No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher as part of JustReadTours. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

No One Ever Asked, by Katie Ganshert, is inspired by a true story (described in the notes at the end). It revolves around 3 women and how their lives are affected by a poor school district losing accreditation and its students transferring to the richer, less diverse school district, and the backlash that comes with it. It’s a story about racism and segregation and adoption and marriage and, well, a lot of things.

Though there’s three female points of view, the one the story focuses on the most is Camille, whose cookie-cutter family is falling apart at the seams. It was interesting to get her perspective for the majority of the novel, since Ganshert writes in just such a way where you recognize all the things she’s doing wrong and yet still grow attached to her anyway (especially as she starts to realize what she’s doing). My favorite point of view was probably Anaya, though I’m not really sure I liked the things Ganshert decided to include in her arc. What I liked about the three characters was how different each perspective was: Camille, the affluent white woman; Jen, also affluent, but with an adopted daughter from Liberia; Anaya, the black woman who’s worked and clawed her way up to where she is now and dealt with more than the other two.

I do think Ganshert tried to tackle a little too much here; towards the end of the novel, it just feels like she’s piling on event after event, like an excited kid at a candy store: “Ooh! Some of this! And some of that! And let’s add this right at the end!” It starts to get a little exhausting, and the ending is maybe slightly more dramatic than I think it needed to be. I also think Ganshert’s subtlety leaves a little to be desired, especially with some of the ways she explores people’s preconceived notions.

However, No One Ever Asked is a great book that explores many difficult situations and forces the reader to think about their own actions and thoughts as they read about the actions and thoughts of others. Most powerful, I think, is the townhall scene, where Camille voices opinions that might be echoed by the reader—but then is forced to confront those opinions and determine if that’s how she really thinks and acts.

Warnings: Mentions of sexual assault, gun violence

Genre: Christian, Realistic

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall by Barry Denenberg

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5        

It’s not a good sign for my proclaimed favorite Dear America book (One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping) that I’ve strongly disliked all of Barry Denenberg’s DA entries so far (Denenberg wrote said favorite). It’s not the setting, or the topic, that I dislike so much. It’s that Denenberg has so far failed at making any of his characters interesting.

Bess has barely any voice or personality in this novel, and what we do see of her is contrasted awkwardly with what her sister says of her. In fact, most of Bess’s character is described through her sister’s eyes, and yet we see none of what her sister mentions in Bess’s diary entries. Bess spends more time talking about the people around her and what they are like than doing anything remotely involving connection with the reader. So, while the reader might get awfully attached to Eva, or even Amanda, Bess is left as merely the speaker through which all of this information is coming.

Also, Denenberg writes terrible epilogues, and I absolutely hated how he name-dropped his other Dear America entry, When Will This Cruel War Be Over?, in this one. You can tell he thought it was so clever and funny to do so, but it just seemed self-centered to me.

I’m not rating this a 1 because a lot of the information about the Perkins School for the Blind was pretty interesting. I do like how Dear America can sometimes focus on little things like a blind school in the immensity of American history and events. And setting it in the Great Depression helps communicate some of those issues, as well, though that’s merely a backdrop. So, no problems with the setting or the topic—just with Denenberg’s writing and characterization.

I’m now nervous that One Eye Laughing won’t be as good as I remember. Here’s hoping Denenberg has a few last surprises to give me before I give up on him completely.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5        

One Crazy Summer is an interesting novel. It’s set in Oakland in 1968 and the Black Panthers play a central role as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to one of their summer camps and experience a completely different life than what they’re used to. I liked that there was a bit of a role-reversal in that it is their mother they are visiting. Usually in books where children visit an estranged parent, the parent is the father. It was interesting to have it be the mother this time, though I suppose Williams-Garcia did that not for the role-reversal, but for some sort of statement about women, strength, and independence.

