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.
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: Red is a scarlet oak that has stood in a neighborhood for 216 years. The local people use Red as a wishtree, writing wishes onto scraps of paper or cloth and tying them onto the branches. When a Muslim family moves into a house close by, Red and its companion animals befriend the daughter named Samar. But when an act of hate targets Samar’s family, Red finds that she must take a more active role in protecting the people and animals in her neighborhood.
My Take: Wishtree is an excellent entry into the category of juvenile fiction that deals with immigration and racial tension. This tale will certainly ring familiar to readers in Trump’s America. Applegate doesn’t clutter up the tale and instead allows the simplicity of the story and the gentle voice of Red guide the narrative. Adults who are struggling to explain racism and persecution to children will appreciate this book
One Interesting Thing About The Author: Katherine Applegate is not only the author of The One And Only Ivan, 2013 Newberry Medal Winner, but also the Animorphs series.