This week she builds on a post about strong girls in YA that she describes briefly before introducing some of her more recent discoveries. She adds 50! (Many of these titles are books that I have come to love as well.) We will do part this week and the rest next Friday. (Oh ,Lesley placed them in alphabetical order, so your favorite might be part of next week's group.) What a great resource to have at the ready as school starts all over the country.
Lesley, thank you once again.
50 More Strong Girls In MG/YA Lit (Part A) by Lesley Roessing
I thought it was time to update the list with novels I have read in the last two years to share some new titles for adolescent girls—and boys—to read and discuss.
What does it mean to be a “strong girl”? Being strong on behalf of others? Being strong on behalf of ourselves? Sometimes strength is defined by how we deal with a situation; sometimes it is overcoming challenges and differences and demonstrating resilience; sometimes strength is righting a wrong or helping another (whether person or whale or saving a development); sometimes it is how we deal with others and the way others treat us; and sometimes it is the courage to be ourselves or to change who we were.
These 50 novels/memoirs demonstrate that girls can be strong in diverse ways
It is immediately apparent why this novel was one of the books chosen for the 2018 Global Read Aloud; well written, well-developed characters, a strong adolescent female protagonist, and contemporary issues.
Twelve-year-old Amal lives in a rural Pakistani village where she is the eldest daughter of a small landowner, who like everyone else owes money to the greedy, corrupt landlord. She goes to school and dreams of becoming a teacher. After a run-in with the landlord’s son, she is required to work on the Khan estate to repay her father’s debt, an impossible feat since the servants are charged for lodging and food. As she becomes part of the household, connecting with the other servants, she learns more about the unlawful Khan family and is forced to decide how much to risk to save the villages, her friends, and her future. She is counseled by her new teacher, “You always have a choice. Making choices even when they scare you because you know it’s the right thing to do —that’s bravery.” (210)
I am adding Amal Unbound to my list of novels featuring strong girls in MG.YA literature. She reminds me of such adolescents as Serafina (Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg) and Valli (No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis).
As author Aisha Saeed wrote in her Author’s Note, “Amal is a fictional character, but she represents countless other girls in Pakistan and around the world who take a stand against inequality and fight for justice in often unrecognized but important ways.” In this way novels and characters can function as maps to help our young readers navigate the challenges and ethics of adolescent life.
Bernice Buttman is anything but a model citizen. She is a bully, having grown up from the days when her four brothers bullied others on her behalf. However, being a bully is lonely and she decides she wants a friend, but the other fifth graders are afraid of her, especially Oliver Stratts, the kid she has targeted for friendship. She does have one person in her corner, Ms. Knightley, the town librarian who sees the Bernice who has possibilities.
Bernice lives in the Lone Star Trailer Park where she sleeps on the sofa and her brothers share one bedroom; she has a mother who takes Bernice’s lunch money to have herself tattooed. But Bernice has a dream—to raise enough money by any means possible so she can go to Hollywood Hills Stunt Camp and become a famous stuntwoman.
When her mother and boyfriend leave home with their own plans for stardom, Bernice is sent to the picture-perfect town of Halfway to live with her Aunt Josephine, a nun. And as Ms. Knightley advises, “Bernice, I know you may not believe what I’m about to say, but this might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you…Going to a new place is like starting over. It’s like a clean slate.” (41)
As she settles in to her new town with the support of her aunt, Sister Marie Francis who teaches her to ride a horse, and Sister Angela-Clarence who only speaks in children’s book quotes (which actually make more sense than the two other Sisters give credit), Bernice decides that “things could be different in Halfway. I could be different.” (53). Unfortunately, her first day at school she unwittingly makes an enemy of the mayor’s daughter. But she also makes her first real friend.
New Bernice and Old Bernice battle each other as she learns what being a “model citizen” entails. She also learns that, even though her family doesn’t appear to change, her goals might change as she becomes, according to Ms. Knightley observation on a visit to Halfway, “different.”
What I loved most about the novel was the writing. Niki Lenz captures Bernice’s voice, while I may not have laughed out loud, I giggled inside through the book, not wanting to stop reading, but not wanting to finish. This book would be a great read-aloud, using passages as a mentor text for Voice.
Juarez, Mexico: kidnappings of young women, sex and drug trafficking, the cartel, murder, poverty, betrayal, abandonment. Francisco Stork’s newest novel is about all of the above but also about conscience, personal responsibility, taking care of others, moral choices, and doing what is right, not what is easy or even safe.
Sara, a reporter for a local paper, is committed to finding and saving the young women who are being kidnapped, especially her best friend Linda, despite the warnings of her boss and the threats to herself and her family. She finds that she doesn't know whom to trust.
Sara’s younger brother Emiliano is looking for a better life—ways to make money to pay the family bills and win the love of his wealthy girlfriend, even if his has to sacrifice his commitment to the code of Brother Patricio and Jiparis Explorers Club, which rescued him from the effects of his father’s abandonment.
What the brother and sister find is “The city is like a spiderweb. Every thread is connected directly or indirectly to every other thread” and in helping others and doing the right thing, they may have to sacrifice, or revise, their personal goals.
I connected quickly to the main characters and found the novel to present multiple topics for provocative classroom discussions, especially about personal values and decisions. Even though the main characters were of high school age and a little older, the novel was appropriate for late middle and high school.
