According to the definition in Brittanica.com, a FAMILY is “a group of persons united by the ties of marriage, blood, or adoption, constituting a single household and interacting with each other in their respective social positions, usually those of spouses, parents, children, and siblings.”
However, families and family relationships are evolving and have become even more complicated and difficult to define, and “traditional families” are the minority in many places. There are two-parent, single parent, married parents, co-habitating parents, re-married parents, stepparents, opposite sex and same sex parent households; multi-generational households; grandparent(s), other relative(s), and guardian households; blended families, natural birth children, adoptive children, foster children, stepchildren, and children of sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogate pregnancies, and all types of sibling relationships. There are also expanded family units: cousins, aunts, uncles, other relatives, and family friends who function as "aunties" and "uncles." And there are refugee and immigrant families and children who are U.S. citizens who live with undocumented parent(s).
According to the Pew Research Center 2014-15 statistics, there is no longer one dominant family form, in the U.S at least. Fewer than half (46%) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. And
41% of children are born outside of marriage
15% of children are living with two parents who are in a remarriage
34% of children today are living with an unmarried parent
5% of children are not living with either parent
16% of children are living in what the Census Bureau terms “blended families”
Novels that I have read and recommend to allow Grade 4-12 readers to consider and discuss different types of families and family relationships are pictured above. Some readers will see their lives reflected, and others will learn about their peers who experience family situations different from theirs. These novels are written by diverse authors and feature diverse characters, and are written in a variety of formats—prose, verse, and graphics. Most are relatively recently-published, and below I share reviews of my more recent readings.
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussion. Many of our children are affected by CTE either through their parents and other relatives who played sports as children and as adults or served in the military or as athletes themselves who may face CTE in their futures. Sports with high risks of concussion are rugby, American football, ice hockey, and soccer, as well as lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, softball, field hockey, baseball, and cheerleading.
“Before the ever after, there was three of us And we lived happily Before the ever after.” (7)
Before the Ever After there was ZJ, his mother and famous father. ZJ’s father was Zachariah 44, a pro football star, hero to many and to his son, “he’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing.” (4)
But in the Ever After, ZJ’s dad is forgetful, moody, has splitting headaches, and sometimes even yells. Only 35 years old, he has good days and bad days. The many doctors he visits and tests he is subjected to don’t have any answers or a cure, but doctors all agree this is a result of the many concussions he suffered in his career as a football player. Only ZJ’s music seems to bring him peace.
Before—and During—the Ever After, ZJ has loyal, true friends: Ollie, Darry, and Daniel: “Feels like we’re all just one amazing kid the four of us, each a quarter of a whole.” (108)
And he has his music: “When I sing, the songs feel as magic as Daniel’s bike as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers as smooth as Darry’s moves as good as the four of us hanging out on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
It feels right and clear and always.” (15)
This is a novel about the effects of CTE but also the story of family and friends. ----------
The Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobsen
I cried because there were sad events and frustrating events, and I cried because there were happy and poignant occasions. But I also cried because the book came to an end, and, even though author Jennifer Richard Jacobson gave us a hint into the future, I didn’t want to leave Millville and its inhabitants, both old and new, especially the Dollar Kids.
I don’t know if today’s children of all ages face more challenges than those who came before them or whether, through reading, my eyes have been open to challenges that children face and have always faced. As Jacobson opened our eyes to the plight of homeless children through her memorable character Ari in Paper Things, in her new novel Dollar Kids she shows readers the effect of loss and guilt on a young adolescent.
Eleven-year-old Lowen is one of the Dollar Kids whose families move to Millville to take advantage of the dollar houses offered to deserving applicants to restore. Lowen’s family is looking for a new beginning away from the city where his young friend was a victim of a fatal shooting in a grocery store. Lowen feels loss, but he also feels guilt because didn’t he send Abe to the store to get rid of his constant questions and suggestions? This is his secret, and when Lowen, his older brother Clem, his sister Anneth, and his British mum move (father to follow) into the Albatross, their dilapidated dollar house, he struggles with this snake inside him as he also contends with making friends, competing in sports, resuming his drawing, and helping his mother make a success of her new business. As he connects with the Millville inhabitants and reconnects with his family, he learns to find peace in the unseen force.
What I appreciated is the diversity of characters, especially in age. Many authors offer us books that have characters of a particular age, and it has been said that most readers like to read about characters who are at least their age or older. While the main character Lowen is eleven, there are plenty of characters who are younger and older, and an array of both male and female characters. Even the adult characters are diverse and interesting. There are also sports, art, and music, as these characters have an array of talents as well as a range of family situations. But what they all have in common is the hope that Millville will survive, and they find it “takes a village,” working together to make that happen.
Lowen is a cartoonist who finds a place in the town as a caricaturist, and an engaging and effective feature of the novel is the graphics by Ryan Andrews. Lowen uses these cartoons to manage, and explore, his grief and guilt.
Being from a small town, I can appreciate the Millvillians who know everything about everyone—or so they think, bicker and compete, but can be counted on in a crisis. ----------
More to the Story by Hen Khan
When I was a child and an adolescent, one of my favorite books was Little Women. I first read the Junior Illustrated version and then graduated to the novel. I next devoured Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. In my guest blog “The New Nancy Drew: Strong Girls in MG/YA Literature (http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/the-new-nancy-drew), I credit Jo March, along with Nancy Drew, as a role model for becoming a strong, independent young woman. The March family also serves an exemplar for a supportive family with mutually-beneficial relationships, despite their quarrels and jealousies.
Little Women was published in 1868, but is both timeless and timely. However, the characters are not diverse, and this novel, even with its universal themes, may not speak to all readers and give all readers a mirror into their own worlds and a window into that of other cultures. That is why I read with excitement More to the Story. Based on Little Women but set today in Georgia, the novel tells the story of a Pakistani-American family: Mama and Baba, Mayam (15), Jameela (12), Bisma (11) , and Aleeza (10) and the family friends’ nephew Ali (13). Jameela, a budding reporter and Features Editor of her school newspaper, narrates their story.
When Baba loses his job and leaves for a 6-month position in Abu Dhabi and Bisma, the sister to whom she is closest, is diagnosed with lymphoma, Jam has to find the strength to fight her quick anger and to work with her family. And while a story she writes about microagressions impresses the news staff and brings a current problem to the foreground, it also threatens her new friendship with Ali, and Jam has to make things right. She finds help through an extended family who loves each other finds ways to support each other during these difficult times.
This is not a book for only those who have read Little Women, but a wonderful story in its own right. It could also be paired with Little Women the novel or possibly one of the movie versions for poems in two voices between the characters in each text. There is always more to the story. ----------
Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu
“In Juniper, nothing was ever perfect. Especially not lately. I didn’t think anything would ever be perfect again. But here in Eventown, perfect seems possible.” (73)
As fifth-grader Elodee knows “Some days are harder than other days.” (7) But it seems that more and more days are “harder.” Her identical twin Naomi seems to be growing away from her, the kids in the school think she is weird, she is losing the two friends she has, and she has these strong feelings of sadness and extreme anger. She is not sure why. When their mother and father get jobs in Eventown, they move, This is a way to start a new life, especially since the only thing they take with them is a rosebush.
They move into their perfect house and are immediately happily welcomed by their classmates, making best friends, Venna and Betsy. Everything is perfect, even if everything is the same. Elodee begins to notice that when Natalie “competes” in gymnastics, her special talent, everyone performs the same routine in the same way, and while the twins love the music class and have the opportunity to play the instruments that are perfect for them, they only ever play one song, The Eventown Anthem. Elodee’s passion is not only cooking and baking but creating innovative meals; however, in Eventown she is told to follow the recipes that came with their kitchen. She hopes to learn the stories of the town and the people because “it’s hard to know much of anything if you don’t know all the stories of a place and the people in it.” (81), but there are no stories to share. And, at first, Elodee doesn’t “want to interrupt the warm, glowy feeling [she’s] getting being around all these people.” (62)
When things become too different from what she has known, Elodee thinks, “I want some things to change, but other things to stay exactly the same.” (103). She wonders why this life is so easy for the others but not for her. “I want the niceness, the coziness and warmth to be enough.… I want to fit in with them and feel all the same things at the same moments.” (180) As Josiah says, “That’s what we all want here. To make things easier. Simpler. More even.” (132) And when Elodee’s Welcoming is interrupted, she begins to question the traditions and rules, and things begin to fall apart in this perfect town. The family rosebush begins to grow larger than all the others in Eventown, a town filled with rosebushes, all exactly the same. Next weeds take over the perfect yards.
Elodee realizes that there is something or someone important to her that she can’t remember, and Naomi doesn’t remember their past life at all. Again Elodee feels different, growing away from her classmates, neighbors, friends, and even her twin who tells her, “I don’t remember anything that you’re talking about…, That was our life there. The end. [Ellodee] needs [Naomi] to feel what I am feeling and remember what I am feeling.…” (216). Other than Veena who, although born in Eventown and knows nothing else, sympathizes, and her family, the town becomes suspicious of the new inhabitants.
