School librarians or classroom ELA teachers can post a United States wall map, sticking a "pin" or flag for the setting of each novel students are reading this year, as whole-class, in book clubs, or independently--novels they read all year or from March 2 to the end of the school year.
World Literature teachers could display a world map with the same assignment.
Group students in Books Clubs with settings that represent different areas of the country: NorthWest, NorthEast, SouthWest, SouthEast, and Central. In Book Clubs meetings members can discuss how the setting influences the plot, and, in inter-Club discussions, readers can compare/contrast settings. [See Talking Texts: A Teachers' Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculumfor inter-Club description and strategies]
Include diverse characters and authors and a variety of formats—prose, verse, and graphic.
My MG/YA reading across America, so far…
This is Where is Ends – ALABAMA; Song for a Whale – ALASKA; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – ARKANSAS; The Bean Trees – ARIZONA; The House That Lou Built- CALIFORNIA; How We Roll – COLORADO; A Home for Goddesses and Dogs – CONNECTICUT; The Paris Project – FLORIDA; More to the Story – GEORGIA; Island Boyz – HAWAII; Dust of Eden - IDAHO; I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter – ILLINOIS; The Season of Styx Malone – INDIANA; The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – IOWA; Hearts Unbroken – KANSAS; My Heart & Other Black Holes - KENTUCKY ; Ninth Ward – LOUISIANA; Moo – MAINE; Jacob Have I Loved - MARYLAND; Shouting at the Rain – MASSACHUSETTS; Bud, Not Buddy – MICHIGAN; The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls - MINNESOTA; Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe – MISSISSIPPI; Burned – NEVADA; Wintergirls - NEW HAMPSHIRE; The Trial – NEW JERSEY; Tiger Eyes - NEW MEXICO; Silver Meadows Summer – NEW YORK; Wish – NORTH CAROLINA; Apple in the Middle - NORTH DAKOTA; Other Words for Home - OHIO; The Outsiders – OKLAHOMA; Roller Girl – OREGON; In Your Shoes – PENNSYLVANIA; My Sister’s Keeper - RHODE ISLAND; Copper Sun – SOUTH CAROLINA; Impulse - SOUTH DAKOTA; The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins – TENNESSEE; Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen – TEXAS; Chirp – VERMONT; How to Build a Heart – VIRGINIA; The Honest Truth – WASHINGTON; Monday’s Not Coming - WASHINGTON, DC; Rocket Boys - WEST VIRGINIA; The Pumpkin War – WISCONSIN
Below the following are reviews of 25 of my more-recently read from those novels pictured. ----------
ROAD TRIP NOVELS encompass more territory, and Road Trips are so much more than merely the geography they cover.
Road Trip; Clean Getaway; Sisters; The
Pull of Gravity; Walk Two Moons; The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise; The Someday Birds; Rules of the Road; So B It; Sadie; Don't Fail Me Now; An Abundance of Katherines; Take Me There; and The Other F-Word. Not pictured: Blue Highways
1. Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
This 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. ------------- 2. The House That Lou Built by Mae Respico
Current novels feature many strong female characters, but there are not many of Filipino characters, especially as main characters. Lucinda and her very large, very close family—Lola, her mother, and a variety of aunts, and cousins—all live in San Francisco and share their culture throughout the novel. Lou’s father died before she was born, and he left her a plot of land. When her mother decides to take a job, where she can make more money, in Washington, Lou is determined to use her skills learned in Mr. Keller’s middle school shop class and all the videos she has obsessively watched to build a tiny house on the land and convince her mother to stay.
Even with her teacher and her friends’ help, it is more challenging than she expects, and when mom decides to stay and rent a 2-bedroom in Oakland, Lou learns that “Home isn’t necessarily a place; it’s more of a feeling—of comfort and trust, of people who are part of you. And I’m lucky, because it means I have a lot of different homes.” (225) Lou is still determined to finish her tiny house as a place for her and all her friends (and new boyfriend Jack) who are helping her. ----------- 3. How We Rollby 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 because of conversations surrounding the false accusation of a sexual act.] ---------- 4. A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor
“You’ll be all right. You come from strong.” (1) In the months after her death, Lydia Bratches-Kemp finds out just how true her mother’s words were.
Thirteen-year-old Lydia has experienced a lot of challenges in her young life. Her father left home when she was six, at the same time her mother became ill with a heart condition. Lydia helped take care of her for seven years until she died. But it wasn’t all sadness; her mother homeschooled her so they could spend time together making art and goddesses, collages from old photographs bought at a flea market.
