Many of the Middle Years novels I choose to recently read are framed by understanding of social justice, diversity and equity issues. The 12 titles listed below provide readers with insights into differences, economic, socially and culturally. Each book is about young people finding a place of belonging.
ALINA IN A PINCH by Shenaaz Nanji (Racism)
Alina has moved to a new school and is teased because of the lunches she brings. When Alina’s parents are forced to travel to Africa, her grandmother comes to take care of her and the two enjoy cooking Afro-Indian meals together. From her Nani, Alina learns that ‘we are all the same, yet different: ‘different colored balloons flying under one sky… Each of us has hopes, fears., and dreams. We all want to be love and to be accepted.” Alina is determined to find the cruel bully culprit who makes fun of her. She is also determined to audition for the Junior Chef competition by creating a healthy treat. This chapter book will guide readers into diversity and equity and acceptance… and not just because of the food we eat.
THE CASE OF THE BURGLED BUNDLE by Michael Hutchinson (Indigenous)
This is the third book in the Mighty Muskrats Mystery Series by Cree author, Michael Hutchinson. A bundle ceremony is an Indigenous ritual in which the oral histories and philosophy of a nation are passed down through generations. “It is the experience that is the message”. In this novel, the author once again creates the fictional Windy Lake First Nation. The National Assembly of Cree Peoples has gathered together for a four-day-long ceremony and when the treaty bundle is stolen, the Might Muskrats, cousins Chickadee, Atim, Otter, and Sam set out to find the culprit(s). Hutchinson not only gives readers with an intriguing whodunnit, but provides rich detail and information of the Cree nation.
FIREFLY by Philippa Dowding (Homelessness)
When Firefly’s drug-loving, baseball-bat-wielding mother has been taking to rehab, the young teenager is sent to her Aunt Gayle’s house which is certainly a better home than the park she’s been forced to live in. Aunt Gayle’s shop with seven million costumes adds a variety and colour to Firefly’s life as she strives to cope with a new school, a new home, and some new friends. Firefly is a great character and one that readers will absolutely root for – and learn about resilience from. Winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.
GANGSTA GRANNY STRIKES AGAIN by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross
At least once a year, a new title by David Walliams comes my way and I’m always quite pleased to add another hard-back edition to my DW bookshelf. As always there’s a cast of wild characters: Mum, a ballroom-dancing superfan; Flavio Flavioli, heart-throb star of Strictly Stars Dancing; Mr, Parker, a nosy neighbour; Edna, resident of an old folk’s home who enjoys a good game of Scrabble and The Queen (yes, that Queen). There’s also a wild plot (the theft of King Tut’s mask, The Crown Jewels, The World Cup) and as always hilarious, outrageous, inventive writing – and art. This book is the very first sequel from the world-famous author, a great fun-filled companion to Gangsta Granny. Will there be forthcoming companions to Demon Dentist, Awful Auntie, Billionaire Boy?
THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain; written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Anitsemitism)
An illustrated memoir of the author’s live in the Soviet Union. The story takes place in Leningrad in the 1970’s and Yevgeny lives with his family in one room of a communal apartment surrounded by a mixed-bag of neighbours Little Yevgeny sleeps under the dining table and is kept company with the one family pencil that belongs to his father. Each night the boy steals the pencil, covering the underside of the table with secret drawings. Although we don’t get to see beneath the table, Yelchin presents drawings that bring characters life with humour. The family is under the oppressive situation as Jews under Communism (the father is obsessed with Russian poetry; the mother is a fan of Mikhail Baryshnikov, brother Victor is a star figure skater and young Yevegny struggles to survive amongst political demands bu escaping through his art and thriving and surviving ‘under the table.’ A very funny and poignant story. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I am not sure what young people would make of a childhood story in Cold War Russia, of the defection of a Russian ballet dancer and Jews who were considered to be enemies of the people.
A KIND OF SPARK by Elle NcNicoll (Autism)
Addie is autistic. She is not a girl with autism – she is autistic (as is one of her older sisters). When Addie learns about he witch trials that took place in her hometown in Scotland, she is determined to find out the truThis is a remarkable story of family and identity and resilience centred on a girl who know exactly who she is and is able to rise above all those who think that she is oddly different.th of who these ‘witches’ really were and even more convinced that the town needs to establish a memorial for these ‘outsiders’. This book was voted the 2021 Waterstone’s the children’s book of the year. It is deserved of the recognition.
THE PANTS PROJECT by Cat Clarke (Homophobia / Transgender Issues)
Liv (Olivia) has entered a new school and is upset with the school uniform rule that states that girls must wear pants. This is a big problem for Liv because even though he was born a girl, he was definitely a boy. With the help a new-found friend he is on a mission to challenge the dress code and change the mind of the school administration – and the mean girls who bully her. Liv is likeable Trans hero and Cat Clarke has presented an engaging novel that examines fickle friendships, faithful families and LGBTQ issues.
RED WOLF by Jennifer Dance (Indigenous / Residential Schools)
At a very young age, Red Wolf is forced to attend a residential school far from the life he knows. The author paints a stark and unsettling/ brutal portrait of life for Indigenous children taken away from their families under the Indian Act of 1876. The fear alienation and powerlessness of thousands of First Nation children. The story is balanced by the narrative of Crooked Ear, a wolf being forced from the land who throughout the story helps Red Wolf to survive. The author has a passion for equality and justice and as a non-native has dedicated her writing and research to presents a vivid and informative portrait of Anishnaabe, language, beliefs and culture. Other titles by the author: Paint; Hawk.
ROOM TO DREAM by Kelly Yang (Chinese family; Big business, Friendships)
This is the third book in a trilogy by Asian American author Kelly Yang. Mia Tan is wise, feisty character who has proved herself to be a determined young girl growing up in California in the 1990’s. Mia’s adventures are drawn from the author’s personal experiences of her family’s immigration to America where they acquired The Calivista Motel in Anahiem and where Mia took charge sitting at the Front Desk. In Three Keys, Mia and her friends fight for immigration rights when they learn that In this new book, Mia and her family take a vacation to Beijing, China where she reunites with her cousins and grandparents and witnesses big changes that the country is going home. Big changes are also happening in Anaheim California where a conglomerate wants to take over The Calivista and offers big money to turn the modest motel into a boutique hotel. Mia isn’t going to stand for that and once again puts up a strong fight to do what she feels is right. Room To Dream is also a story of friendships and loyalty. Mia’s best friend, Lupe is taken classes at the high school and Jason is determined to win the cooking championship for young people. As a young tweenager, Mia is also learning about infatuation (and a first kiss). A strong feature of this novel is the fact that Mia has been chosen to write a weekly column, Diary of a Young American Girl, for the China Kids Gazette about life as a middle school student. These columns (based on the author’s own experiences) become very popular in China. In the novel, these publications are being kept a secret from Mia’s California friends which causes more problems for Mia. Throughout the book, we get to read Mia’s columns, helping gain insights into Mia’s life, the turbulence of being a teenager and the importance finding a room to dream. Kelly Yang is a terrific author. This is a terrific book.
STUNTBOY: IN THE MEANTIME by Jason Reynolds; drawings by Raul the Third (Social Class; Bullying)
Any newly released book by Jason Reynolds puts a smile on my face. This book takes Reynolds into a somewhat different direction with a wildly episodic, funny, fantasy and reality adventure. In order to deal with his FRETS (anxieties/ ang-ZY-uh-tee), Portico Reeves invents himself into a Stuntboy superhero (at least in his own head) where he can help conquer bad things from happening to those in his neighbourhood. But even a superhero doesn’t have the power to solve the impending separation of mother and father and the arguments (ARGH -uments) they have about dividing property. Meet a cast of wild characters who live in an apartment building called Skylight Gardens “where behind every door is a new TV show”. A best friend named Zola, a bully villain named Herbert Singletary the Worst, a cat named “A New Name Every Day”, graphic episodes of a television series named “Super Space Warriors”, commercial breaks (e.g., How To Tell Your Cat is Scared) add to the mix of Stuntboy’s quest to save himself (and others). The dynamo art work by Raul the Third are splashed throughout both in black and white (sometimes blue) drawings as well as colourful graphic art. This is a hybrid of text and illustration sure to enthral middle-age readers when reading this book (and companion titles to come).
WHEN FISHES FLEW: The Story of Elena’s War by Michael Morpurgo, illus. George Butler (Refugee experience)
When she finishes high school, Nandi, travels from her home in Australia to Ithaca to learn about her heritage. Most of all she wants to learn the true story of her great aunt Elena, her marriage and how she became an unsung hero of WW II. When Nandi arrives on the island she learns that her beloved aunt has disappeared and Nandi becomes even more determined to learn about who her aunt truly is and why she’s being considered a hero by all the citizens of Ithaca. It is through the friendship of an unusual flying fish that Nandi learns the truth Greek history of her Aunt Elena’s heroism. Morpurgo is forever a master storyteller and this newest title stands brightly on this author’s bookshelf.
WHEN THE SKY FALLS by Phil Earle (War; Animal Rights)
The setting is 1941, WWII, Britain. The skies are filled with bombers and there is destruction everywhere. Joseph an angry boy sent to live with Mrs. F. a somewhat cantankerous woman who doesn’t seem to be too fond of children. Amidst the chaos, Mrs. F. is responsible for the upkeep of the zoo and the care of any remaining animals, especially, Adonis, he mighty silverback gorilla. Over time, each character digs into the truths of their past, each story filled with sorrow and grief. Over time, bonds between the two troubled characters deepen. The sites, smells and sounds of a war-torn city are starkly -and cinematically portrayed. The climax of the story is as harrowing as any can be found in a novel for young people. A gripping, compassionate read.