Review: Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel

Review: Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel
Source: ARC courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: February 6, 2018 by Sky Pony Press.
Book Description:

Noah is not having a good year.

His mom is in prison, he’s living with his mom’s boyfriend—who he’s sure is just waiting until his mother’s six month sentence is up to kick him out—and he’s officially hated by everyone at his middle school, including his former best friend. It’s Noah’s fault that the entire football program got shut down after last year.

One day, Noah notices a young bear at the edge of the woods with her head stuck in a bucket. A bucket that was almost certainly left outside as part of a school fundraiser to bring back the football team. As days go by, the bear is still stuck—she’s wasting away and clearly getting weaker, even as she runs from anyone who tries to help. And she’s always alone.

Though Noah ignores the taunts at school and ignores his mother’s phone calls from jail, he can’t ignore the bear. Everyone else has written the bear off as a lost cause—just like they have with Noah. He makes it his mission to help her.

But rescuing the bear means tackling his past—and present—head-on. Could saving the bear ultimately save Noah, too?

Bringing Me Back is the latest contemporary middle grade title from children’s author Beth Vrabel. Having read and enjoyed Vrabel’s well-received and well-reviewed Pack of Dorks series, A Blind Guide to Stinkville and A Blind Guide to Normal, I was looking forward to Vrabel’s newest children’s title immensely.

In Bringing Me Back, we follow the first-person narrative of middle schooler Noah Brickle. Noah, as we learn, is going through a very difficult time. His mom is serving time in prison, he’s become a social pariah at school- almost entirely without any friendly face- and is now under the guardianship of his mom’s boyfriend Jeff. In just a short span of time, Noah’s world has gone from pretty great- having a best friend, playing football at school, and having his mom and Jeff in a stable and good relationship- to just about everything being broken. Readers learn about Noah’s mom’s struggle with alcohol and how one night of relapse- and a dangerous football accident caused by Noah the day after- changed his world. On top of everything Noah is experiencing at home and at school, he also becomes fixated with a lone bear cub seen around the perimeters of the school. Soon Noah becomes determined to save the life of the young bear, especially when the bear is spotted with a bucket stuck on its head and looks to be growing frail. As the prison release date of Noah’s mom grows closer, Noah finds himself at a head with emotions: his remorse for the accident he caused; complicated feelings for his mom and the damage she caused; his growing feelings for his new friend Rina; with how much Jeff really means to him; and for how far he’s willing to go (and why) to save the life of a dying bear cub.

Noah is a terrifically written, interesting young narrator: complicated, open, hurting, and struggling to keep his head above water. The course of his relationships with two supporting characters- his one new and surprising school friend Rina and now-guardian Jeff- are so well-done and at different turns, emotional and heart-wrenching. Vrabel gets the voice of young protagonists spot on and writes them brilliantly; I think Bringing Me Back, with its well-drawn cast of main characters and excellent story, is the strongest of her novels so far. Overall, a strong, beautifully written, affecting middle grade title, with wonderfully drawn characters set in a unique story. Readers who have enjoyed Beth Vrabel’s previous children’s titles or readers who enjoy the work of authors such as Leslie Connor, Kate Messner, or Sarah Weeks might especially enjoy Vrabel’s latest.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.


Must Read Monday (69): Children’s Titles from Victoria Jamieson, Casey Lyall, Beth Vrabel & more!

Welcome to another edition of Must Read Monday!

This feature is where I spotlight older, recent, or upcoming releases I am looking forward to. The lists will include all genres I like to read, everything from picture books to comics, children’s lit to adult fiction!

This week: more children’s fiction! It’s been a few weeks since the last Must Read Monday post, and while I haven’t been able to get in much reading, my to-read pile has SOMEHOW grown…! In any event, here are some titles I have my eye on for August and September release: the third installment of the totally charming From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess from Meg Cabot; the newest graphic novel from Roller Girl author-artist Victoria Jamieson; the latest contemporary title from wonderful middle-grade author Beth Vrabel; Ben Hatke’s newest graphic novel in the Mighty Jack series; and last, but not least, the second novel in Casey Lyall’s utterly terrific Howard Wallace, P.I. mystery series.


