Tag Archives: middle grade

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day

by Christine Day
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Adding my positive review to that of <a href="http://&lt;!– 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).

Three Keys by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Three Keys is the sequel to Front Desk, and Mia Tang and her crew are back. Her best friend, Lupe, is an undocumented immigrant, and this story revolves around the election of Governor Pete Wilson and his Proposition 187 which had devastating effects for undocumented immigrants (and even documented ones – there was a palpable fear in the air, lots and lots of racism and plenty of hate crimes). With their various gradations of immigration status, Lupe, Mia (who has a green card), and Jason (who was born in the US to naturalized-citizen parents) struggle to figure it all out. (Well, Jason does, and Mia helps him. Jason’s parents are still terrible and his dad even votes for Prop 187, even as their own money troubles are escalating and they downsize to a smaller home.)

On a personal level for Lupe, her mom returns to Mexico voluntarily (because her mother has died) and then is unable to cross the border again. Her father becomes worried about her and goes to the border to find her, but gets detained by immigration police. Lupe comes to stay with the Tangs at the motel for months and there are some really heart-wrenching scenes about their separation. Hank and Mia find an immigration lawyer to take the case pro bono. There are scenes of rallies and protests and the fear calculus of attending them for the various characters. The economics of the weeklies’ finances is not explored at all but rather they are made to seem financially comfortable, which is far from realistic.

Mia’s teacher is another person whose mind she helps to change, through her writing as in Front Desk. Mrs. Welch shows some racism toward Mia at the beginning of the school year, and wears a Pete Wilson pin. However, she comes to visit Mia and Lupe at the motel one day and sees the “Welcome to America” classes for immigrants that some of the motel’s weekly residents teach and starts to listen more and more to Mia. Mia also writes a letter to the editor of the newspaper and gets published. Mrs. Welch tutors Mia in writing, teaching her grammar formally which helps Mia greatly. When Prop 187 passes, Lupe leaves school, being tutored by Mia’s mom in math. This also sets Mia’s mom on a path to becoming a teacher, and there’s a sweet moment between her parents about her dad enabling her mom to pursue her dreams.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

by Louise Fitzhugh
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I read this one as a kid and boy did I not remember most of it! The scene where she climbs into the dumbwaiter and spies on her neighbor was the one that mostly stayed with me, but even that lacked a lot of details. I remembered nothing about Harriet having a nanny, who plays a huge role in the story, or the main plot of how Harriet’s spying loses her her close friendships as well as even her enemies among her classmates, few as they are. Overall I’d say it holds up better than a lot of children’s books.

Turning Point by Paula Chase

by Paula Chase
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

13-year-old Rasheeda is not looking forward to this summer, her first without her best friend, Monique, since moving in with her aunt in The Cove. Though the take ballet together, only Monique and Jamila, the best in their class, were selected and given scholarships to attend Ballet America, a 3-week intensive in another city. That leaves Sheeda home with just Tai, Mila’s best friend, and her church friends, a group which is splintering for different reasons. Oh and Mo’s brother Lennie, who is flirting with Sheeda like crazy.

Sheeda struggles with her precarious placement on the edge of adulthood, chafing against her aunt’s strict rules, but also seeing that they are there for a reason. There is an incident when an older boy, Lennie’s cousin, touches her in a way that she doesn’t like, and Lennie doesn’t stand up for her. He says, “I wouldn’t have let him hurt you,” and internally her response is, “He did hurt me, though.” Chase stops just shy of making explicit the connection: emotional harm IS harm. Harm doesn’t need to be physical or visible to be harmful. I think for 6th-8th grade readers, it might have been worthwhile to have stated this. But either way, that scene is very important and I’m glad it’s in there. It would be a great example to male readers of why consent is so important – and so murky sometimes.

The other important storyline is Mo and Mila off at the ballet intensive. They are grateful to have each other, and especially be roommates, because they are the only two Black girls there. (Curiously, their identities are not held up against anyone else marginalized, like say any boys, for comparison, but the storyline is rich enough on its own.) They share a bathroom with Katie and Brenna, who are White, and of course race, and racism, comes up. Mo is cast in the “angry Black woman” role and explains very clearly why she is frustrated by Katie’s and Brenna’s actions and words. Unfortunately, this does put her, and Mila to a lesser degree, in the role as Katie and Brenna’s teacher, but I think the microaggressions are very well shown. In a somewhat parallel situation to Sheeda’s, Mo is hurt by Katie’s failure to come to her defense in a hurtful situation – again, one that the other person didn’t recognize as hurtful.

