Tag Archives: disability

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.

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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.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks

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Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
Candlewick, 2018.

13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.

As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.

Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.

This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
HarperCollins, 2018.

Very occasionally I will read a book that just affects my mood for several days and this is one of them. Rising 8th grader Claudia Coleman returns from a summer with her grandmother, ready to see her best (and only) friend Monday so they can get back into their groove ready for school. Only Monday isn’t there. Claudia, against her parents’ rules, goes to Monday’s house on the wrong side of town only to be fobbed off by her mother. And that pattern persists – all the adults that Claudia talks to express concern but then do nothing about it. Even when Claudia goes to the police, she is dismissively shown a board covered with missing black girls and told not to waste police time if her friend isn’t really missing, and we are told that social services didn’t follow up requests for an investigation either. The theme, skillfully shown not told, is that the disappearance of black girls happens but nobody much cares.

As the novel moves back in time, we learn much more about the girls’ friendship and mutual dependency. Claudia depends on Monday to help her hide her learning disability and Monday spends time with Claudia’s family, so unlike her own broken one. There are already cracks showing in their friendship – Monday is much more interested in boys than Claudia is, and will do anything to make herself visible leading to some intense drama at school. In the present, Claudia quietly starts to find her own way, though never letting go of her quest to find Monday. She makes connections with some girls at her dance school and, after her grades plummet, gets help with her dyslexia.

Claudia’s desperation and frustration about her lack of agency in searching for her friend is what stayed with me from this wonderful and wrenching novel. Her kind and loving parents do their best to help her but there is so much they don’t know or don’t seem to understand, though they are not quite as clueless as they first appear.

While focused on Claudia and Monday, the novel also tackles some other substantial issues. The neighborhood in Washington DC where Monday lives is in upheaval as the gentrifiers want to evict the tenants and turn the neighborhood into something more pleasing to middle class white people. This puts tremendous pressure on an already ragged community, stressed by poverty and drugs.

One minor quibble: The novel has a complicated (and to me, unnecessary) time scheme and twist that goes with it. It didn’t add anything for me and just made things a little more complicated than I felt they needed to be. But that doesn’t in any way detract from this completely absorbing and important novel and I shall most certainly be seeking out Ms Jackson’s first novel Allegedly.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegen, 2018

7th grader Mason Buttle is tall, sweaty, and something of an innocent. He is dyslexic and has synesthesia – he sees his mood as colors. All of this makes him a a bit of a loner and target for bullies. Two years ago, his best friend Benny Kilmartin died in an accident, and though Mason doesn’t realize it, many people in the town including one of the police officers, think he is responsible.

Two things happen to change Mason’s life: His empathetic and kind counselor gets Dragon,  some voice recognition software, so Mason is able to write his story and, secondly, he becomes friends with Calvin Chumley, a particularly small and smart neighborhood boy.

Mason’s family has checked out since the death of his mother (his father is out of the picture) and grandfather several years ago, and Benny’s death was a further blow: “Bing, bang, boom.” They have sold off family land, stopped working the orchard, and let their house turn into a “crumbledown”, but a crisis involving Mason galvanizes them all back to life.

Connor captures Mason’s voice through both his narration of the book and his Dragon-dictated account of his life. Short sentences, straightforward vocabulary, and thoughtful musings show Mason to be a boy with a lot of challenges, but who ploughs on regardless. His naïveté, good heart, and openness to friendship shine through.

I enjoyed Connor’s Crunch (2010) and this is a similarly quirky perspective on that hazy age between being a child and a teen. Though Mason and Calvin are outliers, their friendship and experiences will resonate with many middle graders.