by B. B. Alston First sentence: “I’m sitting in the principal’s office.” Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: There are some scary moments, mostly with monsters, and instances of bullying. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.
Amari’s older brother (and hero), Quinton, has been missing for six months. He had graduated from high school, he had a job – or so he said – and then he just… disappeared. And it’s been affecting Amari’s school life, mostly because she just knows he’s not dead like everyone else assumes. And so when Quinton appears to her in a Wakeful Dream with a nomination to go to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs summer camp, she figures it’s the best way she has to find out what Really Happened.
Once there, though, Amari discovers that she is a magician; one with a percentage of magic so high that it’s almost impossible. This brings attention to her, and not always the good kind. Additionally, she is trying out to be a Junior Agent in the Department of Supernatural investigations, which is where her brother worked before his disappearance, and she’s met with all sorts of pushback for wanting to be one of the Elite. And, to top it all off, the evil magician Moreau (yes, like in the Island of Dr…) has a nefarious plan to destroy the Bureau and have magicians take over, and wants Amari to join him.
I think the marketing material is “Artemis Fowl” meets “Men in Black” but I think it’s more along the Percy Jackson lines. A girl, who doesn’t know her worth, finds a secret camp of people with similar powers, and comes into her own fighting a battle by the end of the book? Comparisons aside, this is a LOT of fun. I liked Amari, felt her struggles were real, glad she found some good friends along the way, and there was a satisfying ending as well as leaving things open for the next book in the series (which I immediately put on hold at the library). I think Alston is one of those writers who, like Riordan, has the potential to capture a whole generation (or two) of children’s imaginations.
A-Okay by Jarad Greene Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: It’s a very “middle school” book, with crushes and friendship issues. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.
Jay is starting 8th grade with a face full of acne. This is a problem, mostly b because he is very self-conscious of his looks, and he thinks that his friends won’t like him anymore. He tried everything, but nothing seemed to work until he goes to a dermatologist and got on a heavy course of medication. The only problem is that it gives him mood swings and makes him sweat a bunch. On top of that, his best friend is more interested in hanging out with his new band members and Jay feels alone. He tries to make new friends, but it doesn’t go terribly well. And one more thing: he’s just not interested in a couple of his classmates the way they are in him.
I liked that this book dealt not only with the way boys feel about their appearance but also with the lack of feelings of attraction to people. I think there are more of these coming out now, normalizing not “liking people”, which I really appreciate. It’s not a really great graphic novel, but it is a good one, and one that I think kids will find valuable.
The Flamingo by Guojing Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: there are very few words, so this works as a beginning chapter book, a picture book, or a graphic novel. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section of the bookstore, but it can definitely go younger.
The simple story of a city girl who goes to visit her grandmother in an unnamed (but presumably Asian) country. They spend days on the beach, and at night, her grandmother telles==s her the story of how she came to have a flamingo wing. It’s a simple story, one that is meant to delight as well as entertain, and when the girl returns home to the city, she draws the flamingo adventure for her grandmother.
There is not much to this book, but man, it was absolutely gorgeous. The art is so so evocative, you can’t help but fall in love with the characters from the girl and her grandmother to the flamingo. It’s absolutely stunning.
Living with Viola by Rosena Fung Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: It talks pretty frankly about anxiety, and implies suicidal thoughts. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.
Olivia is a sixth grader, and her parents have transferred her to a new school, one with a better reputation so she can get a better education, which means starting completely over. That’s shared enough, but Livvy has pretty bad anxiety, which she personifies as “Viola” Sometimes Livvy can keep Viola at bay, but often Viola becomes so big that it’s overwhelming. Livvy does make new friends, but there are friendship struggles and struggles with her immigrant parents as well as with her extended family. Overarching it all is Viola, and her insistence that Livvy is just no good.
This is an excellent graphic novel for a couple of reasons. First, it’s great that it shows anxiety as something “other” – it was a little weird to get used to at first, but eventually, I did. I think it’s beneficial because kids will realize that anxiety is not “them” but something outside of their control. At least by themselves. At the end of the book, Livvy goes to see a therapist who gives her some tools to help keep Viola at bay better. The book doesn’t get into medication, but it does provide hope that anxiety isn’t something to be ashamed or afraid of. I liked that Livvy felt like a sixth grader, aught between friends who want to “grow up” and Livvy wanting to carry around her cute plush unicorn. That pretty well sums up sixth grade. I also enjoyed Fug’s exploration of Livvy’s Cantonese heritage, from the microaggressions of kids at school (why does your food smell, why don’t you speak Chinese) to Fung choosing to make every time a character speaks in Cantonese in red. It’s a clever, good, well-drawn graphic novel and I enjoyed it quite a lot.
