FICTION: Middle Years + YA / SUMMER 2022

Five of the ten novels listed below have been published in 2022. I dug into some other titles written not too long ago and revisited an award-winning classic from 1983. Three of the novels deal with queer identity. One novel takes place in Indonesia. One takes place on another planet. One book is a short story collection. Two of the novels are designated as YA fiction. Five titles are by Canadian authors. All ten novels have kept me good company in the heat of July. 



The setting of this story is Staten Island New York, When their grade seven history teacher assigns a class project to report on historical figures who contributed to the history of the borough of Staten Island, Sam and their friend, TJ who both identify as nonbinary, embark on a research project uncovering the story of photographer Alice Austin who lived with a female partner for decades. The project is part of a contest for a new statue to be erected to celebrate the history of a signifcant historical figure. The two friends conduct top-notch research including  online reaearch, a visit to a nearby museum, and discussions with a lesbian neighbour. Sam and TJ not only discover much about local queer history but learn much about their own friendships and identities. Alex Gino, author of Melissa, writes enlightening stories – important stories –  about young LGBTQ+ young people and Alice Austin Lived Here is an important story about the past informing the present and for taking action for what you believe in. 


BERANI by Michelle Kararusman (2022)

This fine novel, set in Indonesia is a story of activism and animal rights, choices and consequences. The story is told through the eyes of three characters in chapters with alternating voices: Malia lives a privliged life despite the death of her indonesian father. Her Canadian mother plans to return to her homeland, news that is upsetting to Malia since she is passionate about fighting for the preservation of her countries rainforests. Ari has been luck enough to be sent to a school and even though he is away from his family who work the farms, his academic success and prowess playing chess is encouraging. Still, Ari worries about the orangutan, that his uncle won in a bet and now keeps in a cage.  Ginger Juice, the orangutan tells her story, remembering time with her mother but the tragedy of  of being taken way from the rainforest, a place that was once a happy home, but  is now a palm oil plantation.  The three perspectives are woven together as readers enter the worlds of three conflicted, fearful  characters and become compassionate about the choices they are forced to make. Readers will be  introduced to a setting that may be unfamiliar to them. Moreover, the author builds readers’ compassion as they learn about the circumstances and choices of each character who bravely confront the odds of class, culture and climate change. This is a wonderful novel and my guess it will be on several Canadian award lists in the year ahead. 

BLACK BOTTLE MAN:  A fable by Craig Russell (YA)

Rembrandt is the central character of this novel who, as a young child in small rural community,  learns of the arrival of  a man wearing a black top-coat carrying a magic bottle the sets’ a deal with the devil’ plot’ in motion. In Young Rembrandt, his Pa and his Uncle Thompson set out on a journey determined to undo the wager made with the stranger They move from around a lot since the Pact with the Black Bottle Man means that they cannot stay in one place for more than twelve days. If they do, terrible things could happen until they find a champion to defeat the devil. Russell is a talented writer who composes sentences with vivid detail and fine wordsmithing (e.g., “There is a quality to pain that attracts attention: the attention of those who wish to help, and the attention of those who enjoy the distress of others.” (p. 79) / “They were people cast from the same metal, him and her. Not fancy like gold or silver, but something more common like brass. Long used in the world and stronger for being all mixed up.” (p. 106). Russell also creates episodes that arouse great cinematic-like images in the mind (e.g., the eager arrival of a postal package, the stink of a homeless shelter, a first kiss, the selling of a horse). I am fond of fiction that presents different voices and different time periods and the headings for each of the rather short chapters, indicate who, where and when the action is taking place.  Teenagers who rely on linear narratives for their reading pleasure might be somewhat perplexed with the back and forth chapters settings that take place in different decades (mostly during the depression era and the unfolding of events in the year 2007). A backstory about a character named Gail interrupts the main storytelling as does anecdotes about Rembrandt’s family and his spontaneous wanderings over eighty long years. Many questions and puzzlements popped into my head as I read this unique novel over two days  This book is promoted as a fable, with a target audience of Young Adult readers.An intriguing read indeed. 

DEAR MR. HENSHAW by Beverly Cleary; illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

I’m very fond of this Newbery Medal winning novel, written in 1983 by the remarkable, favoured author Beverly Cleary. Ever since he read books by Boyd Henshaw when he was in grade two, Leigh Botts has become a devoted fan. Now Leigh is in sixth grade and decides to write letters to the author sharing his school troubles (stolen lunchbags) and his yearning to be reunited with his father who is a cross-country trucker.  Mr Henshaw does write back to  Leigh offering advice and support. The Dear Mr. Henshaw letters are balanced by Leigh’s personal diary entries to ‘Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw’  an important forum  for Leigh confide and reflect. I love this book!!!!

HARVEY TAKES THE LEAD by Colleen Nelson (2022)

Harvey, the loveable West Highland Terrier returns in the third book (Harvey Comes Home; Harvey Holds His Own) be award-winning author, Colleen Nelson. The story once again take place in a retirement villa where the hiring of new Assistant Director means enforcing new rules, making  visits by Harvey rather difficult. Mr. Kowalski, a resident at Brayside shares his worries about his wife who is hospitalized and his stories about life during World War II. Characters Magie and Austin reappear, each having problems at school. Harvey Takes The Lead is an engaging story with adventure, warmth and personal connections. 

HEARTSTOPPER by Alice Oseman (Graphic novel) (YA)

Boy meets boy. Boys become friends. Boys fall in love. For a graphic novel, I’d say that the amount of verbal text is somewhat limited but the story of adolescent  relationships and mixed-up emotions comes through beautifully. This is the first of four graphic novels in a series made into a Netflix TV Series.  The book does the series proud, the series does the book proud.

IN THE KEY OF US by Mariama J. Lockington (2022)

This novel is centred on two thirteen-year-old girls, Andi and Zora, the only black girls attending the Harmony Music Camp one summer. Each girl has special music talents (Andi=trumpet: Zora=flute). Each girl brings baggage from the past. Andi’s mother was killed in a car accident and the young girl now lives with her Aunt and Uncle who are expecting a baby. Zora is burdened with the high expectations her parents have for her future. The book is divided into four sections (four weeks in summer camp), alternating voices. The camp adventures are well-described, as is the lesbian relationship between the two girls. In fact, coming-out doesn’t seem to be an issue that the author digs into.Andi and Zora’s friendship and romance seem to blossom naturally, as they learn about each other – and themselves. Lockington weaves in episodes from the past lives of the two girls to help us understand the turmoil they have gone through in dealing with grief (Andi) and fighting with friends (Zora).  

THE LION OF MARS Jennifer L. Holm 

In the world of fiction, there is indeed life on Mars. The protagonist of this science fiction story is eleven-year old Bell with family members and other adults on this mission seem to live an ‘ordinary’ in different circumstances (algae is the primary food ingredient). There are rules that need to be followed and when a virus breaks out in the settlement, with the grown-ups getting sick, the young people are desperate to break the rules (Do not go outside without a buddy/ Keep a glow-stick in your pocket / Do not go beyond the flag) and head out to other foreign settlements that they have been forbidden to visit. (Settlement Rule: No contact with foreign countries, ever). This Barnes and Noble summer choice book will appeal to middle-years people  who enjoy reading about space adventures  

RESTART by Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman writes good books, entertaining, funny, adventures about  kids who get into problems, mostly in school settings. Middle Age readers can certainly identify with the plot, setting and characters that Korman presents. The premise of Restart is intriguing. When Chase has an accident falling off the roof, he looses his memory and needs to restart his life when he returns to school. The issue is that Chase, football hero, was also known as the uber school bully. Chase now has the opportunity to restart his life and show kindness to others, despite the scepticism of those he has harmed and his partners in bully crime.  Chapters are presented as multi-voiced narrativesAs with most of his novels, Korman presents some farcical , sit-com-like episodes which delights his reading audience, I’m sure, but is somewhat of a distraction for me. (e.g., a character covered in shoe polish gets stuck in a tuba; a bully episode that involves a fire extinguisher; a mad chase in a senior’s home). 

WAR AT THE SNOW WHITE MOTEL by Tim Wynne-Jones (short stories)

Master storyteller Tim Wynne-Jones has written a number of short story collections (Some of the Kinder Planets; The Book of Changes; Lord of the Fries) along with some fine novels. In this 2020 collection, captures moments in character’s life that centre on such issues as bullying, dementia, anxiety, activism. Setting (a motel, a forest, a rural community) are important characters within Wynne-Jones stories. The book is introduced with the Zen saying “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” which serves as a significant mantra for characters who are courageous, resilient and hopeful for better life now and in the future.