Middle Grade

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

By Wendy Wan-Lon Shang
Middle grade
Scholastic Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780545162159
Awards/recognitions: *2012 Children’s Literature Award from the Asian Pacific Librarians Association

Sixth grader Lucy Wu has life all planned out for what is sure to be the best year of her life. For starters, her perfect (and annoying) sister, Regina, will be leaving for college. That means Lucy will have her own room, become a star on the school basketball team, and enjoy it all with best friend Madison.

Unfortunately, the universe has other plans, and these include attending Chinese School and sharing a room for months with her grandmother’s sister who comes for an unexpected visit from China. So much for the perfect year.

Wendy Shang’s book is charming, funny, and a welcome addition to the canon of literature about kids navigating life inside two cultures. Lucy speaks lousy Chinese, prefers Italian food, and is mortified by Yi Po, whom she keeps at bay by building a dividing line in her bedroom – only one of the many strategies she employs to keep the old woman out of her life.

Lucy is the perfect strong girl in so many ways. She has a vision for herself, even in the opening pages, and when she’s challenged to change it, she doesn’t go down without a good fight. Sure, she eventually learns to widen that vision, but all along Lucy has the strength to face down her enemies, particularly snotty Sloane who has designs on Lucy’s spot on the basketball team.

Lots of books about bi-cultural experiences are dreary. Not this one. Wendy Shang gives us a strong girl who keeps us laughing. No matter what your cultural background, strong girls will find plenty to love here. MM


Ninth Ward

Ninth Ward

By Jewell Parker Rhodes
Middle grade
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010
ISBN:0316043079/978-0316043076
Awards/Recognitions: *2010 Coretta Scott King Honor Author Award *2010 Parents Choice Foundation Gold Award *Best Fiction of 2010, School Library Journal *2011 Jane Addams Honor Book Award for Older Children

Twelve-year old Lanesha was born with a caul over her face, signifying that this child carried a gift – the gift of seeing and speaking with spirits. For that reason, her blood-family won’t have her. They live uptown in the same city, New Orleans, yet might as well be a whole world away from the lower Ninth Ward where Lanesha lives with her guardian, Mama Ya-Ya, who took her in after her mother died giving birth to her. Lanesha’s classmates mock her, too, because of the gift of the caul. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand.

Spirits everywhere greet Lanesha. At school there’s a boy her age, a ghost in baggy pants, and all through the neighborhood, Lanesha sees ghosts, young and old, from just yesterday and ghosts, black and white, from long ago. Lanesha sees her mother’s spirit, too, lingering in repose on the birthing bed at Mama Ya-Ya’s house. She’s been right there since the day Lanesha was born, yet Mama’s spirit never speaks. Lanesha knows she never really rests either.

Only Mama Ya-Ya, TaShon, and her neighbors in the Ninth Ward accept her, so Lanesha finds her solace in words, collecting them one by one, getting to know each word and all that it could mean. Words like unfathomable and omen. Mama Ya-Ya teaches Lanesha how to embrace her gift of seeing spirits and how to befriend the meanings within those words.

Mama Ya-Ya has a gift of her own. She always knows when TaShon is coming over, even well before he reaches the door.  In fact, Mama Ya-Ya always knows when something is coming, and this time she sees wrath – the wrath of a storm churning fast toward New Orleans. Yet, something different is about to happen, something that even Mama Ya-Ya cannot comprehend.

To survive this hurricane, Lanesha and TaShon will need all of Mama Ya-Ya’s wisdom and aid from Lanesha’s spirit-friends, too. Lanesha will need to crack open those words she’s learned and absorb their power. Powerful words like fortitude and suspension can help Lanesha through Hurricane Katrina.

Ninth Ward is author Jewell Parker Rhodes first novel for young readers. Strong and steady from the eye of Katrina, Parker Rhodes wields her own powers of voice, imagery, and metaphor. Even once the levee breaks, Parker Rhodes rises above with words and characters strong and beautiful enough to do more than survive.  Ninth Ward is a fantastic story of friendship, family, and resourcefulness. It’s also an outstanding tribute to the sense of pride and depth of resolve that we’ve seen and continue to see in the people of New Orleans. GA


Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again

By Thanhha Lai
Middle grade
HarperCollins, 2011
ISBN: 9780061962783; ISBN10: 0061962783
Awards/recognitions: *2012 Newbery Honor Winner *2011 National Book Award

I always marvel when a novel is so beautiful you want to re-read it. This is the case with Inside Out & Back Again, the story of 10 year-old Ha who leaves Viet Nam with her mother and brothers after the fall of Saigon and finds herself in the inexplicable world of Alabama.

