Earlier this month I posted Book Reviews of "Books to Begin Conversations about Bullying" to raise awareness of bullying and to promote anti-bullying activism. Another way to combat bullying is with ACTS OF KINDNESS. The books pictured here, all of which I have read and recommend feature acts of kindness by the main characters or on behalf of those characters. Fortunately, many of the books in my reviews of “Books to Begin Conversations about Bullying” also feature acts of kindness towards those characters who are being bullied. Let’s end the month with KINDNESS.
These are reviews of 23 novels of the more-recently published or read of the 31 novels pictured.
A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
“Elizabeth turns again to look at me, her face slightly shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything much in class before. She gives me a thumbs up. Raising my hand in class, making friends with Elizabeth and Micah; I’m very different from the girl I was at the start of sixth grade.” (211)
“I have to talk to you. About what happened at the mall.… Sara is my friend. You shouldn’t have spoken to her like that. And I heard what you said to Ahsan yesterday…. There’s a difference between being mean and being racist, Mads.” (223-224)
Sixth grade is challenging. Sara had to leave her small Muslim school and enter a large middle school where the kids know each other and there are very few Muslim students. And to make matters worse, her mother runs the cooking club, teaching them to cook South Asian food from her native Pakistan.
The year becomes equally challenging for Elizabeth. She is the child of a British mother who has been depressed since her own mother’s death and a Jewish American father who travels all the time for his job. “Why can’t I have normal parents? A mom who remembers things like cookies for synagogue. A dad who’s home and can remind her.” (165) And her best friend Maddy becomes friends with Stephanie and begins spouting her parents’ racist remarks at Sara.
When Sara and Elizabeth become cooking partners and then friends, they both undergo change. Sara learns she doesn’t have to stay invisible, and Elizabeth learns to stand up for what she feels is right, especially for friends. “If we’re going to be real friends, not just cooking partners, that means we stick up for each other.” (149) Sara and Elizabeth may come from different cultures but they have much in common, such as mothers who are both studying to take their citizenship test. Children of immigrants in neighborhoods where the Christmas lights cover houses, they both feel different from those in their community, other than Micah, their Jewish half-Latino friend.
Through cooking and combining cultures for a cooking contest recipe, they discover friendship and that others, such as Maddy and Stephanie, are not always what they assumed.
Written in alternating chapters by two authors who mirror their characters, Sara and Elizabeth will help 4th- 8th grade readers build conversations about friendships, prejudice, and following passions.
A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks
“Sometimes I feel like someone took a slingshot and shot me high into the air, and now I’m waving my arms and trying to find a soft place to land.” (96)
Sixth grader Joy Taylor’s life is in upheaval. Her family moved from their house to a small apartment when her father lost his job. Now she can hear her parents arguing, and Joy feels she has to stay strong and support her younger sister. “No matter what I say to Malia, I know we’re far from okay.” (85)
In her new building she makes friends—Nora, Miles, Elena, and Oliver, who let her in on their secret, the Hideout, a hidden room where they gather as a group or individually as a refuge from their families. The number one rule for the Hideout is “We can’t let adults find out about it.” (51)
Joy and Nora have a common interest in movies—Nora scripting and filming them and Joy scoring them. They start a dog walking business together to raise money for their passions and are on their way to becoming close friends.
But then Joy becomes obsessed with finding out who wrote a poem on the Hideout wall: “I’m tired of smiling When actually I’m falling apart I’m tired of hiding The pain that’s inside my heart.” (89) She knows she can help this person if only she could find out who is feeling like she is.
Joy and Nora’s friendship deteriorates when Joy pushes Nora to help her discover the poet and then when she unwittingly beaks the “number one rule” of the Hideout. In addition she loses a dog she is walking. When trying to fix this disaster Joy finds a way to create community and win back her new friends and find them a new soft place to land.
Janae Marks' second novel gives fourth through seventh graders some mystery, a little adventure, and a lot of family and friendship challenges.
Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor
“You’re having a new kind of year.” Mr. Menkis says it for me. ”Treat yourself sweetly, Aurora. Change happens. It’s the world’s number one constant.” (66)
Sixth-grader Aurora Petrequin has known Frenchie Livernois since the beginning of third grade when he and his mother rented their next-door house. The best friends are inseparable and opposite. Frenchie has autism and doesn’t speak—at all; Aurora is loud and talks impulsively—all the time. Together they explore nature—Frenchie obsessed with birds, Auruora with rocks, especially finding a tourmaline, a mineral produced in areas of her native Maine.
Aurora has no trouble understanding Frenchie and interpreting his body language, and one goal she has is to help others see him. When Sheree of Troviosity gifts Frenchie with an expensive Audubon print of a nuthatch for his bird print collection, Aurora says, “Thanks for seeing him.” (99)
But then sixth grade arrives, and for the first time Frenchie is in a different class and has a new aide, Mr. Menkis. Aurora panics, “Mom! Pop! Gracia! There’s a mess-up of all mess-ups here! Frenchie and I got put in different classes.” (3) And another change is that two new students move to her school and class and, for the first time, besides Frenchie, Aurora has friends.
