Book review: Pumpkin, by Julie Murphy

Murphy, Julie. Pumpkin. Balzer + Bray, 2021. $17.99. ISBN 9780062880451. 326 pages. Ages 13+. P7 Q8

Life is not easy for Waylon who is fat, gay, flamboyant, and loves drag. Waylon’s favorite show is Fiercest of them all, a reality drag show. Even though Waylon is out as gay, he is closeted in his desire to perform drag. One night, just for fun, Waylon dresses up in drag as “miss patch” and shows his sister the video. Someone posts the video on social media in the Prism FB group, which generates a torrent of bullying and ridicule. As a cruel joke, Waylon is nominated as prom queen. Waylon is mortified, but Hannah, his sister’s girlfriend, who also received a prank nomination, proudly announces that she will run for prom king. Waylon deals with a closeted “friend with benefits”, a bully, advocates for himself, and follows a path less traveled. Not all is rosy and Waylon experiences some severe issues that threaten his life.

Verdict: Even through Pumpkin faces adversity, his free and flamboyant personality comes through in the writing. I appreciate the inclusion of unexpected friendships, realistic issues, and daring to work toward a dream.  This novel is full of LGBT+ characters who support each other, discover others who have not yet come out, and celebrate unique qualities. This book is a great representation of LGBT+ youth and may help youth who are questioning, coming out or facing challenges related to living an authentic life.  

Review by Harris.

Book review: Meet Cute Diary, by Emery Lee

Lee, Emery. Meet Cute Diary. Quill Tree Books, 2021. $17.99. ISBN 9780063038837. 389 pages. Ages 14+.  P6 Q7

It is hard for some transgender youth to meet and date. Noah, who is transgender, wants to give hope to others, so he creates a trans-centered blog. He gets his inspiration for his blog from people he sees and then he makes up a romantic story about how those people meet and date. His desire to inspire others is thwarted when he is accused (rightly so) of making up the posts on his blog. While Noah is writing his blog, he moves from Florida to California to live with his brother, adjusts to life in a new city, meets new people and deals with peers. Noah feels that moving to California will give him a chance to start over after living 16 years as a female. Noah’s new adventures in California are full of learning how to be comfortable with his new identity, counteracting anonymous negative posts on his blog, and figuring out friendships. Noah encounters realistic issues transgender youth go through, such as attempted suicide, rejection, misunderstanding, new pronouns, and how to navigate life.

Written in first person, Meet Cute Diary explores the struggles trans youth encounter in meeting potential partners. The book is made up of social media posts, inbox messages and Noah’s narration.

Verdict: Meet Cute Diary balances fantasy, longing and reality as a transgender youth finds his way in life. Transgender youth will find the themes of friendship, honesty, support, struggles, and coming out, inspirational. This book accurately shows insight into heart of transgender youth and what they experience. I highly recommend this realistic, inclusive and validating journey of coming out and living authentically.

Review by Harris.

Book review: Pencilvania, by Stephanie Watson, illustrated by Sofia Moore

Watson, Stephanie. Pencilvania. Illustrated by Sofia Moore. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021. 332 pages. $16.99.  ISBN 9781728215907. Ages 8+  P6 Q7

Review based on the Advance Reader Copy.

Zora loves to sketch and has the ability to draw what she really sees, not just what is on the surface. When Zora’s mother is diagnosed with leukemia, Zora and her love of drawing are sent into a tailspin. Zora and her sister, Frankie, move to Pennsylvania and stay with their grandmother while their mother starts chemo treatments. Zora’s mother is determined to conquer cancer and is in denial of the gravity of her situation. When her mother asks Zora to draw a picture of her, the drawing reflects her mother’s reality, one that portrays her as very sick and pale, lying in the hospital. Her mother weakly smiles at the drawing, but Zora does not smile back. Zora feels bad about her reaction to her mother and plans to apologize in the morning. Unfortunately, her mother dies before Zora is able to apologize. The traumatic event causes Zora to stop drawing. Panic and anger overcome Zora as she scribbles on all of her art, but to her horror and surprise, the scribbles take on a life of their own and pulls Frankie and Zora into a new world, Pencilvania. As all of her past sketches come to life, creatures take Frankie prisoner. Will Zora be able to save Frankie and return to reality?  My favorite sentence is “Darkness roiled and swirled inside kora, lie a whirlpool dragging her down dep inside of her.”

The illustrations include gray scale pencil drawings that reflect art drawn from a youth of the age of the protagonist, making the drawings relevant and adding depth to the novel. 

Verdict: This adventure explores grief, healing through memories, being true to oneself, regret and hope, in a way that children will be able to relate. Through Zora, the author models feeing and expressing grief. The writing is poetic and creative, highlighting sisterly love, tenacity and grit, and how to reignite a dream that has been lost. The author balances hope and reality in a realistic way. The title is creative, combining Pennsylvania, were Zora lives with her grandmother and pencil. Recommended for youth dealing with the death of a loved one or one whose dreams have died.

Review by Harris.

Book review: The Chance to Fly, by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz

Stroker, Ali, and Stacy Davidowitz. The Chance to Fly. Amulet Books, 2021. $16.99. ISBN 9781419743931. 279 pages. Ages 9-12. P7 Q8

What would it be like to want to sing and dance on stage, but not be included, due to being in a wheelchair? Nat, who is thirteen years old, has a beautiful voice and wants to be in a musical. Unfortunately, when people notice that she is confined to a wheelchair, they don’t take the effort to get to know her. When Nat moves from California to New Jersey, she sets out to earn a part in a musical production, even when it means quitting the racing team that her dad coaches, going behind her dad’s back, and sneaking to audition for the musical. Earning a spot in the musical is the start of more challenges as the other cast members do not understand her need to practice in a building that has wheelchair access. Will Nat be able to overcome her challenges and be successful in the musical? The end pages include “A talkback with authors Stacy and Ali” where the reader learns how the authors met and the process they went through to collaborate on the book. Ali Stocker, who won a Tony Award and starred in Glee, was the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway.

Verdict: Filled with trials, obstacles, and friendships, this inspiring and realistic story brings empowerment to people who experience challenges. It is current and up to date and includes Hamilton references. The experience of the authors adds richness and integrity, while subtly bringing an awareness to peoples who have differing abilities. Nat models how to break stereotypes and solve problems for people who are confined to a wheelchair. This book is both inspirational and realistic.

Review by Harris.

Book review: Houdini and Me, by Dan Gutman

Gutman, Dan. Houdini And Me. Holiday House, 2021. $16.99. ISBN 9780823445158. 212 pages. Ages 8-12. P7 Q5

What would it be like to be Houdini for a day? Eleven-year-old Harry lives in the historic home where Houdini spent the last 22 years of his life. Harry, who loves magic tricks, often imagines himself as Houdini. One day as Harry and his friend Zeke were exploring, they put a penny on a train track. Harry’s shoe laces got stuck on the track and he ended up in the ICU. When he woke up, he found a flip phone with his gifts and cards. Harry starts getting messages on his phone from Houdini, who persuades Harry to trade places with him. Will Harry and Houdini change places, and if so, will changing places put Harry in precarious situations? The grey scale illustrations are detailed and look like photographs.  The mid-size text and space between the lines, makes this chapter book easy to read. The text sent over the phone is indicated by capitalization, allowing it to stand apart from the rest of the story.

Verdict: I found quite a few holes and missing pieces in the story line. That the flip phone suddenly appears can add to the mystique or make one wonder how it arrived there. Even though there are some plot holes, youth interested in magic and Houdini’s life will find it interesting and will glean information about Houdini’s life.

Review by Harris.

Book review: The Secret Starling, by Judith Eagle, illustrated by Jo Rioux

Eagle, Judith. The Secret Starling. Illustrated by Jo Rioux. Walker Books, 2021. $16.99. ISBN 9781536213652. 249 pages. Ages 10-14. P7 Q7

Orphans, a grouchy uncle, villains, friendship, and a mystery await the reader in this fast paced adventure. Clara, who has been raised by many governesses (they change monthly), lives in her uncle’s mansion. Her dreary uncle is cold, follows strict routines, and keeps her isolated from the outside world. Clara’s desperate situation takes a turn for the worse when she notices that items disappear from the decrepit mansion, her governess quits, and she is abandoned in her village by her uncle. Clara finds her way back to the mansion, where she encounters Peter, an orphan, who was sent by his recuperating granny, to stay with Clara’s uncle. Clara and Peter forge a friendship when they discover the mansion has been sold to a family who plans on turning it into an orphanage. The new owners have their sights set on Clara and Peter as the first orphans to be in their care. Peter is captured and in the process of freeing him, Clara finds a ballet slipper belonging to her mother. Will this be the clue she needs to find her mother? Will Clara be able to escape the clutches of the new owners and free Peter? The black and grey scale illustrations accurately portray the characters and provide the reader with additional insight into Clara’s difficult life.

Verdict: This adventure is full of twists and turns, highlighting perseverance and grit. While some of the story line is not realistic, such as abandoning children and sending a child a long distance without assurance that there is someone on the other end to take care of him, the events add to the story line and adventure. This mystery moves along at a nice pace, includes unexpected events and is sure to keep youth engaged.

Review by Harris.

Book review: A Day for Sandcastles, by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng

Lawson, JonArno. A Day for Sandcastles. Illustrated by Qin Leng. Candlewick, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99. ISBN 978-15362-08429. P8Q8

It is a great day to go to the beach, and a trio of siblings takes their pails and shovels to the sand to make sandcastles. What is fun about this book is that the story unwinds with no words through effective illustrations. We see a lady’s hat swept away to the children playing, and the tide that comes up to wash the sandcastle  away. The illustrations are light and one can almost smell the salty ocean breeze.

VERDICT: Books that engage young readers without words are always a fun, since all ages can sit and look at a book without having to have a reader interpret. The story is light and fun and would be great fun to share in a group to exclaim about what is happening in the story with one another. Most of us have had a day like this at the beach.

July 2022 review by Lynne Wright.

Book review: Saving the Butterfly, by Helen Cooper, illustrated by Gill Smith

Cooper, Helen. Saving the Butterfly. Illustrated by Gill Smith. Candlewick, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99. ISBN 978-15362-20551. Ages 4-7. P8Q8

Two children are rescued in a boat, where they are the only two left, big one and little one. As refugees, this story progresses through both of them finding a place to live, and a new life. Little one is able to move on more easily by adjusting and playing outside. Big one remembers the troubling past and is fearful of going outside and hides in the house. But when little one brings a beautiful butterfly inside, it helps show big one the way. The illustrations are full of grays and starts out appropriately bleak in appearance, but has a nice evolution when the butterfly comes into the plot.

VERDICT: This story is a bit heavy but effectively shows the path of refugees and how some might cope, in an age appropriate way. It is a good story to read together and have a way to discuss this real life drama for adults and children. The illustrations very nicely bring the dark into the light.

July 2022 review by Lynne Wright.

Book review: Miguel’s Community Garden, by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Samara Hardy

Brown-Wood, JaNay. Miguel’s Community Garden. Illustrated by Samara Hardy. (Where in the Garden? series). Peachtree Books, 2022. Unpaged. $16.99. ISBN 978-168263-1669. P8Q8

Miguel is having a party for his friends at the community garden. This story takes us through beautifully illustrated pages in each garden area searching for his favorite sunflowers. During this journey, it becomes an educational exploration of various garden vegetables and fruits, asking if this could be a sunflower. The colors and big depictions of each item are glorious, and we also learn the difference between the sunflower and the garden item.

VERDICT: This was a fun read aloud story that engages the readers to compare the sunflower to other garden plants. It teaches, in a fun way, why the mulberry isn’t a sunflower, and so on, with other plants found in a garden. Of course, it all ends up with the party in the community garden. A fun adventure for many ages.

July 2022 review by Lynne Wright.


Book review: All Cats Welcome, by Susin Nielsen, illustrated by Vivian Mineker.

Nielsen, Susin. All Cats Welcome. Illustrated by Vivian Mineker. Atheneum, 2022. Unpaged. $18.99. ISBN 978-15344-76974. Ages 4-8. P8Q8

Leonard the cat is bored when his human leaves for work each day, so Leonard finds his way out into the world to discover a friend who doesn’t speak his language. However, it doesn’t stop them from sharing fun adventures and ends up connecting their humans, too. The illustrations are big and full of the lovely, muted colors of the city.

VERDICT: The illustrations alone make this book tempting to pick up. The text is spare, but with the pictures, it makes a lovely little story of cat and human connections where sharing the same language really isn’t necessary between cats or humans.

July 2022 review by Lynne Wright..