I initially picked up Carlie Sorosiak’s latest offering, I, Cosmo, because I was drawn to the cover art: a bright-eyed golden retriever looking out from a page scattered with golden stars. What I found behind that cover was a genuinely emotional, brightly hopeful story about family, canine brilliance, and the power of love to carry us through.
As the title suggests, the narrator of this journey is called Cosmo, a thirteen year old golden retriever sharing the story of his family’s most difficult year. Twelve year old Max, his little sister, Emmaline, and Mom and Dad, are learning to navigate an increasingly tense domestic environment. Max’s parents can’t seem to stop fighting. The dancing and laughter and togetherness that Cosmo remembers from his puppy years are painfully absent, replaced now by arguments, distance, and an unspoken fear.
Like the terrifying, red-eyed sheepdog from down the street, Cosmo’s unnamed fear lurks in the corners, snapping at his heels whenever he tries to outrun it. Max and Cosmo both know what this fear does to families. They’ve seen that when parents go their own separate ways, the kids, and the dogs, go one way or the other—but not together.
Cosmo and Max are best friends, brothers, and determine together that their best shot at saving their family comes in the form of a doggy dancing competition. If only their parents could see them dancing together, then they’d see that Max and Cosmo belong together, that the family belongs together. So begins their training routine, mentored by Max’s war-veteran uncle, who spent his career training military dogs.
Cosmo’s interpretations of human-dogkind interactions infuse the story with an endearing levity. I laughed aloud on more than one occasion. Moments of tenderness abound, between a dog and his boy, a boy and his little sister, two kids and their uncle. I also cried on more than one occasion. The interactions never come across as forced or contrived, the dialogue moves freely and feels real, providing organic characterization for dimensional, complex characters that you can’t help but root for.
The book reads quickly, thanks to both Sorosiak’s straightforward, uncomplicated prose, and to the captivating nature of Cosmo’s story—you can’t help but want to get to know him better. A great title for 8-12 year old readers, this book certainly carries a poignant experience to adult readers as well. The resolution is satisfying without being hokey. This book is one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and is likely to find itself among my most beloved stories of all time (to be fair, this is quite a long list). Cosmo perfectly embodies the spirit of man’s best friend, and above all, he shows us what it is to love doggedly, relentlessly, without hesitation.
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 mins.
Rating: PG (The film was given this rating shortly after the creation of the PG-13 rating, so PG films of this era can arguably be rated more leniently than their successors.)
Young Adult Fantasy
The story of this dark fairy tale follows Jack (Tom Cruise), a forest-born pseudo-wild man, and Princess Lili (Mia Sara), the young and beautiful love of his life. When Jack takes Lili to see the Unicorns, the most magical, most sacred animals in the world, dire consequences follow that threaten to plunge the world into eternal darkness.
Legend pitches its tent in the same camp as films such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal, and Ron Howard’s Willow. Setting out to make its mark in a pre-CGI world, Legend uses elaborate costumes and practical special effects to underscore the fantastical realm in which the story takes place. Perhaps the most ambitious of these efforts is the character design of Darkness himself. Full body prosthetics complete with hooved feet and massive black horns make Tim Curry unrecognizable as the film’s villain.
Not for everyone, certainly. The film suffered from multiple rewrites and seemingly endless production issues. The story itself is simple, uncomplicated, and ultimately, predictable. But the effects, from costumes, to lighting, to set design (the forest always seems to have glitter floating through the air) are compelling enough to warrant at least a single watch through.
Ridley Scott’s Legend is a fun, if cheesy, ride that certainly benefits from the charming power of nostalgia. This was my first time watching the film, but it’s distinctly 1980s flavor made me feel as if I had adventured with Jack and Lili many times before.
Two Roads follows the story of Cal Black, a twelve year old “knight of the road” who rides the rail lines with his war veteran Pop, William Black, in search of honest work. Cal and his father have a strong, mutually cherished relationship, bolstered by the shared grief of losing both Cal’s mother to sickness, and their home farm to the bank. Cal’s self identity centers around the freedom of hoboing, the ever-steady presence of his father, and his love for learning. Underlying all of this is the taken-for-granted knowledge that he is a white boy from a white family. Tan and dark haired like his father, sure, but white all the same. But when Pop is called to Washington D.C., Cal learns he is to be sent to a boarding school. An Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. Because Pop is Creek Indian. And so is Cal. With a single sentence, Cal’s identity, the truth of his life, the context of all he knows and believes splinter into nothing, and he becomes a stranger even to himself. Cal’s initial shock ripples into revulsion and denial. As he so woefully sums up, “there’s nothing positive about being Indian” (69).
