Kids in summer

This may not be a typical summer for most kids, but that doesn’t mean middle-grade readers can’t embark on summertime adventures with the characters in these four new novels. And don’t miss Lucy Knisley’s recent summer-set graphic novel Stepping Stones or our Five Questions interview with the author/illustrator from the May issue of Notes, which featured our 2020 Summer Reading recommendations.

The Water Bears
by Kim Baker
Intermediate    Lamb/Random    264 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-9848-5220-5    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-9848-5221-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-5222-9    $9.99

Newt Gomez dreams of leaving Murphy Island, his isolated home in the Pacific Northwest — especially after he was attacked by a bear a year ago, which left him with lasting injuries and caused lingering difficulties among his family and friends. He hopes to not only attend middle school on the mainland but also move there to live with his abuela full-time. Newt plans to spend the summer lying low, but then his father presents him with a used taco truck for his thirteenth birthday (island law enforcement is unconcerned about driving age). And then he and his friends discover a large wooden bear carving washed ashore after a storm. The bear seems to have wish-granting powers, and its presence pushes Newt into some unexpected adventures and a new appreciation for his home. Baker captures the atmosphere of Murphy Island and its quirky denizens without becoming twee. Newt’s Latinx heritage is a key part of his identity and woven throughout the story, and the book’s exploration of friendship and loyalty is thoughtful and authentic. SARAH RETTGER

Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
by Jessica Kim
Intermediate, Middle School    Kokila/Penguin    314 pp.    g
3/20    978-0-525-55497-4    $16.99

Eleven-year-old Yumi is spending the summer helping her family’s struggling Korean barbecue restaurant in L.A. and studying to earn an academic scholarship to the private school where she has just spent her sixth-grade year eating lunch alone in the bathroom. Her parents plan for her future, with her father reasoning, “I am an immigrant. I have no choice to do this hard work. But you...You can work in an office or hospital and be great success one day.” Yumi’s passion is comedy, however, and a case of mistaken identity leads to an opportunity to take a course taught by her comedic icon, driving Yumi to fulfill her ambition. Excerpts from her “Super-Secret Comedy Notebook,” awash with jokes and doodles, and believable-sounding dialogue bring readers into the life of this high-spirited, if self-conscious, protagonist. The drama of an immigrant family working together to keep a business afloat in a gentrifying neighborhood connects readers to the hard work of achieving the American dream. KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

Worse Than Weird
by Jody J. Little
Intermediate, Middle School    Harper/HarperCollins    265 pp.
3/20    978-06-285258-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-285253-3    $7.99

Expressing disapproval of one’s parents’ values and lifestyles is a rite of passage for many tweens, and Mac (short for MacKenna MacKensie MacLeod) is no exception. Her family lives off the grid, growing vegetables, raising chickens, and hosting a freewheeling summer festival that features (mostly) naked bike rides. Mac, in contrast, longs for a conventionally middle-class life. She’s also a coding wiz and wants to go to computer camp, but to do so she needs five hundred dollars and permission from her parents, who believe technology can destroy the soul. When she discovers that the local food trucks are sponsoring a contest with a two-thousand-dollar prize, she sees a way. Mac outlines her grievances reasonably, allowing readers to identify with her point of view. But clues begin to surface that her two BFFs and new kid Joey Marino, who pops up at the most unexpected times, have problems much more serious than parental embarrassment (one of Joey’s mothers is experiencing homelessness, for example), and readers start to see Mac’s self-absorption. Humor lightens the tone, softening the hard edges as Mac acknowledges and confronts her own flaws. Appended with an author’s note about the contemporary Portland, Oregon, setting as well as tips for acknowledging and helping homeless populations. BETTY CARTER

The Book of Fatal Errors
by Dashka Slater
Intermediate    Farrar    322 pp.    g
7/20    978-0-374-30119-4    $16.99

Slater (winner of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction honor for The 57 Bus, rev. 1/18) here presents an entertaining, fantastical summertime story. Twelve-year-old Rufus’s grandfather lives at Feylawn, an estate overtaken by nature and, as Grandfather puts it, prone to “cantankerous” moods. Though his parents don’t like him spending time there, Rufus loves Feylawn and wishes he could spend his whole vacation exploring. Rufus’s summer takes a bizarre turn, though, when he finds a small train on the grounds and discovers that “feylings,” or fairies, live at Feylawn and are waiting for that very train to take them back to the Green World from which they came. Rufus and his highly accomplished cousin Abigail have to sneak around the adults’ suspicion in order to help the stranded feylings return home. The entertaining and lively story line is unhindered by side-quests or complications, setting Rufus and Abigail on a fairly straightforward adventure. Sassy feylings and other rambunctious magical creatures make the tale feel fresh, while the drama from opposing fairy factions (and nefarious shopkeepers) never gets too scary. Rufus’s self-confidence grows with every chapter, and realistic tension between his family members works itself out in a satisfactory, but not simplistic, way. SARAH A. BERMAN

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

Horn Book
Horn Book

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