Tag Archives: middle grade

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

look-both-ways-9781481438285_hrby Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Ten 6th-graders walk home from the same middle school and share the stories of their journeys. There’s a girl whose parents are over-protective and have finally let her walk home by herself. Another girl who keeps her mouth shut most of the day, but when it’s over she talks and talks and talks. The crossing-guard’s son, who is worried about his mom ever since she got hurt saving a child from harm. There are neighbors and strangers, classmates both friendly and not. We see kids through other kids’ eyes, and then through their own, especially the bullies, who everyone knows. Through it all there is a running reference to a school bus falling from the sky. All are well-developed characters and a joy to read.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

9780141312422by Jean Craighead George
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

A good lean-in read right now for those in survivalist mode. My partner and I read this aloud to each other. He had read it so many times as a kid that he could often tell me what was about to happen next or even quote me the line verbatim! I also read it as a kid but didn’t remember it well at all.

12-year-old Sam Gribley is tired of life in his cramped New York apartment with 7 siblings. Like many kids, he dreams of running away and roughing it on his own. Unlike most kids, though, he makes it past the afternoon – and in fact stays out in the Catskills for over a year. He strikes out for Delhi, New York, and the old Gribley farmstead, so he has some claim to the land, though he also lives in fear of being discovered and sent back to the city. He has learned a lot about living off the land from his father and grandfather and has a relatively easy time of it. The one thing that helps a lot is that he is able to capture and train a baby falcon, whom he names Frightful and who ends up being his closest companion and fellow provider as she hunts food for them both. Sam describes making his home in a hollowed out tree, learning to make campfires, befriending his local animal neighbors, and hunting and gathering.

At times Sam’s descriptions sound more didactic and adult, and that is likely George’s own experience showing through, as well as the aesthetics of children’s literature in 1959, when the book was written. Sam share his thoughts through both narration and in readings from his diary entries, which were written on tree bark (though not sure what writing implement he used). I enjoyed learning vicariously through Sam about how to live off the land and I especially appreciated George’s introduction where she spoke of the inspiration for the story (her own failed attempt at running away) as well as where her own expertise came from. I also liked Sam’s visitors, the librarian in town, his description of how busy and not at all boring winter is, and how he came around to returning to the city. My partner and I discussed our own theories of social and political events that would have shaped George’s world, such as McCarthyism and the Cold War, and made an escape from humanity desirable. Sam also gets into trouble for domesticating an endangered species (and therefore removing her from the breeding pool), in addition to being hounded by people and reporters chasing rumors of the “wild boy.”

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

mlg-colorfixedby Stacy McAnulty
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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!

The Case of Windy Lake by Michael Hutchinson

9781772600858by Michael Hutchinson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Turns out this might be the second book in the Mighty Muskrats mystery series, but it didn’t bother me at all to jump right in. Chickadee, Atim, Otter and Sam are four cousins growing up in a First Nations community. Native values infuse the story, from the attitude toward Elders to protecting the land to watching the birds to solve the crime to smiling and nodding a lot (the effect of which is to make me feel like they are not real kids, but it’s also possible Native kids do that and I just don’t know. Overall I liked the story and I liked learning more about Native culture as it’s lived now, with computers and internet and not always talking about historic trauma inflicted on them by white people as is the trend right now. I do think it’s important to learn about the boarding school traumas and abuses that raged through Native communities in the US, not to mention the other atrocities throughout history, but I’m glad we’re starting to have more of a range of representation in children’s literature.

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

9780062871992by Christine Day
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

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.

Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

final-front-cover-roll-with-itby Jamie Sumner
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

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.

Stargazing by Jen Wang

9781250183880by Jen Wang
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Christine Wong and her little sister live a very disciplined life. But when their parents offer their spare unit to a community member in need, Christine gains an unlikely new friend. Moon Lin is artistic and unpredictable in ways that Christine learns to appreciate, and opens her eyes up to new things like dancing and painting her toenails. Her parents don’t always approved but show themselves to be adaptable in the end. The only problem is that Christine is a little jealous of the freedoms that her friend enjoys, with an unconventional and Buddhist single mother so she anonymously sets Moon up for teasing from their other friends. But then Moon has to have surgery and Christine is ashamed of how she has hurt her and they make up in a very touching way.

