My pile of fiction dwindled somewhat over the past five week as I dug into some new novels for mostly ages 9 through 12. Many middle school readers will identify with the character’s finding a place of belonging both within friendship circles and family circles and surviving (even a story about a wolf).
DENIS EVER AFTER by Tony Abbott
Denis died at a young age and his twin brother is still grieving. Denis returns to earth, so that both he can rest in peace and his family can let go. This novel wasn’t what I expected it to be as it focuses on the circumstances surrounding Denis’s death. It is a ghost story, a mystery story and what becomes a thrilling adventure story as the two boys go an a quest to answer many questions. Alas, I wasn’t intrigued by the mystery but was more interested in the mystery of what happens after we die and how a family copes with death.
FINDING ORION by John David Anderson
The name of the family is KWIRK and they do indeed live up their name with quirky adventures that involve journey to find Papa Kwirk’s ashes. Rion (not Ryan) is the storyteller recounting the families quest to find out where his grandfather has been buried. Rion’s father did not have a good relationship with his father growing up, and discovers the truth about his dad who, as it turns out was beloved by many in his community. The author tell a mystery story filled with adventure and family bonding and odd yes, quirky stuff : a toothbrush collection, a singing ‘telegram’ (announcing Papa Kwirk’s death), , a marching band, the challenge of eating a sundae made of 36 scoops of ice cream, a war museum, a fried chicken-flavoured jelly bean and a python. Kwirky, fun and ultimately heartwarming.
EACH TINY SPARK by Pablo Cartaya
Cartaya’s fine novels focus on the lives of Latinx youth and how they navigate their culture (The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish) and in his latest novel readers are introduced to Emilia Torres who must deal not only with special needs issues, but more importantly with the relationship with her father who returns from deployment and shuts himself in the garage to work on an old car. The two are brought closer together by the act of welding. Once again, Pablo Cartaya celebrates Cuban culture, effectively weaving Spanish language throughout the dialogue.
THE ACB of HONORA LEE by Kate De Goldi
I have found a new favourite author this year, thanks to my friend Shelley who passed on the award winning novel The 10 PM question to me (loved it.) I have sought out other titles by the author. In The ACB Honora Lee Young Perry is challenged to develop a relationship with her grandmother who suffers from dementia. On her frequent visits to Santa Lucia rest home, Perry embarks on creating a illustrated abecedarium (ABC book) filled with the people and events of her grandmother’s life. The quirky art that accompanies this story is a bonus. Can’t wait to read another Kate De Goldi book!
IT WASN’T ME by Dana Alison Levy
This book is “The Breakfast Club” put into contemporary middle years’ fiction. When Theo’s self- portraits are vandalized at his school, five tweenagers (the Nerd, The Princess, the Jock, the Weirdo, the Screw-Up) are brought together by a teacher who believes that learning to trust and getting to the truth can happen through a Justice Circle. The group of six meet each day during a week of school holidays and learn truth’s about each other and about themselves. Young adolescent readers will likely come to recognize these characters as being real and will hopefully understand the complexities of bullies, victims and bystander. For me, the story would hold stronger believability from the onset had the characters students been enrolled in high school. And would a principal be required to give up her holidays to help facilitate these meetings?
NOT IF I CAN HELP IT by Carolyn Mackler
Willa has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder who’s idea of order and sensory sensations (e.g., the taste of eggs, getting her toenails trimmed) make life seem out of whack at times. Willa has a best friend, Ruby, and things get more out of whack for Willa when she learns that their parents are dating each other (and will soon be getting married). This engaging novel is a fine contribution to stories that deal with divorce and the changes many middle grade student encounter.
THE 47 PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET IN MIDDLE SCHOOL by Kristin Mahoney
A great title that will inspire those entering – and living through – the trials and tribulations of Middle School life and the students and staff that comprise their school day life. The story is one girl’s advice to her younger sister who will eventually have to meet life as a sixth grader. The book struck me as a balance between authentic (yes, we know these people) and quirky character and events that (the stuff of fiction).
TIGHT by Torrey Maldonado
Bryan is caught between a rock and a hard place. His father and especially is mother have geared him to understand the difference between right and wrong, but peer pressure has lured him into behaving badly (skipping school, jumping trains). The world of comic book heroes gives Bryan strength but he himself can’t seem to be the superhero he want to be. What sets this novel apart is the setting of the New York projects. Torrey Maldonado masterly creates the tensions of street life and the colourful lingo that paints a strong picture of Latino and Black youth (“Big Will isn’t fazed by dip dudes rocking bling or pushing fat whips.”
CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn
Cat’s mother creates picture books about two characters, Caterpillar and Chicken who depend on each other. In real life, Cat is a devoted caring sister to Henry (Chicken), a boy who demands attention because of special needs. One summer, Cat and Chicken spend time with their grandparents who live in an island in an island. Hesitant at first to enjoy the summer, Cat grows to love the seaside setting, fishing and especially her understanding of what it means to stay together as a family. A heartwarming story.
A WOLF CALLED WONDER by Rosanne Parry
This book stands out from the other titles on this list, being a story of a wolf’s journey to survive, told from the point of view of that wolf. When he is separated from his family, Swift encounters danger through different landscapes forests, barren wilderness, wild water and other perils of survival (fire, hunters, hunger). What makes this a remarkable narrative is that it is based on a true story of a wolf named) OR-7 (aka Journey) who trekked across 1000 miles across the Pacific Northwest. Because the book is told through the point of view of a wolf, readers get into the minds of the animal and learn much information about their characteristics, behaviours and instincts.
COUNT ME IN by Varsha Bajaj
Told in alternative voices: Karima a young Hindu girl who has a talent for photography; Chris (the boy next door) who doesn’t do all that well in math. The friendship of the two characters when Karina’s grandfather comes to live with the family and ends up tutoring Chris. An episode involving a shattering encounter “Terrorists don’t belong here” helps readers to examine the issue of hate in society. An important timely novel, about immigration, about hate and about communities – and a society – coming together, counting on one another. A good companion to Wishtree by Katherine Applegate.