Author Archive

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation

Separate is Never Equal

Separate is Never Equal

by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014
Picture book, ages 5 – adult
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1054-4
Honors: Pura Belpré Honor book 2015 * Robert Seibert Honor Book, 2015 * Amèricas Book Award, 2015

When we think of Civil Rights in this country, it’s easy to overlook the role of Latinos in that struggle. Yet in 1944, when California schools were still segregated, Sylvia Mendez and her siblings were forced to enroll in a school for Mexicans. Despite the fact that they were natural American citizens, the Mendez children were required to attend a school that was farther from home and lacking in the same amenities as the school designated for white students.

Thus began the Mendez family fight to integrate schools for Latinos.

Separate Is Never Equal
by award-winning author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh is the perfect blend of picture book, history, and a strong-girl story. It’s about everyday people fighting injustice with conviction. Readers can follow the court proceedings and meet the essential people who joined the lawsuit. It’s a revealing look at the thinking of the time, such as the ideas that Mexicans had deficient language skills, poor social skills, head lice, impetigo, and other illnesses.

With distinctive art based on the Mixtec Codex, an excellent glossary, photographs, and list of resources, this is a rich picture book for all ages. I love this book for Girls of Summer in particular because strong girls do, in fact, help change history. ~MM


Dory Fantasmagory

Dory Fantasmagory

Dory Fantasmagory

by Abby Hanlon
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Chapter book, ages 5 – 8
ISBN: 978-0803740884
Additional formats: paperback
Golden Kite honor title, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

You’ll recognize Dory.

She’s that youngest child who is always begging to play no matter how much her brother and sister try to keep her away. She’s the one who eats napkins, the one who acts like a dog for a whole day, the one who won’t go to bed and who sees villains where no one else does, the who asks questions— a lot of annoying questions.

Abby Hanlon, author of Ralph Tells a Story (Two Lions, 2012), has created a pest that you can’t help but root for because she is one hundred percent enthusiasm and imagination. It would be easy to leave the story at slapstick, but in Hanlon’s able hands, we get more. Sprinkled into the hilarious scenarios are also the quiet moments of hurt and love we see in families. Dory is a handful, but one that no one can resist. ~MM


Viva Frida

Viva Frida

Viva Frida

by Yuyi Morales
Roaring Brook Press, 2014
Picture book, ages 4 – 8
ISBN: 978-1596436039
Additional formats: bilingual edition
Awards: Caldecott Honor 2015 * Pura Belpré Award 2015 for illustration

I can’t stop looking at the pictures in this lovely book that earned Yuyi Morales a Caldecott honor, the first for a Latino illustrator, this year.

It’s the story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo whose life has been well covered. However, that has made absolutely no impact on this book’s originality and freshness. Each page is a beautifully photographed tableau of Kahlo’s life—in painting, in puppets, in collage. There are sophisticated references to her husband, Diego Rivera, and images that would find themselves into her art, which make it especially fun for adult readers, too. The details are charming—everything from those signature eyebrows down to the jewelry and embroidered skirts. Most impressive, though, is that the simple words capture how an artist discovers her voice and passion—two essentials for strong girls everywhere. Bravo! ~MM


El Deafo

El Deafo

El Deafo

by Cece Bell
Amulet Books, 2014
Middle grade, graphic novel
978-1-4197-1020-9
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


Written in the Stars

stars
by Aisha Saeed
Nancy Paulsen Books: Penguin, 2015
Young adult, 14 years and older
ISBN: 978-0-399-17170-3

Naila can choose some things for herself, like her hairstyle and her college major. But when it comes to whom she will marry, her parents are in charge.

The only trouble is that Naila is already in love with Saif. When they are caught sneaking off to the prom together, the repercussions are far worse than anything these American-raised teens could imagine. Naila’s parents take drastic action to save their daughter and their whole family from shame. She is sent back to family in Pakistan to be married.

Debut author Aisha Saeed offers a page-turner about culture clash in the lives of young women around the world. Readers will hold their breath as Naila fights to escape her fate against insurmountable odds and a dwindling supply of allies.

