Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Portuguese American Penelope ‘Pen’ Olivera feels like she’s not really a girl, but doesn’t want to be a boy either. Over the course of her 11th grade, she finds her identity, falls in love, and makes some real friends who want her for herself, not what she can do for them.
Pen’s family is beyond dysfunctional: her parents are obsessed with their traditional idea of familial respect, and neither Pen nor her beloved older brother Johnny deliver this. Pen also learns that her longtime friend Colby is toxic to her and to other girls.
Though the book is needlessly meandering, and the characters can be tiresomely self-obsessed and inarticulate, it feels like an authentic portrait of a blue collar immigrant family and the struggles of the second generation with its feet in two camps that are worlds apart.
Pen is a well-drawn questioning teen, and her relationships with both Johnny and her girlfriend Blake ring true, but her friendship and support of Olivia, discarded by Colby, never has that same ring of truth, and feels like a rather heavy handed plot device.
With its eye catching cover and very of the moment gender questioning theme, Girl Mans Up will deservedly attract readers.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2016
Taking a sharp turn away from the fantasy action of Sidekicked and The Dungeoneers, Mr Anderson has written an impressive and moving realistic novel.
Sixth grade teacher Ms. Bixby announces to her class that she is sick and will have to leave before the end of the school year. But she leaves sooner than expected, and there’s no chance to have her planned Last Day shindig, so Topher, Steve, and Brand decide to take the celebration to her in hospital instead.
Most of the book takes place over the course of the day that the three boys bunk off school, and follows their quest to gather all the items to make the event perfect. Narrated in turn by each boy, we get to know them, and understand their relationship with their teacher and why they are all so individually motivated to make this party perfect. Ms Bixby has entered each of their lives in different ways and made them feel special, and very gradually we find out how and why.
As a warning, the title of the book has a double meaning, but it is sad without being maudlin. The author has perfectly pitched his sixth graders – still innocent and goofy but also taking on the beginnings of adult responsibilities. Funny and sweet without being syrupy, I would highly recommend Ms. Bixby for upper elementary/lower middle school fans of realistic fiction.
Three years ago, middle schooler Castle ‘Ghost’ Crenshaw found out he could run fast, when he and his mother were escaping from his father firing a gun at them. Now he’s been invited to be a sprinter for an elite track team, but he feels he can’t compete while he has to wear his raggedy high-tops. As Ghost realizes he can’t run away from his past, readers will be rooting for him as he gets ready to run towards a better future.
Ghost narrates this compelling first book in a middle grade series, in which all the characters are black unless otherwise mentioned. He has had a challenging life, and is frequently in trouble for getting into “altercations” at school, but under the guidance of Coach Brody, who looks like “a turtle with a chipped tooth,” Ghost is able to quieten the “scream inside” as he trains with the team.
Ghost is a typical Reynolds’ (When I Was the Greatest, 2014) protagonist: robustly authentic, smart, intrinsically decent, and quirky, with his love of sunflower seeds and world records. His mother, studying for her nursing exams while working full time and bringing up Ghost on her own, is a strong role model for him too, and is humanized by her love of soppy romantic movies.
Future books will center on the other “newbies” in the team: Lu, Patina, and Sunny. They are initially rather flat characters given traits to make them memorable: Lu is albino, Patty has been adopted by a white family, and Sunny lives in a wealthy neighborhood. But they blossom in their sharing of secrets over a Chinese dinner, which is a Coach tradition for new members of the team.
This is a short, fast-paced (ha!) book that will appeal to readers of Kwame Alexander’s books.