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Middle-grade family stories

The thing about family is that it can be unpredictable. These four new books present families from different eras in all their unique and messy complexities.

The Thing About LuckIn Cynthia Kadohata’s funny but poignant The Thing About Luck, twelve-year-old narrator Summer lives with her brother, parents, and grandparents in contemporary Kansas. Her parents, who drive combines for independent contractors, have been summoned to Japan to care for elderly relatives and won’t be able to go “on harvest.” Summer’s grandfather, Jiichan, comes out of retirement to drive a combine, while her grandmother, Obaachan, cooks for the work crew (with Summer as her assistant). It’s a hard life, but Summer’s chatty narrative and her grandparents’ terse humor keep things light. Summer’s first crush, her notebook sketches, and her descriptive details about harvesting add layers of interest. (Atheneum, 10–14 years)

Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven, the sequel to One Crazy Summer, finds Delphine and her sisters Vonetta and Fern back home in Bed-Stuy, New York, with Big Ma and their father. It’s the late sixties; the Jackson Five is taking off and the Vietnam War is raging. There are also changes in the family: Pa has a new “lady friend,” the girls’ uncle returns from Vietnam emotionally scarred, and the balance of power in the sisters’ relationship is shifting. Just as with the first book, Williams-Garcia masterfully evokes setting and time period along with presenting complex, nuanced characters about whom readers will care. (Amistad/HarperCollins, 10–14 years)

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone ended with British ex-pat Flissy content in sleepy Bottlebay, Maine, with her extended family, the Bathburns. At the start of Romeo Blue, it’s 1942, the Coast Guard is patrolling for U-boats, and there’s still no word from Winnie (Flissy’s mother) or Danny (the man she thought was her father), who are Allied spies stationed in France. A welcome visitor is Flissy’s friend Dimples, an evacuee from England whose guilelessness is a breath of fresh air for the secret-harboring Bathburns. Stone writes in a style both lyrical and propulsive, with short chapters impelling readers ever onward as the multifaceted story unfolds. (Levine/Scholastic, 10–14 years)

Beholding BeeThe star of Kimberly Newton Fusco’s Beholding Bee, Bee Hockenberry defines herself by the large diamond-shaped birthmark on her cheek. Orphaned at an early age, Bee knows no other life than the traveling carny environment of 1942. When her guardian runs off, Bee sets out on her own looking for the perfect house full of love she’s always envisioned. She finds that house, inhabited by two frail old women, invisible to everyone but Bee, who help her find her own strength and recognize her heritage. This quiet story gives readers a modern twist on fairy godmothers: strong, supportive women who don’t need to provide a Prince Charming to make dreams come true. (Knopf, 10–14 years)

From the June 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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