Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

May 24, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

As I’m limping over the finish line that is May, I’m dreaming of summer. Of days at the pool, nights in the backyard, and lots of opportunities for lazing around with our noses in a book. Should you (or your children) be itching for a distraction from making lunches or dressing for another concert, let me help you plot a summer reading list, beginning with my favorite middle-grade reads of late. (Link to my last round up is here; or go back and check out this and this.) First up is a book which should go straight to the top of your list: it’s fresh, funny, and eerily timely.

When Humans Become the Aliens

It’s rare that a Must Read For Our Times doubles as wildly entertaining. I had a blast reading Geoff Rodkey’s We’re Not From Here (Ages 9-13)—the only other thing approaching such inventive political irony for kids might be this—but even more fun was giving it to my eleven year old and watching him race to the finish line in one Sunday. I’m tempted to go out on a limb and add that you don’t even have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy it (I’m not).

Imagine what humans would do if Earth suddenly became uninhabitable, if we had to seek out life on a different planet? What if our only option was a planet whose intelligent life—think towering, mosquito-like creatures with a hive mindset—were more distrusting than hospitable towards our humanness? What if our “alien-ness” blinded these creatures from seeing us as little more than a threat to the way things are?

This is precisely the dilemma faced by Lan, our young non-binary human narrator, whose family is launched to Planet Choom and tasked with convincing the Zhuri to accept what remains of the human population as refugees. Smile! (Even if someone tries to kill you.) Be polite! (Even if you’re insulted.) Ask questions! (With the help of awkward translating headphones.) Eat whatever you’re served! (Even if it’s still moving.) Sing for them! (Even if they spit on your culture.) Do whatever it takes to win them over, because the fate of humankind is in your hands.

Lan is fighting an uphill battle: never mind that they’ve never laid eyes on a human before, the Zhuri and their powerful propaganda machine have stereotyped humans as violent creatures, whose nature threatens the professed peacefulness of Planet Choom. Even more, having spent generations learning to repress emotions (the occasional feeling still leaks out in the form of bodily odors), the Zhuri have no interest in opening themselves up to the possibility of connection.

It will take unexpected allies, cleverness, and an unfailing sense of humor if Lan is going to convince the inhabitants of Planet Choom that they have more in common with the aliens than they think.

When Puberty Rears its Head

You know what else feels alien at times? Puberty! I am so happy this book is in the world. It’s one I’ll need to make sure crosses my own daughter’s path in a few years. Many have hailed it a modern successor to Judy Blume’s classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but The Moon Within (Ages 10-14), by Aida Salazar, is so much more than a girl staring down her first period.

Told in first-person verse, which pulses to the beat of the conga drum, this is a story about the dance puberty draws us into (ready or not) with our bodies, our mother, our friends, our enemies, our first love, our ancestors, and our own emerging womanhood. At every turn, it poses courageous, affirming questions about identity, especially as pertaining to gender and culture.

Eleven-year-old Celi Rivera lives in Oakland, California, where she must juggle her Mexican-Caribbean heritage, while also forging her own means of expression. Caught among the demands of her mother, who wants to honor her daughter’s entrance into puberty with a traditional Mexican “moon circle” ceremony; her best friend, who is exploring her own genderfluidity; her boy crush, who challenges her loyalties; and her body, which everyday seems more foreign, Celi’s voice bursts forth from the page in turns clumsily honest and gracefully elegant.

When “Lies Are Beautiful”

My daughter continues to be enamored with high fantasy (starring feisty, badass female protagonists), so following on the heels of The Flight of Swans, she chose Heartseeker (Ages 9-12) as our next read aloud, by Melinda Beatty. (Frankly, I’m not sure how anyone turns down a cover like this!) Gorgeous language, vivid world making, perfectly-paced suspense, and duplicitous villains. And, of course, a tough, clever, subversive young heroine.

Only Fallows may be an orchardist’s daughter, but her unusual (until now secreted) gift is in high demand by the King. Only can see lies. These lies manifest as hazy or fiery halos, beautifully encircling the teller’s head, their vivid colors indicative of whether the underlying intent is benign or malicious. A powerful tool for a ruler who fears his royal court may be plotting against him.

But what’s the cost to Only, wrested from her home against her will and cast at the center of political intrigue? She herself is incapable of telling a lie without suffering terrible physical pain, which means that if asked directly, she must report on whether someone is lying. As she begins to make astute observations of her own, how can she manipulate her own power to adjust the course of history and save both her family and her beloved kingdom?

The best part about reading this book now? The sequel drops next month!

