Category: Middle School

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.

 

As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds

As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds

As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds (InfoSoup)

Genie and Ernie are heading to Virginia to stay with their paternal grandparents for the very first time. Though they have met their grandmother before, this is the first time that Genie has met him. The difference between their lives in Brooklyn and their grandparents’ home in rural Virginia are huge. But that’s not the only thing that surprises Genie. He is shocked to find out that his grandfather is blind. Genie is a kid who is full of questions to ask all of the time and so he immediately asks his grandfather questions about his blindness. Genie knows that his older brother Ernie is braver than he is, always taking up fights for Genie and protecting him. He also knows that his grandfather is immensely brave too. When something goes wrong though, Genie will have to rethink what it means to be brave.

Reynolds is so amazingly gifted as a writer. He astounded me with this departure from his more urban writing. He captures the rural world with a beautiful clarity, using the natural world around as symbols for what is happening to the humans who live there. It is done both subtly and overtly, creating a book that is multi-layered and gorgeous to read. Throughout Reynolds speaks to real issues such as guns and disabilities. They are dealt in their complexity with no clear point of view stated, giving young readers a chance to think things through on their own.

Reynolds has created a fabulous protagonist in Genie, a boy filled with so many questions to ask that he has to write them down to keep track of them. He is smart, verbose and caring. Yet at the same time, he agonizes over mistakes, trying to fix them on his own and thus creating a lot of the tension of the book. The depiction of the grandparents is also beautifully done, allowing them to be far more than elderly figures. They are often raw, sometimes wise, and also dealing with life.

A brilliant read for the middle grades, this book is filled with magnificent writing and great diverse characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.

 

 

Daughters of Ruin by K.D. Castner

Daughters of Ruin by KD Castner

Daughters of Ruin by K.D. Castner (InfoSoup)

Four princesses have all lived together as sisters since they were small children. But they are far from being sisters, each heir to their own throne. After a war ravaged all of their kingdoms, the victor brought the daughters of his enemies together in peace to forge a new truce. Ten years later, the girls still live together but the peace between them is strained and fraying. There is Rhea, distrusted by the other princesses because her father is the king. Cadis is the beauty and the strongest fighter but there is some question about whether her democratic sea-faring society even lets her be royalty. Iren is the quiet and meek one, concentrating on long letters home to her mother. Finally there is Suki, the youngest of them and most volatile. When the peace of the palace is breached, the princesses have to choose alliances and take up arms.

Castner has created a very strong debut novel. She has not just one strong young woman but four, each of them different from the others. Castner gives them each a unique perspective and voice and yet also keeps them from becoming stereotypical in any way. These are all princesses of war, teens who have been raised to kill and damage, to defend their kingdoms and to win. While some of them are closer than others to being true sisters and friends, others are almost enemies. The dynamics of a four teenagers living closely together and isolated is intriguing and Castner captures the subtleties of it as well as the broader issues.

Castner focuses mostly on the girls themselves and the world comes into focus as the girls leave the palace and venture outside it. Because so much of the book is political intrigue, it makes for a book that truly is from the perspective of the main characters where what they are touched by is the thing that the reader knows most about. In this way, Castner also avoids lengthy exposition about the world made up by the kingdoms. There is just enough detail for it all to make sense and work and nothing more.

Strong female protagonists who wield weapons with panache combine with politics and plenty of twists and turns to create a debut worth exploring. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.

 

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki (InfoSoup)

Montgomery has two best friends who are the reason that she can make it through high school at all. They have a Mystery Club at school where they are the only members and they explore the mysteries of the universe. Thomas loves to talk about superheroes and Naoki focuses on crystals. With Monty’s two moms and Thomas being bullied for being gay, Monty knows there is hate in the world, something made even clearer when a preacher arrives in town putting up signs against people who are gay. When Monty buys The Eye of Know online, she doesn’t expect it to work any better than their other experiments, but soon the Eye seems to be channeling Monty’s personal anger and exacting revenge.

Tamaki captures the anger of a teenager with precision here. It all feels deeply organic, often not being logical at all, lashing out at those she loves, and withdrawing into her room. The issues that Monty is furious about are so tangible both in her life and in her friendships, yet she goes much farther than those who love her would want her to. There is a sense of her reaching a cliff of anger and having to make a choice of how she is going to be in the world. It’s a powerful place to set a YA novel and works well.

The magical realism in the book is done well too. It strikes a balance between being entirely believable but also allowing readers to see it as something that could be unrelated too. Readers will get to see what their own opinions of mysteries of the universe are in this well-written novel.

A novel about anger and its positive and negative sides, this book will speak to young teens navigating their own issues. Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

 

 

 

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (InfoSoup)

Faith appears to be a very somber and dutiful daughter to her father who is a clergyman and a natural history scholar. When their family is forced to leave Kent for a small island, Faith discovers that her father’s entire body of work has been discovered to be based on lies and that their family is disgraced. Faith desperately wants to be seen as more than a burden to her father, so she helps him move a valuable specimen to a secret sea cave reached by boat. Soon afterwards, her father dies and people suspect it was suicide. Only Faith thinks that it could have been murder and may have something to do with the tree they moved to the cave. It’s a tree that only bears fruit when a lie is whispered to it and grows in strength as the lie grows too. Now Faith is the only one who knows where the tree is and that may be enough to have her become a target too.

Hardinge’s writing is breathtaking. She uses unique and unusual metaphors that are compelling and vivid, further building her world of lies, distrust and isolation. At times the writing is so beautiful that it stops the reader so that it can be reread again. At other times, the pace rockets forward, the reader clinging on and whooping along. Hardinge has created in the tree itself a beautiful metaphor for lies, the fruit they create and the power they can bring.

Throughout the strictness of Victorian society is at play, creating a world of rules that must not be altered or broken. In that world is Faith who must figure out how to solve a murder that only she believes has happened in a society where she is to be quiet and docile lest her reputation be forever ruined. As the book continues, readers will be carefully shown their own sexism about female characters to great effect. This is feminist writing at its finest.

Stunning writing, a compelling young heroine and a world filled with rules and lies, this is one amazing read that mixes fantasy, historical fiction and a big dash of horror. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.