Category Archives: Middlegrade

Life in the Balance

Finished Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?”

I’ve loved every novel that Jen Petro-Roy has written, but this one may be her best yet. It’s impossible not to love Veronica. She’s trying so hard to keep her life as normal as possible, but her mom’s in rehab (for alcoholism) and she’s afraid to talk about it. And she’s hoping to make the all-star softball team, because that’s something she and her mom always did together. (And it’s also a thing that the women in her family do; her great-grandmother was even a member of the Women’s Baseball League during World War II.)

But she’s also really angry and really sad and really scared (AND really guilt-ridden for it). She clearly feels like it’s her job to make everything easier for everyone else, so she pushes all of her feelings down while also lashing out sometimes. (As someone who would rather be angry than sad and scared, I relate.)

This is such a great story and I think it’ll help a lot of people. Even if the middlegrade audience reading this don’t necessarily have a relative or family friend with alcoholism, I think everyone can relate to uncertainty and major mood swings. (Thanks, pandemic!)

Highly recommended.

Alone

Finished Alone by Megan E. Freeman.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“When twelve-year-old Maddie hatches a scheme for a secret sleepover with her two best friends, she ends up waking up to a nightmare. She’s alone—left behind in a town that has been mysteriously evacuated and abandoned.

With no one to rely on, no power, and no working phone lines or internet access, Maddie slowly learns to survive on her own. Her only companions are a Rottweiler named George and all the books she can read. After a rough start, Maddie learns to trust her own ingenuity and invents clever ways to survive in a place that has been deserted and forgotten.

As months pass, she escapes natural disasters, looters, and wild animals. But Maddie’s most formidable enemy is the crushing loneliness she faces every day. Can Maddie’s stubborn will to survive carry her through the most frightening experience of her life?”

I read this book on a very snowy day. It was a deliberate choice, because there’s something about seeing it snow that makes me think about what it must’ve been like for people generations ago, who wouldn’t always have warning that it was coming and who wouldn’t know when it would stop.

That’s the situation Maddie is in. She’s in present day but she’s accidentally left behind when her town is evacuated (it’s a long story that involves lying to her parents, who are divorced, that she will be at the other parent’s house but really, she’s planning a sleepover at her grandparents’ house. And those grandparents are not there, which she obviously already knew). As they’re evacuated, they’re all forced to leave their cell phones behind so Maddie can’t reach them. At first it’s OK, but it doesn’t take too long for the power to go out.

Maddie’s never lived in a world without the internet; once that’s gone, she has to rely on herself and her own resourcefulness. She’s up to the task but she’s also got to work very hard in order to keep herself alive. Another problem, of course, is loneliness. She soon adopts her neighbor’s dog, which helps, but it’s also another creature that needs food and water. (SPOILER: The dog lives.)

This is an incredibly captivating narrative and I was seriously spellbound. (I didn’t mean to read the entire thing well before the snow stopped, but here we are. And honestly? I don’t know how long I would survive once the power went out. I would probably fall and break my neck on my building’s super slippery stairs.)

Highly recommended.

Don’t Judge Me

Finished Don’t Judge Me by Lisa Schroeder.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Inspired by a true story of girl empowerment, acclaimed author Lisa Schroeder’s new novel explores trust, self-worth, and speaking up — especially when you’re told to keep quiet.

Hazel doesn’t like to make waves. Middle school is hard enough without causing more trouble, right? She’s happy just eating lunch in the library with her BFF, writing secret haikus, and taking care of an adorable rescue tortoise.

But then Hazel discovers a list that rates the girls at her middle school based on their looks — started by her best friend’s older brother. She knows she has to do something, and she can’t do it alone. The wave she’ll be making might turn into a tsunami, but if Hazel can find the courage to speak up, she might just change everything.”

I was so excited to get to read this early, because Lisa Schroeder is one of my absolute most favorite authors. She deals with heavy topics but she does it with sensitivity and while treating her characters and the kids who will be reading her books with the utmost respect.

Hazel is in the middle of a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle. She’s found a notebook that rates the girls at her school (including Hazel herself) and all she knows for sure is that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to adults about it. She thinks her parents will either go straight to the principal or confront the boy whose notebook she stole (her best friend’s older brother) and she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she doesn’t want to get other people in trouble, either. She just wants this behavior to stop.

I essentially was Hazel in middle school, so I had so much empathy for her. And when she realizes that she is braver and more capable than she thought, I felt like her mom. I was so happy and so proud.

