Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

I suddenly realized that though I always have an audio book going and get through quite a lot of them, I haven’t been reviewing them.  Here, have an audio book!

Undead Girl Gang by Lily AndersoUndead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson. Narrated by Rebecca Soler. Listening Library, 2018.

Mila Flores never felt like she needed any friends besides her BFF, Riley.  Mila dressed in combat boots and unabashedly called herself fat, while Riley called out anyone at their high school who was disrespectful of their Wiccan beliefs.  (I didn’t check about whether the author considers herself Wiccan, but both author and narrator are Latinx, as is Mila.) Mila herself might not have been a truly devout Wiccan so much as disenchanted with the Christianity the conservative town espouses. Then Riley is found drowned in the creek just days two of the meanest girls at school, June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth, were found hanged in the park.  Her family urges her to accept the police’s ruling of suicide – but Mila can’t. She’s sure they were all murdered, and wants to find the murderer before he strikes again. When an ancient grimoire with a spell for resurrecting the wrongfully dead appears at Mila and Riley’s hideout, she knows she has to try it, whatever the cost,even as the aging hippie owner of the town occult store, Lucky 13, warns her against it.  She’s shocked when she raises not just Riley but June and Dayton as well – and none of them can remember their deaths. Even worse for Mila, it seems like they’d rather just hang out and enjoy their extra few days of life while the spell lasts than try to figure it out. Can Mila convince them to help her in time?

Rebecca Soler has always been a solid narrator (she also did Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles), and here she does quite well with various teen voices, including Mila’s attempts at the Spanish she should know but isn’t really comfortable with. It did take a little while for this to gel into the girl gang the title promised.  But I loved Mila, so unshakable in her belief that her best friend wouldn’t have left her like that deliberately that she’s willing to put everything else in her life on the line to figure it out.  Her Wicca felt a lot like the Wicca of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a little bit of genuine Wicca blended with storybook magic for better, well, story-telling.  I loved when someone accused her of being a bruja, and she said that the brujería had been stamped out of her family generations ago – she was a straight-up New Age witch. (Not an exact quotation, as I was listening while driving.)   Though I often chafe at revenge stories, this had enough learning more about classmates she’d made assumptions about that there was a lot of self-discovery, along with the ever-present snarky humor, to balance it out.  It also had a nice twist that I did not see coming.  This is a lot of fun, with deeper themes of looking beyond the personas we all present to the world and the deep wounds of patriarchy.  

Other teen books that have reminded me of Buffy include Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi

This was on my want-to-read list from the time it first came out, but it was Maureen at By Singing Light posting about it that finally pushed me into actually reading it.


pridePride by Ibi Zoboi. Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2018.

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up… What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first build out of love.”

Zuri Benitez is proud of her Afro-Latinix heritage and her neighborhood, the Bushwick area of Brooklyn.  Her family is just getting ready to welcome the oldest sister, Janae, the heart of the family, back from her first year at Syracuse University.  But as she’s arriving, a new family is moving in across the street. They’ve remodeled an old house into a mini-mansion – something Zuri distrusts to start with.  When she and Janae meet the two handsome brothers, Ainsley and Darius, that are moving in, both sisters have instant reactions. Janae is attracted to Ainsley, while Zuri feels a deep distrust, especially for Darius, whose skin may be as dark as hers, but whose manners and dress just don’t fit in.

This says on the cover that it’s a Pride and Prejudice remix, and it is.  The major characters are all here, including younger sisters Marisol and twins Layla and Kayla, as well as Zuri’s best friend and a romantic rival.  Mrs. Benitez is notably a much more sympathetic character than Mrs. Bennett in the original, doing her best with a family of seven in a tiny apartment, and famous for feeding the neighborhood with her excellent cooking.  And just as Vodoun played an important role in Zoboi’s American Street, an apartment neighbor, Madrina, follows the traditional religion and leads ceremonies in the basement, a spiritual practice that is key to Zuri’s character arc.  

But while this starts with Pride and Prejudice, Pride goes beyond to look at the roles of class and money and the social forces in modern America, backed by strong and sympathetic characters.  I am in awe of Zoboi’s skill following the plot and the basic characters from the original so closely, while making them authentic characters of today, with very modern concerns and deep love for the neighborhood and the people who live there.  Sometimes, there are books that work so well that I just don’t feel like I’m able to do them justice with my reviews, and this was one of those cases.  Just go read it if you haven’t, and share your thoughts if you have.  

