Monday, January 03, 2022

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive by Laura Hillenbrand

This World War II survival story was on my list to read for a long time. I never did make it through the original adult version, but this young adult adaptation was just what I needed. Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, became an Air Force bombardier in World War II. His long, harrowing survival story began with being shot down over the Pacific Ocean. He and some companions survived the plane crash, only to be on a raft with no water and aggressive sharks attacking. After surviving this unbelievable struggle, he is captured by Japanese soldiers and endures still more suffering. Zamperini is an incredible person who withstood unbelievable difficulties. His sense of humor, resilience, and attitude save his life and make this an unforgettable read. Recommended for middle schoolers who enjoy action, survival, and learning about World War II. 

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks


Zoe Washington gets a surprise on her twelfth birthday—a letter from Marcus, the father she has never met who is in prison. She writes back to him (without her mother's knowledge) and finds out he seems like a good guy who may actually be innocent of the crime that put him behind bars. But what can a 12-year-old aspiring chef do to exonerate a criminal? This feel-good novel has some mystery and action, but mostly it's the heartfelt story of a girl learning how to make things right in her world without getting in trouble with her parents. This is the first novel from Janae Marks--can't wait to read her next book, A Soft Place to Land. Recommended for 6th and 7th graders. 

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Sophisticated middle school readers have been telling me I should read this book for years and I finally read it for an 8th grade book club. I admit that fantasy books with maps in them are not my top reading preference, but I appreciate outstanding books in all genres, so I knew I would probably like it based on the kids who recommended it. I had to think hard and force myself to get through the first few chapters of the book (who are these people and what in the world is jurda parem?). As with many elaborate fantasies, it has its own vocabulary and geography and you have to get accustomed to the world that is being built. All this to say, once I was engaged with the characters (six young people, all part of an elaborate criminal endeavor), I could not stop thinking about this book. The world-building and the intricacies of the heist are amazing, but what makes me attached to a book is always the characters. Bardugo gives us complex teens dealing with heavy issues in a world of magic and brothels and dark criminals and the suppression and manipulation of whole groups of people. Recommended for 8th grade-up. 

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

A girl is found sleeping with a goat at a monastery in an ancient medieval kingdom. The girl is Beatryce, and she has lost her memory. She is found by Brother Edik, and when they discover that she is wanted by the king, they must find a way to save this remarkable girl. Fans of Kate DiCamillo will treasure this book in which every word is carefully chosen and the protagonist overcomes some almost overwhelming trauma. Kate DiCamillo has an almost magical way of communicating a central message through her books. I heard a snippet of her on a Minnesota Public Radio show (listen here at 12:00 in) and she put it this way–Bad things will happen to you and you will be okay. That's what a book can do. Recommended for younger middle grade readers, but also for kids and adults of all ages because it's just a beautiful story with beautiful writing. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera


The year is 2061 and Petra Peña boards a spacecraft as part of an effort to save humanity. A comet is about to hit the earth and a small group of humans is going to a distant planet. Petra says a tearful goodbye to her grandmother, a storyteller, and prepares to be put into a suspended state for hundreds of years. Her parents are scientists, but Petra longs to be a cuentista (storyteller), like her grandmother. During the voyage, a cult-like group called The Collective destroys the memories of the voyagers in an attempt to solve the problems of humanity. When Petra wakes up she is the only one who remembers earth and stories and all that has been lost. This is the story of how one young person tries to take on a powerful establishment and bring the power of storytelling to a new generation. Highly recommended for middle school readers. 

What About Will by Ellen Hopkins


This novel in verse is told from the point of view of Trace, a 12-year-old whose life is being torn apart by his older brother, Will, who suffered a head injury and has subsequently become addicted to pain killers. Trace and Will's single father works long hours and puts his energy into his new girlfriend, leaving Trace to witness Will's slow descent. Trace doesn't realize what is behind his brother's erratic behavior. What he sees is the big brother who formerly was fun-loving and patient with him is now skipping school, stealing, and ignoring him. Their mother, a touring musician, has left the family, and rarely communicates with either of her sons. The other side of the story is Trace's love of baseball, and the new girl on his Little League team who happens to be the daughter of a Major League Baseball player. Fortunately, Trace has the support of a couple of good friends and an older neighbor. There are middle schoolers who love books in verse, and the poetry of this story flows easily and makes the pages fly by. I found the plot to be predictable, but it is ultimately a hopeful story that will likely have great meaning to many kids who deal with some of the same issues. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Linked by Gordon Korman


A middle school in Colorado is being defaced with swastikas and the students are faced with the question of who is vandalizing their school with symbols of hate. Three students narrate this story--Michael, the one who finds the first swastika and therefore is a suspect; Link, a popular boy who discovers a family secret about his own connection to the Holocaust; and Dana, the only Jewish girl in this small town. The students tire of the school's mandatory sensitivity training and decide to make a bold move--to create a paper chain with 6 million links representing all the lives lost during the Holocaust of World War II. A nosy blogger intervenes and their project becomes international news. But the question remains...who is continuing to paint swastikas at Chokecherry Middle School? Gordon Korman has a gift for writing books full of humor and suspense, and in this case he adds some deep questions about hate and social media and responsibility and how to attone for mistakes, even big ones. 