Royal Crush (From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess #3) by Meg Cabot
Expected publication: August 1, 2017 by Feiwel & Friends
Book Description:

Being the newest princess of Genovia is WAY more complicated than she expected, but Olivia Grace Clarisse Mignonette Harrison is getting used to it. She gets to live in an actual palace with two fabulous poodles, a pet iguana, her very own pony, and, best of all, a loving family to help her figure things out!

And right now Olivia, having finally admitted that she likes Prince Khalil as more than just a friend, could REALLY use some advice. What is a princess supposed to do once she’s found a prince she likes? With her half-sister Mia busy enjoying her honeymoon, Olivia turns to Grandmere for help.

The third book in the middle-grade Princess Diaries spin-off series, written and illustrated by New York Times-bestselling author Meg Cabot.


Mighty Jack and the Goblin King (Mighty Jack #2) by Ben Hatke
Expected publication: September 5, 2017 by First Second
Book Description:

Like a bolt from the blue, Jack’s little sister Maddy is gone―carried into another realm by an ogre.

When Jack and Lilly follow Maddy’s captor through the portal, they are ready for anything . . . except what they find waiting for them in the floating crossroads between worlds. Even the power of their magic plants may not be enough to get them back to earth alive.

Alone and injured, Jack and Lilly must each face their own monsters―as well as giants who grind the bones of human children to feed their “beast” and a fearsome goblin king in the sewers down below.But when Jack finds himself in a tough spot, help comes from the most unlikely person: the goblin king!


All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
Expected publication: September 5, 2017 by Dial Books
Book Description:

Eleven-year-old Imogene (Impy) has grown up with two parents working at the Renaissance Faire, and she’s eager to begin her own training as a squire. First, though, she’ll need to prove her bravery. Luckily Impy has just the quest in mind–she’ll go to public school after a life of being homeschooled! But it’s not easy to act like a noble knight-in-training in middle school. Impy falls in with a group of girls who seem really nice (until they don’t) and starts to be embarrassed of her thrift shop apparel, her family’s unusual lifestyle, and their small, messy apartment. Impy has always thought of herself as a heroic knight, but when she does something really mean in order to fit in, she begins to wonder whether she might be more of a dragon after all.


Shadow of a Pug (Howard Wallace, P.I. #2) by Casey Lyall
Expected publication: September, 2017 by Sterling Children’s Books
Book Description:

Middle-school detectives Howard Wallace and Ivy Mason are itching for a juicy case. But when their friend and cohort Marvin hires them to prove his nephew— über-bully Carl Dean—didn’t pugnap the school mascot, they’re less than thrilled. To succeed, not only must Howard and Ivy play nice with Carl, they’ll have to dodge a scrappy, snoopy reporter and come face-to-face with Howard’s worst enemy, his ex-best friend Miles Fletcher. Can Howard deal with all these complications and still be there for Ivy when her life is turned upside down? Or will he once again find himself a friendless P.I.?


Caleb and Kit by Beth Vrabel
Expected publication: September 12, 2017 by Running Press
Book Description:

Twelve-year-old Caleb is shorter, frailer, and more protected than most kids his age. That’s because he has cystic fibrosis, a diagnosis meaning lungs that fill with mucus and a shortened lifespan. Caleb tries not to let his disorder define him, but it can be hard with an overprotective, prying mom and a big brother who is perfect in every way.

Then Caleb meets Kit-a vibrant, independent, and free girl who lives in a house in the woods-and his world changes instantly. Kit reads Caleb’s palm and tells him they are destined to become friends. She calls birds down from the sky, turns every day into an adventure, and never sees him as his disorder. Her magic is contagious, making Caleb question the rules and order in his life. But being Kit’s friend means embracing deception and, more and more, danger. Soon Caleb will have to decide if his friendship with Kit is really what’s best for him-or Kit.

Review: A Blind Guide to Normal by Beth Vrabel

ablindguidetonormalReview: A Blind Guide to Normal by Beth Vrabel
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: October 11, 2016 by Sky Pony Press, imprint of Skyhorse Publishing
Book Description:

Richie “Ryder” Raymond has a gift. He can find the punchline in any situation, even in his limited vision and prosthetic eye. During the past year at Addison School for the Blind, Ryder’s quick wit earned the respect and friendship of his classmates. Heading to mainstream, or “normal,” school for eighth grade is going to be awesome.