“In Juniper, nothing was ever perfect. Especially not lately. I didn’t think anything would ever be perfect again. But here in Eventown, perfect seems possible.” (73)
As fifth-grader Elodee knows “Some days are harder than other days.”(7) But it seems that more and more days are “harder.” Her identical twin Naomi seems to be growing away from her, the kids in the school think she is weird, she is losing the two friends she has, and she has these strong feelings of sadness and extreme anger. She is not sure why. When their mother and father get jobs in Eventown, they move there, This may be a way to start a new life, especially since the only thing they take with them is a rosebush.
They move into their perfect house and are immediately happily welcomed by their classmates, making best friends, Venna and Betsy. Everything is perfect, even if everything is the same. Elodee begins to notice that when Natalie “competes” in gymnastics, her special talent, everyone performs the same routine in the same way, and while the twins love the music class and have the opportunity to play the instruments that are perfect for them, they only ever play one song, The Eventown Anthem. Elodee’s passion is not only cooking and baking but creating innovative meals; however, in Eventown she is told to follow the recipes that came with their kitchen. She hopes to learn the stories of the town and the people because “it’s hard to know much of anything if you don’t know all the stories of a place and the people in it.” (81), but there are no stories to share. And, at first, Elodee doesn’t “want to interrupt the warm, glowy feeling [she’s] getting being around all these people.” (62)
When things become too different from what she has known, Elodee thinks, “I want some things to change, but other things to stay exactly the same.” (103). She wonders why this life is so easy for the others but not for her. “I want the niceness, the coziness and warmth to be enough.… I want to fit in with them and feel all the same things at the same moments.” (180) As Josiah says, “That’s what we all want here. To make things easier. Simpler. More even.” (132) And when Elodee’s Welcoming is interrupted, she begins to question the traditions and rules, and things begin to fall apart in this perfect town. The family rosebush begins to grow larger than all the others in Eventown, a town filled with rosebushes, all exactly the same. Next weeds take over the perfect yards.
Elodee realizes that there is something or someone important to her that she can’t remember, and Naomi doesn’t remember their past life at all. Again Elodee feels different, growing away from her classmates, neighbors, friends, and even her twin who tells her, “I don’t remember anything that you’re talking about…, That was our life there. The end. [Ellodee] needs [Naomi] to feel what I am feeling and remember what I am feeling.…” (216). Other than Veena who, although born in Eventown and knows nothing else, sympathizes, and her family, the town becomes suspicious of the new inhabitants.
Betsy’s mother explains “Some people think they can have a fresh start while still holding on to [their] past. But it doesn’t work like that. You can be here, or you can be there. But you can’t have both.” (239) In other words, things can be perfect, but at a price.
Corey Ann Haydu's new novel demonstrates the importance of memories—joyful, angry, scary, lonely, embarrassing, and heartbreaking. It allows readers to question perfection and the happiness that is achieved at a price, that of losing everything else. It acknowledges but challenges the advantages of sameness.
One of my favorite books to discuss with adolescent readers is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Year after year, I found the conversations with and among eighth graders to be profound as they questioned the beliefs and rules venerated by Jonas’ Community. It was one of the few novels we read as a whole-class novel. However, many times this novel is required reading in younger grades. While the reading level may be appropriate, many of the ideas presented—euthanasia, Birth Mothers, and the repression of sexual desires, in my opinion, are too sophisticated for these undeveloped minds. Eventown would be an effective introduction to the ideas of the significance and importance of memories and the consequences of eliminating diversity.
Imagine that something has happened to you, but you were not aware that it happened and you cannot remember anything about it. How would you feel or would you feel? Would an incident that you did not “experience” change you?
Hermione was enjoying her last summer of cheerleading camp, leading her fellow cheerleaders—female and male—and making new friends—female and male. Then the unthinkable happened. At a dance she was drugged and raped. She woke up in the hospital to her best friend informing her what had happened. That part of the evening was a blank; and it remains a blank. Hermione describes to her therapist that she feels sympathy for the girl to whom this happened but not empathy because she doesn’t feel the pain. “It’s a story someone told me.” (143). And she has to explain to others that her goals and dreams haven’t changed and “none of the important things have changed despite all the brokenness.” (186)
The advantage is that Hermione did not “experience” the rape and so does not relive the horror. “This—my attack—it’s just this huge blank spot. I don’t remember anything, so I can’t feel anything” (143), but there are disadvantages that are unconceivable. Not only is Hermione not behaving as other expect her to behave which leads to rumors and shaming, but she has a gap in her life and, now, she is terrified of losing time—even the time she loses when sleeping. She also does not know who raped her—could it be an old friend, could it be someone she just met at camp, could it be her boyfriend? Who can she now trust?
Luckily, she can trust her best friend Polly, the fiercest, most protective friend a girl can have. And she has many other friends to whom she is more than “that raped girl” (185). With a supportive family and cheer team and a very entertaining therapist, Hermione works her way to recovery. “I have danced before and I will dance tomorrow” (243).
E.K. Johnston’s novel, with it well-developed characters, gives the reader plenty to consider. Hermione stands up for herself and all women when a reporter asks what precautions she could have taken, and what advice she would give other girls, to keep this type of thing from happening, and she replies, “If I was a boy, would you be asking me that?” (194). Most important, it made me aware that there are many types of trauma.