Lisa Schroeder’s books (and Lisa herself) are just pure magic. They always make me happy, even as they remind me that there’s a lot of good in the world. (Yes, there are also awful people. But there are more good people than bad, especially when the good ones speak up.)

Highly recommended.

On a Good Horse

Finished On a Good Horse by Darby Karchut. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“‘Easier to carry the bad when you’re mounted on a good horse.’

Alex Nash dreams of being a soccer star. Or a graphic artist. Maybe both. But being a cowboy? Nope and no way. Not if it means being anything like his seldom seen father.

Then, out of nowhere, tragedy shatters Alex’s world, and when he thinks life couldn’t sucker-punch him again, it does. He’s forced to live with Roberto Nash, a man he barely knows. Or wants to know.

Until Alex finds out his dad has bought him a peace offering of a sort, one with a red coat, lightning speed, and a fighting spirit. A spitfire of a horse that just might heal Alex’s heart and reunite father and son.”

There aren’t any words for how much I enjoyed this book. It’s really funny, which is good because it also deals with a boy who’s lost his mom and who is basically building a relationship with his dad from scratch. It’s not like they’d never met, but the divorce was acrimonious and they didn’t see each other very often.

This is Darby’s contemporary middlegrade debut, and it’s amazing. As anyone who reads her books can attest, one of her very real strengths is writing great father-son relationships, but this one is on a whole other level. Alex and his dad (Rob) have no foundation at all (seriously, Rob is the parent who sees his kid maybe once a year and shows up with a picture book for a seven year old. And it’s not entirely his fault–again, VERY acrimonious divorce and he lives far away) so seeing the two of them learn to connect is absolutely beyond touching. It doesn’t hurt that Rob, bless his heart, is not above bribery (he buys Alex a horse).

Also, a few chapters are from the horse’s perspective. This is a dangerous choice, because it could become sappy or weird or break the book’s pacing. It’s actually fantastic though; Rio is a total smartass and his chapters are wonderful and I laughed through all of them. (He’s also a bit of a marshmallow but don’t repeat that; he would bite me for it.)

I absolutely adore this book. Highly recommended.

Don’t Judge Me

Finished Don’t Judge Me by Lisa Schroeder. I received a copy for review. It will be released on November 10.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Inspired by a true story of girl empowerment, acclaimed author Lisa Schroeder’s new novel explores trust, self-worth, and speaking up — especially when you’re told to keep quiet.

Hazel doesn’t like to make waves. Middle school is hard enough without causing more trouble, right? She’s happy just eating lunch in the library with her BFF, writing secret haikus, and taking care of an adorable rescue tortoise.

But then Hazel discovers a list that rates the girls at her middle school based on their looks — started by her best friend’s older brother. She knows she has to do something, and she can’t do it alone. The wave she’ll be making might turn into a tsunami, but if Hazel can find the courage to speak up, she might just change everything.”

I was so excited to get to read this early, because Lisa Schroeder is one of my absolute most favorite authors. She deals with heavy topics but she does it with sensitivity and while treating her characters and the kids who will be reading her books with the utmost respect.

Hazel is in the middle of a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle. She’s found a notebook that rates the girls at her school (including Hazel herself) and all she knows for sure is that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to adults about it. She thinks her parents will either go straight to the principal or confront the boy whose notebook she stole (her best friend’s older brother) and she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she doesn’t want to get other people in trouble, either. She just wants this behavior to stop.

I essentially was Hazel in middle school, so I had so much empathy for her. And when she realizes that she is braver and more capable than she thought, I felt like her mom. I was so happy and so proud.

Lisa Schroeder’s books (and Lisa herself) are just pure magic. They always make me happy, even as they remind me that there’s a lot of good in the world. (Yes, there are also awful people. But there are more good people than bad, especially when the good ones speak up.)

Highly recommended.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Finished Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Space-obsessed 12-year-old Paola Santiago and her two best friends, Emma and Dante, know the rule: Stay away from the river. It’s all they’ve heard since a schoolmate of theirs drowned a year ago. Pao is embarrassed to admit that she has been told to stay away for even longer than that, because her mother is constantly warning her about La Llorona, the wailing ghost woman who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for young people to drag into its murky depths.

Hating her mother’s humiliating superstitions and knowing that she and her friends would never venture into the water, Pao organizes a meet-up to test out her new telescope near the Gila, since it’s the best stargazing spot. But when Emma never arrives and Pao sees a shadowy figure in the reeds, it seems like maybe her mom was right. . . .

