Tag Archives: school

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.

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic, 2018.

Week three of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist. Front Desk was my personal number two and was well-liked by some but not all of the other judges.

It’s 1993 and 10-year old Mia Tang and her parents moved from China to the US two years ago. It has not been what they expected: “My parents had told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburger till we were red in the face.” Now they are managing the Calivista Motel in Orange County for the despotic Mr Yao and, apart from the occasional shared burger, none of their dreams have been fulfilled.

Mia takes on managing the front desk, learning from her mistakes as she goes along. She and her parents work hard but the abusive owner allows them barely enough to scrape by on. As one of the few Chinese kids at her new school, Mia has to face bullies and uncomprehending teachers. Even her mother is unsupportive, telling her she should focus on math as she can be a native at that but not at the English writing that Mia loves.

Mia is a go-getting optimist with a kind heart and a strong sense of justice. As her confidence grows and her natural abilities flourish, she starts to writes letters to help set things right – whether for African American Hank, one of the motel’s “weeklies”, for some of the Chinese immigrants that her parents secretly shelter at the motel, or to counter a racist policy adopted by local motels and stores.

Drawing on the author’s own childhood experiences, this novel looks at the important topics of poverty, racism, and the oppression and exploitation that prevents people from breaking out of the cycles they’re stuck in, but does so with a light hand and integrated into a charming and empowering story. Though the ending trails off a little into fantasy, middle grade readers will feel that Mia is rewarded for all that she has endured and for all that she has done to make her community a better place.

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.

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2017 (audiobook)

The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie in this riveting teen mystery novel, which made for a great listen.

Five senior high schoolers get detention but within minutes of them arriving in the room, one of them is dead. Though it appears initially to be an accident it soon emerges that it’s murder and that only one of the four – brainy Bronwyn, sporty Cooper, pretty and popular Addy, or bad boy Nate – can have done it. They all claim to be innocent but then it emerges that the dead boy, Simon, who was behind their high school’s savage (but always true) gossip app, had dirt on all of them which he was about to go public with.

The novel is told through the perspective of the four teens, as they go from being witnesses to being suspects, and then, finally, investigators themselves. The twists pile up and the resolution is satisfying and unexpected.

What makes this more than just a smart mystery is the unravelling of the foursome’s lives when their secrets become public and how they deal with it. It shows the horrible pressures that many high school students are under, often driven by their family circumstances but also self-imposed. They rise above their John Hughesian cliche roles, becoming rich and nuanced characters and the audiobook readers do a terrific job of bringing them to life.

Highly recommended.

Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018

I have not read the 1999 novel that this graphic novel is drawn from but, even knowing that this came from a full length novel, I didn’t feel it in any way skimped on the emotional or narrative depth.

Melinda Sordino went to a party in the woods before she started at high school and ended up calling the cops. When she starts high school in the fall she is ostracized by both her friends and students who hardly know her but they all blame her for the breakup of the party and its fallout. It’s initially not clear what has happened to Melinda in the woods but her response to Andy Evans, a senior, leering at her gives us a clue.

Gradually Melinda withdraws into herself, her grades fall, and she becomes isolated, depressed, and virtually mute. The only place she feels she can be herself is in her art class with the quirky teacher who believes in her ability to express herself through her art. Through the project he sets, Melinda is able to explore and open up, gradually realizing what happened to her and as the circle is closed she is able to find her voice and make herself heard this time.

The novel is not without humor. Mel’s narration is caustic as she assesses the other students and the meaningless promises the school makes about being there “to help you” and wanting to “hear what you have to say.” Her bitterness about her situation can be shot through with wit as well, as she re-writes her report cards, grading herself on lunch, friends, and clothes.

Carroll’s illustrations in shades of gray capture Melinda’s experiences both literally and metaphorically. The horror of the assaults on her are conveyed by the transformation of her attacker from person into a fuzzy featured ghoul, and the cinematic cuts sharpen the pace of the action. Being able to actually show Melinda’s artwork, though this is not as heavy handed as you might think, adds another dimension to the novel.

Melinda’s gradual steeling and strengthening is shown symbolically through the solace she finds in gardening and through her writing on the meaning of snow in The Scarlet Letter. It’s maybe a little more overt than you would find in a longer novel but feels rich and persuasive.

Mel gets her own #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, and readers will be cheering for her. Her attacker looks like he will face his comeuppance but who knows what will happen if he is nominated for the Supreme Court when he’s 53.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Katherine Tegen, 2018

Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has been invited to join the elite Ellingham Academy – home to “creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators.” It’s a one of a kind school – completely free and allows the students to focus on their passions. In Stevie’s case that means crime detection. But not only is the school a top place to be educated, it also harbors a mystery: in 1936, the wife and daughter of founder and very rich person Arthur Ellingham are kidnapped. The body of Iris, his wife, and of a pupil from the school are found days later, but his daughter Alice is never found. As Stevie tries to investigate the decades old crime, there is a murder at the school and Stevie gets involved with that too.

The tone of the novel is both sharply modern but also manages to be fashionably retro. The plotting is smart and intriguing and the combination and connections of the old mystery and the new one is well done. As well as straightforward present-day narrative, there are perspectives from 1936 and FBI transcripts of interviews connected to the old mystery.

Stevie is an interesting character – very much at odds with what her parents would like and desperate for friendship from people who get her. Her new friends have a wide range of skin colors, sexualities, and gender expressions and are developed to varying degrees, mainly through the passions that have brought them to the school. Stevie also has a romance that feels completely unlikely and lacking in chemistry.

However, and this makes me so mad, this is the first book in a series and virtually nothing is resolved. You may disagree, but I do feel like a mystery should offer some closure within a book, even if there is an overarching bigger mystery, but that does not happen here – we are left completely hanging. And, while I’m complaining, Stevie manages to find a major clue in a large tin box that the police have somehow completely overlooked while searching a room – feels unlikely and convenient. So all in all, I have to say Truly Devious just felt unsatisfactory.