Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous! by J.B. Cheaney (J Mystery)

Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous!

J.B. Cheaney (J Mystery)

Somebody knows more than he or she should. That’s the link they’re missing, but they may have a way to find it.

The elementary school bus that serves Hidden Acres Subdivision has a motley assortment of students: the celebrity, bully, talker, innovator, the brain, adapter, jock, pleaser, and the new kid. Today was the start of the school year, but their driver took an expected turn onto Farm Road 152 and pulled alongside an empty bench. No one was waiting and no one boarded, yet day after day the bus took this same route to the same empty bench. And then things began appearing at the stop. Things that held a specific connection to certain kids on the bus. As questions about the mysterious stop lead to events that happened many years ago, unlikely alliances form to reveal answers that will surprise everyone…and make somebody on the bus famous.

Not since Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game have I taken so many notes on a book (ten journal pages in case you’re wondering). With nine central characters and story lines to keep track of, not including the bus driver, it’s a lot to keep straight and remember. Luckily, Cheaney does an excellent job of giving each character their turn in the spotlight as we are introduced to their homelife and get to understand a little about what makes them tick. What the author eventually shows us is that you can’t always judge a book by its cover as these multi-dimensional characters are dealing with some very complex and complicated family issues—most of which seem to stem from absentee, apathetic, or annoying fathers. This book did have a surprising amount of daddy issues, although a lot of the moms don’t come across much better.

This book has a recommended reading age of 10 to 13 years, which is appropriate for the content. There are multiple innuendos regarding profanity; however, one character’s grandparent is suffering from dementia so some statements made are mildly lewd and inappropriate. While the subject matter is sobering, Cheaney handles it compassionately and realistically. And although there are a lot of moving parts to this story, it is an exhilarating ride that really picks up speed during the last fifty pages where all the dots begin to connect. Add to that a harrowing bus accident (which is where our story began) and you have non-stop action and suspense. The only complaint I had is at the very end of the book, the author mentions a bonus chapter and provides two different URLs to visit in order to see what happened to our gang of nine. When I accessed the links (I like closure), neither worked so let this be a warning to all authors: forego the marketing gimmicks and just put whatever you have to say in print. Technology is a fickle beast.

American television host and author Fred Rogers once said, “Fame is a four-letter word; and like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.” And although I won’t ever know what came next for the celebrity, bully, talker, innovator, the brain, adapter, jock, pleaser, and the new kid, I’d like to think that they each realized their own value and worth because to me that’s much better than being famous.  

Rating: 5/5

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Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (J Fiction)

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O’Dell (J Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Karana loved her village of Ghalas-at where everyone had their place and knew their role. Life was good until the day the Aleut ship—with its two red sails—arrived at the Island of the Blue Dolphins to hunt otters. What should have been an amicable partnership turned into betrayal and bloodshed and would mark the beginning of a new life for Karana and her people. With most of their men dead, the villagers spot another ship, this one bearing white sails and wanting to take them all to somewhere safe. But fate intervened and Karana found herself abandoned and alone on her beloved island. As she awaits the ship’s return, Karana learns how to survive while avoiding danger both on and off the island. As the years pass, she continues to scour the water looking for the sails: white will reunite her with her family while red will surely bring her death.

Based on the true story of a Nicoleño woman who survived alone on San Nicolas Island for 18 years, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a story of courage, survival, and perseverance. With only herself to rely on, Karana quickly disregards the laws of her village which forbade women to make weapons. She also finds a safe place to sleep, stocks food, constructs a home, and secures her property. Only when she becomes injured does she truly understand the precarious position that she is in: if she is incapacitated, no one else will care for her and she will most certainly die. This new realization causes an awakening in Karana and we see her mature almost overnight.

It would have been easy and appropriate for O’Dell to allow Karana time to grieve and buckle under the weight of her predicament and tremendous responsibilities. Instead, he gives us a character who rises above her circumstances to forge a new life for herself while finding courage, compassion, and companionship along the way.

Although O’Dell gave us Karana in 1960, I hope that a new generation discovers her and finds a heroine who doesn’t need a wand or cape or superhuman abilities to prove her worth or to define who she is. Karana shows us that often times a great heroine is strong and brave and kind not because of who she is, but because life requires it of her and she fearlessly chooses to answer the call.

Rating: 5/5

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Adult Autobiography)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou (Adult Autobiography)

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.

Before she became Maya Angelou, she was Marguerite Johnson. When she was three, Marguerite—along with her four-year-old brother, Bailey—was shipped from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas bearing little more than an identification tag with instructions on her wrist. The pair was sent to live with their paternal grandmother and crippled uncle. It was here where young Marguerite would watch the poor Blacks picking cotton in the fields, fall in love with Shakespeare, experience prejudice and hate from people far poorer and less educated than herself, and learn her multiplication tables. In the years following, she would be shuffled back and forth between her mother, father, and grandmother while surviving rape at the age of eight, celebrating her first library card, getting her first job, and experiencing motherhood.   

