Identity refers to our sense of who we are as individuals and as members of social groups. Our identities are not simply our own creation: identities grow in response to both internal and external factors. Identity is dynamic and complex, and changes over time. (ActforYouth.net) While children are always building their sense of self, adolescence is crucial for many aspects of developing self and identity, including commitments, personal goals, motivations, and psychosocial well-being (NIH.gov)
Pictured are 72 novels that touch upon identity and self-discovery that I have read and recommend. Below are my reviews of 44 of the more-recently published or more-recently read novels featuring diverse authors and characters—by ethnicity, nationality, race, neurodiversity, sexual orientation, age, family, and physical differences.
ABBY, TRIED AND TRUE by Donna Gephart
Abby Braverman’s friend Catriella Wasserman moved to Israel the summer Abby turned twelve. An introvert, Abby only had the one friend. While kids at school didn’t exactly bully Abby, they didn’t take the time to know her, and the girls told her she needed to be more outgoing and that she probably wouldn’t speak up even to save someone’s life. Luckily Conrad, the eighth-grade boy who moved into Cat’s house, became a good and sensitive friend and possibly a boyfriend. And Abby had a close, supportive family—her two moms, her Jewish grandparents, and her older brother Paul.
“[Paul] was an extrovert. Being social was easy for Paul, and he already had two best friends, Jake and Ethan, to do everything with. Paul was not a turtle. He was an otter. Otters were fun and outgoing, Everyone loved otters.” (65)
But that summer another tragedy struck. As Abby wrote in her journal,
“One day my brother said, “I have cancer.” With those words—that one word-- Oxygen left the room Sound Molecules And then came back, forever rearranged, Nothing has been the same since. There is only before…and after.” (186)
This is a story of a young girl who is navigating the challenges of middle school, a new friendship and relationship, and the fear of losing her brother, frightened that the girls at school may be right, that she will be too scared to be able to help what it is necessary. But she learns she does have that courage: “Being brave is when you’re scared to do something but you choose to do it anyway because you know it’s the right thing to do.” (197)
This is one of the novels crucial to have in school and classroom libraries, to put into the hands of children who need it. Many readers will see themselves in this novel—whether coping with these same issues or others—and other readers will learn empathy for their peers who may be going through more than they know, hiding in plain sight. There are adolescents who are painfully shy or who lose their good friends and families living with a child who has cancer. As happens in adolescence, this is a year of highs and lows; fortunately, in Abby’s world, the good outweighed the bad.
Each year in the U.S. there are an estimated 15,780 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age who are diagnosed with cancer. Approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. (www.acco.org) Although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States. In 2021, it is estimated that 15,590 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,780 will die of the disease in the United States. Among adolescents ages 15 to 19 years, about 5090 will be diagnosed with cancer and about 590 will die of the disease. (National Cancer Institute) Young men between the ages of 15 and 35 are at the highest risk for testicular cancer, the cancer that afflicts Paul in the story. (Author’s Note) ------------
ALL OF ME by Chris Baron
Seventh grader Ari Rosensweig is fat, “so big that everyone stares.” (1) He is made fun of, bullied, called names. One time he is beat up, not even trying to defend himself. But he does make one friend, Pick, the only one who tries to learn the real Ari. His parents fight. His mother is an artist, and the family moves frequently, his dad managing his mother’s art business. But when they move to the beach for the summer, Ari’s dad leaves and sees Ari infrequently.
“There are times when you feel like you can’t stop eating, because eating is the only way you know how to feel right again.” (67-68)
But that summer Ari makes two new friends. And as he has let the haters make him into who he is, he now allows Pick, Lisa, and Jorge help him “to find the real me.” (145) He also receives the support of the rabbi who is training him for his Bar Mitzvah, his conversion to manhood under Jewish law. “’Maybe,’ the rabbi says, ‘it’s as simple as believing that you don’t have to be what others want you to be.’” (225)
His mother suggests a diet, but it seems to be a healthy diet and he sheds pounds. “This doesn’t look like me. It can’t be me. I don’t look like this, normal.” (209)
On a camping trip with Jorge, Ari discards the diet book. “I don’t see a fat kid, not anymore. I simply see myself.” (267)
Finally, even though he has gained back some of the pounds (7 of them), he no longer feels like a failure because "it’s not about the weight”; it is about what the summer has brought: adventures, stories, and real friends. “Just me moving forward, finding my own way.” (311)
Told in lyrical free verse, this is a story that is needed by so many kids. This is not a book about weight; it is the story of identity and friendships—and power over what you can control. ------------
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.” ------------
CAMO GIRL by Kekla Magoon
Over seventy percent of young people say they have encountered bullying in their schools—as victim, offender or bystander. Bullying is especially a problem in middle school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, 28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying. In surveys, 30% of young people admit to bullying others.
Ella and Z are sixth-grade outcasts, and they are best friends. But they are not best friends because they are outcasts; they are there to support each other—no questions asked. Ella suspects Z and his mother live in Walmart, but that aside and no matter how weirdly Z acts and how Ella looks, they are friends for life. Then Bailey, a new student, arrives on the scene, and Ella is no longer the only black (actually biracial) student. Popular in a way Ella wants to be, he befriends Ella, and she thinks she may have to choose between popularity and Z. But just maybe Bailey, who has his own view of reality, can help both of them.
As a reader who requires a provocative story, well-developed diverse characters, and good writing, I was thrilled to find a book that I read straight through and that would be a good choice for young adolescents, both boys and girls, who just want to be accepted and a book that would generate important conversations about bullying and friendship. ------------
CLASS ACT by Jerry Craft
“Getting As in all my classes is SO much easier than all the personal stuff. I wish friendship came with a textbook.… School would be so much easier without all the non-school stuff.” (Drew, 169)
In the sequel to New Kid, seventh grade friends Jordan, Liam, and Drew have to learn to navigate a new year in their prestigious private school. But eighth grade becomes much more complicated.
Jordan, who is struggling with being younger, smaller, and more physically immature than the other eighth grade boys, has to keep the peace between his best friends when Drew visits the mansion where Liam lives, judging him for how his parents’ lifestyle. Liam, whose parents ignore him, knows that wealth is not the secret to happiness.
As the boys visit each other’s neighborhoods and meet kids from another school which RAD wants to adopt as a “sister school” to promote diversity, they begin to notice microaggressions, racism, and classism all around them. Their “ever-learning and ever-evolving” school creates an Office of Diversity and Inclusion and also a Students of Color Konnect club, and things become worse. “No one is happy just being who they are. It’s like we all have the way we want people to think we are…and then we have our real selves.” (177)
When Jordan’s parents get involved in day of food and sports, all three boys become exposed to new experiences. And they—especially Drew—realize, “We should probably try to stop being so hard on each other.…And on ourselves.” (244)
Jordan the aspiring cartoonist continues to share his life through black and white drawings within each chapter. ------------
DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram
“I had never been surrounded by my family before. Not really. “I loved them. “I loved how their eyelashes were long and dark and distinct, just like mine. And how their noses curved around a little bump in the middle, just like mine. And how their hair cow-licked in three separate places, just like mine.”(174)
Darius Kellner just didn’t fit in. He was a Fractional Persian who was a little overweight from his medicines for clinical depression. He didn’t fit in in school where he was one of two Persian students, Javaneh being a True Persian. He didn’t fit in at school where he was bullied by Trent and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy. He didn't fit in at work at Tea Haven where they steeped every tea to a full boil despite the advice of Darius who knew teas. And he didn’t fit in his family: with his mother, a True Persian; and his father, the Ubermensch, a handsome blonde American with Aryan looks; and his little sister, Laleh, who was also a Fractional Persian but was popular at school and spoke fluent Farsi with her Persian relatives and friends.
But when Darius and his family go to Iran to visit his grandmother and dying grandfather, Darius becomes Darioush and is enveloped by his extended family and the Persian culture, makes a new best friend, plays “soccer/non-American football” and finds that he is actually good, and he learns more about his father. “I finally managed to open up the well inside me.”(299) But the most important lesson he learns is that Darius the Great is not okay, and that is okay. Through this story YA readers will learn quite a lot about the Persian culture and how it feels to stand with one foot in two worlds. ------------
DEAR STUDENT by Elly Swartz
Molly (Finding Perfect), Frankie (Smart Cookie), Maggie (Give and Take) and Autumn (Dear Student). What do all these characters have in common? challenges (OCD, parental loss, and childhood hoarding), heart, courage, resilience, and self-discovery.
Her best —and only—friend has moved across the country, her father left to join the Peace Corps, and her mother had to rent out their house and move Autumn and her little sister, Pickle, above her veterinary clinic. Navigating middle school is tough, even though kids some make it look easy; navigating middle school when you are shy and have lost your best friend and father and home is hard.
In his postcards her father encourages shy Autumn to seize the day and find her “one thing.” Autumn thinks her one thing may be serving as the secret writer of the Dear Student column of the school paper. “It’s so much easier to find the words when they aren’t for me. When I don’t have to say them out loud.” (98) She is surprised but delighted when she is chosen. Her advisor sees something in her that she is not sure is there, and he advises recommends that she just speak from her heart.
Autumn finds that she can give good advice and, as the year begins, she makes two new friends, Cooper who just moved to their town, and Logan, who seems to have no trouble making friends and talking to people. Autumn finds her relationship with these two to be complicated.
Both friends have their challenges: Logan’s mother is a human rights attorney and rarely home which makes Logan needy, and Cooper’s mother works for the beauty products company that Autumn and Logan want to protest against because of their animal testing policy. “I’m a bundle of confusion. I have two friends who want something different. Something opposite.”
