Zoe learns to cope with change, friendship, and homelessness in this poignant tale. Zoe’s family hasn’t been doing too well since her dad’s bookstore went under and he was laid off from his teaching job at the local college. When they lose their apartment’s lease, her parents resolve to leave Zoe’s beloved town of Tillerman while her father looks for work—after all, “What good was a Ph.D. in English literature when you couldn’t make the rent?” Despite Zoe’s protests, the family leaves, driving north to Oregon and living in a van. In their new town, the Flynns stay illegally in their van while they try to save up enough money for the first and last month’s rent in some apartment. The need to keep their secret comes between Zoe and her new friend Aliya, and heartbroken Zoe wonders if she will ever make it home to Tillerman, or be able to keep a friend in her new town. Thought-provoking, despite occasional lapses into social-studies lessons about Islam. (Fiction. 9-12)
Through months of homelessness and her mother’s breakdown, sixth-grader Sugar Mae Cole and her puppy, Shush, demonstrate what it means to be sweet.
Newbery Honor winner Bauer (Hope Was Here, 2000) has created one of her strongest young women yet in the character of Sugar, writer of thank-you notes and poetry, dog-walker, parent-educator and trust-trainer. Her chronological first-person narration works, with notes, emails and poems to document the pain of dealing with an unreliable father, the difficulty of leaving a familiar home and beloved teacher, and the conflicted feelings of a child in a good foster-care situation. Sugar’s mother, Reba, has trusted her gambling husband too many times. Can Reba develop the strength to resist him? Luckily, this resilient child has always had the support of other adults: first her grandfather, King Cole; then Mr. B., the sixth-grade teacher who encourages her writing and stays in touch; and, finally, Lexie and Mac, experienced foster parents who provide a safe haven but know when to let go. Sugar’s voice is convincing, both as storyteller and young writer; her natural good humor shines through what could be a sad story indeed. Quirky supporting characters—both human and dog—add to its appeal.
Sugar, with her natural gift for rubbing down imperfections, will win readers’ hearts.
Seventh-grader Tobin has pretty much flown under the radar most of his life, only stealing a paper clip now and then to prove his relationship to the rest of his juvenile-delinquent family. Why now, then, does Henry the new kid, seem to want to adopt him as a bosom buddy? Despite himself, Tobin finds himself falling into a friendship with Henry and his little brother Harrison, and pretty soon, he’s raising chickens as part of a joint scientific-entrepreneurial project the two brothers have cooked up. Aside from having a passel of criminal siblings, Tobin’s mother has died, his father parents by neglect and his feisty Granny’s interference has landed him in foster care. Tobin narrates his story, his voice appealingly self-deprecatory and earthy. Remarkably enough, the Social Services intervention turns out to be just the right thing to pull the family back together, but the process unfolds so unpresumptuously that readers will be rooting for them all the way. Tobin’s own blossoming, through friendship, and the rediscovery of his family, and the love for and of his chickens, is entirely satisfying—just right. (Fiction. 10-14)
Georgina and younger brother Toby begin a homeless life living in Mom’s car, having been evicted when Dad leaves. Mom tries her best to work two minimum-wage jobs in order to make the security deposit for a new apartment while the kids struggle daily to maintain normalcy in and out of school. Desperate to help Mom gain some significant cash, Georgina concocts a grand scheme to steal a dog, dupe the owner into offering a $500 reward and then return the designated pooch for the cash. As crazy as this sounds, O’Connor weaves a suspenseful and achingly realistic story, fleshing out characters that live and breathe anxiety, fortitude and a right vs. wrong consciousness. Colorful, supporting roles of a wise, kind vagrant and a lonely, overweight dog owner round out this story of childhood helplessness, ingenuity and desolation. Georgina’s reflections in a secretly kept “how-to” journal will have kids anticipating her misconceptions about the realities of theft and deception. A powerful portrayal from an innocently youthful perspective. (Fiction. 10-12)
