Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin | Estelle Reviews

Rain Reign by Ann M. MartinRain Reign by Ann M. Martin ( facebook )
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Macmillan/Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 240
Target audience: Middle grade
Keywords: Aspergers, OCD, hurricane, family, dogs
Format read: ARC paperback from Macmillan. (Thanks!)

Summary: When a hurricane hits inland, Rose’s best companion — her dog named Reign — goes missing. What happens when the one stable thing in your life disappears?

I didn’t realize how timely it would be to read Rain Reign, with the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy coming up. Like Rose’s father said more than one time, the storms never catch them! It was so similar to what we were all saying until the storm came and conquered. I may not have lost my dog, but the storm forever changed one of my favorite spots from my childhood so I understood this feeling of disarray and loss in the book.

Ann M. Martin is no stranger to my bookshelf. I’ve been a huge fan of The Baby-Sitters Club series since I was young, I’ve read a ton of her other books so, of course, I jumped at the chance to read her latest. I haven’t read a ton of books about children with Aspergers syndrome (in fact, I can only compare this to the TV portrayal of Max on Parenthood) but she handles it with sensitivity and authenticity. Rose’s dad cannot grasp his daughter’s tendency to discover new homonyms or recite prime numbers. Most importantly, he doesn’t understand that she cannot control her outbursts and it was heartbreaking how frequently he left her to her own devices.

Thankfully, Rose isn’t totally alone. She has her Uncle Weldon, who drives her back and forth to school and has such a soft and patient way of communicating with her. The total opposite of Rose’s father, unfortunately. (Definitely a point of contention between the brothers too but less of a focus in the story because hey it’s written for middle graders.) And then there is Reign, the dog that Rose’s dad found on a rainy night (get it?) and never leaves his friend’s side. Weldon and Reign provide the most stability for Rose, and for someone who needs routine to get through the day, they were as necessary in her life as food or water or shelter. They kept her going.

The hurricane touching down wreaks havoc on more than their town as Reign goes missing and the routine and life Rose has known changes completely. And it’s not over yet. Martin does such an effective job of showing how isolating Rose’s disorder is through her relationship with her dad and the students in her class, but there is the flip side of it too. Rose is smart, thoughtful, and believes in doing the right thing. She is capable of handling a lot even if she does have some difficulties day to day. Furthermore, there are dependable people in her life who help her work through her behaviors. (Kudos to Martin for including Rose’s teacher aide; they rock!)

At any age, we are always scared of the things we don’t know and so much of Rain Reign is about being accepting and understanding we all have hurdles to jump through.

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Estelle: Signed Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams

Signed Skye Harper by Carol Lynch WilliamsSigned, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Publisher: Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster
Pages: 304
Target audience: Middle grade
Keywords: 1970s, moms/daughters, road trip, young love, Southern setting
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: Winston and her grandmother head out on a secret road trip to pick up Skye Harper (Winston’s mother) from Vegas and find themselves with a very interesting stowaway.

Fourteen and fifteen are some of the most awkward ages I remember from being a teenager. (Does that read as ancient as it sounds?) So it’s not surprise I totally related to Winston’s insecurities about her body, her dreams about succeeding, and secretly being in love with a boy she has always known but has suddenly been discovered by everyone else.

In the beginning of the book, Winston mentions how she comes from a family of “sighers” and I laughed at this because (as I’m sure my mom can attest to) I was pretty moody as a kid too. (Truth: I never thought I was quite as moody as my mom thought I was.) But when it’s summer, it’s super hot out, your boobs are noticeably big and in your way, and the boy you like doesn’t really talk to you? I get it. Add in a mother who left you for grander things on the West Coast and is suddenly sending letters that she needs to be picked up. She wants to be welcomed back home. That’s a lot for one summer!

One of the best parts of reading Signed, Skye Harper was this timeless feeling it evoked, so similar to all the Judy Blume books I loved when I was a kid and still love today. Even though the story is set in the 1970s, anyone could relate to a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, her close relationship with her grandma, and her observations about her family and people in her life. (Bonus: a cute, loyal dog and a one-legged rooster!)

And the boy.  Oh boy. Steve surprised me. I wanted him to be a sincere kid for Winston’s sake, of course, but he really surprised me. I was so upset when I realized Nanny and Winston would be leaving town for awhile and there would be no Steve, but he was a cunning one and ended up on the road, in the thick of things, with the two of them. There was definitely a nice chemistry between the two, and I got out of kick of watching them get closer through this experience.

I honestly can’t say enough great things about Signed, Skye Harper. Would Winston forgive her mother? Could Skye be able to ever be a mother to Winston? And what about Nanny’s feelings? The importance of these situations were balanced so nicely with delightful details (even a Nanny love story) and happy endings you wouldn’t have completely expected. Plus, I loved how Winston was so focused on being a competitive swimmer and how her love of Mark Spitz and his time at the Olympics was folded in.

Be ready to smile, swoon, and sympathize with Winston during this summer of discovery. I’m so glad I tagged along for the ride.

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Estelle: A Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland

A Summer of Sundays by Lindsay ElandA Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: July 9, 2013
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Pages: 336
Target audience: Middle grade
Keywords: summer, small town, library, book loving main character
Format read: eBook from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: Sunday is used to feeling a little forgotten in a family of six. So when her family relocates to a small town one summer, where her dad is redoing the library, she is determined to find something to make people remember her. A total and utter bookworm, Sunday discovers a manuscript in the old library. She is positive finding out the writer of this story will give her the attention she craves, and as her and her new friend, Jude, spend the summer on an adventure to find the answer, there are also some surprises.

You may not know it yet but you are probably a lot like Sunday. In most ways. Maybe you’re not smack dab in the middle of six kids in a family but even if you have another sibling, I’m sure your parents or relatives have mixed up your names. Or like me, with three older successful cousins, you can feel inferior sometimes. But I’ll go out on a limb and say you probably fit the bookish part of her. The girl who is so well-read (classics too!) at “almost 12”, she believes the library is magical, and she knows what it’s like to get lost in a story and its characters.

Seriously, Sunday is so enthusiastic about books you will fall in love with reading all over again.

In A Summer of Sundays, Sunday and her family are off to Alma for the summer. Her dad is helping to rebuild the library, her mom is chief organizer of the project, and the rest of their kids will make themselves at home for a few weeks. Sunday takes advantage of the new setting to seek out some circumstance that will help her stand out from her siblings once and for all. When she finds an unpublished manuscript in the library, her plan is to uncover the identity of the writer and make a splash with her discovery. She reluctantly divulges her find to new friend, Jude, who becomes her partner-in-crime and sometimes a voice of reason when Sunday gets a little too into things. (These two are too cute.)

As Sunday and Jude investigate within the town, we are introduced to some lovely supporting characters from Ms. Bodnar at the crepe shop and Mr. Castor, the misbehaving dog under the ownership of Muzzy and Phil. It was really wonderful to see how welcoming the small town was, and how easily Sunday’s family and the residents became friends and helped each other out. Eland really excels at the tiny details that allow each of these characters to feel so unique. (Even “off camera” with Sunday’s grandfather who always called Sunday his favorite day of the week.)

I can’t help but love Ben Folger, though. He’s the grumpy old neighbor that everyone is scared of and is connected to all these creepy rumors. Jude is scared to death of him, but Sunday’s interest is peaked. He’s just like a character in a few of her books! Maybe she can get him reconnected in society! I really liked watching this unconventional friendship unfold, and how Ben slowly reintroduced himself to a town that he has always loved (for many reasons). His own backstory is so romantic, and was truly a highlight of A Summer of Sundays for me.

There is so much to adore about this novel: Sunday’s curiosity to her insecurities with her place in the family, her older sister’s terrible driving lessons (who does not remember those times?!), loving (though busy) parents, and watching the process of a library go from an empty building to one where people can find joy in it again. And the allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee? Such a brilliant bonus.

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Estelle: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Drama by Raina Telgemeier ( website | tweet )
Publication Date: September 1, 2012
Publisher: Scholastic GRAPHIX
Pages: 240
Target audience: middle grade
Keywords: Broadway, theater, stage crew, LGBT
Format read: ARC from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Callie, a Broadway buff, is working behind-the-scenes of her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi. As if working on the show isn’t dramatic enough, the older boy she likes won’t talk to her, she sort of likes another boy but can’t tell if he likes her back, and her little brother is going to drive her crazy.

