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
By David Baldacci
Scholastic Press, 2014
Middle grade fiction, Ages 10 and up
ISBN: 0545652200/ 978-0545652209
Additional formats: e-book, audio
Author David Baldacci has earned a rabidly loyal, worldwide fan base with his fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers. With The Finisher,he makes his middle grade fantasy debut in a novel featuring a wisecracking, clever, and brave young heroine named Vega Jane.
Vega and her brother, John, live in the village of Wormwood, which is surrounded by a dangerous, forbidden wilderness known as the Quag. When Vega witnesses a co-worker fleeing into the Quag, the Council becomes highly suspicious of Vega’s involvement. Members of the Council construct a benevolent façade to cover up the real reasons no one is allowed to leave Wormwood. Vega soon realizes everyone is being manipulated.
Vega Jane is my favorite kind of girl—a headstrong, quick study whose mouth gets ahead of her mind sometimes. She’s motivated by justice and fairness but has yet to learn to choose her battles. Vega is loyal to her family and friends—always ready to put up her dukes and fight on behalf of the underdog—behavior that often comes at a price in fiction as in life. And, oh so worth it!
Baldacci’s mastery of emotional tension and full-throttle action is on fine display. The quirky, lovable cast of characters will endear The Finisher to readers of all ages. – Gigi
By Hannah Barnaby
Houghton Mifflin Books for children, 2012
Honors: William C. Morris Award finalist * Kirkus Best Teen Books * Bank Street College Best Children’s Books * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults
I remember the first time I went to the circus. I was five, and my mother took me to see the Ringling Bros at Madison Square Garden. I remember that the clowns frightened me, that the giraffe felt like a skyscraper, and that I said a dirty word that got me scolded. But mostly, I remember that it was the first big outing I took with my mother.
Maybe that’s why I adore Wonder Show. My mom passed away last year, and I read this book at her bedside during her final days. It’s no surprise that I would turn to a book for escape and solace. It’s always been that way for me. But I found myself completely absorbed in this story of a strong girl, her longing for family, and the role of self-forgiveness for all of us.
Set in the 1930’s, Wonder Show is the story of Portia, a girl who loves to make up stories for anyone who’ll listen. She is abandoned first by her mother, then her loving father, Max, and finally by her no-nonsense Aunt Sofia, who decides she can’t raise the headstrong and creative girl on her own. Portia finds herself in the care (loose definition, here) of the ever-creepy Mister at the Home for Wayward Girls. Here, her life as an outsider begins. When her desperate attempt to help a friend dodge Mister’s marital intentions goes terribly wrong, Portia flees in desperation and joins—what else?—the circus.
Well, not exactly the circus. She joins the part of the circus where the true outsiders reside: the Wonder Show, filled with Siamese twins, bearded ladies, giants, armless knife throwers and more.
Barnaby’s debut is so impressive. She recreates the tightly knit community expertly, and her instincts for timing and tension are spot on. She creates characters that are rich in their own needs and failings. I found it almost impossible to stop reading at the end of each chapter. And, I fell in love with Portia.
It’s a teen novel that can work especially well in middle school, but really, any age can enjoy this creepy and thoughtful tale. In Portia, we have a strong girl who refuses to be beaten down, even by her own remorse. – Meg
The Mer-Child: A Legend for Children and Other Adults
By Robin Morgan, illustrated by Jesse Spicer Zerner
Middle grade, ages 9 and up, grades 4 and up
The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993
The Burning Time
By Robin Morgan
Melville House, 2012
Honors: American Booksellers Association, “Book Sense” pick * “Reccomended Quality Fiction List 2007,” American Library Association Feminist Task Force * Amelia Bloomer Project
Welcome 2014 Girls of Summer Guest Star, Robin Morgan! Take it away, Robin:
For me, young adult’s books and, for that matter, children’s books, are literature, like any other (good) books. I grew up reading everything I could get my eyes on: Aesop, Grimm, Carroll, Anderson, Hudson, Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, Girl of the Limberlost and Nancy Drew, Scott, comic books, poetry–and also Kafka (whom I found hilarious) and Hawthorne, Alcott and Poe, Twain and the Brontes and Mary Renault. Since I wasn’t told “That’s for adults, not you,” I happily read on, and what I didn’t understand I skipped over and returned to later. It was all literature to me, all magical.
Consequently, my so-far-one “children’s book,” The Mer Child, is subtitled A Legend for Children and Other Adults, and my recent historical novel, The Burning Time, was intended as a rollicking good saga, complete with practical witchcraft, horses and torches and medieval pageantry—the kind of book I as a child secretly continued reading under the covers by flashlight past bedtime. I had never thought of a readership age bracket for The Burning Time until it was highly recommended by the American Library Association Amelia Bloomer Project recognizing distinguished fiction for young people; later, some reviewer said it was “so juicy a tale it must be for young adults”—meaning what? That literature for older adults should be boring, flat, and alienated? Phooey.