I enjoyed the voices of the characters, especially Delphine, and all of the sisters’ interactions were very well done. I liked that Williams-Garcia sort of showed both sides of the Black Panthers and multiple views of their actions—she didn’t glorify them, but strove to portray them as realistically as possible for a children’s book. It was still a bit weird for me because I’ve really only heard negative things about the violence they caused, but this book did teach me about their summer camps and all the ways they helped to improve the lives of the children in the neighborhoods.

The part that was the hardest to swallow wasn’t any of the Black Panther stuff; it was the actions of Cecile, the mother. Early on, Delphine remembers something that Big Ma told her, which is that Cecile left because she wanted to name Fern something else (“Afua,” we learn later) and wasn’t allowed—or something. Cecile kind of confirms this by refusing to call Fern “Fern” and instead calling her “Little Girl” (and later, by accident, Afua). She then tells Delphine that “she’d have to be grown before [Cecile] could explain why she left [because of a name].” Okay, but…did she leave because of the name or not? Was Garcia-Williams trying to imply there was more to the story, or was this supposed to be some sort of statement about Cecile?

Anyway, while I liked the voice and the characters, and I learned a bit about the setting, overall the entire novel just felt like I was missing something–which I probably was, to be honest. I simply felt as if I didn’t “get it,” like I was supposed to feel like Cecile was this amazing person when all I could think was that she seemed a bit self-centered (at first—she gets a little better, but I still don’t understand why you would leave your family because of a name). I might read at least the sequel to this book to see if we learn more about Cecile, since I did really like the characters. It was just some of the circumstances I couldn’t relate to, I suppose.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2017 by Dial. It is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

Rating: 3/5        

I didn’t get quite as swept up in The War I Finally Won as I did in The War That Saved My Life. While this book continues the healing process that Ada started in the latter book, I simply didn’t find it as immediately gripping. Bradley leaves nothing to subtlety and every emotional hurdle that Ada overcomes is plainly spoken so that the reader understands exactly what has happened. This isn’t a bad thing for a children’s book, I guess, but it leaves a lot to be desired for any older reader.

I suppose that’s my biggest complaint about this book: there’s far too much tell and not enough show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an interesting book, and Ada’s slowly defrosting heart and widening understanding of relationships, love, and family is heartwarming (no pun intended). Yet the delivery is too pat for me to be enthralled with the process.

However, if you left The War That Saved My Life wanting more Lady Thornton, Margaret, Jonathan, and, of course, Ada, Jamie, and Susan, then this book does do a whole lot in furthering each character’s relationship with each other. There’s dual mother-daughter relationships, with Lady Thornton and Margaret, and Susan and Ada, and then there’s Ada dealing with Lady Thornton in her life, who is an authority but not her mother. There’s the inclusion of a German girl, Ruth, who brings a whole new dynamic to the family dynamic. Of course, the book mostly focuses on Ada and Susan, but Ada learns a whole lot about relationships and getting along with other people, as well as the many facets of love.

The War I Finally Won is a good sequel to The War That Saved My Life, with lots of discussion about love, mothers, enemies, and courage. I had problems with the delivery of the ideas and the overall lack of showing what’s happening rather than merely telling, but overall the book showed lots of promise and had strong, relevant themes.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here:

Christmas After All by Kathryn Lasky

Christmas After All: The Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5        

Christmas After All would have been rated a 4 if it hadn’t been for the extremely cheesy ending. As a specifically Christmas-themed Dear America, I suppose I should have expected that Lasky would have gone for the same sort of theme as a Hallmark Christmas movie, but the inclusion of all that “Oh, it is a Christmas after all!” at the very end ruined the whole book for me a little.

