Category Archives: Middlegrade

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)

Finished She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) by Ann Hood. I received a copy for review at ALA.

Summary (from Goodreads):

The story of a girl swept up in the heart of 1960s Beatlemania.

The year is 1966. The Vietnam War rages overseas, the Beatles have catapulted into stardom, and twelve-year-old Rhode Island native Trudy Mixer is not thrilled with life. Her best friend, Michelle, has decided to become a cheerleader, everyone at school is now calling her Gertrude (her hated real name), and the gem of her middle school career, the Beatles fan club, has dwindled down to only three other members–the least popular kids at school. And at home, her workaholic father has become even more distant.

Determined to regain her social status and prove herself to her father, Trudy looks toward the biggest thing happening worldwide: the Beatles. She is set on seeing their final world tour in Boston at the end of the summer–and meeting her beloved Paul McCartney. So on a hot August day, unknown to their families, Trudy and crew set off on their journey, each of them with soaring hopes for what lies ahead.”

I am currently enjoying quite a slew of great books. This one is no surprise because everything I’ve read by Ann Hood has been completely amazing.  This is middlegrade, though (everything else I’ve read by her has been adult fiction or nonfiction) and I know that’s a different skill set.

Can I just say that this book is complete magic? I’m too young to have experienced the Beatles live, but this book was so evocative, I actually felt like I was there. (Should it ever come up on Jeopardy!, John is my favorite Beatle.)

There are a lot of other things going on here. Trudy feels like she’s losing her best friend (to popular girls) and her father (because she’s not interesting enough) and so the quest to see the Beatles in concert and to meet Paul McCartney becomes a bit of magical thinking (if she can make this happen, her life will go back to what she wants it to be—especially where her dad is concerned because this really is the one thing they have in common). Her fellow fan club members have similar hopes.

You don’t have to know who the Beatles are to love this book, but I’d be willing to bet that this book will get the Fab Four some new fans.

Highly recommended.

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Where the Watermelons Grow

Finished Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Twelve-year-old Della Kelly has lived her whole life in Maryville, North Carolina. She knows how to pick the softest butter beans and sweetest watermelons on her daddy’s farm. She knows ways to keep her spitfire baby sister out of trouble (most of the time). She knows everyone in Maryville, from her best friend Arden to kind newcomer Miss Lorena to the mysterious Bee Lady.

And Della knows what to do when the sickness that landed her mama in the hospital four years ago spirals out of control again, and Mama starts hearing people who aren’t there, scrubbing the kitchen floor until her hands are raw, and waking up at night to cut the black seeds from all the watermelons in the house. With Daddy struggling to save the farm from a record-breaking drought, Della decides it’s up to her to heal Mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville for generations.

She doesn’t want to hear the Bee Lady’s truth: that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain than with healing Della’s own heart. But as the sweltering summer stretches on, Della must learn—with the help of her family and friends, plus a fingerful of watermelon honey—that love means accepting her mama just as she is.”

My heart absolutely broke for Della while I was reading this. Because her mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after Della was born, she’s blamed herself for the illness. And because her dad has a strict policy of “family problems are not to be discussed with outsiders,” no one ever said “Oh, honey, no, it’s not your fault.”

I also take issue with the synopsis. It’s more that Della learned to let go of (a) her feelings of guilt and (b) her idea that she’s the only one who can help fix her mama. The synopsis makes it sound like she’s embarrassed and feels like her mom could be better if she’d only try harder.

Della is really wise for someone who’s only 12. A large chunk of that is because she’s had to do a lot around the house and she does the lion’s share of raising her little sister. But she’s also still 12 and because her mom was diagnosed after she was born, she interprets it as happening BECAUSE she was born, which means that it was her fault. Even so, she does her part (and then some) and isn’t ever all that resentful about it.

This is such a fantastic story and will absolutely break your heart (and also really make you crave watermelon). Recommended.

What Momma Left Me

Finished What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson. I received a copy for review at ALA.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“How is it that unsavory raw ingredients come together to form a delicious cake? What is it about life that when you take all the hard stuff and rough stuff and add in a lot of love, you still just might have a wonderful life? For Serenity, these questions rise up early when her father kills her mother, and leaves her and her brother Danny to live with their kind but strict grandparents. Despite the difficulties of a new school, a new church, and a new neighborhood, Serenity gains strength from the family around her, the new friends she finds, and her own careful optimism. Debut author Renée Watson’s talent shines in this powerful and ultimately uplifting novel.”

(NOTE: This will be re-released next year, but you can also buy it now. Don’t feel you have to wait; this is an amazing book.)

