by Louise Erdrich
Hyperion Paperbacks, 1999
Middle grade fiction, Age 9 and Up
10: 0786814543/13: 978-078681454
Additional formats: Hardcover, audio
Honors: National Book Award Finalist * Jane Addams Award Honor * WILLA Award * National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Winner
The shero in the Birchbark House, set on Madeline Island off Lake Superior in 1847, receives her name from an Ojibwa girl who was recorded as living on the island in nineteenth century. Author Louise Erdrich writes, “Dear Reader, when you speak this name out loud you will be honoring the life of an Ojibwa girl who lived long ago.”
Now, speak her name: Omakayas.
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, Erdrich (National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize Finalist) wrote The Birchbark House to retrace her family’s history. The story is told from the perspective of seven-year-old Omakayas, or little frog. Young readers will be completely absorbed by the adventures of Omakayas as she works alongside the women and babysits her little brother. As many young children do, she feels jealous of her older sibling and annoyed by her younger ones. Working side-by-side with her mother and grandmother, she experiences an ability to communicate well with animals, the earth, and her elders, all of which guide her in toward the gift of healing.
When a smallpox breakout ravishes the community, Omakayas is the only one not infected. Her talent for listening to the earth and all its creatures soon helps her care for her family, and she must use all of her power to save them.
The story unfolds in four parts—summer, fall, winter, and spring—and the narrative builds inside the rhythms and rituals of Ojibwa life. Its back matter includes an Author’s Note on Ojibwa language and a glossary and punctuation guide of Ojibwa terms, offering opportunity for continued depth and discovery of Omakayas’s world.
Many have contrasted The Birchbark House to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Wilder’s books carry a cultural bias embedded in the white encroachment on native land and culture as America pushed its boundaries west – a contrast worth noting. The Birchbark House testifies to the decimation and destruction that resulted, yet Erdrich most strongly evokes a feeling of connection among all people, with the earth, and to an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas. – Gigi
by Cece Bell
Amulet Books, 2014
Middle grade, graphic novel
Additional formats: paperback
Awards: Newbery Honor Award 2015
It’s a documented fact that you need a special power to be a superhero. It has to be something no one else can do. Something so impressive that it earns us instant respect.
How about being able to hear your teachers while they gossip in the lounge or if they pass gas in the restroom?
This year’s Newbery Honor-winning book, El Deafo by Cece Bell, is a hilarious graphic novel about a young girl (well, sort of a rabbit) coming to terms with being deaf in a hearing world.
The list of inconveniences is long for a kid who has to wear a cumbersome device called the “Phonic Ear.” And it’s almost impossible to make everyone understand why turning up the TV louder will not help or why whispering in the dark at a sleep over is maddening.
But there is always a silver lining if you have a hero’s heart. In this case, the silver lining is an ability to use your “Phonic Ear” to hear your teacher’s every movement—including those inside a bathroom stall.
There is so much to love here: the funny illustrations, the wacky characters, the wise look inside the dynamics of friendship. But what I admire most are the many moments in the pages when Bell helps us reflect on how we all make room for each other in this world. ~MM
by Sharon M. Draper
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015
Middle grade, Ages 9-13
Additional formats: e-book, audio
Stella likes to slip out of the house at night to practice her writing because she thinks more clearly in silence, under the stars. One night her little brother, JoJo, follows her and the two siblings witness a Ku Klux Klan meeting. The re-emergence of the KKK in rural Bumblebee, NC sends fear into Stella’s tight-knit community.
The novel is set in the Depression-era, a time of transition in America and the rural south. Some people in Bumblebee want to destroy social progress that has been made, using violence and threats. Stella and her father know the only way to go is forward toward education, opportunity, and equal rights.
Standing up for yourself and your family takes courage and clarity, as Stella learns by accompanying her father and their pastor to the voting poll on Election Day. The danger they face is real; the consequences suffered heart-breaking. Rather than fight fire with fire, Stella chooses the power of the pen as her weapon. She fights back with written words full of truth and faith.
There is so much to love in this book. Draper writes endearing, charismatic adult characters who encourage the children to help each other, to take risks, to sing loudly, and learn by watching and listening and trying. The language and phrasing resonate a time when the spoken word made strong use of storytelling, oral history, rhymes, and riddles. Scenes of joyous meals and earnest worship combine into a vibrant, inspiring depiction of a beloved community where the people find solace and fortitude in one another.
