MG – Cress Watercress

Maguire, Gregory. Cress Watercress. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-21100-9. $19.99. 227 p. Grades 3-8.

Cressida Watercress and her rabbit family live in a spacious and well kept burrow. Young Cress has never known a moment’s want or worry until the day Papa fails to return from foraging. Unable to care for her young children alone, Mama makes the difficult decision to move her  family to a cramped basement apartment in an animal tenement known as the Broken Arms. Cressida’s brother Kip is often sickly, and Mama must work harder than ever to feed, shelter, and support Cress and Kip. The Broken Arms is filled with animal characters of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Mr. Owl, the landlord, is an enigmatic figure who will often comment on the comings and goings and behavior of his tenants from high above though he is never seen by those same tenants. Manny, the building superintendent, is helpful but demanding. The pressure to make timely rent payments is difficult for Mama, especially when Kip is not well. Cress must learn to accept and understand her new neighbors, and must step-up to help Mama. Growing up is not easy, especially when dealing with childhood grief. As Cress matures, her relationship with her mother becomes strained at times, and she grapples with friendships just as many tween human children do. Eventually the Watercress family finds great comfort and companionship in the community at Broken Arms, and Cress finds herself in a position to save the day when her newly adopted community is threatened.

THOUGHTS: Beautiful illustrations by David Litchfield set the tone for this coming of age novel. The struggles Cress encounters in her relationship with her mother and her friends will be easily recognized by middle grade readers and adults alike. The depiction of childhood grief is especially well characterized in this warm and gentle story.

Animal Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD
Realistic Fiction

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

MG -The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

Heider, Mary Winn. The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Little, Brown & Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55542-6. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

For freckled-faced, dark haired Louise and Winston Volpe, the center of the galaxy is the 50-yard line of a football field in honor of their ex-quarterback player and now missing father, Lenny Volpe. Life was tough before their father disappeared, a victim of too many head-crushing plays as a Chicago Horribles team member, Mr. Volpe had trouble with his cognitive skills and executive brain function. After three years gone, the siblings burrow into their respective worlds: Winston taking up the tuba and Louise initiating a Science Club in order to experiment with ways to find her father. Flipping back and forth between eighth-grade Winston’s and seventh-grade Louise’s life, author Mary Winn Heider creates sympathetic characters trying to unravel an incredible mystery. Because their mother is buried in work and debt, the brother and sister are on their own a lot and the story takes place mostly at school. Winston’s friend and fellow tuba player, Frankie—who has a pigment condition—insists that the faculty of Subito School are an organized crime ring, and Winston willingly joins the investigation, spurred on when the teachers throw their tubas off the school’s roof. Louise, on the other hand, rejects the overtures of friendship from the other nerdy club members, even after they volunteer to use club dues for a bake sale to recoup the ruined tubas. She is more determined in perfecting a glowing GLOP cream and freeing the Chicago Horribles Football Team’s mascot, a bear. She does, however, develop an appreciation for pop star Kittentown Dynamo’s music. The two worlds collide at the football stadium’s half-time show: tubas, sinister teachers, Kittentown Dynamo, and the bear. Though the infiltration of the stadium and the bear rescue are far-fetched, they are entertaining. To balance this, the ending of this realistic fiction is not all wrapped up, but the characters do come to a healthy place in their family relationships and acceptance of their father’s demise.

THOUGHTS: When I started this book, I saw thin traces of other books in The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy: a less cerebral Wrinkle in Time where the daughter uses science to try to find her father;  James Ponti’s  City Spies where the kids are free-roaming, figuring their own solutions to problems and the adults are “other” and on the fringe; Jacqueline Woodson’s  Before the Ever After where the father has brain injuries from sports. Heider, though makes this book her own and uses unusual plot twists to lead these grieving siblings who are focused on their own sadness back to each other. Perhaps fourth graders would like this book, too; I extended the grade to 8 because Winston and Frankie are eighth graders and seem like they are headed for more than friends status by the book’s conclusion (he lets Frankie comfort him with a hug and he is thrilled to take Frankie to the Aquarium Dance).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

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

Elem. – Wild About Dads

Murray, Diana. Wild about Dads. Imprint, 2020. 978-1-250-31574-8. 32pp. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Rhyming couplets pair with full-page, vibrant illustrations in this sweet tribute to dads of all kinds. This title’s opening spread features human dads and their children enjoying a day at the park. Subsequent pages feature dads from all over the animal kingdom interacting with their young. From boosting little ones up to grab berries and playing hide-and-seek, to cozying up for an afternoon nap, animal dads share all kinds of one-on-one time. The closing spread features the same human dads and children at the park, reminding readers that “There’s a lot that dads can do, the best of all is loving you!” The back endpapers feature an illustration of each animal highlighted in the story as well as a brief description of where the animal lives and what the father does as a caretaker. 

THOUGHTS: This book is perfect for read-alouds, especially ones centered around families or in celebration of Father’s Day. The text and illustrations will prompt discussions and comparisons between things humans dads do and things animal dads do to take care of their families. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD