I made my way through tons of books in January. January was cold, we had our first sick days of the winter, and my husband had knee surgery, so we had a lot of down time to read. Here are quick thoughts on what I’ve been reading lately! Thanks to the Kit Lit Exchange for providing review copies of many of these books!
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Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
BRAVING THE WILDERNESS is subtitlted THE QUESTION FOR TRUE BELONGING AND THE COURAGE TO STAND ALONE. It’s about why humans need to belong to something, and why that innate desire is so powerful that we often make the mistake of trying to fit in rather than truly belong. Brown discusses in depth the current polarized political climate, which she says has made true belonging nearly impossible. She challenges readers to be vulnerable and connect with others across differences. I listened to BRAVING THE WILDERNESS on audio book, and while Brene Brown is not the most dynamic reader, she made this a breeze to listen to.
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
I picked up this recommendation from the What Should I Read Next podcast. Food writer Kathleen Flinn recruits a group of women to ditch the processed foods their families have become dependent on and commit to cooking and eating real food. We already mostly eat real food in our house, so this wasn’t as transformative as other food books have been for me (my favorite is ANIMAL VEGETABLE MIRACLE by Barbara Kingsolver). But it was a very engaging text that mixed stories, cooking lessons, and a few key recipes. By the end of the book, I had recommitted to baking bread at home instead of buying the less tasty store bought version (why spend $4 when you can make it in five minutes for 30 cents?). This is another good audio book selection!
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I heard rave reviews about the PBS show made from this book, so I thought I would love CALL THE MIDWIFE. But it took me the better part of a year to finish it. It follows the author’s experience working as a midwife in London in the 1950s. The birth stories are fascinating, but there are some real tangents here that took the book off track for me. Some of these delve into the author’s personal life, the lives of the nuns she lives with, and the back stories of some of her patients. It felt too scattered and did not hold my interest.
Young Adult Fiction
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
LONG WAY DOWN was long-listed for the National Book Award. This story written in verse is an honest, gut-wrenching depiction of the real-life challenges faces young black men in America’s low-wealth communities. Fifteen-year-old Will’s brother is gunned down, and Will knows exactly what he has to do—find the murderer and kill him. In the short elevator ride from his apartment to the street, Will is confronted by the ghosts of his past and the long legacy of violence that has shaped his life. An open ending forces readers to consider what we would do in Will’s shoes. The book is never judgmental or preachy, acknowledging that the choice is not as easy as it seems. This should be required reading in every American high school for both its content and artistry. Watch Jason Reynolds talk about THE LONG WAY DOWN on the Daily Show for more insight into this amazing author’s thought process.
Middle Grade Fiction
Skeleton Tree by Kim Ventralla
SKELETON TREE is a suspenseful and heart-wrenching middle grade novel. Stanly has complaints about his younger sister, but when Miren starts making regular trips to the emergency room for breathing issues, even Stanly starts to worry. When he’s not thinking about Miren, Stanly is studying the mysterious tree that’s growing in the backyard. It looks suspiciously like a skeleton, and it seems most of the adults in his life can’t see it. As the skeleton grows and takes on a personality of his own, Miren’s strength dwindles. Stanly alone has the responsibility to ward off the skeleton, who he suspects is behind all his sister’s health problems.
Even as I started to understand how the plot of SKELETON TREE was developing, I resisted the idea. And yet as the skeleton became more animated, my interest in the book also grew. This is very heavy subject matter for middle grade, but the author wrote an age-appropriate book about letting go of the ones we love most. It’s unique and courageous, and gives you plenty of time to prepare for what’s to come. Read my full review.
Sticker Girl Rules the School by Janet Tashjian
Sometimes I pre-read books in my continued quest to find age-appropriate middle grade novels for Lu, who’s an excellent reader and in 2nd grade. STICKER GIRL RULES THE SCHOOL is about Martina Rivera, a girl with a very special secret. She can make stickers come to life. This means some of her best friends are a cupcake named Craig and a dancing chipmunk wearing a tutu. Each time her stickers come to life, the bring a little bit of trouble with them, and Martina must figure out how to pull things back together.
I liked that despite the fact that this was a light, early chapter book, the author described Martina’s shy introversion and some of her anxieties about being the center of attention. This is the second book in the STICKER GIRL series, and I have not read the first. I found that the book’s premise, characters, and action explored in the first book were not sufficiently explained for the reader to understand this sequel. I recommend starting with book one, which presumably explains some of the mystery around Sticker Girl’s powers and introduces some of the characters in more depth.
The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City by Jodi Kendall
THE UNLIKELY STORY OF A PIG IN THE CITY is such a well crafted middle grade novel. When Josie’s brother comes home with a pig one day, Josie is smitten. The one problem: her parents say Hamlet has to be out of the house by New Year’s Day. With just six weeks to go, will Josie find a home for Hamlet? Or is he destined for a pig farm, where Josie fears his time will be limited? I fell in love with Hamlet, and with Josie’s friends who band together to save his life. I’m always thrilled to find a middle grade novel without bullies or mean kids, and this is a new one to add to the list. If you’re looking for a new feel-good read-aloud, I highly recommend this book! Read my full review.
Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel
BRINGING ME BACK is about a young boy whose life is turned upside down by a cascade of events that land his mom in prison and cause his small town’s football team to disband. Everyone in town turns on the boy at the worst moment of his life. I’m not sure I buy the premise. But as the main character Noah began to make a new friend in Rina, crack back into his former best friend’s life, and bond with his mom’s boyfriend, the redemptive aspects of the story shifted my mindset (somewhat) about the book. There’s also a somewhat interesting connection to the natural world as Noah tries to save the life of a local bear that’s threatened by a connection to Noah’s story. Ultimately, it was hard for me to believe and accept that so many adults and kids could behave so badly and I finished with very mixed feelings about the book.
The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio
Lou has a dream—she is going to build a tiny house on the land she inherited from her father when he passed away. Lou’s land is the connection to her dad that she never had in real life. She knows her dad would have loved her tiny house plan. But when Lou’s mom announces that she’s considering a job in a faraway state, Lou’s dream is in jeopardy. Lou rallies her friends, her teachers, and her extended Filipino family to fast-track the tiny house and convince her mother they should stay put. There is so much to celebrate in THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT–a smart, strong female character, abundant Filipino culture, and a unique, engaging story. Read my full review.
All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
The girls have read Victoria Jamieson’s ROLLER GIRL at least 20 times, so we were so excited when this came out last year. This was such a unique subject matter–a middle school girl who has spent her whole life homeschooling at the renaissance fair and is now transitioning to public school. It hit on all the right middle grade themes about friendship, learning who you are, trying to fit in, making mistakes, and recovering from those mistakes. There were a few sections that were a little mature for our kids (oldest age 8), but it was easy to gloss over those parts. Another great graphic novel!