After all, what’s not to like? At Addison, Ryder was everyone’s favorite person. He could make anyone laugh, especially his best friend Alice. So long as he can be first to make all of the one-eyed jokes, Ryder is sure he’ll fit in just as quick at Papuaville Middle School, home of the Fighting Guinea Pigs. But Alice warns him fitting in might not be as easy as he thinks.

Turns out, Alice was right. In just the first hour of “normal” school, Ryder is attacked by General MacCathur II (aka, Gramps’s cat), causes his bio teacher to pass out cold, makes an enemy out town hero Max, and falls for Jocelyn, the fierce girl next door who happens to be Max’s girlfriend. On top of that, Ryder struggles to hold onto his dignity in the face of students’ pity and Gramps’s non-stop practical jokes. Ryder quickly sees the only thing worse than explaining a joke is being the punchline. But with help from his stuck-in-the-70s Gramps and encouragement from Alice, Ryder finds the strength to not only fight back, but to make peace.

This exciting sequel to A Blind Guide to Stinkville weaves humor, recovery and second chances into an unforgettable story, with characters who will hook you from page one.

In my review of Beth Vrabel’s previously published middle grade novel A Blind Guide to Stinkville, I mentioned that the author’s work is one part of why children’s lit has been soaring this year. Now, with A Blind Guide Normal, my total of Vrabel titles read in 2016 comes to four (!), each one going from strength to strength, tackling different, challenging questions and topics, with this particular title a seriously poignant and surprising read.

At the heart of the story we have our narrator and protagonist Richie Ryder Raymond. Ryder is a character who is first introduced in A Blind Guide to Stinkville; we meet him there briefly as a new friend of that story’s main character, Alice Confrey. In A Blind Guide to Normal, we meet again with Ryder as he is starting out on a mammoth-sized change in his life: not only moving to a new state and staying with his slightly estranged Gramps, but also trying out ‘normal’ public school (i.e. being out of a specialized school for the blind). It is during the early stages of this big upheaval that Ryder discovers just how hard, cringe-inducingly awkward, strange (…and maybe, possibly wonderful?) these changes are going to be…

One major component of the story is Ryder’s navigation through the complicated and terrifying maze of school machinations, friends and foes, and falling a little bit in love with a neighbor. The other major component of the story- and so wonderfully drawn-out- involves Ryder’s relationship with his oft-absent parents, his unfamiliar-to-him grandfather, as well as Ryder’s own personal memories of battling cancer, being in hospital, and his recovery. Vrabel, as she did with Alice’s character in A Blind Guide to Stinkville, just gets- breathes- and inhabits young narrative voice. Ryder is yet another terrific character: self-deprecating, sarcastic; full of aches and knots he wants to but can’t quite untie; full of complicated emotions and feelings about his family and those around him, and capable of making major mistakes. I especially loved how Vrabel portrays and develops Ryder’s up-and-down relationship with his grandpa- there are some big, fun, laugh-out-loud and heartache-inducing revelations there.

Overall, A Blind Guide to Normal is yet another meaningful, heartfelt and strongly written children’s fiction title from Beth Vrabel. While you do not necessarily have to have read A Blind Guide to Stinkville to understand or appreciate this sequel, I would still recommend as the book and characters (you get to meet Alice and her family!) are simply wonderful. Any readers who have already read and liked Beth Vrabel’s previous titles, or those who enjoy the work of authors such as Lisa Graff, Leslie Connor, Kat Yeh or Donna Gephart might especially love A Blind Guide to Normal.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse Publishing in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Review: A Blind Guide to Stinkville by Beth Vrabel

ABLINDGUIDETOSTINKVILLE24694022Review: A Blind Guide to Stinkville by Beth Vrabel
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: August 9, 2016 by Sky Pony Press, imprint of Skyhorse Publishing
Verdict: Very Good/Excellent
Book Description:

Before Stinkville, Alice didn’t think albinism—or the blindness that goes with it—was a big deal. Sure, she uses a magnifier to read books. And a cane keeps her from bruising her hips on tables. Putting on sunscreen and always wearing a hat are just part of life. But life has always been like this for Alice. Until Stinkville.

