More graphic novels to talk about, this time, real-life stories. Some are realistic fiction, some are inspired by moments in the author’s life. All are great reading!
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.
Recommended for readers 4-8
Oskar is a young, Jewish refugee arriving in New York to stay with his aunt after the horror of Kristallnacht. He arrives in New York on the seventh day of Hanukkah in 1938, which also falls on Christmas Eve. He has no money, and faces a long walk from Battery Park to his Aunt Esther’s apartment on West 103rd Street. As he walks the length of Manhattan, he keeps his father’s words in mind: “…even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings.” And sure enough, he encounters blessings, in the forms of people whose paths he crosses, that provide him with small moments of kindness, from a woman who gives him bread to newsstand man who gives him a copy of a Superman comic. Two legendary figures pop up to show kindness toward Oskar, whistling a tune with him and giving him a wink. Each act of kindness sustains Oskar on his journey, which ends in his aunt’s arms.
This is a gorgeous book. It’s about the power of empathy, and how the seemingly smallest kindnesses can make the greatest differences. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit and the strength of children. The book begins with a gut punch, and ends with a crescendo; you can’t be unaffected by Oskar’s story. The artwork relies on close-ups of faces, particularly eyes, to convey emotion, and it’s through Oskar’s eyes that we see the fear of being in a strange, new place; wonder and joy at the connections he makes, and finally, the comfort of home. I need my own copy of this book.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings received the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and was chosen for both the Booklist Editors’ Choice and Kansas State Reading Circle. The book received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist.
Recommended for readers 8-12
George is a plantation slave who dreams of being free. He’s singled out for abuse by the cruel overseer and threatened with being put on the auction block, like his father was. He can’t bear the thought of being separated from his sister, Ruth, and his mother, so he formulates a plan for the family to escape and seek out Moses, a mysterious woman who helps slaves to freedom. Moses – Harriet Tubman puts them in case of a white teenager, Nathan, who will take them from the deep South to New York, where they hope to find passage to Canada, but it’s not going to be easy. George doesn’t trust Nathan – he doesn’t trust anyone – and the bounty hunters are everywhere, tracking down escaped slaves. The four will have to work together and rely on the kindness of Underground Railroad stations to succeed.
Great Escapes is a fairly new historical fiction series by Barron’s Educational Series. Readers who enjoy the thrill of Lauren Tarshis’ I Survived books will dig into these readalikes, which are a little longer in page length (over 200 pages) and allow for more plot and character development. Stories emphasize working together for change while acknowledging that it’s not always an easy thing to do. Historical figures Harriet Tubman, William Still, and Frederick Douglass make appearances, and interesting facts about the Underground Railroad pop up within the narrative. My favorite? The coded messages communicated through song: songs like “Wade in the Water” told freedom seekers to get off the trail and into the water, so their scent wouldn’t be picked up by dogs. Sections on key terms, phrases used, songs sung, Underground Railroad profiles, and further resources make this a great next step for readers who are ready to take on longer books.
Underground Railroad is the second book in the Great Escapes series, the first being Mount St. Helens 1980: Fiery Eruption! I’ve been plumping up my library’s series fiction collection, and since the kids devoured my I Survived books the second they arrived, I think this will be a smart add to the collection. Like I Survived, readers can pick either Great Escapes book up never having read the other(s); they’re all separate moments in history starring different characters.
Recommended for readers 12+
Julie should be starting college in the fall, but she used up all her savings to bail her mother out of debt. Frustrated and embarrassed, especially when her friend drops money on crazy shopping trips while Julie counts every cent. They wander into a thrift store where Julie discovers an antique painting that reveals a hidden, glowing image in the dark. Locating the rest of the paintings becomes Julie’s obsession; as she tracks down the paintings and the painter’s identity, she discovers that the paintings were made by and tell the story of the Radium Girls – young women who worked in factories, using radium paint to make glow-in-the-dark watches for the soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
The dual narrative keeps the novel moving at a fast pace, but it is Liza and Lydia’s story – the Radium Girls – that gripped me even more than Julie’s. If you haven’t yet read Kate Moore’s Radium Girls, I highly recommend it; the story of the women who were slowly poisoned over time is heartbreaking and infuriating, but so important to read and know. Glow is a great introduction to the subject on a middle school/YA level; the letters from Lydia to her betrothed, Walter, a World War I soldier, give readers the full horror of radium poisoning. These girls – some as young as 13 – were led to believe that the radium paint was safe, even beneficial – one floor manager brags about mixing some into his pudding for health reasons; girls paint their nails, their faces, even paint jewelry on their bodies before they go out on dates. Hindsight, for the reader, is 20/20; I wanted to shriek at them as Lydia described each detail.
