Sunday, August 28, 2016

Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood

It's 1952 and Azalea Ann Morgan, 11, isn't too thrilled about being dropped off at her grandmother's house in Paris Junction, Arkansas.  Azalea had big plans to hang out with her best friend Barbara Jean at home in Tyler, Texas and to visit the Grand Canyon with the parents.  But Grandma Clark has hurt her foot and needs help with her house and garden, and even though Azalea and her grandmother are virtual strangers to each other, Azalea's mother agreed to let her stay for the summer.

Azalea is a shy girl and dreads talking to strangers, and, of course, Paris Junction is full of strangers. No sooner does Azalea arrive, then she notices a boy in one of the trees in her grandmother's enormous garden.  Grandma Clark tells her it's Billy Wong, a Chinese American boy who is staying with his great aunt and uncle, longtime Paris Junction residents and owners of the Lucky Seven grocery. But when her grandmother encourages Azalea to make friends with Billy, she hesitates - she's never met a Chinese person before, and can't imagine how they could understand each other if one speaks Chinese and one speaks English.

It turns out that Billy Wong has no trouble with the English language given that his family has lived in Arkansas for generations.  Billy is staying in Paris Junction so that he can attend a better school than the school across the river where is parents live. And Billy is one of three kids besides Azalea who come to help out in Grandmother Clark's garden. Besides him, there is the prissy Melinda Bowman and the town bully and troublemaker Willis DeLoach.

Before she knows it, Azalea is speaking more and more to strangers, and becoming friends with Billy Wong, hanging out and riding their bikes around Paris Junction.  Which is how they discover Willis DeLoach's secret.  Willis, whose mother is in the hospital, is home alone in at trailer in a pecan grove, taking care of his little sister.

And Willis DeLoach hates Billy Wong.  He's already in trouble at the Lucky Seven grocery, and continues to steal bubble gum from them whenever he can. Shortly after discovering Willis and his sister at the trailer, the Lucky Seven is vandalized and everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is the work of Willis. Everyone, except Azalea, who actually knows where Willis was the night of the vandalism.

Though the vandalism of the Lucky Seven stands at the center of this novel, there is a lot going on for Azalea.  For one thing, her first night at Grandma Clark's she broke what appeared to the an old, maybe valuable plate and is afraid to tell her grandmother.  And what happened between her grandmother and her parents that caused the estrangement between them, so that Azalea was never able to get to know her grandmother, or her now deceased grandfather, before.  And finally, what is inside the locked shed in Grandmother Clark's garden, the one she forbade Azalea from going into, and yet why is there light coming from it at night, even when her grandmother is home, snoring in her bed?

Making Friends with Billy Wong is my favorite kind of middle grade novel.  I picked it up and couldn't put it down.  The story is told mainly from Azalea's first person point of view, an outsider to Paris Junction and someone who can record what she sees with more clarity than perhaps its residents. Interspersed are Billy's first person thoughts, written in poetry or in the style of a journalist (he wants to join the school newspaper), in which he writes about his hopes for his new school and his life, and about dealing with the racial prejudice he experiences on a daily basis in this 1952 segregated south.

I've always liked the way Augusta Scattergood handles her characters, regardless of the role they play in one of her novels.  She treats them with respect and in return, they reveal themselves calmly, naturally and unselfconsciously, yet they are not without flaws,  The same can be said about her southern settings, a setting in which she is very much at home.  

And I really loved that Scattergood gave us a grandmother turned out to be different from the usual array of unknown grandmothers.  Grandma Clark welcomes Azalea, treats her with nothing but kindness and turns out to be a pretty unique person in her own right.  She's fair and open-minded, so why did Azalea's parents want to get away from her as quickly as possible, and refuse to let her get to know her grandchild for so long? The answer may surprise you, it did Azalea.

I can honestly say I enjoyed reading Making Friends with Billy Wong every bit as much as I enjoyed reading Scattergood's previous two historical fiction works - Glory Be and The Way to Stay in Destiny (my reviews).  Like them, this is also a wonderfully well-written, very well researched story about family, friendship, bullies, hate, overcoming personal challenges and learning to not jump to conclusions.

Be sure to read Scattergood's Author's Note to learn more about the little known, but large Chinese population in the south in the 1950s and 1960s and what inspired this novel.  You might also enjoy hearing what Augusta Scattergood has to say about writing Making Friends with Billy Wong.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the author

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Lucy Emery's family has moved yet again, this time to a lovely old lakeside house in New Hampshire.  And even though it won't be the first time she's been the "new girl," Lucy, 12, knows it can be difficult to make friends with kids who have known each other for a long time.

