Friday, June 14, 2024

The Reappearance of Rachel Price by Holly Jackson


Bel's mother disappeared from her car on the highway many years ago when Bel was just a toddler. No one knows if she was abducted, murdered, or simply ran away, but she has not been seen since and Bel has grown up with her father in the same small town. In order to pay for the care of her aging grandfather, Bel and her father agree to be filmed for a documentary about the disappearance of Rachel Price. In the midst of filming, a woman in a tattered red shirt and black pants shows up in town claiming to be Rachel Price and saying she was kidnapped and held in a basement for 16 years. She moves into their house and agrees to be filmed for the documentary. She wants to resume being "mom" to Bel, but Bel has doubts about her motives and her story. This super-compelling mystery is great for teenagers. It is full of F-bombs, but other than that language there is nothing inappropriate for 8th graders looking for a twisty mystery. I will definitely be recommending this to my older middle school readers. 

Code Name Kingfisher by Liz Kessler


This World War II story set in Holland features two sisters, Hannie and Mila. It is 1942 and the danger to Jewish people is rapidly increasing. The girls' parents find a non-Jewish family that will take the sisters, so the book begins with Mila and Hannie saying goodbye to their parents, possibly never to see them again. It's a dual timeline story, and in the modern day, a girl named Liv is trying to get to know her grandmother "Bubbe" better when she finds a box of papers in her attic. The story goes from past to present, and in the past we see the older sister Hannie get involved in the resistance by saving Jewish children from certain death. Mila is 12 years old, and the book has a solidly middle grade feel, but traumatic things happen and the brutality of the Nazis is evident. It's a compelling story that will appeal to historical fiction readers from 4th-7th grades. It has a lot of similarities to The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh, and readers who enjoyed Blackbird Girls and The War that Saved My Life will definitely want to read it. 

Friday, March 15, 2024

Sunshine by Jarrett Krosoczka


Jarrett Krosoczka's book Hey Kiddo has touched many hearts (it's very popular with my 8th grade students in particular), and his follow-up also brings heart and humor and heartbreak to the world of graphic novels for middle schoolers. When Jarrett was in high school he was selected to work at Camp Sunshine, where seriously ill children were able to have some moments of fun and freedom. He was nervous and a little bit awkward, but he rose to the challenge and forged meaningful relationships with some kids and their families. The experience changed Jarrett's life more than the lives of the campers, and that is his focus in this heartfelt graphic novel. Several book clubs at my school have read it this year, and kids have been moved to tears. I even had one 6th grade boy who usually only reads manga thank me for "making him" read this book--and he said it is now his favorite book. Recommended for middle and high school collections. 

Monday, March 04, 2024

The Lady and the Octopus: How Jeanne Villepreux-Power Invented Aquariums and Revolutionized Marine Biology by Danna Staff

I love how much I can learn from an excellent middle school nonfiction book--and this one taught me about a woman who deserves greater recognition. Jeanne Villepreux-Power was a powerhouse of scientific research in the early 1800s, when women had great difficulty being accepted as scientists. She was born in France, and lived with her wealthy husband in Sicily, where she became fascinated with sea life, in particular the type of octopus called an argonaut that lived in a shell. She made the first aquarium ever invented, but realized that it was hard to keep sea life alive in her home, so she invented a way to place an aquarium underwater and observe in the clear shallow water of Sicily. Jeanne was a pioneer in studying living sea life (rather than just looking at dead specimens) and she developed ways of testing her hypotheses that stand the test of time. She also refuted commonly held beliefs and spent hears writing up her findings and convincing scientific societies to accept her as a member. She was a pioneer in many ways and this book takes a deep dive into her life and work. It would be great for motivated kids who are really into science, but I would argue that due to its complexity, it's even better for adults.  