When Lydia is taken in by her mother’s sister Bratches and her wife Eileen who live in the small town of Chelmsford, Connecticut, a town of farms and strong women and girls, she undergoes a myriad of new experiences. She attends a school where the twelve 8th graders, who have known each other and all the townspeople their whole lives, welcome her with open arms, especially Raya and Sari who show up on her doorstep on weekends and take her to visit every farm and teach her to snowshoe. She, Bratches, and Eileen live with the kind 90-something-year-old Elloroy, owner of their house, who is, in his words, “almost dead” and Soonie, his sweet, old greyhound.
And last there is Guffer, the dog whom Bratches, Eillen, and the reluctant Lydia adopt. “I wanted to stop them and ask., Are you sure? Sure you don’t want to wait and see how one rescue goes before you get yourselves into another? Not to liken myself to a dog, exactly. But I had been taken in.” (45) Lydia, by her own words was not a dog person, but as they train the “bad” dog she becomes more and more attached which gives her the bravery to stand up to the adult bully who threatens him. “It’d been twelve weeks since Aunt Brat had first driven me up Pinnacle Hill in her boxy car.… We’d [Guffer and I] arrived the same week; We’d both had our lives changed.” (311)
As she deals with secrets—hers and Bratches’; new family, friends and neighbors; pymy goats; a missing father, and her first kiss, she settles in as a member of this close community. “I soaked up the scene. There was something so easy, so right, about watching my friends peel off their boots and jackets in the front hall and something so everyday about Guffer coming to inspect their empty footwear.” (237)
But her love for Guffer also gives her the strength, supported by her new family, to face the adult bully who threatens him. “’Turns out I’m pretty strong,’ I told him.” (369)
“We three linked arms and plodded back toward the trail, relieved and still reveling. I held my women up; they held me up. ‘I am flanked by a pair of goddesses, Mom! They won’t let me down! I will never fall down!’” (352) ---------- 5. The Paris Project by Donna Gephart
Seventh-grader Cleveland Rosebud Potts has her future planned out. She is going to do everything she needs to get away from boring Sassafras, Florida, and move to Paris for eighth grade. She has been saving money from her dog-walking business and learning French from CDs borrowed from the library. As part of her Paris Project, she still needs to learn to cook a French meal, eat in a French restaurant, view French Impressionist paintings, and be accepted and earn a full scholarship to attend the American School of Paris. She has been wearing the beret her father gave her daily as inspiration.
However, many roadblocks have occurred on her way. Her father is a gambler, betting on dog races, and stole not only from his boss which has earned him a 7-month jail sentence, but took all of Cleveland’s savings, and as the daughter of a criminal, most of her clients have fired her. Her mother cleans houses to try to keep ahead of the bills, and her older sister Georgia works many jobs saving for her dream, to attend the University of Vermont the following year. When she video visits her father in prison, she has ambivalent feelings—she misses the funny father she loves but is furious with his actions and their effect on the family. Because of her father’s crime, the other girls at school ignore or laugh at her and she sits alone at lunch; in fact, people in town are wary of the whole family. “Life got divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ that awful day when Dad was arrested for stealing money from Mr. Ronnie Baker.” (64)
Cleveland is not only determined and focused, she is spunky—she doesn’t complain the she only has a few outfits, her sneakers have holes, and her stomach frequently rumbles from hunger. And she does have one true friend—an eighth grader who also lives in the trailer park and is working on becoming a chef like the mother who left him and his father. Declan teaches her to cook French food, helping her to check that off her Paris Project list. However, when he becomes friends, and maybe more, with her father’s former boss’ (the man who put her father in jail) son, Cleveland has to decide how to act. “'Do you like Todd?… I mean do you ‘like’ him?” “Yes.” I understood that the words I said next mattered. A lot. I took a slow breath and gathered my thoughts. “That’s really great, Declan.” (162-3)
One friend decides to leave the pack of mean girls and Declan and Todd stop my Cleveland’s locker with hugs and high fives and “When it came to sisters, [she’d] hit the lottery,” (178) and together her support system, along with her strong mother, help Cleveland navigate life after and “after that” when her dad is released from prison. The preparing for the Paris Project ends up taking on a whole new meaning as Cleveland sets new goals. ---------- 6. 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 for poems in two voices between the characters in each text. There is always more to the story. ---------- 7. The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
“Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.” (1) The first page just keeps getting better until the last line seals the deal—“It all started the moment I broke the cardinal rule of the Franklin household: Leave well enough alone.” (1)
Kekla Magoon has been one of my favorite authors. One of the YA novels I recommend the most to high school, college, and even law school students is How It All Went Down. I have written about her middle school novel CamoGirl in “Books to Begin Conversations about Bullying [http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/books-to-begin-conversations-about-bullying-by-lesley-roessing], so I was excited to hear about her new novel The Season of Styx Malone.
Ten-year-old narrator Caleb Franklin and his eleven year old brother Booby Gene live in a small town and their father does not allow them to venture out from where everyone knows them and they are “safe.” Caleb’s goal is to get to the museum in Indy. And to be extraordinary, not “extra-ordinary” as he thinks his father is calling him.
