“Starfish” by Lisa Fipps

The Plot: Ellie is a larger sized girl who endures chronic bullying about her weight from her peers at school, her family members, and strangers. The start of a new school year and her best friend moving away prove to be additional challenges for her. Luckily a new girl Ellie’s age has moved in next door and they start to become friends. Ellie also finds a trusted therapist who advocates for her to stay strong and face her bullies. Will this be enough for Ellie to change her life and how she sees herself?

My Take: This is a solid read for any young person looking for a book on the topic of body shaming. The plot is a little thin and the therapy plot device will feel very exhausted to seasoned readers. The bullying also comes so fast and thick that it seems overdone at times. Fipps answers this critique by stating that “every single mean thing people said or did to Ellie happened to me when I was a child.” It is perhaps that the instances of bullying are condensed into a period of several weeks that makes them feel unrealistic. These criticisms aside, Fipps does an excellent job conveying Ellie’s pain and shame to the reader. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a realistic middle grade read on empathy, body shaming, kindness, acceptance, etc.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to the bio on her website, Lisa Fipps’s elbows ache when she sneezes! 🙂

“The Lion of Mars” by Jennifer Holm

The Plot:  Bell is a kid who has spent most of his life in a colony on Mars.  He and a dozen other people live a subterranean existence watching out for dust storms and waiting for the next supply ship.  Conflict on earth has prevented contact with other small colonies on Mars established by other nations.  When the adults in the colony are sickened by a strange illness, Bell and the other young people must find a way to reach out for help before their food and oxygen run out.

My Take:  I often have trouble finding good science fiction books to recommend to young readers.  Thankfully the ‘Lion of Mars’ is an enjoyable read and definitely falls squarely into the sci-fi genre. Holm does an excellent job giving the reader a sense of how important the relationships within the colony are to its survival.  It was also interesting to contemplate how fascinated the young people were with Earth.  It certainly drove home the point of how much we take for granted on our beautiful planet.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  The impetus for this book came from Jennifer Holm’s father who was a fighter pilot during the Korean War.  Nursing a lifelong interest in space, Jennifer learned that many of the early astronauts were also Korean War pilots.

“Amber and Clay” by Laura Amy Schlitz

Amber and Clay HARDCOVER 2021 by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Plot: Two children in ancient Greece strive against the fate into which they were born.  Melisto is an aristocratic girl who struggles against the conventional path of womanhood that her mother wants for her.  Rhaskos is a slave boy who works against punishing circumstances to free himself.  Both children question their role in the roiling society of Greece and Athens and seek more than just the limited roles prescribed to them. 

My Take:  This is a powerful book that kept me interested from the first page.  The suffering endured by Rhaskos captures the reader early on and we find ourselves yearning for this boy to attain some sense of healing and freedom.  I was also interested in Melisto’s anger towards her mother and even her recalcitrance when a member of the cult of Artemis.  The supporting cast of characters is also interesting, notably Rhasko’s mother who bears an extraordinary amount of suffering.

Laura Amy Schlitz clearly did a great deal of historical research in writing this novel and it shines through without slowing down the story.  I felt that I learned so much about ancient Greece and Athens and what it was like living in those times. 

My library shelves this book in the Juvenile Fiction section, but this is clearly a book for Teens/Young Adult.  There is animal sacrifice, a great deal of ‘body awareness,’ as well as indirect mention of rape.  13 and up is probably the right age to read and appreciate this wonderful book. 

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her agent’s info page, Laura Amy Schlitz continues to work as a lower school librarian.  I am astounded (and jealous!! J ) that she has the ability to work as a librarian and craft a masterpiece like ‘Amber and Clay!”

“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall

The Plot: Mr. Penderwick and his four daughters, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, have rented a cottage for a few weeks on a beautiful estate in the mountains. There they meet the owner of the estate Ms. Tifton and her son Jeffrey who immediately befriends the girls. As the weeks pass, Jeffrey becomes closer to the Penderwick girls but also learns that his mother intends to send him to military school in the fall. As his departure date approaches, the Penderwicks scramble to find a way to keep Ms. Tifton from sending Jeffrey away.

