4 Middle Grade Books To Tug the Heartstrings | SLJ Spotlight

Four poignant middle grade titles for analytical and introspective young readers.
Poignant, heart-rending, affecting. These are some of the adjectives you’ll find in the reviews for several new middle grade novels that will not only inspire sniffles, but deep reflection. A new teacher inspires her students through savvy read-aloud selections; a collection of short stories from a diverse array of perspectives sheds light on faith and justice; poetry and an unexpected journey brings a boy closer to his grandfather; and a girl struggles to live up to her heroic namesake. Though these tales are not likely to jump off shelves on their own, with a bit of handselling or use in literature circles, they provide ample opportunities for analysis and conversation.

Buyea, Rob. The Perfect Score. 368p. Delacorte. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781101938256.

Gr 4-6 –In a stand-alone title similar to his “Mr. Terupt” series, Buyea continues to show middle grade readers how to overcome personal flaws to form a better whole. In this heartwarming narrative told in the alternating viewpoints of sixth graders Gavin, Natalie, Randi, Scott, and Trevor, readers slowly learn of the personal problems each student faces that affect their behavior in class and during extracurricular activities. As the story opens, the students are stunned and disappointed over the lost opportunity to have the awesome Mr. Mitchell as their teacher. However, the replacement teacher, Mrs. Woods, eventually wins them over and soothes their wounded feelings. Faced with adjusting to the reserved mannerisms of Mrs. Woods, students are surprised at how well she manages the classroom. They establish class rules by creating their own Bill of Rights; instead of having to read class sets of books, Mrs. Woods reads aloud to them. Mrs. Woods selects R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, Gordon Korman’s Ungifted, and Avi’s Nothing but the Truth. The kids also work on a community service project with their science teacher, Mrs. Magenta. Once they learn what teamwork is, the sixth graders figure out ways to prepare for and pass the annual standardized assessments. Topics explored include sibling abuse, bullying, poverty, learning disabilities, pressures within competitive sports, community service responsibilities, and ethical values. VERDICT Recommended for fans of the “Mr. Terupt” series, Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost, and John David Anderson’s Posted. Engaging and highly discussion-worthy.–Sabrina Carnesi, Crittenden Middle School, Newport News, VA

Ellis, Deborah. Sit. 128p. Groundwood. Oct. 2017. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781773060866.

Gr 4-6 –A collection of short stories comprised of 11 tales set in different countries. In each story, a child encounters some form of social injustice and overcomes it or finds a positive outcome through some action on their part, however small. Each chapter features and is named for a specific type of chair. In “The Singing Chair,” Jafar, a child laborer in a chair factory, longs to go to school. He scratches a poem on the bottom of a chair being shipped out and feels emancipated (“With this chair, I am here.”). In “The Questioning Chair,” Gretchen visits the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum with her class. She sits on a hole in the middle of a long toilet and imagines what it must have been like for the prisoners of the concentration camp. She considers what her parents or grandparents might have done during the Holocaust. In “The Freedom Chair,” Mike sits on the floor of his cell where he is serving time for a crime; he’s in solitary confinement for 72 days. He relies on his own inner strength and the kindness of a stranger. Jed sits on a fence outside the Amish school where his sister was killed, Barry sits in a food court as his parents tell him they are separating, and Noosla sits in a crowded, stinking apartment in Uzbekistan, waiting for an unscrupulous smuggler to decide her fate. Every story is poignant and provocative. Ellis writes with deep compassion and intuitiveness. This book is ripe with discussable, debatable issues and thought-provoking questions. VERDICT An excellent addition for classrooms and libraries.–D. Maria LaRocco, Cuyahoga Public Library, Strongsville, OH

Kerrin, Jessica Scott. The Things Owen Wrote. 168p. Groundwood. Oct. 2017. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781773060293.

Gr 5-8 –A love letter to the process of research, the experience of writing poetry, and Iceland. Owen, 13, is a boy growing up on the Alberta prairies trying to find his way through grief and the feelings of impostor syndrome. Owen struggles to negotiate his grandfather’s memory loss, the recent death of his grandmother, and his own increasing desire to be perfect. Owen begins to question whether he is a strong writer; he has always wanted to write but he is becoming less and less sure of his abilities, even though his is complimented often on his skills. Asked to write a eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral service, Owen plagiarizes the work of real-life Canadian-Icelandic poet Stephan Stephansson. Kerrin’s commitment to bringing Stephansson’s poetry and life history to the fore is what propels the narrative and somewhat overshadows it. Owen and his grandfather, Neville Sharpe, take a trip to Iceland in order to return a collection of cherished artifacts belonging to Neville’s friend, Gunnar. Through the onset of Alzheimer’s, Neville has sent one of Owen’s writing journals to the Icelandic Stephansson archive outside of Reykjavik. They set about retrieving the notebook as well as delivering the materials to the archive, though their journey is besieged constantly by evidence of Neville’s forgetfulness: leaving his driver’s license at home and packing his suitcase full of socks. It is also buoyed by Owen’s obsession with his lost notebook that is akin to adolescence itself, filled with anxiety, insecurity, and misguided certainty. VERDICT An unusual and moving novel that will require booktalking to move off most library shelves. Recommended for large collections.–Alpha DeLap, St. Thomas School, Medina, WA

Stoddard, Lindsey. Just Like Jackie. 256p. HarperCollins/Harper. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062652911.

Gr 5-8 –Eleven-year-old Jackie wishes she could be more like her namesake, the great Jackie Robinson. She wishes she could let things roll off her shoulders, but she has a short fuse which keeps getting her in trouble at school. Alex, a classmate, teases Jackie for not having a mother and she winds up punching him right in the nose. This necessitates her Grandpa coming to school, which is Jackie’s worst fear—she knows Grandpa is getting more forgetful with his words and actions, and she is afraid others will figure it out and take her away from the only family she has. Jackie has the weight of the world on her shoulders as she tries to take care of Grandpa without letting others know their secret—he is at his best when fixing cars and tapping the maple trees for syrup, but lately he’s even having trouble doing those things. When a class project is assigned to complete a family tree, Jackie worries that it’s already too late to tap Grandpa’s memories and find out anything about her deceased mom. The school tries different tactics and Jackie is put into group guidance, which helps her realize even those who look like they have perfect lives may also be hiding problems. When Jackie is able to grow emotionally enough to realize family may not just be those you are related to by blood, she finally begins to open up. ­VERDICT A home-run story that will resonate with all who feel they might not fit into the perfect definition of a family.–Michele Shaw, Quail Run Elementary School, San Ramon, CA

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