When Truth is as Amazing as Fiction

My son was riveted last summer by the seemingly impossible rescue of the twelve Wild Boars soccer players and their coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand. I had intended to read him the newly-published Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue (Ages 12-16), meticulously researched and written by Marc Aronson. Only he devoured it before I had the chance. Several times he paused to find me and report on some exceptional detail. What lies in these pages is nothing short of mind-blowing.

The book—quite technical at times—is largely focused on the coordination and execution of the rescue. But what drew Aronson to the story wasn’t just the engineering of the rescue; it was the global collaboration. Joining the Thai Navy SEALs were American pararescue teams, Australian doctors, British cave divers, Chinese rope-and-pulley specialists, Japanese irrigation experts, an assortment of other international cave divers, and so on. Even within Thailand, the stateless and privileged found themselves joined in a rare expression of unity.

All these groups had to battle different languages and cultures and faiths and egos in order to come together and pull off the impossible. At a time of great divisions across our globe, Aronson points to the Thai cave rescue as a bright spot. “The rescue was a mirror of the best of humanity at a time where leaders trading on fear, on hatred, on the worst of humanity, were whipping up crowds and winning elections…A mile and a half deep in a flooded cavern, we showed we have the skills, the tools—mental and physical—to launch out into our solar system and ultimately beyond. Or we can tighten our borders, reject one another, instill hostility in young people, and remain trapped in darkness.”

This is a book which recounts an extraordinary rescue, while also asking us to take a look at how we participate in our world.

When a Story Cuts Straight to the Heart

Kate Allen’s magnificent middle-grade debut, The Line Tender (Ages 10-14), is a story about tremendous loss and grief. It’s also a story whose climactic scene involves a nineteen-page necropsy on a shark. (Yes.) I can’t remember the last time I read a middle-grade novel heavy on biology. I’m not sure I’ve ever read one where biology was used as a construct for processing grief. Either way, this one is riveting.

Twelve-year-old Lucy lost her mom five years ago from a brain aneurysm. But she has never given much thought to her mother’s professional life as a marine biologist—specializing in sharks—until a great white washes up in her hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As Lucy begins to delve into her mother’s unfinished work on the return of the great whites to New England, she is stricken with another staggering personal loss. (That’s all the spoiler I’ll give.) Blending her innate talent for drawing with this newly acquired interest in science becomes more than just a way to pass her summer break. It becomes a life force in the face of terrible grief.

Allen’s writing is excellent. Stunningly good. As gently humorous as it is piercingly poignant. I think back to myself as a young reader. Although my own devastating loss wouldn’t come until late in my teenage years with the death of my father, I think this book would have been an invaluable road map of resiliency, of living with, of leaning into, grief. It’s not simply about how to live in the wake of grief; it’s about how to live well. And about how to harness your loved ones to help you do that.

When It’s On You to Make Things Right Again

Yes, it’s another 2019 middle-grade novel about children having to pick up the pieces when their adults fail to adult in the wake of unimaginable loss. But don’t let the weighty subject matter scare you off. Lindsey Stoddard’s Right as Rain (Ages 10-12) offers another gentle, convincing, hopeful illustration of how we can find healing and joy in the everyday—track meets, bake sales, gardening, even school assignments. Highly readable, with a cast of plucky young characters and a contagious sense of place, the story is about how to keep moving in the wake of loss—and what it means to model this for others. Sometimes, just putting one foot in front of the other is enough; sometimes, it will even get you out of one place and into a better one.

As the first anniversary of her older brother’s death from a car wreck approaches, Rain’s parents decide to uproot her from her bucolic Vermont home to try for a fresh start in the loud, bustling, Spanish-dominated Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. Rain’s mom escapes into her work as a doctor, her dad won’t get out of bed, and both parents seem incapable of exchanging a pleasant word with one another. Rain is left largely on her own to navigate a new city and school, confront the looming possibility of her parents’ divorce, and make friends with kids who look and talk differently from her. The scariest part: she is secretly haunted by the (misplaced) guilt she feels for her role in her brother’s death.

Metaphors of rebirth and renewal abound in this story and are, at times, delivered a little too heavy handedly. But young readers won’t care. We root for Rain, applaud her spunkiness and resiliency, and are happily along for the ride as she discovers the ins and outs of this diverse and vibrant new community. A community which proves itself worthy of running towards, not from. As Rain is fond of saying, “And that’s a fact.”


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Books published by Crown Books, Arthur A. Levine, Penguin, Atheneum, Dutton, and Harper Collins (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!

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