I am absolutely giddy in love with Raina Telgemeier’s work.

Drama is the first graphic novel I’ve ever read and while it only took me about an hour to get through it, I couldn’t stop going back and smiling over the details in these colorful scenes and how perfectly Raina has been able to capture the middle school experience.

And for the theater lovers, finally: a book that celebrates those dear people who work on the stage crew, the kookiness that ensues, the intertwining love stories, budget constraints and trying to actually get people to the shows. (Plus the book was divided in Acts with an Intermission – such a cute set up.)

Callie is a theater dork in a way that I geek out over theater and books and Disney. She cannot contain her love of the performing arts and I love that about her. She doesn’t give a crap what other people think and good for her. Embrace what you love, Callie, and don’t let that go. She also falls for boys pretty easily and gee, don’t we all remember being like that in 8th grade? If it wasn’t one boy it was another. Raina’s creation of Callie’s wide eyes in particular scenes brought such comedy to the page. It was only one of the many small details that made such an impact. (I also loved the attention paid to Callie’s bedroom. You can learn so much more about a character’s background without reading words.)

Raina also does a great job of integrating a crew of multi-cultural kids (I came from a very diverse middle school so this was great to see) and also blending in a variety of characters with different sexual preferences. As I read more and more books that include LGBT characters, I am so inclined to hug these writers who are so keen on depicting TRUE life.

I can only describe Drama as a total delight. It has surprising depth but doesn’t weigh down the flow of the story or even the lighter moments. There are so many details to look at and take in when it comes to this novel, and I could see myself flipping through it again and again and always finding something new to love. The awesome illustrations and bright colors paired with a sweet story make Drama a highlight in anyone’s book pile.

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Estelle: See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Upcoming Publication Date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Pages: 310
Keywords: Family, siblings, LGBT, family business, bullying, trauma
Target Audience: Mature middle grade
Format Read: Paperback from ALA. (Thanks!)

Summary: With her parents always working at the family restaurant and her younger brother constantly winning everyone’s attention, Fern has become more of an observer — trying to remain a good friend to all even though everything is changing so much. While she tries to keep her head, the unexpected happens and her family needs to pull together more than ever. But she’s not so sure they can do it.

I read Jo Knowles’ Jumping Off Swings a few months ago, and while I found it an engrossing read, I was unhappy with the lack of character development and therefore, the lack of connection I had with the characters.

I’m happy to say I had the exact opposite reaction to See You at Harry’s. In fact, based on the bright cover with the empty glass of ice cream, I was expecting to read something a little bit lighter than my usual (internet predators, abuse, death) and instead was completely turned around by the events of the book.

Warning: you will cry.

Knowles presents us with a hardworking family. Dad owns a restaurant, Mom helps out but tends to get stressed easily, and older sis Sarah – on her “gap year” — works at the restaurant.  That leaves three more kids: Fern, our main character, and her two brothers, Holden (older) and Charlie (three). All the kids are named after literary characters (a detail I loved) and Fern feels a lot of pressure to live up to hers. Fern was one of the main human characters in Charlotte’s Web and this Fern believes it’s her mission in life to be a good, dependable friend to everyone.

She’s starting to realize just how difficult this role is. Especially in her family. She feels a bit ignored, jealous of her cute younger brother that everyone loves, and upset with her dad for spending more time at his restaurant than seeing what is going on at home. Then there is her brother Holden, with whom she has a special connection. This isn’t a spoiler: he is gay, has always known that he is gay, and finally is ready to say that much to his family. In fact, he also starts dating for the first time.

For a book that is written for 5th grade and up, I thought this was an unbelievably brave move by Knowles and I completely appreciated her focusing on a character going through this kind of change, where he is bullied and feels unsupported. And also how a family comes to terms with the announcement.

As for the major turning point, I was not expecting for things to go down the way they did. At all. I had a few guesses along the way but I was wrong. Utterly and completely. What occurs is actually quite similar to something that happened during my freshman year of college, and one that continues to frighten me to no end. I don’t want to go any further but it forces this family to evaluate their roles in their own unit and work to be there for one another when life turns upside down.

