The characters in the novels pictured are coping with such physical challenges and illnesses as cancer, alopecia, amputation, deafness, burns and scars, facial difference, scoliosis, being conjoined, cystic fibrosis, braces and eyeglasses, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), concussion, autoimmune disease, HIV, blindness, eye disease, progeria, paralysis, diabetes, and cerebral palsy.
These are novels and memoirs which will support some readers who will see reflections of themselves and their families and will help to grow empathy in others. Some of these novels will benefit from being read and discussed in Book Clubs where more readers tend to contribute to the small-group conversations and discussions tend to delve deeper. For ideas and lessons for reading books in Book Clubs, see TALKING TEXTS: A Teacher's Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum.
Below I review 24 of my more recently read novels.
The Someday Suitcase; House Arrest; Knock Out; How to Rock Braces and Glasses; More to the Story; Braced; The Honest Truth; Solving for M, The Order of Things; Virtually Me; Abby Tried and True; El Deafo; Hear Me; Firegirl; Out of My Mind; Out of My Heart; Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie; A Time to Dance; Wonder; Song for a Whale; Hidden Truths; Once in a Blue Moon; Red, White and Whole; Before the Ever After; Squint; Scars Like Wings; Winning; Shark Girl; How We Roll; Not If I See You first; One; You Don’t Know Everything, Jill Pi; Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes; Positive: A Memoir; Jumper; What about Will; Soul Surfer
Abby Tried and True by Donna Gephart
Abby Braverman’s friend Catriella Wasserman moved to Israel the summer Abby turned twelve. An introvert, Abby only had the one friend. While kids at school didn’t exactly bully Abby, they didn’t take the time to know her, and the girls told her she needed to be more outgoing and that she probably wouldn’t speak up even to save someone’s life. Luckily Conrad, the eighth-grade boy who moved into Cat’s house, became a good and sensitive friend and possibly a boyfriend. And Abby had a close, supportive family—her two moms, her Jewish grandparents, and her older brother Paul.
“[Paul] was an extrovert. Being social was easy for Paul, and he already had two best friends, Jake and Ethan, to do everything with. Paul was not a turtle. He was an otter. Otters were fun and outgoing, Everyone loved otters.” (65)
But that summer another tragedy struck. As Abby wrote in her journal,
“One day my brother said, “I have cancer.” With those words—that one word-- Oxygen left the room Sound Molecules And then came back, forever rearranged, Nothing has been the same since. There is only before…and after.” (186)
This is a story of a young girl who is navigating the challenges of middle school, a new friendship and relationship, and the fear of losing her brother, frightened that the girls at school may be right, that she will be too scared to be able to help what it is necessary. But she learns she does have that courage: “Being brave is when you’re scared to do something but you choose to do it anyway because you know it’s the right thing to do.” (197)
This is one of the novels crucial to have in school and classroom libraries, to put into the hands of children who need it. Many readers will see themselves in this novel—whether coping with these same issues or others—and other readers will learn empathy for their peers who may be going through more than they know, hiding in plain sight. There are adolescents who are painfully shy or who lose their good friends and families living with a child who has cancer. As happens in adolescence, this is a year of highs and lows; fortunately, in Abby’s world, the good outweighed the bad.
Each year in the U.S. there are an estimated 15,780 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age who are diagnosed with cancer. Approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. (www.acco.org) Although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States. In 2021, it is estimated that 15,590 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,780 will die of the disease in the United States. Among adolescents ages 15 to 19 years, about 5090 will be diagnosed with cancer and about 590 will die of the disease. (National Cancer Institute) Young men between the ages of 15 and 35 are at the highest risk for testicular cancer, the cancer that afflicts Paul in the story. (Author’s Note)
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
I have long been a fan of Jacquelyn Woodson’s books and have read all her picture books, middle grades, YA, and adult books. This novel for middle grade readers not only is a well-written verse novel (my favorite format when crafted masterfully as Woodson does) but addresses an important topic—CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussion. Many of our children are affected by CTE either through their parents and other relatives who played sports as children and as adults or served in the military or as athletes themselves who may face CTE in their futures. Sports with high risks of concussion are rugby, American football, ice hockey, and soccer, as well as lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, softball, field hockey, baseball, and cheerleading.
“Before the ever after, there was three of us And we lived happily Before the ever after.” (7)
Before the Ever After there was ZJ, his mother and famous father. ZJ’s father was Zachariah 44, a pro football star, hero to many and to his son, “he’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing.” (4)
But in the Ever After, ZJ’s dad is forgettful, moody, has splitting headaches, and sometimes even yells. Only 35 years old, he has good days and bad days. The many doctors he visits and tests he is subjected to don’t have any answers or a cure, but doctors all agree this is a result of the many concussions he suffered in his career as a football player. Only ZJ’s music seems to bring him peace.
Before—and During—the Ever After, ZJ has loyal, true friends: Ollie, Darry, and Daniel: “Feels like we’re all just one amazing kid the four of us, each a quarter of a whole.” (108)
And he has his music: “When I sing, the songs feel as magic as Daniel’s bike as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers as smooth as Darry’s moves as good as the four of us hanging out on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
It feels right and clear and always.” (15)
This is a novel about the effects of CTE but also the story of family and friends.
