‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes. 

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated  under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The Gifted, the Talented, and Me’ by William Sutcliffe is a laugh-out-loud poignant story

William Sutcliffe hits the perfect notes with “The Gifted, the Talented, and Me,” about Sam, a fifteen-year-old who is not brilliant, not musical, not arty. He’s just a plain kid who enjoys soccer with his friends and likes his life the way it is. That’s all turned upside down when his father sells his company and makes millions.

Sam’s mom moves them all to a tony area of London where she enrolls Sam and his siblings in a special school for — what else — gifted and talented kids. Sam does not fit in at all. His younger sister loves that she can do her artwork and write stories, his older brother reinvents himself into a gay musician (spoiler: he’s not gay), but Sam is just Sam. He doesn’t want to reinvent himself, and he wants to play soccer. Soccer isn’t allowed at his new school because kicking is a form of violence. Really.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is Sutcliffe’s style, the writing itself. The narrative, in first person from Sam’s point of view, ranges from heartbreaking to really laugh-out-loud funny. Of course we know that no 15-year-old would really say some of the things that Sam narrates, but much of it is very realistic and very humorous.

“Even Ulf, who had never before said anything to me other than to point out what I was doing wrong, patted my arm, gave me a long, ice-blue Nordic stare, and said, ‘Nice.’

“This was as effusive as Ulf ever got about anything, and I was momentarily choked up with gratitude at this Scandinavian-style gush of unqualified praise.”

Young adult readers, especially male ones, will get a kick out of the inner dialogue that Sam has with his Optimistic Brain, his Pessimistic Brain and his Dick. Yes, he’s afraid that he’ll never get a date, and it’s even more stressful because he has a huge crush on the most popular girl in school. Those three-way conversations are very clever.

This is a story that can be universally appreciated — about feeling ordinary, trying to fit in, trying to navigate dealing with romance and changing family dynamics. It’s humorous but also real. It would be a fabulous choice for a book club book or just a classroom group read.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The Water Bears’ by Kim Baker is a middle grade tale of belonging and dealing with PTSD

In “The Water Bears” by Kim Baker, Newt Gomez lives on an almost magical island, Murphy Island, with his family. The island had been a resort with unusual animals and a carnival atmosphere, and now a school is housed in what were the resort buildings. In the middle of the island is Gertrude Lake, where a Loch Ness-type creature named Marvelo is said to live. Newt’s father says he’s seen it, but Newt doesn’t believe it exists.

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4 pandemic-perfect children’s nonfiction that will educate and entertain

There’s a pandemic going on. In my county, all schools are remote right now. So what do parents do when they need to work and the kids need something to do when their zoom meetings end? Give them a great book to read. Add bonus points if the book is educational.

Here are two nonfiction books for middle grade children that will entertain, educate, shock, and make them laugh. It’s inevitable. After all, the titles of two of the books have the words “poop” and “butt” in them. The other two books are excellent for parents to use, with gross science experiments and exciting sensory bins that will keep children engaged and busy. Take your pick – there’s a book here for any parent.

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‘Closer to Nowhere’ by Ellen Hopkins is a beautiful story that will break your heart and then fill it with love

Prolific author Ellen Hopkins is known for her young adult books that deal with tough subjects — especially drugs and the horrendous damage they can do to families and the lives of those who are caught in their tantalizing web. With her first middle grade novel, Hopkins hits a home run.

This is a story that, like her other books, is written in verse. It’s written from a dual point of view. We meet and get to know both Hannah and Cal, cousins whose mothers are identical twins, but whose lives couldn’t be more different. When we first meet them, Cal has lived with Hannah and her parents for a little over a year. It’s been a tough year for all. Continue reading

Balthazar The Great

“Where Bone?”, a kids’ picture book written and illustrated by Kitty Moss, is a hilarious account of a hilarious dog named Balthazar, who has lost his beloved bone. Balthazar is my emotional doppelganger and my personal guru; his plight and his behavior speak to me because I, too, go a bit (or very very) crazy when I lose my keys, my glasses, my nail clippers, my anything. Balthazar, you have taught me that I am not alone. Continue reading

Those amazing and unpredictable unicorns: five magical picture books

 

Consider the eternal and eternally wonderful unicorn — the favorite animal of thousands of children and quite a few adults I personally know. And best of all, because those lovely creatures are purely imaginary, they can be almost anything we want them to be — any shape, any size, any color (any pigment of our imaginations). Here are five adorable picture books all about that favorite of all imaginary animals. Unicorns all over the place! And each of the books has some really important things to say to our little ones, and to all us stodgy old ones, too. Continue reading

‘The Invisible Alphabet’ by Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett is a clever and thought-provoking picture book

With “The Invisible Alphabet,” author and illustrator Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett have created a really unusual and thoughtful picture book that is perfect for engaging children’s creativity and thinking-outside-the box skills. Even the cover, with the word “invisible” barely seen because it’s white-on-white but in shiny print gives a clue to the brilliant art inside. The black ink with white paper and just a hint of orange is the theme throughout the book. That orange provides the only actual color in the illustrations.