Betsy’s mother explains “Some people think they can have a fresh start while still holding on to [their] past. But it doesn’t work like that. You can be here, or you can be there. But you can’t have both.” (239) In other words, things can be perfect, but at a price.
This is a story about the important of memories—joyful, angry, scary, lonely, embarrassing, and heartbreaking. It allows readers to question perfection and the happiness that is achieved at a price, that of losing everything else. It acknowledges but challenges the advantages of sameness. And it shows the effects on families.
One of my favorite books to discuss with adolescent readers is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Year after year, I found the conversations with and among eighth graders to be profound as they questioned the beliefs and rules venerated by Jonas’ Community. It was one of the few novels we read as a whole-class novel. However, many times this novel is required reading in younger grades, even fourth grade gifted classes. While the reading level may be appropriate, many of the ideas presented—euthanasia, Birth Mothers, and the repression of sexual desires, in my opinion, are too sophisticated for these undeveloped minds. Eventown would be an effective introduction to the ideas of the significance and importance of memories and the consequences of eliminating diversity with the added dimension of the effects on family. ----------
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? ----------
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovick and AudreyVernick
Divorce can be complicated and messy, but the two Naomis’ parents have both made the transition as smooth as possible for their children. Naomi Marie’s dad lives nearby and even though Naomi E’s mother lives across the country in California, they Skype every week and she is coming back for a month in the summer.
What isn’t as simple is divorced parents dating. When Tom and Vivian’s relationship becomes “very serious,” they want their two families—and their two ten-year-old Naomis—to meet and become friends. Less excited about this are the two Naomis, especially when they find out their parents want one of them to alter her name because there can’t be two “Naomis,” and they can’t call them White Naomi and Black Naomi as Naomi Marie’s little sister Bri sometimes does.
As they resist their parents’ dinners, family meet-ups, and then a girls’ coding club where the girls will be partners in a project, they find that they just actually might like each other—a little, and, even through somewhat different, they are more alike. “’I’m realizing something,’ I [Naomi E.] tell Annie, ‘I actually like her. I was so mad at Dad about everything that I was almost refusing to let her be my friend, you know?’” (166)
When Naomi Marie worries about Tom trying to take her father’s place, and things changing, Dad says, “We can each shine our own light without dimming anyone else’s…. Sometimes there’s more room in our lives than we realize.” (149)
This delightful novel, narrated in alternating chapters by Naomi Marie and Naomi E, is about family, change, divorce-dating-remarriage, friendship, and acceptance. ----------
The Lighthouse Between the Worlds and A Way Between Worlds by Melanie Crowder
I am not a fan of fantasy, but right away Crowder’s writing grabbed me—and good writing is my first criterion for reading a book. The choice of wording, the descriptions, everything that lets the reader luxuriate in the writing is there from the first page. In fact, the writing and even parts of the story reminded me of my favorite children’s novel, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Like Haroun, in Griffin has to go to another world to save his father and, like Haroun, he wishes for his mother’s return.
But The Lighthouse Between the Worlds is so intricately-crafted and multifaceted that it would be interesting to see Crowder’s storyboard, for surely she must have created one. I was amazed how someone could think up the lands and peoples she describes. Haroun had to save the stories; Griffin uses his mother’s stories and drawings to save worlds—his Earth and the interconnected realms of other beings.
I slowly fell in love with the characters: fifth grader Griffin, still grieving the death of his mother; his father, Philip, a glassmaker; and Fiona, the young Vinean resistance fighter grieving the loss of her family and world. We learn about Katherine, Griffin’s mother, through short chapters that were the bedtime stories in which she imparts information that Griffin will later use.
This is a story of magic, collaboration, and the power of love.
A Way Between Worlds is a true sequel to The Lighthouse Between the Worlds but who would not wish to spend two novels’ worth of time immersed in lovely, powerful language which provides a visual experience, with delightful characters who expand their idea of family to encompass the peoples of five worlds.
“There was no backup plan. All the worlds would fall under Somni control if someone didn’t stop the priests. Apparently, that someone was [Griffin].” (150)
Readers first met fifth-grader Griffith and Fiona, a young Vinean resistance fighter who is living on Somni and grieving the loss of her family and her world. But their strength and heroism are tested in this sequel. In Crowder’s universe, Vinea, the land of greenery; Caligo, a world made of air; Maris, where water and song intertwine; and even Earth where all elements work together, are invaded by the wicked priests who control the minds of the armies on Somni and “use that power to attack and colonize every world in their reach.” (3)
“She was only herself. Stubborn, impatient, all-too human Fi. How could she be any different? But Great-Aunt Una had believed she could be more. Was that why Eb had stepped in front of the blow meant for her because there was supposed to be something special about Fi? Something she could do to save Vinea that no one else could?” (116)
Through the two books, readers are witness to Griffith’s growth as he travels the hero’s journey. As Fi observes, “When he first showed up on Somni, he did everything wrong—I thought he was going to bring the whole resistance down.…But he was so sure that was exactly where he needed to be….” (128) Readers also share Fi’s journey as she discovers her powers and recognizes and nurtures the powers of others. Separately, on different worlds the two young adolescents take risks to save the all worlds, not only “theirs.” “It doesn’t matter what world we’re from. If we don’t stand together sooner or later they’ll come for us all.” (159) ----------
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
“All the lying was wrong. But maybe it was okay to do something wrong if you were doing it for the right reason.”(180)
Zoe Washington, a rising 7th grader who loves baking and aspires to be the first Black winner of the “Kids Bake Challenge” and publish her own cookbook, is in a fight with her former best friend Trevor, and is not looking forward to a summer without him and her other best friends Jasmine and Maya. But her life changes when, on her 12th birthday, she receives a letter from Marcus, her biological father, a man who she has never met because he has been in prison from before her birth—for murder.
“For the longest time, I didn’t care whether or not I knew my birth father. I had my parents, and they were all I needed. But [Marcus’] letters were making me feel that a part of me was missing, like a chunk of my heart. I was finally filling in that hole.” (121)
Zoe decides to write back, and as she and Marcus exchange letters and music recommendations, she begins to suspect that he doesn’t seem like a murderer. He admits that he did not kill the victim and that there was an alibi witness whom his lawyer never contacted.
Since her mother has forbidden communication with Marcus (and has been confiscating his letters for years), Zoe confides in her grandmother who explains, “People look at someone like Marcus—a tall, strong, dark-skinned boy—and they make assumptions about him. Even if it isn’t right. The jury, the judge, the public, even his own lawyer‑they all assumed Marcus must be guilty because he’s Black. It’s all part of systemic racism.”(133)
Zoe researches the Innocence Project, and she and Trevor, friends again, go on a search for Marcus’ alibi witness in a plan to first prove to herself that Marcus is innocent and if so, to exonerate him. This is a truly valuable story to begin important conversations about social justice and disparities. ----------
A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Cook
“You’ll be all right. You come from strong.” (1) In the months after her death, Lydia Bratches-Kemp finds out just how true her mother’s words were.
Thirteen-year-old Lydia has experienced a lot of challenges in her young life. Her father left home when she was six, at the same time her mother became ill with a heart condition. Lydia helped take care of her for seven years until she died. But it wasn’t all sadness; her mother homeschooled her so they could spend time together making art and goddesses, collages from old photographs bought at a flea market.
When Lydia is taken in by her mother’s sister Bratches and her wife Eileen who live in the small town of Chelmsford, Connecticut, a town of farms and strong women and girls, she undergoes a myriad of new experiences. She attends a school where the twelve 8th graders, who have known each other and all the townspeople their whole lives, welcome her with open arms, especially Raya and Sari who show up on her doorstep on weekends and take her to visit every farm and teach her to snowshoe. She, Bratches, and Eileen live with the kind 90-something-year-old Elloroy, owner of their house, who is, in his words, “almost dead” and Soonie, his sweet, old greyhound.
And last there is Guffer, the dog whom Bratches, Eillen, and the reluctant Lydia adopt. “I wanted to stop them and ask., Are you sure? Sure you don’t want to wait and see how one rescue goes before you get yourselves into another? Not to liken myself to a dog, exactly. But I had been taken in.” (45) Lydia, by her own words was not a dog person, but as they train the “bad” dog she becomes more and more attached which gives her the bravery to stand up to the adult bully who threatens him. “It’d been twelve weeks since Aunt Brat had first driven me up Pinnacle Hill in her boxy car.… We’d [Guffer and I] arrived the same week; We’d both had our lives changed.” (311)
As she deals with secrets—hers and Bratches’; new family, friends and neighbors; pymy goats; a missing father, and her first kiss, she settles in as a member of this close community. “I soaked up the scene. There was something so easy, so right, about watching my friends peel off their boots and jackets in the front hall and something so everyday about Guffer coming to inspect their empty footwear.” (237)
But her love for Guffer also gives her the strength, supported by her new family, to face the adult bully who threatens him. “’Turns out I’m pretty strong,’ I told him.” (369)
“We three linked arms and plodded back toward the trail, relieved and still reveling. I held my women up; they held me up. ‘I am flanked by a pair of goddesses, Mom! They won’t let me down! I will never fall down!’” (352) ----------
Denis Ever After by Tony Abbott
“So. I made a difference.” (132)
Denis died when he was 7 years old. It is now five years later, and he is with his great-grandmother GeeGee in Port Haven where the dead go to forget their lives—backwards, helped by those on Earth who begin forgetting them, until they “fade peacefully.” Usually the dead remain the age they were when they died, but Denis was a twin and since Matt, his brother, imagines them still doing things together, he has aged along with Matt.
