Tag Archives: middle school

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).

Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright

by Varian Johnson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Maureen and Francine Carter are starting sixth grade. Suddenly Francine wants to be called Fran by their friends, and is trying to be her own person, which makes Maureen feel left behind and sad at the loss of their previously close bond. She and Francine are not in all the same classes and she was even signed up for Cadet Corps, which her parents think would help with her self-confidence. But she’s so bad at marching that she’s in danger of her first non-A report card grade ever – unless she runs for sixth grade student council. The only other person running for president is, of course, Francine. Fighting and smear campaigns ensue and their parents try to find ways to end the rivalry, but in the end the girls have to get to a place of apology and forgiveness on their own. 

For fans of: Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, Drama, Smile)

Becoming Brianna by Terri Libenson

by Terri Libenson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I had been so sure that the twist in Invisible Emmie was that Brianna was not real, but it seems she is very real in this fourth installment in the graphic novel series! Brianna’s seventh grade year is told in flashbacks from her Bat Mitzvah day in June back to 8 months earlier, and moves chronologically up to the big day, mostly exploring how she prepares and also the friend/classmate drama that leads up to it. Basically, rumors start to fly about what her party will be like, and some of the “cool” kids try to get on her good side to get an invite. Two of the popular girls manage to get invited but Brianna finally comes around to the realization that they are just using her. Mostly she resists this because her former best friend says it, and they are going through a rough patch since her BFF is starting to become close with someone else.

I liked watching how Brianna changed over the course of the year. I did think that the two popular girls coming to the party and feeling sad and left out was a bit of a stretch, but otherwise loved how maturely Brianna dealt with the whole situation. She also really grapples with her relationship with Judaism and why she’s doing the Bat Mitzvah in the first place, if not just to please her mother. (Brianna’s father is not Jewish and she has not gone to Hebrew school consistently; her parents are also divorced and fight about the Bat Mitzvah a lot.) In the end, Brianna and Emmie make up and are friends again, and Brianna learns to accept Sarah a little more too.

Double Review: Two by Jason Reynolds

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You
by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Reynolds says over and over that this is NOT a history book, and I have to agree because this was way more readable than a history book, especially because it felt like Reynolds was talking directly (and pretty informally) to me. Also, though it went chronologically, Reynolds made connections between different historical events that I had never seen before (some events I had never heard about). He did seem to be very focused on Angela Davis; the last section of the book sounds like the whole history of the country comes back to her. And maybe it does – I’m new to learning about her life. The main thing that blew my mind was the idea that the American Revolution was fought over slavery – in the same way that the South wanted to keep slavery in the Civil War, apparently the colonies wanted to keep slavery in the Revolutionary War. There were other interesting connections and explanations but I don’t want to spoil them – go read it!

Ghost
by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

In the first book in the Track series, we meet Ghost, aka Castle Cranshaw, as he is discovering an innate ability to run and learning for the first time what it means to be on a team. He stumbles across a city track team with a cab driver for a coach who becomes almost a guardian angel for Ghost, bailing him out of a few scrapes. Ghost struggles to deal with his feelings and trauma of being chased by his abusive father out of the house with a gun. (His father has been in prison for the past three years because of it.) Befriending the other team newbies, not to mention Coach, helps Ghost start to work through it, while giving him something productive to do with his youthful energy rather than continuing to get in trouble.I read this as an audiobook and the reader was great – really nailed Ghost’s voice!

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.

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.

Rick by Alex Gino

Rick by Alex Gino
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

6th grade is full of changes for Rick. His beloved older sister is off to college, Rick starts visiting his Grandpa Ray for some one-on-one time, and he’s coming to terms with how he feels about his best friend, Jeff, who he’s realizing is kind of a jerk. At first, Rick judges Jeff on past behavior and on comparing him to others, but eventually realizes that he needs to look at Jeff’s behavior on its own.

6th grade also introduces Rick to the Rainbow Spectrum, an after-school group of LGBTQIAP+ kids and allies, including Melissa, the heroine of Gino’s novel George. (The cover is also similar to George’s, so I knew at a glance this would be a similar, if not companion, book to that one, and was pleased to see Melissa here.) Jeff is pretty vocal about his disdain for the Rainbow Spectrum, and at first Rick doesn’t say anything, even while standing as lookout for Jeff to deface the group’s posters. But eventually he comes into his own, with some subtle peer pressure from another kid in the Rainbow Spectrum and some good advice from Grandpa Ray. Rick also, importantly, learns about asexuality and is sure that he is ace too, even while others tell him he’s too young to know. Grandpa Ray and the Rainbow Spectrum’s advisor, Mr. Sydney, reinforce that the Q means both queer and questioning, especially in kids that age. Rick asks, “what if it changes and I like girls at some point? Or boys?” and Grandpa Ray responds, “Then it changes and you like girls at some point. Or boys. Or both. Or other people too” (p144-145).

Grandpa Ray has his own gender identity stuff going on, which I’ll let you discover on your own. I loved his and Rick’s relationship and Rick’s overall character development. I really liked that Rick didn’t just think (or be told) that Jeff is a jerk and dump him. Rather, we get to see him be an accomplice to bullying / hate crime and struggle with not speaking up, and then get the courage to actually speak up. I think that could be really powerful for kids to see their own struggles modeled, even if they don’t recognize them at first, and take the next step to speaking up.

Stories about ace characters are so few and far between and I’m so glad this one exists! I also loved that even Rick’s beloved older sister isn’t perfect and dismisses his sexuality questioning based on his age. I too would be tempted to tell a 6th grader, especially a boy, that they might just be a late bloomer, but after reading this story I will be more careful about validating them. As Grandpa Ray says, you know yourself best!

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.

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!

Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home by Bridget Farr

9780316491068by Bridget Farr
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

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.