I had, of course, heard of hoarders but did not realize the extent of the problem or the effect on their children until I lived through Annabelle’s secret in Mary E. Lambert’s new novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes. Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder, and almost every room of the house is filled with objects—well-organized objects. Mother lives in muumuus, the colors of which signal her moods, and doesn't leave the house.
One room is the exception. On her tenth birthday, Annabelle tossed everything in her bedroom out the window, clearing the room of anything nonessential; she checks once a week for anything not used within the last week. Her younger sister and older brother are not so lucky and live surrounded by piles of their mother’s purchases, new and used. Leslie collects articles about the dangers of hoards and has nightly nightmares. Chad has checked out from family life.
On the day the newspapers, organized by weather report, finally fall off the kitchen shelves onto Leslie, seventh-grader Annabelle was sure things would change. And they did. Their father left home; he knows something has to change, but he doesn’t know how to change it. Their grandmother Nora comes to help, and there is a disastrous Family Game Night.
But as difficult as life is in a house filled to the brim with purchases, Annabelle’s secret is safe from her friends and potential boyfriend. Annabelle has instituted a strict Five-Mile-Radius Rule. No one is invited to meet within a file-mile radius of the house. When she first visits a new friend’s house in fifth grade, “I thought families like Rae’s, with houses that perfect, only existed in books or TV shows.” (17) When her secret is discovered, she realizes that her friends do not let it affect their friendships; they are real friends.
This is a novel about a strong adolescent who helps her family through a challenge as many of our students are doing daily, although the challenges may be diverse. It is a novel for those children who need to see themselves or someone like them in a book and for those adolescents who need to discover empathy for their peers.
In Alyson Gerber’s first novel Braced, readers were given the opportunity to learn the story of Rachel Brooks, a middle grades student who has scoliosis but also who has persistence and resilience. Rachel learns to re-see herself and her strengths, and she provided, for many readers, a mirror to their lives and the chance to see themselves and their struggles valued in a novel. And maybe more importantly, Braced gave readers who have not had to face such challenges an awareness, empathy, and understanding for those who do.
In the same way, Gerber’s new novel Focused shares the story of Clea Adams, a seventh grader who has ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Clea works as hard as she can on her schoolwork but just cannot seem to complete all the tasks; she doesn’t always follow directions, finish assignments, or remember what she needs to do. She feels that she isn’t trying hard enough or isn’t smart enough to achieve. She is also affected socially as she blurts out whatever she is thinking, interrupting conversations and sharing the secrets of others.
Luckily, on the plus side, she has a best friend Red, a new girlfriend Sanam, a supportive family, and she is really good at chess, which she loves. Chess is the one activity where she seems to be able to focus. But when her lack of focus and impulsivity cause her to lose her friendship with Red and possibly forfeit her chance to remain on the chess team, Clea needs to take action. She is tested for ADHD and learns that it is her condition that controls her actions, rather than lack of intelligence or willingness to support her friends.
Clea learns that she needs to follow the advice of her psychiatrist, parents, and school counselor and to advocate for herself. “I don’t notice if anyone starts whispering about me when I walk back into the room, but I don’t care if they do, because for the first time all year, I got exactly what I needed and I know for sure I did my best.” (262)
According to the American Psychiatric Association, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. As of August 2018, an estimated 10 percent of children (over 6 million school-age children) had been diagnosed with ADHD. And that is why this novel offers not only a good story, but is important for children with ADHD and those who love, live, and work with them to read. As Braced, Focused will provide not only support for some readers who see their struggles valued in a novel but a map to navigate the difficulties of functioning with ADHD, and for others it will provide understanding of, and empathy for, those friends, family, and peers who may be facing some of Clea’s challenges.
When 16-year-old Katina is assaulted in the stairwell by the popular star basketball player, her jujitsu skills let her defend herself. But when she reports the attack, it is she who is made so uncomfortable she has to leave school. Her confidence shattered, she wonders if she will ever be able to trust men again.
Robin was born in Kolkata, abandoned by his mother, and adopted by loving, wealthy, supportive American parents at age 3, but he has never stopped thinking about his first mother, and his life seems to have no direction.
When Kat is sent to Boston to be homeschooled by a family friend’s aunt, Grandma Vee, she becomes a part of a teen church group. When Pastor Gregory takes Robin, Katina, and Gracie to Kolkata to work with female human trafficking survivors, with the help of her new support system and some of the young survivors themselves, Katina learns to trust again; Robin, now called Ravi, finds purpose in his life; and Gracie, who was the major support system for both of them, finally gets Ravi to realize his love for her. Kat and Ravi come from the experience having found ways to help these girls and future victims.
Told through very short chapters that alternate between Kat and Robin and simply written, Mitali Bose Perkins' new novel is a valuable read that is accessible to, and appropriate for, all adolescent readers.
Ten-year-old Mia moves to the head of my “Strong Girls in MG/YA Lit” as she becomes an activist and champion of those who cannot, or will not, stand up for themselves [“You don’t get it, kid. I’ve been fighting my whole life. I’m done. It’s no use fighting—people are gonna be the way they’re gonna be” (105)], teaches others the wrongs of prejudice and injustice, and forms a community from her neighbors, patrons, and fellow immigrants.
