Personality Switch

Restart by Gordon Korman is my penultimate Nutmeg nominee.

Chase Ambrose goes from star football player to amnesia patient after a nasty fall from his roof.  He can’t remember anything from before his fall, but his classmates sure do. He was one of the school’s worst bullies along with his two best buddies. Now he isn’t able to play football due to concussion protocol. He finds himself hanging out with the very kids he used to terrorize while still trying to keep a foot in his former life, all while trying to remember what happened before the fall.

Major changes in his character include becoming a member of the film club, as well as befriending a war veteran at the senior living facility. This facility is the same spot where Chase and his football buddies were doing community service for a terrible bullying prank.

His football friends think he might be faking the whole thing for his own gain. It all comes to a head when they devise a way to implicate Chase in another bullying episode.

Will he resort to his former antics or has he truly changed?  What caused him to fall in the first place? This is a solid middle school read including relatable topics and important themes such as standing up for oneself and making positive changes. 

Forever Friends

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman is an early edition copy I received. I decided to read this book due to its subject matter around the Chernobyl explosion, which is a new historical fiction time frame for me.

The main characters are Valentina and Oksana.  They begin as enemies but grow to be lifelong friends due to experiences that link them together. Their fathers were both working at Chernobyl when it erupted. Now they are being forced to evacuate their town. Oksana’s mother is sent to a hospital for radiation leaving Oksana with nobody to care for her. Valentina’s mother decides to take her with them. This sets the girls off on a new path living with Valentina’s grandmother (whom she has never met) in Leningrad.

Family history becomes a parallel story throughout the book, as “new” character Rifka is sent away from her mother and young brothers to escape the German soldiers during WWII. Eventually, the two stories’ connection is understood.

The plot is mostly engaged with the girls’ struggles and changes. But, I found it interesting to read about how the explosion was at first kept hidden. There are also tidbits about how they treated radiation exposure such as drinking milk, eating cucumbers, taking iodine pills, and staying low to the ground to name a few. For many, the exposure was too high for these remedies to work.

Sensitive topics of religious discrimination, physical abuse, and alcoholism are present. These topics are balanced by friends who become family with a message of being strong, kind, and generous.  It is a jump into a time period that may be unfamiliar to some, which can be a gateway to nonfiction about the place and time.

Fashion Principles

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone is an advanced reader copy I obtained through this year’s virtual SLJ Day of Dialog.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this book and three other titles in my mail this past week.

Set in Connecticut, this story will appeal to middle school girls everywhere!  As a former middle and high school teacher, I could definitely connect to the issues at stake in this book (and am happy to say that I was not one of the fashion police!). Fisher Middle School’s principal has an obsession with maintaining a strict dress code, using a special monitor dubbed “Fingertip” who specifically keeps an eye out for shorts’ lengths, visible shoulders and cleavage.  

Events get heated when the entire eighth grade camping trip is canceled when Olivia is caught breaking the dress code.  Molly witnesses the exchange and decides that enough is enough.  She starts a podcast in order to share Olivia’s side of the story.  Her podcast starts the #dresscoded movement.  Other middle and high school girls want to share their stories too.  Molly and her friends add to the movement by putting up posters, signing a petition and going to the school board.  When nothing seems to make a difference, they set up their own camp-in at the school.  With persistence and strong arguments for equality, they are finally heard.  

Short chapters are a combination of podcast interviews, letters, lists and storytelling.  The dress code issue is surrounded by other important middle school topics: crushes, changing friendships, family struggles, vaping/addiction, and bullying.  Molly learns who her real friends are, and figures out how to navigate stressful family events. There is great depth in this story, making it a must read for teen girls and a conversation starter for everyone.

Drawn Together

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a well-deserved 2021 Intermediate AND Middle School Nutmeg nominee.

Jordan Banks is transferring to the elite Riverdale Academy Day School to start seventh grade, when all he would really like is to pursue his dream of attending art school.  This graphic novel portrays the first year at RAD, while his personal commentary on various events are drawn/noted along the way.  Humor is a constant throughout the book with many relatable, laugh out loud moments, and a straightforward approach to serious topics.

