Middle Grade Monday: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale
Image: Cover of Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale

The story of a deaf girl’s connection to a whale whose song can’t be heard by his species, and the journey she takes to help him.

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale was a beautiful book about a young girl’s need to belong and her determined journey to help a whale also find a place to belong. Iris is deaf. Her grandparents are deaf and she has a friend, Wendell, who is also deaf but she attends a hearing school. On top of all this, while her mom and older brother have learned sign language to easily communicate with Iris, her father has never put in the effort instead relying on her lip reading skills and other people to translate. This book centers on her discovery of a whale called Blue 55 who sings in a frequency that other whales can’t understand. Iris immediately relates to Blue 55 and she sets out on a journey to give him a song that might finally make him feel heard.

In both high school and my first round of college I took ASL classes. I spent three years learning it in high school and was actually planning on minoring in it in college. For a really long time I was interested in becoming an interpreter and while my career goals have ultimately changed since then I think that learning sign language is something that everyone should do if presented the opportunity. The Deaf community is wonderful and I’ve met a lot of great people over the years that have pulled me out of my shell from my time learning ASL. It’s an incredibly expressive language and it taught me a lot about communication so I was excited to pick up a book featuring a deaf main character! I feel like if I let myself talk about it too much I would take up the entire post but I’ll just say that while communication and school and everything surrounding that is up for individual families to decide it is incredibly important for deaf children to be able to communicate. ASL has its own structure and grammar but it is a language and it opens the world up so much more than relying on lip reading and speaking.

Song For A Whale was emotional. Iris feels misunderstood and often floats through life feeling like an outsider. At school she has to rely on an interpreter and with interactions with Deaf (uppercase D means individuals who identify with the larger Deaf community) people she feels like she’s getting left behind because she isn’t around fluent signers all the time. My heart hurt for her because she had so much passion that I wanted everyone else in her life to see that too. So when she begins to create a song for Blue 55 after learning about the whale in science class I couldn’t help but cheer her on as she began to make unlikely friends along her journey. I think that this book is a perfect one to help young readers begin to step into the shoes of those that have different abilities to their own. Being deaf does not define a person and I really enjoyed that Kelly fully made Iris her own person because that will help readers understand that too.

One of my favorite things about this book was that not only was it a story of belonging but it was also one of healing. Before the events of this story took place, Iris lost her grandfather. So on top of everything she was navigating her grief for one of the few people that fully accepted her as she was. Her grandmother was grieving the loss of her husband and life long companion and I loved seeing the support and hope she had for Iris. She stepped up for her granddaughter and ended up beginning to move with her grief as well. As they both opened up to each other and the outside world I was really proud of both characters for being so strong.

This is a very character driven book. Interspersed between a few of Iris’s chapters were some written from the perspective of Blue 55. They were moving and brought me hope that the two would be able to interact in some way before the story ended. I loved how Kelly tied the passion Iris felt for radios to this mission to create a song for a whale. It was unique and I think it added so much to the importance for everyone to be able to communicate with those around them. I also thought that it was cool to find so many educational tidbits sprinkled throughout about whales and whale song. It was well worth the read and whether you’re hearing or deaf I couldn’t recommend this book more.

If you’re interested in picking up your own copy you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (to find a local indie to shop through!)

And with that, I’m signing off for the day. I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

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Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

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Middle Grade Monday: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

I’m really excited about today’s post because I’m finally back with another Middle Grade Monday installment!

One of the main reasons I wanted to create a specific post series focused on middle grade books was because I hoped to find more books that I could share with my younger brothers. Unfortunately for me, my brothers aren’t huge readers (yet) but fortunately for you all I have loved reading middle grade books and I need somewhere to share my thoughts on them! These may not be weekly posts but I’m hoping to get one up as often as I can.

So as I’ve been seeking out new middle grade books for my brothers and myself I’ve talked to my mom quite a bit about what kind of content she wants me to look for. During one conversation I mentioned rereading a book that I had read in elementary school and finding problematic language in it. My mom said that when reading with my brothers, finding something like that in a book is an opportunity to teach them why it may not be appropriate. In the same vein, when a book contains a tough topic that also allows for educational moments while reading.