Braced by Alyson Gerber
Author Walter Dean Myers said that everyone should see himself in a book, which we now refer to as "books as mirrors," while his son Christopher Myers has referred to books as maps, helping teens navigate adolescent life. Braced, the YA novel I read today, was written about a middle schooler who has scoliosis and has to wear a back brace. New author (at the time of publication) Alyson Gerber experienced the same challenge as an adolescent,
Seventh grader Rachel Brooks is told that she has to wear a back brace 20-some hours a day. She is figuring out how to navigate life—and soccer—with the unwieldy brace as well as normal middle-school dramas with friends, boys, dances, and, sadly, bullying, displaying a quiet inner strength. There is ongoing friction between Rachel and her mother who also has a history of scoliosis. The story is populated with characters with whom, and middle-school events with which, readers will relate.
This novel joins the growing market of YA lit eraturewhich can serve as mirrors and maps for any adolescent who feels different written by authors who know of what they speak.
Firegirl by Tony Abbott
When I taught middle school, I told my students that this was these were years (7th-8th grade) that they would decide who they would become, not what they would become (that would happen in high school), the type of person they would become. Many adults don’t remember just how confusing and challenging adolescence can be—adolescents have friends who are BFFs one day and frenemies another; some hang out with “friends” they don’t even like, just to have a friend or to seem popular; and even through most know right from wrong, sometimes “right” is just so hard to do. Hormones are “raging,” and take over brains. And there is always the worry of judgment and censure from others. Author Tony Abbott remembers and designs Tom, the protagonist of Firegirl, with all these challenges and insecurities.
Seventh grader Tom, who, as his mother says needs to “get out there,” has a fairly predictable life. He goes to a Catholic school where he is quiet and most kids ignore him; he has fantasies about saving the life of a grateful Courtney, the prettiest girl in the class; and he hangs out daily with Jeff, a friend who is a little strange, has an unhappy home life, and may not be very truthful or nice but just might help Tom impress Courtney.
Then Tom’s world and values change when Jessica Feeney, a girl who has been badly burned in an accident, joins their class. While many of their classmates ignore Jessica or spread rumors about her, Tom begins seeing her as the person she is even though he is “afraid” of her “The way you look…it scares me.” (134) They strike up somewhat of a friendship although, as Tom admits, “I never talk to you where anybody can see me—” (135), but hard is it is for him, he wants to do what is right, although it is realistically a slow transition. “It suddenly seemed like the hardest thing in the world to go over there. ‘Sure. Okay.”’ (129)
The story shows the how one seventh grader decides the person he will become. As Tom says, “On the outside it doesn’t look like very much happened” (144) and he is not sure that this experience has made him a better person, but he is a changed person and “I’d want to tell her thank you.” (145).
Firegirl is a novel I missed reading when published in 2006,, but when I saw that Tony Abbott has written a new novel, The Great Jeff, that focuses on the character Jeff from Firegirl, I decided to read the earlier novel and am so glad I did. Tom’s voice took me in from the first page and led me through a pivotal three weeks in his adolescent life.
Hear Me by Kerry O’Malley Cera
“My parents are great. But for as long as we’ve known about my hearing loss, they have been searching for a solution. A way to fix me—my brokenness. And I do feel broken. Or maybe just left out. And it seems like the only way I’ll be able to communicate with my friends again is to fix my ears like Mom wants. But not HOW Mom wants.” (46)
Rayne is twelve years old, loves music, and was earning top grades, but has been experiencing progressive sensorineural hearing loss which appears to be rapidly progressing. She is falling behind in her schoolwork; she lies about what she can hear and avoids social situations, like her friend’s pool party and sleepovers, where she won’t be about to hear conversations or read lips, and is worried about starting a relationship with her first crush, Troy, who shares her love of the stars. She sees herself as broken and assumes that her family sees her in the same way “…lately, to me, stupid feels synonymous with sudden hearing loss.” (3). She does have a very supportive best friend, Jenika, as well as Troy.
Rayne’s parents, a middle-school teacher and high school principal, have been conducting research—“We’ve done the research. Weighed the pros and cons of all the options. And I do mean all the options.” (33)—and are adamant that Rayne should get cochlear implants. Rayne also has done the research and is just as adamant that she does not want the implants. “Cochlear implants are permanent. Permanent! I’ll be stuck with some bionic lumps sticking out of my head. And my hearing won’t actually be normal again—everyone will sound like robots. Plus, what if it doesn’t work? That’s happened, you know. You can’t just take it back because there is no going back” (35) Rayne is hoping for another option, to take part in a stem cell transplant research study, but she is turned down because of her age. When Dr. James gives her mother a brochure, she sees there is one more option—Bayview School for the Deaf and Blind, but it is across the state (a “no” from her parents) and since, Rayne doesn’t know sign language, would she even fit in there?
As her hearing loss progresses and she has to give up what she loves—surfing and listening to her favorite band, she also finds school and committees even more difficult to navigate. “Hanging out with Troy, winning the election [for seventh grade president], and having Jenika as a best friend are all like catching the epic wave, but underneath that board, underneath the water I can’t see through, it feels like a threat waiting for me.” (109) She even tries to explain to her friends why it is a “big deal”: “Because people assume I’m not smart when I answer the wrong things. Or they think I’m mean because sometimes I don’t answer at all, when I actually just didn’t hear them. And it’s a big deal because half the time I feel invisible—at parties, in school, even at dinner with my own family, And the few times I don’t feel invisible all have to do with me not being able to hear, and those times I wish I was invisible. There’s no winning for me.”