The twin challenges of loving and being loved form the theme of another Southern gem from the author of Me and Rupert Goody (1999). Twelve-year-old Pearl has spent her life moving from one place to another with her feckless mother, Ruby, who seems more interested in her boyfriend-of-the-moment than her daughter. At the novel's opening, Pearl finds herself uprooted once more, but with one major exception: this time, Ruby has left her with her aunt, Ivy, and then disappeared completely. Understandably resentful and unaccustomed to affection wholeheartedly offered, Pearl keeps Ivy at arm's length, and only grudgingly consents to a sort of friendship with Moonpie, the strange boy who lives up the hill with his dying grandmother. Pearl's emotional state is charted in the postcards she writes, but cannot send, to her mother: "Dear Mama, I hate you. Love, Pearl" is succeeded by "Dear Mama, Please come back—but if you can't come right away, that's okay. Love, Pearl." As she begins to relax into her new life, she realizes that she likes stability, but Ivy's love for Moonpie, who is a sort of surrogate son, threatens her fragile security. O'Connor keeps the beautifully simple, colloquial third-person narration filtered tightly through Pearl, so the reader encounters her emotions and her confusion directly. The squalor of poverty is rendered without sentimentality, but the honesty and universality of the characters' emotions inform the real story. The novel's shrewd observations of the tangles of human relationships allow no easy happy endings: Ruby's reappearance at the end interrupts Pearl's slow realization that she can love and, more importantly, is worth loving. But she has learned to hope, and that is no small thing for her—and the reader—to carry away. (Fiction. 10-14)
Many readers will want to give 11-year-old Ricky Gordon, the protagonist of this fast-paced novel, a reassuring hug. Life hasn’t been kind to him or his family. A year before the story opens, his alcoholic, violent father is killed in an accident, leaving his wife and three children with a terrible legacy of debt, nightmares, fear, and bruises, both physical and emotional. As if this weren’t enough for Ricky to contend with, he’s hounded mercilessly by a particularly spiteful school bully with whom he constantly gets into fights. Ricky promises the principal to stay out of trouble and so vows not to ride the school bus anymore. Ultimately, he decides to attempt to outrun the bus to his home. Thus the stage is set for a daily routine in which Ricky builds up his speed, self-confidence, and renown throughout his entire rural Maine community. Ricky is a well-realized character and an endearing boy, a math whiz with a mission and a sense of purpose. So what if the ending is pat and a tad too good to be true? Readers won’t mind. They’ll think that, after all he’s been through, Ricky deserves all the breaks he can get. (Fiction. 10-13)
Meet Socrates, better known as Socko, on the first day of summer before his eighth-grade year, a summer that will change his life forever.
The musty walls of the dilapidated Kludge Apartments are marred by creepy-looking spiders: tags indicating that the building is the territory of the Tarantulas, a neighborhood gang headed up by a local thug called Rapp. Socko and his friend Damien make it their business to avoid the gang, putting off as long as possible the inevitable day that they will be forced to join. When Socko’s mom announces that they are moving to a house in Moon Ridge Estates, Socko is thankful for the escape but devastated that he cannot bring Damien with him. And when they arrive at the Estates—which is bereft of trees, grass and other people, nothing like the fancy brochures promised—and meet the curmudgeonly great-grandfather that they will be taking care of in exchange for housing, his hopes sink still further. Eventually, Socko meets Livvy and learns that her father owns the now-struggling housing development. At first, there seems to be no way to save it, and no way to help the folks that Socko and his mom have left behind in the old neighborhood, but with some creative thinking and generosity of spirit, miracles might just be possible. The third-person narration is tightly focused through Socko's perspective, adopting a gentle colloquial voice that complements the natural dialogue.
Steeped in violence (more implied than graphic) and poverty, but focused on love and hope.
Ramona wished she had a million dollars so her father would be fun again." As it is, he seems too worried to love her ever since he lost his job. But Ramona's fantasy about earning a million dollars doing TV commercials only leads to more problems, and the longer her father is out of work the harder it gets. There is all that pumpkin everyone has to eat after cat Picky-Picky, disdaining her new, cheaper cat food, goes after the jack-o'-lantern. ("Are you sure you cut off all the parts with cat spit on them?" asks Ramona at the table.) Worse, there's her mother's new full-time job that leaves her too busy and tired to make Ramona a sheep costume for the Christmas pageant. ("You know sheep don't wear pajamas," Ramona protests. "That's show biz," says Mr. Quimby, jocular now that he's been called for a job.) As Cleary is no frivolous wishfulfiller, Mother doesn't find the time; instead, a sulky Ramona—considerably cheered when three older girls dressed as "Wisepersons" apply mascara to her nose—reconciles herself to appearing in her pajamas and the sheep's tail and headdress that Mother did have time for. Earlier, Ramona, concerned about her father's smoking habit and annoyed that her parents misinterpret her tears, wonders, "Didn't grownups think children worried about anything but jack-'olanterns? Didn't they know children worried about grownups?" Cleary knows, for sure.
