Our hero once had a tight group of friends, but something happens and the other three somehow become “cool.” Our hero (who is unnamed but who I will call Garbanzo) isn’t sure what happened or how to also be “cool.” Garbanzo becomes so self-conscious and distracted that they do embarrassing things. Finally the other beans step in to help Garbanzo, and Garbanzo realizes that helping others is what really makes you cool – not sunglasses or swagger – and gets their friends back.
Sweet message, and way better than The Bad Seed, but still a bit didactic and not quite as good as The Good Egg. I was wondering who the target audience for this picture book would be. It talks about being “cool” which I don’t think the typical picture book audience would be quite tuned into. But you could probably use it with kids as young as third grade, and as old as fifth grade, depending on the class dynamics. It might even make a good all-school read to kick off the year, though again, I’m not sure the younger kids would fully grasp it, and the older kids might be too deep into the throes of coolness to listen.
12-year-old Lucy Callahan has been homeschooled since she got struck by lightning at age 8 and became a super math genius. She’s academically ready for college, but her grandmother, who is her guardian, is insisting that she spend a year in the seventh grade to help her social skills. Lucy resists, of course, but eventually makes friends: an assertive, gossipy girl named Windy and a quieter, insightful boy named Levi. Windy actively recruits Lucy from day 1, despite being labeled an outcast because of her OCD, and Levi is put into their community service project group, for which they decide to help a local animal shelter. Lucy’s grandmother also gets her an interview at rigorous high school boarding school a couple of hours away, reasoning that high school feels like a compromise between seventh grade and college. Lucy’s friend situation, and her love of a dog at the shelter, finally come to a head.
I was a little surprised at how easily Lucy made a friend, but Windy had her own background issues going on with her fragile friendship with the popular girl, which plays into her revealing Lucy’s math-genius secret. One thing I look for in middle grade novels is how realistic is the protagonist’s decision to keep information from their parents/teacher/friends and solve their problem independently. It can be hard to justify well, and Lucy’s justification makes perfect sense. I love that she feels more comfortable talking to Levi and telling him her secret than Windy, and how their friendships develop and are tested. I also especially love that Lucy decides in the end to stick out the year in middle school instead of transferring to the boarding school. And the sad, sad story of the dog she falls in love with at the shelter has a semi-happy ending that wraps up neatly. Satisfying!
Pavi Sharma, 12 years old, is finally in a foster home that feels more home than foster. (Her dad is out of the picture and her mom has some undisclosed mental illness – possibly bipolar disorder or something similar.) Pavi gets along really well with her foster brother, Hamilton, who is in the same grade at school (and many of the same classes), and her foster mom, a single mother and a teacher in the same town (possibly the same school?) seems pretty great. Pavi even sort of gets along with Hamilton’s best friend, Piper, at least most of the time. And she’s got a steady business advising newcomers to Crossroads, the foster care nonprofit that she’s passed through before and knows all the staff. Her clients gain her insider knowledge on the foster home they’re heading to before they get there, and they repay her in school supplies and Hot Cheetos. But when Pavi meets a 5-year-old girl heading to Pavi’s first traumatic foster home, she feels compelled to intervene – even if it means dragging along Hamilton, Piper, and her newest client, Santos, and letting her schoolwork slide, in addition to putting everyone in danger.
I loved Pavi. I loved irrepressible, loyal Hamilton and sullen Santos and even obnoxious Piper. I thought it was very realistic that Hamilton and Piper didn’t know anything about what foster care was like. If I were to knock any points off my rating, it would be for a White author writing from the perspective of a POC. But… Farr’s partner appears to be Indian-American who grew up in the foster care system, so I’ll give her a begrudging pass on that front. I liked that the danger Pavi put herself and others in was realistic and also that it turned out okay (in a not-totally-realistic way). Mostly when tweens keep secrets and try to do things themselves, it feels a little contrived. It feels like they are just stubbornly asserting their independence. But with Pavi, she believed Meridee was in real, actual danger and she told a trusted adult who brushed her off, so she really felt she had to take matters into her own hands. I also enjoyed that Hamilton’s mom had strict rules about him being on social media, and that Piper’s parents did not, and how the kids navigated that (and I was especially impressed by Hamilton’s integrity in general and in that area in particular). As for trigger warnings – the traumatic foster home involved animal abuse and dogfighting.
