In most cases I only taught one whole-class novel each year. I began my year with short stories to teach/review literary elements and reading strategies and then we put it all together with a novel, following with 1-2 rounds of book clubs ad then independent self -selected reading, many times on a common topic or genre or format. When choosing a whole-class novel, I chose one that all my readers could read—with a little support from the class—and that would interest most readers. The most important criteria was that that book featured multiple main characters, ideally male and female, and diverse voices and perspectives.
The narrator controls the story we hear (or read); perspective determines what the listener is led to discover/encounter. Each person experiences events in different ways, and it is individual interpretations that are communicated.
Appreciating that every story may be seen from a variety of perspectives and lead to a variety of interpretations is an important step towards empathy, tolerance, and respect—crucial for our students to learn to broaden their limited points of view. It is vital that our students understand that there is never just one story; there are not even two sides to a story—a right side and a wrong side. There can be numerous versions of a story or multiple voices that need to tell each part of a story.
In literary works diverse voices relate a story from differing perspectives, presenting the same events with dissimilar perceptions; in other instances numerous narrators contribute to the movement of a story, one at a time. Multiple points of views show the reader what the various characters are thinking and feeling or how they individually view events and other characters.
For many years, my eighth graders read Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, considered one of the first “adolescent literature” novels. The novel was written for adolescents, featuring adolescents, and written from an adolescent point of view. In the novel sophomores John and Lorraine befriend a lonely elderly neighbor, Angelo Pignati, and take advantage of his many kindnesses. I think what captivated both my male and female readers was the way alternating chapters were narrated by John and Lorraine, allowing readers to not only become familiar with each character but to perceive their differing perspectives on situations.
Some of my favorite novels feature multiple, diverse voices many times alternating narrators. Some are written by two authors, each writing one voice,; some are written in dual formats, such as free verse for one character and prose for the other. And some stories are told through a multiplicity of voices. And some present two timelines.
My more recently-read are reviewed below.
Nine Ten: A September 11th Story; Takedown; Anybody Here See Frenchie?; Forget Me Not; In Your Shoes; The Someday Suitcase; Consider the Octopus; Seven Clues to Home; The Magical Imperfect; Trowbridge Road; What is Goodbye?; Flight of the Puffin; The Crossover; Second Chance Summer; The Shape of Thunder; A Place at the Table; The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary; Two Naomis; Breakout; Harbor Me; Operation Frog Effect; Save Me a Seat; Runt; Becoming Muhammed Ali; Basketball or Something Like It; Unbound; Lily and Dunkin; Hidden Truths; Bronx Masquerade; Between the Lines; From Night Owl to Dogfish; How It Went Down; Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla; Redwood and Ponytail; Kaleidoscope Eyes; The Trial; Ringside; Flooded; Every Shiny Thing; Witness; Mixed Up; Seedfolks; With Their Eyes; Hidden; Out of the Dust; BenBee and the Teacher Griefer; Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine; Jordan J and the Truth about Jordan J; Parkland Speaks; Paper Hearts; Virtually Me; Moonwalking; All We Have Left; Dig; Jump Ball; Falling Short; Torch; Kent State; Clap When You Land; October Mourning; The Wolves Are Waiting; Forward Me Back to You; The Pigman; Some Boys; Your Heart-My Sky; The Memory of Things; Same But Different; Loving vs Virginia; Eleanor and Park; The Lines We Cross
“Elizabeth turns again to look at me, her face slightly shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything much in class before. She gives me a thumbs up. Raising my hand in class, making friends with Elizabeth and Micah; I’m very different from the girl I was at the start of sixth grade.” (211)
“I have to talk to you. About what happened at the mall.… Sara is my friend. You shouldn’t have spoken to her like that. And I heard what you said to Ahsan yesterday…. There’s a difference between being mean and being racist, Mads.” (223-224)
Sixth grade is challenging. Sara had to leave her small Muslim school and enter a large middle school where the kids know each other and there are very few Muslim students. And to make matters worse, her mother runs the cooking club, teaching them to cook South Asian food from her native Pakistan.
The year becomes equally challenging for Elizabeth. She is the child of a British mother who has been depressed since her own mother’s death and a Jewish American father who travels all the time for his job. “Why can’t I have normal parents? A mom who remembers things like cookies for synagogue. A dad who’s home and can remind her.” (165) And her best friend Maddy becomes friends with Stephanie and begins spouting her parents’ racist remarks at Sara.
When Sara and Elizabeth become cooking partners and then friends, they both undergo change. Sara learns she doesn’t have to stay invisible, and Elizabeth learns to stand up for what she feels is right, especially for friends. “If we’re going to be real friends, not just cooking partners, that means we stick up for each other.” (149) Sara and Elizabeth may come from different cultures but they have much in common, such as mothers who are both studying to take their citizenship test. Children of immigrants in neighborhoods where the Christmas lights cover houses, they both feel different from those in their community, other than Micah, their Jewish half-Latino friend.
Through cooking and combining cultures for a cooking contest recipe, they discover friendship and that others, such as Maddy and Stephanie, are not always what they assumed.
Written in alternating chapters by two authors who mirror their characters, Sara and Elizabeth will help readers build conversations about friendships, prejudice, and following passions. ----------
All We Have Left by Wendy Mills
Before and After. But there also was a Then or That Day and an After.
All We Have Left was so compelling that I read from dawn to dusk and did not put the book down until I finished. The novel intertwines two stories, that of 18-year-old Travis and sixteen-year-old Alia who were in the Towers as they fell and the story of Travis’ sister, Jesse, who, fifteen years later, is part of a dysfunctional family whose lives are still overwhelmingly affected by That Day and Travis’ death.
Seventeen year old Jesse is not sure who she is, who she should be, who she should hate, and who she can love. Her life is overshadowed by 9/11, her mother’s mourning, and her father’s hate.
But both Alia in 2001, and Jesse in 2016, learn that “Faith and strength aren’t something that you wear like some sort of costume; they come from inside you” (p.329) as does love. And Jesse realizes that she has to work on “treasuring right here, right now, because that’s important.” As one character says but all the characters learn, “You can fill that void inside you with anger, or you can fill it with the love for the ones who remain beside you, with hope for the future.”
What I appreciated about this novel is that is shows yet another side of how 9/11 affected people, especially adolescents, those adolescents who populate American schools everywhere. I strongly feel that students should not only be learning about the events and effects of 9/11, but that, through novels, readers learn more about how events affect people and especially children their ages.
Becoming Muhammed Ali relates the story of boxer Cassius Clay from the time he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12 until he won the Chicago Golden Gloves on March 25, 1959—with glimpses forward to his 1960 Olympic gold medal and his transformation to Muhammad Ali.
The novel is creatively co-written by two authors in the voices of two narrator-characters: James Patterson writes as Cassius’ childhood best friend Lucius “Lucky” in prose and Kwame Alexander writes in verse, sometimes rhyming, most times not, as Cassius Clay. Dawud Anyabwile drew the wonderful illustrations.
Cassius Clay’s grandaddy always advised him, “Know who you are, Cassius. And whose you are. Know where you going and where you from.” (25) and he did. From Louisville, Kentucky, from Bird and Clay, and (in his own “I Am From” poem) from “slavery to freedom,…from the unfulfilled dreams of my father to the hallelujah hopes of my momma.” (28-29)
Readers learn WHY Cassius Cassius fought, “for my name for my life for Papa Cash and Momma Bird for my grandaddy and his grandaddy… for America for my chance for my children for their children for a chance at something better at something way greater.” (296-297)
As Lucky tells the reader, “He was loud. He was proud. He called himself the Greatest. Even when he wasn’t. Yet. But deep down, where it mattered, he could be very humble. It was another part of him that he didn’t let most people see.” (231) “He was also a true and loyal friend.” (305)
Throughout the novel, readers also learn boxing moves, information about famous boxers, such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and matches, and even more about the person who was Cassius Clay and became Muhammad Ali. ----------
One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
“Papi boards the same flight every year.” (18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77) Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican.
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone. And then the plane crash occurs.
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
When they all show up, readers see just how powerfully a family can form.
An article about Flight AA587: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/remembering-americas-second-deadliest-plane-crash/248313/ ----------
Consider the Octopus by Nora Raleigh Baskin and Gae Polisner
“Consider the octopus, dude, duh,” I say out loud to myself because sometimes it helps to talk to someone. “That part is the important part. The octopus.” (88)
And the pink octopus avatar starts the chain of events which lead 12-year-old Sydney Miller (not marine biologist Dr. Sydney Miller of the Monterey Bay Aquarium) and her goldfish Rachel Carson to Oceana II, a ship researching the Great PGP.
When seventh-grader Jeremy JB Barnes, under the custody of his recently-divorced mother, chief scientist of the Oceana II, finds himself accompanying her on her mission “to sweep and vacuum up approximately eighty-eight thousand tons of garbage” called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, he was less than enthusiastic. “I like the ocean plenty from the beach.”
Until the high school SEAmester students arrive, he is the only adolescent on board. But tasked with the job of inviting well-known scientists to the join them, JB inadvertently sends the invitation to the wrong Sydney Miller who jumps at the chance, looking for something to do this summer now that her best and only friend has moved away. Sydney and her grandmother agree, “It’s synchronicity” (91), the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. “What psychologist Carl Jung called ‘meaningful coincidences’…” (228) However, “These signs we see all the time, the universe, these coincidences that we give meaning? They only work if we want them to…” (12)
And Sydney and Jeremy want these signs to work. Hiding Sydney on the ship, sometimes in plain sight with the help of two of the SEAmster girls, Sydney and JB hatch a plan to bring about the publicity the mission needs to retains its grant. “Maybe we’re here because we’re supposed to be here. Maybe the two of us are supposed to do something really important.” (144)
When you put two of my favorite authors together, what do readers get? A fun, important adventure with engaging characters who present two voices, representing two perspectives, and who show that, according to news reporter Damian Jacks, “Mark my words: kids and our youth. That’s who’s going to really help change things..… Kids, not adults, are the future of our planet.” (171)
And there is a lot of science and information about the polluting of the oceans. “It’s amazing how many people still don’t know how much waste—garbage,” she corrects herself, “is floating in the middle of the Pacific.” (226)
Readers learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its importance to our environment. Besides the garbage that is killing sea life—birds and fish, this affects all of us.
“Because every drop of water we have, all of it, circles around, evaporates into the sky, and comes back down as rain, or mist, or snow. It sinks into the ground and fills rivers, ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and the well in my backyard. Water I shower with. Cook with. And drink. No new water is ever made. This is all we’ve got.” (167)
An important read, this novel could be included in an environmental impacts study in ELA or science classes, leading to more research on the topic.
In Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison’s new MG novel Every Shiny Thing readers follow the journey of two new friends from different types of lives as they discover themselves and how they can navigate their lives.
Lauren is a wealthy teen who goes to a Quaker school. She is very close to her brother Ryan but when he is sent to a boarding school for teens on the autism spectrum, Lauren is sure that he isn’t happy, that the school is not meeting his needs, and that her parents sent him away. She then realizes that all teens who need it can’t afford the help Ryan is getting and she designs a scheme to raise money, selling the “shiny things” that she feels her affluent family and friends don’t really need. Her scheme spirals out of control as she begins stealing items from stores, family, and friends, selling them on line, and the thrill of stealing takes over. She even involves her new friend Sierra.