I could go on and on about this book and the other relationships in it, but the only other one I want to mention is the one touched on most briefly: Sheeda’s relationship with her mother. I think the most telling way that Sheeda grows up is that she wants to hear her mother’s voice just to comfort her, and her mother is unable to give her any genuine attention. From the moment she answers the phone, it is all about her and her problems and her anger at Rasheeda’s aunt (her sister). Sheeda hangs up after a while, and seems to understand that her aunt is who she has, who will care for her in all the ways. Even if they don’t always agree, she’s her mother now.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

5th grader Mia Tang and her family move to yet another town in California. As Chinese immigrants in the 1990s, they are stuck in low-paying, unskilled jobs and the instability that accompanies them. But this time will be different – they will manage a motel together, as a family. But their boss, Mr. Yao, is cheap and pays them very little, even though (or maybe because?) they live at the motel rent-free. It doesn’t help that Mr. Yao’s son, Jason, is in Mia’s class at school and is well on his way to being a terrible person like his father. Mia’s new friend Lupe is the daughter of immigrants as well and the two hit it off fast. Lupe even helps Mia enter a contest to win a motel in New Hampshire.

Then there are the weeklies – the residents of the motel, who pay by the week. One weekly, Hank, is an integral part of Mia’s story, as they help each other. Over the course of the school year, this motley crew becomes a family, and Mia’s English improves to the point of actually helping people with her writing: a letter of recommendation for Hank to get a job, and a threatening letter to another immigrant’s boss who is trafficking immigrants to his restaurant and then confiscating their passports. She proves her mom wrong, that she’s not a bicycle among cars when it comes to competing with her classmates in English.

I loved the author’s note that most of the story was autobiographical. Even the harder parts, like when Mia’s mom gets beaten up by a thief. I was sort of glad that the motel giveaway didn’t really happen, because that, and its resolution, seemed pretty unrealistic. I was still moved by how it all came together, though, and I think young readers will love it (I would have, at age 10). Even Jason seems not to be quite as much of a lost cause as he did at the beginning, and it appears that he, Mia, and Lupe become friends in the sequel, Three Keys. Not much is made of the economics of the weeklies, and in fact they seem to have, if not plenty of money, at least not the bone-scraping poverty outlined in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Racism toward Black people is an important part of the storyline, but the racism and discrimination that Mia experiences is similarly brushed aside, which was disappointing but understandable.

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit

by Sarah Kapit
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Vivy Cohen is an 11-year-old knuckleball pitcher. See, three years ago, she met the great VJ Capello, her hero, who showed her the knuckleball hold, and she’s been practicing it ever since. She’s gotten pretty good and even gets herself on a team! Her mom isn’t quite so enthusiastic, because she’s afraid to let Vivy do things that are risky, either physically or socially, since Vivy has autism and needs to work on her social skills. Part of that is going to social skills group, which she hates, but one assignment the kids get is to write to their hero. Of course she chooses VJ Capello, who to her surprise writes her back! This begins a correspondence that carries the whole epistolary novel. Mostly they talk about pitching, but also Vivy’s family, including her brother (spoiler alert: he comes out as gay), and her best friend, who is also the catcher on the team she plays for. When Vivy gets pretty seriously hurt, her mom bans her from playing and her great challenge is to convince her. The way she finally does (oops, I mean, spoiler alert) was a little surprising and gratifying – everyone in the story grows a little as a result: mom, dad, Vivy, even VJ, but nothing comes of the coach’s son bullying her. One additional aspect to the story is that VJ is Black and has some reflections on being a Black knuckleball pitcher, a minority of minorities, in a sense.

I won’t make the mistake again (see the comments) of claiming that an author who is writing about an autistic character is not themselves autistic, but it is not clearly the case whether Kapit is autistic or not. So the jury is out on the authenticity of the experience, though it certainly felt very real from an outsider’s perspective, especially the descriptions of Vivy’s emotional meltdowns and her hand flapping of excitement, even if Vivy seemed a bit too in tune with others’ body language and with her own mental process. Regardless, Kapit certainly has down the non-autistic adults in Vivy’s life, especially her mom, who arguably does the most growing. One argument that Vivy makes about making her own decisions is that next year she will have a Bat Mitzvah and “doesn’t that mean something? I think that it should.”

The Ship We Built by Lexie Bean

by Lexie Bean
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the story of a fifth-grader who feels more like a boy than a girl. Throughout the course of one school year, Ellie / Rowan / many other names sends diary-like letters to an unknown reader via balloon, spending allowance money on the balloons and waiting by a special rock to see if anyone responds. (Spoiler alert: someone does eventually respond, at the very end.)

This is a big year for Rowan, who has had a falling-out with their former best friends and also shares in their letters hints of sexual abuse from their father. As Rowan explores their gender identity, they become more aware that what their father is doing is not right or normal or okay. Rowan’s year is so quiet; they stop speaking, and through the epistolary format we get so little of the dialogue that populates most novels, leading to the quiet feel. Mr. B, Rowan’s teacher, doesn’t say much to Rowan about their ever-changing name on their homework, except maybe to Rowan’s mother at parent-teacher conferences. This prompts Rowan’s mother to take Rowan to a psychologist and also forbids them from seeing their new best friend, Sofie. Rowan’s mother thinks Sofie is a bad influence for accepting Rowan as they are, and Rowan continues to see her anyway. The end of the book is satisfying and positive without wrapping up absolutely all of the pieces and feeling unrealistic.