When Frenchie disappears one day, Aurora panics and feels guilty for not walking him to his room that morning. While they search for Frenchie, Aurora examines everything she knows about him. As she tells Joanie and Leena, “Frenchie doesn’t get lost.… He gets me unlost. Like a human compass.” (86)
But one day turns into two. “I’m thinking about Frenchie. Best Days. Like, when Cedar came home. And family dinners and pancake Sundays. Bird hounding and rock hounding, and me cheering Frenchie on the day he learned to float. Him going along with me, the times we trailed the piebald deer. And him knowing the way home. Having a true friend—the thing I am aching for this morning. (265)
And this is truly a story about friendship. It is not about neurodiversity; it is not about nature (although nature is a catalyst and a bond between Frenchie and Aurora and between many of the townspeople), it is first and foremost about the power and symbiotic relationship of friendship like no novel I have every read.
As the town gathers and comes together to look for Frenchie, adding more and more people to the search, people who remember meeting Frenchie with Aurora, people begin to see Frenchie, “[Aurora’s] bird-loving, no-talk, very best friend.” (321)
A story told in multiple viewpoints for all upper elementary and middle school readers offering adventure, mystery, nature, characters of all ages from baby Cedar to adults who sometimes surprise us, and heart.
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman
Kabir Khan, the son of a Muslim father and Hindu mother, was born behind bars in a prison in Chennai, his mother wrongly accused of a theft before he was born. He has lived his life in deplorable conditions—little food, no privacy, intermittent water availability, and no freedom. His only happiness is being with his Amma and his teacher at the prison school.
But at age 9 his life becomes even more uncertain when, too old to live in prison, he is to be released into the streets. “I tell myself I’m free. I’m outside where I dreamed of going, but I feel like a fish in a net being lifted out of the water I’ve lived in all my life.”(59)
Claimed by a man who says he is his uncle, he faces his first dangerous situation. “My ‘uncle’ is selling me.” (72)
Kabir escapes and navigates the streets with the help of a new friend, the resilient Rana, an adolescent girl who has lived on the streets —and in the trees— and killing her own food—squirrel and crow stews—since her Kurava (Roma) family was attacked, her father killed. She teaches Kabir how to survive street life. He has two goals: to find his father and find a lawyer to release his mother from prison. “I can just imagine Amma walking out of that gray building—me holding one of her hands and my father holding the other.” (93) His command of both Kannada and Tamil languages are an asset and when following his Amma’s wishes to be good, he returns a lady’s lost earring, he and Rana and rewarded with tickets to Bengaluru to find his father’s parents.
In Bengaluru Kabir and Rana learn to trust and find new lives that allow them to both have hope again.
Filled with memorable characters, this emotional story will bring empathy and cultural awareness to upper elementary/middle-grade readers; its short chapters will provide a good read-aloud for teachers, librarians, and parents.
Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
In the United States today, more than 16.7 million people share a home with at least one family member, often a parent, who is undocumented. Roughly six million of these people are children under the age of 18. As of 2018, 4.4 million children under the age of 18 who are United States citizens lived with at least one undocumented parent. Consequently, immigration enforcement actions—and the ever-present threat of enforcement action—have significant physical, emotional, developmental, and economic repercussions for millions of children across the country. Deportations of parents and other family members have serious consequences that affect children—including U.S.-citizen children—and extend to entire communities and the country as a whole. (American Immigration Council, “U.S. Citizen Children Impacted by Immigrant Enforcement Fact Sheet,” June 2021) ------------- Efren Nava lived with his young twin siblings and two undocumented parents. Poor and hardworking, living in a 1-room apartment, they were proud and quite happy. Ama was Efren’s Soperwoman, making delicious meals out of almost nothing. The entire community was living under the threat of ICE raids.
Meanwhile, Efren navigated middle school and friends. David, his best friend and the only white kid at school (“You taught me that the color of my skin doesn’t matter” ), decides to run for Student Council President with Efren helping him on his campaign even though Efren know that his opponent, the serious, intelligent Jennifer Huerta, would be a better choice than David.
And then Ama is deported. Apa begins working two jobs to try to earn enough money to hire a coyote to bring her back, and Efren has to take care of the twins, get food (resorting a stealing food from the cafeteria trash cans), make meals, and try to keep up with his school work, as well as keep their family’s secret.
“Efren missed the old days, back when his neighborhood block made up his entire world, back when all he worried about was whether to play it safe with a game of marbles or brave a match of chicken fights along the monkey bars.” (75)
When Jennifer’s mother is deported and Jennifer goes to Mexico with her, Efren decides to run in the election to help further her ideas about immigration awareness; he keeps his reasons secret from his best friend and loses David’s friendship.
When Efren accompanies his father to the border and, as a U.S.-born citizen, crosses the border to meet his mother and give her the money she needs to be brought back, he meets Lalo, a taxi driver who was taken from his family and deported many years ago. Lalo keeps Efren safe under he meets Ama and he arranges for help that can be trusted. Efren returns home to await his mother’s return but the short trip has given him his other culture.
“A strange mix of sadness and pride overtook him., and for the first time in his entire life, he finally felt connected to his Mexican side. Everywhere he’d been, Efren had witnessed signs of courage, people no different from himself refusing to give up.…he’d been born Mexican American. Only he’d forgotten about the Mexican part.” (208) Navigating the difficulties of living with undocumented parents and poverty, Efren also experiences many acts of kindness from a variety of people—teachers, peers, friends, neighbors, in this story which will represent and bring to notice challenges that many of our students or their peers in other communities are experiencing.
Forget Me Notby Ellie Terry
Seventh grade is hard to navigate, even when you are not different.