Being Dear Student in secret is complicated. “The friend who doesn’t know that I know that she asked me [as Dear Student] for advice is taking the advice I gave, But the other friend who doesn’t know I’m the one giving advice is mad about the advice I [as Dear Student] gave.” (192) Her mother advises, “When you care about both sides of something [safety of animals and Cooper’s mother’s job], it can also feel complicated.… When fighting for something you believe in, you have to stay true to yourself and focus on the parts you can control.” (218)
Middle grade friendships are challenging. Logan is not quite the true friend she appears to be. When Logan forgets her birthday party, “I don’t tell her that I was never really mad. Just sad. That being forgotten is the thing I am most afraid of.” (112) That and some of her other actions make Autumn question friendship. Luckily, Cooper stays true, and throughout all this, Autumn has the support of Prisha, even from thousands of miles away, “You can’t be afraid to do things that are important to you…. And just be you, okay?” (252)
And when it matters most, Autumn learns to speak up, as herself, not as Dear Student.
This is a story that acknowledges the complications of relationships and encourages young adolescents to discover their one thing. ------------
FORWARD ME BACK TO YOU by Mitali Perkins
When 16-year-old Katina is assaulted in the stairwell by the popular star basketball player, her jujitsu skills let her defend herself. But when she reports the attack, it is she who is made so uncomfortable she has to leave school. Her confidence shattered, she wonders if she will ever be able to trust men again.
Robin was born in Kolkata, abandoned by his mother, and adopted by loving, wealthy, supportive American parents at age 3, but he has never stopped thinking about his first mother and his life seems to have no direction.
When Kat is sent to Boston to be homeschooled by a family friend’s aunt, Grandma Vee, she becomes a part of a teen church group. Pastor Gregory takes Robin, Katina, and Gracie to Kolkata to work with female human trafficking survivors, and, with the help of her new support system and some of the young survivors themselves, Katina learns to trust again; Robin, now Ravi, finds purpose in his life; and Gracie, who was the major support system for both of them, finally gets Ravi to realize his love for her.
Told through very short chapters that alternate between Kat and Robin and simply written, Mitali Perkins new novel would be valuable read that is accessible to, and appropriate for, all adolescent readers. ------------
FURIA by Yamile Saied Mendez
“My mom smiled through her tears, ‘Mamita, you can’t have it all. You’ll see.’” Although I wanted to yell that this was the greatest lie told to girls like us for centuries, seeing the defeat in her eyes, I couldn’t find my voice.” (231)
Camila Hassan is one of the best futbol players in Rosario, Argentina. On the field she is known as La Furia, but she has to keep this part of her life secret from her mother and her abusive father, an ex-player himself. Her brother Pablo is working his way to national fame, and the family’s hopes are centered on his success, but Camila proves herself to be an even better player.
When her childhood friend (and possibly more as of the night he left to play international soccer in Italy) returns home and declares his love, asking Camila to come to Italy with him, she feels sure that it is possible to have it all.
This is a novel of preconceptions and choices and the rights of girls to stay safe and follow their dreams.
“One day, when a girl was born in Rosario, the earth would shake with anticipation for her future and not dread.“ (296) ------------
GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN by Alicia D. Williams
“We’re gonna get evicted again. If we get evicted again, you said you’re gonna leave…. I’m tired of coming home and our stuff’s on the lawn…. I’m tired of staying in people’s basements! Why can’t you just pay the rent! Just stop gambling and pay the rent!” (280)
Eighth-grader Genesis Anderson’s family has been evicted four times already. Her father has a gambling problem and is an alcoholic but somehow he moves them from Detroit to a house in the fashionable Farmington Hills. But again the rent is not paid, and they will probably lose this home also.
Genesis has other problem, problems with other kids at her schools calling her names based on the darkness of her skin. Her parents are from complicated families with ideas about skin color and class. Genesis hates the color of her skin and the texture of her hair, wishing she looked like her beautiful light-skinned mother. “’I can’t stand you, ‘ I say to my reflection.” (10) She thinks her father has rejected her because she is dark like he is. “What if I inherited all Dad’s ways? What if no one recognizes that I’m…one of the good ones?” (154) “Every single night I’ve prayed for God to make me beautiful—make me light. And every morning I wake up exactly the same.” (157)
Even though she is finally making friends in her new school, two friends—Todd and Sophia—who know what it’s like to be stereotyped and bullied and like Genesis for who she is, she tries to bleach her skin and relax her hair to fit in, become popular, and please her father and grandmother.
Through her chorus teacher’s discovery of her singing talent and introductions to the music of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eta James, Genesis finds the courage to audition for the school talent show and sing. “I can’t believe it. I did it. I, Genesis Anderson, stepped out onto that stage and sang. Out loud. In Public. Alone.” (249) At the actual performance, she discovers her strength. “I let each word soar. I swoop down to hug the little girl sitting on the curb with all her furniture. I visit the girl in the basement with the wrinkled brown bag passing from hand to hand. I kiss the lonely girl who hears ugly taunts from the mirror. I experience every moment. And I’m not afraid.” (348) ------------
GOLDEN GIRL by Reem Faruqi
I know what you’re thinking-- ‘Aafiyah Qamar, just STOP!’ Believe me, I’ve tried. But I can only stop when the thing I want —Need-- is safe in my hands or even better… my bag. (59)
Aafiyah Qamar, a Pakistani-American seventh-grader, lives with her Abba (father), Mom, and little brother Ibrahim. She is healthy, has money, and is happy— “aafiyah” (well-being) in Pakistani. “Everything good. Just like me. (3). She only has one friend, the more sophisticated Zaina, who is a neighbor and classmate, and one friend is enough for her. Fia also plays tennis, collects “Weird but True” facts, and has an unusual habit she cannot control—kelptomania, a recurring drive to steal that the person cannot resist, stealing items for the sake of stealing, not usually because the items are wanted or needed, or because they cannot afford to buy them; it is rare in children.
When Aafiyah turned 13, she realizes she has become pretty. That’s when the trouble started. People were so busy looking at my face, my curled eyelashes (it’s Vaseline), they forgot to look at my hands. (27)
She is guilty about her habit. Sometimes when I borrow things and guilt swirls in my mind, I feel like a r k n b o e piece of my family. (33)
Told in verse, this the story of a challenging year in a young adolescent’s life. Aafiyah experiences mild hearing loss. Her Dada Abu (grandfather) has cancer and needs to come to the United States for treatment. On a trip to Pakistan to bring back Dada and Dadi Abu, Fia’s father is charged with embezzlement from his company, and he and Dadi have to remain in Pakistan until his name can be cleared. In the U.S. Fia tries to help with their decreasing finances but devises a less-than-perfect Plan which costs her the friendship with Zaina and Zaina’s family, her phone, her position on the tennis team (Mom’s decision), and shame.
But readers become witness to Aafiyah’s growth. I’m not that girl anymore, The one who gives into her whims. (304) ------------
IT DOESN'T TAKE A GENIUS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
“I don’t even like debate, to be honest. But I’m good at it, and I learned early on that’s what matters. People love a winner. When you win, everyone sees you. And if people don’t see you, maybe you’re not really there.” (8)
Thirteen-year-old Emmett Charles is a winner, or at least at his school where his vocabulary, three debate trophies, science fair award, and Spelling Bee record have him feeling he might even be a genius.
And when his social skills and small size fail him, his older brother Luke is always there to bail him out , especially with Mac, his bully. “Luke has come out of nowhere. Like a superhero. He’s even taller than Mac, wears his shirts a little small so girls can peep his muscles, and his fade is tight and gleaming.” (6-7) “Sometimes it feels like I’m in a river, and the current’s real strong. And I have a choice between clinging to a rock and getting left behind, or letting myself get swept up in it and carried along without any control. Luke’s my rock.” (138)
But when his brother Luke gets a scholarship to a private art school in Maine for his last year of high school, summer is all Emmett, or E as he wants to be called, will have for Luke to turn him back into a winner after he passed on competing in this year’s debate championship. “We’re a team. Batman and Robin.” (29)
But when he discovers that Luke has gotten a job as a junior counselor at Camp DuBois, a historic Black summer camp in New York, and Emmett schemes to get himself a scholarship to attend as a camper. When he arrives he discovers that
His brother will be too busy to spend any time with him
The camp is filled with “geniuses” and nerds—and new friends who have his back
He will be discovering more of his culture and history through classes like “Black to the Future” and the camp focuses on community, not individual success. He finally realizes that “DuBois is preparing me for something more than bubble tests, more than I’d ever thought it would.” (190)
Even though he is a great dancer, he is an even better choreographer
Although he sees himself as a winner, without effort and spreading himself too thin, he can lose, more than he thought
He will have to take swimming lessons (with the Littles) and pass a swimming test
“What my friends, and my family for that matter, don’t seem to understand is that I don’t swim. I guess they get the fact that I can’t. But they keep thinking that I will, one day. That I even want to. And they’re WRONG. Dad was supposed to teach me, and he’s not here.” (19) Emmett’s father died when he was 5, and Like and his mother don’t discuss his father with him which saddens him. In fact, seeing other kids with their dads sadden him.
And most important he discovers, as Natasha says, “It doesn’t take a genius to be a friend.” (291) E’s story is filled with great characters: the socially-awkward Charles who can “do you” the best I have seen; Charles’ love interest and budding playwright Michelle, Emmett’s crush Natasha who does win at everything but is just as happy when the camp director decides there will be no final competitions; the alleged-bully Derek who is able to spend more time with Luke than Emmett does, but, as is often the case, is more complex than presumed; and the assortment of other campers, counselors, and group leaders. Readers will learn not only a lot of Black history but the importance of studying one’s cultural roots.
There will be adolescents in the classroom and community who need to read this book. I know that I learned quite a lot which led me to want to know more—about Black culture and my culture and the cultures of others. ------------
JUNK BOY by Tony Abbott
Junk Boy introduces reads to two teen outliers, two dysfunctional families, two stories which become intertwined.
