Race to the Bottom of the Sea

33799086by Lindsay Eagar
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking forward to her next book since Hour of the Bees, so I was so excited to get my hands on this! It’s completely different, but I enjoyed it and it showcased the same great writing and layered characters.

When Fidelia’s parents die in a submarine accident, her life falls apart. Her family, her future, her love of the ocean, her dreams of scientific discoveries, gone. Then she’s kidnapped by the devilish pirate Merrick the Monstrous to use her knowledge and inventions to help him find some lost treasure. Treasure that will easily outlast the gravely ill pirate. Fidelia isn’t sure about anything anymore, especially her ability to perfect her one failed invention–an underwater breathing device–but she has to find some answers fast if she ever wants to see her home again.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story’s balance of grief, guilt, and humor, but there were quite a few aspects I enjoyed! Fidelia is a charming protagonist, a girl with a love for sharks, and a passion for science and invention. She is used to proving her worth to overcome her youth, and I liked how she awkwardly interacted with adults as she tries to grieve and grow into the person she’s meant to be. Merrick’s backstory is one filled with darkness and sympathy, and we are left to form our own thoughts on him, which I liked. The world is our world turned on its head (nine seas, different countries) during a time when exciting new discoveries are happening every week (circa the early 1900s). Fidelia’s determination to make her mark on the world is contagious and inspiring. The subject matter is heavy but dealt with as lightly as possible. In contrast to her debut novel, science is the magic here, making everything turn and come together and pushing Fidelia toward answers.

In short, I loved this! The threads of this story tie up nicely, but the bones of the book are strong enough to support that.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Race to the Bottom of the Sea is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – After accidentally cursing her family during Obon, Saki Yamamoto has just three nights to undo it with the help (and mischief) of the spirits. See my review here.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt – When her sister disappears, Jules is left to wonder how to pick up the pieces of her old life, while a fox in the forest watches her, knowing it is meant to help the sad girl. See my review here.
  • The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell – When her mother is taken, Feo and her trio of half-domesticated half-wild wolves go on a journey to rescue her. See my review here.

Some Kind of Happiness

13260524by Claire Legrand
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This was recommended to me last summer and this book impressed me with every page! The writing breaks your heart or makes you laugh with each chapter!

Finley Hart is facing the worst summer of her life. Her parents are sending her to her father’s estranged side of the family while they “work things out.” (Finley knows what that means.) Meeting her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all at once and then staying with them for three months is not her idea of fun. Her only escape is the Everwood–stories she’s been writing about a magical forest for years. But she didn’t expect the Everwood to be real, and right behind her grandparents’ house. And she didn’t expect her cousins to be knights or the neighbor boys to be pirates. Suddenly her summer of adventure might be fun! If the secret darkness inside her doesn’t destroy it all.

Finley’s struggle to hide her anxiety and depression is just heartbreaking. The girl who reads all the time, who does crossword puzzles with her father, still doesn’t have words to understand the heavy sadness inside her that can make getting out of bed feel impossible. She knows she’s lucky, she has family, a place to live, food to eat–she should feel happy! Everyone else does, what is wrong with her? So she writes and writes and writes trying to find out.

Understanding herself through her stories is such a cathartic experience and it doesn’t present everything as “fixed” in the end. There’s new truths, and hope, and ways to help herself get through her “blue days” but the blue days aren’t going away. For anyone facing these feelings, it’s a good reminder that you aren’t broken.

All of this is the underlying theme of the book, but the main story is about Finley finding her family, and uncovering dark secrets in the past that led to the rifts in the present. How bringing these things to light is the only way to heal, even if it’s painful. There are so many moments of warmth and just as many arguments that hit your vulnerable parts in the way only family members can.  An emotionally messy portrait of the only kind of family there is: an imperfect one.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Some Kind of Happiness is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – Emmaline is one of many sick children staying in the countryside during the war. But she is the only one who can see the winged horses in the manor’s mirrors. When the Horse Lord sends an injured white horse named Foxfire to her world for protection, Emmaline must brave her fears to keep it safe. See my review here.
  • Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm – This illustrated story features children dealing with serious adult situations and how they can learn to cope with them. Sunny’s determination to know the full truth leads her to uncover many family secrets as she spends the summer at her grandfather’s retirement community. See my review here.
  • Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes – After surviving several terrible accidents, Maguire is convinced that she is bad luck and a danger to others. But when her mother mentions a family trip to Ireland to see their family’s roots, Maguire knows it will require getting on a plane–and decides maybe it’s time to stop isolating herself. With the help of a new therapist and a new friend also trying to complete some “therapy challenges” Maguire might be able to let go of the past to save her future. See my review here.