Jinsong is the president of student body, and even though he has faced prejudice in his past, he is now one of the popular seventh graders. When Calliope June moves in next door, with her weird clothing and tics, he immediately likes her. But does he like her enough to risk his standing with his "friends," who are bullying Callie and some of whom have turned on him in the past? Callie has moved ten times during her life—every time her mother finds and breaks up with a new boyfriend. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, it is hard enough to fit in and make friends, especially since her doctor told her it would be better not to tell anyone.
So Callie dresses to draw attention to her clothes and tries to hide her Tourette's (which only backfires) as she desperately tries to make friends—until she meets Jinsong and Ms. Baumgartner, the school counselor. Callie moves for an 11th time, leaving a legacy of tolerance and acceptance, at least between Beatriz and Jinsong—and ready to share her whole self with her new friends. "Because wouldn't/ talking/ about something/ make it better understood?"
The reader learns about Callie, her past, her present, her future dreams, through her free-verse chapters and about Jinsong through his short prose. This is a perfect novel for reluctant readers as it is very short but leaves much to discuss (and contains both a male and female main character). Author Ellie Askeroth Terry's shares her own experience in her debut novel.
Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins
When 16-year-old Katina is assaulted in the stairwell by the popular star basketball player, her jujitsu skills let her defend herself. But when she reports the attack, it is she who is made so uncomfortable she has to leave school. Her confidence shattered, she wonders if she will ever be able to trust men again.
Robin was born in Kolkata, abandoned by his mother, and adopted by loving, wealthy, supportive American parents at age 3, but he has never stopped thinking about his first mother and his life seems to have no direction.
When Kat is sent to Boston to be homeschooled by a family friend’s aunt, Grandma Vee, she becomes a part of a teen church group. When Pastor Gregory takes Robin, Katina, and Gracie to Kolkata to work with female human trafficking survivors, with the help of her new support system and some of the young survivors themselves, Katina learns to trust again; Robin, now Ravi, finds purpose in his life; and Gracie, who was the major support system for both of them, finally gets Ravi to realize his love for her.
Told through very short chapters that alternate between Kat and Robin and simply written, Mitali Perkins new novel would be valuable read that is accessible to, and appropriate for, all adolescent readers.
How We Roll by Natasha Friend
Stan Lee said, “To my way of thinking, whether it’s a superhero movie or a romance or a comedy or whatever, the most important thing is you’ve got to care about the characters.” This is true whether watching a movie or reading a novel, and I thought of this when I read Natasha Friend’s newest YA novel, How We Roll.
Quinn has a brother who is on the autism spectrum, and his tantrums and food requirements consume her parents’ attention, especially her mother’s. So when Quinn’s hair falls out and she is diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder, she handles the challenges on her own, assuming that her middle school friends will support her. Which they do—until they don’t. Bullied and ridiculed by her peers and ignored by her two lifelong friends, Quinn copes by keeping to herself and putting her energy into skateboarding and basketball.
Serendipitously, when the family moves across the country so her brother can attend a special school, she has a chance to start over, with her two new wigs—Guinevere and Sasha. At her new school she meets a group of girls who adopt her. She also meets Jake. Jake, the former star football player, was in an accident and is now a bilateral amputee, sad and bitter, and the two become unlikely friends. Quinn also finds out that it is possible to have friends who like you for who you are, not what you look like.
What impressed me was how three-dimensional the characters were and not only how supportive Quinn is despite her heartbreak, but she is learning to trust that others can be as supportive. I really came to like all the characters, even Jake’s flawed brother and the ninth-grade popular girls (except for the old schoolmates whom the reader was not supposed to like). Readers will experience just how demanding life with a neuro-diverse child can be but, on the other hand, just how supportive a family and a community can be. This novel would be appropriate for mature adolescent readers.
Jackpot by Nic Stone
What would you do if you won the Mighty Millions Jackpot—all or even a portion of two hundred twelve million? What if even just some of that money could keep you from becoming homeless again, allow you the dream of college, take care of the health of your mother and little brother?
About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. Rico Danger, the main character of Jackpot, is one of these children.
“…I think that this is totally what I’ve secretly wanted—being a normal teenager with friends that I hang out with in basements on Saturday nights…”
But Rico doesn’t have time to hang out and make friends. She works as many shifts as possible at the Gas ‘n Go to help her mother pay the rent and for other necessities, while juggling high school and taking care of her little brother while her mother works double shifts. Rico plans the budget, does the shopping, and worries about the bills, being the financially-responsible household member. She agonizes about their lack of health insurance, especially when her young brother gets sick. She dreads becoming homeless as when her mother’s boyfriend kicked them out. And she keeps her head down at school, ashamed of her thrift store clothing.
But on Christmas Eve, working at the Gas ‘n Go, Rico sells two lottery tickets to an older woman who lets her keep one of the tickets for herself. When it is announced that one of the lottery winners bought the ticket at her store, Rico is sure it was the ticket bought by this woman, the ticket Rico did not choose. As the winnings go unclaimed, Rico plans to find this woman, remind her of the ticket, and hopefully get a cut of the winnings. She swallows her pride and asks Alexander Macklin, the handsome, rich, popular Zan who was also in the store on Christmas Eve, to help her identify and find this lady.
As Rico and Zan and his two friends spend more time together, she experiences not only the life she was missing but learns that things—and people—are not always what they seem and maybe they all have more control over their circumstances than she thought.
All the characters captivated me from the beginning. An added bonus were the short chapters told from the point of view of objects—the lottery ticket, the taxi cab, bed sheets,….
Love, Jacaranda by Alex Flinn “I’ve been alive sixteen years, and this is the first time since my granny died that anyone has ever noticed me.” (10) Jacaranda is a high school junior and works as a bagger at Publix in Florida. Her mother is in prison for attempted murder and, after her aunt refused to care for her, Jacaranda started going through the foster system. Her future goals are to graduate high school and possibly become a Publix manager one day. But as of now her goal is to get a solo in her high school spring concert. When a customer asks her to sing, she sings the Publix jingle and is recorded by another customer. The video goes viral, and Jacaranda’s life changes. An anonymous benefactor sees the video and sponsors her to a prestigious arts school in Michigan where she realizes that her dreams can be much bigger. The reader lives with Jackie, as she now calls herself, through her daily emails to her sponsor as she navigates her new world, taking nothing for granted—real meals, new clothes, friends who help her as she also helps them, mentors, visits to New York City, even jealous classmates, and ever-widening opportunities. She loves everything about her new life and doesn’t take anything for granted. “Do you know what I love most as MAA? You might think it’s the surroundings or the people or the opportunities. I love all those things. But the best thing is the predictability…. I didn’t have that type of predictability in foster care, and I sure didn’t have it with my mother.” (253) And she even has a wealthy boyfriend—a wealthy, nice, compassionate boyfriend. But as she fits in and earns roles in the school musicals, Jackie constantly worries that Jarvis and her new friends will no longer accept her if they find out she is poor and her mother is in prison. “It was always so shameful being poor, even though it’s a matter of luck when you’re a kid.” (131) Jackie tries to keep her background and her mother’s situation a secret even as she meets a classmate who is brave enough to share her own past homelessness. Reading Jacaranda’s story through her emails to her benefactor lets readers live through not only her linear story but learn about teachers, her past, and thoughts that may not be accessible in even a first person story narrative. It also allows for short read-alouds at the beginning of ending of a class period. Alex Flinn’s new novel tells a story of poverty, acceptance, resilience, and relationships.
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko
“Know why superheroes don’t have sisters?” Moses asks. “Couldn’t get anything done,” I say. (119)
I was captivated by narrator Liam and his colorful family:
his divorced mother who is trying to make ends meet so they can stay in their tiny basement apartment;
his third grade sister Dakota who is sure she has all the answers and that no one else, not even the teachers, knows more than she does, being 100% nerd;
his little sister Izzy who has Down syndrome, a hug for everyone, and, it turns out, the answer to the family’s problem;
his dad who lives across town and brings dinner once a week and stays a part of the family.
And then there is their German Shepherd Cupcake, whose problem of peeing in the apartment is the main problem of the novel; the mean landlord has given the Roses three weeks to get rid of Cupcake or he will kick them out.
Liam has to deal with his family and still navigate fifth grade. Luckily he has a best friend Dodge. But can he stay at approximately 1/3 nerd (which is the right amount), win at tennis, impress the new kid Moses, live down the embarrassment Dakota causes him at school, and find a way to save Cupcake?
Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhodes
“To know yourself, you need to journey, Adaugo. Remember what’s forgotten.” (7) -------------
“I need to see everything. I need to know where to run, where to hide…where to stay. Where to fly. Escape. Flee. From what? My mind answers, ‘Fire.’” (64)
Adaugo is enrolled in Wilderness Adventures, a summer camp in Paradise, Califormia, for a group of six Black teens from eastern cities. There she meets fellow campers Jay, Nessa, Kelvin, A’Leia, DeShon, and counselors Jamie and Dylan. Most important she meets Leo, ranch owner and environmentalist, and his dog Ryder.
Pretty much a loner, Addy lives with her Nigerian grandmother, her Bibi, who has raised her ever since her parents were killed in a house fire when she was four and her mother threw her out the window to safety. Since then, Addy is obsessed with mazes, maps, escape routes.
At the camp they learn to hike, climb, repel, and respect nature. Addy sees them all becoming stronger. “We’re pulling far, far,…farther away from being our old selves, just city kids. I’m becoming new. More me.” (87)
Leo sees Addy’s needs and teaches her how to read maps and map the natural environment. He knows that in the forest everyone needs an escape route. “Forests burn. Animals’ homes are destroyed. As our planet warms, there are more heat related deaths.” (119) However, “97 percent of wildfires are ignited by people.” (Afterword, 244)
When the six teens and their counselors leave for their final hike and campout, fire breaks out and the group disagrees on the right way out of the forest. Dylan and Jaime insist on hiking north where the ranch is , taking Kelvin and A’Leia with them while Addy’s instincts tell her to go the opposite way, toward water. She is convinced there is a way out. “There’s always a way out. Use your mind, your heart.” (157) Jay, Nessa, and DeShon follow her, believe in her.
On a harrowing journey, the four, led by Addy, work together, employing the skills and knowledge they have cultivated on their city streets and in the wilderness. Addy realizes, “Jay’s awesome; Nessa’s kind; and DeShon’s actually a good guy. They’re my crew—never had one before. Who knew? Never knew how much I needed one.” (158) “Survival is more than just me.” (205)
This is a true survival story, featuring a teen who is resilient and caring and learns to rely on her instincts— and learns a love for nature. It is a novel filled with details, and information, and will engage readers looking for adventure and readers who are future environmentalists and anyone who loves beautiful language and imagery. “Pancake clouds float. Mountain clouds burst, scatter as the plane flies through them.” (9)
Written in short sentences, it a novel appropriate for both emerging and proficient readers and, even though the characters are teens, would be appropriate for grades 5 and up.
Squint by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
“So hit me with your best challenge for spreading kindness…. A challenge that helps people relate to people…. Share a little piece of yourself, like I did, and let us get to know and love you.” (238) These final words from Danny, a boy who suffered and died from progeria, guide Flint and McKell in their search for acceptance and belief in themselves.
Flint, nicknamed Squint because he has an eye disease that compromises his eyesight, has two goals: to win a comic book contest and make friends in middle school.
McKell is a new student from a school where she had few friends. In Flint’s school she hangs out with the popular kids who bully Squint. But McKell befriends Squint, and they encourage each other to attempt something new and follow their passions, following her brother’s Danny’s video challenges.
When Squint adds Diamond, a female superhero hero, to aid Flint’s comic book hero also named Squint, he supports McKell in overcoming her fear of sharing her talent. As they step out of their comfort zones, Squint confronts his bullies and finds that relationships are not always what you think they are.
This is a powerful novel about trust in others and trust in oneself and about adolescents learning to be themselves as they navigate middle school with all its rules. I was hoping for some comics (graphics) to go along with the story, but the Squint does share the text of his comic book as he creates it.
Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes
Amelia’s mother died when she was too young to remember her, so she has not missed her or grieved her death—at least not like her father, the Professor, who has an inability to express his love—and his thoughts. As in the Emily Dickinson poem, Amelia presumes he went through “Sweeping up the Heart and putting Love away.” (50) Luckily, Amelia has been raised by a neighbor who comes to the house each day and loves Amelia as if her own.
But during Spring Break, twelve-year-old Amelia’s life begins to change. She has become used to being alone, throwing herself into her small sculptures, since her best friend turned Mean Girl. “’I never liked that kid,’ her father said…. ‘I thought she was a miserable soul.’” (175). When Amelia meets her art teacher’s nephew, Casey, they become fast friends with a hint of something more. Meanwhile Casey is working on preventing his parents impending divorce and has his own sweeping up the heart (literally, a sculpture he made to save the marriage).
Looking out the restaurant window where they imagine lives for the passersby, Amelia notices a woman who looks like her mother and even resembles Amelia herself. Casey, full of imagination, suggests that it is her mother’s spirit, and Amelia takes this to the next step—What if her mother didn’t really die? As she begins to imagine life with her mother, she feels the grief she has been spared. The woman turns out not to be her mother, but is someone who might be able to heal their family. “Although this wasn’t the spring break she’d wanted, she wouldn’t change it.” (179)
I have read Kevin Henkes’ picture books, and I felt the same language and structure in this book. This is a novel about complex emotions and relationships but written simply in lovely language with characters who immediate became part of my heart.
The Absolute Value of Mike by Katherine Erskine
“Do Over is a second chance. Sometimes we need a second chance.” (20) And many people in Mike’s new life need a second chance.
There is Great Uncle Poppy who has barely moved since his son’s death. And Great Aunt Moo who can barely see calls things by unusual names, but is in charge of the house, the shopping, getting Poppy his scrapple, trying to make ends meet by siphoning gas for her car Tyrone, and is the heart of the community. There is 18-year-old Gladys, with her multiple piercings and tatoos, who has been rejected by her parents and has a boyfriend, Numchuck, who everyone says is no good for her and takes the cash she earns working in the bank. There is Past who is homeless, having put his past behind him. There is Mike’s own father, a “genius,” who is grieving the death of Mike’s mother, not able to show any love, eats unhealthy food and, ultimately, has a heart attack. There is Karen who has had multiple miscarriages and now her husband has died and all she wants is to adopt a child.
And there is Misha, the child who lives in an orphanage in Romania and wants a family. And the town, Donover, called Do Over when the “N’ went missing, who wants to raise $40,000 and bring Misha home to Karen.
Mike’s father leaves for a business trip abroad, sending Mike to live for the summer with his great aunt and uncle and work on the Artesian screw, planning on Mike becoming an engineer. Mike hates math, has dyscalculia, and is not at all unhappy to find that there is no such project. His uncle is supposed to have an “artisan’s crew” to help him make wooden boxes to sell to raise money for the town project, but has not left his chair to do so. It turns out the not much has been accomplished with a date for a change in Romanian foreign adoption laws looming, and when Karen herself has to leave town, The Bring Misha Home project appears to be up to Mike. “What was the kid saying with those eyes? It was like he needed me.” (80)
But Mike has come to believe his father’s low opinion of him and his non-math-related talents. “I looked at the other sign on Gladys’ desk: We Promise You Absolute Vale. Absolute value? That was the only math term I understood. It’s when you take something that’s worth less than zero, a negative—kind of like me—and it becomes positive. I always liked that idea. It was as if there was hope, even for me.” (72)
From the community members—Moo, Past, Gladys, Karen, the Three Stooges, Mike receives clues about his strengths and talents. [Past and I] shook hands. “You are nothing if not resourceful, Mike.” (94) [Gladys] looked at me…not like I was a dumb kid, but a guy…a guy who was pretty cool, capable, even clever. A guy who could actually save Misha and bring him home. (135)
Past also leaves town, and it appears that fourteen-year-old Mike, who has already started a website, an advertising campaign, posted videos of Gladys singing and of Misha, and sales of the towns people’s products on eBay, is completely in charge of Do Over Day and raising the needed funds. “IDIOTS! All of you! Don’t you know what really matters? Not running away! Not hiding from things! Not covering things up! But doing what you know is right! For Misha!” (203)
Powering through with, it turns out, the help of a town, Mike (and his father) discover his absolute value. It may take a village to raise a child; in this case it takes a town to save two children.
While the plot may seem a little confusing, the writing makes it easy to follow, offering a bit of tension and a bunch of mysteries. I was disappointed that I was nearing the end and would miss these quirky characters as Mike completes his Hero’s Journey. Not a newly-released novel (2011) but one I somehow missed from Kathy Erskine, one of my favorite authors and creator of heroes—adolescents who learn that things—and people—are not always as they seem: teens Mike (The Absolute Value of Mike), Red (Seeing Red), Matilda (Quaking), and tweens Lily (Lily’s Promise), Julian (The Incredible Magic of Being), Caitlin (Mockingbird).
A novel that can be included in a STEM interdisciplinary curriculum, the chapters titles are mathematical terms. Readers can be asked to analyze how each title relates to the plot and characters in the chapter as a refection response or small-group discussion: parallel lines, transversal lines, skew lines, place value, compatible numbers, common factor, formulas, evaluate, mixed numbers, reflection, dependent event, order of operations, adjacent angles, zero property, difference, regroup, problem, slide, outliers, chaos theory, argument, function, attributes, variable, transformation, defective numbers, interval, tessellations, endpoint, and, of course, absolute value.
The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg
“You jump and it’s over, pain gone, nothing more to say.” (250) Two adolescents and two possible outcomes equals four possibilities.
Tillie and Aaron are New York City teenagers who are experiencing depression and despair. Even though they have never met, they both decide to jump off the George Washington Bridge coincidentally on the same day at the same time. The possibilities: Tillie jumps, Aaron sees her and lives; Aaron jumps, Tillie watches him and lives; both jump and both die; Aaron and Tillie see each other preparing to jump and meet, neither jumps, and both live through each other’s kindness.
This exquisitely-designed narrative shares all four scenarios as readers become progressively involved with the two characters, their families, and their friends and acquaintances. Even though readers are reading different permutations of the story, it is so well-crafted that there is little repetition as the stories develop.
As readers experience the world through Aaron’s and Tillie’s eyes, we learn about depression, suicidal ideation, and the immeasurable importance of connection with others. Readers perceive the effect of suicide on those involved in the lives of the victims and realize the significance of discussing feelings of despair and exploring alternatives to suicide.
“People are like that [the power of water] too. And love. Life-saving and life-taking, and it’s almost too much to navigate, that there’s this thing out there we need so much, that also hurts and destroys as it does.” (323)
Bill Konigsberg’s novel should be included in all secondary school and classroom libraries and included in book clubs where readers can discuss in small groups. Some suggestions for YA mental Health book club groupings would be The Bridge, In Sight of Stars, All the Bright Places, My Heart and Other Black Holes, The Memory of Light, and Forget Me Not.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman The novel is written as a letter by Viji to her younger sister. Viji and Rukku, who has a mental disability, run away from their physically abusive father when their mother forgives him time after time. Viji says, “Our togetherness was one of the few things I had faith in.” (2) Homeless, they join two boys, Muthu and Arul who live on a bridge, and the four of them become a family. They live day-to-day, picking through trash to sell recyclable materials, refusing to become beggars. Arul notices that Rukku can do more than Viji thinks and gives her small responsibilities, letting her feel valued. “…he’d seen something in you that I hadn’t bothered to notice.” (64) In fact, Rukku sells the bead necklaces she has been making for more money than they have had so far. After they lose their “home,” they move to a graveyard infested with mosquitoes and Rukku and Muthu become ill. Viji decides to trust and seek help from Celina Aunty, a woman who runs a home for working children, but Rukku dies, and Viji blames herself. It takes time, but Celina Aunty convinces her that even if she has no faith in religion, she should learn to “have faith in the goodness within yourself.” (161) When Arul tells her, “Start giving thanks for what you do have.… You’re here in this home with a chance to do something more with your life. You have Celina Aunty. You have me. You have Muthu. Most of all, you have yourself.” (164) Writing to her sister, Viji travels back, but she also can now move forward, imaging herself as the teacher she always wanted to be with new friends and her family, Arul and Muthu.
The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
The first 9/11 novel I read, The Memory of Things is lovely story about the effects of the events of 9/11. Another reason we read is to understand events we have not experienced and the effect of those events on others.
After witnessing the fall of the first Twin Towers on 9-11 and evacuating his school, teenager Kyle Donahue, a student at Stuyvesant High School, discovers a girl who is covered in ash on the Brooklyn Bridge; she has no memory of who she is. The son of a detective, he takes her home to help her rediscover who she is, why she was where she was, what she was doing there, and her connection to the events.
The story is told through alternating narratives—Kyle's in prose; the girl writes in free verse—the two characters sharing their stories and perspectives, introducing adolescent readers, none of whom were born on September 11, 2001, to the effects of this tragedy in their own ways.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
“You see, I’d walked into that gas station alone. And I’d walked out of it alone. Just like I’d walked in and out of gas stations alone every day for, like, years. And maybe right then and there, holding that kitten, is when I’d just had enough of all that aloneness.” (7)
Coyote Sunrise and her dad Rodeo have been living in a school bus and driving around the country for five years. Five years since Coyote’s two sisters and her mother died in a car crash. Five years since they had spoken of their family, visited their hometown, seen Coyote’s grandmother, or even used their real names.