“there is no putting a tree back up after it’s broken and fallen in a storm
maybe with us with people it’s different” (336)
Bobby Lang, nicknamed Junk by the bullies at school because he lives in a place that has become a junkyard, spends his time flying under the radar, eyes down, not speaking. His father is drunk, abusive, unemployed, and listens to sad country songs; his mother left when he was a baby is, according to his father, is dead. Bobby has no self-confidence and little self-worth but then he meets Rachel, a talented artist who sees something else in him.
“her eyes could somehow see a me that is more me than I am
that is so weirdly more so better than actual me” (273-4)
But Rachel has her own family problems. Her father has just moved out and her physically-abusive mother wants the local priest to “reformat” Rachel who is gay.
As Rachel moves in and out of Bobby’s life, her need helps him figure out “what was I going to say do be?” (274)
And what he is, or becomes, is a rescuer and protector, a savior. As Father Percy tells him, “It’s what she found in you…” (352)
Reading Tony Abbott’s first verse novel, I felt like I was watching a movie unfold as I followed the protagonist on his hero’s journey. ------------
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 who discovers her true self. ------------
LILY'S PROMISE by Kathryn Erskine
Sixth grader Lily, painfully shy, is attending public school for the first time. She had always been homeschooled by her father, and, before he died, he encouraged her talk to other kids “Girls make excellent friends” and left her a Strive for Five challenge: “to speak up, make herself heard, step out of her ‘comfort zone’ at least five times… and pretty soon, it [will] become second nature.’ (18-19)
On the first day Lily, overwhelmed at the noise and rudeness of the students, (1) makes her first friend, Hobart (not a girl) and (2) observes many instances of bullying, some against Hobart (and even the new teacher) and most generated from Ryan and his followers. During the year as she forms a group of new friends from those students many others would think different, she finds her courage and voice to become an upstander, rather than a bystander, earning her the five charms left by her father. Lily and her new friends influence both young adolescents and adults, such as Hobart’s father, alike.
One unique and very compelling element are the chapters narrated by Libro (the book) is it reflects on the characters and events of the preceding chapter and on the author (Imaginer) herself.
[Spoiler alert] While many readers may be dismayed by the open ending, it provides an opportunity for deep discussions and will generate important conversations, one reason I would encourage this book for collaborative reading in literature circles or as a whole-class selection even though still enjoyable as independent reading. In a class setting, readers could write their own endings, possibly putting themselves in the place of Lily. ------------
MAZIE by Melanie Crowder
“Nana says you have to know where you come from to have any hope of figuring out where you need to go…” (1)
It is 1959. Seventeen year old Mazie Butterfield is looking forward to high school graduation, moving to New York City, and becoming a Broadways star; her entire life has been moving toward this goal—ballet lessons, singing lessons, and local theater productions. But Mazie also loves Nebraska, her home, her family, and mostly her boyfriend Jesse. Jesse has his own dreams—to study the stars, but he knows that he needs to stay and take over the family farm.
When Nana dies unexpectedly, Mazie follows Nana’s wishes and leaves for New York, Mrs. Cooper’s boardinghouse, new roommates, endless rounds of auditions, homesickness, and heartbreak. But she perseveres. “I love my home and my family and what I come from. It’s just—I know there’s more to life than what’s here in front of me. And I’d be a fool to think this me, the right now me won’t change a little along the way.” (28) “Without my big Broadway dream, I’m not sure I even know who I am.” (31)
At auditions Mazie is cut off in mid-song, mid-dialogue, and mid-dance, and she worries that her money and her six weeks will run out. Slowly she finds herself changing who is she and how she looks to try to fit in. “I don’t want to go back to where I was, always wishing for something out of reach. But what if being here means I become someone I don’t recognize anymore? Am I still even me?” (145)
When she finally lands the role of understudy in a touring company of an industrial musical, Mazie seems to be expected to change even more. She immerses herself into the play, learning all the female parts, making friends, making enemies, and avoiding the advances of the director. Her tenacity and diligence pay off when the lead bows out, and Mazie changes her name and her look to try to fit the role. “If what I wanted was to live surrounded only by things I understood, I never would have left home. But I wanted to step into the wider world.” (149)
After a visit home, Mazie learns to follow her dream, even though there is a cost—but maybe at a slower pace—and navigate her new world without rejecting her old one and changing what is important.
Adolescent readers will love Mazie and following her as she shares her journey through her narration. In Mazie Melanie Crowder shares another character who is strong, resilient, a problem solver, and learns to meet her dreams on her own terms. Readers who are interested in the acting, musicals, romance, and especially following a dream will love this story. ------------
MOONWALKING by Zetta Elliott and Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Solidarity means we all belong together we all work together we’re like union brothers and sisters but my family is broken and scattered in Poland and in America and I’m here alone. Loner or Leader Time to choose. (109)
Two adolescents in early 1980’s. Some similarities; major differences.
When JJ Pankoski’s father goes on strike and is fired and blacklisted, they lose their home and car and move into the Polish grandparent’s house in Brooklyn where possibly JJ won’t be bullied as he was in his former school. A musician, JJ saves is his Casio keyboard, Walkman headphones, and punk-rock cassettes. But one other thing he loses is his sister Alina who remains in Lynbrook with a secret.
Pie, or Pierre Velez, lives with his Puerto Rican mother who suffers from mental illness, and his younger half-sister Pilar, yearns to have known his African father. He also is an artist, tagging buildings and recommended for a prestigious art class at the museum.
“what means the most to me? family always comes first then my culture my friends my girl my ‘hood my future my dreams” (96)
JJ desperately needs a friend, “maybe [Pi] can help me because he likes to get answers right and explain to kids who don’t understand. and maybe he’ll even like me.” (84)
and, for a short while, Pie is that friend, the two boys connected by their love of the arts.
But Pie lives with discrimination. “…this is the one night when anything goes—you can be anyone on Halloween pretend you got special powers knowing full well that the next day you’ll go back to being an ordinary kid who hungers for heroes that Hollywood won’t create” (104)
and when the class social studies project is assigned,
“Now we got this project—we have to write
about a leader who changed the world and I don’t wanna write about some dead white guy…even though I know that’s the only way
to get an A.” (113)
But one night when they are tagging, Pie is arrested and JJ, as a white adolescent, is not only let go but driven home by the policeman (“Different Justice”). JJ is guilty for doing nothing.
Later, when he receives a much higher grade than Pie for a report on which Pie coached him, still was inferior to his friend’s
“because Pie’s report on Patrice Lumumba was way better than mine.
Pie told me to dig deeper But he dug deepest of all.” (162-3) JJ speaks out, but it is too little too late.
“true friends don’t leave you hanging
true friends always have your back.” (159) Written in creatively-formatted free verse and co-authored by Zetta Elliott, who writes the voice of Pie, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann, who writes JJ’s narrative, Moonwalking is a work of history, prejudice and discrimination, poverty, mental illness, neuro-diversity, art, and friendship. ------------
MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK by Barbara Dee
“That’s because it feels like you are watching me all the time! Waiting for me to cry, or fall apart, or something! Like I’m some type of creature you’re studying. In a fish tank!” (115)
In seventh grade, Zinnia Manning’s life changed dramatically. “Sometimes the bottom step fell out, and everything changed all of a sudden.” (146) That was the year her beloved older brother Gabriel, away at college, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sent to Redwoods Village, a residential treatment center.
Asked to keep her brother’s condition “private,” Zinny has nowhere to turn. Her mother has quit her teaching job, stopped cooking dinners, forgetting to buy groceries, and spends her days in her bedroom arguing with insurance companies until she takes up jogging as her release; when anyone asks about Gabriel, she lies. Her father barely comes home for meals. Zinny’s older sister Scarlett cuts off her hair, becomes distant, and refuses to visit Gabriel. Her younger brother Aiden becomes obsessed with turning a school project into a “survival” project but never completes it.
However, it appears that everyone in school and town seem to know that there is something wrong with Gabriel, and, when Zinny refuses to talk, she loses her two best friends. An avid science lover, she begins spending lunchtime in the science room with Ms. Molina and is very excited about crayfish they will be observing in their classroom. She also is “invited” to join the school counselor’s weekly Lunch Club where, although reluctant to participate, she meets four 7th and 8th graders who also have home problems and are supportive of each other.
As the year progresses, “It was like after it happened, we were in a different time zone from everybody else. A parallel universe. And we needed some kind of new, not-yet-invented time measurement. Abnormal Standard Time. Also a compass and a map.” (9) Later, when Scarlett admits that the last time she was happy was ‘Definitely before Gabriel,’ Zoe thinks, “She didn’t need to explain; I knew that ‘Definitely before Gabriel’ was a complete sentence.” (177) It is a year of changes. “I guess it would be weird to go through this and not change.” (178), and when her group’s crayfish escapes, Zinny learns, “There’s stuff we can control and stuff we can’t.” (240)
Asked to finally describe her feelings, Zinny admits she is “’Mad. Tired. Worried.’ Then I heard myself say: ‘Ashamed.’” Mr. Patrick, the counselor assures her that all her feelings “all million of them—are completely okay. There’s no right way to feel about it, and no wrong way either.” (258)
Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by dramatic or abnormal mood changes typically fluctuating between major depression and extreme elation, or mania. The estimated number of teenagers with bipolar disorder is currently 2-3%. However, mental illness in general is common in teenagers. Approximately one in five teens (aged 12 to 18) suffer from at least one mental health disorder. (Polaris Teen Center). Because mental illness affects so many families and school and community members, it is crucial that novels on this important topic, such as this, be available in all libraries and classrooms to generate the important conversations that need to be held. “But mental health is different [than cancer or heart problems].” “Why?” “It just is. People make fun of it.” “Because they don’t understand.” (259)
My Life in the Fish Tank is written with flashbacks that let Zinny and the reader fill in missing puzzle pieces as a family copes with the challenges of mental illness as well as characters that readers will identify with on different levels. ------------
OPERATION DO-OVER by Gordon Korman
I’ve already seen that everything in my life doesn’t have to go exactly the way it went the first time around. (123)
Who has never wished for a “Do Over”? Sometimes it is something little, like a golf swing or studying for that test, but sometimes it is a major event, something that has affected our life.