When Rayne finds out that her parents have scheduled her operation, she becomes desperate, first trying to hire a lawyer to find out if her parents can force her to have cochlear implants and, when that fails, running away to Orlando to try to beg her way into the stem cell study, which also fails. Getting lost on her way to another city, she ends up at Bayview, and finally she and her family explore what may be the most viable option for Rayne.
The novel, to be published in September, gives readers the opportunity to follow in Rayne’s footsteps—to hear (or not hear) through Rayne’s ears and experience not only the phenomena of auditory closure—the ability to make sense of missing, incomplete or distorted words, sentences, or concepts—but another phenomenon, listening fatigue. Some conversations are easier to interpret—“We *** wait too long. Dr. Olsen said *** longer *** go without hearing, *** less your auditory nerves *** be stimulated. (15); some are more challenging—“*** good. I *** *** much *** *** Colby. Go hang *** ***.” (25)
Some children, even those who have not experienced hearing loss, will see themselves in Rayne but, reading Kerry Cerra’s Own Voice story, hopefully many more will see themselves growing into Jenika and Troy, persons of empathy and understanding, a journey much like Colby, Rayne’s brother.
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 sustaines 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.
How to Rock Braces and Glasses by Meg Haston
There seem to be more books about boy bullies than girl bullying. Female adolescent bullying is different—it is a bullying of exclusion, manipulation, and rumors. What I loved about this novel is that it does NOT follow the expected plot arc—mean girl becomes a loser and is disrespected and insulted by her former friends; the nerds support her, and she sees the light and changes, dropping the popular kids forever. Neither is it the opposite. But, like middle school, it is somewhere in between; the story is nuanced as is adolescence.
Kacey is a bully. She does not see herself s a bully or even as a mean girl; she sees herself as honest, as knowing what everyone should say, do, and wear, and she is just there to help them or help them get real. "The truth may hurt, but it's always better to know"(189).
Her world as school leader falls apart when an eye infection leaves her with glasses and new braces leave her—a school news reporter and star of the musical—with a lisp. Her best friends drop her and cyber bully her and while an old friend offers to help, it is to receive help herself having decided in fifth grade that she was embarrassed to be seen with Kacey (which is not how Kacey remembers the end of the friendship). And the cute nerd seems to be dating her former best friend.
Kacey reclaims her popularity, but takes responsibility for herself and her past actions.
How We Roll by Natasha Friend
Stan Lee said, “To my way of thinking, whether it’s a superhero movie or a romance or a comedy or whatever, the most important thing is you’ve got to care about the characters.” This is true whether watching a movie or reading a novel, and I thought of this when I read Natasha Friend’s newest YA novel, How We Roll.
Quinn has a brother who is on the autism spectrum, and his tantrums and food requirements consume her parents’ attention, especially her mother’s. So when Quinn’s hair falls out and she is diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder, she handles the challenges on her own, assuming that her middle school friends will support her. Which they do—until they don’t. Bullied and ridiculed by her peers and ignored by her two lifelong friends, Quinn copes by keeping to herself and putting her energy into skateboarding and basketball.
Serendipitously, when the family moves across the country so her brother can attend a special school, she has a chance to start over, with her two new wigs—Guinevere and Sasha. At her new school she meets a group of girls who adopt her. She also meets Jake. Jake, the former star football player, was in an accident and is now a bilateral amputee, sad and bitter, and the two become unlikely friends. Quinn also finds out that it is possible to have friends who like you for who you are, not what you look like.
What impressed me was how three-dimensional the characters were and not only how supportive Quinn is despite her heartbreak, but she is learning to trust that others can be as supportive. I really came to like all the characters, even Jake’s flawed brother and the ninth-grade popular girls (except for the old schoolmates whom the reader was not supposed to like). Readers will experience just how demanding life with a neuro-diverse child can be but, on the other hand, just how supportive a family and a community can be.
[This novel would be appropriate for mature adolescent readers.
Knock Out by K.A. Holt
One of my favorite middle-grade novels is House Arrest which is also one of my top suggestions for middle-grade reluctant readers. When I received an ARC of Knock Out, I moved it to the head of my To Read pile, but I am not sure that I was ready for a book that did not focus on favorite character Timothy, rather on his little brother Levi. In House Arrest keeping the medically-fragile Levi safe was the rationale for all decisions made by Timothy, a victim of what happens when a good kid does a bad thing for a good reason.
Now Levi is in 7th grade and trying to make his own life and find the boy who is no longer a victim of illness and an overprotective family. Despite a loving mother, big brother, and a good friend, Levi is more self-centered than Timothy was, but he feels he needs to be able to become his own independent person—which he does in a new passion for boxing. He finally convinces his mother and the now 24-year old Timothy to let him have his chance as he learns more about Timothy's sacrifices and the true motives of his father.
Knock Out is advertised as a companion novel to House Arrest. Since I already have the background from the first novel, I can not evaluate how effective it would be to read it alone or first. It might work well if students were paired to read the two novels (or if half the class reads each).
Jumper by Melanie Crowder
Blair Scott has a passion – firefighting. She has a goal—to become a smoke jumper even though she is only 19 years old. But Blair also has a secret—she has Type 1 Diabetes, a condition which could keep her from reaching her goal.
Luckily, Blair has an aunt, a biomedical engineer, who has physically trained her to withstand and adapt to strenuous conditions and has modified her diabetes equipment and a Smart watch to monitor her. And she has Jason, her best friend, who follows her when, in exceptionally active fire year, they are both accepted into U.S. Forest Service smokejumper training.
