Snapshot (ARC) Review: Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Title: Into the Tall, Tall Grass
Author: Loriel Ryon
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: April 7th 2020

**I received an ARC of this book from the author which does not influence my review**

      “A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.
      Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?
      When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.”

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  • Yolanda – I found so many things about Into the Tall, Tall Grass‘s MC relatable. This twelve year old is bright, opinionated, and struggles to express her feelings. Life hasn’t felt right ever since Yolanda’s grandfather past away. Her grandmother has fallen ill, her best friend dumped her for her twin sister, Sonja, and she’s still waiting for her family gift to appear. Yolanda is prone to jealousy, is desperate for someone to truly understand her, and just wants everything to go back to the way it was before.
  • Friendships tested – Yolanda and her best friend, Ghita, had a falling out and the former isn’t sure she wants to be mend this friendship. There is so much heartache on both sides of this relationship. I loved that both girls are allowed to feel resentful and angry, but also must learn where the other person is coming from before their friendship can be restored.
  • Grandparent-grandchild relationships – These were my favorite relationships in the novel to read about. From Yolanda’s special bond with her grandfather, who has been the only one to truly understand her, to Sonja’s relationship with her grandmother that has taken on a mentor-mentee dynamic, these bonds run so deep and have so many different layers.
  • Sister relationship – Yolanda and Sonja are at odds for much of the story, but it was so touching to see them find each other again. Much like Yolanda’s relationship with Ghita, this bond has been severed for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, these two sisters will need each other going forward.
  • First crushes – Yolanda has an incredibly sweet first crush on Ghita’s brother Hasik. He’s very sweet and sees Yolanda as remarkable even when she doesn’t always see it herself. I was so happy to see a sapphic first crush explored in this middle grade. Sonja and Ghita have become more than friends, but there are still plenty of issues they have to work though.
  • Discussions on grief – This middle grade novel is hard hitting in the grief department. Yolanda is still grieving over her grandfather’s death and now her grandmother’s illness.
  • Multi-generational story – I really appreciated that this wasn’t just Yolanda’s story, but hers was just one piece of a very long, wearsome and yet hopeful story of the entire Rodríguez clan. Also appreciated that the adult characters were not perfect and that the author did not shy away from revealing their flaws to the younger characters.
  • The writing – The story felt magical from the very beginning. Not only does Ryon capture the tumulteous feelings of adolescence, but her descriptions of the pecan orchard of the past and the mysterious grassland that springs forth and which Yolander and her friends must journey through were so well illustrated that it was easy to fall both into the story.

  • Nothing to note.

Weaving together stories of the past and the present, Loriel Ryon’s Into the Tall, Tall Grass is an unforgettable tale of a young girl faced with the reality of loss and grief; bittersweet at its center but written with honesty and compassion.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

ARC Review: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Title: Ghost Squad
Author: Claribel A. Ortega
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: April 7th 2020
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review**

      “Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.
      For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business.
      Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.
      With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.”

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Claribel A. Ortega’s debut novel, Ghost Squad, is a delightful middle grade with lots of heart and a cast of character that is sure to charm readers of every age. Lucely Luna is just like any twelve-year girl, she likes hanging out with her best friend, Syd, and spending time with her family. Only most of her family are ghosts and she’s the only one who can see them. When Lucely discovers that her dad may not have the money to keep their house and something odd begins happening to her ghost family, she’s determined to help on both fronts. But her plans take a frightening turn when Lucely, along with her best friend Syd, stumble upon an evil plan by the mayor himself to take over St. Augustine and steal the townspeople’s souls! Now Lucely and Syd, along with a suspiciously shrewd cat named Chunk, must figure out a way to stop him before it’s too late.

Ghost Squad is a great reminder that middle grade novels are some of the most engaging and heartfelt reads you will ever pick up. The most important thing to Lucely is her family and it is this bond that drives the story. Her father is a single parent who works hard to provide a good home life for her. His ghost tours haven’t had the kind of buzz he was hoping for, but the last thing he wants is for Lucely to worry about their finances. The rest of Lucely’s family is a different kind of special. Inspired by Dominican folklore, family members who’ve passed appear as firelies, called cocuyos, and are tied to the magical willow tree on Lucely’s family property. They also appear as ghosts, but only to Lucely’s young eyes. From her grandmother, Mamá Teresa to her long line of cousins, Lucely’s family is unconventional but fierce and loving. When Lucely discovers that something is amiss and she may lose the connection she has with her family for good, she will stop at nothing to make sure they are safe. She’s brave and little reckless, but her heart is always in the right place. Syd is Lucely’s best friend and I immediately took a liking to her. Not only is she sassy, she is also willing to do anything for her friend. Her vast knowledge of all things paranormal ends up being a big help in their quest to defeat the nefarious spirits who plan to take over their town. It was hard not to love these two girls. I was delighted with their saucy conversations and inability to avoid getting into trouble.

My favorite character by far is Syd’s grandmother, Babette, who steals the show every moment she’s on the page. Owner of an eccentric occult shop, there have always been whispers about whether or not she could be a witch. Though the girls believe they can sneak out and wander cemeteries without any of the adults in their life noticing, Babette is much smarter than either of them realize. I love that she takes the girls under her wing and shows them you should never underestimate a grandmother. And, of course, one must not forget Chunk, one of Babette’s cats, who has some strong opinions even for a cat. She made the best reluctant animal companion.