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Alone by Megan E. Freeman


This novel in verse about a girl who is left alone in an inexplicably abandoned Colorado town is a huge hit with 6th and 7th graders. Maddie starts out as a 12-year-old who is planning a secret sleepover at her grandparents vacant house. She wakes up completely alone, and as days, weeks, and months go by, she faces all kinds of survival obstacles. (Slight spoiler--this goes on for YEARS.) Kids love survival books and real danger, and this book delivers. I've had numerous book clubs select this book and readers of a wide range of abilities have enjoyed talking about it and thinking about what they would do in similar situations. I enjoyed the book as well, but I was wishing it was a little more forthcoming about the evacuation and a little more edgy about what she faced. Publishers are aiming at 12-year-olds in their books these days, and this book would have been even better if it had been more solidly positioned as a middle school book. Highly recommended!

Monday, February 12, 2024

Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed by Dashka Slater


One teenage boy starts an Instagram account and posts shocking racist images and statements about his classmates including Black girls who consider him a friend. A handful of boys follow the account, some of them liking the posts and commenting on them. Not one of the boys stands up to stop the posts or to tell anyone about the account's existence. When screenshots of the racist posts go public, the victims of the account are devastated and the students in the small California town are outraged. The boys who participated are expelled, suspended, and/or left unable to attend school. Restorative circles turn violent, leaving the school open to lawsuits and lingering mistrust. All the while the victims of the hatred are shattered and living with pain and betrayal. Sasha Slater spent years following this story and interviewing the participants on all sides. This book is an absolute tour-de-force of nonfiction writing. It is compelling and engaging and written in short bursts that draw the reader in to the many perspectives she lays bare. This is absolutely one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read and it should be required reading for teenagers as well as for school administrators and teachers and people who care about what social media is doing to our society and our children. Recommended for 8th grade-up. 

Escape from Chernobyl by Andy Marino

I first read The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, which got me interested in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I wanted to read more, so I picked up this action-packed book about various teenagers escaping, returning, surviving, and not surviving the famous nuclear reactor meltdown of 1986. Chernobyl was a large nuclear reactor located in what is now Ukraine, but at the time was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government did not want word to get out that their nuclear reactor had exploded, so rather than evacuate and try to save the lives of innocent people, they waited while pretending that there was not dangerous radiation in the air. This story follows a teen who works in the nuclear reactor as well as some others who live in the nearby city. I didn't feel a strong connection to the characters, but this was worth reading to learn about the Chernobyl disaster and how it affected young people. 

What Happened to Rachel Riley? by Claire Swinarski


Anna Hunt is the new girl at East Middle School and she notices that there is something strange about her classmates and how they treat Rachel Riley. Not one person claps for Rachel's birthday when it is announced in the cafeteria--which makes Anna want to find out why Rachel, a formerly popular girl, has become the class outcast. Anna, who is an aspiring podcaster, finds herself in the midst of a mystery that includes a fire, anonymous notes, and a game that no one will talk about. The changing format--including some texts and podcast interviews, keeps the story moving along. Ultimately, this is a book about standing up against harassment and how individuals can make things better. Much like Maybe He Just Likes You, I recommend this book for 5th-7th graders, and I predict that girls will want to read it even though it is boys who might benefit the most from the story. 

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson


This missing person/murder mystery kept me reading and guessing up to the end. A small, cliff-side town in California is the setting--and when a wealthy girl goes missing, her former best friend and a classmate investigate to try and clear the name of her boyfriend, who is jailed for the crime. One of the detectives is Alice, a rich girl with neglectful parents and a history of running away. The other is Iris, who needs the reward money and has an abusive past that she doesn't want to share with anyone. Together the two girls follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, tracking down leads, sneaking around, acquiring questionable evidence, and generally being sneaky and brilliant. I will definitely recommend this to my 8th grade mystery lovers and have it in my middle school library, but there are elements that make it less appropriate for younger middle schoolers. Highly recommended for fans of The Inheritance Games, Truly Devious, and the Karen McManus mysteries.  