Sierra’s father, a drug addict, is in jail; her mother, an alcoholic, who Sierra has cared for for years in a life of poverty, is also in jail. What she wants is her family; what she needs is a stable loving family—and a friend, but not a friend who gets her involved with her own addiction. Sierra moves in next door to Lauren with her foster parents Carl and Anne, an interracial Quaker couple who are surviving the trauma of losing their own child. She pushes them away, anxious to get back to her old life, but “In the end, he [Carl] had me find the proof/ before the statement./ A new way to think.” (p 235) Sierra and Lauren’s friendship guides them in finding a new way of thinking. Sierra realizes she can love her mother but she can’t help her, and she can let Carl and Anne help her. “I know I can’t be your mom, Sierra,/ but I can be your Anne.” (p. 333) Lauren realizes that she can stop worrying about Ryan who is happy in his new environment and she can’t save the world, but “I do know this: I’m not going to forget about Hailey or zone out when I walk past someone asking for money on the street. I won’t. Because someday, maybe, I’ll be able to do something more.” (p. 353)
Lauren’s and Sierra’s narrations are written by each of the authors in their own unique style: Lauren’s narratives in prose and Sierra’s in free verse, styles which fit their lives and personalities. Their lives are populated by culturally diverse friends and their families as they traverse the Philadelphia I know so well. ----------
Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros
“I’m not sure everyone has a best friend like I do. No, not the average “bestie” you pretty much only see and talk to at school. I’m talking best friends who know you inside and out. Friends you feel comfortable enough to cry or change in front of, friends so close that they feel more like a brother or sister. That’s what I’ve got in Isaac. And I would do anything for him. Just like he’d do for me.” (180)
Sixth graders Isaac and Marco are best friends not only because they are very, very good friends but because they each want the best for the other. Isaac is athletically gifted and a star of the basketball team but has problems with school work; Marco is academically gifted but wants to become an athlete to win the approval of his father who left home for a new girlfriend and her son. Isaac’s father also left home but because his drinking problem has gotten the best of him. “Drinking had pretty much become more important than either Ama or me.” (92)
When the very short Marco learns of 5’3” NBA player Muggsy Bogues, he decides to try out for the school basketball team and, with the determination he applies to everything, studies YouTube videos and practices nonstop. Isaac becomes his coach and even figures out how he can change his plays to help Marco be successful. “That’s probably the one thing that separates [Isaac] from every other kid I’ve ever met. He never judges me. Never makes me feel stupid.” (154) And when Isaac helps Marco with his schoolwork (in a strange turn of events), he learns that he is smarter than he thought.
Told in alternating narratives by Isaac and Marco, this is a story of true friendship, broken families, bullying, sports (I learned a lot of basketball terms!), teamwork and collaboration, featuring Latinx and Jewish characters. It is story of what is takes to not fall short. ----------
Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla by Alexandra Diaz
“Look outside your window, children,” Mami said as they took their seats. “You may never see your country again.” (ARC, 36)
Victoria had a wonderful life in Cuba where she lived with her mother, father, and younger sister and brother. Also in the same duplex lived her cousin Jackie, her aunt, her uncle, and her baby cousin/godson. Even though they were very different and attended different schools in Havana, 12-year-old Victoria and Jackie were best friends, and they both spent time at their Papalfonso and Mamlara’s finca where Victoria rode her horse and swam with her cousin, a ranch that Victoria would inherit.
October 1960: With Fidel Castro in power and protestors arrested, news restricted, and professionals prohibited from leaving the country, Victoria’s family makes the decision to go to Miami, expecting their exile to “only last a few weeks, until the U.S. presidential election.” (14)
Alternating chapters focus on Victoria and Jackie and permit readers to learn what is happening in Cuba and about the Cuban community in Miami. Here Victoria lives in poverty (her father’s engineering degree of no use as he labors for minimum wage), and she tries to take charge of feeding her family. When Jackie arrives in Miami through the Peter Pan Project (reminiscent of the Holocaust Kindertransport), readers see how being apart from her immediate family affects her and her relationship with Victoria.
I often have read and reviewed novels (and memoirs) by Margarita Engle and noted that I learned quite a lot of Cuban history, a history missing from my education. Diaz’s novel, inspired by the experiences of her mother and family who came to the United States from Cuba in 1960, spans October 1960 to June 1961 and teaches readers even more about Castro and his effect on Cuba and the Cuban citizens and the role the U.S. government played. This novel should be included in every American history course. This is also a story of prejudice, as experienced by Katya, Victoria’s Russian school friend, and of resilience and family. The Author’s Note further expands on the historical facts and includes a glossary of Cuban terms.
Seventh grade is hard to navigate, even when you are not different.
Jinsong is the president of student body, and even though he has faced prejudice in his past, he is now one of the popular seventh graders. When Calliope June moves in next door, with her weird clothing and tics, he immediately likes her. But does he like her enough to risk his standing with his "friends," who are bullying Callie and some of whom have turned on him in the past? Callie has moved ten times during her life—every time her mother finds and breaks up with a new boyfriend. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, it is hard enough to fit in and make friends, especially since her doctor told her it would be better not to tell anyone.
So Callie dresses to draw attention to her clothes and tries to hide her Tourette's (which only backfires) as she desperately tries to make friends—until she meets Jinsong and Ms. Baumgartner, the school counselor. Callie moves for an 11th time, leaving a legacy of tolerance and acceptance, at least between Beatriz and Jinsong—and ready to share her whole self with her new friends. "Because wouldn't/ talking/ about something/ make it better understood?"
The reader learns about Callie, her past, her present, her future dreams, through her free-verse chapters and about Jinsong through his short prose. This is a perfect novel for reluctant readers as it is very short but leaves much to discuss (and contains both a male and female main character). Author Ellie Askeroth Terry's shares her own experience in this debut novel. ----------
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 three, but he has never stopped thinking about his first mother and his life seems to have no direction.
When Kat is sent to Boston to be homeschooled by a family friend’s aunt, Grandma Vee, she becomes a part of a teen church group. When Pastor Gregory takes Robin, Katina, and Gracie to Kolkata to work with female human trafficking survivors, with the help of her new support system and some of the young survivors themselves, Katina learns to trust again; Robin, now Ravi, finds purpose in his life; and Gracie, who was the major support system for both of them, finally gets Ravi to realize his love for her.
Told through very short chapters that alternate between Kat and Robin and simply written, Mitali Perkins’ novel is a valuable read that is accessible to, and appropriate for, all adolescent readers. ----------
Confusing feelings, complex relationships, and speculative blame develop from a simple plot in Hidden—even though both girls were there.
When she was eight, a man ran from a botched burglary and stole Wren’s mother’s car. Wren was in the back, hidden. West didn’t know she was there until he hid the car in his garage and heard on the news that a child who was in a stolen car was missing. West’s wife and daughter, although threatened and hit by West, tried to find her, and eight-year old Darra leaves food in the garage just in case the girl is there. Wren escapes, and West is caught and sentenced to a jail term, and Darra grows up with ambivalent feelings for the girl who took her “Dad” away.
Six years later the two girls meet at camp. They aren’t sure how they feel about each other, but they agree to avoid each other and not discuss the incident. Until one day they are placed together for a life-saving class event and finally realize that they are the only ones that can discuss the past, and they begin to listen to each other’s side of the story “and put the pieces into place” (124). Darra reflects, “Does she think you can’t love a dad who yells at you and even hits you?”(120). When Wren reveals that she wasn’t the one who turned West in, Darra thinks, “Everything is turning upside down.” And reassures Wren “None of what happened was your fault” (124). Together, they become “stronger than we knew.” (138)
Hidden is written in different styles of free verse. Wren recount her past and present stories in the more traditional style of short lines and meaningful line breaks in combination with meaning word and line spacing. Darra’s narration is crafted in a unique style of long lines and shorter lines, the words at the end of each long line, read vertically, tell Darra’s past memories of her father and explain her love for him. I am glad I happened to read the author’s “Notes on Form” at the end of the story that explained the format or I might have missed the effectiveness of this creative format, although the reader could return to the text for the message. ----------
Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz
“You may not get to choose what sport you play or when you get to play it, but you get to choose who you are. And in the end, that’s what matters most.” (ARC, 194)
When Dani makes the all-boy baseball team, she is sure she has reached her goal. But when she goes on a camping trip with her best friend Eric and the camper explodes, trapping her inside, events seem to be keeping her from achieving her dream. Dani sustains injuries that, no matter how determined she is, will keep her from pitching this year.
And Eric, even though he went into the burning camper and rescued Dani, is afraid that, characteristically forgetful as he is, he left on the stove burner the night before and caused the fire. When he tells Dani, she can’t forgive him and allows her new friend, the popular Meadow, to call him a loser in front of the other kids in the school. Since she always has had his back, Eric is shocked, especially when they find out that he was not responsible for the incident and the bullying continues.
Eric finds out that the actual cause of the fire was a defective remote-control toy, and with his new crush Rachel and the help of a podcaster, takes the necessary steps to ensure the public is aware and that the manufacturer is stopped from producing the toy and made to recall those on the market. Eric has turned his ADD and ability to see things from different angles into his superpower.
Meanwhile Dani is not sure she likes the person she is becoming, especially when she finds out that her new friend has been telling lies. My brain spins. Meadow’s not the person I thought she was. She’s the person Eric knew she was. My eyes sting. I miss my old life. Tears hit my lap. I miss me. (ARC, 206)
Told in alternating narratives by Dani and Eric, HIDDEN TRUTHS is a story of having a dream and changing that dream without changing yourself. It is a story of loss and what constitutes friendship and standing up to make a difference. Dani and Eric’s story can teach preteen readers many things about themselves, how to treat their peers, how to be part of a team, and how to see the person behind the person. It is a story about baseball, superheroes, and doughnuts—of love, forgiveness, and identity. It is a story that will resonate with readers and provide a map for those who are navigating the hidden truths of middle school.
Elly Swartz’s new novel can be grouped with a variety of other novels for Book Club Reading:
Other stories told through Multiple Voices & Perspectives, https://www.literacywithlesley.com/multiple-voices--multiple-perspectives.html
Loving vs Virgina is the story behind the unanimous landmark decision of June 1967. Told in free verse through alternating narrations by Richard and Mildred, the story begins in Fall 1952 when 13-year old Mildred notices that her desk in the colored school is “ sad excuse for a desk” and her reader “reeks of grime and mildew and has been in the hands of many boys,” but she also relates also the closeness of family and friends in her summer vacation essay. This closeness is also expressed in the family’s Saturday dinner where “folks drop by,” one of them being the boy who catches Mildred’s ball during the kickball game and “Because of him I don’t get home.” That boy is her neighbor, nineteen-year-old Richard Loving, and that phrase becomes truer than Mildred could have guessed.
On June 2, 1958, Richard who is white and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., and on July 11, 1958 they are arrested at her parents’ house in Virginia. The couple spends the next ten years living in D.C., sneaking into Virginia, and finally contacting the American Civil Liberties Union who brings their case through the courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The documentary novel brings the story behind the case alive, interspersed with quotes, news headlines and news reports, maps, timelines, and information on the various court cases, and the players involved, as the case made its way to the Supreme Court. Students can learn history from textbooks, from lectures, or more effectively and affectively, through the stories of the people involved. Novels are where readers learn empathy, vicariously living the lives of others. ----------
Mixed Up by Gordon Korman
“Some things that happen are so big you’re never the same afterward.” (ARC 39)
Seventh grader Reef Moody is grieving the death of his mother a year ago. He has set himself off from his friends, especially Portia, the girl he likes. He is convinced that he contracted Covid from Portia at her party—a party he begged his mother to let him attend—and passed it to his mother who died a few weeks later, and he is riddled with guilt. He was taken in by his mother’s best friend, but her teen children are not happy with the situation, especially Declan who bullies Reef continually and even gets him into trouble with the school principal.
