Twelve very appealing novels for Middle School Readers each with a focus on identity and culture, family and friendships. Several titles could be considered appropriate text to text connections: Willodeen/Cress Watercress; Cress Watercress/Every Leaf a Hallelujah; Evert Leaf Hallelujah/Willodeen; New From Here/No Vacancy; No Vacancy/Hiding on the High Wire; New From Here/Iggie’s House; The Little Prince/Willodeen; Willowdeen/Beatghrice Croc Harry; Those Kids From Fawn Creek/A Song Called Home.
BEATRICE AND CROC HARRY by Lawrence Hill
Award-winning author, Lawrence Hill, (The Book of Negroes) has written a book for middle-age readers that is sure to appeal to those who join in the adventures of a fictional character. We first meet Beatrice in a forest-tree house and as it turns out she is the only human in the forest. How did she get there? Who can she talk to? Will she be staying in the magical forest or Argilia and coexist with other animals who seem able to communicate with others. A wise lemur, a loyal tarantula, a feisty rabbit and especially King Crocodile (Croc Harry) become Beatrice’s allies as she is on a quest to learn about her past and a discover the truth about her family Lawrence Hill is a great storyteller and Beatrice and Croc Harry is filled with magical and dangerous adventures (maybe too many events). Beatrice and Croc Harry is a book about friendship, loyalty, courage and vocabulary. Moreover, Beatrice and Croc Harry turns out to be a story about a Black girl discovering the truth about her family as well as racial violence. A wonder of a book!
COINKEEPER: THE AVERY CHRONICLES (4 books) Teresa Schapansky
Teresa Schapansky has met her goal of writing books that will appeal to readers, particularly reluctant readers, who are keen to read not-to-long books with fine story power. Avery has a strong bond with his grandpa and grandpa has great stories to tell about travelling into the past and taken part or being witness to legendary tales. Cleverly, the author presents the Coinkeeper narrative in short paragraphs with generous white space dividing each paragraph. Clever too, is the presentation of each story in four books, each no more than 32 pages. (Each book provides Extra Reading information connected to story components.) . This short length should motivate middle years readers. Moreover, the stories that Grandpa tells have great folklore appeal (the Ogopogo Monster, The Selkies, Billy the Kid, the legendary camel knows as the Red Ghost). Highly recommended.
CRESS WATERCRESS by Gregory Maguire; illus. David Litchfield
Cress’s father has disappeared from his family. Cress, her mother and brother are forced to move into a cramped basement apartment. Cress is a rather feisty girl, easy to anger (especially with her mother). She has made some new friends, each with a quirky personality. More than anything, Cress wants to be reunited with her father and return to a happy family life. But dangers abound. Cress is a rabbit, I’m often fond of anthropomorphic narratives and Gregory Maguire (Wicked; Egg & Spoon) is a terrific storyteller with a great sense of humour and a great inventor of characters. Here we have a nosy mouse superintendent, a rowdy family of squirrels, gossipy songbirds, a snooty skunk, a wise hen, a dangerous bear and the threat of the snake (Final Drainpipe). A book about adventure, grief, loyalty, kindness, family, the woods, honey-gathering, moth gathering and the cycle of the moon. David Litchfield’s paints with a vivid palette of stain-glass colours and create images where light shines brightly. I loved this book. Highly recommend it as a read-aloud.
EVERY LEAF A HALLELUJAH by Ben Okri; illus. Diana Ejaita
Mangoshi, a young girl in Africa needs to head off into the woods to find a special flower that will save her mother’s life, as well as the village. Mangoshi encounters a magical world of trees, each with its own story and personality, that speak to her. When the great baobab takes the young girl into a dream travel of trees around the world, knowing that she might be the one to protect the trees from vanishing. Glorious illustrations that dance, float and crawl on the pages (with Henri Matisse smiling down on Ejaita). Novella? picture book? short story? Every Leaf a Hallelujah (sublime title) is highly recommended as a classroom read aloud. “Once read we will know never to take trees or leaves for granted again.” (Michael Morpurgo)
HIDING ON THE HIGH WIRE by Kathy Kacer
I was given an advanced reading copy by Kathy Kacer, the most important author of children’s literature to help young people understand the importance of the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. Once again, Kathy has found a particular story to engage and inform readers building compassion for a young Jewish person trapped by the power of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Irene Lorch’s family has run a family circles for many years until one day a hateful boo is shouted as Irene performs daring feats on the high wire. The circus is forced to shut down when Irene’s father (not Jewish) is sent off to serve in Hitler’s army. Irene and her mother are terrified of being taken away to a concentration camp but a sympathetic circus owner, Adolf Althoff, helps mother and daughter find refuge and a place of belonging in his circus family where their talents are put on display. Thank you Kathy Kacer for another a powerful story that has readers walking a high wire, along with Irene as she fights antisemitism and the horrors the Holocaust.
IGGIE’s HOUSE by Judy Blume (1970)
Winnie is desolate when her friend Iggie Garber has moved away to Tokyo. When a new family with three kids moves into Iggie’s house, Winnie is optimistic that she can make new friends but the Garber family is black and the Grove Street neighbourhood has always been white. When a petition is sent around by a domineering street resident to get rid of the Garber family because they don’t belong, Winnie, her family and the Garber’s learn about prejudice and racism. Judy Blume wrote this book in 1970 and it obviously resonates with Black Lives Matter issues and the need for tolerance and acceptance in every neighbourhood. This title was recently given a shout out by Jason Reynolds in a New York Times interview. Thank you Mr. Reynolds for re-acquainting me with this wonderful – and important – story. Thank you, Judy Blume, or your books that engage and resonate with millions of young readers. Thank you, too, for Iggie’s House.
THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine De Saint-Exupery (1943)
I can’t go on an airplane without a book in hand and empty-handed I went into the small airport book stall and chose The Little Prince, a book I’ve read quite a few times (not as a kid). I’m scheduled to see a performance of this later in the spring in New York so I decided that I’d re-read this iconic classic. Sometimes it’s good to re-read books we’ve encountered earlier in life. I have to say, I didn’t love it then and I don’t love it now. Every little paragraph seem to take my reading brain into a non-narrative, esoteric direction. Even with illustrations spread throughout, the writing does seem to inspire visualization.. But I guess i’ll still have to guess at the meaning of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the curiosity of yawning, a king, a drunkard who drinks to forget that he’s ashamed, a street lamp and a lamplighter on a planet without any people, an ephemeral flower, an untamed fox, sunsets, stars and the mysterious radiance of the sands. Mystifying. (Perhaps I’ll find a child to talk to who cherished this book.
NEW FROM HERE by Kelly Yang
In January 2020, author Kelley Yang packed up her three children to leave Hong Kong and move to San Francisco trying to escape the coronavirus.. Her husband who had to stay for work, stayed behind. and leaving her husband behind in Hong Kong. In New From Here, a mother packs up her three children and moves from Hong Kong to San Francisco when COVID-19 hits, leaving Dad behind because he has to stay for work. The central character of this novel is ten-year-old Knox, who settles into his new school even though Anti-Asian racism abounds (Coronavirus tag is played on the playground; his best friend’s family is losing business because people are afraid to go to a Chinese restaurant). Life is full of struggles as Knox’s mother strives to get a job and the children desperately try to find ways reunite with their father. Yang’s story takes readers through the early stages of the pandemic when victims of the disease and deaths were quickly on the rise. Kelly Yang is a terrific author, particularly for capturing Asian American life (The Front Desk; Three Keys; Room to Dream). Drawing on her own lived experiences, Kelly Yang’s writes stories of courage, and resilience where “ultimately, love is the only vaccine for hate. Its love that gets us through the hard times. And it’s love that will bind us back together as a community, nation and world”. (Author’s notes, page 357)
NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen
Miriam, an eleven-year-old Jewish has moved with her mother and father and little brother Sammy to the Town of Greenvale, population 510. Life will be very different for Miriam from what she is used to in New York, especially with the challenge of making a worthwhile living with the Jewel Motel which her father just purchased. It is summertime and Miriam makes friends with the maid, with Kate and with the owners of the diner next to the hotel. It is the summer of helping out her family, of taking care of overcoming a fear of swimming, of making grape pies. Miriam and Kate devise a plot to bring people to the community and when they create a vision of the Virgin Mary in the abandoned community drive-in, motel business does indeed boom. Problems arise, however, when the motel is vandalized with a hate message against the Jewish family. Eventually comes to learn that religion can bring out the good in all of us and as the rabbi in the story says “It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us.” Winner of the CCBC Jean Little First Novel Award, 2021.
A SONG CALLED HOME by Sara Zarr
11 year-old Lou (Louisa, Lu, Belle)’s family is going through changes. Her mother is about to remarry and Lou and her sister, Casey are now being forced to move into a new home in an area different from the one that they grew up in. For Lu, life is a ‘catalog of bad things floating around her and bumping into her, and if she could figure out how they were her fault, she could organize them and put them away.” Lu is slow to warm up to her new family situation, but Casey is even more reluctant to settle into new changes. There is a cloud of guilt hanging over Lu’s head, for stealing things, for not treating her stepdad better and particularly for the fact that her birth father is a drunk and maybe it’s her fault. When Lu discovers a surprise gift of a guitar which she assumes is her father, she is determined to learn how to play it and enter the talent show at her new school. Zarr has written a moving novel about broken families and about working towards a place of healing. Many middle years readers will identify with this story about loyalty to friends and family. A wonderful book!
THOSE KIDS FROM FAWN CREEK by Erin Entrada Kelly
Fawn Creek, Louisana is a small town, like many small towns that many young people live in. Every day seems the exact same. Those kids from Fawn Creek have been together throughout their school years and when the spirited Orchid Mason becomes a new member of the seventh grade class, things are about to change, or are they? Erin Entrada Kelly’s creates terrific characterizations in all her novels. The relationships amongst her characters are easily recognizable for many pre-teen readers. Orchid’s arrival into the community and the stories she shares of having exciting adventures in New York and Paris capture the attention (and envy) of those kids from Fawn Creek. (Assumptions: Those kids are all white kids.. racial is not an issue) Most of all, Orchid’s story shifts the balance of friendships and personalities, particularly for shy Dorothy (Didi ) Doucet and outsider Greyson Broussard who dreams of being a part of a world of fashion design and a living the life beyond the confines of a small town.
WILLODEEN by Katherine Applegate
The setting: The village of Perchance. The heroine, Willodeen who adores creatures of all kinds. Willodeen’s friends: strange beasts known as screechers (detested by the villagers, not least because they really really stink). The problem: a village has a) been cursed with fires and mudslides, and suffered from the decline of the annual migration of the hummingbears (their shimmering bubble nests would draw tourists from far and wide. Perchance, screechers, hummingbears and a clever eleven-year-old Willodeen combine to make this novel another magical, fantasy gem from Katherine Applegate that ultimately offers a message that everything in nature has a role and is connected (and that humans need to take responsibility for destruction of animals). Applegate’s dedication is “For Mother Earth. Thanks for putting up with us.”