Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Grayson lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins after his parents died when he was much younger. Middle school is hard. Grayson doesn’t have friends, eating his lunch in the library rather than the cafeteria. He rarely does anything more than go to school and return home again. After school, Grayson has time on his own before the others get home and he spends his time in front of the mirror dreaming of wearing a dress and being a princess. It’s a fantasy he quickly puts away when the others come home, returning once again to being a boy in a long t-shirt and jeans. Then one day, Grayson decides to go out for the school play. And when he auditions, he tries out for the role of Persephone. What will happen if he gets cast as the female lead and is no longer invisible?
Polonsky has created a critical book for middle-graders about the experience of being transgender in middle school. She hits just the right tone of lightness and seriousness, allowing the story of Grayson to unfold naturally and beautifully on the page. The reader learns along with Grayson what he is really feeling inside, how he wishes to express it, and also how incredibly brave he is. He’s an incredible character, one that is relatable and inspiring.
Polonsky also does not duck away from negative reactions to Grayson. In Grayson’s aunt, readers will see an adult who is struggling to understand someone who is transgender. She seeks to protect Grayson from bullies by hiding what he truly is and goes after the teacher who is helping Grayson express who he is on the inside. There are also bullies at Grayson’s school who play a part in his isolation. Yet there are also heroes among the students as well as Grayson’s uncle who is supportive. It’s a strong mix of reactions, showing that while there is hate there is also love and support.
An important book for middle-grade children about being transgender and being true to yourself. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
In 1959, desegregation of schools had become law and could no longer be delayed but that does not mean that it was welcomed. Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister are two of the first black students to attend Jefferson High School. She walks a gauntlet the first day of school just to enter the building where adults and students alike spit on her, scream racist remarks, and throw things. It doesn’t get much better inside with the abusive language continuing, no one willing to sit near the black students in class, and the teachers doing nothing to stop it. Linda Hairston is one of the white students that attends Jefferson High. She is also the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper, a man who is fiercely critical of the attempts at desegregation. Linda has been taught all of her life to fear her father and to keep separate from black people. Forced to work together on a school project, Linda and Sarah spend more time together and learn about each other. To make things more complicated, they are also attracted to one another, something that neither of their communities could understand much less embrace. This is a powerful story about two girls caught in a city at war about desegregation where their own secrets could get them killed.
Talley has created one of the most powerful fictional books about desegregation I have seen. Using the worst of racist terms that flow like water across the page, again and again, yet never becoming numbing, the language alone is shocking and jarring for modern readers. Add in the physical and emotional abuse that the black students suffered and you begin to realize the pressure that they were under not only to survive day to day but to excel and prove that they are worthy to be in the school. The gradual transformation of the attitudes of both Sarah and Linda are done believably and honestly. Nicely, Linda is not the only one who grows and changes in the process.
Adding in the LGBT element was a brave choice. While the book is about desegregation as much of the story, the attraction and relationship of the two girls is an equally powerful part of the book. Modern readers will understand their need for secrecy and somehow the hatred of gay people allows readers to better understand the hatred of African-Americans depicted on the page. It is clear by the end that bigotry is bigotry and love is love, no matter the color or the sex. Talley beautifully ties the two issues together in a way that strengthens them both.
Powerful, wrenching and brutal, this book has heroines of unrivaled strength and principles that readers will fear for and cheer for. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Harlequin Teen and Edelweiss.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
The four Fletcher boys could not be more different from one another. There is the serious ten-year-old Eli who is starting a private school separate from his brothers for the first time and who just may have made a horrible decision changing schools. There is Sam, aged twelve, who loves sports and is popular at school but who will find himself stretching into new interests this year. There is Jax, also aged ten, who has a huge homework assignment that will have him talking to their new grumpy neighbor for help but only after he calms down from a number of things. Finally, there is Frog who is just starting kindergarten along with his imaginary friend and who may have a new imaginary friend named Ladybug. It all adds up to a wonderful read with lots of humor and one amazing family.
Filled with laughter, an angry neighbor, elaborate Halloween parties, soccer, hockey and plenty of pets, this book is sure to please middle grade readers. Add in the diverse backgrounds of the four boys in the family and their two dads and you have a book that celebrates diversity without taking itself too seriously. It’s the ideal mix of completely readable book with its diversity simply part of the story not the main point.
All of the boys as well as the two fathers are unique individuals with their own personal responses to crises and situations. Each chapter begins with a note from one character to another, usually funny and always showing their personality. Perhaps the best part of the book is that this family dynamic is clearly one of love but also filled with normal chaos and the daily strain of work, school, neighbors and friends. It reads like a modern classic.
I hope we get to read more of their misadventures in future books, because this is one family that I want to see much more of! Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Ask the Passengers by A. S. King
Astrid wishes there was someone who could just listen to her without pressuring her. Her mother is too pushy and driven to confide in, her father too withdrawn and high. Her younger sister makes jokes that would make it impossible for Astrid to tell her the truth. The truth is that Astrid has been kissing a girl and may just be in love with her. But Astrid isn’t sure that she is really gay. It may be that she just loves Dee for being Dee and not because they are both gay. To make matters worse, Astrid’s best friends are in a fake relationship to keep their own secrets. Astrid spends a lot of time on the picnic table in her backyard watching the planes fly overhead. She beams them her love, tells them her secrets, and asks them for advice. When the gay club that she and her friends frequent gets raided, Astrid is forced to start to confront the truth about herself, her family, and her friends.
King has captured the story of a girl questioning her sexuality here, but the story also transcends that and will reach teens who are questioning other aspects of themselves too. It is a story that encapsulates that particular blend of wonder and fear that comes as a teen who is learning about themselves in such a private way that the rest of the world doesn’t change along with them. Beautifully written, this is a book that speaks to the fragility and yet strength of that time.
In addition, King has created such a strong character voice here. It rings with truth, never becoming snarky but really capturing a teen aspect. Astrid’s messages to the plane passengers add an additional sense of magic and wonder to the story. As she beams her love up, passengers receive it, make decisions based it, question their own lives, and react. It adds an important dimension to the book, showing that throughout our lives people are still questioning.
This is a striking read with a vibrant heroine and a radiant point of view that itself beams with love and acceptance. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from library copy.