In Sharon Creech’s latest book, The Boy on the Porch, a young couple find a boy asleep on their front porch one day and decide to take him in. The child has a note in his pocket stating: “Plees tak kair of Jacob. He is a good boy. Wil be bak wen we can.” With that little bit of information, John and Marta begin to care for the boy who does not speak, yet communicates to them by tapping and painting pictures such as they’ve never seen before. As the bond between the three of them grows stronger, they all realize that any day someone may take Jacob away from them and tear apart their newly formed family.
Newbery Medal winner Creech effectively uses short chapters and sparse descriptions to draw a wonderfully fleshed out story and characters that are quirky yet totally believable. Jacob stands in for the child that John and Marta never had, but he is also able to bond with the animals on the farm better than the couple ever could. As the story unfolds, all three main characters go through changes that are heartwarming yet never maudlin. The different ways that Jacob is able to share his innermost thoughts and feelings without ever saying a word is both inspirational and eye-opening.
The bestselling author that brought you The Hunger Games series is showing her versatility with Year of the Jungle, a picture book about Suzanne Collins as a little girl whose dad serves in the Vietnam War. Collins collaborates with illustrator James Proimos to bring this touching picture book to young readers.
This book follows young Suzy as she sees her dad off to Vietnam without truly understanding the ramifications of his going away. While he is gone she looks forward to his postcards and feels the loss more deeply than she is able to express. Days go by and turn into months as holidays and seasons pass without her father. She can’t understand the concept of a year and has to just keep waiting for his return with no idea as to how long she will have to wait.
Collins seeks to capture the impact that serving in the military can have on the children of those brave soldiers. She reached back to remember how she felt as a 6-year-old coping with the loss of her father. Collins talks in this short video about her experience writing Year of the Jungle. This picture book is honest and heartfelt, though not too graphic or intense for young readers, especially if they have a loved one serving in the military.
Most people count sheep to fall asleep. Dani counts happy thoughts. My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz tells the tale of a little girl just starting school as she deals with first day of school jitters, making friends, losing friends, getting hurt, hurting others and all the other ups and downs in the life of a child.
Dani is a wonderfully realistic character who demonstrates resilience in the face of sadness. She is both excited and nervous about the first day of school, but she soldiers on and starts to have fun. Quickly making a best friend in Ella, Dani is happier than ever. Disaster strikes when Dani learns that Ella is moving away. Her sadness is heartbreaking. After a few rough days, and a few missteps, Dani slowly finds ways to be happy again.
Manageable chapters with limited text and plenty of delightful illustrations by award winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, make this book excellent for beginning readers. Through the combination of words and illustration, Lagercrantz and Eriksson perfectly capture the essence of a little girl’s life. My Happy Life is a very sweet, honest story suitable for both independent reading and reading aloud. This charming story is refreshingly free from “cuteness” and serves as a great example for children in how to handle hard knocks.
Could a simple mistake ruin the future of a 7th grade student? In Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills, it looks as if Sierra Shepard is going to pay a heavy price for picking up the wrong lunch bag on her way to school. Sierra has always been the model student: straight A’s, honors classes and a member of the Leadership Club. However, one day she hurriedly picks up her Mom’s lunch bag instead of her own and discovers a paring knife inside to cut up an apple. When Sierra sees the “weapon” in her bag at lunch time, she immediately alerts the cafeteria monitor of the mistake. Despite her good intentions, Sierra’s principal is bent on having her expelled for violating the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
Her father, a high-powered attorney, is determined to keep her in school, even if it costs her principal his job. As the hearing to decide Sierra’s fate looms before her, she begins to discover that not everything in life is as black and white as she always believed it to be. Sierra must decide what is really important to her. Are the other “bad kids” serving in-school suspension as guilty as she always believed them to be? Are her friends on her side, or are they just enjoying her publicity? Does making a mistake mean that it’s okay to do something she knows is wrong to prove her innocence? These questions and others not only cause Sierra to re-evaluate her life, but they make good talking points to share with young people about some very touchy subjects.