Mason and Ty were best friends from age three or even before that, before they even knew what “friends” were. They were actually even closer than best friends, finishing each other’s sentences and “We can look at each other and crack up laughing at a joke neither of us has to say out loud.” (8-9) Both considered nerds, bullied by Dominic and Miggy, interested in school—especially science—and obsessed with time travel. “TY and I may not be cool, but we’ve got each other’s backs one thousand percent. Plus, we’re smart, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything middle school could throw at us that we can’t handle.” (11) But in seventh grade, it did—a new student, Ava Petrakis.
Ava turns out to be the nicest, prettiest, smartest girl, and she is popular with everyone, but she chooses to spend time with Mason and Ty. Realizing they both have a crush on Ava, they make a pact not to pursue their interest. But when Mason and Ava kiss at the Harvest Festival, the friendship ends.
Five years later, Mason and Ty are still not friends and an incident occurs which has far-reaching repercussions. After a car accident Mason ends up going back in time to his 12-year-old self with a chance at a Do-Over. Having studied time travel for years, Mason knows that he has to be careful how his actions affect the future, but he just can’t resist making some changes. Can he save his parents’ marriage; can he train his beloved dog not to run into the path of a Roto-Rooter truck; can he actually earn the respect of the class bullies; and, most important, can he avoid Ava and keep his friendship with Ty?
Sometimes it take two "lives" for self-discovery. Well-written with humor and pathos, featuring engaging characters (male and female) and a protagonist-narrator whom readers will champion from the beginning through his “two futures,” this novel has everything: a plot with twists and turns, bullies, nerds, football players, (and those who perform dual roles), time travel, crushes, and a dog. Spanning Mason’s 7th grade and 12th grade lives, Gordon Korman writes this one for readers of all ages. ------------
OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga
What happens when you have to leave your home to leave far away within another culture? How does that place become “home”?
When trouble spreads to Jude’s small city on the sea, a city formerly filled with tourists, and her older brother joins the revolution, seventh-grader Jude and her pregnant mother immigrate to America, leaving behind her Baba, his store, and her best friend to move in with her uncle, his American wife and their daughter. Life in Cincinnati is very different; Jude’s English is not as good as she had hoped and her popular seventh-grade cousin Sarah is afraid she will seem “weird,” like her new friend Layla whose parents came from Lebanon and wears a hajab.
Jude tries to assimilate but “I am no longer/a girl./I am a Middle Eastern girl./A Syrian girl./A Muslim girl. Americans love labels./They help them know what to expect./Sometimes, though,/I think labels stop them from/thinking.” (92)
As she learns more English, practicing slang with the four members of her ESL class, and becomes friends with Layla and Miles, a boy from her math class fascinated with stars and the galaxy, Jude misses Baba, Fatima, and Auntie Amal, and worries about Issa; however, she becomes closer to her aunt, speaks Arabic with her uncle, and starts thinking of the old house as home. Becoming a young woman, she begins wearing her scarves, although she has to convince her aunt that this is her choice.
Jude discovers that belonging is complicated. Layla tells her she is “lucky” that she comes from somewhere rather than being a Middle Eastern girl in America who, if she moved to Jordan, would be an American girl in the Middle East. “Lucky. I am learning how to say it/over and over again in English./I am learning how it tastes—/sweet with promise/and bitter with responsibility.” (168) Even the very American teen Sarah seems to want to embrace her other culture; she asks to learn Arabic and points out that, as cousins, they look much alike.
When Jude follows her brother’s wish that she be brave, she tries out for the school musical, even though Layla says, “Jude, those parts aren’t for girls like us.… We’re not girls who/glow in the spotlight.” “’But I want to be,” I say.’ (206)
Jude talks to her brother and although his life is full of danger, they are both “doing It” and “We are okay with learning our lines/because we are liking the script—/maybe, just maybe, we have both finally found roles/that make sense to us./Roles where we feel seen/as we truly are.” (324)
Jasmine Warga’s verse novel celebrates cultures and a strong, resilient, brave young adolescent who bridges them. ------------
PARADISE ON FIRE by Jewell Parker Rhoads
“To know yourself, you need to journey, Adaugo. Remember what’s forgotten.” (7) I just met one of the strongest girls in MG/YA literature! ---------------- “I need to see everything. I need to know where to run, where to hide…where to stay. Where to fly. Escape. Flee. From what? My mind answers, ‘Fire.’” (64)
Adaugo is enrolled in Wilderness Adventures, a summer camp in Paradise, Califormia, for a group of six Black teens from eastern cities. There she meets fellow campers Jay, Nessa, Kelvin, A’Leia, DeShon, and counselors Jamie and Dylan. Most important she meets Leo, ranch owner and environmentalist, and his dog Ryder.
Pretty much a loner, Addy lives with her Nigerian grandmother, her Bibi, who has raised her ever since her parents were killed in a house fire when she was four and her mother threw her out the window to safety. Since then, Addy is obsessed with mazes, maps, escape routes.
At the camp they learn to hike, climb, repel, and respect nature. Addy sees them all becoming stronger. “We’re pulling far, far,…farther away from being our old selves, just city kids. I’m becoming new. More me.” (87)
Leo sees Addy’s needs and teaches her how to read maps and map the natural environment. He knows that in the forest everyone needs an escape route. “Forests burn. Animals’ homes are destroyed. As our planet warms, there are more heat related deaths.” (119) However, “97 percent of wildfires are ignited by people.” (Afterword, 244)
When the six teens and their counselors leave for their final hike and campout, fire breaks out and the group disagrees on the right way out of the forest. Dylan and Jaime insist on hiking north where the ranch is , taking Kelvin and A’Leia with them while Addy’s instincts tell her to go the opposite way, toward water. She is convinced there is a way out. “There’s always a way out. Use your mind, your heart.” (157) Jay, Nessa, and DeShon follow her, believe in her.
On a harrowing journey, the four, led by Addy, work together, employing the skills and knowledge they have cultivated on their city streets and in the wilderness. Addy realizes, “Jay’s awesome; Nessa’s kind; and DeShon’s actually a good guy. They’re my crew—never had one before. Who knew? Never knew how much I needed one.” (158) “Survival is more than just me.” (205)
This is a true survival story, featuring a teen who is resilient and caring and learns to rely on her instincts— and learns a love for nature. It is a novel filled with details, and information, and will engage readers looking for adventure and readers who are future environmentalists and anyone who loves beautiful language and imagery. “Pancake clouds float. Mountain clouds burst, scatter as the plane flies through them.” (9) Written in short sentences, it a novel appropriate for both emerging and proficient readers and even though the characters are teens is appropriate for grades 4- and up. ------------
RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME by Cynthia Leitich Smith
“Back when I was seven, I didn’t have to think about what I believed, where I belonged. I just did” (120).
Everyone should be able to recognize themselves and their lives in books, and readers need to see those they may identify as “others” reflected in books so they can experience those other lives and worlds to gain knowledge and empathy. I was happy to come across a novel by an author of Native American heritage featuring adolescent characters of mixed-blood heritage.
Eighth-grader Rain takes a journey that begins with the death of her best friend Galen and leads her on a discovery of herself and where she fits into the world. She learns that, just as she doesn’t want to be stereotyped, others, such as Queenie, Flash, and even her brother Fynn, don’t fit her stereotyping of them. She has to decide if she will stay on the periphery of her Aunt Georgia’s Indian camp as a photographer who chronicles the life of the camp or embrace that part of her heritage and become actually involved, just as she learns to discover the people of her family and town. Rain learns to think about what she believes and where she belongs. ------------
RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy
She is 6’3””; has blue hair; lives in a trailer with her father, pregnant unmarried sister, and now the undependable baby’s father; and works two jobs to help out. She is not a particularly good student and doesn’t have a lot of friends (although the ones she has are close-knit and loyal—and very different); and has known she is gay since ninth grade. I can’t figure out what drew me to Ramona immediately, but I found myself looking forward to going back to the novel and unfolding her story every time I put the book down.
Ramona assumes she is stuck in Eulogy, Mississippi, a town that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina as was Ramona’s family. After the hurricane left, her mother left also, although she is still minimally involved in the girls’ lives. Now that her older, but less practical sister is pregnant, Ramona feels she will never be able to leave but she has come to accept her fate.
As the story opens Ramona is involved with Grace, a summer renter who has a boyfriend at home and has not yet labeled herself as gay. When they break up and Freddie, a childhood friend, moves back to town, Ramona is conflicted. She has feelings—strong feelings—for Freddie. “I’ve never wanted to touch a boy in the way I want to touch him. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m starting to think that the gist of life is learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” (217)
And that is the lesson that Ramona, and the reader, learns from this story. By being with Freddie, “I’ve embraced another facet of myself. Life isn’t always written in the starts. Fate is mine to pen. I choose guys. I choose girls, I choose people. But most of all: I choose.” (280)
In addition, Freddie also has introduced Ramona to swimming, her ticket to community college and out of Eulogy. But can she take that step, used to thinking that everyone is dependent on her and she has no control of her future? Can Ramona choose the other aspects of her life? Through her various relationships explored in the past year, Ramona learns that even though, as a child, Freddie saw her as Peter Pan, she can “prepare to do what Peter never could.” She is the “captain” of her fate. (408)
Julie Murphy has given mature readers a story of resilience and the importance of controlling our choices. ------------
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. ------------
REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL by K.A. Holt
Tam (Redwood) and Kate (Ponytail) come from two different worlds.
Kate’s mom puts helicopter parents to shame. She has orchestrated Kate’s entire life so that in 7th grade she will become cheer captain and she will follow her mother’s life—unlike her much older sister who joined the Navy at 18. She lives in the perfect house, which is always being perfected, and her daughter certainly isn’t gay.
