“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!

“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.

“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.

“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!

“The List of Things That Will Not Change” by Stead

List Of Things That Will Not Change book cover

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.