Mia and her parents emigrated from China to the United States for a more “free” life. In China her parents were professionals; in America they feel lucky to find a job managing a motel. But the owner, Mr. Yao, is unkind, unjust, cheap, and prejudiced. He reduces their salaries until they are working for lodging and a life of poverty. And while this is a novel about Mia who manages the front desk and helps her parents temporarily hide other Chinese immigrants who have been mistreated, it is really a novel of culture, prejudice, bullying, community, and, most of all, the power of writing. “It was the most incredible feeling ever, knowing that something I wrote actually changed someone’s life.” (218)
In America there are two roller coasters, and people are born to a life on one or the other, but Mia and her friend Lupe, whose family came from Mexico, have decided to break that cycle. Although bullied in school and warned by her mother that she will never be a “native” English writer, Mia develops her writing skills to help Hank gain employment after a wrongful arrest, free “Uncle” Zhang whose ID and passport were being held by his employer, share her story with her teacher and classmates, and finally persuade friends and strangers to take a chance on her family.
Mia is a representative of the “nearly twenty million immigrant children currently living in the United States, 30 percent of whom are living at or below poverty.” (Author’s Note). As such, this book will serve as a mirror for many readers, a map for others looking for ways to navigate young adolescent life, especially in a new culture, and as a window for those who will learn empathy for others they may see as different. Author Kelly Yang also shares the autobiographical elements of the novel in her Author’s Note.
Front Desk, with its very short chapters and challenging topics would be a meaningful and effective 10-minute read-aloud to begin Grade 4-7 daily reading workshop focus lessons. I would suggest projecting Mia’s letters since they show her revisions as she seeks to improve her language skills and word choices. Front Desk is a 2019 Global Read Aloud Choice.
“It’s not like I get hit. I don’t get touched. I don’t get threatened.… We don’t always have food but I manage to eat.… I take care of my sister.”
“But what does it take to be in danger? What does that even mean? Are things not bad enough? Should things be worse for me before…before I can make them better?”
Gem has been organizing her life and taking care of her younger sister Dixie and her mother most of her life. Her philandering father was kicked out and is a rare presence in their lives, and her mother drinks and uses drugs. I was drawn to Gem from the very beginning when the reader first encounters her as a child taking care of Dixie and leading her on “adventures” in their apartment.
As the sisters enter high school, popular, pretty Dixie grows away from the Gem, accepting life as it is and making it work for her. Readers see Gem, a high school junior, hustling quarters to buy lunch because her father is long gone and her mother won’t fill out the paperwork for free lunches. My heart broke for her as, alone and friendless and somewhat sister-less, she navigates life with the help of her school psychologist Mr. Bergstrom.
Their father’s return leads to an opportunity for the sisters to leave on a real adventure and although they bond for a few days, Dixie opts to return home while Gem, even though she still worries about Dixie, takes the solution that can make her own life better.
Author Sara Zarr created a character who broke my heart even while I was rooting for her.
“Everything that happened, it was only because we wanted our parents to be better, to know how to take care of us.”
“My insides are filled with a missing that can’t be fixed with words.” (85) Twelve-year-old Maggie’s world seems to be filled with good-byes. It all began on the first worst day of her life, "Forgot Me Day,” the day her Nana forgot who Maggie was, and then the second worst day, the day Nana died. Maggie becomes anxious that she will forget what is special in her life, and she starts collecting mementoes of small moments. She hides boxes under her bed and in her closet, boxes filled with gifts but also milk cartons and straws from lunches, sticks, rocks, anything that will help her remember.
When the family takes in a foster baby, Maggie knows it is only to give the baby a good start until she gets her forever family, but she hides away baby socks and diaper tabs. “A little something. To remember. So my memories don’t disappear.” (13) Baby Izzie is adopted and Maggie is filled with another “giant missing.”
When her secret hoarding is discovered, her parents send her to work with Dr. Sparrow, who helps her work toward “a heart big enough to love a lot and a brain healthy enough to let go.” (267)
During all this, Maggie meets a new friend, Mason, who joins their formerly all-girl trapshooting team; helps her little brother Charlie makes friends; finds—and loses—a pet turtle; and has to decide whether to tell a friend’s secret, a secret that could be hurtful to others, risking the loss of that friendship.
Maggie, who struggles with anxiety manifested through hoarding, joins her author-Swartz-sisters Frankie, who in Smart Cookie is dealing with the loss of her mother, and Molly who struggles with OCD in Finding Perfect in my heart. Their stories will help some young adolescents see their lives reflected and challenges honored and will give others the empathy to understand their peers. For the adult who read these novels, they may provide a flash of insight into those in our classrooms and families.
Children who experience the loss of a parent or other family member through a military line-of-duty death are likely to face a number of unique issues. Izzy’s father died when she was ten, before her younger brother Jack was born. Her small family, estranged from her father’s relatives, has moved from place to place as her mother, a nurse’s aide, tries to support them.
When she moves to a trailer park in Virginia, Isabella Crawford becomes embroiled in the family drama of her best friend, and, as a member of the acapella group at the private school where she is a scholarship student, she befriends a freshman who is battling her own demons. To make her life even more complicated, her family becomes the recipient of a Habit for Humanity house, and Izzy has to volunteer hours towards its construction.
In the midst of all this drama, Izzy, who is determined to keep her family’s circumstances a secret from her classmates, discovers what friendship and trusting friends—and family—really means as she reconnects with her father’s pig-farming family and finds that her wealthy friends and her new boyfriend care about her, not her economic status.
