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 In 5 Sentences Or Less: Josh has had his imaginary friend Big Brother since kindergarten. They stayed close and played together until mom lost patience and forced Josh to perform a burial ceremony for Big Brother in the backyard. He hasn’t seen Big Brother since then, but now, entering 5th grade at a new school, Josh’s imaginary friend has returned. At the school a boy named Lucas has noticed Josh and also the strange shadow that follows him, even on cloudy days. Lucas will play an important role as Josh grapples with his new life in 5th grade and the return of Big Brother.
My Take: The strength of this book is how is takes the inner lives of young people seriously. When Josh was younger, Big Brother was mostly a playmate with whom to build LEGO creations. Now as Josh is entering 5th grade, Big Brother serves as that voice to push him out to football games, to go on bike rides with friends, and into the general social scene. Clearly this imaginary friend serves partly as a vehicle for Josh’s growing psyche that is waking up to the world at large. Without revealing any spoilers, Lucas’s imaginary friend serves more as a conduit for the grief and shame from an event many years prior. Nickerson should be given credit for finding a way to explore the anxieties of young people without making it too overwrought or artificial. I found the author’s presentation of the imaginary friends convincing and I never found myself bothered by this narrative device. Nickerson’s well crafted book asks the reader to consider and respect the complex inner lives of young people.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Sara works part time in a library (yaaay!) and advises that one of the best steps to becoming a writer is to be a reader first.
The Plot in 5 Sentences Or Less: Each of the fifth graders in Mr. Terupt’s class at Snow Hill School has a story. Jessica, for instance, just moved across country with her mother to get away from her dad, while Alexia is intent upon spreading gossip throughout the class in order to start a war among the girls. As the year progresses, tensions among the students rise. But Mr. Terupt is an extraordinary teacher, capable of challenging his students with creative projects that point to deeper lessons. When a tragic event unfolds, Mr. Terupt’s lessons of kindness and forgiveness will be put to the test.
My Take: Because of Mr. Terupt reminded me of the book Wonder by Palacio because of the revolving first person narrator style and the emphasis on young people working out how to treat each other. Much credit should be given to Buyea for revisiting the “inspiring teacher” trope and not writing a stale rehash from this familiar territory. The choice to have the plot revolve around the tragic event in the middle of the book provides a great deal of momentum to the narrative. I did find the ending a little too nicely wrapped up for my cynical tastes, but this is nonetheless a wonderful read about forgiveness and the power of a teacher to inspire.
One Interesting Note About the Author: On his website, Rob Buyea confesses that he wasn’t much of reader growing up, but he did enjoy My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Auggie Pullman was born with a severe craniofacial difference that has set him apart from others since birth. He has endured over a dozen surgeries to cosmetically craft his face and make his eating and speech easier. Home schooled all of his life, this year he is entering Middle School and must mix with the general population of children his own age. As he begins the school year, Auggie fortunately makes friends with Summer and Jack Will, but a clique of popular kids set their sights on torturing him. Will Auggie make it through the school year and survive the cruel social nightmare of Middle School?
My Take: Believe the hype. This book was so good and it lived up to its acclaim. I was relieved because I had just finished reading Divergent by Veronia Roth, another very popular book, and I could barely get through it. But Wonder kept its promise. What struck me as excellent was Palacio’s ear for convincing dialogue and details. The mean notes slipped into lockers, the fickle friendships, the lunchroom social cliques– all of these details impress upon the reader the cruelty of Middle School. As Auggie endures the searing trial of making it through 5th grade, we as readers are right along with him and hoping that he can survive the year. Goosebumps on my arm at the end told me that this book is special, that it is a book that needs to read by as many people as possible, to remind us all, without saccharine sentimentality, that a little extra kindness is a wonderful thing.
One Interesting Note About the Author: R. J. Palacio decided to write this book after she and her sons had an uncomfortable encounter with a girl with a severe craniofacial difference outside of an ice cream shop.
Nolan is in 5th grade now and sick of Bubba Bixby picking on everyone in the school. Bubba lies, steals, cheats and has a pejorative name for all of his classmates. Nolan is half the size of Bubba, so a physical confrontation is out of the question. How can he stop Bubba’s bullying without getting pounded into the ground?
His answer comes when his hippie teacher Mr. Greene assigns them a project of creating a newspaper page on a topic affecting the community. Nolan realizes that there is no greater issue to address than Bubba’s bullying. He also decides that he’ll take the project one step forward by creating a website rather than just a newspaper. Mr. Green has once written on his homework, “You shred, man!” He decided that this was seriously high praise from a cool guy like Mr. Green. In that vein, Nolan decides to adapt the appellation “Shredderman” for his online alter ego.
Nolan builds the website Shredderman.com and begins posting pictures and videos of Bubba’s bullying. All goes well until Nolan advertises his website a little too effectively. Suddenly everyone is looking at his site and wondering who this Shredderman is. He even receives an e-mail from Bubba: “I know who you are…You’re gonna wish that you were never born!” Has Nolan suddenly taken his school project too far?
Fans of such titles as as Oggie Cooder by Sarah Weeks and Hank Zipzer by Harry Winkler will appreciate the Shredderman series. Secret Identity is also a great pick for readers that want to read about turning the tables on a bully. Recommended ages 9+ 138 pages