I admire this novel for its beautiful writing and for the rich characters in Naila’s extended family. Few are completely good or bad. Saeed is careful to offer a rich look at the beautiful aspects of traditional Pakistani family life, but she doesn’t shy away from the underlying struggle women face for autonomy and dignity worldwide. ~MM


Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

gabi

by Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014
Young adult, 14 years and older
ISBN: 978-1-935955-94-8
Additional formats: paperback
Awards: Junior Library Guild Selection * William Morris Award * School Library Journal Best Books 2014 * Amelia Bloomer List * 2015 YALSO Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers* 2015 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults * 2015 Tomás Rivera Book Award, Works for Older Children * 2015 Capitol Choices: Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens

Gabi is in her senior year of high school, and there’s more on her plate than just tacos, wings, and Rocky Road ice cream—all of which she loves. Her best friend, Cindy, is pregnant, and her other friend, Sebastian, has been thrown out of the house for being gay. Add that to drug abuse in her home, a meddling hyper-religious aunt, and a mom who’s stuck in old fashioned thinking, and you have a girl in pieces.

Written in diary format, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, is a terrific debut novel that offers a loving and difficult portrait of a girl growing up against a backdrop of cultural sexism, adult hypocrisies, and the madhouse called American high school. Sprinkled with Spanglish, Isabel Quintero captures the sound and feel of a modern Latina.

I love this book most for its unflinching voice. Gabi—a poet—is smart, funny, coarse, and strong. The diary entries, along with the poems she writes for her senior year ‘zine, allow us to hear her deepest secrets and fears as she learns to fight for the things she truly wants and deserves. ~MM


Revolution

revolution
by Deborah Wiles
Scholastic Press, 2014
Middle grade documentary novel, ages 9 – 12
ISBN: 978-0-545-10607-8
Additional formats: available as e-book and audio
Awards: National Book Award finalist * Golden Kite Award, 2014

Summer 1964!

All Sunny Fairchild wants to do is swim in the pool and stay away from her new stepmother, kind as she may be.

This isn’t just an ordinary summer, though. It’s Freedom Summer, and “agitators from the North” plan to come to Sunny’s town in Mississippi to register black voters.

Revolution is the second book in a trilogy about the tumultuous 1960s. What I love about this 522-page book (pretty hefty for middle grade) is its marriage of great storytelling and heart-wrenching documentary. We follow the journey of a strong girl whose eyes are opened to the racial discrimination she has never bothered to consider. But we are also following a carefully researched documentary of the sacrifices that went into the early Civil Rights era. Readers can see the startling artifacts of the time: KKK communiqués, pamphlets that were distributed by Freedom School volunteers, as well as news accounts of murders and disappearances. The frightening realities of the Deep South come alive.

I’m especially fond of how Deborah drew Sunny and her family. Sunny is imperfect: so proud, daring, and smart but also bullheaded and, at times, selfish.
Her family runs the gamut from those who want no change, to those fighting for it or flailing for some murky middle ground in the face of danger.

Raymond, a talented baseball player, is a wonderful counter character, and his family experiences offer a similar bold look inside the African Americans who were struggling to register for the vote and desegregate their communities.

Fact and fiction have met beautifully in this novel. A book like one this reminds us that a strong girl will see hard things in her lifetime. What matters is how she responds. ~MM


Dust of Eden

dustOfEden
by Mariko Nagai
Albert Whitman & Company, 2014
Historical fiction; Novel in verse
Middle grade and Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-8075-1739-0

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


Found Things

Found Things

Found Things

by Marilyn Hilton
Atheneum, 2014
Middle grade
ISBN: 978-1-4424-6087

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


Wonder Show

wondershow

By Hannah Barnaby
Young Adult
Houghton Mifflin Books for children, 2012
978-0-547-59980-9
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fat Angie

fatangie

By e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Young Adult
Candlewick Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6119-9
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!


Marisol MacDonald Doesn’t Match

marisol

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

 

 

 


And We Stay

andwestay

By Jenny Hubbard
Young Adult (high school)
Delacorte Press, a Division of Random House, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-74057-9
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


The Thing About Luck

luck

By Cynthia Kadohata
Middle grade
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


Whimsy’s Heavy Things

whimsy

By Julie Kraulis
Picture book, all ages
Tundra Books, A Division of Random House of Canada, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-77049-403-9
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.
-Meg


Rules

rules

By Cynthia Lord
Scholastic Press, 2006
ISBN: 0-439-44382-2
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


Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon

mollylou

By Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow
Picture book, ages 4 – 7
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2001
ISBN: 978-0-399-23416-3

Molly Lou Melon is the shortest girl in her class—only a little taller than a dog. And that’s just one of her physical peculiarities. Buck teeth, a bad-voice, you name it.

But are those really problems? Not at all. Molly’s grandmother gives her good advice about standing tall and moving through the world with confidence. The question is, will confidence save Molly Lou when she moves away and starts at a new school?

This little classic is over a decade old, but it still feels fresh and funny to me. It captures school life with just a few scenes and celebrates a little girl who dares to move through the world embracing her dents and dings. I’m especially fond of Grandma—an elder strong girl—who we see only once, though her wise presence is everywhere.

Prepare to have lots of giggles over this one. A lovely little gem. -Meg


All Alone in the Universe

allalone

By Lynne Rae Perkins
A Greenwillow Book, Harper Trophy, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 1999
ISBN: 978-0-688-16881-0
ALA Notable Book * ALA Booklist Editor’s Choice * Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book * Smithsonian Notable Book For Children * CCBC Choice Selection * Bank Street Best Book ^ New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

An oldie but goodie.

If you ask me, All Alone in the Universe is the perfect illustrated novel for middle school girls facing a long summer. So much happens to kids in those ten hot weeks, and this novel captures that drama with spot-on storytelling. Meet Debbie and Hector, both fourteen and part of a group of friends longing for something interesting to happen to them. Is it love? A life as a musician? The right pair of pants?

Lynne Rae Perkins, winner of the 2006 Newbery Medal for Criss Cross, brings humor and insight to the story of a plain old summer, for plain old middle school kids, all of whom are starting to feel that life ought to be more than what it is now in their town of Seldem.

The drawings are funny expressions of how we see the world at fourteen, and the dual narrative of Lenny and Debbie works well, too. I also admired the mother/daughter dynamic, especially around their shared experiences of a boy who has moved on.

This is a story of ordinary kids trying to break out of their boredom and find themselves as they start to say goodbye to childhood. I found myself rooting for friends Debbie and Maureen and for all the kids in Seldem—even the handsome young jock who could, in fact, remain a jerk unless life throws him enough opportunities to find another way.

I think middle grade strong girls will see their friendships here, their missteps, and so many of their own yearnings. A terrific summer read. – Meg


Code Name Verity

verity

By Elizabeth Wein
Young adult (late middle school – adult)
Hyperion
ISBN:978-142315288-0
Honors:
2013 Michael Printz Honor Book * New York Times Bestseller * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten * 2012 Boston Globe Book Award Honor * Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice 2012 * BookPage Best Children’s Book 2012 * Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbons 2012 * Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2012 * The Horn Book Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 * Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2012 * Library Journals Best YA Books for Adults * New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Books of 2012 * Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2012 * School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year 2012 * Young Adult Novels You’ll Never Outgrow * National Public Radio’s Best Books 2012 series

There’s a particular alchemy of human beings at their worst that allows us to savor the beauty of simple people turned into heroes. I’ll point to Ann Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Mark Musak’s The Book Thief—just two of a long list. Now, I’ll count Elizabeth Wein’s remarkable novel, Code Name Verity, in that class, too.

The novel follows the friendship of two unconventional girls during World War II: mechanically-inclined Maddy, who becomes a pilot, and the wealthy and well-bred Julie, who becomes a German-speaking spy during the French occupation.

Written in the form of Julie’s forced confession at the hands of her Nazi interrogators, the novel immediately draws in the reader with mesmerizing details and tension. The violence is honest but not overly gory, and the voice often darkly funny, quite a feat for something set in a concentration camp. But it is in Part two, when Maddy picks up the narration, that the novel becomes truly heart-stopping. (To say more is a spoiler, sorry.)

This is historical fiction at its best—well-researched, plausible, never pedantic. As a writer, I consider what Elizbeth Wein has done here absolutely astonishing in its breadth and quality. But for me, this novel soars for strong girls because it is so clearly the story of resilient girls tested to their limit. It is the story of courage and war and of the frightening sacrifices we make for the ones we love. – Meg


Mockingbird

Mockingbird

By Kathryn Erskine
Middle grade
Philomel, 2010; Puffin books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-399-25264-8/978-0-14-241775-1
Awards/recognition: * National Book Award 2010 * International Reading Association Award *Crystal Kite Award *Golden Kite Honor *Southern Independent Booksellers Award *ALA Notable Children’s Book *Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College Best Children’s Book (outstanding merit) *Junior Library Guild Selection

I couldn’t have completed my picks without including Mockingbird by fellow Virginian, Kathryn Erskine. This novel, which won a National Book Award, is the story of ten-year-old Caitlin, who struggles to make sense of her brother’s death in a school shooting – a struggle that is complicated by her Asperger’s Syndrome.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that one of my own daughters was born with disabilities. (Hers are intellectual challenges, not autism.) It’s a particular pleasure for me to find a novel that captures the gifts and obstacles of life with a disability so well.