Tam’s mother is the opposite. Open and accepting and prone to trying out the adolescent lingo (and providing many of the laughs in reading this book). Tam is also looked after by neighbor Frankie and her wife. Frankie, it appears, is full of advice, based on experience trying to fit the stereotype. Tam is an athlete, tall as a redwood, ace volleyball player, who everyone high-five’s in the hallway, but she realizes she only has one good friend, Levy.
On the first day of school, Tam and Kate meet and, as they quickly, mysteriously, develop deep feelings for each other, they find each not only different from the stereotypes everyone assumes, but, opposite though they seem, opposite though their lives and families may be they each discover they may be a little different than they thought they were and more alike than they thought. Does Kate actually want to be cheer captain or would she rather run free in the team’s mascot’s costume? Does she really want to have lunch at her same old table or would she rather sit with Tam and Levy which is much more fun? Does Tam really want to beat Kate for the school presidency? Or is she punishing Kate for not being able to admit what their friendship may be?
As their relationship experiences ups and downs, and they each try to define their attraction, they also find that others may not be as critical and narrow-minded as they assumed.
Written in my favorite format, free verse with some rhymes thrown in for rhythm, the author takes the form to another level with parallel lines and two-voice poetry. I would suggest that the reader have some experience with verse novels before reading.
I also loved the Greek chorus—Alex, Alyx, Alexx—who comment on the action and keeps it moving along. ------------
RIMA'S REBELLION: COURAGE IN A TIME OF TYRANNY by Margarita Engle
I dream of being legitimate
My father would love me, society could accept me, strangers might even admire my short, simple first name if it were followed by two surnames instead of one. (ARC 53)
Twelve-year-old Rima Marin is a natural child, the illegitimate child of a father who will not acknowledge her.
I am a living, breathing secret.
Natural children aren’t supposed to exist. Our names don’t appear on family trees, our framed photos never rest affectionately beside a father’s armchair, and when priests write about us in official documents, they follow the single surname of a mother with the letters SOA, meaning sin otro apellido, so that anyone reading will understand clearly that without two last names we have no legal right to money for school uniforms, books, papers, pencils, shelter, or food. (ARC,11)
Rima, her Mama, and her abuela live in poverty, squatting in a small building owned by her wealthy father. Her mother is a lacemaker and her abulela—a nurse during the wars for independence from Spain—works as a farrier and founded La Mambisa Voting Club whose members are fighting for voting rights, equality for “natural children,” and the end of the Adultery Law which permits men to kill unfaithful wives and daughters along with their lovers.
Taking place from 1923 to 1936, Rima also joins La Mambisas; becomes friends with her acknowledged, wealthy half-sister, keeping her safe when she defies their father, refusing arranged marriage and becomes pregnant by her boyfriend; falls in love; and becomes trained as a typesetter, printing revolutionary books and posters for suffrage.
Over the thriteen years she grows from a girl who cowers from bullies who call her “bastarda,” finding confidence only in riding Ala, her buttermilk mare, to an adolescent, living in the city and fighting dictatorship with words—hers and others:
absorb[ing] the strength of female hopes, wondering if this is how it will be someday when women can finally vote.” (ARC, 43)
to a young married woman and mother voting in her first election:
Voting rights are our only Pathway to freedom from fear. (ARC, 167) ------------
SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes
“So you left the only real friend you had to avoid getting picked on.” (140)
After Tristan and Josh cause problems on the school bus, teasing everyone and putting gum in Ben’s hair, sixth-grader Charlotte Andrews’ best friend Maddie goes to the principal. The boys retaliate by focusing their bullying on her. Afraid of being bullied herself, Charlotte walks past their seat and abandons Maddie. When it becomes clear that Maddie no longer considers her a friend, she feels guilty but doesn’t have the courage to fix things. Charlotte continues to stand wordlessly by as the bullying becomes worse.
Charlotte has always been nervous about speaking out loud because of her stutter. “I hate the moment when someone realizes I’m different. It changes the way they look at me.” (11) Maddie was the one person, besides her parents, who ignored her stutter.
Since she cannot think of any way to make Maddie feel better, Charlotte starts writing encouraging notes to other students, first to Ben and then to random students. “…I don’t sign them with my real name. No one is going to care where they came from. It’s the words that matter.” (127) The note writing campaign spreads. “Did I cause this? Is that even possible? I’ve left so many notes all over the school. Could it be that my words inspired other kids to leave notes of their own?” (230)
Meanwhile her mother makes Charlotte take the musical drama class and, even though she has a beautiful voice, she flubs her audition for her favorite musical The Wizard of Oz and is cast in two minor roles. But she has a great attitude: “I still wish I had a role where I could at least get a little glammed up, but watching the other kids get into their costumes reminds me that every role is important. And I’m going to be the best apple tree and horse’s butt there ever was.” (174-5)
And even when the snobbish Aubrey, who is cast in the role she wanted, is mean to her, Charlotte leaves her a supportive note. “It’s so hard to give her a compliment when she was horrible about me trying out for Glinda. But this is about making her feel better, not my hurt feelings. Even if it is hard to say, I know I still have to be kind.” (105)
When the drama program is threatened, Charlotte using her new note-writing strategy to organize a letter writing campaign by The Wizard Of Oz cast and crew, finding her voice.
And she finds the courage to speak out and right her wrong, moving from a bystander to an upstander. “If I’d just had the courage to stand by my friend in the first place, things would be so different. I wasted too much time being afraid.” (238)
This is a novel that needs to be in every classroom, school, and community library for grades 5-8. It can be effectively grouped with other books about bullying, a critical topic for middle school conversations. It is imperative that students, especially middle grade students, read novels about bullying to open conversations about this important topic and to discuss bullies, victims, bystanders, and upstanders, and the ongoing shifts among these roles. This book can also be grouped in book clubs with books that focus on acts of kindness. ------------
SCARS LIKE WINGS by Erin Stewart
“I was a normal fifteen-year-old who went to football games on weekends and spent way too much time rehearsing for the spring musical. I was a daughter. A friend. A brunette. A singer. I was a million things.… Now, I’m only one thing—the Burned Girl.” (40-41) Ava is the survivor of fire—the fire that killed her father; mother; and Sara, her cousin-best friend, the daughter of Aunt Cora and Uncle Glenn. When Ava awakes in the hospital, over 60% of her body has been burned and she has lost her family and home. And her normal life. A year after the fire during which Ava has lived with her aunt and uncle in Sara’s room, homeschooled, she promises them that she will try two weeks at a new school, planning that that will be her only two weeks in school. But then she meets a survivor of a car crash, Piper, a wheelchair-bound, also scarred, gutsy, flashy, get-out-there-and-do-it, strong (or so it seems) girl. She also meets Asad. “No matter what reaction people have, there’s always one common thread: 1. Everyone looks at me. 2. Then everyone looks away.” Until now.” (32) With Piper and Asad’s support, Ava tries for a “new normal” but it’s not all uphill. “—in the last thirty-six hours, I had an epic meltdown, took a harrowing trip down memory lane, and visited my suicidal friend in the hospital. No wonder [Cora and Glenn] look at me like I’m a bomb about to detonate.” (322) This novel tore at my heart (It should come with a pack of tissues attached). I loved all the characters—Ava, Asad, Piper, Aunt Cora and cowboy-boot-wearing Uncle Glenn, and even mean girl Kenzie and her more-sympathetic sidekick Sage. All characters are well-developed, and each has their own backstory,
Scars with Wings shares an important story for all of us who have scars—physical and emotional and for us to truly see others who have their own scars. ------------
SHINE by J.J. and Chris Grabenstein
“How do we use the stars when we wish to journey safely into the vast unknown? It’s simple, really…. We just need to find one star…. The one that’s always constant and true.” (174)
Shine! really does shine. This is a valuable story about how adolescents can shine just by being their best selves. It is a story of the importance of kindness and caring for others.
Seventh grader Piper Milly lives with her father, a music teacher (and hopeful Broadway show composer), her mother having died when she was three years old. In the middle of the school year, her father is offered a position at a prestigious private school for the offspring of the very wealthy. Along with the position comes free tuition for Piper who knows she will not fit in. Her mother had also been a scholarship student at Chumley Prep but was an extremely talented cellist, her name is on a plaque at the school. Piper feels she has no special abilities—certainly no musical talent, and with her frayed shirt collars and inexpensive shoes, she won’t fit in with girls who buy their accessories at the ritzy Winterset Collection.
Shunned from the beginning by Ansleigh Braden-Hammerschmidt, Mean Girl extraordinaire, and her band of followers which include most of their grade, Piper finds three good friends, and together they become the Hibbleflitts: a math whiz, a magician, a comedian, and Piper, an astronomy “geek.” When their English teacher tasks the class with journaling about who they want to be, not in the future but now, and the students compete for the new Excelsior award, Piper feels she does not excel in anything, excelling being the only defined criteria for the award, and she is not sure who she wants herself to be—Does she want to super-talented like her mother, a singer like Brooke, a limit-pusher, the award winner?
As she navigates the year, facing multiple challenges, helping strangers and friends alike, and trying to figure out where and how she might excel and who she wants to be, Piper finds she can shine by being the person she already is, maybe finding that star or maybe being that star for others. ------------
SHINE, COCONUT MOON by Neesha Meminger
“After September eleventh, I never felt more un-American in my whole life, yet at the same time, I felt the most American I’ve ever felt too. I never knew it, but this has been a recurring theme throughout my life and it seemed to get shoved into my face after the attacks on the World Trade Center.” (150-151)
Samar Ahluwahlia is an Indian-American teen living in Linton, NJ, with her mother who turned her back on her family and religion. When the events of September 11th occurred, shaking Sam as well as her classmates and community, she didn’t realize that those events would affect her personally. Until her Uncle Sandeep rang their doorbell.
