As Spooky Season wanes and the Holidays kick off in earnest (at least one of the GeekMoms already has their tree up), Sophie, Nivi, Lisa, and Scott have been reading a variety of books from fascinating non-fiction to adventurous middle grade. We hope you’ll find something interesting here among these seven books as the weather for those of us in the northern hemisphere becomes perfect for snuggling under a blanket with a good book.
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Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford, illustrated by Kayla Harren
Transgender rights are a hot topic in 2021 but talking about them, especially with younger children can be difficult – especially for adults with no experience of the issues who often worry about getting the language wrong and making the subject even more confusing than it needs to be. Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford is a picture book about a young transgender boy’s journey and is written by the parents of a transgender child who have witnessed that journey for themselves. It is not a biography but instead mirrors the journey of their child, and many others who helped inspire it.
The book is told entirely from Calvin’s perspective. He tells readers that he has always known he is a boy, “a boy in my heart and in my brain” and one day he plucks up the courage to tell his parents who are instantly supportive. Calvin’s parents help in telling the rest of his family about his new name and pronouns, while his grandparents help him pick out new clothes and give him his first shorter haircut. When Calvin has his first day at his new school, he is thrilled to see that his parents have also spoken with the school and his new name is on the lunch chart, cubby, mailbox, and anywhere else it should be – his friends and teachers also address him by his new/real name. Calvin finally feels that he can be himself.
Calvin is a story that shows the positive difference that support and affirmation can have on transgender children. When those around them accept and celebrate a child’s new identity, that child can thrive and we see this in Calvin through both his words and – even more so – his body language. His obvious elation at seeing his real name in his classroom and getting a new haircut shines out from the page and will instantly help young readers to understand the importance of acceptance.
Sadly, Calvin’s positive experience isn’t universal, and many if not most transgender youth will face intolerance and even hatred from a very young age, but Calvin is a positive snapshot of what the world could be like for these young people and will hopefully be like in the future.
Generation Misfits by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Sophie listened to Generation Misfits by Akemi Dawn Bowman on audiobook courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Eleven-year-old Millie is attending a bricks-and-mortar school for the first time after being homeschooled. Unsure about everything from where to go for lunch to how to know what homework is due, she is feeling under incredible pressure, made worse by her parents who are threatening to pull her back out if she doesn’t receive perfect grades. All her parents seem to care about is academics and pushing Millie to perform in the orchestra, while Millie herself hates playing flute and is simply desperate to have friends for the first time.
When her parents refuse to allow her to join a J-Pop club because they fear it will detract from her studies, Millie finds herself going behind their backs. She simply can’t stay away from a club focused on her favorite band: Generation Love. But when the club decides to enter the Pop Showcase competition as an imitation Generation Love act, the lies just keep mounting up while her new friends also seem to be having their own difficulties at home. Can the girls figure out their differences in time to wow at the concert, or are they destined to be torn apart?
Sophie enjoyed this pop-culture soaked middle grade and found she could relate very well to it having been deeply invested in many bands’ online fan communities in her early teens. Millie is a rather naive but likable main character while the other girls in J-Club all get their own personalities and personal issues that allow them to feel like real people, not just stereotypes. Sophie also very much appreciated the LGBTQ representation here with a non-binary character who is completely supported by both their friends and family.
One thing she really didn’t like was Millie’s parents who come across as borderline cruel throughout most of the book. They spend most of their time shutting their daughter down any time she tried to express an opinion that didn’t align with theirs, refusing to allow her to join in with anything not directly related to studying or band, and had clearly spent her childhood keeping her apart from other children – Millie is confused to hear about the existence of homeschool clubs where homeschooled kids get to hang out and socialize together.
Thankfully, all is well by the end in the way that middle grades usually are, but Sophie would have appreciated a less frustrating journey!
Adventures on Trains: Danger at Dead Man’s Pass by M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgeman
The fourth book in the Adventures on Trains series, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass by M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgeman takes the action to Germany with a tale of witchcraft and an old family curse set high in the snowy Harz mountains.
In Danger at Dead Man’s Pass, twelve-year-old Hal and his Uncle Nat find themselves invited to Germany at the request of Nat’s friend Baron Wolfgang Essenbach. In a letter, the Baron explains that his wife’s cousin Alexander recently died under mysterious circumstances and that his will is now missing. Going undercover as distant relatives, Hal and Nat are asked to attend the funeral and find out what really happened to Alexander Kratzenstein.
As Hal investigates, he discovers that the Kratzenstein family tree is more gnarled and twisted than he could have imagined. Worse, a series of strange events leaves Hal distrustful of everyone but especially his Uncle Nat who is clearly hiding something from him. Hal needs to act quickly to prevent the curse from striking again, but is there really a witch out for the blood of the Kratzenstein men or is there something even stranger going on?
Danger at Dead Man’s Pass is a perfect spooky middle grade with a wintery setting that makes it ideal for reading even now Halloween has passed. There is a constant air of danger throughout the story as Hal and the members of the family gathered for the funeral find themselves attacked and the remote mountain setting adds a sinister backdrop as the family argues over the details of the lost will giving this story an air of a middle-grade, paranormal Knives Out.