Then the brothers meet a mysterious sixteen-year-old name Styx Malone, Yes, as in Greek mythology, where the River Styx separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. Malone may not be their transport from the dead to the living but it sure seems so. Styx is free from parental restraints and always has a plan that becomes bigger and better. “The moment felt like Saturday, like summer heat, like adventure…. It felt like the soft swish of corn tassels and being one step closer to an impossible dream…’One step closer to our happy ending.’” (116)
As the boys become more and more involved with him, providing the friendship it appears he is missing in his life, they learn that he is a foster child who has moved from home to home, family to family, and his life may not be as glamorous as it seems. “’Only person you can ever count on is yourself.’…There were lots of people I could count on…. But I got what Styx was saying: Freedom came with a price.” (154)
Many things changed the season Styx Malone “shook [their] world.” That summer did make a difference—to Styx himself and to expanding the world of the Franklins.
There were many interesting, delightful characters, including Cory Cromier, the eleven-year-old bully who loves babies and becomes a Franklin brothers’ ally, and Pixie, Styx’s magical ten-year-old foster sister. This book, with its short chapters, each ending with seductive lines. and prospective discussions of morality, ethics, responsibility, friendship, and family, would make a good read aloud for grades 5-8. ---------- 8. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhoads
in 2016 I experienced my first Category 5 hurricane. As Hurricane Matthew approached SC, our governor announced mandatory evacuation. My husband, dogs, and I were only too happy to comply. But as we safely waited out the hurricane for a week in a motel over 200 miles from home (where we had been able to drive), eating in restaurants, I wondered how many people had the means to do so. We read about people who “refuse” to leave their homes, but is it stubbornness or lack of resources? Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes takes the reader into the Ninth Ward neighborhood during Katrina. When the hurricane strikes, readers have already become well-acquainted with 12-year old Lanesha, a young girl who is an orphan, sees ghosts, is ignored by classmates, but loves and is loved by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who has raised her since the death of her mother during childbirth. Readers experience the hurricane through the eyes of two young adolescents whose families don’t leave for safer places because they can’t—no car, no money, no place to go. We meet their community and feel the panic as first the hurricane hits and then the water rises over their homes, their lives. We applaud as Lanesha and TaShon work to save their lives, strength gathered from the love of Mama Ya-Ya.
Love and resilience is the centerpiece of this novel; it is a story, not of a hurricane but of any disaster that can test our limits and transform us.
P.S. I especially loved that Lanesha saw herself as a mathematician and a future engineer and put those skills to use to save the lives of TaShon, Spot, and herself—and the vocabulary words and definitions sprinkled throughout as Lanesha discovers new words, such a fortitude, to navigate her world. ---------- 9. Moo by Sharon Creech
Reena, Luke, and their parents move from the big city to rural Maine where Reena and Luke are volunteered by their parents to take care of their eccentric neighbor’s cow (and pig, cat, and snake).
The story is delightful, but it is the text that will grab the reader’s interest. The story is written both in prose and all types of poetry—free verse, shape poems, and there might have been some rhyming poetry. And the author plays with script and fonts and spacing to enhance the story—as on page 29,
"Flies dipped here there" and
and page 61, "and the f l u t e m u s i c drifting d o w n and then abruptly stopping."
Readers will examine not only how relationships are portrayed but the effectiveness of style and punctuation choices. ---------- 10. Shouting at the Rainby Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Just like Ally (Fish in a Tree - Connecticut) and Carley (One for the Murphys - Connecticut), Lynda Hunt Mullaly has created a third character who has come to live in my heart—Delsie who is always barefooted and lives by the news from her weather station.
Delsie was raised by her game-show-watching Grammy and grandfather, Papa Joseph, since her mother deserted her shortly after birth. None of them ever knew who her father is. However, Delsie never thought of herself as an orphan until the complicated summer which began when her friend, playing the role of Annie, asks her, “What’s it like…really like…to be an orphan.” (2)
Delsie lives on Cape Cod, summer home to tourists, where Grammy cleans guest cottages and they live in a tiny community of four houses where everyone is each other’s family and support system. Papa Joseph has died, and they all miss him and try to fill his space.
The summer before seventh grade is a rollercoaster for Delsie. Her summer best friend, Brandy, is changing; she worrying about getting messy and then befriends the new girl Tressa, a classic Mean Girl.
Luckily, Ronan moves in with his father, and he stands up to the Mean Girls on Delsie’s behalf, and he and Delsie become friends, sharing feelings of abandonment by their mothers and, therefore, being broken. At first Delsie feels like she has to lie to become friends with the girls (“I remember pretending to know things and like things I didn’t just because I wanted them to like me.”), but with Ronan, “I don’t have to lie about who I am.” (99) As family friend Esme tells Delsie, “…anything that matters in this whole…wide…world is about connection.” (83) What begins as a summer of abandonments becomes a summer of connections.
