Middle grade mayhem

As a former child and former elementary teacher, middle grade books are how I got serious about reading. One of my mentor teachers said that “kids are little people” and I agree — they wonder about the meaning of life, they want to belong, and they are flawed so they make mistakes. They also don’t know which friends and authority figures, if any, to trust.

For middle grade authors to be able to distill all those adult themes in kid language is really a feat. 👏🎬

Sputnik’s Guide by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I had to read this twice. It reminds me of Boom! by Mark Haddon, both are written by British authors. It’s a little too lackadaisical for me, but on the second reading, I understood it a little more. It’s about a boy with selective mutism whose grandfather (his caretaker) has just been taken to a home. He is staying with a foster family for the summer, and he meets a dog, Sputnik. He imagines Sputnik as a person/his partner. Sputnik helps Prez come to terms with his grandfather’s being taken away to a home and find where he belongs, where it’s with the Blythes, his foster family, or not. Sense of belonging is an eternal theme in kidlit!

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Entrada Kelly is one of my must-read authors! Her books have a definite theme — told from the point of view of a protagonist (often girl) who is bullied and overcomes obstacles to prove herself to the community, and if not, to herself. Lalani is her latest, and it’s a masterpiece of Filipino folklore and the classic hero’s journey. It reminds me of The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, Disney’s Moana, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.

I love the main narrative interspersed with folktales that give more background to what Lalani encounters. My favorite tale was one the girl with a shell on her back discarding her shell, then finding a village where everyone has a shell. It’s so heartbreaking how you try your hardest to conform to a society where you don’t fit, then when you finally find your people, you no longer fit in with them. I cannot blame the girl for getting rid of her shell — it was the best choice she could have made at the time. I think we are all trying to find that place where the unique things about us, the flaws, would help us belong rather than cast us out. I love this story because the theme of belonging is so universal.

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

This book follows the journey of a Guatemalan boy, Jaime, and his cousin, Angela, to the EE.UU. It is a really important book, but I worry that it may reinforce what white readers want to believe/read about undocumented kids. The story begins with the death of Jaime’s cousin, Miguel, to the Alphas. After killing Miguel, the gang recruits Jaime and Angela, giving them no choice but to flee.

The most informative part of the book was getting to follow their journey from Guatemala to Mexico, from the center of Mexico to Ciudad Juarez, then finally crossing the border. The reader spends time with the protagonists on La Bestia, the train that maims and leaves many riders unable to work and worse off than they started. We also find out how hard it is to negotiate with the coyotes and other migrants — you can’t trust anyone, and danger is everywhere even though the end goal might be the same. I am interested in what happens when Jaime and Miguel arrive and start their lives in the U.S., so I will check out the sequel. When it comes to something as complex as immigration from kids’ perspectives, multiple perspectives are so important, which is why I am also reading Haymarket’s Solito, Solita, first-person accounts of the same journey that Jaime and Angela took.

Midnight Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca

This is one of my favorite books! It’s a twist on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I love the Changeling, Queen Titania, the love square, and most of all, the baking contest twist! There are so many delicious recipes that I want to try from this book. It was a really creative retelling of the play.

Mimi is so the main character. I love how Rajani LaRocca wrote about Mimi’s Indian American family. Being Indian wasn’t a plot point in the book but it was incorporated into the ingredients she used in baking, like turmeric coffee cake and rosewater cupcakes. I also related to the way that Mimi feels like she is the only untalented one in her family. There’s a lot to love about this book!

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Oh my gosh, this book was so sad. Apple is like Quinn in Glee — ALL the bad things happen to her and she has the worst luck in school. Erin Entrada Kelly is a pro at writing protagonists like this and I love it. Kids need to see that childhood is not all riding bikes and selling lemonade. There are kids who are suffering, just like they might be.

Apple has a hard time because boys at school have ranked her as the third ugliest girl in school, her mom doesn’t let her buy a guitar, and her friends are really not friends at all. Despite all of this, she does find true friends. It’s really refreshing to read about sad kids because I deal with depression and my childhood wasn’t happy. It can be even more alienating to see stories where kids are having a carefree time. So I appreciate the sad girl books, and I hope Erin Entrada Kelly continues to write them!

What are your favorite genres within middle grade?

Mulan and the heroine’s journey

I was really looking forward to watching the live action “Mulan” in theaters, but because of COVID-19, it has been pushed back. In lieu of the movie, I decided to read three retellings of Mulan. The live action has gotten some backlash for not being faithful to the “original” animation in 1998, but that is only one version of a centuries old ballad.

