Category Archives: middle grade

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

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The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari
Walden Pond, 2019.

There’s been something missing in 12 year-old Charlie O’Reilly’s life for the last year: his younger brother, Liam. But, bizarrely, no-one else remembers Liam – not his parents, no-one at school, and not even his best friend, Ana, though she, alone, believes Charlie. But since Liam disappeared, his mother has sunk into a deep depression and his father never seems to be at home. It’s only when Charlie and Ana talk to the new assistant baseball coach that they start to find out what might have happened to Liam.

This intriguing debut middle grade novel weaves in elements of fantasy and the supernatural into an ingenious plot, full of surprises and discoveries. Even Charlie’s vivid nightmares, about an Irish family migrating to America because of the potato famine, eventually slot into place.

Themes of loss, regret, and forgiveness are handled sensitively if sometimes a little didactically, as thoughtful, persistent Charlie balanced by brave action-focused Ana – like all major characters they appear to be white – pursues the mystery of what has happened to Liam.

As Charlie learns that life is often painful and messy, he appreciates that without that, there can also be no joy. Ideal for readers who are ready to take on that understanding.

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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.

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.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen, 2018.

Here’s my last review of the books I read for the 2nd round of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. Harbor Me probably generated more discussion than any of the other books and was more divisive. But here’s the great thing about the Cybils: the shortlist can include the cozy wish fulfillment of, say, The Doughnut Fix and as well as the gritty reality of Harbor Me. It’s a hard job comparing the two, but was most gratifying, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to read about the winner, The Parker Inheritance, now’s your chance!

A class of 6 special education 5th/6th grade kids are given a weekly opportunity by their teacher, “tall and soft-spoken and patient Ms. Laverne” to just talk to each other about anything without any adult supervision. Over the course of the novel, we get to know these kids and what they’re going through.

Biracial narrator Haley is dealing with an upheaval in her life as her uncle, who has been her only parent while her dad was in jail, is moving out when her father is released. Latinx Esteban’s father has been detained by ICE and the rest of his family are fearful about what has happened to him and what might happen to them. Ashton, the only white kid in the grade, is being physically bullied by other kids. African American Holly, Haley’s best friend, has ADHD and can’t sit still. Native American Taino and African American Amari have both faced racism and prejudice.

This sounds like a list of “issues” but Ms Woodson is such a skilled writer that the kids’ problems are integrated very naturally into the novel and are only part of their story and who they are. As they go to the art room, which they re-name the ARTT (a room to talk), each week they gradually form a deep bond as they tell their truths and start looking out for each other, fulfilling Ms Laverne’s request that they be a harbor for people who need it.

Overlaying all of their individual family and social situations is that they are a special education class and, though they pretend not to, they do care about what other kids say. Even though the teacher tells them “how special we were, how smart, how kind, how beautiful – how tons of successful people had different ways of learning…some days it got inside us.”

I found it particularly interesting how the author takes on race through Ashton who has the “white pass” but is now in a school with mostly brown and black kids. He’d never thought about being white before but now he is as aware of the color of his skin as his classmates have already had to be and the other kids in the ARTT help him to thresh through those feelings.

These are real kids who are not defined by their problems but who have to deal with them as part of their daily lives. And let us not forgot, as the cover reminds us, these are all American kids, no matter their ethnicity or family origins. The reader will care about all of them and it’s a wonder that Ms Woodson manages to cram so much into such a short novel (less than 200 pages!) without it feeling in any way forced.

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

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Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Yellow Jacket, 2018.

There were two historical novels on the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist and they ended up at the bottom of our list – not because they weren’t good, but because we felt that the genre just lacks appeal to many middle grade readers. Skylark and Wallcreeper mixes past and present to interesting effect, whereas Anne Nesbet’s The Orphan Band of Springdale is set wholly in the past. I have enjoyed Ms Nesbet’s books in the past, particularly Cloud and Wallfish but also her earlier fantasies, and I read this one a while ago but did not take sufficient notes for me to write a review. Sorry. Anyway onto a book that I did take notes on.

In 2012, 12yo Lily helps to move her granny, Collette, and the other residents when they are evacuated to the Brooklyn Armory as Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc on their nursing home in Queens. In the confusion of the move and settling in, Lily loses a fountain pen that is mysteriously precious to her granny and goes in search of it. In a second storyline, Collette is a 12yo in Brume, Southern France, in the final years of World War II and is an active member of the French Resistance.