But when Cal gets to Challagi Boarding School, he quickly finds a world of its own. Here, amongst his peers, it is better to be Indian, to be dark skinned, than it is to be white, or even a light skinned child of a full-blooded Indian. In a school designed to “kill the Indian and save the man,” Cal learns what it means to be Creek, how to embrace a culture and a heritage that was so recently foreign to him, and how to hold fast to his identity despite all that seeks to tear it away from him—or as the white leadership says, to civilize him.
Set amongst the backdrop of the Great Depression, Cal’s story gives voice to so many silenced generations of Native American people, and brings this voice to a middle grade audience. This book looks pointedly at tough subject matter in American history—racism, cultural genocide, death and grief, the forgotten veterans of the Great War, and economic catastrophe–while avoiding the pitfall of sensationalism. Bruchac deftly grounds these difficult, often overwhelming concepts with the captivating story of a boy and his father, each seeking their own place in the world. The writing level and nature of the subject matter make this book most appropriate for older middle grade readers, and could even fit comfortably into lower-end young adult. But the characters are so well-developed, and the historical story so eloquent, that adult readers would certainly stand to gain from a read-through themselves. The journey is touching, humorous, and at times, painful, but the resolution is realistically bright, even in a time of such uncertainty.
Middle Grade Science Fiction Fantasy, 384 pages
Reviewed By Chelsea Lara, Kids’ Place Assistant
Angie Sage’s Maximillian Fly stands as a unique and memorable experience in the expansive dystopian genre of all reading levels. Fly takes place in a future world, a world that survived and was shaped by an apocalyptic scale pandemic. Max is a citizen of Hope, a gloomy city trapped within a dome meant to keep out the Contagion that still lurks in the outside world. Max is also a Roach, a member of the harried lower class, a cross between human and insect. He is only trying to get through life one day at a time, left to live alone in the home he once shared with his absentee father and manipulative mother. But when two fugitive children seek shelter in his backyard, Maximillian feels begrudgingly compelled to help them escape certain capture. What follows is a thrilling, dangerous, and profoundly touching quest for survival, truth, and freedom.
One of the most interesting components of this story is Sage’s peculiar use of first-person narration. The narration switches perspectives for an ensemble of characters, but it is Maximillian’s perspective in particular that gives the story such a distinctive feel. Max knows he has an audience, whom he calls his “watcher,” and it is Maximillian’s desire to prove himself to the watcher that motivates his plot-driving actions. To show himself a decent creature, Max gives the fugitive children, Kaitlin and Jonno, sanctuary in his home. This creates a fascinating cause-and-effect type relationship between the reader and the action of the story in real time. It is quite an interesting experience. And though he insists he acts only for the watcher’s benefit, time and time again, we see that Maximillian is truly a decent fellow, completely human in every way that matters most.
This story provides a fantastical, science fiction filled backdrop for an unflinching examination into very real issues, such as prejudice, authoritarianism, emotional manipulation, and what it is to be truly human. Sage has developed a vernacular for the setting that lends well to characterization, without being too confusing or outlandish. The pacing is also well handled, as Sage feeds exposition to us throughout, instead of frontloading it all at once. Sometimes, this exposition does come in the form of an information dump disguised as a conversation or a character’s thoughtful musing, but the characters are interesting enough that we want to hear what they have to say. So we can forgive them the deliberate soliloquizing.
The book claims an audience level of 8-12 year old readers, but I would certainly argue that older readers could find plenty to love here. It is important to note that this book contains some truly sinister characters, including Max’s own emotionally abusive mother. Death is also openly discussed, as execution is used as an appropriate punishment for treason in Hope.
Though it is at times a bumpy, dangerous ride for many of our characters, the resolution of Max’s story is strong and uplifting. There’s also character developments and plot revelations that add emotional weight to the stakes, and for me, that just cranked it up to eleven. Maximillian is a character that will stay with me, and I am glad for his company. I enjoyed this book very much, and though it feels as if I’m always saying this, adults, dig in. I bet you’ll be glad you did.
