MG – Here in the Real World

Pennypacker, Sara. Here in the Real World. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-69895-7. $17.99. 320 p. Grades 3-6.

“Everything was something else before, and will be something else after.” Ware is an only child, and he’s perfectly happy spending his summer alone with his grandmother, whom he refers to as Big Deal, but when she falls and needs a hip replacement, Ware’s parents sign him up for Summer Rec where they hope he can have “meaningful social interactions” with other kids his age. To Ware, this is the worst case scenario, until he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden in a half torn down, abandoned church right next to the rec center. Ware sees the potential in this church, and instead of going to rec, he spends his days with Jolene pretending the church is a castle and that he is a knight, living by their code of chivalry. For the first time in Ware’s life, he doesn’t feel ashamed about spending time off in his own world, and with the help of Jolene, his uncle, and others he meets throughout the summer, he realizes that it’s okay to be himself, and he doesn’t want to turn into someone else after all. “He had changed this summer. He was spending more time off in his own world. And it turned out, he didn’t feel ashamed about it. Turned out, he really liked it there.”

THOUGHTS:  Here in the Real World is perfect for readers who feel like they just don’t belong. Your heart will break for Ware and Jolene as they try to navigate through the real world in this moving and touching novel. Middle school can be such a hard time, and hopefully readers will realize, like Ware does, that it’s okay to be yourself, even when you feel pressure from parents and classmates to be someone else entirely. This realistic fiction book is about finding not only yourself, but your people, and being able to see them just as they are too.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem./MG – Twins

Johnson, Varian, and Shannon Wright. Twins. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-23617-0. 249 p. $24.99. Grades 3-6.

Francine and Maureen are twins who have always been best friends, done the same activities, and had the same group of friends. But now that they are starting middle school, Francine (call her Fran, please) wants to come out from her sister’s shadow and be her own person. Unfortunately, Maureen wants the opposite. When both girls wind up running for class president, sibling rivalry steps up several notches and threatens to ruin any shred of relationship the girls have left. Once Fran confesses that the reason she wanted to create her own identity in middle school was to boost her self esteem after competing with her perfect sister for years, the girls’ relationship blossoms into a new, more mature sibling relationship.

THOUGHTS: I loved this graphic novel! Fans of Raina Telgemeier will flip over this new offering. I love that the characters are African American, but they could be any race and the story would be the exact same! Students need to see characters of other races that do not struggle because of their race.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick Upper Dublin SD

MG – Class Act

Craft, Jerry. Class Act. Quill Tree Books, 2020. 978-0-062-88551-7. 249 p. $22.99. Grades 4-8.

Now eighth grader, Drew Ellis, still at the elite Riverdale Academy Day School, wonders if he will ever have the same opportunities as his wealthy, privileged, and white classmates.  His friend Liam, who is one of those privileged kids, wants to act like there are no differences. The boys, including their other friend Jordan, expand their friendships and take the time outside of school to really get to know where each come from, so they can focus on where their futures will take them.

THOUGHTS: This follow up to the Newbery Award winner New Kid is a must purchase for any library. Craft delivers on shedding light on race relations in a realistic and accessible way.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – Forget Me Nat

Scrivan, Maria. Forget Me Nat.  Graphix, an Imprint of Scholastic, 2020.  978-1-338-53825-0. 234 p. $21.69. Grades 3-6.

Natalie is in love with Derek, and she is sure he is in love with her. He wrote her a cute note right before winter break, and he asked her if she wanted to read his comic book. Soon, they were spending a lot of time together, but Natalie spending time with Derek means she’s not spending time with Zoe and Flo, and it also means she’s doing things she doesn’t really like to do, like eating pineapple pizza and joining math club. Natalie’s obsession with Derek could mean the end of her best friendships, and when her feelings aren’t reciprocated, it sends Natalie into a spiral of unhappiness and self-doubt. Natalie will have to learn that self-confidence does not come from a relationship–it comes from within.