Blair feels she has to take risks and prove herself as, not only a young recruit, but especially as a woman.
This is a novel of adventure, danger, courage, passion, friendships, support, grief, and, most of all, the power of fire. Well-researched, the novel provides a vast amount of information about wildfire and firefighting training and protocols and will appeal to many teen readers.
More to the Story by Hena Khan
When I was a child and an adolescent, my favorite book was Little Women. I first read the Junior Illustrated version and then graduated to the novel. I next devoured Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Little Women was published in 1868, but is both timeless and timely. However, the characters are not diverse, and this novel, even with its universal themes, may not speak to all readers and give all readers a mirror into their own worlds and a window into that of other cultures.
That is why I read with excitement Hena Khan’s MG novel More to the Story. Based on Little Women but set today in Georgia, the novel tells the story of a Pakistani-American family: Mama and Baba, Mayam (15), Jameela (12), Bisma (11) , and Aleeza (10) and the family friends’ nephew Ali (13). Jameela, a budding reporter and Features Editor of her school newspaper, narrates their story.
\When Baba loses his job and leaves for a 6-month position in Abu Dhabi and Bisma, the sister to whom she is closest, is diagnosed with lymphoma, Jam has to find the strength to fight her quick anger and to work with her family. And while a story she writes about microagressions impresses the news staff and brings a current problem to the foreground, it also threatens her new friendship with Ali, and Jam has to make things right. She finds help through an extended family who loves each other finds ways to support each other during these difficult times.
This is not a book for only those who have read Little Women, but a wonderful story in its own right. It could also be paired with Little Women the novel or possibly one of the movie versions.
Once in a Blue Moon by Sharon Flake
Doesn’t she understand? I want to go swimming—like any kid. Want to go to school run up the road past Connors’ Mills Take the hill to Mr. Handlin’s smelly old barn sneak a ride on his pig. I miss skipping rocks in Thompson’s pond playing ball with sticks sitting sky-high up in me and Hattie’s favorite tree. Most of all I miss Ma being home in the kitchen making breakfast teaching in the schoolhouse laughing all the time Daddy walking down the road whistling his way home to us. (122-123)
The night James Henry sneaked away to the lighthouse and the ensuing accident when Ma, going after him, lost her footing and fell in the water, set off a catastrophic chain of events.
Ma and Daddy are living up North, Ma is in a hospital and Daddy is working in Detroit to make money so she can get better. Twins John Henry and Hattie are living with Gram but John Henry has not left the house since the accident, sometimes even hiding under the table, not speaking to anyone other than Hattie; Hattie has become his protector and his voice. The only place he goes—with Hattie and her birds—is on the roof in their “spaceship,” reenacting the exploits of his radio hero Buck Rogers of the “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” radio show. His uncle—his mother’s twin—turned on him after the accident. And the neighboring Baker boys have become dangerous bullies.
The first change in their new lives occurs when Lottie Jean, daughter of a dentist and, in her mind, a source of back luck, moves in and Hattie finally has a friend. James Henry doesn’t like anyone around but he learns to accept her and Lottie Jean learns how to deal with him on his own terms. And Hattie is working hard to get John Henry to leave the house and go out in the world. She loves him but has been offered a chance to go to school in Philadelphia, leaving behind the Jim Crow South of the 1930’s. You think I can go off to school with you forever inside the house? No friends to speak of? Ma and Daddy gone? (156)
Sister has a plan. If only she can get James Henry back to the scene of the accident under the blue moon and find his courage again. When a blue moon shows up everything is set right again. Even you, James Henry. (29)
She tries and tries to entice him to come out of the house to no avail. But on the day of the blue moon, he does come out and Hattie, Lottie Jean, and James Henry hitch a ride to town with the two white widows and start through the woods to the light house; they find themselves pursued by two white men with guns and the Baker boys. Out here in these parts anything can happen. So when I stiffen up freeze inside and out like ice on Mars I don’t get mad at myself. (188)
On this treacherous two-day journey, James Henry proves himself to be courageous—and compassionate (when one of the meanest Baker becomes extremely injured), and, by the time they reach the lighthouse, he is ready to revisit and share his story of that fateful night, a story that provides healing and mends relationships.
Author Sharon Flake’s powerful story, told in free verse through James Henry’s narration, is a story of mystery and adventure, family and peer relationships, bullying and friendship, fear and courage, loss and recovery.
Out of My Heart by Sharon Draper
“I guess [the other campers] were a little like me—a little scared, a little curious, a little ‘I don’t know these people!’ At the same time, I knew that these girls, like me, had been to countless doctors’ appointments, and specialists consultations, and probably physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions. They were no doubt real familiar with schools where we sat in the back of a class full of kids without disabilities, or in a room designed for us, with ramps and pull-up belts and security straps to make sure we didn’t fall… Yep, even though I didn’t know these girls, I kinda knew them. Which meant they kinda knew me as well.” (77-78)
What we learned about tween Melody from her first novel, Out of My Mind:
Melody has cerebral palsy.
She has a younger sister and very supportive parents and neighbor who teaches her about things.
She is very smart and has a photographic memory.
Melody cannot walk, feed herself, or speak.
She discovers a device that helps her communicate, a Medi-talker.