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KidLitCon 2019 – Saturday

Saturday

This is part two of my notes on KidLitCon 2019 in Providence.  You can take a look at my notes on Friday if you missed them.  There were so many good sessions and I really wished I could have gone to them all!

Keynote – Varian Johnson – If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It

VarianJohnsonKidLitCon

Varian Johnson at KidLitCon 2019

Varian Johnson is the award-winning author of many books for kids and teens.  I’ve read the four most recent, including last year’s Coretta Scott King honor book, The Parker Inheritance. He was coming straight off another trip and getting sick, but did his best anyway, giving writing tips based on his career, as well as sharing his social media philosophy.  This boils down to “You don’t always have to share your opinion.  Think about who you might be silencing.”  Other gems include

  • Give yourself a chance
  • Do the work
  • Set a schedule
  • Show up even when the muse doesn’t
  • Have a support group
  • Find the thing that ignites your passion

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KidLitCon 2019 – Friday

KidLitCon Providence 2019
Reaching Readers

Thank you very much to my library for sending me to KidLitCon in Providence on March 22 and 23, 2019.  KidLitCon is a tiny conference organized by book bloggers, which does a great job of connecting gatekeepers like librarians and bloggers with authors and illustrators to talk about the big issues that concern all of us.  This was my third KidLitCon, and I would not have been able to attend without the support of the Library. Thank you also to Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library and her team for organizing the conference and letting me be part of it.

It turns out that I like to take lots of notes, so I’m splitting my thoughts up into two posts.

Here are some pictures of beautiful Providence:

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The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles

Thank you so much to Versify for sending me an ARC of this book to review! The book was officially published April 2.

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles, illustrated by Dapo AdeolaThe Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles, illustrated by Dapo Adeola. Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

It’s the last day of summer.  Otto is determined to have one last grand adventure with his cousin Sheed, even if Sheed would rather sleep in.  After all, the Legendary Alston Boys have a reputation to keep up, and similarly aged twin sisters the Epic Ellisons have earned one more key to the city than the boys have. Something strange is almost always happening in their county.  Sure enough, the boys run across a man in a suit and top hat with an old-fashioned camera who promises to make the last day of summer last forever. This goes about as well as the reader might expect – time is stopped, with everyone but the Otto and Sheed unable to move but aware of what’s going on.  Another strange person appears – this one a cool-looking time traveler with dreadlocks – who offers to help them. They also meet many interesting characters who are personifications of various times of day – the Golden Hours, Bed Time, Father Time, Witching Hour and so on.

This is Lamar Giles’s middle grade debut, though he’s written many popular teen thrillers, including Fake ID. This book is illustrated in an appealing cartoon style and filled with high-speed and high-stakes but still often slapstick adventure. it felt like a longer and more fleshed-out Phineas and Ferb, though there was a darker twist at the end that caught me off guard. Otto and Sheed were engaging and distinct characters, though I’d hope for more of the Epic Ellisons in a future book – they were literally frozen for most of this one.  The Last Last-Day-of-Summer was a little more thriller-like than I prefer, but as I’ve mentioned before, my tastes tend to run more to character than fast-moving plots, and most kids (including my own) disagree with me on this.  I will happily put this book in the hands of kids looking for diverse protagonists or just a fun, fast-paced adventure.

Kids looking for more crazy adventures could also read Oddity by Sarah Cannon or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

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Where the Heart Is and Still a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles

Kidlitcon happened!  Providence was beautiful!  I plan to pull together my notes from that soon, but for now, a couple of books by the wonderful Jo Knowles, who was on my panel called “You Can’t Say That in Middle Grade”, along with Ann Braden, Paula Chase, Barbara Dee, and Varian Johnson.  

This is Jo’s new book, coming out in April, and which I read from an ARC that her publicist kindly sent me.