Denis died under mysterious circumstances. He was kidnapped and found three days later, halfway across the state from his home, placed on the Georgia memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. Was he murdered? By whom? How? And where? As twelve-year-old Matt and his friend Trey begin to investigate, Denis feels he must come back as a ghost and help them. What follows is a story of loss, broken families (both Denis’ and Matt’s; their father’s and two brothers’, and the family who becomes involved in the kidnapping), the effects of war, redemption, and bonds. Russell, the scribe of Port Haven, says that “there are bonds between all of us, the living and the not.” (7) Denis risked a lot to create those bonds and make a difference.
“A thousand thousand threads! Patterns woven and repeated, subtly or accidentally, over the years. One thing I’ve figured out, though. Those threads aren’t just lines connecting and reconnecting. They’re more like arteries, pumping life from one thing to another, creating not simply patterns in a fabric, but a living connection from person to person to thing.” (303) Matt’s reflection describes Tony Abbott’s well-crafted complex tale.
At first I thought the author would never be able to pull all the events together; however, like arteries in a body, they each served to nourish each other. Teachers and parents have expressed concern about finding books for our more advanced young adolescent readers; in many YA novels, the themes, events, and language are not appropriate for 9 to 13 year olds. Denis Ever After is a complex book appropriate for young readers; and given that the vocabulary is not particularly advanced, it will also appeal to readers who are interested in an intricate mystery. ----------
Solving for M by Jennifer Swender
I have to admit that as a teacher myself, it may have been the quirky, creative, effective Mr. Vann, Grade Five Pod Two math teacher, who put this book over the top for me.
Or it may have been Mika whose world turns upside down in multiple ways when she enters fifth grade, housed in a middle school.
Mika is placed in a different pod from her former best friend, Ella, who now becomes a part of the Onesie’s, the girls of Pod One, and has no time for Mika.
Mika’s favorite subject was art, which does not include “drawing” (with the air quotes) as part of the fifth grade curriculum; her favorite subject now becomes math which does include drawing as part of their math journals.
Mika’s best friends are now Dee Dee, who she considered an “odd science geek,” and Chelsea, “a slightly annoying Goody Two-shoes.”
Mika’s mother has melanoma and has become sick and withdrawn from the medicines.
Because of her mother’s cancer, Mika visits her father who left when she was a baby and his new wife and finds she actually has a good time and wants to return.
Mika’s math journal and her new friends, as well as her grandmother and her mother’s best friend, the theatrical Jeannie, help Mika through the highs and lows of the year.
I loved the writing and the unique voices of the characters (and Dee Dee’s hilarious science tee shirts and Chelsea’s obsession with providing treats for every celebration), and I adored Mika’s math journal entries. Best of all, I found a novel for math teachers to share with their students! ----------
The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner
A few years ago I read an article “Give the Kid a Pencil” (Teaching Tolerance, April 4, 2016). The article focuses on creating “a psychologically safe, mistake-friendly environment” for the student who always forgets a pencil. While I agree with all the author wrote, I started thinking about the student who doesn’t forget a pencil, but doesn’t have a pencil. What does one need to have a pencil? Some money—not much, but it needs to be extra money and rarely can one purchase a single pencil, transportation to get to the store, a place to safely keep the pencil, and a sharpener to be able to use the pencil. Education Department statistics show 1.3 million homeless children were enrolled in U.S. schools in the 2012-2013 school year. I assume that number has risen and that many of them don’t have a pencil.
Kevin Richards and Kirby Zigonski, characters in Kate Messner’s The Exact Location of Home do not have pencils—as their teacher points out in front of their eighth grade class. Kevin and Zig are homeless. Homeless children also have less than ideal conditions to complete homework and Zig experiences his stellar grades falling.
It is crucial that teachers and their students read novels such as The Exact Location of Home to become aware of who may be sitting in front of them and who may be keeping secrets from their own friends. When the teacher berates Zig for lack of homework and pencil, he writes, “I don’t say anything.” It is also important for children experiencing poverty, homelessness, fathers who leave, or the other circumstances outlined in this novel to see themselves honored in a book.
Besides falling grades and one pair of jeans and 4 shirts as his only available clothing, Zig has another problem—he wants to find the father who abandoned them, not only for child support to help them rent an apartment but just to talk. In his free time, he follows geocaching clues, clues he thinks his father has left for him. He finds not his father, but as Scoop says, that “Friends help” and, like electrons, he travels a path “and things work out.” ----------
The Incredible Magic of Being by Kathryn Erskine
Through novels, such as this, I have begun to realize that no matter how different families are, it’s magic that brings or holds them together. Julian’s faith in magic and his belief in science do not oppose each other, the universe and Julian’s uni-sense work in harmony, harmony that affects those closest to him although sometimes it takes a few stars to help.
I will borrow words from the title to describe this novel—“incredible” and “magical,” not so much about magic as it is magical. I laughed, I cried, I ran to the window to look up at the night sky and dragged out my old telescope. I loved the characters and how different they were—Mom, Joan, Pookie, Mr. X. And I learned quite a lot of science. ----------
Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert
Hoarding disorder (HD) affects an estimated 2% to 5% of the general population. HD is unique from other disorders because its symptoms are tangible and entail a large accumulation of objects that prevent the use of space for necessary or usual human functions. This abundance of objects results from a pathological failure to discard objects and not accumulate more. When hoarding is severe, it presents risk of physical and psychological harm to hoarders and their families. Hoarders cannot see that their behavior subjugates the entire family to a life that is permanently altered. Where severe hoarding exists, families rarely have space for shared activities or they are forced to combine spaces inappropriately. Children often realize if they talk about their family secrets, they could lose their parents and homes.
I had, of course, heard of hoarders but did not realize the extent of the problem or the effect on the children until I lived through Annabelle’s secret in Mary E. Lambert’s new novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes. Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder, and almost every room of the house is filled with objects, well-organized objects. Mother lives in muumuus, the colors of which signal her moods, and doesn't leave the house.
One room is the exception. On her tenth birthday, Annabelle tossed everything in her bedroom out the window, clearing the room of anything nonessential; she checks once a week for anything not used within the last week. Her younger sister and older brother are not so lucky and live surrounded by piles of their mother’s purchases, new and used. Leslie collects articles about the dangers of hoards and has nightly nightmares. Chad has checked out from family life.
On the day the newspapers, organized by weather report, finally fall off the kitchen shelves onto Leslie, seventh-grader Annabelle was sure things would change. And they did. Their father left home; he knows something has to change, but he doesn’t know how to change it. Their grandmother Nora comes to help, and there is a disastrous Family Game Night.
But as difficult as life is in a house filled to the brim with purchases, Annabelle’s secret is safe from her friends and potential boyfriend. Annabelle has instituted a strict Five- Mile-Radius Rule. No one is invited to meet within a file mile radius of the house. When she first visits a new friend’s house in fifth grade, “I thought families like Rae’s, with houses that perfect, only existed in books or TV shows.” (17) When her secret is discovered, she realizes that her friends do not let it affect their friendships; they are real friends.
This is a novel about a strong adolescent who helps her family through a challenge as are many of our students, although the challenges may be diverse. ----------
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. ----------
Three Pennies by Melanie Crowder
"Most of us can rely on something good in our lives. Our parents' love. The constancy of a family pet. A pesky little sister or a know-it-all older brother and the perpetual flip-flop of siblings between affection and annoyance." But for the more than 400,000 children and adolescents living in foster care in the United States, many have nothing to rely on and many of them never lose the hope that a parent is waiting to reunite with them.
When Marin was four, her mother gave her up. By the time she was eleven and her mother had signed away her parental rights, she had lived in three foster homes where she was nothing more than a paycheck and two group homes; she had learned to become invisible; and she had never been loved. Dr. Lucy Chang had survived her own loss and was ready to open her heart to a child. But before she could adopt Marin, Marin had to stop planning to leave good to find her mother, the mother she was sure would want her. When Marin does find her mother and then discovered her mother's paper wishes, she learns that seven years before, not only did she wish …I was free," but more importantly, "I wish better for Marin than me."
