Difficult times for siblings

Boston Globe–Horn Book and Newbery honor book Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley follows two sisters through the foster system and toward a new idea of family. The following middle-grade and middle-school novels feature siblings who are similarly navigating difficult situations, sticking together emotionally while having each other’s backs. See also Siblings: You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em from September 2020’s issue of Notes; and Family Reading’s April National Siblings’ Day post. Throughout the month of October, please join us in celebrating the virtual Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards.

Breathing Underwater
by Sarah Allen
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    224 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-374-31325-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31326-5    $9.99

Thirteen-year-old Olivia has a plan for the cross-country RV trip she and her older sister, Ruth, are taking with their mother’s cousin and his wife: re-create — in reverse — the photo scavenger hunt they’d carried out when they moved from California to Tennessee three years earlier. Olivia hopes rediscovering the moments of delight will help Ruth, who is clinically depressed, handle her condition better. Olivia, an aspiring photographer, spends the trip watching the world through her camera and keeping an eye on Ruth. Ruth’s depressive episodes often coincide with Olivia’s plans for force-cheering her sister, and she tries to balance supporting Ruth with her own enjoyment of the trip. This drives a wedge between them, until things reach a crisis point and Ruth has to be hospitalized. Allen vividly captures Olivia’s caretaker tendencies (“I needed to do whatever I could for my sister; to turn my volume down if things were too loud for her”) and how her attempts to manage Ruth’s depression are simultaneously futile and necessary. Olivia’s literal and metaphorical journeys in the book work well together, and Allen does a good job of showing depression’s impact on an individual and a family in a realistic but child-appropriate way. The book’s resolution — happy for the moment, but with no guarantees for the future — is spot-on. SARAH RETTGER

Miosotis Flores Never Forgets
by Hilda Eunice Burgos
Intermediate, Middle School    Tu/Lee & Low    304 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-64379-065-7    $18.95

Achievement runs in twelve-year-old Miosotis’s Dominican family: her father is a physics professor, her brother Jacinto is a track star and straight-A student, and her sister Amarilis attends a prestigious university. School is not Miosotis’s forte, but improving her grades is the only way to persuade Papi to let her adopt a dog. (Her well-intentioned siblings and best friends offer to help but bypass her genuine efforts and end up doing the work for her.) Her favorite diversion is helping her neighbor Gina, who fosters rescue dogs, walking and socializing them, allowing Miosotis to demonstrate her commitment to pet parenting. Her priorities shift when she discovers that her sister, who has become increasingly distant and unreliable, is being abused by her fiancé. Burgos’s explorations of social issues — also including racial profiling and colorism — are well incorporated, without overburdening the narrative. In Miosotis, she crafts a character who is thoughtful and true to herself, creating a satisfying story arc in which the protagonist determines her own potential. The book’s message will reassure readers who find themselves overshadowed by siblings’ achievements — or overwhelmed by their troubles — and who face pressure to live up to the expectations of others. JESSICA AGUDELO

Cuba in My Pocket
by Adrianna Cuevas
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    288 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-374-31467-5    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31468-2    $9.99

Twelve-year-old Cumba Fernandez carries an unlucky double-nine domino, la caja de muertos, or the “dead man’s box,” in his pocket as a reminder that “there are worse sources of bad luck than a little white tile.” It’s April 1961 in Santa Clara, Cuba, and the Cuban exiles fighting to overthrow Fidel Castro have failed in their mission, leaving families like Cumba’s who sided with the former president Batista vulnerable to incarceration and violent subjugation. In order to avoid the threat of mandatory military training in Russia, Cumba’s parents decide to send him to the United States. Cuevas’s (The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez) skillful first-person present-tense narrative follows Cumba’s experience of separation from his loved ones; his adjustment to life in Miami as a refugee; and ultimately his reunion with his family in the United States. Cuevas furthers this insider perspective with letters between Cumba and his little brother, Pepito. Incorporating elements from her father’s experiences as a Cuban exile and child refugee, the author tells a larger, complicated story about the ways children navigate the geopolitical forces that compel families to make hard choices to ensure their survival. LETTYCIA TERRONES