At the end of the summer, Delsie realizes two things: that people, such as the sour Olive, may have their own problems but also may be more caring then others realize or expect (“…instead of just a plain scoop of cold ice cream, a scoop with some chocolate chips hidden inside.”) (180) and that “Knowing that I have real friends that have my back and will protect my feelings—people like Aimee, Michael, and Ronan—makes all the difference.” (240) This pivotal summer Delsie learns a lot about her neighbors, about family, and about support and love.
Reading the novel was also a rollercoaster for me. I was sad about Delsie’s history, mad at how she was being treated by Brandy and Tressa, and glad that she was able to recognize her true friends and revise her definition of family. I know that middle-graders reading this book will identify with some parts of Delsie’s and Ronan’s lives and maybe those who don’t, will see themselves in Brandy or Tressa and gain some empathy and understanding. ---------- 11. Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe by Jo Watson Hackl
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 9.8 million Americans aged 18 or older, or 4.2% of the adult population, are living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. Two-thirds of females and one-half of men afflicted with serious mental illnesses are likely to be parents.
“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketsful of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store. The hard part was getting up the guts to go.” (1)
As the story begins, Ariana “Cricket” Overland's father and grandmother have died, her mother has left, and she is living with her Aunt Belinda who is secretly planning to pawn her off on Great-Aunt Genevieve. Her mother, a creative artist, has struggled between depression and wild adventures for years and is obsessed with a Bird Room she once saw, a room where “Everything was alive.” Cricket is sure that her mother will return to lay her grandmother’s headstone and, having said she wished her mother could “just be normal” (106) the night before she took off, Cricket wants to find the Bird Room and prove that her mother is not crazy and maybe find a treasure using clues hidden by the mysterious Mr. Bob. “I couldn’t stop Mama from leaving, and I couldn’t stop Daddy from dying, but I could sure do something now. (11)
When Aunt Belinda abandons her in Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry, Cricket takes her pet cricket, spends all her money on supplies and food, writing an IOU for what she can’t afford, and takes off for Woods Time, as her father would say. Living in a tree house and following her father’s guidelines for survival, she survives raccoons stealing most of her food and supplies and an ice storm, and explores the ghost town, torn down and abandoned by a lumber company, until clues—and a snake bite—lead her to Miss V, the one person whose house still exists, a woman who helps Cricket discover that not only her mother, but she, “contains multitudes.” “I thought about what Miss V had said about Mama being more than what the neighbors thought…. And it wasn’t who I was, either. I was my own, whole person.…Maybe it was time to start taking chances on me.” (203)
Ariana Overland is an adolescent a reader really wants to champion. I found myself cheering her on throughout the book. She joins the ranks of literary strong girls as the resourceful and resilient hero of an adventure story about family and identity. ---------- 12. The Trial by Jen F. Bryant
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)
T 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. ---------- 13. Silver Meadows Summer by Emma Otheguy
“Now Carolina saw [the road} like Papi saw it: white crest of salty water, foam and mist, a wave upon the sea, and one foot in front of the other. Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York, Carolina’s roots were not in the soil but in the rhythm of her family’s movement, step after step.” (193)
Carolina’s father lost his job in Puerto Rico, and the family—Papi, Mami, Daniel and 11-year old artist Carolina—move to upstate New York to live with her aunt, uncle, and popular 13-year-old cousin Gabriela. As Caro misses her homeland, she fights to retain her art, her culture, and her memories of Puerto Rico while living in the big house in a new development. When Tia Cuca tries to replace Ratoncita Perez, the mouse who leave money for children’s lost teeth, with her own version of the tooth fairy, Carolina realizes that she can accept, if not embrace, both cultures. Meanwhile Gabriela wants to learn more about her Cuban-Puerto Rican roots and to learn Spanish.
Carolina meets Jennifer, a fellow artist, who quickly become a best friend despite Mami finding her unsuitable and, as Carolina learns to stand up for herself, Gabriela learns to stand up to her friends and together Carolina, Gabriela, and Jennifer help to save the farmland that comprises Silver Meadows from becoming all development.
A story of culture, family, friendship, nature, accepting change, and making a difference. ---------- 14. Wish by Barbara O’Connor
“Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Charlie Reese was very careful what she wished for, and she made sure to make her wish every day since 4th grade. Charlie knew every way there was to make wishes and never missed an opportunity.
Charlie’s family was “broken”—her Mam hadn’t “put her feet on the ground” or paid attention to her in a long time, her father, Scrappy, had a temper and was in prison getting “corrected,” and Jackie, her older sister, was living with a girl friend, graduating from high school, and working.