Where The Heart Is final coverWhere the Heart Is by Jo Knowles.  Candlewick, April 2019.
Rachel has just turned 13, and it’s turning out to be a really tough year.  (I remember 13 being very tough myself.) She got “engaged” to her best friend, Micah, when they were six, and though it sent off happy sparkly feelings at the time, it no longer does.  He’s definitely interested in her romantically, and she just doesn’t feel that way about him, and maybe not any boy. Her parents are fighting about money more and more often, and there’s less and less food in the kitchen.  It’s also hard to be stuck with second-hand clothes, including being the only middle school girl at the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. Despite all these tough things, there’s plenty of humor from her little sister, Ivy, as well as from Rachel’s job taking care of the animals on the hobby farm next door, especially the pig, Lucy, who knocks her down every time Rachel tries to feed her.  Looking at all of Rachel’s life, and including normal friendship problems as well as the very serious financial crisis her family is in helped the book rise above the crisis to be a story of personal growth and love.

Jo’s previous book was just released in paperback, though I read my library’s hardcover.

Still a Work in Progress by Jo KnowlesStill a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles. Candlewick, 2016.
Seventh grade Noah is just trying to deal with life at school – stinky bathrooms, do any girls like him, and how will his trio of best friends hold together when one of them starts dating?  Everyone adores his older sister, Emma, but he is afraid even to notice that she’s just pushing her food around on her plate, terrified that the Thing They Don’t Talk About might be happening again.  Art is the only thing that’s keeping him sane, along with keeping the hairless school cat safe. But suddenly the rest of life at school – especially the morning meetings to discuss the comments in the suggestion box – seem completely pointless.  Chapter titles are taken from the suggestion box discussion, including things like “Please Stop Standing on the Toilet Seats” and “Sequined Camouflage Is Not Appropriate at School.” This book looks at the hard work of carrying on with life when someone you love is having serious problems, with characters and an ending that hit the sweet spot in the middle between grim and rainbow unicorns.  

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The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Here’s another author from my Kidlitcon panel, which I’m posting from the airport on my way to Providence!

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann BradenThe Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. Sky Pony Press, 2018.
Seventh grader Zoey mostly keeps her head down on the bus and at school.  At home, she takes care of her three younger siblings while her mother works at a waitress at the pizza parlor.  It’s her job to keep the kids out of the way her mother’s boyfriend Lenny and his father, who spends the day in his recliner smoking and watching angry news.  She doesn’t have time for homework, and she feels it’s better not to raise expectations by doing it.

This resolve cracks when an especially kind teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, gives her the assignment to write about what animal she’d want to be.  Doing this assignment leads Ms. R., herself a first generation college graduate, to convince Zoey to join the debate club, even though this involves making alternate arrangements for care for her younger siblings. This in turn starts Zoey on a path towards being able to label and combat some of the toxic behavior happening at home.  

Meanwhile, her friend from the trailer park Silas is given a hard time by other kids on the bus for enjoying hunting, while her best friend Fuschia is dealing with an extremely unreliable mother.  This sensitive book deals with a wide array of topics, ranging from attitudes about the rural poor to common ground talk about guns, domestic abuse, recognizing gaslighting, and the power of working together. That could feel like too much crammed into one book, but they all felt like issues that a kid in Zoey’s situation would really be dealing with. I was rooting for her all the way, and hope for more books from Ms. Braden.  

Also on this panel are Paula Chase, author of So Done; Barbara Dee, author of Star Crossed and the upcoming Maybe He Just Like You, among many others; Varian Johnson with The Parker Inheritance; and Jo Knowles with the upcoming Where the Heart Is.

 

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On my Spring TBR for Top Ten Tuesday

Here are some of the books I’m planning to read this spring, though I know there are more waiting on my shelf to be read and I’m quite sure I’ve missed some new books coming out that I would want to read.  If you know of any you think I would love, do let me know! Top Ten Tuesday is graciously hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl

Top Ten Tuesday from www.ThatArtsyReaderGirl.com

Currently Checked Out:

  • The Collectors by Jacqueline West (middle grade)
  • The Hidden Witch by Molly Ostertag (middle grade)
  • Let Sleeping Dragons Lie by Garth Nix and Sean Williams (middle grade)
  • Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez (middle grade)

 

On hold & will hopefully come in this season:

  • Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers (YA)
  • Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee (middle grade)
  • Game of Stars by Sayantani DasGupta
  • The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (YA)
  • The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu (middle grade)
  • Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (middle grade)
  • On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.
  • Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson (YA)

 

Witchmark by C.L. Polk (adult)

Still Waiting for

Stand on the Sky by Erin Bow (out, but I need to track down a copy)
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (coming in May)

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So Done by Paula Chase.

