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!
Title: The List of Things That Will Not Change
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Random House 2020
The Plot: Ten year old Bea’s parents have recently divorced amicably and are now living in separate residences. Her father has come out as gay and will soon be marrying his boyfriend Jesse. While adjusting to these changes, Bea mostly has positive feelings about the upcoming marriage and is especially excited about meeting Jesse’s daughter Sonia who is also 10. As Bea adapts to the changing relationships in her life, she makes several decisions that create discord among her family.
My Take: I found this book to be a strong middle grade realistic fiction read because Rebecca Stead captures the mix of feelings that many children of divorce experience. Instead of having Bea wallowing in hurt and grief over her parents split, Stead chooses the more interesting approach of allowing her to experience joy and excitement over the new lives that her parents are building. I also appreciated how Bea’s character changes in the reader’s mind over the arc of the story. We learn things about how her that make her more interesting. Stead should also be given credit for adeptly handling the issue of a gay parent without making it feel forced or contrived. The author nests the topic of gay marriage within the wider scope of the family and builds the book on believable characters. This credible presentation of a contemporary mixed family prevents “The List of Things That Will Not Change” from becoming simply an ‘issues’ book.
One Interesting Thing About The Author: According to her website, Rebecca Stead’s parents, much like Bea’s, were divorced when she was growing up and had separate residences. No doubt Stead drew on these experiences when writing this book.
Title: “Because of the Rabbit”
Author: Cynthia Lord
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Emma is going into 5th grade and she has decided that she no longer wants to be homeschooled. On the night before her first day at public school, her father the game warden brings home a rabbit that was stuck in a neighbor’s fence. Over the following days, Emma learns how to care for the rabbit and also that making friends in 5th grade is a more difficult task than she imagined. When a school project requires teaming up with some classmates, Emma learns the meaning of true friendship.
My Take: This was a straightforward story about friendship and learning the many social pitfalls of 5th grade. In its tone and content, it really reminded me of The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. There are no bad guys in this story, so Lord sidesteps many of the bully and mean girl tropes that populate most younger and middle grade chapter books. I also appreciated the character of Jack who suffers from ADHD and is quirky and sweet natured. All told, readers looking for a realistic fiction book for 3rd and 4th graders will be well pleased with this choice.
One Interesting Note About The Author: One of Cynthia Lord’s inspirations for this story was her experience with rabbits. She has 3 pet bunnies and has also fostered twenty-six of them in the last few years!
The Plot: Mason Buttle is a large, sweaty 7th grader with a cognitive disability. His best friend died a year and a half ago under suspicious circumstances and Mason was the last person to see him. Since the incident, the police have been questioning Mason trying to piece together clues to understand how it occurred. Unfortunately Mason does not understand that they suspect that he murdered his friend.
My Take: I really enjoyed this book from the beginning because I found Mason’s voice to be authentic. The murder case propels the story forward, but the reader will also appreciate the warmth of Mason’s character and his decency in the face of his challenges. He endures social ostracism and rejection but still finds constructive activities and works on the few relationships that give back to him. A highly recommended book to middle grade readers.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Leslie Connor was born on the floor of her family’s home — no time to get to a hospital!
The Plot: Iris and Lark are 11 year old twin sisters who have been close all of their lives. As they enter 6th grade, they discover that, for the first time, they will have different teachers. Both girls struggle in the new school year to fit in and find their identity. Iris takes solace in an after school camp, the local library, and visiting the gentleman that runs the local antiques shop. As the sisters’ relationship comes under strain, Iris looks for ways, some of them fantastical, to heal the division between them.
My Take: This book was an enjoyable read with a few minor problems. I appreciated Ursu’s development of the closeness of the bond between the sisters, but I found that there was a little too much exposition. Some of the first third of the book could be removed and the storyline would not suffer. I also found that the fantastical elements seemed like an awkward fit with the realistic tone in the rest of the book. Still, I would recommend this to readers looking for a book on the bonds between sisters along with a hint of magic.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Anne Ursu’s profile handle on twitter describes her as an “obscure children’s book author with three cats and a murderous rage.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time. But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time. In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny. As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place. Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.
