six picks for tween readers

Today I’ve got some great reads for the long hot days of summer.
From the extremely quirky, to sci fi and fantasy, to stories of the real, challenging lives of tweens,
middle grade literature has got you covered.

The Time of Green Magic, by Hilary McKay
originally published in Great Britain in 2019; U.S. edition 2020 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
229 pages

Abi, age 11, likes life just fine living with her dad and her Jamaican grandmother, Granny Grace. But things are about to change enormously with her dad’s marriage to Polly. Suddenly she finds herself with two new brothers, moving into an unusual, ivy-covered house. Abi resents having to share her dad as well as accommodate the boys, especially little 6-year-old, Louis, and her new brother Max, age 13, doesn’t seem to want much to do with her, either.

Then strangely, in the midst of Louis’s meltdowns, Max’s bumbling first infatuation, family money worries, and mac ‘n cheese disasters, a winkle of magic begins seeping into the new house. Abi starts falling right into the books she’s reading; Louis is secretly visited by a cat-like creature he names Iffen. Magic is discombobulating at any level, but this magic grows increasingly sinister until finally it’s up to the three siblings to save one another from frightening peril.

Hilary McKay is astute at conveying the realities of loving-yet-warty, messy human lives, the complicated connections, private pains, and warm bonds that characterize real families. She doesn’t often venture into the realm of fantasy, but here she skillfully weaves it in with one of her trademark family dramas. I always love her writing style. It murmurs along in smooth, miraculously-ordinary currents marked by sun-dappled stretches, shadowy backwaters, and plentiful eddies of wry humor, simply carrying us along.  Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang
published in 2018 by Scholastic
286 pages

This book has had so much buzz over the past few years and I have finally taken the time to read it. It is a great story with an unusual perspective based on the author’s real life experiences as a Chinese-American immigrant who as a child helped her parents manage small hotels in California.

Mia Tan is 10 years old. She arrived in California with her parents after they left China two years ago. Her family has just landed a propitious new job — and home —  as managers at The Calivista Motel. It feels like their ticket to financial stability and that better American life they’ve dreamed of. But this small, frumpy motel comes with a host of problems, including the owner, Mr. Yao. Mr. Yao bullies and takes advantage of everyone, including the Tans, whose desperation drives them to acquiesce to his unscrupulous, greedy demands and downright extortion.

Mia gamely helps out by manning the front desk. As the year rolls on in her new school, she also learns that she loves to write and that her writing can carry and wield power. Along with her new friend, Lupe, and the five “weeklies” who live at the motel, Mia dares to use her words to reach for a dramatic solution to her family’s financial woes, to get them out from under Mr. Yao’s thumb once and for all, and to provide for others in need of shelter, grace, and stability in their lives.

Numerous social issues are spotlighted during Mia’s journey including anti-Asian racism, anti-Black racism, corruption in the criminal justice system, the grind of poverty and its impact on children, and the tremendous uphill struggle newly-arrived immigrants face to solidly establish themselves. Despite all of these painful issues, the overall star of the show is the balm that kindness and community provides when humans choose to care for one another.

In 2020, the second book in this series came out, called Three Keys (271 page + Author’s Note.) This title takes place in 1994 when Prop 187 was being voted on in California. Among the provisions of that legislation was the removal from public school of all undocumented children. Along with the campaigning for the bill came an increase in anti-immigration discourse, negative stereotyping, fear-mongering, and general vitriol.  Mia’s dear friend Lupe is deeply impacted by all of this as she and her parents are undocumented, and Mia finds herself and others she loves also threatened and targeted in this ugly atmosphere. An ever-increasing tower of grave challenges push Mia and her friends to confront injustice, stick together, and hunt for workable solutions. Beyond the issues surrounding immigration and racism, Yang highlights the painful necessity many students feel of hiding parts of themselves — their legal status, homelessness, poverty, loneliness. A third installment is due out this fall, Room to Dream.

Telephone Tales, written by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali, translated by Antony Shugaar
text first published in Italy in 1962; this illustrated, English edition published by Enchanted Lion Books in 2020
199 pages

Are you looking for something off-the-charts unique? Something absurd, quirky, wildly imaginative, and slightly revolutionary? Perhaps venturing into the trippy and psychedelic? Look no further. This book is it.

Telephone Tales is a collection of seventy tiny, tiny stories. The framing device is that a father who travels extensively for his job makes a call to his young daughter every night at 9 p.m. and on this phone call he tells her a story, a story that he spins extemporaneously each evening.  As this novel was originally written in the early 1960s, the calls are made from a pay phone and are thus severely limited by how much time a slim dime (or whatever Italians plunk into a pay phone) will buy. So his yarns are extremely brief.

However, they are enormously inventive. There are ice cream palaces and magical carousels and chocolate roads. There are sentient shrimp and talking noses. There is also a deep 1960s counter-cultural vibe running through many of the stories, such as the one about the un-town where their un-cannons un-wage war, and the many in which welcoming, creative, peaceable solutions to the troubles of the world are fantastically put into action.

Rodari, who died in 1980, is a well-known, beloved author in Italy. Claudia Bedrick, who runs the avant-garde, ever-fascinating publishing house Enchanted Lion Books, has paired his 50-year-old text with new, bonkers illustration work by the uber-talented Italian artist Valerio Vidali, and spared no expense in printing a book with the most surprising flaps, fold-outs, and tiny inserted pages I have ever seen, all done in vibrant color, line, and compositions in keeping with the surreal effect of these tales.