To make matter more difficult, Lucy's father, a well-known nature photographer, is off to Arizona immediately, leaving her and her mother to deal with the new house.  Just before he leaves, Lucy discovers her father is going to judge a kid's photography contest.  Lucy is an enthusiastic amateur photographer herself, and would like to take photos that make her dad say that he wished he had taken them.  So, Lucy decides to enter the contest - anonymously, of course - to see how she stacks up in her father's unbiased opinion.

Luckily, Lucy immediately meets next door neighbor Nate and his family, including his grandmother. Grandma Lilah, who always comes to the lake for the summer. Each year, she gets involved with the Loon Preservation Committee (LCP), monitoring how the loons at the lake are doing on a daily basis.  But now, she is too old to be out on the lake, and it appears that Grandma Lilah is also slipping into dementia.  So. Lucy finds herself in a kayak, paddling with Nate and his sister Emily to check on a loon nest across the lake.  And Nate, hearing about the photography contest, immediately gets involved, helping Lucy find some great shots she otherwise would not have know about.

As the summer goes by, Lucy to get attached to the loons and to Nate's large family, especially Grandma Lilah, who wants to cross the lake so badly to check on the loons herself.  Lucy decides to use the $500. contest prize to rent a pontoon for the day so that Grandma Lilah can go out on the lake and do the daily report for the LPC.  And while it appears that Grandma Lilah knows what is happening to her mind, grandson Nate refuses to acknowledge it at all.  So when Lucy takes a beautiful but very revealing photo of Grandma Lilah that captures the rawness of her confusion and the sadness she feels, Nate, seeing the truth about his grandmother, gets angry and refuses to speak to Lucy.

And Lucy faces some serious ethical questions when she decides to enter the contest under a false name, and to use the photo of Grandma Lilah for the contest, despite Nate's objections.  But, if Lucy wins, the photo could be published in a magazine, and Lucy never asked Nate's family, and especially Grandma Lilah, if that would be OK with them.

Will Lucy and Nate part as friends or enemies at summer's end?

Kids dealing with a grandparent's dementia is a tough topic, and not one you would expect them to be interested in.  Cynthia Lord makes it accessible to young readers in Half a Chance by distancing Grandma Lilah, making her part of Lucy's story, but not her family.  By doing this, Lucy can see the truth about Grandma Lilah more objectively, without the same level of emotional attachment that Nate feels, and perhaps help Nate accept the changes in his grandmother.

Lord also captures Lucy's conflicting feelings about her father.  It's clear she wishes he wasn't such an absentee dad, but she's also proud of his nature photography.  Some readers may think that Lucy is trying to compete with his talent, other will understand that she just wants some attention and acknowledgement from him that she is also talented.  That Lucy loves her dad goes without saying.

A word of warning for sensitive readers - the loon family consists of two adults and two chicks. However, in keeping with the theme of loss, one of the baby chicks is killed by an eagle.

Half a Chance is a quiet, thoughtful coming of age novel that addresses some serious issues and asks some very thoughtful questions for today's young readers to think about.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Monday, August 22, 2016

Soldier Sister, Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrations by Shonto Begay

Tess, 13, is having a hard time trying to come to terms with just who she is.  Part Navajo, part white, she doesn’t feel like she belongs in either world.  Despite being a champion-fast runner, Tess’s teammates at the white school she attends in Flagstaff, Arizona, call her names like ‘Pokeyhontas,’ never seeing her as anything other than an Indian.  But when she returns home to the Rez, she never feels Navajo enough.

Tess has been annoyed at her sister Gaby, 19, for joining the Army after her friend Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq, the first Native American woman to fall in combat.  Now, however, Tess can’t wait for Gaby to come home on a two week leave.  Maybe Gaby can help Tess sort things out for herself.  But Gaby is no sooner home, than she must tell her family that her two week leave has been cancelled, she is being deployed to Iraq, and only has a few days home.   

Tess is beyond angry at her sister for leaving, an anger that is compounded when Gaby asks her to take care of Blue, her spirited stallion, and a horse that Tess simply does not like - and the feeling seems to be mutual. 

