Book review: A Squirrelly Situation, by Jacqueline Kelly, illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer

Kelly, Jacqueline. A Squirrelly Situation. (Calpurnia Tate Girl Vet series, book 5). Illus. by Jennifer L. Meyer. Holt, 2019. 100p. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-62779-877-8. Ages 8-11. P8Q8

Characters from Kelly’s Newbery Honor Book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and the setting of early 20th century Texas have evolved into an easy series of chapter books in which Callie Vee, who wants to become a veterinarian, typically encounters wounded animals. In this book, her brother brings home an abandoned baby squirrel which is adopted by the family cat. The injury comes when Fluffy the squirrel breaks his tale in a slamming screen door. The book culminates in Emily’s discovery of why a small, lumpy squirrel weighs so much in the community contest to produce the heaviest squirrel.

Verdict: Fluffy’s escapade in the kitchen and the different reactions of family members to the new addition provide the humor in the book, and the black and white drawings enhance the delight of the book. A simple read with some adventure but not a lot of fright.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.


Book review: Captain Rosalie, by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon

de Fombelle, Timothée. Captain Rosalie. Illus. by Isabelle Arsenault. Trans. by Sam Gordon. Candlewick, 2018. 60p. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-5362-0520-6. Ages 10+. P7Q10

As her father fights in World War I and her mother works in a factory, 5-year-old Rosalie believes she is on a secret mission spying on the enemy while disguised as a little girl. She goes to school early in her French village and sits in the back of the classroom with older children and listens to her mother read letters from her father in the evening. Rosalie’s life changes when her mother receives a blue envelope and the father’s letters stop coming. Determined to discover what has happened, she runs away from school to find the envelope and read the letters. Instead of the happy descriptions of life at home when her father returns her mother “read” from the letters, she finds the dirty, misery of her father’s life and the revelation that he has died. Watercolor and ink sketches accompany two-page spreads with dark backgrounds highlighted by Rosalie’s flame-colored hair or the blue ink of the letters.

Verdict: The grimness of war is relieved by the love of Rosalie’s mother for her daughter, the warm understanding by one of the older students for Rosalie, and Rosalie’s own resilience. A tremendously powerful story in quiet, spare tones.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Breakaways: Bad at Soccer, Okay at Friends, by Cathy G. Johnson

Johnson, Cathy G. The Breakaways: Bad at Soccer, Okay at Friends. First Second, 2019. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-250-19694-1. Ages 10-13. P7Q8

On the first day of a new school, Amanda, an older girl, recruits black fifth-grader Faith to the soccer team. The thought of being popular sends Faith over the moon with joy until two seventh-graders, Sodacan and Marie, explain that the three of them are at the bottom of C team while Amanda is on the A team. Faith works out her frustrations remembering dreams about Mathilda, the knight who helps her escape her reality. A Muslim girl saves the soccer season, Faith joins Sodacan’s all-girl band, a transboy comes out during a sleepover, and much more.

Verdict: The diversity can feel forced, and the crowded book that sometimes uses stereotypes attempts too many issues—sexual harassment, crushes, LGBTQ identities, ethnic differences, etc. Johnson has attempted to cover in one book what could be far more effective in three or four so that readers could get a better feeling of the different characters. Middle school readers will enjoy the speed and the struggles of the characters.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: New Kid, by Jerry Craft

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. Harper, 2019. 249p. $21.99. ISBN 978-0-06-269120-0. Ages 10-13. P9Q9

When Jordan Banks is sent by his parents from a Bronx public school to an prestigious private school, the black seventh-grader finds an almost totally white world of sometimes unintentional racism, where both black students and teachers are mistaken for others because of their color, classmates and teachers think that all black students need financial aid, and all blacks are seen as athletic. Even a teacher’s careful avoidance of appearing racist comes out tone deaf. Jordan’s mother, who works at a mostly white publishing firm, wants her son to deal with the white world; his father, a community center director, believes that Jordan needs to keep his connection with his Washington Heights home. Struggling with these different philosophies and just wanting to be an artist, Jordan looks to his grandfather for help in navigating his path with a mixed set of characters.