The novel is short and beautifully written and the very short chapters would make the novel a good daily teacher read-aloud. ----------
Blended by Sharon M. Draper
“I never stop being amazed that these eighty-eight slices of ivory and ebony can combine to create harmonies.” (51)
Sixth grader Isabella Badia Thornton is a gifted pianist. She also is the daughter of a mother who is white and a father who is Black, a mother and father who are divorced. Izzy spends one week at each house: her mother’s small house where she grew up and where they live with her mother’s boyfriend John Mark and her father’s mansion where they live with his girlfriend Anastasia and Darren, her “totally cool” teenage son. On Sundays Isabella is exchanged between parents at the mall, never a pleasant experience. “Is normal living week to week at different houses? Is normal never being sure of what normal really is?” (161)
Izzy’s dad introduces the idea of racism when he explains why he always dresses well. “The world looks at Black people differently. It’s not fair, but it’s true.…the world can’t see inside of a person, What the world can see is color.” (39)
In school her social studies class studies Civil Rights and the students learn about contemporary racism when a peer’s action is directed at her best friend Imani who is Black. After the incident Isabella asks her father, “Do you think people think I am Black or white when they see me? Am I Black? Or white?” “Yes,” is his reply. “Yes.” (90)
Mr. Kazilly, the language arts/social studies teacher who loves to teach sophisticated vocabulary words helps the students unpack the incident but Izzy learns that sometimes it is those who think they are not racist who also make racist remarks.
The effects of racial profiling become all too real when Darren and Izzy stop for ice cream on the way to her piano recital and on the way back to the car are confronted by the police who are looking for a bank robber. Darren is pushed to the ground and 11-year-old Izzy is shot in the arm.
Sharon Draper’s Blended is a novel about growing up in a racially-diverse and blended family but is also a book about how we are viewed by others, racism, and identity. The short chapters are organized under the titles “Mom’s Week,” “Dad’s Week,” and “Exchange Day.” ----------
The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
Beatrice narrates this story when she is twelve. “Telling a story is harder than I thought it would be.” (35) This is the story of Bea when she was ten, “…a different me, a person who doesn’t exist anymore.” (2)
Bea’s dad is gay and, when Bea was eight, he and her mother divorced. But they made her a list of things that would not change: specifically that they each still loved her and they still loved each other (but in a different way) and would still be a family (but in a different way) and they would always live near each other so Bea could have a home with each of them.
When Bea was ten, her father married Jesse. Their relationship was accepted and celebrated by most people—but as Sheila tells Bea, “You might as well know right now that there are people who will try to make you choose between who you are and who they want you to be. You have to watch out for those people.” (140) The best part of the wedding was getting a new sister. Bea and Sonia have so much in common but why is Sonia not as excited?
This is a story of family and friends and love and acceptance, but it also is a story about feelings: worry and guilt and accepting oneself. As Miriam, Bea’s therapist, helps her discover, “There are a lot of feelings behind feelings.” (74)
A perfect story for upper elementary and middle grade readers, especially those who may be navigating complex feelings, changing family relationships, and complicated friendships as they discover who they are and who they are becoming. ----------
A Swirl of Ocean by Melissa Sarno
The traditional family—“the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children” (Merriam-Webster) —in the majority of cases, no longer exists. But families do exist and, reading A Swirl in the Ocean, the reader realizes the true meaning of family.
Two-year-old Summer was adopted by Lindy when the tide washed her onto the beach at Barnes Bluff. Summer has been Lindy’s entire family for ten years in a community where everyone knows each other’s business until the summer Lindy’s boyfriend moves in and Summer starts to question her origins.
When she is caught in a riptide and swallows quite a bit of ocean water, Summer dreams of another family, an adolescent named Tink and her friends who lived on this same bluff 17 years before. She continues to drink ocean water to return to the dream because, as Summer explains to her best friends Jeremiah and the romance-reading Tanvi, she wonders if there is a connection to her life. “Maybe they’ve got to do with me. With where I came from. I mean they’re inside me for a reason, right? …All I’ve got in my life is an ‘after.’ I’ve never known the ‘before’.” (91)
As Summer tries to find the missing pieces of the puzzle of her life, she realizes that, even without them, she has been looking at the whole picture,—and possibly Elder is enhancing it; she and Lindy have a gift from the ocean that is theirs alone.
A bit of magical realism, Melissa Sarno’s novel is filled with well-developed characters and wonderful, lyrical language. Note to ELA teachers: Use this book as a mentor text for unusual, active verbs: “as we dizzy around;” Jeremiah scurries his paddle;” Her legs are pretzeled together.” (56) ----------
The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
“Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.” (52)
And seventh-grader Zoey has a lot she has to do. She has to pick up the baby from her mom’s job; she has to meet her little sister and brother at the bus stop, take them home, and many times feed them. She has to keep them busy in the one bedroom they all share so they don’t bother her mother’s boyfriend or mess up his perfectly organized, clean trailer. She has to help her friend Fuschia when she is thrown into an abusive situation and her friend Silas when rumors are spread about him. And she has to get through each day, as unnoticed as possible, so she doesn’t get teased for her unwashed clothes. If only she were an octopus, she could use her many arms to hold her 3 siblings, do her homework, help her mother; she could camouflage herself and be even less noticeable; she could change her shape and fit in small places. She could protect herself, her friends, and her family.
Zooey used to have a strong, competent mother. But that was before Lenny, Lenny who breaks her confidence with his verbal abuse. How can Zoey convince her mother to leave; how can they afford to leave?
“It’s not enough to know your stuff. Not if one of the things you know for sure is that everyone you’re going up against is better than you.” (42)
There is one teacher who sees the potential in Zoey and forces her to join the debate team where Zoey learns about discrediting your opponent, thinking from new perspectives, and saying what you think with passion. When she hears Matt Hubbard, the most popular boy in the class—but one who has been nice to her—give a speech, “…suddenly, I know. This isn’t some crush on a boy. This is me wanting to feel the way he does. Strong. Confident. Like no one would even think about messing with me.” (68) Through her teacher and her mother’s friend Connor, she gets to the point “…when you start to wonder if maybe you do have a choice about the kind of person you want to become.” (102)
And she needs to help her mother back to the place where she realizes that she has choices and the right to be treated well, even if it means a harder life.
This is truly a story of resilience and growth, and, reaching the last page, I startled the waiting room where I had been reading but saying out loud, “Oh, no, it’s over?” Stan Lee said that you can’t care about the story if you don’t care about the characters. Zoey was one of those characters who grabbed me on her first page and didn’t let go. ----------
Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Just like Ally (Fish in a Tree) and Carley (One for the Murphys), Lynda Hunt Mullaly has created a third character who has come to live in my heart—Delsie who is always barefooted and lives by the news from her weather station.
Delsie was raised by her game-show-watching Grammy and grandfather, Papa Joseph, since her mother deserted her shortly after birth. None of them ever knew who her father is. However, Delsie never thought of herself as an orphan until the complicated summer which began when her friend, playing the role of Annie, asks her, “What’s it like…really like…to be an orphan.” (2)
Delsie lives on Cape Cod, summer home to tourists, where Grammy cleans guest cottages and they live in a tiny community of four houses where everyone is each other’s family and support system. Papa Joseph has died, and they all miss him and try to fill his space.
The summer before seventh grade is a rollercoaster for Delsie. Her summer best friend, Brandy, is changing; she worrying about getting messy and then befriends the new girl Tressa, a classic Mean Girl.
Luckily, Ronan moves in with his father, and he stands up to the Mean Girls on Delsie’s behalf, and he and Delsie become friends, sharing feelings of abandonment by their mothers and, therefore, being broken. At first Delsie feels like she has to lie to become friends with the girls (“I remember pretending to know things and like things I didn’t just because I wanted them to like me.”), but with Ronan, “I don’t have to lie about who I am.” (99) As family friend Esme tells Delsie, “…anything that matters in this whole…wide…world is about connection.” (83) What begins as a summer of abandonments becomes a summer of connections.
At the end of the summer, Delsie realizes two things: that people, such as the sour Olive, may have their own problems but also may be more caring then others realize or expect (“…instead of just a plain scoop of cold ice cream, a scoop with some chocolate chips hidden inside.”) (180) and that “Knowing that I have real friends that have my back and will protect my feelings—people like Aimee, Michael, and Ronan—makes all the difference.” (240) This pivotal summer Delsie learns a lot about her neighbors, about family, and about support and love.