I think this book falls between middlegrade and YA. Serenity is in middle school (and so is her brother) but she is dealing with a lot of stuff. Her mom is dead (we don’t learn what happened until a little later in the novel, although you can definitely piece things together. Even if you don’t read the synopsis, it’s not exactly a surprise when we’re told).

I absolutely loved this book, even though it made me cry on the lightrail. Serenity is a fantastic heroine. She has a hard time with a lot of things, but she never breaks (even when she thinks she will). She’s got resolve for days, and I admire that. There are a lot of hard things in this novel, but there’s also a lot of hope. (This is a recurring theme in the novel and also in life, obviously.)

Highly recommended. I can’t say enough great things about this book. You need to read it and you need to make everyone you know read it.

Sunny

Finished Sunny by Jason Reynolds. I received a copy for review at ALA.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Sunny Lancaster is a winner. Wih-winner. When it comes to the 1600 meter, Sunny can beat anyone by, well, a mile. But for Sunny, winning is boring. Buh-boring. Truth is, Sunny doesn’t like running. Never has. What Sunny really loves… is dancing.

The boom-bap bap of his teacher. Aurelia’s dance routines beats the chick chick chick of his track meets any day. Sunny loves his team, though, so he can’t quit, but he also can’t be on a track team not run. And he definitely can’t be on a track team and dance. But it turns out track isn’t just chick chick chick. It’s also whoosh whoosh ahh.

If Sunny lets loose everything he’s been holding inside, will it be his best move ever, or will it be his biggest mistake?”

This is easily my favorite of Jason Reynolds’ Track series so far. While all have been great, this one is actually extraordinary.

Sunny’s mom died almost immediately after giving birth to him, and so he’s felt a lot of pressure his whole life. Because he’s basically responsible for her death (in his mind), he runs. Doing a marathon was his mom’s dream but because he’s great at running, it becomes his thing, too. Except…he really likes dancing.

This is about balancing what your family wants and what you want. And it’s about learning to forgive yourself. (This is phrased badly, because it’s clearly not Sunny’s fault that his mom died. But because he felt guilty and had to learn how to let that go, I’m not sure of a better way to put it.)

Jason Reynolds is writing some of the best and most important books out there now. If you haven’t read him, you need to start. (The Track series is middlegrade, but he really shines as a YA writer.)

You really need these books in your life. Highly recommended.

See You on a Starry Night

Finished See You on a Starry Night by Lisa Schroeder.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Juliet has just moved to a beachside town with her newly separated mother and her moody older sister. When she meets their new neighbor, Emma, the girls form an instant bond. Emma’s big family takes Juliet in, and the girls have fun together — starting with the night they throw bottles with secret messages into the sea.

Then someone writes back to Juliet’s message. An email arrives, inviting her to join the Starry Beach Club. All she has to do is make someone else’s wish come true.

So Juliet and Emma set off to help as many other people as they can. It’s fun! But as Juliet spends more and more time away from home, enjoying her new town and Emma’s family more than her own mom and sister, she starts feeling lost. It’s been easy to find others to help. But maybe her star would shine a little brighter if she brought it closer to home.”

I am not a huge fan of being in transit. I love being on vacation, but I hate the part where I’m actually traveling. I mention that because I ended up spending my most recent plane ride reading this book, and it was an excellent decision on my part.

Juliet is dealing with a lot of complicated things. Her parents are splitting up, which is hard enough. Her mom is moving (with Juliet and her sister, Miranda) to a new town where she doesn’t know anybody AND it’s in the middle of the school year, so everyone will already have friends. And her sister is constantly busy so Juliet is on her own a lot.

But things start to turn around soon, because Juliet quickly makes a friend. The two girls quickly bond (and seriously, I love Emma and her family SO MUCH). This book is completely sweet but the thing I like most about it is that you can feel Lisa Schroeder’s compassion for her characters. I’m reading this as an adult and it would be easy to dismiss Juliet as being moody and melodramatic but you can really feel that her tendency to get really angry really fast is because she’s confused at her family splintering and the fact that all of a sudden, she only talks to her dad on the phone or via email. Her whole life has completely changed and she didn’t have a say in it. Because of the way it’s written, it’s impossible to have anything but compassion for Juliet.

Like every other book Lisa Schroeder has written, this one is a must-read. Highly recommended.

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.

Good Enough

Finished Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy. I received a copy for review. This book will be released in February; you should pre-order it now.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Before she had an eating disorder, twelve-year-old Riley was many things: an aspiring artist, a runner, a sister, and a friend.

But now, from inside the inpatient treatment center where she’s receiving treatment for anorexia, it’s easy to forget all of that. Especially since under the influence of her eating disorder, Riley alienated her friends, abandoned her art, turned running into something harmful, and destroyed her family’s trust.

If Riley wants her life back, she has to recover.

Part of her wants to get better. As she goes to therapy, makes friends in the hospital, and starts to draw again, things begin to look up.

But when her roommate starts to break the rules, triggering Riley’s old behaviors and blackmailing her into silence, Riley realizes that recovery will be even harder than she thought. She starts to think that even if she does “recover,” there’s no way she’ll stay recovered once she leaves the hospital and is faced with her dieting mom, the school bully, and her gymnastics-star sister.

Written by an eating disorder survivor, this is a realistic depiction of inpatient eating disorder treatment, and a moving story about a girl who has to fight herself to survive.”

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.

Matilda

Finished Matilda by Roald Dahl.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Matilda is a little girl who is far too good to be true. At age five-and-a-half she’s knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Even more remarkably, her classmates love her even though she’s a super-nerd and the teacher’s pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda’s world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there’s the large, busty nightmare of a school principal, Mrs. (“The”) Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion who flings children at will and is approximately as sympathetic as a bulldozer. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.

She warms up with some practical jokes aimed at her hapless parents, but the true test comes when she rallies in defense of her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, against the diabolical Trunchbull. There is never any doubt that Matilda will carry the day. Even so, this wonderful story is far from predictable. Roald Dahl, while keeping the plot moving imaginatively, also has an unerring ear for emotional truth. The reader cares about Matilda because in addition to all her other gifts, she has real feelings.”

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this book; I re-read it multiple times during elementary school. I read it again as an adult (maybe ten years ago?) but I haven’t read it in a while. Even so, I remembered so much of the book. I don’t think there was anything where I was like, “OH I FORGOT ABOUT THAT!”

This book is pure Roald Dahl. There are funny names (“Bruce Bogtrotter” is my favorite from this one) and the adults are mostly awful, and it’s insanely funny. And while I love every Roald Dahl book I’ve read, this one is my favorite (followed closely by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Highly recommended (though hopefully you’ve already read it).

 

Ghost Boys

Finished Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.

Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions.

Once again Jewell Parker Rhodes deftly weaves historical and socio-political layers into a gripping and poignant story about how children and families face the complexities of today’s world, and how one boy grows to understand American blackness in the aftermath of his own death.”

Oh, this book. I’m not sure any review can do it justice.

Jerome was shot and killed by a police officer. Jerome’s 12 and his gun was a toy, but the police officer was afraid for his life and fired—without any warning. This novel deals with the days leading up to the killing and the actual shooting itself, but it’s mostly concerned with the aftermath. We see how Jerome’s family is affected, but we also see how it changes his friends and even the police officer and his family.

With the addition of Emmett Till’s ghost, we also see a larger context for Jerome’s death. This is a risky gamble to take and one that absolutely paid off. It shows just how long these children have been murdered and for completely ridiculous reasons. How afraid can you be when faced with a 12-year-old?

Still, this book also has a lot of compassion for its characters. It’s a book that will completely break your heart but also leave you convicted to try and make the world better.

Highly recommended.

Following Baxter

Finished Following Baxter by Barbara Kerley. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

This heart-warming adventure for dog lovers everywhere is a great match for fans of books such as The Fourteenth Goldfish and A Snicker of Magic.

Eleven-year-old Jordie Marie Wallace has been waiting forever for someone to move in next door, so she is thrilled when Professor Reece arrives: she has a laboratory in her basement and an extraordinary dog named Baxter—who seems to understand everything Jordie says.

Jordie and her younger brother T.J. begin walking Baxter and helping Professor Reese in the lab. But being lab assistants ends up being more than Jordie and T.J. bargained for and leads them to a secret neither of them expected.

When Professor Reece goes missing, it is up to Jordie and T.J. to use their smarts and Baxter’s magical powers to find her. Will they be able to save Professor Reece before it’s too late?

From award-winning author Barbara Kerley comes a sweet and funny story about a young girl, a quirky professor, and a magical dog.”

This book is seriously adorable. But it’s more than just quirky and charming—it’s full of science. And it makes science both fun and accessible, which I wouldn’t have believed when I was in the target audience. :)

I love Jordie and the way that she develops self-confidence and empathy throughout the course of the story. She’s also determined to get the things she wants and is excellent at coming up with ways to get them. (Most notably Baxter, the world’s coolest dog.)

This story is a complete delight and I believe pretty much any middlegrade reader would adore it the way I do. There’s something in it for everyone.