Category Archives: middle grade

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.

Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author  has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.

Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.

As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.

The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.

There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz

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The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz
Candlewick, May 2018.

This slight middle grade story packs a big emotional punch as it looks at how a young girl learns to cope with loss by leaning in to other people.

11-year old Tash has had a challenging early life which has left her with a deep fear of being alone and abandoned. With her father in jail, she now lives with her warm, kind Uncle Kevin, and the love and security he offers along with that of her elderly neighbor, Cap’n Jackie, means she always has someone to be with and can feel safe.

When her grandfather sends her off to a summer camp, Tash is fearfully reluctant to leave those two behind and be with people she doesn’t know, but to her surprise she loves it and feels transformed by the experience. On her return however, she discovers that Cap’n Jackie is in hospital and has withdrawn into herself. Can Cap’n Jackie’s magic key bring her home?

The author does a terrific job of creating empathy for the prickly Tash, a complex and challenging character who is still tussling with her early demons while stretching into her new post-camp persona. Schmatz is skilled in showing her evolution from fearful to confident and the emotional stops and starts along the way, while using believable middle grade language.

While not all readers will have suffered such major traumas in their lives, they will be able to relate to Tash’s grit in finding a way to deal with life when it doesn’t go to plan.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2017

I’ve only known Gratz as the author of the enjoyable Boys Own-style WWII thriller, Projekt 1065, and Refugee is a complete departure from that style to a much more serious and realistic one, which, nonetheless, makes a gripping novel.

Three stories of refugee children from different countries and different eras are woven together to show the essential truth of what it means to be forced out of your home and have to seek a new life in a foreign country. Josef is a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany who flees from there with his family onboard the MS St Louis to Cuba. Isabel and her family flee from Cuba in 1994  to the United States on a makeshift boat after her father gets in trouble with the Castro regime. In contemporary times, Mahmoud and his family flee from the Syrian civil war, heading across land and sea to get to Germany.

Gratz cleverly links the stories thematically through the dilemmas and challenges that the families face, and through the linking device of the escape across water. He even, in a final twist, brings all the stories together.

This is a middle grade novel and the author doesn’t pull his punches on the dangers that these families face and the outcomes are realistically not happy for everyone. The prose is workmanlike but still manages to communicate the emotions of the highs and lows of these children’s experiences. He also captures the warmth of the families and the drive they have to better their lives of their children.

The author includes some notes on the real life stories behind his fictional ones and includes maps (hurrah!) of the three families’ journeys.

Clearly this is an important of-the-moment topic, and Gratz makes it accessible for a middle grade reader by putting it through the eyes of kids their age and includes sufficient context to make the situations understandable without getting too bogged down in the weeds.  At the same time, by including these three diverse stories, he illuminates the universality and historical relevance of the refugee experience.

Beast and Crown by Joel Ross

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Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
HarperCollins, 2017

I really enjoyed the two-book Fog Diver series, and was on the panel that awarded the Cybil to The Fog Diver. So I was excited to get Mr Ross’s lively new middle grade fantasy in which he continues to use alternative worlds to look at life for those who are on the bottom rung, or not even part of society. While it is not quite as thrillingly imaginative or as smart as his previous novels, it is still very readable and is bound to please middle grade fantasy fans.

13 year-old Ji is a boot boy for an aristocratic family and is friends with Sally, a stable girl and Roz, a young lady without means who is tolerated by the family. The three are planning to escape to the city to rescue Sally’s brother Chibo. Fate seems to be on their side when they are taken to the city as part of the young master’s entourage where he is to be trained to take part in a competition that will decide who is heir to the throne.

The ruler of the world is the Summer Queen who uses magic to suppress the ogres, goblins, and other non humans who threaten the humans. However, Ji and friends find that these so-called monsters are a lot more civilized than the humans.

The characters are as well-crafted as those of the Fog Diver and have a similar range of skin tones. Just like the previous book, they are appealing but perhaps a little one dimensional: Ji is cunning and wants to be self-centered but is too moral; Sally is brave and wants to be a knight; Roz is a “lady” and is full of book-smarts. There is a lot of fun to be had with Nin the ogre who conflates words to produce pleasing new ones.

The created world is straightforward and has less depth than The Fog Diver, and is a curious appropriation of Asian and Latinx cultures for no apparent reason. Pet peeve – to show that this is not our world, there are two moons which is straight out of the Secrets of Droon playbook.

The plot feels a little derivative – I noticed a resemblance to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, though without the edge and sharpness. Nonetheless it moves along at a good clip with some interesting twists. There are some curious diversions which seem like they are going to lead to something but then don’t, making the book rather longer than it needs be, though maybe setting something up for the next book.It was clear fairly early on that this would be a series (or maybe just a duology) but a resolution is reached and I don’t really feel the need to read more.

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond, 2017

This middle grade story of nine self-sufficient orphans on a mysterious island can be read as a low key fantasy and/or an allegory of the unfettered joys of childhood and the looming responsibilities of maturity. It reminded me, in some respects of Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey but I found it way more appealing than Spinelli’s nonsense and think it could get some MG readers.

Every year, a boat arrives on orphan Island carrying a very young child. The young child is taken into the care of the second oldest of the 9 residents and the oldest one gets onto the boat to embark for who knows where physically, but adulthood metaphorically.

Life on the island is blissfully easy. Food is abundant, the wildlife is unharmful, it only rains at night, and even the wind throws the kids back onto land if they jump off a cliff. However, there is a strict unwritten structure and set of rules passed down from all the previous residents, which the children follow religiously (deliberate choice of word there).

Jinny was heartbroken when Deen left the island, leaving her as the Elder taking care of the new girl Ess. She isn’t very good at teaching Ess what she needs to know – reading and swimming – nor is she very good at training Ben, the next in line, on how to be an Elder. Jinny doesn’t want to follow the rules and when she breaks one of the most important ones, life on the island becomes out of joint.

Jinny rings true as a conflicted pre-adolescent and her relationship with her young charge, Ess, is delightfully imperfect; however, the other characters, who have a variety of different skin, hair and eye colors, are just sketched in.

I found some of the metaphors a trifle heavy handed – the entrance of snakes to this garden of Eden and Jinny’s long swim away from the island – but maybe this wouldn’t be the case for the intended audience.

Many questions are unanswered  who sends them to the island? What do they go back to? who set up this home? are they really orphans? – but the ending, bringing the story full circle, feels complete.

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