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 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.)
Another autobiographical story by the fabulous Telgemeier. At first I wasn’t sure how relatable Raina’s story of her anxiety and obsession with food was, but by the end, when she shares at a sleepover that her “deepest, darkest secret” is that she goes to therapy, her friends’ reactions convinced me otherwise. Her eventual friendship with the mean girl showed that she too had her struggles that were similar in their own way to Raina’s. Raina’s story also included a friend who was stressed about moving to a neighboring town. The friend is also teased for bringing “weird” food (I think she is Korean and brings things like kim chi for lunch) and Raina and her friend stand up to the teasing. Overall, a solid story about an unpleasant aspect of growing up. I could see this story helping other kids with anxiety feel less alone, and kids without it feel more empathy toward their classmates. It kind of reminded me of Because of Mr. Terupt in that way.
Sixth-grade teacher Maggie Bixby announces to her class near the end of the school year that she won’t be finishing out the year with them. She has cancer and needs to take some time for treatment. The class plans a last-day party for her but she ends up leaving before it happens. So when best friends Steve, Topher, and Brand overhear that Ms. Bixby is going to Boston for urgent intensive treatment, they decide to skip school and bring her all the elements of her perfect last day. However, things go quickly awry, and in the ensuing adventure, they learn a lot about each other, their individual relationships to Ms. Bixby, and their friendship. Spoiler: They do eventually make it to her hospital room and manage to have their last moments with her, which was touching and I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.
Steve and his sister Christina are pressured to be perfect children, students, musicians, etc. Steve frequently feels inadequate and is possibly on the spectrum, given his lack of understanding of social cues and jokes, but ability to regurgitate facts on a moment’s notice. Topher was an only child until a few years ago; now his parents barely have time to look at his art between caring for his kid sister and taking on extra jobs to support their larger family. These two have been best friends for years but only Steve can really explain why; Topher just doesn’t seem to need Steve as much, or so he thinks. Brand moved to town a year or so ago, after his father was paralyzed on the job. Brand takes care of his father, who is spiraling into depression after the accident, but it’s a lot for a sixth grader to handle. Enter Ms. Bixby, who was especially important to him for the help and attention she gave him. The boys’ adventures have them asking a stranger to buy them wine and he then takes off with their cash; they later get into a physical fight with him in an alley. Steve takes a punch to the face and Topher trips and sprains his ankle chasing after him. They also ask Christina to lie to her and Steve’s parents for them, and smuggle Ms. Bixby out of her hospital room, against the hospital’s rules. And that is basically the extent of their shenanigans. There is plenty of what I call “extreme foreshadowing” but it looks like Anderson toned it down a bit from Posted (though Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was published earlier).
I had seen this book come in and out and didn’t really give it much thought until I was browsing recently and came across it. Upon reading the flap, I wasn’t sure I would get through it without being a sobbing mess, given that I just lost a librarianteacherfriend to cancer a few months ago who similarly had to tell her students (a whole school full of them) that she wasn’t finishing out the year with them. The entire town turned out to her memorial service, which was quite a testament that she was the same kind of teacher and person that Ms. Bixby was, only a bit older and more embedded in the community. However, this book was much more about the boys and their stories than about Ms. Bixby, so I made it through relatively dry-eyed. But Ms. Bixby sounds like a hell of a teacher, and they were lucky to have her.
I picked up this book expecting it to be a light read, and it was not. (Who doesn’t love family game night?! Uh…) It was, however, a great story, and one not frequently told. Annabelle has just finished 7th grade and the summer stretches before her. However, it’s not full of sleepovers and friend visits – Annabelle has a self-imposed Five Mile Radius on her house because she’s embarrassed about her hoarder mother and the state of her house. That situation finally comes to a head – Annabelle’s father leaves, her older brother stays out as much as possible, and her little sister calls up Grandma to come help.
It didn’t resolve exactly how I thought it would, which is good – I thought it would be too simplistic, but Lambert really gets into some of the nuance, at least it seemed to me as someone who is not an insider to this situation. Most importantly, not only is Annabelle’s family starting to heal, but she is learning big adult lessons about how to manage her own emotions and mental health. Her big revelation comes when Grandma Nora says, “We are all broken, even you,” and Annabelle really considers what that means.
Annabelle also explores nuance in her friendships, with her new best friend Rae and her other friends who she realizes she still has things in common with and that Rae isn’t the perfect friend for her in all ways. Annabelle also has a crush on a boy, and the development of that is very adorable. Her brother’s protective reaction to this news is a bit bro-y, but also sweet in its own way. Annabelle and even her sister Leslie seem more than capable of managing their own love lives.