By N.H. Senzai
Paula Wiseman Books, 2018
Contemporary middle grade
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
By Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Illustrated by: Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Carolrhoda Books, 2018
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-6
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 tangible—in shoe shopping, dinner conversations, church services, hairstyles, and favorite sports—their 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
By Helen Frost
Margaret Ferguson Books: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Ages 10 – 12, Grades 4 – 7
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
By Karen English
Clarion Books, 2017
Middle grade, historical fiction, ages 10 – 12, grades 5 – 8
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
By Kheryn Callender
Scholastic Press, 2018
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
By Sasha Ariel Alston
Illustrated by: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Gold Fern Press, 2017
Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5
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
by Ruth Behar
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2017
Middle grade, fiction
Ages: 10-13, Grades 5-8
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.
by Ann E. Burg
Scholastic Press, 2015
Middle grade, poetry, fiction
Ages 8-12 years, Grades 3-7
Honors: Kirkus Best Book of the Year * Parent’s Choice Gold Award Winner * School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Serafina is an eleven-year-old girl living in Haiti. She works hard on her daily chores and at school but spends most of the time dreaming of becoming a doctor. One day, a devastating flood washes away her family home. While Serafina and her family try to come to grips with this horrible ordeal, an earthquake destroys the city of Port-A-Prince, where her best friend lives and her father works. Now there is no home, no money, and a group of people whose lives have changed forever.
While Serafina struggles to help her family rebuild, her dreams of becoming a doctor dwindle. Her mother tells her that her life should be about taking care of family and home, not daydreaming about something that will never happen. Fortunately, Serafina is strong in her beliefs. She teaches her family, friends, and community about hope and dreams. She teaches them the importance of never giving up. If you want something to happen, make sure to do it yourself.
This book is written in verse with beautiful language, Haitian proverbs, and rhythmic Creole. It does an incredible job of capturing life’s hardships and the struggle to carry on, stand up for your dreams, and to rely on yourself.
Poignant and perceptive, this gender-bending novel introduces young readers to Obayda, a young girl, who becomes Obayd, a boy, to bring her family good luck after her father is wounded by a car bombing. In their Afghan society, boys are prized over girls, and it’s not unheard of for boyless families to have a daughter dress and behave as a son would in order to obtain some social currency. There’s even a name for the experience: bacha posh.
As Obayda embraces her short hair and the newfound friends and freedom of boyhood, she (and the reader) are left to ponder important questions about gender. What really separates boys from girls? Anatomy? Dress? Rules? Expectations? Self-belief?
And those questions become even more urgent and compelling as Obayd’s return to Obayda nears. Coming of age as a bacha posh is fraught with uncertainty yet rich with fresh perspective. The experience is only temporarily and the children must return to girlhood prior to puberty or risk bringing shame to their families.
Obayda won’t relinquish her newfound privileges–better food, fewer chores, greater independence–without a fight. Readers will enjoy this girl’s quest to live fully despite the perilous constraints of her family and society.
by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, illustrated by Sarah Watts
Christy Ottaviano Books, 2016
Middle grade, fiction
Ages 9-14, grades 4-9, mystery
Honors: Pennsylvania Readers Choice Award Nominee, Magnolia Award Nominee
Twelve-year-old Emily moves to a new state every year. Her parents think this is a great family learning adventure, but because of the constant moves, Emily never gets to really make friends. Her only outlet is through an online community called Book Scavenger. It’s a game where people hide books then make clues and puzzles for others to solve and find the book. Emily has become a master at deciphering codes and solving puzzles. Now Emily’s family is moving to San Francisco—home of Garrison Griswald—creator of Book Scavenger. Emily is so excited to have a chance to meet her idol and participate in his newest game. Unfortunately, Mr. Griswald is attacked and his new game is in trouble.
In comes James, Emily’s new neighbor. James is just as much, if not more, of a puzzle fiend as Emily. A great friendship and partnership forms as they try to play Mr. Griswald’s new game while figuring out who attacked him. Emily gets so caught up in the problem, she doesn’t realize she is bullying her new friend with demands. She’s never had a good friend before and doesn’t understand why he won’t drop everything else in his life to do what she says.
The journey Emily and James embark on is filled with interactive puzzles to solve, codes to decipher, and a lesson in friendship that we have all had to face. Emily has to learn that sometimes helping a friend with their problems is more important that playing a game.
by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016
Middle grade, historical fiction
Ages 10 and up, grades 5 +
Additional formats: Kindle, paperback
Honors: Newbery honor * NPR Best Book of the Year * Booklist Best Book of the Year * Entertainment Weekly Best Middle Grade Book of the Year * Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year *Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year * School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Wall Street Journal Best Children’s Book of the Year * ALA Notable Children’s Book * Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award nominee * Goodreads Choice Award nominee * Carnegie Medal nominee
There’s a lasting sting to the first time we learn about hate, pain, and dishonesty. Wolf Hollow captures that sting in a compelling work of historical fiction set in rural Pennsylvania in 1943. In this story Annabelle, must find the moral courage to face down Betty, an “incorrigible” girl who has come to live in their town with her grandparents. Betty threatens people with sticks, kills birds by breaking their necks, and will create a terrible and believable lie about a man in their town who is suffering from PTSD, as a result of his service in the war. This novel is a page-turner and a lovely look at rural Pennsylvania, a place of beautiful landscape, hardworking people, and simmering bigotry. This is historical fiction and beautiful writing about people, the sorrow they carry, and how it reveals itself to the world. It is the story of a girl learning about how complicated morality can be – for her, for her friends, and for the greater community she has always called home.
“The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie, the book begins.”
by Grace Ellis and Nicole Stevenson, illustrated by Brooke Adams
Boom! Box, 2014
Middle grade, graphic novel
Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best New Series * Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Publication for Teens * Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics
Just like Girls of Summer is not your school’s summer reading list, Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s summer camp is not your mom’s summer camp. Unless, of course, your mom is a “hardcore lady type”!
According to the handbook, being a Lumberjane scout is all about the “joy of cutting wood with an axe, about the stars, the birds, the quadrupeds, the fish, the insects, the plants telling their names; their hidden power or curious ways, about the camper’s life, the language of signs and even some of the secrets on the trail.”
To be sure, like campers everywhere, Lumberjanes do need to be mindful of poison ivy. And, yet, like the handbook says, there are secrets out there. Holy Joan Jett, so many secrets! The nooks and crannies and towers and caverns at this camp are filled with holy kittens, talking statues, magic foxes, river monsters, and a clutch of boys at the camp next door who are both dainty and devilish.
If you can persuade your folks to sign you up for Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, you will definitely want to bunk with April, Mal, Ripley, Molly, and Jo. Beware, though, if you dare to break enough rules to earn your Up All Night Badge, you’ll have to clean out the moose stalls. But, holy kitten, it will be worth it!
Our 2017 Girls of Summer guest author is the fantastic Rita Williams-Garcia!
We are thrilled to share Rita in person with our RVA Community at the 2017 Girls of Summer party at the Richmond Public Library on 6/21. Check out this Richmond Times-Dispatch interview with Rita, Read Toward Your Dreams. We encourage all of our Girls of Summer readers to dive into this beloved trilogy and all of Rita’s incredible work.
We celebrated the first volume of the trilogy, One Crazy Summer, in 2011 – our first year of Girls of Summer – with this review by Meg:
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad Books, 2010
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
by Jacqueline Kelly
Henry Holt, 2009
Middle grade, fiction
Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7
Additional formats: ebook
Newbery Honor Award * IRA Children’s Book Award, North Carolina Young Adult Book Award, TN YA Volunteer State Book Award, Virginia M. Law Award * Josette Frank Award * Chicago Public Library Best of the Best * Junior Library Guild
Set at the end of the 19th century, eleven-year old Calpurnia Virginia Tate is having a difficult time learning”housewifery” things. She prefers swimming in the river or thinking about science to cooking or knitting. “Callie” sets out to be independent and do what she likes while learning to bond with her grandfather. He helps her learn about the natural sciences and how to cope with change and growing up.
by Teresa Harris
Clarion Books, 2014
Middle grade, contemporary fiction
Ages 8 – 12
Additional formats: ebook
What is worse than being sent to stay with relatives you don’t like? Answer: Not being sure if and when your parents are ever coming back for you.
Set in a fictional town called Black Lake, Virginia, The Perfect Place is the story of twelve-year-old Treasure, whose father has been gone for two months. Unlike his other disappearances in the past, this time he hasn’t come back to the family or made contact. Fed up, Treasure’s mother decides it’s time for her to take Treasure and her sister, Tiffany, on a trip to find him. They vacate the premises in the middle of the night and travel south to meet their gruff Great Aunt Grace (GAG) who lives in small-town Virginia. Grace doesn’t care if her smoking bothers Treasure’s asthma and seems generally to dislike children.
This is a funny and tender story about three generations of women learning how to help each other survive disappointments.
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2015
Middle grade, contemporary fiction
Ages 10 – 14
Additional formats: ebook and audio
Multiple “best books lists” of 2015
Three middle school friends, a perfect set of three: Brig, an accident survivor who should have died when she was eight; Tabitha, ever-practical and cautious—the voice of reason; and Em, the popular soccer queen, now in a relationship with an 8th grade boy who encourages her to send him a selfie in jeans and a bra.
Newbery-award-winner Rebecca Stead fleshes out the crazy world of middle school and the dicey slope of everyday decisions and peer pressure with a wonderfully interconnected cast. I was especially fond of how she used the supporting characters to move the story along. Jamie, Brig’s brother, is locked in a dumb bet about how many steps he can take in a single day. Sherm, a classmate, writes letters to a grandfather that he refuses to speak to. A nameless second-person teen has run away for a day in the face of the fact that her “best friend” is a mean girl. Readers will find versions of themselves in these pages—and plenty of familiar experiences to keep them reading, thinking, and talking.
Evelyn lives with her mother and her feisty grandmother in Spanish Harlem, New York City in the 1970s. The Black Panthers and the Young Lords are insisting on social change—and they’ll use sit-ins and a church takeover to get their point across to city officials, if necessary.
I admire this novel for its look at the Civil Rights era in New York City—especially through the Latino lens. Sonia Manzano offers up a story about girl awakening to the impact of culture and racism on her community—and what it takes to do something about it.
by S.E. Grove
Viking Penguin, 2014
Upper middle grade(due to complexity), fantasy
Grades 5 and up, Ages 10 and up
Additional formats: ebook and paperback
First, the background: In the Great Disruption of 1799, the world broke apart.
Continents were unfastened not only physically but also from time. Now the world is a strange mix of different Ages. Europe, for example, was plunged into a remote century, while the United States became an uneasy mix of adjoining Ages: the Baldlands in the West, Prehistoric Snows to the north, and New Patagonia to the south. Sophia’s Boston is now in New Occident.
It is 1891, and Sophia lives with her uncle, the great “cartologer” Shadrack, who is looking after her in the absence of her parents who, eight years earlier, left on a mission and never returned.
Together in Boston, Shadrack teaches Sophia to read all kinds of maps—some that are locked tighter than the hardest puzzles and those that also chart time. When Shadrack is brutally kidnapped, it’s up to Sophia and her friend, Theo, to find him. The only trouble is, she has never seen any other part of the world except through maps. Can she do it? The world-building is amazing in this smart, girl-led adventure.
by Justin Scott Parr
Gum Shoe Press, 2012
Ages 12 and up
Best friends, Sage Carrington and Isabel Flores, waste no time making the most of their summer vacation. When they discover a vintage treasure map near the Washington Monument, they get busy solving clues and following leads. Obstacles abound! The biggest one being neighborhood bully, Edwin. With their smarts, creativity, and savvy mentor, Aunt Druscilla, the bfs set out to find the hidden treasure.
Adventure unfolds and bonds of friendship grow strong in Washington D.C., a perfect backdrop for a Nancy Drew type sleuth story involving history, science, and aerodynamics.
by Louise Erdrich
Hyperion Paperbacks, 1999
Middle grade fiction, Age 9 and Up
10: 0786814543/13: 978-078681454
Additional formats: Hardcover, audio
Honors: National Book Award Finalist * Jane Addams Award Honor * WILLA Award * National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Winner
The shero in the Birchbark House, set on Madeline Island off Lake Superior in 1847, receives her name from an Ojibwa girl who was recorded as living on the island in nineteenth century. Author Louise Erdrich writes, “Dear Reader, when you speak this name out loud you will be honoring the life of an Ojibwa girl who lived long ago.”
Now, speak her name: Omakayas.
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, Erdrich (National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize Finalist) wrote The Birchbark House to retrace her family’s history. The story is told from the perspective of seven-year-old Omakayas, or little frog. Young readers will be completely absorbed by the adventures of Omakayas as she works alongside the women and babysits her little brother. As many young children do, she feels jealous of her older sibling and annoyed by her younger ones. Working side-by-side with her mother and grandmother, she experiences an ability to communicate well with animals, the earth, and her elders, all of which guide her in toward the gift of healing.
When a smallpox breakout ravishes the community, Omakayas is the only one not infected. Her talent for listening to the earth and all its creatures soon helps her care for her family, and she must use all of her power to save them.
The story unfolds in four parts—summer, fall, winter, and spring—and the narrative builds inside the rhythms and rituals of Ojibwa life. Its back matter includes an Author’s Note on Ojibwa language and a glossary and punctuation guide of Ojibwa terms, offering opportunity for continued depth and discovery of Omakayas’s world.
Many have contrasted The Birchbark House to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Wilder’s books carry a cultural bias embedded in the white encroachment on native land and culture as America pushed its boundaries west – a contrast worth noting. The Birchbark House testifies to the decimation and destruction that resulted, yet Erdrich most strongly evokes a feeling of connection among all people, with the earth, and to an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas. – Gigi
by Cece Bell
Amulet Books, 2014
Middle grade, graphic novel
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
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
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
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
Middle grade, memoir, poetry
Ages 10 and up
Honors: National Book Award for Young People’s Literature * Newbery Honor * Coretta Scott King Author Book Award * Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature * NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature
Jacqueline Woodson recalls a childhood spanning Ohio, South Carolina, and New York toward the end of the Jim Crow era and the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
Through a child’s eyes, the story revisits a grandmother’s tired feet and strong faith, downtown sit-ins, and lingering WHITES ONLY signs. This memoir-in-verse summons the reliable tonality of her maternal grandfather’s daily return from work and his grandchildren’s wild, loving sprint to greet him. The pages reminisce over a familial landscape where the Greenville air speaks to a thoughtful child through the twinkle of lightning bugs, scents of pine, and wet grass and a never-ending serenade of crickets.
Brown Girl Dreaming illuminates how deeply childhood is shaped by history, family, faith, and place and how often children are called upon to build bridges between the past and the future, trials and triumphs. – Gigi