Today I’ve got a batch of middle grade titles I’ve recently enjoyed.
Plus, courtesy of the great people at Kane Miller,
I’m giving away a series of four chapter books
perfect for kids reading on their own or for reading aloud to young listeners.
Details at the end of the post.
When Stars Are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, color by Iman Geddy
published in 2020 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Here in Minneapolis we are privileged to have a large community of Somali-Americans, refugees from the intense, protracted civil wars in their country of origin, as well as many now who have been born here.
Yet while I have seen a decent number of stories focused on Syrian refugees published recently, there have been very few children’s books telling these Somalis’ stories.
So I was deeply glad to see award-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson team up with Omar Mohamed, a Somali-American man, to create this fabulous memoir.
Omar was just four years old when he fled Somalia amidst harrowing violence,
taking charge of his younger brother, who was afflicted with physical and intellectual challenges, on the long journey to Kenya and there becoming essentially the head of their two-person household
at the Dadaab Refugee Camp. At age four.
His father had been killed in front of him, his mother separated from her sons in the ensuing chaos.
Omar’s life at Dadaab, the immense losses and sweet friendships,
the stresses of survival and joys of school, are unfolded here in an utterly captivating narrative.
His story also provides an important window for us onto the grueling process
of receiving placement as a refugee in the United States.
It’s a profoundly personal account, as well as a broader lens with which to see the realities of life in refugee camps, a life currently being lived by tens of millions of ordinary people who never thought this would become their reality.
Riveting, heartbreaking, and inspiring.
Highly recommended for ages 10 through adult.
Echo Mountain, by Lauren Wolk
published in 2020 by Dutton Children’s Books
Lauren Wolk is a superb writer who not only weaves a strong plot, but does so with exquisite wordsmithing. Her prose is a distinct pleasure to read. Here she spins a tale of family and belonging, growth and healing, struggle and grit.
Twelve-year-old Ellie has moved with her family to a plot of forested land on Echo Mountain, Maine, after losing their home in town due to the Great Depression. Ellie is a girl well-suited to a hardscrabble life in the northwoods. She feels in sync with nature to the core of her being, revels in the sights and sounds of the woodland, thrums with harmony when any kind of creature flourishes, suffers in empathy over other creatures’ pain, and has a knack for knowing how to move a body from hurt to health.
All of these instincts are tested to the utmost when her father is severely injured in an accident unfairly blamed on Ellie, and she has to shoulder extraordinary responsibility, lean into courage, care, resilience, and optimism, to find a path to her own healing, as well as that of others in her family and community.
Featuring a cast of unusual and vivid characters, the spellbinding story is loaded with beauty and humanity, as well as a dose of humor.
There are, I’ll just warn you, a few descriptions of physical wounds Ellie works on that will be tough sledding for those with squeamish stomachs!
I loved this story, loved Ellie, and deeply appreciated the kind of personal growth Wolk examines through her characters. Recommended for readers ages 11 to adult.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks
published in 2020 by Katherine Tegen Books, Harper Collins
Systemic racism in the criminal justice system is not an easy topic to address for young readers, yet Janae Marks has tackled that and done it in such a way as to make it supremely accessible to readers ages 9-13. You can tell just by looking at that cover image, can’t you, that the story trends warm and sunny.
The main plot line sees 12-year-old Zoe endeavoring to help overturn her father’s unjust conviction and prison sentence which has removed him from her life since before her birth.
Despite that painful focus, there’s a lot of sugar and youthful zest in these pages.
Zoe’s dream is to become a pastry chef, so throughout her account mountains of decadent, frosted cupcakes and gleaming, berry tarts emerge from mixers and baking pans to tantalize us.
That, along with a big scoop of friendship concerns which resolve via kindness and honesty, significantly lightens and brightens what could have been a heavy tone.
Often the characters in middle-grade novels read a bit older and more mature than their real life counterparts in my opinion, but in this story Zoe and her best buddy Trevor feel truer to reality, marked by both naiveté and exuberance.
All that makes this a great introduction to a serious and important justice issue in our country. I think the book will appeal more to girls and would suggest it for a mother-daughter book club.
Black Brother, Black Brother, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
published in 2020 by Little, Brown and Company
This is the story of two biracial boys, 12-year-old Donte and his older brother Trey, both new students at an elite private school outside of Boston. Trey gets his much lighter skin tone from their White father, while Donte has inherited the dark pigmentation of their mom. Along with that darker skin, sadly, comes a much tougher time at school including a boatload of bullying from some classmates and racist treatment by school authorities. His rocky ride comes to a head when Donte is arrested at school on false charges.
Donte’s deep pain, shame, and fury over the incident drive him to avenge himself via the only possible way either he or Trey can conceive — by learning to fence and trying to defeat his nemesis, the school bully and fencing champion.
Donte’s coach, an African-American former-Olympian, suggests that revenge is not the best motivation, but rather self-knowledge, self-respect, self-control. Can Donte conquer his internal struggles as well as his antagonist?
Populated with likable characters, energized by grit and determination, this book probes systemic racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, the trauma of injustice, and the power of mentorship. It’s a great read for boys and girls ages 10 and up.
The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster, by Cary Fagan
published in 2019 by Tundra Books
Every once in a while a book has such a captivating title and cover that I’m drawn to it like a magnet. This is one of them, and the quirk and mystery wafting from its externals are fully realized in the unique, poignant story inside.
Hartley Staples is an 8th grader for whom the past 9 months have felt like stepping out of normalcy and into disequilibrium. That’s because nine months ago his older brother ran away from home leaving a gaping hole, a fractured and hurting family, even the loss of his best friend. Hartley narrates the bulk of the novel and his voice is fresh, witty, and pointedly honest. He is an immensely likable everyman.
A glimmer of hope and goodness in Hartley’s not-so-great world arrives in the form of a postcard found randomly inside a library book. Handmade, a collage of text and found art, it’s a fragment of beauty, a curiosity, a mystery.
Who put it there? What does it mean? When he finds another, he becomes consumed with collecting them all as well as discovering their maker. That would be Gretchen Oyster, whose portrait is on the cover of the book. Who is she? Why is she scattering her work abroad? And how will the intersection of their lives cause ripples in both of them?
I was quickly drawn in by the voice and concept of this story and loved its intimate, artistic, emotionally-honest manner, as well as g.o.’s postcards which are presented to us in color throughout the book. It’s pure gold for the right readers, ages 13 to adult.
We Could Be Heroes, by Margaret Mary Finnegan
published in 2020 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Hank Hudson is having a miserable time these days.
His fourth-grade teacher reads aloud daily the most unbearably sad story about a boy enduring the Holocaust. For Hank, the story elicits roiling waves of desolation which threaten to trigger emotional melt-downs, the aspect of his autism he most dislikes.
His solution to this untenable situation is bold, to say the least, involving an actual conflagration!
This, in turn, kicks off a friendship with his classmate Maisie, who is on a mission to rescue Booler, her neighbor’s dog, a great, loving, galumph of a fellow who seems to very much require rescuing, at least from Maisie’s vantage point.
With copious passion Hank and Maisie dive into their good works project, yet wind up jumping to hasty conclusions, making a goodly number of questionable choices, and running roughshod into dicey situations along the way.
It’s difficult to know who exactly this book is right for but I’m including it today because my sense is it’s a good fit for some of your readers.
On the one hand, a lot of health challenges show up in these pages and are a major focus of the plot.
Besides Hank’s autism, one character has epilepsy, an elderly man contends with multiple aspects of failing health, a teacher has mobility issues, and the beloved dog has seizures. All of this may ride heavily for many young souls.
In addition, the relationships and friendships here are not easy-going but complicated, at times manipulative and strained. It’s not a melancholy story, but there’s a lot of wrestling with life.
On the other hand, while I am not a highly-informed person when it comes to autism, and I do realize that there is a great deal of diversity within neuro-diversity,
my sense is that this story offers a revelatory exploration of how a child with autism might experience the world,
as well as how a child with chronic illness may cope with the resultant fears and frustrations.
The author’s daughter, who lives with both autism and epilepsy, apparently helped bring authenticity to these characters’ depictions.
At the end of the day, Hank and Maisie help us discover what it looks like to inhabit different bodies, and how to love others unselfishly and respectfully. It may be especially welcome or relevant to those kids living with these kinds of challenges in their own lives, or in the lives of siblings or close friends. Ages about 9 and up.
Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Patricia Crampton
first published in 1981in Sweden; English edition 1983 by Viking
I’ll sneak in one old classic. My kids loved this one when they were young. Many Americans know Lindgren only for her Pippi Longstocking, but they are missing out!
Ronia is the child of a medieval robber baron. Her story takes place in a thoroughly Scandinavian setting, a heavily-forested landscape replete with harpies and goblinfolk, and within her ancestral home, a great stone hall with stores of dark bread, goat cheese, and beer.
Deep enmity lies between her father’s people and those of his archenemy, Borka, as they compete for the treasures of merchants who make their way along the forest roads. Things come to an entirely new level of outrage, however, when Ronia, Matt’s daughter, encounters Birk, Borka’s son, and the two form an alliance, uneasily at first, but gradually evolving into a bond strong as the mountains around them.
Equal parts wilderness adventure, troll tale, medieval saga, and ode to the paradise of the Northwoods, with distinct echoes of Romeo and Juliet, this is a delightful story with majorly strong female characters. It makes a great read-aloud for a wide age range, around ages 8 and up.
Now for the giveaway!
Alex Milway has written a flamboyant 4-volume series about the Hotel Flamingo! In order they are:
Hotel Flamingo: Holiday Heat Wave
Hotel Flamingo: Carnival Caper
Hotel Flamingo: Fabulous Feast
The books star Anna, a young energetic gal who has just inherited the hotel from her great aunt and arrives bursting with plans and dreams for such a grand place.
But, oh dear! The hotel is in a woeful state of disrepair.
And just down the road, The Hotel Glitz with its pompous owner Ronald Ruffian, has scooped up all the business.
With inventiveness and moxie, as well as a new staff (all animals) and a mission to be the friendliest, most welcoming space in town,
Anna and her pals set out to restore the hotel to its former glory.
The stories make their way through the seasons, traipsing through a summer heat wave, autumnal carnival, and wintertime cooking competition, and are best read in order.
Each is about 170-180 heavily illustrated pages with a print size welcoming to young readers.
These aren’t for true beginning readers as they include some tricky vocabulary, but they would make fun read-alouds for ages 4 and up or independent reads at about a second grade level.
I’m giving away the whole set to one lucky winner.
Enter before midnight on Wednesday, August 12th by telling us in the comments:
What would make a place like the Hotel Flamingo feel like the snazziest place in town for you and your kids?
A puppy playroom? A swim-up ice cream stand? Tree house suites?
The sky’s the limit for the Hotel Flamingo! I bet your kids can help you think up a keen answer!
U.S. mailing addresses only, please.