Caitlin is mainstreamed in the fifth grade at a school that is still reeling from a shooting, where her older brother, Devin, was killed. In her highly structured world, she refers to the event as “The Day Our Life Fell Apart.” Complicating matters for everyone is the fact that Josh, a cousin of the shooter attends her school, too. At home, Caitlin’s father – depressed and isolated – is grieving his son’s death even as he continues to meet Caitlin’s needs as best he can.

Daily life at school is a challenge. As often happens with kids who live outside the norm, Caitlin is an outsider with her peers, who in turn want to help or throttle her. Erskine does a fantastic job of getting behind this character’s eyes so that what seems erratic (the rocking, the shouting, the refusal to budge on a seemingly simple matter) all makes perfect sense. She also shows exactly what’s involved for a girl like Caitlin to do a group project or simply to “look at the person.”

The book is often funny, thank goodness. (And really, how could it be anything else when you’re following a character that understands the world very literally? Just think of Amelia Bedelia.) There are excruciating scenes, too — often those moments when Caitlin injures those around her unintentionally – and moments of sheer beauty, such as the simple friendship between Caitlin and a first grader named Michael.

But what shines out more than anything else is that there is a way back from unspeakable grief. What it takes to find it is acceptance, patience, and an unfailing commitment to those we love. That, and a strong girl as our guide. MM

Kathy Erskine receiving the National Book Award.  

Learn more about Kathryn Erskine.


Girl Stolen

Girl Stolen

By April Henry
Young adult
Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt BYR, 2010,
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9005-5
Awards/Recognitions: * American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults * American Library Association Quick Picks for Young Adults

Sometimes, I’m reminded that we tend to read the way we eat. For some meals, we fill our plate with nutritious food that takes a while to digest. Other times, we just want to enjoy a big fat slice of cake, no guilt attached. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy both within reason.

For me, Girl, Stolen is a delicious piece of cake. No, it doesn’t make deep commentary on a girl’s journey. But it is an exciting crime story that will keep you happy poolside as you read to find out if 16-year-old Cheyenne Wilder will manage to escape her captors.

It’s a nightmare pulled from headlines: A kid is stolen in the half-second it takes a parent to run in for an errand. In this case, Cheyenne is burning with fever, and her stepmother takes her along to pick up her antibiotics. Unfortunately, a car thief named Griffin happens along. He’s out trolling the mall parking lot to help his chop-shop dad by stealing a nice SUV. What he doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that Cheyenne is asleep in the back seat of the car he steals.

Being hijacked when you’re deathly ill is bad enough, but let’s throw in the clincher: Cheyenne is legally blind, thanks to the car accident that killed her biological mother. And that, my friends, is what we mean by a character’s dilemma.

The novel is written in alternating chapters, between Griffin and Cheyenne’s point of view. It has the effect of humanizing the villain – or at least, pointing out that he’s not the uber bad guy in this tale. I was a little worried that the author would recreate one of those silly scenarios where the female victim falls in love with her assailant. (Ask your mother about soap operas in the 1980s. Sweet Lord.). But no, experienced mystery writer April Henry doesn’t go there. Instead, she fleshes out her characters’ relationship just enough and keeps us on the edge of our seats with everything from snarling dogs to leering garage assistants.

What I particularly like is what many reviewers have pointed out: Cheyenne’s blindness is simply a part of her, not the focus of her character. And like all strong girls, blind or otherwise, she’s up to solving her trouble – no matter how hopeless it seems – through her wits and gifts. MM

Learn more about author April Henry.


Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

By Ying Chang Compestine
Young adult
Henry Holt BYR, 2007
ISBN: 0805082077 / 978-0805082074
Awards/Recognition: California Book Award for Young Adult Literature
 * 2008 ALA Best Books For Young Adults
 * 2008 ALA Notable Children’s Books
 * 2007 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Fiction Book List

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party offers a look at a family’s frightening experiences during one of the most chilling chapters in modern Chinese history. It’s a page-turner, a tragedy, and a tribute to the resilience of a young girl in the midst of a world gone crazy.

“The summer of 1972, before I turned nine, danger began knocking on doors all over China.”

So begins the story of Ling Chang, the daughter of two doctors living in Wuhan during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, when thousands of Chinese intellectuals were killed or sent to re-education camps. Over the course of three years, Ling and her family descend from well-respected citizens to “bourgeois pigs,” whose home is ransacked and lives made miserable at every turn. The novel doesn’t spare the thousands of tragedies, large and small, through the eyes of a little girl awakening to the darker side of human nature. Whether it’s a broken doll, school humiliations, betrayal at the hands of friends, or witnessing a suicide, Compestine lays the facts bare. Ling journeys from being a wide-eyed innocent to a streetwise twelve-year-old, who wields belt buckles to ward off bullies and who steals food from the Red Guard’s secret stash.

Beyond the nail-biting tension as the noose tightens around this family, the relationship between Ling and her parents made this novel a keeper. Ling is blessed with a healthy relationship with her doting father. His life lessons – whether dancing the tango, studying English, or memorizing the physician’s code of ethics — see her through even her loneliest days. But, I was even more intrigued by the complicated love/hate dance between Ling and her mother. Seemingly tense and unfairly critical at the start of the novel, Ling’s mother is anything but sympathetic. In time, however, Ling learns to judge those behaviors against the backdrop of what it really takes to survive in a world where even the most trusted friend can betray you, when the simplest dream or desire can cost a girl her life.  MM

Learn more about Ying Chang Compestine.


Poetry Speaks Who I Am

Poetry Speaks Who I Am

Edited by Elise Paschen; Series Editor: Dominique Raccah
Middle grade
Sourcebook Jabberwocky, 2010
ISBN: 13-978-1-4022-1074-7
Awards/recognitions: * National Parenting Publications Award

Oh man, do I love this book-and-CD collection – and I say this as someone who is not particularly drawn to poetry. (Forgive me poets!)

There are more than 100 poems here that range from the well-known masters you might find in school (Emily Dickinson, for example, and Langston Hughes) but there are also poems that deal with gym showers, bra shopping, and meeting Malcolm X’s mother. The collection feels accessible across cultures, across sexes, even across generations. I stuck the CD in my car, and soon enough, I was making up reasons to go to the store, just to hear the poets speak in their own voices. That is, until my eighteen-year-old daughter swiped it and took it to school for her own listening pleasure. Now, it makes me ache to think that we ever try to teach poetry without hearing it as spoken word.  MM

Click here to see what I mean. (Audio by permission of author Rebecca Lauren and Sourcebook Jabberwocky)

Check out their website: https://www.poetryspeaks.com/


Butterfly

Butterfly

By Sonya Hartnett
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4760-5
Awards/recognitions: * Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award *Starred reviews from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

There is a particular kind of girl who moves from middle grade novels straight into the adult world, without looking back. Her heart and mind are big enough to make the leap into all kinds of reading – just as long as it moves her. Luckily, there’s room on this list for a gifted writer who can create thoughtful and provocative YA that walks such readers into adulthood. Her name is Sonya Hartnett, an Australian author who won the 2006 Printz Honor award for her novel Surrender.

Butterfly, her 2009 release, is dark, thoughtful, and unerringly honest about the hell of being 13. Hartnett, who started publishing when she was a teenager, captures the world of “frenemies” and predatory adults, without reducing anyone to simple clichés.

Plum is about to turn 14, and her party plans are at hand. She lives an ordinary life in Australia with her loving (and thus incredibly irritating) parents, her 21-year-old brother, Justin, over whom all her friends swoon, and Cydar, the oldest brother, a pothead and recluse. Plum wants to stop believing in God. She wants to be thin and well-liked (or at least not tortured) by her friends. She wants someone to understand her, perhaps as well as her 35-year-old neighbor, Maureen Wilks. But is girlhood something we want to keep or something to run from? And what price does Plum have to pay to find out?

Plum and the other characters in this novel are richly layered and unpredictable in both their ruthlessness and unbelievable kindness. Hartnett’s prose is – as always – gorgeous, and her subtle insights about the landmines of becoming a woman are unfailing. Yes, the novel has drug use, sexuality, infidelity, and an uncanny accuracy for the painful self-loathing that comes on the heels of trying to blend into vicious girl groups. It also has chapters told from the point of view of the adults. If that makes you pull the plug on it as a book for young people, it’s your loss. To me,  Butterfly, as its name suggests, is about the metamorphosis of growing up. It’s about beauty emerging from even the ugliest situation. MM