Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Puberty, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Realistic Fiction that works: Still a Work in Progress

still-a-work-in-progressStill a Work in Progress, by Jo Knowles, (Aug. 2016, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763672171

Recommended for ages 9-13

Noah’s trying to make it through seventh grade: his friends are weirding out, girls are weird, and his home life… don’t ask. His older sister, Emma, has been acting strange again. Her increasingly difficult food demands are driving Noah crazy – he really doesn’t like seitan; he just wants a burger – and she’s doing things like wearing lots of bulky clothing layers, moving her food around the plate without actually taking a bite, and arguing with everyone. Just like she did when The Thing They Don’t Talk About began last time. Noah’s only solace these days seems to be in the art room, where he can express himself without stress.

Still a Work in Progress is one of those great middle grade books that tackles tough issues within the framework of every day life: meaning, there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of confusion, and some pain. Overall, the book, narrated by Noah, is hilarious. The dialogue between him and his friends sounds like things I’d overhear my kids talking and arguing about, and Jo Knowles really captures Noah’s inner dialogue beautifully: the mixture of anger and concern for his sister, in particular. Ms. Knowles gives readers a realistic novel that brings together school life, home life, friend life (any kid will tell you friends are a separate sphere), and the frustration of moving through these areas while in the pull of something much, much bigger than you. I also loved the real star of the book: a hairless cat named Curly, who lives at the school and hangs out with the kids (Curly’s on the cover of the book, so you know this is an important cat.)

Great middle grade novel for realistic fiction readers. There’s always a call for good, realistic fiction in my library, so this one will get a good booktalk. Check out Jo Knowles’ author website for a link to the book’s Pinterest page and downloadable discussion guide.

Want more? Here’s Jo Knowles talking about the inspiration behind Still a Work in Progress.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Seed is a chilling story about belief and the loss of innocence

seed Seed, by Lisa Heathfield (2015, Running Press) $16.95, ISBN: 978-0-7624-5634-5

Recommended for ages 13+

Fifteen year-old Pearl’s life revolves around Seed. It’s the community she was born into; a land where Nature provides everything she could ever dream of, where the Kindred – the grown men of the community – are like beloved uncles, and where their spiritual leader and father figure, Papa S., teaches them that Nature will provide for them and punish them, if necessary. The outside world is corrupt, but Nature will favor the residents of Seed – as long as they abide by Papa S.’s rules.

When an outside family seeks refuge at Seed, Pearl struggles to maintain her belief in Papa S., Seed, and Nature – but as events become more difficult to reconcile, things are getting more and more difficult for Pearl to believe. Pearl will discover that there are many secrets at Seed, but can she face living once she discovers what’s really going on?

The community at Seed goes beyond cult, beyond closed community. It’s a horrific combination of the two, a community where men use bullying, grooming, and most egregiously, faith, to create a life where women have no power and are victimized from the moment they reach sexual maturity. They withhold education and limit contact with the outside world, always watching, to make sure that the children of Seed abide by Papa S.’s rules – but really, to keep them in the dark so that they can feed them lies under the guise of religion.

I received an advanced reader copy of Seed from Running Press, and tore right in, finishing the book in three days. It is a book that evokes visceral reactions – I was upset, I was horrified, I was angry. I wanted these children to see the lies and manipulations and walk away, to find justice for themselves and anyone who suffered at the hands of their captors – because really, that’s what Papa S. and the so-called Kindred are.

The characters, dialogue, and story pacing will draw you in and won’t let you go until you turn that last page. Even then, this is not a book that you will walk away from lightly. It will leave you shaken and changed. It’s a book I want to see in teenagers’ hands and talked about in discussion groups. I want this book on library shelves and in librarian’s hands, making sure kids read it.

Seed is an important book for an age where people are still looking for something to believe in. Do not miss this book.


Posted in Fiction, Middle School, Puberty, Tween Reads

Book Review: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume (Yearling, 1970)

Recommended for ages 9-12

This Judy Blume classic follows sixth grader Margaret Simon, whose parents move her from their home in New York to the suburbs of New Jersey, and her search for an identity as she goes through puberty. The book has received numerous awards, including the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year (1970). In 2005, the book made Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels List.

Margaret meets new friends and they quickly form a secret club called the PTS’s – Pre-Teen Sensations. They have to wear bras to their meetings and they talk about boys, school, and most importantly, when they’re getting their periods. Nancy, the ringleader, makes Margaret uncomfortable with her superior attitude and concern over these things; she’s afraid she’ll be the last to get her period and be made fun of.

Raised without organized religion, Margaret has a very personal relationsihp with God and talks to him whenever she needs a comforting ear. She tells him her insecurities about puberty and her frustration with her family. With the other kids in her neighborhood identifying as either Christian or Jewish, Margaret struggles to know God in one of these faiths, but comes up empty; she asks him, after visiting both a synagogue and a church why she can’t “feel him” the way she does when she talks to him.

I loved this book when I was in sixth grade and re-reading it now, it holds up, mainly because the heart of the story still exists. Mean girls may appear bigger than life now, but Nancy was definitely a pioneering mean girl; Margaret is the Everygirl that we all identified with – insecure about ourselves, insecure about our place in school and our families, and just trying to figure it all out. Blume weaves all of Margaret’s insecurities together to create a solid, realistic character that girls can all identify with. Nobody does puberty like Judy Blume.

Judy Blume’s website features the usual author fare; there is a bio, interview questions, even autobiographical essays. She offers advice on writing and has a section on censorship – she is a very well-known advocate for the freedom to read – and her “Reference Desk” section provides interviews and an index of articles and information about Blume.

Posted in Fiction, Humor, Middle School, Tween Reads

Book Review: Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life, by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts (Little, Brown, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-14

Rafe Katchadorian is having a tough year: his mom is working double shifts at her diner job in order to support him, his sister, and her lazy, unemployed fiance, and he’s already attracted the attention of the school bully during his first week of middle school. What’s a kid to do? Make a name for himself, of course!

With some prodding by his best friend, Leonardo the Silent, Rafe decides that he’s going to break every single rule in the middle school code of conduct. There are guidelines to follow, though – he’s got to have witnesses every time he breaks a rule; he’s got three “lives” – he loses one if he passes up an opportunity to break a rule – and finally, he can’t hurt anyone in his quest to break the rules. How bad can a good kid get, and how far is Rafe willing to go to break all the rules, and will he break his own in the process?
I started this book expecting a light, humorous tale and was amazed at the punch Patterson and Tibbett packed into this middle school story. Rafe’s family issues aside, there are a multitude of issues in his life. In reality, he would be considered an at-risk tween with a need for a solid support system. Two major plot developments may suprise readers, but these are important stories for tweens and young teens to be exposed to – children with similar life stories may appreciate a literary figure they can relate to, and other readers will glimpse into another kid’s world, possibly starting a dialogue or creating a new sensitivity among them.
 Chris Tebbetts is a YA author whose love of books and libraries began as a child. His website suggests links for writerw and readers, and provides a list of Good Reads for young readers and teens.

James Patterson is best known for his Alex Cross mystery series, but he is a Children’s Choice Award-winning author, receiving the award in 2010 for his book Max, one of the books in his popular Maximum Ride series. His Daniel X series has been praised by Good Morning America as being some of the best books for boys, and the first book in his Witch & Wizard series spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Patterson’s website, ReadKiddoRead, is dedicated to getting kids reading and suggests titles for all ages and interests.