The Mer Child, based on a fantasy tale I made up for bedtime telling to my son when he was eight, is really a love story of two kids, outsiders both, who find a deep kinship in each other. The Mer Child—son of a mermaid and a human–has pale green skin, surf-white hair, and a shimmering rainbow-hued tail, and isn’t fully accepted in the sea world or the human world. The Little Girl, daughter of a black mother and white father, is also not accepted, both because of her skin color and because her legs are paralyzed. These two outcasts find a home in each other. It’s a story about difference and sameness, not fitting in, the preciousness of being unique (and its cost)—and about overcoming bigotry and ignorance. All of those subjects are, I believe, decidedly appropriate for readers of any age, since every one of us, including children, experiences such things anyway and might as well be equipped to deal creatively with them.
The Burning Time is not a fantasy. It is based on the true story of one woman’s remarkable fight against the Inquisition, set against the vivid tapestry of the 14th century and drawn from court records of the first witchcraft trial in Ireland: the tale of an extraordinary real-life noblewoman, Lady Alyce Kyteler of Kilkenny. When the Church imported its Inquisition—known as “The Burning Time” to followers of the Old Religion, or the Craft of Wicce (Witch Craft)—to Ireland, it did so via an ambitious, sophisticated bishop acting as Papal Emissary. But Alyce Kyteler–educated, wealthy, and a Craft Priestess–refused to cede power to the Church over herself, her lands, her people, or their ancient faith. She and the bishop engaged in a personal battle of wits, and when she outmaneuvered him she provoked his hatred. He pronounced her followers heretics and gambled his Church career on breaking her. But Kyteler had power, connections, fearlessness, and the loyalty of her people, especially her courageous young handmaiden, Petronilla. Battle plans were laid. Finally, risking death by burning at the stake, Kyteler invoked a mysterious, possibly otherworldly ally–the novel’s shocking, dramatic climax. I wanted to write a lush, enthralling story of memorable characters based on actual historical figures, an unforgettable tale of power, politics, bravery, and passions both earthly and spiritual. When The Historical Novels Review called it “a fantastic page-turner”—I did a little dance around the room, since that is precisely what I had been working toward.
The point is the story, always the story.
I feel a deep, close relationship with my reader, and I respect her/his intelligence enormously. The truth is, I write what I’d love to read, at any age, myself!
Zora and Me
By Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
Candlewick Press, 2010
Middle Grade, Ages 10 and up
Additional formats: e-book, audio
Honors: Coretta Scott King John Steptoe New Talent Award *Junior Library Guild selection * William Allen White Children’s Book Award – Master List * Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth * National Council of Teachers of English Notable Children’s Book * The Edgar® Awards – Best Juvenile, Nominee * Edgar Award Nominee * Kirkus Reviews – Best Children’s Books of the Year * New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing * SIBA Okra Pick * Kids Indie Next List
Zora and Me, by friends and co-authors, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon is a suspenseful, summertime mystery starring a trio of besties: a young, fictionalized Zora Neale Hurston and her friends Carrie and Teddy. Set in Hurston’s legendary Eatonville, Florida, the story opens with Zora and Carrie witnessing an Eatonville man being dragged into to swamp by an alligator, which leads to some serious storytelling by Zora to her schoolmates.
Later, when a guitar-playing troubadour named Ivory turns up de-capitated near the railroad tracks, Zora conjures up a dark tale involving a shape-shifting gator man with an insatiable desire for souls and songs.
I found it impossible to do anything but read this book cover to cover in one sitting. The easy, rhythmic dialect, the brassy confidence of Zora, and the hot lush, dangerous setting of southern Florida will clamp down on readers tighter than a gator on a chicken. Let it happen is my advice. Zora and Me is a suspense-filled story with endearing characters and unexpected twists and turns. – Gigi
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
The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement
By Teri Kanefield
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014
Middle grade non-fiction, Ages 10-14
Honors: Junior Library Guild Selection
The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement introduces young readers to one of the earliest and youngest Civil Rights pioneers. In 1950, Barbara Johns attended Robert R. Moton High School, an all-black high school. In then-segregated Prince Edward County, Virginia, while white students enjoyed a new school, black students were forced to endure makeshift buildings with leaky roofs and poor heating.
“I’m sick and tired of it all,” Johns complained to her favorite teacher, Inez Davenport.
In return, Davenport challenged her student: “Why don’t you do something about it?”
In October, Johns began recruiting student leaders to join her in a non-violent protest. On the morning of April 23, 1951, they commandeered the PA system, convened a school-wide assembly, and asked teachers to leave. Johns took the podium and gave the speech of a lifetime, imploring the student-body to strike until the school board agreed to improvements. She issued instructions, walked out of the building, and all four hundred fifty students followed.
Ultimately, the NAACP filed a petition demanding that Prince Edward integrate the school system. Students returned to Moton, and their case went before the Supreme Court, where it joined with four others as Brown v. Board of Education.
The Girl from the Tar Paper School is the first biography in any genre of Barbara Rose Johns. I love the aspects of teen-aged Barbara that author Teri Kanefield chose to reveal. By focusing on her subject’s interior life, Kanefield shows us a young woman who drew strength and resolve from her faith, her family, and the natural world. Readers learn that the Johns family valued and instructed its younger members on the importance of speaking truth to power. Family study of African-American history was important to them, as was attending church and retreating to the woods to pray privately.
I think everyone should study this book not only in order to learn about the life of a confident young woman but to gain insight into Johns’ process of imagining, planning, and executing a courageous act and finding a clear voice. The Girl from the Tar Paper School is also a critical addition to our understanding of how children participate in and shape history. – Gigi
By Cynthia Lord
Scholastic Press, 2006
Honors: Newbery Honor Book * Schneider Family Book Award * Mitten Award (Michigan Library Association) * Great Lakes Great Books Award (Michigan) * Maine Student Book Award * Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (Vermont) * Kentucky Bluegrass Award* Great Stone Face Award (New Hampshire)* Buckeye Children’s Book Award (Ohio)
No toys in the fish tank.
That sounds like an unnecessary rule to mention, but when your brother has autism, there are rules for everything, every day. So, Catherine, age twelve, is keeping a notebook of rules to help him get through his day, rules that typical kids acquire but that have to be spelled out and repeated endlessly for David to follow. Catherine loves her brother, but she sometimes feels saddled with the job of looking after him, especially when her parents aren’t around to help. “Just for a minute” can be a monumental task.
That summer, something wonderful is about to happen that might ease Catherine’s load. A new neighbor is moving in. Could Kristi—pretty and destined to be well-liked at school—be a new friend for Catherine? And how will she feel about David and his unexpected behaviors?
This novel is about the tricky landscape of families that include people with special needs. Cynthia Lord writes with honesty and heart about the fierce love and frustration that defines that experience. She details the embarrassing moments—the shrieks, the undressing in public places, the meltdowns—but also lets us into the moments of pure love and grace that happen, too. I was also especially glad to see the relationship with Jason, a boy Catherine’s age who communicates with a touch board, and I also liked how she drew the parents in all of this, frazzled, loving, sometimes undone.
I think strong girls will relate to this story because it’s about what we’re willing to do to fit in. How far—or not—are we willing to go to let all kids into the circle of their neighborhoods and families? – Meg
By Carolyn Marsden
Candlewick Press, 2005
Middle grade, Ages 8 – 12
ISBN: 0763633046 / 9780763633042
Honors: Junior Library Guild Selection * William Allen White Masters list * Gate City Award nominee * Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Award nominee * Maryland Black-eyed Susan Book Award list
One morning in fourth-grade gym class, Mina discovers something new about herself: she loves to run under a morning moon. What’s even more surprising to her is that she’s fast. As fast or faster even than her best friend, Ruth. No one has ever thought of Mina as an athlete; Ruth is the athletic one among their group of friends. As soon as Mina makes the track team, however, Ruth starts to ignore Mina at school. When the track coach picks Mina to race against Ruth, Mina has an important decision to make. Should she shine on the track, or should she let Ruth win?
It’s a wonderful feeling to develop a new talent or to find unexpected success, but a terrible feeling when your new-found confidence causes conflict with a dear friend. Author Carolyn Marsden, who is known for writing from the heart and telling multi-cultural stories of self-discovery, explores the height and depth of such emotions in Moon Runner. This is a fast and satisfying read that speaks to the tension that arises, at times, in almost every friendship: the desire to please your friend versus the desire to pursue your own dreams. – Gigi
All Alone in the Universe
By Lynne Rae Perkins
A Greenwillow Book, Harper Trophy, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 1999
ALA Notable Book * ALA Booklist Editor’s Choice * Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book * Smithsonian Notable Book For Children * CCBC Choice Selection * Bank Street Best Book ^ New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
An oldie but goodie.
If you ask me, All Alone in the Universe is the perfect illustrated novel for middle school girls facing a long summer. So much happens to kids in those ten hot weeks, and this novel captures that drama with spot-on storytelling. Meet Debbie and Hector, both fourteen and part of a group of friends longing for something interesting to happen to them. Is it love? A life as a musician? The right pair of pants?
Lynne Rae Perkins, winner of the 2006 Newbery Medal for Criss Cross, brings humor and insight to the story of a plain old summer, for plain old middle school kids, all of whom are starting to feel that life ought to be more than what it is now in their town of Seldem.
The drawings are funny expressions of how we see the world at fourteen, and the dual narrative of Lenny and Debbie works well, too. I also admired the mother/daughter dynamic, especially around their shared experiences of a boy who has moved on.
