September 21, 2017

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Blast from the (Recent) Past: 13 Great Middle Grade and YA

Set between 1969 and 2010, these works of historical fiction take readers back to a time that seems at once modern and long ago, a period characterized by burgeoning technology now obsolete, earth-transforming political events and economic upheavals, and the origins of ongoing struggles for social equality. Whether depicting events that defined an era or day-to-day trials and tribulations, these novels, set across the globe, touch upon themes of friendship, family, and self-discovery that are timeless and compelling to today’s readers. In addition, many of the historical occurrences and cultural touchstones presented remain immediate in the minds of adults, encouraging readers to question parents, grandparents, and educators about the not-so-distant past.

Middle Grade

DICAMILLO, Kate. Raymie Nightingale. Candlewick. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763681173.
Gr 4-7– Raymie Clarke’s life is shattered when her father runs away with a dental hygienist, but the quiet 10-year-old has a plan: She will win the title of Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975, her father will see her picture in the paper, and he will return home…“Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.” It’s an ambitious goal, but the two girls she meets during baton-twirling lessons—both of whom also struggle with abandonment and heartbreak—gradually transform from seeming rivals into faithful friends. Unforgettable characters, masterfully streamlined storytelling, and endearing shenanigans sparkle in this soul-stirring novel.

DUMAS, Firoozeh. It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. Clarion. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544612310.
Gr 4-7– Born in Iran, Zomorod Yousefzadeh and her parents are moving from Compton to Newport Beach, CA, in the late 1970s, and the 11-year-old is determined to make a new start at junior high with a “normal American name” (Cindy from The Brady Bunch) and a willingness to make friends (who aren’t characters in books). Just as she’s beginning to settle in, the Iranian Revolution and American hostage crisis turn her world upside down. Narrated with humor and honesty, this semiautobiographical novel reveals much about the immigrant experience, mapping a course through difficult times, and the incredible power of kindness.

FRANK, Steven B. Armstrong & Charlie. HMH. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544826083.
Gr 5-8– True friendship trumps all in a novel set against the backdrop of school integration in California during the 1970s. Armstrong lives with his parents and five older sisters in an apartment in South Central L.A. Charlie and his parents live in an upscale Hollywood Hills home that seems empty since the recent death of his brother. The boys are thrown together when Armstrong and nine other African American students sign up for “Opportunity Busing” and a daily trip to the formerly all-white Wonderland Elementary. The story of how they eventually find common ground and camaraderie during a tumultuous sixth grade year is told from alternating viewpoints with candor and comedy.

HILTON, Marilyn. Full Cicada Moon. Dial. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525428756.
Gr 5-8– It’s January 1969, and half Japanese, half Black Mimi Yoshiko Oliver has just moved from Berkeley, CA, to a small Vermont town. Not only does the seventh grader stand out for her looks, but she is also considered an outsider for her interest in shop classes and science competitions. Inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing to become an astronaut, she spends the next year navigating stifling social conventions, carefully forging honest friendships, and reaching for the stars. A stellar story of self-discovery, told in eloquent, emotionally penetrating free verse.

NESBET, Anne. Cloud and Wallfish. Candle­­wick. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978076 3688035.
Gr 5-8– Fifth grader Noah’s ordinary life in Virginia is upended when his parents whisk him off to the airport for an impromptu expedition to East Germany (the one behind the Iron Curtain), where his mother will complete her doctoral dissertation. Suddenly and strangely, his parents are changing his name and age and insisting that he follow strict parameters to remain off the radar of the secret police (“They will always be listening”). Noah’s adventures leading up to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall are fraught with startling secrets and political intrigue, slow-to-unwind suspense, and an unexpected—and border-obliterating—friendship.

ROSENBERG, Madelyn & Wendy Wan-Long Shang. This Is Just a Test. Scholastic. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781338037746.
Gr 4-8– It’s 1983 in Virginia, and David Da-Wei Horowitz has plenty to worry about: There’s the preparation for his upcoming bar mitzvah, his total inability to form a coherent sentence in front of the irresistible Kelli Ann, a new (popular) friend who is determined to push out his oldest (dorky) pal, and the escalating bickering between his Chinese and Jewish grandmothers…oh, and the ever-looming possibility that nuclear annihilation is only a button push away. Memorable characters, universal coming-of-age wonderments and woes, and a hilarious first-person narration make this a winner.

