Category Archives: Middlegrade

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.

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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.

Louisiana’s Way Home

Finished Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo comes a story of discovering who you are — and deciding who you want to be.

When Louisiana Elefante’s granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas. But this time, things are different. This time, Granny intends for them never to return. Separated from her best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. But as Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of a small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder — she starts to worry that she is destined only for good-byes. (Which could be due to the curse on Louisiana’s and Granny’s heads. But that is a story for another time.)

Called “one of DiCamillo’s most singular and arresting creations” by The New York Times Book Review, the heartbreakingly irresistible Louisiana Elefante was introduced to readers in Raymie Nightingale — and now, with humor and tenderness, Kate DiCamillo returns to tell her story.”

I haven’t read Raymie Nightingale, though I want to change that after reading Louisiana’s Way Home.

Louisiana Elefante is an incredible character. She’s very smart and very funny, although I don’t think she tries to be. She is already a force to be reckoned with and I’m hoping we get more books about her in the future. (NOTE: Raymie Nightingale isn’t about her, although she’s in it.)

This is an incredibly sad book, at least in parts. There’s so much going on with her, and while quite a bit of it is good—Louisiana is one of those people who makes friends everywhere she goes—it’s also a stark reminder that one of the worst things about childhood is how little kids can control what goes on around them. Adults have more control, to a certain extent, but kids? Literally none. “Oh hey, we’re moving” and it’s a done deal.

This is a book that will stay with the reader and if you’ve already met and loved Anne Shirley, I think Louisiana Elefante could be your new best friend.

Highly recommended.

The Secret Garden

Finished The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I’m sure everyone’s heard about The Secret Garden, whether or not you’ve read it, so I’m not going to do a synopsis.

I did like this, and I wish I had read it when I was little, because I think I would’ve loved it as a small Kelly.

If you haven’t read this, I definitely recommend it. It’s fun and I preferred it to Little Women. You’ll never be nicer than Beth, but you don’t have to work too hard to be nicer than Mary Lennox. Or Colin. Or really every character except for Dickon. :)

I would very much like to see a TV series based on this except it’s really just Dickon out and about making friends with animals.

Del Toro Moon

Finished Del Toro Moon by Darby Karchut. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Twelve year old Matt Del Toro is the greenest greenhorn in his family’s centuries-old business: riding down and destroying wolf-like monsters, known as skinners. Now, with those creatures multiplying, both in number and ferocity, Matt must saddle up and match his father’s skills at monster whacking. Odds of doing that? Yeah, about a trillion to one. Because Matt’s father is the legendary Javier Del Toro—hunter, scholar, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.

Luckily, Matt has twelve hundred pounds of backup in his best friend—El Cid, an Andalusian war stallion with the ability of human speech, more fighting savvy than a medieval knight, and a heart as big and steadfast as the Rocky Mountains.

Serious horse power.

Those skinners don’t stand a chance.”

I’ve been a fan of Darby Karchut’s for years, and every book seems to get better. This is her best yet. It’s laugh-out-loud funny but there’s also a ton of suspense and a surprising amount of sweetness. Darby ALSO continues to perfectly capture how it feels to want to be taken seriously, to be seen as better than you currently are—to be judged by your potential and not as much your current ability level. (I think these things are universal, and not gender-specific.)

She also continues to show perhaps her greatest trademark as a writer. Like her other books, this one centers around a father-son relationship. It’s so nice to see the way that Javier and his son Matt interact. They clearly love and respect each other, but at the same time, it’s definitely a father-son relationship. They aren’t best friends and Javier is unquestionably in charge.

This is not always an easy read but it’s constantly compelling and excellent. If you (or someone you know) loves excellent middlegrade stories, snag this one. You need it.

Highly recommended.

You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!

Finished You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino. I received a copy for review at ALA.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Jilly thinks she’s figured out how life works. But when her sister Emma is born Deaf, she realizes how much she still has to learn.

A big fantasy reader, Jilly connects with another fan, Derek, who is a Deaf Black ASL user. She goes to Derek for advice but doesn’t always know the best way to ask for it and makes some mistakes along the way. Jilly has to step back to learn to be an ally, a sister, and a friend, understanding that life works in different ways for different people, and that being open to change can make you change in the best possible ways.”

I absolutely love this book. It’s not even 250 pages, and it’s so full of things to think about.

This book is told from Jilly’s perspective. She’s white and can hear, but when her sister is born Deaf, she starts to learn how to sign. And when she starts to approach an online friend for help, she makes a lot of mistakes and says things poorly and sometimes asks dumb questions.