Middle grade readers with a penchant for the odd or philosophical could enjoy these. They could also be read aloud to quite young children whose vivid imaginations will eat these stories up like candy. Or they could be just the ticket for an adult looking for something to brighten up an overly-grim reading stack, something fantastical, something out there.

Patina, by Jason Reynolds
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
233 pages

It’s been five years since I blogged about the first book in Jason Reynolds’ Track series, entitled Ghost, and I’m finally getting around to the second installment, Patina. There are four altogether and I’m eager to take the time to read the last two.

Patina “Patty” Jones is 12 years old. She’s been a part of the Defenders track team for 3 years. As a runner she’s blistering fast and hates, hates to lose. Right from the get-go, Reynolds gifts us with a young Black girl who is allowed to be overtly competitive, whose competitive edge can be cultivated rather than suppressed.

Off the track, Patty’s life is challenging.  Her father died suddenly when she was 6 years old, and three years later her mother became a double-amputee as a result of diabetes. Patty has been playing a mother’s role to her younger sister even though she’s just a child herself. The two of them are living with their adoptive parents — their Uncle Tony and his White wife.  Currently Patty is also struggling to adjust to a new private school where she is one of only a few Black students.

Thus running is Patty’s release, her joy, her proving ground, her community, her one way to repair and lift up all that’s broken and weary in her life. That’s a lot of pressure for a 12 year old, and her story reveals the ways she both buckles and regrounds from that pressure.

Reynolds dedicates this book to “those who’ve been passed the baton too young,” a remarkable phrase that’s fleshed out in his portrait of Patty and which describes a myriad unseen students in schools across America. I love his voice, one that exudes warmth, humanity, and reality. Grab this series for ages 10 and up, and read them in order. Great series to begin with the Olympics inspiring a new fervor for running!

Mr. Penguin and the Catastrophic Cruise, written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith
first published in the UK in 2019; first US edition 2020 by Peachtree
287 pages

The Mr. Penguin books scream, “Pizzazz! Razzamatazz! Jumping fish finger sandwiches!!” This is the third installment and I am telling you it is an ocean of crazy fun. Especially for young-but-advanced readers or any older reader who is turned off by pages and pages of unbroken text — these are the cat’s meow.  Or should I say the penguin’s flipper.

Even before we reach the title page we’re served up a Mysterious Glimpse of Something Lurking in the Watery Depths! What could it be? What is disturbing its sleep? In a hot second we’re off to meet our Intrepid Crew — Mr. Penguin, Adventurer; Colin, his kung-fu-expert spider sidekick; and a boatload of characters including the passengers and crew on the Saucy Sandra.  A sprinkling of sunset-tangerine-colored pages later we’re flying into the hair-raising kidnapping of one Albert Skipper. That’s a lot of commotion before Chapter One begins and things do not slow down during the entirety of this flamboyant escapade.

Malevolent pirates, cryptic messages, secret caves, seven singing sisters, and an awakened kraken star in this rousing sea-faring adventure. It’s awash in cheeky humor, heroic actions, and a fizzing narrator’s voice. Heavily illustrated, with a large font-size. Ages 7 or 8 and up.

The Last Mirror on the Left, written by Lamar Giles, illustrated by Dapo Adeola
published in 2020 by Versify, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
266 pages

Rasheed and Otto are cousins. Home is in Logan County, Virginia with Grandma, a woman in charge! It’s autumn and the days are back to mostly-ordinary after their extraordinary, last-day-of-summer, sci-fi escapade.

In that adventure, Otto’s foray into time-travel alerted him to bad days ahead for Sheed, specifically that at some point he would become gravely ill. Otto can’t tell Sheed about this but his annoying obsession with Sheed’s well-being is driving Sheed nuts. There’s another complication from their previous caper: Missus Nedraw, proprietor of the Rorrim Mirror Emporium says the boys owe her for breaking one of her mirrors — mirrors with magical properties.

Nedraw’s mirrors function as a sort of prison, each being a magical cell. Missus Nedraw demands that the boys find her most dangerous prisoner and his gang who all escaped from their mirror when the boys inadvertently cracked its frame. When the boys enter the mirror world to pursue their mission they discover that their home town has become garbled, warped into strange and unpredictable configurations. It’s hard to tell, for instance, who the good guys and bad guys are. Is Missus Nedraw good or evil? Are the mirrors just or monstrous?  What constitutes justice in this place of menacing judges and draconian laws?

Giles writes with a galloping pace, cracking good humor, and characters that sing. For many middle-grade readers this book will simply be a fizzing sci-fi read. Yet Giles also infuses his story with deep and important questions: Who writes and enforces the laws for a society and who gets to question those laws? Who profits from imprisonment and who holds lawmakers to account?  And consider Sheed — would you want to know the details of your own future? How might that impact the way you live today? I’m also thrilled to see women in the Black Church getting a stand-out role in the cause of true justice in this story. Remarkable!  There’s room for some fabulous discussion and reflection if Giles’ books are used in a book club setting. Note that the two Alston Boys adventures really ought to be read in order. Ages 10 and up.

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