Stella by Starlight
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
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
The Thing About Luck
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
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
By Ian Falconer
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012
Ages 3 and up
#1 New York Times bestseller* #1 Publishers Weekly bestseller
Back when I was little, I went to Hannah Krohner School of Dance in Queens. I would tap dance in our bathroom until the neighbors banged on the ceiling to quiet me. Then, I’d slip into my ballet slippers and head to the edge of the kitchen sink (my barre) and practice pliés. I had no talent to speak of. Just enthusiasm.
Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the newest Ian Falconer picture book, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. In this seventh adventure, we find our bovine darling depressed and facing an “identity crisis.” Must she be a Degas-style ballerina like the other girls?
Uh-oh. Olivia is a strong girl, and she was bound to discover the awful limitations of aspiring to be a princess or another delicate thing. Life as a part of the gentle herd simply isn’t bold enough for a pig who can pull off matador pants and pearls. No, what Olivia wants is a rebirth of her soul, a real future as a girl of substance.
As usual, Falconer (whose work you might recognize from The New Yorker) has created a new picture book with plenty of punch lines for both the child and the adult. The vocabulary absolutely requires a partnership for reading and conversation, but I think that’s a good thing. What works best in my view are the visual gags for both the parent and child, including a gorgeous two-page spread of Olivia as a Martha Graham contemporary dancer.
Who needs pink tulle when what you really want is to rule your world? MM