My Take: Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there. Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal. The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters. Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies. It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end. It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever. I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations. At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless. This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: War is approaching and Peter’s father must go off to fight. Before he leaves, he forces Peter to leave his pet fox, Pax, in the woods; it is not welcome at his grandfather’s house where Peter must stay for the time being. After leaving Pax and traveling to his grandfather’s, Peter is wracked by guilt and decides that he must journey to find his fox. Alone in the woods, Pax learns the way of the wild foxes and learns that as the war draws closer, the animals must travel to safety. Both Peter and Pax find themselves on a journey on which they will discover much about themselves.
My Take: I thought that this was an engaging book from the first page. Pennypacker manages to relate the story of a child’s attachment to his pet in a way that is heartfelt but not sentimental. I also appreciated that she portrays realistic fox behavior but also uses a deft amount of anthropomorphism to draw in the reader. The foxes came across as both believable animals and interesting characters. I found that the narrative slowed down a touch when Peter sought refuge at a hermit’s house, but I thought the ending was sheer magic and more than made up for it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Pennypacker is also the author of the Clementine book series.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Georges is a 7th grader in Brooklyn whose family has just experienced job loss and moved from a house to an apartment building. Life at school isn’t much better because he is lately the target of the class bullies. At the new apartment building, a strange boy named Safer ropes him into spying on a tenant nicknamed Mr. X. As Georges grapples with the school bullies and struggles to understand Safer’s behavior, he finds that navigating the social waters of adolescence is often times confusing but also rewarding in the oddest of moments.
My Take: I greatly admired Stead’s Newberry Winner When You Reach Me (2009) and consider it one of my favorite middle grade books. I enjoyed Liar & Spy, but it was a less pleasurable reading experience for me. Stead has a gift at creating characters for realistic fiction that are believable, quirky, and endearing to the reader. I enjoyed getting to know Safer and the odd world that he inhabits in his mind. I did feel that there were some minor problems with the plot. Georges’s father seems to contain secrets in his sadness that are never fully fleshed out and there is a plot point involving the mother affixed near the end that feels unnecessary. Still, this is an enjoyable read about a middle schooler in transition.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, before her writing career, Rebecca Stead was a public defender (she thought being a writer was impractical!).
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: It is Christmas break and Milo is hoping to use his time off from school to rest and relax. Unfortunately, he lives with his parents in an old house turned inn located in the town of Nagspeake. As soon as he settles in with his books and hot chocolate, Milo’s vacation is interrupted by a strange group of characters that arrive at the inn. When some of the guests’ items go missing, Milo and his friend Meddy are drawn into deeper mysteries about the history of the house and the people that once lived there.
My Take: This is a finely realized mystery that will appeal to advanced elementary aged readers who do not mind wading through some exposition. I admire Milford’s ability to develop the world of Nagspeake and Greenglass House and to settle the reader in this interesting environment. I did find myself wishing for a mystery that was more finely focused on one point rather than spreading it out between the relationships of the guests, the missing items, and the history of the house.
One Interesting Thing About The Author: According to her website, Kate has also written articles on such arcane topics as “self-aware ironmongery and how to make saltwater taffy in a haunted kitchen.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Fish Girl is a mermaid who lives in a water tank at a private ocean attraction aquarium. The owner is a man who claims, and Fish Girl initially believes, to be the ocean god Neptune who tells her that he saved her and that she must stay hidden from everyone else. A girl named Livia spots her and begins regularly visiting with her and informing her of the outside world. Fish Girl yearns to break free from the tank and to learn more about her past and what the wider world is like. She begins to take risks, to defy Neptune, and eventually find where she belongs.
My Take: I am so impressed by this book. Library patrons often ask me for something like CeCe Bell’s El Deafo or any of the graphic novels by Telgemeier. I feel like Fish Girl would appeal to these readers looking for a strong female protagonist.
Culturally, Fish Girl also feels very relevant to the times in which we live. For those who participated in The Women March in D.C. or are interested in promoting the ‘She Persisted’ philosophy, Fish Girl will hold a lot of appeal.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Donna Jo Napoli has a LOT of pictures of her family on her website! It’s kind of neat because you don’t see that too often!