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Great School Stories (if You’re Home From School)

Nuanced depictions of friendship coupled with larger-than-life and fully three-dimensional characters make this delightful...

SPIRIT WEEK SHOWDOWN

From the Magnificent Mya Tibbs series , Vol. 1

Allen deftly explores the evolving friendships of Mya Tibbs as she and her Spirit Week partner compete for VIP tickets to the Fall Festival.

Nine-year-old Mya loves cowgirls, the rodeo, and jewelry. The Fall Festival has all her favorite things! She and her new best friend, Naomi, are determined to win the tickets together, but to Mya’s dismay, she draws Mean Connie as her Spirit Week partner. Mya is stuck. Can she keep her promise to help Naomi and be a good partner? Even as she writes a very funny story, Allen neither flatters nor vilifies any characters, instead letting each one grow and make mistakes. As Mya tries to make the best of the situation, she learns that Connie isn’t so mean, that Naomi isn’t so nice, and that she herself can be a better friend. The author showcases different types of friendship throughout the story: as Mya and Naomi fall out, Mya and Connie grow closer; Mya’s brother, Nugget, tries to make friends with a jock, taking his nerdy best friend for granted in the process; and twins Starr and Skye find their sisterly bond tested when their loyalties are torn between Mya and Naomi.

Nuanced depictions of friendship coupled with larger-than-life and fully three-dimensional characters make this delightful book at once thoughtful and a riot to read. (Fiction. 8-10)

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-234233-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

Ordinary kids in an extraordinary setting: still a recipe for bright achievements and belly laughs.

WAYSIDE SCHOOL BENEATH THE CLOUD OF DOOM

Rejoice! 25 years later, Wayside School is still in session, and the children in Mrs. Jewls’ 30th-floor classroom haven’t changed a bit.

The surreal yet oddly educational nature of their misadventures hasn’t either. There are out-and-out rib ticklers, such as a spelling lesson featuring made-up words and a determined class effort to collect 1 million nail clippings. Additionally, mean queen Kathy steps through a mirror that turns her weirdly nice and she discovers that she likes it, a four-way friendship survives a dumpster dive after lost homework, and Mrs. Jewls makes sure that a long-threatened “Ultimate Test” allows every student to show off a special talent. Episodic though the 30 new chapters are, there are continuing elements that bind them—even to previous outings, such as the note to an elusive teacher Calvin has been carrying since Sideways Stories From Wayside School (1978) and finally delivers. Add to that plenty of deadpan dialogue (“Arithmetic makes my brain numb,” complains Dameon. “That’s why they’re called ‘numb-ers,’ ” explains D.J.) and a wild storm from the titular cloud that shuffles the school’s contents “like a deck of cards,” and Sachar once again dishes up a confection as scrambled and delicious as lunch lady Miss Mush’s improvised “Rainbow Stew.” Diversity is primarily conveyed in the illustrations.

Ordinary kids in an extraordinary setting: still a recipe for bright achievements and belly laughs. (Fiction. 9-11)

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296538-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

PRAIRIE LOTUS

A “half-Chinese and half-white” girl finds her place in a Little House–inspired fictional settler town.

After the death of her Chinese mother, Hanna, an aspiring dressmaker, and her white father seek a fresh start in Dakota Territory. It’s 1880, and they endure challenges similar to those faced by the Ingallses and so many others: dreary travel through unfamiliar lands, the struggle to protect food stores from nature, and the risky uncertainty of establishing a livelihood in a new place. Fans of the Little House books will find many of the small satisfactions of Laura’s stories—the mouthwatering descriptions of victuals, the attention to smart building construction, the glorious details of pleats and poplins—here in abundance. Park brings new depth to these well-trodden tales, though, as she renders visible both the xenophobia of the town’s white residents, which ranges in expression from microaggressions to full-out assault, and Hanna’s fight to overcome it with empathy and dignity. Hanna’s encounters with women of the nearby Ihanktonwan community are a treat; they hint at the whole world beyond a white settler perspective, a world all children deserve to learn about. A deeply personal author’s note about the story’s inspiration may leave readers wishing for additional resources for further study and more clarity about her use of Lakota/Dakota. While the cover art unfortunately evokes none of the richness of the text and instead insinuates insidious stereotypes, readers who sink into the pages behind it will be rewarded.

Remarkable. (Historical fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-328-78150-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Clarion

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

Beleaguered tolerance strikes out; loud, proud love wins the game.

A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE

A gay black baseball player posthumously inspires a sixth grade white boy who is ready-ish to come out.