Her fellow fifth graders on the Quiz Team were very mean to her and left her behind when they went to compete.
In Sharon Draper’s sequel Out of My Heart, which can be read as a separate story, readers get to know Melody even better. A year-older, Melody has decided that she wants to attend a summer camp and researches a camp that is affordable, relatively close to home, and for children who are challenged in a variety of ways.
Despite nerves, Melody does attend the one-week sleep-over camp where she meets her fellow bunkmates: Karyn who has spina bifida and doesn’t plan to stay longer than the first day; Athena who loves pinks, is enthusiastic about everything, and has Down syndrome; and Jocelyn who says everything three times because it makes her feel safe but is very supportive of the others and is ready to “get this party started! Started! Started!” (83)
Over the week the four campers bond and become great friends (Melody’s first friends), despite their four over-attentive and protective, but encouraging and supportive, counselors. “For the first time in my life, I’d played outside. With friends.” (211)
At camp Melody participates fully in activities she never thought she could: zip-lining, horseback riding (on her own when her horse takes off during a lightning storm), swimming in a pool, riding on a boat, rebelling against authority (counselors) to spend some time hanging with just her three friends, and having a first crush—and dancing with that crush. Camp makes Melody realize she can do almost anything and be seen for her abilities and for who she really is, rather than for her disabilities and a preconceived notion of who she is.
“In our schools most of us are considered misfits. We are often ignored, mistreated, teased, or overlooked. Each of us struggles with something—physical, emotional, mental—that makes us just a little different from others. Sometimes a lot different. But here we were awesome, we were noble, we were able, and we were cool!” (333)
Everyone deserves to have their stories told. This is an important novel for those who feel they are not seen and for those who are not seeing them.
Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
I listen to my mother. Always. But I am an American, I was born here, it’s the only home I know. So I’m caught between the life I want to lead And the one she thinks I should. (4) ---- Thirteen-year-old Reha was born in America. Her parents married in India and moved to America for a better life, and Amma is very traditional and has strict expectations for their only child. Reha is sent to a private school where…
At school I swim in a river of white skin And blond hair and brown hair And blue eyes and green eyes and hazel, School subjects and giggles about boys, Salad and sandwiches. (1)
When you are different You constantly compare… My mother-made clothes are funny My jeans are not the fashionable kind. They notice that my hair is black and thick My eyes are darkest brown And my skin is different from everyone else’s. (33)
… on weekends, I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes, MTV music videos and giggles about boys, Samosa and sabjis. (1)
Reha lives in two worlds. She has two best friends, Sunita (“Sunny”) whom she has known since age two but whose Indian family is more modern than hers and Rachel, a Jewish girl who is as serious about her studies as Reha. And she visits her relatives in India in the summer. But she does hope to fit in better in school and be permitted to go to the school dance and even dance with her new friend Pete.
Unfortunately, after the dance Amma becomes very ill with leukemia. Since Amma works in a laboratory, Reha, who faints at the sight of blood, knows all about its components:
[Amma] counts the red cells, that carry oxygen, the platelets. that stop bleeding, and the white cells, the warriors protecting us from invaders. At least If they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Cells and plasma together are called whole blood, which is what flows inside us. (27)
Unfortunately Amma’s blood is not doing what it is supposed to, and neither her older sister, who is pregnant, nor Reha are viable bone marrow donors. She does discover that her school friends do care about her.
…all the other girls, the ones who seemed too caught up with their clothes and hair and nails reach out to squeeze my arm pull me into hugs murmur words of encouragement. And it turns out I have yet another family, one I never thought to call my own. (111)
Reha hopes that if she is the best and most virtuous she can be, Amma will heal. But, sadly, that is not to be.
I have two lives. The one Before and the one After. (193)
Reha now has her father, Sunny, Rachel, Pete, her Indian community, and her school community and her aunt and uncle and baby Chandra in India. And unexpectedly a letter arrives from her mother, written before her death.
She believed I didn’t need to be split in two, that I could be whole. and now I start to believe it, too. (206)
I have one life, where I try to merge all the places I’m from, India and America, mother and father, past, present, and future. (209)
With characters who became so real, I cried with them like a member of the family, this is a story of being a part of two worlds—as are many of our readers—and feeling that you are different—as do most of our adolescent readers at one time or another.
Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart
“I was a normal fifteen-year-old who went to football games on weekends and spent way too much time rehearsing for the spring musical. I was a daughter. A friend. A brunette. A singer. I was a million things.… Now, I’m only one thing—the Burned Girl.” (40-41) Ava is the survivor of fire—the fire that killed her father; mother; and Sara, her cousin-best friend, the daughter of Aunt Cora and Uncle Glenn. When Ava awakes in the hospital, over 60% of her body has been burned and she has lost her family and home. And her normal life.
A year after the fire during which Ava has lived with her aunt and uncle in Sara’s room, homeschooled, she promises them that she will try two weeks at a new school, planning that that will be her only two weeks in school.
