…for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

26026063Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk (2016)

Opening line: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

What a delicious opening line. So much anticipation, so much mystery.

Annabelle is living in rural Pennsylvania amidst the years of WWII, although it’s the earlier war that plays a more significant role in her story. Oldest of three children, Annabelle spends her days quietly wandering the woods and hills by her home, following her boisterous younger brothers to and from school, and occasionally running across Toby, a homeless WWI vet who has taken up residence in an abandoned smokehouse nearby. Though strange and mysterious to most of the townsfolk, Annabelle’s family takes a special interest in Toby, sometimes bringing him food and clothing, and sharing with him the camera Annabelle’s mom won in a photography contest years ago.

Things change in quiet Wolf Hollow, though, when Betty moves to town to live with her grandparents. A few years older than Annabelle, it quickly becomes clear that Betty is a bully. Annabelle is determined not to let Betty get to her, despite her regular threats of violence, but when Annabelle’s youngest brother’s face is cut by a wire deliberately stung across their path, Annabelle feels the need to speak up. Before she gets a chance, though, Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is horribly injured by a thrown rock, and Betty tells everyone she saw Toby throw it.

Annabelle doesn’t believe Betty’s telling the truth, and now she’s adamant to set the record straight before things turn into a witch hunt. But when Betty goes missing, everyone assumes Toby must have something to do with it.

Other reviewers have compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree with their assessment. Like Scout, Annabelle is forced to grow up as she struggles with what is right and what is wrong and attempts to prove the innocence of a man who seems unable or unwilling to defend himself. And like Mockingbird and so many other wonderful middle grade and YA stories, I loved the message that age cannot define how much of a difference you can make. As Annabelle put it, “There would always be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But… If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?” (p 228).

In addition to the rich language and small moments of magic in the pages, I marveled at the complexity of each of the characters the author presents to us. She shows us that we can never fully know another person’s history — even those whom we dislike — though it never hurts to try.

I loved this one. I hope it becomes a classic. 3 stars.

P.S. That book cover, though, right? Swoon.

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My first challenge?

The 13th Floor, by Scott R. Welvaert (2015) 414c4elowpl-_sx349_bo1204203200_

Opening line: “Sam Wentworth hated moving.”

I brought this one home to read after an angry parent threatened to call the district office yesterday. Fortunately, I had no part of that conversation (the school psychiatrist brought it to my attention, and he was just lovely about it), but I’m holding my breath to see if it will develop into anything. The book is part of the Tartan House series, and I bought it last year when trying to build up the hi/lo collection of our library. And on that note, it fulfills its goal entirely. Rated at a 4th-5th grade reading level with fewer than 100 pages, this one is definitely high interest, especially for kids who are gamers or like watching gory movies.  It captured my attention, and I flew through it in under an hour.

Sam is new at school and falls in with the popular kids over their mutual love of video games. When one of the guys gets a bootlegged copy of The 13th Floor game (which is evidently banned in the US), they all become so immersed, they can’t escape, and it begins to take over their lives. The game IS really gory. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, there are blood and guts everywhere. I can understand the parent’s disgust. However, it does exactly what it set out to do, which is engage reluctant readers to keep flipping the pages. I don’t know. I think I could argue its merit if this actually becomes a challenge, but we shall see. Sigh…and just over a week until Banned Books Week…

Oh, did I mention that the moral of the story is anti-bullying? It was a little heavy-handed, but I guess another point in my anti-censorship campaign.

1 star

Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

Middle School Drama at its Finest

Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (2015)61yatzrvzjl

What a perfect title for this graphic novel set in middle school. Because, coming from someone who spends everyday in a middle school, it’s a word that describes anywhere from 50%-75% of any given day.

Penelope feels super awkward every time she sees Jaime in the hallways, due to a terrible interaction she had with him on her first day at a new school. After tripping over her own feet in front of everyone, Jaime stops to help her pick up her stuff. The local bullies start harassing them, calling Penelope Jaime’s “nerder girlfriend”, and in a desperate attempt to distance herself from a low social status, she pushes Jaime away and yells at him to leave her alone. Now she feels incredibly guilty for her reaction to a kid who was just trying to be nice to her.

Awkward.

I can identify with Penelope’s severe guilt complex (I still cringe when thinking of a similar moment of over-reaction in 5th grade), so I immediately felt the truth of these pages. Soon, she gets in with the art club crowd, a weird but welcoming group of friends — another thing I can identify with after spending four years in drama club. But the art club’s bitter rival is the science club, who recently stole their table at the school club fair, and the principal plans to cancel both clubs if they can’t get along. Penelope’s anxious to keep the art club running, because it’s the only place she’s felt comfortable — and the one person from the science club who might be willing to help bring the clubs together is none other than Jaime. Can she push aside the awkwardness to save the clubs?

I loved this graphic novel for it’s engaging artwork, complex and diverse characters, and simple yet relevant plot. Another good one to hand to those that love Raina T.

2 stars.

Hello friend

51iiw2fcopl Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead (2015)

Opening line: “When she was eight years old, Bridget Barsamian woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she shouldn’t be alive.”

Bridge has two best friends, Em and Tab, and the three have been besties forever, partially because of their rule to never fight. But seventh grade has a lot of changes, including the policy that each student must join a club. However, the three musketeers have different interests, leading them to different clubs. Different clubs means different people, different people means less time for each other. And that might mean they might have to break their no-fighting rule.

One of the new people Bridge meets in her stage crew club is Sherm. Every few chapters we get a letter from Sherm written to his grandfather, a grandfather who used to be there, but no longer is, and the reader is really not sure why. And it’s not until we know more of Sherm’s backstory before the letters start making any sense.

And then we have a third narrator, a story of a teenage girl on Valentine’s Day, who, for some reason, is avoiding school. Or at least certain people at school.

These multiple perspectives weave in and out of each other, but without telling us directly how. On its own, Bridge’s story would have been a nice friendship/school middle grade novel. I probably would have enjoyed it. But it’s the multiple story lines that brings this novel up to the next level. The mystery and the various points-of-view (third person, second person, letter) the other two story lines provide bring this from a good novel to a great one. I loved it.

2.5 stars

Jammer Dreams

51mvuixhjelRoller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

Opening line: “If you really want to know, it began back in fifth grade. Back when Nicole and I were still best friends.”

Okay, so I’m seeing a startling similarity between this one and my last post, despite the fact that I didn’t pick up on it during the actual reading of the book. Perhaps there are just some themes that are important enough to middle school that they need LOTS of books about them. Like drifting friendships.

Many of us had that childhood best friend. We loved the same things, hated the same things, and did everything together. But with age, new people, and new experiences, that friendship can change. As it did with Astrid and Nicole. The girls attend a roller derby game one night with Astrid’s mom and Astrid falls in love with the intensity, the speed, and the crazy outfits. She assumes Nicole will sign up for the derby summer camp with her, and is surprised to learn Nicole has signed up for dance camp instead. With the worst girl in the world.

But Astrid is determined to become a derby girl. Unfortunately, the first day of derby camp shows that skating is NOT Astrid’s natural instinct. She’s pretty awful at it. Despite that, Astrid refuses to give up.

Great for fans of Raina Telgemeier’s and the only middle grade book I know about an increasingly popular sport!

2 stars.