12-year-old Edie discovers a box in her attic with photos of a woman named Edith who looks just like her. In a flash, she and her best friends, Serenity and Amelia, are deep in the mystery. All Edie knows is that her mom was Native American and was adopted as a baby by a white family; she knows almost nothing of her heritage (though the book opens with a scene of her and her parents at a fireworks event on a reservation, seemingly engaging with other American Indians for the first time).
Along Edie’s journey of family discovery, she comes to grips with her changing relationships with her best friends and her family, and matures into an almost-teen who is ready for the truth. Spoiler alert: it turns out that Edie’s family story involves forcible separation of her mother as a baby from her mother, and it was awful and traumatic and systemic, even in the 1970s.
Debbie Reese, the gold standard for questions of American Indians in Children’s Literature (and has the website to prove it), gives this one a “recommended” rating on her website, so I made sure to snag it, and it does not disappoint! There is a reference to a boy of interest, but in general Edie’s focus is so laser-like on her family and on the dog she meets at the same time, so if young readers aren’t into romance, they will barely notice it.
12-year-old Ellie is actually excited to move from Kentucky to her grandparents’ home in Oklahoma with her mom, except for the whole starting a new school thing. But that goes well and soon she even has friends! Coralee, who lives next door, and Bert, a boy with mild autism, who stick together because, as Coralee points out, they are all different because they live in the trailer park.
Ellie and her mom have moved to help out with Ellie’s grandfather, who has dementia. He gets himself into various scrapes, including a final episode that clinches his move into assisted living with Mema in which he is in a lot of real danger. Ellie has very fond memories of vacations in Oklahoma and doesn’t want to leave when her mother determines that her new school isn’t adequately meeting her needs with being wheelchair-friendly and providing an aide. It doesn’t hurt that Ellie hates having an aide, or that she finally has the best PT of her life in her gym teacher, Hutch (who it is hinted that Ellie’s mom has a crush on). There’s also a subplot with Ellie’s dad and his “shiny new family” and who makes up for not spending time with Ellie by sending her expensive presents like an iPad. Ellie also loves to bake, which reminded me of the Dirt Diary series and Pie in the Sky.
12-year-old Olympia – Ollie to friends – lives in SoHo in 1981. Like her parents, she is an artist, and they live as Artists-in-Residence in a loft. There is a mystery of where her father has gone, and with whom, and her mother becomes severely depressed and goes to bed for several weeks and doesn’t get up. Ollie tells one of her best friends, Richard, and has urges to tell an adult what’s going on, but doesn’t until it’s quite far along. She finally tells her parents’ friend Apollo, who quickly makes arrangements for Ollie to go to “the Island” (unclear what island this would be) with her other best friend, Alex, and his family. When she gets back, her apartment building is on fire with her mom still stuck in bed. Trying to rescue her mother, Ollie, Alex, and possibly Apollo are injured, but it is in this physical healing that Ollie – and her mother – are finally able to mentally heal.
I loved most of the beginning of this book, all the vivid details about art and the world that Olympia inhabits. She has a lot of freedom as a city kid in the 1980s. As a result, she is very capable of taking care of herself (with a little help from Apollo). However, I was confused and annoyed about why Apollo didn’t go to her apartment and drag her mom out and get her help the moment he shipped Olympia off to the island. Why else would he send her away so immediately like that? If he just wanted to make sure she was looked after, he would have let her stay with him or found her another friend to stay with. There were some things about her dad’s situation that didn’t totally make sense to me either, and she seemed surprisingly okay with how her parents eventually ended up. (Spoiler alert: they break up and each have a new love interest.)
It probably goes without saying that I love Julie Murphy (along with most of the rest of the world), so I was extra excited to see that she has a middle grade debut! Sweet Pea DiMarco (real name: Patricia) is nearing the end of her seventh grade year when a few things are set in motion to start healing her relationship with her ex-best friend, Kiera. Sweet Pea’s neighbor, Miss Flora Mae, leaves town for a few weeks and leaves Sweet Pea in charge of mailing in her advice column letters and responses. But Sweet Pea recognizes Kiera’s handwriting on an envelope and can’t help herself; soon she’s writing advice all by herself. Miss Flora Mae happens to live next door to both Sweet Pea’s parents, who in their divorce decided to maintain nearly identical houses on the same street.
I loved all the relationships and complexity going on in Sweet Pea’s life: her friendships with Oscar and Kiera, her parents’ divorce and the reason for it that makes them the talk of the town, the advice-column writing. There were some cringe-worthy scenes, especially when Sweet Pea crashes Kiera’s birthday party with embarrassing gifts. I didn’t totally buy how they became friends again but it mostly worked.