There is also Sofie’s storyline, with her father’s arrest and prison time. Sofie’s family is “darker skinned” and she has “curly black hair” but to me is otherwise racially ambiguous. Rowan notices her father, Richard, get watched in a store, and is upset with Sofie that he was racially profiled and arrested unfairly. His arrest impacts Sofie’s life as she starts missing more and more school to watch her baby sister while her mother works, which in turn affects Rowan’s life because they miss their only friend in a profound way.

I have noticed something of a trend in children’s books lately where the best friend character always says and does the exact perfect thing, making them seem wise beyond their years. Now, some kids are like that sometimes; there may even be kids who are like that all the time. But it feels more like the author just making that character act as their stand-in in the story, and that’s how Sofie seemed to me sometimes.

On a more positive note, I loved all the Michigan references! Everything from Faygo Redpop to Yoopers to Michigan/Michigan State rivalry references was great. This is a historical novel, set in 1997-98, and I loved most of the references that put me right back there (though there were a few too many for my taste; not all of them served a purpose to the story).

Lila and Hadley by Kody Keplinger

by Kody Keplinger
4.5 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Hadley is understandably angry. Her mom went to jail for embezzling, her father died when she was little, she’s losing her eyesight, and her big sister left home 5 years ago and never came back. But now she is back, to take Hadley to live with her while their mom is in jail. Hadley isn’t destructive, though, she’s just shut down. But when she meets a pit bull named Lila who is equally shut down, they are fast friends and change each other’s lives for the better.

Because of Lila, Hadley makes a new friend, starts Orientation and Mobility training (walking with a cane and navigating the city), and even forgives her mother. Because of Hadley, Lila is reunited with her beloved owner. The parallels between Lila’s and Hadley’s stories are a bit heavy handed at times, but would be perfect for a 4th or 5th grader, especially as a follow up to a book like How to Steal a Dog (dogs+social issues/poverty), Lety Out Loud (dogs+friendship+shelters), or Rain Reign (dogs+disabilities).

The other thing that bugged me were how much more mature than their ages Hadley’s sister and her new friend are. (I don’t know any 24-year-olds who rent a whole house in the suburbs with a guest room and everything; and the friend was the wise voice that I don’t think a kid would notice but just seemed to do everything right and perfectly.) But one of my favorite things was how Hadley’s sister, Beth, had a crush on her female coworker and it wasn’t a huge deal about her coming out, it was just that she was being so obvious that “even a 12-year-old can tell.”

One of the reasons I like reading the acknowledgements of books (besides finding out which famous authors are friends) is that I get to learn interesting things about authors. In this case, that Keplinger is also vision-impaired, making this an #ownvoices novel.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

by Lauren Wolk
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Crow has spent all but the very first hours of her life on Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. When she arrived on the shore of the island’s loner, whom she eventually named Osh, he adopted and raised her as his own. But now that she’s twelve, she’s more interested in where she came from. A stranger comes to the nearby island of Penikese, which held a former leper colony and from where everyone on the island suspects Crow came from (and they keep her physically distant because of it). As Crow grows over the novel, she learns not only the truth but also that it doesn’t need to define her. My one word of warning is that the stranger on Penikese turns out to be two strangers, and one of them is rather scary. I would not give this to a reader who is easily scared, especially of large, angry men breaking into their house in the middle of the night.

There’s actually quite a lot about this book that reminded me of Show Me a Sign: historical fiction about a little-known historical community on an island off Massachusetts, complete with a scary man and a first trip to the mainland without adults. Overall I enjoyed this story very much. It was a very fresh topic; as someone who also reads adult fiction, its similarity in subject matter to Molokai by Alan Brennert was what initially intrigued me. The writing is detailed and quiet in a way that seems to reflect Crow’s quiet life on the island, most of the time. I liked that she got some, but not all, resolution to her quest, and that the two adults in her life didn’t suddenly fall in love. Who knows, maybe there will be a sequel – but this book honestly doesn’t even need one.

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

by Rebecca Roanhorse
Overall: 2 out of 5 stars

This is a solid adventure story, but has been docked three full stars because of Debbie Reese’s “not recommended” status. I’ll let Dr. Reese and her associates explain why, but I’ll cover why it did earn a couple of stars from me, without knowing anything about Navajo culture.

It was a solid, western-style adventure story and I appreciated seventh-grader Nizhoni’s development over the course of it. It ties up neatly at the end and I felt like I learned something about Navajo culture (though, of course, what I learned could be incorrect and/or not something outsiders are supposed to know about – it’s worth mentioning that Roanhorse addresses the possible errors in her author’s note, as many authors do, but says that her husband and daughter, both Navajo, fully supported this book). I also had the audiobook and the reader, poet Kinsale Hueston, did what seemed like an amazing job with the pronunciations. Beyond these things, I will defer to Dr. Reese.

This is part of Rick Riordan’s imprint, Rick Riordan Presents. I respect the idea behind the imprint (using Riordan’s fame from his Percy Jackson and other kids’ series to bolster stories from other cultures), but in this case he maybe didn’t pick the best person for the job, or the best job for the culture.