But then she meets a survivor of a car crash, Piper, a wheelchair-bound, also scarred, gutsy, flashy, get-out-there-and-do-it, strong (or so it seems) girl. She also meets Asad. “No matter what reaction people have, there’s always one common thread: 1. Everyone looks at me. 2. Then everyone looks away. Until now.” (32)
With Piper and Asad’s support, Ava tries for a “new normal” but it’s not all uphill. “—in the last thirty-six hours, I had an epic meltdown, took a harrowing trip down memory lane, and visited my suicidal friend in the hospital. No wonder [Cora and Glenn] look at me like I’m a bomb about to detonate.” (322)
This novel tore at my heart (It should come with a pack of tissues attached). I loved all the characters—Ava, Asad, Piper, Aunt Cora and cowboy-boot-wearing Uncle Glenn, and even mean girl Kenzie and her more-sympathetic sidekick Sage. All characters were so well-developed, and each had their own backstory, even Dr. Layne, the therapist (no flat characters here) that it is hard to believe that this is Erin Stewart's debut novel.
Scars with Wings is an important book for all of us who have scars—physical and emotional and for us to truly see others who have their own scars.
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
This multi-formatted novel— newspaper clippings, phone conversations, letters, internal dialogue, and mostly free verse—chronicles 15-year-old Jane Arrowood’s life during the year following a shark attack, an attack that took her right arm.
Where can I find that line to stand upon, step into the stream of humanity, the place that is mine. (112)
A high school junior, Jane has won the art contests every year and planned to become a professional artist. Little did she know when she went to the beach that day, her life and her aspirations would dramatically change. The novel, although fiction, has the feeling of a true story of an actual person. The reader experiences Jane’s ordeal from her perspective, even when she argues with her negative inner thoughts.
Through most of that year, Jane journeys through numerous emotions, the majority negative and despairing. She feels the tingling, throbbing, ache of the phantom limb and the frustration of using a prosthesis. She is not encouraged by the cards and presents sent by strangers—Pity Bears—a result of the video of the attack that someone posted. “Those people who write to me. They tell me they love me. / They don’t even know me.” (71)
Her therapist tells Jane that is natural to be depressed. “Allow yourself to feel as bad as you want. / The sooner you do this, / the sooner you will be able to move on.” (25) and then moves her beyond, a step at a time. “’Time to think about the smaller picture,’ / Mel says. ‘Like getting through one day. / Not your whole life, not forever / one day. / Sometimes we can only look at one hour / or one minute.’”
However, she is supported by family (particularly her brother who rescued her and whose quick-thinking saved her life) and friends, and Jane is greatly inspired by Justin, a little boy who lost both legs but retains his optimism.
In the fall she goes back to school, facing the hurdles of being the Shark Girl, some days bad but some good, support coming from unexpected places and people. “’We’re all just trying to help.’ / [Angie] shifts. ‘I don’t want to see you get hurt again.’” (264)
Although she struggles to train herself to draw with her left hand, Jane begins to reflect on the encouragement she received from hospital staff members (and on those who were unsupportive and unfriendly), and she realizes the difference a person can make. She begins to look into careers in the medical field—physical therapist, art therapist, nurse, doctor, gaining a new goal and purpose. “I’m going to start living again, / only differently.” (265)
This story is truly a mirror and a window that will develop empathy for those who have to navigate life “differently.”
Solving for M by Jennifer Swender
I have to admit. I am a teacher and it may have been the quirky, creative, effective Mr. Vann, Grade Five Pod Two math teacher, who put this book over the top for me.
Or it may have been Mika whose world turns upside down in multiple ways when she enters fifth grade, housed in a middle school.
Mika is placed in a different pod from her former best friend, Ella, who now becomes a part of the Onesie’s, the girls of Pod One, and has no time for Mika.
Mika’s favorite subject was art, which does not include “drawing” (with the air quotes) as part of the fifth grade curriculum; her favorite subject now becomes math which does include drawing as part of their math journals.
Mika’s best friends are now Dee Dee, who she considered an “odd science geek,” and Chelsea, “a slightly annoying Goody Two-shoes.”
Mika’s mother has melanoma and has become sick and withdrawn from the medicines.
Because of her mother’s cancer, Mika visits her father who left when she was a baby and his new wife and finds she actually has a good time and wants to return.
Mika’s math journal and her new friends, as well as her grandmother and her mother’s best friend, the theatrical Jeannie, help Mika through the highs and lows of the year.
I loved new author the writing and the unique voices of the characters (and Dee Dee’s hilarious science tee shirts and Chelsea’s obsession with providing treats for every celebration), and I adored Mika’s math journal entries. Best of all, I finally found a novel for math teachers to share with their students!
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Song for a Whale is a story of isolation and the need for connection and belonging.
Iris is twelve years old and deaf as was her grandfather—her closest ally—and her grandmother who is grieving her husband’s death and has isolated herself. At her school Iris is somewhat isolated as the only Deaf student. The only person she feels close to is her adult interpreter. The other students may try to include her in their conversations, especially an annoying girl who thinks she know sign language, but Iris gives up as she “tries “to grab any scrap of conversation” (64) and communicate better with her father.
In one of her classes Iris learns of Blue 55, a hybrid whale who sings at a level much higher than other whales and cannot communicate with any other whales. As a result he belongs to no pod and travels on his own, isolated. Iris decides to create and record a song that Blue 55 can hear and understand. “He keeps singing this song, and everything in the ocean swims by him, as if he’s not there. He thinks no one understands hi,. I want to let him know he is wrong about that.” (75)
Iris is a master at fixing old radios and feels without the storeowner for whom she fixes radios, she “wouldn’t know I was good at anything.” (68). With her knowledge of acoustics, Iris records a song at his own frequency for Blue 55, mixing in his song and the sounds of other sanctuary animals and sends it to the group in Alaska who are trying to track and tag him.
