Category: Middle School


rain reign

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose loves homonyms.  She spends her days looking for new ones to add to her list, and then once she gets home adding them or rewriting the entire list if she runs out of space.  Her dog Rain has a name that has two homonyms: reign and rein, which is why she picked it.  Her father also gave her Rain on a rainy night.  He found Rain wandering around after he left the bar one night.  Rain is one of the best things in Rose’s life, since her father spends most evenings drinking at the bar and Rose spends them alone.  Luckily, she also has her uncle in her life.  He takes her to school, helps her find new homonyms, and protects her when necessary from her father when he loses patience with Rose.  Then a fierce storm hits their town and Rose’s father lets Rain out into the storm and she disappears.  Rose’s father refuses to explain why he let Rain out in a storm and also refuses to help Rose find her dog.  It is up to Rose to find Rain so she devises her own plan and calls on her uncle for help.  But when she finds Rain, she also discovers that Rain has other owners and Rose has to make a heartbreaking choice about right and wrong and love.

Martin captures a truly dysfunctional family on the page here.  Rose’s father is brutal, cruel and a constant threat in her life.  At the same time, the book glimmers with hope all of the time.  Rose herself is not one to dwell on the shortcomings of her life, preferring to immerse herself in her words, her dog and her time with her uncle.  Martin manages to balance both the forces of love and fear in this book, providing hope for children living with parents like this but also not offering a saccharine take on what is happening. 

Rose is an amazing character.  She talks about having Asperger’s syndrome and OCD.  She is the only child in her class with a full-time aide and it is clear from her behaviors in class that she needs help.  Yet again Martin balances this.  She shows how Rose attempts to reach out to her classmates and then how Rain helps make that possible and how Rose manages to use her own disability as a bridge to help others cope in times of loss.  It’s a beautiful and important piece of the story.

A dark book in many ways, this book shines with strong writing, a heroic young female protagonist and always hope.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.

gabriel finley and the ravens riddle

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Gabriel is a 12-year-old who loves riddles, he collects them and loves puzzling over them, just like his father did.  But his father has disappeared, leaving Gabriel behind in the care of his loving aunt.  Outside the house, Gabriel is unaware of the raven’s nest and the little raven growing up in it.  Paladin is a special raven though, one that is destined to have a magical bond with Gabriel, but only if he can survive the attacks upon him.  Owls hunt ravens for food, but worse are the valravens, creatures who serve Corax, a half-man, half-raven.  As Gabriel learns more about his father and his family’s special relationship with ravens, he is drawn into a quest that will lead him and his friends into the underground world of Aviopolis to confront Corax and save his father.

Inventive and unique, this middle-grade fantasy novel is something special.  Gabriel is an interesting protagonist, cautious with the friends he makes and living in a world where magic is suddenly part of his life.  He adapts quickly but believably to what is happening and responds with bravery but also curiosity.  He and his friends have a variety of skills, and they all nicely come into play during their adventures.  There are other characters who may be friends or not, they are written with a wonderful ambiguity that is allowed to be unresolved for a long time, adding richness to the tale.

Hagen has added a lot of depth to her novel with his creation of a raven society where they test one another to see if they are valravens with riddles.  Valravens don’t care for humor, so they are easily identified opposed to the merry ravens.  Much to my delight, it is revealed later in the book that owls love puns.  So the book is filled with wordplay, a grand element of the plot.

A vibrant mix of riddles, adventure and animal tale, this book is definitely one worth discovering.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.

nest

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them.  Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting.  Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg.  She’s also having balance problems.  The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos.  Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression.  Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past.  As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium.  Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.

Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction.  Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes.  Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail.  Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can.  She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.

Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy.  She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book.  Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own.  He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention.  Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.

Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

red pencil

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Amira is an artist who spends her free time drawing with sharp sticks in the dirt.  She has just turned twelve and is now old enough to wear a toob.  Amira longs to go to school, but her mother doesn’t believe that girls should go to school.  So Amira stays on the family farm with her parents and younger sister who was born with misshapen legs.  Then the peace is shattered when their farm is attacked and Amira’s beloved father is killed.  Now they must leave their farm behind and head to a refugee camp where people are crowded into a small space and hunger is constant.  But when Amira is given a red pencil, her mind once again is able to escape into her art and she starts to once again dream of a different future and how to get there.

Set in Sudan, this verse novel is filled with power, wrenching written.  The brutality of the attack is captured clearly on the page as is the shock of loss that continues to ripple and tear at the small family remaining.  Pinkney captures grief on the page, writing with a clarity and beauty that is stark at times and layered and subtle at others.  Her verse speaks to the power of dreams to lift people out of where they are trapped and make a difference. 