There are so many ways to retell the story, the center of which is a young woman who disguises herself as a man so she can take the place of her father in the imperial army. To me, Mulan is about strength and knowing yourself, as well as questioning what femininity and masculinity really mean.

Aside from the Mulan retellings, I also read two books by authors who explored a part of their background. The heroine’s journey always draws me in.

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

This is an amazing book! Sherry Thomas is a romance writer, and this telling includes romance between Mulan and a princeling. Their families have dueled for generations and the winner gets to keep the other’s sword. At first Mulan didn’t recognize that the princeling was her rival Yuan Kai, and once she recognized them, she starts to have feelings for him. Their prior history makes the romance a little different from the romance in other versions of Mulan. They have to wrestle with family history in addition to the gender disguise.

Another thing that sets The Magnolia Sword apart from other Mulan retellings is the north-south regional differences and Rouran history that Thomas incorporated into the tale. Chinese history, like most forms of written history, is written by the victors. Mulan’s troop also included minorities, some of which descended from the enemy they were fighting. Thomas didn’t treat China as a monolith fighting against a foreign invader, and I appreciate that she brought more nuance to the story instead of having clear cut good guys vs. bad guys. In fact, Mulan had to find out who to trust even within her own family. This was a really refreshing aspect to the tale.

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller

Mental health, science and flawed parents — Keller explored these themes in The Science of Breakable Things. I liked that Natalie is a little bit naive in that she thinks she can “solve” her mother’s depression by bringing her a reminder of her passion, which is a rare flower that she studied in her former lab. We might not be that naive but don’t we all want to solve our loved ones’ problems or bring back the past in some way?

Of course, it doesn’t work and Natalie finds out. But what she did accomplish is bringing depression to the surface as something that exists. It’s not an elephant in the room. It’s what her mother has, and there’s no easy way to erase it or make her mom better. And I think the fact that a kids’ book acknowledges that is very beautiful.

Before the Sword by Grace Lin

Grace Lin is one of my favorite authors, and Chinese folktales are her strength. Before the Sword is an original prequel to Mulan, when she was a girl. This book shares the same canon as Disney’s live action, so Mulan has a sister, Xiu, who was bitten by a poisonous spider. Mulan goes on a journey to find a cure, accompanied by the Rabbit and later, an Immortal named Lu Ting-Pin. The outcome of the book is that she finds out her destiny as a warrior, and the reader learns the origin and motivations of Xianniang.

Lin incorporates tales within the story, just as she did the “The Mountain Meets the Moon” trilogy. I love how the tales connect, and the comment thread is that the villain is the White Fox! She is so evil and beguiling. But the most interesting character to me is actually Xianniang. She and Mulan have a lot in common — feeling unwanted and a little bit lost. They both went on a journey with Rabbit, but where Mulan succeeded in bringing back a cure for her sister, Xianniang fell into the grasp of the White Fox, who, [SPOILER ALERT] was actually her mother! By the end of the story, I was rooting for Xianniang to find her place, even in the form of a witch joining the Rouran warriors. I’m excited for her and Mulan to meet again because they understand each other.

Ticket to India by N. H. Senzai

Partition, the separation of Pakistan from India, was an extremely traumatic event for both Indians and Pakistanis. When a line is literally drawn between religions, homes and families, the impact is felt for generations and it can never truly heal. N. H. Senzai identifies with both Pakistan and India, and Ticket to India explores what that’s like. It’s not that Pakistan and India are so different, or there’s pride in being from either country (as superior to the other) — it’s that there’s always a longing for home that never goes away.

The protagonist, Maya, is on a quest to find her grandmother’s treasure chest that she left behind when her family went to Pakistan after Partition. Maya finds that India is a place of contrasts; it has a lot of beauty as well as a lot of ugliness, but it’s nonetheless her grandmother’s home. This is the second book I’ve read from Senzai, and she really is the gold standard in South Asian MG lit.

Reflection by Elizabeth Lim

This was a YA adaptation that’s part of “Twisted Tales,” a series that takes a dark turn from the Disney versions. Reflection begins when Shang dies from saving Mulan from the Huns, and Mulan decides to follow him into the underworld, diyu, to take him back to earth. After talking to my friend Lynn, I realized this is a gender-swapped version of the Greek myth Eurydice and Orpheus. In the Greek version, Orpheus’s task is to bring his wife back to life, and he fails at the last second when he looks back at her.

