Big life changes

Change is never easy to deal with (and it’s particularly hard for everyone right now), but these recent books for middle-graders may help readers feel less alone in their experiences.

Leaving Lymon
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Intermediate, Middle School    Holiday    199 pp.
1/20    978-0-8234-4442-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4633-9    $10.99

Lymon Caldwell, a secondary character in Finding Langston (rev. 9/18), tells his story in this companion novel that explores the question, “Are bullies born or are they made?” Lymon lives with his grandparents in 1940s Mississippi; his mother abandoned him as a baby, and his father is in prison. Lymon’s grandfather nurtures him and sparks in him a love of music, but after Grandpops passes away, Lymon and Ma (his grandmother) move to Milwaukee. Ma’s diabetes worsens, and Lymon is happy to stay home from school to care for her since he struggles academically. When Ma is hospitalized, Lymon reunites with his mother in Chicago, but he is abused by her new husband. Lymon’s life is a study of a boy who perpetually falls through the cracks, and who internalizes the painful lesson that the only person he can count on is himself. Cline-Ransome demonstrates a mastery of character development that deftly captures historical and sociological nuances of an African American family. Bullies are clearly made by abuse, neglect, and institutions that fail them. An author’s note provides historical context about Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison and the Great Migration. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

More to the Story
by Hena Khan
Intermediate, Middle School    Salaam/Simon    262 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-4814-9209-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-9211-9    $10.99

In a novel inspired by Little Women, thirteen-year-old Pakistani American Jameela Mirza, second oldest of four sisters and an aspiring journalist, lives with her family in Atlanta. This Eid holiday has brought changes: their beloved father is missing Eid for the first time ever to look for a new job, and Ali, a (good-looking) nephew of a family friend, arrives from London. At school, Jameela is named newspaper features editor but is in constant conflict with the editor in chief, who never approves her hard-hitting pitches. When her father takes a job overseas, the family is distraught, and Jameela is determined to write an article that will make him proud. Her assigned piece on Ali goes awry, complicating her feelings for him and her journalistic aspirations. But when her younger sister Bisma is diagnosed with cancer, Jameela must reevaluate her priorities and figure out how she can truly support what matters. Khan (Amina’s Voice, rev. 3/17) tells the story of a modern-day Pakistani American family while retaining the charm, familial warmth, and appeal of Alcott’s classic (this novel’s first line is, “This is the worst Eid ever!”). Cultural norms about dating, clothing, food, and prayer in the family’s Atlanta community and overseas are subtly alluded to, while characters grow and impart valuable lessons without sounding overly didactic. ARIANA HUSSAIN

The List of Things That Will Not Change
by Rebecca Stead
Intermediate    Lamb/Random    218 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-101-93809-6    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-101-93810-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-101-93811-9    $9.99

From the outside it appears that Bea lives a charmed life. She has loving (albeit divorced) parents; an involved extended family; a kindly, funny teacher; a loyal best friend; a dog and a cat; and a wise therapist. Even situations involving life changes, such as her gay father’s upcoming wedding and the prospect of a new stepsister, seem to be curiously unfraught. But with Stead’s fiction (When You Reach Me, rev. 7/09; Goodbye Stranger, rev. 7/15), appearances are always deceiving. It turns out that Bea’s upbeat spin on life is papering over some major anxieties and some serious problems with anger management. Bea is keeping two secrets. She lets us in on one of them, a piece of well-meaning interference in the wedding plans that turns out to be a disaster. The other secret, hidden in plain sight but only revealed at the climax, involves deliberately causing harm to another person. The strength of this novel lies in Stead’s authentic, respectful, low-key approach to the emotional life of a ten-year-old as recalled from the perspective of her slightly older self (Bea is twelve when she tells the story: “a story about me, but a different one, a person who doesn’t exist anymore”). Difficulties with spelling, the pleasures of gummy bears, the pain of eczema, the ability to sense adult tension — we are fully present with Bea, in the rich, crisply rendered details and in her distinctive voice. SARAH ELLIS

Ways to Make Sunshine
by Renée Watson; illus. by Nina Mata
Intermediate    Bloomsbury    178 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-5476-0056-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5476-0057-1    $11.89

African American fourth grader Ryan Hart approaches challenges in her life with bravery, common sense, and humor. When the house her family rents is sold and her father’s lower-paying new job results in a move to an older, smaller house, Ryan takes joy in finding a tin of antique hairpins in her new room (even though there’s a pretty good chance they’re haunted, if older brother Ray is to be believed). When rain keeps the Harts from attending Portland’s Grand Floral Parade, Ryan leads the way in creating another parade — and making sunshine — in her bedroom. And when faced with public speaking, Ryan reminds herself, “I can do this. I just have to try,” and succeeds just when she’s needed to fill in for a talent show’s emcee. Writing for a younger audience than she has before, Watson (Piecing Me Together, rev. 7/17; Some Places More Than Others, rev. 9/19) approaches mature themes, including family finances and self-image, in an age-appropriate way and has created a refreshing character in self-assured Ryan, supported by equally complex portrayals of friends and family. EBONI NJOKU

From the June 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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