Navigating school

Navigating school can be tricky for some middle-graders and middle-schoolers, especially when they’re also facing big life changes, as is the case for the protagonists of these seven books.

Sincerely Sicily
by Tamika Burgess
Intermediate, Middle School    Harper/HarperCollins    304 pp.
1/23    9780063159600    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780063159624    $8.99

Sicily Jordan had been excited about starting sixth grade with her friend group, the “Tether Squad” (including coordinated “outfits for almost the entire first month”). A last-minute redistricting plan means she has to transfer to Shirley Chisholm Middle School — without her squad. She’s devastated and worries about making friends with a whole new group of people. Her “It’s My Culture” presentation for class results in ignorant questions about her heritage: how can she be Black and speak Spanish? Is her family really from Panama? Sicily’s frustrations are compounded at home, where her beloved abuela has become increasingly vocal about her dislike of her granddaughter’s braided hair, calling it “low-class and poor and ghetto.” While other family members and friends provide some support and levity, it’s an opportunity to write for the school’s online magazine that gives the biggest boost. In searching for topics, Sicily also begins to research her culture — and discovers that her biggest advocate just might be herself. Issues of colorism, culture, and immigration are skillfully discussed, and Sicily’s journal entries introduce the rich history of Black Panamanians. EBONI NJOKU

Honey and Me
by Meira Drazin
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    304 pp.
10/22    9781338155433    $17.99

Milla and Honey are best friends who spend time together at synagogue but have always attended different Orthodox schools. When Honey and her siblings transfer to narrator Milla’s school at the beginning of sixth grade, the colliding worlds take some adjustment and lead to comparisons between the two friends and between their families. A mostly light episodic novel with a number of strong through lines, the story follows the characters through the school year, with sections named for Jewish holidays and other observances. The honest narrative highlights the sorts of differences within communities that a sixth grader might notice: which families allow more independence, which are stricter about religious practices, and which can afford fancy bat mitzvah parties. And while much of the focus is on family, it’s also on the maturing girls as individuals as they each figure out what matters to them. (Notably, Honey finds a way to chant publicly from the Megillah at her bat mitzvah, a solution that satisfies both herself and her traditionally Orthodox parents.) Back matter includes an extensive glossary, a guide to Jewish holidays, and an author’s note about a wish to see herself in books like her childhood favorites. SHOSHANA FLAX

Garvey’s Choice: The Graphic Novel
by Nikki Grimes; illus. by Theodore Taylor III
Intermediate, Middle School    Wordsong/Astra    144 pp.
6/23    9781662660023    $22.99
Paper ed.  9781662660085    $12.99
e-book ed.  9781662660092    $9.99

“Why can’t he put those books down, play football or basketball?” Garvey’s father wants to turn him into an athlete, like his sister Angie, but Garvey would rather get lost in a book, listen to music, or dream about galaxies. In addition to pressure at home, he faces endless taunting at school for his weight. When Garvey meets the “skim-milk boy” Manny, who has albinism, he asks how Manny stands the teasing. “I look strange. No changing that. / Is there more to me? / Sure. Kids yell ‘albino boy.’ / I don’t turn around. / Choose the name you answer to. / No one can do that but you.” Per Grimes’s author’s note, this graphic-novel adaptation leaves two-thirds of the original book’s (Garvey’s Choice, rev. 9/16) tanka poems intact, with only small changes to the rest of them. The verses are given a new visual life with excellent page designs and clever illustrations, including the closing spread showing Garvey singing into a mic and his father playing the guitar, with floating musical notes uniting them in song. An unusually effective use of the graphic-novel format to bring poetry alive. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask [Intasimi Warriors]
by Shiko Nguru
Intermediate    Lantana    228 pp.
10/22    9781913747930    $17.99

Mwikali is nervous about her first day of school in Nairobi — at her old school in Chicago, her friend’s appendix burst after she drew a picture of it, and she was labeled a freak. But in Kenya things get even weirder when she draws her teacher as a monster, and the monster teacher then attacks her. She’s rescued by a group of students, the Intasimi Warriors, descendants of Kenyan mythical figures with their own powers, who assure her that she doesn’t cause events, only foresees them, and that she has the ability to detect monsters as they really are. Mwikali joins the students in a quest to stop an immortal village elder from freeing more monsters from the underworld in order to rule the world. In this mythology-minded adventure tale, Nguru provides readers with a solid introduction to Kenyan lore (including the friends’ culturally specific powers, monsters called shiqq, and progenitors such as the real-life nineteenth-century Kamba medicine woman Syokimau) and culture (such as fried mandazi, the standing stones Kit Miyaki, and the game of Bao). The emotional structure of the story — Mwikali’s fear of being bullied again, her resistance to relying on her friends even though her ancestor instructs her to, her eventual coming into her powers and her friendships — will resonate with many readers. ANITA L. BURKAM