First are the discriminatory remarks made by fellow student Andy to each character of a different cultural descent.  There are microaggressions from faculty as well; for example, the teacher who calls every black student by the wrong name, and the book fair arranged by stereotyped categories.  There is also the stigma attached to students who use financial aid to attend.  So many important conversations can stem from the behaviors and events in this book.

The characters are written well, and I think students will connect to them.  Jordan is a nice person who takes time to get to know everyone, even oddball Alexandra who always wears a sock puppet on her hand.  Jordan has a way of finding classmates who are most genuine.  In doing so, he ends up having a decent year, making true friends and learning to speak up for himself and his friends.

I read this story in a day, and enjoyed every moment of it.

After the Crash

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano – it may sound odd, but this is a book I tried to savor.  I became immersed in the characters and Edward’s story and wanted to make it last. 

Edward is the sole survivor of a plane crash. He was with his brother and parents flying from New York to their new home in California when the plane went down. 

After the crash, Edward goes back to live with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Edward is numb. Seen as a miracle and an oddity by all, he survives each day in a trance. He is able to find comfort from his neighbor Shay, a girl his age who tells it like it is. Her frank, open company seems to be Edward’s only comfort. 

Years pass before they discover locked duffel bags in his uncle’s garage. These bags hold hundreds of letters written through the years to Edward from family or friends of the plane’s deceased.  All have special messages or requests for Edward on behalf of their lost loved ones. These letters have a profound effect on Edward. They begin to fully awaken him (while ironically allowing him his first real sleep in years). 

Throughout Edward’s story after the crash, readers are given glimpses from during the flight. We gain knowledge of some of the other lives that are lost.  Each character has his/her own unique addition to the story.  These people are rediscovered in the letters.  

The characters and events are interesting and satisfying. It’s hard to even begin to imagine how life could possibly go on after such a traumatic event.  Healing takes time. And breakthroughs can occur in unexpected ways.  

 

Once Upon a Time

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert will be a quick review for me, mostly because I am feeling extremely time crunched lately!

Alice always dreamed of meeting her famous grandmother, Althea Prosperine, who is the author of a rare book titled Tales from the Hinterland.  Alice has never personally read the book.  In fact, it seems that her mother is determined that Alice have nothing to do with her grandmother or her book.  Alice and her mother Ella constantly  move as if trying to escape something.  This “something” finally catches up with them when Alice discovers her mother is missing.  Alice ventures to find her grandmother’s estate in hopes of finding her mother.  In doing so, she enters a fairy tale realm where she learns more about herself than she ever could have imagined.

I enjoyed a lot about this story, including the writing and discovering who Alice really is.  The fairy tale element slowed me down quite a bit though, as it’s not my preferred type of story.  My daughter highly recommended the book to me, so there is definitely an audience out there!

Finding Happiness

I decided to reread Whirligig by Paul Fleischman in order to support my son with his summer reading.

Brent is humiliated at a party in his new town.  He has moved quite a bit and he realizes that he will be socially ostracized after this event.  He attempts suicide while drunk  driving away from the party, but instead kills eighteen-year-old Lea Zamora.  Brent never knew Lea.  Her mother asks that he build four whirligigs around the United States in order to spread the happiness that she is no longer able to share.  She asks that he take a photograph of each whirligig to return to her after his redemptive mission.

Brent sets off on this journey, traveling to the four corners of the U.S.: Washington, California, Florida and Maine.  He starts with no knowledge of how to build a whirligig and is socially awkward around others.  Through the trip, he begins forming relationships with various people, such as other travelers, onlookers and more.  He gets something from each encounter.  He begins new hobbies during his trip, such as playing the harmonica and astronomy.

Throughout the story, there are chapters devoted to some of the random people who encounter his whirligigs and the effects they have on each person.  In most cases, the whirligigs fulfilled Lea’s mother’s wish, spreading happiness to others.

At the end of the story, Brent is finally able to speak openly about his part in the accident to a woman artist he meets.  This is his first time openly confessing to his crime.  After this moment, Brent realizes he will be able to go on and live his life as a new, humbled person.

I was so happy to reread this book, not only to be able to talk about it with my son, but because of its important messages.  The ideas of rebirth, forgiveness, and mostly, the ability to find/create beauty amidst chaos and ugliness resounded with me.  These ideas are eternal, and the latter seems more important than ever in today’s society.