When I was in elementary school I gravitated more towards historical fiction and fantasy books. While these remain my favorite genres today I’ve also enjoyed picking up realistic fiction middle grades. There are so many unique stories and my TBR keeps getting longer and longer. I do also want to note that my Middle Grade Monday posts will contain some spoilers on the books I discuss because I want adults who may be looking for reviews to know what they may see before passing the book on to kids!

Now with that out of the way, let’s get into the book discussion! One book I had been hoping to read for a while now was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. My library has a pretty extensive e-book selection and when I saw they had a copy available I immediately checked it out. This book is a semi autobiographical story that touches on numerous big topics but is filled with determination and optimism and I adored it.

Image Description: Cover of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Front Desk takes place in the early 90’s but the relevance of the topics within was powerful. Yang touches on immigration, racism, police brutality/prejudice, bullying, employee mistreatment, and poverty. I’ll also note that there is a description of physical assault during a robbery and then a hospital visit. As I previously mentioned, Front Desk is semi autobiographical. At the end of the book she included an author’s note in which she spoke about how she helped her parents run various motels after they moved to the United States. Her family helped numerous Chinese immigrants during a time when economic hardship allowed for gross exploitation. Yang states that by sharing their stories in Front Desk she hopes these “immigrants’ struggles and sacrifices will not be forgotten. They will not be forgotten.”

So as the synopsis says, this story follows a girl named Mia. She has so much determination and compassion and it was really interesting seeing the ideas she came up with to try and help others. I haven’t read the other books in this series yet but I can only imagine what Mia might get into in those. Her interest in writing leads to using letters in order to help those around her. This reminded me of when I was in elementary school and made more than one petition for the pettiest things now looking back. Kids should know that they always have a voice, they can have opinions, and they can help.

Now does Mia also get into situations that weren’t really great? Yes. Like at one point she was trying to help solve where a stolen car went because the main suspect was a black woman and Mia wanted to prove her innocence. In doing so, she goes to a man’s house to see about the car and almost gets into a dangerous situation with her friend. That part was kind of stressful and also a great lesson not to go into stranger’s houses.

Using the letters, Mia helps countless others but also gains confidence in herself. Even with her growing confidence though, she struggles with what her mother wants from her. Mia loves writing but continually gets discouraged because her mom wants her to focus on math. This ends up leading to a really emotional scene where Mia finally learns that her mom wants to be able to help her but if English is Mia’s passion then she knows she can’t help her daughter. It was a really powerful realization showing how much Mia’s mom cared for her daughter. Mia’s mom was embarrassed that she struggled with her English and she was discouraged with her family’s misfortune in the United States and I was really glad to see how much this family cared for one another.

In the end, they also gained something of a found family with the immigrants who passed through as well as the “weeklies” from the motel. The friends that Mia made helped her learn so much about the world around her and while some of the realizations she made, especially those about racism, were tough to read they were important things that kids do need to learn about. Mia was so bright and it was heartwarming to see how she worked through the discouraging moments throughout the story. I think that Front Desk is a great book for showing kids not only that they have a voice that they can use to help others but also that it’s important to learn how certain situations may affect people differently. I highly recommend this book and look forward to picking up the next book in the series when I can!

Before I sign off I also wanted to say that I loved reading the About the Author section to realize what writing has done for Yang as it was beginning to do for Mia. Yang actually went to college at the age of thirteen and graduated from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law. Though she was one of the youngest women to graduate from Harvard Law, Yang decided to pursue writing instead. This lead to her founding The Kelly Yang Project which is “a leading writing and debating program for children in Asia and the United States.” I thought it was amazing that she created this and I hope the kids who have gotten involved find their voices through writing.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of Front Desk you can find it in these places:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (which you can use to find an indie store near you!)

Other places you can find me:

Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

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You can also email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com for review inquiries, etc.

Thanks so much for reading and I’ll talk to you in my next post!

Middle Grade Monday: The Memory Keeper by Jennifer Camiccia

I was super excited when I was granted access to an eARC to The Memory Keeper by Jennifer Camiccia. It follows a girl named Lulu who has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. This is an incredibly uncommon phenomenon but it was such a fascinating concept to center the story around. If you don’t know what HSAM is, it essentially means that Lulu remembers every second of her life.

