The Plot: In the late 21st century, a world ending comet approaches Earth. Petra and her family are fortunate enough to take passage in a massive spaceship bound for a planet in another star system. They are placed in a type of cryo-sleep during the long journey. When Petra wakes up almost 400 years later, she finds that the ship has been taken over by a political group with radical ideas about social assimilation. To save the few people who still remember the old ways of Earth culture, Petra draws on the Mexican folk stories of her childhood.
My Take: The Newbery Medal winner of 2022! I was impressed by author Donna Barba Higuera’s blending of science fiction and folktales. She neatly balances life on a futuristic space ship with old Mexican stories in a way that enriches the story. This creates a narrative that is driven less by physical action sequences and more by Petra’s slow understanding of her situation and her persuasive efforts to awaken the other people from earth. I had to smile when she mentioned rebuilding society after the pandemic of the 20’s. I highly recommend this intelligent handling of a dystopian storyline to middle grade readers and teens.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According the her author website, Donna Barbara Higuera’s favorite hobbies growing up “were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.”
The Plot: In the summer of 1968, in the wake of a tragedy, the parents of Meryl Lee send her to the prestigious boarding school for her 8th grade year. Meanwhile, a homeless boy named Matt, bereft of family and friends, settles into an abandoned cabin near the school property. As Meryl Lee and Matt each struggle to settle into their lives, they find that their paths cross in the most unexpected ways.
My Take: This is very nearly a great book, but due to some minor issues, it will have to remain very good. This was my first reading of any of Schmidt’s books and, after a couple of chapters, I could tell that he was accomplished at his craft. His characters are interesting and draw the reader into their personal stories. I truly wanted Matt and Meryl Lee to find happiness and I found myself getting misty eyed at certain points. Towards the end of the book, the story feels just a touch drawn out. But this is a minor complaint about a wonderful read that is a strong Newbery contender (awards are in 2 days!). I strongly recommend this book to middle grade readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: I could not find a personal author website for Gary D. Schmidt, which I thought was really cool.
The Plot: Twelve year old Maddie awakes in her hometown to find that everyone but herself has been evacuated by the government. Alone except for her dog George, Maddie must learn how to survive on her own for months at a time. One of the most challenging parts of her experiences is enduring the longing for family and friends.
My Take: This was a great read. Freeman wastes no time setting up and executing the inciting event that pitches Maddie into her survival challenge. Author Megan E. Freeman presents the story in a spare verse format that retains all of the emotional power while giving the reader only what they need to know about the plot and background. I applaud the tight framing of the character and the story and I won’t give away the ending when I say that I got a lump in my throat. Very much recommended for middle grade readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Freeman’s interest in becoming a writer started in elementary school when poets were invited in each week to present to her class.
The Plot: Junie Kim is a middle schooler who endures bullying and racist incidents because of her Korean heritage. Through an oral history project she learns of her grandparents’ brutal experiences during the Korean War, which gives her a newfound perspective on her present day struggles at school.
My Take: We need diverse books, but we do not need poorly written books. Ellen Oh’s overt messaging that ‘racism is bad and diversity is good’ hamstrings the buried power of fiction and storytelling that requires a more detached touch from the author. My problem is not with this message, but rather in the heavy-handed way that it is conveyed. Early in the book, a series of racist, white characters bully the protagonist, but we are given little insight into their behavior or motivation, leaving the reader only with the bland idea that these people are ‘bad.’
The strongest parts of the story occur in 1950’s South Korea on the outbreak of civil war. Even these points, however, are hobbled by Oh’s insistence on compiling traumatic war crimes that lose their power as they multiply. After a massacre and a few horrific killings, the reader begins to feel that these events serve only to generate some excitement, rather than to imbue the story with meaning.
A good editor could have focused this story in such a way as to show the reader how racism damages us all. Instead we have a book with a loaded message that tries to jolt the reader with violent events. I would recommend readers skip Oh’s novel and reach for a book by Linda Sue Park for a more sensitive approach to Korean culture. I would also recommend Ellen Yang’s Front Desk as a stronger portrayal of racism against Asians.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Ellen Oh is the co-founder of the organization We Need Diverse Books.