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).
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.
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.
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!
Title: Here In The Real World
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Publication Date: 2020
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: 11 year old Ware seems to be in for another depressing summer hanging out at the Community Rec Center while his parents are at work. His plans change when he plays hooky and discovers a demoed church lot just over the chain link fence next to the rec center. There he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden next to the church ruins. Ware spends the rest of the summer skipping out on the rec center and adding his own touches to the lot with Jolene. But the impending end of summer and an upcoming auction for the lot may spell the end for their special place.
My Take: I thought that Pennypacker hit a home run with her novel Pax, so I was looking forward to reading this. Here In The Real World does not stand out the way that Pax does, but it is still an enjoyable read. I give credit to Pennypacker for staging the text in the 3rd person point of view. So many middle grade and teen books are written in the first person to capture the self-absorption of youth, that I find it refreshing when a book departs from this. Pennypacker is a deft writer and, while I would not characterize this book as especially plot driven, it did not feel like a slow read to me. She chose to keep the chapters short and punchy and this really drives the story forward. This is especially amazing to me, because this book is heavy on themes of rebirth, renewal, coming to terms with being different, first feelings of love, development of an artist, tension between generations, dealing with unfairness, the need for silence and being alone etc. Somehow Pennypacker guides the reader through all of this and yet the book feels well paced. That’s a pretty incredible feat for a writer.
(Side note: This book really reminded me of My Jasper June, in that it introduced a rugged, carefree character to shake up the protagonist and add to their family.)
Beyond that I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It is a solid addition to middle grade realistic fiction about young people finding themselves – which is really what every tween fiction book is about in the end.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to this interview with Publishers Weekly, when Pennypacker was writing the first Clementine book, she “overheard a conversation in which someone had recalled Carl Jung’s answer to a question. Jung had been asked, ‘Why is there evil in the world?’ And he answered, ‘There’s evil in the world when people can’t tell their stories.'” Frankly, I find this to be an incredibly inspiring quote to base your writing (and reading!) life around!
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Harriet is an 11 year old who spends her days eavesdropping on others and filling her notebook up with honest observations. When her notebook falls into the wrong hands, Harriet finds her life thrown into turmoil as her schoolmates digest all that she has written about them.
My Take: This book clearly earns its place as an enduring classic in juvenile literature. Having never read it before, I thought from its title that it would be about a girl solving small mysteries in her neighborhood and saving the day. What I discovered instead was a more complicated book about a girl with a compulsive writing habit, grieving over the absence of a caregiver, and learning to navigate the power struggles of 6th grade. I loved the characters in the book because, like real people, they are frequently less than pleasant. I laughed, for example, when Harriet was eating dinner with her parents and, stewing over their recent idea to give her dance lessons, she screams, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!” At another point, her former nurse writes to her and includes the line “If you’re missing me, I want you to know that I’m not missing you.” Such hard bitten interactions between the characters really kept my attention and made Harriet’s world come to life.
I also appreciate how Fitzhugh made the stakes very high for Harriet. Losing her notebook and becoming an outcast at school are frontal assaults on Harriet’s life and mind. And she does not go down easily in this fight. Apologies are long in coming from her and for a few days she is physically abusive to her peers. This struggle really pulled me along through the story.
I look forward to reading more about the history of this beloved book and recommending it to many readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According this article, while Fitzhugh was working on Harriet the Spy, she was also working on a novel about a teenage girl who fall in love with another girl. It never saw publication, but if it had, it would have been one of the earliest gay novel for teens.
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 5 Sentences Or Less: The past year has been rough for Leah as her family deals with tragedy and her friendships are changing at school. As the summer begins, she finds that she and her best friend Tess have drifted apart, leaving a hole in her life. Luckily Leah soon meets a curly redhead girl her age named Jasper who is new in town. The girls become instant best friends, but Leah discovers that Jasper’s life is full of hurtful secrets. As each girl grapples with the broken parts of their lives, they realize that being a true friend is neither simple nor easy.
My Take: This book convincingly portrays a friendship between two girls who are each grappling with pain. The story is less of a thrill ride and more of an unfolding of the characters as the reader gets to know each of them. I was most interested in the sense of co-dependency that forms within moments of the girls’ meeting. Each senses in the other something that they are missing and that they desperately need and want. This urge is so powerful that at times they end up hurting the other person. I knew from the start that the friendship between Leah and Jasper would not be smooth, but I definitely enjoyed the bumpy relationship between them. Highly recommended to girls around the age of 11 – 13.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Ms. Snyder lives in Ormewood Park in Atlanta which is the setting for “My Jasper June.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Twin sisters Elodee and Naomi are moving with their mom and dad to a new place called Eventown. While the girls are ambivalent about leaving their old house and changing schools, they soon find that Eventown is an amazing place. The weather is always perfect, the residents are inevitably cheerful, and school has never been more enjoyable. Eldoee, however, soon begins to sense that something is off, that no risks are ever taken, and nothing much seems to change. As she becomes more acquainted with Eventown, she decides that the price people pay to live there is too high for her family.
My Take: I felt that this book worked well on a metaphoric level, so long as the reader does not think too much into it. Haydu introduces some elements of magical realism into the narrative at certain points and the reader will need to accept these to enjoy the book. The author asks that we not examine too critically such plot devices as the the cause of the collective psychological fog which embraces Eventown. When I accept that this is not a book based strictly in realism, I can appreciate that the story does a pretty decent job of exploring the themes of how families deal with change and grief, of how the drive for safety forces people to sublimate other emotional needs, and how deeper meaning derives from the messiness of life. Astute readers will notice clear parallels to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. While I’m not crazy about the plot mechanics behind the book, I would recommend Eventown to young people looking for a more serious read.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to the bio on her website, Corey lives in Brooklyn with her family and “a wide variety of cheese.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Marty Preston is an 11 year old who lives in the hill country of West Virginia. While out exploring the countryside, he encounters a beagle who follows him home. Marty immediately takes to the animal and names it Shiloh. He is soon disappointed when he learns that Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, a neighbor who abuses his animals. Marty’s struggle over the ownership of Shiloh forces him to face questions about right and wrong, loyalty, and friendship.
My Take: Shiloh won the Newberry Medal in 1992 and the quality of Naylor’s writing certainly justifies this award. As I was reading the novel, I found myself wishing that I had read this book years earlier in my library career. The story of a boy and his dog is a well worn theme in juvenile literature, but Naylor’s handling of the material never seems stale or cliche. As readers we immediately appreciate the relationship between Marty and Shiloh and we know that it must endure. Our hearts are invested. Naylor deserves credit for rounding out the character of Judd Travers, a man who has himself experienced abuse. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for the feel of a classic story.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her biography on her website, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was making ‘books’ as far back as the 4th and 5th grade. She would write on scratch paper, draw pictures, and then staple it all together.