It was extremely painful to read, but I think Knowles handled this storyline particularly well and I was reminded of some of the more serious reads from my elementary/middle school years (i.e. Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson). There are a lot of characters, and many different emotions being depicted and even though Fern at times feels more self-aware for someone at age 12, it felt carefully authentic. (I’m sure the topics could have been explored with more depth if for an older age bracket.)

Whether See You at Harry’s is read at home or in a classroom, it is sure to bring up important and relevant discussion. At any age, we can relate to huge changes in the family, finding a balance when it comes to work and home, and struggling through our own personal roles in a family. Knowles has written a fast-paced yet heartbreaking and refreshing novel that covers all the bases.

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Magan: Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist

book cover for seeing cinderella by jenny lundquist, middle grade book reviewSeeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist [website | twitter]

Release Date: March 20, 2012
Publisher: ALADDIN M!X
Pages: 240
Target Audience: Middle Grade
Format: Finished copy received from Simon & Schuster
Why I Read It: Slightly awkward young teenager + an intriguing pair of glasses

Summary: Thirteen-year-old Callie is having trouble seeing. Though she hates the idea of wearing glasses, her mother forces her to go to the optometrist. She’s given a pair of glasses she soon discovers have magical powers (even though they’re huge and ugly). The glasses show her everyone’s thoughts in computer-like floating screens when she wears them. The optometrist won’t give her the real glasses she ordered until she learns a life lesson or two.

I don’t typically read a lot of middle grade books; occasionally I’ll pick one up because seeing the characters go through their awkward phases or learning life lessons is just so innocent and fun. (I am a big fan of The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart.) When I received Seeing Cinderella in the mail, I was

a) so happy Simon and Schuster thought of me, and
b) so intrigued by these glasses Callie would be given.

I was excited to pick this book up when I had a spare moment to read; I found it laugh-out-loud funny and quite entertaining.

Callie is definitely going through an awkward phase – her best friend, Ellen, is pumped to start Middle School, but Callie’s just not. She spent the whole year before fending off the nickname she loathed, Polka Dot. Now it looks like Ellen is starting to make new friends and with these crazy glasses she can see that Ellen’s hiding secrets from her. And everyone is thinking awful thoughts about her glasses (if only they knew they showed Callie everyone’s thoughts). She is not a strong student, and thanks to Ellen, has landed up in drama class because sneaky Ellen changed Callie’s elective from art to drama. Oh yeah, and Callie’s parents are separated but she doesn’t feel like she has anyone she can talk to about that.

For someone who doesn’t often read books about younger teenagers and is far from being thirteen, I felt like I connected with Callie so much. Lundquist did a brilliant job of getting inside Callie’s head – her thoughts were always so sassy and funny, but I got to see how vulnerable and shy she was when confronted by another person. (It took me right back to that feeling of, “Oh gosh, you’re talking to ME?!“) The glasses gave her courage and emboldened her, but it was a fine line she walked trying not to reveal that she knew everyone’s secrets. I loved seeing the growth in Callie as she realized that just like her, everyone else had insecurities and other things going on in their lives that left them far from perfect.

Seeing Cinderella felt so fully thought out. There were home life issues, a new friend that immigrated from Mexico, struggles with having a crush for the first time, best friend drama, self-esteem issues, problems with not doing perfectly in school, and a boy who wouldn’t drop the Polka Dot nickname. Callie felt very real to me; I liked that she was such a relate-able character and that she wasn’t an idealized teenager. So much of her reminded me of my younger sister, Ashley, when she was growing up. Ashley was into absolutely everything but school and loved playing sports. Callie finds that she’s got a secret talent, too, and it’s not just seeing everyone’s thoughts with the special glasses.

I highly recommend you share Seeing Cinderella with your young teenagers or read it yourself! It’s a great book with a lot of great lessons to be learned (that never felt overly in-my-face) throughout the quickly moving plot.

A Tweetable Review: Seeing Cinderella is a fun & witty middle grade book. Callie learns a lot about herself when she gets glasses that show everyone’s thoughts.

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