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: “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): The year is 1946 and 13 year old Jack Baker from Kansas is sent to the Morton Hall Academy for Boys in Maine after his mother dies and his father returns to the Navy. At his new school, Jack feels like an outsider but soon meets Early Auden, an eccentric boy who has a genius for such things as mathematics and small boat craft and is also constructing an elaborate story around the number pi. As their friendship develops, Jack learns that Early is also mourning his brother, who was reported dead in France in World War II. Over fall break, the two boys push off into the Kennebec River and go on a mysterious journey that will bring them closer to their lost loved ones.
My Take: From the midpoint of the book until the end, Vanderpool injects a strong dose of magical realism, involving such things as pirates, anthropomorphic bears, and a volcano. I was initially skeptical of these fantastical elements, but, towards the final chapters, I decided that the author had pulled it off. I would consider this a very special book that explores the mysteries of grief. There is a great deal of symbolism and meaning and Vanderpool draws heavily on fairy tale and archetypes to add depth to the narrative. I found Navigating Early to be a profound exploration of how we search for answers in our bereavement. (ages 12+)
One Interesting Note About the Author: Vanderpool researched Navigating Early by visiting Maine and exploring lighthouses, a boarding school, and even taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail. She did not see any bears.