Category: Middle School

Unbound by Ann E. Burg

Unbound by Ann E Burg

Unbound by Ann E. Burg (InfoSoup)

This novel-in-verse tells the story of Grace, a girl living as a slave on a plantation. Grace is selected to start work in the Big House, leaving her mother, stepfather and two little brothers behind. Grace is warned by everyone that she has to keep her eyes down and her opinions to herself, not even allowing them to show on her face or in her eyes. But Grace realizes that things are very unfair on the plantation where some people work in the fields from dawn to dusk and white people aren’t even expected to dress themselves. Grace finds it impossible to keep these thoughts deep inside her, and puts her family at risk. So they all flee to try to find freedom, heading deep into the Great Dismal Swamp where the men and dogs hunting them can’t track them.

The author of All the Broken Pieces returns with another verse novel just as stunning as her previous ones. Here she shares a piece of history that many don’t know about, slaves who found freedom by living deep in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. The entire book is fraught with dangers from whippings and punishments as a slave to the dangers of reaching possible freedom to the real dangers of the swamp itself.

Told in verse, the poems are in Grace’s voice and it rings with authenticity but also a righteous anger at what is being done to people because of the color of their skin. Readers hearing Grace’s voice will understand her situation and spirit on a deep level. That is the power of poetry, to cut past exposition right to the heart of the person speaking. Burg does this with a simplicity that adds to that power, cutting right through to the core.

Beautifully written, this powerful story tells of the importance of freedom for all people. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

 

Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick

Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick

Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick (InfoSoup)

Claire isn’t having a good year. She is being teased at school by not only a mean girl but by a boy who has been picking on her for years. She loves her dance classes, but her friends are moved into high school classes while she is left behind with the little kids. Her brother is perfect in every way, so Claire has to disappoint all of the teachers that had him once they see her work. Then Claire’s life really turns upside down and sideways when her father collapses at home. Claire is the only one there and has to call 911 and get him help, riding along in the ambulance. Suddenly the father who was always dancing, singing and joking can’t do any of those things anymore. As Claire’s life really starts to fall apart, Claire has to figure out how to see the humor in it all again for both herself and her family.

Sonnenblick has returned with another of his amazing teen novels. As always, it is written with incredible skill. He manages to take tragic scenes and make them very funny, even those in emergency rooms. He also takes great moments of humor and gives them incredible heart as well. Throughout, there are tears and laughter that mix in the best possible way. The writing is intelligent and screamingly funny, giving readers the chance to see the humor in it all long before Claire realizes that it is still OK to laugh.

Claire is a very human protagonist with her own sense of humor and ability to laugh at herself. She is also flawed, sometimes self involved and other times seeming to be selfish just because she is protecting herself from hurt. Her relationships with family and friends are richly drawn in the novel, including those with people she is figuring out how to deal with. While things aren’t magically fixed (thank goodness) Claire herself manages to solve many of the problems herself.

A pure joy of a novel filled with pathos, tears and lots of laughter. Appropriate for ages 11-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

 

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitors Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz (InfoSoup)

Released September 27, 2016.

The author of the A Tale Dark and Grimm series returns with a medieval tale set in the year 1242. It is a tale told by an inn full of strangers, who each know a piece of the miraculous stories of these children. There is William, the huge boy who is an oblate in the monastery but doesn’t mind using his fists. There is Jacob, a Jewish boy who had to flee his village when it was set on fire by some Christian boys. There is Jeanne, a peasant girl who has fits and sees visions that come true. Finally, there is Gwenforte, Jeanne’s greyhound who died and then returned from the dead. These children and the dog traverse France looking for safety and along the way they change hearts, create miracles, heal the sick (even a farting dragon) and build faith.

Immediately upon opening the book, I tumbled headlong in love with it. After all, it has the format of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, though it is far less bawdy! I also enjoyed that all of the stories happen right in the inn rather than on a pilgrimage. Gidwitz notes with a wryness that some of the narration includes more details than any observer would have, but my goodness it makes for a better telling of the tale. The medieval setting is beautifully captured through the rich prose.

This is a book that tackles big issues with gusto. It is a book steeped in faith, one where children perform miracles and a dog returns from the dead. But this is a book that looks beyond Christianity as well to the Jewish faith and thus becomes more inclusive in the way it speaks about faith. Religion itself is at the heart of one of the largest moments in the book, protecting Jewish Talmuds from being burned. It’s a powerful moment, a statement about the importance of the written word, and a purely medieval view of the value of illuminated books.

Brilliant, medieval and funny at just the right moments, this book is a lush look at medieval times for young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton.

The Best Man by Richard Peck

The Best Man by Richard Peck

The Best Man by Richard Peck (InfoSoup)

Released September 20, 2016.

Archer recounts the two weddings that he has been in, one really bad and the other really good and all of the time in between. The first was a wedding where he was in first grade and the ring bearer. He tried hiding in the bushes and only managed to get his outfit full of mud and to rip a hole in the too-tight cloth. The best that can be said is that it made a popular YouTube clip. Archer also managed to make a new friend that day, a friendship that would carry through his grade school years. As grade school progresses, Archer tries to figure out what type of person he wants to be. He knows that he wants to be like his grandfather, his father and his uncle. He also wants to be like his fifth-grade student teacher too, a handsome veteran who turns school into a media frenzy. It is the wedding of his uncle to his teacher that is the best wedding ever. As Archer matures, he shows the men around him what means to be the best kind of man too.

Peck is a Newbery Medalist and this one of his best ever. Peck takes the hot topic of gay marriage and makes it immensely approachable and personal. Archer is a wonderfully naive narrator, someone who isn’t the first in the room to figure things out. That gives readers space to see things first and to come to their own opinions on things. Then the book offers insight into being human whether gay or straight. There is no pretense here, just a family living their lives together and inspiring one another to be better than they are.

Peck’s lightness throughout the book is to be applauded. This is not a “problem” novel that grapples with the idea of gay marriage and debates it at length. Instead it is a book filled with laugh-out-loud humor and lots of delight. Alongside that is a great deal of poignancy with aging grandparents, the ins and outs of love, and the growth of characters throughout.

Entirely engaging and immensely readable, this is one of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.

 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (InfoSoup)

Every year, the youngest child in the Protectorate must be left in the woods for the witch. The sacrifice of the child has ensured the survival of their small community for years. Unfortunately, the entire witch story was made up by those in power to keep the population sad and controllable. Still, there is a witch who lives in the woods, but Xan is gentle and kind. She rescues the children who are left in the clearing, taking them to other communities where they are loved and adored. Then one year, Xan accidentally feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the small child with magic. Xan decides to keep the child, whose magic will need to be controlled. As Luna grows, her magic starts to seep out everywhere, so Xan locks it away deep inside Luna who grows up knowing nothing of magic, despite living with a small dragon and a large swamp monster. As truth starts to appear, those in power struggle to maintain control even as Luna begins to discover what is hidden inside her.

Barnhill has created a brand new classic fairy tale with this book. Her writing is rich and filled with emotion. She allows magic to be incorporated throughout her book with a natural feel and flair. It becomes almost as normal as the trees in the woods, allowing readers to realize that Luna must discover her own magic or not be living at all in this world. The world building is brilliantly done with each piece clicking neatly in, forming a full pattern of the world.

The book does have Luna as a protagonist but it is so filled with rich characters that there are many heroes and heroines. There is Antain, the boy who refused to witness babies die. There is the amazing Xan, elderly and full of life, determined to do good even with her last breath. Glerk and Fyrian the monster and dragon are perfect for both humor and wisdom. Luna herself has to be even more special to stand out against these other characters, and she certainly is!

This book is magical, clever and luminous. Definitely one for young fans of fantasy or for anyone looking for a rich reading experience. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LeFleur

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LeFleur

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LeFleur (InfoSoup)

Released September 13, 2016.

In a country at war, even children are not safe. Sofarende is being bombed, including the town where 12-year-old Mathilde lives. There isn’t enough food, the sirens sound often, and then there is the destruction and people dying. Mathilde does have her best friend Megs who lives only a few doors away. Now the government has started recruiting children into service. It offers families a chance to have enough food and enough money to survive. The children have to pass a test. Mathilde knows that if Megs takes the test, she will be taken into service since Megs is top of their class. Mathilde takes the test as well, realizing that she too can change the way her entire family survives and lives though recognizing that she isn’t as gifted as Megs in school. But this test isn’t like any other they have ever taken, so the results aren’t either.

LeFleur has written a haunting look at war and the way that it impacts families and children. She presents us with a society that is already battered by the conflict and facing serious shortages. Into that angst and fear, she introduces a way forward, sacrificing children to the effort. It is that moment that mirrors so many choices that families must face in war, sending children to safety, sacrifice in order to find hope, becoming refugees. It is a powerful moment that LeFleur allows to stand and lengthen beautifully.

In the latter part of the book, the children’s efforts at war are meticulously written, yet there is a lovely lack of clarity as well. There is hope in what they are doing, a sense that children see the world very differently from adults and that that is important and valid. At its heart is hope for the future, an end to the conflict and an ability to look beyond today. This too is a powerful time, where conversation and humanity could win over war and despair.

This is the first in a series and I look forward to the next installment. The combination of skillful writing and a powerful scenario with a dynamic and unique heroine creates a series that is very special. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Wendy Lamb Books and Edelweiss.

 

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.