Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert


Alberta lives with her two dads in a California beachside community. She's a seventh grader and a surfer and doesn't mind much being the only Black girl in her school. However, she is excited to hear that a new girl is moving in on her block. Edie comes from Brooklyn, wears all black, and the two girls hit it off. Finally someone who understands what it's like to be different. Edie and Alberta become fast friends, and bond over the boxes of old journals they find in Edie's older house. But Alberta's BFF, Laramie, is drifting away and hanging out with a mean girl. Can Alberta hang onto her best friend? And can she and Edie find the mysterious journal writer from 60 years ago? This is a solid realistic fiction story that will appeal to lots of middle school students. 

Glitch by Laura Martin


Imagine a future in which time travelers are going back in time and trying to change history. It sure seems like there are things that should change. But then imagine that any change could be disastrous to future people and future progress. Regan and Elliot are two kids who are training to go back in time to stop illegal travelers (called "butterflies") from changing the future. Regan and Elliot have never been friends, but a forbidden message from their future selves tells them that they must work together to stop a disaster from happening. This is an action-packed story that grabs your attention right from the first moment that Regan is in Ford's Theatre trying to find a "butterfly" who is thwarting the Lincoln assassination. These kids are brave and smart and break a lot of rules. Recommended for middle schoolers, especially fans of Stuart Gibbs and Gordon Korman.  

Friday, December 18, 2020

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam


Amal is a poet and an artist, but at his artsy New York City school he is sometimes seen as angry and disruptive. When he is unjustly accused of beating up a white teenager, the system labels him as a criminal and strips him of his humanity as well as his dreams of college. His heartbreaking story is beautifully told in verse and the details of his life and his part in the incident unfold slowly. Life in the juvenile detention center is brutal at times and the reader wants to scream with the injustice of it all. The authors perfectly capture how the justice system assumes that boys of color or older, more violent, and somehow hardened criminals for exhibiting what would be considered normal behavior by white boys. We see Amal's humanity in his grieving family, his poems, and the art he creates. We also see the system stacked against him in the racist tattoo of a prison guard. This book will find many readers among upper middle school and high school students and I was happy to hear that paperback copies are being made so it can be distributed in juvenile detention centers and prisons. The best books give voice to the voiceless, and that is what this book does. Side note: co-author Yusef Salaam is one of the "Exonerated Five" and while this is not autobiographical, he has lived much of this story. 

Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds


This Spider-Man story takes place at a Brooklyn high school where 16-year-old Miles is struggling to deal with Mr. Chamberlain, an oppressive teacher pushing Miles to react to his racist rhetoric. I am a fan of Jason Reynolds, but not of Spider-Man lore and I didn't know what to expect from this story. What I found were characters who seem like real teenagers, combined with serious issues of race and how students of color are treated in schools across America, and also good, fun super hero action. Miles is a believable yet unlikely hero, and his parents and their back-stories add depth to the story and make his spider powers make sense. Reynolds masterfully works in the treatment of Black students at the hands of teachers like Chamberlain (literally all names Chamberlain). Once again, Jason Reynolds has proven that he can do no wrong. Recommended for all middle school and high school collections. 

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender


This book won the National Book Award for 2020, and with good reason. It's a lovely story, full of surprises, featuring middle schools boys from Louisiana. Kingston (known as King) thinks he sees his recently deceased brother in the dragonflies in the nearby bayous of his small town. Before his death, his brother had warned King not to associate with a boy named Sandy because Sandy is gay. King never felt right about abandoning his best friend over the issue, and when Sandy goes missing, King becomes involved in hiding him and protecting him. King is Black and Sandy is white, and that causes division in their southern town. But Sandy being gay results in similar discrimination. This book is a rare find--it's a genuinely lovely, surprising book, that also happens to feature Black and LGBTQ characters. Not only is it much needed, it's an excellent book in its own right. 