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo


Alina Starkov is an orphan who is about to find out she is someone special. All that she cares about in life is her best friend, Mal, who is a soldier in a realm ruled by a King. The land they live in has a dangerous, dark gash in it called the Shadow Fold. In trying to cross it, Alina unleashes magic that makes her an instant celebrity and sends her to study with the Darkling, a powerful man who is training her to ultimately defeat the Shadow Fold. Alina is in training and longing for her friend, Mal. As you might guess, all isn't what it seems to be, and Alina will be caught up in a battle between good and evil. The plot is straightforward--as a middle school librarian I have found this to be a good intro to fantasy for 6th and 7th graders. Bardugo's later masterpiece, Six of Crows, expands on this universe, is much more sophisticated and appropriate for older readers, and has fleshed-out characters with sparkling chemistry. Shadow and Bone lacks the spark and charm of Bardugo's later books, but is recommended as a solid entry point into a formidable fantasy world. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ground Zero by Alan Gratz


Brandon is a boy who is in the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. His father works on the top floor, but Brandon happens to be in an elevator on a lower floor when the building is hit by a passenger jet. At first Brandon attempts to go up a stairwell to find his dad, but his way is blocked. He doesn't know how deadly his situation is, but he's going to have to get out quickly before the building collapses. 

Reshmina is a girl in Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, 2019 she encounters an injured American soldier named Taz. Helping him could endanger the lives of her family. She hates the Taliban and the American soldiers, but she is in a difficult position. Devastation rains down on her village and she struggles to discover the source of her people's problems.

These two stories alternate throughout the book. Both viewpoints are probably unknown to most middle grade readers, and embedded within the text are many historical details and facts about the 9/11 attacks. Kids love Alan Gratz books, and this will make them interested in 9/11 and the long-term effects on the world. I will recommend this to middle schoolers. 

Note: Brandon's story is the stronger of the two, although I was uncomfortable with his unexplored Latinx background. It certainly would be better to have an own voices author write a Latinx character.  Reshmina's story doesn't have the nuance it probably should have, as it is hard for an American to take on the view of an Afghani woman. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Jackpot by Nic Stone

Rico works at the local gas station, looks after her brother, and does her best in her high school classes. There is never enough money in her life. When she sells a winning lottery ticket that goes unclaimed, she develops a plan to track down the winner and possibly share the wealth. She is aided by an unlikely partner. Zan, her opposite in many ways, has plenty of money, but he goes all in to help Rico on her quest. Can two teens from different social classes understand each other? Can Rico let Zan help her out and can Zan win Rico's affection? It's a story about money and class and friendship. All of Nic Stone's books are dynamite. Recommended for all teens 8th grade-up. 

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat


In June of 2018, a group of boys and their soccer coach went exploring in a cave near their home in Thailand. When they made their way out of the narrow tunnels, they found their exit blocked by water. The team, cold and hungry and scared, waited weeks for rescue while divers, scientists, and experts gathered outside the cave. The rescue that followed was bold and dangerous, and required much cultural cooperation. The author carefully traces the team's trek into the cave, and the long rescue that followed. Many side notes explain Thai culture, and credit is given to the many rescuers that aided the effort in multiple ways. A must purchase for middle school libraries, and well worthy of all the awards it received. This is an outstanding nonfiction book accessible to middle school kids, and fascinating for adults as well. 

War Stories by Gordon Korman


This is a contemporary story about a kid who loves playing World War II video games and learning about the war from his great grandfather, G.G. Trevor idolizes G.G. and is thrilled to be invited on a trip to relive his war experiences in France. G.G. helped liberate a French village, and as the last living soldier from his company, is set to receive a medal there. Trevor travels from Fort Benning to Normandy to Paris and through rural France, but strange things are happening and an angry blonde teenage girl seems to be following them. This story goes from the present to the past, painting a vivid picture of D-Day, fighting through hedgerows, and the French Resistance. Readers will learn a lot, get drawn into the suspenseful story, and come to understand that right and wrong are hard to judge in a war-time setting. Middle school fans of Gordon Korman and anyone with an interest in World War II will want to read this book.  

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.