And strangely, Reef’s memories of his mother are growing dim; he can hardly remember her face and he doesn’t know why. But he does have vivid memories from a life that he knows is not his, a life with a yard and a garden and a rabbit named Jaws. And a few times he has executed karate moves.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town lives Theo Metzinger, a seventh grader who takes karate and grows vegetable and fights with his nemesis, a rabbit named Jaws. Theo is much of a loner to the disappointment of his father, who, as an adolescent, “ruled the school.” And lately Theo is having memories of a lady and feeling an unbearable sadness. When Theo, at his school, begins seeing a different school—different tiles, different walls, a different walkway, and a cupola, he begins investigating and locates Delgado Middle School on the other side of town where he meets Portia and eventually Reef. “At last [Theo] begins, ‘There are things I remember that I know for a fact never happened to me.’ ‘Me too!’ [Reef] jumps in breathlessly.” (ARC 94)
Reef is not happy to meet Theo who he feels is stealing his life, at least his past. “It hits me: If Theo has access to my memories. How can he remember what I can’t. The answer is so obvious: He’s not sharing my memories; he’s stealing them.” (ARC 97-98) But as the two boys lose more and more memories and have to rely on each other more and more, they realize they need to solve the mystery. Theo realizes that Reef has a lot to lose—his life with his mother. Discovering that they were born on the same day in the same hospital, they research the possible cause of this strange phenomenon and plan a dangerous experiment to reverse it, aided by, strangely enough, Declan.
Told in alternating narratives, this is a story of friendship, family, and the importance of memories. “Memory: the mental process of registering, storing, and retrieving information.” (ARC 102), but so much more. ----------
Moonwalking by Lyn Miller- Lachmann and Zetta Elliott
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. ----------
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? ----------
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that autism affects one in 59 children.
Ryan Elizabeth Peete and RJ Peete’s novel Same But Different is based on their lives. Characters Charlie and Callie are twins; Charlie has autism, and Callie feels that she needs to be his guide, support, rule-maker, and the person who is always there to stand up for him against bullies and those who try to take advantage of his naiveté. This year Callie is starting tenth grade, and Charlie is repeating ninth, but she is still there for him.
In alternating chapters Charlie (RJ) and Callie (Ryan) discuss their lives on the “Autism Express.” Charlie takes us into his world where he “may have autism, but autism doesn’t have [him].” Ryan takes us into her world where it seems that autism may have her a little more than she wants. Ryan does focus on how Charlie affects her life and her relationships with family and peers. It is clear that she loves Charlie and willingly takes responsibility for helping him, but she does stress the negative aspects. I was left wishing that she felt more positive at times and found a few more advantages to having a brother with whom she is so close.
Although every child affected by autism is at a different point of the spectrum and is affected in different ways, a book explaining at least one family’s journey is a valuable addition to the classroom library, as a catalyst for generating important discussions among adolescents. Even though the characters are in high school, the book is appropriate for even young adolescents. Parent-author Holly Robinson Peete provides an insightful introduction, “A Letter from Mom,” and conclusion, “A Mother’s Hope,” as well as a valuable Resource Guide. A very important point she makes is her worry how RJ's future may be affected as a man of color with autism, a person who doesn't necessarily read the signals of our world. ----------
All students and teachers should read Save Me a Seat, a novel about bullies, victims, and bullying. In this novel, Joe, a student with APD or Auditory Processing Disorder, is bullied by his fellow fifth graders, especially Dillon Samreen. When Ravi moves from India to America, he assumes that the other fifth graders will be impressed by his intelligence and athleticism, but all they notice is his accent and other ways he is different. Ravi assumes that DIllion, being Indian American, will be his friend, but finds himself also the target of his bullying and his classmates laughter.
There are many novels that focus on bullying, but what I found most important about Save Me a Seat is that Ravi does not realize that in his school in India where he is was a member of the popular crowd, if not a bully himself, he was unkind to other students and stood by, laughing, when students were bullied by others. In “10 Realities about Bullying at School and Online” (www.kqed.org/mindshift/44772/10-realities-about-bullying-at-school-and-online) writer Linda Flanagan shares that many bullies and also victims of bullying do not recognize that bullying is occurring. “What the Olweus survey identifies as the top three types of bullying—verbal abuse, exclusion, and spreading rumors—kids can see as normal and essentially harmless behavior.”
In the novel when Ravi finally sees that "There is more to [Joe] than meets the eye" and he is the victim of bullying; he comes to the conclusion, “I don’t need to show off anymore. I’m not like Dillon Samreen and I never will be,” and he stands up for Joe. A study conducted by The Youth Voice Project, the first known large-scale research project that solicited students’ perceptions about strategy effectiveness to reduce peer mistreatment in our schools, found, “Our students report that asking for and getting emotional support and a sense of connection has helped them the most among all the strategies we compared” and conversely, “Peers were reported as being able to have a significant negative effect by blaming or making fun of mistreated youth.” (Roessing, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect).
The characters are fifth graders. According to research, most bullying occurs in grades 6-8; perhaps if enough students read and discuss this novel in fifth grade, those statistics will change. ----------
Second Chance Summer by Sarah Kapit
“The school musical is for girls like Chloe, not girls like me. I probably couldn’t even do all the complicated dance moves, with my dyspraxia and everything that comes with it. Sometimes I struggle even to tell the difference between left and right. Still, a voice whispers to me, ‘Maybe.’” (66)
Preadolescence is a tough time. Changing friendships, changing bodies, changing body images, changing friendships, changing identities. Former best friends Maddie and Chloe are experiencing all of it.
Maddie and Chloe had been best friends forever—with a lot in common but also many differences. Chloe loves musical theater and is an ex-star of a television series while Maddie loves movies and plans to be a screenwriter. Chloe’s single mother is a typical stage mother, even making her perform in an embarrassing commercial, while Maddie’s mothers are supportive of anything she does. Cordelia sings and dances; Maddie has dyspraxia, difficulty in performing coordinated movements. Maddie also many times finds herself giving into doing what Chloe wants and what’s best for Chloe which is how she ended up with a part in The Music Man. They were inseparable until the incident during the school musical.
When the rising eighth graders end up at the same drama camp, Chloe wants to make amends, but Maddie is not sure she does. They both are having a challenging summer: the scriptwriting teacher doesn’t show and, even though she is working through her real-life problems through a screenplay she is writing for the one class offered, Maddie ends up acting in the camp production. Chloe is beginning to give up apologizing to Maddie and for once doesn’t win the lead in the show. She makes a new friend, but wonders if Sasha is more than a friend.
When things become nasty between Maddie and Chloe, readers will question whether they will be able to save their friendship? Or if they want to?
Written in alternate narrations and shifting between Now and Then, readers see that there are two sides to a story and that maybe adolescents don’t always want what they think they want. And that a summer does not have to be an end to a story. ----------
“But something else is pulling at me, knocking around in my insides, starting out like a whisper, like a song I sang all the time, but now I forget the words.
‘Remember?’ ‘Do you remember those times I was happy?’ ‘I do.’” (146)
Joy and Lukas met in second grade when, celebrating those with summer birthdays, they discovered their August birthdays were two days apart. And they became best friends for five years. They even knew they would always be best friends, “Keepers of Secrets, Wizards of Clues, Growers of Gardens, King and Queen of Summer Birthdays, Holders of Hearts” (193)
But “there are some moments that change everything…” (157)
When Lukas died on Joy’s twelfth birthday, she lives through a year of pain and grief. On her thirteenth birthday, she decides to follow the clues that, as was their tradition, Lukas had left for her birthday the previous year.
This captivating novel which grabbed my heart and squeezed it, as I wanted to keep reading but couldn’t face ending and leaving these characters, is written in alternating chapters narrated by Joy and Lukas. Readers follow Lukas though the day before Joy’s birthday as he hides the clues leading to her present and wrestles with giving her the heart necklace that will declare his new feelings, fearful that she will not feel the same. Readers shadow Joy as she escapes the house and follows the clues around town. “I don’t think I’ve been on my own, unaccounted for, this long in my whole life. But it feels good. Kind of like being let out after being hidden away—even if I did the hiding myself—like the sky clearing, and the air smells so fresh.” (133) We experience the depth of their friendship through memories and the commitment to the birthday clues. We also meet the family and townspeople who loved them.
There are moments that change everything and books that change everything. Seven Clues will be that book for many readers, especially those experiencing loss. ----------
A powerful read,Some Boysfeatures an adolescent who has been raped and shamed by the students—male and female—of her school because the rapist, Zac, was a popular member of the community. But Grace is strong and speaks up and stands up for herself, even again the rapist’s best friend, Ian.
In this provocative novel on an important topic, Grace and Ian narrate alternating chapters. Many issues about rape and disrespect are brought to the surface, such as, when Ian questions the way she dresses, Grace asks why her clothing choices should matter or be assumed to send a message. “Being noticed isn't an open invitation to guys to do whatever they want to me.” Ian eventually sees that he is letting things continue as they are, not as they should be.
This story exposes slut shaming and victim blaming and bystanders who think they are not also at fault. It also is a story of family and peer relationships. ----------
Mikayla comes from a family of wrestlers. Her two older brothers are wrestlers, and wrestling is one way she can connect with her father who moved out. In sixth grade, under her wrestling name of Mickey, she joins the Gladiators travel team after the coach of the Eagles refuses to include a girl on the team. Her best girlfriend whom she has wrestled with for years decides that wrestling is no longer for her; in fact, it may never have been. And Mickey becomes the only girl on the team where she has to prove she belongs. There she meets Lev and his friends and becomes part of the Fearsome Foursome.
Lev’s best friend Bryan knows they won’t spend much time together during wrestling season and starts pursuing other interests. But Lev comes from a sports family where they spend their weekends and holidays at matches and his sister’s field hockey games. However, he finds he is writing poetry to calm himself down and getting headaches and missing the old family dinners and cultural traditions, and now he is even questioning the sport he used to love.
When Lev and Mickey are paired at practice, he is afraid she might get in the way of his training for States. But as their friendship grows, he finds that as he stands up for her goals, his just might have changed.
As an author on a sports fiction panel once said, sports is the setting, not the story. And even though the reader learns quite a lot about wrestling and the world of adolescent wrestlers through alternating narratives by Mikayla and Lev, Laura Shovan's novel is a story about family, friendships, resilience, and finding identity. ----------
The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah
We realize that there are multiple sides to a story, and while it is important to define our side, it is also imperative to become aware of the other side(s). The Lines We Cross presents two sides to an issue and shows how we can define ourselves and figure out what we stand for.
Daniel's parents are the founders of Aussie Values, an organization that believes that Australia is accepting too many refugees, that they are taking the jobs of citizens, and that these refugees are refusing to assimilate. Daniel doesn't question his family's values until he meets Mina, an Afghani refugee, and as he gets to know her, questions his family's values and redefines his own beliefs and values. Daniel says, "Maybe you only get one chance at meeting somebody who really gets inside you, wakes corners of your mind and heart that you didn't know were asleep" (p.272) while Mina's poem for the Poetry Slam ends, "But then some people showed me…that standing up is good/ But standing up alongside others is better." (p.389)
The story is told by the two main characters in alternating narrations, but the other characters are also interesting and add value to the story, especially Daniel's little brother Nathan who interprets comments and observes situations intellectually and without emotion.
The first 9/11 novel I read, The Memory of Thingsis lovely story about the effects of the events of 9/11. Another reason we read is to understand events we have not experienced and the effect of those events on others who may be like ourselves. After witnessing the fall of the first Twin Towers on 9-11 and evacuating his school, teenager Kyle Donahue, a student at Stuyvesant High School, discovers a girl who is covered in ash on the Brooklyn Bridge; she has no memory of who she is. The son of a detective, he takes her home to help her rediscover who she is, why she was where she was, what she was doing there, and her connection to the events.
