Audiobook review blitz – MG edition! (feat. The One and Only Ivan, Other Words for Home, & Ghost Squad)

As I mentioned before, I’ve been digging into a lot of middle-grade books this month, including quite a few on audiobook. You know the drill: mini-reviews are all coming up next. This time, we have a contemporary told from the point of view of a gorilla who lives in a mall (currently one of my favorite books of the year), a touching novel-in-verse about a girl who immigrates to the US from Syria, and a cute-and-spooky book that is loosely part Coco and part Ghostbusters.

Up first: the book that OH MY GOD I WAS NOT EMOTIONALLY PREPARED FOR.

The One and Only Ivan

Author: Katherine Applegate
Publication date: January 17, 2012
Genre: middle-grade, contemporary, realistic fiction
Narrator: spectacular, really was able to articulate different voices across the various characters without ever sounding like a parody, and really drove home the emotional impact of the book.
Plot summary (forget the 10 words or fewer thing, I need to get this across clearly): Ivan is a gorilla who has lived in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall for nearly 20 years. He loves to paint and draw, and he rarely thinks of his home, preferring instead to watch TV and converse with those around him, including an elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob. But when a new baby elephant named Ruby arrives, Ivan is forced to rethink everything about his life, his art, and his purpose.
My rating: 5/5 stars, no questions asked.

Best parts:
– The originality of writing a book from the point of view of the gorilla, rather than in third-person
How well that POV was executed, with simpler sentence structures and careful attention to which terms to use for things and how to describe new concepts
THE FEELINGS. If I were a crying person, I would have been absolutely SOBBING at this book.
– It has both humor and heart, and the two complement each other rather than detracting
– The humans in the story weren’t just stock characters; even the worst ones had some slight moments of…well, not redemption, but recognition that they hadn’t done right. And the pressure placed on low-income families was also a surprising element to see
In the age of Tiger King, this story of animals forced to perform in malls–not unlike the baby tigers of Doc Antle, Joe Exotic, and the others–feels particularly resonant
– A story with deep impact that is simple enough for children to read but powerful enough for even adults to love

Worst parts:
– Literally none. I can’t wait to check out the sequel, too!

Other Words for Home

Author: Jasmine Warga
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Genre: middle-grade, contemporary, realistic fiction
Narrator: did a solid job, especially representing the main character’s accent, though sometimes I felt a little uncomfortable at the accents she gave to some of the main character’s ESL classmates–they felt a tad like inauthentic stereotypes, like the way they pronounced certain words
Plot summary (in 10 words or fewer): Girl moves from Syria to America, struggles fitting in…musicals!
My rating: 4.5/5 stars

Best parts:
Sympathetic, heartfelt, #OwnVoices exploration of the Syrian-American experience
– Makes larger problems (racism, xenophobia) highly understandable for a middle-grade audience, without “dumbing them down”
A shy but talented protagonist who you obviously love and want to root for
– Manages to tie in the difficulties of sibling dynamics, family stressors, friend conflicts, and of course, first crushes, and all the way those can be affected by race/ethnicity and political conflict
– I absolutely loved that the main character always wanted to be a movie star, and when she is in America, she finds an outlet for performing by trying out for her school musical!

Worst parts:
– Don’t get me wrong, I love novels in verse. I guess I don’t quite get why this one was in verse though? I listened to it on audio and it really didn’t feel any different from normal text, and there was no reason I could discern to make it that way? That doesn’t make it any less good, just something that was odd to me in retrospect.
– The ending was good, and it made sense, but I wish it could have gone on just a smidge longer. It felt too abrupt, and there were some things I wanted to see wrapped up first.

Ghost Squad

Author: Claribel A. Ortega
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Genre: middle-grade, paranormal, fantasy
Narrator: great–nothing out of the ordinary, but she performed all the roles in the book well.
Plot summary (in 10 words or fewer): Best friends, witchy grandma, fat cat, firefly spirits, ghosts, cursebreaking.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars

Best parts:
– Super cute story and characters
– Creative premise, especially with ancestors appearing as “firefly ghosts”
– Wholesome “chosen family” message by the end
– The most badass grandma ever
Chunk, a spectacular fat cat (who also has one of the best, and trippiest, scenes in the entire book, which I won’t explain here because spoilers)
Spunky girls leading the charge to save the day (big-time Stranger Things vibes, with the kids on their bikes off to save the day)
– The #OwnVoices Latinx representation. Also the author is a total sweetheart, if you’ve ever watched any videos of her.
– The ghost chancla (I laughed so hard at that–and it’s right at the beginning of the book, so not a spoiler)

Worst parts:
– The pacing was irregular, with some elements that felt rushed and/or incomplete by the end
– A lot of the decisions and plot points just seemed…confusing? Not like I couldn’t follow what was happening, but there didn’t seem to be any logic behind decisions and yet everyone just kind of went with them.
I need answers about the cats. Lots and lots of answers.
– In general, it was a little cheesy for my tastes. That’s just a personal preference thing, but it did dampen my enjoyment for sure

Okeydoke, that’s a wrap for today!

Have you read (or listened to) any of these? Adding any of them to your TBR? Seriously, let me reiterate, The One and Only Ivan is spectacular and beautiful and will destroy you and dangit, you better read it.

All for now,

Kathryn (“K-Specks”)

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