There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar

By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2020

Bradley thought a moment, then said, “Give me a dollar or I’ll spit on you.”

IMG_2421Pop psychology attests that you become who you hang out with. When we meet Bradley Chalkers in There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, he doesn’t hang out with anyone at all. He sits in his own row at the back of his fifth grade class. He is pugnacious. He lies. He does not do homework. He destroys books. His teacher has given up on him, and he is banned from the school library. He has never earned a gold star in class. He has not been to a birthday party in three years. He is unliked by everyone. His parents are distant. His older sister pokes cruel fun at him. His only companions are his battered assortment of collected miniature animals, fashioned from brass, ceramic, glass and ivory. So far, so sadly perplexing. Why is Bradley so troubled and so very unlikeable? Continue reading

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

By Maureen Tai, 8 January 2020

Twelve-year-old Kaori Tanaka – a proud Gemini – liked to tell people her parents were born in the high, misty mountains of a samurai village. In truth, they were both second-generation Japanese Americans from Ohio. No matter. Kaori knew in her bones that they were meant to be born in the mountains. 

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While Kaori is not the protagonist in Erin Entrada Kelly’s charming and whimsical Hello, Universe, she is without a doubt, my favourite character in this middle grade novel that Anna, Ben and I literally devoured over our recent summer in Taiwan. Not that any of the other cleverly voiced characters are any less engaging: there is the main character, Virgilio/Virgil, whose family nickname is ‘Turtle’ due to his shy, quiet nature; Valencia, who is strong, warrior-like and deaf; Chet, the school bully with a face like a pug and the disposition of a thug; and Gen, Kaori’s assistant and younger sister, whose trailing pink jump rope appears throughout the book and ends up playing a fairly critical role at the book’s conclusion. Family, friendship, Filipino folklore and fate are deftly weaved together to form an extremely enjoyable and satisfying story, making Hello, Universe one of our top reads for 2019. Continue reading

Brown by Håkon Øvreås & illustrated by Øyvind Torseter

By Ben Parsons and Maureen Tai, 12 October 2019

“Rusty tiptoed out into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. There he was: Brown the Superhero. His heart hammered under his brown disguise. He was no longer Rusty. He was Brown.”

IMG_6436Only twice before have I cried while reading to the kids : at the close of Charlotte’s Web (by E. B. White) and when a character meets a tragic end in Wolf Hollow (by Lauren Volk). Brown, a middle grade illustrated novel, brings the count to three. Translated from its original Norwegian, Brown tells the story of how a boy, still grieving from the death of his grandfather, finds a unique way of meting out retributive justice on a gang of bullies. The author’s poetic sensibilities are evident in the gentle yet effective text and the story’s perfect balance of childlike excitement and sombre realism. Here are Ben’s thoughts about this lovely book. Continue reading

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

by Maureen Tai, 20 August 2019

“… standing on top of the dictionary is a small zombie wearing a chicken suit. He’s rubbing his eyes, a Lego pirate clutched in one green hand. When his eyes adjust to the light, he uses them to look me up and down.” – Livy (Olivia)

IMG_3643I’ve read somewhere about studies that show that children under the age of seven are unable to create lasting memories of actual experienced events. This is heart-breaking for any parent of young children. However, it still doesn’t go all the way to explain why Livy can’t remember anything of her previous visit to her gran’s house when she was five years old.

The cows, the toy elephant, the chess pieces, the dolls, the stairs, none of it is familiar. Not even the strange chicken suit-wearing creature that Livy discovers living in the closet in her mother’s childhood bedroom. Who, and what, is this green being – who goes by the name of Bob – and where does it belong? In this unusual, gentle and clever middle-grade fantasy story, we follow Livy, now a grown-up almost-eleven year old, as she returns to her childhood. She is determined to solve the mystery of Bob and to reclaim her missing memories. Continue reading

See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng

By Maureen Tai, 30 May 2019

“Do you have light brown skin like I do or smooth gray skin like a dolphin or spiky green skin like a cactus?” – Alex Petroski, posing a question to aliens.

img_5437.jpegAlex Petroski is eleven. He has a troubled mother, an absentee older brother and an adopted stray canine named after his hero, Carl Sagan. He is obsessed with rockets and he dreams of sending one into space. Inside the rocket, there will be an Ipod with his voice recordings about life on Earth, a gift to sentient beings outside of humankind’s own orbit. Alex himself is a gift. He is the infuriating yet loveable little brother you wished you had, and one of the most endearing, amusing and authentic voices in recent middle-grade realistic fiction. In See You in the Cosmos, Alex uncovers the heartbreaking truth about his past and his present, yet finds the courage, optimism and humour to face it all.  Continue reading

Justin Case – School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail & illustrated by Matthew Cordell

By Ben, 21 April 2019

IMG_4236Ben and I have just finished reading the first book in the Justin Case series, and we think it’s pretty good. Don’t just take my word for it.

B: Ugh, another book review?
M:  But you like this book!
B: OK, yeah, I do.
M: What is the book about?
B: It’s about Justin Case and what problems he has at school. Mostly school, but sometimes there are disasters at home. Continue reading

The Best Man by Richard Peck

By Maureen Tai, 18 April 2019

That’s the end of school for you. You wait and wait. Then it’s over before you’re ready.” – Archer Magill

IMG_4201The Best Man is an unapologetically American middle-grade novel set in Chicago, Illinois. It begins with a wedding and ends with a wedding, and in between are six years of Archer Magill’s young life, narrated by the big-hearted and endearingly clueless schoolboy. His story has some highs, some lows, and some in-betweens, but what makes it memorable is how deeply he and his family – his grandparents, parents and uncle, in particular – care for each other. Not in a saccharine, idealised, Leave it to Beaver* sort of way, but in the way families love each other in real life. Some goods, some bads, and some in-betweens. But always, a whole lotta love. Even same-sex love. But I get ahead of myself.

Continue reading