The events in the novel are related in alternating narratives—Kyle's in prose, the girl writes in free verse—the two characters sharing their stories and perspectives, introducing adolescent readers, many of whom had were not alive during 9/11, to the effects of this tragedy in their own ways. ----------
Former best friends, the twelve-year-olds became estranged the previous November 11th when Porter, Quinn’s older brother, killed Cora’s sister Mabel in a school shooting. Cora is consumed with grief as Quinn becomes consumed with guilt.
Cora mother left when she was a toddler, and she and Mabel were raised by their Lebanese father and maternal grandmother. Cora and Quinn were best friends from age two. Cora was always there to help Quinn when her brain had a “Freeze-Up” and she had trouble getting words out; Quinn was there to make the serious Cora laugh.
Mabel was the perfect sister until she started high school and started acting like a “big sister”; Porter was the typical big brother—one of Quinn’s memories was when he helped her climb down from a very tall tree—until he changed and became mean, spending most of his time in his room on the Internet. “I know it’s in this room that he decided to become the type of person who did the horrible things that he did. It’s in this room that he decided to become full of hate. I glance all around, looking for the clues of what led him to it, but I don’t find any.”(96) And then came the day he took his father’s gun to the high school and shot Mabel and two others. Was it because Mabel was Muslim? Why were the other two—a student and a teacher—shot?
It is almost a year from the killings when Quinn reads that some scientists believe in the possibility of time travel, and she hatches a plan for Cora and her to travel back in time to save Mabel and maybe even save Porter. Even though Cora blames Quinn for her brother’s actions and refuses to have anything to do with her, Quinn realizes that Cora, a collector of facts and research, will be hooked by the idea of time travel. “Her mind is like a treasure chest of mid-blowing facts. And when she shares them with you, it makes you start to believe that the world is actually a pretty amazing place. It makes you see everything a little differently.”(62) As Quinn hopes, Cora is intrigued and desperate to save Mabel.
As the two girls work together to locate a wormhole, I, not usually a fan of novels about magic or fantasy, started praying for magic to happen. “And the thing I know about magic is that you have to look for it,” Quinn says. (123) Through their alternating-narrator story, my heart broke equally for each of them. I looked for magic and found it in this novel. ----------
Bett and Avery couldn’t be more different. Bett is a California girl and loves sports—especially water sports, animals, and taking risks. Avery, a New Yorker, plans to become a writer and suffers from anxiety and worries about germs, drowning, and whatever else she reads or hears about—and she is a planner. Bett is African American, and Avery is Jewish. The two meet through email when Bett discovers their single parents—both fathers—have been dating and are sending the twelve-year-olds to the same summer camp, hoping to form a family. The girls do not want to meet or become friends or especially a family, and they strategize to sabotage their fathers’ plan.
What follows is a year and a half of emails and letters, even though the girls do meet at camp, get themselves thrown out, become friends, and even each the support system of the other. The fathers’ relationship does not fare as well and that becomes another challenge for these two who now view themselves as sisters in an extended family that spanned the country but appears to have become centered in NYC and now includes a mother and grandmother.
The novel was mesmerizing as the plot twisted and turned, personalities were revealed, new characters entered and sent their own missives to each other and to the girls, and I actually feel that there might have been more character and plot development in this well-written offering.
The novel reminded me of the novel, Two Naomis [see below], but in that novel when their divorced parents plan to marry and plot for the ten-year-olds to meet and become a family, the girls find that even though resistant, they are more alike than different and they actually do like each other. Conversely, in To Night Owlfrom Dogfish, Bett and Avery find that, even though they are nothing alike, they complement each other, and whether their fathers become a family or not, they have already done so. ----------
Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley
Since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States in June 1981, the number of cases and deaths among persons with AIDS increased rapidly during the 1980s. (CDC). By the end of 1983, 2807 cases of AIDS—and 2118 deaths—had been reported. (NYC Aids Memorial).
One of those cases was June’s father.
After June’s father died, her mother, a celloist, shuttered herself up in her house, barely leaving the bedroom, terrified of anything that could possibly cause disease. She wouldn’t go down to the kitchen because of its proximity to the door through which anything could come through, and as a result, June was frequently without food, except when Uncle Toby brought food during the week. Unfortunately, on the visits he was permitted, he missed the signs of his sister-in-law’s mental illness. When June went out, she was not to play with the other children and she needed to leave any disgustingness behind with endless baths with Clorox bleach. She spent her days in Nana Jean’s copper beech tree watching Trowbridge Road and the world move on without her. “All the comings and goings of life.” (8)
And then Ziggy moved in with Nana Jean. Ziggy’s mother was an addict, abused by her boyfriend. Ziggy had a ferret and a fantastical imagination. And June had a friend who understood her and what she needed.
“[Ziggy’s] heart was beating. It was gentle like my daddy’s heart. It knew what kind of sadness lived inside that house, even before there was such a thing as AIDS. It knew what happens to a person when they hold on to secrets for too long, or what happens to a home when it becomes a holding place for those secrets, It crumbles. It burns.” (288)
As June and Ziggy seek refuge in the magical Majestica where they have control of their lives.
June mother becomes worse until June realizes that she can, or should, no longer cover for her. “When I was alone with her, it was easier to pretend that things made sense. But with Uncle Toby in the kitchen, cringing every time she spoke, I found myself suddenly off balance. It was as though I had been walking on a rope bridge a hundred feet up. The bridge swayed back and forth over a raging river, but I had been keeping myself steady by pretending the bridge was strong.…I suddenly saw that the bridge was made of fayed rope, and with every step I swayed from a dizzying height. That raging water I thought was lovely would actually kill me if I missed a step.” (172-3)
The two children find help though the adults who love them—Nana Jean and Uncle Toby.
This is the story of children and adults dealing with many of the problems faced by today’s families—mental illness, grief, abandonment, abuse, addiction, and bullying. This is a story of the destruction caused by secrets and the healing possible though relationships and those who believe in magic. It is a compassionate story that will break hearts and give hope.
Point of interest: “Trowbridge” is a name which probably referred to a felled trunk serving as a rough-and-ready bridge. ----------
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovick and Audrey Vernick
Divorce can be complicated and messy, but the parents of the two Naomis’ have made the transition as smooth as possible for their children. Naomi Marie’s dad lives nearby and even though Naomi E’s mother lives across the country in California, they Skype every week and she is coming back for a month in the summer.
What isn’t as simple is divorced parents dating. When Tom and Vivian’s relationship becomes “very serious,” they want their two families—and their two ten-year-old Naomis—to meet and become friends. Less excited about this are the two Naomis, especially when they find out their parents want one of them to alter her name because there can’t be two “Naomis,” and they can’t call them White Naomi and Black Naomi as Naomi Marie’s little sister Bri sometimes does.
As they resist their parents’ dinners, family meet-ups, and then a girls’ coding club where the girls will be partners in a project, they find that they just actually might like each other—a little, and, even through somewhat different, they are more alike. “’I’m realizing something,’ I [Naomi E.] tell Annie, ‘I actually like her. I was so mad at Dad about everything that I was almost refusing to let her be my friend, you know?’” (166)
When Naomi Marie worries about Tom trying to take her father’s place, and things changing, Dad says, “We can each shine our own light without dimming anyone else’s…. Sometimes there’s more room in our lives than we realize.” (149)
This delightful novel, narrated in alternating chapters by Naomi Marie and Naomi E is about navigating family, change, divorce-dating-remarriage, friendship, and acceptance.
Narratives Told through Multiple Voices
Anybody Here Seen Frenchie by Leslie Connor
“You’re having a new kind of year.” Mr. Menkis says it for me. ”Treat yourself sweetly, Aurora. Change happens. It’s the world’s number one constant.” (66)
Sixth-grader Aurora Petrequin has known Frenchie Livernois since the beginning of third grade when he and his mother rented their next-door house. The best friends are inseparable and opposite. Frenchie has autism and doesn’t speak—at all; Aurora is loud and talks impulsively—all the time. Together they explore nature—Frenchie obsessed with birds, Auruora with rocks, especially finding a tourmaline, a mineral produced in areas of her native Maine.
Aurora has no trouble understanding Frenchie and interpreting his body language, and one goal she has is to help others see him. When Sheree of Troviosity gifts Frenchie with an expensive Audubon print of a nuthatch for his bird print collection, Aurora says, “Thanks for seeing him.” (99)
But then sixth grade arrives, and for the first time Frenchie is in a different class and has a new aide, Mr. Menkis. Aurora panics, “Mom! Pop! Gracia! There’s a mess-up of all mess-ups here! Frenchie and I got put in different classes.” (3) And another change is that two new students move to her school and class and, for the first time, besides Frenchie, Aurora has friends.
When Frenchie disappears one day, Aurora panics and feels guilty for not walking him to his room that morning. While they search for Frenchie, Aurora examines everything she knows about him. As she tells Joanie and Leena, “Frenchie doesn’t get lost.… He gets me unlost. Like a human compass.” (86)
But one day turns into two. “I’m thinking about Frenchie. Best Days. Like, when Cedar came home. And family dinners and pancake Sundays. Bird hounding and rock hounding, and me cheering Frenchie on the day he learned to float. Him going along with me, the times we trailed the piebald deer. And him knowing the way home. Having a true friend—the thing I am aching for this morning. (265)
And this is truly a story about friendship. It is not about neurodiversity; it is not about nature (although nature is a catalyst and a bond between Frenchie and Aurora and between many of the townspeople), it is first and foremost about the power and symbiotic relationship of friendship like no novel I have every read.
As the town gathers and comes together to look for Frenchie, adding more and more people to the search, people who remember meeting Frenchie with Aurora, people begin to see Frenchie, “[Aurora’s] bird-loving, no-talk, very best friend.” (321)
A story told in multiple viewpoints for all upper elementary and middle school readers offering adventure, mystery, nature, characters of all ages from baby Cedar to adults who sometimes surprise us, and heart.
According to a 2017 CNN report, in response to a Facebook post by Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, where Auriemma said that recruiting "enthusiastic kids is harder than it's ever been," plenty of people spoke about how parents are causing a lot of the problems in the game. "Parents living vicariously through their kids, pushing them too hard, too soon. Too many games, too much pressure and not enough fun," one commenter on Facebook said.
Nora Raleigh Baskin’s novel is about basketball, parents, coaches, pressure to play, pressure to not play, but most of all it is about friendship.
The novel focuses on 4 sixth graders:
Hank wishes his parents would “stop talking about basketball or baseball or whatever season and whatever sport they felt Hank should be getting more playing time in, playing a better position” (p. 2);
Nathan wants to play basketball even though his parents do not want him to play because of what basketball did to his uncle and even though he is not the good player everyone assumes, being black, is would be;
Jeremy is the new kid who came to live with his grandmother after being abandoned at his father’s his latest ex-girlfriend’s. Jeremy is used to street basketball, poverty, and making plans to leave; and
Anabel is not a basketball player. Actually, Anabel is quite a good basketball player, practicing with, and being dragged to, games with her brother. In her family “Basketball came before everything” (p.11)—at least for her brother and father.
These young adolescents become part of a world where adults determine if they play, when they play, and how they play until they bond and take their fates into their own hands. The final act of heroism isn’t a feat of basketball prowess but an act of friendship. ----------
Four rising 7th graders. Video Gamers. Divergent thinkers assigned to a summer school class. And a teacher who needs to teach them to read well enough to pass the FART (Florida Rigorous Academic Assessment Test), a teacher who is willing to meet her students half way, a teacher who shifts from a Teacher Griefer to a Gaming Legend, a teacher who learns that mastering Human Being Assessment Test skills is more important than Reading and Writing Assessment skills.