It’s a shame because this DA book has one of the strongest voices. It reads far more like an actual girl writing in a diary than someone who is simply narrating a sequence of events, as has been the case for past novels. Perhaps the shorter period of time (most DA books take place over months—this one took place over days) and a more general historical event helped focus the whole novel on the character voice, as this was one of the most realistic I’ve read. I was actually quite shocked that Minnie came from Lasky, who I’ve criticized before for her writing in Guardians of Ga’Hoole. This writing was so unlike the Lasky that I’ve read; it was a very pleasant surprise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the very end. As I said, the voice is fantastic, and though Lasky doesn’t really communicate all that much about the Great Depression, it’s at least clear that it was a bad time for lots of people (which is really understating it, but that’s the general feeling in the book). And, thinking about it, that’s exactly how a child might think of it at the time, so perhaps it was the perfect way to discuss it! Everything, after all, is filtered through Minnie’s eyes, so we are seeing her impressions and descriptions, which may not mean they are strictly historical ones.

Christmas After All is a perfectly themed Dear America book, with a memorable voice and good historical detail interwoven. The Christmas theme does come across way too strongly at the end, which ruined the book for me a little, as I prefer strong finishes and this finish felt trite and cliché. I’m also really disappointed in the epilogue and historical notes because I’m a nerd and I care about those things. It’s one of the more unique DA books, though, so it’s a stand-out regardless.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

November 2019 Books

Around the beginning of each month, I’ll take a look back at the books I read last month. Since most of the book reviews I post on this blog are from books I read months ago, this gives all my readers a good opportunity to see what I’ve been recently reading, as well as how my reading goals are going!

As a side note, you can see every book I am currently reading on both the Goodreads sidebar on this blog as well as on my Goodreads profile.

Books read in November: 18

Reading Goals:

I currently have none so far, though I’ve been picking up some Newbery Honor books and reading through the Royal Diaries (spin-off of Dear America focusing on royalty around the world).

Other Reading Stats:

*These stats are separate from goals (so, for example, even though Dear America counts as children’s books, I do not include them in my children’s stats) and from each category (rereads will not count in their respective genres)

Non-fiction: 4

Adult fantasy/sci-fi: 2

Adult fiction: 2

Rereads: 3

Children’s: 2

Middle Grade: 2

Young Adult: 3

Publisher Copies: 0

Favorites:

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff, was published in 2002 by Random House.

Rating: 4/5        

I think there’s something to say about the state of children’s/middle grade literature recently when you go into a book expecting something much worse to happen than what actually happens. I suppose I could blame it on myself, but I’ve read far too many books (and seen too many shows) where absolute awfulness happens, sometimes only for the sake of drama. So when I was about halfway through Pictures of Hollis Woods, which has Hollis narrating in the present with flashbacks to the past, I was convinced that something terrible had happened, something heartbreakingly sad and crafted to pile on the tears and the angst. That’s what the majority of the books I read in high school and college did, after all.

However, while what happened was sad, it wasn’t dramatically, unrealistically, angstily so. In fact, I found Pictures of Hollis Woods to be quite a tender reflection of family and the things that bring them together. Giff conveys so well all the doubts, hopes, and dreams a girl stuck in foster care might have, and Hollis’s interactions with people, her desperate wish for a family, and her determination to make something work no matter what are so well crafted and described. For once, someone wrote a young girl who, while feisty, wasn’t bratty, whose hopes and dreams made her actions more believable, and who was able to graciously accept when she was wrong and make changes accordingly.

Besides the ultimate theme of family, we also have the delightful interaction between Hollis and Josie, which also communicates family, but also brings up a whole host of other things, like caring for the sick and respecting the wishes of those older than you (it’s not revealed how old Josie is, but she’s retired and quite clearly has some form of Alzheimer’s). To be honest, I felt this book dealt with Alzheimer’s in a much better way, and was written much more lyrically and beautifully than Newberry-winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

Pictures of Hollis Woods was sad, but not devastatingly so. It was deliciously free of drama and had a wonderful theme of family. I also thought how great it was that Giff revealed the love the Old Man had for Steven despite their arguments. The presence of a critical father in a novel, which also shows the love that exists between him and his family, is a great picture of what families, realistically, are–flawed.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

Color Me Dark by Patricia C. McKissack

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Patricia C. McKissack tackles so much in Color Me Dark: Jim Crow laws, the KKK, the Great Migration, race riots, class disputes, and Chicago’s infamous “Red Summer.” There’s also a fair amount of city vs. country and North vs. South tension, as well.

