Reviews of the Week with Nicole Panteleakos, Jean Kwok, Jasmine Warga, 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 young girl coming to terms with her past through insightful letters; a story told from the perspective of two sisters, one missing, the other searching for her; a middle-grade coming-of-age tale about a Syrian girl and her family; a posthumous collection of vividly narrated nomadic stories; a glimpse into the life of adored wimpy kid BFF, Rowley Jefferson. Diverse and multifaceted points of view illuminate this week’s Reviews of the Day, posted between April 15–April 19, below.

Monday, April 15

Planet Earth Is Blue, by Nicole Panteleakos

Panteleakos’ debut novel is an intricate and poignant portrait of love, loss, and courage. Nova, 12, is autistic and nonverbal, and she and her devoted older sister, Bridget, have been bounced from foster home to foster home since Nova was five. The story’s set in the mid-1980s, so the resources available to Nova are paltry, and the language about her diagnosis is hurtful, though Bridget and Nova’s new foster parents, Francine and Billy, are wonderfully supportive. Bridget spent years teaching Nova about astronomy and space travel, reading to her, and defending her. But now Bridget is gone, and Nova is holding out hope that she’ll return to watch the Challenger launch with her. Nova writes letters to Bridget, which countdown to the launch, and though the letters are incomprehensible to other characters in the novel, Panteleakos uses the insightful, beautifully written letters to reveal the richness of Nova’s inner life as she gradually remembers what happened to her sister. The Challenger disaster coincides with that realization, and Nova’s meltdown and heartbreak are piercing. Yet she finds that she doesn’t have to reject her past to step into a happy future. 

Tuesday, April 16

Searching for Sylvie Lee, by Jean Kwok

Sisters Sylvie and Amy Lee have the same Chinese immigrant parents but different childhoods. Amy was raised in New York, while Sylvie spent her formative years in the Netherlands with their grandmother and cousins. When Grandma falls ill, Sylvie returns to the small Dutch village to care for her. After Grandma dies, the family assumes that Sylvie came back to America, but Amy is shocked to discover that Sylvie is missing. Amy swallows her fears and travels abroad, determined to find her sister. As she unravels the mystery of Sylvie’s disappearance, Sylvie tells her own version of the story in flashbacks, and the girls’ mother weighs in with her own perspective.

Wednesday, April 17

Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga

From start to finish, Warga’s middle-grade debut puts its hands around your heart and holds it, ever so gently, so that you’re aware of your own fragility and resilience—just as Jude is while her life changes drastically from one day to the next. Growing up in a coastal town in Syria, Jude’s days revolve around her family and best friend, watching movies, and going to school. But there’s trouble on the horizon, and Jude’s brother, Issa, gets involved in the resistance movement. Jude and her mother leave, moving in with Uncle Mazin and his family in Cincinnati. The novel’s blank verse form works beautifully to capture Jude’s tumultuous emotions as she adjusts to her new life. Friendships, complicated family relationships, Islamophobia, and a new language are just a few of the layers Warga weaves into Jude’s consciousness. Jude is keenly aware of who she is—a sister, daughter, cousin, niece, friend—even as she works out the nuances of these roles.

Thursday, April 18

Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin and narrated by Kyla Garcia

In 2015, A Manual for Cleaning Women collected 43 stories Berlin left before her 2004 death, making her an overnight—albeit posthumous—literary sensation. Here are 22 more, presented in chronological order, mirroring Berlin’s own peripatetic exploits (Texas, New Mexico, New York provide backdrops) that included three husbands (a sculptor, a pianist, and a charismatic drug addict all make appearances here) and four sons. Kyla Garcia, part of the six-reader cast for Manual, returns solo, her voice sounding 7, 17, or like someone’s grandfather; adapting Spanish, Syrian, or New York accents; channeling new mothers or weary middle-aged men.

Friday, April 19

Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid: Rowley Jefferson’s Journal, by Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley has spent plenty of time in the spotlight, wouldn’t you say? His best friend, Rowley, certainly thinks so, and this spin-off of the wildly popular Wimpy Kid series gives the beleaguered sidekick a chance to shine (sort of). It starts out well enough, with Rowley narrating his exploits in classic Kinney style, but soon Greg catches on and mayhem ensues. First, Greg insists Rowley write an official biography of Greg, but Rowley’s anecdotes aren’t particularly laudatory—in fact, Greg comes off as a pretty big jerk. Naturally, this only leads to more hilarity, particularly around Rowley and Greg’s odd-couple friendship. As you’d probably expect, Kinney perfectly captures middle-school logic and relationships, especially the manic escalation of fights.



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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