Izzy, an adolescent straddled between two cultures—that of her Puerto Rican mother and her North Carolina father—is not quite sure where she belongs but learns to share her world with others. She is a memorable, well-developed character whom I did not want to leave at the end of the book.
There appear to be more books about boy bullies than girl bullying. And even though female adolescent bullying is different, what I loved about this novel is that it does NOT follow the expected plot—mean girl becomes a loser and is disrespected and insulted by her former friends; the nerds support her, and she sees the light and changes, dropping the popular kids forever. Neither is it the opposite. But, like middle school, it is somewhere in between; the story is nuanced as is adolescence.
Kacey is a bully. She does not see herself s a bully or even as a mean girl; she sees herself as honest, as knowing what everyone should say, do, and wear, and she is just there to help them or help them get real. "The truth may hurt, but it's always better to know"(189). Her world as school leader falls apart when an eye infection leaves her with glasses and new braces leave her—a school news reporter and star of the musical—with a lisp. Her best friends drop her and cyber bully her and while an old friend offers to help, it is to receive help herself having decided in fifth grade that she was embarrassed to be seen with Kacey (which is not how Kacey remembers the end of the friendship). And the cute nerd seems to be dating her former best friend.
Kacey reclaims her popularity, but takes responsibility for herself and her past actions, showing a kind of strength she didn’t realize she had.
Stan Lee said, “To my way of thinking, whether it’s a superhero movie or a romance or a comedy or whatever, the most important thing is you’ve got to care about the characters.” This is true whether watching a movie or reading a novel, and I thought of this when I read Natasha Friend’s newest YA novel, How We Roll.
Quinn has a brother on the autism spectrum, and his tantrums and food requirements consume her parents’ attention, especially her mother’s. So when Quinn’s hair falls out and she is diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder, she handles the challenges on her own, assuming that her middle school friends will support her. Which they do—until they don’t. Bullied and ridiculed by her peers and ignored by her two lifelong friends, Quinn copes by keeping to herself and putting her energy into skateboarding and basketball.
Serendipitously, the family moves across the country so her brother can attend a special school, and Quinn has a chance to start over, with her two new wigs—Guinevere and Sasha. At her new school she meets a group of girls who adopt her. She also meets Jake. Jake, the former star football player, had a serious accident and is now a bilateral amputee, sad and bitter; the two become unlikely friends. Quinn also finds out that it is possible to have friends who like you for who you are, not what you look like.
What impressed me was how three-dimensional the characters were and not only how supportive Quinn is despite her heartbreak, but she is learning to trust that others can be as supportive. I really came to like all the characters, even Jake’s flawed brother and the ninth-grade popular girls (except for the old schoolmates whom the reader was not supposed to like). Readers will experience how demanding life with a neuro-diverse child can be but, on the other hand, how supportive a family and a community can be.
“They were just being friendly.” “Today’s my birthday.” “Seventh grade boys can be very immature.” “Maybe they just like you.” “It’s called flirting.” “Maybe if you think about what you’re doing…”
Hands swishing across her shoulder, squeezing a shoulder, bumping her shoulder on the bus. Boys asking for hugs and to touch her sweater for luck, leaning on her during band practice, touching her. Even when she tells them to stop. It gets worse when she finds out that the basketball team has made a game out of harassing her.
Seventh-grader Mila doesn’t know what is happening, but she knows she feels very uncomfortable. And it keeps getting worse. “The whole thing is out of control.” (184)
Are the boys on the basketball team just playing around or is she misreading their actions and words? Her friends aren’t much help. Zara makes everything all about her and can say mean things (although she always apologizes), Omi is supportive but timid, and Max insists that she talk to Mr. McCabe, but he is also the boys’ basketball coach. Her female guidance counselor is on maternity leave and, when she finally goes to Mr. Dolan, the male guidance, he brushes off her concerns, “Mila, I can tell you from experience that the best course of action is to try to ignore them.” (56)
Mila can’t tell her mother who has her own problems with a mean boss and trying to make ends meet and convince her ex-hband to pay child support.
Finally Mila gets some strength from karate lessons and Samira, a school classmate who leads the lessons. When she is again harassed before the big band concert, she makes an act of desperation, unfortunately bringing the concert to a halt, but reinforced by another classmate’s similar story, she ultimately tells the band teacher about the endless harassment. Finally someone understands, “…I also understand that sometimes you reach a point where the only thing that matters is being heard. No, not just heard. Listened to, right?” (202)
Mila’s story made me cringe throughout. The story, while simply told, conveys Mila’s confusion and feelings of helplessness. The novel illustrates the importance of telling an adult, an adult who understands and recognizes harassment for what it is.. As Mr. Dolan says when Mila is explaining how it felt, “I really think this is something I need to hear.” (216)
Barbara Dee’s newest novel needs to be read by all middle school girls and, even more critically, by all middle school boys. This would be an ideal book for a group of students to read-aloud and discuss with a teacher or counselor in a homeroom meeting or advisement period. It also would be an effective choice for a whole-class read before or after book clubs reading novels about bullying.