Best of all is Stella, drawn with palpable connection to the people around her, a girl with a brave, loving heart and a desire to write the truth. – Gigi
What happens when your own country turns against you in suspicion?
Dust of Eden, a novel in verse, is the story of Mina Tagawa and her family following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when their lives in Seattle are changed forever.
Told from the point of view of Mina, a middle school girl, Dust of Eden spans three years during which the Tagawa family goes from being seen as beloved neighbors to being perceived as enemies of the state. Taunts begin at school, even from lifelong friends. Mina’s father is soon arrested. And finally the family, under the requirements of Executive Order 9066, is forced into an internment camp in Idaho.
How does a girl survive when the world she has known her whole life turns against her? Is the answer to bear the pain with silent dignity—ngaman—as her grandfather does? Is it to prove your patriotism by enlisting in the service as her brother does? How do you forgive people who have hurt you for no reason?
This slim volume lays bare some of our nation’s difficult history, but it always stays true to the heart of a young girl as she tries to make sense of hate. I admire this book for its lovely writing, for its gateway to history, for Mina’s quiet strength, and for all the ways that her story reminds us of the high cost of fear disguised as patriotism. ~MM
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
Middle grade, memoir, poetry
Ages 10 and up
Honors: National Book Award for Young People’s Literature * Newbery Honor * Coretta Scott King Author Book Award * Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature * NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature
Jacqueline Woodson recalls a childhood spanning Ohio, South Carolina, and New York toward the end of the Jim Crow era and the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
Through a child’s eyes, the story revisits a grandmother’s tired feet and strong faith, downtown sit-ins, and lingering WHITES ONLY signs. This memoir-in-verse summons the reliable tonality of her maternal grandfather’s daily return from work and his grandchildren’s wild, loving sprint to greet him. The pages reminisce over a familial landscape where the Greenville air speaks to a thoughtful child through the twinkle of lightning bugs, scents of pine, and wet grass and a never-ending serenade of crickets.
Brown Girl Dreaming illuminates how deeply childhood is shaped by history, family, faith, and place and how often children are called upon to build bridges between the past and the future, trials and triumphs. – Gigi
by Marilyn Hilton
River’s older brother has disappeared under a cloud of suspicion for a drunk driving death, and now she finds that she is speaking in a strange accent, dreaming of a house she doesn’t recall, and is drawn to the river even though she is terrified of drowning.
Soon, the new outlier at school, Meadow Lark Frankenfield—aka Frakenfemme, according to the ever-hateful Daniel Bunch—befriends her. But while Meadow Lark is a much-needed friend to ease her sorrow and loneliness, their relationship begins to open more doubt and questions.
This debut novel is a quiet story, but it is also a spine-tingling mystery for middle grade readers. A strong girl can be a quiet one, too—even one who feels broken from time to time. I admire this story for what it lets us consider about boundaries in friendships and for what it reveals about the surprising ways we all try to heal what ails us. ~MM
By David Baldacci
Scholastic Press, 2014
Middle grade fiction, Ages 10 and up
ISBN: 0545652200/ 978-0545652209
Additional formats: e-book, audio
Author David Baldacci has earned a rabidly loyal, worldwide fan base with his fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers. With The Finisher,he makes his middle grade fantasy debut in a novel featuring a wisecracking, clever, and brave young heroine named Vega Jane.
Vega and her brother, John, live in the village of Wormwood, which is surrounded by a dangerous, forbidden wilderness known as the Quag. When Vega witnesses a co-worker fleeing into the Quag, the Council becomes highly suspicious of Vega’s involvement. Members of the Council construct a benevolent façade to cover up the real reasons no one is allowed to leave Wormwood. Vega soon realizes everyone is being manipulated.
Vega Jane is my favorite kind of girl—a headstrong, quick study whose mouth gets ahead of her mind sometimes. She’s motivated by justice and fairness but has yet to learn to choose her battles. Vega is loyal to her family and friends—always ready to put up her dukes and fight on behalf of the underdog—behavior that often comes at a price in fiction as in life. And, oh so worth it!
Baldacci’s mastery of emotional tension and full-throttle action is on fine display. The quirky, lovable cast of characters will endear The Finisher to readers of all ages. – Gigi