STARMER, Aaron. The Riverman. Farrar. 2014. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780374363093.
Gr 4-8– When trustworthy 12-year-old Alistair Clearly agrees to pen the biography of aloof classmate Fiona Loomis, she regales him with tales of visiting a parallel world where the enigmatic Riverman steals the souls of children—and Fiona fears she will be next. Is she concocting stories to cope with real-life traumas (children have gone missing), or could she possibly be telling the truth? Alistair is hooked, as will be readers. This riveting, insidiously eerie trilogy opener set in small-town New York in 1989 distorts the lines between reality and fantasy, explores the positive and negative potentials of friendship, and muses about the power of storytelling.

WENXUAN, Cao. Bronze and Sunflower. tr. by Helen Wang. illus. by Meilo So. Candlewick. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763688165.
Gr 4-6– Relocated from the city by authorities during China’s Cultural Revolution, Sunflower and her artist father live at a Cadre School (labor camp) in the remote countryside. When Baba accidentally drowns, the orphaned seven-year-old is taken in by the poorest family in tiny Damaidi village, where she and big brother Bronze, who cannot speak, become inseparable. This lyrically written charmer reveals the hardships of rural life alongside the joys of a loyal and loving family.

Young Adult

CROWDER, Melanie. An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. Philomel. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780399169007.
Gr 7 Up– It’s 1999, and 17-year-old Francisco, son of a college-educated mestiza mother and indigenous taxi driver father, leads a mostly comfortable life in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Always ready with his fists, he prefers pick-up fútbol to academics and is well aware that people in his stratified society see nothing beyond his dark skin and Aymara face. Everything changes when Papá is wrongfully arrested on drug charges, and Francisco and his younger sister must move into prison with him. Facing inhumane conditions, violence, and despair, Francisco struggles to keep his loved ones alive while fighting for a better future. Social and political issues and coming-of-age themes coalesce in a harrowing but inspirational tale filled with poignancy, poetry, and empowerment.

HITCHCOCK, Bonnie-Sue. The Smell of Other People’s Houses. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553497786.
Gr 7 Up– Set in a grittily depicted Alaska in 1970, just a decade after statehood, this eloquently written novel follows the journeys of four teens whose lives intersect in unforeseen ways. Whether struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, searching for a safe home, maneuvering through parental expectations, or longing for love, these resilient characters manage to form meaningful personal connections, piece together broken hearts, and persevere to find hopeful tomorrows.

MEDINA, Meg. Burn Baby Burn. Candlewick. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763674670.
Gr 9 Up– During the summer of 1977, New York City seethes with a scorching heat wave, the pulsing beat of disco, racial tensions, and fear of Son of Sam. Cuban American Nora López, 17, is worried about being the serial killer’s next victim, but trouble already simmers closer to home—her mother is behind on the rent, her drug-using brother is out of control, and her father has pretty much checked out of the family. In this realistically evoked and emotionally explosive coming-of-age novel, Nora struggles to grab hold of her dreams and chart a desirable future while events head toward an incendiary climax.

MILLS, Wendy. All We Have Left. Bloomsbury. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781619633438.
Gr 7 Up– Alternating interweaving narratives hauntingly convey the lasting impact of a cataclysmic moment in history. In the current day, Jesse, a troubled 16-year-old whose family is still reeling from the loss of her brother Travis in the September 11 attacks, is on a downward spiral that lands her doing community service in her town’s Islam Peace Center. Meanwhile, Alia, a 16-year-old Muslim girl trapped in the North Tower on that fateful day, befriends a boy who will change her future. Incorporating themes that resonate on personal and societal levels, this stunningly written story is affecting, heartrending, and ultimately hopeful.

PATEL, Sonia. Rani Patel in Full Effect. Cinco Puntos. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781941026496.
Gr 10 Up– Probably the only Gujarati girl on a remote Hawaiian island, almost 17-year-old Rani feels like an outsider and seeks solace in creating rap and slam poetry. And there’s plenty to write about—her father’s blatant infidelity, the implosion of her parents’ marriage, the lingering trauma caused by her father’s sexual and psychological abuse, and an ill-fated relationship with an attractive but dangerous older man. Slowly, agonizingly, magnificently, she finds her voice as MC Sutra and spreads her wings. Set in 1991 to a soundtrack of hip-hop music and attitude (and Hawaiian and Gujarati vernacular and culture), this is an intoxicating, soul-scorching story about discovering identity and self-worth.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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