Torn Away

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate definitely makes my top three of this summer’s favorite reads.

It’s historical fiction based around Georgia Tann’s Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society which operated between the 1920s through the 1950s.  The story follows the fictional Foss children’s story, with a focus on the eldest sister, Rill Foss, who later becomes known as May Weathers.

Rill’s family are river people.  They live a simple life on their boat/”kingdom” named the Arcadia along the Mississippi River.  Her parents, Briny and Queenie, go to hospital when Queenie has problems delivering twins (their sixth and seventh children).  It is at this time when Rill (12 years old) along with her three sisters and toddler brother are abducted and brought to the Children’s Home.

Here they are subjected to inhumane treatment at all levels.  I could barely stomach reading the vicious ways that the children were handled by Tann and her employees at the “orphanage.”  Rill’s siblings begin to be adopted, and one sister disappears after most likely dying at the hands of staff.  Rill and Fern are the final two siblings who are adopted into a musician’s family together.  Rill attempts to escape with Fern to her old life, but by this time it’s too late and everything has changed.

Throughout May’s narrative, the reader also follows Avery.  Avery turns out to be the granddaughter of one of May’s siblings.  Avery works to find her connection to May (Rill) during the course of the story.  These stories intertwine perfectly.

This was a book I couldn’t put down, but one that I didn’t want to end.  I had to find out how everyone was connected.  I only wish there were additional books for every other sibling in order to discover the details of each one’s life; I would read every single one.  This is a great story with strong writing to bring every character alive.

A Family Ordeal

Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz is the type of book that will frustrate you while also making you think and feel strongly.

Fig, short for Fiona, is the daughter of a schizophrenic mother.  Fig herself is obsessive compulsive, along with some possible signs of schizophrenia.  She is obsessed with her mom, which makes it nearly impossible for her to form any other close relationships.  She blames her dad for her mom being taken away to psychiatric hospitals, and her paternal grandmother is bitter and cold toward Fig.  She is ostracized at school for her odd behaviors.

The story follows Fig’s life from her point of view, from the age of six (when she first realized something was amiss with her mom) to just before she turns nineteen.  During these years, we see the ups and downs of her mom’s behaviors, including the impact they have on Fig.  Fig’s one and only true wish is that her mom will be normal again.  She feels that she can make sacrifices to make her mom better.  An interesting part of the story is her calendar of ordeals.  Each day she must complete an ordeal, such as not touching metal, not speaking every third word, along with an assortment of other difficult tasks, all with the hope that the actions will cure her mom.  She also begins obsessively picking her skin as a release.

Fig’s uncle Billy is (finally) the person who is able to get through to Fig in one of her lowest moments.  He tells her she needs to stop self-harm and he gives her other outlets.  This is what Fig needs to find her own interests outside of her devotion/obsession with her mother, and to realize that she is cared for.

Strong writing and imagery along with the sensitive nature of mental illness make this an engaging read.  There is meaning behind everything: the chapter titles, the words defined at the beginning of each chapter, the omnipresent wild dog, and the flowers.  I had to find out if Fig would end up like her mom, or if she would find a different path.

The Perfect Con

In Her Skin by Kim Savage was a recent teen mother-daughter book selection at my town library.  This book was a wild ride.

Jolene has been raised to be a master con artist by her mother, and was being used in sex trafficking by her mother’s rotten boyfriend.  Jo’s mom comes out of her drug-induced stupor long enough to realize it’s time to escape her boyfriend.  He kills Jo’s mom once he realizes her plan.  Jo escapes to a life of more cons and homelessness in Boston’s Tent City.

Jo discovers the perfect con to get out herself out of this life which is by impersonating Vivienne Weir.  Vivienne was a young girl when she disappeared from her friend’s home while the wealthy parents “watching her” dined at a nearby restaurant.  Jo is embraced into a new life as Vivienne by the very couple who were in charge when the true Vivienne went missing.  Jo is attracted to their daughter Temple, but also knows to be wary of her once horrible secrets are revealed.  Temple is not as perfect as one would assume.  Jo becomes obsessed with Temple and they form a twisted relationship with hints of romance.

Secrets, lies and survival are the major elements of this story.  Everyone is part of the deception in some way, and it comes down to who will come out on top.