In this version, Mulan is the one saving Shang. She’s still disguised as Ping, and the climax of the story happens when he finds out that she has been lying to him. [Spoiler alert] The penultimate test comes when an image of Shang abandons her in hell, and she has to believe that even though he would do that, she has to keep her end of the deal with King Yama, the king of hell. The final trial is that she has to select who she is — Mulan or Ping, among a pond of mirrors that reflects different versions of herself. I identified with this part because I feel like I’m always trying to find my true self, or fighting for it to come out.

Who are your favorite heroines, past or present?

Autobiographies and #OwnVoices

I think all of these books deal with trauma. Whether it’s separation, illness, or the day-to-day stressors of marriage, they all have a big impact on us and require healing. I admire the protagonists in these books for finding their own form of healing. 🙏💙 Whether it’s photography, drawing, writing, therapy, or coming to terms with oneself, like Lucy Grealy did, healing is the best thing about life.

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This was the first time I read Jenny Offill. I read a description of her writing as like text messages, and it’s so right. Dept. of Speculation is about a marriage. The subject reminds me of The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. It chronicles the relationship that starts with what feels like a special meeting, then gets into marriage and the minor annoyances that build up until the marriage becomes a problem.

I’m not sure I am a fan of these stories, although I’m sure they will get told many times. The bleak and hyper-realistic look into a marriage can feel like warning, or maybe for people who are married, it feels super relatable. In any case, I’ve heard great things about Weather and I will read that next!

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy suffered a lot from a series of surgeries that she had as a child, when she got Ewing’s sarcoma. Throughout her life, she has wanted to look normal. I love this book as a counter to Wonder, which looks at disfigurement as something inspirational. But it’s okay to not want to live with a disfigured or ugly face. It’s okay to be like Lucy Grealy and want to look like who you know yourself to be. The fact is surgery changed how she looked, and her post-surgery face is not her own, anymore than the

Grealy has a very unflinching look at herself. She’s totally honest about her wants and needs, the ways they’re not met, and how she came to terms with all of it. After many failed surgeries, some of which spanned years, she decided that this is the face she will live with, and she went on to have flings, relationships, and a good time, as good as any of us may have. I’m so glad Lucy Grealy left this behind for us. Thank you, Lucy.

Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai

I love N. H. Senzai’s historical fiction for kids. Shooting Kabul is about a family escaping from Afghanistan, and the main character’s younger sister gets left behind. The family settles in Fremont, where there is an Afghan community. Fadi and his father love photography, and Fadi gets into the photography club at his school, even though he can’t pay for it. His older teen sister helps him pay for the club fees, and he enters a contest by photographing his grandparents.

This book was published in 2020, before #OwnVoices and the Diverse Books movement properly started. It’s set in 2001, and it depicts the prejudice and aggressions that kids like Fadi faced after the 9/11 attacks. I think that was my favorite part of it because it still happens today. In one scene, the bullies mistake a Sikh kid as Muslim because of how he looks. That totally happens!!! Ugh.

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

This has become one of my favorite books. Edie’s mom is adopted, but she has never talked to her about who Edie is named after. One day, Edie finds a picture of her biological grandmother, also named Edith. The story is about Edie finding out who Edith and who she is. This book gives background to the Indian Child Welfare Act. It’s heartbreaking to think that the government separated so many Indian families for no reason, and what kind of traumatic impact that has had generations after.

The book left me wanting to learn more about Edith. So many elders have passed away without their voices heard. To be separated from your child must be like dying while alive. Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was the fact that Edie loves drawing, the salmon motif, and the strong sense of place in Seattle. I enjoyed this book and hope to read more from Christine Day.

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

I follow Saeed on Twitter and he is such a gem — a powerful gem. I also saw that Tiffany Young got his memoir at the bookstore! Right now seems like a fitting time to read this book because we are very literally, fighting for our lives.

Jones is brutally honest here. There is a lot of sex, generational trauma, coming of age and PAIN here. It hurts to read but it is so good. It’s about living unapologetically because when you’re a a gay Black man like Jones, the act of existing is defiant. Like Lucy Grealy’s memoir, How We Fight is not written to be inspiring to us, but it is. The spirit of living and survivorship is strong. Reading these memoirs make me feel like I need to do the right thing and keep living, as hard as it may be.

Which autobiographies or #ownvoices stories have inspired you?