Adding my positive review to that of <a href="http://<!– wp:paragraph –> <p>by <a href="https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2020/09/highly-recommended-sea-in-winter-by.html">Christine Day</a><br>Overall: 5 out of 5 stars</p> Dr. Debbie Reese! 12-year-old Maisie is still recovering from her ballet-related knee injury when we meet her. She is also not responding to her best friends, who are fellow ballet dancers and one of whom she blames for her injury. Mostly taking place over the course of a week in February, the story revolves around Maisie really hitting rock bottom about the injury and also [SPOILER ALERT] re-injuring her knee while on vacation with her mom, stepdad, and half-brother.
Maisie has two very insightful parents: her mom and stepdad, who are both Native (her biological father was also Native, and was in the Army; killed in Afghanistan when Maisie was a baby) and who speak to her gently and frankly about her mental health and about depression and therapy. At that point, the narrative zooms forward four months to where Maisie has found other interests besides ballet and has an idea of the future that doesn’t really involve ballet, along with friends at her own school. Her ballet friends go to different schools, so she was very unmotivated at school for a few different reasons. Jack, her stepfather, was determined to make her succeed in school unlike Jack and her father.
I loved that the story was infused with Native terms and ideology, but never felt didactic. (Instead of “See-yah means grandfather,” Maisie says “Jack wasn’t allowed to call his see-yah ‘grandpa,'” for example.) Maisie and her family live in the Pacific Northwest, which is her mom’s and Jack’s people’s homeland, and some places are referred to by their Native names. Day gives an Author’s Note at the end about some of her choices, and there is a note from Cynthia Leitich Smith about the book and about the imprint, which is Heartdrum (HarperCollins).
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.
12-year-old Nova is missing her sister, who promised to return before the space shuttle Challenger launches with Christa McAuliffe aboard. As Nova and her newest foster family count down the days until the launch, she writes her sister letters, telling her all about her new family, her new school, and how much she’s looking forward to seeing her sister again. The letters are never mailed, and even if they were, they’re illegible – Nova is autistic and nonverbal (though she can talk a little and make herself understood at times) and her writing “looks like chicken scratches.”
Nova’s foster parents are the only ones outside of her sister who ever knew how smart she was, how she can read and has a rich inner life. She’s obsessed with astronomy and could have answered questions from her special astronomy elective teacher if she’d had a way to communicate. One of her special ed classmates speaks sign language, and I found myself wondering why Nova didn’t. But it’s 1986 and it’s enough of a challenge to get the school to realize she can read.
Nova and her sister had previously lived in many different foster homes since being taken away from their mentally ill mother (possibly schizophrenia is hinted at) when Nova was 5. Their grand plan was to run away once Bridget turned 18 and could take care of them. But now Bridget is gone and Nova doesn’t know where. When the launch comes and goes (with disastrous results), Nova finally comes to terms with the truth about where her sister has gone and what it means for her.
Panteleakos has worked in special education with experience in the foster care world, and has Aspberger’s herself (see comments below). She has a list of credentials as long as my arm and also did a ton of research with other experts.
The one caveat for me was that I would have liked the full lyrics to David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” which she quotes throughout the story (sometimes creating significant parts of the plot), which I only sort of know, and which was running around in pieces in my head the whole time.
Twelve-year-old Annabelle is looking forward to another summer of competitive swimming and hanging out with her best friends Mia and Jeremy. But her school year ends harder than she thought, even with accommodations made for her learning disabilities (ADHD?), Mia is busy with her new lacrosse friends, and Jeremy is leaving for camp in Boston for a month. When Annabelle gets recruited to the high school swim team and gets to spend more time with cute Connor Madison, things start to look up. But it turns out that Annabelle isn’t really mature enough for high school shenanigans and makes some bad choices that get her injured enough to be off the swim team. After an adventure into Boston to track down her newly-back-in-the-picture dad (who turns out to have a new family and be in recovery from alcoholism), she comes to be more comfortable with where she is and stop rushing to grow up.
This book is rich in relationships and the reader is really inside Annabelle’s head. I thought it was extremely realistic to how kids can know what the right thing is and still be conflicted and want to fit in, and therefore make bad decisions. All the parts of dissecting a boy’s texts and actions felt exactly right and yet I could see, from an adult’s point of view, that Connor was just a player. Even once Annabelle is off the team, her teammates want to hang out with her and try to help her through this in an amazing show of female solidarity, which was another excellent piece of wisdom imparted with this story. I also liked how Annabelle’s mother and stepfather, Mitch (with whom she is close), relate to her not just as parents but as people at the end of the story. That seems like a huge piece of growing up and navigating changing relationships and I was very pleased to read it. Annabelle also makes peace with Mia and Jeremy, though things don’t go exactly back to how they were before, which was also satisfying.
One note on race is that Annabelle’s summer tutor, Janine, is black, which we learn through a comment on her hair and then on her outsider status, which could have been handled differently. The other social issues of note are that Jeremy’s older sister, Kayla, who is on the high school swim team with Annabelle, was treated for an eating disorder the previous year, so note that as a sensitive topic. (The author thanks Jen Petro-Roy for her assistance in understanding and representing eating disorder aftermath accurately.) And finally, Annabelle, Mia, and Jeremy are all day students at the private school on Gray Island (which is I think supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard?), so neither fully fit in with the other boarding students or the public school kids who are there for the summer. Annabelle’s learning differences make her feel even more like she doesn’t belong – but that’s another issue that gets resolved over the course of the story.