From the beginning, we suspect that the so-called curse and the witch who has been seen in the mountains may not be all they seem, but thankfully, the reveal ended up being even more interesting than the family legend. This gave the book a satisfying conclusion that – looking back – Sophie cursed herself for not spotting the now obvious signs. Once again, the illustrations by Elisa Paganelli bring the whole story to life, and this made Danger ar Dead Man’s Pass another excellent addition to the Adventures on Trains series.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Nivi read The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, a marvelous piece of historical fiction that recounts the life of Belle DaCosta Green, the real-life personal librarian of JP Morgan. Her story of success – of convincing the mercurial and formidable financial magnate to hire her as the librarian in charge of building an amazing library that accumulated a collection to showcase the history of the English language – but to do so 1) as a woman, 2) while hiding her African descent, and 3) doing so boldly and very publicly make her story riveting. And these two authors worked together to do her story justice.
Nivi listened to the audiobook, and that was well worth the listen.
This story is engaging, painting a vivid picture of what life was like in America a century ago. But while in some respects it makes Nivi glad to be alive today, it certainly illustrates the dangers of going back to a bygone era. Nostalgia is one thing, but it’s important to look back with clear eyes and see the ugly underbelly of “the way things were.” Imagine how far we could be as a country if, instead of focusing on keeping people “in their place,” we actually appreciated what riches we could gain from encouraging a fresh perspective.
Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
Nivi read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler for work, and yet has found herself using the tools in here to become a better parent. It sounds silly, but this book is a gem. First of all, it is practical. It first looks at how you tend to react in stressful situations (are you a silence or violence-prone person), then walks you through how to systematically empower you to know what to do in any situation. Spoiler alert: the solution to better communication involves changing yourself, not telling others how to improve. This is, of course, difficult to hear, when you know it’s the other party that’s being totally irrational, intransigent, and unreasonable and you are being the model of understanding and patience.
And yet, going through this book (she’s already listened to the audiobook twice, and often goes back to re-read certain chapters), she has seen marked improvements in how she views interactions. Unarmed with helpful strategies, it’s easy to fall back into unhelpful habits and then be frustrated by the results. This book offers the strategies and insights to succeed, whether at work or at home.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
Lisa was checking her Little Free Library, when she found a nearly new copy of the historical true crime story, The Last Duel by Eric Jager. This is the true story of the fight between Norman knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the Fourteenth Century. At this time, the practice of the “trial by combat” was a popular way of settling. Le Gris’s and Carrouges’s quarrel, in which Le Gris is accused of raping his wife, leads to one of these trials, now famous for being the final one of these duels. No, one of these men does not make it out alive.
The book is a slim read, with only about 200 pages of narrative, but it packs quite a bit in those pages. It has plenty of historical background to keep the reader educated, but plenty of action and scandal to keep the reader engaged. There were several times Lisa forgot she was reading a nonfiction story, as Jager’s writing style was so intriguing. There’s a little whodunnit mixed in with some sex scandal as well. Easily a weekend read for those looking for something a little different. The book inspired the recently released movie of the same name, but Lisa encourages people to read it before seeing the film. Or, read it even if they don’t plan on seeing the movie. It is an exciting read all on its own.
Children of the Fox by Kevin Sands
Scott has recently delved into and been greatly enjoying The Blackthorn Key book series by Kevin Sands. So when offered the chance to try out the first novel in an entirely new series by Sands, Scott leaped at the chance.
Children of the Fox brings together five kids with unusual talents to undertake a heist to steal from a powerful sorcerer, a feat which numerous adults have not been able to pull off. Promised untold riches beyond their wildest dreams if they succeed, the five come together in an uneasy alliance full of mistrust and self-interest but they soon learn that they need to work together as a team utilizing their unique individual skills and abilities to have any chance of successfully completing the crime.
Despite a lot of world-building for the fictional location, mechanics of how magic works in this world, and introducing so many new characters, Sands manages to write a story that moves along at pace and doesn’t feel it is being weighed down with too many exposition dumps. The story is told by Callan, a 14-year-old con artist and de-facto leader of this new group, who despite being raised as a criminal since his earliest memories, still retains some semblance of morality and a good heart.
The other kids in the group clearly each have a lot of backstory which Sands drip-feeds out enough for the reader to begin to like and empathize with each character whilst holding back what will inevitably be shocking revelations and twists for future books. There is plenty of tension and banter initially but as the kids get to know each other more, respect and trust begin to grow.
Although lazy, it is very apt to say of this as a fantasy world Ocean’s Eleven with kids. This book is a joyous adventure romp with lots of action; humor and banter; twists and turns. Each kid is a unique and engaging character and it doesn’t take long to find yourself rooting for them to succeed. Children of the Fox is a fun and easy read and, even without the unnecessary cliffhanger ending, Scott will be eagerly and impatiently waiting for news of when book two will be released so he can dive into the next installment.
GeekMom received copies of some titles featured here for review purposes.
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