The novel is written in free verse – which makes for short, stunning scenes that fill all of your senses. Each one builds on the next, capturing in skilled brush strokes the heart of what it means to lose a father to war, a homeland, and – for a young girl – a sense of herself. Throughout are the sights and smells of Viet Nam as we watch the family pray for their father with incense at their altar, long for papayas and fried eels, and force smiles on their faces for the new year to bring proper luck. Thanhha Lai gives us a Viet Nam to love and cherish.

Ha is a mighty girl and a memorable strong girl for so many reasons. She is flawed, prone to mischief, and sometimes disagreeable – the way most interesting girls are. She can’t help but rebel against the notion that only male feet can bring good luck to a house on Tet, the New Year. She pinches a classmate and complains about her bossy brothers. But she also comes across as honest and good hearted, particularly as she senses the grief of her mother and – most particularly –  Brother Khoi. Her journey to be accepted by American classmates is at times heartbreaking, but also at times funny and uplifting.

History is best served up to young readers through the stories of the people who lived it. How wonderful that in this case, we get a memorable strong girl to lead us back. MM


See You at Harry’s

See You at Harry's

By Jo Knowles
Middle grade
Candlewick Press, 2012
ISBN: 0763654078/9780763654078
Awards/Recognitions: *Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Jo Knowles’ middle grade novel, See You at Harry’s, is a portrait of family life drawn from the perspective of twelve-year old, Fern, the youngest child until surprise-brother, Charlie, arrived. We join the family as Fern starts middle school, Charlie is now three; Fern feels invisible; her older brother Holden wishes he was invisible; and her older sister Sarah sees everything that everyone else is missing.

Fern’s folks are overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t be managing three teenagers, a toddler, and a family-restaurant? Mom and Dad keep themselves distracted from the struggles of their teen-age children – Mom by running off to meditate and Dad by working himself into a hilarious marketing frenzy guaranteed to embarrass his teens. Fern is a peacemaker by nature, but a feisty one who descends the steps of school bus hell in solidarity with her gay brother, Holden.

Things start to really unravel as Fern clocks a bully to give him a spoonful of his own medicine, Holden skips class to get away from everyone but Mr. Right, and Sara gets busted making out with a bus boy in the restaurant freezer. Hey, who’s running this family, anyway? And, what will it take to get the family back on its center?

In every family, there is heartache and regret, misunderstanding and misplaced guilt. In this family, there is also tragedy. When the unthinkable happens, everyone blames themselves and the family bond begins to fray even more. Fern is the hardest hit of all, a prisoner to her own isolated grief, and refusing, for a time, to let anyone in. Thank goodness for Fern’s best friend, Ran. I speak from experience when I say that the most exquisite and wonderful of friends are those like RAn who quote Julian of Norwich during times of crises and worry. All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

In the end, Ran is right, and that is the jewel of this book. We know that the very act of loving is to accept – even welcome – heartache, because even the cruelest night cannot squelch love.

Jo Knowles has captured the particular lexicon of this family with an expert-ear and perfect pitch. She is masterful in her portrayal of family life with all of its routines and surprises, guilt and absolution. She writes with such intimacy and heart that reading See You At Harry’s is almost like reading a memory that you know you never lived but now cannot quite dismiss the thought that maybe, you did. GA

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook, See You at Harry’s audio


Behind the Mountains

Behind the Mountains

By Edwidge Danticat
Middle grade
Scholastic, 2002
ISBN: 439-37300-x
Awards/Recognitions: *BookSense 76 Pick * Americas Award Honor Book *New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

Grown-up girls of summer will recognize Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat as a two-time National Book Award finalist for Krik? Krak! and Brother, I’m Dying. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Danticat and Haitian-American illustrator, Alix Delinois, published a picture book about Haiti called, Eight Days: A Story of Haiti. In Behind the Mountains, Danticat delivers a first-person narrative of a hard-working Haitian family and the tragedies and triumphs they face.