Although her parents are divorced, ninth-grader Jacki has a golden California lifestyle with all the accoutrements—private school, large house with a swimming pool and a mom with a high-powered, high-paying job—the works. She sees classmates’ parents losing their jobs and her best friend’s family taking in homeless relatives. Then the recession hits home. It’s her mom who is jobless, her house that must be sold, her whole way of life turned upside down. School and friendship adventures, sibling relationships and an almost-boyfriend add normalcy to the mix. Jacki narrates her own story as she veers between worry and optimism, childishness and maturity, self-absorption and compassion. Although Koss interjects a recounting of forcible eviction and a visit to a homeless shelter and the topic is current and serious, she keeps the tone generally optimistic and reassuring. In the end, readers get a problem novel with little depth, but it delivers a cast of charming characters and a semi-happy ending. (Fiction. 12 & up)
First-person free-verse poems describe the emotional journey made by one little girl when her family is forced to move. Diana is perfectly happy where she lives: Her house is yellow with white shutters, has a maple tree she planted in the front yard and a midnight-blue bedroom painted by Diana and her best friend Rose. But when her father loses his job, the family must move across the state to Grandpa Joe’s, leaving behind Rose, the maple tree and the poetry workshop she’d competed for a spot in. Spinelli employs the shortest of lines in her brief poems, Diana’s voice ingenuously describing the simple, perfect life of a middle-grader interested in astronomy and poetry, and whose family and friends provide all she needs. So well does she execute her exposition, however, that Diana’s eventual adjustment to her new home, aided by her poetry and her new friend Sam, makes for a somewhat abrupt, if satisfying resolution. Phelan’s winning spot illustrations match the poems in brevity and sensitivity, ably complementing the text. All in all, a pleasing portrait of the healing that can follow an all-too-common childhood trauma. (Fiction/poetry. 7-11)
With a little help from a caring adult, a child crippled by shyness begins to bloom.
Soon-to-be fifth grader Mattie is painfully shy, making the frequent moves her mother has initiated especially difficult. In the last days of summer, after she and her mother move in with her Uncle Potluck, the elementary-school custodian, he quickly recognizes both her talent and her difficulties and begins bringing her to work with him, where she records everything he does in her journal (since she’s a writer). She hopes that if she learns enough custodial skills, she can become his junior apprentice during lunch and recess and so avoid the most challenging times of the school day. Meanwhile, she is studiously steering clear of Quincy, a slightly older girl visiting next door; in trying to avoid the social minefield of friendship, she fails to recognize that Quincy is a kindred spirit. As amiable Potluck gently guides her, and her jittery but loving mother comes to better understand her, Mattie believably begins to turn from her inwardly focused timidity to an eye-opening awareness of the complexity of others’ emotional landscapes. Combining Mattie’s poignant writing and interior monologue, exquisite character development and a slow, deliberate pace, Urban spins a story that rings true.
This outstanding, emotionally resonant effort will appeal to middle-grade readers.
A fast-paced verse novel chronicles a suburban teen’s nightmare: losing her most comfortable, well-appointed lifestyle to a bare bones existence in the city. Vicki Marnet’s 56-year-old father is laid off after 28 years in corporate America. Two years later, he still hasn’t found work and Vicki’s mother decides to sell off everything, get a job and move the family to an apartment in the city. After a brief stint of menial jobs, Vicki’s dad becomes so depressed, he leaves. While he’s gone, Vicki’s mom invites a co-worker to live in their already small apartment, kicking Vicki (but not her two brothers) out of the already tiny space she inhabits, which encourages Vicki’s final misjudgment. Throughout, Vicki relates every detail of her loss and difficult adjustment through a variety of poems, journals and e-mails. Adolescent readers might appreciate Mazer’s ear for teen language but they may balk at the persistently negative perspective through which Vicki views her life and the choices she makes. While Mazur is particularly effective in relating Vicki’s story through poetic forms such as pantoun and sestina, her character is too self-critical, has limited perspective and little depth. Mazur’s problem verse-novel becomes unexpectedly uncomfortable and one may wonder if the payoff comes to Vicki and her readers at too high a price. (Fiction. 10-14)
Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and his best friend, Georgie, are about to graduate fifth grade and embark on the best summer ever, which will include, but not be limited to, making points in a private battle against Cheesie’s evil older sister June, hanging out in their treehouse and, most importantly, summer camp in Maine. Summer’s only a day away, and things already seem to be off to a great start when Georgie finds an old necklace and a 1909 penny stashed in their basement. Then bad news hits big: Georgie’s dad’s been laid off, and they can’t afford camp. Cheesie decides to be a best friend and stay home too, so summer’s looking lame-ish. First, they have to get through the boring graduation ceremony; Georgie (as usual) has a plan to spice it up. When a possibility arises to get the money for camp, the boys have to decide what course of action is right. Readers will be happy to learn that Cotler’s debut is the first in a new series. Cheesie chattily narrates his own story; his voice rings true, and the other characters are a gently quirky, appealing lot. His periodic invitations to read posts on or add stories to the CheesieMack.com website will hook denizens of the digital generation, but doing so isn’t vital to enjoying the ride. No art was seen, but the final book will have many fun illustrations (according to Cheesie) from Time Warp Trio illustrator McCauley. (Fiction. 8-12)
It’s the typical story of middle school BFFs—all immigrants. Ridiculously, unfairly, that makes all the difference in the lives of Lola from Slovakia, Maria from Mexico and Jaya from Trinidad. The daughters of maids and nannies, these eighth graders navigate young adulthood in an upscale suburb. Though their concerns include everyday American adolescent angst (having the right dress for the dance, not doing as well in class as the mean girl), the girls also confront race and class privilege. Jaya’s mother is accused of theft, Maria’s cousin might be imprisoned and Lola’s engineer father can’t get work. A fight leaves the girls not on speaking terms at the worst possible time, as town feeling heats up against those people, the ones who play soccer instead of lacrosse and have too-large families. Though the narrative is clearly ideological (perhaps drawing on Budhos’s nonfiction Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers, 1999), the heartwarming friendship overcomes any polemic. These fully realized heroines are full of heart, and their passionate struggles against systemic injustice only make them more inspiring. Keenly necessary. (Fiction. 12-15)
Count on award-winning Woodson (Visiting Day, p. 1403, etc.) to present readers with a moving, lyrical, and completely convincing novel in verse.
Eleven-year-old Lonnie (“Locomotion”) starts his poem book for school by getting it all down fast: “This whole book’s a poem ’cause every time I try to / tell the whole story my mind goes Be quiet! / Only it’s not my mind’s voice, / it’s Miss Edna’s over and over and over / Be quiet! . . . So this whole book’s a poem because poetry’s short and / this whole book’s a poem ’cause Ms. Marcus says / write it down before it leaves your brain.” Lonnie tells readers more, little by little, about his foster mother Miss Edna, his teacher Ms. Marcus, his classmates, and the fire that killed his parents and separated him from his sister. Slowly, his gift for observing people and writing it down lets him start to love new people again, and to widen his world from the nugget of tragedy that it was. Woodson nails Lonnie’s voice from the start, and lets him express himself through images and thoughts that vibrate in the different kinds of lines he puts down. He tends to free verse, but is sometimes assigned a certain form by Ms. Marcus. (“Today’s a bad day / Is that haiku? Do I look / like I even care?”) As in her prose novels, Woodson’s created a character whose presence you can feel like they were sitting next to you. And with this first novel-in-verse for her, Lonnie will sit by many readers and teach them to see like he does, “This day is already putting all kinds of words / in your head / and breaking them up into lines / and making the lines into pictures in your mind.”
A seventh-grade boy who is coping with social and economic issues moves into a new apartment building, where he makes friends with an over-imaginative home-schooled boy and his eccentric family.
Social rules are meant to be broken is the theme of this bighearted, delightfully quirky tale, and in keeping with that, Stead creates a world where nothing is as it seems. Yet the surprises are meticulously foreshadowed, so when the pieces of the puzzle finally click in, the readers’ "aha" moments are filled with profound satisfaction. When an economic downturn forces Georges’ family to move out of their house and into an apartment, it brings Georges into contact with Safer, a home-schooled boy about the same age, and his unconventional but endearing family—and a mystery involving their possibly evil neighbor, Mr. X. At school, Georges must grapple with another type of mystery: why his once–best friend Jason “shrugged off” their lifelong friendship and suddenly no longer sits with him at lunch. Instead, Jason now sits at the cool table, which is controlled by a bully named Dallas, who delights in tormenting Georges. It would be unfair to give anything away, but suffice it to say that Georges resolves his various issues in a way that’s both ingenious and organic to the story.