The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tmwAkI

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Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Sunny, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Patina.

Rating: 2/5

I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.

There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.

I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.

I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GFdP43

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, was published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rating: 3/5

The Parker Inheritance namedrops The Westing Game a lot, and with good reason. The mystery in this book is very similar to the one in Raskin’s novel, with similar stakes. I enjoyed the puzzle/riddle aspect a lot, though occasionally I had to raise my eyebrow at some of the more difficult logical leaps that the characters took. Perhaps I’m simply underestimating a child’s ability to solve puzzles, but sometimes things seemed just too much of a stretch.

Embedded within the puzzle story is a story of a black family during segregation. The story does a fantastic job of portraying the 1950s and the many injustices that occurred—as well as what the black community had to do to overcome them, if that was possible. The puzzle aspect is based off of this rich, story-within-a-story aspect of the novel that is the best part about the book.

Johnson also gets pretty political and preachy in this novel, which ruined the effect for me. He was clearly writing for a certain kind of audience, which isn’t a problem—but that audience doesn’t include me. I found it interesting, and was even delighted, when Johnson included a glimpse into a Southern church, but was severely disappointed when nothing else was mentioned about it outside of two churchgoers, who are hardly reflective of their religion. Christianity extends far more than just going to church on Sundays. But perhaps that was all it was for Candice and Brandon, so maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed that Johnson forgot that spiritual conversation isn’t simply limited to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning.

The puzzle part of The Parker Inheritance is what pulled up its rating; otherwise, the rest of it was disappointing, frustrating, and preachy. If you like books that push particular political agendas and are concerned with the current social justice issues, then this book is right up your alley. I don’t like those sorts of books, however, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (one need only view my consistently negative feedback of Christian novels to recognize this).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Wyx98o

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1959 by Dutton.

Rating: 3/5

My Side of the Mountain is a survival novel a lá Hatchet, though Sam willingly chooses to live off the land in this book, as opposed to the protagonist of Hatchet, who is forced to do so after a plane crash. I found it amusing that the author’s note to this book states that the publisher was originally unwilling to publish a book that featured a boy running away and living off the land, lest kids also want to do so—reading this book almost 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine any teenage boy today doing what Sam in this book does.

The survival aspect of this book is the most interesting part, as George details what Sam does to survive a summer and winter on the side of a mountain. It almost seems too good to be true—Sam is so knowledgeable about vegetation and the wilderness that the novel almost has a fantastical, or at least exaggerated, atmosphere to it. The conflict in the book is of the natural variety, as the adults and other children he runs into are always curious and pleasant, rather than hostile. This poses a problem to the realism, though perhaps that’s modern culture speaking—I can’t imagine all of the adults being so nonchalant about Sam’s living on his own. Even his father exudes more awe at his son’s abilities than relief that his son is alive.

The ending is definitely of the fantastic variety, a sappy, feel-good ending that smacks perhaps too much of the glory of the country/wilderness as opposed to the darkness of the city. That’s really the main problem of this book—everything is just a little too pat, people react just a little too nonchalantly. There is a blissful, “I’m right to live in the wilderness” undertone that eats a little at the survival aspect. My Side of the Mountain is not as frantic nor as tense and dangerous as a book like Hatchet, which makes it perhaps better suited for certain ages, but it’s too light and fluffy to be a compelling survival novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Survival

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RYT762

1971 Newbery Medal: The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.

Rating: 3/5

The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.

The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.

I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Se61t1

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.

Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.

We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2E8sbsd

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2017 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Ghost.

Rating: 3/5

Though Patina is the sequel to Ghost, it’s not really necessary to have read Ghost first, though it does give you added insight to some of the characters. I like the whole idea Reynolds is going for: a book centered on each of the four central characters. If the pattern holds, each one will take place after the one before it. Patina starts where Ghost left off, finishing the race that Reynolds ended Ghost with.

Reynolds ends this book with another race, and yet again ends the book before we see the results. I like it as much as I liked it in Ghost, which is to say, not at all, and I hope it’s not a sign of a pattern.

Anyway, I don’t think I liked Patina as much as I liked GhostGhost tugged at the heartstrings a little bit more, though I liked the sibling relationship in this book and the conversations about Patina’s white aunt. And I liked that Reynolds didn’t go for the standard bully story in school, but simply had complex characters with different motivations, with Patina trying to understand their actions. But Ghost really pulled at me, whereas Patina was good, but not as immediately connecting as I found Ghost.

I do, however, still really like this series and am eager to read the next two books about Sunny and Lu. I’ve seen enough of their characters in these two books that I want to know more about their lives—which, I guess, is part of what Reynolds is trying to do. And I love the uniqueness of each character, and how their lives are so different in so many ways, and yet they can come together with the common interesting of running. Unity in diversity is a great message to deliver.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was published in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 1/5

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has won a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of Indian culture and its subversion and denunciation of common stereotypes. However, to be honest, I didn’t really notice much of that in the book itself—I was too distracted by the vulgar and inappropriate content that left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did notice that Junior used a lot of blanket statements and generalizations, though. So much so that it started to undermine his role as a cultural-barrier-crosser. Then again, he IS just a teenager, so that seems par for the course, unfortunately.

I also didn’t appreciate the complete lack of care that was given in describing bulimia, or the biased statements about religion.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I almost DNF (that’s “did not finish”) the book. And it’s mostly because of the gross, inappropriate teenage boy content and jokes that went on for far too long.

There were some good things about the book. I liked the theme of friendship and loyalty, as well as the potential conversations that could arise about loyalty to family, culture, and race. But I mostly wanted it to be over so I could stop reading all the sexual content.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Sexual situations, swearing, mentions of masturbation and erections, bulimia, alcoholism.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RacvZi

1978 Newbery Medal: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, was published in 1977 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that you don’t ever really forget. I first read this book maybe 15 years ago (wow! It feels weird saying that!) and I’ve never forgotten the ending. The majority of the content I did forget, and it was surprising to me to read it again (more on that later), but the ending stuck with me.

There are many things to like about this novel: the depiction of a boy/girl friendship, a creative and imaginative boy protagonist, the focus on grief and how it is expressed in different ways and the subversion of the “men don’t cry” attitude. The emphasis on imagination and its power is especially well done, in my opinion.

What surprised me the most was some of the content, which to me made the novel seem a little inappropriate for children. However, it was written in the 70s, so maybe that explains the change, though today I don’t think some things are expressed that were expressed in this book. There are many exclamations of “Lord” throughout, which isn’t so problematic, I suppose (I didn’t even remember that being in the book), but the one thing that struck me was the inappropriate incest joke made by May Belle and then continued by Jess. My skin crawled when I read that part.

Bridge to Terabithia is pretty much the quintessential Newbery Medal: slice-of-life, centered story with tragic events. I loved a lot of the aspects of this book, especially the creative boy protagonist and the boy/girl friendship, but some of it I didn’t like so much. I also think Paterson is still a bit too strange of a writer for me (i.e., Jacob Have I Loved).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SEbgCQ

2007 Newbery Medal: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.

I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.

However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.

As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.

The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2yBDZ2w