Button Pusher by Tyler Page Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: There is some domestic violence, as Tyler’s dad has a temper. There are also allusions to swearing (but they are @#!!). It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.
In this graphic memoir (sort of), Page relates his history of having ADHD during his childhood, and his path to his parents not only getting him diagnosed but also the ups and downs of medication. There is also family drama: Tyler’s dad has an explosive temper and is pretty misogynistic towards Tyler’s mom (and his boys, too, really). Page doesn’t sugarcoat the contention at home, and even recalls the times when his mother had had enough and wanted to leave (but chickened out). There is a lot of “it gets better” in this book as well, as Page is looking back on his childhood.
It’s well-drawn, and I liked that Page spent time trying to explain what ADHD is, and how the brain of a person with ADHD works (and doesn’t work). It may be a bit advanced for kids, but I found it fascinating. And I think the purpose of the book is to not only try and illustrate what a kid with ADHD looks like (though, as Page notes near the end, it’s different for everyone), and to create awareness. I don’t think the problems at home had much to do with the ADHD (except maybe Page’s dad was undiagnosed? I felt like he was bipolar, but that’s me being an armchair doctor), but Page was trying to be as honest as possible about his childhood. A really good graphic novel, though maybe not as much for kids as it is for their caregivers.
by Meg Medina First sentence: “It was Miss McDaniel’s idea for me and Wilson Bellevue to work together in the Ram Depot, a job that nobody wants.” Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: There is talk of kissing, periods, and puberty. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I bet 6th graders would love this. Others in the series: Merci Suarez Changes Gears
It’s halfway through seventh grade, and Merci is kind of (sort of) figuring things out. She’s not happy with her grandfather’s continuing descent, and her aunt isn’t around as much anymore, leaving Merci to babysit her terror twin cousins. And at school she’s trying to get along with Edna, but it doesn’t seem to be working well. And now, there’s the Heart Ball, the seventh grade fundraiser, which Edna is in charge of, and Merci is trying to avoid. But there’s Wilson, the boy she runs the Ram Depot with and maybe (?) may like-like. It’s all, well, a LOT.
This book had a ton of heart. I loved Merci trying to figure her way out, and I adore her family and the way they have each other’s backs. I loved the way Media wrote a character that was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and how the family worked to make his life easier. You could just tell how much the family loved each other. And I liked the middle school angst of it as well. Merci was delightfully awkward, making the best decisions she could, mostly, and terribly realistic. It was just a delight to read.
I know this book wasn’t really “necessary”, but I’ll take more Merci books any time.
by Jerry Craft Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Others in the series: New Kid Content: There is talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.
It’s the start of eighth grade at Riverdale Academy Day School, and so Jordan and Drew are no longer the new kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the school culture, especially for Drew, who is a darker-skinned Black kid than Jordan. In fact one of the things I found most interesting about this book was the way Craft leaned into racisim and colorism. Jordan is a lighter-skinned Black kid, and everyone (well, white teachers) often overlooks Jordan when talking to or about the Black kids at school.
In fact, as the book follows Drew (though we still get a good dose of Liam and Jordan as well as some of the other friends they made in New Kid), Craft highlights all the little ways that Drew is battling racism in his every day life. Especially from well-meaning white people (which caused me to reflect on the myriad of ways I may have been unintentionally racist towards Black friends).
It’s a fun book, though. I enjoyed learning more about Drew and his life, and how he struggles to figure out who he really is and what he really wants. My favorite section though was when Liam and Drew visited Jordan’s family for an afternoon. I loved seeing the interactions between the adults and the kids and just experiencing Joy.
An excellent book. (And hopefully there will be more!)
by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: There’s some talk of crushes on boys. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.
Maureen and Francine are identical twins and have done everything together. Same friends, same classes… they’re identical, so they must be the same. Right?
Wrong. It’s the start of sixth grade and all of a sudden, Francine wants to be called “Fran” and they are no longer in all their classes together. And Maureen is left wondering why now? Why the sudden change?
