Today, I have a MG contemp, a MG contemporary fantasy, a YA dystopian, and a MG contemporary in verse. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!
Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee
Published by Aladdin on October 12, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Erika Pajarillo
My content rating: MG (Drug abuse)
From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.
Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.
So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.
Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.
After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?
Violets Are Blue is an incredibly realistic middle-grade depiction of a child dealing with a recent divorce and a mother’s downward spiral into depression and addiction. I think what I loved most about this book is how believable Wren’s thoughts and feelings are. Her sense of guilt and confusion over her parents’ divorce and the fact that she actually kind of likes her stepmother is palpable. It would have been easy for Dee to draw Wren’s father as the stereotypical bad guy here—he is cheating on his wife, after all. But to Wren, he’s still her father and she loves him despite what he did to hurt her mom. At the same time, she realizes that her mother is rightfully hurt, and Wren feels like she has to tread very carefully with her mom because of that. Then there’s the fact that her mom is lying to her about a lot of things; I appreciated the fact that Wren realizes on some level that things aren’t right at home, but she can’t quite figure out what’s going on. This felt very realistic to me. Even though Wren misses clues (clues that I, as an adult, found obvious), it always seems reasonable that she might miss them. She has no frame of reference for a drug addiction, so there is no reason for her to jump to this conclusion. My heart broke for Wren as she navigated this difficult situation and felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone about what was happening because she was afraid she would just make things worse for her mother (or for her relationship with her mother). As always, Dee writes a compelling middle grade novel that tackles tough subjects in a way that feels relatable. Oh, and I didn’t even mention Wren’s hobby of doing special effects makeup (which she learns about from YouTube)—I think kids will definitely relate to that, even if makeup isn’t specifically their thing.
***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher via Media Masters Publicity for review purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
Rewritten by Tara Gilboy
Published by Jolly Fish Press on April 7, 2020
Genres: Contemporary Fantasy, Middle Grade
Cover Artist: Jomike Tejido
My content rating: MG (Some MG-level violence)
After learning the truth about her own fairy tale, twelve-year-old Gracie wants nothing more than to move past the terrible things author Gertrude Winters wrote about her and begin a new chapter in the real world. If only things were going as planned. On the run from the evil Queen Cassandra, the characters from Gracie’s story have all been forced to start over, but some of them cannot forget Gracie’s checkered past.
Even worse, Gracie discovers that as long as Cassandra has her magical book, the Vademecum, Gracie’s story is still being written and none of the characters are safe, including her mom and dad. In a desperate attempt to set things right, Gracie finds herself transported into another one of Gertrude’s stories—but this one is a horror story. Can Gracie face her destiny and the wild beast roaming the night, to rewrite her own story?
This second book in the series finds Gracie attempting to settle into her new normal in the real world after changing the ending to her storybook life where she had been cast as a villain. Gracie finds it hard to convince herself and others that she isn’t a bad person, so she tries extra hard to be good. But nothing she does seems to be good enough. And then she starts having visions of fictional worlds again and fears that people in those worlds are real as well—and they’re in danger. She eventually makes her way into one of them but finds that changing their story might not be as simple as she imagined and that the lines between good and evil might be much blurrier than she imagined. In some ways this book almost felt like two distinct stories: Gracie in the real world and Gracie in the fictional world. I enjoyed both parts of the book, but I thought that things especially picked up once she found herself in the fictional story. At first I felt like the two halves were a bit discordant, but I ended up appreciating how Gilboy pulled the themes from the first half of the book into the ending and tied everything together. There were also some twists to the story that I predicted that I think many middle grade readers wouldn’t see coming. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I did the first, but I thought this was a solid follow-up to Unwritten. I would recommend this series to kids who love fantasy and especially to anyone who has imagined living out life in a storybook!
***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Series: The Hunger Games #0
Published by Scholastic Audio on May 19, 2020
Genres: Dystopian, Young Adult
Narrator: Santino Fontana
Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the 10th annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to out charm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.
The odds are against him. He's been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined - every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute... and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
I’ve been curious about this book for quite some time since I was such a fan of the Hunger Games Series, but my son accidentally spoiled the ending for me, so I put off reading it for a while. I think it’s really difficult to write any sort of follow-up (or prequel) to a series that’s as loved as this one, so I give Collins credit right off the bat for taking the project on. I was excited to learn about Snow’s villainous origins and wasn’t too surprised to find out that he didn’t start off all that evil—he was just privileged and sheltered and couldn’t see those aspects of himself clearly. It was actually kind of interesting to see that slowly unspool into a controlling and slightly (or more than slightly) psychotic personality. And, of course, it makes it all the more interesting because we know where it all ends up in Snow’s later years. Surprisingly, the Games themselves don’t make up much of the plot, and the story is a bit slower than I expected, but I listened to the audiobook version, which always helps me with slower-moving plots. Lucy Gray is a lovable, somewhat quirky character. I could see how Snow would end up enamored with her in his own controlling way, and it was obvious that nothing good was going to come of the relationship, though I wasn’t exactly sure how it was all going to fall apart. There were some interesting twists that made me wonder how Snow was going to end up as the eventual President and kept me guessing. And the Snow by the end of the book was quite diabolical in many ways—it was easy to imagine how his path eventually led to his role in the original series as we know it.
NARRATION: Santino Fontana did a great job with the narration of this one. He felt like a very believable young Snow.
Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers on October 6, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Verse
Cover Artist: James Firnhaber
A novel in verse about coming to terms with indelible truths of family and belonging.
For the most part, Hannah's life is just how she wants it. She has two supportive parents, she's popular at school, and she's been killing it at gymnastics. But when her cousin Cal moves in with her family, everything changes. Cal tells half-truths and tall tales, pranks Hannah constantly, and seems to be the reason her parents are fighting more and more. Nothing is how it used to be. She knows that Cal went through a lot after his mom died and she is trying to be patient, but most days Hannah just wishes Cal never moved in.
For his part, Cal is trying his hardest to fit in, but not everyone is as appreciative of his unique sense of humor and storytelling gifts as he is. Humor and stories might be his defense mechanism, but if Cal doesn't let his walls down soon, he might push away the very people who are trying their best to love him.
Told in verse from the alternating perspectives of Hannah and Cal, this is a story of two cousins who are more alike than they realize and the family they both want to save.
This is a powerful story of how trauma can affect a person (and a family). The book is told from two perspectives: Hannah and her cousin Cal, who throws her life into chaos in many ways when he comes to live with her after his mother dies and his father is imprisoned on drug and abuse charges. Because we get both sides to the story, it is easy to relate to both of these characters. We sympathize with Hannah, who tries so hard to understand her cousin but can’t help but be frustrated when he complicates her life. And we truly feel for Cal, who is trying to process a world that feels impossible and who feels guilt over problems in the family that he sees as his fault. I think this book will help build empathy in anyone who reads it. Seeing through the eyes of someone who is “troubled” can be a powerful way to help kids understand each other in real life. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all take a step back and realize that often people (especially kids) who are acting out are doing so out of pain? This book doesn’t try to give easy answers, but it does help build bridges of understanding.