How to Stay Invisible
by Maggie C. Rudd
Middle School    Farrar    240 pp.
6/23    9780374390334    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780374390341    $10.99

“Most people didn’t live in hollowed-out trees behind their middle school,” but twelve-year-old Raymond does. A seventh grader at River Mill Middle School in North Carolina, he had lived in a rented trailer with his feckless parents three miles from school. But one day he comes home to discover that they have abandoned him, and now here he is living in the woods with his dog and doing his best to fly under the radar. He saves food from cafeteria lunches, does nighttime dumpster dives, and sometimes has luck fishing. He does have a new friend in Harlin, who in an act of kindness chooses as a bingo prize a sleeping bag for Raymond instead of the NASCAR tickets he’d wanted. Gradually, Raymond finds a circle of caring people (and a coyote) in his orbit: Lexi, his first girlfriend; Stigs, a former army surgeon who lives in a cabin nearby; and various teachers who don’t let Raymond remain invisible. The third-person narrative allows for fully realized secondary characters who play important roles in Raymond’s life and, ultimately, in his rescue. Rudd’s straightforward, meticulous prose perfectly captures the daily routines and occasional drama of life in the woods. A worthy match for My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet, the book Raymond checks out of the library toward the end of the novel. DEAN SCHNEIDER

The Labors of Hercules Beal
by Gary D. Schmidt
Intermediate, Middle School    Clarion/HarperCollins    352 pp.
5/23    9780358659631    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780358659570    $10.99

“It’s been a pretty lousy year and a half since the Accident, and the Universe owes me one.” Hercules Beal is still hurting from the loss of his parents two years before when his teacher, Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer (from The Wednesday Wars, rev. 7/07), throws him a lifeline. For his Classical Mythology Application Project, he’s assigned the twelve Labors of Hercules. He must learn the myths and consider how each of Hercules’s labors connects to his own life. When the sixth grader vanquishes a pack of feral “demon cats,” he realizes he has performed a labor akin to Hercules’s defeat of the Nemean Lion. Bravely pulling a woman from a house about to be washed out to sea is like Hercules’s catching the Boar of Erymanthus. And dealing with grief is like Hercules’s forcing the carnivorous birds near the town of Stymphalus out of their hiding places into the open. Although readers might wish Hercules had a couple fewer labors, Schmidt’s narrative keeps readers engaged with action, humor, and frequently interspersed 150-word journal-style reflections. He also has Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer teach a valuable life lesson: “You know, Beal, you’ve been fighting a whole lot of monsters this year, monsters much more real than any the mythical Hercules fought…But you haven’t crumbled, have you? And you haven’t disappeared. You’re still here.” DEAN SCHNEIDER

Parachute Kids
by Betty C. Tang; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Graphix/Scholastic    288 pp.
4/23    9781338832693    $24.99
Paper ed.  9781338832686    $12.99

For many immigrant families, the American dream is a journey paved with countless obstacles; this struggle plays out in the lives of three Taiwanese siblings in Tang’s graphic novel. The story begins in 1981 when the Lin family, undocumented immigrants from Taiwan, arrives in Los Angeles, allegedly for a vacation. But soon ten-year-old Feng-Li (who adopts the American name Ann) and her older brother Ke-Gāng (Jason) and sister Jia-Xi (Jessie) find out that the move is permanent, and their father is not staying with them; a month later they learn they will need to fend for themselves — their mother must return to China after her visa is not renewed. They work to adapt to American culture: Feng-Li strives to make friends in school; Ke-Gāng searches for his identity while joining a clique of Chinese American teens that pressures him into smoking, skipping class, shoplifting, and worse; Jia-Xi studies for the SATs and looks for a job but falls prey to an insidious scam. Vibrant colors and expressively drawn faces capture the dynamic ups and downs in their lives. Intense dilemmas punctuated by humorous moments dramatize the challenges faced by each character. Tang weaves themes of family, racial stereotyping, cultural adaptation, sacrifice, peer pressure, sexuality, bullying, and survival into a poignant and triumphant story of perseverance and resilience, presenting a remarkably honest depiction of an Asian American immigrant experience. JERRY DEAR

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

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.