And when both Francine and Maureen — independently, for different reasons — decide to run for class president, sparks start to fly, not just at school but at home, too.
I usually adore Varian’s books, and this is no exception. It’s a great story — he and Wright capture not only what it means to be siblings, and the unspoken competitions (even where there shouldn’t be any — at least from a parent’s perspective), but also what it means to be a twin searching for her own identity. The stakes aren’t terribly high — who will win class president? Can Maureen pass Cadet Corps? Will Francine ever talk to her again? — but they are absolutely reflective of what an 11-year-old might feel. And I liked that they addressed racism — there’s a scene where Maureen and a couple friends are at the mall and they get dissed by a White mall worker not only because they’re young, but because they’re Black. It’s not a big scene, but it helped paint the picture of Maureen’s personality and give the book some weight. (I also really really appreciated the twins’ parents. They were awesome. It’s always nice to have good parents show up in a kids’ book.)
I loved Wright’s illustrations as well. She gave the twins each their own personality, and distinguished them not only in physical ways (Fran wears earrings), but also in subtle ways — the way they position their bodies, for example. Wright just *got* what Varian was trying to get across with the words, and brought it all to life.
I can’t wait to read more about Francine and Maureen. I hope there is more!
by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! Content: There is some bullying and a wee bit of romance. It’s in the middle grade graphic novels section of the bookstore.
It’s near the end of middle school and Charlie is trying to figure herself out. Her music teacher, Mr. K, as assigned the class to come up with a presentation on a song that “speaks” to them. As part of that, he’s introducing a lot of new stuff to the class. And when he hits opera — Una voce poco as sung by Maria Callas — Charlie is smitten. She does a lot of research about Maria and decides that maybe being a Diva isn’t a bad thing.
There’s also Emile, a boy Charlie likes; Luka, the super-talented, yet super-awkward guy at school that is bullied; and Charlie’s three friends, Addie, Rachel, and Mayin. It’s a bit of personal drama as they all make their way through the last couple of months before the end of school.
On the one hand, the art in this is gorgeous. It’s all done in sepia tones, except for the bits about Maria Callas which are done in reds and pinks. I loved the use of insect imagery and the use of music (though I wish it had a playlist with artists in the back; I kept trying to look the songs up!).
I had a hard time following the story though. Does Charlie end up ditching some of her friends? I think so? But I’m not entirely sure why. I couldn’t quite follow who was who, and the story just felt like it was lacking something. Maybe I really am getting to old for this.
Harper, C. M. (2006). Flashcards of my life. New York, N. Y.: Little, Brown, and Company.
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Book Summary: Through a series of flashcards and “diary” entries, Emily tells the story of a couple weeks in a middle school (she’s in 7th grade? I’m not entirely sure). She navigates friendships — her two sets of friends don’t quite get along with each other — and first crushes — does Andrew like her? Does she like Andrew or someone else? — as well as dealing with her parents’ up and down relationship
Impressions: I’ve often said that the reason there are so many bad parents in middle grade is because conflict makes for a good story. This book lacked that in a major way. The stakes — will her friends talk to her? Will the boy like her back? — are really low, and while they are important in many middle school girls’ lives (I do remember 7/8th grade, and yes, those were important questions), they just don’t make for compelling reading. This book lacked any compelling conflict, and any character arc. It really is a slice of life story, and while I don’t want to insinuate that middle school girls lives aren’t worth putting into book form, this just didn’t work for me. Plus, the font drove me nuts. It was meant to reflect handwriting because of the diary-like feel of the book, but it kept pulling me out of the story.
Review: I was able to find a Kirkus review of the book, which was kinder to the book than my reaction. The reviewer wrote “With humor and insight, she focuses on such topics as kissing, embarrassing moments, regrets, talent and dreams. ” However, the final sentence was dismissive: “Emily’s search for the truth about friendship, romance and identity will appeal to ’tween fans of conversational chick-lit.” I dislike the term “chick-lit” because the designation is dismissive, insinuating that a book isn’t “real” literature, but rather something that girls like, which makes it less, somehow. However, it really does fit this book.
Staff. (2006, Jan 1). Flashcards of my life. Kirkus Reviews, (1). Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/charise-mericle-harper/flashcards-of-my-life/.
Uses: My first reaction was “Please don’t”. If you must, it would work on a display of diary-type books or other middle school relationship books.