The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate


This follow-up to The One and Only Ivan is about Ivan's scrappy canine friend, Bob. In the recent film, Bob is voiced by Danny DeVito, and it is also his voice on the audiobook that I listened to. Bob is sarcastic, jaded, and kind of soft-hearted at the same time. This story takes place in a short period of time after a hurricane hits the wildlife center where Ivan and Ruby (the young elephant) are living. The One and Only Ivan had bigger themes of animal rights, taking initiative, and the purpose of art. This story can be taken more at face value--a scrappy dog tries to save himself and his friends and learns some family secrets in the process. Bob's voice is fantastic--Applegate knows how to "show not tell" and we see the world through Bob's humorous viewpoint. Recommended for young readers, but I think this is less likely to be popular with middle school readers than the first book in the series. 

The Canyon's Edge by Dusti Bowling


In this survival story, a girl and her father go hiking in a slot canyon. It is the anniversary of the death of Nora's mother, and she and her father have both dealt with it in unhealthy ways. When a flash flood overtakes them, Nora loses her father along with all of their supplies. She must survive the real dangers of the desert canyon along with the fears in her head, namely the Beast that haunts her nightmares. This is largely a novel in verse, and a quick read. I think students will like the action and be rooting for Nora to survive. I found it to be predictable and a bit formulaic--it was wrapped up too neatly with no big surprises.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leigh Johnson


You Should See Me in a Crown is a sweet romance that is entirely appropriate for middle school students. Liz Lighty, an awkward band girl in need of college funding, is running for prom queen (for the scholarship money) in an Indiana town that won't allow same-sex couples to attend prom. She is also one of few Black girls at her school and often feels stifled by her small-town high school. Liz is out to her friends, but has never had a girlfriend, so it doesn't seem like a big deal until she meets Amanda. The two girls have a strong connection, which is almost spoiled by Liz's hesitance to go public with her feelings. It is rare to find feel-good romances featuring non-white and non-straight characters. If this were a story about white, heterosexual kids it would be in some ways unremarkable--a good, solid romance story--but the addition of diversity on several levels makes it especially valuable for library collections. And what an awesome cover!

Friday, November 20, 2020

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds with Art by Danica Novgorodoff

Long Way Down is one of the most powerful and popular books written for teens in recent years. The original was spare and poetic, and packed a powerful punch for readers of many abilities and interests. It's the story of Will, 15 years old and devastated over the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn. Will has grown up with "the rules" that say no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. He has never held a gun, but is in an elevator heading out to do what he thinks he has to do to avenge Shawn's death. In the space of one minute in the elevator, Will is met at each floor by a ghost from his past. There are no easy answers or platitudes here, but much to think about and discuss with students. This graphic novel uses soft watercolors temper the harsh topic and splashes of red to accent the violence and desperation inherent in the story. Although the original and the graphic novel tell the same story, they feel different. The graphic novel is well done, and will bring new readers to the story, but the original without the visuals, was a more powerful reading experience for me. In either format, this is essential reading, and recommended for readers in grades 7-up. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson


This fictional book reads like a true crime story, and will remind readers of the first season of the podcast Serial. Five years before the start of the book, Andie Bell, a popular high school student, disappears and is presumed dead. Her boyfriend, Sal Singh, confesses and appears to commit suicide. Case closed. Five years later, high school senior Pip takes the case on as a school project, with the assumption that Sal Singh is not the murderer. She's a gutsy investigator, and she teams up with Sal's brother to try to prove his innocence, but someone knows what she is up to and might be willing to kill again to keep Pip quiet. There are dead ends, red herrings, and lots of twists and turns. Recommended for high school students who want a suspenseful murder mystery. Middle schoolers will also want to read this book, but should note that they will encounter teenage partying, drinking, drugs abuse, and some sexual content. I will be recommending it to 8th graders on up. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang


I was absolutely enthralled by this 445 page graphic novel, which on the surface is the chronicle a high school season of basketball. Much like the author of the book, I don't have a lot of interest in watching sports and I identify more as a nerd then as an athlete. What make this book compelling is the storytelling, which is Gene Yang's superpower. The story is autobiographical—a nerdy math teacher decides to write a graphic novel about a pivotal season of high school basketball, a world he knows nothing about. What he discovers is a former player-turned-coach who has never coached a state championship team, a former coach with a questionable past, and a diverse team of athletes, all with stories of their own. And there is the teacher himself, a hugely successful writer and father of four, trying to make life choices that are bittersweet. Yang manages to take us through the history of the sport of basketball and into issues of race and culture and resilience. And did I mention that there is a huge amount of basketball action? This book worked for me as an adult reader for reasons beyond the basketball action, but I suspect it will work for students and sports fans as well. Very highly recommended for 8th graders through adults. One of the best books of the year! 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams


Genesis is a 13-year-old girl with a list of things she hates about herself. One of the primary things is the darkness of her skin. The book begins with Genesis and her mother being evicted from their home and moving from their Detroit neighborhood to a rented house in a beautiful suburb. Her father promises that he is getting a promotion and that he an afford the home, but Genesis has learned not to trust him. She has never lived in such a nice area but is wary of settling in. Genesis finds out from her own grandmother that the family didn't want her parents to marry because of the darkness of her father's skin. And now her father denigrates her for that same dark skin she inherited from him. While the book swirls with issues of race and colorism and family dynamics, what makes it shine is how deeply we come to empathize with Genesis. She's a character that readers can really root for as she overcomes obstacles and comes into her own. The audiobook, read by the author, is an outstanding listening experience. Highly recommended for middle school-up. 

Class Act by Jerry Craft


Jerry Craft, who so deservedly won the Newbery Medal last year with New Kid, has a follow up with just as much heart, humor, and food for thought as his first book about life at Riverdale Academy Day School. This time the focus is on Drew, one of Jordan's best friends. Drew, with darker skin than Jordan, faces subtly different treatment, from girls wanting to touch his hair without permission to being asked to be a tour guide for a poorly conceived sister school exchange. In spite of all the racism faced by Drew and Jordan (mostly at the hands of white teachers), at its heart this is a school story about belonging and coming into your own. Liam, their uber-wealthy friend, invites the boys to his house to swim in his pool, and the disparity causes a rift that is a main focus of the story. As in New Kid, Craft makes each chapter title a parody, this time riffing on popular graphic novels for kids. This is another gem, down to the last detail. Recommended for all middle schools everywhere.   

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


Della is only 10 years old and she has seen more trauma than most people see in a lifetime. Her mother, a meth addict, is in prison, and she and her sister suffered abuse from the man who later took them in. The one thing she has always had is her older sister Suki, who staunchly protected and sheltered her. Now Della and Suki are with Francine, a matter-of-fact foster mother who doesn't even pretend to be very motherly. Della is the kind of kid who swears and fights and tries to get by any way she can, but when Suki succumbs to her own trauma, Della has to learn new ways to speak up. It sounds heavy and depressing, but it is neither. There is humor and lightness and a deep bond of sisterhood. All books by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley are gems, and this one is no exception. In a world where children are frequently the victims of sexual abuse, this book may be a lifesaver to some and a gateway to empathy for others. For adults as well as children, it is a beautiful, engaging story that stands on its own. Highly recommended for all readers ages 10-up. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Sheets by Brenna Thummler


Sheets is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that tells the story of a teenage girl who has taken on adult responsibilities after the death of her mother. Marjorie runs her family's laundry business, while also managing mean girls at school, angry customers, and her deeply depressed father. Her biggest problem, however, is a nasty man who wants to buy her business and turn it into a spa. And when Wendell, a young ghost, enters her laundromat, he inadvertently makes things worse. On first reading the book, I had some confusion about the role of minor characters and about Wendell's life (or rather, afterlife). I re-read the book and caught a lot more of the story on the second time around. My middle school book club had a similar reaction—kids were puzzled and unsatisfied about certain aspects, but it gave us fodder for a deep discussion about the book and left most of us wanting to read the sequel, Delicates, which is coming in March 2021.