‘Finding Junie Kim’ by Ellen Oh

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.

“The Shape Of Thunder” by Jasmine Warga

Title: The Shape Of Thunder

Author: Jasmine Warga

Publication Info: 2021 Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins)

The Plot: Cora and Quinn have been best friends since they were very young. Now 12 years old, their friendship has been ripped apart by a violent event. A year after the incident, the girls have not spoken, and Quinn obsesses on finding a way to “fix” everything. She lands upon the idea of time travel, perhaps finding a wormhole in a magical location and traveling back a year to prevent the violence. As she researches this idea, she realizes that she will need Cora to help her with this project.

My Take: This is a tender book that examines that damage to relationships after a violent event. Author Jasmine Warga does an excellent job making us feel the pain of these girls and their ache for putting things back the way they were. Canny readers will understand that their project is doomed from the start. Warga’s powerful message is that while we cannot undo the past, we can struggle to make sense of it and hold on to the love that we still have. Highly recommended for mature tweens and teens.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Jasmine Warga’s idea for The Shape of Thunder started from her concerns about gun violence, a public health hazard that afflicts many young people regardless of skin color or zip code.

“The Mysterious Disappearance Of Aidan S. (As Told To His Brother)” by David Levithan

Title: The Mysterious Disappearance Of Aidan S. (As Told To His Brother)

Author: David Levithan

Publication Info: Alfred A. Knopf 2021

The Plot: Eleven year old Lucas’s older brother Aidan has been missing for six days. When Aidan returns, everyone is relieved, but his story of where he was is too fantastical to believe. Lucas watches the mood of the small town shift from relief to anger as Aidan’s story comes to light. Lucas navigates the tension he feels between defending his brother and understanding that Aidan’s account strains his capacity for belief.

My Take: I thought that this was an excellent book that pulled me right in and kept my interest to the end. It is really a twist on every children’s book that has the child transported to a fantasy world. Levithan asks the reader to consider the implications of something like The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. What would be the consequences of such a story? Would it be traumatic for the children to be transported back and forth? How would you ever be able to explain what happened? Levithan explores the strength of family ties and how much we can support our loved ones even as we question their behavior. I highly recommend this book to ages 11+.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to his website, when David Levithan is “not writing during spare hours on weekends, [he is] a publisher and editorial director at Scholastic, and the founding editor of the PUSH imprint.”

“Red, White, and Whole” by Rajani LaRocca

The Title: Red, White and Whole

Author: Rajani LaRocca

Publication: 2021 by Quill Tree Books

The Plot: Reha is 13 year old Indian American living in the midwest in 1983. She feels pulled between the American world in which she is growing up and the Indian culture of her parents. Reha’s mom Amma is reluctant to let her daughter participate in youth activities such as the school dance. When Amma becomes ill, Reha feels pressure to be the perfect daughter for her parents, even if that means sacrificing relationships at school

My Take: I though that this book conveyed well the struggle of a young person who is the second generation of a family that has immigrated to the United States. Author Rajani LaRocca’s choice to write in verse allows her to focus on the emotional life of Reha and acquaints the reader with the challenges that the character faces. Those looking for a plot-based page turner will be disappointed, but a reader who wants a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of immigrant families need look no further. Anyone who enjoys Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga will also love this book.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Much of Red, White, and Whole is based on LaRocca’s experiences growing up as an immigrant in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1980’s.

“Too Bright To See” by Kyle Lukoff

Title: Too Bright To See

Author: Kyle Lukoff

Publication Year: 2021

The Plot: Growing up in rural Vermont, eleven year old Bug has always believed that her 150 year old house was haunted. With the recent passing of her Uncle Roderick, the ghosts in her house seem even more active. Life outside her house has also gotten more complicated as middle school approaches and her best friend Moira seems intent on recreating herself with lip gloss, makeup, and a new fixation on boys. Will Bug be able to also find her true self to quiet the ghosts in the house and survive the social scene at middle school?

My Take: This book did not interest me, but I believe that it is the right selection for some readers. Spoilers prevent me from saying more about this, but this book will speak to a narrow audience of young people struggling with themselves. Rather than being driven by the plot, author Kyle Lukoff prefers to draw attention to Bug’s inner life and her close relationships to her mother, best friend Moira, and her deceased uncle. Also, the supernatural elements in the book mirror Bug’s inner turbulence, a combination that works well as these elements collide to produce some unexpected outcomes. Even thought I was not captivated by this book, I can see the value in its message and believe that it will truly speak to certain readers.

One Interesting Thing About The Author: According to his website, Kyle Lukoff was hired at a bookstore when he was sixteen. Which means that he’s been working at the intersection of books and people for half his life.

“The Collector” by K. R. Alexander

Title: The Collector

Author: K. R. Alexander

Publication Year: 2018

The Plot: During the summer, Josie and her younger sister Anna move with their mom from Chicago out to the countryside. They move into a large house with their Grandmother Jeannie whose health is failing. Their grandmother soon warns the girls not to go into the woods because a mysterious presence named ‘Beryl’ lives there. Mom explains that grandmother Jeannie is making stories up because her thinking is impaired. At night the girls hear strange sounds coming from the woods and wonder if their grandmother’s stories are true?

My Take: The strength of this story lies in its narrative momentum. Author K. R. Alexander chooses to stick tightly to the plot and not give extra exposition or characterization. Readers looking for world building or fully developed characters will be disappointed, but those wanting a snappy ghost story with some good scares will be pleased. Recommended to any middle grade readers who want a spooky story.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to his website, K. R. Alexander has traveled the world and even spent time as a performance circus artist with a focus on aerial and trapeze skills. He has recently joined Ecologi, an organization that offsets carbon emissions, and pledged to plant 500 trees for every book that he publishes.

“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.