Appreciating the arts

From arts-focused summer camps to in-school art shows and performances, the following seven middle-grade and middle-school novels depict the value of arts as means of self-expression, friendship-making, and...vampire fighting?! See also our Guide/Reviews Database dance booklists for primary, intermediate, and older readers as well as our theater novels booklists for intermediate and older readers.

Playing Through the Turnaround
by Mylisa Larsen
Middle School    Clarion/HarperCollins    272 pp.
10/22    9780358645498     $16.99
e-book ed.  9780358639589    $10.99

Eighth graders Jake, Cassie, Lily, Nick, and Mac all face very different, complicated struggles, but each has found comfort and confidence in a musical instrument and now in one another in a special class at their Upstate New York middle school. “Any dumb thing that might have happened before this doesn’t matter anymore, because it’s a good day whenever it’s Jazz Lab day.” The third-person-omniscient narrative alternates among the perspectives of these five characters plus one more: a detached, defiant, and chronically misunderstood student known as Quagmire. As their stories knit together and unforeseen circumstances threaten the future of Jazz Lab, these students find themselves at risk of losing what they depend on to propel them through their daily challenges. Each distinctly developed character has an engaging story and voice. As they plot to save Jazz Lab (and ultimately many other small electives and activities), the novel’s pacing heightens and intensifies. Their struggle to make their position heard by the cast of outrageously obtuse adults both at home and at school — with a few effective exceptions — creates the perfect amount of tension to draw readers in to a funny, sad, and heartwarming story that celebrates the importance of independence, belonging, and the arts. JULIE ROACH

Camp Sylvania
by Julie Murphy
Intermediate, Middle School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    288 pp.
6/23    9780063114029    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780063114043    $11.99

Maggie knows the summer after fifth grade will be amazing because she’s finally going to the performing arts camp of her dreams…until her parents send her to weight loss camp instead. While enduring inedible food and exhausting workouts, Maggie befriends her bunk mates — Kit, an excitable Girl Scout; and Evelyn, a posh British girl — and tries out for the camp production of The Music Man, for which she scores the title role. But the camp’s owner, the glamorous influencer Sylvia, seems determined to suck as much fun from camp as possible, and some of her ideas are downright creepy, like forcing the underage campers to donate blood. When campers start disappearing, Maggie realizes it’s up to her to uncover Sylvia’s secrets. For starters, what is she doing with all the blood? The characters’ quirkiness makes them engaging and memorable, especially Kit with her great enthusiasm for all things outdoors. Humor is woven throughout, from Maggie’s frequent sass to a scene of vampires on a Zoom call. The central focus is on Maggie’s journey to overcome her personal fears, but the diet culture–obsessed vampires also allow for some moments of biting satire. BODIE SHANIS

Hope in the Valley
by Mitali Perkins
Middle School    Farrar    304 pp.
7/23    9780374388515    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780374388508    $10.99

The former orchard across from Pandita Paul’s home, dilapidated though it may be, holds a special place in the thirteen-year-old’s heart. It’s where she and her late mother used to spend time: “Ashar Jaiga, as Ma and I called it. Ma’s name, Asha, which means ‘hope,’ Ma’s place, Ashar Jaiga. Place of Hope.” Now the property is up for sale. Pandita, encouraged by the historical society’s call to preserve it, becomes the group’s youngest member. Meanwhile, one of her twin older sisters, an activist, helps spearhead the fight for demolition of the orchard and subsequent construction of affordable rental units. The story is set in the summer of 1980 in Silicon Valley, California, before the tech boom. It is a place on the cusp, much like the story’s protagonist, who finds herself compelled by memories of her past; the complex and fascinating history she uncovers; and possibilities for the future of her town, her family, and herself. Pandita, a budding poet, reluctantly attends summer drama camp, meets a talented new boy, reconciles with her former best friend, and struggles with family changes. An engaging subplot involves a new love interest for her father; the woman (a.k.a. “the Intruder”) is brash and outspoken, and her unsolicited opinion on the development issue is enlightening for the characters, and for readers, about both sides having a point and no one being demonized. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Doodles from the Boogie Down
by Stephanie Rodriguez; illus. by the author; color by Andrea Bell
Middle School    Kokila/Penguin    208 pp.
4/23    9780451480651    $20.99
Paper ed.  9780451480668    $13.99
e-book ed.  9780593534052    $8.99

