Posts tagged “Girls of Summer 2011

If You Come Softly

If You Come Softly

By Jacqueline Woodson
Young adult
Puffin, 1998
ISBN: 0698118626/ ISBN: 978-0698118621
Awards/Recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * Detroit Public Library Author’s Day Award

An Audre Lorde poem inspired this 1998 love story by Jacqueline Woodson. Lorde’s poem begins:

If you come softly
as the wind within the trees
you may hear what I hear
see what sorrow sees

Woodson published If You Come Softly fifteen years ago, yet every page reads like a contemporary love stoy. It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Ellie and Miah, who are both fifteen, both upper middle class, both students at a mostly white private New York City high school. Only Ellie is white and Miah is black. While Ellie and Miah live in the same city and attend the same school, their cultural and familial life-experiences are completely different.

The young couple’s willingness to enter into and explore these differences leads them to fall in love and to stand up on behalf of their love when society and even their families try to put them down. If You Come Softly is not a true-love-is-blind story but a true-love-is-pliable-and-open story.

If You Come Softly overflows with that tingly first-love magic. Sweaty palms, stolen kisses, long late night calls, dreamy hours of wondering when. We all know that to love anyone or anything is to offer up your heart for the breaking. The Lorde poem reminds us that the deepest possible connection with another being will include suffering, for such intimacy allows us to “see what sorrow sees”. Within Woodson’s title, even, we know that sooner or later Ellie and Miah and their families will also see what sorrow sees.

Fortunately for her readers, when Jacqueline Woodson breaks your heart, she does so to make it more like Ellie and Miah’s love: pliable, ready, and able to receive all the goodness of the world in whatever shape, form, or color it’s offered. GA

Read the Girls of Summer interview with Jacqueline Woodson here.

Visit Jacqueline Woodson’s website: http://jacquelinewoodson.com/


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.


Huntress

Huntress

By Malinda Lo
Young adult
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011
ISBN: 9780316040075/9780316175203
Awards/Recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults

O, Huntress!

Some books defy categorization; some books reject our need to make the world linear and instead turn our imaginations inside out for a nice cleaning out of cobwebs, a good letting in of sunshine. Open the pages of such a book and, somehow, labels and shelves and containment seem not only inappropriate but downright sinful. Such a book is Huntress.

Fantasy? Yes. Adventure? Certainly so. Love story? Oh yes, a love story of the truest, purest sort. Young Adult? OK, sure, technically, I guess that’s where Huntress rests when not in use. Spirituality? Deliciously so. Eco-fiction? Yep. GLBT? Sure!

The jacket flap summarizes the plot nicely: “Nature is out of balance in the human kingdom. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance. To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go forward on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fair Queen.”

O, Huntress, I love you at forty-six and would SO have loved you at fifteen. My daughter loves you at eighteen; my aunt at sixty.

And just what makes Huntress so lovable?

Well for starters, Huntress is a twofer – Kaede and Taisin, two strong girls in one book. Two strong girls saving the human and fay worlds, falling in love, and staying true to themselves. Author Malinda Lo has created a world so immediate and rich that readers can’t help but feel transported forward or backward into the journey with Kaede and Taisin. As their love grows, Lo’s narrative makes you giggle, makes you blush, and makes you remember. Aesthetically, this is one book you will want to hold in your hands and read in its paper version. Huntress is so lovingly designed with an old-school endpaper map, embellishments to open each chapter, and ornaments that delineate each of the book’s three parts. GA

Learn more about Malinda Lo.


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.


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.


Shark Girl

Shark Girl

By Kelly Bingham
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2007
ISBN: 0763632074 / 9780763632076
Hard cover, paperback, e-book
Awards/recognitions: * South Dakota Teen Choice Book Awards Reading List * Black-Eyed Susan Book Award (Maryland) * Florida Teen Read Award * Oprah’s Book Club – Kids Reading List * Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year

Find a hammock, a beach chair, or a blanket. Go away to your backyard, the pool, or the ocean. Leave the tissues behind. It’s not that you won’t need them; it will just feel good to let your tears splash these pages. Kelly Bingham’s debut novel, Shark Girl traces one tragic and triumphant year in the life of fifteen-year old artist, Jane Arrowood.