Charlie is sent to live with her mother’s older sister Bertha and her husband Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains where people may or may not eat squirrel. Bertha and Gus are loving, try hard, and even though the cheesy Cinderella pillowcases, Bertha’s endless stories, and Gus’ “Butterbean” nickname for her may not be appreciated by Charlie, they never stop trying. “No, me and Gus are the lucky ones, right, Gus?” (157)
Author Barbara O’Connor sweeps the reader into the story from the first page through Charlie’s voice. “My name is Charlie. Charlemagne is a dumb name for a girl and I have told my mama that about a gazillion times. I looked around me at all the hillbilly kids doing math in their workbooks.” (3) Charlie is lost, but in Colby she meets Howard, a true friend, and Wishbone, her adopted dog, knowing that he was for her the first time she saw him, even before she caught him and he became her constant companion. “…I sent my thoughts zipping through the trees to wherever Wishbone was. I wanted him to know he didn’t have to be a stray like me.” (79)
The characters were all well-developed and unique, Howard, the boy with the up-down walk who ignores the bullies and the mean kids, whose wish is to have Charlie as a friend, and becomes her moral compass; the numerous Odom kids and the loving Mrs. Odom who is accepting of everyone with their quirks. “I’m so glad to have a feisty female around here to help me keep these boys under control. I been needing a girl on my team.” (109)
Charlie’s older sister Jackie comes to visit and as positive, gregarious, and appreciative of Charlie’s new town as she is, Charlie learns that Jackie has grown up with the knowledge that, when she was seven and Charlie was a baby, their mother left them. “Nothing’s gonna change, Charlie.….Scrappy is gonna keep being Scrappy and Mama is gonna keep being Mama and you and I are on our own. (178) But her visit helps to show Charlie just how lucky she is to have a new start in her new town. “Y0u got a good life here, Charlie.” (179)
Sometimes you get what you wish for, but sometimes you get even more. ---------- 15. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
What happens when you have to leave your home to leave far away within another culture? How does that place become “home”?
When trouble spreads to Jude’s small city on the sea, a city formerly filled with tourists, and her older brother joins the revolution, seventh-grader Jude and her pregnant mother immigrate to America, leaving behind her Baba, his store, and her best friend to move in with her uncle, his American wife and their daughter. Life in Cincinnati is very different; Jude’s English is not as good as she had hoped and her popular seventh-grade cousin Sarah is afraid she will seem “weird,” like her new friend Layla whose parents came from Lebanon and wears a hajab.
Jude tries to assimilate but “I am no longer/a girl./I am a Middle Eastern girl./A Syrian girl./A Muslim girl. Americans love labels./They help them know what to expect./Sometimes, though,/I think labels stop them from/thinking.” (92)
As she learns more English, practicing slang with the four members of her ESL class, and becomes friends with Layla and Miles, a boy from her math class fascinated with stars and the galaxy, Jude misses Baba, Fatima, and Auntie Amal, and worries about Issa; however, she becomes closer to her aunt, speaks Arabic with her uncle, and starts thinking of the old house as home. Becoming a young woman, she begins wearing her scarves, although she has to convince her aunt that this is her choice.
Jude discovers that belonging is complicated. Layla tells her she is “lucky” that she comes from somewhere rather than being a Middle Eastern girl in America who, if she moved to Jordan, would be an American girl in the Middle East. “Lucky. I am learning how to say it/over and over again in English./I am learning how it tastes—/sweet with promise/and bitter with responsibility.” (168) Even the very American teen Sarah seems to want to embrace her other culture; she asks to learn Arabic and points out that, as cousins, they look much alike.
When Jude follows her brother’s wish that she be brave, she tries out for the school musical, even though Layla says, “Jude, those parts aren’t for girls like us.… We’re not girls who/glow in the spotlight.” “’But I want to be,” I say.’ (206)
Jude talks to her brother and although his life is full of danger, they are both “doing It” and “We are okay with learning our lines/because we are liking the script—/maybe, just maybe, we have both finally found roles/that make sense to us./Roles where we feel seen/as we truly are.” (324)
Jasmine Warga’s verse novel celebrates cultures and a strong, resilient, brave young adolescent who bridges them. ---------- 16. In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart
It’s difficult to write about loss—because everyone experiences loss differently, but death has become all too common, and teachers need novels to help their students deal with loss and gain empathy for their peers who are coping with grief. “1.2 million children will lose a parent to death before age 15” (Dr. Elizabeth Weller, Dir. Ohio State University Hospitals, 1991); [last year] 400,000 people under 25 suffered from the death of a loved one (National Mental Health Association). Sometimes, especially in multi-generational households, the death of a grandparent affects a child as much as the loss of a parent.
Grieving her mother’s death, Amy is torn from her best friend and her home in Chicago to live in her uncle’s funeral home in Buckington, Pennsylvania. Her father is learning the funeral trade and is away Monday to Friday, and Amy, even with her optimism, is not making new friends. Life hits a low when she sits down with girls in the middle school cafeteria—and they move to another table! But she meets a new best friend, Tate, a weight lifer with interesting fashion sense, in the school library, and they spend their lunch hours talking stories and eating Jelly Krimpets.