Reading the novel was also a rollercoaster for me. I was sad about Delsie’s history, mad at how she was being treated by Brandy and Tressa, and glad that she was able to recognize her true friends and revise her definition of family. I know that middle-graders reading this book will identify with some parts of Delsie’s and Ronan’s lives and maybe those who don’t, will see themselves in Brandy or Tressa and gain some empathy and understanding. ----------
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewel Parker Rhoads
“Be you. Stay confident, visible. Even if others can’t see you.” (183)
Trey and Donte are biracial brothers, but Trey looks like his White father and 7th grader Donte takes after his Black mother. This didn’t seem to matter in their public school in NY where they both had lots of friends, but at Middlefield Prep in Boston, it does. Trey is a popular and respected athlete while Donte is taunted and bullied. Trey stands up for Donte when he can “Ellison brothers stick together” (47), but Alan, the school bully, leads his followers in a chant of “black brother, black brother.” It’s Alan who and wants “other students to see only my blackness. See it as a stain.” (34) and makes “me being darker than my brother a crime.” (44)
When Donte complains, “Everyone here bullies me. Teachers. Students. Whispers, sometimes outright shouts follow me.” (6), not only is Headmaster McGeary not sympathetic, he blames and even punishes him for crimes he has not committed. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” (8). He calls the police and has Donte taken to jail for slamming his backpack at his own feet in frustration. Released from jail, his mom, a lawyer says, “This is how it starts. Bias. Racism. Plain and simple…” (24)
One option is to “Disappear. Be invisible.” (19), but Donte vows to beat Alan at his own game—fencing. With Trey’s help, he discovers Arden Jones, an African American Olympic fencer who works at the local Boys and Girls Club, and convinces Mr. Jones to coach him. As Donte gets stronger with the help of Coach, Trey, and his new friends at the Boys and Girls Club, he begins to regain a trust in people. “Prejudice is wrong. Wrong, it makes me doubt people.” (87) He learns his Coach’s history and how it is easy to lose oneself in people’s hatred. As Coach tells him when relating his own past failure, “I quit playing because I gave up on me. Became invisible.… Should’ve kept focused on my goals. Should’ve known bullies, biased people, can’t see clearly.” (182) His advice, “Don’t do anything for anyone else, Donte. Do it for you. Only you.” (131)
And most important, through fencing, Coach, his supportive family, and his new friends, Donte learns that he wants to fence, no longer to beat Alan and humiliate him but “to be the best.” (183)
Another powerful novel for 4th though 8th graders by Jewell Parker Rhoads, this short novel, as did Rhoads’ Ghost Boys, tackles racism—by adolescents, adults, and society‑head on. The sport of fencing, tied to honor and nobility and promoting good sportsmanship, is particularly appropriate; every fencing bout starts with a salute to your opponent and ends with a handshake. ----------
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
Melissa Taylor was their mother. That is what Grace. Maya, and Joaquin have in common. But it is enough to make them "family" when they meet as teenagers. All three were given up at birth or shortly thereafter: Grace to a loving middle-class family; Maya to a wealthy family who then had their own biological child—and their own problems; and Joaquin to a lifetime of foster homes. Then 16-year-old Grace has her own baby, and after her child Milly is adopted, Grace yearns to finds her biological mother.
When the three siblings meet, they immediately bond and help each other, not only find the part of their identity they thought missing, but they help each other fit into their present families and lives and discover that it is possible to have two families and feel complete. Maya is able to accept her place as the only brunette in a family of tall redheads and forgive a mother who is an alcoholic; Joaquin is ready to value himself and trust enough to let himself be adopted; and Grace can forgive herself for giving her baby a life apart from her.
I laughed and cried (a lot) and did not want this story to end. These are characters who get under your skin as soon as you meet them.
Far from the Tree won the 2017 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. ----------
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
This is a beautifully written novel and story about true diversity and culture and following some traditions while adopting new traditions. There are so many wonderful characters; however, every time I fell in love with a character and wanted to follow her story and learn more about her year (Did Starry get a chance to play Maria?), the story jumped ahead years.
Even though it is the multi-narrative, multi-perspective story of three generations of a family, I feel that it is actually Ranee's story. The reader follows Ranee from 1973 to 2006, from Ghana to London to Flushing, to the suburbs of New Jersey in her journey to become an American citizen, complete with the full American experience. Cutting and dyeing her hair and trading her white widow's saris for colorful muumuus, Ranee begs to experience, a sleepover, country music, a Yankees game, and church in Harlem. She moves from racism to embracing her bi-racial granddaughter to playing matchmaker to an interracial relationship for her other granddaughter.
This is a novel for teens and adults. ----------
Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express by Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, and RJ Peete
Ryan Elizabeth Peete and RJ Peete’s novel Same But Different is based on their lives. Characters Charlie and Callie are twins; Charlie has autism, and Callie feels that she needs to be his guide, support, rule-maker, and the person who is always there to stand up for him against bullies and those who try to take advantage of his naiveté. This year Callie is starting tenth grade, and Charlie is repeating ninth, but she is still there for him.
In alternating chapters Charlie (RJ) and Callie (Ryan) discuss their lives on the “Autism Express.” Charlie takes us into his world where he “may have autism, but autism doesn’t have [him].” Ryan takes us into her world where it seems that autism may have her a little more than she wants. Ryan does focus on how Charlie affects her life and her relationships with family and peers. It is clear that she loves Charlie and willingly takes responsibility for helping him, but she does stress the negative aspects. I was left wishing that she felt more positive at times and found a few more advantages to having a brother with whom she is so close.
Although every child affected by autism is at a different point of the spectrum and is affected in different ways, a book explaining at least one family’s journey is a valuable addition to the classroom library, as a catalyst for generating important discussions among adolescents. Even though the characters are in high school, the book is appropriate for even young adolescents.
Parent-author Holly Robinson Peete provides an insightful introduction, “A Letter from Mom,” and conclusion, “A Mother’s Hope,” as well as a valuable Resource Guide. A very important point she makes is her worry how RJ's future may be affected as a man of color with autism, a person who doesn't necessarily read the signals of our world. ----------
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Nova, an adolescent with nonverbal autism, is locked in her own world with limited communication. She is able to open up this world with the help of her older sister Bridget, the one person who acknowledges her intelligence and takes care of her when their mother can’t. Nova and Bridget share a love for space and space exploration, and their knowledge is vast. As they are taken away from their mother and moved from foster home to foster home, Bridget looks forward to turning eighteen when she promised she will be able to take care of Nova on her own.
When the story begins, Bridget and Nova have run away from their last foster home, and Nova is has been placed in a new home with loving foster parents and their older daughter; they all want to get to know Nova, her limitations, but also her capabilities. Meanwhile Nova begins school, repeating sixth grade, experiencing endless testing (her social worker who has classified her as “severely mentally retarded”) and getting to know new peers in her special education room, each with their own challenges and abilities. The classmates bond, but Nova is desperately waiting for the Challenger launch with the first teacher aboard; Bridget has promised to find her so they can watch the launch together.
The story is told in alternating third person, the story of Nova’s life with Francine, Billy, and Joanie and school and first person which the reader views through Nova’s letters to Bridget—which are, in actuality, illegible. I found it very effective to read about people and events and then re-read them from Nova’s perspective.
Having read that the story incorporated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch, I began reading this novel with a feeling of trepidation. I assume that this might be experienced in a different way by readers of diverse ages. It is a moving story (have a tissue ready), and Nova becomes a character we can all champion as she experiences the disadvantages and finally the benefits of the foster system. Readers will learn a lot about space and our space program, but they will also learn how many times people are judged on assumptions.
In 2018 the CDC determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a study by Boston University, about 30 percent of people diagnosed with ASD "never learn to speak more than a few words." Also, on any given day, there are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the United States. Today’s children are dealing with multiple challenges, and many are in our classrooms. And that is why novels, such as Planet Earth is Blue, belong in our school or classroom libraries. ----------
The Way the Light Bends by Cordelia Jensen
Like her verse novel Skyscraping, The Way the Light Bends is the story of relationships and the ways "the composition of a relationship changes as we change individually." (p.380) Though they used to be "in tempo/ in time" (p. 4), sisters Linc and Holly in their sophomore year are following "two paths/ one in light/ one in shadow/ diverging." (p. 5) They have different skills and talents—and different dreams. Holly, though adopted, appears to fit more easily into the family and consistently wins her parents approval; she is academically gifted, athletic, and a school leader. Linc, the biological child, is artistic, creative, a photographer.
As the narrator of the story, I intensely felt Linc's pain as she tries to be a better student and daughter while following her passion but she constantly fails—at academics, at love, and, it seems, at being the daughter her parents want. As her photography improves, the rest of her life falls apart—and she makes some wrong choices and turns. It takes a family secret and truthful sharing to make them all realize that "a family isn't something you're born into as much as it is something you chose to be a part of every day." (p. 370)
This is an important read, especially for those who feel they cannot fit the expectations of others. ----------
Illegal by Francisco Stork
Francisco’s Stork’s 2017 novel Disappeared takes place in Juarez, Mexico, and depicts sex trafficking, the cartel, murder, poverty, betrayal, abandonment.
Sara Zapata, a young reporter for a local paper, is committed to finding and saving the young women she learns are being kidnapped, including her best friend Linda, despite the warnings of her boss and the threats to herself and her family.
Sara’s younger brother Emiliano, whose life has been affected by his father’s abandonment—of the family and his native Mexico—is looking for a better life, for ways to make money to pay the family bills and win the love of his wealthy girlfriend.
The siblings find in following their consciences, helping others, and making moral choices, they need to do what is right—not what is easy or even safe, and must sacrifice, or revise, their personal goals. To save their lives, Sara and Emiliano escape to the United States to find a better life and to bring the cartel who is trafficking the women to justice. They cross the border and are attacked in the dessert.