Parallels can easily be drawn between the two protagonists. They are both persistent, resourceful, independent, and spunky, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals, though clearly there is a lot more actual danger to Colette. They even look alike, with short hair, as they bicycle around their neighborhoods. Both stories are set in emergency situations in which these young girls are at liberty to make decisions and take actions that they would not normally be able to. Neither girl is given much background or context, though we learn more about Lily’s regular life than Colette’s.

Colette’s chapters are a series of vignettes of her Resistance missions, from the time she is first recruited into “Noah’s Ark” as Wallcreeper. She meets Marguerite, aka Skylark, and together they undertake deliveries, sending messages, and spying, right up to their derailing of a German train. While exciting, this lack of background makes Collette less of a fully-developed character.

Particularly notable is Lily’s empathy and kindness to the dementia-inflicted Colette and the other elderly nursing home residents. But she (and the author) are clear-eyed about these seniors – they are not the cute and funny characters of many books and movies – but are nonetheless regular people with a million stories to tell. However, Lily’s pursuit of the fountain pen is rather forced and there’s an overabundance of coincidences leading to the satisfying conclusion.

Though historical novels can be a tough sell to kids, particularly ones that are not rooted in their own history, they might find the idea of the Resistance has contemporary parallels. The author carefully explains the repugnance felt towards collaborators, and the particular contempt felt towards the Milice, the French military police that supported the Germans. There’s not much light and shade here: the Resistance is good and the collaborators were bad.

I’m not sure how much kid appeal Wallcreeper actually has, and this is not helped by being printed in a large font, making the size of the book potentially quite daunting. However, those who like historical fiction, strong girl characters, and/or exciting adventures will find something to enjoy here.

The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz

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The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz
Sourcebooks, 2018.

This fourth book from the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist is a little like a doughnut itself – delicious but not very nutritious or substantial. However, just because it’s not likely to win an award doesn’t mean it won’t bring delight to many kids, and may even get them to start a business or bake a chocolate lava cake.

When 12 year-old Tris’s dad loses his job, the family move from New York City to a ”broken-down, grape-colored house with windows popping out in all the wrong places” in Petersville in upstate New York. Tris and his sister, 10yo, Jeanine are adamantly against this move: they have friends and activities in the city that Petersville just doesn’t offer. Then to make matters worse, they move in the middle of November but won’t start school till January, so their Dad says they each have to come up with a project to fill the time. Gifted and Talented Jeanine decides to do a field study of the land around their house, but Tris is at a loss until he comes across a sign at the local store saying “Yes, we do have chocolate cream doughnuts!” but they no longer serve them. So his project becomes bringing back chocolate cream doughnuts to the town.

In many ways this is a fantasy novel dressed up as a realistic one, though it’s not the sort of fantasy with dragons and fairies but more the sort where you wish life could be just like that. The town is peopled with (all white) whimsical characters: Winnie, the doughnut witch, Dr Charney who dedicates his life to small-town medicine and is also an artist, Riley who takes over his family’s dairy farm and makes artisanal cheese. Even Tris’s new friend Josh, son of the town librarian, is a little too good to be true.

The author tries to root Tris’s project in the real world, by getting him a copy of Starting Your Own Business for Dummies and having him work through the stages of creating a business plan and a budget, finding and negotiating with suppliers, making a presentation to his investors – all of which is really grounded. However, we never get to see the actual figures so we have no idea of how much Tris is making with his doughnuts, nor it is clear how viable it really is for him to get up at 4.30am to make 40 doughnuts on a regular basis.

For me the heart of the novel is the relationship between Tris and Jeanine (there is a younger sister, 4yo Zoe who I find to be a cutesy middle grade novel version of a real 4 yo). As the start of the novel, Tris feels like he’s second fiddle to Jeanine with her math star power and Gifted and Talented status. But after their move, and with his project, Tris realizes that what he has brought to his project and the community of Petersville has equal if different value, though it takes Jeanine to point that out to him.

This is a charming read with Tris’s narration perfectly pitched as a smart (if not math smart) middle grader. He is warm and funny, and very honest, recognizing that not all his impulses and behaviors are what a model 12 year-old should have. As he settles into Petersville, he drops his best friend from the city, believing that they have nothing left in common (though he never tests that). He will occasionally break the 4th wall to directly address the reader, and that feels natural.

Not much of this is particularly original – the theme of a kid discovering his or her way in a new place was pretty central to all our shortlisted books – but I loved the voice and was delighted to be transported to this alternate reality for a few hours.