THOUGHTS:  Maria Scrivan picks up where she left off with Nat Enough. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Svetlana Chmakova will enjoy this series.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – Parked

Svetcov, Danielle. Parked. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-399-53903-9. 383 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Jeanne Ann loves books, watching her mom cook, and normalcy. But when her mother suddenly quits her job and moves the duo across the country to San Francisco, life is anything but normal. Forced to live in their orange van named the Carrot, Jeanne Ann struggles with her mother’s lack of a job all while worrying about school starting in the fall. Cal lives across the street from the parked van and has recently been kicked out of school after graffiting an image on a courtyard wall. Curious about his new “neighbors”, Cal tries to help Jeanne Ann in various ways. The two slowly become friends and Cal tries to get Jeanne Ann to enroll in the middle school he will attend in the fall. But with the local beautification committee trying to get rid of the line of vagrant parked vans on the street, time is running out for both of them.

THOUGHTS: This debut novel from Danielle Svetcov does a wonderful job weaving a story together of two “troubled” teens while delicately addressing homelessness. Middle school students will enjoy the story and connect with the themes of friendship, family, and self-acceptance.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – My Life in the Fish Tank

Dee, Barbara. My Life In the Fish Tank. Aladdin, 2020. 978-1-534-43233-8. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Zinny Manning’s family is known for being noisy and tightknit. She has a nurturing older brother, Gabriel; a moody sister in high school, Scarlett; and a younger, inquisitive brother, Aiden; and two longtime best friends, Kailani and Maisie. At the beginning of seventh grade, though, her world comes crashing down when Gabe steals and crashes his college roommate’s car. His impulsive behavior and hospitalization uncover Gabe’s bipolar disease. Now, a cloud hangs over the whole family as they strive to keep Gabe’s mental illness a secret from classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Zinny’s voice alternates from the present to the recent past. While she drifts further and further away from her concerned friends, Zinny recalls the fun times she has had with Gabe and dissects occasions when signs of his mental illness appeared. Zinny finds some solace in the predictable, controlled world of science. Her favorite teacher, Ms. Molina, has recommended her for a coveted spot as part of a middle school research team for the summer. Zinny gets respite from her friends’ constant questioning by helping Ms. Molina set up the crayfish tanks for the class’s animal unit. Zinny proves herself a resilient girl, helping her younger brother with his “how-to” project, shopping for groceries for the family, and sparking her beleaguered mother’s interest with an herb garden. When Zinny receives an invitation to the counselor’s Lunch Club, she at first throws it in the trash; but eventually, she starts to appreciate the opportunity to align with others who are also suffering from family concerns: divorce, stepfamilies, grief, or sick parents. Although it takes quite a while for Zinny to feel comfortable sharing, the group supports her and makes her feel she is not alone. At a therapy session at Gabe’s residential treatment center, Zinny confesses the anger she feels keeping the family secret. That small confession spurs a huge release that eases Gabe’s return home and allows the family to accept Gabe with a chronic illness just like cancer or diabetes. My Life in the Fish Tank is a story of a family in crisis and the shame and guilt they struggle with trying to deal with insurance, disruption, and worry. Author Barbara Dee has excelled in presenting an important topic with sensitivity and honesty. The Manning family seems to be white; the author integrates the diversity of other characters organically into the plot.

THOUGHTS: Though there are some fine books dealing with mental illness (Crazy by Han Nolan and All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker), My Life in the Fish Tank is a welcome addition. The dialogue captures the main character’s frame of mind well and depicts a likeable, relatable person. Zinny’s love of science and the crayfish experiment act as metaphors for her family situation Even though the plot flipped back and forth, the chapters were short and the writing fluent, making the story easy to follow. I could not put down this book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – What Lane?

Maldonado, Torrey. What Lane? Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51843-3. $16.99. 125 p. Grades 3-6.