That said, there are some moments I felt could have been stronger. I didn’t love the romance that felt pushed into the narrative to make it more attractive to teen readers, and the subplot tension between Julie and her mother feels like it’s there just to make readers understand why Julie would be shopping in thrift stores. The driving story here is Lydia and Liza’s story, though; that’s what will stay with you long after the story has ended and you’ve closed the book. An author’s note at the end talks about the Radium Girls and the indignities they suffered when they became ill and tried to come forward.
Recommended for ages 10-14
Annie is the new girl at her school. Desperate to make new friends, she’s thwarted when the school pariah, Ellie, latches onto her on the first day. Annie quickly discovers that there’s a reason the other girls don’t like Ellie: she’s a liar, a tattletale, and a thief who bullies her way into Annie’s life. When Ellie is out sick for a few days, Annie manages to befriend the other girls at school and becomes one of Ellie’s tormentors. When the 1918 flu epidemic reaches Annie’s town, it claims Ellie as one of its victims, but Ellie’s spirit won’t rest. She returns as a vengeful ghost, punishing all the girls who bullied her through Annie, thus ensuring that Annie will be as hated as Ellie was in her lifetime.
Mary Downing Hahn is one of the reigning queens of middle grade horror. I still can’t look at a doll in the same way after reading Took (2015), and she’s the first author I go to when my library kids ask me for a good, scary story. One for Sorrow, inspired by the 19th century nursery rhyme, seamlessly blends elements of an intense ghost story with historical fiction. Hahn addresses World War I and anti-German sentiment and the 1918 flu epidemic in a small American town while drawing on her own mother’s childhood for inspiration, having her characters visit various homes with funereal wreaths on the door in order to eat their fill of sweets and pastries put out for the wakes. Ellie’s vicious haunting will keep readers turning pages late into the night, feeling Annie’s helpless frustration as Ellie systematically destroys her reputation and her life.
Mary Downing Hahn has won many awards for her writing. You can find out more about her (like the fact that she’s a former children’s librarian!), her books, and her awards, through her publisher’s website.
Recommended for readers 12+
It’s 1817, and Lydia Whitfield is an English society heiress with her future planned out for her – even her marriage partner is planned for her, thanks to her departed father. She will run the family estate until her marriage, when Lord Aldershot, her intended, will take over the day to day work. Until then, her drunkard uncle and his unbearable wife and daughters are living at Roseberry Hall with Lydia and her mother. She wants to be free of her meddling uncle, so she contacts Mr. Robert Newton, a law clerk, to begin drawing up marriage contracts, and everything seems to be progressing nicely. Until Lydia is kidnapped!
Lydia is taken as she’s about to meet with Mr. Newton regarding the contracts, and he ends up a victim of circumstance; first kidnapped with her, then rudely thrown out of the coach. But the kidnappers aren’t very thorough, and make it way too easy for Lydia to escape (with Robert’s help). Lydia starts wondering if the kidnapping had far deeper motives than a ransom, and Mr. Newton is too happy to help her investigate. After all, it keeps him close to Lydia, who he finds himself falling for… and she feels the same about him. Can the two get to the bottom of the plot and work through their feelings for one another while maintaining a sense of propriety?
Duels & Deception is a fun mix of proper Regency romance and a complex whodunit. The kidnapping comes with an interesting twist that stands out, and the main characters engage in witty, flirty banter that is sweet and funny. I did struggle with the pace of the novel at times, but overall, romance and historical fiction fans will enjoy this one. A glossary and discussion questions round out the book.
