Rising to the occasion

As Black History Month approaches in February (watch for our upcoming annual coverage!), these seven books are helpful starting points for intermediate and/or middle-school readers seeking engaging and resilient Black protagonists in compelling fictional narratives that reflect a range of experience, from light-and-lively (see: Stuntboy’s antics) to more serious (and even dystopian). See also our Five Questions interview with Breanna J. McDaniel and April Harrison about Go Forth and Tell: The Life of Augusta Baker, Librarian and Master Storyteller.

Ready, Set, Dough!
by Kelly J. Baptist
Intermediate    Crown    176 pp.
10/23    9780593429174    $16.99
Library ed.  9780593429181    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780593429198    $9.99

Sixth grader Zoe dreams of becoming a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, but her family’s unreliable old computer is cramping her style. She has her sights set on the Horizon WordPro GT laptop, and since her parents won’t buy one for her, she takes matters into her own hands. A school fundraiser offers Zoe the perfect opportunity: top prize for selling the most tubs of cookie dough is, in fact, the Horizon WordPro GT. Determined to walk away with the computer and defeat her nemesis, Zoe is laser-focused on winning and will do whatever it takes to come out on top — even if it tests her relationship with her best friend. Zoe’s experiences are relatable; her passion for both her short- and long-term goals is believably conveyed. Baptist uses humor to explore themes of navigating family, school, and community; this story will resonate with anyone who has dreamed of winning big. MONIQUE HARRIS

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

The Reckoning
by Wade Hudson
Middle School    Crown    256 pp.
1/24    9780593647776    $18.99
Library ed.  9780593647783    $21.99
e-book ed.  9780593647790    $10.99

Lamar Phillips, a contemporary middle schooler in Morton, Louisiana, wants to be a filmmaker. With the new camcorder his grandfather helped him buy, he interviews students, records school football and baseball games, and films scenes in the neighborhood, but he feels like “nothing ever happens in Morton” and intends to do something bigger with his filmmaking. Gramps, a Black civil rights activist and Freedom Rider of the 1960s, has always stressed the importance of learning his past, where he came from — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and Lamar begins to see how interesting Gramps’s own story is. He “worked the crops” for Old Man Claude, lived in a house with no plumbing, didn’t go to school much, and fought in Vietnam. Lamar wants to make a documentary about Gramps, but when his grandfather is killed by a known former Klansman, Lamar films the resultant protests and the MAGA counter-protests. In straightforward, unadorned prose, Hudson (Defiant, rev. 11/21) tells an important story about an all-too-common contemporary tragedy and manages to be angry and hopeful at the same time. For a slim volume, the book carries the weight of a difficult history and the urgency to carry on the fight: “Listen, son, now is your time. It’s your generation that’s got the future in its hands.” And with his video footage, Lamar intends to do justice to his grandfather’s story. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Gone Wolf
by Amber McBride
Middle School    Feiwel    352 pp.
10/23    9781250850492    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781250850485    $10.99

McBride (We Are All So Good at Smiling, rev. 1/23) begins this compelling novel in the year 2111: a girl known as Inmate Eleven has lived in a small cell her whole life. All she knows she’s learned from Miss Abby, a pale-skinned “Clone” who describes blue-skinned people as “genetic mistakes, which is why we take care of you here.” Inmate Eleven’s only true companion is her dog, Ira, who will occasionally “go wolf,” pacing the cell, looking desperately as if he wishes to be somewhere else. When she finally learns the disturbing truth — that Blues are Black Americans, turned blue from generational trauma; and Clones are white Elitists from the “Bible Boot” of the South — she must escape to save herself. Meanwhile, in the year 2022, young Imogen is struggling with both the racially motivated violence across the country and the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Imogen and her mother finally find a therapist willing to listen to her whole story, the juxtaposition of past, present, and future creates a jarring narrative. Interspersed throughout are Bible Boot Learning Flash Cards propaganda and asides at the end of Inmate Eleven’s chapters touting the virtue of Clones over the “lesser” Blues. A strong voice in the sci-fi genre, McBride presents a fascinating discussion of the inextricable bond between Black Americans and the blues. EBONI NJOKU

