Category Archives: Middlegrade

See You in the Cosmos

Finished See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng. 

Alex lives with his mom and dog Carl Sagan (named after his hero). His mom’s not well (she has lots of what he calls quiet days) and his brother is an agent in LA, so most of the time he’s on his own. 

It’s a long story, but he goes to the desert to launch a rocket as part of a competition and, from there, ends up in Vegas. And then LA. His life goes from fairly contained to much bigger, and with more friends. 

This is a hard book to discuss. It’s not like there are major plot twists (Sixth Sense style) but Alex deserves to tell the story his way. 

I love Alex and his fondness for science and his fierce loyalty and the way he sees things. I bet you will, too. 

Recommended. 

Well, That Was Awkward

Finished Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail. 

Gracie and her friends are in middle school and now everything is getting weird. She might like AJ, except he likes her best friend Sienna (who may like her back). She ghostwrites Sienna’s texts to AJ, and they get along so well (much better than in real life) and there’s also her other best friend, Emmett…it’s just confusing. 

I love this novel. It’s completely adorable and sweet, and also just really good. Gracie and Emmett are my OTP (and that’s not a spoiler because everyone who has ever seen even one romantic comedy knows where this is going). 

Also, Gracie is hilarious. If you can read this and not laugh at least five times a chapter (and cringe almost as many times), you may not be human. 

Highly recommended. 

Stef Soto, Taco Queen

Finished Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. 

Stef Soto’s dad owns and operates a taco truck. When she was little, it made her fairly popular. Now, though, the real popular kids make fun of her. It’s not like she’s ashamed of it, exactly, but she hates when he picks her up from school in it…which he usually does. 

I really enjoyed this charming novel. It’s pretty fluffy but also has a lot of depth to it. The immigrant experience runs through the story, as well as the typical teen girl experience of finding parents embarrassing. (Especially Stef’s parents, who redefine overprotective.)

It’s a debut novel and I am excited to see what Jennifer Torres does next. 

Midnight Without a Moon

Finished Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson. 

Rose and her younger brother live with their grandparents (their mom and stepfather are raising his children, not hers, because four kids are too much for her mom to handle). It’s 1955 Mississippi and all Rose wants is to escape. She doesn’t know where and she doesn’t care, but 1955 Mississippi is no place to be unless you’re white. Her grandparents are more go along to get along, but her best friend Hallelujah is more inclined to fight for change. And seeing as how this is set during the summer of Emmett Till, change is coming no matter if they want it or not. 

First, I love Rose. I love the way she really grapples with whether or not she should stay in Mississippi. The theme of whether you have a responsibility to stay and change an unfair place or if your responsibility is to yourself and staying alive keeps recurring. 

I think there’s a lot in this book that may make people uncomfortable, but this all really happened. And it happened fairly recently. I wasn’t alive yet but my parents were, and odds are the intended audience (this is MG) would have grandparents that may remember Emmett Till. 

Highly recommended. 

Out of My Mind

Finished Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. 

Melody is essentially trapped in her own mind. She has cerebral palsy and is unable to move or talk. It’s even harder because she is really smart and has a photographic memory, but everyone (except for her parents and best friend/next door neighbor) assumes she’s stupid. When she’s in fifth grade, her special education classes start to integrate with regular classes and for the first time, she can make friends. (And also deal with some awful kids.)

This is a really good book (and perfect for kids who loved Wonder by RJ Palacio). It’s hard to imagine Melody’s life, and it’s even harder to imagine what it would be like to be almost completely unable to communicate. (She ultimately gets a computer like Stephen Hawking’s that allows her to communicate and yes, I cried.)

I love this book. You would, too. Highly recommended. 

Stella By Starlight

Finished Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper. 

Stella lives with her parents and little brother in a small Southern town in 1932. The town is pretty segregated but some white folks are nice (like the woman who runs the candy store) and some are not (like the doctor). It’s not great but it’s how things are–until the Klan makes a sudden reappearance. 

This book is excellent. It doesn’t gloss over evil parts in our country’s history but it also doesn’t emphasize them. I especially love Stella, who tries to chronicle the events she’s witnessing even though she’s not very comfortable as a writer. (She’s drawn to words, but she can’t always think of the right ones. And she’s not very good with spelling.)

I definitely want to read more books by this author. Recommended. 

Hello, Universe

Finished Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. I received a copy for review. 

This is a middlegrade novel about five people: Virgil (a bullied kid), Valencia (the girl Virgil likes), Kaori (Virgil’s friend and psychic consultant), Gen (Kaori’s sister) and Chet (kid who bullies Virgil). This is super simplified, but this is a book that should get to reveal its secrets in its own time. 

I love Erin Entrada Kelly’s novels. They are realistic but they also have a sense of magic. Everything feels possible. 

Her characters also feel fully realized. Even the characters I don’t like (that’s you, Chet) have a sense of sympathy to them. It doesn’t make it any easier to like them, but it’s easy to see why they are the way they are. 

This is an excellent novel, one that should be read aloud. (So, basically, perfect for classrooms.) Recommended. 

Wonder

Finished Wonder by RJ Palacio. 

August (who goes by “Auggie”) has this weird fluke thing that makes him look different than anyone else. (He basically tells readers he won’t describe himself, and then adds “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”) He was homeschooled for most of his life but now his parents have decided that he needs to go to school…just in time for middle school. Still, against all odds, Auggie makes some friends. (And, of course, spends a not-small amount of time being stared at and then avoided.)  

Oh, you guys, this book. I have not loved a book like this since The Pull of Gravity. (In fact, I think this book is probably what would happen if TPoG and The Fault in our Stars got together and had a book baby.) I know it’s a total cliche, but this is the kind of book that changes lives and definitely the kind of book that turns me into a crazy person and start brandishing it at strangers, saying, `GUYS. READ THIS. READ THIS NOW.”

I’ve become a total sap in my old age (37 in April) and I find that the two things that make me cry most often are blatant cruelty and unexpected kindness. There’s a lot of both in this book.

It’s pretty impossible not to fall in love with August and his obsession for all things Star Wars. But it’s just as hard not to love his family (his parents and his older sister Olivia—or “Via”), who love Auggie as fiercely as…well, as I do, at this point. And the group of friends that Auggie makes are pretty awesome as well.  

I don’t think I can talk about this book like a normal person. It’s sweet and sad and profound and brilliant, but when I try to expound on that (so that people will want to buy this book), I just keep coming back to “This is probably the best book I will read this year. And I am so sad that I read it in February, because everything is going to be downhill from here.”

Highly recommended.

The Ethan I Was Before

Finished The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish. I received a copy for review. 

Ethan and his family have moved from Boston to a tiny town in Florida to live with his grandpa. That’s the official story and it’s true, but there’s more to it than that. Something happened in Boston to Ethan’s best friend and he’s been destroyed ever since. Moving is the family’s last ditch effort to bring him back. And it seems to be working. Ethan has made a new friend and she’s great–but she may have secrets, too. 

This book is really good. It reminded me a bit of Bridge to Terabithia but it’s almost more of a thematic sequel to that (if that makes sense). 

Carrying guilt over things that aren’t our fault is sort of the human condition. This book is about forgiveness and it’s amazing. Recommended. 

Interviewing Martha Brockenbrough

Martha Brockenbrough was nice enough to come talk about Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary!
1) What is the Twitter pitch?

Everyone’s favorite founding father was a genius. He could also be a fool. And what motivated him more than fame or power? Even he didn’t know until the last few days of his life. Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary: It’s Complicated.

2) What is the most surprising thing you learned about Hamilton?

It blows your mind to understand how much he did, how brave he was, and how huge his influence was—especially considering his humble start as an orphaned bastard. It sounds like a cruel world, and it does convey the bias people had and the shame he felt, and how much he wanted to prove himself. This might not be the most surprising thing. Nor would his fascination with small details, such as the color of buttons and locations of flowers in his garden. Most likely, it was his incredibly tender heart. He was a man who loved. Deeply, passionately, gently.  
3) Why do you think everyone is so into him right now? Obviously the musical, but why?

The musical is an extraordinary work of genius. So that helps, of course. But his story is so dramatic and improbable. As I researched and wrote the book, I’d sometimes gasp to realize what was happening to him, and what role he was playing in history. I can’t speak to how everyone learned history, but my own experiences in school felt really rushed. We’d skim over everything, covering huge swaths of time, and it was hard to really wrap my mind and heart around anything in particular. The musical takes stuff we’re familiar with, but it shined the light on the remarkable human beings who risked everything for a set of untested ideas. I think where my book might be a bit different is it has the space to show how improbable and unlikely some of these things we take for granted really were. 
The questions for everyone:

4) If you could make one book mandatory, what would it be?

I’d never do that. It’s not because there aren’t books I want everyone to love. But rather, the best book is the one you find just when you needed it. Making someone read more often than not strips away the magic. So I’ll cheat and say I will make it mandatory for people to carry books at all times. There is no better protection, no more powerful weapon, no more healing tool than the right book at the right time. If you always carry one, you’ll be in great shape. 

5) What are you reading now?

I am reading a friend’s manuscript as well as a book by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben (which means well live). It’s called THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES and it is outstanding. I am living well within its pages. 

6) What are your five favorite books? You can do authors if it’s easier.

OK. So I have so many friends who are writers, and so many books I love, that there is no easy way for me to answer this. It would be like saying who my favorite relatives are. But I can talk about books that influenced me. THE LORAX by Dr. Seuss. PASSING by Nelle Larson. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen.
 

7) What 2017 releases are you excited for?

I’ll know it when I see them! I have been so buried in work that I haven’t been following what’s coming out and when, but it’s a good thing because when I go to the bookstore, it will be like going to a reunion that I actually want to go to, and not something I just go to because I made a bad life choice.