As the great lady said, “When you know better, you do better” and this is the story of how Jilly starts to know better.

This book deals with racism, police brutality and Deaf culture. A lot of these things are linked and some of them are linked in surprising ways.

It absolutely broke my heart and at the same time, if Jilly—a young girl who hasn’t really had to think about things before—gets it, I don’t understand why some people still won’t.

Highly recommended.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground

Finished Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground by TR Simon. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A powerful fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood adventures explores the idea of collective memory and the lingering effects of slavery.

“History ain’t in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives.”

When Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie Brown, discover that the town mute can speak after all, they think they’ve uncovered a big secret. But Mr. Polk’s silence is just one piece of a larger puzzle that stretches back half a century to the tragic story of an enslaved girl named Lucia. As Zora’s curiosity leads a reluctant Carrie deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds through alternating narratives. Lucia’s struggle for freedom resonates through the years, threatening the future of America’s first incorporated black township — the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). In a riveting coming-of-age tale, award-winning author T. R. Simon champions the strength of a people to stand up for justice.”

This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in ages. The synopsis doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. (Which obviously is good; who wants to know everything?)

This is set in two times–the early 1900s and the late 1800s, but pre-Emancipation Proclamation. Zora and her friend Carrie are in the early 1900s; Lucia is late 1800s. Even though Zora has only ever known freedom, it’s clear that slavery still has a powerful legacy in her town (Eatonville). Because of this, basically any white face is cause for concern. There are exceptions, but not many.

But the value in this book is the way it lays bare how monstrous slavery was. Most of the white people in the 1880s section are what we would consider kind people. A couple of them are horrible, but most of them aren’t. They would never whip a slave. But they would absolutely sell them. One of them says to another white person (and I’m paraphrasing).  “Slaves aren’t people and they aren’t pets. They’re property and they aren’t your property. They belong to the plantation.”

Read that a couple times and let it sink in.

It wouldn’t even occur to them that Lucia is an actual person, with worth beyond what she can do for the white people in her life.

This book gave me the bad kind of chills.

But it’s also incredibly well-written and, while it’s hard to read, it’s also hard to stop reading. We need to remember what we, as a country, allowed to happen in order to keep it from happening again.

Highly recommended.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

Finished Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Thoughtful, strong-willed sixth-grader Merci Suarez navigates difficult changes with friends, family, and everyone in between in a resonant new novel from Meg Medina.

Merci Suarez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she had no idea just how different. For starters, Merci has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t have a big house or a fancy boat, and they have to do extra community service to make up for their free tuition. So when bossy Edna Santos sets her sights on the new boy who happens to be Merci’s school-assigned Sunshine Buddy, Merci becomes the target of Edna’s jealousy. Things aren’t going well at home, either: Merci’s grandfather and most trusted ally, Lolo, has been acting strangely lately — forgetting important things, falling from his bike, and getting angry over nothing. No one in her family will tell Merci what’s going on, so she’s left to her own worries, while also feeling all on her own at school. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.”

Merci’s life is very family-centric. Part of that is her choice (she loves her family, especially her grandparents) and part of that is the fact that she lives next door to her grandparents and two doors down from her aunt and twin cousins. (They are more than a handful and Merci has to babysit them a lot.) It’s not that Merci minds babysitting them so much; it’s more that it’s expected of her and it also gets in the way of things she wants to do (like try out for soccer).

Another unfortunate thing is that she’s assigned to help a new student get adjusted to their school. And it’s a boy. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that most popular girl (Edna) likes him and views Merci as competition. (Merci couldn’t be more clear about this not being the case.) This book shows what it’s like when people are in different stages. Merci wants to play sports with the boys but a lot of the girls in her class are starting to think about maybe dating them. Also there’s a lot of disparity with what different parents will let their children do. Edna’s parents give her a lot of freedom and Merci had to go to so much trouble to get her parents to let her go to the movies without adult supervision but with an entire group of kids. (And it was more a worry about their safety and not how annoying this gaggle of tweens would be to everyone else in the theater. I know I’m old; I’ll show myself out.)

But the biggest problem is how her grandfather, Lolo, is starting to get forgetful and his usually easygoing nature sometimes switches into a Jekyll and Hyde thing. It seems like the whole family has noticed but no one’s talking about it and everyone’s pretending it’s fine. Merci isn’t sure what’s going on, but definitely doesn’t like it.

This is such an important book. I think a lot of young readers could relate to one or multiple aspects of the story. Merci seems to feel unappreciated and overlooked sometimes, but she also feels left behind.

This is a sweet but also excellent story. Highly recommended.