This is a story of ordinary kids trying to break out of their boredom and find themselves as they start to say goodbye to childhood. I found myself rooting for friends Debbie and Maureen and for all the kids in Seldem—even the handsome young jock who could, in fact, remain a jerk unless life throws him enough opportunities to find another way.
I think middle grade strong girls will see their friendships here, their missteps, and so many of their own yearnings. A terrific summer read. – Meg
Summer and Bird
By Katherine Catmull
Middle grade, Ages 12 and up
Dutton Children’s Books, 2012
Additional formats: e-book
Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth
Two sisters, Summer and Bird, wake one morning and discover that both of their parents are missing. They search the house, the meadow, and the nearby creek. No Mom and no Dad. Together, they set off into the woods to find their parents, certain they haven’t gone far. Once in the forest, though, their quest takes a dark and mysterious turn. Summer and Bird are pulled into a strange world called Down. There, the birds can speak and songs are maps.
The tension between the sisters makes the journey hard on both. Their animosity toward each other causes stumbles, mishaps, and misunderstandings along the way. Summer is jealous of Bird who has a deep and meaningful connection to birds and even speaks their language, though all the birds in Down speak human. Bird envies Summer for being the oldest, a position that Summer exploits to her own benefit.
As they venture farther from home and deeper into Down, it becomes apparent that there are a number of puzzles to be solved besides locating their mom and dad. Who and where is the Bird Queen? Why are all of the birds locked out of the Green Home?
The sisters meet shape-shifting companions along the way who guide them toward their parents and, more importantly, help reconcile the sisters who grow more and more estranged. Their paths diverge when Bird abandons her sister for a quest of her own to join the evil Puppeteer, who is staging an overthrow of the missing Bird Queen. To find her little sis, Summer must scale every ravine of Down and every canyon of her fear.
The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between the sisters, yet each chapter of Summer and Bird explores discord and harmony, imbalance and alignment of the self, the family, and the earth. Katherine Catmull’s writing is whimsical, dreamy, and evocative. This book is a breathtaking fairytale and also remarkable for its nature writing. Here, the very Earth is alive, pulsing, and speaking our language. And perhaps even offering a map in the form of a song. GA
Listen to an audio excerpt from Summer and Bird
The Visconti House
By Elsbeth Edgar
Middle Grade, Ages 9 and up, Grade 4 and up
Candlewick Press, 2011
additional formats: e-book, audio
Junior Library Guild Selection
I love eccentric people. They feel like fresh air to me, and they offer a new view on even the most ordinary things. But as we all know, there are times in life when being unusual can be seen as a liability. The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar is a book about two young people caught in that web. It’s a celebration of two smart loners, Laura and Leon, who find their way to each other – and self acceptance – as they uncover the mysteries of an old mansion.
Laura despises school for all the usual reasons. The mysterious cliques of girls. The drone of teachers. The boredom. She’s a bright and artistic girl who lives with her parents – a sculptor and writer – in an old Italian mansion, the only one of its kind in the neighborhood. However, her living arrangement isn’t exotic in her view. It is yet another way for her to be outside of the norm.
When Leon Murphy, the grandson of an eccentric elderly neighbor, arrives at her school, Laura tries to keep her distance. A friendship with him would seal her fate as an outcast. Leon is rumored to be the son of a murderer, and he’s certainly capable of pummeling anyone who crosses him. It’s soon apparent, though, that he is brilliant – and much more than what others assume.
Eventually their paths do cross, and Laura does her best to keep it a secret from the prying and judgmental eyes of people around them. At what point should a strong girl take a stand on what and whom she likes?
If you are looking for big drama and an edge-of-your-seat mystery, this is not the book for you. You’ll find no knives, guns or bloodshed here. Instead, this is a quiet book, a romantic story about young teens on those borders of friendship and romance. It’s a lovely story for girls who like brains and originality.MM
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
By Margarita Engle
Middle grade through Young Adult, Ages 12 and up
Additional formats: e-book
We here at Girls of Summer love a little scandal, especially if it involves strong, smart girls. So, we’re happy to include Margarita Engle’s latest novel-in-verse, The Lightning Dreamer, about Cuba’s great abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose work was once considered so scandalous for its interracial, feminist and abolitionist themes that it was burned.
Never heard of Avellaneda? No problem. Margarita Engle is a master at digging in the dark corners of history to shine a light on figures from Latin American history that you might not otherwise meet. And she does it with impressive results. Engle is the first Latina winner of the Newbery Honor Award, twice the recipient of the
prestigious Pura Belpre´ prize, and the recipient of the 2012 Américas Awards.
In The Lightning Dreamer, we meet Tula (Gómez de Avellaneda’s nickname) as a young girl growing up in early 19th century Cuba. This is the Cuba where slavery is the backbone of the sugar economy, where an educated woman is seen as a threat, and where Tula’s best choice for becoming well-read may actually lie behind the walls of a convent where her access to books would be unfettered.
