By Hannah Barnaby
Houghton Mifflin Books for children, 2012
Honors: William C. Morris Award finalist * Kirkus Best Teen Books * Bank Street College Best Children’s Books * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults
I remember the first time I went to the circus. I was five, and my mother took me to see the Ringling Bros at Madison Square Garden. I remember that the clowns frightened me, that the giraffe felt like a skyscraper, and that I said a dirty word that got me scolded. But mostly, I remember that it was the first big outing I took with my mother.
Maybe that’s why I adore Wonder Show. My mom passed away last year, and I read this book at her bedside during her final days. It’s no surprise that I would turn to a book for escape and solace. It’s always been that way for me. But I found myself completely absorbed in this story of a strong girl, her longing for family, and the role of self-forgiveness for all of us.
Set in the 1930’s, Wonder Show is the story of Portia, a girl who loves to make up stories for anyone who’ll listen. She is abandoned first by her mother, then her loving father, Max, and finally by her no-nonsense Aunt Sofia, who decides she can’t raise the headstrong and creative girl on her own. Portia finds herself in the care (loose definition, here) of the ever-creepy Mister at the Home for Wayward Girls. Here, her life as an outsider begins. When her desperate attempt to help a friend dodge Mister’s marital intentions goes terribly wrong, Portia flees in desperation and joins—what else?—the circus.
Well, not exactly the circus. She joins the part of the circus where the true outsiders reside: the Wonder Show, filled with Siamese twins, bearded ladies, giants, armless knife throwers and more.
Barnaby’s debut is so impressive. She recreates the tightly knit community expertly, and her instincts for timing and tension are spot on. She creates characters that are rich in their own needs and failings. I found it almost impossible to stop reading at the end of each chapter. And, I fell in love with Portia.
It’s a teen novel that can work especially well in middle school, but really, any age can enjoy this creepy and thoughtful tale. In Portia, we have a strong girl who refuses to be beaten down, even by her own remorse. – Meg
By e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Candlewick Press, 2013
Honors: Stonewall Book Award 2014
Fat Angie’s life is a list of miseries. There’s Stacy Ann Sloan and her crew, who have pinned the ugly moniker, and the fact that Angie’s sister has been missing and is presumed dead in Iraq. Angie’s “could-not-be-bothered mother” harasses her over her weight, her therapist is a turd, and her public suicide attempt has made national headlines. Life as a so-called “freak” is killing her.
Enter stage left one hot girl named K.C. Romance.
Fat Angie is a book about two young women who fall in love at a time when they’re wrestling with their own grief and circumstances. There’s a lot to wrap your arms and heart around here: suicide, cutting, grief, bullying, war, family dysfunction—but then, when did life ever parcel troubles out one by one? Besides, there’s also ample dark comedy by way of a ridiculous therapist and a refreshing style that mimics the very media that has helped ruin Angie’s life. I especially love the quirky friendship and romance between Angie and K.C., their oddball shared interests (Japanese light up candy rings), and dialogue with lines like “Let me SparkNote it,” instead of, say, “I can explain.”
Don’t look for neatly tied up resolutions among the characters, particularly not Angie and her mother. Instead, look for Fat Angie’s emotional transformation into simply Angie, a girl who finds her voice at the other end of forgiveness and acceptance. – Meg
Meet e.E. Charlton Trujillo here on Meg’s website.
Enjoy her trailer, too!
By Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios, translated by Adriana Domínguez
Picture book, ages 4 – 7
Children’s Book Press, 2011
Honors: Junior Library Guild Selection *Pura Belpré Honor * 2012 International Latino Book Award * 2012 ALSC Notable Book
Ever try a peanut butter and jelly burrito? You just might find out it’s wonderful—especially if you read Marisol MacDonald Doesn’t Match/ Mariso McDonald No Combina.
Red-head Marisol McDonald is a little bit of everything. ¡Un poco de todo!
A little Peruvian. A little Scottish. The thing she likes best is not matching—at all.
Written by beloved Latino picture book author Monica Brown, this is a bi-lingual romp that celebrates being multi-cultural but also being true to your own originality. Marisol is a combination of things, so why not make room for all the things that don’t normally go together in her world?
The text is offered in Spanish and English—a great way to brush up on your language skills—and the illustrations feature children across all ethnicities. Two of my other favorite books by Monica Brown that feature strong girls are her picture book biographies. Try Me Llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz, and My Name is Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral. – Meg
By Jenny Hubbard
Young Adult (high school)
Delacorte Press, a Division of Random House, 2014
Other formats: e-book
Sometimes our youth is marked by tragedy. And that’s the case for Emily Beam, whose boyfriend, Paul Wagoner, walks into the high school library and takes his own life. This is a story about teen pregnancy and suicide. But more, it’s a story about mistakes and the awful consequences of decisions, about the complete unraveling of a girl, and the role of female friendships, writing, and time in helping her survive.