Dork Diaries by Renee Russell – The most obvious read-alike, if only because it’s also told in diary format, and details the every-day life of a middle school girl. I’ve never read these, but they seem to be more compelling because there’s 12 (I think?) of them now, and people keep buying them. (Which kind of proves the point that it’s not that middle school girls’ lives are uninteresting, but rather the book.)
Invisible Emmie by Terrie Liebensen – This tells a similar story to Flashcards: Emmie is a quiet, unassuming girl who drops a note she had written to her crush, and finds herself less invisible. It’s told in graphic novel form, which helps the story, as does the secondary plotline as Emmie imagines what it must be like to be popular, like Katie.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez – Another book about a 7th grader trying to figure out how to fit in, but add Mexican culture and punk rock, and you have a much more compelling book.
by Gordon Korman
First sentence: “When my dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he once rescued eight Navy SEALs who were stranded behind enemy lines.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some romance (just crushes and a bit of cheek kissing) and some mild cussing. The text is pretty simple. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I bet 6th graders would like it too.
Wallace Wallace (the poor guy getting stuck with parents who named him that!) ALWAYS tells the truth. Mostly it’s because his father was a horrible liar (well, exaggerator/storyteller) who eventually left his mom, and so Wallace decided to never do that. Unfortunately, his truth-telling doesn’t always come off well. In fact, in seventh grade English class everyone was required to read a “classic” — the made up Old Shep, My Pal — book and do a report on it. Wallace’s report, because he won’t lie: the book was awful. And please, no more dead dogs.
That report lands him in detention with the English teacher, who is also directing a play — an adaptation of, you guessed it, Old Shep — and so Wallace can’t go to football practice and instead ends up at play rehearsal. And, of course, advocates for changing the play. It’s more complex than that; it also involves pranks and Wallace being set up, and everyone not liking him, and a small middle school romance, but that’s the general picture of it.
I hadn’t ever read Gordon Korman’s books before, but I’d heard that he was funny and he gets kids. Well, maybe this was just dated — it was written in 2000 — which is often a problem with contemporary realistic fiction. But whatever the reason it really fell flat. The plot was silly (supposedly funny?). I guessed who the prankster was (was I supposed to? Or was it supposed to be a big reveal?) before the characters. I thought the kids were brats (maybe all middle schoolers are). And I just didn’t find it funny. But, humor is subjective: not everyone finds the same things amusing. So, I can forgive that. I can see how kids would eat this up: what I found annoying as an adult, they could relate to. And so I can see how it has value, even if I didn’t like it much at all.
by Joe Ballarini
First sentence: “‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some scary moments, and monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.
Those monsters under your bed? They’re real. And they want to eat you. You knew that. Right? But what if there was a secret society of babysitters (yes, you read that right) who are super martial arts fighting awesome people who keep the monsters at bay (literally) and protect their charges (especially those kids with “special” abilities) from the Evil Lurking out there.
Such is the society that Kelly fell into when she accepted a babysitting job for Jacob, who then gets kidnapped by the Bogeyman. She has Halloween night to find him and bring him back, or the whole world will be destroyed.
This was so much fun! If Adventures in Babysitting and Labyrinth and Goosebumps all had a baby, it would be this book. It’s scary, but not overly so, and I loved the idea of a secret cool babysitters society. It really just read like a movie, which isn’t always what I want from a book, but it works perfectly here. This is definitely one to hand to the kids who like scary stories.
by Terri Liebenson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It deals with crushes and middle school awkwardness, so younger kids might not be interested. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.
Emmie is quiet. That’s really her defining feature. She doesn’t speak much, except to her friends. And everyone (from her friends to her parents) is always trying to get her to be more outgoing. But she’s (mostly) okay with being quiet. Until one day, when she writes a note to her crush and then drops it, where it’s picked up by another kid. All of a sudden, Emmie’s no longer invisible.
There’s a secondary story, one that involved Katie, a super popular, put together girl, that’s told in panels (as opposed to Emmie’s story, which is more narrative-driven with side illustrations). The two stories intersect near the end, and do so in an interesting way (though K didn’t like how they resolved).
It’s a good look at fitting in and making friends. I liked the way Libenson told the story (I liked how it resolved), and I felt for Emmie. It’s hard being the youngest (K should know!) and feeling overshadowed a lot. I liked how Emmie found her footing and figured out how to being to make her place in the world.