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Plots with pluck

Challenges from finding a new home to finding your (singing) voice to finding your “thing” are no match for the spirited main characters of these four middle-grade and middle-school novels.

spalding_look out for the fitzgerald troutsEleven-year-old Kim, three siblings, and a goldfish live in a small green car in Esta Spalding’s Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts. Orphans? No, they actually have four (or possibly five) parents among them, but all the adults are complete washouts. No problem for this breezy, self-reliant bunch. The problem is that the kids are outgrowing their accommodation. Their search for a proper home involves a night in a furniture store and then a hair-raising car trip to the other side of the island on which they live — where they make several important discoveries. Illustrations by Sydney Smith enhance setting, character, and mood. (Little, Brown, 8–11 years)

shevah_dara-palmerThe title character of Emma Shevah’s Dara Palmer’s Major Drama, British fifth grader Dara, is genuinely gobsmacked when she doesn’t get the starring role in the school musical, but it turns out she isn’t the extremely talented actor she thinks she is. Dara’s eventual realizations that acting is more than making dramatic faces and that it involves putting oneself in another’s shoes help her become a better actor along with a better friend and sister. With themes of transracial adoption, racism, identity, friendship, and sibling rivalry, there’s a lot going on here, but the novel (with illustrations by Helen Crawford-White) raises interesting questions without attempting to neatly answer them all. (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 8–11 years)

Svingen_BalladBart, the young narrator-protagonist of Norwegian import The Ballad of a Broken Nose by Arne Svingen, is basically a generous, open-hearted sort, but he has secrets. He doesn’t want any of his schoolmates to know he lives in a rundown tenement with his equally rundown mother; even more, he doesn’t want them to know of the secret passion he indulges only in the privacy of his bathroom: his opera singing. Svingen avoids sentimentality, balancing Bart’s essential optimism with real challenges: the neighborhood is truly tough, Bart’s mom is very sick, the school bullying is acute. But he really can sing. (McElderry, 9–12 years)

vivat_frazzledNarrator Abbie Wu humorously relates the trials and tribulations of being a middle schooler in Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom. Stuck between an adorable little sister and a popular older brother, Abbie feels unremarkable — even more so when she can’t choose a school elective because she doesn’t have a “thing.” How she finds her thing (turns out she’s a bit of a revolutionary) is what makes this story a real standout. Newcomer Booki Vivat’s novel, with its hyperbolic text and superabundant adrenaline-filled cartoon drawings (the book contains more art than text), has plenty of appeal, but it’s the clever plot that gives the story depth. (HarperCollins/Harper, 9–12 years)

From the August 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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