Fifth grade is difficult to navigate as Genie Kunkle finds out in Elisabeth Dahl’s Genie Wishes. Genie lives in Baltimore with her father, brother, and grandmother. She is about to start the fifth grade at Hopkins Country Day School and is thrilled to learn that Sarah, her BFF, will be in her homeroom. But Sarah is thrilled that Blair, her new friend from summer camp is also in their class. And Blair is not thrilled with anything Genie does – from her name (Haddock is her unfortunate middle name), to not shaving her legs. As Genie notes, the transitive property she learned about in math does not transfer to friendship.
Fifth grade progresses and Genie makes new friends since Sarah and Blair are now a package deal. She also tries new things, like running and winning the election for class blogger. Using the name Genie Wishes, she voices the wishes and dreams of her class. Her posts are popular, but sometimes it’s hard to think of things to write and she also worries about expressing her opinion. Change is afoot at home as well and Genie finds herself dealing with a moody older brother and a dad back in the dating pool.
Dahl does an excellent job of conveying the struggles of a realistic tween learning to accept change and make decisions, both fluffy and weighty. While the loss of her best friend is painful, it is not a major betrayal. As she finishes the year and heads for middle school, Genie realizes it’s important to stand for something and let her voice be heard. Tweens everywhere will relate to Genie’s genuine conflicts and appreciate the quick resolutions. Kids from Charm City will love all of the Baltimore references from the National Aquarium to dressing up in Ravens’ colors for Spirit Day.
Blending engaging, energetic illustrations with an accessible plot and appealing characters, acclaimed cartoonist Michael Fry offers a refreshing new take on some timeless issues in middle school in The Odd Squad: Bully Bait. Nick has got to be THE shortest twelve-year old on the planet. Well, at least the shortest in Emily Dickinson Middle School. Being short isn’t always bad...at least when the school bully Roy stuffs Nick in his locker, it’s a roomy fit. But then being short isn’t Nick’s only problem.
Nick’s mom and dad have split up. Roy regularly terrorizes him at school. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not even with the Unsociables. Worst of all, Becky, his would-be girlfriend has begun hanging out with the abominable Roy! Not everything is rotten though, like Mr. Dupree, the seriously weird janitor who quotes Shakespeare and tells strange truths disguised as lies. Then there’s his mom and Memaw who love him. Best of all, Nick has a cool virtual alter-ego, Max. Max gets to torment Roy through texts and is Becky’s virtual BFF. Nick’s school counselor, Dr. Daniels, has had enough of the bullying. She’s recruited Nick and two other misfits, Molly and Karl to join the lamest club ever - Safety Patrol. Molly, the tallest girl in school, and Karl, the weirdest, aren’t prime friend material as far as Nick is concerned. They have a common cause, though, and together the three devise a plan to stand up to Roy. In the process, Nick learns some surprising information about Roy – and about himself.
Fry takes on a potentially problematic combination of delicate issues in Bully Bait, including both physical and virtual bullying, "peer allergies", challenging family situations and more. What he delivers is a story that is humorous and light, without sacrificing realism or a powerful underlying message. Look for the second installment in The Odd Squad series in September.
Newbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool returns with a coming-of-age tale sprinkled with magic and adventure in Navigating Early, set at the end of World War II. Jack Baker’s mother has suddenly died, and his military dad uproots him from Kansas to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. While feeling like a fish out of the very water so prevalent on this campus, Jack does befriend Early Auden, an unusual boy who seems to have his run of the school. Early is an orphan whose brother was a superstar at the school but whom everyone (except Early) believes to have died in the war.
As the two get to know one another, it is clear that while Early may be quirky, even obsessive; he definitely has a gift for numbers. He sees colors in numbers and fashions a story about the number Pi. Early shares his story of Pi with Jack, and Jack agrees to accompany Early on his quest for his missing brother and a legendary great black bear along the Appalachian Trail. Early’s Pi story is filled with pirates, volcanoes, and extraordinary escapades. Oddly, the boys’ journey parallels Pi’s story, as they encounter similar characters and excitement along the Trail. The two travel by land and sea all while overcoming obstacles and learning more about other and themselves.
As they complete this mission together and navigate dangerous paths, each realizes the power of his personal connections and that sometimes what you are looking for isn’t always what you find. Vanderpool masterfully weaves the story of the boys’ quest with the tale of Pi into a quickly moving narrative with beautiful language and mystical overtones. This stunning novel is homage to the power of stories, the importance of personal journeys, and the power of our individual constellations.
Real life doesn’t always have a happily ever after. Kids may want to try these two well–written books for stories of real life with real endings. After a violent episode of abuse by her mother and stepfather, twelve-year-old Carley Connors is sent to her first foster home where she is welcomed by Mrs. Murphy, herself a first-timer. In One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Carley tries to survive in a strange new environment while being haunted by broken pieces of memory from that horrible night. New clothes, home-cooked meals and a return to school is a lot of adjustment for this tough, neglected girl from Las Vegas. A less-than-warm welcome from her foster brother and foster father adds to her anxiety. Hunt displays a deft touch with serious issues, showing Carley’s discomfort and distrust of the kindness shown to her without hitting the reader over the head with her angst. Her characters feel genuine with real emotions and concerns. Carley learns a lot about herself and about love while staying with the Murphys.
First published in 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is another foster child story with similar themes of finding family and finding yourself. Gilly Hopkins is an eleven year old girl bouncing from foster home to foster home until her beautiful mother, Courtney, can come claim her. The book tells the tale of her stay with Maime Trotter, her foster son William Ernest and family friend, blind Mr. Randolph. Gilly is independent, strong-willed and blunt with her opinions, particularly about the “freaks” she has been stuck with. Gilly’s crude language and bad behavior makes her particularly unlikable at first. The reader begins to cheer for this unhappy creature as the details of her life emerge and as she grows to care for her foster family. The winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, The Great Gilly Hopkins still resonates with children today.
Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead is back with another gem for the middle grade crowd in Liar & Spy. Georges has a lot going on, not the least of which is his name. Yes, his parents named him Georges (silent s) after their favorite painter, pointillist Georges Seurat. Needless to say, this only gives the bullies at school more ammunition in their relentless torment. His former best friend is now ensconced in the cool crowd. Georges has had to move from the only home he knew following his father’s job loss. And his mother is working double shifts as a nurse at the hospital to get some much needed extra cash.
The only bright light is the Spy Club at his new apartment building led by the homeschooled Safer. He is convinced another tenant, the mysterious Mr. X, is up to nefarious dealings. Safer and Georges begin an intensive spying campaign, and Georges grows closer with Safer’s quirky family, including his appropriately named younger sister, Candy, whose appetite for sweets is insatiable. As the spy game becomes more extreme and Safer becomes more demanding, Georges is forced to question Safer’s honesty and motives all while dealing with a missing mother, who only communicates with Georges via messages on a Scrabble board. Georges avoids visiting his mother at work, and readers soon learn there is more to that situation than meets the eye.
As with Seurat’s paintings, Georges learns to look at the big picture, rather than focus on the small stuff. This is a fascinating coming of age story filled with twists and an appealing and relatable young man. Long after readers finish this book, they will be thinking about the questions posed regarding family, friendship, loyalty, perception, reality and truth.
Written in short, episodic passages by a boy as a memorial to his beloved friend, Michael Gerard Bauer’s short novel Just a Dog is a contemporary elegy, ably covering a rite of passage that many children must face. Corey’s uncle is a breeder of Dalmatians. The breeder loses track of one of his females, who later has a litter of puppies that are clearly not 100% Dalmatian. Most of the pups are given away to strangers, but 3-year-old Corey chooses and names Mister Mosely. He is a gangly, mostly white puppy with enormous paws, and just a few black patches here and there, including a heart shape on his chest. Each vignette that now 11-year-old Corey writes in his journal describes his memories of incidences with the lovable Moe, the family’s nickname for the dog.
An Australian import, the novel includes some terminology that will have kids learning new Down Under vocabulary, but context clues allow for full understanding. The familiar story of the relationship between a family and a pet is deepened by the serious issues that Corey’s parents must deal with when they become financially strapped. Corey’s little sister Amelia provides comic relief. Her relationship with the enormous yet gentle Mister Mosely includes episodes of dressing him up in various outfits, and using permanent markers to create a constant surprised look on his face.
Corey and the rest of his family face true, difficult emotions at the end of Mister Mosely’s short life. It is unlikely that most readers both young and old will be able to get through the novel without shedding a tear for Mister Mosely, as Bauer concisely and accurately depicts the loyalty, love, and pure heart a beloved pet provides to humans. All told, he's much more than “just a dog”.