Sixth through eighth grade can be some of the toughest years for kids. Hormonal changes and increasing academic and familial expectations, coupled with the complexities of evolving friendships and first loves, can wreak havoc on the social and emotional lives of tweens. The following novels feature characters smack-dab in the middle of these tumultuous middle school years. And despite drama and setbacks both realistic and fantastical, all survive and thrive.
Allbright, Lauren. Exit Strategy. 176p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481479127.
Gr 5-7 –Twelve-year-old Ross Stevens is an expert at grand farewells. After 12 moves in just three years, thanks to his mother’s job in a traveling symphony, Ross has perfected the art of “exit-lence,” as he calls it, and doesn’t worry about much else besides how he’ll make a memorable exit. Friends and schoolwork aren’t priorities, since he’s never around long enough for either to matter. But when the boy’s grandfather suffers a fall, Ross and his mom abandon their next move to take care of him. Ross is at a school for good for the first time, and he is terrified. A science fair project presents an opportunity: he decides to learn how to be funny and re-create himself with a winning personality. But that proves harder than Ross expected. Keeping with the science theme, chapters are named after steps in the scientific process and the narrative is interspersed with charts and graphs detailing everything from the protagonist’s “Achievement of Exit-lence” to the “Universal Rules of Seventh Grade.” Ross is a likable character who experiences many of the highs and lows of middle school life, and his desire to fit in and define himself is humorously exaggerated. He shows growth over the course of the book, realizing that day-to-day choices are more important than grand events. Readers who appreciate Gary Paulsen’s short, funny novels will find something to enjoy here. VERDICT For larger collections in need of stories about forging identity while navigating middle school.
Ballarini, Joe. A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting. 352p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Jun. 2017. Tr $13.99. ISBN 9780062437839. POP
Gr 5-7 –This shining gem in the campy monster drama genre is a step up from R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” Meet Kelly Ferguson, a struggling 12-year-old who hasn’t quite found her place in the middle school hierarchy. Then she accidentally discovers a team of monster-fighting babysitters. Their mission is to save kids from the utmost evil in the world, the Grand Guignol. This despicable, devil-like creature, who is also known as the boogeyman, preys on defenseless children left in the care of babysitters. When Kelly’s charge, Jacob, is kidnapped right under her nose, she must work with the band of super babysitters to help rescue baby Jacob from the clutches of the vile Grand Guignol. The over-the-top humorous action, snarky dialogue, and engaging characters will keep readers hooked. The other babysitters, such as Liz, who is haunted by the disappearance of a sibling, each have interesting backstories. Liz creates A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, which the sitters refer to when faced with a new threat. Excerpts from this handy manual are sprinkled throughout the narrative, adding an interesting dimension to the storytelling and world-building. VERDICT With shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this tale of a courageous heroine and her ragtag group of intrepid babysitters battling nightmare-inducing beasts makes for addictive reading. Hand this to fans of Chris Colfer, Rick Riordan, and Adam Gidwitz.
Bishop, Jenn. 14 Hollow Road. 288p. Knopf. Jun. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781101938751.
Gr 4-6 –Sixth grader Maddie is excited to go to the school dance, where she’s hoping to spend time with her crush, Avery. Instead, her best friend Kiersten’s new BFF Gabby dances with Avery. Meanwhile, a tornado levels Maddie’s and Avery’s homes while they are at the dance, and the two must take shelter at a neighbor’s house for the rest of the summer; much drama ensues. Living with her crush in such close proximity intensifies Maddie’s social anxiety and forces her to examine her feelings. Unfortunately, the characterizations are uneven. While Maddie’s awkward avoidance tactics are authentic and relatable, some of her internal thoughts come across as overly adult and preachy, and her narration relies too much on telling and not enough on showing. The hopeful tone and conversational writing style make this an accessible read, though the message may be a bit too on the nose for some. VERDICT An additional purchase for large collections, especially those in need of wholesome realistic fiction.–
Libenson, Terri. Invisible Emmie. illus. by Terri Libenson. 192p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. May 2017. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780062484949; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9780062484932.
Gr 5-8 –Readers follow a day in the life of Emmie, a shy, quiet eighth grader, as she scrambles to finish her homework, dreads gym class, and navigates hallways full of gossipy girls and spitty boys. She copes by disappearing into her drawing notebook. Interspersed between the illustrated chapters are comics-style panels featuring Katie, a pretty, popular, friendly, confident girl also going through the same middle school day. In homeroom, she notices “that quiet girl. She likes to draw. I’d rather talk. Or text.” To amuse themselves during lunch in the chaotic cafeteria, Emmie and her best (and only) friend Bri compose gushy love notes to their secret crushes. Inevitably, Emmie drops hers, and it is found and circulated by the obnoxious class clown. Following the discovery of the love note, Katie comes to Emmie’s defense, comforts her, and encourages her to stand up for herself. Many readers will recognize themselves in Emmie and her friends, who are at once self-conscious and eager to be seen for who they are. VERDICT A highly relatable middle grade drama. Recommended for most collections.