Duels & Deception was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s 35 Most Anticipated YA Novels of 2017 and received a starred review from Voya magazine. Add Cindy Anstey’s previous historical romance, Love, Lies & Spies to your booktalking list, and spice it up a little with some superpowers, courtesy of Tarun Shanker’s These Vicious Masks series.
Recommended for ages 7-10
A young girl and her family settle into a new home in the Villa Air-Bel in France. They’re used to hiding things: the radio, a cow, anything of value that the Nazis could seize. Aube Breton – the daughter Dada pioneer Andre Breton – even learns to hide herself in case of a raid. You see, Villa Air-Bel was a safe place for refugees during World War II, a place where those on the run could await passage to safety. Aude spends her days with luminaries like artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst; helping hold art sales to raise money for transport out of occupied France, and playing, as a child should.
A very different experience from Anne Frank and the families ensconced in the Secret Annex, Aude’s story is no less powerful. She witnesses a Nazi raid and hides while her father and other men are rounded up and taken in for questioning, and she faces her situation with love and laughter. The stories of the Villa Air-Bel refugees is a lesser-known part of World War II France, and The Hiding Game is a strong introduction to younger readers. Its message is as strong today as ever.
Herb Leonhard’s illustrations and subdued color palette are gentle on the eyes in some spreads, more powerful in others, enhancing the story with strong images that will lead to deep discussions with school-age readers.
A historical note and further resources round out this story, and the author explains that her uncle was one of the men who risked his life to bring refugees to safety.
Recommended for ages 12+
Twelve year-old Neen Marrey lives with her Aunt Oshag on Carrick Island. Her father drowned and her mother disappeared when she was a baby; now, she and her aunt endure the town gossip – that her mother was a merrow, a mermaid, that returned to the ocean and her father drowned himself trying to reach her. Oshag dismisses the gossip as nonsense, but the myth keeps Neen going; she wants desperately to believe that her mother didn’t just desert her; that maybe even Neen herself has merrow in her, and can reconcile with her mother one day.
Merrow is beautiful and heartbreaking. Braxton-Smith spins a tale that weaves together historical fiction, Celtic folklore, and a coming of age story. Neen and Oshag are both incredibly constructed characters that come alive; characters that you come to ache for. The supporting cast are equally likable and believable, and having such a small group of characters adds to the intimacy of the novel.
This is a gorgeous novel that literary fiction readers, readers of magical realism, realistic fiction, and historical fiction alike will love. Merrow has received four starred reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Maybe the Printz committee will agree?
Recommended for ages 9-13
Ivy is still grieving the death of her twin sister, Scarlet, when the letter from the school comes: a spot has opened up, and she can expect to be picked up immediately. Ivy is indignant – how rude and cold, to be referring to her sister’s death as an “opening” – and it only gets worse once the imperious headmistress, Miss Fox, comes to collect her. Miss Fox tells her that Ivy’s expected to become Scarlet – a face-saving measure for the school. Once at the school, Ivy finds herself in the thick of a few mysteries, all having to do with Scarlet and her disappearance from the school. Can Ivy unravel all the mysteries surrounding the school and learn what really happened to her sister?
Scarlet and Ivy: The Lost Twin is a well-paced, consuming boarding school mystery, set in 1935 England. The characters are interesting and the intrigue keeps pages turning, while getting readers riled up at the injustices Ivy endures. There are so many little mysteries entwined with larger ones – once a thread gets pulled, you’ll be consumed with following it to see where it goes. Fox is an awful human being that loves corporal punishment a bit too much to be in charge of children; Ms. Cleverly has given us a truly hissable villain here (she and Professor Umbridge would get along swimmingly). You’ll root for Ivy and her friend, Ariadne, and the ending leaves you bouncing up and down with the knowledge that we’ll be getting more adventures in the future.
According to Sophie Cleverly’s Twitter, the third Scarlet & Ivy book is out – pretty sure it’s only out in the UK, but let’s be really, really nice to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Ms. Cleverly, so they’ll bring the further adventures of Ivy, Ariadne, & Co. to us here in the States.
The Lost Twin is a good summer reading choice for middle grade readers who enjoy a good mystery with a few well-placed plot twists. I’ve got a lot of kids asking me for good mysteries, so I’ll add this one to my booktalks, along with The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee and Audacity Jones.