My middle grade TBR read-down continues with two more great books, both realistic fiction: Squint, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown, the duo that gave us Mustaches for Maddie; and Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai. Let’s dive in!
Flint is a middle schooler who loves to draw and loves superheroes. He’s creating a comic starring his kinda sorta superhero alter ego, Squint, who fights the villains who used to be his buddies, with the help of his rock dog. Flint’s been nicknamed Squint by his former best friend, because he has keratoconus, an eye disease that could leave him blind. Raised by his grandparents, Squint copes with his frustration through his comic, but when he meets McKell – a Filipina with a terminally ill brother who puts up YouTube challenges, daring others to live the life that he can’t – he may just have made a real friend again, after all.
Squint is a beautifully written book of grief, loss, and coping. It’s as much McKell’s story as it is Flint’s, and Chad Morris and Shelly Brown have created another sensitive, compelling story about kids coping with illness, and about the adults who are there to shepherd these kids through the heavy stuff. Flint’s grandparents have had to raise their grandson because their daughter couldn’t; they’ve given Flint the best they could with what they’ve had, and they’ve been the ones to see him through the multiple doctor appointments, and, now, surgery. McKell’s parents are working through grief and loss, and sometimes, that takes a toll on their daughter. Flint and McKell find in each other someone who may not understand, but who gets it, if that makes sense. They push each other to be their best, and when they combine their talents – Flint, with his art, and McKell, with her rhyming and songwriting – they shine.
Squint is a great addition to your middle grade fiction collections. It’s got realistic characters with strong backstories, and deals with real world issues like abandonment, grief, loss, illness, and navigating the aggravations of middle school.
Twelve-year-old Jingwen, his younger brother, Yanghao, and his mother leave China for Australia, but this wasn’t the original plan. They were supposed to move to Australia with Jingwen’s and Yanghao’s father, so he could open his dream bakery, Pie in the Sky. But Jingwen’s father died in a car accident almost two years ago, and Jingwen is wracked with guilt over events leading up to his father’s death. When they arrive in Australia, he feels like everyone around him is speaking Martian, but that he’s the alien – especially with little Yanghao seems to fit right in, quickly learning English and making friends. To deal with his grief and his frustration with his new life in Australia, Jingwen decides he’s going to make all the cakes he and his father talked about making for Pie in the Sky. Yanghao is only too happy to have cake every night, and Jingwen sets to work while his mother works. After all, cake makes everything better, right?
I LOVED Pie in the Sky. It’s a graphic novel within a novel, with 2-color illustrations on almost every page, that keep the action moving and keep readers invested in the story. When Jingwen tells readers he feels like an alien, we see that he’s an alien! He’s drawn as an alien for every time someone can’t understand him; on the occasions where he successfully speaks a word or two of English, a fourth eye will disappear, or something else will make him slightly more human. But all around him, people speaking English – including his brother and mother – may as well be an alien language, something we see as Remy Lai brilliantly illustrates a single word here and there, surrounded by alien glyphs in speech bubbles. Remy Lai creates a moving story about a family working through grief and loss, but each seem to be in isolation, when they need to come together to move on. Jingwen’s fear and frustration at being in a new country, speaking an unfamiliar language, comes across through prose and illustration, making him even more likable and empathetic. Jingwen and Yanghao have an realistic sibling relationship, with ups and downs, general silliness, and the love the always manages to shine through. Kids will love how they call each other – and anyone who annoys them, really – a “booger”. Pie in the Sky works as a humorous and touching look at a family working their way through a tragedy. The tasty recipe at the end encourages families to bake together – because cake really does make everything better.
Pie in the Sky has a starred review from Kirkus.