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?