Middle-grade/middle-school stories and struggles

Middle-graders and middle-schoolers, who are on the cusp of adolescence during an especially challenging time, may take comfort or inspiration from the following school-set stories about young people dealing with personal challenges. See also We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow); and for pure escapist ridiculousness, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School is back after twenty-five years, with Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom (Harper/HarperCollins).

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero
by Kelly J. Baptist
Intermediate, Middle School    Crown    195 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-593-12136-8    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-12137-5    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-12138-2    $9.99

Isaiah Dunn is not your typical hero. Heroes usually win, but Isaiah seems to experience a lot of losses: losing his father on Thanksgiving Day, losing his home, and almost losing his mother to depression and alcoholism. He has also lost his ability to write poetry — an outlet that had once allowed him to express his emotions, experiences, and anxieties. Isaiah connects to his dad’s memory through the stories his father wrote for him in a notebook, featuring a superhero also named Isaiah. This notebook is Isaiah’s prized possession, and he takes it with him everywhere, savoring the stories within. Achingly realistic, the novel shines a light on children living with the secret burden of homelessness and its impact on a child’s social and emotional development. Isaiah assumes a lot of responsibility and pressure to try and solve his family’s problems — taking care of his younger sister, trying to earn money for a place to live — leaving very little time to just be a normal kid. For Isaiah, there are many obstacles to becoming the superhero in his dad’s stories, but he learns that sometimes the most heroic of superheroes needs a little help. In this moving tale of life, loss, and the love of words, Isaiah learns that perseverance and vulnerability are real superpowers and that family and community are the real wind beneath a superhero’s cape. MONIQUE HARRIS

Love, Love
by Victoria Chang
Intermediate, Middle School    Sterling    214 pp.    g
6/20    978-1-4549-3832-3    $16.95

This semiautobiographical verse novel begins with eleven-year-old Chinese American girl Frances Chin witnessing an attack on her older sister, Clara, behind their school. (Frances herself has endured taunts centered on race: “you’re SO SO ugly / open your eyes / he laughs with his fingers pulling / his eyes to make / them squinty.”) But with passive bystander classmates and a mother who stresses maintaining family honor, Frances remains silent, internalizing her feelings. The one place she feels a sense of control is on the tennis court, playing with her friend Annie and eventually on the school’s team (“I feel like I can / lift the world with / my racket”). After noticing some worrying behaviors (and hair loss) in her sister, she finds and ultimately reads Clara’s diary, which reveals Clara’s struggles with trichotillomania, also called hair-pulling disorder. In a heartfelt scene, Frances overcomes emotional barriers and silently reveals to Clara that she knows her secret. Themes of bullying, empathy, family, and identity are explored through Chang’s spare prose. The author elegantly expresses Frances’s complex emotions and provides an intimate portrait of immigrant lives. An appended note provides insight into Chang’s experience growing up in an immigrant family “not familiar with mental health issues such as trichotillomania.” KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

One Time
by Sharon Creech
Intermediate   Cotler/HarperCollins    272 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-257074-1    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-06-257075-8    $17.89
e-book ed.  978-0-06-257077-2    $9.99

Gina Filomena, eleven, has been told that she has an overactive imagination. Few teachers or classmates have seen this as a gift until the new language arts teacher, Miss Lightstone, asks her students to think about the question “Who are you?” and later adds, “Who could you be?” With these two simple yet enormous questions, Gina begins to study and understand herself. Creech’s (Love That Dog, rev. 11/01; Saving Winslow, rev. 11/18) newest novel is an invitation to the reader, as much as it is to Gina, to see the world through fresh eyes. What is her friend Antonio talking about when he says he saw a porcupine eating red licorice? How is it that a new kid with an openhearted smile can transform an entire classroom? This is a story about the small events of a child’s life — presents arrive from Gina’s grandmother in Italy, neighbors move in and out, relatives visit — but through it all Gina discovers, thanks to Miss Lightstone, that she is a writer. “At night I dreamed that I was writing my life. I would be writing rapidly — long, detailed passages about places and people…When I woke, the feeling of that mystery, of that ability to create my life, lingered.” Creech’s prose is inviting, and the introspective reader will easily relate to Gina’s observations of her world; but the book also holds appeal for a wider audience of readers who long for adults to challenge and stretch them as Miss Lightstone challenges her students. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe
by Carlos Hernandez
Intermediate, Middle School    Riordan/Disney-Hyperion    421 pp.    g
5/20    978-1-368-02283-5    $16.99