“Before Uncle Sandeep walked back into my life, I’d never cared that I was a Sikh. It really didn’t have much impact on my life,…. But that was before 9/11. The Saturday morning that Uncle Sandeep rang our doorbell had one of those endless, frozen blue skies hanging above it; the same kind of frozen blue sky that, just four days earlier, had born silent witness to a burning Pentagon and two crumbling mighty towers in New York City. And the cause of all those lost lives was linked to another bearded, turbaned man halfway around the world. And my regular, sort of popular, happily assimilated Indian-American butt got rammed real hard into the cold seat of reality.” (10)
After becoming re-acquainted with her personable, loveable and loving, optimistic uncle, visiting his gurdwara (temple), and watching the harassment and hate aimed against him even though he is Indian, American, and Sikh, rather than the Middle Eastern and Muslim, Sammy decides she wants to learn more about Sikhism and meet her family, hoping to have what her best friend Molly has with her large Irish family. “This discovering more about myself stuff is addictive. It’s like starting a book that you just can’t out down, only it’s better because the whole book is about you.” (110)
After being termed a “coconut” by an Indian girl at school and learning about the WWII Japanese internment camps, Sam begins researching intolerance, joins a Sikh teen chat group, and convinces her mother to take her to visit her grandparents where she is exposed to the traditional “values” that caused her mother to rebel.
However, when Molly includes their childhood enemy Bobbi Lewis in their friendship and Sam finally acknowledges that the supportive Bobbi has changed or maybe isn’t whom she thought, Sam realizes, “If we give them a chance, people could surprise us. Maybe if we didn’t make up our minds right away, based on a few familiar clues, we’d leave room for people to show us a bunch of little, important layers that we never would have expected to see.” (149)
Through the repercussions of 9/1l, her newly-expanded family and group of friends, her research into history and the Sikh religion, and experiencing the narrow-mindedness of her boyfriend, some of the kids at school, and even her grandparents, Sam realizes the dichotomy of being a coconut. “I thought of Balvir’s definition of a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside, mixed-up, confused. And then Uncle Sandeep’s: The coconut is also a symbol of resilience, Samar. Even in conditions where there’s very little nourishment and even less nurturance, it flourishes, growing taller than most of the plants around it.” (247) ------------
STARFISH by Lisa Fipps
As soon as I slip into the pool, Am weightless. Limitless. For just a while. (1)
Eliana Elizabeth Montgomery-Hofstein, know as Ellie or El, was re-named Splash by her older sister at her fifth birthday party when she joyfully cannonballed into the pool, her chubbiness causing a great splash. Since that day Ellie has been bullied by her classmates, her older brother, and, sadly, her mother who puts her on endless diets, posts fat-shaming articles on the refrigerator, decides what Ellie eats, plans to force her to have bariatric surgery at age 11, and referred to her once as “a big ol’ fat thing.”
Her only allies are her father, her best friend Viv and Viv’s mother, and the school librarian. She survives with her Fat Girl Rules—rules that help her to not get noticed, and with poetry and daily swimming. As I float, I spead out my arms And my legs. I’m a starfish, Taking up all the room I want. (41)
Even though her weight does not bother her, the constant bullying from family members, classmates, acquaintances, and strangers does. Ellie has trouble standing up for herself. But every time I try to stand up for myself, the words get stuck in my throat like a giant glob of peanut butter.
Besides, if they even listened, They’d just snap back, “If you don’t like being teased, Lose weight." (4)
When Viv moves away, her place is taken by a new neighbor who becomes a second best friend and who shows her what a supportive family looks like. As a Mexican-American living in Texas, Catalina faces her own taunts and stereotype assumptions. Stereotypes stink. They give people an excuse to Hate people who are different Instead of taking the time To get to know them. (76)
At school there are the Mean Girls—Marissa and Kortnee —with lots of followers to do their bidding, like loosening the bolts on Ellie's desk.
Then Ellie gets to know Enemy Number 3, a male classmate who bullies her constantly, and finds that, living in poverty, he has challenges of his own and is probably fighting his own bullies. But I just don’t understand how Someone who’s bullied And knows how horrible it feels inside Turns around and bullies others. That’s pure garbage.” (150)
Ellie’s father takes her to talk to Dr. Wood, a therapist, and after her initial rejection (“Dr. Woodn’t-You-Like-to-Know) and many sessions, Ellie learns how to face her bullies, even her mother, and to discover feelings of self-worth and the importance of talk. “No matter what you weigh, You deserve for people to treat you Like a human being with feelings.” (179)
Ellie is an appealing character, witty and stronger than she knows and a true friend. I cried for her, I cringed for her, I hoped for her, and I cheered for her.
This is not as much a book about bullying but standing up to bullies and the value of not merely tolerance or acceptance, but respect. It is a book that belongs in every library to be read by those who need it—the bullied and the bullies and the bystanders—for empathy, self-worth, and respect.
P.S. Ellie includes a tribute to librarians (and any adult who notices and reaches out): It’s unknown how many students’ lives Librarians have saved By welcoming loners at lunch. (31) ------------
SWIM TEAM by Johnnie Christmas
“But…Black people aren’t good at swimming.” (78)
When Bree and her father move from Brooklyn to Florida, she is excited about her first day of school. She has already made a friend, another 7th grader who lives in her apartment complex. Excited about joining the Math Team, Bree finds that the only elective that is still open is Swimming. And even though she tries to think about the things that make her happy—doing homework with her Dad, cooking, reading, and math—frequently “negative thoughts take over. And I think about the things that make me nervous and scared. I second-guess and doubt myself, even when I don’t want to.” (7) And some of the things that Bree doesn’t like are sports, pools, and she worries about not having friends. She is especially worried about Swimming class because she has never learned to swim.
Bree eludes the class, and, when she can no longer avoid it, Ms Etta, her neighbor and a former professional swimmer who happens to have swum on the team at Bree’s middle school back when the team almost won the championship, teaches Bree to swim. Ms Etta also explains the reasons that Bree assumes that Black people aren’t good at swimming. “From ancient Africa to modern Africa, from Chicago to Peru, in seas, rivers, lakes and pools, Black people have always swum and always will.” (80-81) But she also explains the history of segregation and discrimination that limited Blacks’ access to pools, Telling about Eugene Williams’ murder (1919), David Isom’s breaking of the color line (1958), and John Lewis’ protest (1962).
Bree becomes quite a good swimmer, and the coach of the school swim team tricks her into trying out. She joins the team with her new best friend Clara, and, with the help of Ms. Etta, the team makes it to the championship. But when a student, Mean-Girl Keisha, transfers from the rival private school and joins the team and the girls find out that Clara has won a swimming scholarship to the same private school for the next year, the team relay threatens to fall apart.
That is when they learn what happened to Ms. Etta’s team years ago that cost them the championship. Reuniting the former Swim Sisters reunites the present team as they learn about relationships. “A team is like a family. Sometimes family shows you how to do a flip turn. Or tells funny jokes—And is a little annoying. (215)
Johnnie Christmas’ new graphic novel tells the story of middle-grade friendships, socioeconomic prejudice and racial discrimination, and swimming through those negative thoughts that hold us back. In the classroom this novel could lead to some research on Black athletes in sports through history and discrimination.
Swim Team could be a choice in Sports Novels Book Clubs or Graphic Novels Book Clubs. ------------
TAKING UP SPACE by Alyson Gerber
Middle school, especially seventh grade, is challenging: first crushes, jealousy, mean girls, dances, invitations or no invitations, and puberty. Bodies are changing, and young adolescents are beginning to fit in their bodies differently. It is a stage where most preteens believe that their parents are knowledgeable about things. But what if your parents aren’t? What if parents can afford to feed you, but forget to feed you?
Sarah loves playing basketball and being on a team with her two BFFs. In fact, Sarah is one of the best players on the team—until her body starts changing and she is slower and now is worried she will be kicked off the team. Sarah loses her confidence and becomes obsessed with only eating what she interprets from health class and her mother is “good” food. Bananas have too much sugar and starch. Even one snack is too much. But as Sarah and her crush Benny enter a cooking contest together, and she finds that she likes to cook and that her one best friend who also likes Benny now no longer wants to be friends. Suddenly Sarah feels she is taking up too much space since many of the girls are mean to her and her mother can’t be bothered to shop and cook for her.
Sarah begins controlling her food in order to control her life. “For lunch I have an apple and half a turkey sandwich again which gives me this feeling I can do anything. I’m in charge of what happens to me. It’s weird how eating less makes me feel so much stronger.” (70) Soon it takes over her life. “’…I’m hungry and tired of counting and worrying but I don’t know how to stop.” (117)
After Sarah collapses on the court, her coach and the school counselor become involved and Sarah finds out why her mother rarely food shops or cooks and is hiding candy all over the house. And it is an answer that has nothing to do with her love of Sarah.
Eating disorders and positive self-image are critical topics for young adolescents, and this newest MG novel by Alyson Gerber, an #ownvoices author (and reviewed by an ED survivor) will generate small group conversations that may be sensitive but need to be held.
Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys exhibit unhealthy weight control behaviors. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders are more common among females than males with as many as 10 million girls and women afflicted. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia primarily affect people in their teens and twenties, making the majority of adolescent athletes vulnerable. 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys report trying to lose weight. 58.6% of girls and 28.2% of boys are actively dieting; even among clearly non-overweight girls, over one-third report dieting. Talking Up Space belongs in every middle school library to be read in ELA or health classes or with a counseling group, independently or in book clubs with other ED novels or books about adolescent challenges and resilience.
THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK by Celia C. Perez
The first rule of punk is to “be yourself,” but that’s hard when your mom moves you a thousand miles from your home, friends, and father in Florida for two years in Chicago; when your SuperMexican Mom is always criticizing your Spanish, your clothes, and your vegetarianism; when the Mexican students in your new school call you a coconut—brown on the outside and white on the inside, and your new principal finds your talent not traditional enough to honor the man the school is named after.