Tula struggles against her mother’s plans for her marriage, and in this she has several key allies, including her faithful brother, Manuel. Despite every effort to the contrary, Tula awakens to the power of books, the outrage of her own situation, and to the abolitionist movement.
The story is told in Margarita Engle’s signature style: short poignant poems where each character is given a chance to speak. Tula’s voice is strong and unapologetic, but the secondary characters also build her world: her frustrated mother, Manuel, Caridad the servant, the orphans, and the nuns who prove to be pivotal in her education.
It has never been easy to be a strong girl, but Tula reminds us that female visionaries have existed in all countries throughout history. I admire this book for celebrating a woman who was ridiculed and shunned for having ideas that were far ahead of her time. MM
Who Am I Without Him? Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives
By Sharon G. Flake
Upper middle grade and young adult
Ages 12 and up, Grades 6-12
additional formats: e-book
Coretta Scott King Author Honor
This collection of short stories is an older title (2004), but I’m so grateful that it was brought to my attention by our friends at The Open Book Foundation in Washington D.C.
Sharon Flake’s book is a collection of girls’ voices that spans everything from the marginalized and violent to the girl-next-door. In every case, we have a girl in relationship with a young man, and as we all know, that can mean drama. Girls will see themselves in these stories and the thoughtless (and even dangerous) boys who’ll sometimes cross their paths. The possibilities for conversation in a classroom, in a book club, and among friends are endless. How important are boys to your sense of self? What should you be willing to give away if anything at all? What does a respectful relationship look like when you’re fourteen? What are your responsibilities in a relationship?
I love this collection because it offers no easy answers, only the platform for good conversation. The characters (adults included) are layered, and their strengths and weaknesses make them hard to judge easily as victims or victimizers. I have to give a gold star for the hilarious “Girl, Didn’t I Say I Don’t Write Letters” about a forced pen-pal relationship between Jaquel and Devita Mae. But I’d run out of gold stars on this collection. I found something to love about virtually every tale here. Church girls stalking boys at a schoolyard behind their parents’ backs. Girls taking advantage of the intellectually disabled. Girls willing to fistfight “for their man.” Girls who want white boys. The options are dizzying and wonderful. MM
Same Sun Here
By Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Middle grade, fiction
Ages 9 and up, Grades 5 and up
Candlewick Press, 2012
Additional formats: e-book, audio book
Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year *Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award List *New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing *Best Fiction for Young Adults – Nominee *Audie Award for book narration
From the outset of this epistolary novel, readers will absolutely recognize what kind of people twelve year olds Meena Joshi and River Dean Justice are. We’d call these two old souls in my family. Their friendship begins when Meena chooses River’s name from a pen pal list. Not the e-mail pen pal list, but from among the kids who want to write real letters with stamps and everything. Meena lives in New York City. She chooses River, who lives in Kentucky, because she misses the mountains of her native India, and because she likes the name River.
Meena has lots of questions for River, and he does of her, too. They quickly establish the most important rule of their pen pal friendship: they can be their true selves with one another. Honest. Real. No holding back. What unfolds is an incredibly deep and bright journey into the interior worlds of two children who are carrying some grown up burdens, participating in history, and building bridges with letters. In Kentucky, River plays basketball and lives with his mom and his grandmother, Mawmaw, an advocate for mountains, trees, and social justice. His father, a former coal miner, had to leave Kentucky to find work. In New York City, Meena is starting a new school and finding she has a talent for art and a love for theater. She misses her own grandmother, Dadi, who still lives in India. Her father, too, works away from home. Meena lives with her mother and older brother in a rent-controlled apartment owned by their neighbor and friend, Mrs. Lao. As the lives of Meena and River unfold and entwine, history does too. Barak Obama is elected President; River and Mawmaw march on the Kentucky governor’s mansion to protest mountaintop removal; and Meena’s parents progress through the citizenship naturalization process.
The easy rapport between Meena, written by Neela Vaswani, and River, written by Silas House, is so believable and joyous to read. True, River and Meena come from two different cultures and far apart places, but they are kindred spirits who agree that the cures for most any ailment of the heart can be found by gazing across the mountains, holding hands with your grandmother, or looking into the brown eyes of a good, old dog. I think it’s all too common that we adults deny the complex spiritual, political, and creative lives of children. The twelve year old girl who I was – campaigning at school for Jimmy Carter, fretting about my hairy arms, confronting prejudice within myself, and finding comfort in nature – would have devoured this book and then started reading it again. The love and openness between Meena and River as they share their hopes, their fears, and their regrets opened my heart so wide. As fine a novel as Same Sun Here is, I think it’s also a handbook of sorts. On how to be a friend. On how to start over, how to fight for our earth, and how to be a good citizen of the world. GA
Listen to an audio excerpt from Same Sun Here.
By Marthe Jocelyn
Middle grade, Ages 8 and up
Candlewick Press, 2013
Every now and then, a book comes skipping by with jolly shouts of sunshine and fun, calling out for everyone to join in. Even those of us who can’t knit or crochet or quilt can make sneaky art. Marthe Jocelyn says so! And she shows us how. Sneaky art isn’t graffiti or vandalism or mean or permanent. Sneaky art IS temporary, playful art made by YOU and placed around town or your neighborhood or home in sneaky places to make people smile or laugh or do a double-take. The introduction explains the rules, gives you a tool kit, and explains the hows, whens, and wheres of getting sneaky. The rest of this spiral bound book includes DIY-instructions for sneaky art projects that are fun and easy, even for me.
My favorite projects include: Teeny Party, colorful garlands sneakily strung in medicine cabinets, refrigerators, or school lockers; Cup Dangler, an easy, tasty surprise made with soft candy and paperclips that can be left on the rims of mugs or cups; Sink Boats in a public fountain; Little Landmarks, tiny houses made with empty matchboxes and tucked into nooks and crannies, and Stick Pixies – just imagine making a stick fairy out of your baby pictures and sinking them in your mom’s birthday cake or Mother’s Day flower pot. Who knows what new projects you’ll come up with? Oh sneaky, sneaky, sneaky art! I’m so happy you arrived in time for summer! GA
By Kekla Magoon
Middle Grade, Ages 10 to 14, Grades 5 and up
Simon & Schuster, 2011
additional formats: e-book
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens *ALA Notable Children’s Book Nominee *Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best *Kirkus Best Children’s Book *Maine Student Book Award Master List *Virginia Readers’ Choice Award Master List
Z and Ella are best friends. Since starting sixth grade, though, Z has been cast out by their group of friends because, while a genius, he “just comes across as weird.” When Z starts to withdraw into an imaginary world, Ella stays loyal to him, and because of that devotion the kids at school ostracize Ella, too. She also has a skin condition on her face called vitiligo, which her former friends start to ridicule.
The changes occurring in Z are scary, but Ella sees everyday how hard things are for him since his father left. Z’s mom lost their house, and the two of them are secretly living in the Walmart, where his mom works. Z’s only connection to the world, besides the library, is Ella. She is his protector and defender, and he pretends that he is hers. Ella accepts that staying loyal to Z, even as he descends deeper and deeper into his own troubled imagination, will mean she is tortured by their peers every day. She keeps a change of clothes in her locker for the days when the teasing is brutal and her clothes get ruined in the cafeteria.
While Ella loves her friend Z dearly and becomes his strong advocate, her family has struggled, too. Ella’s father passed away when she was a baby, and Grammie has moved in to help while Ella’s mom works away from home during the week. The granddaughter-grandmother relationship between Ella and Grammie is rich and tender and loving. But even this can’t make up for how badly Ella suffers at school.
Enter Bailey Jones. The new guy. A basketball star. And the only other black kid in the school besides Ella. At first, he knows nothing about the cruel socialscape that Ella and Z are trapped in. Bailey only sees that Ella is cute and funny and headstrong. As it turns out, he does know something of feeling afraid and not good enough. And he knows something of missing his father, too. As a friendship develops between Ella and Bailey, Z begins to self-destruct. Ella has to choose her course: Bailey and the popular crowd or Z, her true friend.
What I love about Camo Girl is how Kekla Magoon portrays the volatile urgency of the sixth grade social scene. The book is set in Nevada, and the harsh desert landscape of extremes is the perfect setting for a story about the extreme swings of middle school friendships. The main character, Ella, confronts big questions and big feelings. Through it all, and with her steady Grammie backing her up, Ella shows courage and willingness to take risks on behalf of her friends, her family, and herself. GA
Temple Grandin: How the Girl who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World
By Sy Montgomery and Temple Grandin
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012
Middle grade non-fiction, Ages 9 and Up
additional formats: enhanced e-book, audio
NYPL 100 Titles for Reading & Sharing, 2012
Whether you realize it or not, your life has very likely been influenced by Temple Grandin. An advocate, designer, and activist, she’s dedicated her life to the humane treatment of livestock. As a child, Temple was diagnosed with autism. Sy Montgomery’s biography explores Temple’s world and her journey to understanding and embracing autism as a gift that helps her understand and connect with animals.
“I was one of those kids who did not fit in with the rest of the crowd,” Temple Grandin says of her childhood. Temple’s own voice, woven throughout much of this story, describes how she has been misunderstood, ostracized, criticized, and denied access. Because she is a female? Yes. Because she lives with autism? Yes. Because she challenges the status quo? You got that right. Because she refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer? Yep, that, too.
Temple always had someone in her corner. Her mother, her aunt, and select educators and business people who recognized Temple’s genius and worked to open doors and opportunities for her. These passionate advocates taught Temple the principles of self-advocacy, and she never looked back.
