust a girl who doesn’t seem to know the difference between dreams and reality? And how much are they both willing to compromise to get what they want? 

Admittedly I chose this largely based on the cover, but this time that worked out well for me. What's that phrase? "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture?" I've read a few books the past year or two that actually kind of disprove that. Sure, nothing is like actually hearing the music, but books like this still make it possible to conjure in your mind the sensation of hearing and playing important music, affecting music, music that bangs in your chest and brings tears to your eyes. In addition, this is a fantastic story about sacrifices, acceptable and otherwise, in the pursuit of your passions. It's a familiar story but the writing is good enough and the new spin on an old theme is fresh enough that it doesn't feel derivative or stale. Really enjoyed this.


Nicole said…
January, hey?

I am going to put Just My Luck on my list, thanks! xo
Swistle said…
I haven't read Trumpet of the Swan in DECADES, but I remember it as one of the books that taught me to try books that look boring. "Trumpet of the Swan" is such a boring-sounding title, and with the cover illustration it just seems like the whole thing is way too boring to even read the synopsis. But one day I got bored enough to try it and it was SO GOOD.
Ernie said…
I should take notes while I read these because I get to the end and I cannot remember everything I want to comment on. Excited to read a few myself but also plan to show this list to Curly.

I was working on my memoir the other day (this is hard to admit to because who am I and why would anyone be interested in my life?- but you shared some of your challenges so I figure I will share mine) and I was recalling some of the kids with academic struggles in grade school. The book A Boy in the Girl's Bathroom reminds me of my realization . . . how sad it is that kids with these issues were often hollered at and teachers were openly frustrated just because no one knew yet what ADHD or other diagnoses were from.

Thanks for these reviews and I hope January decides to be kinder to you.
StephLove said…
I loved Trumpet of the Swan as a kid and it's one I somehow failed to read to my kids. Regrets...

I hope things are looking up for you soon.

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