The month of December offered more free time than usual to dig into books (when not watching Netflix. This posting outlines 11 books for middle years and teenage readers with some fine fiction, nonfiction titles and poetry titles.
MIDDLE YEARS (ages 9 – 12)
AVIVA VS. THE DYBBUK by Mari Lowe (Fiction)
Aviva is an orthodox young girl, who experienced tragedy in her life, when her father was killed. Aviva is now living alone with her mother who supervises the community mikvah (a pool used for religious immersing). A ghostly and mischievous dybbuk (ghost of a deceased person who returns to complete a certain task) keeps Aviva company even though he is the cause of mayhem in destruction. Aviva’s relationship with her best friend Kayla has gone sour but when the two are forced to work together to plan festivities for the girls in their school who approaching Bat Mitzva (coming of age for Jewish girls at twelve), the two girls renew their friendship, especially when tension mounts in the community where they live when vandalism and antisemitic crimes escalate, as does the actions of the dybbuk. This was an engaging suspenseful read, I would say for a particular audience, where Judaic customs might be familiar (e.g. Mikvah; Dybbuk: Shul: Torah; Bat Mitzvah Genizah). Still a story of grief, healing, popularity and resilience are universal themes to engage many young adolescent readers.
THE CHILDREN OF WILLESDEN LANE: A True Story of Hope and Survival During World War II by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen adapted by Emil Sher (Historical Fiction)
This story of courage and hope recounting the experiences of teenager Lisa Jura’s life in England during WWIi. Lisa was chosen for the Kindertransport, the rescue effort to relocate Jewish children to great Britain. Separated from her family and left unaware of their fates, Lisa finds company in the refugee home on Willesden Lane. A musical prodigy, Lisa Jura is devoted to practicing piano, receiving a scholarship to the Royal Academy and giving concerts. It is music that gives her hope and helps her to keep her promise to her mother ‘to hold on to her music.” Her daughter Mona Golabek a celebrated concert pianist, along with journalist Mona Golabek recounts Lisa Juras’s experiences. This version is a Young Readers Edition adapted by Emily Sher. The Hold On To Your Music Foundation is a nonprofit organization which has created a series of Willesden Reads across North American. Recently, copies of this historical fiction have been donated to middle age readers throughout the GTA to read this inspirational of a courageous Jewish refugee survivor. www.holdontoyourmusic.org
THE DEEPEST BREATH by Meg Grehan (Free verse novel)
This free verse novel;, bu Irish author, Meg Grehan, presents a sensitive portrait of an 11-year old girl who is questioning her sexuality. Stevie has. a fizzy feeling in her tummy about a girl named Chloe in her class whom she makes friend. She has a loving relationship with her now single mother and Stevie doesn’t want to let her down. Grehan presents an inquisitive, reflective -and rather anxious – character on the path of discovery about changes in her life especially on her path to accept her feelings for another girl.
MARSHMALLOW CLOUDS: Two poets at play among Figures of Speech by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek; illus. Richard Jones (Poetry)
How lovely it is to dip into a poetry anthology of poems that spark our imaginations and wonder about familiar elements of our world. Marshmallow Clouds is framed by the four elements of fire, water, air and earth and according to the jacket blurb are about ‘art and reality, fact and fancy. Ted Kooser was the US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006 tells us that the ‘poems in this book are about foolign around, about letting one’s imagination run fee with whatever it comes upon. For poet Connie Wanek “it’s fun to listen for voices from unexpected voices.” I liked this collection a lot, but if truth be told especially was wowed by the vivid images created by artist Richard Jones, images of pure poetry.
from “In November”
The leaves at the tops of the trees
are the last to fall. They cling
to summer as the first cold winds
begin to pinch at them like
someone’s fingers trying to put out
the flames of a thousand candles.”
THE UNDERCOVER BOOK LIST by Colleen Nelson (Fiction)
Tyson is known as the class troublemaker and Jane the the class bookworm join forces within a secret club to find Jane a new book-loving friend. Canadian novelist, Colleen Nelson weaves two stories together. where each character discovers their own self-reliance and courage to overcome obstacles. Chapters are organized by alternating characters Jane and Tyson. This novel is a finalist for several book awards, including the OLA Forest of Reading Silver Birch Award. This story will particularly engage middle-age readers who think about their identities (who doesn’t?) and how caring, empathetic friendships are built. That it helps to celebrate the world of children’s literature is a bonus. The Kids Lit Quiz competition is an important part of the plot.
MAIZY CHEN’S LAST CHANCE (Fiction)
Maizy Chen has travelled with her mother to visit her grandmother (Oma)and grandfather (Opa) who live in Last Chance, small community in Minnesota. Oma and Opa run small restaurant called The Golden Palace which had in the family for generations. But business hasn’t been going well recently, especially with Opa’s declining health. Though she was reluctant at first to spend time in this small town, the visit becomes important to Maizy as she learns about Chinese cooking, her mother’s conflict with her grandmother and the mystery of pictures on the office wall and stories from her family’s past. Threaded throughout the book is the story of her great great grandfather Lucky’s journey from China (1876 – ) to San Francisco to Minnesota. Incidents of Anti-Asian Racism, past and present, are disturbing to read about but Maizy is a smart, determined character who’s hard questions and determination brings honour to immigrant families. Plying poker, digging for worms, dealing with mean girls, inventing fortune cookie sayings and protecting a large wooden bear mascot that is vandalized all help to make this a wonderful engaging read.
This is one of the best titles of recent fiction that deal with Anti-Asian Racism that can proudly sit beside the works by Kelly Yang (Front Desk Series; New From Here), Andrew Wang (The Many Meanings of Meilan, Cynthia Kodato (A Place to Belong and Linda Sue Park (Prairie Lotus).
YOUNG ADULT (ages 12- 16)
BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: For young adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer; adapted by Monique Gray Smith; illus. Nicole Neidhart (nonfiction)
(From the book jacket cover): “As a botanist Robin Wall Kimerer is trained to use the tools of science to ask questions about nature. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces plants and animals as our oldest teachers… Adapted by Monique Gray Smith with illustrations from Nicole Neidhardt Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults highlights how acknowledging and celebrating our reciprocal relationship with: the earth results in a wider, more complete understanding of our place and purpose.”
What a rich, remarkable, detailed book that presents adolescent readers with an encyclopedic document of the plant world which at the same time informs them of the journey of Indigenous ancestors to understand the generosity of the earth and our part in being grateful for the gifts and giving gifts in return. The layout and text features of this book os wonderful: Chapter organization (Meeting Sweetgrass, Planting Sweetgrass, Tending Sweetgrass, Picking Sweetgrass, Braiding Sweetgrass, Burning Sweetgrass) evocative black and white illustrations spread throughout; the green (Sweetgrass green) to highlight titles and definitions; black and white photographs; Text boxes that define terms (e.g., circumnutation; poultice; windthrow); Questions to inspire the reader that inspire reflection (e.g.,’What happens to our perception, engagement, and connection to the world when we feel the natural world communicating with us?” ; “What would it be like to live with a heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours?”) I particularly admired the frequent use of text boxes that highlighted statements from the text. In fact, these excerpts are framed, not in boxes, but in circular borders designed as braided sweetgrass. (e.g., “How in our modern world, can we find a way to understand the earth as a gift again?”‘ “To be heard , you must speak the language of the one you want to listen.”) Of special note are the stories and legends of that help to explain Indigenous relationship with the natural world (e.g., Nanabozho’s Journey, The Wendigo, Three Sisters). This is an astonishing book.
FLY by Alison Hughes (Free Verse Novel)
Life in high school can be difficult but for teenager Felix Landon Yarrow (a.k.a Fly) living life in a wheelchair can be particularly challenging. But Fly is particularly observant of those around him and bravely carrie on. He has a crush on a girl named Daria and keeps this dream a secret. When he becomes aware of a the creepy Carter who is involved in a scheme selling pills, Fly secretly plans to set a trap to catch Carter and perhaps win favour with Daria. This is a wonderful story about the identity of a disabled teenager who bravely wrestles with life’s circumstances. The free verse style of this excellent novel invites readers into the mind and soul of this boy with cerebral palsy. Beautiful writing. Beautiful character.
Fly in the hall,
a fly on the wall –
THE PRISONER AND THE WRITER by Heather Camlot; illus. Sophie Casson (YA Picture book/ Historical Fiction)
This is a stirring picture book of historical fiction. In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer was falsely accused of being a traitor to France by passing military secrets to Germany. Dreyfus as exiled to a prison on Devil’s Island. (“My only crime was to have been born a Jew.” Alfred Dreyfus). In 1898 writer Emile Zola’s powerful political letter was published declaring Dreyfus’s innocence and accusing those who were to really to blame. This picture book provides readers with the significance of The Dreyfus Affair in French and world politics. It is a story of antisemitism reminding readers about truth, justice and equality and the need to stand up and speak out against any prejudice they are faced with. Author Heather Camlot has done. brilliant job through lyrical, poetic text and alternate narratives to shine a light on this historical incident and to encourage readers to learn more about two heroic characters and see the relevance of their story in today’s world. Sophie’s Casson’s lightly coloured illustrations strongly support the verbal text.
NOTE: I am creating this posting on 23.01.23, 125 years since Zola’s 4000 word open letter to the president of France was published January 13,
“The truth is on the march and nothing will stop it.. When we bury the truth underground, it builds up, it takes on such an explosive force, that the day it bursts, it blows up everything with it.” (From “J’Accuse)
THE REALM OF POSSIBILiTY by David Levithan (Poetry)
This is an early work (2004) by popular author David Levithan where he digs into the minds and observations and angst of twenty teenage voices. This a collection of poems where gay and straight characters reflect on love. This is not a free verse novel but each poem, a monologue of sorts each telling a story. For me, the narratives do not always come through. The book is divided into five sections, each framed on 4 different characters. I went online and stumbled on a list of characters with brief descriptions summarizing their life and relationships. This would have been very helpful if included in the book. As a poet, like his work in fiction, presents the world of teenagers with authenticity.
SELF-MADE BOYS by Anna-Marie McLemore (YA+) (Fiction)
When the author first read The Great Gatsby as a teen, they were certain that Nick Carraway was in love with Jay Gatsby and that ‘the story wasn’t done for me’. This title is a remix of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic work. . Jay Gatsby is now a transgender young man, Daisy is a Latina lesbian debutante and Nick Carraway is a Mexican American transgender boy intent to making a better life for himself. McLemore is a transgender who aspired to present the American dream myth through a new lens. From the author’s note: The term Self-Made men, according to Frederick Douglass “implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist.realized ” Award-winning transgender author, Anne-Marie McLemore, has realized their dream by writing about Nick and Jay who couldn’t make themselves as boys and men without each other and without their communities of East Egg and West Egg. Self-Made Boys is a fresh, honest well-written novel for teenagers who may or not be familiar with the classic novel on which it is based.