Mercedes Suarez lives in Las Casitas, a community of three houses, with her older brother and parents, her aunt and two little nephews, and her beloved Lolo and Abuela. She began attending Seaward Pines Academy, where she is a scholarship student, last year. But now Merci is a sixth grader, and things are changing. It is not only that the students will be changing classes and teachers, it is not only that she has to deal with mean girls—or at least one mean girl and her sidekick, but her grandfather who has been her confidant and bike-riding partner is changing. It is not until a car accident that the family lets her in on the secret; Lolo has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Her brother explains, “In the next few years, Lolo might not be able to remember us, Merci. He won’t even remember himself.”
Meg Medina newest novel for middle grade students features a Latina protagonist who is dealing with challenges that many middle-grade students face and a new challenge that more may face in the future. With the love of her family and the support of her new friends, Merci will decide if she can change gears.
This delightful read, full of engaging characters and sharing the day-to-day life of a busy family, reminded me of Medina’s novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass but written at a level for 5th to 8th grade readers. Merci Suarez was the winner of the 2019 Newberry Award.
“moxie”- force of character, determination, nerve
Testosterone, football, and the football players run East Rockport High School in a small Texas town. All monies are funneled to the football team, and “Make me a sandwich” is the boys’ code for telling girls to stay in their place (even during classes). While girls are subject to humiliating dress code checks, football players get away with T-shirts displaying crude sexist rhetoric. Good girl, don’t-rock-the-boat Vivian, the daughter of a feminist, at least in her own high school days, has had enough and anonymously begins creating and posting vines from a group called Moxie, encouraging the other high school girls to take action.
As some girls eagerly join the movement—bake and craft sales for the girls’ soccer team, protests of the Dress Code crackdowns, and labeling the lockers of boys who subject them to a Bump 'n' Grab “game," others are concerned about the ramifications of joining, and it is not until a rape attempt by the star football player, son of the principal—is disregarded that most of the high school girls—and a few boys—cross popularity and racial barriers and find their moxie.
“It occurs to me that this is what it means to be a feminist. Not a humanist or an equalist or whatever. But a feminist. It’s not a bad word. After today it might be my favorite word. Because really all it is girls supporting each other and wanting to be treated like human beings in a world that’s always finding ways to tell them they’re not.” (p.269).
This is a must-read for high school students.
“I learned a lot through my friends, troubles and surgeries. Like, small acts of kindness can go a long way….And when things are rough, you can always find a way to laugh.” (242) These words are from the real Maddie, the authors’ daughter. And this is the story of a girl who fights a bully and a brain tumor, told convincingly in the voice of a sixth grader which rings true.
There is a girl in story-Maddie’s class who is a bully. She bullies in the distinctive way of girls—through exclusion. Cassie decides who can play with her each recess and excludes all others. As Maddie wins the part that Cassie wants in a class production, the meanness escalates, and when Maddie is diagnosed with a brain tumor, Cassie tells the other students that she made it up. However, Maddie has created a more inclusive playground with her imaginative games as she invites more and more students to join in.
Through two surgeries Maddie keeps her wild imagination and sense of humor—anything is funnier while wearing a mustache, discovering that she has quite a lot of school friends and a wide community for support and even a boy who likes her. But she learns that many children are going through tough times and they all need a little support, even if they don’t ask for it.
This is a novel that many children need as they face—and help others face—bullies and all sorts of problems that our young people of today are facing.
Censorship is a growing threat that infringes on our foundational rights. The year 2017 saw an increase in censorship attempts and a revitalized effort to remove books from communal shelves to avoid controversy. In 2017 the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 354 challenges to library, school and university materials. Reasons for banning: suicide, same-sex relationship, gender identification, drug use, profanity, promoting sex education, LGBT characters, sexual violence, violence, use of the N-word, and thought to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam.”Many times when I read articles about books being banned in schools, particularly books such as the Harry Potter series, Charlotte’s Web, the dictionary, and ironically, Fahrenheit 451, I feel clueless. Can this happen? Why? Who is in charge of these bannings.
Well, in Varnes’ new middle-grades novel, Property of the Rebel Librarian, I found those people—parents, PTSA members, school board members, administrators, those whom we trust to educate our children, are the ones taking barrels of books out of the school library, leaving empty shelves.
It all started with one book. Seventh grader model student, band member, non-dater, and avid reader June Harper is relentlessly supervised by her parents. She and her college-student sister Kate are being groomed as future doctors, no preferences requested, no dating until age 16. But June is caught by her Dad reading a book called The Makings of a Witch. Not only was she reading the contraband, but the novel had been given to her by the school librarian. “It’s our job to protect you.” (4)
The parents have the librarian suspended and institute a school library “book extraction for quality control.” The board passes resolutions prohibiting classroom use and independent reading of books containing “profanity, drugs, violence, rock/rap music, witchcraft, drinking, smoking, or rebellion of any kind.” And banning them from unsupervised distribution (59). Students are threatened with disciplinary action and teachers with termination.
Just when you think people cannot be more narrow-minded, June’s parents take every single book off her bedroom shelf. They plan to read every book and return only those deemed “quality reading material.” They eventually return some of the books, and, miraculously, Old Yeller has been cured and the other books have also had passages altered. Not only are books being banned, but “appropriate” books have been censored.
One day on the way to school, having lost the people she thought were her friends, June discovers a LITTLE FREE LIBRARY. She takes a book and an idea is born. With her new friend Matt, she begins a lending library of banned books from the empty locker next to hers, checking books out under Superhero names in her notebook titled “Property of the Rebel Librarian.” Now everyone in the underground knows her; she meets readers she never knew—the eighth-grade popular kids make up quite a surprising number. “Everywhere I look, kids line the hallways with oversized textbooks in their laps. At lunchtime and after school, their sneakers dangle off sidewalk benches. I don’t have to look to see what they are doing. I already know. Reading.” (119)
As she and her fellow readers take too many risks for their right to read and the library is discovered, a reporter asks June “So if you could say one thing to America, what would that be?” “Don’t tell me what to read.” (246)
This is a novel for all bibliophiles and those who question banning and believe in the right to read—starting with this book.
I find my voice.
"He tried to rape me." The words flutter free. "Again."
Why did I think that speaking out would hurt me?
Punch Like a Girl is not about attempted date rape; it is a story about the power of finally speaking out.
After Tori is sexually assaulted by her controlling ex-boyfriend, she lashes out at others and herself, physically and emotionally. But through standing up for others, she learns to stand up for herself, not by punching and pushing away, but by letting others in and sharing her story, thereby healing herself.
This novel is a good quick read for teens—without any graphic description or profanity. One strength is that it doesn't bash all males; there are some wonderfully drawn male teen characters—Jamarlo, Daniel, Sal, and finally, even Joel. The story also shows the complexity of adolescent female relationships.
She is 6’3””; has blue hair; lives in a trailer with her father, pregnant unmarried sister, and now the undependable baby’s father; and works two jobs to help out. She is not a particularly good student and doesn’t have a lot of friends (although the ones she has are very tightknit and loyal—and very different); and has known she is gay since ninth grade. I am not sure what drew me to Ramona immediately, but I found myself looking forward to going back to the novel and unfolding her story every time I put the book down.
Ramona assumes she is stuck in Eulogy, Mississippi, a town that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina as was Ramona’s family. After the hurricane left, her mother left also, although she is still minimally involved in the girls’ lives. Now that her older, but less practical sister is pregnant, Ramona feels she will never be able to leave, but she has come to accept her fate.
As the story opens Ramona is involved with Grace, a summer renter who has a boyfriend at home and has not yet labeled herself as gay. When they break up and Freddie, a childhood friend, moves back to town, Ramona is conflicted. She has feelings—strong feelings—for Freddie. “I’ve never wanted to touch a boy in the way I want to touch him. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m starting to think that the gist of life is learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” (217)
And that is the lesson that Ramona, and the reader, learns from this story. By being with Freddie, “I’ve embraced another facet of myself. Life isn’t always written in the starts. Fate is mine to pen. I choose guys. I choose girls, I choose people. But most of all: I choose.” (280)
In addition, Freddie also has introduced Ramona to swimming, her ticket to community college and out of Eulogy. But can she take that step, used to thinking that everyone is dependent on her and she has no control of her future? Can Ramona choose the other aspects of her life? Through her various relationships explored in the past year, Ramona learns that even though, as a child, Freddie saw her as Peter Pan, she can “prepare to do what Peter never could.” She is the “captain” of her fate. (408)
Julie Murphy has given mature readers a story of resilience and the importance of controlling our choices.
Fantasy, mystery, intrigue, spells, literary references, and a kind, feisty, lovable Protagonist who is only supposed to be a Side Character.
What a delightful, clever, and entertaining novel! Indira Story has spent her life hoping to be chosen to train as a protagonist at the famed Protagonist Preparatory in Fable. She thinks if she is the main character in a story, she can include her brother who was passed by and now lives in a town where he is a miner for golden nuggets buried within stories. Finally chosen, she fails her audition again an antagonist and is demoted to the side character track. But she is determined to prove her worth and become the hero of her story. Along the way she meets Brainstorms, Marks (bookmarks), Dog-ears, the Grammar Police, Editors and finally an Author; gains an lovely foster mother and little brother; and makes friends, enemies, and even a crush.
This novel would lend itself to a fantastic Grade 4-8 read-aloud that will let teachers review and discuss literary elements and genres and cause their students’ imaginations to soar as they follow another girl who finds her strength.
I have written about the importance of children of all ages seeing their lives reflected in a story, especially those who don’t regularly see their lives reflected in the world around them. However, just as important is for readers to meet and become acquainted with those who they may see as different from themselves or may not see at all—not only children who live in different places or times but those who are hiding in plain sight within their classrooms and worlds. And those who are not hiding, but are in view for all to see but are still not truly seen.
“I was a normal fifteen-year-old who went to football games on weekends and spent way too much time rehearsing for the spring musical. I was a daughter. A friend. A brunette. A singer. I was a million things.… Now, I’m only one thing—the Burned Girl.” (40-41)
Ava is the survivor of fire—the fire that killed her father; mother; and Sara, her cousin-best friend, the daughter of Aunt Cora and Uncle Glenn. When Ava awakes in the hospital, over 60% of her body has been burned and she has lost her family and home. And her normal life.
A year after the fire during which Ava has lived with her aunt and uncle in Sara’s room, homeschooled, she promises them that she will try two weeks at a new school, planning that that will be her only two weeks in school.
But then she meets a survivor of a car crash, Piper, a wheelchair-bound, also scarred, gutsy, flashy, get-out-there-and-do-it, strong girl—or so it seems. She also meets Asad.
“No matter what reaction people have, there’s always one common thread:
1. Everyone looks at me.
2. Then everyone looks away.”
Until now.” (32)
With Piper and Asad’s support, Ava tries for a “new normal” but it’s not all uphill. “—in the last thirty-six hours, I had an epic meltdown, took a harrowing trip down memory lane, and visited my suicidal friend in the hospital. No wonder [Cora and Glenn] look at me like I’m a bomb about to detonate.” (322)
This novel tore at my heart. I loved all the characters—Ava, Asad, Piper, Aunt Cora and cowboy-boot-wearing Uncle Glenn, and even mean girl Kenzie and her more-sympathetic sidekick Sage. All characters were so well-developed, and each had their own backstory, even Dr. Layne, the therapist (no flat characters here) that it is hard to believe that this is Erin Stewart's debut novel.
Scars Like Wings is an important book for all of us who have scars—physical or emotional.
This multi-formatted novel— newspaper clippings, phone conversations, letters, internal dialogue, and mostly free verse—chronicles 15-year-old Jane Arrowood’s life during the year following a shark attack, an attack that took her right arm.
“Where can I find that line to stand upon,
step into the stream of humanity,
the place that is mine.” (112)
A high school junior, Jane has won the art contest every year and planned to become a professional artist. Little did she know when she went to the beach that day, her life and her aspirations would dramatically change. The novel, although fiction, has the feeling of a true story of an actual person. The reader experiences Jane’s ordeal from her perspective, even when she argues with her negative inner thoughts.
Through most of that year, Jane journeys through numerous emotions, the majority negative and despairing. She feels the tingling, throbbing, ache of the phantom limb and the frustration of using a prosthesis. She is not encouraged by the cards and presents sent by strangers—Pity Bears—a result of the video of the attack that someone posted. “Those people who write to me. They tell me they love me. / They don’t even know me.” (71) Her therapist tells Jane that is natural to be depressed. “Allow yourself to feel as bad as you want. / The sooner you do this, / the sooner you will be able to move on.” (25) and then moves her beyond, a step at a time. “’Time to think about the smaller picture,’ / Mel says. ‘Like getting through one day. / Not your whole life, not forever / one day. / Sometimes we can only look at one hour / or one minute.’” However, she is supported by family (particularly her brother who rescued her and whose quick-thinking saved her life) and friends, and Jane is greatly inspired by Justin, a little boy who lost both legs but retains his optimism.
In the fall she goes back to school, facing the hurdles of being the Shark Girl, some days bad but some good, support coming from unexpected places and people. “’We’re all just trying to help.’ / [Angie] shifts. ‘I don’t want to see you get hurt again.’” (264)
Although she struggles to train herself to draw with her left hand, Jane begins to reflect on the encouragement she received from hospital staff members (and on those who were unsupportive and unfriendly), and she realizes the difference a person can make. She begins to look into careers in the medical field—physical therapist, art therapist, nurse, doctor, gaining a new goal and purpose. “I’m going to start living again, / only differently.” (265)
This story is truly a mirror and a window that will develop empathy for those who have to navigate life “differently.”
“How do we use the stars when we wish to journey safely into the vast unknown? It’s simple, really…. We just need to find one star…. The one that’s always constant and true.” (174)
J.J. and Chris Grabenstein’s new novel Shine! really does shine. This is a valuable story about how adolescents can shine just by being their best selves. It is a story of the importance of kindness and caring for others, perfect for Grades 4-8.
Seventh grader Piper Milly lives with her father, a music teacher (and hopeful Broadway show composer), her mother having died when she was three years old. In the middle of the school year, her father is offered a position at a prestigious private school for wealthy, talented students. Along with the position comes free tuition for Piper who knows she will not fit in. Her mother had also been a scholarship student at Chumley Prep but was an extremely talented cellist; in fact, her name is on a plaque at the school. Piper feels she has no special abilities—certainly no musical talent, and with her frayed shirt collars and inexpensive shoes, she won’t fit in with girls who buy their accessories at the ritzy Winterset Collection.
Shunned from the beginning by Ansleigh Braden-Hammerschmidt, Mean Girl extraordinaire, and her band of followers which include most of their grade, Piper finds three good friends, and together they become the Hibbleflitts: a math whiz, a magician, a comedian, and Piper, an astronomy “geek.” When their English teacher tasks the class with journaling about who they want to be, not in the future but now, and the students compete for the new Excelsior award, Piper feels she does not excel in anything, "excelling" being the only defined criteria for the award, and she is not sure who she wants herself to be—Does she want to super-talented like her mother, a singer like Brooke, a limit-pusher, the award winner?
As she navigates the year, facing multiple challenges, helping strangers and friends alike, and trying to figure out where and how she might excel and who she wants to be, Piper finds she can shine by being the person she already is, maybe finding that star or maybe being that star for others.
Part B will be next Friday, August 16, 2019
A middle school teacher for twenty years, Lesley Roessing is the former Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Georgia Southern University (formerly Armstrong State University) where she was also a Senior Lecturer in the College of Education. In 2018-19 she served as a Literacy Consultant with a K-8 school and now works independently. She is the author of Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core; Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed. The Sentences They Saved; No More “Us” & “Them: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect; The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension; and the newly-published Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum. Lesley has contributed chapters to Young Adult Literature in a Digital World: Textual Engagement though Visual Literacy and Queer
Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum and is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and past editor of Connections, the award-winning journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English.