Reviews of the Week with Erika Swyler, Deborah Freedman, Elizabeth Acevedo, and More!

Every weekday we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

A friendship tested by the competitive pursuit of collectible buttons; an ill-fated attempt to mechanically control the march of time; the smallest and most adorable existential crisis; a sobering yet instructive treatise on the global state of food; a celebration of family and cooking from an award-winning YA author. Caring for one’s self, others, and the world around us makes its mark on the Reviews of the Day from this week, March 25–March 29, below.

Monday, March 25

The Friendship War, by Andrew Clements, Read by Bailey Carr

Grace obsessively collects things. When she discovers a trove of vintage buttons in a closed textile mill, she brings them all home. While showing off her find in social studies, Grace sparks a button-trading fad at her school. Carr’s excited descriptions of the varied buttons make them so appealing that it’s easy to understand why the kids are crazy to own them. Grace’s voice is analytic and data-loving as she shares her scientific observations about the fad’s spread through the school, but Carr ably shifts tones to one of embarrassment—even making her blushing audible—as Grace realizes that the more she gets to know her classmate Hank, the more she likes him. Emotions race as new tensions arise with Grace’s best friend, Ellie, who always needs the spotlight. Ellie’s voice is appropriately edged with her own self-importance. Grace and Ellie’s pique escalates to an all-out war as they battle over buttons. Carr gives weight to the small moments that are huge for Grace. Other voices, like a know-it-all big brother, grieving grandfather, and concerned mother, are also well done.

Tuesday, March 26

Light from Other Stars, by Erika Swyler

Swyler follows The Book of Speculation (2015) with an introspective, thrilling yarn that centers around Nedda Papas, both as an 11-year-old in 1986 in the days following the Challenger tragedy and as an adult astronaut on a mission to colonize a distant planet. Growing up in Easter, Florida, Nedda was inspired by her father, Theo, a scientist who used to work for NASA, as well as Judy Resnik, one of the brave astronauts who lost her life in the Challenger explosion. Propelled by a more personal loss—the death of Nedda’s brother, Michael, a mere hour after his birth—Theo has been working on a machine he’s dubbed the Crucible, which he hopes to use to extend Nedda’s childhood. But when Theo activates the machine, things go terribly, terribly wrong, jeopardizing the life of Nedda’s only friend, Denny, and the future of the town of Easter.

Wednesday, March 27

Carl and the Meaning of Life, by Deborah Freedman

Carl the earthworm spends his days burrowing underground, eating hard dirt, and turning it into fluffy soil. But when a field mouse asks him why he does this, Carl is stumped and sets off to find out. The tiny pink annelid crawls through the grass and makes inquiries among a variety of animals. A rabbit reveals she lives for her babies, but child-free Carl knows that can’t be his raison d’être. Next, he approaches a fox, whose purpose is to hunt, and then a squirrel, whose nutty habits cause trees to grow. Yet no one knows the meaning behind Carl’s subterranean activities. As he continues his journey, the neglected ground around his home turns hard and uninhabitable. Returning to this barren landscape, Carl finally understands how he fits into the bigger picture, and he happily gets to work converting the dirt into rich soil. Freedman demonstrates how one tiny creature can make a big difference and is an important part of an ecosystem.

Thursday, March 28

The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World, by Bee Wilson

This compelling overview of global eating habits by acclaimed food writer and Wall Street Journal columnist Wilson (Consider the Fork, 2012) seesaws back and forth between alarming paradoxes. We eat to live, but what we eat is killing us. Food is often readily available (and sometimes even hard to escape), but overly processed fast food contains few nutrients, resulting in simultaneously malnourished and obese populations. And so it goes, as Wilson’s entertaining text compares how humans used to eat—before mass consumerism, when considerable time was devoted to preparing and enjoying meals—with how we eat now, when food choices, dining styles, and meal times have become so markedly individualized. After about 200 pages of delivering dining angst, the book starts offering hopeful and helpful alternatives. Scale back portions, reform school lunches, elevate and celebrate the art of cooking, enact legislation against sugary drinks and junk food, and increase global consumption of vegetables.

Friday, March 29

With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Acevedo has done it again: the multi-award-winning author of The Poet X (2018) here delivers perfection, from the cover art featuring a young Afro-Latina woman looking out, her curls picked up in a scarf, and kitchen staples framing her face, to Acevedo’s keen, stirring prose that reads like poetry and demands to be read slowly. In a distinct, perceptive, and vulnerable first-person narrative, Emoni, a young single mom being raised by her grandmother while raising her own daughter, relates the story of her last year of high school in vignettes and short chapters, trading off between sharing bits of the story and her musings about her life and her future. Emoni has a gift for cooking, and her food, like magic, conjures emotions in people she shares it with. Her teachers, friends, and family are all ready to support her when the subject of culinary arts schooling comes up, but the one Emoni needs to learn to trust is herself.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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