In the interest of holiday season posting: need gifts for the kid who has every video game, or a bookworm who has read everything, and needs something new? Allow me to be your guide through a few fantastic middle grade reads I’ve just finished.
Where do I even start with Malcolm and Me? This book blew my mind in the best way possible. It’s 1973, and 13-year-old Roberta has a lot of feelings. She’s reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and discussing Black history and Black Power with her father at home, and clashing with a racist nun at her Philadelphia Catholic school. When she’s sent home after a blowup with Sister Elizabeth, she deep dives into the Autobiography, examining her own feelings and frustrations through Malcolm X’s lenses. Already a writer, she begins journaling her verse and diary entries, guided by Malcolm, and it gives her the strength she needs as her home life and school life begin unraveling.
There is such power in this book and in the characters. Roberta emerges as an incredible heroine; a self-aware 13-year-old coming of age in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, during Watergate, she questions her own faith in God and in organized religion, in family, and in color. Inspired by an event in the author’s life, Malcolm and Me is essential reading that hits that often hard-to-reach middle school/high school age group. Please put this on school (and adult) reading lists, and talk about this book with your tweens and your teens. Talk this up to your Angie Thomas fans, Nic Stone fans, and – naturally! – Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter. Author Robin Farmer’s author website has more information on the author’s articles, her books, and a link to her blog.
Orphan Seren Rhys thinks she’s being rescued from the orphanage when her mysterious godfather, Captain Jones, sends for her. His country mansion, Plas-y Fran, is just going to be wonderful, Seren knows it! She’ll be the apple of Captain Jones and his wife, Lady Mair’s eyes, have wonderful parties, and play with the couple’s young son, Tomos. She realizes things are very different when she’s picked up at the train station and arrives, late at night, at Plas-y Fran, which looks rundown and all but abandoned; Mrs. Villiers, the cold housekeeper, tells her that the family is in London for the foreseeable future. Seren turns to the mysterious package entrusted to her at the train station and discovers a mechanical crow. Upon assembly, the crow can talk, fly, and complain. A lot. But when Seren learns that Tomos has been taken by fairies, she decides to rescue him and restore life to Plas-y Fran: and the crow will help her do it.
A fun fantasy with a bit of steampunk, which I always enjoy, this is a quick read with adventure and a warm family story at its heart. Seren is the hopeful orphan, and the cantankerous Crow is a great foil, making this a fine buddy comedy. Fairie lore amps up the action and the tension, and adds some dark fantasy and magic to the plot. A good choice for readers who loved the Nevermoor/Morrigan Crow series by Jessica Townsend.
Hayley Chewins is back! Her 2018 novel, The Turnaway Girls, was one of the best books I’d read that year, so I was excited to read her newest, The Sisters of Straygarden Place. The Ballastian Sisters – Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine – have lived in the house by themselves after their parents left seven years before, only a note telling them to “sleep darkly” left behind. The house takes care of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter – but they cannot leave the house, lest the tall silver grass take them. Winnow grows tired of waiting and ventures outside, leaving 12-year-old Mayhap to take care of their youngest sister, Pavonine, and figure out how to heal 14-year-old Winnow. As Mayhap discovers more about the house and the history of the magic within it, the mystery deepens. Readers will love this gorgeous, dark fantasy written with prose that’s almost lyrical, magical. Hayley Chewins writes like Neil Gaiman, where the words just caress you, wrap themselves around you, and when you’re fully under their spell, tell you stories that will leave you wondering. In a world where dogs crawl into your mind to help you sleep and the grass tempts you to come outside so it can take you away, The Sisters of Straygarden Place is truly magical reading.
The Sisters of Straygarden Place is is one of Kirkus’s Best MG Fantasy & SF Books of 2020.