On a “run-away” cruise to Alaska, Iris and her grandmother reconnect; her grandmother makes new connections to others and finds a place she now needs to be; Iris connects with Blue 55 giving him a place to belong; and Iris is finally able to request to go to a new school that has a population of Deaf students with Wendell, her Deaf friend.
Scattered within the story are the heartbreaking short chapters narrated by Blue 55.
Readers will learn a lot about whales, about acoustics, abut Deaf culture, and even more importantly, about those who may feel isolated and the need for belonging in this well-written new novel by Lynne Kelly, a sign language interpreter.
Squint by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
“So hit me with your best challenge for spreading kindness…. A challenge that helps people relate to people…. Share a little piece of yourself, like I did, and let us get to know and love you.” (238) These final words from Danny, a boy who suffered and died from progeria, guide Flint and McKell in their search for acceptance and belief in themselves.
Flint, nicknamed Squint because he has an eye disease that compromises his eyesight, has two goals: to win a comic book contest and make friends in middle school.
McKell is a new student from a school where she had few friends. In Flint’s school she hangs out with the popular kids who bully Squint. But McKell befriends Squint, and they encourage each other to attempt something new and follow their passions, following her brother’s Danny’s video challenges.
When Squint adds Diamond, a female superhero hero, to aid Flint’s comic book hero also named Squint, he supports McKell in overcoming her fear of sharing her talent. As they step out of their comfort zones, Squint confronts his bullies and finds that relationships are not always what you think they are.
This is a powerful novel about trust in others and trust in oneself and about adolescents learning to be themselves as they navigate middle school with all its rules. I was hoping for some comics (graphics) to go along with the story, but the Squint does share the text of his comic book as he creates it.
The Order Of Things by Kaija Langley
Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda said something, told somebody, if I hadn’t made that stupid promise. (139)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,000 young, seemingly healthy people under age 25 in the United States die each year of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). (Author’s Note)
Eleven-year-olds April and Zander Jr (Zee) are best friends and fellow music lovers. Zee plays the violin and has just transferred to a school which can take his playing to the next level. April yearns to become a drummer but is just beginning lessons with Zee’s father.
April lives with her single mom (“single by choice”) and Zee lives with his postman father, a former musician. Zee’s mom was a woman with music in her bones who went searching for a melody, a song only she could hear, and never returned.(94)
When Zee works day and night, hoping for the solo in the school concert, he faints and confides in April that his heart sometimes races but makes her promise not to tell anyone, a promise that April takes seriously. When he experiences SCA and dies April is tormented by guilt.
In her grief April is struggling with the idea that her mother has a serious girlfriend and that Mr. Zee is not handling his son’s death—April finds undelivered mail in his closet which she then takes upon herself to deliver.
When doing so, she finds out why her classmate, and possibly new friend, Asa misses so much school and is always hungry. After experiencing the dire consequences of keeping Zee’s secret, she knows that this is not a secret she should keep. I only know that I didn’t let what I knew go unspoken. Not this time. (257)
Written in verse, Kaija Langley’s new novel will provide a map to help preteens—and teens—navigate the hard decisions in life.
The Someday Suitcase by Corey Ann Haydu
Friend. We use this word casually. Almost everyone we meet and like is identified as a “friend.” We have Facebook Friends we have never met. And young teens have a new BFF every week, it seems. But in The Someday Suitcase, readers meet true best friends, friends that readers will fall in love with.
When Clover learns the word “symbiosis” in science, her favorite class [“It refers to a relationship where two organisms or creatures are benefitting from each other and surviving together.… They’re dependent on each other” (7)], she has found a word that perfectly described her friendship with Danny. Sometimes they form two halves of a whole; sometimes they are exactly the same. Clover is practical; Danny is fun. Her favorite subjects are science and math; he is better at English and social studies. When they close their eyes and play statute, they make the exact same shape. Every time. The two fifth-graders have “the world’s closest best friendship.” (2)
When Danny gets sick, really sick, Clover decides “I am going to make my science fair project all about Danny.” (54) She will use science to find out what is wrong with him, something the doctors don’t seem able to do. All they know is that when he is with Clover, he feels better. “Maybe this is who I’m meant to be—a person who makes other people feel better.” (150)
Living in Florida, the two friends have always wanted to see snow. In fact, Clover’s father, a truck driver, brings her snow globes from each trip. When Danny’s mysterious illness worsens, they buy a someday suitcase. “It’s for when we go to the snow.” (114) With Danny missing so much school, Clover begins making friends of her own, and the mother of one of her new friends explains that with science, there is also “room for faith and religion.” (174).
When Clover and Danny set their sights on a clinic in Vermont where they think Danny can be cured (and where they can finally see snow), they experience the magic of their friendship: “Until it’s proven false, anything is possible. Even magic.” (209)
Clover is strong for Danny, but readers will realize also just how strong Danny is for Clover. This is a sweet, heartbreaking story about friendship, “a magical friendship…. Love with a twist.” (263)
Virtually Me by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
Four seventh graders attending Virtual Reality School for difference reasons, and a story told from four points of view.
Hunter, popular, good looking, lacrosse star, and “the guy that all the girls liked” has Alopecia and is starting to bald in spots. For school he designs his avatar to look just like him, wearing his lacrosse shirt, with still-flowing blond hair.