For the first time, Gaby won’t be going with their grandmother to sheep camp at the bottom of the canyon for the summer.  Tess, who has never spent the whole summer in the canyon with them, decides to accompany her grandmother, her sheep and mares, and Blue this year.  Tess has never ridden Blue by herself, always just leading him by the reins.  But on day, while out exploring the canyon with him, a cold, soaking rain begins and, remembering her grandmother’s words that a galloping horse is the fastest way home, Tess rides Blue back to camp.  From then on, the two begin to make friends with each other.  Now, Tess determines to find the secret waterfall where she and Gaby spent precious time together, and to send some sand from it to her sister - a reminder of those times.

Little by little, Tess begins to come to terms with who she is as she develops more confidence riding Blue and through serious talks getting to really know her grandmother, a woman who knows a lot about who she is and the people who see her a just an Indian.

When tragedy strikes, Tess is faced with a difficult decision, one that will require all the strength she has, but one that will ultimately allow Tess to begin to discover just who she really is.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is more than just a good coming of age story about family, tradition, culture. It is also a story about 'home' in the literal and metaphorical sense.  Above the canyon, the mesa, is home to the Tess who lives there in the world of school, cell phones, malls.  As the summer goes by, the canyon, a world of hogans, animals, unfettered nature, slowly begins to feel like home to the Tess, who loves the beauty of it.  And it is her grandmother who helps Tess reconcile these two different worlds within herself, to feel at home in both.  

But it is Blue who finally takes Tess 'home.'  Gaby has told Tess that if she ever got lost riding Blue, he would always find his home if she loosened the reins and let him.  And he literally does, twice when they are out riding in the canyon.  But Blue also takes Tess home in the figurative sense when she is forced to make a decision about him that will determine who she is from than on. 

All of this is told in Nancy Bo Flood's beautiful lyrical storytelling style.  I lived in Arizona for four years, and really fell in love the land.  I think you will find some of the most breathtaking places on earth there. Flood's beautiful descriptions really made me feel an acute homesickness for the Arizona landscape.  Flood has made her setting every bit as much a well-developed main character as she has Tess and her grandmother.

And while I loved Soldier Sister, Fly Home, I did think it was not without one flaw that really bothered me.  I felt that Tess's grandmother was perhaps too stereotypical, sounding like the wise Indian speaking in aphorisms.  Ironically, this seems to happen in the canyon than up on the mesa, where she seems more like a real character and less like a stereotype.  

I should mention also that there are scenes in Soldier Sister, Fly Home that may upset readers sensitive to animals being killed, though it is never done gratuitously or cruelly in this novel.   Also, there are a number of Navajo terms used throughout the story and there is a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide at the back to the book.  

A Writing Prompt Guide has been prepared by Nancy Bo Flood and can be download HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the author

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Makoons (Book 5 of The Birchbark House Series) by Louise Erdrich

I don't usually read a first book in a series and then jump the fifth book, but I'm afraid that is exactly what I've done with The Birchbark House series.  But actually, it really didn't matter.  Louise Erdrich is such a skillful writer that I found all the background information I needed to understand Makoons without having read Books 2, 3 and 4, while still making me want to read those three books.

Continuing the story of Omakayas, now married, and her Ojibwe family, it is 1866 and the family has moved west, living on the Great Plains of the Dakota Territory.  As one of her 8-year-old twin sons, Makoons, recovers from an illness, he has a vision of what is to come - a vision that is filled with joy but also with sadness.

Away from their beloved river in Western Minnesota, there is no longer a need for canoes, and horses have become the passion of Makoons and twin brother Chickadee.  Together, and they do everything together, they practice riding and hunting in anticipation of the day they can join the men in a real buffalo hunt.

After helping to prepare for and then witnessing their first hunt, the two boys find and adopt a young buffalo calf left behind as the adults buffalos fled their hunters.   The young calf attaches itself to the twins and follows them wherever they go, even enjoying some of the peppermint candy they trade rabbit skins for.  Gradually, the two boys began to pay attention and imitate the "language" of their "little brother" as they care for him.

So when the buffalo herds seem to simple vanish from the plains in thin air, and the Ojibwe begin to feel desperate and despairing, their father, Animikiins, convinces Makoons and Chickadee to try to call the animals back using the "language" they have "learned" from their calf.  If it doesn't work, their small clan of Ojibwe will be faced with starvation and forced to move on.  And though the buffalo return this time, it is clear they are moving west as the land becomes more and more populated by white settlers.