Normally, I plug my nose at novels set at boarding schools in New England or whose narrative centers around the cheerleader-athlete-keg party set. However, nothing about this novel is stereotypical: not the characters, not Emily’s voice, and certainly not the depth and honestly with which Jenny Hubbard lays out the complicated moral questions of one girl’s life. The novel is interspersed with Emily’s free verse, inspired by the life and works of Emily Dickinson—which opened for me a thirst for diving back into the famous poet’s life.
You might already recognize Jenny Hubbard, whose debut novel Paper Covers Rock was a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Novel award. My prediction is that Jenny Hubbard is at the start of a long, bright career—and we’ll all be better for it. I haven’t read a novel that moved me and troubled me this much in a long while. I hope it finds its way to the bookshelves of high school girls everywhere. -Meg
By Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum Books for Young Readers: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: ISBN: 978-1416918820
Honors: National Book Award winner 2013
Summer is twelve years old, and her family is having no luck at all. Her parents have been called back to Japan to care for dying relatives, and she’s left in the care of her grandparents Jiichan (grandfather) and Obaachan (grandmother), who take her and her brother Jaz along for their work as harvesters despite their own frail health.
It’s hard to imagine that the world of combines and wheat thrashers could be appealing, but in this Newbery-winning author’s hands, it becomes the backdrop for an intergenerational story about poverty, hard-work, growing up, and the realities of the lives of people who harvest crops that eventually sit on our dinner tables.
The relationship between Summer and Obaachan is especially funny and ultimately poignant. A cranky and demanding grandmother is never easy to live with, especially when she’s always threatening to ground you forever. Does my grandmother love and admire me or not? That’s what Summer is trying to decide.
I also admire the lack of sentimentality about the hardship of families who work in harvesting and the honest portrayal of the subtle insults and the inequities that are part of laborers’ lives. Another thumbs up to the nuanced approach to Jaz who is immersed in his Lego sets and plagued by an appalling lack of social skills. Summer wonders if he will ever find a friend? “Am I a loser?” he asks her. What’s a sister to say?
I think strong girls will love this book because it is so often funny, but also because there is a lot sitting on Summer’s young shoulders. It’s easy for a kid to feel snowed under, especially the oldest in the family. When is responsibility too much responsibility? When do we ask children to grow up to fast? Strong girls will have to decide. – Meg
By Julie Kraulis
Picture book, all ages
Tundra Books, A Division of Random House of Canada, 2013
Other formats: e-book
Every once in a while, I come across a picture book that speaks as clearly to the heart of an adult as it does to that of a child. That’s the case with Whimsy’s Heavy Things, a beautifully illustrated picture book about overcoming sadness.
Whimsy is dragging around “heavy things,” but try as she might to ignore them, hide them, or “stuff them,” they stubbornly come back. How will she let them go?
A young child knows what it feels like to be sad—and so do teens and adults who sometimes get battered by the ups and downs of life, too. Julie Kraulis’ illustrations are haunting—giving elegant shape to gloom and later to joy. Whimsy moves past her heavy things with the help of friends and her own cleverness. Turns out, dragging all those heavy things offers her the tools to get to the other side.
I’d love to see this book in every classroom and in every guidance counselor’s collection. As girls and women, we do see heavy times occasionally, and it would do us good to have Whimsy’s tale to keep us company when we need some comfort.
By Cynthia Lord
Scholastic Press, 2006
Honors: Newbery Honor Book * Schneider Family Book Award * Mitten Award (Michigan Library Association) * Great Lakes Great Books Award (Michigan) * Maine Student Book Award * Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (Vermont) * Kentucky Bluegrass Award* Great Stone Face Award (New Hampshire)* Buckeye Children’s Book Award (Ohio)
No toys in the fish tank.
That sounds like an unnecessary rule to mention, but when your brother has autism, there are rules for everything, every day. So, Catherine, age twelve, is keeping a notebook of rules to help him get through his day, rules that typical kids acquire but that have to be spelled out and repeated endlessly for David to follow. Catherine loves her brother, but she sometimes feels saddled with the job of looking after him, especially when her parents aren’t around to help. “Just for a minute” can be a monumental task.
That summer, something wonderful is about to happen that might ease Catherine’s load. A new neighbor is moving in. Could Kristi—pretty and destined to be well-liked at school—be a new friend for Catherine? And how will she feel about David and his unexpected behaviors?
This novel is about the tricky landscape of families that include people with special needs. Cynthia Lord writes with honesty and heart about the fierce love and frustration that defines that experience. She details the embarrassing moments—the shrieks, the undressing in public places, the meltdowns—but also lets us into the moments of pure love and grace that happen, too. I was also especially glad to see the relationship with Jason, a boy Catherine’s age who communicates with a touch board, and I also liked how she drew the parents in all of this, frazzled, loving, sometimes undone.
I think strong girls will relate to this story because it’s about what we’re willing to do to fit in. How far—or not—are we willing to go to let all kids into the circle of their neighborhoods and families? – Meg