two thought-provoking, middle-grade novels

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I am having a deal of trouble this year reading the many enticing novels on my ever-growing To-Be-Read list. I’m teaching several history, literature, and writing classes to highschool-age homeschoolers, and schloooop! there goes my time. But here are a couple new titles I have read and enjoyed recently. Both would make excellent Book Club choices for middle-grade through high school.

the fourteenth goldfish cover imageThe Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm
published in 2014 by Random House

The Plot: Ellie, 11 years old, has a drama-teacher for a mom and an actor for a dad, but it’s her scientist grandfather that she relates to best of all. When her grandfather discovers a cure for aging and turns up in a 13-year-old body , Ellie is torn between helping him win a Nobel Prize, and her fear of his findings’ unforeseen consequences.

The Brilliance: Holm has written a thought-provoking novel which incorporates enough humor, light-heartedness, and general middle school-ness, to carry readers enthusiastically along. She elevates the sciences as a fascinating, life-changing, possibility-laden sphere of study for both girls and boys, effortlessly weaving in many top scientists and their contributions. Her characters are complex and likeable, tangled in a plot driven by the convoluted generations togethersituation of a 13-year-old grandfather, his scheming to break into his old lab, and the conflicted relationships within Ellie’s world.

Ideas to Chew On: This novel is packed with questions about the role of change in our lives. Normal life involves growth and change, yet this is simultaneously painful due to endings, and exciting due to beginnings. How do we cope with this? Should we seek to avoid the pain of change, or embrace it despite the pain? What about the huge changes inherent in aging — should we seek to avoid them, or courageously live through them? What good can come from aging? What would society look like without aged people? What are we missing by not attending to that age segment? Besides these questions, issues of ethics in science are in the spotlight, as Ellie recognizes the need to consider all the impacts of advances in science, before we unleash more trouble than we bargained for.

Ages 11 and up.

BrownGirlDreaming cover imageBrown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
published in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books

The Plot: This is acclaimed-author Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiographical account of her childhood, from her birth in 1963 through the 5th grade, written in free verse. It traces her family history and early life growing up in Ohio,  Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, paying particular attention to her growing identity as a writer.

The Brilliance: Woodson is a master storyteller. Her honesty and courage and perception, and her uncanny ability to squeeze her own emotions and experiences into potent words, will make you feel you’ve walked alongside her through these 11 years of turbulence, discord, sweetness, dignity, pain, self-discovery, composition notebooks and lemon-chiffon ice cream. I loved that she includes photographs of these family members and a family tree which helps keep track of the many names from her past.

Ideas to Chew On: There’s plenty of grit and sadness in Woodson’s past, as well as deep wells of sweetness and strength, all of which raise issues of justice, racism, lunchcountersitin greenvillebrokenness, family, faith, and our unique callings in life. Here are the realities of life in the Jim Crow South painted vividly, as well as the pain of divorce and death, difficulties in school, stinging comparisons with siblings, uprootedness. Here too are glorious portraits of the strength we receive from people who go on loving us through thick and thin, the resonant security of family and tradition, the deep joy of realizing what we are especially made for, and the birth of dreams. Woodson’s grandmother, a devoted member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, raised Jacqueline in that religious tradition, while her own mother was an unbeliever, and her uncle converted to Islam, all of which raises many issues about faith, a topic Woodson does not avoid.

Ages 11 and up.