The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy
by Mary Winn Heider
Intermediate, Middle School    Little, Brown    304 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-7595-5542-6    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-484-78106-7    $9.99

Two years ago, Winston and Louise Volpe’s father Lenny — beloved former quarterback for the Chicago Horribles — walked away and disappeared, a hero “lost in time and space, done in by his own broken mind.” Now the siblings and their mother (“the incomplete Volpe family”) are dealing with his absence in their own ways. At their middle school, Louise has thrown herself into discovering a cure for brain damage in Science Club, Winston into playing tuba for the band. But then…what is behind the mysterious behavior of a group of Winston’s teachers? Is a ghost haunting the Chicago Horribles’ locker room? Can Louise find a way to free the Horribles’ live-bear mascot? Madcap antics ensue, but this is still, at its heart, a story of grief over the loss of a father and husband from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy); as such, the novel would make a good companion to Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After (rev. 9/20). Heider deftly balances screwball action and humor with poignancy and even profundity, and offers a hopeful conclusion — in which Winston finds his own “center of the galaxy” with a fellow tuba player, Louise finds an achievable science project, and all the Volpe family members find support in one another. DEAN SCHNEIDER

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For
by Veera Hiranandani
Intermediate, Middle School    Kokila/Penguin    384 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-525-55503-2    $17.99

Eleven-year-old Ariel Goldberg lives with her parents and older sister Leah, eighteen, in 1960s Connecticut, her family having left Brooklyn for more space and “better schools.” Now they own Gertie’s Bakery, named for the girls’ grandmother, where after school Ari helps bake the challah and other items (among the rest of the bakery offerings) that recall their Jewish roots. Then “good girl” Leah shares some news: she has fallen in love with Raj, who is from India and a Hindu. The girls’ parents’ insistence on marriage inside the faith leads to painful estrangement, with Ari left dumbfounded by their reaction. At school she is struggling, too, both with her classwork and with antisemitic bullying. A supportive teacher, a loyal friend, and a newfound love of poetry help her cope; and she hatches a plan to find her sister in NYC, where Leah now lives with Raj. The text’s second-person perspective brings readers directly into dialogue with Ari as she contemplates heavy issues of family, religion, racism, generational trauma, financial insecurity, and more. Pop-culture references and historical details (MLK’s murder; Loving v. Virginia) that underscore the book’s themes are naturally incorporated. After much tsuris (Ma’s word), the story ends on a hopeful note, with the future of this family — including its next generation — bringing understanding and unity. An author’s note is appended. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Red Stars: The Case of Viktor and Nadya’s Notebooks
by Davide Morosinotto; trans. from Italian by Denise Muir
Intermediate, Middle School    Delacorte    432 pp.    g
11/20    978-1-9848-9332-1    $19.99
Library ed.  978-1-9848-9333-8    $22.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-9334-5    $10.99

Viktor and Nadya are twelve-year-old twins living in Leningrad during World War II. In defiance of the non-aggression pact, Germany invades Russia and lays siege to the city. As children are evacuated, Viktor and Nadya are put on separate trains. Nadya’s train is stopped and the children dispersed; Nadya and several companions find refuge on an abandoned island fortress, while Viktor ends up in a gulag. After he escapes, he incorrectly learns that Nadya’s train was bombed with no survivors but refuses to believe it. Eventually, Viktor does find Nadya through some fortuitous coincidences, and together they are able to unravel a stunning tale of treason and betrayal at the highest levels of Soviet leadership. The book’s format is innovative and adds immediacy. It’s written as a series of journal notebooks — Nadya’s entries are in navy blue, while Viktor’s are in cherry red, complemented by maps and photographs in the same color palettes — which are now being used as evidence to determine whether the children have committed crimes against the Soviet Union. The officer reviewing their case has ominously written notes and questions in the margin; he has also re-ordered parts to aid the narrative flow. Attentive readers will be richly rewarded by this gripping historical mystery. JONATHAN HUNT

From the October 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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