November 17, 2017

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The Real Deal: Three New Realistic Middle Grade Novels

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In a sea of books about magical tweens fighting against the forces of evil, sweet tales of anthropomorphized woodland creatures, and contemplative stories about kids who lived long, long ago, it’s refreshing to find middle grade fiction that tackles the pathos and humor of the here-and-now. In three new realistic fiction books reviewed in the February issue of SLJ, characters grapple with family drama, find strength through friendship, and discover their place in the world.

Bauer, Joan. Soar. 304p. Viking. Mar. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780451470348.000Soar

Gr 4-6 –Sports, friendship, tragedy, and a love connection are all wrapped up in one heartwarming, page-turning story. Jeremiah lives and breathes baseball and wants nothing more than to be a professional player, but when he learns that he suffers from a severe heart condition, his dreams are put on hold. Soon after he and his single father move to a town that is something of a baseball capital, the entire community is shaken by the death of a beloved school baseball player—and a town scandal that is revealed in the aftermath. Jeremiah finds himself coaching and bringing baseball back to the local middle school and ends up motivating the entire town. When he and his father are faced with having to leave their new town behind, Jeremiah has to deal with the possibility of also leaving his heart in the very place that helped to make it stronger. This coming-of-age tale features a boy who is courageous and witty; readers—baseball fans or otherwise—will cheer on Jeremiah and this team. VERDICT The latest middle grade novel from this award-winning author is triumphant and moving.–Nikitia Wilson, Convent of the Sacred Heart School Library, New York City

Conklin, Melanie. Counting Thyme. 320p. Putnam. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399173301.000Counting Thyme

Gr 4-7 –When her five-year-old brother Val begins a clinical trial for cancer treatment at New York’s Sloane Kettering Hospital, 11-year-old Thyme and her family leave their beloved San Diego home to move to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Thyme embraces her role as the helpful middle sister, secretly saving slips of “time”—good behavior chits—so she can go home, all the while trying to avoid adjusting to New York or letting anyone at school know about Val’s illness. With just the right pace of character development and a believable voice for the shy, awkward Thyme, Conklin takes her protagonist through a journey of connecting to others and learning to articulate her own needs. A constant but quiet tension runs throughout, both concerning Val’s health and Thyme’s emotional growth; readers continuously watch Thyme’s reactions as other characters—including a cute boy who seems to understand about secrets—reach out to her. Sadness and hope are well balanced, and the family characters and interactions are tense but full of love. Most experienced readers will recognize several overused plot points (e.g., young girl befriends lonely, grumpy, elderly neighbor; immigrant housekeeper lends strength through her cooking) and wonder at this upper middle class white girl’s lack of awareness or curiosity about her cultural and socioeconomic place in her new home. VERDICT A slow and sweet book that will strum the heartstrings of readers in much the same ways as Jo Knowles’s See You at Harry’s (Candlewick, 2012), Wendy Mass’s A Mango-Shaped Space (Little, Brown, 2003), or Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B: … And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World (Scholastic, 2004).–Rhona Campbell, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC

Steveson, Nanci Turner. Swing Sideways. 288p. HarperCollins/Harper. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062374547.000Swing Sideways

Gr 4-6 –Complicated family problems become more manageable when shared between friends. Every word, every gesture, every disagreement registers on the internal Richter scale as two friends negotiate the highs and lows of true friendship. Annabel and California forge a deep bond. Annabel, the tween from the city, and California, who arrives from a rural environment, find each other at the perfect time. Plenty of problems accompany each girl—illness, panic attacks, a hovering mother, an estranged family, and more—but all of these conditions pale beside their love for each other. They idle away the hours during a long summer on an idyllic farm complete with fields of corn, trees to climb, lakes for swimming, and endless time to talk, plan, and try to resolve issues. California is sure her mother and grandfather can become reconciled if only she can find the two missing ponies her mother once rode. Annabel, meanwhile, struggles to overcome her panic attacks and learn to eat normally again—if only she can maintain distance and independence from her helicopter mother. Together, the girls uncover dark family secrets and learn to be brave under pressure. This is a summer neither Annabel nor readers will ever forget. VERDICT A strong addition to most middle grade collections; recommend to those who enjoy a good cry.–Lillian Hecker, Town of Pelham Public Library, NY

These reviews were published in the School Library Journal February 2016 issue.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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