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!
Xiomara, age 15, is many things: defender of her sensitive twin brother, writer and budding slam poet, Catholic-about-to-be-atheist. Her mother, a fierce Catholic with a tough life history, sees Xiomara’s body taking shape – literally, curves – and tries to force her into what she sees as “safe” but in reality looks a lot like body shaming. When Xiomara gets a crush on her lab partner in science class, she knows she has to hide it from her mother.
My heart broke for Xiomara. I’m sure her mother thinks she’s doing the best thing for her, but from Xiomara’s point of view, it’s wholly unfair. It’s a kind of slut-shaming that reminds me very much of my own early adolescence, when a girl in my fifth-grade class developed earlier than everybody else. There were rumors that she had her period, that she was dating boys in the class, basically that she was acting promiscuously, based solely on her appearance. I realized as an adult how hard that must have been on her, and I see it in Xiomara too – just because she’s got this fully developed body doesn’t mean she knows what to do with it, wants to do those things, or wants the attention it brings.
I loved watching Xiomara, or X as she prefers in writing poetry, develop emotionally. She comes into her own about religion, slam poetry, and her brother’s sexuality, not to mention her own.
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.
I loved this book so hard I had a book hangover while reading it. Wait, is that a thing? Maybe I was just book drunk? Anyway, the point is, even while hanging out with dear friends (and my god-dog, aka The Best Dog Ever), all I could think about was this book and the characters and how I was sad I wasn’t reading it at that very moment. I even swung by work on Saturday to yell at the coworker who recommended it because instead of my usual excitement at adulting, all I wanted to do was park myself on the couch and devour the thing whole. But I digress – synopsis?
High school senior Eliza is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea, but in real life she has almost no friends (just two Monstrous Sea insiders who know her true identity) and school is torture because she’s considered so weird it’s contagious. Suddenly, there’s a new boy at school who’s also into Monstrous Sea and they become friends, and soon more than friends. Then she finds out that he’s really her biggest, most popular fanfiction writer, and also has a complicated home life that adds some interesting depth to the story and to their relationship (including stepparents/stepsiblings/half-siblings of different races, and a suicide). Eliza’s home life is a bit simpler, with the main issues being well-meaning athletic parents and younger brothers, but their family dynamic is complex and interesting (especially to me as someone closer to the parental side of the equation than the teen side). (Side note: when she starts dating Wallace, her mom insists on taking her to the doctor for birth control, which she puts up a bit of resistance to but it’s otherwise a nonissue. They do nothing more than a little kissing.) Spoiler alert: Eventually, as you might guess, Eliza gets doxed, her relationship with Wallace takes a major hit, and she is fearful of her safety, but her family rallies around her in unexpected ways and she realizes how much she’s been shutting them out in a very all-or-nothing attitude. It’s tidy and heartwarming, but in a believable way and I just loved it.
Secret identities like: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
First love like: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Fanfiction excerpts like: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
It probably goes without saying that I love Julie Murphy (along with most of the rest of the world), so I was extra excited to see that she has a middle grade debut! Sweet Pea DiMarco (real name: Patricia) is nearing the end of her seventh grade year when a few things are set in motion to start healing her relationship with her ex-best friend, Kiera. Sweet Pea’s neighbor, Miss Flora Mae, leaves town for a few weeks and leaves Sweet Pea in charge of mailing in her advice column letters and responses. But Sweet Pea recognizes Kiera’s handwriting on an envelope and can’t help herself; soon she’s writing advice all by herself. Miss Flora Mae happens to live next door to both Sweet Pea’s parents, who in their divorce decided to maintain nearly identical houses on the same street.
I loved all the relationships and complexity going on in Sweet Pea’s life: her friendships with Oscar and Kiera, her parents’ divorce and the reason for it that makes them the talk of the town, the advice-column writing. There were some cringe-worthy scenes, especially when Sweet Pea crashes Kiera’s birthday party with embarrassing gifts. I didn’t totally buy how they became friends again but it mostly worked.
Faizah is in awe of her big sister Asiya on the first day Asiya wears hijab to school. They pick the proudest, bluest blue for her first hijab and it serves as a beacon for Faizah to find her sister in tough moments. Asiya gets bullied by a boy in her class, and the endnotes reveal that this reflected Muhammad’s own experience (even featuring her own sisters’ names as the main characters). I also loved the mother’s remembered advice when the teasing starts, as a way to stay strong. As a prominent Muslim celebrity, Muhammad felt strongly about using her voice to advocate for and include Muslims and people of color in a new children’s book. This is a wonderful #ownvoices addition to any library, public or personal. I am looking forward to using it in another storytime about different cultures’ cloths.
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.