McKissack gives a great job of showing all different types of people in this book. We have, of course, the protagonist, Nellie Lee, who is determined to show the world that her skin color doesn’t matter. There’s her sister, Erma Jean, who has her own obstacles to overcome when she hears the story of how her Uncle Pace died tragically after returning home from WWI. There’s the parents, who have to navigate the business world of Chicago where the only way to succeed seems to be to pay other people to give you what you want. My favorite part was that all of these people were truly different types of people. The rich people weren’t all greedy, the white people weren’t all racist (okay, well, only a couple that are named, but the rest were all historical characters). There were black people with differing social classes and racial opinions. This was one of the most well-developed, nuanced cast of characters that I’ve seen in a while.

McKissack also shows how, even though people like Uncle Meese and, in the end, the Love family, were prosperous and succeeded, they still were seen as inferior by other people. Unfortunately, most of that information comes in the epilogue and in the historical notes. Honestly, I think she could have made the point even stronger in the story as a whole, but what she does have is still great even so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Little House of Their Own by Celia Wilkins

A Little House of Their Own, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2005 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little City by the Lake.

Rating: 4/5        

The last Caroline book is also the most heartwarming, describing the (possibly fictional) events leading up to Caroline and Charles getting married, prefacing the events of Little House in the Big Woods. The sweet, sedate romance that unfolds is appropriate for a children’s book, and Wilkins manages to convey both the wildness and wanderlust of Charles Ingalls and the groundedness of Caroline. Charles’s voice sounds, at times, straight out of the original Little House series, as does Caroline’s.

When not describing the budding romance between the two, the book concerns itself with Caroline’s school teaching days. It’s not overly exciting, but Wilkins does a good job of staying true to the picture of Caroline that we receive in Little House, as well as provides for some explanation of her ways in those books. The Caroline of this series seems slightly spunkier than the one in Little House, but this last book does show her gentleness that is so prominent in her daughter’s books.

This has always been my favorite book simply because of the sweet romance, but it’s not the most interesting. I think On Top of Concord Hill wins that award, as the romance featured in that book is of a much more interesting kind (plus a few more exciting things happen). However, A Little House of Their Own is the perfect finale for the series, as well as a perfect setup for the Little House books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Like the Willow Tree has a fairly unique (and odd) setting/focus. Most Dear America books focus on events, like the Great Depression or World War I, or periods of time (factory work, immigration, etc.). This book has a brief mention of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and even briefer mentions of WWI, but the main focus is a on a group of people, not an event: the Shakers.

No, not the Quakers. The Shakers, thus called because they used to “shake” and dance during worship, are a sect of Christianity founded around 1747. Today, there are only two Shakers remaining (and at Sabbathday Lake, the setting of the book).

It’s like Lowry was enthralled by the Shaker life (as evident in the Historical Note) and wanted to write a book about it, so she contacted Scholastic and asked, and Scholastic said, “Okay, but you have to throw in something else relevant so it seems like a normal Dear America book” and Lowry went with the Spanish flu.

I did learn lots of interesting things about Shakers (like how many inventions they were responsible for: the clothespin, a type of washing machine, and the circular saw, to name a few), and this book is a really good way to learn about a little known religious sect, but since no other DA book focuses so strongly on a group of people (I am not counting any of the Native American books, since those were about events/periods in that culture’s history with information about the group intertwined. This book focuses on the group, and has events intertwined), it just seems odd and out of place.

Plus, the story itself wasn’t that interesting. Lydia is merely a mouthpiece for and an observer of Shaker ways, so she assimilates quickly and spends the rest of the book describing and thinking about Shaker life. Again, if you want to know about Shakers, then Like the Willow Tree is great for that. But if you want a good story, with interesting characters, then maybe look elsewhere.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction