transported by fiction…middle grade reads to take you new places

Fiction is magical.
It can transport us to distant lands or fantastical worlds.
It can take us inside others’ minds, into lived experiences utterly distinct from our own.
It can fling us into wild adventures providing a dash of spice on an ordinary day,
or walk with us into sorrows that weave our hearts with those who suffer,
that enable us to see life from new, important vantage points.
Today’s fiction does all of that in stories geared to those ages 10 and up.
Adult readers — you’ll like these, too.

City Spies
, by James Ponti
published in 2020 by Aladdin
375 pages

Move over James Bond! There’s a crack team of spies about to give you a run for your money! They hail from Paris, Australia, Rio, Nepal, and Brooklyn, and though they’re teen-agers, they’ve been recruited by MI6 because of their astonishing capabilities.

Sara is the newest recruit.  She’s an ace computer hacker who hacked into the foster care computer system to report abuse by her foster parents, only to land in court herself. In a surprising turn of events, she winds up in Scotland, a member of the elite teen spy team. Sara needs to move through her training rapidly because in just a few weeks the team is heading to Paris to a green tech-challenge being held there. Their task: protect those involved from an attack by the Purple Thumb, a clandestine, violent organization. Sara’s hacking skills are key to the plan, but as events unfold, a much more complex, risky scheme is required to identify the villains and stop their planned assault.

James Ponti’s background is screenwriting and this novel bears the marks of that. Fast-paced, cinematic action, snappy dialogue, perfect pacing, buckets of tension as well as tension-relieving humor all make this a superb, immensely engaging read. I think readers ages 10 or 11 and older will eat this up! A thrilling sequel, Golden Gate, is due out in March.

Premeditated Myrtle, by Elizabeth C. Bunce
published in 2020 by Algonquin Young Readers
358 pages

Myrtle Hardcastle, age 12, is a keen-witted sleuth.  One might even say she has an Unconventional Obsession with matters of crime.  She’s well-versed in the fine points of the law thanks to extensive conversations with her attorney-father and perusals of his big fat law books, and she’s outfitted with microscopes, telescopes, and copious imperturbability.

When Miss Wodehouse, her elderly next-door-neighbor, is discovered dead in the bathtub, the ever-observant Myrtle suspects foul play, and with the help of her governess, Ada Judson, who’s as much soul-sister as chaperone, Myrtle persistently, shrewdly, uncovers the unsavory truths.

Set in Victorian England, this novel hums along with sparkling wit, delightful characters, sinister plots, plentiful red herrings, and a fresh new Girl Detective with no patience for Proper Decorum. Dear Reader, Myrtle and Ada won me over in a heartbeat! I flew through the second volume, How to Get Away with Myrtle, as well and am happy to note that a third adventure, Cold-Blooded Myrtle, is due out in October. Jolly good fun for ages 10 and up, including adults looking for a fun diversion!

Land of the Cranes, by Aida Salazar
published in 2020 by Scholastic Press
243 pages

Betita is a nine-year-old girl living in East L.A. She is undocumented along with her parents who fled Mexico seven years ago to escape murderous violence at the hands of drug cartels, violence that has already taken the life of her Tio Pedro. Her life to this point has been one anchored in the love and security of her Mami and Papi, her close friends and tight-knit community, and her beloved teacher who has taught her to express her deep thoughts through illustrated poetry.

One terrible day, though, ICE agents seize and deport her father, and in another shattering moment, Betita and her pregnant mother are swept up and placed in a detention center. What follows is a long, inhumane assault on their bodies and humanity as they desperately wait for their lawyer to win release and asylum. Mere survival is a triumph. Building relationship and community in this vile setting, clinging to Papi’s teachings to look for the sweetness in the midst of suffering, sacrificing what is precious for the sake of others’ well-being and liberty — this is beyond triumph, and it comes at tremendous cost.

Salazar’s novel-in-verse is a powerful witness to the gross injustices of zero-tolerance border policies, the separation of children from their parents, hundreds of whom have never been reunited, human rights abuses within detention centers, and a callous disregard for human life and dignity at the core of many attitudes and positions towards asylum-seekers, refugees, and immigrants in general.

Betita’s perspective is profoundly childlike — unflinching in honesty, crushed yet hopeful, loving yet lost, with that sense of shattered innocence which is piercingly painful. It’s a shocking, disturbing story that is emotionally difficult to read, yet crucial to know. Any adult would be wise to pick this up and read it for herself. I’d also recommend it to book clubs for ages 12 and up. Parents might also consider reading it alongside readers slightly younger than 12 though I would caution against simply handing it to younger readers without any support. Be aware that physical and sexual abuse are presented. Adults might want to follow up with Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli, a slim, heartbreaking book structured around the 40 questions Luiselli had to work through each time she served as a translator for undocumented children facing deportation.

Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros
published in 2020 by Harper
260 pages

If you’d love to engage with the issues of deportation and family separation but need something less raw emotionally, this is a fantastic choice. It just won the 2021 Pura Belpré Author Award.

Efrén Nava, 12 years old, is a likeable kid, a patient big brother to his twin 5-year-old siblings, a responsible student, a loyal friend. His close-knit family may have little materially, but they share a lot of love plus his mom’s killer sopes. Efrén’s world turns upside-down, however, when his mom is arrested by ICE and deported to Mexico. Not only is her light and warmth gone from their home, but his dad takes on a second job to earn the money needed to get her back. Between shouldering the care of his siblings, worrying about his parents, and missing his mom, Efrén’s school work and friendships begin to suffer. Eventually it’s Efrén who must cross the border into Tijuana to try to track down his mom and deliver the cash she needs to return to the U.S.

This story is honest emotionally and it provides an excellent window not only onto immigration issues but onto the load of unseen worries and cares that many school children carry on top of the ordinary concerns of their peers.  Because the bulk of the story takes place in a school and neighborhood setting rather than from inside a detention center, the author is able to lighten the mood enough to make it more accessible to slightly younger readers. Additionally, I loved the way Cisneros weaves a growing Mexican-American identity and pride into Efrén’s journey.

Numerous Spanish words and phrases are incorporated into the text and all are translated in a lengthy glossary. All together it’s a brilliant invitation to walk in another’s shoes for ages 9-10 and up.

The Secret of the Blue Glass, written by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
published originally in Japan in 1959; English edition 2015 by Pushkin Children’s Books
183 pages

Tatsuo Moriyama is 10 years old when he first meets Balbo and Fern, two Little People, just five inches tall, brought to Japan from England many years earlier and now left to his care. Over the next 30 years, Tatsuo, his wife, and their children shelter this tiny, Borrowers-esque family, developing a strong, loyal bond of friendship with them. Now it’s 1943 and the grim arm of war is about to reach in and disrupt their tranquil arrangements.

This extraordinary story provides a fascinating window onto domestic life in WWII-era Japan as both Tatsuo’s human family and their wee friends experience terribly difficult alterations in their lives. Coal and food supplies dwindle and Tatsuo’s youngest child, Yuri, is evacuated out of Tokyo into the countryside in anticipation of Allied bombing, hauling the household of Balbo and Fern with her. The war’s progress and the increasing suffering that accompanies it makes Yuri’s task of caring for the Little People more and more difficult. Meanwhile, in contrast to his younger son’s zealous, toxic nationalism, Tatsuo’s political views land him in prison. It seems that due to the long decades of faithfully caring for the Little People, “something took root in his heart that affects the way he sees the world.”  What will the outcome be for them all?

This book was written by a highly-esteemed author who pioneered children’s fantasy in Japan and won multiple, prestigious awards in her lifetime. Despite the rather electric quality of the cover image, it’s often marked by a somber tone as she forthrightly addresses the toll of war. It is not a fantasy that happens to take place in wartime, à la Narnia, but a war story seen through the lens of fantasy. At the outset in particular, there is an old-fashioned formality to its style. This softens a bit as the story proceeds, but I’ll be honest with you — I almost gave it up in the first 40 pages or so. Let me assure you that by pressing on I discovered an intriguing, thought-provoking, deeply moving story. Other than accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima, I cannot think of any other book that allows us to experience WWII from the vantage point of ordinary Japanese people.

War does not make for happy endings particularly when you’re on the losing side, so let that guide you as you consider this story. I’m recommending it for ages 11 and up and suggest that any child-reader will need some historical context as it was written for a Japanese audience and assumes some knowledge of the war years. It could make a good book-club selection with ample room for discussion, and is a fine choice for adult readers as well.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt
published in 2004 by Random House
219 pages

I have handed Gary Schmidt’s books The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now to many, many readers over the years including reluctant teen readers, boys’ book clubs, and adults looking for a great story. They are among my favorite middle-grade/teen reads. When I discovered that his newest title, Just Like That, references a character from The Wednesday Wars (a favorite trick of Schmidt’s) as well as borrowing the setting and some characters from Lizzie Bright, I decided to read this book while I await the arrival of the new one at my library.

With his trademark blend of wry humor and deep pathos, Schmidt tells the story of two 12-year-olds living in coastal Maine, circa 1911. Turner Ernest Buckminster is the son of the newly-arrived White minister of the First Congregational Church. Lizzie Bright Griffin is the granddaughter of a Black preacher from a community founded by slaves, living on an island just a few hundred yards off the rocky beach of Phippsburg. The two are not meant to be friends, yet they take to one another like peanut butter and jelly. This mixing of the races stirs up a hot mess of trouble for Turner. As he gradually comes to know and cherish both Lizzie and her island community, Turner makes decisions that impede the town council’s odious plans to drive away the islanders and make Phippsburg a tourist mecca. The consequences of his stance are heavy indeed.

Schmidt is a master at taking a 12-year-old male protagonist from a place of youthful oblivion, through a confrontation with wrongdoing in the world and underdeveloped courage and perspective within himself, arriving at a new, painfully-won degree of maturity. In this story, Turner encounters overt, vile racism not in the Deep South, but in a small, northern town, smack dab in the hearts of the upstanding members of the church and his own minister father. Based on the true history of the town, it’s an important reality to address — this merging of religion and racism, the devastating abuse of power that occurs when God’s name is invoked as a means of harming vulnerable and oppressed people, cloaking hate and greed in a veneer of respectability.

Schmidt’s writing sings with lyric beauty that turns on a dime to piercing pain. He somehow wraps awkwardness, loneliness, grief, and virulent racism in the same package with hilarity without any sense of incompatibility. The story of Lizzie and Turner is by turns idyllic, funny, breathtakingly beautiful, galling, and heartbreaking. It’s a deeply affecting read for ages 11 and up.

And while you’re at it, you might give  Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now a spin as well.

Find dozens and dozens more top-notch, transportive fiction via the Fiction tabs at the top of the page. For example:
Multicultural/Diverse Reads
Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Historical Fiction
Adventure Stories

I’ll be back this month with new favorite Black History reads, multicultural picture books, easy chapter books and more.

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