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On our own

Children make their own homes and families in these middle-grade novels. The stories range in tone from zany to poignant and highlight important elements of any family dynamic: love, loyalty, understanding, and, once in a while, cookies for dinner. For more on how child characters define their own versions of “home” in fiction, look for E. Lockhart’s article in the forthcoming September/October issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Fifth grader Winnie Malladi-Maraj’s custody-sharing mother and father are each determined to prove themselves the better parent. Winnie is so overwhelmed and exhausted with curated activities that she can’t even do her homework. To save herself, she moves full-time into her treehouse, and nine classmates with their own family gripes join her. Communal kid-life eventually breaks down, but not before the “Treehouse Ten” have a good romp: think zip lines, junk food, and kid power. Lisa Graff’s The Great Treehouse War is a good-natured satire of helicopter parenting and a celebration of child ingenuity — but mostly it’s about what fun it is to live in a tree. (Philomel, 8–11 years)

In author Esta Spalding and illustrator Sydney Smith’s latest Fitzgerald-Trouts book, Knock About with the Fitzgerald-Trouts, the five siblings — who live on a tropical island and manage perfectly well without their terrible parents — are again on a quest for accommodation. The animated-cartoon quality of the narrative (which features an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and an “alien”) goes hand in hand with the depiction of a child-run family with shared jokes, snacks instead of meals, nonstop play, conflict resolution via smart retorts, and the satisfaction of working together to outwit the adult villains. (Little, Brown, 8–11 years)

Nine children live alone on an idyllic island in Laurel Snyder‘s Orphan Island. Every year, a small green boat arrives, taking away the oldest child and bringing another new inhabitant. New “Elder” Jinny becomes a reluctant mentor to most recent arrival Ess. Jinny finds it harder than expected to instruct Ess in the ways of the island — gathering and preparing food, playing games, swimming, reading from the precious collection of books. When a year passes and the boat returns, Jinny is not ready to leave. This tribute to the painful aspects of growing up is elegant in its simplicity and leaves the reader with an open-ended but satisfying conclusion. (HarperCollins/Walden Pond, 8–11 years)

After they lose their parents, sister, and home in the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin, firestorm, Ailis — narrator of Tess Hilmo’s Cinnamon Moon — and Quinn struggle to survive their harsh treatment in a miserable Chicago boardinghouse. Six-year-old fellow displaced orphan Nettie inspires the siblings to find a way out of the boardinghouse so the three can be a family; Ailis gets a job in a millinery shop, and Quinn plays his violin and busks for money. Then Nettie is kidnapped by an evil extermination company and forced to catch rats in the sewers, and Ailis and Quinn must rescue her. Readers will rejoice in this historical fiction/mystery’s eventual happy ending. (Farrar/Ferguson, 10–12 years)

From the July 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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