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 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 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 In Five Sentences Or Less: Boy lives a simple existence on a manor estate in 14th century France: he tends the goats, sleeps in his hut, and tries to hide his hunchback from those who tease and call him names. His life is upended when a lone pilgrim named Secundus appropriates him for a trip to a local town to offer prayers to a holy relic. Along the way, Boy learns that Secundus has a longer journey in mind and divulges that he is on a quest to collect seven relics and take them to Rome. Boy finds himself swept up in an adventure that will open him up to the world beyond his manor home and learn extraordinary lesson about his true self.
My Take: Murdock has written an excellent novel here and definitely deserves its place as a Newberry Honor. I found myself caught up in the rough characters of Secundus and Boy. I marveled at Boy’s ability to rationalize his miserable existence at the manor and wondered how much grief was stored inside of him and how was he going to process it. Secundus is a more mysterious character who leaves the reader guessing at his motivations until deep into the book. I was touched by the convincing changes that both of these characters undergo and by the end was left feeling very close indeed to both of them. Mudrock deserves credit for weaving in supernatural elements in a seamless manner that almost makes them feel realistic. I often found myself wondering if something was real, the perspective of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps just the general beliefs of a more superstitious time in history. By keeping much back, Murdock kept me guessing, something that children’s literature rarely does. A highly recommended read for ages 12 +!
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to an interview with her, Catherine Gilbert Murdock prefers reading children’s literature to grown up books because she finds them “long-winded, depressing and lacking in resolution.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Delsie enjoys so many things about her life on Cape Cod: the fishing, the storms that roll in off the ocean, and the close knit community of her small neighborhood. Still, she can’t help but think about her mom who left her years before with her grandmother and what the reasons may have been for this abandonment. Her relationships are also changing as her good friend Brandi begins hanging out with an older, mean girl. Delsie finds companionship with a boy new to the Cape that summer who seems to harbor as much hurt inside himself as she does. As new information comes forth about her mother, Delsie finds that she must choose whether to hold on to pain and resentment or to focus on the smaller blessings in her life.
My Take: I found Shouting At The Rain to be a solid entry in the field of realistic fiction for young readers. As an adult reader, I enjoyed learning about life on Cape Cod and how the ‘Capers’ and the tourist get along. Hunt has a talent for conveying blue collar life without making it overly sentimental or pushing it too far. One character, for example, must move with his family into a campground every summer because their landlord rents their house out to tourists for more money. It’s an indignity that is mentioned only a few times, but it really serves as an example of what Delsie and the people in her community grapple with. I would recommend this book to any younger reader interested in a book on changing friendships and life in the summer.
One Interesting Note About The Author: As she notes on her website, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s first forays into creative writing were after the passing of her brother, who died shortly before his 4th birthday. She “wrote songs about him for years–songs about when he was alive and songs speculating where he went after he died. I had always imagined him sitting on a cloud watching me.” She admits that not a day goes by when she does not think about him.
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: Annabelle is a 12 year old girl living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943. Betty is a new girl at school who jumps Annabelle on her way home one afternoon in the deep recess of Wolf Hollow, a low, dark place that runs between the school and Annabelle’s farm. Betty threatens to beat her with a stick and hurt her younger brothers if she tells anyone. The one witness to this cruelty is Toby, a local homeless man with a mysterious past who wanders the local woods. The tension culminates is a violent incident that turns the town against Toby and makes Annabelle realizes that she is the only person who can protect him.
My Take: This was a book that gripped me from the opening pages and then expanded into a conversation about larger themes. I appreciated that author Lauren Wolk takes no time in introducing the character of Betty Glengarry who immediately provides a source of danger and conflict. She’s a wonderful antagonist that fills the narrative with a tension that makes you want to continue reading. Later on, as we get to know the character of Toby, we are asked to make sense of a more complicated character: a man who is obviously troubled, perhaps dangerous, but also show signs of warmth and kindness. When we learn the source of Toby’s demons, we are hoping that the community will show wisdom and patience in how it treats with him. This is a wonderful book that will encourage readers to ask questions about the homeless, the mentally ill, PTSD, and the ambiguous consequences of deception. I can certainly understand why Wolf Hollow won a Newberry Honor earlier this year.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk has a new book out entitled Beyond The Bright Sea that is already creating some Newberry chatter for 2018.
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.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Standish Treadwell tries to fade into the background by giving a blank stare from the back of the class. But when his friend Hector climbs the wall behind the house and discovers what’s on the other side, Standish can no longer be inconspicuous. Now he’s being hauled into the principal’s office, interrogated by the leather coats, and beaten by his new stooge of a teacher Mr. Gunnell. After Hector and his family disappear and a strange visitor appears at his house, Standish seeks an opportunity to strike a blow against the heart of a diseased system.
My Take: This is excellent dystopian YA literature. Gardener drops the reader into the middle of Standish’s life with no explanation or exposition, allowing us to slowly piece together the story. What starts as a typical tale about a middle-schooler being sent to the principal’s office, turns into so much more. Gardener slowly develops the nightmare world, until the reader is fully invested in cheering for Standish to subvert it. Great writing and a great book by Sally Gardner! Parents and librarians should be aware that the language in the book is not for younger readers. Ages 15+
One Interesting Note About the Author: Much like Standish, Sally Gardner is dyslexic. As a student, she was branded “unteachable” and expelled from various schools. She is now a spokesperson for dyslexia.
The Plot In Five Sentences or Less: Hobie Hanson is a 5th grader in Seattle, Washington during World War II. His father is away fighting the Germans, so Hobie spends most of his time with his friends and his German Shepherd Duke. Life is not easy without his dad around, and only becomes harder when Mitch Mitchell, the school bully, sets his eyes on him and challenges him to give up Duke for the Dogs for Defense Program. Much to Mitch’s surprise, Hobie rises to the challenge and soon Duke is part of the war effort and on his way to the Pacific. Hobbie finds that he now must adjust to life both without his dad and his dog.
My Take: I found this to be a very straight forward book about a boy’s experience and sacrifice on the home front during World War II. My one criticism would be that Larson could have risked introducing more strangeness into the story. There was a lot of baseball and paper routes, what one might consider stock 1950’s Americana. Still, for those looking for a good read about the connection between and boy and his dog, this is a good pick.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby was born at Fort Lawton Army Hospital in Seattle, Washington. She cost $5.