Category: Middle School

Not As We Know It by Tom Avery

Not as We Know It by Tom Avery

Not As We Know It by Tom Avery (InfoSoup)

Jamie and Ned are twins growing up together on a tiny island in the English Channel. They love to do things as a pair, from scouring the beaches for treasures that wash up from the sea to watching Star Trek on DVD. But Ned is not well. He is fighting cystic fibrosis and the most recent treatments don’t seem to be working. Then one day, the brothers find a strange creature on the beach. It is hurt and they carry it to their garage where they fill a tub with saltwater and care for it. It’s like nothing they have ever seen before with its scales and gills combined with arms and legs. As the boys care for the creature, their grandfather tells them tales of mermen and mermaids. Jamie starts to hope that the creature can work a miracle for Ned, though Ned sees it very differently.

This novel for middle grade readers is riddled with sorrow and the drain of watching a loved one slowly decline. Yet Ned is also a ray of light himself, refusing to let his disorder rule his life. Still, the book is clearly headed for Ned to go where Jamie can’t follow, a journey he has to take on his own. As the creature brings hope to Jamie, it also brings him distress as he recognizes that his hope may be futile and readers will see it as a natural way to keep from facing his brother’s approaching death.

Both boys are strongly written characters. Jamie is pure heart, trying to be there for his brother and leaving school to be homeschooled alongside his brother. Jamie is a source of adventure and normalcy for Ned, something that keeps them close and also buoys up Ned’s moods and health. Ned is unwilling to do anything but face the truth of his situation and yet that doesn’t limit his activities. Instead it seems to fuel his desire to be more than just a dying boy. The pair of them together are pure radiance.

A powerful, tragic and hopeful book about brotherhood and death with more than a touch of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.

 

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor (InfoSoup)

Perry has lived in the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility for all eleven years of his life. His mother is incarcerated there and the warden has made it possible for them to be together. He sleeps in his own small room and makes the morning announcements out to the cell blocks. There are many people at the facility that he adores and who love his too, making up his family. He goes to school in the community nearby but obviously can’t invite his friends over to his house. As his mother’s parole date nears, a local DA discovers that Perry is living in the prison and has him removed. Perry is moved to live with the DA and his step daughter, who happens to be Perry’s best friend. There is also some question about whether Perry living at the prison will stop his mother’s parole. As the parole date is moved back, Perry works on a class project about how he came to live in the county and that means telling the stories of his prison family, particularly his mother’s.

Connor writes a piercingly honest book about the power of family and love, and the way that families don’t need to be nuclear to be functional and loving. Taking the unique perspective of a boy who grows up inside a facility, Connor demonstrates what a good prison looks like, how it can be a community and a home and how it can heal and allow for people to forgive themselves. The perspective of Perry’s mother is also shared in some chapters, giving the loving mother a voice as she tries to protect Perry from her own truth.

I must complain a bit about the title, which I continue to find confusing even after finishing the book. Add to that the cover which I also don’t relate closely to the book. It’s too bad, given the high quality of the writing and the story and I do hope that the paperback version does a better job of selling the real story inside.

A superb read that looks at prisons, families and the power of community. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Katherine Tegen Books.

 

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah

Dara Palmers Major Drama by Emma Shevah

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah (InfoSoup)

Dara knows that she is a star. She can make all of the facial expressions in her favorite teen movies, has huge posters of her two favorite actors on her bedroom walls, and has lots of imaginary conversations with them as she dreams of her future in Hollywood. Her first step to stardom is landing the lead in the school production of The Sound of Music, and she just knows that her name is going to be called. But then it isn’t. Dara starts to wonder if it’s about the color of her skin, since she knows she’s an amazing actress. Dara was adopted from Cambodia. Then she notices that others with different skin colors are in the cast. The teacher offers her the role of stage manager, but Dara won’t agree to that. The teacher also invites her to join her acting classes, but Dara knows she doesn’t need them. As Dara slowly realizes that she may have a lot to learn after all, readers become convinced that Dara may just be the star she always thought she was.

Shevah has created in Dara a character who is both repulsive and compelling. Dara is unthinking, rather vain and unable to listen at the beginning of the book. Wisely, Shevah frames the book as looking into the past and Dara knowing that she wasn’t a very nice person back then. This gives readers permission to dislike Dara and yet also enjoy her humor, drive and sparkle. It also makes Dara’s deep changes all the more believable. Various characters also help Dara see herself anew, including her siblings, her parents and her best friend. This is done in many different ways from overt to subtle and is a skillful way to create change in a character.

The voice throughout the book is entirely Dara’s. The fonts change with Dara’s emphasis on various words, showing the passion and emotions behind them. The book design is fresh and friendly, having designs around the page edges and illustrations that break up the text a bit.

A strong and funny protagonist becomes much more self-aware in this gorgeous novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin

The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin

The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin (InfoSoup)

Twelve-year-old Prince Lev Lvov moves in with his aunt at Falcon House. It is a house that he will inherit as he is heir to the Lvov estate. Lev wants to be just like his grandfather, a general in the Russian army, stern and strong. Things are strange though at Falcon House where he finds wonders like an elevator in the home but also rooms that have not been touched in years. As he enters the home, Lev sees another young boy there, playing on the banister. Lev is sent to sleep in his grandfather’s old study where he can’t sleep and finds himself drawing and drawing with much more skill than he ever had before. In fact, he finds it nearly impossible to put the pen down. Slowly Lev starts to learn the secrets of his family and realize that some of the family secrets are more terrifying than ghosts.