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McNaulty


Lucy Callahan is a math genius and she is only 12 years old. She was struck by lightning as a child, and it left her with incredible math ability. She lives with her grandmother and she's so far advanced academically that she has never been to middle school. Lucy wants to go straight to college, but her grandma says she has to spend one year in 7th grade and learn some social skills. Lucy reluctantly goes off the middle school. Her number one goal is to not let other students or her math teacher know she is a math genius. Lucy also has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which causes her to count every word in books she reads, tap her feet 3 times when entering a room, and sanitize her hands religiously. Lucy is fortunate to meet a friend named Windy, and they team up for a community service project at an animal shelter. They are joined by a boy named Levi, and with Lucy's influence, they use data and math to get more dogs adopted. It's a year in the life of a quirky, unique girl who has normal obstacles to overcome in spite of her unusual abilities. Lucy is joined by memorable adults characters in her grandma, her uncle Paul, and the math teacher. This book includes math of all kinds--it would make a great read-aloud for a math teacher. A thoroughly enjoyable book recommended for younger middle schoolers. 

A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat


An awkward kid goes on a 3-week school trip to Europe in 1989 in this "embarassingly true" memoir. Dan Santat is an illustrator, so it was natural for him to write up his teenage memories into a graphic novel. In this book, Dan is off on a trip to Paris, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and England. He doesn't have any friends signed up for the trip, and doesn't even want to go, but his parents want him to see the world and he is eager to shed his middle school humiliations and missteps. As he travels from country to country, his friendship with Amy turns into his first romantic relationship, and it is helped and hindered by the other kids on the trip. He also experiences an amount of freedom that kids today would never enjoy--and along with it he has some harrowing adventures. It is rare to find a romance story for middle schoolers that is about kids who are 13 years old. The illustrations beautifully capture the sights of Europe, and the writing is full of humor and compassion for the kid that Dan once was. A wonderful story about first love and so much more that is perfect for middle schoolers (and anyone who ever was that age). 

Friday, September 08, 2023

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Valentina's father works at a nuclear power plant called Chernobyl, and when the infamous 1986 disaster happens, she must evacuate her city and start a new life with her grandmother and a classmate who was never nice to her back home in Pripyat. The nuclear disaster and its aftermath makes for a fascinating start to the story, but this is also a story of reuniting with family, finding friendship, oppressive governments, anti-semitism, and overcoming great obstacles. I recommend this book to readers from middle school on up--as an adult who was a child in 1986 I thought there was a lot to learn about this incident and about what life was like in the Soviet Union at the time. 

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

The Golden Girl by Reem Faruqui


This novel in verse features Aafiyah, a Pakistani American girl, who plays tennis, loves "weird but true" facts, and has a best friend named Zaina. Aafiyah has a secret, though, and it's one that threatens to end her friendship and get her into some serious trouble. When Aafiyah's father is detained in Dubai and accused of a crime, her formerly easy life becomes more difficult and she gives into the urge to take something that doesn't belong to her. The writing is vivid and the verse style makes for quick reading. However, the ending wraps up a little too neatly and the deeper issue of Aafiyah's need to steal is not explored in a meaningful way. Recommended for elementary readers, but middle school readers could use more depth in its portrayal of a serious mental health issue.   

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Probability of Everything by Sarah Everett

Wow...this was a book like no other. The premise is attention-grabbing--an asteroid is heading toward earth and there are only 4 days before impact. The main character is a girl who loves probability and in her 4 days she decides to make a time capsule to remember all of the things that were loved by her friends and family. Kids would love this book if that's all it was but... SPOILER ALERT... it's not really what this book is about. I'm not going to say what's really going on, but I will say that it has to do with racism and gun violence and grief and family and friendship and love...and math. There is a LOT to talk about here and I think the ending is going to be controversial for the kids who read this book expecting something else. All this to say, this book is going to have people talking and kids reading, and that's a great thing. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Anne of West Philly: A Modern Graphic Retelling of Anne of Green Gables by Ivy Noelle Weir, Myisha Haynes (Illustrator)


As a fan of Anne of Green Gables, I was excited to read this new graphic novel set in modern Philadelphia. Anne is a foster child taken in by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. She has a big personality and big dreams, and she makes new friends and finds a family to love her. Readers wouldn't have to know the story of Anne of Green Gables to enjoy this book, but those who do know the story will especially enjoy the way the author both follows and doesn't follow the original plot. Highly recommended for middle school libraries.