Middle Grade

Escape from Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
Paula Wiseman Books, 2018
Contemporary middle grade
ISBN: 1481472178
Additional formats: ebook

Nadia’s family knows what they need to do when the bombs start falling in their neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria. After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve been caught in the violence. They pack quickly and begin to head for their predetermined meeting point in the city–but Nadia panics, hiding under a car as a bomb hits her building, forcing her family to leave her behind, possibly for dead. When Nadia wakes up, she is alone.

Thus begins a young girl’s trek through the dangerous city of Aleppo in search of her family. She makes it to the store where they were supposed to meet and finds a message from them in case she is alive: they have survived, and will wait for her at the Turkish border. Nadia, one of the most fearless and street-smart kids I’ve ever read, doesn’t hesitate to begin her journey to Turkey, a small girl facing the dangers from both rebels and government soldiers, as well as exposure and starvation.

Nadia is accompanied by a collection of heart-warming side characters, all of whom have their own stories and secrets. She never gives up, never gets hopeless, and never thinks she won’t make it. And along the way, through flashbacks and character conversations, the reader develops Syria’s background photo: how violence broke out during the Arab Spring, how it has spread and how other countries have inserted themselves into the conflict, how normal civilians in Syria have been affected and displaced, forced to flee their homes.

At its heart, this is an adventure story: a young girl must beat the odds to find her family. But it also provides the historical background on a conflict we’re all watching unfold on the news every night. It’s the best of both worlds: informative and educational, but also just a plain engrossing, unputdownable story. – AN

Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship

By Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Illustrated by: Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Carolrhoda Books, 2018
Middle grade
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-6
ISBN: 978-1512404425
Other formats:  e-book

Nothing is ever truly black and white. That’s what two classmates in the book Can I Touch Your Hair? learn in fifth grade when they reluctantly wind up paired together for a writing project and believe they have nothing in common.

Irene and Charles’s differences in gender, style, and friends are already stark. Throw into the mix the fact that Irene is white and Charles is black, and both students fear they’re in for an uncomfortable and unmanageable few weeks.

Yet, once each begins to write on the same subject as the other about his or her life experiences and perspectives, Irene and Charles discover that while the differences between them are indeed tangiblein shoe shopping, dinner conversations, church services, hairstyles, and favorite sportstheir differences are unique preferences or circumstances that can be appreciated.

They also learn that color is only skin deep. Even with varying experiences, opportunities, and challenges, at the end of the day, their matters of the heart aren’t so unalike at all, and thus, a friendship unfolds. Readers will experience Charles’s perspective on why it’s annoying to have someone touch his hair, and Irene helps readers understand how one can make awkward fumbles in expressing herself even with the best of intentions.

This book could serve as a great conversation starter for adolescents from middle school age to older youths. Adults may even find it helpful to read these poems with a child and share their own experiences navigating race, identity and friendships. The vibrant illustrations by artists Sean Qualls and Selina Alko are an excellent companion to these compelling poems and will help young readers make sense of what it means to stretch beyond one’s comfort zone to try and understand others.  – SHA

When My Sister Started Kissing

By Helen Frost
Margaret Ferguson Books: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Middle grade
Ages 10 – 12, Grades 4 – 7
ISBN: 978-0-374303037
Additional format: e-book
Honors: A Boston Globe Best Children’s Book of 2017* 2017 BCCB Blue Ribbon Book * 2017 New York Public Library Best Book for Kids  * 2017 VOYA Top Shelf Fiction * 2018 NCTE Notable Verse Novel  * 2018 CCBC Choices Book 

Claire can barely recall her mom. Only tiny shards of memory remain from that terrible day when Claire was still a toddler and her mother was killed during a lightning storm on Heartstone Lake.  

Claire and her sister, Abigail, are heading up to lake for their annual vacation with their dad, but things are very different now. It’s not just Dad with them anymore. This time they’re traveling with his new wife, Pam, who is about to give birth to a new baby.

So much is changing as they settle into their cabin. Abigail has grown closer to Pam. She’s wearing makeup and calling herself Abi among the other teenagers at the lake, including boys. Claire is left to fend for herself, against a new stepmother who has cleared out her mother’s things in the cabin and against the loneliness of being left behind by her sister. It’s on the lake that Claire does her best rowing and thinking—the very lake that took her mom, the lake with the strong current, the lake that only the strongest swimmer can navigate in safely. It’s in these waters that Claire will grow up and find a way to let go of the past.

This lovely story is everything a novel-in-verse should be: evocative, spare, and masterful in its use of poetic forms. It’s told in alternating points of view by Claire, Abigail, and by the lake itself who has watched each girl grow up over the years.

There are wonderful notes at the end of the book about the forms used: quatrains, free verse, acrostics, as well as references to the many poets whose famous works are part of the poems in the book.  (These include Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, Pablo Neruda and more.) This is a true delight, a quiet book about sisters and loss and change. MM

It All Comes Down to This

By Karen English
Clarion Books, 2017
Middle grade, historical fiction, ages 10 – 12, grades 5 – 8
ISBN: 978-0-544-83957-1
Additional formats: Kindle
Honors: Kirkus Prize finalist 2017

How do we learn to love and value ourselves when people in the world around us just won’t?

Twelve-year-old Sophie is the youngest of two sisters living in an upper middle neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1965.

Sophie is the new kid on the block, bookish and serious, which doesn’t suit some of her racist white neighbors at all. Not even the new Jamaican housekeeper her mother hired seems to like her; instead, she openly despises Sophie and her very light-skinned sister, Lily, too. The deck is stacked against Sophie in tryouts for the community center play, and worst of all, her parents’ marriage finally seems to be unraveling right before her eyes.

