In a few months, Liv effects a major change in his new middle school’s antiquated dress code while simultaneously acquiring the courage to come out as transgender.
From the start, readers are drawn into the story by 11-year-old Liv’s believable, humor-tinged narration: “Little brothers can always be counted on to reach peak levels of annoying at exactly the wrong moment. It must be part of their job description.” Throughout, Liv’s voice is convincing and a pleasure to read. Readers learn that, over the years, Liv has become increasingly less tolerant of being assigned female pronouns and the name “Olivia.” Being required to wear a skirt daily at middle school is the last straw. He—still “she” to others—works to convince the school’s new principal that students should have some choice in clothing, moving from an unsuccessful conversation to an unpromising petition to a brilliantly orchestrated media event. Along the way, he contends with a mean-spirited bully and the loss of a former friend even as he makes new, more loyal friends and wrestles with his own shortcomings. His coming-out to friend Jacob is realistically brief and an enormous relief. Liv’s two moms add further dimension to a tale that unabashedly affirms the importance of accepting and celebrating differences. The book assumes a white default, with ethnicity cued by naming convention.
A fine addition to LGBTQ children’s literature.
Two sixth-grade boys from different worlds are brought together by school desegregation in 1970s Los Angeles.
“Opportunity Busing” brings Armstrong and nine other middle schoolers from South Central LA to integrate the previously all-white Wonderland Avenue School in the Hollywood Hills. Armstrong, a witty and sharp-witted black boy, plays fast and loose with the rules at his new school, where not everyone is welcoming. Charlie, one of Wonderland’s white students, has earned the nickname “Rules Boy” and is curious about the tough-talking Armstrong. Charlie lives with his parents, who are grieving the death of Charlie’s older brother. Armstrong lives with his parents and a house full of older sisters. The boys find that their many differences can be bridged and that friendship is possible, if not easy. For Armstrong, Charlie, and their classmates, this memorable school year is a time of discovery and disappointment, fistfights, and first kisses. Period details from the ’70s and hilarious dialogue will draw readers in from the very first pages. Inspired by the author’s own sixth-grade experience, the story perfectly captures the full spectrum of budding adolescence; Armstrong and Charlie are as sensitive as they are daring as they figure out who they want to be in the changing world around them.
Unforgettable, well-drawn titular characters are the heart of this deeply moving and laugh-out-loud funny story about family, friendship, integrity, and navigating differences
. (Historical fiction. 10-14)
A failing peach farm and a mountain of bills force 12-year-old Lorenzo Ventura’s mother to consider selling his best friend, Marty—a pig who thinks he is a dog.
The only things Renzo has to remember his father by are his Bronze Star, some letters, and his guitar. When new and conflicting details about his father’s death emerge, the white middle schooler is anxious to know the truth. But his mother and her father, Double Pop, are distracted with saving their home. When Paloma Lee, Renzo’s mixed-race (Korean and Colombian) friend, leaves for music camp, Renzo is left alone with his questions and Marty, whose size and enthusiasm are becoming dangerous. Renzo’s search for answers leads him to some profound truths: love is complicated, and people will continually surprise and sometimes disappoint you. But whether they are working single parents, military veterans, or simply friends willing to go the distance, heroes come in many types, and Renzo’s story is a celebration of them all. Renzo is a gentle-hearted dreamer who learns that there are some things worth fighting for. And Marty is the pig who guides him toward the man he is growing to be.
Smart, honest, and heart-achingly real.
Hey, kids, are you saddled with a waaay overprotective mother? A dad who picks his nose? Parents discussing a move to Alaska? See Dewey Fairchild!
Actually, that move to Alaska involves Dewey’s own parents, and as it turns out, he needs some grown-up help redirecting the impulse. Otherwise business is so good that he has an office with a secret entrance and satisfied clients not only from his own fifth-grade class, but even from other schools. He’s ably assisted in his methodical investigations and hilariously canny strategies by still-spry family friend Clara Cottonwood, an unfailing source of both wisdom and cookies, whose glib recitation of the themes of her last 93 birthday parties alone catapults her well over the threshold of awesome. With her help, along with that of several satisfied peer allies and customers rounding out the all-white cast, Dewey tackles parental challenges ranging from spying on the aforementioned nose picker (and seeing things no child should ever see, yuck) to derailing out-of-control cases of germophobia and addiction to practical jokes. His string of triumphs will have readers cheering him on, rolling in the aisles, and wishing they could line up for consultations.
After all, as Horn puts it in this winning debut, “where you found kids, you always found parents who needed some assistance to be, shall we say, their best selves.” Amen to that.
The lives of several middle school children intersect one summer day, as if by fate.
Kelly’s inventive story centers on gentle and quiet Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American 11-year-old, and is told from several supremely well-crafted perspectives. Virgil longs to find the courage to talk to Valencia Somerset, who is confident, independent, and deaf. Third-generation Japanese-American Kaori Tanaka, Virgil’s good friend and a budding entrepreneur, offers kids her gift of second sight as a professional psychic. Chet Bullens is the neighborhood bully, and he torments Virgil regularly. Though he is immediately unlikable, Chet’s internal dialogue is nuanced, allowing young readers to understand the forces that shape his worldview and to glimpse the insecurity that underscores his behavior. On his way through the woods to Kaori’s house for a reading, Virgil encounters Chet, whose cruelty endangers Virgil’s beloved guinea pig, Gulliver, and ultimately leaves Virgil stranded and helpless. This ordeal spurs the unexpected collision of all the characters. Virgil, alone except for visits by personifications from the dark folk tales often shared by his Filipina grandmother, contemplates how he will become the hero in his own story should he survive. The short chapters, compelling characters, and age-appropriate suspense will hook young readers immediately. Neither Valencia nor Chet is cued racially.
An original and resonant exploration of interconnectedness and friendship.
The fifth installment in the Swedish early chapter series featuring Dani, a young white girl.
Dani is starting second grade, and although she still misses her “best friend in the whole world,” Ella (who has moved), she is overjoyed that her father, Gianni, has returned home after a summer of hospitalization following an accident. She is also looking forward to the class trip to Skansen Zoo. But at Skansen, two of Dani’s classmates tell her she looks like the monkeys, and Dani runs off. Lo and behold, she runs into Ella, whose unruly class is also visiting. The two sneak off to play, and Dani realizes that Ella is unhappy in her new class, which makes Dani unhappy. Lagercrantz expertly and respectfully weaves themes of moving on, resilience, and friendship; Eriksson’s black-and-white illustrations give heart and warmth. (In the illustrations, everyone’s skin is the white of the paper, but racial differences are hinted at in facial features and hair.) The beauty and magic of these books is that, while they are full of sweetness, they embrace reality. Dani is not ready to let Sadie, the nurse her father fell in love with over the summer, into her life and acts out. And Dani’s maternal grandmother (Dani’s mother died five years earlier) sides with Dani, a sophisticated insertion that is in line with Dani’s (and presumably, readers’) growing maturity.
A story about making life whole—that’s also really funny.
Malú wants to be totally punk at her new middle school, but her Mexican-American mother would prefer she learn to be a proper señorita.
Twelve-year-old María Luisa O’Neill-Morales, aka Malú, loves punk-rock music, hanging out at her father’s indie record store, and making zines. She doesn’t love moving from her home in Gainesville, Florida, to Chicago for her professor mother’s two-year appointment at a university. Although she loves both of her amicably divorced parents, Malú—who favors Chuck Taylors and music T’s—feels closer to her laid-back, artsy white father than her supportive but critical academic mother, whom she calls “SuperMexican.” At Malú’s new majority-Latino school, she quickly makes an enemy of beautiful Selena, who calls her a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) and warns her about falling in with the class “weirdos.” Malú does befriend the school misfits (one activist white girl and two fellow “coconuts”) and enlists them to form a band to play a punk song at the Fall Fiesta. Middle-grade readers will appreciate the examples of Malú’s zines and artwork, which delightfully convey her journey of self-discovery. The author surrounds the feisty protagonist with a trio of older women (including her mom, her best friend Joe’s tattooed, punk-loving mother, and his humorous Abuela) who help her embrace being Mexican and punk.
A charming debut about a thoughtful, creative preteen connecting to both halves of her identity.
African-American track phenom Patina Jones takes the baton from Ghost (2016) in the second volume of Reynolds’ Track series for middle graders.
Reynolds tells readers almost all they need to know about Patty in two opening, contrasting scenes. In the first, Patty misjudges her competitors in an 800-meter race she’s certain she should have won. Running well but second is not enough for the ferociously competitive Patty. In the other, she braids her little sister’s hair before church, finishing off each of Maddy’s 30 braids with three beads. She does this every Sunday because their white adoptive mother can’t (“there ain’t no rule book for white people to know how to work with black hair”) and because their birth mother insists they look their best for church. Their father dead and their birth mother’s legs lost to diabetes, the two girls live with their father’s brother and his wife, seeing their mother once a week in an arrangement that’s as imperfect as it is loving and necessary. Writing in Patty’s voice, Reynolds creates a fully dimensional, conflicted character whose hard-earned pragmatism helps her bring her relay team together, negotiate the social dynamics of the all-girls, mostly white private school she attends, and make the best of her unusual family lot. When this last is threatened, readers will ache right alongside her.
Another stellar lap—readers will be eager to see who’s next
. (Fiction. 8-12)
What if, in not keeping a promise to God, you make a deal with the devil?
Ten-year-old Cadence Mariah Jolly, named after singer Mariah Carey, belies her name: she suffers from near-deleterious social anxiety, especially after her mother left her, her father, older brother, and the small town of Harmony, Pennsylvania, to pursue a singing career. The solicitous, diverse townspeople—from the African-American Trinity Sisters and server Sofine to Chinese-American classmate Mei-Mei’s mother—who dote on the black family with pity and prayer don’t know that Cadence’s mother left her with another gift: the ability to sing…mostly because Cadence is terrified to use it. When she initially prays for a keyboard and microphone, she makes a deal with God that if she gets them she would indeed share her talent, but she vacillates as opportunities, such as graduating to the Youth Choir, appear. When Cadence inadvertently sings in front of her best friends, Zara and Faith, one of them tries to exploit the main character’s shyness for her own chance at fame. Though some may feel Winston overdoes the musical names (in addition to Cadence, there’s her dog, Lyra, and the choir assistant, Miss Stravinski), she creates a rich and winning first-person story about a deeply introverted black girl who nearly loses her gift because of her understandable but undermining fear.
Readers will be rooting for both Cadence as she claims her gift and the community who supports her.