The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Published by Versify

The Year I Flew Away: Arnold, Marie: 9780358272755: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  As if immigrating from Haiti isn’t hard enough, Gabrielle has to move to America by herself, her parents promising to join her soon, but admonishing her not to get into any trouble lest she get sent back.  Her aunt and uncle make her feel welcome, but Gabrielle gets bullied because of her accent and other connections to Haiti.  When she meets a witch who promises her three wishes to help her fit in, it’s hard to say no.  Of course, there are always strings attached to such propositions, and when Gabrielle wishes to speak flawless English, she loses her ability to speak Haitian Creole.  Gabrielle’s new friendships with Carmen, a Mexican-American girl in her class, and Rocky, a talking rat who wants to be a rabbit, help her to feel stronger.  When the witch threatens to take away Gabrielle’s family and her essence, she has to find the courage to fight back and to express who she really is.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  What starts as an ordinary middle grade novel about immigration quickly takes a detour into some fun magical realism.  Plenty of readers will relate to Gabrielle’s middle-school wish to blend in, and the ending will show them that being yourself is more important than being popular.

Cons:  The whole be yourself/find your voice message got a little heavy-handed toward the end.

The In-Between by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

Published by Walden Pond Press

The In-Between: Ansari, Rebecca K.S.: 9780062916099: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Cooper’s had to deal with a lot of difficult changes in his family over the last few years; in the opening pages, he’s in the yard venting his anger.  The new girl next door sits on a swing and watching him…as usual.  Her odd behavior leads Cooper and his sister Jess to investigate, and they learn that the crest on the jacket she wears has been found on clothing at disasters going back to the nineteenth century.  Strangest of all is the fact that only Cooper, Jess, and Cooper’s new friend Gus seem to be able to see the girl or the renovations done to the derelict house that she’s moved into.  As they get deeper into the mystery, they discover a supernatural world called the In-Between and learn that they may all be in danger.  Can the three of them solve the mystery in time to avert the next disaster? 320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A well-crafted spooky tale with plenty of plot twists that will keep readers guessing right up until the end.  The family issues of divorce, an absent father, and Jess’s diabetes add some depth to the story.

Cons:  I saw some reviews that recommended this for kids as young as 8, but the complicated plot and somewhat creepy story would probably make it a better choice for older readers.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Amazon.com: Starfish (9781984814500): Fipps, Lisa: Books

Summary:  Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied about her size for many years–by her classmates, her brother, and her mother, who is pushing her to have bariatric surgery.  Things get worse when her best friend moves away the summer before sixth grade, and Ellie has to face middle school alone.  Fortunately, a new girl next door becomes a friend, and Ellie’s sympathetic dad takes her to a therapist who helps her explore her emotions and learn to stand up for herself.  It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do for Ellie’s family, but by the end she is feeling empowered to confront some of the bullies and to stop hiding who she really is.  Includes a brief author’s note explaining how she based Ellie’s bullying on her own experiences.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  I inhaled this novel in verse in a single sitting and can’t wait to share it with students at my school.  I commend Nancy Paulsen (mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements) for seeing this as a middle grade book instead of YA.  I think it will be a story that many fifth, sixth and seventh graders will take to heart and that will be invaluable to them as they navigate middle school and body image issues.

Cons: As much as I loved the verse format, I think its brevity made some of the work done in therapy seem a little quick and easy. 

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Published by Heartdrum

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids: Cynthia Leitich Smith:  9780062869944: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Kids from all over the United States and Canada come together for the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor Michigan in this anthology of short stories by different Native authors.  Whether the kids are regulars on the powwow circuit or attending for the first time, they appreciate being part of their community as they dance, help out in the vendor booths, and hang out with friends and family.  The sixteen stories are bookended by poems: “What Is a Powwow?” serves as an introduction and “Circles” concludes the book, followed by a glossary of words from each poem or story (in different Native languages); notes and acknowledgements from each writer; and brief biographies of all the contributors.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Since starting this blog in 2015, I’ve struggled to find books about contemporary Native life, so I’m delighted with this collection about many kids’ experiences by so many different authors.  The stories are both funny and touching and would make excellent additions to any upper elementary or middle school ELA curriculum.  I actually attended the Ann Arbor powwow in 1987, and reading this book made me want to go back.

Cons:  The stories were interconnected, so characters from one story often showed up in another, but there were so many I had trouble keeping track (except for the dog wearing the Ancestor Approved t-shirt–I always recognized him). 

Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

Published by Salaam Reads

Amina's Song (Amina's Voice): Khan, Hena: 9781534459885: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  At the start of this sequel to Amina’s Voice, Amina Khokar is finishing up a month-long trip to Pakistan.  She’s grown to love the country, as well as the aunt, uncle, and cousins her family has stayed with.  When she gets back home to Wisconsin, she feels out of place and like her friends don’t understand her.  A new boy named Nico proves to be a good listener, and his interest and talents with music production encourage her to pursue her songwriting.  A social studies project about Malala and other famous Pakistani women as well as an original song help Amina to feel like she can embrace both the Pakistani and American parts of her life while helping people in both countries to be a little less afraid of one another.  288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Amina’s Voice has long been my go-to book for describing my personal experience with the “mirrors and windows” analogy about books (I learned a lot about Islam from this book and was surprised by the parallels between Amina’s Muslim community and the Presbyterian church I grew up in).  So I’m delighted that there’s a sequel, which I enjoyed at least as much as the original.

Cons:  I found out that I’ve been pronouncing Amina wrong for the last four years (it’s AH-mee-nah, not ah-MEE-nah).

Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan: 9780525516965 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

Summary:  Ana loves learning and hopes to be able to go on to secondary school.  But in the Bolivian mountain village where she lives, most boys wind up working in the mines and girls become miners’ wives.  When her abusive father forces her asthmatic younger brother Daniel to become a miner, Daniel’s health breaks.  Ana volunteers to take his place, earning the wrath of the men who believe it’s bad luck for a girl or woman to go into the mines.  A cave-in results in her father’s death and Daniel’s disappearance, bringing even greater despair to the family.  Ana feels trapped by the circumstances of her life, yet also determined to find a way out for herself and her family.  Includes an eight-page author’s note with more information about Bolivia and the mining industry; a note on the use of italics, languages, and the Bible; and a glossary of Spanish and Quechua (indigenous) words.  384 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A gripping story with an intelligent and courageous heroine, surrounded by nuanced characters, that explores a part of the world that is probably unfamiliar to most American readers (it was to me).  

Cons:  Because the setting is so unfamiliar, this could be a little bit of a hard sell.  It’s worth some perseverance, though, as it would appeal to many middle school readers.

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Take Back the Block: Giles, Chrystal D.: 9780593175170: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Wes loves his neighborhood of Kensington Oaks, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and his social-activist parents.  When a developer offers to buy the houses in the Oaks, it seems as though his community is going to go the way of other gentrified neighborhoods in the city.  As friends start moving away, Wes gets increasingly determined to find a way to save the Oaks.  A social studies project unexpectedly gives him a possible way to fight the developers, but he’ll need the help of his whole community to make it happen.  240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Wes’s funny, distinctive voice provides a great narrative to explore the issues of gentrification, Black history, and racial profiling.  Along with all the social justice storylines is a good dose of middle school life, friendship ups and downs, and a budding romance.

Cons:  Wes’s friend Kari had an interesting story, but the resolution felt a little rushed.

J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard, illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts

Published by Kokila

Amazon.com: J.D. and the Great Barber Battle (9780593111529): Dillard, J.,  Roberts, Akeem S.: Books

Summary:  J.D. endures a tough first day of school when he starts third grade with the haircut his mom gave him.  When he decides to take matters (and clippers) into his own hands and fix things up, the results are surprisingly good.  Before long, friends are asking him for haircuts, and he’s started his own barber business in his room.  But Henry Hart, the town barber, doesn’t like the fact that J.D. is taking away his business and threatens to shut him down.  J.D. proposes a solution: have a contest where each barber cuts the hair on three heads and let an impartial judge decide who’s the better barber.  If Henry wins, J.D. shuts his business, but if J.D. wins he can stay open.  The results are a bit of a surprise, and the ending makes it clear that there will be a sequel to J.D.’s story.  128 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Early elementary kids will enjoy J.D.’s humorous voice; the short chapters and plentiful cartoon-style illustrations are sure to attract lots of fans.

Cons:  It seemed a bit of a stretch that a third grader would become so proficient a barber in such a short time.

365 Days to Alaska by Cathy Carr

Published by Harry N. Abrams

365 Days to Alaska: Carr, Cathy: 9781419743801: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Rigel has lived all her life in the Alaskan bush with her parents and two sisters, thriving on their isolated, off-the-grid lifestyle.  So when her parents announce that they are divorcing and her mother is taking the girls to the home in Connecticut where she grew up, Rigel is devastated.  Her father, Bear, assures her that he just needs a year to get his life together and then she can come back and live with him.  As Rigel navigates middle school in suburban Connecticut, she silently counts down the 365 days, not telling anyone of her plans to return to Alaska.  At first her only friend is an injured crow that she discovers living behind the school, but as other kids and teachers reach out to her, she realizes she enjoys having human friends as well.  When Bear grows distant and repeatedly breaks promises, Rigel begins to realize that her year in Connecticut may not end the way she had originally planned.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of school and family stories and books featuring animals will enjoy getting to know Rigel and her family.  The descriptions of life in the Alaskan bush are interesting, and the family and friendship dynamics are realistic.

Cons:  Mean girl Hayden was pretty one-dimensional.

Eat Bugs (Project Startup, book 1) by Heather Alexander, with Laura D’Asaro and Rose Wang, illustrated by Vanessa Flores

Published by Penguin Workshop

Project Startup #1 (Eat Bugs) - Kindle edition by D'Asaro, Laura, Wang,  Rose, Alexander, Heather, Flores, Vanessa. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

Summary:  When Hallie and Jaye get assigned to be partners in a business class startup project, it doesn’t exactly seem like a match made in heaven.  Hallie is outgoing and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her outspokenness and unique fashion sense, while Jaye is shy and constantly trying to figure out how to fit in and avoid the spotlight.  After sampling a cricket on a class trip, Hallie wants to start a bugs-as-food business, while Jaye prefers the idea of a social media app that would bring everyone in their school together.  When a pair of boys steals Jaye’s idea, she’s forced to agree to go the insect route.  As the two navigate the terrain of pitches and market testing, they discover traits in each other that they admire, and a friendship is born.  Their business plan isn’t quite enough to snag the top prize at the startups competition, but their partnership is cemented, and the future looks bright for Chirps Chips.  Includes an interview with Laura and Rose, founders of the real-life Chirps Chips.  224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Told in alternating voices, this breezy illustrated story introduces readers to some of what’s involved in starting a business, emphasizing the be-yourself message for both entrepreneurship and middle school.

Cons:  Flashbacks to The Apprentice.