Yelchin won a Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Here he very successfully merges historical Russia with a dark ghost story. Based on the premise of having found old notes and drawings from Lvov, the book is immediately mysterious and filled with wonder. There is the amazing setting of the huge mansion, filled with things like death masks and a basement of mothballed clothes. There are the servants who manage to work for his aunt despite her disdain and harshness. There is the ghost, who tells his own story but ever so slowly. They all create a world of darkness and beguilement.

Then the book turns and changes, becoming something deeper and more filled with emotion. It looks beyond the cranky aunt and into why she acts the way she does. It examines the death of a boy and eventually becomes about who is responsible for it and why. It looks at servants and royals, at status and power. It figures out what it takes to become someone willing to wield that power too.

Entirely gorgeous, haunting and deep, this novel is chillingly dark and wonderfully dangerous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

 

The Best Worst Thing by Kathleen Lane

The Best Worst Thing by Kathleen Lane

The Best Worst Thing by Kathleen Lane (InfoSoup)

Maggie is starting middle school and is getting more and more worried. She has rules to live by that keep the people she loves safe, but there is much more to worry about than that. There is the murderer who was loose in their neighborhood after shooting someone at a local mini mart. There is the boy at school who is going to get a gun for his birthday. There are the rabbits next door owned by a man who doesn’t seem to really love them. Plus there are issues in her own family with a teen sister who is pulling away from Maggie and her little sister and a father growing more and more distant too. Maggie starts to plan new ways to protect her family from danger as her fears mount, but it’s all too much for one person to try to control.

Lane has written an incredible novel for middle grades, particularly as a debut author. She captures the intoxication of danger, the thrill of fear, and then what happens when it becomes more than that, toxic and dark. She shows the problems with fear and worries, the way they mount and the intricate ways that children have of coping in a world where nothing seems firm and solid for them, not even their families. As Maggie copes with OCD tendencies, she is also courageous and caring, striving to control the uncontrollable around her.

Lane captures the real world with honesty here. Rabbits are sold for meat. Children are sometimes not cared for. Marriages have problems. Sisters withdraw. It is all there in this book, but there is more too. There are loving parents, helpful neighbors, friends, apple trees and baby rabbits. So not all is dark and dreary, there is light too and hope here. If only one can see it for the worries.

A bright new voice in children’s literature, this debut novel is delicious and rich. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (InfoSoup)

A ship carrying crates of robots capsizes in the ocean. Some of the crates float, only to be dashed on the rocks of a small island. One crate though survives and is left safely on the island. Some curious otters explore the crate and accidentally turn on the robot inside. That robot is Roz, designed to ensure her survival and help people. Soon Roz is exploring the island, climbing high on the rocks to see her surroundings. As she explores, the animals of the island declare her a monster and avoid her. Roz begins to acclimate to the island, figuring out how to camouflage herself. It is by sitting still and hidden that she starts to learn the language of the animals around her. As time passes, Roz is no longer gleaming and clean and she can speak with the animals. It isn’t until a deadly accident happens though that Roz shows the island residents who she really is.

This book is entirely magnificent. It is a book about nature, its beauty and grandeur and danger. It is a meditation on the outside, the power of it to change even a robot’s life. It is a look at the importance of listening and learning and finding one’s own way forward in unexpected circumstances. But most of all, it is a book about love and life and the way that finding someone to love transforms each of us.

There is something achingly beautiful about this book. Yes, there is more than enough action and humor to keep the book moving and of interest to children. Yes, the characters are brilliantly created and their relationships are drawn with skill and attention. Yes, its pacing is exceptional. It that ache though, that makes this book exceptional. The way that it is allowed to just be there, loneliness and acceptance, loss and love.

Truly an exceptional read created by a picture book author in his first foray into middle-grade books. Wow. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

 

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (InfoSoup)

Finley’s parents are having trouble, so they decide that it is best that she spend the summer with her grandparents even though Finley has never met them before. Something happened that made her father leave the family and not speak to his mother again. Finley struggles with “blue days” where she can barely get out of bed and doesn’t have any energy at all. Other days, she spends writing about Everwood, an imaginary land that has parallels to the real world. When she arrives at her grandparents’ home, she realizes that Everwood is a real place and it is right behind their house, complete with a half-destroyed house, villainous pirates, and a trustworthy knight to share her adventures. As Finley and her cousins go deeper into the fantasy world, the truth begins to surface about what happened years ago to their parents and grandparents.

Legrand has created an intensely gorgeous book here that is complex and multi-layered. Finley’s writing about Everwood is interspersed throughout the book so readers can see the detailed and wondrous world she has created. Readers will also clearly see the ties between Finley’s life and what is happening in Everwood. The whole book is a testament to writing that balances strength of vision with a delicacy of execution that allows those ideas to grow and come alive. The relationships of the adults in the book also supports this with various personalities stepping out at different times. There is a humanity to the adults here, a fragility that lets young readers glimpse the truth in pieces before it is revealed.

Finley’s depression and anxiety in particular are captured with sensitivity and grace. It is shown as a part of her personality, not the only characteristic and not one that overwhelms her constantly. Rather it is a factor in her life, one that doesn’t stop her from bonding with her cousins or being creative and imaginative. This is a book that shows that mental illness may impact your life but not destroy it and that there is power in honesty and getting help.

A deep book filled with the magic of imagination, new-found family and one large woods. Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.