From waves of wheat on the page to the family together, Evans’ illustrations support the powerful verse.  As the tone of the poems shift, so does his art which moves from playful to dramatic along with the text.  My favorite images capture small pieces of life, little glimpses of what makes a home and a day.

An impressive novel in verse, this book offers a strong survivor of a protagonist who uses art as a force to lift herself.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

categorical universe of candice phee

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

This Australian award winner is the story of 12-year-old Candice who is completing a school project that is supposed to be a paragraph for each letter of the alphabet that reveals something about her.  But Candice can’t keep it to one paragraph, so she begins to do chapters for each letter and the words she chooses for each letter are unexpected too.  As she writes, Candice is telling the story of her family and her pet fish.  She worries about her family falling apart, since her mother is still grieving the loss of Candice’s baby sister Sky to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  Her father is working on software in his spare time to prove that he can be as successful as his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, or flying his toy plane.  Either way, both parents are self-absorbed rather than paying attention to Candice.  She also doesn’t have any friends, until an unusual boy comes to school, a boy who believes that he’s traveled to another dimension and spends his time trying to get back home by falling out of a tree.  It seems to Candice that it’s up to her to fix a lot of what’s wrong, but how can she?

Jonsberg has crafted a unique character in Candice.  She may or may not be on the autism spectrum, but it is clear that she is different from the others in her grade and that they know it.  Yet Candice functions fully, just in her own way.  She loves her family, makes connections with others, and cares deeply about what is happening around her.  She just does it in her own way, one that makes sense and that shows just how smart she is. 

The book is wonderfully funny, with situations that are almost slapstick at times and others that are cleverly worked.  The scene where Candice forces herself to get on her uncle’s boat to talk about the problems between him and her father is classic nausea humor that is done to perfection.  Yet the book has plenty of depth too, with the deep depression that her mother has fallen into and even a little romance.

Strong writing keeps this complex book from tangling into knots and a strong protagonist gives it a unique and smart voice.   A great Australian import that is ideal for middle grade readers. 

Reviewed from e-galley received from Chronicle Books and Edelweiss.

iron trial

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Two masters of the fantasy genre come together to create a strong new series for middle graders.  Call was raised by his father to fear the Magisterium and magic itself.  When he accidentally split the sidewalk wide open with his powers as a child, his father was not pleased.  So when Call is required to go through testing for entering the Magisterium, he makes a plan to fail.  But the tests are not what he expected at all and soon he is entering the dreaded Magisterium, a place where he believes people are imprisoned against their will and killed for the sake of magic.  As Call joins the students, he finds himself making friends for the first time in his life.  But all is not what it seems, even for the nightmares that Call has thought up.  It is the ultimate battle of good and evil, but not in the way you’d ever expect.

Black and Clare play with similarities with the Harry Potter series, since theirs is also set in a school for magic.  But the magic here is different, as is the school itself.  Call too is no Harry, being a prickly and unusual protagonist who is at times quite nicely unlikeable.  This book is also set during a magical war, one that is actively being waged.  There are tests that are literally as dull as dirt, others that have the students battling elementals, and then there is a student who tries to escape the school. 

Black and Clare have great pacing throughout the book.  They have also created a very strong setting with the book, the school has a feeling of eternity about it, though we also know that Call is somehow very special.  It is that specialness that makes the book’s twists work so well.  They are completely surprising, shocking even.  In a genre like this where readers will come to it with a certain jadedness, it is great to read a book with that kind of zapping electrical charge.

Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy both the differences and similarities here, though readers of Percy Jackson will also find themselves right at home.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Scholastic and NetGalley.

half a world away

Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Jaden was adopted from Romania four years ago.  He knows that he’s a huge disappointment to his adoptive parents, who had expected a much younger child than the 8-year-old who came off the plane.  Jaden gets angry sometimes and shows it in destructive ways like burning his stuffed animal.  He also hoards food, particularly bread.  He is obsessed with electricity and can’t seem to stop his bouts of aggressive running that always end with him hurting himself.  Now his parents are heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a baby from there.  But Jaden knows that he is being replaced by this new baby, a way to fix the failure that he has been.  When the family gets to Kazakhstan though, the baby they had chosen has already been adopted.  Now they have a new baby to try to bond with and it doesn’t feel right to any of them.  Meanwhile, Jaden has met a toddler named Dimash who is three years old and barely talks.  Jaden feels an immense bond with Dimash, but his parents say that they came for a baby.  For the first time, Jaden starts to feel a powerful emotion that is not pure rage.  The question is what he can do with this newfound love.