Meanwhile Miles is still grieving the loss of his grandmother while worrying about his grandfather dying. In fact, Miles worries about everything. His family owns Buckington Bowl, and bowling the perfect game, especially while beating his best friend Randall, is his goal.
And a bowling shoe is how Miles and Amy connect—literally, both at the beginning and the end of this delightful middle-grades novel. In addition to Randall and Tate, Amy and Miles become each others’ support system through the special bond of grief and loss.
A delightful novel about the power of family and friendship which features two sports uncommon for a middle-grades book, female weight-lifting and bowling. The story also conveys the power of story, those we read and those we write. ---------- 17. The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd
This story of 11-year-old Lyndie Baines covers a lot of territory, but it is primarily about truth and the effect of lies or sometimes just not knowing the truth. The novel also shares the effects of war on those who serve, their families, and their communities.
Lyndie’s father, his friends, and neighbors served in the war in Viet Nam. Some never returned, some returned with physical scars, and others, like Lyndie’s dad, returned with psychological scars, scars which affect their families and lives.
Lyndon Baines (yes, named after that Lyndon Baines), an avid student of history, knows this isn’t particular to the Viet Nam conflict; she has read many letters written by Civil War soldiers. She doesn’t realize just how damaged her father is, but she suspects that he and her mother, a former activist who now stays in her bedroom with constant headaches, are not quite okay. “I don’t think my parents know how to head us in the right direction” (24).
Lyndie struggles in her school, where she doesn’t fit in; she struggles in her new home with her parents, Grandpa Tad, her proper Southern grandmother Lady, to whom keeping family secret private and keeping to schedules is primary, even when the family needs help and even if perpetually-grounded Lyddie needs a normal childhood; and she struggles with the type of person she wants to be—more like her altruistic best friend Dawn. She is a fighter, but she also cares about things deeply.
And then D.B. enters the picture, a former foster child released from a juvenile detention center to live with Dawn’s family, at least for the school year. Lyndie decides she needs to save D.B. despite her father’s words, “Take care, what you lend your heart to” (73). Through her relationship with D.B., Lyndie learns that things are not always what they seem—with him, with Pee Wee, with her family.
When things come to a crisis on her twelfth birthday, Lyndie has to take steps to expose the truth, “’No,’ I correct myself. We’re not okay. Not really.’” (267) and make things right—for her, her family, and D.B. and put all the scraps together. ---------- 18. Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen by Niki Lenz
Bernice Buttman is anything but a model citizen. She is a bully, having grown up from the days when her four brothers bullied others on her behalf. However, being a bully is lonely and she decides she wants a friend, but the other fifth graders are scared of her, especially Oliver Stratts, the kid she has targeted for friendship. She does have one person in her corner, Ms. Knightley, the town librarian who sees the Bernice who has possibilities.
Bernice lives in the Lone Star Trailer Park where she sleeps on the sofa and her brothers share one bedroom; she has a mother who takes Bernice’s lunch money to have herself tattooed. But Bernice has a dream—to raise enough money by any means possible so she can go to Hollywood Hills Stunt Camp and become a famous stuntwoman.
When her mother and boyfriend leave home with their own plans for stardom, Bernice is sent to the picture-perfect town of Halfway to live with her Aunt Josephine, a nun. And as Ms. Knightley advises, “Bernice, I know you may not believe what I’m about to say, but this might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you…Going to a new place is like starting over. It’s like a clean slate.” (41)
As she settles in to her new town with the support of her aunt, Sister Marie Francis who teaches her to ride a horse, and Sister Angela-Clarence who only speaks in children’s book quotes (which actually make more sense than the two other Sisters give credit), Bernice decides that “things could be different in Halfway. I could be different.” (53). Unfortunately, her first day at school she unwittingly makes an enemy of the mayor’s daughter. But she also makes her first real friend.
New Bernice and Old Bernice battle each other as she learns what being a “model citizen” entails. She also learns that, even though her family doesn’t appear to change, her goals might change as she becomes, according to Ms. Knightley observation on a visit to Halfway, “different.”
What I loved most about the novel was the writing. Author Niki Lenz captures Bernice’s voice, while I may not have laughed out loud, I giggled inside through the book, not wanting to stop reading, but not wanting to finish. This book would be a great read-aloud, using passages as a mentor text for Voice. ---------- 19. Chirp by Kate Messner
“All summer she’d been hoping she might find her way back to that girl in the picture, but she’d been thinking about it all wrong. It wasn’t about finding her way back.…She’d have to find her way forward.” (226-227)
Mia had been the type of girl that jumped off high rocks into the water, aiming for the Olympics in gymnastics, fearlessly trying new things. And then something happened that made her lose her voice, her confidence, her courage.