In this engaging graphic novel, it’s time for Steph to choose a high school, and her protective Dominican mom wants her to pick a nice Catholic school in the Bronx. But academics aren’t Steph’s strong suit — she’d rather spend time drawing. Her art teacher, Ms. Santiago, suggests she apply to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and even offers to help Steph with her portfolio. Steph’s mom won’t let her attend a public school, let alone one in Manhattan, so Steph comes up with a plan: if she fails the Catholic school entrance exam on purpose, LaGuardia will be her only option, and her mom will have to let her go. Can she keep her mom from finding out that she’s been visiting Manhattan art museums with Ms. Santiago? And next year, when Steph and her two best friends are at separate high schools, will their bond survive the split? Set in the year 2000, Steph’s world is full of time-period details, from landlines to AIM to Kid Cuisine, while dialogue includes 2000s slang and seamlessly interwoven Spanish language. Bright, cartoony illustrations allow moments of both comedy and expressive emotion. This slice-of-life story lets the characters and their relationships shine — it’s hard not to root for Steph to find the school of her dreams. BODIE SHANIS

Boomi’s Boombox
by Shanthi Sekaran
Intermediate, Middle School    Tegen/HarperCollins    272 pp.
5/23    9780063051584    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780063051607    $10.99

It’s 2021 in San Francisco, the “second spring of the pandemic,” and twelve-year-old Boomi Gopalan is grieving the loss of her father, a physician who recently died of COVID-19. She’s also feeling dejected about a botched ballet audition: although she has had ambitions to be a dancer all her life, she isn’t selected to move on to the next level at her snobby ballet academy. When she’s given her father’s old boombox, Boomi discovers a crumpled note in the battery compartment that reads “you can change your life.” The boombox transports her back in time to 1986 to a small English town called Thumpton-on-Soar, where she meets her father as a boy. Boomi experiments with time travel, going back and forth as she tries, indeed, to change her life and somehow prevent her beloved father’s death. In the end, Boomi learns about the roots of her family’s secrets, finds joy in dancing again with the classical Indian dance of Bharatanyam, and fights against the racist treatment of South Asian immigrants in Thumpton. Boomi learns lessons about staying true to herself and her heritage and that a “big change can start with the smallest action of the very smallest person.” Sekaran’s well-crafted prose, sharp sense of humor, and knack for building suspense will keep readers interested until the surprising, time-bending conclusion. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

Bubble Trouble
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    240 pp.
7/23    9781338802146    $18.99

Shang finds the right blend of serious and comedic in this novel about friendship, grief, and tween romance. Musical theater fan Chloe Wong, still grieving the loss of her mother, an ER doctor who died from COVID-19, yearns to attend her middle school’s Broadway trip, but she’s afraid her widowed inventor father cannot afford the $375 ticket. Determined to pay her way to New York City, Chloe (with best friend Sabrina’s help) brainstorms money-making ideas involving the Tea Palace, where her show tune–hating classmate/sometimes crush, Henry, happens to work. Several screwball events ensue when Chloe gets banned from the tea shop after confronting the local mean girl and eventually starts her own bubble tea business with help from friends and family. (Foodies will enjoy the detailed descriptions of the flavors and bubble tea–making process.) Some of the novel’s strongest passages are also the most heartfelt: those focusing on Chloe missing her mother, the kindness Henry shows Chloe, and the epiphany our protagonist reaches at the end. “The house was never going to be like it was with Mom, but we could still have love, just a different kind, with different people and creatures. And happiness. And mistakes.” MICHELLE LEE

Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution
by Sherri Winston
Middle School    Bloomsbury    304 pp.
9/22    9781547608461    $16.99
e-book ed.  9781547608478    $11.89

Seventh grader Lotus Bloom marches to the beat of her own drum. She rocks a unique vintage style and a huge afro, and she is a gifted violinist who has been invited to attend a new performing arts school. Not everyone is happy about it, though. Not her best friend, appropriately named Rebel, who resents the new school for taking resources — and Lotus — away from the neighborhood middle school. Certainly not her classmate/nemesis Adolpho, whom she bumps from his position as concertmaster. Not even her mom, who feels Lotus should be thinking about a future outside of music, unlike her musician father who recently relocated to Paris. Worst of all, Lotus finds herself being discriminated against due to her hair, which threatens all of her hard work and her normally peaceful outlook. This captivating novel raises issues of racial discrimination, educational equity, and classism in an approachable way, inviting readers to consider multiple perspectives through the lively cast of diverse, multifaceted characters. Through the drama at school and in her family, as well as ups and downs in her friendships (with Rebel and new frenemy Mercedes), Lotus finds her voice as she learns to release herself from trying to manage the emotions and expectations of others. MONIQUE HARRIS

From the June 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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