Edelsabeth Dahan-Miller is enrolled in VR school by her mother who thinks she may be too obsessed with her looks, fashion, and appearing in the top three on Parker’s website which ranks the cuteness of the girls in school. She also could be mean to others and judgmental, and her mother wants her to just be happy and learn that she is worth knowing “No matter how you look.” Her mother requires Edelle to design her avatar as simple, just her with no high fashion or makeup. She actually goes more basic and, embarrassed, changes her avatar’s name to Vanya.
Bradley Horvath is a big, awkward guy who loves to dance and has been bullied and made fun of since third grade. He is delighted to go to a virtual school and reinvent himself; with the approval of his parents, he designs his avatar with a totally new look—tall, square-jawed, with pink hair and fashionable clothes—and a new name, Daebak.
Last year Hunter, Edelle, and Bradley attended the same middle school where Edelle and Hunter were good friends who flirted, and where Bradley made fun of Bradley and, as she rose in popularity, Edelle ignored Bradley. Of course, only Edelle/Vanya and Bradley/Daebak recognize Hunter.
At school orientation Hunter comes into direct competition shooting baskets with a boy in a yellow tracksuit. As the three much later learn, Jasper, who has become their teammate and coach in the school’s VR Games competition and friend, has cystic fibrosis.
As the four become more involved with each other, new friends, and the school, a last new team member is Keiko who appears not to want to make friends or participate in really anything as she answers every query or comment with “Whatever.” The four feel they want to bring her out of her shell especially Vanya who designs a school dance section for those uncomfortable with traditional school dances.
Readers will enjoy getting to know these characters and following their interactions and growing friendship as they navigate VR school, their new identities, and the lessons they learn through their experiences. And what occurs when disaster strikes at the school dance, leading to a in-person meet.
I was mesmerized as I read Chad Morrisand Shelly Brown’s newest novel. Not familiar with virtual reality in the least, young readers may be more adept visualizing the scenes than I, but I just put on my virtual-reading mentality and soon was able to participate.
What about Will by Ellen Hopkins
Twelve-year-old Trace’s world changes when his older brother Will is injured in a high school football accidental collision with another player. Luckily, he was not paralyzed, But his brain had volleyed Between the sides of his skull So hard it was swollen. (14)
Will is left with rages, headaches, and a “wrecked” facial nerve leaving him with no expression except for a facial tick. Their mother blames their father for letting Will play football and their already-fragile marriage dissolves when she leaves for a permanent tour with her band. “When you’re scared, blame comes easy.” (13)
Will changes, dumping his loyal girlfriend and hanging out with new friends—a seemingly bad crowd who he sneaks out to join at all hours, and Trace is left without the big brother he remembers. Probably what I miss most of all, though, is having a big brother to talk to. Some things you can’t tell just anyone. (18)
Luckily Trace has Bram, his best friend, and a new friend, Cat, the newest member and only girl (and maybe best player) on Trace’s Little League team and his new partner in the Gifted program at school. Cat has a troubled older brother and empathizes with Trace. When Cat’s father, the famous baseball player Victor Sanchez, signs Trace’s glove, Will steals and pawns it. In fact, Will has stolen all of Trace’s saved money, and Trace becomes suspicious of Will’s “activities” but is hesitant to bother his father who works hard and has a new girlfriend.
Also I keep thinking if I keep his secrets don’t tell Dad don’t bother Mom he’ll trust me enough to tell me why he hardly ever leaves his room, and where he goes when he ducks out the door the minute Dad’s back is turned.
I miss the original Will. (25)
As things become worse, trace realizes, I need someone here for me…” I feel like a kite Come loose from its string And its tail tangled up In a very tall tree. No way to rescue it Unless a perfect w Wisp of wind Plucks it just right, sets it free. (333)
When Will overdoses (mistake? suicide attempt?), everyone—Dad, Lily, Mom, Mom’s boyfriend, their neighbor, Cat, and Bram—comes together and support not only Will but Trace.
Reading straight through in two days, What about Will has become my favorite Ellen Hopkins’ verse novel with cherished characters. The story tackles hard topic in an appropriate way for middle-school readers and belongs in all classroom and school libraries.
You Don’t Know Everything, Jill Pi by Alex Gino
“The hard thing about accidentally saying the wrong thing is that you don’t know it’s the wrong thing until you have already said it and hurt someone.” (166)
Jilly P’s baby sister is born Deaf. Through talks with her fantasy chat room peers, especially her new friend Dereck, a young Deaf Black adolescent, Jilly learns that she has many misconceptions about the Deaf and about racism. And that some of her well-meaning comments and questions are hurtful. At a Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt’s wife, who is Black, she learns that racist attitudes are still alive—even within her own family members.
When a Deaf Black female—an Honors high school student—is shot running away from the police, having not heard and heeded their call to stop, Jilly observes, “Derek’s right. It doesn’t matter whether Jessica was wearing hearing aids. It doesn’t matter whether she was out late at night. She should have been safe….Everyone should be safe. But they’re not. Especially people who are Deaf. Or Black. Or both.” (202)
Seventh-grader Jilly’s story was written by author Alex Gino to “help white readers learn a bit more about their privilege and how to support marginalized people in their lives.” (Author’s Note) Jilly recognizes, “I’ve learned that what you say matters, and that you can hurt people even when you don’t mean to. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to help someone start a rough conversation, even if that person is an adult. Even if those people are your parents. I’ve learned that racism is still around today….And I’ve learned there’s no such thing as being done with learning.” (215) -------------------