by John David Anderson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Frost” and his friends at Branton Middle School have found themselves in the middle of a war. When the online bullying gets out of hand, the school bans phones and the kids start sticking post-its to each others’ lockers. The first one just happened to be stuck by Frost’s friend Deedee, but the last – and worst – was against their other friend Wolf, and former friend Bench was involved. Add in the arrival of Rose Holland, a bullying target and the first girl in their friend group, and you have a rich novel about bullying and male friendship. Wolf’s parents are going through a divorce, and Frost’s parents did before the book starts. Wolf tries to reach out to Frost but gets shut down. But when Rose bikes the Gauntlet – a steep hill with trees and rocks that no one makes it out of unscathed – to defend Wolf, it teaches all the boys about the nature of friendship and how to navigate their changing social world.
Anderson has a writing style that favors what I would call extreme foreshadowing. You know for pages and pages, several times, that something big has happened before he gets around to revealing what it was. When used sparingly, this is incredibly effective for pacing, but it’s overused in this story. Even so, I have to say, I found this one riveting pace-wise, even if not subject-wise. What I loved most was the author’s comments about cyberbullying at the end of his acknowledgements, and I’m sad that it got buried there (who besides me reads the acknowledgements?!). However, within the narrative, there is plenty of good prose about the struggles that tweens face, online and off, in their relationships. It really gave me pause to think about whether my pre-internet generation had it better or not, because the kids in the story do go back to passing notes and continue shoving each other in the halls, trapping each other in bathrooms and giving swirlies, and other antiquated forms of middle school torture.
by Susan Tan
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Cilla is 8 and has been an only child – until now. Her parents are expecting a baby and it’s pretty much the worst thing ever. Cilla loves having her parents and grandparents all to herself (even if they don’t all seem to like each other). She’s determined to write her book before the baby is born, so she’s on a tight deadline. Then she realizes that her Chinese grandparents and her Caucasian grandparents don’t get along because of cultural misunderstandings, and that the only one who’s going to understand how she really feels in this family is her baby sister, so she gets on board in the end.
Cilla has a strong personality that reminds me strongly of other 8-year-old female protagonists like Judy Moody, Ruby Lu, Junie B. Jones and especially Clementine. The bi-racial aspect and becoming a big sister are fresh takes on a tried-and-true tone. Some of the humor might be lost on kids but will keep their parents entertained as a nighttime read-aloud. The author herself is bi-racial and I believe wrote this story to make sure bi-racial kids are better represented.
by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Genie and his older brother, Ernie, are dropped off at their grandparents’ house for a few weeks in the summer so that their parents can try to repair their troubled marriage. Two city boys in the country with grandparents they barely know – what could go wrong? But as the summer starts, things go well, for a while. Grandpop is more interesting than they’d thought, and they take to tending the garden with Grandma relatively easily. They even make friends with a neighbor girl, Tess. But things start to slide when Genie accidentally poisons one of Grandpop’s birds. Things really come to a head when Grandpop, who’s blind, takes Ernie to learn to shoot guns on his fourteenth birthday, as per custom.
I won’t sugarcoat this – there are some tough issues happening in this book. There’s drinking, and Genie is sometimes in charge of his drunk grandfather, but Grandpop actually takes steps in working on that. He and Grandma are still feeling the effects of their older son’s death in Desert Storm. Their neighbor, Crab (Tess’s dad and a friend of the boys’ father) also has some issues going on personally and with his wife, who is a hypochondriac.
It’s hard to encapsulate how tight the writing feels when there’s so much going on. I just love when a good middle-grade novel has strong themes and ties up nicely (but not too nicely) in the end. As a writer myself, it’s what I strive for, and this book has it. Reynolds’ other, arguably more famous, works (The Boy in the Black Suit, When I Was the Greatest, and All-American Boys) are for teens; this book, along with Ghost, shows that he can write for the slightly younger set as well.