The facts of Temple’s life, as well as the anecdotes that illustrate how she came to know herself, are fascinating. Through stories, photographs, and Temple’s actual livestock-system designs, readers begin to understand how Temple’s brain works. Temple’s brain is most fascinating! We learn how the qualities in Temple that caused some to misjudge her are the very qualities Temple credits for her success, creativity, and innovative thinking. The biography is chock-full of concrete and well-lived words of advice from Temple that will inspire kids, such as: “Individuals who have been labeled with disabilities or even just quirky or nerdy kids often have uneven skills” and “By finding friends who like the same activities that you like, you can avoid the bullies.”
I learned of Temple Grandin’s breakthrough thinking and innovative designs in livestock management in 2006 with the publication of her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Her work has influenced nearly every cattle farmer in America, including my family. Sy Montgomery brings a rich, engaging, and important biography of one of the most influential American women to young readers. GA
Three Times Lucky
By Sheila Turnage
Middle Grade fiction, Ages 10 and up
Dial Books, 2012
additional formats: e-book, audio
Newbery Honor *Edgar Award Finalist * E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor *New York Times bestseller
Moses “Mo” LoBeau, Sheila Turnage’s protagonist in the hooting, hilarious, and heartfelt Three Times Lucky, is one of my favorites. A wisteria-vine-variety Girl of Summer. Like the vine we so know and love in the south, Mo is a strong, persistent, fragrant star of the garden. Star of the café, too. Heck, star of the whole darn town where she lives.
Our girl Mo arrived in Tupelo Landing, NC when she was but a babe, set upon the flood waters to ride out a hurricane atop a floating billboard. The Colonel was also out in that storm and wrecked his car just in time to see and save the floating infant, whom he named Moses on the spot. The Colonel and Mo, together with Café proprietor Miss Lana, live together in a small house behind the Café, where they make an eccentric but loving family.
Mo’s life mission is to locate and reunite with her “Upstream Mother,” the one who abandoned her in the hurricane. The whole town assists Mo in this effort by casting message-filled bottles into rivers, creeks, and streams throughout the Carolinas as folks travel around the region. But the mystery of Mo’s maternity isn’t the only puzzle stumping the good folks of Tupelo Landing. Nope. The town curmudgeon, Mr. Jesse, turns up dead, and it seems that Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, have some ‘splaining to do, seeing as how they recently borrowed Mr. Jesse’s boat and returned it in time to collect the $10 reward. (Well, they needed some pocket money because Dale’s big brother and aspiring NASCAR driver, Lavender, who Mo vows to marry one day when she’s older, recruited Dale and Mo to run the flags at his big race. Running flags can make a kid hungry. Race food costs money.) Soon enough, everybody learns that Dale’s foot prints have been identified at the murder scene. To protect her best friend, Mo takes charge of the investigation (unofficially) and discovers vital information. The mystery of Mr. Jesse’s death is just the beginning of the murder, kidnapping, heist, and con that storms through Tupelo Landing.
Sheila Turnage delivers a phenomenal, insightful and really, really funny character in Mo LoBeau. Mo’s a girl who faces down life’s storms (literally!) with the mightiest of weapons: a wry sense of humor, a pencil and a private diary, and a town full of good friends. GA
Kizzy Ann Stamps
By Jeri Watts
Middle Grade fiction
Ages 9 and up, Grades 5-8
Candlewick Press, 2012
additional formats: e-book, audio
Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year *Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies *Parents’ Choice Awards Recommended
Kizzy Ann Stamps is a strong girl who hates dresses and her annoying neighbor Frank Charles but loves her border collie to distraction. She’s also a girl with a distinctively scarred face that makes her stand out – exactly what she doesn’t want as she prepares to attend the formerly whites-only school in her town.
Jeri Watts’ novel is set in 1963 rural Virginia, just as public schools are beginning to integrate. Thanks to Miss Warren, who has taught at the black school for thirty-seven, Kizzy Ann is required to write a letter to her new teacher, Miss Anderson, who will teach the first integrated classroom. With each letter, Kizzy Ann reveals her skill as a southern storyteller. Her stories of her life’s daily trials not only flesh out her family, the black school, the library, and the appalling neighbors, but they also give name to the fears and misgivings of being asked to step into a hostile territory every day. This is the Virginia where a school must designate one out of every three bathroom stalls for use by black children, the Virginia where a black child can get spanked publicly for sassing a white man, the Virginia where an athlete like Kizzy Ann’s brother James, can never earn a place on his high school varsity football team, regardless of his skill.
Through all of this, Kizzy Ann enjoys the faithful companionship of her dog, Shag, who keeps dangerous neighbors at bay and who puts his life at risk for hers. In turn, when it is time to fight for Shag’s right to compete in dog trials where he will surely shine, Kizzy Ann finds her strength to prove that they both have a right to be there.
This lovely debut middle grade novel brings a piece of Virginia’s difficult racial history into focus for young readers, never an easy task. Yet at its core, Kizzy Ann Stamps is the story of a strong girl with the voice and courage to make change happen. MM
Listen to an audio excerpt from Kizzy Ann Stamps.
