Middle grade literature can often run to one of two extremes: the ultra fantastical or the issue-driven realistic. And though there is a place for both highly imaginative speculative fiction and super-charged melodrama, it is equally satisfying to read stories where the drama is simply of a more mellow nature, where the smaller trials and tribulations of growing up take center stage. In Mike Grosso’s I Am Drums, budding drummer Sam must figure out how to fuel her passion for music given the financial constraints her family faces since her dad lost his job. Twelve-year-old Fizzy, in C.C. Payne’s The Thing About Leftovers, struggles with her parents’ recent divorce and the complexities of navigating her blended family. And in Tracy Edward Wymer’s Soar, readers meet Eddie, a 13-year-old trying to live up to the legacy of his deceased father, dealing with a class bully, and worrying about how he can win his seventh-grade Science Symposium. Though the fate of the known world is not in peril in any of these tales, readers will nevertheless be invested in the lives and successes of these relatable characters.
Grosso, Mike. I Am Drums. 256p. Clarion. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544707108.
Gr 4-6 –Sixth grader Sam (never Samantha) has one obsession. It’s not boys. It’s not grades. It’s the drums. Sam falls asleep hearing rhythms in her head. She wakes up with rhythms bursting out of her, ready to be played. Unfortunately, the only time Sam actually gets a chance to play a drum is at school, where she has to be satisfied with boring parts on a single drum in symphonic band. She can’t even practice at home unless it’s on a makeshift drum kit made out of books and magazines. Not only do her parents not understand her dream to really play but since her dad lost his job, there isn’t any money to spend on a real kit or lessons. However, when Sam discovers that the school music program is going to be cut the following year, desperation takes over. She hatches a plan to earn money for lessons and decides to keep both the lessons and her lawn-mowing business a secret from her parents. Everything seems to be going great, until suddenly it isn’t, and Sam is forced to face the music. Author Grosso is a musician and teacher, and his passion for music comes through in his writing. Readers will feel Sam’s desire to play and sympathize with her decision to sneak around in order to pursue her dream. VERDICT A great read for middle graders with their own obsessions and dreams. Recommended.
Payne, C.C. The Thing About Leftovers. 288p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. Jul. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399172045.
Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Fizzy has endured a fair amount of change in her life since her parents’ divorce. After moving to a new town, she realizes that she has no friends, does not wear the right clothes, doesn’t bring the right type of lunch, and doesn’t live in the right type of house. Fizzy’s chronically late to school, thanks mostly to her mother’s tendency to “run late.” She hates math and gym, and the teachers of both those classes seem to hate her. Fizzy feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere—not at school, not at home with her mom, not with her mom’s new boyfriend, and not at her father’s home, where her new stepmother makes everything seem perfect. She feels like a leftover and wonders if winning the Southern Living cook-off might make her parents appreciate her. Though her parents try hard to remain civil with each other and involved in her life, they are each caught up in starting anew, leaving Fizzy feeling adrift. Luckily, she has her cooking, her Aunt Liz to keep her spirits up, and two new friends, Miyoko and Zach, who seem to understand her and appreciate her humor. Fizzy’s first-person narration is by turns hilarious and poignant as she struggles to find her voice. VERDICT While there are no tragic issues, the subjects of divorce and middle school drama are well handled. Tween readers will appreciate this gentle read as they empathize with Fizzy’s feelings of inadequacy and root for her success.
Wymer, Tracy Edward. Soar. 288p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jul. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481447119.
Gr 5-7 –Thirteen-year-old Eddie Wilson is determined to win the seventh grade Science Symposium prize, as his father did, and to spot the rare golden eagle his father claimed to have seen as a young birder. But no one believed Joe Wilson, who had a reputation for wild exaggeration, and Eddie, now mourning his father’s death, grapples with uncertainty about his father’s honesty. He develops a friendship with Gabriela, a new neighbor from Brazil whose father is deaf and keeps exotic birds. Eddie is filled with adolescent angst but tempers his fear and frustration in dealing with Mouton, a classmate with Tourette’s syndrome who taunts and bullies him and has stolen and trashed his bicycle. When his science teacher pairs him with Mouton for the Symposium project, Eddie must decide how to cooperate with his partner and harness Mouton’s hidden artistic talent to devise an award-worthy project that will restore his father’s good name. Descriptive bird references add texture to the fast-paced and absorbing first-person narrative and balance the emotional elements of the story. Eddie, an avid birder and artist himself, is a sympathetic character dealing with complex personal and practical issues that include antagonism toward his science teacher and concern over his mother’s smoking. VERDICT This is an enjoyable read that avoids predictability and provides a satisfying conclusion; perfect for middle school students looking for realism.
These reviews were published in School Library Journal’s May 2016 issue.