For the first time in her life, Alice feels different—like she’s at a disadvantage. Back in her old neighborhood in Seattle, everyone knew Alice, and Alice knew her way around. In Stinkville, Alice finds herself floundering—she can’t even get to the library on her own. But when her parents start looking into schools for the blind, Alice takes a stand. She’s going to show them—and herself—that blindness is just a part of who she is, not all that she can be. To prove it, Alice enters the Stinkville Success Stories essay contest. No one, not even her new friend Kerica, believes she can scout out her new town’s stories and write the essay by herself. The funny thing is, as Alice confronts her own blindness, everyone else seems to see her for the first time.

I can tell you this: children’s fiction continues to be a roll and Beth Vrabel’s work is a part of that wonderful ride. A Blind Guide to Stinkville is now the third book I have read by Vrabel in a relatively short span of time, and with each novel, I have grown increasingly impressed and fond of her writing and approach to middle-grade lit.

A Blind Guide to Stinkville follows Alice Confrey and her family as they start their new and very different life in Sinkville- aka Stinkville- South Carolina. From Alice’s terrifically written first-person narrative, readers are taken immediately and wholeheartedly into Alice’s life. Having moved from their beloved and relatively comfortable life in Seattle, Alice, along with her older brother James and parents, are having some troubles adjusting.  In Seattle, Alice’s albinism and associated blindness were never an ‘issue’ or something to be known about her as a person: she had her brother and friends around and helping; she attended a public elementary school with her friends; she simply lived her life and knew her world very well. But in Stinkville, Alice suddenly stands out in a way she does want to.

With James increasingly reticent to look after her (wanting to have some private time on his own), and worried that her parents will decide to have her attend a school for blind kids, Alice takes matters into her own very capable (and honest) hands. What follows is a seriously affecting string of events that not only show Alice’s tremendous heart and conscientiousness, but also how Alice’s actions alter her family’s dynamics and their relationship to Stinkville. Alice is such a memorable character- so wonderfully developed, her young voice is so vibrant and nuanced, you just want to have the delight of actually meeting her one day! Covering a scope of weighty topics- everything from the pain of moving, loneliness, racism, parental mental illness, aging seniors, and navigating new friendships to albinism and conceptions about the spectrum of disability- Vrabel approaches every subject matter with consideration and makes it all so engrossing. There is also, I have to note here, a character by the name of Tooter in this book: an elderly Shih Tzu with a serious flatulence problem who is an essential part of the story. I mention Tooter not only because I adore the dog, but also because Vrabel shows a great skill in being able to blend unexpected laugh out moments of fart humour and serious, sudden heartache so well here.

Overall, I would definitely recommend A Blind Guide to Stinkville for any readers and fans of realistic, heartwarming and gently funny middle grade fiction. It looks as though there is a follow-up story, called A Blind Guide to Normal (from a different character’s perspective) due out in October 2016, and I for one cannot wait to read more. A story that has a very sweet, slight element of small-town magic (wonderfully and appropriately, Kate DiCamillo’s work is referenced in this book!), with main and supporting character bursting with unfeigned richness, A Blind Guide to Stinkville is truly a beautiful reading experience.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Review: Camp Dork by Beth Vrabel

CAMPDORK25898670Review: Camp Dork (Pack of Dorks #2) by Beth Vrabel
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: May 3, 2016 by Skyhorse Publishing
Verdict: Good/Very Good
Book Description:

Lucy and her pack are back, in this sequel to Beth Vrabel’s heartwarming and humorous debut, Pack of Dorks. Sheldon convinces Lucy, Sam, April, and Amanda to join him at a weeklong sleep-away summer camp—Camp Paleo: Live Like a Caveman. Like cavemen, they’re going to have to make do without air conditioning or a heated pool. They’ll learn archery and dig for fossils. And Grandma’s coming too; she’s taking a job as lunch lady for the camp next door.