Biracial Stephen pals around with his white friend Dan in their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but lately, Stephen is noticing he is viewed more negatively by the janitor or passers-by than his paler friend. Dan is sympathetic and though he is oblivious to the harsher treatment Stephen gets as they course around their city streets, he doesn’t deny his friend’s feelings and tries to understand. Dan’s cousin Chad who recently moved nearby and drops over frequently is the opposite. Author Torrey Maldonado depicts Chad’s parents as more into their phones and social lives than the well-being of their son and has them voice micro-aggressive remarks about Stephen. Chad challenges Stephen and his white friends to some dangerous pranks; and Stephen fears, rightfully, that if the group gets caught, he’ll get the blame. His African-American dad counsels him with “the talk” warning him how to behave if stopped by the police, though his white mother thinks eleven-year-old Stephen is too young to lose his innocence. Stephen’s Black friend Will shares the same cautions as Stephen and agrees that Chad is up to no good and questions Stephen’s closeness to his white friends. At a basketball game, Stephen purchases a bracelet that says, “What Lane?” to remind him of a basketball star that could play all the moves. A thoughtful person, Stephen struggles with the different groups and decisions around him. When Chad plays a hurtful trick on Stephen, Dan and his other white friends are allies and call out Chad’s bad behavior; Will and his friends come to Stephen’s rescue. In this coming-of- age novel for young middle school students, a likeable, relatable Stephen trusts he can enjoy the friendship of all different kinds of people and is able to fit into all types of worlds as long as he is true to himself.

THOUGHTS: A teacher himself, Maldonado has a great ear for middle school dialogue and a keen eye for capturing middle school dynamics. This book can be a relevant read aloud for all children but particularly relatable to children of color. It brings up some delicate but real situations that would encourage healthy discussion (for example, when Dan and Stephen are play fighting, an older white lady assumes Stephen is attacking Dan). I think it is a must buy.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Queen Bee and Me

McDunn, Gillian. The Queen Bee and Me. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-681-19751-7. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-7

Meg has always been joined at the hip of best friend Beatrix, except for the times when Beatrix freezes her out. Afraid of angering Beatrix and losing the benefits of being her friend, Meg decides to follow along while Beatrix plots to bully new student Hazel and her mom out of town. When Meg and Hazel get partnered up for a bee project in a science elective, Meg struggles between following her passion for science and doing whatever it takes to keep Beatrix from getting angry. It turns out Meg and Hazel have a lot in common, and they have fun together. Can Meg stand up to Beatrix even if it means risking years of friendship and the comfort of having a best friend? By the end of the story, Meg faces many of her fears, including a fear of bees, oral reports, and standing up to Beatrix which makes a sweet, but predictable, ending. 

THOUGHTS: As an adult reader, I had trouble finishing the book due to the predictable storyline. I anticipate young readers enjoying and relating to this story once they have the book in their hands and time to read.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – Clean Getaway

Stone, Nic. Clean Getaway. Crown Books for Children, 2020. 978-1-984-89297-3. $16.99. 240 p. Grades 6-8.

Nic Stone is typically a popular young adult writer (Dear Martin, Dear Justyce). Her debut in the middle school arena is the realistic, first-person narrative, Clean Getaway. William aka “Scoob” Lamar gets grounded when he shares a computer hack and plans to stay in his entire spring vacation. Until… his G’ma–grandmother–shows up in a RV she purchased with the profit from selling her house and asks him to accompany her on a road trip. Without telling his father, Will becomes G’ma’s wingman on this memorable ride retracing the route G’ma and his deceased grandfather Jimmy took from Georgia through the rest of the South during the segregated sixties. The pair follow the Green Book, a listing of acceptable accommodations for people of color. Will’s grandparents had the added burden of being a mixed race couple, against the law in many states at the time. Will experiences his African-American heritage firsthand, visiting important markers of the struggle for Civil Rights. At first, he is excited for the chance to share this adventure with his beloved grandmother, but then he notices G’ma’s strange behavior: she dines and dashes; switches license plates; steals jewelry. He discovers some things that make him suspect something else is afoot, but can’t quite connect the dots or even reach out to his father because G’ma keeps hiding or ditching their one cell phone. What keeps him going is the revealing conversations he has with his funny and candid G’ma. He realizes how much she loves her long incarcerated husband and suspects that his father may not be fair in his complete rejection of him. The pair’s joy ride comes to a halt when G’ma falls ill, but the experience prompts Will to question the absence of his own mother and the image of his grandfather and rejuvenates his relationship with his sometimes-distant father. Though not a difficult read lexile-wise, Clean Getaway does bring up serious issues of race, inequity, and discrimination. Nic Stone has proven she is a master storyteller for middle school students as well.

