That’s What Friends Do by Cathleen Barnhart

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  David and Sammie have been friends for years.  David has discovered recently that he has a crush on Sammie, but is too shy to tell her.  When new kid Luke starts flirting with Sammie, David is jealous and feels like he should make his move.  In a swift, confusing series of events on the bus one day, David tries to kiss Sammie but accidentally touches her inappropriately.  She feels betrayed, and considers their friendship over. David is devastated, but doesn’t know how to make things right. Forced to go their separate ways, each of them discovers new friends and interests.  David joins the art club and finally gets up the nerve to tell his dad that he’s more passionate about drawing than baseball. Sammie finds new friends on the softball team and has to tell her father that she’d rather be on that team than playing baseball with the boys.  When Sammie experiences further sexual harassment from Luke and his friends, David must find the courage to speak up and tell the truth. 352 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Another #metoo inspired book, this one told in the alternating voices of David and Sammie.  The middle school angst with friends, crushes, and parents feels real, and the problems the kids face are realistically messy and complicated.  Tweens and young teens are sure to find a lot to relate to here.

Cons:  I was expecting some further insights into Luke’s life by the end of the story, but I never felt like I learned enough about him to understand his motivations.  Although he initially seemed like the villain, by the end it seemed like the author was trying to portray him as a troubled kid, but I didn’t feel like I had enough information to decide.

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Chirp by Kate Messner

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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Summary:  Mia is excited to be moving back to Burlington, Vermont, where she hopes she can help save her grandmother’s cricket farm.  Although Gram is feisty and determined, she’s recently had a stroke, and it’s beginning to look like someone is trying to sabotage her farm.  During summer vacation, Mia gets involved with two day camps: one a place where she can create a business plan to help her grandmother, and the other a camp where kids learn to navigate Ninja Warrior-style obstacles.  Mia’s not quite up to the obstacles, having suffered a badly broken arm at gymnastics not long ago. As the summer goes on, the reader learns of the sexual harassment by one of the coaches that led to her accident and destroyed her confidence.  By summer’s end, she’s begun to regain some of that confidence by making friends, growing physically stronger, helping Gram, and finally talking to some other women in her life about her gymnastics experience. 240 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  There seem to be more middle grade novels lately that address the sexual harassment issue, and this one does it with lots of other fun plot lines, including a pretty good mystery.

Cons:  The story seemed a bit too agenda-driven; it would have been nice to see some strong, sympathetic male characters as well as the many female ones.

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Leaving Lymon by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  Lymon lives with his grandparents, Pops and Ma, in Mississippi. His daddy’s been in jail for as long as Lymon can remember, and he has no memory of the mother who left him to go live in Chicago.  But he loves his grandparents, and especially enjoys learning to play guitar with his grandfather. But when Pops dies, everything changes. Ma and Lymon are forced to go live in Milwaukee, where his aunt and uncle can help take care of them.  Although his father’s gotten out of jail, he’s on the road playing music much of the time, so when Ma gets sick with diabetes, Lymon is sent to Chicago to live with the mother he doesn’t know. She’s married to a man named Robert, who resents having to take care of Lymon, and beats him regularly.  Lymon starts acting out, becoming the bully we met in Finding Langston, stealing money, and running away from home.  He ends up in a home for boys, where a caring music teacher puts him back on the right track.  It’s clear Lymon’s got a rough road ahead, but the ending offers some hope for a better future for him.  Includes an author’s note with more information on the time period. 198 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  It’s been long enough since I read Finding Langston that I’ve forgotten the character of Lymon, but I enjoyed getting to know him in his own story.  His voice rings true, and he shows a lot of resilience in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.  Cline-Ransome has done an excellent job of showing how bullies are made not born, and readers will empathize with Lymon and understand why he does what he does.

Cons:  I didn’t find Lymon’s story quite as engaging and uplifting as Langston’s.

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Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Scoob has had some troubles at school, so he’s only too happy when his grandmother shows up with an RV, announcing that she’s sold her house, and takes him on an impromptu road trip across the southern U.S.  Along the way, she shares stories with Scoob about his grandfather, their interracial marriage in the 1960’s, and how Grandpa ended up in jail. Scoob learns about racism past and present when he discovers a well-worn copy of the Green Book in the RV and notices some people’s discomfort at seeing a black kid with a white woman.  G’ma’s behavior gets stranger as the trip progresses, and Scoob tries to figure out her frequent license plate changes on the RV, the large pile of money he discovers, and the reason why she refuses to take his dad’s increasingly frantic phone calls. The ending isn’t entirely happy, but Scoob finds he has grown and changed during the trip and gained a greater understanding of his family and their history.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Scoob and G’ma are fun characters and readers will find plenty of humor in their adventures, while learning about civil rights history and race issues from the past and present.  The light tone, fairly short text, and plentiful illustrations would make this a good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  This book has been reviewed positively everywhere, but I was not a big fan.  The revelations about G’ma’s character were hard for me to understand and made her unlikeable to me.

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From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

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Summary:  When Zoe gets a letter from her father on her 12th birthday, she is stunned.  Marcus has been in prison all her life, and she has never had any contact with him.  She begins to secretly correspond with him, and learns that he has written her many letters that she’s never received.  When he tells her he didn’t commit the crime he’s imprisoned for, Zoe wonders if she can find the alibi witness from so many years ago who might be able to verify Marcus’s story.  With the help of her friend Trevor and her grandmother, Zoe sets out to discover the truth about her family and learns that even a 12-year-old can make a difference in the world. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will be happy to get to know Zoe, an aspiring baker who hopes to win a spot on a Food Network show for kids.  The messages about racism in the justice system come through but are woven into a story full of love and friendship that would be perfect for starting some interesting discussions.

Cons:  I wished Zoe’s Froot Loops cupcake recipe had been included somewhere.

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Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

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Summary:  On the first pages, Cindy is watching Wild Kingdom with her family and comparing the predators and prey she sees with her situation in seventh grade.  The predators are the mean girls, and she and her best friend Katie are they prey–at least until Katie starts sitting with the “predators” at lunch.  Cindy’s self-confidence needs a boost, and that’s just what she gets when a caring teacher notices her flair for writing and puts her in touch with a young woman reporter on the local paper.  Before long, Cindy is traveling around town, shadowing her hip young mentor, and occasionally writing her own articles. With Watergate and the Equal Rights Amendment shaking up institutions from the free press to her own family, Cindy can’t help feeling like she’s on a roller coaster as she navigates a seventh grade year that includes a new boyfriend and some pretty empowered new friends.  By the end of the year, she’s no longer skulking around the halls like a hunted animal, but has claimed her rightful place in middle school as she heads into eighth grade. Includes an author’s note and four pages of drawings showing the fun and games of the 1970’s. 240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Readers of a certain age (me) will enjoy this fond look back to what now seems like the naively innocent age of the 1970’s.  Current kids will be treated to another fun and relatable graphic novel memoir that will inspire them to follow their own dreams.

Cons:  One of the mean seventh graders is introduced as having French kissed an eighth grade boy, which is enough to raise eyebrows with teachers and parents in my elementary school.  Believe me, I’d be the last person to champion censorship, but I kind of wish writers would leave out those casual references (that don’t further the plot line) that make me hesitate to buy their books.  I acknowledge I’m a bit conflict-averse, so feel free to add your own differing opinion in the comments.

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Notorious by Gordon Korman

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Keenan’s recovering at his dad’s house on Centerlight Island after contracting TB while living with his mom and stepfather in Shanghai.  There are some pretty unique features to Centerlight: the U.S.-Canadian border that runs through the middle of it; the crumbling lighthouse; the gangsters who are rumored to have hidden treasure there; and Zarabeth, a.k.a. ZeeBee, the neighbor girl who befriends Keenan.  As the only Canadian girl her age on the island, ZeeBee doesn’t have any friends, but she does have a wild imagination. She’s sure Tommy-Gun Ferguson, the gangster who once lived in her house, buried gold somewhere on the island and she’s equally sure that her beloved dog, Barney, was murdered.  As Keenan learns more about his new home, he discovers that almost every resident had reason to want ferocious, destructive Barney dead. After a rocky start to their friendship, Keenan and ZeeBee agree to join forces and end up discovering more about Centerlight than they originally bargained for.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  It would hardly be a new year without a new offering from perennial favorite Gordon Korman.  Told in his trademark alternate points of view–mostly Keenan and ZeeBee, with a few other Centerlight residents occasionally chiming in–there’s enough humor, friendship, and mystery to keep Korman’s many fans happy for another year.  Whoops, make that six months–there’s another Gordon Korman book due out in July.

Cons:  It was a bit difficult to fathom ZeeBee’s love for and her family’s patience with Barney.

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