But one day at a campground, spending the day with a new friend and her mother, Coyote noticed, “It felt like a family. Like a sister and a mom. I liked it. I wouldn’t have been willing to admit right then that it felt like that, or that I liked it—but it did, and I did.” (44) But after that one day, as was their custom, Rodeo and Coyote get back in the bus to move on and share once-upon-a-time stories.
“Once upon a time, there were three girls. Sisters. Once upon a time, there was a mom. And, once upon a time there was a box.… And they’d all promised, all three sisters and one mom had promised to come back for the box of memories…no matter what, they’d come back for that box.” (56)
In a weekly phone conversation with her grandmother, Coyote learns that the park where she, her sisters, and mother buried a memory box will be bulldozed for development, and she makes a decision. “I had to get myself, and a bus, and my dad, all the way across the country in less than four days. And I had to do it without my dad noticing.” (62)
Along the way they pick up a cast of characters, diverse people with their own problems: Lester is returning to a woman who wants him to give up his passion for music; Salvador and his mother are fleeing an abusive father/husband; and Val is running away from parents who refuse to accept her as she is—and of course, Ivan, the cat. Traveling with these people and helping them solve their problems, Coyote finds the support and family she needs to give her the strength to do what she needs to do to help her father acknowledge and move on from his loss and to help her fulfill her promise to her sisters and mother.
“I guess sometimes life does seem like too much, especially during the big moments. But usually you can dig inside yourself and find what you need. You can find what you need to grow into those big moments and make ‘em yours.” (299)
Dan Gemeinhart’s novel allows us to join this family, as if we were riding along, and share their sorrows, their failures, and their successes as we witness Coyote’s and her father’s healing.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
“Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.” (1) The first page just keeps getting better until the last line seals the deal—“It all started the moment I broke the cardinal rule of the Franklin household: Leave well enough alone.” (1)
Kekla Magoon has been one of my favorite authors. One of the YA novels I recommend the most to high school, college, and even law school students is How It All Went Down. I have written about her middle school novel CamoGirl in “Books to Begin Conversations about Bullying [http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/books-to-begin-conversations-about-bullying-by-lesley-roessing], so I was excited to hear about her new novel The Season of Styx Malone.
Ten-year-old narrator Caleb Franklin and his eleven year old brother Booby Gene live in a small town and their father does not allow them to venture out from where everyone knows them and they are “safe.” Caleb’s goal is to get to the museum in Indy. And to be extraordinary, not “extra-ordinary” as he thinks his father is calling him.
Then the brothers meet a mysterious sixteen-year-old name Styx Malone, Yes, as in Greek mythology, where the River Styx separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. Malone may not be their transport from the dead to the living but it sure seems so. Styx is free from parental restraints and always has a plan that becomes bigger and better. “The moment felt like Saturday, like summer heat, like adventure…. It felt like the soft swish of corn tassels and being one step closer to an impossible dream…’One step closer to our happy ending.’” (116)
As the boys become more and more involved with him, providing the friendship it appears he is missing in his life, they learn that he is a foster child who has moved from home to home, family to family, and his life may not be as glamorous as it seems. “’Only person you can ever count on is yourself.’…There were lots of people I could count on…. But I got what Styx was saying: Freedom came with a price.” (154)
Many things changed the season Styx Malone “shook [their] world.” That summer did make a difference—to Styx himself and to expanding the world of the Franklins.
There were many interesting, delightful characters, including Cory Cromier, the eleven-year-old bully who loves babies and becomes a Franklin brothers’ ally, and Pixie, Styx’s magical ten-year-old foster sister. This book, with its short chapters, each ending with seductive lines. and prospective discussions of morality, ethics, responsibility, friendship, and family, would make a good read aloud for grades 5-8.
The Someday Suitcase by Carey Ann Haydu
Friend. We use this word casually. Almost everyone we meet and like is identified as a “friend.” We have Facebook Friends we have never met. And young teens have a new BFF every week, it seems. But in The Someday Suitcase, readers meet true best friends, friends that readers will fall in love with.
When Clover learns the word “symbiosis” in science, her favorite class [“It refers to a relationship where two organisms or creatures are benefitting from each other and surviving together.… They’re dependent on each other” (7)], she has found a word that perfectly described her friendship with Danny. Sometimes they form two halves of a whole; sometimes they are exactly the same. Clover is practical; Danny is fun. Her favorite subjects are science and math; he is better at English and social studies. When they close their eyes and play statute, they make the exact same shape. Every time. The two fifth-graders have “the world’s closest best friendship.” (2)
When Danny gets sick, really sick, Clover decides “I am going to make my science fair project all about Danny.” (54) She will use science to find out what is wrong with him, something the doctors don’t seem able to do. All they know is that when he is with Clover, he feels better. “Maybe this is who I’m meant to be—a person who makes other people feel better.” (150)
Living in Florida, the two friends have always wanted to see snow. In fact, Clover’s father, a truck driver, brings her snow globes from each trip. When Danny’s mysterious illness worsens, they buy a someday suitcase. “It’s for when we go to the snow.” (114)
With Danny missing so much school, Clover begins making friends of her own, and the mother of one of her new friends explains that with science, there is also “room for faith and religion.” (174). When Clover and Danny set their sights on a clinic in Vermont where they think Danny can be cured (and where they can finally see snow), they experience the magic of their friendship: “Until it’s proven false, anything is possible. Even magic.” (209)
Clover is strong for Danny, but readers will realize also just how strong Danny is for Clover. This is a sweet, heartbreaking story about friendship, “a magical friendship…. Love with a twist.” (263)
This Is Not a Drill by K.A. Holt
Reluctant readers beware! Kari Ann Holt, author of Rhyme Schemer, a verse novel which I always recommend for MG reluctant readers, has written another novel that will grab the attention of those who like to read and those who thought they did not.