By Anne Ursu
Walden Pond Press, 2012
Awards/recognitions: *Junior Library Guild Selection 2012
My middle daughter always preferred boys as friends, especially in elementary school. She could hold her own on any playing field and had no patience for the intricate girl hierarchy at school.
Breadcrumbs would have been a comfort to her. It’s the perfect book for any strong girl who has grown up with boys as favorite playmates and best friends. Friendships across gender lines can be tricky, though, especially as we enter our teens. How do friendships endure as the gender lines are drawn? Personalities change, and so do loyalties. So often, it feels like one of the parties has been whisked off to a new and heartless place. In Breadcrumbs, that’s exactly what happens.
It’s no secret that I admire magical stories, so I was already inclined to love this one. It unabashedly references lots of works that fantasy fans will recognize: The Golden Compass, Harry Potter,The Swiftly Tilting Planet. But what sets Breadcrumbs apart even more is that Ursu lets us spend plenty of time in the utterly ordinary, soul-sucking world of preteens, where the real monsters live, as we all know. It’s a world of dull school drills, hurtful boys, and unspoken grief – and Ursu captures it so delicately and respectfully that I almost didn’t care about the fantasy adventure that would come later. Still when it’s time to build a new world of ice and numbness, she does it flawlessly.
There’s no turning back time on growing up, of course. There’s no way to spare any of us the sting of change. But in Anne Ursu’s story, we see both the beauty of loyalty and hope for new things to come. MM
By Raina Telgemeier
Awards/Recognitions: *ALA Notable Children’s Book *Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor *Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award *Eisner Award
Raina Telgemeier’s Smile is a hilarious, triumphant orthodontic memoir of the author-illustrator’s middle school to high school years. Girls at that age often have a pretty specific idea of what “normal” means and an equally sure notion that whatever it is, they are decidedly not! Smile captures that universal state of being a totally awesome person yet feeling anything but.
This dental journey begins at the dawn of middle school. One evening coming home from Girl Scouts, Raina takes a hard tumble on the pavement and severely injures her two front teeth. Welcome to the world of headgear, braces, and false teeth. Add to this dental drama a major earthquake, confusion over who exactly is friend or foe, and failing to make the basketball team. Through it all, Raina discovers time and time again that one key to self-acceptance and connecting with others is hidden in that truism: smile and the world smiles back.
Smile was recommended to me last summer by a strong girl who couldn’t…wouldn’t put the book down. Since then, I’ve shared Smile with several girls, and it has quickly become a favorite. The story and the drawings are rich with details, humor, and emotion. The scenes in the dentist’s office actually turned me a little queasy. The full panel of a portion of the October San Francisco skyline, followed by a page of after-school homework being done with the TV on in the background, conveys an incredible sense of stillness and normalcy. There are many such pages – every one of them a feast of words, colors, and images – that will welcome you and invite you to ponder the events and themes of your own life. GA
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream
By Tanya Lee Stone
Candlewick Press, 2009
Awards/Recognitions: *ALA Notable Children’s Books *ALA Best Books for Young Adults *Amelia Bloomer Project Selection *Boston Globe – Horn Book Awards – Honor Book *Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books *IRA Teacher’s Choice Award *Flora Stieglitz Straus AwardJane Addams Children’s Book Award *Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People *Sibert Medal *Smithsonian Notable Books for Children
Not that long ago, women in America weren’t allowed to rent cars, borrow money from a bank on their own, or play professional sports. In Almost Astronauts, Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of thirteen women who shared a dream of flying and becoming American astronauts. Known as the Mercury 13, these pioneers were dumped by their fiancés, served divorce papers, fired from their jobs, and objectified by the media as Astronettes because they were participating in the Women in Space Program.
The Mercury 13 volunteered to take the same tests that NASA required of male astronauts in order to prove women were capable of flying into space. Their results were superior – scientific evidence that women are as fit or fitter than men for space travel. It was near the apex of the Cold War, and Russia had put the world on notice that it intended to send women into space. Yet, in 1961 Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson still gave a shocking response to a request that he back a space program for women, a response that effectively kept women and people of color out of NASA for years.
So, quick: what was the first year a woman commanded a space shuttle? What was her name?
1998. Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins.
Thirty-eight years after Vice-President Johnson shut down the women’s space program before it could officially get started, Lieutenant Colonel Collins thanked the Mercury 13 for not giving up, for proving women were capable of being astronauts, and for insisting that women had the right to do so.
Almost Astronauts is fast-paced, urgent, and invigorating 20th Century history. It’s personal and political too, but it’s not secret history. Not any longer. As a mother, a writer, and a history-buff, I’m grateful to Tanya Lee Stone for telling the story of the Mercury 13 and for letting us get know these women who put it all on the line for all the women and men who would come next.
So. What will you say the next time you hear: A girl doesn’t have a chance? GA
Listen to an excerpt from Almost Astronauts audiobook!