Middle-Grade Round Up (Or What I’ve Been Doing on Instagram)
April 4, 2019 § 2 Comments
I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.
Because Everyone Needs Help Surviving Middle School
In Jerry Craft’s New Kid (Ages 10-14)—the latest addition in a trend of “How to Survive Middle School” graphic novels (other favorites being this and this)—seventh grader Jordan Banks navigates the complexities of race, class, privilege, and social dynamics at the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School outside Manhattan, where his parents are determined that being the “new kid” will afford him countless opportunities his neighborhood school won’t. Whereas most of his classmates are driven to the sprawling campus by their parents (or drivers!), Jordan buses in from his Washington Heights apartment. His sneakers are used, his video games are old, and he is one of the only students of color in his entire grade. These are not small things in middle school.
What’s middle school like for Jordan? “Too much of kids like me trying to fit in. Too much of kids who should fit in trying hard not to. Too much of good kids being blamed for being bad! Too much of bad kids getting rewarded for their mean behavior! And wayyyy too much of me feeling like I’m never in control of anything!” Sound about right?
As readers, we instantly like Jordan—and not just because he’s personable. He’s also incredibly perceptive, and he turns many of his astute observations into hilarious comic panels, which he jots down in his sketchbook. These sketches not only help him make sense of the behavior around him, they also inform the kind of person he wants to be.
As one of the few kids of color, Jordan anticipates many of the racist comments and assumptions directed his way, even the “well-meaning” ones. What he doesn’t anticipate are the ways in which every student has more going on than skin color, family money, or scholarship status suggests. Only if we take time to dig below people’s “book covers” can we celebrate the beautiful complexity we find underneath.
Because Sometimes the Best Stories Make Us Cry
It might be true that Dan Gemeinhart’s The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise (ages 10-14) should come with a warning to stock up on tissues (like maybe two boxes), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give this deeply insightful book to your loved ones.
It might be true that Coyote Sunrise is about a girl who lost her mother and sisters in a car accident five years ago, about a girl who has lived every day since on the go with her bereft hippie father, aimlessly traversing the country in a hollowed-out bus. But that doesn’t mean one tiny happening—being gifted a kitten by a stranger outside a gas station—can’t set into motion a chain of events to empower this girl to stand up to her father and help them both take back some of what they’ve lost.
It might be true that, as Coyote befriends an eccentric cast of fellow travelers, their own stories seem only to confirm her experience that “there is so much sadness in the world.” But that doesn’t mean Coyote believes any less in the transformative power of kindness. Or the beauty of a starlit sky, the perfect BLT sandwich, or the seduction of a Katherine Applegate book. Even, for that matter, in hope. “Hope is a lot like parking lot cigarette butts—always there if you look hard enough,” she delivers with her characteristically wry wisdom.
At the end of the day, Coyote Sunrise isn’t about mourning. It’s about healing. Specifically, it’s about the healing that happens when you let yourself be vulnerable. When you let yourself feel all the feels. When you stop running from pain and instead turn towards it. And when you let others share in your pain. As Coyote tell us: “Sometimes trusting someone is about the scariest thing you can do. But you know what? It’s a lot less scary than being all alone.”
Because Girls Might Just Amaze You
I gave this epistolary novel to my son after reading it myself, because he loves non-traditional formats (devoured Kate Messner’s Breakout last summer), and this one is told entirely through emails and letters. Sure enough, JP tore through To Night Owl, From Dogfish (Ages 9-13), by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer, in a single Sunday. But not without pausing in the middle to come find me.
“Um, Mommy, I think this book might be more targeted towards girls,” he hesitatingly told me. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
He looked around. Then leaned closer to me. “You know, because one of them gets her period. And she talks about it. A lot.”
“Well, good for you. Reading this book will make you a better friend to girls going through puberty. Possibly even make you a great boyfriend one day.” JP rolled his eyes, smiled, then raced back to his room to keep reading.
Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons to read this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. It features non-traditional families: two twelve year old girls, different from one another in every way except that they’re both being raised by single gay dads on opposite coasts. The story is set mostly at sleepaway camp, where the girls are sent to “force bond” after their dads fall in love and contemplate getting married. It’s full of more Parent Trap-esque mishaps and reveals than is even fair to hope for. Finally, it raises beautiful questions about love, friendship, and what constitutes family.
Because Sometimes We Have to Rewrite Our Own Stories
If there’s a book my tween self desperately needed, this is it. Anne Ursu’s The Lost Girl (Ages 9-12) is a story of sisterhood. About the power unleashed when sisters and girls stand together. But it is also a powerful testament to the interior life of girls, an interior life at turns frightening, obsessive, yearning for connection, and piercingly perceptive.
The Lost Girl stars a set of identical twins, Iris and Lark, “alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.” A week before the start of fifth grade, the girls receive the devastating news that they will be in separate classrooms, apart for the first time ever. Headstrong, rational Iris doesn’t know how scattered, dreamy, not-quite-of-this-world Lark will face the cruelties of school without Iris to stand up for her. And yet, defining yourself in the context of another comes at a price; who is Iris without Lark?
And then there are the building undercurrents of magic: things that keep going missing; peculiar crows; a cat with ESP; and the strange orange man who runs a dusty antique shop called Treasure Hunters, with an enigmatic sign outside asking, “Alice, Where Are You?” The questions and suspense mount to a harrowing, memorable, and gratifying conclusion.
What does it mean to be a girl in a world that insists on writing our narratives for us? How do we take back our own stories, rewrite the endings? What do we do when our interior world is at odds with the one outside? How do we find the courage to bridge the two, to take the life we want?
Because Science and Humor Are Deliciously Combustible
“Mr. Ham’s science lab is my favorite room in the school because it’s full of things kids aren’t usually trusted to be around.”—The Third Mushroom
The place where science and humor converge has always been a sweet spot for my son’s reading interests. (Series like Enginerds and Max Einstein get devoured in hours.) But I was especially keen to see him dive into Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish and its sequel, The Third Mushroom (Ages 9-12), because Holm writes such well-developed, diverse tween characters. She also poses some profound ethical and moral questions at the heart of science (if we could achieve immortality, does that mean we should?) and does it all with frequent laugh-out-loud moments and sharp, quick-paced writing.
Both The Fourteenth Goldfish and The Third Mushroom star sixth grader Ellie, her single mom, her BFF and fellow science enthusiast Raj, a lot of dead goldfish, and a teenage boy who acts uncannily like—wait, is it?—Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist world-renowned for his work on immortality. Add middle school into the mix, and what could possibly be more combustible?
Because Comics for the Win
After my son buried himself in comics during the first week of winter break (Santa brought new volumes of Garfield, Foxtrot, and Peanuts), I suggested: how about trying a novel ABOUT comics? Inkling (Ages 9-12), by Kenneth Oppel, with wonderful spot illustrations by Sydney Smith, is indeed about comics. Well, more precisely, it’s about an ink blob which comes to life and feeds on comics, in order to stretch and morph and cover surfaces with brilliant art. The ink blob is born from the draft table of Ethan’s father, a famous comics creator before Ethan’s mom died and wrapped the house in a veil of grief. To make matters worse, Ethan, who fears he doesn’t possess any of the innate talent his dad does, has been put in charge of drawing for his graphics novel club at school.
“It was AWESOME!” This out of the mouth of my son, who inhaled this novel. Perhaps not surprising, given his own passion for devouring comics. But there are also lovely storylines of family (including Ethan’s relationship with his sister who has Down syndrome) and of healing from loss and grief. And there are provocative questions raised about what constitutes cheating, about whether cheating is ever OK if it’s done to help another. Like the pictures Inkling creates, this novel exists in shades of grey.
Because We All Need to Fight to be Heard
When I started Sarah McGuire’s The Flight of Swans (Ages 10-14) with my daughter—its premise lies in the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans”—I expected it to be like some of the lighter re-imagined fairytales we have enjoyed (like this one). I wasn’t prepared for what a complex and richly-spun story it is—certainly one of the more sophisticated things I’ve read to my eight year old and definitely her first foray into real fantasy. From her response, a lot more is in our future.
