MG – Falling Short

Cisneros, Ernesto. Falling Short. Quill Tree Books, 2022. 978-0-062-88172-4. 292 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Sixth graders, Isaac Castillo and Marco Honeyman, are best friends, next door neighbors, and complete opposites. Isaac is a tall, basketball star who struggles in school; smart as a whip, Marco gets mistaken for a kindergartner because of his short stature. What both of them share is mutual love and care and problematic fathers. Unable to cope with his alcoholism, the loving but troubled Mr. Castillo is estranged from his wife and son. On the other hand, Marco’s parents are divorced, and his father would rather write an alimony check than visit his son. The boys’ warm friendship stands up to the pressure when the pair start Mendez Middle School in California. Marco classifies the different students like fish, some are aggressives and some are community minded. In Falling Short, author Ernesto Cisneros makes a solid case that being community minded is possible and preferable. Having almost failed fifth grade, Latinx Isaac has to prove that he can make the mark, and perhaps ease some of his parents’ stress. Mexican-American and Jewish Marco, too, wishes to impress his neglectful father, a jock, who dismisses Marco’s scholastic achievements. The basketball team is a choice that fits both boys’ needs: Isaac can coach Marco in baller moves; Marco can be Isaac’s loyal study buddy. Determined to escape the taunts of the school bullies–especially basketball eighth grade standout, the looming Byron–Marco takes on becoming a basketball player as an intellectual pursuit. Motivated by Marco’s relentless efforts to learn how to play ball, Isaac disciplines himself to complete all homework assignments. Their bro’mance gets them through their respective feelings of inadequacy in either sports or studies and their family issues. Marco skips an elective course and completes Isaac’s missed homework assignment. Isaac convinces Coach Chavez that Marco will be a valuable player on the team. Told in alternating voices that mix feeling with humor, the story reaches a climax when Isaac’s dad suffers a car accident while driving drunk right before the big basketball tournament. To add to the tension, Marco’s errant dad comes to see him play at the tournament. Reading how these true friends push each other to achieve their goals and affirm themselves in the process imitates the deft moves of a satisfying game and does not fall short.

THOUGHTS: Author Ernesto Cisneros mixes lots of details in Falling Short that cater to the typical middle school student: description of basketball plays, mention of well-known basketball players, team spirit, an explosive farting episode. It also touches on the awkwardness and helplessness kids can feel when dealing with parental flaws. The book includes some nice touches that point to a better world: Coach Chavez throws Byron, the bully, off the team when he finds out Byron humiliated Marco; Marco has a short teacher who can be both self-deprecating and inspirational; there is a girl on the basketball team; some of the other team members also look past Marco’s lack of height and see his kindness. Spanish phrases are scattered throughout the book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – Not My Problem

Smyth, Ciara. Not My Problem. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-95714-6. $17.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

Aideen Cleary has problems. She’s not doing so well in school, her best friend Holly has been drifting from her for the last couple years, and her mom’s occasional drinking binges that make her unfit to parent have Aideen worrying that social services will come knocking on their door any day now. But when she catches her enemy, Meabh Kowalska, throwing an embarrassing hissy fit in the locker room at school, she sees an opportunity to focus on someone else’s problems for a change. Aideen thinks over-achieving Meabh’s problem of just finding more time in her schedule is an easy problem to fix, but Meabh insists on a fool-proof solution. So she asks Aideen to push her down a set of stairs in exchange for a favor she can call in at any time. Though Aideen hesitates at first, given their history, Meabh is pretty easily able to convince Aideen to give her a good shove. Meabh’s ankle effectively sprained, the problem seems solved. Except for the witness to it all, a classmate named Kavi, who swears to secrecy but sees potential in the exchange he just witnessed. The next day, he brings Aideen a friend of his in trouble and asks her to help solve the problem, much like she did for Meabh yesterday. Thus begins Aideen’s semester of stunts, shenanigans, and some new relationships. Aideen’s life might be spiraling out of control, but fixing others’ lives and collecting favors in return seems like a good deal for her. For now.

THOUGHTS: Aideen is foul-mouthed but laugh-out-loud funny in this sophomore novel from the author of last year’s The Falling in Love Montage. Some Irish colloquialisms might trip up teen readers here and there, but it’s part of the experience of reading this story set in Ireland. A story with romance though not necessarily a book I’d classify as romance, I highly recommend this book for YA collections looking to add  LGBTQ+ representation. Aside from a couple sentences mentioning Aideen’s coming out at a young age as difficult, the characters in this book are, as Aideen says, “super woke,” so this book is not about Aideen’s struggles coming out or dealing with bullying because she identifies as lesbian. Her fading friendship with Holly and budding new friendship with Kavi takes just as much (if not, more) of the narrative as her slow-burn enemies-to-lovers relationship with Meabh. Aideen’s complicated relationship with her mom and her mom’s alcoholism and poverty also dominate much of the narrative. While cliche, it’s definitely accurate to say this book has a bit of everything.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Middletown

Moon, Sarah. Middletown. Levine Querido, 2021. 978-1-656-14042-8. 288 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

What do you do when your mother is an alcoholic assigned to rehab, and your sixteen-year old sister disguises herself as Aunt Lisa to prevent the two of you from being sent to foster care? Thirteen-year-old, Caucasian Eli who identifies as a boy keeps a lot of secrets from good friends: Latino Javi, who is gay, and her crush, Indian-American, Meena. In the ninety days Carrie Reynolds is confined to rehab, her children eke out a life with funds Eli has squirreled away from their mother’s pay checks. But when Eli gets suspended from school for punching bully, Kevin, the same week older sister Anna goes AWOL with her boyfriend, a social worker comes knocking, and Eli and Anna slip out the window. Their road trip brings them to the doors of their respective fathers (John is a role model and completely surprised by his new offspring; the other dear- remembered Sam is deceased but leaves them an extensive letter confessing his care for them both, telling them about saving accounts he opened for them, and revealing that he is gay). Their limited funds, though, force them to head to their estranged Aunt Lisa’s house in Oxbridge, Vermont. She, too, is a recovering alcoholic who lives a simple life sans television or cell phones, works at a college bookstore, and keeps chickens. In the last weeks of their mother’s rehabilitation, the siblings bond with Aunt Lisa, adjust gladly to a non-parentified life, and benefit from attending Al-Anon meetings. When Mom returns from rehab, life is more stable and the siblings’ futures seem on the upswing. Eli is truthful with both friends and receives their full acceptance and understanding, Anna graduates and looks forward to college, and their mother and Aunt Lisa reconcile and support each other.

THOUGHTS: Author Sarah Moon touches on important issues: alcoholism, gender identity, money problems, domestic instability, parental neglect. The narrative is compelling, albeit with contrivances: would a judge grant “Aunt Lisa” custody without both siblings present?; parents are not obliged to attend report card conferences; the social worker would expect to see Anna, Eli, and Aunt Lisa. Still, the plot describing how alcoholism affects the family, and Eli’s struggles with gender are handled well and are important topics for students to see in books.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia