Category Archives: Middlegrade

Mostly the Honest Truth

Finished Mostly the Honest Truth by Jody J. Little. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“After Pop is sent back to rehab, Jane Pengilly arrives at her newest foster home determined to stick to the straight and narrow and get back to her beloved dad as soon as she can. It’s not the first time they’ve been apart, but Jane’s determined it will be the last.

Twelve days out in the boonies of Three Boulders makes Jane miss Pop more than ever. But as the days go by, she realizes that family is more than who you’re related to—and that a home can be found in the unlikeliest of places.”

I love Jane so much. She’s got all this responsibility on her, and she clearly wants to do everything she can to keep her family going. And she takes care of Pop as much as he takes care of her (okay, she does more of this, I believe) and so she’s like, “OK, I can make this work for 12 days and then I can get my real life back.”

And Three Boulders sounds amazing. Like Jane, I was skeptical at first (it seems SUPER GRANOLA, guys) but everyone is so nice and it seems to work so well. And it’s this great place that I seriously want to visit. (I don’t think I could do softball and the garden but still. Still.)

I absolutely adored this story. I wanted to read it because of the Great Gilly Hopkins vibe, but it’s completely its own deal.

I read the acknowledgments and the first paragraph was the books that Jody Little read as a child and I could see the influences. At the same time, this isn’t a retread of books I loved as a kid. This is fantastic on its own. And I will tell you now that if I had read this in elementary school, I would’ve read this book probably at least five times in a row. This would’ve become my new favorite book.

This is an amazing book. Your middlegrade reader will likely love it. Highly recommended.

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Betty Before X

Finished Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A powerful middle-grade novel about the childhood activism of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, written by their daughter.

In Detroit, 1945, eleven-year-old Betty’s house doesn’t quite feel like home. She believes her mother loves her, but she can’t shake the feeling that her mother doesn’t want her. Church helps those worries fade, if only for a little while. The singing, the preaching, the speeches from guest activists like Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall stir African Americans in her community to stand up for their rights. Betty quickly finds confidence and purpose in volunteering for the Housewives League, an organization that supports black-owned businesses. Soon, the American civil rights icon we now know as Dr. Betty Shabazz is born.

Collaborating with novelist Renée Watson, Ilyasah Shabazz illuminates four poignant years in her mother’s childhood, painting a beautiful and inspiring portrait of a girl overcoming the challenges of self-acceptance and belonging that will resonate with young readers today.”

I don’t know very much about Malcolm X and I knew even less about his wife. This tells about her early life and the way that she became an activist herself. I loved seeing her realize the power that she had.

Her childhood wasn’t great (she lived with her aunt until she died and then went to live with her mom, stepfather and younger siblings). Her mom didn’t seem particularly fond of any of her kids, but definitely liked Betty the least. She eventually goes to live elsewhere and that’s when she really becomes an activist. (She was always interested before, but it wasn’t something her mom encouraged.)

I definitely want to learn more about Betty Shabazz. I very much enjoyed this glimpse into her early life.

Highly recommended.

Harbor Me

Finished Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Jacqueline Woodson’s first middle-grade novel since National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming celebrates the healing that can occur when a group of students share their stories.

It all starts when six kids have to meet for a weekly chat—by themselves, with no adults to listen in. There, in the room they soon dub the ARTT Room (short for “A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering them—everything from Esteban’s father’s deportation and Haley’s father’s incarceration to Amari’s fears of racial profiling and Ashton’s adjustment to his changing family fortunes. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they have to hide from the rest of the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.”

I love everything about this book. It reminded me of a sort of middlegrade Breakfast Club, but over a longer span of time. That’s a little simplistic, of course, but it was the vibe. I love everything I’ve read of Jacqueline Woodson’s, and she has such a backlog that I know that I have so many more great books ahead. (I like being late to the party with prolific authors.)

This book completely broke my heart in parts (these kids are so young and they have so many things to be afraid of, and all their fears are founded.

I can’t even talk about this book without sounding like a crazy person. It feels like actual magic. I love books about friendship and growth and this is the best example of both that I’ve read in ages.

Highly recommended.

A Good Kind of Trouble

Finished A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Ramee. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.”

I love this middlegrade so much! Shayla reminds me a lot of me as a kid: quiet, almost desperate not to get in trouble and sticking close to a group of friends. But, like a lot of us learn, she starts to see that maybe there are things that are worse than getting in trouble. It’s important to care about things and to talk about things that matter, even if they make people uncomfortable.

This is about social justice but it’s also about starting to navigate a new school with new people and having friends start acting differently. It’s something that I think most girls can relate to, regardless of how politically involved they may or may not be.

I loved everything about this book. Highly recommended.

Good Enough

Finished Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy. I received a copy for review. This originally ran last summer, when I originally read it.

I loved Jen’s debut novel, PS I Miss You, and so I was waiting for this with no small amount of impatience. I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that once I knew that egalleys were a thing, I basically pouted and whined and used emojis as a weapon. I didn’t mean to read this in one afternoon. I wanted to savor it, because Jen’s writing is gorgeous.

But I immediately loved Riley and I worried about her. I worried about whether she’d be able to have a healthy relationship with food and if she’d be able to talk to her family about her feelings, if they’d listen to just keep assigning blame and ignoring her feelings.

I had to know what would happen next, and each page made me completely feel for her. (A lot of feelings–sadness, sometimes anger, always pride.)

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jen Petro-Roy is this generation’s Judy Blume. She’s talking about hard topics, things parents may not feel their kids are ready to know about. But Jen’s not writing for the parents. She’s writing for the kids, and she’s telling them the best, most important message ever: you will be OK. You are enough, just as you are. You aren’t alone. You can do this. Whatever “this” you’re struggling with, you can beat it. You will be OK.

It’s something we all need to hear, but kids especially.

Highly, highly recommended.

Right as Rain

Finished Right as Rain by Lindsey Stoddard. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

From the critically acclaimed author of Just Like Jackie comes a strikingly tender novel about one family’s heartbreak and the compassion that carries them through, perfect for fans of Sara Pennypacker, Lisa Graff, and Ann M. Martin.

It’s been almost a year since Rain’s brother Guthrie died, and her parents still don’t know it was all Rain’s fault. In fact, no one does—Rain buried her secret deep, no matter how heavy it weighs on her heart.

So when her mom suggests moving the family from Vermont to New York City, Rain agrees. But life in the big city is different. She’s never seen so many people in one place—or felt more like an outsider.

With her parents fighting more than ever and the anniversary of Guthrie’s death approaching, Rain is determined to keep her big secret close to her heart. But even she knows that when you bury things deep, they grow up twice as tall.

Readers will fall in love with the pluck and warmth of Stoddard’s latest heroine and the strength that even a small heart can lend.”

This book broke me multiple times. Most of us have experience with grief and it can be impossible to deal with. Now picture you’re a kid and you’re in a new place and your older brother is dead and it’s your fault. How Rain is functioning as well as she is is an actual miracle. (And she’s not doing particularly well, but she’s not catatonic. She’s going to her new school and she’s trying and she’s making friends.)

This reminds me a little bit of Bridge to Terabithia, in that it takes these horrible situations and shows kids the way they really are. We live in a world where kids die and it’s stupid and senseless but it’s reality. And at some point, everyone is going to have to deal with grief. Right as Rain shows some really healthy ways to do that.

Recommended.

The Unteachables

Finished The Unteachables by Gordon Korman. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The Unteachables are a notorious class of misfits, delinquents, and academic train wrecks. Like Aldo, with anger management issues; Parker, who can’t read; Kiana, who doesn’t even belong in the class—or any class; and Elaine (rhymes with pain). The Unteachables have been removed from the student body and isolated in room 117.

Their teacher is Mr. Zachary Kermit, the most burned-out teacher in all of Greenwich. He was once a rising star, but his career was shattered by a cheating scandal that still haunts him. After years of phoning it in, he is finally one year away from early retirement. But the superintendent has his own plans to torpedo that idea—and it involves assigning Mr. Kermit to the Unteachables.

The Unteachables never thought they’d find a teacher who had a worse attitude than they did. And Mr. Kermit never thought he would actually care about teaching again. Over the course of a school year, though, room 117 will experience mayhem, destruction—and maybe even a shot at redemption.”

I loved this book. It’s sweet but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. And while you will almost certainly guess the ending, you won’t guess the way the book gets there.