Sara turns herself over to the authorities, certain that she meets the requirements for asylum but, as her time in the detention facility grows longer and she observes women being mistreated and deported for no reason, she questions her assumptions. “I imagined that all I had to do was show the authorities the evidence of actual persecution, of actual threats, such as people machine-gunning our house in Juarez.… I saw my case as fitting within the legal reasons for asylum under the law of the United States. Was I wrong about the United States?” (31) She finds, “The whole process of who gets asylum and who gets detained, who gets a bond and who gets released, who gets a visa and who gets deported. I mean, it’s not as rational as I imagined it would be.” (34)
Meanwhile Emiliano enters the country illegally and goes to Chicago with his father, planning to turn Linda’s evidence against the cartel over to the proper authorities. He also finds America to be less than welcoming. As he tells his new friend Aniela, “I think that in Mexico I feel like I belong all the time. I never feel not wanted like I do here sometimes. Here I’m always looking over my shoulder even when no one is there.…knowing that you belong and are wanted is major.” (251)
When Sara’s attorney is killed and she is placed in solitary confinement and Emiliano finds he can no longer trust his father, tensions escalate. A study of government corruption and the asylum process, this sequel to Disappeared is a thriller that will hook the most reluctant adolescent reader. Enough background is given in Illegal that it may not be completely necessary to read Disappeared first but it would surely enhance the reading. ----------
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
“There was a time I thought getting older meant you’d understand more about the world, but it turns out the exact opposite is true.” (296)
Jason Reguero has his life planned out, at least as much as any typical 17-year-old. He will finish his senior year, play video games with his best friend Seth, attend Michigan in the Fall, graduate, and get a job, even though he has no idea what he wants to do and has not found anything that has awakened a passion.
In fact, Jay seems somewhat adrift until he receives the news that his seventeen-year-old cousin, Jun, was killed in the Philippines by government officials under President Duterte’s war on drugs, accused of being a drug addict and pusher. Jun’s father, as head of the police force, refuses a funeral or any type of memorial.
The last time Jay saw Jun was when his family, whose family had moved to the U.S. so the three siblings could be more “American” like their mother, was when they were ten and were like brothers. They had written back and forth until Jay got caught up in his own life and stopped answering Jun’s letters. Jun, questioning the political regime and the church, had moved from his restrictive father’s house and was thought to be living on the streets. Feeling guilty for having abandoned his cousin, Jay uses his Spring Break to fly to the Philippines to investigate Jun’s death, the reason he was really killed, and why no one—other than his sisters, Grace and Angel—mourns his death.
Jay is introduced to Grace’s friend Mia, a student reporter, and together they investigate Jun’s last few years. They find that Jun’s story is not that simple. “I was so close to feeling like I had Jun’s story nailed down. But no. That’s not how stories work, is it?. They are shifting things that re-form with each new telling, transform with each new teller. Less a solid, and more a liquid talking the shape of its container.” (281)
In this coming-of-age novel, Jay finds some answers, and some more questions, challenging his preconceptions. But he also begins discovering his Filipino heritage and his identity as a Filipino-American. He finds a passion which determines his future—at least for now.
“We all have the same intense ability to love running through us. It wasn’t only Jun. But for some reason, so many of us don’t use it like he did. We keep it hidden. We bury it until it becomes an underground river. We barely remember it’s there. Until it’s too far down to tap.” (265) This is a YA novel for mature readers about identity, family, heritage, and truth. Readers will also learn a lot about Filipino history and contemporary politics. ----------
The Other F Word by Natasha Friend
Is it possible to define "family" these days? We are a long way from Dick and Jane’s family consisting of Mother, Father, the two siblings, and their pet dog and cat.
In Natasha Friend’s funny, poignant, well-written novel, four families are united by Sperm Donor #9677. When four of his offspring—teenagers Hollis, Milo, Abby, and Noah—meet and decide to look for their father, they wind up forming their own sibling family and uniting their extended families. Milo has two moms; Hollis had two moms (one is deceased); Noah and his twin have a mother and father but twin Josh is not initially interested in finding their biological father; and Abby has a mom, a dad, and a half-sibling, the parents’ biological child.
If that is not complicated enough, the half-siblings are joined on their quest by JJ, Milo’s friend (and my favorite character) who was adopted by his family at birth. A great read about friendship and "familyship." ----------
Sylvie by Sylvie Kantorovitz [memoir]
Christine: “I hate being different!” Sylvie [thinking]: “Her too?” Christine: “But really, we are ALL different! In one way or another. And some differences come from US! Like how you love to draw!” (177)
In Sylvie Kantorovitz’s graphic memoir, readers literally watch Sylvie grow up through the author’s own illustrations. The memoir begins in France where Sylvie, her brother, and her parents live in the school where her father is principal and continues through the birth of two more siblings and later a move during high school to Lyon.
Sylvie has many worries in common with many of her readers. She doesn’t want to be different. She was born in Morocco, so some of her classmates say she is not “French.” “Oh, how I wish I was born in France like all the others!” (73) She and her younger brother Alibert are the only Jewish children in their school. “Whenever possible I let people assume I was like them.” (74)
Sylvie also has a complicated family life. Her parents are always fighting. While she father is kind and supportive, her mother is very hard on her. “[An A] doesn’t count if the others also got As.” (6) Her mother’s values are very different from Sylvie’s. “Being ‘feminine’ was important to Mom. It didn’t feel that important to me.” (110-111) Her mother always seems to be angry, and when Alibert does not do well in school, he is sent away to a boarding school. Sylvie just doesn’t understand her mother. “Could Alibert be right? Could someone actually LIKE being angry?” (135) “Was I allowed to feel so conflicted about my own mother? Could I feel shame and anger and still love her?” (131)
In school when the teacher asks the students if anyone knows what they want to be when they grow up, to Sylvie’s surprise, everyone else does. “I was the only one without a plan for the future. Was something wrong with me?” (38)
In her last year of high school Sylvie has a boyfriend, Pierre, and hearing about his family’s troubles—his mother is depressed and sometimes stays in bed all day, “I wondered if every family had an ongoing drama, hidden from the outside world.” (239) Maybe her family is not so different.
Through it all from a young age, Sylvie realizes that “drawing was what I really loved to do.” (10) but because of her mother’s disdain, she didn’t see it as a profession. Finally, with her father’s support and the courage to confront her mother, Sylvie has come up with a long-term plan for independence.
A memoir is an account of one's personal life and experiences built on the memory of the writer and formed by the present reflection on the past. This memoir is enhanced by its visual quality. But what I would find most important to adolescent readers is the realization that while we all are different, at the same time we are all very much alike. ----------
We Are All We Have by Marina Budhos
“Sometimes you think your life story is a straight line, a road humming forward. Maybe Ammi thought her story was a clear way ahead. She went to the best schools. She had a family, fancy clothes, a spot at a university. A big wedding and husband. Me too. I thought Fatima and I were the same. I thought my biggest problem was Ammi trying to be me. I thought I got my height from Abu. I was so focused on what was ahead, that I didn’t understand what was behind me. It was too complicated. It didn’t make a clean story. What good is a story if you don’t know all the parts?” (215)
Seventeen-year-old Rania came with her pregnant mother from Pakistan when she was a child. They were seeking asylum, ostensibly fleeing threats from those who killed her father, a journalist. Her younger brother Kamal was born an American citizen.When her mother is arrested by ICE and sent to a detention facility, Raina’s life—her plans for hanging out with best friend Fatima, working in a book store, getting ready for college—come to a screeching halt. Not yet 18 and without an adult to take custody of them, Raina and Kamal are sent to a shelter, and Raina learns that her mother has been lying to her about the status of their appeal, her Pakistani family, who her father is, and the reason they fled to the United States. And she has no proof that their lives in Pakistan were in danger.
“What hurts more: That they want us to leave? Or that my mother lied to me? (30)“It’s like everything I’ve understood about us, our situation, has widened into this huge movie screen. It’s not just me and Kamal. Or Ammi [in detention] in Pennsylvania. Something bigger is going on: the white tents we’ve seen on the news; the shifting lines; the children sleeping curled on concrete floors; and now here [in the shelter], covering their faces. We are disappearing, into the holes and crevices of this country.” (85)Carlos was one of the thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied teens who crossed the border on his own, fleeing gang violence, and ended up in a shelter, facing deportation when he turns 18.
When Rania and Carlos meet, they take to the road with Kamal, first to find the uncle that Rania didn’t not know she had, and, when he refuses guardianship, to disappear. They shelter in a motel for teen summer workers where they earn money and the people look after them and when it is necessary to leave, Lidia finds them a temporary sanctuary in a synagogue in Vermont where Carlos realizes that their only chances are for him to cross to Canada and for Rania and Kamal to return “home” to help their mother prove her case with Rania’s newly-awakened memories of their life in Pakistan.The heart of the story is Rania and Carlos’ relationship, both proud, independent teenagers who support and accept help from each other while providing Kamal with the childhood that they missed.