My Take: I found this to be a solid entry in the ‘large family’ juvenile fiction category along side titles such as The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and The All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sidney Taylor. Perhaps the most popular example would be Little Women by Alcott. Older readers will discern no major surprises in the plot of The Penderwicks, but may be drawn in, as I was, by the strong family bonds between the girls. It is encouraging to read a book in which the siblings support each other and do not tear each other down with pranks and sarcastic in-fighting. Those looking for a gentle story about a summer time family adventure will not go wrong with The Penderwicks.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Jeanne Birdsall believed from a young age that she was destined to become a writer but ‘went off track’ until her forties.

“Short” by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Short

The Plot: Julia is short in stature and when her mother pushes her to join a summer stock theater production of The Wizard of Oz, she is naturally cast as one of the Munchkins. Julia’s initial resistance to being in the play attenuates as she meets and becomes enamored by other members of the cast. She learns the details of how to put on a quality production and finds herself falling in love with theater. As the summer progresses, Julia finds that she has done an awful lot of growing on the inside, even if she is so short.

My Take: Wow, I loved this book! I really admired Holly Goldberg Sloan’s ability to craft interesting characters in her book Counting By 7’s and she has outdone herself in this novel. I loved the character of Julia, the director Shawn Barr, her professional acting friend Olivia, and everyone else in this story. Julia is an incredibly funny narrator, without intending to be, and I literally laughed out loud several times, something that I almost never do while reading.

This book is unique because there are no major conflicts but I really felt that the story moved right along. We watch Julia navigate growing up over a summer through her interesting point of view and this really is enough. A lesser writer would probably be tempted to up the stakes on Julia’s life–perhaps throw a dead parent in the plot or make Julia a foster child– but Holly Goldberg Sloan clearly knows what she’s doing.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a middle grade read about self-discovery.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan mentions in several interviews that she often writes about actors and acting because she has experience as a screenwriter and working with actors.

“The Line Tender” by Kate Allen

The Line Tender

The Plot (Without Spoilers): Lucy is a young teenager living in the coastal town of Rockport, Massachusetts, who spends most of her days days hanging out with her best friend Fred. Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who studied sharks but who unfortunately passed away when Lucy was 7. When their teacher assigns an extra credit project to create an animal field guide, Lucy and Fred begin collecting information about local wildlife and are excited when a local fisherman hauls in a great white shark. An upsetting event adds extra urgency to their field guide project as Lucy finds that her developing interest in sharks connects her with the memory of her mother.

My Take: I really want to give this book 5 out of 5 stars, but I’m going to keep it at 4. Kate Allen is a talented writer who can set a scene in just a few words and also has a great ear for convincing dialogue. Several times throughout the book I found myself thinking, ‘That’s well written.’

My only criticism with this book is that the plot lacks urgency. I get that this is not a page turner and that the story is about moving through grief on our own time table. Still, there is a slow undertow to the 3rd act, which I would forgive if the ending had really build up to a rushing climax. But there is none of that here, which made the story feel a little, well, boring.

I want to be clear though, that for a patient reader, this is in many ways a special book. For those who are looking for fiction to show them how to grieve, I would highly recommend ‘The Line Tender.’

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website bio, when Kate Allen was a child, a magician once told her that she would be an interior decorator.

“Other Words For Home” by Jasmine Warga

The Plot: Jude is a girl living on the coast of Syria who life becomes increasingly tense as civil war slowly breaks out in her country. To escape the unrest, Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati, Ohio, leaving behind her father and older brother. Jude struggles to adapt to life in a new country all the while hoping to hear good news about the safety of friends and family back in Syria.

My Take: Author Jasmine Warga’s choice to write this story in verse allows her to use a broad brush on much of the plot and setting while honing in on the emotional landscape of Jude. This engages the reader in the anxiety, loneliness, and alienation that Jude feels in her new home. Warga’s verse focuses in on the core of the story which is one girl’s inner experience of dealing with the challenges of immigrating to a new country. As someone unfamiliar with Syrian society, I also appreciated the author’s deft incorporation of elements of Middle Eastern culture. I came away from this story with a much greater appreciation for the struggles of refugees fleeing unrest.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website bio, Warga grew up in Cincinnati and believes that Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream is the most delicious food in the world.

