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Best Middle-Grade Historical Fiction of 2019

Though based in history, this novel is timely, addressing the human complexity of literal borders and figurative walls and...

ORANGE FOR THE SUNSETS

In 1972, the president of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of the country’s “foreign Indians,” giving them 90 days to leave the country.

In alternating chapters, Athaide tells the story of best friends Asha, who is Indian, and Yesofu, who is African and whose mother is a servant in Asha’s home, as they navigate this xenophobic, nationalist chaos. Yesofu is influenced by Mamma’s words—“You and Asha are from different worlds,” she warns him—but Asha is determined to prove him wrong: “Black. Brown. Indian. African. She’d…[s]how him these differences didn’t matter.” Yet when Asha sees Yesofu “cheering, waving, and hollering” at an anti-Indian rally, she is hurt and confused. When, shortly after, at school during a heated argument, Yesofu snarls at her, “Don’t [my family] deserve more than being your slaves—don’t I?” Asha is incredulous. As the novel progresses, however, Yesofu, too, has misgivings about this Ugandan nationalism and the possible loss of his dearest friend. Drawing on Athaide’s own childhood experiences as a Ugandan-born British-Indian whose family was affected by the expulsion, the story does not shy from the violence and death of the episode. The use of the alternating perspectives helps readers unfamiliar with the era understand both it and the feelings on both sides; an author’s note provides further context.

Though based in history, this novel is timely, addressing the human complexity of literal borders and figurative walls and lives that are irrevocably and heartbreakingly changed in crises. (bibliography, further resources) (Historical fiction. 9-13)

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-279529-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Readers will find a powerful window into the past and, unfortunately, a way-too-accurate mirror of the present.

THE LONG RIDE

A quiet but stirring historical novel about the awkward, thrilling, and often painful moments that make middle school a pivotal time.

It’s 1971, and best friends Jamila, Josie, and Francesca are excited to start seventh grade. But when their school district decides to bus the students in their northern Queens neighborhood to a middle school in predominantly black southern Queens in an attempt to desegregate New York City schools, their trio threatens to fall apart. Though their multicultural identities in a predominantly white neighborhood have united them in the past—Jamila is white and Bajan, Josie is Latinx and Jamaican, Francesca is black and white—their families’ and community’s divisions over the new policy chip away at their camaraderie. Along with all of the usual adolescent milestones, including first love, juggling old friendships and new, and moments of burgeoning independence from parents, Budhos deftly explores the tensions that pulled at the seams of the fraught and divided city during this time. Jamila’s narration is thoughtful, capturing the growing pains of seventh grade and the injustices, big and small, that young adolescents face. She portrays with nuance the ways multiracial identities, socio-economic status, microaggressions, and interracial relationships can impact and shape identity.

Readers will find a powerful window into the past and, unfortunately, a way-too-accurate mirror of the present. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-553-53422-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Wendy Lamb/Random

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

Full of desperate sadness and tremendous beauty.

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A PLACE TO BELONG

A family battered by war crosses an ocean to settle in a land still mired in suffering.

Twelve-year-old Hanako, her 5-year-old brother, and her parents were interned along with over 110,000 other Japanese-Americans during World War II. Papa, who agitated for the internees’ civil rights, was separated and targeted for especially harsh treatment. Having lost their restaurant and now disillusioned by America, they become expatriates, traveling to Hiroshima Prefecture to live as struggling tenant farmers with Hanako’s paternal grandparents. There they confront harsh social inequities, the impact of the atomic bomb, and the privations of postwar life. Even as she is embraced with warm, unconditional love by Jiichan and Baachan, Hanako struggles to adjust. She is clearly a foreigner in the land of her forebears, an identity crisis that’s exacerbated by extreme hunger, encounters with survivors of the bombing, and her loving parents’ emotional stress. The third-person limited narration vividly captures Hanako’s literal and figurative journeys as she faces complex moral dilemmas, deals with cultural dislocation and terrible uncertainty, and tries to lift the spirits of those around her. Superb characterization and an evocative sense of place elevate this story that is at once specific to the experiences of Japanese-American expatriates and yet echoes those of many others. Final art not seen.

Full of desperate sadness and tremendous beauty. (afterword) (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4814-4664-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

PLANET EARTH IS BLUE

In Panteleakos’ debut, a nonverbal, autistic astronomy enthusiast counts down to the space shuttle Challenger’s launch—and her runaway sister’s return—in January 1986.