Lulu lives with her parents, little brother, and grandmother. She had a younger sister who I think passed away from SIDs but it wasn’t explicitly stated. Her parents have struggled immensely with this and on top of that her mother is dealing with postpartum depression as well. So Lulu leans on her grandmother heavily, which makes it even scarier when her grandma starts having problems with her memory. When Lulu realizes the scope of her own memory, she tries to collect her grandmother’s in order to help her in day to day life. Lulu wonders if the reason that her grandmother is losing her memory is because of a traumatic event, just as a traumatic event can trigger HSAM, she reads that it could also trigger memory loss. So Lulu goes in search of her grandmother’s past in order to save her memory and save her family.

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So I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. Was it super realistic? No, but it was emotional and heartfelt and deep while at the same time balanced with lighthearted jokes and fun friendship moments. Memory issues are a hard topic for me and I couldn’t help but get emotional a lot throughout this book. I know a few people that have dealt with or are dealing with Alzheimers and I myself have dealt with a great deal of memory loss due to mental health problems. It was painful to see how much Lulu was scared of losing her grandma if anyone found out what she was struggling with.

There was also quite a candid discussion of postpartum depression and grief and it was hard to see how Lulu struggled with her relationship with her parents but eye opening to read from the side of a child in a situation like this.

The side “quest” I guess is what I would call it that followed Lulu and her friends, Max and Olivia, in trying to also uncover Lulu’s grandma’s past was too funny. They took their roles of detectives so seriously and I really enjoyed seeing how their relationships developed and changed as the book progressed. I genuinely loved each of the characters in this book and it warmed my heart to see them heal even just a little by the time the book ended.

Another thing that I really loved about this book was that each chapter opened with a short description of some part of the brain and how it functions. Considering the book centered around a story in which the brain and memory was a central feature, I thought this was really interesting! It was educational and easy to understand and I really liked that.

This book felt reminiscent of The Ghost Collector  in that both main characters are dealing with something really difficult and are doing everything in their power to fix what they are struggling with. I highly recommend both.

 

Middle Grade Monday: Ghosts & Hauntings & Spooks Oh My

Welcome to another Middle Grade Monday! I spent the weekend reading some spooky middle grade books and I’m going to discuss three of them today.

Growing up, I was a big fan of spooky books and unlike the person I have become now, literally any spooky book scared the pants off me as a kid. I’m still scarred over a Goosebumps book that I vaguely remember in which a kitchen sponge came to life.

One of my favorite spooky middle grade writers has been Mary Downing Hahn. I’ve read a number of her books and the two that I read over the weekend were an older one, Deep and Dark and Dangerous, which was published in 2007; and The Girl in the Locked Room, which was published in 2018. (I stole… borrowed… the latter book from my youngest brother and the former was one that I had in my collection from childhood).

I think that overall Hahn is a master at crafting spooky books for young readers. My sister and I devoured so many of her books. Old Willis Place, The Doll in the Garden, and Wait Till Helen Comes were among our favorites. I’d really like to get my hands on those sometime soon to reread!

Of the two books that I read this weekend, I would recommend The Girl in the Locked Room for younger readers. It’s the story of a ghost who has been trapped in a room for over a hundred years and finally meets a girl who may be able to help her. This story was really well done, had me hooked from the beginning and was interesting enough to keep me on the edge of my seat through the end. It was low on the spooky side of things, more mysterious than outright scary which I think will be appreciated by those who don’t like to get jumpy. The ending was fascinating, though I personally would have wanted it to end slightly differently than what was written.

After rereading Deep and Dark and Dangerous, I found myself disliking the story a lot. The story follows a girl named Ali who has been brought on by her aunt to baby sit her younger cousin at the lake cottage that their family used to visit when her aunt and mother were children. There, Ali and her cousin meet a mysterious girl named Sissy and the painful story of the past begins to reveal itself. It’s definitely spooky but the characters are unlikable, absolutely horrid in cases and it just felt jaded. It actually had a lot of the aspects of the first book that I read this weekend which was Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh which I would like to recommend instead.

