Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez is one of my new favorite books!
I knew I’d like this book based on the “back seat” test. Larrabee often reads in the car on the way to baseball practice, martial arts, etc. If I hear him laugh, I put his book on my to-be-read list. If he insists on reading lines out loud to me, I move it to the top of the list. And if he brings it inside rather than waiting to read more during the next day’s car ride (like he did with this one), I have to blog about it.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is kind of a hard book to describe. On the one hand, it’s science fiction. Sal is able to tear a hole in the space-time continuum and see into other parallel universes. He can even bring people and things from them back into our universe. On the other hand, it’s a story about a middle school for the arts, a friendship story, and a story about family relationships.
What you really need to know, though, is that it’s a book that hooks you from the first page. The main character, Sal, is a talented magician (even when he’s not using the multiverse). He’s just moved to Florida with his dad and stepmom, and he’s dealing with a lot of issues–being the new kid in school, missing his mom, and managing his diabetes. His counterpart, Gabi, is the student council president and the editor of the school paper, and she has lots and lots of dads. Both are kind-hearted kids who make you root for their success.
This book was published by Disney-Hyperion under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Larrabee has read most of the books they’ve published in the past year and a half and has enjoyed them all. We are particularly looking forward to Sal and Gabi’s next adventure (coming in 2020).
Recently, Larrabee and I saw Wicked in San Jose. In preparation, of course, we had to re-watch The Wizard of Oz, which he didn’t remember at all. I told him that now that he’d seen it, he’d probably come across references to it all over the place.
And he did. The next day, he started reading The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez. In the first chapter, twelve-year-old Malú makes a zine called “There Is No Place Like Home.”
The First Rule of Punk is a charming coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old half Mexican girl who likes punk rock and zines. She doesn’t want to move with her professor mom from Florida to Chicago. And she definitely doesn’t want to dress like una señorita.
But somehow, over the course of the first couple of months of middle school, Malú finds her own “Yellow-Brick-Road posse” and figures out how to be true to all the parts of herself.
In addition to Wizard of Oz references, the book is full of Malú’s creative zines (and includes instructions for making your own), and it’s a lot of fun.
Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire by John August is a fantasy adventure with plenty of action and lots of mystery.
Twelve-year-old Arlo Finch has just moved with his mom and older sister to live with his uncle in a tiny Colorado town. In an effort to fit in, he joins a scouting organization called the Rangers. He expects that he’ll learn to tie knots and navigate using a compass–and he does. But the Rangers also practice unusual skills that involve harnessing the magical energy of the nearby Long Woods.
Soon, Arlo receives a mysterious warning that he’s in danger. He’ll need all his new skills and the help of his new friends from Blue Patrol to stay one step ahead of the supernatural forces that are after him.
Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire is the first in a planned trilogy. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it. We just borrowed the second one, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, from the library.
And if you’re curious about how the book came to be, John August has recorded an interesting podcast (Launch) about the whole process from writing to printing.
Graphic novels are wildly popular at Larrabee’s school, but he and I generally prefer regular novels. Occasionally, though, we come across a story that is best told in a graphic novel format. New Kid by Jerry Craft is that kind of story.
New Kid is about a 7th grader named Jordan Banks who likes drawing cartoons and playing video games. He hopes go to art school, but his parents insist on sending him to a fancy private school. It’s not easy being the new kid, especially since he’s one of the few kids of color and one of the few kids on financial aid in his class.
During the course of the school year, Jordan confronts racism, privilege, and unfair situations. He also tries new experiences that turn out to be not so bad (such as soccer and abstract art) and makes new friends.
Jordan is a fantastic narrator. Some of the most fun parts of the book are his cartoon commentaries on everything from his dad’s advice on handshakes to his mom’s use of a camera with actual film to the contrast between mainstream and African American book covers (“a thrilling magical tale” vs. “a gritty, urban reminder of the grit of today’s urban grittiness”).
Whether or not you’re a fan of graphic novels, put New Kid on your reading list for this fall.
It’s back-to-school time at our house, and I have the perfect book recommendation for the occasion: The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin. It’s thought-provoking and lots of fun. Larrabee liked it too.
Caitlyn is the new kid in the 7th grade. She’s not happy about leaving her friends in New York behind to move to a small town in Vermont. To make matters worse, her new school has only ten other students, and most of them have known each other since kindergarten. Worst of all, she finds that she’s taken the place of the legendary Paulie Fink, who’s described as a troublemaker, master prankster, and evil genius, and is sorely missed by the rest of the class.
Caitlyn is preoccupied with the unwritten rules of fitting in, but nothing she learned in her previous school seems to apply in this unconventional crowd. Soon, the others convince her to plan and judge a reality show-style contest to name the Next Great Paulie Fink. As she finds her place in this new group, she reevaluates the way she treated other kids in the past.
There are lots of things to like about this book: the way the class’s lessons in Greek philosophy take on surprising relevance to their lives, the 7th graders’ relationships with the “minis” (kindergarteners), all the humorous Paulie stories, and, of course, the goats.
The Newbery winners are always interesting, well-written books. But, let’s face it. Some of them aren’t the type of book you’d choose to read during your last week of summer vacation.
This year’s winner–Merci Suárez Changes Gear by Meg Medina–is an exception. It’s a heart-warming and funny coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Cuban-American girl. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it.
The story begins on Merci’s first day of sixth grade at Seaward Pines Academy, a fancy private school she attends on a scholarship. The new school year brings a lot of unwelcome changes for Merci. She misses her fifth grade homeroom teacher, she wishes she could still play sports with the boys during recess, and she feels like she’ll never figure out how to get along with Edna, the most popular girl in her class.
Things are changing at home too, where Merci lives with her extended family in three neighboring houses they call Las Casitas. Her older brother is learning to drive and applying to colleges. Merci is asked to take more responsibility for her younger twin nephews. Most importantly, her grandfather, Lolo, who has always been her companion and confidant, seems unusually forgetful lately and sometimes gets angry for no reason. Merci is worried, but no one will tell her what’s wrong.
The story alternates between Merci’s life at school and her life at home during the first half of her sixth grade year, and both parts are equally engaging. My favorite scene is one in which Merci and her classmates make a mummy for their Great Tomb Project in social studies class. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it will make you wince and giggle.
If you just have time to read one more book this summer, I recommend this one.
Spark by Sarah Beth Durst is a delightful fantasy for middle grade readers.
Twelve-year-old Mina is a quiet girl. She lives with her boisterous family on a farm in Alorria, a land with perfect weather thanks to the storm beasts and their guardians.
Mina has always dreamed of being a storm guardian, and for the past two years, she’s been caring for a storm-beast egg. But when her egg hatches, she discovers that she’s bonded not with a gentle sun or rain beast but with a fiery lightning beast named Pixit. Despite her family’s misgivings, Mina and her beast eagerly set forth to learn their duties at lightning school.
School is full of challenges for a shy, calm girl like Mina, though. The other students are so reckless and confident, and she worries that she’ll never fit in. Just as she’s starting to find her place, she accidentally crosses the border during a thunderstorm and learns that the Alorrians’ control of the weather has disastrous consequences for the outsiders. But what can one girl and her storm beast do to right this wrong?
Larrabee and I love books with lovable non-human characters like Bob (Bob), Charlie (Sweep), Squorp (The Menagerie), or Inkling (Inkling). And Pixit is one of our new favorites! His irresistible combination of innocence, wisdom, and humor made us smile.
Mina is a terrific heroine too. This is not a book about a quiet girl who learns to speak up. Rather, it’s a book about a quiet girl who learns that she can be a leader in her own quiet way.