At the last minute, Sam backs out to go to a gymnastics training camp instead. Lucy wonders why she misses him so much—it’s not like he’s her boyfriend or anything. Why does the word “boyfriend” make her blush, even when she’s only thinking it? She needs a distraction. Enter Mr. Bosserman, the grouchy camp leader who won’t budge on the caveman aspect of the camp. The old man needs some softening up, and Lucy knows just the person for the job: Grandma.

One successful match made, Lucy starts to see potential lovebirds everywhere. And setting up couples keeps her from facing the question tickling the back of her mind: Is she in love with Sam? But when the wrong campers fall for each other, the pack falls apart, all under the watchful eye of a super secret blogger who’s been writing about the camp’s activities Gossip Girl–style. Even worse? A thief is targeting everyone but Lucy, setting her up to look guilty. Soon Lucy again finds herself alone, left to fix the messes she’s made and face her own feelings. If she fails, the pack may be splintered for good.

In Camp Dork, the sequel to Beth Vrabel’s well-received middle grade debut, Pack of Dorks, readers are taken on another candid,  true-to-life and altogether touching adventure with fourth-grader Lucy. In book one, Park of Dorks , we first encounter Lucy as the popular girl in elementary school- that kid that just seems to be cool and have other cool and seemingly popular friends. Are Lucy and her friends the nicest people? Are Lucy’s popular friends that most caring friends? Well…not exactly, but Lucy doesn’t get a true taste of just how brazenly cruel her once-close friends are until everything turns on her, and she’s forced to face her own prejudices and mistreatment of other outcast kids in her class.

When we meet Lucy again in Camp Dork, she seems to have things under control- well, as under control as can be for her! Her small but tight group of newer friends (self-appointed pack of dorks) are planning to attend a week-long summer sleep-away camp. While Lucy is not entirely on board- what if she misses her parents, her new baby sister and embarrasses herself by being seen as immature?- the thought of her pack going together (and her grandma coming along to work at the camp) seems enough to convince her.

At the very last minute, however, her now-closest-of-the-pack friend Sam cancels when he is invited to a first-class gymnastics camp. And, unfortunately, things don’t get too much better for Lucy from there. While the camp itself is way less than impressive and Lucy can’t get a handle on things, some of her pack seem to be…flourishing. They are making friends, excelling at sports, and kind of (unintentionally) leaving Lucy in the dust. Could it be that Lucy is, once again, going to be alone? Out of her pack and having to fend for herself like a lone wolf? Lucy makes some serious errors in judgement when she tries to control her friends and force her pack to stay together: by badmouthing select campers,  spreading rumours on ‘who likes who’, and spilling very personal details about her friends. Like a freight-train, you can see Lucy barreling down a destructive path; you want to reach out and just shout STOP! Vrabel, however, manages to maintain an endearing and honest emotional- and heartfelt- quality to Lucy: she is young girl who makes mistakes, but her honesty and self-reflexiveness allow for her to slowly but surely admit to her wrongdoings, and then sincerely try to make amends.

Vrabel has done a solid job over the course of the two books creating an open, gutsy, imperfect, earnest and funny character in Lucy. Her narrative voice rings as believable, and the mistakes she makes, and the unfortunate meanness of other kids- and how she tries to make things better– will be keenly felt by readers. While there are some secondary storylines/plot turns as well as characters over the course of the two books that feel slightly commonplace, or supporting characters that feel too simply one-dimensional, on the whole, the Pack of Dork titles are poignant and affecting, and Vrabel’s writing is clear and resonant. You cannot help but hope for the best for Lucy and her pack. I hope we get more (mis)adventures of Lucy, Sam and the pack in future books!

Readers who enjoy the work of authors such as Joanne Rocklin, Carol Weston, Heather Vogel Frederick, or those looking to try out middle grade titles that touch more openly on growing pains, making mistakes and learning to be true to oneself, might especially appreciate the Pack of Dorks titles. I would definitely suggest beginning with Pack of Dorks before diving into Camp Dork: reading the introduction to Lucy (and her family), and about her fall from popularity, serious slip-ups, standing up to bullies, and growth are pretty key to getting into the rhythm of Camp Dork.

I received a copy of Camp Dork courtesy of Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.