“Lalani Of The Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Plot: Twelve year old Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita, in a village that is suffering from drought and an oppressive patriarchal structure. The village elders have long warned of staying away from Mount Kahana, the dangerous mountain on the island, as well as the beauty of Mount Isa, the mythical mountain across the sea that supposedly holds magic that could bring prosperity to Sanlagita. When misfortune provokes Lalani to explore the sides of Mount Kahana, she begins an adventure that will place her in conflict with her village and compel her to set sail across the distant sea in search of Mount Isa.

My Take: This is a wonderful book because author Erin Entrada Kelly has a fine sense of pacing. She weaves in themes of oppression, sexism, and environmental degradation while also including elements of magic and mythology. There is also enough action and danger to satisfy adventure lovers. Kelly manages to pack all of this in while maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the story. She also daringly introduces new characters and settings in the 3rd act without slowing things down.

I also credit Kelly with an appropriate level of world building. She gives the reader just enough information about the fantasy setting without overburdening us. She will, for instance, give a broad description of a fantasy animal, but leaves most of it to our imagination. This trust in the reader is a welcome departure from many other fantasy writers.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her bio on her website, Erin Entrada Kelly’s favorite scary movie is Poltergeist (1982).

“Counting By 7’s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan

counting by 7s

The Plot: Willow is a 12 year old girl who is fascinated by botany, languages, and prone to indulging in mathematical quirks like counting by 7’s. While possessing a genius intellect, she finds herself awkward around other people and generally at a loss for friends. When Willow’s parents pass in a traumatic accident, Willow faces the challenges of building a new life for herself – a monumental task for someone who does not do well with change. Fortunately Willow finds herself surrounded by a strange community of people that, even with her social awkwardness, she manages to touch.

My Take: I loved this book. I admired how Goldberg Sloan moved from Willow’s first person narrative to other characters in 3rd person perspective. This allowed the reader to glimpse the story and Willow from other points of view. It also fleshed out all of the other interesting characters in the book. The school case manager Del Duke was a favorite of mine. A man of limited skills, stuck in a deep midlife rut, he finds his world changed by his encounter with Willow. We find him at the end of the book not necessarily more successful at being a human in the world, but at least more aware of his limitations.

There are problems with this book. The character of Willow is SO intelligent, that it’s strains credulity. And the genius child and dead parents are staple tropes of kid and teen lit. Still, I was won over by the quirkiness of the characters and the author’s never giving in to the temptation of loading the narrative up with sentimentalism. The reader picks up on the idea that this book isn’t really about grief or mourning or even childhood brilliance. It’s more about building a community out of quirky people that may not even really like each other. Somehow it all works.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Holly Goldberg Sloan has also worked as a writer for the entertainment industry including writing the screenplay for eight films!

“When You Trap A Tiger” by Tae Keller

Book cover

The Plot: Lily, her mom, and older sister are moving to live with their Korean grandmother Halmoni in a small town. Halmoni has always been eccentric, but lately her strangeness has developed into seeing hallucinations and not recognizing familiar faces – all signs of possible dementia. Whatever the cause, Lily has also begun seeing mystical things, specifically a tiger that visits her and demands to hear lost stories from Korea. As Halmoni’s state of mind continues to slip, Lily finds herself engaging with the tiger to rediscover the stories in an effort to save her grandmother.

My Take: After watching the Youth Media Awards, I was eager to read this year’s Newberry Medal winner. After finishing it, I can understand why the committee chose this book. Keller has deftly created a story about the intergenerational strength of women in the face of challenges from immigration, grief, and a country victimized by war. The core theme is a family dealing with the consequences of being second generation immigrants and sorting out what traditions they want to preserve from their home country. Lily is an interesting character because she is the inheritor of her grandmother’s legacy and love of Korean culture – an inheritance from which her mom and older sister have turned away. This tension between the 4 females is what drives the story forward. I highly recommend this novel to those looking for a read about resilient women and the power of storytelling.

One Interesting Note About The Author: To write When You Trap A Tiger, Keller drew from the experiences of her own childhood when she listened to her halmoni tell her stories about ghosts and tigers at bedtime.