Baseball enthusiast Silas Wade opens the book by giving a colorful class presentation about Glenn Burke. Burke was a once-well-known major league player who invented the high-five and eventually left the sport after enduring isolation and harassment for being gay. Silas leaves that last part out, but heralding his hero in front of a crowd is the silent start of his own coming out. Further testing the waters, he tells his best friend, Zoey (a champion robot builder), he’s gay and finds that there’s a bouncy kind of freedom that comes from saying who he really is. Inspirational YouTube videos encourage Silas to come out to Coach Webb, an adult who embodies the understanding, guidance, protection, and encouragement that all queer kids should have. But when Silas gets nervous about everything changing and wants to backpedal into the closet, circumstances put him at a crossroads: continue to lie for self-preservation or live out loud like Glenn Burke wasn’t able to. Silas is white, but Zoey has a Spanish surname, and his baseball teammates and one coach are black and brown. (One notable moment includes an explanation from the coaches about why monkey insults are racist.) As the narrative foundation is established, there are overt explanations of settings and characters that aren’t additive, but these superfluous tendencies dissolve about 50 pages in. Insights into Silas’ home life feel bittersweet and real with parents fumbling to do the best they can, but Silas’ struggle is the central story. 

Beleaguered tolerance strikes out; loud, proud love wins the game. (Fiction. 10-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-31273-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

Sensitive, funny, and tender.

SMALL MERCIES

Set in post-apartheid Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, this realistic story traces protagonist Mercy’s quest to speak up for truth and, consequently, for herself.

Eleven-year-old Mercy has lived with her two elderly foster mothers—“Aunt Flora” and “Aunt Mary” McKnight—since she was orphaned at the age of 5. Although their home is filled with love, the McKnight sisters are so poor that they reuse tea bags as many as four to five times and most of the furniture has been sold. To make matters worse, Aunt Flora is slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer’s, and their beloved house seems to be falling apart just as a greedy housing developer is eying their property. Painfully shy and reserved, Mercy struggles to cope with her school assignments and her complicated home life as she tries very hard not to stand out. When Mr. Singh moves into the McKnight house as a lodger, his stories about Gandhi’s peaceful struggle for independence inspire Mercy to stand up for herself. Krone’s characters are diverse, convincing, and full of life. The McKnight sisters are white, Mercy has dark skin and is likely of mixed heritage, Mr. Singh is Indian, and Mercy’s classmates are representative of South Africa’s diverse communities. The story stands on its own, but readers unfamiliar with South Africa might also benefit from concurrent research or discussion about South African history, cultures, and languages.

Sensitive, funny, and tender. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-946395-17-7

Page Count: 162

Publisher: Catalyst Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

Inspired by Malala Yousafzai and countless unknown girls like her, Saeed’s timely and stirring middle-grade debut is a...

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AMAL UNBOUND

A Pakistani girl’s dreams of an education dissolve when she is forced into indentured servitude.

Bookish Amal, who lives in a small village in Punjab, Pakistan, dreams of becoming a teacher and a poet. When she inadvertently insults Jawad, the son of her village’s wealthy and influential, but corrupt, landlord, Khan Sahib, she is forced into indentured servitude with his family. Jawad assures Amal’s father that she will be “treated like all my servants, no better, no worse” and promises him that he will “let her visit twice a year like the others.” Once in her enslaver’s home, Amal is subject to Jawad’s taunts, which are somewhat mitigated by the kind words of his mother, Nasreen Baji, whose servant she becomes. Amal keeps her spirits up by reading poetry books that she surreptitiously sneaks from the estate library and teaching the other servant girls how to read and write. Amal ultimately finds a friend in the village’s literacy center—funded, ironically enough, by the Khan family—where she befriends the U.S.–educated teacher, Asif, and learns that the powerful aren’t invincible. Amal narrates, her passion for learning, love for her family, and despair at her circumstance evoked with sympathy and clarity, as is the setting.

Inspired by Malala Yousafzai and countless unknown girls like her, Saeed’s timely and stirring middle-grade debut is a celebration of resistance and justice. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-399-54468-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

An uplifting story of friendship, kindness, and new ways of seeing.

THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE

A buddy bench brings three disparate kids together.

April Boxler is observant and helpful, but she doesn’t consider herself to be very social. When she has a falling-out with her only friend on the first day of sixth grade at Marshallville Elementary School, April chooses to be a buddy bench volunteer primarily to avoid her classmates. On her second day as volunteer, April spots Joey Byrd, a fourth grader who lies so still on the woodchip playground that he looks like he might be dead. Joey also walks in circles, lies down in the middle of things, and spends all recess alone. When April expresses her concerns about Joey, both her mother and the school counselor are dismissive. As the weeks proceed, April and her buddy bench co-volunteer, fifth grader Parveena—“Veena” for short—come to realize (with the help of the school janitor, Mr. Ulysses) that Joey is in fact making art on the playground. Pearsall’s characters are authentic and well rounded; the story is largely narrated by April in the first person, although the sections titled “JOEYBIRD,” which are accompanied by Jin’s pencil illustrations, give readers a glimpse into Joey’s mind. Almost all the characters, with the exception of Veena, who is from India, seem to be white. 