We are all familiar with the rules of lock down drills:
Secure and cover classroom windows and move all persons away from the windows.
– but what if your phone has no battery and the only charger you can borrow is solar-powered?
Stay with a teacher—but what if the room you ducked into, the art room, was empty except for a bunch of sixth graders?
Keep the door windows covered – but what if you are signaling a fellow student who must evade the intruder and the police on her way to safety?
Clear hallways, restrooms, and other rooms that cannot be secured – but what if where you were when the drill started was the girls’ bathroom? What if you have to go to the nurse’s office to get an inhaler for a student who passed out from an asthma attack? What if that 6th grade student was your best friend’s younger brother?
Ava McDaniel is texting with her best friends, Em and Char, who has a flip phone and has to write out her emojis, before school and somehow during school. Upset about her parents’ impending divorce and the fact that Char told Em, Ava has a fight with Char and at lunchtime goes into the girls’ bathroom, planning to stay there during lunchtime.
Not one to check the LOLMS (Lila O'Lowry Middle School) APP for announcements, Ava doesn’t realize the school is on lock-down (a real lockdown, not a drill) until it is too late, and the doors to the classrooms in her hall are locked. She finds herself with 20% battery and ducks into the art room with “scared-sweaty tater tots” (her name for 6th graders). There is no teacher in the room—it was open during lunch and the kids went in to hide—and, despite her tater-tot complaints, she has empathy for them and tries to not show her fear and worry. She can text with Em who is hiding in the lunchroom, and later her mom and dad as she tries to figure out how to help Diego who is suffering from an asthma attack. When he faints, Ava realizes it is up to her to find an inhaler.
As the other kids text each other through the school app, which appears to be open to all of them but has become closed to the administrators and teachers, readers “overhear” their discussions about who is in the hall, which Ava (seems there are 4 in the school) is in the hall, whether she is a good person or the intruder. The share Ava stories as they rally behind her to try to pass her an inhaler under a door, and, then when that fails, a phone battery and guide her safely back to the art room through texts.
Certainly, school intrusion and lock-downs are serious subjects, and there will be concerns from some about the topic, especially since the kids do a lot of things wrong and it works out, but the intruder is not a shooter, [SPOILER-ALERT] just a disgruntled ex-husband of a teacher. But there is a balance of light (llamas on the loose tying up town traffic, which is a completely separate news story) and anxious moments that will draw readers in. The story is told completely through text messages and notifications which I thought I would find tedious but actually hooked me into reading the book in one afternoon sitting.
There are also issues of anxiety disorder (Char) and ways to manage it, and parental separation (Em and Ava) which may speak to many adolescent readers.
Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley
Since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States in June 1981, the number of cases and deaths among persons with AIDS increased rapidly during the 1980s. (CDC). By the end of 1983, 2807 cases of AIDS—and 2118 deaths—had been reported. (NYC Aids Memorial).
One of those cases was June’s father.
After June’s father died, her mother, a celloist, shuttered herself up in her house, barely leaving the bedroom, terrified of anything that could possibly cause disease. She wouldn’t go down to the kitchen because of its proximity to the door through which anything could come through, and as a result, June was frequently without food, except when Uncle Toby brought food during the week. Unfortunately, on the visits he was permitted, he missed the signs of his sister-in-law’s mental illness. When June went out, she was not to play with the other children and she needed to leave any disgustingness behind with endless baths with Clorox bleach. She spent her days in Nana Jean’s copper beech tree watching Trowbridge Road and the world move on without her. “All the comings and goings of life.” (8) And then Ziggy moved in with Nana Jean. Ziggy’s mother was an addict, abused by her boyfriend. Ziggy had a ferret and a fantastical imagination. And June had a friend who understood her and what she needed.
“[Ziggy’s] heart was beating. It was gentle like my daddy’s heart. It knew what kind of sadness lived inside that house, even before there was such a thing as AIDS. It knew what happens to a person when they hold on to secrets for too long, or what happens to a home when it becomes a holding place for those secrets, It crumbles. It burns.” (288)
As June and Ziggy seek refuge in the magical Majestica where they have control of their lives.
June mother becomes worse until June realizes that she can, or should, no longer cover for her. “When I was alone with her, it was easier to pretend that things made sense. But with Uncle Toby in the kitchen, cringing every time she spoke, I found myself suddenly off balance. It was as though I had been walking on a rope bridge a hundred feet up. The bridge swayed back and forth over a raging river, but I had been keeping myself steady by pretending the bridge was strong.…I suddenly saw that the bridge was made of fayed rope, and with every step I swayed from a dizzying height. That raging water I thought was lovely would actually kill me if I missed a step.” (172-3)
The two children find help though the adults who love them—Nana Jean and Uncle Toby.
This is the story of children and adults dealing with many of the problems faced by today’s families—mental illness, grief, abandonment, abuse, addiction, and bullying. This is a story of the destruction caused by secrets and the healing possible though relationships and those who believe in magic. It is a compassionate story that will break hearts and give hope.