Kidlitcon is coming up!  I’ll be moderating a panel called “You Can’t Say That in Middle Grade!” with four wonderful authors who are willing to tackle issues that have in the past been reserved for teen audiences, if they’re discussed at all.  I will not be able to review all the books before I leave, but I’m really looking forward to our conversation! 

So Done by Paula Chase.So Done by Paula Chase. Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2018.
It’s the summer before 8th grade.  Tai (pronounced Tay and short for Metai)  Tai doesn’t remember her Korean mother, who went back home when she was an infant, and her drug-addicted father is an inconsistent and frankly unwelcome presence in her life.  She much prefers the life she has with her 40-something grandmother. (This made me feel so old, even if the grandmother leads a very active life!) has been eagerly waiting for her best friend Bean to come back to the Cove, the subsidized housing complex where they live. She’s expecting things to go back to the way they’ve always been, with Bean following along with the adventures Tai plans, even though Tai herself is changing, with a crush on cute drummer boy Rollie.  

But Bean comes back from her aunt’s house wanting to go by her real name, Jamila. She isn’t comfortable being anywhere close to Tai’s father, and since he’s moved back in with his mother, she won’t go to Tai’s house.  She loves ballet, so when she learns that there will be auditions for a new TAG program with lessons in dance, music, and drama, she’s all about it. A new pair of siblings, Chris and Chrissy, have moved to the neighborhood specifically to join the program, with Jamila and Chrissy bonding over their passion for ballet.  Tai, though, starts to feel left out by this new friendship. And surely that little thing that happened with her father at the beginning of the summer couldn’t have anything to do with Jamila’s new reluctance to come over? Before they quite know what’s happening, the friendship that’s been the foundation of their lives seems to be falling apart.

Strong, well-rounded characters draw the reader into this story that tackles some necessary and uncomfortable topics.  Chase isn’t afraid to give Tai lots of prickles, even as she ultimately has to do some soul-searching. The dark topic was balanced, though, with some strong family bond and by Jamila’s delight in her art.  It’s also good to read a story set in subsidized housing that emphasizes the closeness of the neighborhood over grittiness.  Book 2 in this series, Dough Boys, is due out in August.  

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The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

This is the sequel to The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, which won the 2017 Cybils award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.  It came out in the middle of my 2018 Cybils reading, and was one of the first books I read in the new year.  

The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie BurgisThe Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis. Bloomsbury, 2018.
Silke was the scrappy street girl who helped our heroine Aventurine when she first arrived, completely disoriented, in the city.  Now, she gets her own story.

Silke is still working at the Chocolate Heart, enjoying the time with Aventurine and working her hardest to promote the chocolate house.  But she still feels that she needs her own place to belong.

Meanwhile, all the extra shifts at the Chocolate Heart mean she’s leaving the running of their used clothing stall at the marketplace nearly entirely to her brother, Dieter, which is putting an increasing strain on their relationship.  Even though they love each other. Even though they are the only family they have left, since they arrived as refugees and their parents didn’t arrive with them.

Silke’s stories bring her to the attention of the Crown Princess, who wants her to use those abilities Silke’s been bragging about to find out why the elves are suddenly planning to pay a visit to the kingdom.  Though you don’t really turn down the Crown Princess, this comes with lots of problems. Dieter, tired of Silke’s stories, doesn’t believe that she isn’t just in trouble with the crown. Silke’s short hair and trousers make her decidedly gender-nonconforming in the era the story is set, and that makes posing as a lady-in-waiting especially challenging.  And her parents disappeared traveling through the elves’ country, so that dealing with them will bring up all the memories Silke’s worked so hard to suppress.

Silke’s story here looks at the power of stories themselves both to heal and harm.  It’s a rare fantasy with a non-white, refugee heroine. But young readers may not even notice this welcome diversity – they’ll be too caught up with the busy human-elf-dragon political games and the intrigue within the court, as well as Silke’s personal journey.  This series just keeps getting better, with plenty for older readers as well as kids.

I’m very excited for the next book, The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, coming out in November and featuring the often-overlooked Princess Sofia.  Take a look at the beautiful cover over at Random Musings of a Bibliophile!

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