It would be easy to write a book with this general outline. What would be hard is to make this story feel new and with a cast of characters that everyone will be able to relate to and will immediately like. Everything about this story feels completely fresh.

This is a delightful story that will win over even the most reluctant reader. Recommended.

Amal Unbound

Finished Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when—as the eldest daughter—she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens—after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal—especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.”

I loved Amal so much, and I was so worried for her. All she wants is to go to school and become a teacher but she ends up forced to work as a servant in her landlord’s house. And her landlord is a completely awful guy. (He may not be as awful as he could be, granted, but he is still a hideous person.)

The worst part was seeing how quickly she lost touch with her family. They were very tightknit (Amal took care of her siblings, especially while her mom was recovering from having a baby) and it was obvious how much the separation hurt her. She created a new family of sorts among the other servants, but it wasn’t really the same.

This is the kind of book that sticks with you. It’s a short book, but each page counts. We like to think things like this don’t happen in 2018, but they do. I’m hoping this will inspire people to become more involved globally.

Highly recommended.

The Great Treehouse War

Finished The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Kids vs. parents! An epic treehouse sleepover! An awesome group of friends! An exciting new book from National Book Award finalist Lisa Graff.

Winnie’s last day of fourth grade ended with a pretty life-changing surprise. That was the day Winnie’s parents got divorced, the day they decided that Winnie would live three days a week with each of them and spend Wednesdays by herself in a treehouse smack between their houses, to divide her time perfectly evenly between them. It was the day Winnie’s seed of frustration with her parents was planted, a seed that grew and grew until it felt like it was as big as a tree itself.   By the end of fifth grade, Winnie decides that the only way to change things is to barricade herself in her treehouse until her parents come to their senses—and her friends decide to join her. It’s kids versus grown-ups, and no one wants to back down first. But with ten kids in one treehouse, all with their own demands, Winnie discovers that things can get pretty complicated pretty fast! Even if they are having the most epic slumber party ever.”

I love Lisa Graff’s books. They’re so fun and generally really sweet, but there’s also an undercurrent of real emotion.

It sounds pretty fun to have parents who are literally competing over who can show you the best time, right? But it’s not as great as you’d think; Winnie’s parents have spent so much time trying to curate the best experiences for their time with Winnie that they forget to do things like make sure she’s having a good time. (Or that she’s doing her homework, which she isn’t.)

Similarly, you may think that it would be a great time hanging out with your friends constantly. And at first, you’d be right. But then a treehouse starts to feel cramped and a lot less fun than before.

I love Lisa Graff’s books so much and this is an excellent one to start with if you haven’t read her before. It’s also a great gift for any middlegrade fans in your life.

Highly recommended.

Lu

Finished Lu by Jason Reynolds. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Lu must learn to leave his ego on the sidelines if he wants to finally connect with others in the climax to the New York Times bestselling and award-winning Track series from Jason Reynolds. 

Ghost. Patina. Sunny. Lu. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Lu is your quintessential pretty boy athlete, complete with fancy cleats, sunglasses, and a lot of attitude. The kind of guy you either hero-worship or want to PUNCH. He runs the most loved race—the 400 meter dash—and is crazy talented. He should be—he’s been running track since he was small; because he’s albino his parents got him involved in sports to help with his confidence. But it sort of backfired—now Lu has confidence to spare, and the swagger hasn’t earned him any friends. As in none. Plus, his dad, who also shares his son’s penchant for being flashy, has gotten caught up in some type of illegal activity. The Newbies on the team (Ghost, Patina, and Sunny) don’t put up with Lu’s shining around, but they also don’t avoid him like everyone else does. They call him out on his BS, but include him in the horseplay. Will they be the first kids to crack through his armor and see more to him than the cloak of peacock that hides his lack of color?”

Can we just talk for a second about how amazing Jason Reynolds is? This is the last of his middlegrade series about the kids on a track team, and it is impossible to not be enthralled. Even if you don’t like sports, even if you’re not in the target audience, even if any one of a dozen other things.

I loved Lu so much. He’s got a ton of confidence and he’s kind of a jerk but he’s also a sweetheart. (He would NOT agree with me on that.)

This is such a fantastic story and a great series. If you haven’t read him yet, this is a great place to start. (But read the books in order and preferably back to back. They function as standalones but I think it’d be more fun to binge.)

Highly recommended.