This summer Sophie will feel the sting of adults’ secrets and their shortcomings, and  she’ll see an entire community, nearby Watts, explode under the pressure of injustice. But she’ll also learn how to reach for her own power to change things that matter to her most. Whether guarding her sister’s secrets or finding ways to stand her ground with friends and enemies alike, Sophie will learn what it takes to be a strong.

In lyrical language, Karen English expertly captures the feel of the 1960s and delves into all heartbreaking complexities around race and class of the time—both within Sophie’s family and in the larger community. The characters all feel like people we know, each of them struggling with frailties that are so relatable in the present day.

But where this book shines most—and why it has earned its place here on our Girls of Summer list—is in how it shines a light on how a strong girl endures, deepens, and grows, even in the most inhospitable of times and places.  MM

Hurricane Child

By Kheryn Callender
Scholastic Press, 2018
Middle Grade
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
ISBN 10: 1338129309
Additional Format: e-book, audiobook

Twelve-year-old Caroline, who lives with her father on Water Island, off Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Island, suffers the life destined to a girl burdened by an unlucky omen of being born in a hurricane – unlucky enough to be bullied and detested by everyone at school, unlucky enough to be stalked by the spirit of a woman in black, and unlucky enough to have been abandoned by her mother.

How can a girl escape such a fate? Maybe, through friendship and love.

When a new student arrives at school, Caroline – like everyone else – is drawn to Kalinda’s charm, smile, and honesty. Kalinda makes up her own mind about Caroline, who has been cruelly ostracized by her peers. Caroline and Kalinda forge a fast and deep friendship, which lifts the pall that has engulfed Caroline for so long. Caroline begins to feel happy and hopeful in ways that she has not in quite a while. The inseparable pair find a safe and trusting soul friendship within each other, one that drives Caroline to fulfill her purpose: find her mother, confront the woman in black, and make known her true and romantic feelings for Kalinda.

I hadn’t planned to read Hurricane Child all at once, but I did! I love everything about the book: the vivid Caribbean setting, how the elements of religious faith and magical realism meld and mix, the grit and quiet courage that Caroline shows in her external actions and interior world. Most of all, I love Caroline, a character who longs for positive connection, real connection, and learns to trust that her own inner spirit can navigate both the blessings and the curses of being born in a hurricane. -GA

Sasha Savvy Loves to Code

By Sasha Ariel Alston
Illustrated by: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Gold Fern Press, 2017
Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5
ISBN: 978-0997135428
Other formats:  e-book 

Sasha Loves to Code is a lighthearted, early reader chapter book told from the perspective of a young girl who discovers that it’s best to give new things a try before deciding they’re not for her. Ten-year-old Sasha Savvy is less than excited when her mom enrolls her in a coding camp for the summer, because coding doesn’t sound like her “thing.”

Her mom makes it easier by ensuring that two of Sasha’s friends can join her, and unbeknownst the them, all three girls find themselves excited about the possibilities coding offers and the fact that they’re pretty good at it.

Sasha’s mom and other nurturing relatives encourage her to use her skills to create something that interests her, and while at times she and others in the book seemed to rely on their cell phones for entertainment, perhaps those sections of the book can spark conversations between young readers and the adults who read with them about the importance of balancing screen time with personal engagement. In this way, the book shows that while coding and gaming are exciting ways to bring STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) into daily life, setting aside technology at pivotal times is important, too.

Young readers of Sasha Loves to Code will enjoy the girl’s enthusiasm and may be inspired to try coding themselves. Ultimately, the story behind the writing of the book is as empowering as the plot  itself. Author Sasha Ariel Alston wrote the book when she was a 19-year-old college student at Pace University in New York. She reportedly became so fascinated with coding that she decided not only to major in it, but also to write a fictional story to encourage young girls to  give coding and other science-related endeavors a try. Ms. Alston, who is still in college, raised funds to publish the book through Kickstarter and since its publication has been featured on national morning news shows, participated in programs for girls at Disney and Google, and had the book named a statewide read for young students in Arkansas. Regardless of whether young readers ever encounter Ms. Alston in person or via a news program, the story she has penned offers timely encouragement to step outside of their comfort zones and learn something new. – SHA

Lucky Broken Girl

by Ruth Behar
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2017
Middle grade, fiction
Ages: 10-13, Grades 5-8
ISBN: 9780399546440

A heartfelt story of hope and healing

Rich in detail, heart, and imagination, Lucky Broken Girl follows Ruthie Mizrahi, a Jewish Cuban immigrant in 1960s New York, as she struggles to navigate family tensions, forge friendships, and work her way out of the “dumb class” at school.

When an accident confines Ruthie to her room, her whole family reels. Baba blames herself. Mami resents the caretaking load. Papi works three jobs to pay her medical bills. Meanwhile, Ruthie’s left to stare at the ceiling and read Nancy Drew, Alice in Wonderland, and the poems of Emily Dickinson and José Martí to pass the time.

Up to her waist in a body cast, Ruthie battles shame, helplessness, and isolation to make a comeback. The ice-cold steel of her bedpan and the seemingly endless stretch of days on her wall calendar mark the time and distance to recovery. An unlikely cast of characters—including a hippie tutor, a tough nurse, and a buoyant neighbor—emerges to help her tap into the creativity, compassion, and perspective she needs to persevere. With a paintbrush and Royal typewriter in hand, Ruthie begins to write—and illustrate—a beautiful new chapter in her life.

Based on the author’s own childhood experience, Lucky Broken Girl explores trauma with a deft, forgiving touch.

“This story is etched into my physiology, my nerves and my many fears,” Behar writes. It’s a triumph that the author released the pain in the form of one poignant, charming novel.