January 18, 2018

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Middle Grade Titles on Surviving and Thriving | SLJ Spotlight

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A handful of new middle grade novels feature protagonists who manage ­serious illness and physical challenges. Sixth grader Norah Levy, from Barbara Dee’s Halfway Normal, spent two years away from school as she fought leukemia. Now in remission and back in school, she finds integrating into the social dynamics of middle school is not so easy. Alba, the star of Michelle Kadarusman’s The Theory of Hummingbirds, was born with talipes equinovarus (also known as “club foot”). Her latest surgery promises to improve her ability to walk and run, but she fears it may not be enough for her to compete in an upcoming cross-country race. In Chad Morris and Shelly Brown’s Mustaches for Maddie, based on a true story, a 12-year-old girl discovers she has a brain tumor and undergoes several surgeries while navigating the reactions and assumptions of friends and classmates.

redstarDee, Barbara. Halfway Normal. 256p. S. & S./Aladdin. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481478519.

Gr 4-7 –Norah Levy is entering seventh grade after being away from school for two years, during which she spent time in and out of the hospital battling leukemia. Transitioning back to the “real world” is challenging—everyone in the seventh grade knows her as “The Girl Who.” She’s tired of being treated like she’s fragile; some students are even jealous of the attention she receives. It doesn’t help that her overprotective parents won’t allow her to participate in after-school or weekend activities with her friends. As she’s making the difficult shift from patient to student, Norah also deals with the everyday challenges of middle school: cliquey friends, crushes on boys, and skipping classes. Readers will empathize with Norah as she tries to rediscover her place amongst people who were her friends. When she is placed in eighth grade math and science (she got ahead during her private tutoring), she bonds with a boy named Griffin over books, Greek myths, and her drawing ability. Norah avoids talking about her cancer at school, so Griffin doesn’t know about her past. When keeping her secret becomes impossible, Norah has to find a way to share her story. She learns is that she has been forever changed by her life experiences—but that’s okay. VERDICT A powerful story about surviving and thriving after serious illness.–Sarah Polace, Cuyahoga Public Library System, OH

Kadarusman, Michelle. The Theory of Hummingbirds. 160p. Pajama Press. Oct. 2017. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781772780277. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781772780352.

Gr 5-8 –Alba has talipes equinovarus, also known as a “club foot,” and she calls her foot “Cleo.” Alba’s best friend, Levi, has his own physical challenges managing his asthma. The two form a tight bond, sharing time inside the school library during recess. Levi has an interest in science and science fiction, and thinks the librarian may have discovered a wormhole in her office. Alba has never met her dad and lives with her mom, a therapist, and a menagerie of animals her mother adopted from guests at the senior home where she works. Alba wonders if her newest surgery will allow her to prove herself by participating in a cross-country race. Fascinating hummingbird facts flit throughout this contemporary realistic story and a glossary helps readers know more about the birds. An author’s note states that Kadarusman, like Alba, was born with talipes equinovarus. Kadarusman’s writing has a light touch, and the story will resonate with a wide audience. VERDICT Readers learn that a group of hummingbirds is called a “charm”—and are sure to be charmed by this heartfelt tale.–Helen Foster James, ­University of California at San Diego

Morris, Chad & Shelly Brown. Mustaches for Maddie. 256p. Shadow Mountain. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781629723303.

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Maddie Bridger has a great imagination. She likes to imagine herself heroically fighting monsters, or even speaking out when Cassie, the most popular girl in her class, excludes other people at recess. But then Maddie comes face-to-face with an unexpected foe: a brain tumor that is affecting the right side of her body, and may leave her blind if it isn’t removed. While trying to cope with the life-threatening prospect of brain surgery, Maddie also faces challenges at school: Cassie is jealous that Maddie has been cast as Juliet in the upcoming Shakespearean short plays, and starts a rumor that Maddie invented the tumor to get attention. At first Maddie is furious that Cassie could tell such a terrible lie, but she begins to realize that Cassie is facing challenges of her own. Meanwhile, although her first surgery is a success, a cyst on the part of the tumor the surgeon couldn’t remove leaves her in renewed danger, and facing an even riskier surgery. Based on the true story of the authors’ daughter, this is a moving novel about a truly brave girl. Maddie is a wonderfully thoughtful, creative, and funny protagonist, with whom readers will identify as she grapples with her social and physical challenges . The title comes from her love of fake mustaches, which she carries around to lighten the mood wherever she goes, and which become a viral sensation when she is hospitalized. Although the novel does not reveal the outcome of Maddie’s second surgery, an author’s note explains that the real Maddie recovered completely, and that thousands of people really did wear fake mustaches to show their support for her. VERDICT This poignant and uplifting novel is a good read-alike for fans of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.–Ashley Larsen, ­Pacifica Libraries, CA

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

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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