A sunny day at the ocean in June turns into a national news story when a shark attacks Jane, severing her dominant right arm. Jane’s older brother, Michael, starts their day at the beach by teasing his sister about her pink bikini. Shortly thereafter it is Michael who pulls Jane out, saving her life. In a way, the rest of the story shows us how many people and how much time it takes to pull Jane Arrowood out of that moment that changed her life. Everyone works so hard at Jane’s recovery; no one harder than Jane.

Using poetry, journal entries, and interior dialogue to trace Jane’s recovery, Bingham tells the story in three parts. Part One occurs in the hospital immediately after the attack. Letters, cards, and flowers pour in from all over the world. People want Jane to be a hero. Jane just wants to be Jane, again. In the hospital therapy room, she meets a little kid named Justin who has lost his leg below the knee. When Jane tells him, “A shark attacked me,” Justin responds, “He ATE your arm?” Finally, here is someone who wouldn’t know how to walk on egg-shells even with feathers on his feet, and Jane’s recovery deepens. In Part Two, Michael, their mom, and her friends help Jane adjust to returning home. Everyone thinks Jane will never draw again. She remains friends with Justin, who urges her to draw him a picture, but Jane can’t. Part Three begins with Jane alone in the kitchen struggling to cook her own dinner. Flashbacks through poems that begin with “I remember” show us how long this journey has been and will continue to be for Jane. By Part Three, though, Jane is getting there. Her worries have shifted. She talks about make up; she accepts a ride and welcomes attention from a pretty cute guy. She gets angry when a friend makes her feel not good enough. And, Jane’s back.

Shark Girl is a book to be devoured. All in one sitting. I took a blanket and pillow out in the yard and read Shark Girl in an afternoon. Later, I let myself go back and take in the visual experience of how artistically the pages are designed and rendered to bring texture and illumination to the story. GA

Click here to listen to
an interview and reading with Kelly Bingham from Candlewick Press.

Learn more about author Kelly Bingham.


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


Bink & Gollie

Bink and Gollie

By Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee; illustrated by Tony Fucile
Early reader/picture book/or some new form these brilliant people have discovered, ages 4 – 8
Candlewick Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-7636-3266-3
Awards/recognitions: * ALA Notable Children’s Book 2010 * Theodor Seuss Geisel Award

Charming, sweet, funny – you could use any of those descriptions for Bink & Gollie. But what makes this stand out as a Girls of Summer selection is that it celebrates girl friendship the way it ought to be. The story captures two complicated and headstrong buddies who figure out how to share fun and still leave room for individuality. (Seriously, is that too much to ask?) Gollie is tall and intellectual; Bink is short and all heart. In a mere 80 pages, DiCamillo and McGhee touch on disagreements, envy, and even a clash in temperament. But what I admire most is that the girls never try to hide who they are in order to remain friends. Instead, they make room for the other, whether it means trekking through the Andes or befriending a goldfish. Rounding things out are the illustrations by Tony Fucile of Disney fame for his award-winning character design for films like The Incredibles among others. His work here has a charming retro feel and palette that I find irresistible.  MM

I love that Bink and Gollie are part of “Girls of Summer.” What particularly thrills me is that they are seen as being absolutely, utterly, unapologetically themselves: strong, curious, a little bit difficult, a lot joyous.     — Kate DiCamillo

Read the Girls of Summer interview with Bink and Gollie co-author Alison McGhee here!

Visit Bink & Gollie‘s website: www.binkandgollie.com

Kate DiCamillo

Alison McGhee


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.


What Comes After

What Comes After

What Comes After

By Steve Watkins
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2011
Hardcover/ebook/audio
ISBN: 10-0763642509 / 13-9780763642501
Awards/recognition: Georgia Peach Award for Teen Readers

Once while at a writing conference, I heard a famous author ask, “Does the world really need more stories about child abuse?” Almost everyone in the audience laughed. I got kind of ticked off.

Does the world need more baseball stories? More World War II stories? More talking animal stories? Are children still being abused at the hands of their families? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Our world needs many more stories of triumph over trauma, especially those told by authors such as Steve Watkins who infuse the telling with insight, beauty, and clarity.

What Comes After is the realest of realistic fiction. In this, his second novel, Watkins fictionalizes a harrowing and true crime of an orphaned teen beaten at the hands of her extended family to the point of hospitalization. The story begins with a newspaper account of the beating, which conceals the victim’s identity. From there, we meet sixteen year-old Iris Wight just after her father’s death, just before she is sent to live with distant relatives in North Carolina. The story’s main villain, Aunt Sue, sees Iris – or more accurately, Iris’ trust fund – as a meal ticket. Free labor for the family’s goat farm. Right away, Aunt Sue begins to withhold all sustenance from Iris and attempts to strip her of her identity completely.

Iris, however, instinctively reaches into the depth of her own heart and soul and memory, turning What Comes After into a story of resiliency. She writes letters to her deceased veterinarian-dad. She finds ease and relief in the natural world. As Iris begins to care for the animals on Aunt Sue’s farm with skills she learned while accompanying her father on his rounds throughout her childhood, we see vividly how her dad’s nurturing presence attends to Iris, even long after his death.

As a reader, I found myself grasping for Iris’ name about mid-way through the book. I willed myself not to forget the girl, not to let Aunt Sue take away everything even from the story. The almost-disappearance of Iris as a person throughout the narrative is no accident and is, I think, a sort of ghost journey for the identities of so many abused children, invisible and unknown to us. Watkins sets this up from the first page and though I wanted to turn away, put the book down, I did not do it because. Because I trust Steve Watkins and his knowledge of how resiliency works, how it unfurls and rises up when it is needed most. Because I do believe that we need to hear these stories so we remember there is work yet to be done.

Watkins is a mandated child abuse reporter who volunteers for his local Court Appointed Special Advocates office (CASA). In 2010, over 1,000 CASA offices throughout the U.S. restored 237,000 children in America to safety. Watkins brings his real-life experience of working to end family violence to his writing. From having witnessed healing and recovery, he knows that early nurturing, social connections, friendships, and support in a crisis are key to a child’s ability to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. Yes, he sends Iris on a journey to hell. Yes, he is very clear that the fictional character, Iris Wight, is willing to make this journey on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children who we may only read about in the newspaper, but thankfully, Iris Wight is well-equipped to make the return trip. GA

Listen to an audio excerpt of What Comes After from Brilliance Audio

Learn more about author Steve Watkins.


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.


Before We Were Free

Before We Were Free

By Julia Alvarez
Young adult
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002
ISBN: 0375815449 / 978-0375815447
Also available in paperback and audio
Awards/recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * ALA Notable Book; Miami Herald Book of the Year * Winner of the Amércias Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature * Winner of the Pura Bupré Award

Julia Alvarez is a titan in the world of Latino literature, so it isn’t surprising that a decade past its publication, her first YA novel, Before We Were Free, is still one of my favorites to recommend for middle school readers. The novel is historical fiction, but it’s not based on American history. Instead, it’s set in the Dominican Republic during the early 1960s as the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was unraveling.
Rafael who? Yes, that’s exactly the problem. This bloody history happened right in our global neighborhood, but ask your average middle school kid about it and you’ll get a blank stare. So, for girls who like world history, a little bloodshed, espionage, and murder plots, this is a terrific pick.

The country is in upheaval, and the secret police are investigating anyone who is suspected of betraying “el jefe” Trujillo. Anita de la Torre’s uncle has already disappeared, and her beloved cousins are fleeing to the United States, plucked from school one day and told to take one thing they cherish. Anita stays behind with her parents, only vaguely aware of her father’s involvement in the plot against the president.

The book touches on the tragedy of those caught in political upheavals the world over. Family separations, secrets kept from children for the sake of safety, and of course, the gut-wrenching decisions people have to make about morality, ideals, torture, and murder. But what is on full display here – and what strong girls will respond to — is the cost to young people: their voice and their innocence. MM

Learn more about Julia Alvarez.


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.


The Other Side of Blue

The Other Side of Blue

By Valerie O. Patterson
Young adult
Clarion Books, 2009 (hardcover); 2010 paperback
ISBN: 978-0-547-24436-5
Awards/recognitions * Agatha Award

The summer after her father drowns in a boating incident, 15-year-old Cyan and her mother return to their vacation home in Curacao. Surrounded by blue sky and sea, her mother, a celebrated painter, needs desperately to work and heal, but Cyan will have none of it. Feeling lost and unconvinced by the reported details of her father’s death, she is out to find the truth. One person in Curacao holds the key to the mysterious boating accident: Mayur, son of the physician who tended to the drowning. What does he know, and what is Cyan willing to give him in order to find out? Complicating matters even more is their houseguest, Kammi, the ever-pleasing daughter of her mother’s new fiancé.

The gorgeous Caribbean setting is irresistible for a summer read, but The Other Side of Blue offers much more. It’s a page-turning mystery, but a smart one that layers in a story about a dark and accusing dance between a mother and her teenage daughter. (Sound familiar?) Above all, this book gives us characters from the full spectrum of girls, from those who are a menacing blue, like Cyan, to those who are of the pink-and-easily-burned variety.

Also to its credit is the unflinching look at how even the puniest boy can pervert sexuality into a power play. Patterson courageously lays it out as it is, which is as much as you can ask an author to do for the readers she cares about. MM

On finding Cyan’s voice: “I’m not sure exactly how she came to me, but when she started to say things, her anger was always right there. That was unusual because I’ve never been a particularly angry person. But, at fifteen, I didn’t like my mother very much. At that age, not many girls do. Maybe part of it is the angst and part of it is competing with your mother…When I was writing, I was always afraid that I couldn’t recapture Cyan’s voice, but she always came back.” Valerie O. Patterson

Learn more about author Valerie O. Patterson.


Just Us Women

Just Us Women

By Jeannette Franklin Caines, illustrated by Pat Cummings
Picture book
Publisher recommends ages: 4-8, Girls of Summer recommends ages 4-88
Harper Collins, 1984
ISBN: 9780064430562
Awards/recognitions: * Reading Rainbow Book

A summer road trip.
Two shoe boxes jam-packed with fried chicken, pound cake, and deviled eggs.
A summer road trip.
Jump off, journey back to the place where your skin and your hair and your heart feel free.

“No boys, no men, just us women,” is the refrain so joyfully sung is this story by the late Jeannette Caines and in the illustrations by Pat Cummings. What will Aunt Martha and her niece do on their road trip to North Carolina? Whatever they want! Where will they stop along the way? Wherever they want!

Just Us Women celebrates the special bond often present between Aunt and Niece, conjures that magical feeling you get when you arrive back to the loving arms of folks in whose faces you see your own, and affirms the truth that independence, curiosity, and sass are gifts taught and passed generation-to-generation, woman-to-girl.

First published twenty-seven years ago, Just Us Women is one of those books deserving of dual roles: picture-book essential and special-occasion-gift. Share this illustrated anthem to summer road trips with girls and women of all ages – little girls, graduating girls, and even silver-haired girls wearing red hats and purple dresses. GA

Learn more about illustrator Pat Cummings.

Visit the Jeanette Caines Fan Page.