Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  On page 214, Callie has just gotten to school late after trying, unsuccessfully, to defend her younger brother from a bully.  She’s (sort of accidentally) skipped school all week.  Placement tests for eighth grade are about to start, and her history teacher is ordering her to get to her homeroom so she won’t be late.  Callie is failing history, a fact that she has hidden from her parents, who already have enough to worry about since her father lost his lucrative new job.  At that moment, Callie’s new friend Cassius, who is going blind, calls to tell her he’s lost in the subway and needs her to come help him.  There’s more, including a grandmother still mourning the loss of her son, who was estranged from his parents after coming out as gay; two wealthy friends who keep asking Callie for the $250 she owes them; and the man in Apartment 1986 of her grandmother’s building, who might be her grandmother’s new boyfriend, and whose apartment seems to be a sort of time machine back to the year 1986.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The pace is fast and furious, all told in Callie’s funny, honest voice.  Callie tries to be an optimist, no matter what, but by the end of the story, she’s learned that life is both sunshine and shadows, and the best you can do is try to tell the truth about it and hang on to the people you love.

Cons:  Be aware, if you’re purchasing this for an elementary library, that the story line with the estranged gay son is a pretty major one.  I wish this were not a con, but I speak from experience.

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Published by First Second

Summary:  Shannon Hale recounts her elementary school days, starting with her first friend, Adrienne, whom she met in kindergarten.  Shannon loved creating imaginary games, and Adrienne was an enthusiastic participant.  Adrienne’s family moved away for a year.  When they returned to the neighborhood, things had changed.  Adrienne befriended second-grade ringleader Jen, and Shannon found herself on the outer fringes of the clique, desperately trying secure her position.  Things were pretty rough at home, too, being stuck in the middle of five children and often bullied by a troubled older sister.  Finally, in fifth grade, Shannon declared her independence from the clique and learned to make her own good friends.  Much to her surprise, Jen admired her independence and became a friend as well.  In an author’s note, Shannon Hale tells more about her childhood, and her class pictures from elementary school are included at the end as well.  224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Brought to you by the creators of the Princess in Black series, this heartfelt memoir with its message of being yourself will be a hit with fans of Smile, El Deafo, and Roller Girl.

Cons:  Shannon’s life got pretty depressing about halfway through the book.  (Don’t worry, it all turns around for a happy ending.)

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Summary:  Ruthie is happily adjusting to life in 1960’s Queens, New York, where her family has settled after escaping Castro’s Cuba.  She’s just been promoted from the “dumb class” and has a new pair of coveted go-go boots when her father surprises the family one night with a new car.  Off they go to visit family friends on Staten Island, but on the way home, tragedy strikes.  A car accident leaves five teenagers dead, a woman paralyzed, and Ruthie with her leg so badly broken that she is put in a body cast and bedridden for nearly a year.  Stuck in the family’s small apartment, having to use a bedpan, and unable to eat much for fear of outgrowing her cast, Ruthie is forced to draw on her own resources.  She discovers reading, writing, and painting, and comes to appreciate the friends and family members who work hard to keep her spirits up.  When she is finally released from the cast, she struggles to overcome her fears of reinjuring herself, and again learns to find the courage to leave her bed, venture outside, and eventually return to school.  She must heal from being broken, but as the title says, she learns to count herself lucky as well.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Based on the author’s childhood experience, this is a story of immigrants struggling to find a home in America and a girl struggling to find her way through an extremely debilitating injury.  Behar writes unflinchingly of her fears and how she was able to keep pushing through them.

Cons:  My claustrophobia started kicking in around month 4 of the body cast experience.

Horizon (Book 1) by Scott Westerfeld

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Four kids from a robotics team are traveling to a competition in  Japan.  Disaster strikes, and the plane crashes, most of the passengers ripped through the ceiling before impact.  There are eight survivors:  the robotics team, plus four other kids.  Before crashing, each of the survivors experienced a jolt that felt like a mind probe.  Although the plane was flying over the Arctic Circle, it has landed in the middle of a tropical jungle.  Before long, the teens discover dangerous birds and vines, as well as a mysterious device that allows them to adjust gravity.  There is one adventure after another as they struggle to stay alive in the jungle and try to figure out where they are.  Could it be another planet?  The cliff-hanging ending assures a sequel, most likely more than one.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Strong, intelligent characters and a fast-moving, action-driven plot will make this a popular choice for many readers.