Maria Luisa, or Malu, is the child of a divorced English professor mother and a record-store owner father. She makes zines, hates cilantro and spicy food, speaks mostly English, and loves punk. She feels “like Mom’s Maria Luisa and my Malu are two different people. The only thing we have in common is an accent over a vowel.”
Malu and her mother move to a Mexican neighborhood and middle school in Chicago, and Malu is not sure she will make friends (especially after meeting Mean Girl Selena), but she meets a group of outsiders and talks them into forming a punk rock band, the Co-Co’s. When their act is cut from performing at the school’s Fall Fiesta for not “fitting in,” Malu plans an Alterna-Fiesta talent show where they will perform and she will sing in Spanish a song that is “not your abuela’s music. “I looked over at Joe, Benny, and Ellie, who were blowing straw wrappers at each other. ‘My friends.’ I might have actually found my Yellow-Brick-Road posse.” (318)
Told through a unique mixture of prose and vines. ------------
THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL by Stacy McAnulty
When she was 8, Lucy was struck by lightning. Damaging the left lobe of her brain, the right lobe works overtime, causing acquired savant syndrome. Lucy is a math genius—and has OCD; she makes certain movements 3 times to quiet the numbers of pi in her head and is germ phobic. Homeschooled by her grandmother, she never had to worry about fitting in, except with her fellow math geeks on the Math Whiz site. At age 12 she has her GED and thinks she is ready to begin college classes.
But Nana has other plans, and she enrolls Lucy in 7th grade at the local middle school for one year. There Lucy hides her identity as a “freak” and makes two friends, but when her secret is revealed, she finds out that middle school is where many feel different and anxious, even the popular kids.
Reading this wonderful new book for grade 4-8 readers straight through, I fell in love with Lucy and empathized with her struggles to understand human behavior—the mean girls who bully her, making fun of her differences and excluding her; the boy who cheats off her in math class and is constantly taking photographs; the BFF who betrays her. When she works on a school project and falls in love with a dog at the shelter, she learns to reach out to save him and finds there are people she can depend on, especially Levy, the cheater. Levy grew into my favorite behavior because, an outsider himself, he understood human behavior and was able to capture, appreciate, and share the complexity through his photography.
Middle school is where very few fit in—whether a genius or not. ------------
THE POET X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The power of words – to celebrate, to heal, to communicate, to feel.
Fifteen-year-old Xiomara grabbed me immediately with her words. She sets the scene in “Stoop-Sitting”: one block in Harlem, home, church ladies, Spanish, drug dealers, and freedom that ends each day with the entrance of her Mami.
Xiomara feels “unhide-able,” insulted and harassed because of her body. We meet her family—the twin brother whom she loves but can’t stand up for her and a secret that he is hiding; her father who was a victim of temptation, and now stays silent; her mother, taken away from the Dominican Republic and her calling to become a nun and forced into a marriage that was a ticket to America; and Caridad, her best friend—only friend—and conscience,
Bur Xio fills her journal with poetry and when she discovers love, or is it lust, she finds the one person with whom she can share her poetry. “He is not elegant enough for a sonnet, too well thought-out for a free write, Taking too much space in my thoughts To ever be a haiku.” (107)
Aman gives Xio the confidence to see what she can become, not what she is told she can be, and to appreciate, rather than hide, her body. “And I think of all the things we could be oif we were never told out bodies were not built for them.” (188)
She also begins to doubt religion and defy the endless rules her mother has made about boys, dating, and confession. With the urging of her English teacher, Xio joins the Poetry Club and makes a new friend, Isabelle “”That girl’s a storyteller writing a world you’re invited to walk into.” (257) and with the support of Isabelle, Stephan, and Chris “My little words feel important, for just a moment.” (259)
When her mother discovers that Xio has not been attending her confirmation class, things come to a climax; however, even though her obsession with poetry has destroyed relationships in her family, it also, with some “divine intervention,” becomes the vehicle to heal them.
As I read I wanted to hear Xio’s poems, but when I finished the book, I realized that I had. A novel for mature readers, The Poet X features diverse characters and shares six months’ of interweaving relationships built on words. ------------
THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE by 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) discover his absolute value. It may take a village to raise a child; in this case it takes a town to save two children.
While the plot may seem like it is a little confusing, the writing makes it easy to follow, offering a bit of tension and a bunch of mysteries. I read it too fast, disappointed that I was nearing the end and would miss these quirky characters as Mike completes his Hero’s Journey.
A novel that can be included in a STEM interdisciplinary curriculum, the chapters titles are mathematical terms. Readers can be asked to analyze how each title relates to the plot and characters in the chapter as a refection response or small-group discussion: parallel lines, transversal lines, skew lines, place value, compatible numbers, common factor, formulas, evaluate, mixed numbers, reflection, dependent event, order of operations, adjacent angles, zero property, difference, regroup, problem, slide, outliers, chaos theory, argument, function, attributes, variable, transformation, defective numbers, interval, tessellations, endpoint, and, of course, absolute value. ------------
THE WOLVES ARE WAITING by Natasha Friend
Nora Melchionda was a typical high school girl. She played a sport, earned good grades, wore fashionable clothes, and had a group of friends, an older brother and a younger sister. Her father was Athletic Director of Faber, the local college, and her hero.
Then one night Nora attends the college frat fair, a fundraiser for the fraternities. And she wakes up on the golf course, surrounded by her former best friend and Adam Xu, a boy from school. The last thing she remembers is someone handing her a root beer. Adam explains how he was practicing his baseball hitting, found her, and chased off the three boys who, most likely, had roofied her and were planning to rape her, and called Cam.
“They took off her clothes, and they wrote on her body, and they hung her underwear on a stick like some kind of trophy.” (139)
Nora wants to forget what happened. “It didn’t happen to you. It happened to me. And if I say it’s over, it’s over.” (50), but Adam and Cam are determined to investigate and find out who the boys were and what exactly happened, especially when they begin hearing of other stories by young women of the college and the town. “Help me find out who they are,” [Cam] said. “Please. Before they do it to someone else.” (110)
Through technology and good legwork, they trace the young men to Alpha Phi Beta, the Faber fraternity for athletes, Nora’s father’s fraternity, and discover that what happened to Nora was part of a pledge game.
The story is told in alternating chapters narrated from the perspective of Nora, Cam, Adam Xu, and Asher, Nora’s older brother, a well-meaning high school senior who learns a lesson himself. “You tried to tell me. ‘When you wear things that are too short’—she shook her finger and made her voice deep—‘guys think it’s an invitation.’” He shook his head. ‘I said some guys. I didn’t mean—.’”(139)
With her new supporters and her mother and younger sister, Nora decides she has the strength to make a difference and end this sexual harassment and abuse.
An important, even vital, well-told story for adolescent girls—and especially—boys, Natasha Friend’s newest novel joins a too-small group of other novels about this crucial topic. Assaults among people under the age of 18 are common: 18% of girls and 3% of boys say that by age 17 they have been victims of a sexual assault or abuse at the hands of another adolescent (theconversation.com). Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. These statistics are incomplete as only 20% of female student victims, age 18-24, report to law enforcement. (RAINN.org). ------------
THE WORLD ENDS IN APRIL by Stacy McAnulty
“We’re stuck in the world as we know it.” (311)
And the world as Eleanor Dross knows it is not a happy world, especially middle school. “I follow my team to our court. My plan is to stay out of the way and not draw attention to myself. This is always my plan when it comes to sports or any class participation. I’m basically an armadillo during school hours. If you don’t move, you become invisible.” (22-23)
Middle-school student Elle lives with her father and two younger brothers. She has only one friend, Mack Jefferson, who may be planning to go to the Conrad School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, leaving her alone next year. Her Grandpa Joe is a prepper, constantly testing his grandchildren on survival skills—the contents of their BOBs (bug-out bags), eating MREs (meals—ready to eat) and other preparations for disasters. “Bad stuff happens, and it’s my job to protect my family.” (16)
And then Elle sees an end-of-the-world notice on the Internet. A Harvard astrophysicist posted a prediction of an asteroid that will hit the earth in the Spring with significant consequences for life. Elle becomes obsessed and starts a school science club, which is really a MAG (Mutual Aid Group), to prepare for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It). Now she can show off her expertise and also get attention and make some friends. She even begins to bond with Londyn, a childhood friend and current enemy recently ostracized by the popular girls, who uses the disaster to scare people. Londyn and Norie, as she has always called her, collaborate on a newsletter, the Doomsday Express. They become tentative friends, both having their reasons for looking forward to TEOTWAWKI, Londyn who thinks this will bring back her father who abandoned them and Elle who thinks it will keep Mack from leaving.
But what is the disaster is a hoax? How will Elle be treated? Will there be a different TEOTWAWKI?
This is a story about middle school, science, space, authenticating sources, friendship, family, and self-discovery and features diverse characters. ------------
TWINS by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright
“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. ------------
VIOLETS ARE BLUE by Barbara Dee
“Actually blue violets do exist in nature,’ Cat FX said cheerfully. ‘Purple ones are more common, but just because something is weird doesn’t mean it’s not real.” (256)
Seventh grader Renata’s life is in turmoil: Her father has suddenly moved out and to Brooklyn and is getting married and having twins. She finds out her that parents are getting a divorce, and her only friend in school is mean to her. Then her mother decides that they will move to a new town where she can work in a different hospital and Rennie can begin again in a new school.