Sal and Gabi are back in the sequel to Pura Belpré Award–winning Sal & Gabi Break the Universe, only this time they have to fix the universe — and during tech week for their school’s production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Gabi is playing Alice), no less. Sal’s father, a calamity physicist, thinks the way to do it is by mending the rips in the membrane between universes, but Sal’s not so sure. Then a rogue Gabi from another universe pops up, warning of even more dire consequences. Can she be trusted? And must the (truly terrible) show go on? Featuring a diverse cast of characters both human and AI (and introducing Vorágine, a talking toilet whose name means “whirlpool” in Spanish), Hernandez balances action with playfulness, humor, and heart. As to the children’s quest, “No es fácil,” to quote Sal (and “every Cuban ever”), but when it’s all over, it’s easy for readers to follow the advice of Sal’s homeroom teacher Srx. Cosquillas and “be generous with the applause.” ANAMARÍA ANDERSON

Things Seen from Above
by Shelley Pearsall; illus. by Xingye Jin
Intermediate    Knopf    262 pp.
2/20    978-1-5247-1739-1    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-1740-7    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-1741-4    $9.99

April, beginning sixth grade and dealing with her own friendship issues, takes an interest in a younger student with puzzling behaviors and a surprising artistic skill. April’s former best friend has joined the cool-girl group, so to avoid cafeteria humiliation, she volunteers to staff the school’s Buddy Bench at recess. Fourth grader Joey Byrd spends recess lying on the ground with his eyes shut or walking in circles around the playground. April and fellow Buddy Bench volunteer Veena slowly form a connection with Joey and — with the help of a trip to the roof, courtesy of the custodian — realize that Joey’s walks actually create large-scale drawings in the playground’s dirt. Joey, in chapters written in his voice, gradually warms up to the girls, but when they bring his art to the attention of the whole school, the scrutiny puts him in situations outside his comfort zone. Joey is clearly neuroatypical, though never diagnosed in the book (“Does it matter?” the guidance counselor asks when April wonders whether he’s on the autism spectrum). April’s social struggles are authentic, and the intergrade dynamics of elementary school ring true. Pearsall writes about compassion without preachiness, bringing the story’s threads together in a satisfying ending that’s feel-good but far from sappy. Black-and-white art is interspersed. SARAH RETTGER

Something to Say
by Lisa Moore Ramée; illus. by Bre Indigo
Intermediate, Middle School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    373 pp.    g
7/20    978-0-06-283671-7    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-283673-1    $9.99

Janae is a loner and plans to keep it that way in middle school, that is, until she meets outgoing, audacious Aubrey, who is determined to be friends. Preferring to stay in the background, Janae is instead confronted with her greatest fear — public speaking — when there is a movement to rename her school, John Wayne Junior High, to honor social justice activist Sylvia Mendez. Janae certainly has thoughts on the matter but is reluctant to voice them because she believes her thoughts make bad things happen — her brother’s sports injury, her parents’ divorce, her grandfather’s stroke. Imagine what could happen if she ever decided to share her beliefs aloud. This accessible novel has a great deal to say about challenging family dynamics, friendships, and social change. Janae’s story, layered with her social anxiety and mistaken belief that she is the cause of her family’s problems, is complicated but relatable. Her journey toward finding her voice should inspire readers who are likewise searching for theirs. Occasional black-and-white spot art reflects the protagonist’s personality and worldview. MONIQUE HARRIS

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

Horn Book
Horn Book

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