Angelou’s autobiography, which details her life from age 3 to 17, spent two years on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, was nominated for a National Book Award, received the Literarian Award in 2013, and yet remains one of the most banned and/or challenged books in America for its violence, racism, sexuality, childhood rape, and teen pregnancy.

Banning Angelou’s work—set in the 1930s and 40s and told from the lens of a young Black girl—because of its violence and racism is akin to banning a book on war because it’s too bloody. To measure a book set in the past using today’s racial, moral, and ethical standards is unreasonable, unfair, and unrealistic. It’s a false equivalent and no historical work, person, or idea could ever pass such a litmus test. Yes, Angelou’s book contains everything that it was banned for, but chastising these honest and true observations, experiences, and thoughts through removal doesn’t make our schools or society any better for it. How can it?

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is gritty, sobering, shocking, and compelling while being uplifting, witty, honest, and hopeful. Angelou shares memories of her first Valentine, her 8th grade graduation, the stability a new stepfather brought to her family, her multiple scholarships to the California Labor School, the summer when she and her father took an unforgettable trip into Mexico, the month she lived in a junkyard, and being the first Black to work on the San Francisco streetcar system. At every turn, Angelou seemed to live her mother’s advice: Life is going to give you just what you put into it. And Angelou gave it her all.

Angelou’s title of her autobiography is a reference to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, which is filled with empathy for a bird longing and crying out for freedom. After reading Angelou’s early years, I felt that the caged bird sings because that was what it was born to do. Angelou is that bird and despite the limitations and bars placed around her, she refused to be a prisoner or a victim. She never stopped at finding a way to make the impossible possible and whenever she felt helpless or weakened, she rose above it all and sang because that was what she was born to do. Through her books and poetry, generations will continue to enjoy Maya Angelou’s song as long as we, as a society, are brave enough to keep the cage door open for all to hear.

Rating: 5/5

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA Fiction)


Laurie Halse Anderson (YA Fiction)

It’s Melinda Sordino’s first year at Merryweather High. A time of change and cliques, of fitting in or being left out, and lots of ups and downs and possibly even a few sideways. But for Melinda, her year is already beginning with a dark cloud hanging over her. While other teens are covering up their acne, Melinda is covering up her shame of being raped…and it’s not easy. Every fiber in her being wants to scream out and tell the world what happened to her, but why speak when nobody—not even your best friend—wants to listen?

Speak is the very reason why I immediately have to get my hands on a book as soon as it’s been challenged or banned. It’s like a bat signal that drones over and over again read me read me read me. Published in 1999, Speak was ranked 60th on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Book for 2000-2009 and 25th for 2010-2019 for its inclusion of rape and profanity, deemed biased against male students, and blasted for containing a political viewpoint. I am shaking my head so furiously right now that I’m awaiting our local meteorologist to report a 6.5 magnitude tremor for my area any minute now. The profanity is mild, a fellow student stands up to a teacher who is trying to stifle a class debate, the girls in the book come off WAY harsher than the boys, and the rape scene is as follows: …he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up and zips his jeans and smiles. Feel that? I think that tremor may have hit 6.8 by now.

This is a gritty, raw, painful, and ultimately inspiring book about a young girl desperately trying to piece her life and sanity back together after it was gutlessly and maliciously ripped apart—her innocence robbed one summer night on the wet, dark ground. Told from Melinda’s point of view adds another layer to this complex and haunting story that shouldn’t be banned, but instead handed out to every teenager on the planet. By banning this book, the “powers that be” are truly no different than Melinda’s friends who choose to excommunicate her as she brings light to an unfortunate truth…that some individuals are just bad, no matter how attractive the packaging might be. Anderson’s message is far too important to ban to a dark corner. They say light is the best disinfectant and this book needs to be on every bookshelf and in every hand and hopefully there is a teacher or parent or trusted advisor there to read alongside to offer insight, context, and comfort.

I’ve never pored through a book so quickly before and that’s simply because Anderson ensnares you from the very first page with her poem “Make Some Noise”. More chills await as you slowly understand the significance of the cover design as Melinda’s story begins to stretch and her truth desperately reaches upward toward the sun so that it may live rather than die in darkness. I hope this book finds the right hands and that any Melinda out there finds someone like Melinda’s art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who says, “You’re a good kid. I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it” because then, maybe, that would open up the door for someone to speak.

Rating: 5/5

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