Great for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Shannon Hale!

Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai

9781250314093by Remy Lai
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Jingwen moves with his mother and little brother to Australia from an unspecified Asian country (Singapore? China?) and he feels like he’s moved to Mars. Moving to Australia and opening a bakery (called Pie in the Sky) had been a family goal for a long time, but a year after his father’s sudden death in a car accident, Jingwen’s mother decides to take the plunge anyway. As a single mother, she can’t open the bakery her husband had dreamt of, but she works in one with a very compassionate boss who lets her change her schedule as her parenting needs evolved. This is partly because, despite stern warnings not to use the oven, Jingwen and Yanghao find loopholes and use it anyway, because Jingwen is convinced that if he can only make the twelve cakes his father wanted on the menu at Pie in the Sky, everything would be all right. He also struggles with learning English and making friends, though those turn out all right in the end. There’s also a nice elderly neighbor who is sometimes drafted into helping watch the boys who Jingwen hates at first but comes around to in the end.

We have this one in our graphic novel section even though it’s one of those hybrid books and it’s actually more paragraphs than panels. The author made good use of the dual formats most of the time, especially by using aliens to show Jingwen’s gradual turning into a Martian (I mean getting used to Australia), exaggerating the drawings and using dead-on facial expressions to great effect. I was very surprised at how long Jingwen went in school without getting additional help due to his lacking language abilities, but maybe that is a difference between Australia and the US. Jingwen and Yanghao would have immediately been assessed and placed in an ELL class before even being put into their regular classrooms to make sure they had enough English to understand their classes, but in this book they are in their regular classrooms right away and Jingwen goes months not understanding a thing before he finally realizes that his teacher wants him to stay after school for tutoring help.

I loved the relationship between the brothers. Yanghao is only a year behind Jingwen in school, but two years in age, and is so much less mature. Most of the time he sounded six instead of nine, bouncing off the walls and being impulsive and getting them both into trouble. Jingwen is definitely the more responsible of the two, far beyond his eleven years, and resists learning English (finding his brother’s ability to pick it up annoying) and mourning his father. There are some tender moments between the two and it just felt like a very realistic relationship to me. Also, I really wanted cake at the end of this book.

One more note – it’s unclear where the family is from, but it’s possible that they are from Singapore or Indonesia, and/or the story is based loosely on Lai’s upbringing, which would make this book #ownvoices so I’ve included that tag just in case.

Baking like: the Dirt Diary series
Sibling relationships like: Sisters and Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Lety Out Loud by Angela Cervantes

lety-out-loud-image_1by Angela Cervantes
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Lety and her best friends Brisa and Kennedy, rising 6th graders, are doing a special summer program volunteering at the local animal shelter. To Lety’s annoyance, their classmate Hunter is also there, and he scowls a lot and is rude to Lety about her not being a U.S. citizen or being fluent in English. They both want to be “shelter scribe,” the person who writes the profiles of the animals for the website, and get in trouble for developing a contest to determine who gets the honor. Over the course of the story, however, he opens up to Lety and the two become friends – and maybe someday will be more than friends?!

There’s also the sort of opposite storyline that happens with Brisa. While out shopping with her family and Lety, they encounter an angry white man who yells at them to learn English and “go back to Mexico” (Brisa’s family is from Peru, and even inserts a phrase in Quechua, the language of her grandparents, which was very cool). Brisa is scared and decides to leave the shelter camp to go to ESL summer school, but Lety comes up with a plan to get her back. She also comes up with a plan to get Hunter’s dog back for him, and to be able to adopt a dog herself.

This is not the first book in this series but it works quite well as a stand-alone read, and I learned about it because a fellow children’s librarian chose it for her 4th and 5th grade book club. I think it raises a lot of really great, topical issues and would be great for a book club, even if things get resolved very (too) neatly to be entirely satisfactory to me as an adult reader. I also suggested it to a fellow children’s librarian who writes animal profiles at a shelter! (I also especially love the word play because when this title is read aloud, it sounds like “let it out loud”!) There is some Spanish in here, and it is handled very well and not at all clunky.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

3900147_origby John David Anderson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

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.