•Benjamin Bellows aka Sandbox Gamer Ben Bee whose weak writing skills are overcome with a 504 Plan and a typewriter. “”I’ve been thinking: finally something to help me do better, not Why now, not what’s wrong.” (206)
•Benita Ybarra aka Sandbox Gamer ObenwhY who is struggling with grief and loss. “But when you crash your car, you don’t have extra lives saved, stored up, hoarded. You have nothing that can blink you back to life.” (189) but who learns to trust and heal “I look up at her, as I pull this moment even tighter, a soft blanket of now becoming a bandage holding together the crack in my heart.” (191)
•Jordan Jackson aka Sandbox Gamer JORJORDANJMAGEDDON, diagnosed with ADHD, friendly, funny, and obsessed with a television dance contest show—and with Spartacus.
•New student Javier Jimenez aka Sandbox Gamer jajajavier who has a secret as to why he hides behind a hoodie and refuses to read aloud. “I think I finally have friends” (266)
•Teacher Jordan Jackson (no relation) aka Sandbox Gamer JJ11347 whose job is in jeopardy after she allows the students to read a book based on Sandbox instead of Oliver Twist, a divergent teacher. “you’re right, though she’s a divergent teacher she teaches differently she, like, listens to us.” (247)
Four kids who become “Not besties. But not nothings.” (211) Four children who I fell in love with as they discover their strengths individually and together through the willingness of a teacher to become a learner.
Written in the students’ four voices in free verse, stream-of-consciousness, and drawings, and through game chats, the story will appeal to divergent upper elementary and middle-grade readers. ----------
Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine by K.A. Holt
In last year’s BenBee and the Teacher Griefer, readers were introduced to “the kids under the stairs”—Ben B, Jordan, Javier, and Benita Ybarra, or Ben Y as she refers to herself—and their summer school teacher, Ms. J. In this sequel, the story focuses on Ben Y who is still grieving her older brother Benicio’s death a year before. We learn that Benacio was the creator of Sandman, the video game in which the four misfits became friends with each other and their teacher (whom they taught the game). It is also this game though which Ben Y and her brother communicated when he moved away to expand the market for his corporate backers.
SCHOOL Who chooses Who decides Who is cool And who is weird And who is dumb And who is smart And who fits here And who fits there And what is right And what is wrong? (214)
School is tough. The kids, other than her three new friends, are unkind, and the Vice Principal, Mr. Mann, is a bully, but there is a new student, Ace, who is not afraid to stand up to him and doesn’t appear to care what the other kids think. In fact she is called Dress Code for constantly breaking the dress code and earning detentions and Mr. Mann’s anger—and Ben Y’s admiration.
And sometimes you see someone or meet someone and you hear al little *ping* in your heart, and you know, just like that, this is someone who’s like you, boom. (77)
When Ben Y accidentally over-processes her hair in an attempt to be more like Ace and has to shave her head, the bullying increases. and maybe just maybe the safety of being the same is better than the danger of being you. (119)
Even realizing he is dead, Ben Y retreats into game-chat conversations with her brother, and when it appears that someone is answering her as SB10BEN, she tries to solves the mystery; however, when she discovers the answer, she is not quite sure how she feels about the imposter.
At the same time Ben Y becomes so obsessed with finding out how Mr. Mann, adolescent defender of human rights, has become the bully he now is and with ruining his reputation and while also trying to understand her ambivalent feelings for Ace, that she forgets her three good friends. “It feels really bad to feel invisible to the person you thought could see you the best of any other person in the world.” – Jordan (358)
In a year filled with grieving family members, complicated relationships, looking for “safe places,” and somewhat of an identity crisis, Ben Y learns the value of friendship and that “everything is better with a confetti cannon.” – Ms J, Sandbox player.
Many readers will see themselves—and others may learn some empathy for their peers who feel they may not fit in but may need to—in K.A. Holt’s second-in-the-series free verse and game-talk novel. ----------
Between the Lines by Nikki Grimes
My very first year of teaching, a student’s father called me and accused me of wasting his son’s time with poetry. I listened, aghast, but did not know quite what to say. I wish I had had Nikki Grimes’ novel, Between the Lines, to quote Mr. Winston, the librarian as he explains to Darrian why he should learn about all sorts of writing, even poetry. “Because poetry, more than anything else, will teach you about the power of words.” And Grimes in her newest novel, to be released in February 2018, shows us the power of words—to heal, to strengthen, to discover. Like Bronx Masquerade, this novel takes place in Mr. Ward’s English classroom where he holds Open Mike Fridays and students work towards a Poetry Slam (and where BM character Tyrone makes guest appearances).
Mr Ward’s eleventh grade class is a microcosm of the outside world—Black, Brown, and White and maybe in-between. The reader views the eight students through the lens of Darrian, a Puerto Rican student who lives with his father and has dreams of writing for The New York Times because, “Let’s face it, some of those papers have a bad habit of getting Black and Brown stories wrong.…But I figure the only way to get our stories straight is by writing them ourselves.” So Darrian joins Mr. Ward’s class to learn about words. He does learn the power of words, but he also learns about is his classmates as they learn about each other and about themselves through their narratives, their free writes, and the poetry they share. There is Marcel, whose dad was in jail just long enough to ruin his life; Jenesis, a foster child in her 13th placement; Freddie who takes care of her niece and her own alcoholic mom; Val whose immigrant father was a professor in his native land and now works as a janitor; Li, whose Chinese parents want a strong, smart American girl; Kyle whose defective heart makes him fearless and a mentor to Angela who is afraid she is not enough, and Darrian whose mother died of cancer “half past 36.”
But these students, as the students in our classrooms, are more than their labels. As Tyrone explains abut his class the year before, “Before Open Mike, we were in our own separate little groups, thinking we were so different from each other. But when people started sharing who they were through their poetry, turned out we were more alike than we were different.” And Darrian finds out that each word can be unique and special, as Li says about poetry, but also a newspaper story “can be beautiful, especially if it’s true.” Truth is what these characters and novel reveals.
A strength of the novel is the unique voice of each character; Nikki Grimes had to write not only their stories but the unique poetry of each character. And the reader sees the growth of the characters through their interactions and poetry as they discover each other and come together, the boys discovering “Hope,” and the girls telling what “We Are." ----------
It takes a village to build a town and maintain a town and its citizens, and Kate Messner, all by herself, is that village as she provides all the voices, drawings, and artifacts of a town.
Breakout is the story of Wolf Creek and three weeks in the life of its citizens: 7th grader Nora Tucker and her best friend Lizzie Bruno, Elidee Jones who moves to this almost-all-white town (except for one family) for the last two weeks of the school year, Nora’s brothers Sean and Owen, and a variety of family members, store employees, school personnel, church women, and the officers and inmates of the prison, one of which is Troy, Elidee’s brother.
As students finish school, write letters for the time capsule for the future citizens of Wolf Creek, and plan for Field Day, two prisoners escape, and for the next three weeks the life of the town is “different.” Police and reporters invade the town; fear is in control, Nora, as a time capsule reporter, notices that life is more complex—or maybe she is becoming aware of the complexities. For example Nora notices that there has always been a sign to leave backpacks behind the counter at Mountain Market, but it isn’t enforced until Elidee enters the store. She also learns the power of civil disobedience but also that there is a price to pay. As she states in a June 12 letter, “But I guess you can get used to almost anything.” (190)
Nora writes at the end of the summer, “…sometimes you need to hear a lots of points of view to get the whole story.” (1). And that’s what author Messner provides—lots of points of view. And that is what amazes me most about this delightful novel. I am floored at how the author writes in the voices of all these difference characters. Now you might be thinking, “But all authors write all their character’s voices,” but this novel stands above. It is multi-genre, and there are letters, recorded conversations, text messages, news articles, the school’s morning announcements, and student petitions. And they all are so realistic; it is difficult to believe that one person crafted all.
Stretching her genius even farther, as character Lizzie, Messner writes hilarious parodies of the news, such as the “Frankfurter Face-Off,” the town’s council’s debate on the type of hot dogs to be served at the July 4 Cookout. Owen draws cartoons of his evil plots and plans to capture the escaped inmates, and we see the signs that are posted on the market and the church. The most astounding is Elidee who begins writing poems inspired by her favorite poets: Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence, Jacqueline Woodson, and finally Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics of Hamilton, my favorite being the student council vice president’s rap battle with the principal, based on “Cabinet Battle #1.”
Even though I laughed harder than I have for a long time and plastered my ARC with sticky notes for places I wanted to read over and share, there were lessons to be learned: Elidee finds her voice, Lizzie learns about forgiveness; and Nora learns about the complications of life, that “even good guys do bad things sometimes. And I think people who do bad things—no matter how bad—have to be more than the awful things they did.” (127) ----------
“A potato plant. Leaves up top, potatoes down below. All those stems and roots joining the two—like veins and arteries. His father always said that families were the same.” (371)
Some stories I read quickly for the story, floating through the feelings. And some stories I read slowly, to think about ideas, concepts, revelations. Amy Sarig King’s Dig I read “progressively” to think about what I was feeling and to feel what I was thinking. The story and writing is complex, mesmerizing, and most of all intricately designed and structured. I am an admirer of complexity in story structure.
In Dig readers have the stories of multiple characters, characters who we come to know and care about through their individual stories—The Freak, The Ringmaster, The Shoveler, CanIHelpYou, and Malcolm, and their parents, and Marla and Gottfried, all descendants of potato farmers. And like the roots and stems of the potato plant, they become entwined, sometimes in mysterious ways.
“I wanted a family, not another mystery. But maybe all families are mysteries. Maybe all families have secrets.” (372)
Dig is the winner of the Michael L. Printz Medal. ----------
Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
Four young adolescents on opposite sides of the country; four outsiders who feel alone; four who are connected through one act of kindness that generates multiple acts of support and encouragement that let them, and others, know they are not alone.
Libby comes from a family of bullies—her father, her older brother, and, by all accounts, her grandfather. Her mother and the rest of her family ignore her, making her feel unwelcome in her own home. Her school assumes any actions on her part are acts of bullying, but she is only trying to make her world prettier with paint and glitter. After she finds a rock left by her beloved former art teacher that states, “Create the world of your dreams,” she decides to do just that. I. Will. Not. Be. Like. Them. (11)
When Libby is given some index cards and colored pencils for a class essay assignment, she instead makes cards with pictures and positive sayings, such as “You are amazing.” (13) She decides to pass them out to “to “anybody who needs it…. Like if someone gets bullied and they’re feeling alone, then maybe this can help them remember that the bully isn’t always right.”(103) She makes more cards of encouragement and, grounded by her parents, even climbs out the window to distribute her cards. “What kind of person would sneak out into the rain to leave index cards around town for nobody in particular? A person who doesn’t have a choice.” (176)
Vincent is a seventh grader, across the country in Seattle, who doesn’t fit in, not at school and not at home where his single mother wants him to be more creative. Vincent is interested in triangles and puffins and being accepted for himself. But the boys at school bully him and call him a “girl,” like that is a negative thing. “I’m not trans, and I’m not gay. And I’m not a girl. It’s like T said. I’m just me.” (161)
T also lives in Seattle where they and their dog Peko live on the streets, having run away from a family who does not accept them. It’s possible to keep going. Keep going for longer than what anyone else would expect. (79) But flying away doesn’t solve everything. (143)
Also living in rural Vermont in a town near Libby, Jack, a 7th grader, is still grieving the accidental death of his younger brother Alex—Alex who loved glitter and butterflies. Jack has become a big brother to the younger students and a helper to the administrators of his 2-room school and, when the grant that is keeping his school afloat is threatened, he vows to save it. But he does not understand the state’s insistence on a gender-neutral bathroom, and he finds himself standing up for something that begins to feel wrong. When he becomes embroiled in a public debate, he finds his supporters to be those people he does not admire, and he begins to question his views and those of his family. Finally discussing Alex with his mother, Jack says, “What if a boy doesn’t want to do boy things? Or doesn’t always feel like a boy? Or even…doesn’t feel like a boy or a girl?” (194)
Libby hears about Vincent and mails him one of her notes. Vincent meets T on the streets when T helps Vincent who then brings food to T and Peko. As Vincent learns more about them , he receives advice on how to stand up to bullies (”I don’t have to be scared. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to feel like I am less than them.”).