Twelve-year-old Nova Vezina hates deviating from routine, which makes moving from 11 foster homes in seven years challenging. But each new school’s verdict is the same: “Cannot read. Cannot speak. Severely mentally retarded.” A “thinker, not a talker,” Nova can’t explain that her big sister, Bridget, taught her the alphabet and read her novels, such as Peter Pan. Bridget disappeared after they ran from their last home, but she’d promised they’d watch the Challenger’s launch together. As Nova counts down the remaining 10 days, third-person chapters alternate with Nova’s printed letters to Bridget (“scribbles” to everyone else), which grow uneasy as Bridget doesn’t appear. Interspersed flashbacks reveal the sisters’ turbulent past and sensitively illustrate the uncertainty of foster care. The author poetically immerses readers in Nova’s mind as Nova endures “the constant scratching of sounds that [invade] her brain,” befriends fellow special education classmates, and struggles to be understood by both well-meaning and patronizing adults. Bursting with worry, joy, empathy, humor, and even mischief, Nova is endearingly nuanced. The countdown’s multiple conclusions dovetail in an ending Nova might call “Crayola Pine Green”: a mixture of conflicting emotions that will linger long after the last page. An author’s note provides background on autism and the Challenger disaster. Nova and Bridget are ethnically ambiguous; Nova’s foster mother is light-skinned, her foster father dark-skinned, and her foster sister biracial.

Stellar. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-64657-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Wendy Lamb/Random

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Lovely, sad, hopeful, and memorable.

ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET

Sixth-grader Olympia—called Ollie by her best friends, Richard and Alex—is left fending for herself when her father disappears and her mother experiences a major depressive crisis.

A vividly depicted urban landscape firmly establishes this novel in the SoHo of 1981, where Ollie lives in a converted industrial loft and picks up packs of cigarettes and Tab at a store on Broadway for her mom. A talented artist, Ollie’s mom has stopped getting out of bed since Ollie’s father, an art restorer, embarked on a clandestine trip to France a week before. At first glance, this elegantly nostalgic and leisurely paced story, sparingly illustrated with delicate pencil drawings, is a mystery involving a valuable wood carving on which Ollie’s dad and his business partner, Apollo, were working. However, there are so many other themes at play—including the intricacies of friendships, the pain of living with depression, and art’s ability to create meaning out of life’s ordinary and sometimes-difficult circumstances—that it defies simple genre categorization. A host of honest, flawed, deeply sympathetic characters that are poignant and funny are at once unique and familiar. Ollie, her parents, and Alex seem to be white by default, Apollo grew up in Poland, and Richard is a black boy of Haitian heritage. There is realistic ethnic diversity reflected in secondary and background characters.

Lovely, sad, hopeful, and memorable. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-47953-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

An imagined adventure turned nightmarishly real leads to exciting, life-changing results.

SPY RUNNER

It’s 1953, and Jake just knows that the new boarder is a Communist spy.

The 12-year-old fan of Commie-fighting comics hero Spy Runner has no trouble finding plausible evidence, either, from the unkempt stranger’s comment that his parents were Russian to mysterious phone calls in the night and a scary interview with a pair of heavies who claim to be FBI agents. But suspicion proves (then, as now) contagious, and suddenly Jake’s own best friend is shunning him, he’s ostracized at school, and a black car is following him around Tucson. On top of all that comes the emotionally shattering discovery that his mom, solitary since his dad was declared MIA in World War II, has let the stranger into her room. At this point, having set readers up for a salutary but hardly unique tale about prejudice, misplaced suspicion, and the McCarthy era, Yelchin briskly proceeds to pull the rug out from under them by pitching his confused, impulsive protagonist into an escalating whirl of chases, crashes, threats, assaults, abductions, blazing gunplay, spies, and counterspies—along with revelations that hardly anyone, even Jake’s mom, is what they seem. The author includes a number of his own blurred, processed, black-and-white photos that effectively underscore both the time’s fearful climate and the vertiginous quality of Jake’s experience. The book assumes a white default.

An imagined adventure turned nightmarishly real leads to exciting, life-changing results. (Historical adventure. 10-13)

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-12081-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Godwin Books/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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