Cons:  Given the premise, I didn’t find this to have the page-turning excitement as I was expecting.

Chester and Gus by Cammie McGovern

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Since birth, Chester has aspired to be a service dog like his mother was.  He’s got everything it takes, except that he can’t overcome his fear of loud noises.  When a thunderstorm rolls in on the day service dogs are being chosen, Chester is left behind.  Instead, he is sold to a family with an autistic son, Gus.  Although he is brought into the family as a pet, Chester takes it upon himself to serve Gus.  Gus is almost completely nonverbal, but Chester can occasionally communicate with Gus through their thoughts.  Eventually, Chester is allowed to go to school with Gus, where the dog sees things that the humans are missing.  When the principal discovers Chester isn’t a certified therapy dog, he’s barred from the school, unable to help Gus when he’s beaten up by a bully with no witnesses around.  When Gus starts having seizures, his parents are at their wits’ end, but Chester may have the answer to turn the situation around and move Gus’s life in a positive direction.  272 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Chester is funny and lovable, as one would expect of a dog narrator.  His insights about Gus and his parents will give readers a new understanding of severely autistic kids.  I flew through this book in two days.

Cons:  At times, Chester’s intelligence and communication with Gus strained credulity.  Also, I’m pretty sure dogs can’t perceive what’s on a TV screen to pick up the many lessons about humans that Chester does.

Armstrong & Charlie by Steven B. Frank

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  When “Opportunity Busing” comes to Charlie’s neighborhood school in 1970’s southern California, many of his friends’ parents opt for other schools.  But Charlie’s parents, who have experienced some prejudice against their Jewish faith, choose to keep Charlie at Wonderland.  Some 15 miles away, Armstrong’s parents decide to take advantage of the opportunity, and send their reluctant son to sixth grade at Wonderland.  Told in the alternating voices of the two boys, the story shows the two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards progress of school segregation.  Gradually, the two boys go from sworn enemies to a tentative truce to a close friendship.  Charlie, still hurting from the death of his older brother the previous year, eventually shares his pain with Armstrong, who in turn gives Charlie a taste of what his life in the projects is like.  By the end of sixth grade, they are almost like brothers, unsure if they will see each other again as separate junior high schools loom in their futures.  304 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Both funny and poignant, Armstrong & Charlie grabs the reader immediately with two distinct voices switching off every page or two. With lots of 1970’s era details (how could I have forgotten about click-clacks?), kids will get a taste of what school segregation was and how it affected ordinary kids of both races.

Cons:  While many fifth graders would enjoy this book, be aware that there is quite a bit of profanity, plus detailed discussions of French kissing and spying on naked women, before recommending it to them.

Hello, Universe by Erin Estrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Four kids from the same neighborhood share the story of an early summer day.  Valencia, whose voice is the only first person one, loves spending time observing the natural world, but sometimes feels cut off from other kids because she is deaf.  Virgil is the only quiet member of a loud, boisterous family and struggles at school, both academically and socially.  Kaori believes herself to have psychic powers and uses them to try to help Virgil.  Chet is a bully who picks on Virgil.  When he throws Virgil’s backpack in an old dry well, Virgil climbs down to rescue his guinea pig who is in the pack and can’t get back out.  Meanwhile, Valencia and Kaori have met for the first time, on a day Virgil had an appointment with Kaori.  When he doesn’t show up, they suspect something is wrong, and the wheels are set in motion for all four characters to come together.  Their lives intersect in the woods, where a dramatic rescue sets the stage for a happy ending.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Kelly does a masterful job of creating fully developed characters through the dialogue, actions, of memories of each child.  Even the bully becomes more understandable as the story unfolds.  Virgil’s plight is enough to keep the pages turning to the end.

Cons:  There’s (possibly) a bit of magic for Virgil in the well that might be confusing to younger readers.