Happy Wednesday, bibliophiles. I’m back with a second set of Rapid Reviews since I’ve been breezing through a few and I wanted to share the really awesome middle-grade books I finished. Since summer is coming to an end, most students in our district have completed their summer reading assignments. So, I figured I’d pick up some of the books they were assigned to read that interested me the most since our district updated some of the book lists and we had some spare copies on the shelves at work.
I don’t read middle-grade books for pleasure, but the ones I ended up picking to read were excellent!
By Your Side (audiobook) by Kasie West
YA Contemporary, Romance, High-School, Mental Illness
A girl with anxiety and her ex-juvie classmate are trapped in a library together during MLK weekend.
The only other Kasie West book I’ve read is P.S. I Like You (you can read my really old review here). I seemed to like it more at the time I read it because when I think back to it now, I was slightly underwhelmed. Kasie West’s books tend to be too fluffy and a little superficial for my taste. But she is probably a good choice for young readers who want light-hearted romances and want to avoid anything too dark or raunchy.
The whole “trapped in a library” premise is unrealistic and the circumstances created which force the main characters to stay in the library are obviously convenient for the author’s intentions. I was not a fan of Autumn, the protagonist, whom readers later learn suffers from anxiety. I found her extremely selfish and I was completely turned off by how harshly she judges Dax, who clearly exhibited signs of having a difficult home life. She demands to know his personal thoughts and secrets when she clearly has no intention of sharing anything about herself. I should probably be proud of the fact that she is extremely protective of herself, but I just love when stupid protagonists are later proved wrong for the assumptions they make about other people.
Overall, I felt the mental illness representation wasn’t organic. There is an instance when Autumn’s friends who are completely unaware of her issues with anxiety, trigger an anxiety attack. Afterwards, Autumn apologizes for not telling her friends about her struggles and one of her friends replies that she should have so they would have known better. *NOTE: telling someone with anxiety that they should’ve told you about their anxiety AFTER you’ve triggered an anxiety attack ISN’T supportive. You APOLOGIZE for your triggering actions and you take the time to listen and learn about what you can do to be a better friend.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Middle grade realistic fiction
Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius who finds comfort in counting things by 7s, loses her adoptive parents to a car accident.
Stories featuring characters who are severely misunderstood or judged by their peers always strike me right in the feels. As someone who constantly struggles with low self-esteem, I find myself almost painfully connecting with these types of characters. I am extremely self-conscious and hyper-sensitive to the way others look at me, as I have constantly been judged by others because of my appearance or interests. I distinctly remember a time when I tried instant messaging a classmate to try to get to know her better and she told me that we probably shouldn’t talk since we weren’t in the same “friend group.”
Counting by 7s somewhat utilizes a multi-perspective narrative style which I’ve been seeing a lot more of in recent literature. The story is told mostly from Willow’s point of view in first person. But readers are also given glimpses into the views of other key characters throughout told in third person. I find that this storytelling style encourages empathy in readers, reminding them that you don’t always realize how your actions affect those around you and that a lot of people are dealing with things you don’t know about.
Sloan’s cast is quirky–each character is unique but all are trying to find their places in the world. Willow loves the color red, nature, and diagnosing medical problems. Her counselor, Dell, is overweight and has a hoarding problem. Mai, her brother Quang-Ha and her mother Pattie are Vietnamese. Pattie runs a nail salon and she and her children live in seemingly impoverished conditions. Jairo is a taxi-driver whose life is forever changed when Willow uses his services.
While some of the diversity seems forced and perpetuates some stereotypes we already see today, I am reminded to think about what diversity representation in literature truly means. Mae Respicio’s beautifully written middle grade book The House That Lou Built features a mainly Filipino cast,which struck me with how much it reminded me of myself and my own family because of a lot of the “Filipino” habits they exhibit. Though Pattie’s owning a nail salon is eye-roll worthy, my nail technician whom I love like a mom and have an appointment with bi-weekly is Vietnamese and owns the nail salon she works at. She is one of the hardest working people I know.
I really did love this book and while sad at times, it also made me laugh. Willow’s voice is slightly unemotional, but her casual bluntness was amusing throughout. A variety of themes are covered in this story including coping with loss and finding family in unexpected places.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Middle Grade/YA Verse, Basketball
12-year-old twins, Josh and Jordan, are talented basketball players who begin to grow apart as they transition into junior high.
This is a book I’ve always known about once I started delving into children’s literature because of its numerous awards and constant reappearance on my school district’s summer reading list.
The only book I had read by Kwame Alexander prior to this one was Solo which is inspired by rock music and is also written in verse–I adored that book.
The energy behind Alexander’s writing here truly mirrors the excitement, intensity and swiftness found on the basketball court. It is moving and rhythmic like hip-hop music. I think my most favorite parts of this book are all the scenes which describe the characters actually playing the sport.
I laughed and nearly cried while reading this story about brotherhood, family and responsibility. When Jordan begins to date a classmate who is referred to as Miss Sweet Tea by Josh, I could feel Josh’s growing confusion and sadness–as if he was losing his brother. I used to not enjoy books written in verse, but this book is pure excellence.
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Middle grade/YA realistic fiction, Running, Disability
High-schooler Jessica, who loves to run, loses her leg in an accident and must learn to live the rest of her life with a prosthetic limb.
I really appreciated that this story not only focused on Jessica’s emotional and physical recovery after losing her leg, but the other issues that arise simultaneously including coping with the death of a classmate due to the same accident, struggling with medical bills and learning to live with a disability.
I found Jessica to be a really decent human being. She wasn’t bratty, self-centered or arrogant. Van Draanen created a very likable character who, despite believing her world was coming to an end because she had to give up running forever, was open to change.
The greatest success of this story is the delivery of one its critical takeaways which is the importance of seeing someone for who they are and not just their disability. Jessica befriends Rosa, a classmate who lives with cerebral palsy, but she doesn’t relish in praising herself for doing so. She recognizes how she and others must treat Rosa on a daily basis and makes a conscious effort to change her own views and behaviors. When Jessica is determined to participate in a 10-mile race while pushing Rosa in a wheelchair, she diverts everyone’s attention from her efforts and shines the light on her new friend who is insightful, smart and a wonderful person who deserves to be heard and seen just like anyone else.
Again, I’m not much of a middle-grade reader, but all the ones I read recently were wonderful choices and I was glad to see them on this year’s summer reading list. I’m learning that realistic fiction is my preference when it comes to middle grade books. Be sure to let me know if you have any favorite middle-grade books that you think I might enjoy!