THOUGHTS: The intergenerational experience lends itself to history lessons of the Civil Rights era. The discrimination Will’s grandparents encountered in the sixties can be compared with the same displays of implicit bias Will and G’ma feel in their present-day travels. The reason for the grandfather’s imprisonment is also steeped in racial injustice and inequity. Will has little contact with his mother because she abandoned him as a baby–addiction is implied–but Will’s father is reluctant to have her re-enter twelve-year-old Will’s life just like he turned his back on Jimmy, his own father. This situation as well as the racism that necessitated the Green Book lays open talk about forgiving past wrongs, both personal and institutional. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Meet 11 year old William Lamar, aka Scoob. Unable to stay out of trouble at school, spring break is looking pretty boring. Until Scoob’s grandmother shows up and convinces Scoob to come along on an impromptu road trip across the American South in her RV. Scoob soon finds out that this trip is a re-creation of one his grandmother, who is white, and his African American grandfather took years ago. The South is changed since then, but G-ma’s crazy maps, her Traveler’s Greenbook (an African American guide to traveling safely in the 1960s), her changing of the license plate on the RV, and her refusal to take Scoob’s dad’s calls is adding up to some uneasy feelings the longer the trip continues. Add in the discovery that his G-ma may be a jewel thief, and Scoob is wishing he stayed home for that boring break!

THOUGHTS: Nic Stone’s first middle grade novel is an excellent read and one that readers will enjoy. There is enough historical fiction to peak the interest of the middle grade readers while satisfying the adventure reader as well.

Realistic Fiction                    Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – Can You See Me?

Scott, Libby, and Rebecca Westcott. Can You See Me? Scholastic.2020. 978-1-338-60891-5. 358 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Co-authored by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott, an eleven-year old neuro-diverse girl, Can You See Me? uniquely captures the inner feelings of Tally Adams, an autistic British sixth grader. Through Tally’s eyes, the reader learns of the frustrations and perceptions an autistic person experiences navigating teachers, friends, and family while transitioning to the more sophisticated world of middle school. Luke, a classmate suffering from his own trauma, bullies Tally because he unwittingly views her autism as weird. Tally receives the brunt of Luke’s anger and loses her few friends when she tells the teacher Luke stole the answers to an upcoming quiz. As Tally tries to fit in at school and adjust her behavior at home, she finds comfort and courage in wearing a tiger mask and companionship in the old, three-legged dog the family is taking care of for their elderly, sick neighbor. Tally is a treasured part of a loving and supportive family, but she sometimes tries the patience of her father and older sister, Nell. Westcott and Scott do a fine job creating a window into the world of autism as well as providing tips for how to cope best with the autistic personality (both Tally’s mother and a sympathetic drama teacher are pros). After selected chapters, Tally as narrator relates excerpts from her journal which gauge her anxiety level and note the pros and cons of autism. Though the ending is somewhat abruptly idealistic–Tally’s fair-weather, catty friends proclaim that they need her and one even confesses she told the entire class Tally is autistic. Tally’s response to both, though, is authentic. She tells the girl that the information was not hers to share and she refuses to offer the girls the cookies her mother suggests she share. Overall, this book gives a particular view of autism not seen in other novels that can lead to understanding and rich discussion.

THOUGHTS: Mockingjay, A Boy and a Bat, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Rain Reign. . . no shortage of books featuring a person with autism. In Can You See Me? however, the reader can relate not only to the behaviors associated with autism, but also with the times any of us have been called out for our quirks or feeling different or not fitting in. This book is ideal for character studies, even for comparing it with R. J. Palacio’s format of Wonder: How does Tally’s sister Nell feel always sacrificing her needs for Tally? Why is it difficult for Tally’s friend, Layla, to stay loyal to Tally?, etc. The title and cover refer to the tiger mask Tally sometimes dons when she needs to face hard situations. The cover art is so busy, the background obscures the title of the book; though that may be the goal, the artwork looks amateurish and the result makes the cover forgettable.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia