Looking for new middle grade novels starring main characters of color? This month’s reviews include the story of a Cuban American boy working to save his family’s restaurant; a summer camp drama with a Latina lead; a tale set in 1970s Los Angeles about the friendship between two boys, one African American, one Jewish; the latest installment in Derek Jeter’s sports series; and a new fantasy/adventure featuring a Bangladeshi American heroine.
Cartaya, Pablo. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. 256p. ebook available. Viking. May 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781101997239.
Gr 5-8 –Arturo Zamora is determined to save his family’s Cuban American restaurant, the decades-old hub of their Miami neighborhood, from an unscrupulous developer who seems to have bought city council approval for his land grab. Cartaya treats this subject with a mixture of humor and heartfelt nostalgia. The warmth and solidarity of Arturo’s family and their deep relationships within their community are palpable. Arturo’s confusion as he experiences his first pains of love for their summer houseguest leavens the sense of impending doom. Eventually, the neighborhood pulls itself together to preserve La Cocina de la Isla. Sprinkling his writing with Spanish, Cartaya incorporates mouthwatering descriptions of Cuban cuisine, the poetry of José Martí, and the general wackiness of young teens’ friendships effortlessly into his narrative. VERDICT Touching and funny, this is an excellent middle grade novel about Cuban American life. For most collections.
Cherry, Alison. Willows vs. Wolverines. 352p. ebook available. S. & S./Aladdin. Apr. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481463546.
Gr 5 Up –Izzy Cervantes and her best friend Mackenzie reluctantly head to a new summer camp (Camp Foxtail) after a family dispute makes attendance at the familiar Camp Sweetwater no longer possible. The girls are assigned to different cabins, and while Mackenzie decides to accept fate and be miserable alone, Izzy wants to break out and make new friends. When she hears about the long-running prank war between her cabin, the Willows, and the boys’ cabin, the Wolverines, Izzy concocts a story about her older brother Tomás (she does have a brother Tomás, but he is only five years old) being a former Camp Foxtail resident and genius prankster. She hopes her lie will help her become accepted (and respected) by the other girls. Each successful prank against the Wolverines cements Izzy’s bond with her new friends while also straining her relationship with Mackenzie. As summer camp draws to a close, Izzy discovers who her real friends are and Mackenzie learns that she can stand on her own. Through Izzy’s detailed, first-person narration, the novel provides a humorous look at the summer camp experience, and although the pranks seem overly elaborate, the book does offer a realistic view of fleeting summer camp relationships. VERDICT Tween and young teen readers who have had their own summer camp experiences will enjoy this title and appreciate the inclusion of a strong Latina character.
Frank, Steven B. Armstrong and Charlie. 304p. ebook available. HMH. Mar. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544826083.
Gr 5-8 –This story of an unlikely friendship alternates between the points of view of two boys from disparate backgrounds in 1970s Los Angeles. Charlie, who is Jewish, lives with his parents in a big home in the Hollywood Hills, where they are still mourning the death of his older brother. Armstrong, who is African American, lives with his parents and his sisters in an apartment building in South Central. Because of “Opportunity Busing” for Armstrong, both are starting sixth grade at Wonderland in Laurel Canyon. In spite of their differences and a rocky beginning, Charlie and Armstrong become good friends throughout the course of the school year. Together they confront racism, grief, and bullying. Strong language (including the use of racial slurs and sexist terms) and references to naked girls and French kissing make this a selection best suited for mature middle graders. VERDICT This uplifting and touching exploration of friendship, with a vivid setting, is a solid addition to most middle school libraries.
Jeter, Derek with Paul Mantell. Fair Ball. 176p. ebook available. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. Apr. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481491488. POP
Gr 4-6 –Ten-year-old Derek Jeter has his plate full with baseball, finals, and family. His beloved Little League team is vying for a spot in the playoffs, he’s trailing just a few points behind his academic rival Gary, and being a good son and big brother are always top priorities. As summer approaches, the last thing this competitive young athlete needs is for his friend Dave to start acting weird. Breaking plans and avoiding eye contact, Dave causes Derek to question their friendship, and this distraction begins affecting both boys on the field. In the end, Derek learns an important life lesson. Short chapters allow the action to move quickly, and explicit messages about hard work and positivity are woven into the dialogue. An overarching theme is that while life is not fair, we are responsible for our attitudes toward challenges and our decisions. Important topics are covered authentically, including race, bullying, immigration, and disabilities. One drawback is the unfortunate choice to name Derek’s team the Indians; this problematic detail clashes with the book’s otherwise positive approach to diversity. VERDICT Purchase where sports fiction is in demand and where there are fans of the series.
Riazi, Karuna. The Gauntlet. 304p. ebook available. S. & S./Salaam Reads. Mar. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481486965.
Gr 3-6 –At Farah’s 12th birthday party, she mistakenly receives an odd mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand from her aunt. Despite Aunt Zohra’s warnings, Farah and her friends Essie and Alex are sucked into the game and must battle the evil Lord Amari and win in order to save themselves and retrieve Farah’s seven-year-old brother, Ahmad. The fast-paced game is structured with three challenges and a timed race from location to location, complete with a map and magical timepiece. The challenges are innovative and based on classic games such as mancala and Scrabble. Although the book is accessible to younger middle grade readers, the characters feel rather formulaic and don’t develop much over the course of the story. Readers may find Ahmad’s spoiled cheekiness grating (as well as the family tradition of always letting him win at games), but fortunately he is absent for the majority of the work. However, Riazi skillfully incorporates elements of Farah’s Bangladeshi culture into the landscape of Farah’s real-world New York City home and the magical realm of Paheli, where the game takes place. VERDICT Though die-hard fantasy fans may be a bit underwhelmed with the characterization and world-building, most middle grade readers will appreciate the adventure and embrace a tale with a strong protagonist of color.