And when Vincent sees Jack on the news, he “reaches out from across the country” by mail to tell him about T and advises that there may be kids in Jack’s school who are transgender “but don’t say.” When Vincent offers his support, Jack realizes, as do all four, I am simultaneously understanding two things… That I have been alone. And that I don’t have to be. (171)
Ann Braden’s novel is a story about the importance of communication and validation as the four young adolescents connect with each other but also with their own family members, changing perspectives and values. It is a compelling, simply-told story of identity and the power of being oneself. Many readers will recognize themselves in these characters and their families and communities, and other readers will learn about those they may someday meet or might already know, hiding in plain sight in their classrooms or neighborhoods. This is a wonderful, much-needed novel about empathy, support, and standing up for ourselves and others. ----------
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed. Twenty million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh poured into Johnstown [Pennsylvania] and neighboring communities. More than 2,200 people died, including 99 entire families and 396 children. [Author’s Note] The flood still stands as the second or third deadliest day in U.S. history resulting from a natural calamity. Richard Peck wrote, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” And author Ann E. Burg introduces readers to individual residents of the town.
Readers read the stories of fifteen-year-old Joe Dixon who wants to run his own newsstand and marry his Maggie; Gertrude Quinn who tells us about her brother, three sisters, Aunt Abbie, and her father who owns the general store. We come to know Daniel and Monica Fagan. Daniel’s friend Willy, the poet, encouraged by his teacher to write, and George with 3 brothers and 4 sisters who wants to leave school and help support them. We watch the town prepare for the Decoration Day ceremony honoring the war dead.
After the flood, readers hear from Red Cross nurse Clara Barton, and Ann Jenkins and Nancy Little who brought law suits that found no justice, and a few of the 700 unidentified victims of the flood.
And there are the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club—Andrew Carnegie, Charles J. Clarke, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Cyrus Elder, and Elias Unger, the wealthy of Pittsburgh who ignored repeated warnings that the dam holding their private lake needed to be repaired so it wouldn't give way. “They don’t care a whit about the likes of us.” (57)
This is a story of class and privilege and those who work tirelessly to make ends meet. As Monica says, “People who have money, who shop at fancy stores and buy pretty things, shouldn’t think they’re better than folks who scrabble and scrounge and go to sleep tired and hungry.” (111)
In free-verse narrative monologues, readers experience the lives of a town and its hard-working, family-oriented inhabitants—people we come to know and love, reluctant to turn the pages leading towards the disaster we know they will encounter. We bear witness to the events as we read and empathy for the plights of the people affected by those events.
This is a book that could be shared across middle grade and high school ELA, social studies, and science classes. ----------
I am not usually an advocate of whole class novels, but Kekla Magoon's How It Went Down would be a perfect novel to discuss perspective, interpretation, news bias, and the unreliability of eye witness accounts.
What everyone can agree on was that Tariq Johnson, a black teen, was fatally shot by Jack Franklin, a white man. Was T holding a gun or a Snickers bar? Was he wearing gang colors or did have a red rag in his pocket? Was he being chased for stealing or was the clerk returning his change? It depends on who controls the narrative.
Since there are so many people (each having a different agenda) sharing their accounts—about the shooting and about the victim—this book would work well with large groups of readers. Since each account is very short, the book would entice reluctant readers. However the inclusion of realistic profanity might make it more difficult for some classroom use.
This novel wasn't only the narrative of Tariq Johnson and the shooting; it was the collective stories of his community—Tyrell, Jannica, Will, Kimberly—and those who came in contact with T, before and after his death. ----------
Jordan J and the Truth about Jordan J by K.A. Holt
I let the music fill me up with its rhythms and feelings, like I’m the only person in the whole world who can really understand what it’s trying to say, like the music itself trusts ME, Jordan J, to use my super-sweet dance moves to translate the story it wants the world to know, like the music and I are dance partners, but also storyteller partners, and everything else in the whole universe, even my own feelings and thoughts, pauses, so that for two minutes I am the music And the music is me And together we just…tell a really awesome story. (79-80)
In K.A Holt’s Benbee and the Teacher Griefer readers met four rising 7th graders: Ben Bellows, Benita Ybarra, Jordan Jackson, and Javier Jimenez. All video gamers. Divergent thinkers who met and became friends through an assigned summer school class. And their teacher, Jordan Jackson (no relation to student gamer Jordan Jackson). Benbee was essentially Ben Bellows’ story as the sequel, Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine, was Benita Ybarra’s story.
In this story, we become much better acquainted with Jordan Jackson who has been diagnosed with ADHD and is obsessed—to put it mildly—with a television dance contest show, Fierce Across America. As passionate as he is about dance, he cannot help but criticize the Hart Rocketeers in his column for the Hart Times encouraging them to take it up a notch with “fierce energy and better dance routines” to beat their competition, although he is impressed with one of the dancers, Casey Price.
When Jordan discovers that his city, Freshwater, Florida, has become an audition site for the 15th season of Fierce Across America, he prepares to dance for his life. His audition fails to go as he planned. Veronica Verve is overwhelmed with his Dance Vision, YOUR DANCE VISION IS… I’VE GOT NO WORDS FOR IT, NUMBER 1313… LIKE PRODIGY-LEVEL I’VE-GOT-NO-WORDS-FOR-IT, KID. I’VE HONESTLY NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS. IN MY ENTIRE DANCING CAREER. (84)
Unfortunately, she also tells him that his “DANCING SKILLS ARE SIX OUT OF TEN, AT BEST,” which means no callbacks. Not knowing what ‘prodigy’ means and devastated, Jordan “think[s] about going home and digging a giant hole in the backyard and living in that hole forever.” (92) But with the help of Ben Y and Mrs. J (who is now the school librarian), some of his confidence returns and he choreographs a routine—full of his super-sweet dance moves—for Casey, who did make it to callbacks and considers Jordan is part of her ”team.” While this helps Jordan to feel a small part of FAA, he still is jealous and sad: “It’s weird to feel so happy and excited but also feel kind of…the opposite of that, all at the same time.” (191) It also takes time away from his art classes with Javier (and Carol and Carole) and their Bro Time, which makes him less of a friend, something else he needs to repair.
Although events do not play out as expected, Jordan has a plan to fix what he can—and plenty to tell Mo, his therapist.
This is a story for kids who have a passion, kids who may need to become a little more sensitive to the needs of others, and kids who are unique in their own ways, and it is KA Holt telling another “really awesome story” in a multi-formatted text. ----------
Kaleidoscope Eyes by Jen F. Bryant
Jen Bryant’s novel in verse is another opportunity for readers to learn history through story, discovering patterns the pieces make.
“I lie down on my bed, Point my kaleidoscope at the ceiling light, Watch the patterns scatter, the pieces Slide apart and come back together In ways I hadn’t noticed before.” (149)
The time period is 1966-1968 but eighth-grader Lyza’s life is also affected by the years before. She is affected by the “Unwritten Rules” that govern her close friendship with Malcolm Dupree—from tricycle days through now they have “gotten along like peas in a pod.” (11) But it is a friendship that causes Lyza to experience the prejudice of the times and her town. “We sure didn’t make the rules / about who can be friends with whom / and we don’t like the rules the way they are…/ but we are also not fools… And so—/ in the halls, at lunch, and in class / Malcolm stays with the other black kids / and I stay with the other white kids…” (12) And when they meet new people and go to new places, they are wary and watchful in a way adolescents should not have to be.
Her every action is affected by her mother’s leaving two years before when Lyza was in sixth grade and “when our family began to unravel” (5). Her college professor father works all hours, taking on extra classes and leaving Kyza and Denise to their own devices and discipline. Denise gives up college and her dreams of becoming a doctor to work in the local diner and hang out with her hippie boyfriend, Harry.
The town is affected by war in Vietnam which causes Lyza to don her black funeral dress too many times, and “Not coming back” attains a new meaning. So much so, Lyza realizes that her mother is probably never coming back either. And when Malcolm’s brother Dixon is drafted and sent to Vietnam, feelings of helplessness overwhelm her, “When someone you love leaves, and there is nothing nothing nothing you can do about it, not one thing you can say to stop that person whom you love so much from going away, and you know that today may just be the very last time you will ever see them hear them hold them, when that day comes, there is not much you can do, not much you can say.” (120)
Lyza’s grandfather dies and leaves her a mystery tied to pirate Captain Kidd, maps—old and current, a key, and a drawer, file, and documents numbers for the Historical Society of Brigantine. Lyza, Malcolm, and Carolann (“…whenever I am with Carolann and Malcolm at the same time…that’s when I feel almost normal.” (15) spend the summer working out the mystery with the help of, surprisingly, Denise, and even more unexpectedly, Harry, Denise’s “strong, long-haired boyfriend” who is smarter, more resourceful, and more trustworthy than Lyza presumed.
It is a summer of spyglasses and kaleidoscopes, letting go, realization that “…my family might be messed up but my friends [a widening circle] are as steady as they come.” (214) A summer that is important to Lyza, her family, and the town. ”I take my kaleidoscope off the shelf… I turn and turn and turn and turn, Letting the crystals shift into strange And beautiful patterns, letting the pieces fall Wherever they will.” (257) ----------
“With any story, with any life, with any event whether joyous or tragic, there is so much more to know than the established, inadequate norm: There will be as many versions of the truth as there are persons who lived it.” (Author’s Note, 121)
Deborah Wiles’ historical verse novel Kent State does just that. It tells the story of the Vietnam War protest held on the campus of Kent State University and the students who were wounded and killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire, students who may or may not have been actively involved in the demonstration. The novel chronicles the four days from Friday, May 1 to Monday, May 4, 1970.
But what is unique is that this is the story told by all the voices those involved, in whatever way—those readers may agree with, and those they may not. Author Salman Rushdie has told audiences that anyone who values freedom of expression should recognize that it must apply also to expression of which they disapprove. In Kent State we hear from protestors, faculty, and students, and friends of the four who were killed—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder. We also observe the perspectives of the National Guardsmen, the people of the community of Kent, Ohio; and the Black United Students at Kent State. The readers themselves are addressed at times. ----------
The events of 9/11 are challenging to describe and discuss, especially with children who were not yet born, which at this point is most of our student population. I think that is so because, as adults, we each have our memories of that day and Life Before. I was a middle school teacher on the day the Towers fell. I remember standing in my classroom as our team teachers watched the morning news. Thankfully, our students were in their Specials and were not witness to the shock and tears on our faces. I don’t remember much of that day, but we were located in Philadelphia and did not immediately feel the effects. But the events o that day have affected our country and all our citizens as well as our contemporary world. The importance of studying and discussing 9/11 as part of American history is highlighted in Jewell Parker Rhoads novel Towers Falling, set in September, 2016.
Nine Ten: A September 11 Story is another novel effective in introducing young adolescent students to the many events of September 11, 2001. Nora Raleigh Baskin’s novel is set during the days leading up to 9/11—in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Columbus, and Shanksvlle, Pennsylvania, where readers follow four diverse middle-grade students affected by the events of 9/11. Sergio, Naheed, Aimee, and Will first cross paths in the O’Hare Airport on September 9. The four young adolescents are Black, White, Jewish, and Muslim and are collectively surviving loss, guilt, poverty, parental absence, neglectful fathers, bullying, the navigation of peer relationships, as well as the angst of middle school, “…everything felt different, as if you suddenly realized you had been coming to school in your pajamas and you had to figure out a way to hide this fact before anyone else noticed.” (p. 48). In their own ways they are each affected by 9/11, and on September 11, 2002, these four and their families again converge at Ground Zero, each there for different reasons, but this time their paths back together have meaning.
