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 Plot: Since the death of Coyote’s mother and two sisters in a car accident 5 years ago, 12 year old Coyote and her dad Rodeo have lived on a repurposed school bus traveling across the country to nowhere in particular. In a long distance phone call with her grandmother, Coyote learns that a park in her hometown is being bulldozed. Years before Coyote and her mom and sisters had buried a memory box in that park. Coyote vows to herself to travel and reclaim the memory box before it disappears underneath the bulldozers shovels. She must hide the true purpose of this cross country trek from Rodeo who cannot face his grief from the past.
My Take: This book suffers from a protracted second act in which we are introduced to a host of supporting characters, each with an accompanying subplot that slows, rather than adds momentum, to the story. At least one of these characters could be removed with no loss of meaning to the book.
I also at times found Coyote’s voice inauthentic due to her tendency to philosophize on life. She muses, for example, at one point that “you could be scared and sad and tough all at the same time, like I didn’t know that you could be a million different things all at the same time. There’s so much sadness in the world. Really, there is.” The author could have trusted the reader to draw these lessons from the story rather than having it told to us with such frequency.
The story picks up in the 3rd and 4th acts as Coyote’s yearning to retrieve the memory box intensifies and Rodeo is forced to wrestle with his grief and his abandonment of his role as a father. Gemeinhart’s strongest writing occurs in the final chapters which put a lump in my throat. I truly felt for Coyote and her father at the end despite the long slog to get to this point. Readers can decide for themselves if it was worth it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to Dan Gemeinhart’s website, he was a teacher-librarian for 13 years which, in my biased opinion, makes him a pretty awesome person!
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 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 Five Sentences Or Less: Ethan and his family are moving from Boston to a small town in coastal Georgia, seeking a new start after a traumatic experience involving Ethan and his best friend Kacey. As Ethan learns to adjust to his new settings and to try to make peace with the past, he makes a new friend in Coralee, a lively girl who helps Ethan settle into his new life. But being friends with Coralee also brings its own complications, some that remind him of his painful experience with Kacey. As Ethan and Coralee’s friendship deepens, they discover that the past has a way of resurfacing in painful ways.
My Take: This was an excellent read and I can understand it’s inclusion on a lot of mock Newberry lists this year. Ethan’s pain is convincing and as readers we are pulling for him to find some way to resolve his grief and find solace in his new relationships. Standish does employ some well worn tropes (the mean girl, the bully, etc.) but none of that should bother younger readers. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for good realistic fiction about trying to make peace with the past.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, when Ali Standish was young, she and her mother would play a story game. Ali would give her three things (like blueberries, a panda bear, and a snowy forest, for example) and her mother would be challenged to create a story out of it.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Jesse Alderman is the hook up man at Wakefield High, the guy who can get you anything–for a price. But when a big shot jock wants a shot at dating school hottie Bridget Smalley, Jesse’s real troubles begin. He ingratiates himself into her life and becomes good friends with her brother Pete who suffers from cerebral palsy. But as Jesse gets closer to Bridget and Pete, demons from his past begin to surface. The walls begin to close in on him as he understands that simply being smooth and untouchable is not enough.
My Take: Well, I just loved this book. Jesse Alderman is such a jerk-ass and an intriguing character at the same time that I couldn’t put this book down. More than anything, he is convincing. Spears has a talent for writing humorous, caustic dialogue that simply rings true.
I also appreciated that she has written a frustrated love story that is palatable for boys. Bereft of any hint of sentimental romance, this book features wounded characters that struggle for hints of humanity in the Darwinian jungle that is high school. I can certainly understand why this book was starred by Kirkus and School Library Journal. I would rank “Sway” as one of the best Young Adult books that I have ever read.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kat Spears has worked as a “bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter.” She has also worked as a gift shop attendant at St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry made his famous “Liberty or Death” speech in 1775.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Polly lives in a bustling house full of children and loves to read and think about ghosts. Ruby has the opposite problem in that she feels abandoned by her family but has the unwanted power of seeing the dead. By accident one day, the girls discover that they are neighbors and that their attics connect. As they began to secretly visit each other through the attics, they began to learn about the tragic past of Ruby’s family. An aunt that passed away years before begins to visit the girls and brings with her a frightening message.
My Take: This was great children’s book to read in the fall. I appreciated the rotating narration between the two girls and also how the author kept us in suspense as to whether Ruby was actually a ghost or not. I did feel that the book bogged down in certain places, but overall I would recommend this to children looking for a ghost book.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Charis Cotter lives in Newfoundland and has an abiding interest in ghosts.