An uplifting story of friendship, kindness, and new ways of seeing. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-1739-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

Readers will love watching these two uniquely gifted black boys explore the complicated tensions between impulses and...

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

When a gun is found near their school, seventh-grade pranksters Thelonius Mitchell and his best friend, Nehemiah Caldwell, must work together to solve the mystery before being blamed for something they didn’t do.

Thelonious narrates: “I’ve seen this movie play out many times before. Something goes missing? Must be one of us. Something gets broken? Must be one of us.” On the other hand, their innocence is not so easily proven given their track record of pranks. How do they manage to pull off such hijinks as borrowing the homeroom teacher’s credit card to pay for online poker? They are severely underestimated as students “warehoused” in the Special Ed room, where the revolving-door administration hopes to “fix” them instead of listening to and supporting them. This old-school system of rules enforced upon them, which Thelonius frequently compares to prison, ignores their gifts, such as Nehemiah’s computer wizardry. There is righteous rebellion within their mischief; as Thelonius explains, “sometimes we have to turn the system on itself for us to get by.” But that gun in the park is much more intense than their usual antics. Yet and still, they ain’t no snitch. Broaddus spins a hilarious, honest tale that sees Thelonius wrestle with circumstances beyond his control and grow into a leader while doing so. His cleareyed narration describes an unjust system too many kids know intimately.

Readers will love watching these two uniquely gifted black boys explore the complicated tensions between impulses and choices, independence and support, turnin’ up and getting through. (Fiction. 8-13)

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-279631-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Like salted caramel, a perfect balance of flavors, this deftly drawn story is a heartfelt treat.

PIE IN THE SKY

Two brothers navigate a new country, a new language, and grief through cake.

In this graphic/prose hybrid novel, 12-year-old Jingwen, his little brother, Yanghao, and their mother immigrate to Australia. The family is Chinese, though their home country is never specified. The boys start at the Northbridge Primary School not knowing any English, which has Jingwen feeling they have just arrived on Mars. Quickly he realizes it is he and Yanghao who must appear to be the Martians to everyone else, comically literalized with pictures of a four-eyed, antennae’d Jingwen. While Yanghao quickly picks up English, Jingwen resists, struggling in lessons and to make friends. Piece by piece readers learn it was Jingwen’s father’s dream to open a cake shop called Pie in the Sky in Australia before he suddenly passed away. After finding the family’s cookbook, the boys decide to secretly bake all the Pie in the Sky cakes. Jingwen especially takes it to heart, pouring his grief and frustrations into every frosted layer, believing that it “will fix everything.” Herself an immigrant to Australia from Singapore, Lai unfolds the story like a memory, giving brief flashbacks interspersed throughout the daily musings and nuanced relationships among family members. Jingwen’s emotional journey is grounded in honest reality; it ebbs and flows naturally with strategic spots of humor to lighten the overall tone.

Like salted caramel, a perfect balance of flavors, this deftly drawn story is a heartfelt treat. (Graphic/fiction hybrid. 10-13)

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31409-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

This book, drenched in Cuban Spanish and personality, is a breath of fresh air.

SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE

From the Sal and Gabi series , Vol. 1

Salvador Vidón is the new kid at Miami’s magnet school Culeco Academy of the Arts, but being at a special school doesn’t protect Sal from trouble.

Bullies are everywhere, but seventh-grader Sal knows just how to handle a difficult kid like Yasmany Robles. Obviously, you deal with a bully by opening a portal into another universe, taking a raw chicken from it, and planting it in the bully’s locker. But you cannot just go opening portals into other universes without some consequences. For one, Sal gets sent to the principal on only his third day at Culeco and in the process meets Gabi Reál, who isn’t buying Sal’s innocent-magician act. The more pressing issue is that when Sal opens portals, sometimes his deceased mother comes through from alternate universes where she still exists—Mami Muerta, in Sal’s words. But if you could bring your dead mother back, wouldn’t you? The story moves quickly, with lots of multiverse traffic, school hijinks, and strong, smart, diverse characters. Most are Cuban-American in various shades of brown, like Sal, Gabi, and Yasmany, and Hernandez effortlessly folds in multiple intersectionalities, including Sal’s diabetes and Gabi’s unusual, delightfully matter-of-fact family structure. Secondary characters receive as much care and love as the primary cast, and readers will find themselves laughing out loud and rooting for Sal, Gabi, and even Yasmany until the very end.

This book, drenched in Cuban Spanish and personality, is a breath of fresh air. (Science fiction. 10-13)

Pub Date: March 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-368-02282-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents/Disney

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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