There are a multitude of important conversations to be generated by this little novel, a story of Before and After. I was especially grateful that the events and heroes of Shanksville were memorialized. In fact there are many aspects of heroism brought forth in the novel to discuss. But Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story is the story of people and three days in their lives, “Because in the end it was just about people…Because the world changed that day, slowly and then all at once.” (p. 176). ----------
October 12, 1998 Somebody entered this world with a cry; Somebody left without saying goodbye. (35)
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young homophobic men, brutally beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. October Mourning is Lesléa Newman’s tribute in the form of a collection of sixty-eight poems about Matthew Shepard and his murder.
Newman recreates the events of the night, the following days, and the court case and reimagines thoughts and conversations through a variety of perspectives: those of Matthew Shepard himself, the people of the town—the bartender, a doctor, the patrol officers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney and their girlfriends—as well as inanimate objects, notably beginning and ending with the fence to which Shepard was tied. Many of the poems are introduced with a quote from a person involved in the events.
A range of emotions is shared through a variety of poetic styles: free verse, haiku, pantoum, concrete, rhymed, list, alphabet, villanelle, acrostic, and poems modeled after the poetry of other poets.
The poetry of October Mourning serves to let the reader bear witness to Matthew Shepard and his death but also to the power of poetry to express loss and grief and as a response to injustice. Heartbreaking and moving, but emotional and a call to action, this is a story that should be shared with all adolescents.
"Only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done." (Imagine, 90)
From “Then and Now”:
Then I was a son Now I am a symbol
Then a was a person. Now I am a memory.
Then I was a student. Now I am a lesson. (40) ----------
When their teacher explains the Butterfly Effect, “It’s the idea that a small change in one thing can lead to big changes in other things…Anything and everything we do—positive or negative, big or small—can influence other people and the world.” (153, 155) and tasks her 5th graders to think about what they could do within their social-issues projects to make a difference, they do—with repercussions they did not imagine.
Told through their daily journals, readers learn about the lives and feelings of the eight students in Mrs. Graham’s classroom:
Emily, whose two best friends have “outgrown” her, struggles through the year wondering if she will have friends again; when she is left to team with other students, she is upset but may have found newer, truer friends.
Kayley is honest to a fault since she always knows best; she tells everyone, even the teacher, what is best and what to do, not afraid to burn bridges since she will be attending a private middle school next year.
Aviva is caught in the middle. She still wants to be friends with Emily and do what’s right but is manipulated by what Kayley thinks.
Sharon writes her journal in free verse; a typical loner, she hopes for letters in her desk mailbox as she slowly becomes part of a group of friends.
Cecilia was born in America but addresses her journal entries to her Abuelita in Mexico, her mother coming to America for a better life for her child.
Blake, who loses his home, draws his entries and turns out to be a tech whiz.
Henry writes his journal as scenes and makes jokes, slowly tearing down Kayley’s defenses.
Kai, the Taiwanese son of professors, is a voracious reader and wants to “be the kind of person who does something.” (230)
And Mrs. Graham is the teacher who forces them to think.
When Mrs. Graham tells her students that their first-day seats are their teams for the year, some students rebel, but they slowly begin to perform and feel like teams, even friends. When Sharon has the idea that her team should experience a night of homelessness as “full immersion” in their social-issues project, serious consequences result, and it is up to the class to fix them—to make the big changes and influence their community. Named “Operation Frog Effect” in honor of the class frog they saved, the students learn to be part of a team and of a classroom community. ----------
Parkland Speaks edited by Sarah Lerner
On the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I read the writings of the survivors of that unspeakable event. In this “yearbook,” students and teachers share their stories of grief, terror, anger, and hope, and honor those who died through narratives, letters, speeches, free verse and rhyming poetry, and art. As the editor, MSD English and journalism teacher Sarah Lerner, writes, “Watching my students find their voices after someone tried to silence them was impressive…. It was awe-inspiring. It was brave…. They turned their grief into words, into pictures, into something that helped them begin the healing process.”
“[The news] keeps coming in, It doesn’t pause Or give you a break. It keeps hitting you With debilitating blows, one after the other, As those missing responses remain empty, And your messages remain unread.” –C. Chalita
“We entered a war zone.…I came out of that building a different person than the one who left for school that day.” –J. DeArce
“Somehow, through the darkness, we found another shade of love, too something that outweighed the hate and swept the grays away. A love so strong it transcended colors, something so empowering and true it couldn’t be traced to one hue.” – H. Korr
“I just don’t want to let go of all the people I love, I want to continuously tell them “I love you” until My voice is raw and my throat is sore” – S. Bonnin
“I invite you [Dear Mr. President] to learn, to hear the story from inside, Cause if not now, when will be the right time to discuss?” –A. Sheehy
A look into the minds and hearts of those who experienced an event no one, especially adolescents, should ever expect to encounter as they share with readers in similar and disparate circumstances across the globe.
The Scopes “Monkey” Trial has always intrigued me; the culturally-significant arguments involved have captured the interest of many—whether it be about science vs religion, Darwinism vs fundamentalism, evolution vs creation, William Jennings Bryan vs Clarence Darrow, text book and curriculum decisions, or the role of law and government in education. Most of us know the Who, What, Where, When, and believe we know the Why – but do we? How often do we know the true story of historic events—and the stories behind the story and the different perspectives on the story. Jen Bryant’s historical novel grants us the chance to observe the events of the Scopes Trial up close and personally.
Through this novel, written in the voices of those who had a ringside seat to this trial, readers also secure a front row seat to the trial, the people who participated in it, and the town that hosted it.
As the reader views the controversy and the trial from the point of view of nine fictitious, diverse characters (plus quotes from the real participants), each character develops more as the story progresses. My favorite are the teenagers of Dayton, Tennessee, because, through meeting those on both sides of the issue and closely observing them and the trial, it affects them, their relationships, and their futures. Peter and Jimmy Lee are best friends who become divided by their beliefs, finding a way to reconcile those differences so that they do not affect a lasting relationship; Marybeth is a young lady who finds the strength and support to stand up to her father’s traditional view of the role of women in society; and, my favorite character, Willy Amos meets Clarence Darrow and dares to believe what he can attempt to achieve. “’Well,’ I pointed out, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a colored lawyer.’”…”Do you plan to let that stop you?” (210)
The novel is powerfully written in multiple formats—free verse in a variety of stanza configurations and spacing decisions, a few rhyming lines here and there, and some prose. And the messages are powerful: Peter Sykes—“Why should a bigger mind need a smaller God.” (11); Marybeth Dodd—“I think some people can look at a thing a lot of different ways at once and they can all be partly right.” (131); and Constable Fraybel—“[Darrow] claims [his witnesses] are anxious to explain the difference between science and religious faith and how they made places in their heart and minds for both.” (143) An epilogue shares the aftermath and the lasting effects of this small, short trial. Every American History/Social Justice teacher and ELA teacher should have copies of this novel. ----------
In Runt, author Nora Raleigh Baskin gets inside the head of members of class of sixth graders, kids who two years prior invited everyone to their parties. The reader follows the ongoing individual stories of these students and their intersecting lives. In this novel Baskin draws parallels between sixth grade behaviors and the behaviors of dogs, specifically the dogs boarded by one of the students, Elizabeth.
This is not a story with an ending but an ongoing saga that plays itself out in middle schools across the country. As Freida concludes in her report on crimes and punishments in ancient times, “And in modern times, of course, there are all sorts of safe and creative punishments for people who try to step out of their ascribed social standing. No one, however—not Moses, not Hammurabi—could have predicted middle school.” (15)
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education defined bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has a high likelihood of repetition. According to stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are two modes of bullying: direct and indirect (spreading rumors), and there are four types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property. The newest type of bullying is electronic bullying or cyberbullying. 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. 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.
As the students in this novel’s middle school bully each other, are aghast or sometimes proud of their attempts, become bullies and are bullied, they each deal with bullies and the effects of bullying. Elizabeth ruminates on the effect of her unintended bullying of a scared little dog who now shakes at her approach, “There are some kids of hurt that are just too much to feel.” (95) But middle school bullying as outlined above takes many forms; in general boys are more physical and girls employ relationship bullying, exclusion. In both genders, bullies seek out the weak. “In the wild mountain lions have been known to attack their own leader when he appears weak and unable to protect his pride.” (171) Apparently no one is safe.
The dog who narrates the Afterword says, “I want to know where I belong.” (194) These characters and their stories will help generate discussions that may help readers clarify not only where they belong but where they want to belong, how they want to be treated and how they want to treat others. ----------
Emerson Elementary is closing at the end of the year. Readers live through that last year with the eighteen diverse fifth graders and experience their changing peer and family relationships through their poetry. Their individual poems about the school and their past and present in the school show who is for and who is against the upcoming change as these fifth graders find their voices.
Each student has his or her unique poetry style—free verse, rhyming, haiku, list poetry, sonnet, concrete, acrostic, tanka, Fibonacci poetry, limerick, ode, diamante, and rap. One poem is written as a script. Poems are written in stanzas, in quatrains, in tercets, and blank verse. A few poems are written in Spanish and in translation as Gaby Vargas and Mark Fernandez collaborate. Some are rhythmic; some are humorous; some light, some serious, and others are sad, but each shows the voice of the writer.
Ben writes a “percussion poem” that includes lots of onomatopoeia. Rennie writes a poem “Speaking My Mind” as a letter to the teacher. Poets write about their cultures—“Hijab,” “Espanol, and “Marvelous Matzoh,” about having Asperger’s, being the new kid, being an immigrant, and being left out.
Readers truly experience the diversity of poetry and poetic devices and one lovable class whose poems move the year along. ----------
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron
A golem is a creature formed out of a lifeless substance such as dust or earth that is brought to life by ritual incantations and sequences of Hebrew letters. The golem, brought into being by a human creator, becomes a helper, a companion, or a rescuer of an imperiled Jewish community. --------- Stan Lee once said, “If you don’t care about the characters, you can’t care about the story.” And I do look for characters I care about; in fact; sometimes I just want to take care of them. Even though I fell in love with them, there is no need in Chris Baron’s new verse novel; the two main characters, Etan and Malia, take care of each other quite well.
Etan is part of a close community of emigrés from Prague, the Philippines, China, and other countries who, with his grandfather, sailed on the Calypso and entered America through the Angel Island Immigration Center in 1940. Etan needs the support of his community when his mother goes to a mental hospital and he loses the ability speak—except sometimes. In addition, his father appears to have lost his Jewish faith, and the community Sabbat dinners end. Etan finds comfort in his religious grandfather and his jewelry shop which appear to be the heart of the community.
Etan doesn’t play with the other boys at school since his mother left, and, when on a delivery errand, he meets Malia who has been homeschooled since she was bullied and called “the creature.” Malia’s severe eczema keeps her in the house or covered up from the sun with her Blankie. However, as he becomes friends with her, Etan believes that his grandfather’s ancient muds will cure Malia’s condition or bring a golem to help them out.
Etan, there are many things from the old world from your ancestors that we carry with us always. It’s our fire. Our light. But there are somethings from those times that are still with us. (114)
When the mud doesn’t work permanently, Mrs. Li tells Etan, Your friendship for this girl is the oldest and strongest form of medicine you can ever give her. Remind her that she is not alone. (161)
His grandfather agrees, …each of us has his own story. You have a chance to be the light, to help a friend. (178)
Etan helps Malia find her voice, and, when the earthquake nearly destroys the city, the community joins together, and Etan former friend Jordan and the bully Martin also contribute.
