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. 

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 named 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!