Once again, Omakayas and her family decide to move further west as well, to a place called Turtle Mountain, leaving behind her beloved sister Angeline and her husband Fishtail and their adopted young daughter Opichi.

As the joys and sorrows of Makoons vision play out, the family that readers have come to know and love face each challenge with strength, sorrow and some laughs.  Makoons and Chickadee are two delightful characters, full of 8 year-old mischief, but kind and already sensitive to the world around them.  Nokomis, the boy's great-grandmother, now quite old, plants a garden to help the family and spends her last days trying to keep the always hungry buffalo calf from eating it all; Yellow Kettel, their grandmother, is just a grouchy as ever; Deydey, their grandfather, is getting up in years and spends time with Nokomis but still makes the best bows and arrows for his grandsons, and continues play an important part in the daily life of the Ojibwe, though to a lesser extent.

All of this makes Makoons feels like a transition book, focusing on a younger generation, with Omakayas the bridge between the older and younger, and reflecting the changes coming in the times they are living in.

The life of the Ojibwe is described in detail, as they hunt, skin, and prepare food for the winter, when it becomes scare to find.  Nothing is done without acknowledging the buffalo, called the "generous ones" for providing what is needed and nothing goes to waste.  To waste what the buffalo give would be a sacrilege. But while Louise Erdrich depicts the very deep connection to the natural world that the Ojibwe clearly feel, she also shows how it is eroding as the modern world impinges more and more on their daily lives.

Makoons (meaning little bear in Ojibwe) is written in Erdrich's same lyrical prose that is so familiar now.  She has also done the black and white spot illustrations that appear throughout the book.  It amazes me how Erdrich can get some much into a story using such simple, straightforward language. There are Ojibwe words used throughout, but there is a glossary and pronunciation guide in the back matter to help readers.

Erdrich really knows how to craft her novels so that there is, like Makoons vision, a nice balance between joy and sorrow.  There are, of course, the hard times and survival of this Ojibwe clan, there is the sadness as loved ones pass away, but there are also the endearing antics of Makoons and Chickadee.  And for real comic relief, there are the lovesick antics of the overly vain Gichi Noodin, who is so smitten with Omakayas's adopted daughter, Zozie that he seems to do nothing but make a fool of himself whenever he tries to impress her.

Whether you have followed the lives of Omakayas and her clan from the beginning or whether Makoons is your first introduction to these wonderful multigenerational characters, I can't recommend them highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Trailer Premiere: Joshua and the Arrow Realm (Book 2 of the Lightning Road series) by Donna Galanti

I loved Book 1 of the Lightning Road series Joshua and the Lightning Road by Donna Galanti when I read it last year. It was an exciting story of courage, friendship, and loyalty (and in case you haven't already read it, you can buy the ebook for just $.99 at Amazon or B&N until September 30th).

Now, Book 2 Joshua and the Arrow Realm is set to be released at the end of this month and it sounds like it is going to be every bit as action-packed as the Book 1:

On August 30, 2016 take the lightning road back to a world of beasts, bandits, and heroes in book two of the Lightning Road series. Join Joshua in a new fight for power in the Arrow Realm. Can Joshua and his friends conquer an unstoppable evil?

Joshua never thought he’d return to the world of Nostos but is soon called to the Arrow Realm to free his imprisoned friend, King Apollo, kidnapped as a power pawn in Queen Artemis’s quest to conquer every realm. With his loyalties divided between our world and theirs, Joshua wonders whether he alone can restore magic to the twelve powerless Olympian heirs and save all those enslaved. But when he finds himself abandoned in his quest, he fears he cannot only save those imprisoned—but himself as well.

Curious? Well, I don't blame you.  Meanwhile, enjoy this exciting book trailer premiere for Joshua and the Arrow Realm

And you can even read the first two chapters of Joshua and the Arrow Realm HERE

Meet Donna Galanti, author of the Lightning Road series:

Donna Galanti is the author of The Element Trilogy (Imajin Books) and The Lightning Road series (Month9Books). She attended an English school housed in a magical castle, where her wild imagination was held back only by her itchy uniform (bowler hat and tie included!). There she fell in love with the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, and wrote her first fantasy about Dodo birds, wizards, and a flying ship. She’s lived in other exotic locations, including Hawaii where she served as a U.S. Navy photographer. She lives with her family and two crazy cats in an old farmhouse, and dreams of returning one day to a castle. Donna is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers the Big Thrill magazine and blogs with other middle grade authors at Project Middle Grade Mayhem. You can find her at
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