A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

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A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Balzer + Bray, 2019.

This has been seen as a middle grade novel for those too young to read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is sort of fair though rather sweeping but also downplays the merits it has in its own right.

7th grade Shayla forms the “United Nations” with her two best friends: Isabella is Puerto Rican, Julia is Japanese-American, and Shayla is black. Shayla has never had a black friend – not because she doesn’t want to but because they weren’t many other black kids in her elementary school and now she has her friend group, but some of the black kids think she’s deliberately avoiding them.

And she has never been particularly conscious of being black, but as this is set against the backdrop of trial of police officer who shot a black man walking to his car, things have started to change. Shayla develops a growing consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement which her older sister Hana is a part of and her parents discuss it with her in a matter of fact, balanced, and informative way, gently sharing the injustice of all the trials apparently ending in the same way.

Shayla finds herself becoming more engaged and involved, particularly after her parents take her on a peaceful candlelit protest and decides to stop avoiding standing out and being risk averse. She starts wearing a black armband to show her support for BLM and though there is some antipathy towards this from white students, mostly there is support and it becomes a movement at school. This is a low key introduction to middle grade readers about social injustice and civil rights. The violence and civic unrest takes place offstage, but Shayla’s championing of the BLM movement through her black armband is a terrific way in and metaphor for the wider world.

But as well as being a portrait of the awakening consciousness to social and racial injustice of a young black girl there are also all the usual things that happen in junior high like boys, friends, and branching out to new things, which the author seamlessly integrates. Shayla’s friend group seems to be falling apart: Julia wants to spend time with the Asian American basketball team she plays in, and suddenly Isabella has blossomed into a beauty who is catching the eye of the boy Shayla has a crush on whereas another boy seems to be crushing on Shayla despite her often outright rudeness to him. Shayla gets to know other black kids through joining the track team and being one of only two girls doing shop.

I found the author’s sharp portrayal of one of the teachers to be particularly on point. Though some of the teachers are cool, Ms Jacobs the white English teacher addresses Shayla as though she is the spokesperson for all black people in the school: “I hate when a teacher assumes that just because I’m black , I’ll know all about slavery and civil rights and stuff like that.”

There is a lot going on in this novel and it can be read at different levels. I think many middle grade readers will be engaged by Shay’s voice and her thoughtful progress through 7th grade and at the same time will be excited to accompany her on her journey of self-discovery.

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How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

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How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow
Delacorte, 2019.

When Grace “Tiger” Tolliver’s mother dies, she is catapulted into a grief-filled and uncharted future in this devastating YA novel.

16 year-old white Tiger and her mother are a tight-knit and insular unit, but when Tiger tentatively tries some baby steps at independence, it turns sour and she ends up lashing out at her mother’s claustrophobic protectiveness: “Why can’t you ever just fucking leave me alone.” That turns out to be the last thing she says to her mother who dies of a brain aneurysm later that day.

As there are no other relatives, Tiger is dropped into the state system while still in a tumult of grief. Refusing to eat or take off the hideous dress her mother bought her for a school dance, Tiger retreats into herself. However, her mother has left behind information about her father, and social services manages to dig up a 20-year-old half sister who agrees to be Tiger’s guardian, who has her own problems. Quite how this is considered acceptable when the parents of her best friend are turned down despite being comfortably off and having known Tiger for many years (there is no specific author’s note on the authenticity of this, but the author is familiar with the system so I take it that she knows what she’s writing about).

As she counts the minutes since her mother’s death, Tiger feels like an object being shuttled around the system. In her brief time in the emergency foster care system and later in a group home, Tiger meets caring adults who are genuinely trying to help her and others, as well as coming across stories of sickening abuse by both biological and foster parents.

Her narrative is interspersed with notes from a primer Tiger writes in her grief counseling group about dealing with the death of her mother and the ensuing emotional fallout, because there wasn’t one for her to follow and she wants other people to know what it feels like.

Though she still feels like she’s “walking around with a Grand Canyon of grief in [her] heart,” Tiger and  and the other “lost kids” she meets are slowly making families “out of scraps.” Kids she would have ignored or been intimidated by when she coasting through life not knowing what was about to hit her become close allies because of what they share.

This is a tough book to read. Early on, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel because it was so hard to read the raw feelings and comprehend the seriously messed up situation. But the author has a steady hand with light and shade, making it just about bearable, and readers who look for sad stories will find a gem here.

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

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The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2019.

Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood are the onscreen names of high school seniors Josie and Delia for their public access TV show where they present schlocky horror movies from the 1970s.

They make a good team. Delia knows and loves these horror movies because they are all that’s she has of her dad who left her and her mum when she was eight, and hasn’t been heard from since. Josie, however, has always wanted to work in TV, so when she is offered an internship at the Food Network, she is torn between trying to make Midnite Matinee a success or moving on. When Delia discovers that legendary horror show producer Jack Devine is at Shivercon it seems like a great opportunity to move their show to the next level.

The young women alternate narration. Delia is the emotional heart of the novel, desperately trying to find stability in her life, and Josie, witty and erudite, is ambitious and wants to bust open her life. Their friendship is intense but it seems to me that Delia does a lot more giving and forgiving than Josie.

Delia has depression, which is helped by medication – hooray for making this a depiction of the positive benefits of antidepressants. Additionally, Midnite Matinee with her best friend Josie gives her something to hold on to. Delia has also just discovered that her father lives close to where Shivercon is, so she could take the opportunity to see him and ask the question that has nagged her for so long – why did he leave?

Delia and Josie are spunky, foolhardy, brave (or oblivious as only a teenager could be) and get themselves into some wacky situations which are funny in the book but would be scary in real life and made me (as an adult and a parent) quite uncomfortable. However, the scenes of the setting up and taping of the show are hilarious and absolutely worth the price of admission..

This is a sweet and melancholy story about endings and beginnings, about a pivotal time of life (or at least, what feels like a pivotal time of life at the time) and two close friends going in different directions.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

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The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
Nancy Paulsen, February 2019

A heart-wrenching and deeply moving story about impoverished street kids in India. When sisters Viji and Rukku’s alcoholic father moves from beating their mother to hitting them, they run away from their village home to a big city. Viji is 11 and though Rukku is older, she has an intellectual disability so Viji makes the decisions.

With little money and without knowing anybody, Viji tries to find work and shelter, and they encounter threatening adults and kids as well as kind ones, eventually finding familial companionship with two boys, Arul and Muthu, sharing their tent home on an abandoned bridge. While Rukku finds some independence making necklaces, Viji picks up the boys’ trade of rag-picking but it’s a precarious life on the street particularly for girls and particularly with the rainy season threatening.

The reader is aware from the beginning that Viji and Rukku will be separated and this knowledge looms over the narrative, as Viji recalls their journey as though recounting it to Rukku, in the same way that she tells her nightly stories about two princesses.

Venkatraman (A Time to Dance, 2014)  shines a light on the appalling conditions that thousands of Indian children live in, through this short and elegantly written novel. Viji conveys the menace that some adults present but the author keeps this appropriate for a middle grade reader and is not explicit on the genuine and appalling threats that face the street kids. An author’s note gives more details.

Reviewed from an ARC.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer

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To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Dial/Dutton, February 2019

I have enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s adult and YA novels very much, and found her a delightful and thoughtful raconteur when I saw her interviewed recently. I have been less keen on Holly Goldberg Sloan’s novels, they are still pretty good. It’s an interesting pairing and this interview talks about their friendship and their process.

Bett and Avery are both 12 and they both have single gay dads but little else in common. Bett lives in Venice, California, loves skateboarding, surfing outdoors and animals, and is not a great follower of rules. Her father is African American and her birth mother is Brazilian. Avery lives in New York, is vegetarian, loves science and reading and has “excessive worries”. Her dad is “Jewish Caucasian” and she knows nothing about her mother. So when their dads meet, fall in love, and decide to go to China for a motorcycling vacation, they want their daughters to go to camp together and get to know each other and the girls HATE the idea.  

As we find out through this novel told, mostly, in emails between the two girls some things work out according to plan and some things don’t. The two girls have funny and credible voices but though Bett feels authentic, Avery feels like a little like a caricature of a neurotic New York Jewish intellectual (though maybe not something middle schoolers will likely be aware of unless they watch Woody Allen movies).

Unfortunately the epistolary format means there is somewhat superficial character development and the authors load up on plot instead of emotional depth. The novel skims over a lot of ground very quickly and frequently leaves credibility behind on its way as it takes some surprising and often farfetched turns. But at its core, as a picture of the development of an unlikely friendship between two very different and initially reluctant girls, it works charmingly.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

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Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith
Delacorte, 2019

Putting aside the absurd premise of this novel (British Hugo was due to go on an Amtrak trip across America with his girlfriend Margaret Campbell, but when she dumps him he has to find another person of the same name to accompany him as the tickets are in her name) this is a YA romance as light and fluffy as a marshmallow.

Hugo is a biracial (white mother and black father) sextuplet and he and his siblings have been doing everything together forever and are even set to go to university together, so Hugo sees the train ride as an opportunity to strike out on his own. The warm love and support of his siblings, along with their amusing YA novel banter, grounds Hugo as well as allowing him the freedom to explore his own dreams.

Margaret “Mae” Campbell got into USC but not into the film program she wanted. She knows she’s good at film making and is passionate about it but, wouldn’t you know it, it takes her sort of boyfriend to point out her style is “impersonal”. Of course, once she falls in love with Hugo, the movie she decides to make about the stories of all the different people on the train gets the emotional lift it apparently needed.

Aside from a mildly uncomfortable racist incident in Chicago, there’s no intended edge in here whatsover. Though personally I was irritated by the patronizing attitude of the boys to Mae, I don’t think the author was deliberately meaning this to be an issue.

The author gives us a sly wink when she has Mae’s Nana talk about old romantic movies: “It’s not supposed to reflect reality…. But sometimes you just want to pretend that the world is a better place than it actually is. That loves triumphs over everything.” And that sums this book up in a nutshell and if sometimes a reader just wants to find characters who are smart, funny, attractive and able to fall in love in just three days (and sometimes I am that reader), then this is a good place to be.

Reviewed from an ARC.