Thirteen-year-old Celiane Esperance lives in the mountains of Haiti with her mother, Manman, and her brother, Moy. The family patriarch, Victor, has gone ahead to America, where he is living, working, and saving for his family to join him in Brooklyn. The story is structured as Celiane’s journal, a gift from her teacher to reward hard work and good grades. Celiane is told she may use this blank notebook for anything she wishes: “Madame Auguste made such a speech of the whole thing to show me and the other pupils all the uses an empty notebook can have. But when she said I could use you to write down things about myself, I became very glad and decided that is exactly what I am going to do. I will tell you everything I can tell no on else, and you will keep quiet because you have no tongue and you cannot speak. My pen is your tongue and I am your voice so you will never betray my secrets.”

Celiane’s secrets include typical worries and daydreams of a young teen – boys, homework, chores. The notebook also keeps a record of such worries that no child ought ever face – surviving a pipe bomb explosion, a five-year separation from her father, fear for her brother’s life during political upheaval. The diary entries contain a vivid, dynamic portrait of Haiti, too. Alive with color and sound and smells of the city and countryside, Behind the Mountains is a powerful sensory experience. Vibrantly painted tap-taps called Wyclef and sporting phrases such as “your love is my love” fill the streets of Port-au-Prince. The brothy, velvety smell of New Year’s Day soup joumou, squash soup, fills Manman’s kitchen. The steady, reflective, and optimistic voice of Celiane infuses each entry with both wonder and wisdom. GA

Learn more about Edwidge Danticat.


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.


The Calling

The Calling

By Cathryn Clinton
Middle grade/ Ages 10 and up/Grades 5 and up
Candlewick Press, 2001
ISBN 0763613878/978-0763613877
Awards/recognitions: * Parents’ Choice Awards Gold Award

Cathryn Clinton’s first novel, The Calling, made me a lifelong fan of hers and of her book’s publisher, Candlewick Press. The strong girls that I know are spiritual beings. They wrestle with questions about right and wrong, about intuition, about the hereafter, and about how they fit into God’s plan. With The Calling , both author and publisher affirm that spiritual questions belong in the realm of children’s literature, for this is a story of a child receiving a call by God into her life’s work. Yet while spiritual journeys are serious matters, we have only to pay attention to the world around us or to read The Calling to remember that God really does have a big old sense of humor.

In The Calling, Esta Lea is one of the youngest members of a clan where preaching is a tradition, just how farming is for other families. At the ripe old age of twelve, Esta Lea unexpectedly gets the call to allow God to heal others through her. Esta Lea experiences visions and something profoundly different starts happening in her “knower” – her “knower” being the part of herself where wisdom and insight reside. She is a somewhat reluctant healer, pure in motivation, and both surprised and grateful as God uses her to restore the faithful to full sight, full hearing, and full faith.

Right away, Esta Lea’s handsome and ne’er do well uncle, Peter Earl, sees opportunity in his niece’s calling. He hatches a plan to take Esta Lea and her songbird older sister, Sarah Louise, on a healing revival tour of all the nearby small towns. But, is Peter Earl’s plan for God’s glory or Peter Earl’s? Not only is Esta Lea now a healer, she’s a bit of a private eye, too! With some help from her BFF, Sky, who unabashedly lives her life in emulation of Saint Joan of Arc, Esta Lea tries to figure out what her uncle is really up to. Add Peter Earl’s glammed up ex-girlfriend, a hoarder with a heart of pure gold and a prophetic gift of her own, a few other real-life saints, and The Calling is all at once mystery-comedy-faith fiction.

Yes, The Calling feels like home. This is a book to read when you need to breathe in a stand of pine trees, to recall a best friend who had your best interests at heart, to laugh out loud, and to rock easy in the grace of being called by name. GA

Learn more about Cathryn Clinton.


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/


One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer

By Rita Williams Garcia
Middle grade
Amistad Books (Div. of HarperCollins), 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-076088-5
Awards/recognitions: * National book Award finalist * Newbery Finalist * Coretta Scott King Award *Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Once I got past the fact that a time period I actually remember qualifies for historical fiction, I warmed up to One Crazy Summer. I’m glad I did. This middle grade novel is about three dueling sisters, a mother who abandoned them, and the summer they are reunited — all against the backdrop of working with the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. Regardless of whether you think the Black Panthers were an armed leftist group or a justified response to the racial injustices of the time, this is a story that offers readers a more nuanced and honest look at the Civil Rights movement beyond Dr. King’s non-violent model, which has been the safer topic in children’s books. Williams-Garcia makes us look through the eyes of children who are awakening to the racism around them and to the power of their own response.

There’s so much to love about this book (note the long string of awards it has received), but for me what shines most are the characters of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. Eleven-year-old Delphine occupies the revered and burdensome role of oldest sister as they leave Brooklyn alone to spend the summer in Oakland with their mother, whom they haven’t seen since their infancy. Cecile now calls herself Nzila, and she is working as a poet associated with the Black Panthers. Their grandmother, Big Ma, refers to Cecile as a troublemaker, and at first, it seems as though Big Ma may be right. The girls immediately find themselves practically on their own, dodging Nzila’s gruff ways and spending their days at the community center run by the Panthers. They catch their evening meals at Mean Lady Ming’s Chinese takeout and eat on the floor.

This is the story of funny, squabbling girls who are developing personal power, and for that I adore this book.  In Delphine, I see depth, resilience and the practical skills of survival. I see a girl finding her voice and questioning what is around her. What is “mother”? What is fairness? What is the difference between making trouble and insisting on dignity? Delphine keeps her wits about her as she tries to decide whom to trust with what, keeping her heart open to what surprises the grown world brings. MM
Learn more about Rita Williams Garcia.


Olive’s Ocean

Olive's Ocean

By Kevin Henkes
Middle grade
Greenwillow Books: HarperCollins (2003); paperback, 2005
ISBN:0-06-053543-1/9780060535452
Awards/recognitions: * Newbery Honor Book * ALA Booklist Editor’s Choice * ALA Notable Children’s Book * Virginia Young Readers Award * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age

No one knows the heart of feisty girls like Kevin Henkes. He is, of course, most famous for his beloved world of mice, with such classics as Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, where he explores all the landmines of growing up, whether it’s having your classmates tease you for your name or having to spend a weekend with a boorish guest. My kids and I read these books until the covers fell off. I still have them on the shelf.

But Olive’s Ocean, his 2003 middle grade novel, is just as intelligent, gentle and true as his mouse books. Here, Martha is twelve years old and off to a family summer vacation at her grandmother’s house. On the eve of their departure, she receives a visit from the mother of Olive Bartow, a classmate Martha barely knew and who was recently killed in a car accident. Mrs. Bartow leaves Martha with an entry from Olive’s journal.

“I hope I can get to know Martha Boyle this summer” the journal page reads. “I hope we can be friends. She is the nicest person in my whole, entire class.”

So begins the summer during which Martha will take her first steps away from innocence. There is so much to love in this gem of a novel. Henkes touches expertly on the churning troubles of a middle school girl, most especially the sting of being used. As usual, he also crafts a story about the natural growing pains of all families – even happy ones. In the end, though, what Henkes does best is capture in Martha the most radiant thing about girls who are twelve. He gives us a kind girl at the beginning of absolutely everything. MM

Learn more about author Kevin Henkes.


Bird

Bird

By Angela Johnson
Middle grade
Dial Books, 2004
ISBN: 0803728476
Awards/recognitions: * Louisiana Young Readers Choice Award Nominee * ALA Notable Book * ALA Best Book for Young Adults

Angela Johnson writes the South, writes summer, and writes family like nobody’s business. Her middle-grade novel, Bird, stands as a testament to the very best qualities of the American South – forgiveness, acceptance, and triumph over suffering.

The main character, thirteen year old Bird, knows what she wants – a whole, complete family. She spends her summer in pursuit of her step-father, who has left Bird and her mother in Cleveland. Bird runs far away to Acorn, Alabama in the hopes of finding the only man she’s ever known as father, sure she can convince him to return. But, living in an old shed and snitching leftover pancakes with strawberry syrup while the farm family attends church can’t go on forever. While hiding out, Bird sees people in Acorn who think they’re invisible, yet some Acorn folks also see Bird and resolve to help her.

Johnson tells the story from the perspectives of Bird as well as Ethan and Jay, two Acorn-boys who befriend Bird and in doing so find an easier way of facing their own grief over personal losses. Readers will linger with Bird in a pond so big it ought to be called a lake, so true it summons the children in the story to explore its depth and their own. Readers will also hold their breaths while joy-riding in an old lady’s pickup truck that stirs up a fine red dust from the red dirt road, a dust so fine it settles like baby powder on a girl’s skin and hair. And readers will nod their heads in agreement with Bird’s insights, “In the summer, you can be somebody’s cousin from Michigan or be waiting for your parents who just went into the Fast & Sure Mart for some paper plates or something. You can be almost anybody in the summer.” GA

Learn more about author Angela Johnson.