At the same time, his grandfather acknowledges that Etan is nearing the age of thirteen, the age of Bar Mitzvah and becoming a man, and he gives Etan family artifacts that he had brought from Prague to “connect you to the old world like a bridge, to remind you of where you came from and who you are, and that anything is possible.” (298) This gives Etan the idea of how to help put things back together. The old and the new mix together, making something completely new, making something together. (323)
Set during the October 17, 1989, San Francisco earthquake and the legendary Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and the A’s, this story is magical but certainly not imperfect. ----------
Our students can learn more about history from novels than textbooks, and, more importantly, stories help them understand history and its effects on the people involved. Familiar with aviator Charles Lindbergh, I was not as knowledgeable about the 1932 kidnapping of his son and the resulting trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, but the most effective way to learn about it was through the eyes, and words, of seventh-grader Katie Leigh Flynn.
Katie is a resident of Flemington, New Jersey, a town where “nothing ever happens.” (5). Katie’s father left her and her mother years ago, and both Katie and her mother are compassionate about the plight of others. The Great Depression has begun; Katie donates food and clothing for less-fortunate children and, when the hotel’s assistant chef is caught putting food in his pockets, her mother says she will “find him an apron with larger pockets.” Katie supports her best friend Mike who “is not like / the other boys I know…he’s not / stuck-up or loudmouthed or silly” (10) and lives with his father, a drunk.
Katie, nicknamed “Word Girl” by the local newspaper editor, plans to become a reporter and keeps a scrapbook of news clippings and headlines, especially about Colonel Lindbergh and the kidnapping. When the Hauptmann is arrested and the trial comes to the local courthouse, her reporter uncle needs a secretary to take notes, and she takes six weeks off school to help. Thus, readers experience the 1935 trial through Katie.
During the trial, readers meet the Lindbergs; the judge; the defendant; the alcoholic defense lawyer who hasn’t won a case in years; prosecutor Wilentz; Anna Hauptmann who swears her husband was at home with her and their baby that night; a witness (paid by the prosecution); and Walter Winchell and other celebrities who come to town for the trial.
The story reminds us that at this time Hitler is in power and discrimination and his persecution has begun in Europe. But Americans are just as prone to prejudice and discrimination. The German bakery changes its sign to “Good American-Baked Bread and Desserts.” [Katie’s] “Mother shrugs, ‘Everything German is suspicious these days.’” (96) And Hauptmann is a German immigrant.
Prejudice is not limited to Germans. People talk about Katie’s friend Mike. “They say: ‘Kids like Mike / never amount to much.’” (24) He is accused of vandalism but when Katie wants to tell who really was responsible, he tells her, “I’m a drunkard’s son. You’re a dancer’s daughter. Bobby Fenwick is a surgeon’s son. His mother is on the School Board, the Women’s League, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Town Council, If you were Mrs, McTavish, [who is a member of the School Board, the Women’s League, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Town Council, (110)] Who would you believe?” (112)
Truth moves to center stage for Katie (if not for anyone else). Thinking about the conflicting testimonies and absence of evidence, she reflects, “Truth must be … like a lizard that’s too quick to catch and turns a different color to match whatever rock it sits upon.” (126) She is careful to write down every word of testimony. “I say, ‘But when a man’s on trial for his life / isn’t every word important?’” (84)
The search for truth is the heart of Jen Bryant’s novel told in free verse. After her experiences, Katie is disillusioned with the American Justice System and says that “…everything used to lay out so neatly, / everything seemed / pretty clear and straight. / Now all the streets run slantwise / and even the steeples look crooked.” (151)
The novel ends with an epilogue and a reflection on “reasonable doubt,” media, and “the complexities of human behavior” and will lead to important classroom conversations, not about the trial, but about justice. ----------
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). ----------
Torch by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
“THEY had all the power. There was no such thing as fairness in their world.” (ARC, 19)
There is so much world history of which many of us, especially our adolescent readers, are unaware. Novelists, such as Lyn Miller-Lachmann, can teach us this history while making it come alive, putting human faces on the many who dies and survived during this time.
On August 21, 1968, the Soviet Union and three other Communist regimes—Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria—invaded Czechoslovakia. The new wave of repression that followed saw the withdrawal of freedoms, mass firings, expulsions from the Party, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the closing of the borders. (Author’s Note)
Taking place from December 1968 to Summer 1969, TORCH is a story of not only a time in history but resilience, freedoms, resistance, creativity, family, and, above all, friendship.
When Pavol finds his dreams of attending university in Prague have been ended by the Party, and he faces a life in the mines that killed his father, he and his friends Stepan and Tomas write a letter to be delivered to the castle in Prague. When he and Stepan are stopped and sent away, Pavol follows the example of martyr Jan Palach and sets himself on fire, a human torch.
Readers see how not only the increasing restrictive and punitive government’s actions but also Pavol’s actions affect his pregnant girlfriend Lydia; Ondrej, her father, a WWII freedom fighter; his friends Stepan and Tomas; and his mother and three younger sisters.
“Pavol’s death hadn’t changed anything. One by one, the reformers in the government had been fired and replaced, not even a figurehead remaining. Every proclamation announced ‘normalization’: the return to dictatorship. The censorship was tighter than ever.” (ARC, 161)
Stepan, a former bully who had been transformed through his friendship with—and maybe a crush on—the kind Pavol, is the star player of his high school hockey team and dreams of a hockey scholarship and eventually the Olympics, but lets the poetry and life of Walt Whitman guide him. Instead of moving toward his goals, he is beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and finally sent to work for the State in the worst conditions.
Tomas, always socially awkward—“He was so much better with problem sets and the grammar of foreign languages than with people (ARC, 31), Pavol was his first real friend. Tomas’ father, Comrade Kuchar, was high in the Party and sent his son to youth leadership classes and camp, calling him “antisocial” and threatening to send him to a mental hospital when he turned 18.
Lydia lived in the woods with her father who moved them frequently and in the middle of the night; she worked in the shoe factory without much hope for a future until she fell in love with Pavol giving her hopes to live in Prague and her own chance to finish her education. After his death, she found she was pregnant with his child which gives her even less opportunities. When she finds out that her father is dying, she plans an escape to Austria, hoping to encourage Stepan and even Tomas to join her.
These characters became real and got under my skin as I returned to them each day of reading, feeling their pain and frustrations and cheering any victories. One reason is that they formed unlikely bonds with each other as they began trying to cheer each other on to lives with freedoms. This novel belongs in high school World History classes to expand our knowledge of the people in our world. ----------
Considering history through novels lets the reader experience, and make sense of, history through the perspective of those most affected by historic events. When I studied history through a textbook, I learned dates, names—at least the names those in publishing the textbooks thought important, and events. I never understood what that information meant or appreciated what the persons involved experienced; I felt that I never got to know them as real people—their hopes, desires, ambitions.
Ann Burg’s verse novel Unbound does just that. The story invites the reader into the hearts and thoughts of the characters, especially the main character, Grace, a young slave in the 1860’s. Grace, who has light skin and blue eyes, lives with her Mama, her two young half-brothers and their father Uncle Jim, and old Aunt Sara who helped raise her. When she is called to work in the Big House, her Mama warns her to keep her eyes down, ”to always be good, to listen to the Missus, n never talk back…n not to speak less spoken to first,” (3)
Observing the heartless Master and hateful Missus, Grace can’t help but question why they can’t do anything for themselves “Why do grown folks / need help getting dressed?” (91) She wonders why Aunt Tempie silently ignores the unfairness and abuse, “Things’ll change, Grace / maybe even sooner’n later / but till thy do—‘ (91) and why Anna and Jordon have to bear beatings and mistreatment. Reading the Missus’ words and threats is more chilling than reading about the treatment by slaveowners in textbooks.
Eventually Grace angers the Missus, “You are nothing but a slave / who needs to learn her place.” (204), and when Jordan runs away and the Master needs the money to replace him, the Missus suggests selling Grace’s family. Grace recognizes that they also need to run away (“Not sure where my place is / but I know it’s not / the Big House.” (204), and they leave in the middle of the night. Helped by OleGeorgeCooper and others, they have to decide whether to go north or go deep. And even though Grace has a chance for passing as white and “a chance / of escaping for real / of livin like the good Lord / intended folks to live. / [She] has a chance to own herself…”(212-3), the family decides to stay together.
They travel through the treacherous swamp, but as OleGeorgeCooper tells them, “There’s nothing in the swamp / what’s worse’n / the stink / of bein a slave.” (261), and as they move through, “[Grace] feels part / of another world, / a beautiful world, / A world / what whispers ‘ Freedom.” (271)
Safe (relatively) and free in a settlement in the Great Daniel Swamp, Grace explains to her new friend and family member Brooklyn, another runaway, ”Everyone’s got a way of mattering. / The only thing / what doesn’t matter / is what color / the good Lord paints us.” (336)
Well-research and written in dialect, this is an inspiring story of the maroons, enslaved people seeking freedom in the wilderness. ----------
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. 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. ----------
Your Heart; My Sky: Love in the Time of Hunger by Margarita Engle
I began learning about the history of Cuba through Cuban-American poet Margarita Engle’s memoir, Enchanted Sky. I continued my study, learning more Cuban history through the stories of Tula,The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist; though the story of Rosa in The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom; with Daniel, one of the Holocaust refugees in Cuba in Tropical Secrets; and the story of Fefa (based on Engle’s grandmother) in The Wild Book. But there is still more history to learn.
Your Heart; My Sky introduced me to a different, more contemporary era, “el period especial en tiempos de paz.” The government’s name for the 1990s is “the special period in times of peace,” but in reality is a period of extreme hunger resulting from the loss of Soviet aid, the US trade embargo, and the government prohibition of the growing, buying, and selling of agricultural products. Even though the 1991 Pan Am Games are being held in Havana, where visitors and athletes are sure to find food, the people in the towns face starvation, their food rations reduced even more.
No witnesses. We are like an outer isle Off the shore of another island. Forgotten. (3) My parents quietly call it tourist apartheid. Everything for outsiders. Nothing for islanders. (Liana, 6)
Readers are introduced to the disastrous effects of these policies on the citizens through the three narrators: Liana, Amado, and the Singing Dog who serves as a matchmaker between, and a guard of, the two adolescents.
Liana and Amado are both rebels in their own ways: Liana skips la escuela al campo “a summer of forced so-called-volunteer farm labor,” possibly giving up college or a government-assigned tolerable job, spending her days looking for food. Amado has made a pact with his brother who is in jail for speaking against the government. He is worried that he won’t be able to keep his promise to avoid the mandatory military service—“men have to serve in the reserves until they’re fifty”—and promote peace, possibly joining his brother in prison.
Maybe I should let myself be trained to kill, become a soldier, gun-wielding, violent, a dangerous stranger, no longer me. (Amado, 24)
In beautiful lyrical verse, lines that caused me to re-read and savor, Liana and Amado meet and fall in love,
The pulse in my mind wanders away From hunger, toward something I can barely name. A spark of wishlight on the dark horizon’s oceanic warmth. (Liana, 35)
Liana meets Amado’s grandparents who are growing vegetables and fruits in hidden gardens, and she is given seeds to start her own gardens. She dreams of starting a kitchen restaurant.
Everything has changed inside our minds So that we are intensely aware of our ability To seize control of hunger, Transforming food Into freedom. (110)
Amado and Liana help fleeing refugees, even though
Leaving the island is forbidden by law And it is equally illegal To know that someone is planning to flee. (95)
When Amado receives a note from his brother releasing him from their pact, he secretly plans their rafting escape. But the indecision brought about by the precariousness of the trip cause them to reconsider.
All we have in our shared hearts is one imaginary raft-- How shall we use it? Climb aboard or set it loose, Let that alternate future drift away? (Liana and Amado, 197)
A beautiful story of a terrible time in Cuban history and two resilient families connected by love (and a singing dog).