Hour of the Bees

22453777by Lindsay Eagar
YA Contemporary / Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 8, 2016

I loved this story! When I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Where to even begin…

Things that I loved? Magical realism! So well done, so beautiful. The descriptions of the desert – lovely. The food – you will be so hungry! The family dynamic–Carolina’s relationship with her grandfather, her older sister, her parents. She’s 12, that in-between age of growing up but knowing you’ll never be a kid again. Also, because she’s 12, this book is sitting comfortably between YA and MG which as you know from my previous posts, I find interesting. This book is quite long for MG and tackles some heavier themes as well, but the writing is simplistic and Carolina is too young to be a typical YA protagonist. Enjoy sorting this!

Carolina’s family is traveling to her grandfather’s remote sheep ranch to pack up the house and move her grandfather to an assisted living home because of his dementia. A 100-year drought has left the land cracked and worthless. Carolina has never met her grandfather, Serge, because her father has refused to see him for 12 years. Serge doesn’t understand why his family rejects their heritage and roots. Moments between her parents and her grandfather are tense. Her older sister, Alta, just wants to escape the ranch with her boyfriend whenever possible. Serge doesn’t want to leave his home, and insists that Carolina watch for bees, because “the bees will bring back the rain.” Carolina is in the middle of it all, forced to confront how she really feels about her roots, her family, and her future.

Carolina wants the truth of of her family’s past, but she ends up hearing a fantastical tale about a magical tree, bees, and a village of people who never grew old. She isn’t sure whether Serge believes the story he’s telling her, but when bees begin following her around the ranch, she wants to believe it.

This story is beautifully told – I highly recommend checking this out if you want something with complicated families and an unforgettable atmosphere. The theme of what makes a truly full life will have you thinking about this book long after you finish it.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Hour of the Bees is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord – Another lovely book about finding your identity amidst tragic circumstances. Paige’s first boyfriend died in a freak drowning accident, and now she faces junior year as The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned. Amazing female friendships and a touching relationship between Paige and her aging grandmother. See my review here.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Another story about learning not to spit on your roots–Gabi is Mexican-American and it seems like she is always becoming either too Mexican or too American for those around her. This book explores her senior year through her diary as she opens up to writing and dealing with the complex highs and lows of high school. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not thrilled with her father’s stepfamily, and when she learns her mother is sick, she takes an impromptu road trip to go see her. See my review here.
  • Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma – I love this magical realism story about a small town with a reservoir and two sisters–Ruby, who is everything, and Chloe, who looks up to her older sister. Ruby will do anything to keep her sister safe with her–even if it means bending the reality of their town and everyone in it. See my review here.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – Another touching story of sisters in Vermont coping with their mother’s death. When Sylvi disappears, Jules is left alone to navigate her new world. Nearby, a tiny fox is doing the same thing. Beautiful magical realism! See my review here.
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby – Finn is horrified when Roza goes missing, just like the rest of Bone Gap, Illinois. He alone wants to keep searching for her several months later, despite his disgrace. He was the only who saw the man that took Roza–but he can’t remember his face. This story is filled with magical realism and heartbreaking truths about people. See my review here.

Middle-grade vs YA: what’s the difference?

LEVIOSA finalThis was the panel I enjoyed the most at Leviosa Con a couple of weeks ago, mainly because the recurring comment from my critique partners causing me to rethink my story was this: the voice sounds very middle-grade, especially at first – is this story YA?

When I asked them what about the voice sounds middle-grade, I kept getting back these answers: it’s lighter, it’s funny, it’s more humorous, it’s not as dark, not enough angst, there’s not really any romance…

This really piqued my interest! These questions kept buzzing in my head: Why can’t genre YA be lighter or funnier? Why does it require romance? Why is contemporary YA allowed to be fluffy? Why aren’t there more YA fantasy books like mine these days?

I’m from the Diana Wynne Jones / Tamora Pierce generation of readers. Those books are light for the most part, and Jones especially can be very funny. The language is simple. Romance isn’t always present, especially in Jones’ books. But they were shelved as young adult / teen in my library (probably because sex is mentioned sometimes, and Pierce in particular acknowledged that girls have periods, which was apparently supposed to be a secret). The characters were typically 15-18 or even older (Wizard Howl is 27 – 10,000 days people, it’s a lot), there were definitely scenes with dark magic and nefarious villains, questions of identity, and some violence. It’s very different from the YA coming out today.

Howl’s Moving Castle was one of my comp titles (a bit of a risk since it’s older than me, but I felt it was accurate), and it sparked a fascinating debate among my CP’s about how we define these categories for books. MG and YA are intended audiences, not a genre in and of themselves, and when I began researching online I found opinions vary widely on what defines them.

There were a few guidelines I found that generally apply:

  • Age of the protagonist (15 and up for YA, 13 and under for MG – yes, 14 is not a thing, keep reading for the reason why)
  • Length of the manuscript (word count)
  • Subject matter (amount and detail regarding sex, violence, language and other traditionally mature themes, similar to MPAA rating guidelines)

Tone and conflict were the divisive factors. There are exceptions to every rule (including the guidelines above) but these were difficult for people to define. Some said that external conflict is MG and internal conflict (especially regarding identity) was YA. Others said the opposite! Some said humor was reserved for MG and YA contemporary stories, but that genre fiction wasn’t light. And so on, down a rabbit hole that never ends.

At the Leviosa panel the opinions there were (again) different but interesting, so I thought I would make a post from the notes I took there. The women on the panel were able to provide a variety of points based on their different degrees of involvement with MG books.

Who are they?

  • Kamilla Benko – editor at Paper Lantern Lit, author of The Unicorn Hunt (2017)
  • Jordan Hamessley – senior editor of the children’s division of Insight Editions in the Bay Area
  • Michelle Schusterman – MG author of the Kat Sinclair and I Heart Band series

Here’s how they answered the question of what makes MG different from YA:

MG is about friendship and family, while YA adds peril, and it features more taboo subjects and questions of identity (ex: sexual orientation). YA tends to have more romantic relationships. For example, in MG stories characters feeling attraction may hold hands, and in upper MG they may kiss once, but anything beyond that is reserved for YA.

MG allows a protagonist to figure out who they are while YA has them take that self-knowledge and see how they fit into the world as their own person. For example, in Harry Potter books 1-3 Harry is concerned with making friends, getting good grades, and being good at Quidditch. But for books 4-7 Harry learns what his destiny is and just wants to survive it.

The endings of MG stories tend to be more hopeful, while YA endings can be mixed (or bittersweet) and adult fiction can end with no hope of a happy ending.

The villains or antagonists in MG tend to have some funny moments or have exaggerated personalities to make them less dark and keep them from overwhelming their younger audience. (Think the Dursleys in the earlier HP books).

For the most part MG does have a lighter, quirkier sense of fun in that zany younger kid way. It’s imaginative, and not as concerned with trends as YA is. However, stories that are popular in adult fiction tend to trickle down to YA over the course of a couple years, and from there can permeate MG in a watered-down way.

A lot of what determines the book’s audience is Barnes & Noble’s buying power. They have a huge say in how the books are shelved and what age bracket they think your book fits. (They can also change your title and your cover). They don’t know how to shelve or market an MG/YA hybrid, which has led to a hole for 14-year-old protagonists.  Consistent pushback from publishing houses and authors (and now readers via social media) is slowly opening the door for more variety in this area, but for now freshman year stories in particular are a black hole on the shelf.

For me, all of this was helpful and eye-opening, but I had one last opinion I wanted to get. If you haven’t heard of the agent Joanna Volpe, you’ve probably heard of her clients (Veronica Roth, Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, Susan Dennard, Sasha Alsberg…) She is legendary for pulling incredible writers out of the slush pile and spotting trends before they happen. Look up her agency, New Leaf Literary & Media, and you’ll see what I mean! I knew if there was a hole in the market clamoring for a lighter YA fantasy novel, she would know about it.

What she told me was that there is a hole, and it would be nice to bring that facet of YA fantasy back, but a debut author probably isn’t going to do it. That makes perfect sense to me – with everything trending darker it’s more popular to push boundaries than to step back and create something reminiscent of 1985. But she thought the right project from the right person could do it.

I loved hearing these women discuss this topic at the panel and it was nice talking to Jo since the question teased me for weeks! I hope you all enjoyed this tiny peek into the conversations that happened at Leviosa Con. 🙂

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