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Three wonderful nonfiction picture books about dogs and cats and shelter animals

With COVID-19, many families have adopted needy shelter pets. But there are still many, many animals in shelters across the country who are in need of a loving home. These three picture books will not only share why it’s rewarding to rescue a pet but also share how to train your new dog or cat, thanks to National Geographic Kids’ two training books for kids. Continue reading

‘I Found a Kitty!’ by Troy Cummings — Touching and brilliant sequel to ‘Can I Be Your Dog?’

In the adorable picture book “I Found a Kitty!” by Troy Cummings, there’s a new cat in town, and he needs a home. And Arfy, the pooch who charmed everyone in “Can I Be Your Dog?” is determined to help. The sweet kitty can’t live with Arfy and his friend who delivers the mail because she’s allergic to cats, but surely someone wants a many-talented, sweet, playful kitty for their very own?

Cleverly, before we even get to the title page, there’s a little narration by Arfy about how he found his new friend, the kitty. After the title page, as in Arfy’s own book, there are letters he writes to neighbors asking if they want a kitty of their own. Cummings brilliantly combines visuals with plays on words to make each letter that Arfy crafts match the visually revealing prospective home.

For example, the first prospective home is the residence of a music teacher. Even my four-year-old grandson recognized that the house looks like a piano with the treble clef symbol in both front windows. Even the mailbox has a musical motif. The letter introduces Scamper and shares that “He also likes to sing! I know he would make beautiful music with your students.” The response from the music teacher is negative, but also peppered with clever musical play on words — some that only an adult will get. “I was hoping for more harmony in my household. But with Scamper here, I can hardly find a single measure of rest.

With each house, Scamper gamely delivers Arfy’s letter. But each time there is something that doesn’t work out. Three babies and a cat don’t make for gentle petting, and a cat who plays with mice instead of eating them won’t help a mechanic with a rodent problem. Even the cat-loving neighbor, whose house looks like a cat, seems to appreciate inanimate cats more than the real, moving, sometimes-clumsy ones.

Finally, Scamper sends Arfy a message. He really wants a home where he can do all the things that each house offered. He wants to get cuddled, play, get brushed, sing. And yet again, Cummings’ ending brought this reviewer (and lover of my three black cats) to tears with the all-too-clever, all-too-touching twist at the end. 

As Cummings  shares on the endpaper at the end of the book, there are many ways to help homeless kittens and puppies (and grown-up dog and cats). Donate to your local rescue. Get to know them and how the money is used. Adopt a pet instead of buying one.  At the shelter, meet all the cats and dogs before you pick one to adopt. Some might be shy or scared at the shelter. A dog or cat missing a leg or even an eye will be a fabulous pet with lots of love to share. And don’t overlook the senior pets. They have years to show their gratitude to you for giving them a second chance! 

If you don’t have Arfy’s book, buy it along with “I Found a Kitty!” and your classroom or library or bookshelf will be better for it. And your children will love them. Guaranteed.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Random House, for review purposes. 

 

‘Brave Like That’ by Lindsey Stoddard is an ultra-significant read for middle grade kids

brave like that

Sometimes a powerful and emotionally rich book like “Brave Like That” by Lindsey Stoddard comes along that I wish everyone would read. A thoughtful book that could change the world – really. And in this book, the lessons Cyrus, the main character, learns are ones that he recognizes could change the world.

“Brave Like That” is a difficult book to review. There’s so much packed into this treasure of a story that it’s difficult to include all the messages and themes. Cyrus is the son of a firefighter, and his Dad was a star football player in their small town. Since he’s been a little kid, everyone thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps. Cyrus was adopted by his dad after being left at the fire station when he was an infant. On the night of his eleventh birthday, celebrated at the fire station, a stray dog shows up, and Cyrus is convinced that fate expects him to keep the dog, just as his father kept him. But Cyrus’s father has other ideas.

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