Stuntboy, In-Between Time
by Jason Reynolds; illus. by Raúl the Third
Intermediate, Middle School    Dlouhy/Atheneum    272 pp.
8/23    9781534418226    $14.99
e-book ed.  9781534418240    $9.99

Set one week after its predecessor (Stuntboy, in the Meantime, rev. 1/22), this illustrated novel follows Portico Reeves through one very eventful day as the self-appointed superhero struggles with anxiety (“the frets”), dabbles in misbehavior, and confronts his parents’ recent separation. When Portico’s mother sends him off on what should be a short two-floor trip to his father’s new apartment for their very first “DAD-urday,” the young hero is weighed down by both literal and figurative baggage: carrying a garbage bag of old apartment leftovers and the fear of permanently being “in-between” his parents. Once Portico meets up with his two best friends, he quickly strays off-course thanks to run-ins with bizarre bullies, eccentric neighbors, and out-there scenarios (like catching seventeen iguanas). Presented as if episodes of a retro TV show (complete with theme music, commercial breaks, etc.), each self-contained chapter generally features a new problem and speedy resolve; however, Reynolds’s imaginative, layered storytelling continuously explores large, overarching themes of family, friendship, and belonging with recurring motifs and metaphors. Supporting and expanding the lively text are Raúl the Third’s kinetic illustrations, playful characterizations, and eye-popping spreads. A lived-in, tactile quality to the overall design is achieved through thoughtful coloring, engaging layouts, and an incorporation of real-world textures such as bricks, plaster, and paint. While a realistic resolution is achieved for Portico’s family, Stuntboy’s outrageous adventures (thankfully) don’t seem to be over yet. PATRICK GALL

Control Freaks
by J. E. Thomas
Intermediate, Middle School    Levine Querido    272 pp.
5/23    9781646143054    $18.99

Take a school full of competitive “control freaks,” each with ambitious personal goals, put them into an all-middle-school group STEAMS (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, sports) competition, and you will rock their universe. Twelve-year-old Frederick Douglass “Doug” Zezzmer, a Black student at Benjamin Banneker College Prep in Denver, is trepidatious. “There’s no way to stand out if I’m one of a dozen kids on a team,” he says. This will interfere with his “fifty-seven-step strategy to become the World’s Greatest Inventor” and Operation DazzleYee, intended to impress his principal, Dr. Yee, enough to nominate him for Rocky Mountain GadgetCon. Furthermore, he’s placed on the worst team possible. They’re the “Island of Misfit Toys of STEAMS teams.” Dr. Yee comes up with wild tests, events, contests, and challenges for the students, related through the author’s clever use of alternating voices that offer insights into the minds and lives of characters. As miserable as Doug is at the beginning, he eventually gets into the spirit of the competition and sees his teammates, now friends, in a new light. By the end of the competition, he says, “I’m not sure how Dr. Yee did it, but he got all of us celebrating for each other.” Thomas’s debut novel is a refreshing take on middle-school life — smart kids who know they are going places but learn to take care of one another along the way. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Shark Teeth
by Sherri Winston
Middle School    Bloomsbury    304 pp.
1/24    9781547608508    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781547608515    $12.59

Sharkita is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, although her life finally feels like it is on the right track. Her mom is now employed and sober, and Kita has been reunited with her two younger siblings, Lamar and Lilli. Letting her guard down slowly, she tries to be a regular middle schooler hanging out with friends and even trying out for the twirl squad. Unfortunately, the stability of her family begins to unravel, and a series of events lands the siblings in foster care once again. After an assault leads to her hospitalization, Kita finds she needs to summon her courage to start over, and hopefully this time will be different. A heart-wrenching tale of family disruption, this story is one of adaptation and resilience. However, the trauma of separation that the protagonist is forced to endure fills her with anxiety. Despite the efforts of such helpful adults as the new assistant principal, she constantly attempts to put on her bravest face to protect the fragile snippets of peace at home. Winston’s (The Braid Girls, rev. 7/23) story will resonate with some while offering others a window into a life of abuse and upheaval. MONIQUE HARRIS

From the January 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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