When her family moves back from Boston back to Vermont, Mia has a chance to help her grandmother with her cricket farm and business. As she observes the crickets and learn that “only the males chirp,” she wonders, “Was it that they couldn’t chirp at all, no matter what? Or were the boy crickets so loud that they never got the chance?”
With the help of new friends she meets in Launch Camp, Mia solves the mystery threatening her grandmother’s business and helps grow the cricket business. “Mia especially loved she had a new friend. One who was brave enough for both of them.” (88) Through Warrior Camp, she slowly regains her confidence and courage to tell her parents about what happened in Boston.
An important novel that could pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You for MG readers—girls and boys. ---------- 20. How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian
According to the DODEA, “Children who experience the loss of a parent or other family member through a military line-of-duty death are likely to face a number of unique issues.” Izzy’s father died when she was ten, before her younger brother Jack was born. Her small family, estranged from her father’s relatives, has moved from place to place as her mother, a nurse’s aide, tries to support them.
When she moves to a a trailer park in Virginia, Isabella Crawford becomes embroiled in the family drama of her best friend, and, as a member of the acapella group at the private school where she is a scholarship student, she befriends a freshman who is battling her own demons. To make her life even more complicated, her family becomes the recipient of a Habit for Humanity house, and Izzy has to volunteer hours towards its construction.
In the midst of all this drama, Izzy, who is determined to keep her family’s circumstances a secret from her classmates, discovers what friendship and trusting friends—and family—really means as she reconnects with her father’s pig-farming family and finds that her wealthy friends and her new boyfriend care about her, not her economic status.
Izzy, an adolescent straddled between two cultures—that of her Puerto Rican mother and her North Carolina father—is not quite sure where she belongs but learns to share her world with others. She is a memorable, well-developed character whom I did not want to leave at the end of Maria Padian’s novel. ---------- 21. Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
‘Without Monday by my side, I was jumping alone in shark-infested waters…” (10) Claudia sees Monday as her best friend, her sister, her soul-mate. But Monday isn’t there when Claudia returns from her summer visit to Georgia; she’s not there the first day of school, the first week, the first month, and no one else seems to be looking for her but Claudia. She gets evasive, conflicting answers from Monday’s mother, her sister April, and the adults at her school, and the police. Even her parents vacillate between helping her and forbidding her from visiting the dangerous complex where Monday lives.
How will she navigate the school bullies and hide her dyslexia so that she can apply to the top DC high school with Monday without Monday to stand up for her and fix her homework? Who will prepare her for her first dance solo? Who will help her navigate her first romance?
This is another cleverly-crafted Tiffany Jackson novel I read straight through in two days. The timeline fluctuates so that the reader learns the story in bits and pieces, appreciating this format at the end. Part mystery, part the story of responsibility for others, this is the story of constant friendship and persistent loyalty which begs the question “Who’s really responsible for your well-being—your family, the government, or your community?” (421) ---------- 22. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
“You see, I’d walked into that gas station alone. And I’d walked out of it alone. Just like I’d walked in and out of gas stations alone every day for, like, years. And maybe right then and there, holding that kitten, is when I’d just had enough of all that aloneness.” (7)
Coyote Sunrise and her dad Rodeo have been living in a school bus and driving around the country for five years. Five years since Coyote’s two sisters and her mother died in a car crash. Five years since they had spoken of their family, visited their hometown, seen Coyote’s grandmother, or even used their real names.
But one day at a campground, spending the day with a new friend and her mother, Coyote noticed, “It felt like a family. Like a sister and a mom. I liked it. I wouldn’t have been willing to admit right then that it felt like that, or that I liked it—but it did, and I did.” (44) But after that one day, as was their custom, Rodeo and Coyote get back in the bus to move on and share once-upon-a-time stories.
“Once upon a time, there were three girls. Sisters. Once upon a time, there was a mom. And, once upon a time there was a box.… And they’d all promised, all three sisters and one mom had promised to come back for the box of memories…no matter what, they’d come back for that box.” (56)
In a weekly phone conversation with her grandmother, Coyote learns that the park where she, her sisters, and mother buried a memory box will be bulldozed for development, and she makes a decision. “I had to get myself, and a bus, and my dad, all the way across the country in less than four days. And I had to do it without my dad noticing.” (62)
Along the way they pick up a cast of characters, diverse people with their own problems: Lester is returning to a woman who wants him to give up his passion for music; Salvador and his mother are fleeing an abusive father/husband; and Val is running away from parents who refuse to accept her as she is—and of course, Ivan, the cat. Traveling with these people and helping them solve their problems, Coyote finds the support and family she needs to give her the strength to do what she needs to do to help her father acknowledge and move on from his loss and to help her fulfill her promise to her sisters and mother.