This is an essential YA read, showing multiple sides of the immigration-refugee situation, and should be read by all teens, including teachers, as many of these children and adolescents are hiding in plain sight in our classrooms. As Lidia, Rania’s mother’s lawyer, says, “The rules keep changing. I’ve got long-term clients in detention. I’ve got grandmothers put on airplanes without saying goodbye. People with job offers unable to get here. Everyday it’s another story. Your mother’s story is just one of them.” (69) ----------
The Absolute Value of Mikeby Kathryn 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) discovers his absolute value. It may take a village to raise a child; in this case it takes a town to save two children. ----------
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Merci Suarez Can’t Dance, andMerci Suarez Plays It Cool by Meg Medina
Mercedes Suarez lives in Las Casitas, a community of three houses with her older brother Roli and parents, her aunt and two little nephews, and her beloved Lolo and Abuela. She began attending Seaward Pines Academy, where she is a scholarship student, last year. But now Merci is a sixth grader, and things are changing. It is not only that the students will be changing classes and teachers, it is not only that she has to deal with mean girls—or at least one mean girl and her sidekick, but her grandfather who has been her confidant and bike-riding partner is changing. It is not until a car accident that the family lets her in on the secret; Lolo has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Her brother explains, “In the next few years, Lolo might not be able to remember us, Merci. He won’t even remember himself.” Meg Medina’s newest novel for middle grade students features a Latina protagonist who is dealing with challenges that many middle-grade students face and a new challenge that many might face in the future. With the love of her family and the support of her new friends, Merci will decide if she can change gears.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears was the 2019 John Newbery Medal winner. This delightful read, full of engaging characters and sharing the day-to-day life of a busy family, reminded me of Medina’s novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass but written at a level for 5th to 8th grade readers.
Merci Suarez Can’t Dance, Merci’s story continues into seventh grade…
When the science teacher asks Merci’s lab group, “What do you scientists predict would really happen in this catastrophic scenario (earthquake)?” Lena answers, “Everyone would be really upset. The ground under their feet would be moving in a way they hadn’t expected. Everything they thought was safe forever would be crumbling. They wouldn’t know how to make it better or what to do next. They’d want things like they were before.” (258) Lena is actually describing a real-life catastrophic scenario—the break in friendship between best friends Hannah and Merci, but she may as well be describing Mercedes Suarez’s entire year.
Now in seventh grade, Merci is still challenged by middle school drama, shifting friendships, and the unkind comments of other students, supported by her two best friends Lena and Hannah and her very close, extended family, but things have changed. “…really the world is just spinning. I’m sick with all the trouble I’m in and sick with all the things that are different this year, too.… Nobody is the way they’re supposed to be.” (188-9)
Merci’s brother has left for college, her aunt is dating, Hannah is hanging out with her enemy Edna, and Edna stands up for Merci against the school bully. No one is who Merci thinks they are. Preparing a science project, Merci reflects, “A geode sort of reminds me what Lolo used to say about people. That we all hold surprises.” (154) And later, she wonders, “Why are people so complicated? Bad guys should always be just bad guys, and good guys should always be good guys. That way you’d be able to like them or hate them all the way through.” (332)
On top of all this, her grandfather’s condition is worsening. “Lolo is barely moves. He’s fading like one of those colorful street paintings Mr. Cahill works on. ‘Everything vanishes,’ [Mr. Cahill] told us at the festival. ‘Live in the moment. That’s the whole point.’ I swallow hard just thinking about the fact that it’s true about people too. They vanish, sometimes a little at a time.” (314)
Merci also begins thinking about boys and kissing and new ethical issues; when an incident happens at the school dance, she can’t decide whether to own up or try to fix the problem. “Mami says feelings are tricky because sometimes they get disguised.” (92)
But through all of this, she does make a difference in her school. She explains the persistent microaggressions by Jason and the other kids at her private school to Miss McDaniels, “It’s like getting paper cuts all the time, miss. They don’t look like much, but they hurt, especially if you get a lot of them, day after day.” (337-8)
Maybe Merci Suarez can’t dance but maybe she can use dancing to make a difference.
Merci Suarez Plays It Cool, the eighth grade Merci…
“True friends feed us in lots of ways.” (310)
Merci’s story continues in the summer before 8th grade. All her friends are away. Things at Las Casitas haven’t changed much although her aunt is still dating Simon, Roli can’t afford his next year of premed and is home working at Walgreen’s and planning to attend the local Junior College, and Marci’s grandfather Lolo’s Alzheimer’s is worsening. And Marco, the twins’ father shows up for the first time in years.
Before school begins, Tia pays for Merci to get a new haircut. “’Imagine walking into school looking like someone brand-new. Merci 2.0.’ I sit there blinking at the thought of being upgraded. Should I want to be someone new?’” (81) The new haircut is a success, but Merci questions, “But what about the old me? I wonder. Where will she go?” (82)
Merci has never been one of the popular crowd, but she has friends—Hannah, Lena, Edna (sort of a frenenemy), and Wilson who is a great friend but also possibly becoming a crush. The popular girls, Avery and Mercede,s are Merci’s soccer teammates, but she keeps hoping that they may become friends. “The whole time, though, I’m watching everyone at Avery’s table from the corner of my eye. Those kids are magnets, even though I don’t want them to be. What is it, I wonder, that makes them seem so cool? And more important, are they?” (107)
The year fluctuates between highs and lows.
At school Merci earns a position as an aid in the guidance office where she becomes aware that some students meet in support groups, the surprise being Edna who is working to improve her social skills, and when soccer practice begins, Merci shows her leadership skills in guiding a new sixth grader to success. Wilson and Merci’s friendship continues to grow and so do her feelings for him, and, when he offers her a ticket to the football game, she wonders if it is a date.
Lolo becomes worse. At times he doesn’t even recognize Merci, who is devastated at the loss of her best friend. Finally, the family hires him an aid.
When the 8th graders begin planning their October Field Trip to St Augustine, Merci is invited to share a room with her friends but also with the popular Avery, Mackenzie, and Lindsey. “It will be a soccer-team room.” Of course, she knows it may be just because her soccer teammates, “…don’t want to get stuck with someone random.” (171) When her friends find out that, even though she plans to room with them, she has not turned Avery down, she risks losing them.
During the field trip when Merci sneaks out of her room with her friends to meet Avery and her friends to play sardines, a tragedy occurs. Lolo has had a stroke and, before Mami can drive Merci home from St. Augustine, he dies. Overwhelmed by grief, Merci learns who her true friends are. Returning to school in a daze, she has forgotten to bring her lunch. Her friends notice and “A few minutes later, they come back with their trays. Lena hands me half a roast beef sandwich. Hanna has bought an extra carton of milk and a bag of my favorite chips. Edna sets down a slice of a la carte key lime pie near my elbow. ‘Extra whipped cream,’ she says. ‘I had to beg.’” (309-310)
And when Wilson gave Merci the gifts for the twins she was unable to buy when she left the trip, unable to visit the pirate museum, she feels “This is like something that wants to lift me into the air. He didn’t leave me stranded when he thought we were in trouble with Miss McDaniels for playing sardines. And when I disappeared from the trip, he thought about what I would miss.…Lolo would have called Wilson a caballero.” (329)
Merci’s 3+ series story ends with valuable lessons about friendship, family, and loss to help adolescents navigate the hard parts of life. ----------
Lia Park and the Missing Jewel by Jenna Yoon
“All I ever wanted was to be part of IMA, fight monsters, and be one of the four protectors of the world.” (6)
Twelve-year old Lia is born in a world where magical powers count. And she has none—or at least none that she can identify. Her best friend Joon has magical powers and a chance to pass the exam for the International Magic Agency-sponsored school and become a great agent. Even Lia’s parents, her Umma and Appa, who are only desk agents, have “very low doses of magic.”
“I turned twelve a few months ago. Normally, I was pretty good at Taekkyeon. But I couldn’t concentrate today. Feelings of dread welled up in the pit of my stomach. I knew how all this would end. Not well.” (2)
So Lia decides she will stay at the normal school and become popular. “I’d really thought that if I had no powers, I could still be somebody by being part of the popular group.” (46) But when she defies her parents instructions and goes to the birthday party of Dior, her wealthy and most popular classmate, Lia unwittingly releases some magic, and all chaos is unleashed. She returns home to find her sitter Tina dead in the driveway and her parents kidnapped by the evil diviner Gaya.
Following her parents’ cryptic clues, Lia and Joon are transported to her Halmoni’s (grandmother’s) house in Korea where Lia learns her real family history and that “When you were born, your power had already manifested.… But it was dangerous, because the monsters sensed it too. That you were different.” (90)
Lia decides she has to make things right, “All this was my fault.…It was because of me that my parents were kidnapped and were being held hostage by Gaya.”
What follows is edge-of-the-seat adventure that will keep readers reading and worrying and hoping as Lia follows clues and tries to find—and then secure—the jewel that Gaya demands and, using all her wits and spells, determines what to do to get back her parents (and Joon) without giving the power back to Gaya.
Readers will learn a bit about Korean culture and folklore as they race through this adventure with the newest superhero. ----------
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. ----------
Twins by Varian Johnson
“Many twins struggle to cultivate their own identities while being so similar to one another. And that struggle lasts a lifetime” (Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 24, 2014)) While most people can take solace in the fact that they are unique and one of a kind, twins do not have that. Because twin DNA is practically identical when they are born, each must take on a journey of self-discovery to forge their own identity, which is different than those who are not twins. (Scientific America, March 15, 2011)
Maureen and Francine Carter are identical twins, but, as they enter middle school, differences emerge. Fran is more outgoing (“the “talker”); Maureen is a better academic student (“the “thinker”). Francine (“Fran”) is more open to the idea of forming their own identities, even requesting that they be placed in different classes and choose different clubs. Maureen is more resistant and, thinking it was a scheduling mistake, tries to get their classes changed. Both feel like they live in the other’s shadow.
Even at the beginning of the year, Fran declares her intention to run for President of Student Council. Trying to raise her grade (which may be her only non-A) in Cadet Corps, Maureen also runs for the position, and “the battle lines are drawn.” The twins even move into separate bedrooms. Some friends refuse to take sides; some who were drafted by Fran before Maureen’s announcement work with Fran’s campaign, and Maureen is forced to make new friends, which she does, improving her self-confidence.
As they move from battling to supporting each other, they both find their own identities and ways to balance their differences while celebrating their similarities.
Told through dialogue, pictures, and blocks of Maureen’s narration, the graphic novel will serve as a mirror, not just to readers who are twins, but all those navigating the changes that occur in middle school. ----------
What about Will by Ellen Hopkins
Twelve-year-old Trace’s world changes when his older brother Will is injured in a high school football accidental collision with another player. Luckily, he was not paralyzed, “But his brain had volleyed Between the sides of his skull So hard it was swollen.” (14)
Will is left with rages, headaches, and a “wrecked” facial nerve leaving him with no expression except for a facial tick. Their mother blames their father for letting Will play football and their already-fragile marriage dissolves when she leaves for a permanent tour with her band. “When you’re scared, blame comes easy.” (13)
Will changes, dumping his loyal girlfriend and hanging out with new friends—a seemingly bad crowd who he sneaks out to join at all hours, and Trace is left without the big brother he remembers. “Probably what I miss most of all, though, is having a big brother to talk to. Some things you can’t tell just anyone. “(18)
Luckily Trace has Bram, his best friend, and a new friend, Cat, the newest member and only girl (and maybe best player) on Trace’s Little League team and his new partner in the Gifted program at school. Cat has a troubled older brother and empathizes with Trace. When Cat’s father, the famous baseball player Victor Sanchez, signs Trace’s glove, Will steals and pawns it. In fact, Will has stolen all of Trace’s saved money, and Trace becomes suspicious of Will’s “activities” but is hesitant to bother his father who works hard and has a new girlfriend.
Also “I keep thinking if I keep his secrets don’t tell Dad don’t bother Mom he’ll trust me enough to tell me why he hardly ever leaves his room, and where he goes when he ducks out the door the minute Dad’s back is turned.
I miss the original Will.” (25)
As things become worse, trace realizes, “I need someone here for me…” I feel like a kite Come loose from its string And its tail tangled up In a very tall tree. No way to rescue it Unless a perfect w Whisp of wind Plucks it just right, sets it free.” (333)
When Will overdoses (mistake? suicide attempt?), everyone—Dad, Lily, Mom, Mom’s boyfriend, their neighbor, Cat, and Bram—comes together and support not only Will but Trace. ----------
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi
In my last school, I always knew where to sit and with who. In my last school, my name was known. In my last school, my voice was loud. In this school, I am mute. In this school, I am invisible. (91-92)
Nurah, her older brother Owais and their parents move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree, Georgia, for better schools and job security, leaving behind her three grandparents and her best friend Asna. The transition is not easy. In America they live in a hotel; Nurah’s mother seems to be fading, and her brother begins rebelling. When Nurah and Owais find a swimming pool at the Rec Center, they regain a bit of home. But Owais is an expert swimmer, appearing to fit in more effortlessly.
It is important to note that my skin is dark like the heel of oatmeal bread while Owais’s skin is light like the center of oatmeal bread. We do not look alike are not recognized as brother and sister. (225)
The water is Nurah’s only friend, until
“Do you want to eat lunch with me?” 8 words that change my life. (110)
Nurah’s new friend Stahr also wears long sleeves, but not from Muslim modesty, and her secret bring the two girls and their mothers together.
And one day when Stahr is not at school at lunchtime, and Naurah is being bullied,
“I’m Destiny. You can eat with us…” (216)
And then Owais is beat up by two of the boys on the swim team, jealous of his success, and Nurah feels guilty for not warning him to not go into the locker room. After his hospitalization, he gives up swimming.
he is always in his room lately, because he is safer on land than in water (265)
And Nurah discovers another type of bullying when the boy she likes and his friends make fun of her visiting grandmother whose “mind becomes so tangled.”
I remember when my tongue Betrayed me. I remember I need to say something. I go back in to their laughter. I find my voice and spit it out “It’s not funny.” The store gets Very Quiet and I feel light again. I grab Dadi’s ice cream. I remember what hope tastes like… (273)
When Nurah decides to begin wearing her hijab,
In the beginning the looks of others spear me but the more I wear it the easier it becomes. the more I wear it the looks seem to soften. (284)
Finally, at the masjid with Owais and his new friend Junaid
Today I wear my hijab , Tightly wrapped, shimmery light blue,… today when I look in the mirror, I think-- “Not bad.” I feel prettier than I have In a long time And exactly where I’m supposed to be. (305)
A story of transition, new beginnings, the importance of friendship, and finding one’s voice and our “something unexpected,” Reem Faruqi’s verse novel is based on her childhood experiences as an immigrant living in Georgia. ----------
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
I listen to my mother. Always. But I am an American, I was born here, it’s the only home I know. So I’m caught between the life I want to lead And the one she thinks I should. (4) ---- Thirteen-year-old Reha was born in America. Her parents married in India and moved to America for a better life, and Amma is very traditional and has strict expectations for their only child. Reha is sent to a private school where…
At school I swim in a river of white skin And blond hair and brown hair And blue eyes and green eyes and hazel, School subjects and giggles about boys, Salad and sandwiches. (1)
When you are different You constantly compare… My mother-made clothes are funny My jeans are not the fashionable kind. They notice that my hair is black and thick My eyes are darkest brown And my skin is different from everyone else’s. (33)
… on weekends, I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes, MTV music videos and giggles about boys, Samosa and sabjis. (1)
Reha lives in two worlds. She has two best friends, Sunita (“Sunny”) whom she has known since age two but whose Indian family is more modern than hers and Rachel, a Jewish girl who is as serious about her studies as Reha. And she visits her relatives in India in the summer. But she does hope to fit in better in school and be permitted to go to the school dance and even dance with her new friend Pete.
Unfortunately, after the dance Amma becomes very ill with leukemia. Since Amma works in a laboratory, Reha, who faints at the sight of blood, knows all about its components:
[Amma] counts the red cells, that carry oxygen, the platelets. that stop bleeding, and the white cells, the warriors protecting us from invaders. At least If they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Cells and plasma together are called whole blood, which is what flows inside us. (27)
Unfortunately Amma’s blood is not doing what it is supposed to, and neither her older sister, who is pregnant, nor Reha are viable bone marrow donors. She does discover that her school friends do care about her.
…all the other girls, the ones who seemed too caught up with their clothes and hair and nails reach out to squeeze my arm pull me into hugs murmur words of encouragement. And it turns out I have yet another family, one I never thought to call my own. (111)
Reha hopes that if she is the best and most virtuous she can be, Amma will heal. But, sadly, that is not to be.
I have two lives. The one Before and the one After. (193)
Reha now has her father, Sunny, Rachel, Pete, her Indian community, and her school community and her aunt and uncle and baby Chandra in India. And unexpectedly a letter arrives from her mother, written before her death.
She believed I didn’t need to be split in two, that I could be whole. and now I start to believe it, too. (206)
I have one life, where I try to merge all the places I’m from, India and America, mother and father, past, present, and future. (209)
With characters who became so real, I cried with them like a member of the family, this is a story of being a part of two worlds—as are many of our readers—and feeling that you are different—as do most of our adolescent readers at one time or another. ----------
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. ----------
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
“Papi boards the same flight every year.” (18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, his daughter Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
“It was like he was two Completely different men. It’s like he split himself in half. It’s like he bridged himself across the Atlantic. Never fully here or there. One toe in each country.” (360)
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77)
Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican. “If you asked me what I was, & you meant in terms of culture, I’d say Dominican. No hesitation, no question about it. Can you be from a place you have never been? “ (97)
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone.
And then the plane crash occurs. “Two months to seventeen, two dead parents, & an aunt who looks worried Because we both know, without my father, Without his help, life as we’ve known it has ended.” (105)
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
When they all show up, readers see just how powerfully a family can form. “my sister grasps my hand I feel her squeeze & do not let go hold tight.” (353)
“It is awkward, these familial ties & breaks we share.” (405)
After the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 just two months after 9/11/2001, it was sometimes a spontaneous reaction for passengers to clap when the plane landed, one of “the many ways Dominicans celebrate touching down onto our island.” (Author’s Note).