The only constant in Rennie’s life is her obsession with special effects makeup which is learning from videos posted by Cat FX. “Little by little, step by step, she’d start transforming herself into different fantasy creatures.… ‘Don’t be afraid to explore the weirdness of these characters,’ Cat FX would say as she was applying Elmer’s glue to her eyebrows. ‘Because here’s my secret message: there’s good weird and bad weird.… Good weird tells the world who you really are.’” (25-26)
In her new school Wren, as Renata now calls herself, is making small transformations to navigate new peers and begin making friends. “At school it was like everyone was onstage all the time.” (185) She becomes friends with Poppy, but she is not sure how to read the popular Avery who may be a “mean girl “ like her former friend. And there is Kai who she can talk to but others see as “weird” and who may like her more than as a friend.
When Poppy discovers Wren’s gift for applying fantasy makeup, she talks Wren into doing the makeup for the school musical, Wicked. The drama kids are impressed with her talent. “I had a funny feeling right then, like I was floating above the table, looking down at myself. And hearing my own voice saying, ‘See, Wren. This is how it looks when you finally fit in.’” (86)
While on her trips to her Dad’s, she is well treated by her father and his new wife Vanessa, things are strange at home. Her mother has been sleeping a lot, misses her shifts at work, accuses Wren of “talking behind her back” to her father, and puts a lock on her door. Wren is having trouble communicating with her. And then Wren finds pills in her mother’s bathroom, pills that her mother admits to taking from the hospital for the pain in her knee.
“But I couldn’t stop thinking about this other feeling I had: how sometimes when Mom looked at me, it was like she didn’t even see my face. Like my features had been deleted, one by one, and all she was seeing when I stood in front of her was white foundation, and powder, layer on top of layer, making ne go blurry. Until finally I disappeared too.” (218)
As Wren faces the complexities of her mother’s addiction and rehabilitation, she discovers that sometimes, as with Cat FX’s directions about mermaid makeup, people frequently “[leave] something out.” But now she has Krystal; her extended family—her father, Vanessa, and the twins; her new friends—Poppy, Avery, Kai, and the drama kids; and a therapist.
Barbara Dee’s newest new novel tackles yet another crucial topic that affects more of our readers than we may know and belongs in every middle school classroom to generate important discussions. Based on the staggering data from the combined 2009 to 2014 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, about 1 in 8 children (8.7 million) aged 17 or younger lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder (SUD). About 1 in 35 children (2.1 million) lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year illicit drug use disorder. (www.samhsa.gov) ------------
VIRTUALLY ME by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
Four seventh graders attending Virtual Reality School for difference reasons, and a story told from four points of view.
Hunter, popular, good looking, lacrosse star, and “the guy that all the girls liked” has Alopecia and is starting to bald in spots. For school he designs his avatar to look just like him, wearing his lacrosse shirt, with still-flowing blond hair.
Edelsabeth Dahan-Miller is enrolled in VR school by her mother who thinks she may be too obsessed with her looks, fashion, and appearing in the top three on Parker’s website which ranks the cuteness of the girls in school. She also could be mean to others and judgmental, and her mother wants her to just be happy and learn that she is worth knowing “No matter how you look.” Her mother requires Edelle to design her avatar as simple, just her with no high fashion or makeup. She actually goes more basic and, embarrassed, changes her avatar’s name to Vanya.
Bradley Horvath is a big, awkward guy who loves to dance and has been bullied and made fun of since third grade. He is delighted to go to a virtual school and reinvent himself; with the approval of his parents, he designs his avatar with a totally new look—tall, square-jawed, with pink hair and fashionable clothes—and a new name, Daebak.
Last year Hunter, Edelle, and Bradley attended the same middle school where Edelle and Hunter were good friends who flirted, and where Bradley made fun of Bradley and, as she rose in popularity, Edelle ignored Bradley. Of course, only Edelle/Vanya and Bradley/Daebak recognize Hunter.
At school orientation Hunter comes into direct competition shooting baskets with a boy in a yellow tracksuit. As the three much later learn, Jasper, who has become their teammate and coach in the school’s VR Games competition and friend, has cystic fibrosis.
As the four become more involved with each other, new friends, and the school, a last new team member is Keiko who appears not to want to make friends or participate in really anything as she answers every query or comment with “Whatever.” The four feel they want to bring her out of her shell especially Vanya who designs a school dance section for those uncomfortable with traditional school dances.
Readers will enjoy getting to know these characters and following their interactions and growing friendship as they navigate VR school, their new identities, and the lessons they learn through their experiences. And what occurs when disaster strikes at the school dance, leading to a in-person meet.
I was mesmerized as I read Chad Morrisand Shelly Brown’s newest novel. Not familiar with virtual reality in the least, young readers may be more adept visualizing the scenes than I, but I just put on my virtual-reading mentality and soon was able to participate. This story of identity, self-acceptance, acceptance of others, and belonging will appeal to all middle-grade readers.
WORSER by Jennifer Ziegler
He thought of Mr. Murray’s parting quip: "Go home before you can’t recognize your family anymore.” (98)
Will Orser, unfortunately nicknamed Worser by his classmates when his name was listed as W. Orser, is a wordsmith. Everything about words and wordplay intrigues him. And he used to share this passion with his mother. But Professor Orser suffered a severe stroke and has not only lost her speech but the person she once was, and Worser’s life has changed (or become worser).
Worser’s father died when he was four, and it has been just his mother and him. Until now. Aunt Iris has moved in, and with all her quirkiness and “smothering,” has taken over the household. She has not only filled the living room with her p-ohms (sculptures for meditating), but she washes the clothes that have been sitting in a laundry basket for who-knows-how-long, buys Worser new clothes that fit and are more fashionable, and, worse of all, has his mother singing and laughing. “What did he want? Worser stared at his sullen expression in the mirror. He wanted to go back to before his mother’s stroke, that’s what.” (109)
But Worser is also changing. Always a loner who sought solitude, he starts hanging out more with Herbie, also an outsider. When the school library closes, he is forced to find a new place to work on his Masterwork of words. He bargains for a table in the Re-Visions Book Store owned by the sullen and ufriendly Mr. Murray and develops a crush on Donya Khoury, leader of the school Lit Club. When the Lit Club needs a meeting place, Worser talks Mr. Murray into letting them meet at Re-Visions, and, surprisingly, he becomes part of the group. “Worser headed out of the bookstore feeling changed. It was a mood he hadn’t experienced in quite a while. He pondered the right word as he headed home.…There was only one word that could be right. A word he wouldn’t have thought possible—especially since his mother’s illness. ‘Happy.’” (135)
But Donya starts hanging out with Turk, Worser’s bully (or so he feels) and a mangler of language (or so it appears); his mother’s recovery will be taking longer than hoped; and everything starts going downhill—until Worser commits an act that has significant repercussions‚ both negative and positive.
This is a story about learning to accept help. Worser, renamed Worder acknowledges, “We can speak about the future, but the verb doesn’t change from its present-tense form. It’s only though the use of auxiliary verbs like ‘will’ that we denote future tense.…The only way we can get out of the present and into the future is with help.” (234)
With well-developed characters, this story about having parents with challenges, friendship, loss, and acceptance and will be a mirror and a map for some of our readers leading to self-dicovery. ------------
YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO by Saadia Faruqi
“Suspicion of those unlike us is common human behavior. We don’t trust who we don’t know. But yes, 9/11 was terrible, and it really fueled the fire of hatred in this country.” (184-5)
Sixth grader Yusuf Azeem was born in Texas and is an American; his mother was also born in America and his father was a Pakistani immigrant who runs the popular A to Z Dollar Store in town (and a somewhat a local hero after capturing an intruder threatening his store and customers). The family is Muslim, but, understandably, Yusuf is shocked when sixth grade begins with threatening notes in his locker. When one says, “Go home,” he hurt and confused. Frey is his home. Surely the notes are meant for someone else.
September 11, 2021 is approaching, and when his mother’s younger brother Uncle Rahman comes for a visit, he notes, “The twentieth anniversary of the attacks is coming up soon.” Abba drank some water. “Does it matter? It’s been twenty years.” Uncle Rahman looked stern. “You don’t mean that. You know it still affects us every single day. At work. On the street. At the airport.” (21) Before leaving, Uncle Rahman gives Ausuf the journal he started keeping after the events. “I was your age when 9/11 happened. It was an emotional time for everyone, and it was hard for me to process…. I ended up writing about some of my experiences, trying to figure things out…. My place in the world. How it all changed in an instant, how I became a stranger in my own country.” (23-24)
As the town’s 20th anniversary celebration approaches, Ethan, the sixth grade bully, harasses Yusuf and some of the other Muslim students while his father, leader of the Patriot Sons, makes life difficult for the adult Muslim community, spraying graffiti on the A to Z Dollar Store and trying to halt the construction of the mosque.
Yusuf stands up for other students whom Ethan bullies, and, when Cameron tells him that he shouldn’t “make waves,” that challenging things could be dangerous, Yusuf protests, “I wasn’t being a hero. I had to do that. It was my duty as a Muslim.” (182)
As poorly as his middle school year is going, Yusuf is excited to be captain of the Robotics Club which is preparing for the TRC competition that he has been looking forward to his whole life. Working with his best friend Danial and Cameron, a former friend who Yusuf thought had changed, both members of the Muslim community; his new friend Jared who happens to be Ethan’s cousin; and Madison, the one girl on their team, he forms a circle of allies. As his father tells him, “Life is full of all kinds of people, son. We just have to learn to avoid the bullies and stick with our friends.” (322)
This is a novel that may benefit from some background on the events of September 11, 2001 since the action takes places in 2021 but, read individually, Ausuf’s uncle’s journal will help fill in information. The importance of this particular novel is that is demonstrates that, for some of our citizens and students, “Twenty years. So much time. But things haven’t really changed at all.” (48) One of the major events in the story—when a little computer in his backpack beeped and, instead of questioning him and investigating, Ausuf is thrown in jail for twelve hours—is based on a real event from 2015 where Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim 14-year-old, was arrested at his high school because of a disassembled digital clock he brought to school to show his teachers [https://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/us/texas-student-ahmed-muslim-clock-bomb].