Kadohata gives us a completely unique novel for children.  The point of view of an adopted child is not new, but one this troubled and angry in a children’s novel is a powerful new voice.  As a character Jaden is a study in complexity and contradictions.  His emotions are constantly high, but he mainly feels rage.  He has never felt love, but manages to make connections with people that are meaningful for them.  He is not a stereotype in any way, wildly human and profoundly troubled. 

Yet Kadohata allows us to live with this boy without fixing him, without changing him, just allowing him to grow before us.  While Jaden does have a therapist and it is clear he is getting all the help his parents can find, that is not the focus of this book.  It is not a book about repairing the damaged child, rather it is one that gives that child a voice.  That’s courage in writing.

Strong, marvelous writing allows this book to be a stirring tale of love in its many forms.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 

brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood.  Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City.  There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family.  But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood.  She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse.  When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life.  Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.

Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory.  Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth.  There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family.  There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too.  It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.

One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel.  Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone.  As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.

Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

nine open arms

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

Translated from the original Dutch, this book is the story of Fing and her family.  Fing’s mother died years ago and since then her father and her grandmother have taken care of them.  They are a big family, with Fing’s three older brothers and her two sisters, Muulke and Jess.  Fing’s father has decided to start a cigar business, so they move out of town to a big old house that has something very strange about it that Fing can’t quite figure out.  They call it Nine Open Arms, because that is how far across it is.  The house is near a cemetery, the front door is at the back, and there is a bed in storage that looks like a tombstone.  As the girls start a new school, they slowly begin to discover the secrets of Nine Open Arms and of their own community and family.

Delightfully wild and incredibly quirky, this book is one of a kind.  From the family that moves constantly, to the cemetery next door where they go to get their water each day, to the crocodile purse that is used to tell family stories, to the controlling grandmother who is dominant but deeply loving in her own way, to the one old story that is the key to understanding it all.  This is a richly rewarding read, one that you have to head out on before you even know what journey you are on.  It is a book that meanders but each turn is essential to the book in the end, where it all clicks into place. 

Told in the first person by Fing, the book unfolds before you, each reveal another piece of the family, another story, another moment that is meaningful.  It is a perfectly crafted book that has a plot that moves in its own time, another time, a less modern pace.  It ties to the pace of the family, one where things are revealed in their own space.  It’s incredibly well done.

Beautifully written, magnificently crafted, this Dutch novel is like nothing you have read before, and that is wonderful!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

turtle of oman

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

Aref’s family is moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan from where he has always lived in Muscat, Oman.  After his father heads off ahead of Aref and his mother, the two of them head home to finish packing and for his mother to finish working.  But Aref does not want to leave Oman, leave his bedroom to his cousins who will be living there while they are gone for several years, leave his pet cat behind.  But particularly, he does not want to leave his grandfather.  Aref pretends to pack, but finds himself playing instead, riding his bike, ignoring the packing entirely.  His mother gets frustrated and asks Siddi, his grandfather, for a hand.  So the Aref and Siddi head out on a series of adventures that let them spend time together, but also let Aref say goodbye to his beloved Oman and be open enough to greet the future in Michigan.

Nye is the author of Habibi as well as an acclaimed poet.  Her novel is short and wonderfully vivid, painting a picture of Oman for young readers who will be drawn to the natural beauty.  Readers will also be taken by the loving family, where parenting is done with grace and kindness, and where a grandfather is willing to spend lots of time saying farewell, as much time as a child needs. 

Nye’s writing shows her poetic skills again and again.  Her prose reads like verse, filled with imagery and striking wording.  When Aref goes to the sea with his grandfather, Nye describes it like this:

The sky loomed with a few delicate lines of wavery cloud, one under the other.  It looked like another blue ocean over the watery blue sea.  Aref took a deep breath and tried to hold all the blue inside his body, pretending for a moment he didn’t have to move away or say good-bye to anything or share his room and cat, none of it.

Many of the moments with Aref and his grandfather are written like this, celebrating the tiny pieces of beauty in the world, relishing the time, treasuring the wonder.  Her book is like a jewel, faceted and lovely to turn and marvel at.

This short novel is a vivid and majestic look at the Middle East, at familial love, and at the special relationship of a boy and his grandfather.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,145 other followers