With playful dialogue and fun characters, Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad is an unforgettable debut that will thrill and bewitch readers.

★ ★ ★ ★

(4/5)

Snapshot Review: Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Title: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe
Author: Carlos Hernandez
Series: Sal and Gabi, #1
Pages: 382
Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents
Release Date: March 5th 2019

      “How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
      When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.
      Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.
      A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in this mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.”

“The entire back of the locker had become a portal into another world. I could see across dimensions into a whole new reality. Who knew what bizarre aliens lived there, what strange lived they led, what mind-blowing powers and technology they had?”

  • Sal – This kid had me laughing out loud for almost the entirety of the book. He’s mischievous, sometimes sarcastic, and has a knack for getting into trouble (then talking his way out of it). What I really loved about him was how open he was to being wrong. It was so refreshing to see a young male character not let pride get in the way when it came to apologizing.
  • Diabetes – I think this is the first time I’ve read a book about a character with diabetes and I’m so glad it was a middle grade novel. There is something about this age group that is so open that you know how important such a storyline will be for readers.
  • Gabi – Gabi is fierce and stubborn. She’s smart and unafraid to challenge things she doesn’t understand (like Sal). I definitely want her in my corner. Family is so important to her and I love how she embraces her judgmental side with regard to them. She will judge you based on whether you accept her family for who they are.
  • Light and heavy topics – The humor in the novel made me smile more times than I can count, but the emotional aspects are what kept me reading. Sal is still dealing with the death of his mother. His ability to pull things from other universes has intersected with his grief and sometimes he accidentally brings another version of his mother into his world. There is also Gabi’s storyline about her newborn baby brother being in the ICU. Both are handle with a lot of care and I really appreciated seeing the uncertainty and fierceness of these young characters when faced with issues that would make most adults crumble.
  • Different familial dynamics – There are some unconventional familial relationships in this one and some that defy stereotypes. One such relationship that really stood out to me was Sal’s relationship with his stepmother. I loved their interactions and how she was never a roadblock for Sal’s growth but just another adult in his life who was always in his corner.
  • The adults – I adored so many adult characters in this one. Loved that they didn’t hold the kid characters back, but were still ever-present. They didn’t talk down to child characters, but loved them and wanted what was best.

  • Conflict – As much as I adored this one, I do think it could have done with a little more conflict to drive the plot.

Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is a fun middle grade SFF novel with charming characters who always manage to get themselves in the best kind of trouble. I cannot wait to read the sequel.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

ARC Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

Title: The Moon Within
Author: Aida Salazar
Series: N/A
Pages: 240
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: February 26th 2019
**I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

      “Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.
      But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?
      A dazzling story told with the sensitivity, humor, and brilliant verse of debut talent Aida Salazar.”

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The Moon Within, Aida Salazar’s middle grade debut, is a novel I wish I could gift my eleven-year-old self. Celi is on the brink of turning twelve and she, along with the world around her, is changing faster than she can keep track of. Her body is already changing and with it, the promise of a period. Not something she is looking forward to, especially with her mom’s recent interest in their Mexica heritage. For Celi, this means a moon ceremony to celebrate her transition from girl to young woman, but Celi isn’t happy about having to share the things happening to her body with other people. Celi also finds herself torn between her best friend Marco, who is taking his first steps discovering what it means to be genderfluid, and her first crush Iván, who’s finally showing interest in her, but who is also less accepting of her best friend. Celi must find a way to navigate all the changing relationships in her life without sacrificing who she is and who she wants to be.

The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of how many young people feel about the changes their bodies go through. Celi’s first instinct when it comes to her first bra and her first period is to hide, to feel shame in the way her body now works. What Celi doesn’t quite understand yet is that her mother’s insistence on a moon ceremony, an Indigenous tradition meant to celebrate and honor the menstrual cycle, is her gift to her daughter. It’s a gift that says you don’t have to be ashamed. It’s one where the relationship between mother and daughter is defined by frankness and an openness that doesn’t leave Celi with all the unanswered questions her mother was left with. I loved the relationship between Celi and her mother because they clashed. They don’t always communicate well and Celi is just starting to see her mother as a person and not just her mom, but someone one who was once a scared girl herself.

Celi’s Mexica side isn’t the only cultural heritage that is celebrate in this one. Her father is Afro-Puerto Rican and Celi has grown up learning how to dance the bomba. I loved the portrayal of Celi’s relationship with this dance. She’s incredibly gifted and her connection to the music feels almost instinctual for her. Salazar also uses this dance to show Celi’s connection to her best friend Marco, whom she calls her best echo. Their friendship is incredibly sweet and even though Celi stumbles, this is the one relationship in this novel that felt like it could survive no matter what was thrown at them. I loved how Salazar’s portrayal of Marco being genderfluid is tied to his Indigenous roots. While our views on the gender binary are changing, we sometimes forget that many Indigenous cultures already had words for those who are nonbinary and in this case, specifically genderfluid. For Marco, being xochihuah and embodying both female and male genders, is what feels right. I loved that there is a beautiful reverence given to both the changes Celie and Marco go through and by embracing who they are, they were also reclaiming cultural traditions.

The Moon Within took me back to the days of first crushes, that uncertain time between childhood and adulthood, recounting that secret shame we sometimes feel when we get our first period, the shame that sometimes follows us into adulthood. This poignant novel-in-verse instead encourages celebration and acceptance, and one I wish every child on the verge of getting their first period could read.

★★★★★
(5/5)