Debut author Peña offers a middle-grade tale of middle-school high jinks.
Thirteen-year-old Amanda Muse is a kind, smart girl from New York City who’s new to Colorado’s Lakewood Junior High. She makes friends easily but also has run-ins with school bully Mildred Riley. Mildred has difficulties of her own: She struggles with being bigger than most kids, and her alcoholic father is often absent from her home. Amanda’s seemingly perfect life irritates Mildred to no end, but in reality, Amanda’s mother moved the family to Colorado because her husband—Amanda’s father—had an affair. Amanda is also expected to take care of her autistic older brother, Junior. She suffers through Mildred’s torments silently, for the most part, but one day, Mildred goes too far: One of her victims reacts with violence, landing her in the hospital with severe memory loss. Due to a bizarre series of events, Amanda and her family are forced to take care of Mildred, so Amanda decides to trick her into believing that they’re friends—and she gets the entire school to play along with the ruse. Her plan is to effectively reprogram the school bully, transforming her into a nicer girl. Peña has a keen sense of drama, and the threat of Mildred’s memory returning effectively hangs over the feel-good moments that make up much of the novel. However, the story never delivers on this threat. A host of colorful characters help Mildred become the best version of herself, including Amanda’s spirited, formerly homeless friend, Bo. Mildred is also shown to benefit from staying with the churchgoing Muses. But the story glosses over the darker aspects of her overall situation, as well as the assault that sent Mildred to the hospital in the first place. This is a puzzling narrative decision, as the book has no qualms about frankly moralizing on other subjects, such as infidelity and drug use.
An unevenly executed morality tale with some dramatic moments.
In this debut middle-grade novel, a lonely boy finds friendship and learns about the magic of human connection.
Defined by the large mole on his lip, 10-year-old Gregory has grown distant from his family. He is friendless and withdrawn. Then one night a strange little creature emerges from Gregory’s mole. It is riding a (quite lovable) cockroach and can change size. This is the Grimbockle. The Grimbockle—one of many Bockles, who, like Palmer Cox’s Brownies, live at the peripheries of human awareness—tends to the exoodles that bind people together. Exoodles are long, transparent, noodlelike threads and are usually invisible. Once Gregory has his eyeballs painted with Carrot Juicy, though, he can see them. He joins the Grimbockle and the roach, traveling the exoodles as if on a high-speed roller coaster. Exoodles wither and die when people don’t look after their relationships. The Grimbockle is trying to repair a particularly sickly exoodle that links a boy to his mother. Can Gregory help—and can he mend the exoodles in his own life? Schubert follows delightedly in the footsteps of Roald Dahl, opening her unfortunate young protagonist’s eyes to a previously unseen world both weird and wondrous (yet for all its outlandish magic, oddly logical). The scenario is one of riotous imagination, while the Grimbockle himself—brought sweetly to life in black-and-white illustrations by Kraft—is a sprightly and good-natured little person, full of the type of singsong infelicities found in Dahl’s beloved nonhuman characters: “Is you ever seeing glimpses of squiggles in the corners of your twinklers but then they is disappearing in a snippety blink?” “ ‘Exoodles!’ shouted the Grimbockle in triumph. ‘Sometimes, hoo-mans is getting so twisty and wound up in extra exoodles that they is feeling gloomy blue and heavy all day long.’ ” The story is perhaps too much of a parable to fully match Dahl’s template; the adventure is safer and the threats less dark. Nonetheless, readers should fall willingly and with thrilled abandon into the fizzy, fanciful world of Gregory and his Grimbockle friend.
A beautifully realized daydream; a fun yet thoughtful exploration of the complexities and possibilities hidden beneath surface appearances.
A lost bunny searches for his mother in this debut picture book.
The youngster is already lost in the beginning of Lakhiani’s version of the time-honored tale of a lost child reuniting witha parent. On a foggy day, a young rabbit finds that he doesn’t recognize where he is. He calls for his mother, but instead of her voice in response, he hears the hum of a bumblebee. The nameless little rabbit asks if the bee knows where his home is, but the bee doesn’t and sends him on to the wise owl, who “sees everything.” As the little rabbit runs through the “eerie” fog toward the owl’s tree, he meets a kind squirrel. “I’ve lost my mother….I am lost and scared,” explains the little rabbit. The squirrel leads the rabbit to the wise owl’s tree, which the rabbit climbs to ask the owl, “[C]an you see where I live?” The fog is too thick for the owl to spot little rabbit’s home, so he gives the little rabbit a snack and invites him to rest. Falling asleep, the little rabbit dreams of his mother but is awakened by the hooting, buzzing and chattering of his three new friends. Looking around, he sees his mother, who embraces him: “I will never again let you out of my sight,” she tells him. The digitized art by Adams, some of which is credited to Thinkstock, is in a cartoon style that clearly delineates the characters but includes a few anthropomorphic details—a graduation cap for the owl, spectacles for the squirrel and only four legs for the bee—that add little value. Since the story centers on the little rabbit failing to recognize where he is, the choice to make the right-hand page of every spread identical is potentially confusing; regardless, it’s repetitious. The text fails in the opposite direction: It doesn’t create the typical patterns that can help toddlers follow the story, build anticipation and learn to chime in—steps on the path to reading alone. Erratic rhythms, changing stanza lengths and rhyme schemes, and awkward syntax undercut attempts to enliven the tale with poetry.
A story with a tried-and-true plot that needs to freshen up its presentation.