Verdict: Craft details the differences between Jordan’s worlds as he starts his daily bus ride in a hood and sunglasses, trades them for his sketchbook, and then puts away his drawing implements nearer the school so no one will think he’s a tagger. The character development shows Jordan moving from concentrating on a nonthreatening demeanor to standing up for another student, and the discovery of his wealthy white friend’s misery aids his education. Colored panels are accompanied by his black and white sketches expressing his feelings, and his empathy for a girl who uses puppets and silliness to hide hands that she thinks have ugly burns round out the understanding that Jordan—and Craft—display. A wonderful read to show how many young people are forced to live compartmentalized lives.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Nico Bravo and the House of Hades, by Mike Cavallaro

Cavallaro, Mike. Nico Bravo and the House of Hades. First Second, 2019. 185p. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-250-19698-9. Ages 9-12. P8Q9

Vulcan’s Celestial Supply Shop, owned by the Roman god of fire and metalworking and staffed by the boy Nico, sphinx Lula, and unicorn Buck, is the retail shop for mythological heroes, but everyone’s life is turned upside down when Eowulf, descendant of monster slayer Beowulf, buys a magical sword to kill Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the underworld. Nico knows that Cerberus keeps the shades from invading the world, but Eowulf is determined. The protagonists’ personalities are well-defined through the action and conflicts: upbeat Lula, smart Nico, paranoid Buck, and unreasonable Eowulf. The danger is mitigated with humor; for example, one of Cerberus’s heads comes from a standard pink poodle, and part of the book’s resolution involves Eowulf’s long missing uncle, E.O. Wulf.

Verdict: Quirky, action-packed color panels lead the reader on a roller-coaster ride from one turn to the another. Mythological references don’t stop the plot, and zany touches such as two Bucks, 50 years apart, in this universe keep the chuckles coming. The ending promises a great sequel.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Cilla Lee-Jenkins: The Epic Story, by Susan Tan, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte

Tan, Susan. Cilla Lee-Jenkins: The Epic Story. Illus. by Dana Wulfekotte. Roaring Brook, 2019. $16.99. 264p. ISBN 9781250183637. Ages 8-11. P9Q9

Budding author Priscilla Lee-Jenkins, now headed for an “Epic Story” during her fifth grade, has matured since she wrote a “Bestseller” and a “Classic.” Facing a new teacher and middle school next year, she copes with a collection of trials—a clique of girls who think that her stories are “Silly,” her struggle to deal with toddler and infant sisters, and, worst of all, her grandfather Ye Ye’s stroke which made him forget his English and revert to speaking only Chinese. None of these problems is easy to solve, but help comes with good advice from supportive, loving people around her, including librarian Ms. Clutter. The book about mixed-race Cilla is semi-biographical as shown in Tan’s afterword and family photos.

Verdict: Black and white drawings add a valuable visual piece to the people in Cilla’s life, and her problems in life are fairly common for those of her age, making her highly relatable. Excellent pacing provides reasonable, but not immediate, solutions to her problems, making the plot and characterizations realistic. Tan indicates that the series is finished, but perhaps she’ll change her mind when Cilla faces a whole new set of worries in middle school. Highly recommended.

May 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Last of the Name, by Rosanne Parry

Parry, Rosanne. Last of the Name. CarolRhoda, 2019. $17.99. 334p. ISBN 978-1-5415-41579-7. Ages 12-14. P6Q7

Left with only Granny as their family, 12-year-old Danny O’Carolan and his older sister Kathleen leave Ireland for New York alone after Granny dies during the voyage. Prejudice hits them from all directions—blacks for taking their jobs and whites for being Irish. Kathleen persuades Danny to dress as a girl to get a job, but he hates the way that he must dress. The Civil War draft riots leaves them without a job, a home, or money, but Danny’s connections from secretly raising money by dancing on the streets give them hope.

Verdict: Parry covers the historical angst of the times—poverty, bigotry, class inequality, slave work for the Irish as well as the black—plus the way that wealthy people buy their way out of the war draft. Danny’s and Kathleen’s lives are always unsatisfactory, and the angst sometimes becomes overwhelming.

May 2019 review by Nel Ward.