Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Title: Hello, Universe

Author: Erin Entrada Kelly

Publication Information: 2017 by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins

The Plot: Virgil Salinas is a shy boy who is overshadowed by his older brothers and pushed around by the neighborhood bully Chet. He longs to talk to the pretty girl in school Valencia Somerset. To overcome his shyness, he seeks the help of local child psychic Kaori Tanaka and her sister Gen. When an accident occurs, Virgil must rely on the team of Valencia, Kaori, and Gen to help him.

My Take: This Newbery Medal winner has gentle characters and a straightforward plot but lacks narrative momentum. Even a major accident that befalls the main character does not stir enough urgency into the plot. Erin Entrada Kelly definitely surpassed this work with her more recent novel Lalani And The Distant Sea. For those looking for a middle grade realistic fiction, I would recommend other titles.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Erin Entrada Kelly is of mixed Philippine descent. She was raised in a household in which people spoke the Philippine dialect Cebuano (as opposed to Tagalog).

Dead End In Norvelt By Jack Gantos

Title: Dead End In Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos

Publication Info: Square Fish 2013

Plot: Norvelt is a small town in western Pennsylvania that has seen its best days, but the long time residents are too stubborn to let it die. With the arrival of summer, Norvelt resident Jack Gantos (the character, not the author) is hoping to spend it playing baseball and sneaking peeks at the war movies at the drive in theater. Jack’s plans are disrupted when his neighbor Ms. Volker requests his assistance typing up obituaries for the local paper. On top of that, his father ropes him into a scheme to construct a fallout shelter and airfield in their backyard. Throughout this strange summer, Jack learns a good deal about his hometown and its quirky residents.

My Take: Author Jack Gantos writes excellent realistic fiction (or perhaps historical fiction in this case, if you consider the early 1970’s history!) and has a talent for bringing the quirks of characters and locations to life. He also writes humor very well and I found myself laughing in many parts of this book. As I got deeper into the story, I began to wonder what was the point of it all. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but rather as a strength of the novel. Gantos captures the slow summer days and strangeness of a dying town in the early 70’s, something he could not do if he had a heavy agenda for his characters. I appreciated this book, but younger readers with shorter attention spans may find it a slog. Recommend this book to seasoned readers looking for some funny realistic fiction.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to his website, Gantos really grew up in Norvelt. In school, he was “in the Bluebird reading group, which he later found out was for the slow readers.”

The Sea In Winter By Christine Day

Title: The Sea In Winter

Author: Christine Day

Publication Info: 2021 by Harper Collins Children’s Books

The Plot: 12 year old Maisie has done ballet for as long as she can remember. Her free time and social life all revolve around ballet and she dreams of one day becoming a famous dancer. When she tears her ACL on the eve of auditioning for a major production, her dreams are crushed. Months of physical therapy follow along with a family vacation to the coast of Washington. During this time Maisie must come to grips with her new life and identity.

My Take: This book was a slog for me, but I’m not the target reader. A tween girl would no doubt better appreciate this story of self discovery and healing. I was distracted by Day’s heavy exposition of the ethnic background of some of the characters. Their native heritage, while interesting by itself, always seemed tangential to the main plot. To be fair, Maisie’s struggle with her injury and loss of identity are convincing. I would certainly recommend this title to any young readers looking for a book about mental health struggles.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website Christine Day is an enrolled citizen of the Upper Skagit tribe.

“Pony” by R. J. Palacio

Title: Pony

Author: R. J. Palacio

The Plot: 12 year old Silas lives with his father and a ghostly friend named Mittenwool, whom only Silas can see, on a farm in the west. Their peaceful life together is shattered when a gang of counterfeiters kidnaps the father in the middle of the night. Silas and Mittenwool embark on a journey across rugged country aided by several lawmen and a spirited pony to find the gang. Silas eventually realizes that he is searching not only for his father, but for answers to mysteries from his past.

My Take: Palacio has another homerun on her hands here. The author of the mega-popular book Wonder proves that she is a master of her craft in this western. The characters are complex and the kidnapping plot draws the reader in while cleverly shifting towards a deeper narrative towards the end of the book. For any young readers looking for a good story filled with fully realized characters, this is your ticket.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Palacio “invented a baby toy called The Bobo Glove, a portable, wearable, washable activity toy for infants.” Pretty neat!

“Ophie’s Ghosts” by Justina Ireland

Title: Ophie’s Ghosts

Author: Justina Ireland

Publication Info: 2021 by Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins0

The Plot: In 1920’s Georgia, Ophie and her mother experience traumatic racial violence and decide to start a new life up north. Ophie realizes along the journey that she is able to see and interact with ghosts. After arriving in Pittsburgh, they procure jobs as housekeepers for a well off family named the Caruthers. Ophie soon befriends a ghost named Clara who met a tragic end at the house. Ophie decides to use her ability to commune with the supernatural to solve the mystery of Clara’s murder against the wishes of the Caruther family.

My Take: I felt that this book was slow for almost the first half. When we finally become fully engaged in Clara’s tragic story, the pace picks up and the story becomes much more interesting. By the end, I was won over and felt that the effort was worth it. Author Justina Ireland does an excellent job portraying the racial divisions of the time period. Those readers seeking a historical fiction mystery with a heavy dose of the supernatural will most likely enjoy this book.

About The Author: Justina Ireland has also written several books set in the Star Wars universe.

“The Last Cuentista”

Title: The Last Cuentista

Author: Donna Barba Higuera

Publication Info: 2021 by Levine Querido

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.”

“Just Like That” by Gary D. Schmidt

Title: Just Like That

Author: Gary D. Schmidt

Publication Info: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021

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.

“Alone” by Megan E. Freeman

Title: Alone

Author: Megan E. Freeman

Publication: 2021 by Aladin/Simon & Schuster

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.

‘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.