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Both of these stories had violent ghosts, unbelieving parents, and older kids trying to save younger ones. Spirit Hunters follows a girl who has moved with her parents and siblings to a new house. From the moment they arrive, something feels wrong and the rumor is that the house is indeed haunted.

While I didn’t personally love Spirit Hunters, I 100% understand why so many people do! I think it would definitely have scared the pants off me as a kid and if I wasn’t such a picky adult it probably would’ve spooked me a bit now too. This book has a diverse cast of characters and is #ownvoices for the Korean American rep. I don’t want to say that this felt like an adult trying to write a middle grade book for the first time, but that’s exactly what it felt like. At times it felt like it was trying way too hard to be a middle grade book and I think that’s what kept me from enjoying it as much as I could have. But if you’ve got a kid who wants to get that real haunted house story, definitely have them give this book a try! It had all those scary vibes and was a tense ride as things played out.

I’m interested to see where the Spirit Hunters series goes and will be checking out the second book whenever that is published to see if it happens to grow on me.

I think that young readers would be fans of any of the books of mentioned in this post but I highly recommend The Girl in the Locked Room for mysterious ghost story vibes and Spirit Hunters for that classic haunted house story.

Next week I’ll be discussing a new release so be sure to check back again next Monday!

Middle Grade Monday: The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills

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I have a Middle Grade Monday post ready for next week about a few books with spooky storylines and ghosts but I felt that there was no way that I could group this book into that post so it’s getting one of it’s own. Today I’ll be discussing and reviewing The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills.

After losing her mother unexpectedly, Shelly begins to hoard ghosts. A gift that has been passed down through generations of women in her family, Shelly has the ability to see ghosts, catch them, and help them move on. When she realizes that her mother has not come back as a ghost, she can’t let the other ghosts go.

Rooted in a Cree worldview, Shelly and her grandmother use their long hair to catch ghosts and then help to guide them onward to whatever comes after death. I thought that The Ghost Collector was a really deep story of a young, grieving girl who has to learn how to let go. It was so interesting to see how different ghosts could be, anywhere from the old, the young, animals, happy, sad, angry… The list goes on.

It was heartbreaking to see what Shelley was going through, just wanting to see her mom one more time. I think this was a unique and beautiful story about death, grief, and learning to let go. It is so important to share stories like this with young readers, to give them a more broad perspective of the topic of death, dying, and more. I really enjoyed reading a “ghost story” that wasn’t scary. I feel like what is often the case is that ghosts are made out to be malevolent and while those stories are definitely fun, it’s good to see stories where ghosts are just existing too.

In terms of reviewing this book, I gave it three stars. I would highly recommend it to anyone but I personally felt that parts of the story were underdeveloped. The origins of a few characters felt unexplained as did the backstory as to why Shelley and her grandmother were able to see ghosts and catch them in their hair. I would have loved more explanation and a bit of world building in that regard… I did try to do some internet research on the topic of ghosts and Cree beliefs but came up with nothing! Regardless of these qualms that I had, I thought this book was spectacular and have definitely thought about this story a lot since originally reading it.

If you are interested in a book that handles grief well and provides a new view on ghosts and death, this might be the book you’re looking for! Definitely worth checking out.

**I received an ARC of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review**

 

 

Middle Grade Monday: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt

So in today’s Middle Grade Monday post, I’m going to be talking about a book that’s release tomorrow called Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt. I received an ARC of this from Netgalley in order to review.

This book is about Tam and Kate, two girls who have found their stereotyped places to fit in within their middle school but develop an unlikely friendship… And maybe a little more.

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Redwood and Ponytail is all about two girls who are growing up and learning more about who they are every day. It’s a book about identity and acceptance and I loved it.

I grew up reading books in verse, I devoured every one that I could get my hands on, but every single one was far outside of the range of what I should have been reading at that age. Like I was in seventh grade reading Ellen Hopkins (I was definitely a mature reader but those were some heavy, heavy books). If I could go back in time with this book, I would have loved to hand younger me this to read.