What kept my Emily so engaged is the story’s heroine: Princess Andaryn, banished from her kingdom for her defiance and cursed by her sorceress stepmother to spend six years alone in the forest, denied the gift of speech. Her only company is a chicken with an identity crisis and, for one night a month, her six older brothers, who transform from black swans into humans at full moon. Andaryn mourns her loss of speech but, even more, she carries the burden of knowing she is the reason her brothers lost their human form. At the end of six years, Andaryn will regain her speech, but her brothers will remain swans forever…unless she finds a way to end the Queen’s curse.
This is a story about agency. About fighting to be heard even in the absence of words (Andaryn is also forbidden to write, so her main communication is through pictorial drawings in the dirt). It’s a story about independence, about forging a life rooted in conviction and dignity. It’s a story about the lengths we go to for our loved ones. It’s a story about finding hope in the most unlikely of places—here, in patches of stinging, burning nettles to be woven into armor.
It’s a story which underscores the power of words while also offering the possibilities in silence.
Because What’s Funnier Than a “Handful of Trouble”?
“Styx Malone was a handful of trouble. That’s what Mom said the first time she laid eyes on him.” Caleb and his older brother, Bobby Gene, are bracing themselves for another boring summer, kicking around their sleepy neighborhood in Sutton, Indiana…until Styx Malone waltzes into their lives, sweet as sugar and smooth as butter. With his signature swagger, backwards baseball cap, dark shades, and candy cigarette hanging from his mouth, Styx represents everything the boys have been missing: adventure, mystery, and freedom. Hanging with Styx is like entering a sacred place, “where a smile is like money and it never, ever rains.” But how far will they follow this older kid, who seems to answer to no one? And at what cost?
While I was reading Kekla Magoon’s The Season of Styx Malone (Ages 9-12)—in part because the narration is so astutely delivered through young Caleb’s perspective—I could not help seeing it through my son’s eyes, anticipating the parts he would delight at, laugh at, be surprised by. It is rare in middle-grade fiction to find stories mainly concerned with the experience of joy. Even more rare to find them starring black boy characters. The pure, innocent, occasionally nerve-wracking joy which Caleb experiences in Styx’s company, whether jumping in the frigid waters of a pond or on the back of a moped crowned the Grasshopper, is so much fun to read about that we, too, find ourselves falling in love with Styx. Even as we question whether Styx can possibly keep all his promises.
Amidst this joy, an undercurrent of sadness sneaks into the story, rearing its head in occasional hints about Styx’s personal life (maybe not having parents isn’t as great as Styx talks it up to be). Our young protagonists are so caught up in Styx broadening their own small-town horizons, they don’t realize they might be the ones called on to do the saving.
Because, Like I Said, Middle School is a B*$%
The ALA committees honored Meg Medina with her first Newbery Medal earlier this year. And for good reason. Merci Suarez Changes Gear (Ages 9-13) is an astute, comforting, and funny exploration of the shifting landscapes of home and school, as seen through a middle schooler’s eyes.
Not until sixth grade has Merci ever felt so at odds with the world around her. As a scholarship student at an elite private school, she has never fit in with her classmates and their fancy houses and vacations, but now she’s got the bossy, obnoxious social ringleader on her case. At home, Merci has always found refuge in her large, warm, chaotic Latino family (they live across three houses affectionately called Las Casitas), but she is newly aware of hushed voices, secrets, and the fact that her beloved grandfather is calling people by the wrong names and lashing out at Merci.
In case you can’t tell, I have a fondness for novels that talk about the ups and downs of the middle school years, probably because I found my own so stressful. While the specifics of Merci’s life were not necessarily mine as a middle schooler, her reactions, worries, frustrations, and desperation to make sense of the world would have felt entirely relatable. If Merci’s journey takes up space in my heart as an adult, I can only imagine how much I would have loved her as a child.
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Books published by HarperCollins, Henry Holt, Dial Books, Walden Pond Press, Random House, Random House, Carolrhoda Books, Wendy Lamb Books, and Candlewick (respectively) . All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!