Pao has always relied on hard science to make sense of the world, but to find her friend she will have to enter the world of her nightmares, which includes unnatural mist, mind-bending monsters, and relentless spirits controlled by a terrifying force that defies both logic and legend.”

I love Paola. She’s smart and she cares so much about her friends; if I end up going missing, I hope I have someone like Paola trying to find me, because she would not stop, EVER, until she managed to find me and bring me back safely. It wouldn’t be like, “We looked for two hours but then we figured we might as well call the search off.”

I also love all the folklore elements in this. Paola’s mom has a tale for every occasion, and they all terrify Paola. (She doesn’t believe any of them, but they still freak her out and she has nightmares on a regular basis.) You can imagine how unhappy she is to learn that her mom was somehow not wrong about any of it.

The synopsis makes it sound like this is a horror novel, but it’s more like action/adventure. Yes, there are incredibly creepy monsters (including La Llorona) but it’s not scary until the end. (Although if you know kids who are interested in starting to read horror, this could be a very good gateway for them.)

This is just an incredibly fun story and perfect for shorter days and huddling under a blanket to read.

Scritch Scratch

Finished Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“”This is a teeth-chattering, eyes bulging, shuddering-and-shaking, chills-at-the-back-of-your-neck ghost story. I loved it!”
–R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series

For fans of Small Spaces comes a chilling ghost story about a malevolent spirit, an unlucky girl, and a haunting mystery that will tie the two together.

Claire has absolutely no interest in the paranormal. She’s a scientist, which is why she can’t think of anything worse than having to help out her dad on one of his ghost-themed Chicago bus tours. She thinks she’s made it through when she sees a boy with a sad face and dark eyes at the back of the bus. There’s something off about his presence, especially because when she checks at the end of the tour…he’s gone.

Claire tries to brush it off, she must be imagining things, letting her dad’s ghost stories get the best of her. But then the scratching starts. Voices whisper to her in the dark. The number 396 appears everywhere she turns. And the boy with the dark eyes starts following her.

Claire is being haunted. The boy from the bus wants something…and Claire needs to find out what before it’s too late.”

It’s September, so I am already in Halloween season. Fall means apple cider and Halloween (so scary movies and candy) and this year, I’m also hoping to read more horror books, too.

This book was absolutely what I wanted. It’s a great gateway to creepy things for middlegrade readers (it’s so, SO spooky) and I love everything about it.

I don’t want to get into spoilers, but suffice to say that there is a ghost and a tragic backstory and Claire does research. RESEARCH! It makes my nerd heart grow about a hundred sizes.

If you want something scary but that won’t keep you awake, read this. It is a complete joy. Highly recommended.

Something to Say

Finished Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramee. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

From the author of A Good Kind of Trouble, a Walter Dean Myers Honor Book, comes another unforgettable story about finding your voice—and finding your people. Perfect for fans of Sharon Draper, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds.

Eleven-year-old Jenae doesn’t have any friends—and she’s just fine with that. She’s so good at being invisible in school, it’s almost like she has a superpower, like her idol, Astrid Dane. At home, Jenae has plenty of company, like her no-nonsense mama; her older brother, Malcolm, who is home from college after a basketball injury; and her beloved grandpa, Gee.

Then a new student shows up at school—a boy named Aubrey with fiery red hair and a smile that won’t quit. Jenae can’t figure out why he keeps popping up everywhere she goes. The more she tries to push him away, the more he seems determined to be her friend. Despite herself, Jenae starts getting used to having him around.

But when the two are paired up for a class debate about the proposed name change for their school, Jenae knows this new friendship has an expiration date. Aubrey is desperate to win and earn a coveted spot on the debate team.

There’s just one problem: Jenae would do almost anything to avoid speaking up in front of an audience—including risking the first real friendship she’s ever had.”

So first, I overidentify with Jenae. I also would seriously rather be punched directly in the face than have to give a speech in public. (Potential mitigating factors: how public is “public” and what is the topic?)

Also, I am a fan of magical thinking. (That would be when you say things like, “If the next car is blue, everything will be work out.”) That isn’t quite what Jenae does, but it’s similar.

When she meets Aubrey, though, things change. And that’s not really Jenae’s plan; it’s more that Aubrey just sort of barges into her life and doesn’t really take no for an answer. (He also doesn’t take “maybe” or silence as answers.)

That probably makes it sound like I don’t like Aubrey, and that’s not true. It’s actually probably impossible not to love him. He’s got a huge heart and is just a genuinely kind person. But he’s also a lot, especially if you’re used to going under the radar. (And “under the radar” is the only way Jenae wants to be.)