Middle Grade Realistic Fiction
Inspired by the real-life Federation of Black Cowboys headquartered in the Brooklyn-Queens area, Neri introduces us to the black urban cowboys of Philadelphia. Clad in leather cowboy boots and hats like John Wayne used to wear on the big screen, Harper and his cohorts serve as a sort of haven for the community. The animals stabled in Harper’s care are largely retired racehorses, taken in after they are deemed no longer fit for high stakes races. Kids come to the block to learn how to ride and care for the horses, maintain the stables, and cheer on as the retired horses compete in friendly races, which Harper points out, keeps them off the streets, away from gangs, and out of trouble. But this sanctuary for man and beast alike faces an ever-growing threat: the abandoned land on which the stables are built still technically belongs to the city, and the city wants it back. Just when Cole finds he is settling into his new surroundings, he faces losing this new and wondrous way of life.
Ghetto Cowboy is narrated in first-person by Cole, and thus, Neri’s writing exclusively uses the vernacular slang in which Cole speaks. This technique allows for a full-bodied characterization of Cole: both his dialogue and the way he interprets and speaks of his surroundings show the reader who he is and who he wants to be. The slang is written phonetically, so it’s not too difficult to follow on the page, and its consistent use keeps the reader from having to trip over any shifts in dialect. The effect is a cohesive narrative that reads casually, as if it’s being spoken directly to the reader.
The opening can be a bit jarring; my heart broke for Cole as he felt abandoned and deserted by his mother. I was certain I’d never be able to forgive her. But as I read through the story and gained distance from her alongside Cole, I was able to appreciate the flawed complexity that these characters have. Just like very real people, the figures in Ghetto Cowboy make mistakes—sometimes very big mistakes with very big repercussions—they behave selfishly, they miss the mark despite the best of intentions. But these characters also show what it is to support those around you, how important a sense of community is to our wellbeing as people, and how the struggle of identity and belonging comes to all of us, regardless of class, race, or geography.
A Night Divided (eBook) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Middle Grade Historical Fiction
Jennifer A. Nielsen’s A Night Divided follows the story of young Gerta and her family in Cold War Berlin. In the years following World War II, Germany was divided and parceled out between the Allied victors of the war. This led to the forming of an ideological and political West Germany—Federal Republic of Germany, occupied early on by the U.S., France, and Britain— and East Germany—occupied and controlled by the Soviet Union. Berlin, Germany’s capital and Gerta’s hometown, was situated solidly behind Soviet lines, but was no less divided, becoming a microcosm of the East vs. West tensions that characterized the world for decades.
Blacklisted by the Soviet government as an enemy of the state, Gerta’s father goes to West Berlin in search of work, bringing Gerta’s brother, Dominic, with him. He planned to only be gone for a few days, eager to make a better life for his family. But while he was away, a wall of razor wire and armed border police sprung up in the night. Over the months and years to come, the razor wire would be replaced by concrete, the police would ceaselessly patrol with spotlights and trained dogs, and every East German would live and die under the suspicious eye of their friends and neighbors. It was always safest for East Germans to keep their voices low and their eyes down. But Gerta couldn’t keep her eyes from wandering West, to that colorful freedom so different from the Soviet gray that filled her days, and the father who had filled her head with the desire for that colorful world.
Night is nearly four-hundred pages long, which may seem on the long side for a middle grade title, but it doesn’t feel like a long read. The book is divided into forty-seven chapters, keeping the chapters short and moving along fairly quickly. Short chapters are less intimidating to tackle, especially when readers (such as myself) use chapter divisions as “checkpoints” (putting my book down mid-chapter just feels wrong). Nielsen begins every chapter with a short epigraph, quotes from significant historical figures, poets, and philosophers, setting up the tone for that chapter.
Gerta’s daily life is so foreign to anything that is familiar to Americans: the suspicion, the fear, the quiet acquiescence required for survival. In Gerta’s world, even thinking for oneself is dangerous. The State determines the futures— or lack thereof— of all citizens. Gerta’s journey is harrowing, even in the seemingly benign, quiet moments. Though this title is a work of historical fiction, it reads like a thriller, and my heart was pounding during the well-earned climax of the story. Gerta’s resolve is admirable, and the boldness with which she takes such incredible risks, for herself and her family, make for an engrossing, compelling read. The Cold War shaped so much of the world that we know, but somehow it often seems to take a backseat to other more “interesting” wars in our mainstream discussion of history. This look behind the wall is as illuminating as it is disturbing, and ultimately, as Gerta’s story comes to a close, we can’t help but ask ourselves what we would have done, had we been on the other side of that wall.