There really needs to be more books out there like this. Even with the world becoming more and more accepting, sometimes it’s still so incredibly hard to accept that you might be different. I mean, I’m 23 and I’m still trying to figure out who I am. Books like these are ones that make it easier to be a young girl and say “hey, maybe I like girls too” or a boy who likes boys or anybody who just doesn’t really like anybody like that.

In terms of books written in verse, I found this to be pretty good. There were some parts that really flowed and other parts that really didn’t. But if you were using this to introduce a younger reader to a book in verse I think this could be a good choice.

One of the things that made me love this book so much was that the author got those first crush feelings so spot on. It was so relatable and I think that anyone could appreciate that. The aspects of this that fell flat for me were the other characters, I think that this story focused so much on Tam and Kate that the development of the other characters was completely neglected. I would have loved to hear more backstory about literally any of the other characters, it was a long book so something could’ve been squeezed in. However, I would definitely pass this on to middle schoolers, it’s a good viewpoint to read from, a nice introduction to books in verse, and in the end I rated it 4/5 stars.

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Before I end this post, I will say that people added the trigger warning of homophobia to their reviews and while I could understand where they’re coming from I think it’s important to add that it is very light (if that’s even a thing). The parts that I’m assuming they’re referring to are definitely hard to read in seeing a mom not really know how to react to what her daughter is telling her, but I don’t want to say that it’s the most painful thing to read. In the end everything turns to a “I just want you to be happy with yourself” type of situation. So yes, very minor homophobia but don’t let that deter you from giving this to kids to read or even reading it yourself!

If you’re interested in getting your own copy you can grab one tomorrow from these links:

Amazon // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository

Middle Grade Monday: Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Happy Monday and welcome to a new series on Adventures With A Side Of Espresso!

Ever since I created my The Books That Shaped Me (1, 2, 3) posts I have wanted to reread and read so many middle grade books. So without further ado, welcome to the first ever Middle Grade Monday!! This is going to be a series published on random Mondays where I discuss either middle grade books that I have reread or new books that I have picked up. I’m really excited to do this!

And if you have no idea what middle grade is, well that’s the category of books that is geared towards kids aged 8-12!

So when I was in third grade, I picked up Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix from my elementary school library and it very quickly became my new favorite book. I read it once a year after that until I was finished with elementary school and recently picked up my own copy of it from a thrift store so I had to reread it. Margaret Peterson Haddix has so many unique books that I highly recommend checking out any of them if you’re interested in reading middle grade books.

In picking up this to reread I was really interested in seeing if this book held up. It was originally published in 1995 and I think that’s going to be my main purpose in rereading books.

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Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jessie lives with her family in the frontier village of Clifton, Indiana. When diphtheria strikes the village and the children of Clifton start dying, Jessie’s mother sends her on a dangerous mission to bring back help. But beyond the walls of Clifton, Jessie discovers a world even more alien and threatening than she could have imagined, and soon she finds her own life in jeopardy. Can she get help before the children of Clifton, and Jessie herself, run out of time?

Basically, Jessie has grown up for her entire life believing that she’s living in the 1800’s and when kids within her village begin getting sick, Jessie’s mom reveals to her that it’s actually 1996 and they are living in an historical tourist attraction. Now, put yourself into the shoes of a nine year old… Is this not a mind-blowing concept or what??

In terms of this holding up today, I think it does. There are some offhand comments about “Indians” but in looking at this as if the main character in the book was living in the 1800’s, well, it’s a good learning point to explain why viewpoints have changed since then. I found reading this to be stressful even as an adult and I already knew every twist and turn that this book took! And I wish that I could say that this book wouldn’t hold up because of the outrageous concept but like cults happen and other crazy stuff happens even now which still just blows my mind what people can get away with.

If you know of any kids that are into fast paced and stressful books, this is a dang good thriller. It’s 184 pages but it packs a punch, there isn’t a single dull moment in the entire thing. 5/5 stars!

Oh and then, as I was talking to my mom about this book the other day when we were forcing my brothers to pick out books to read at the library she told me that there’s a movie based around this sort of concept too. So catch me watching The Village pretty soon now because I really want to see a cinematic version of this. It still amazes me how much of an impact a book that I read 10+ years ago can have on me even today. I highly recommend.