This book is fantastic. (I also loved last year’s A Good Kind of Trouble.) I love the way that Lisa Moore Ramee makes it so the reader learns all these things without it ever seeming like homework. For example, a major subplot is the fact that the school they attend may change its namesake from John Wayne to Sylvia Mendez. (Sylvia was part of a lawsuit that desegregated schools in California before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools nationwide. This happened in 1946; she was eight. She’s still alive, because this wasn’t really all that long ago.) It’s a very heated debate, and it’s one of those things where a lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to changing the name. Once people learn more about who Sylvia is and what she accomplished, feelings tend to change.

This is such a phenomenal story and I seriously cannot wait to see what Lisa Moore Ramee writes next. I hope we find out soon.

Prom Dress

Finished Prom Dress by Lael Littke.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The pretty lace dress that Robin finds in her mysterious employer’s attic does not look deadly; it looks perfect for the prom. Robin cannot resist the power the dress holds over her and decides to ‘borrow’ it to wear to prom. But the dress has a horrifying secret and lures innocent, unsuspecting girls into an evil and terrifying nightmare.”

When I was in elementary school, my classmates and I were OBSESSED with Scholastic’s Point horror imprint. We read Christopher Pike and RL Stine’s Fear Street books, too, and we also loved them. But these books are basically my horcrux. I couldn’t tell you how many times I read this one, in particular.

Even so, probably the better part of 30 years later, there was a lot I didn’t remember. (For example, the fact that four different people wear the dress through the course of the book–five, if you count Miss Catherine.) And yes, the book is just as cheesy as the cover would have you believe. It was also really, really fun and I love everything about it.

It was also really interesting reading this book in 2020. There’s a part where Felicia (the nurse who is the second person to wear the dress) mentions that she had a date with her boyfriend the next morning at 8. (She’s working the evening shift and hopes to be home and in bed by midnight so she can be “clear-eyed and sparkling…the way Mark liked her.” She is also pretty sure he’ll want them to take a brisk walk after breakfast, although he’ll be OK if she’s too tired “but she liked to please him, because he was always so caring and considerate.” Felicia, someone who is caring and considerate won’t make you meet him at 8am after you didn’t get to sleep until after midnight. That kind of person meets you for brunch the next morning and exercises alone.

Even so, I’m so happy I got to read this again. It was a real delight. And she’s written a few more books that I would love to track down…

In the Role of Brie Hutchens…

Finished In the Role of Brie Hutchens by Nicole Melleby. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Introducing Brie Hutchens: soap opera super fan, aspiring actor, and so-so student at her small Catholic school. Brie has big plans for eighth grade. She’s going to be the star of the school play and convince her parents to let her go to the performing arts high school. But when Brie’s mom walks in on her accidentally looking at some possibly inappropriate photos of her favorite actress, Brie panics and blurts out that she’s been chosen to crown the Mary statue during her school’s May Crowning ceremony. Brie’s mom is distracted with pride—but Brie’s in big trouble: she has not been chosen. No one has. Worse, Brie has almost no chance to get the job, which always goes to a top student.
 
Desperate to make her lie become truth, Brie turns to Kennedy, the girl everyone expects to crown Mary. But sometimes just looking at Kennedy gives Brie butterflies. Juggling her confusing feelings with the rapidly approaching May Crowning, not to mention her hilarious non-star turn in the school play, Brie navigates truth and lies, expectations and identity, and how to—finally—make her mother really see her as she is.”

I love Brie so much! She’s so young and she’s trying to figure out a lot of different things. She’s very into acting (that’s her current career goal) and she loves soap operas because they’re her only real connection to her mom. (It’s not the only reason she loves them but it’s a big part of it.)

She and her mom aren’t getting along very well now, because her mom is overworked and stressed (she’s carrying a lot of financial pressure since her husband/Brie’s dad was laid off) and to make matters worse, her mom may have also figured out that Brie is gay. (Possibly gay. Maybe. She’s not sure. She could just really like this one girl.)

Watching Brie try so hard to be the daughter her mom wants absolutely broke my heart. (NOTE: This isn’t really a sad or depressing book. I think Brie’s mom is really trying to understand her daughter. It’s just hard for her.)

I absolutely loved this book, and everything about it. There are great teachers, good friends, a solid crush and also? I really love Brie’s dad. He’s overlooked because Brie is trying to save a relationship with her mom (and she’s also a jerk about the fact that her dad is a maintenance man at her school, which he’s only doing so she can get a break on tuition there) but that is a great guy.

Highly recommended.