“I guess sometimes life does seem like too much, especially during the big moments. But usually you can dig inside yourself and find what you need. You can find what you need to grow into those big moments and make ‘em yours.” (299)
Dan Gemeinhart’s novel allows us to join this family, as if we were riding along, and share their sorrows, their failures, and their successes as we witness Coyote’s and her father’s healing. ---------- 23. The Someday Birdsby Sally J. Pla
Anne Lamott wrote about writing Bird by Bird—and that is exactly what Sally Pla does in her first novel. This emotional novel is written bird by bird (literally), character by character, event by event, emotion by emotion.
Charlie’s father was an English teacher and a journalist. On an assignment in Afghanistan, he sustained a brain injury and now he does not appear to be aware of his family. He has been living in a hospital where a mysterious, bossy young woman visits him daily.
Charlie, the narrator of the story, is a neuro-diverse young adolescent; he washes his hands twelve times, is obsessively organized, doesn’t like being touched, tries to distinguish emotions from visual clues, and is fixated with, and passionate about, birds. When his father is transferred from California to a hospital in Virginia for further treatment and his grandmother goes to be with him, Charlie, his younger twin brothers, and his 15-year-old boy-crazy sister, find themselves driving cross country with the stranger from the hospital room, a Bosnian woman named Ludmila.
Charlie decides that if he can find all the birds that he and his father had hoped to see— their Someday Birds—even the extinct ones, his father will be healed. Recognizing that this will at least serve to help Charlie feel better, Ludmila supports his endeavor and plans their trip around the needs of Charlie and the family. Meanwhile along the way they learn her story and her ties to their father.
They have adventures, meet people, find birds that were not even on the list, and Charlie acquires the journal of his hero, ornithologist, artist, and philosopher Tiberius Shaw, PhD, who he hopes to meet when they arrive in Virginia—as well as a dog he names Tiberius. At the end Charlie has redefined the meaning of success and, with the reader, has learned a bit of history and geography, and a lot about birds and human nature. “Bird’s-eye views or close–up human views; the world is confusing and surprising both ways” (323).
Note: The book cover recommended the book for ages 8-12, but the characters of Davis, Charlie’s sister, and Ludmila make this novel appropriate and interesting for adolescents of any age. ---------- 24. Sadie by Courtney Summers
“And so it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.” (1)
Cold Creek, Colorado. Population: 800. Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter’s younger sister was murdered—not far from the trailer park where they lived. Mattie was the sister Sadie loved with all her heart and raised from the time Mattie was born but especially after their mother, Claire, left. Sadie is sure she knows who murdered Mattie—their mother’s ex-boyfriend who abused 10-year-old Sadie and possibly Mattie, the man whom they knew as Keith but others knew under a variety of names in different towns.
Sadie takes off to avenge her sister’s death, following lead after lead, determined to track down Keith and kill him. And along the way she finds other victims—and other perpetrators.
Three months after Sadie’s car is found abandoned and law enforcement has declared her “another runaway,” her surrogate grandmother, May Beth Foster, reaches out to radio personality Wes McCray, the WNRK New York producer of the show Always Out There, as her last hope of finding Sadie. “I can’t take another dead girl.” (9)
As he searches for Sadie, interviewing people who knew her, detectives in the towns Sadie traveled through, and those who came in contact with her during her quest, following leads and hunches, at times wishing his boss would let him quit the assignment, Wes becomes more consumed as the story that will become his serialized podcast develops.
Alternating chapters between “The Girls” podcast episodes with its in-person and phone interviews and Sadie’s first-person account from the day she left, we learn about the strong, resilient, resourceful teen who grew up in poverty, without love, bullied because of a stutter, whose only concern is avenging Mattie’s death and saving children like her.
“Girls go missing all the time.” (15) ---------- 25. The Other F Word by Natasha Friend
Is it possible to define "family" these days? We are a long way from Dick and Jane’s family consisting of Mother, Father, the two siblings, and their pet dog and cat.
In this funny, poignant, well-written novel, four families are united by Sperm Donor #9677. When four of his offspring—teenagers Hollis, Milo, Abby, and Noah—meet and decide to go on a road trip to look for their father, they wind up forming their own sibling family and uniting their extended families. Milo has two moms; Hollis had two moms (one is deceased); Noah and his twin have a mother and father but twin Josh is not initially interested in finding their biological father; and Abby has a mom, a dad, and a half-sibling, the parents’ biological child. If that is not complicated enough, the half-siblings are joined on their quest by JJ, Milo’s friend (and my favorite character) who was adopted by his family at birth.
A great read about friendship and family. ----------
Canadian Educators & Readers, See my YA Wednesday post "I Read Canadian."
More Ideas for READING: For novels on other topics, see the pull-down menu under BOOK REVIEWS.