Middle Grade Tales of True Grit | SLJ Spotlight

The characters in these five new titles show dedication and determination to overcome hardships great and small.
Almost all middle grade fiction, to one extent or another, features young characters overcoming obstacles in order to learn, grow, defeat a great evil, and sometimes, save the known world. These heroes, by their very nature, have what some would call “grit” or resilience, perseverance, or the capacity to keep striving for what’s right even when all odds are stacked against them. Several novels reviewed this month, spanning across different genres, showcase characters from humble beginnings who triumph in ways large and small.

redstarBartók, Mira. The Wonderling. 464p. Candlewick. Sept. 2017. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780763691219.

Gr 3-6 –Thirteen, a fox groundling (creatures that are half animal, half human), has spent most of his life in “the Home,” a horrid orphanage/workhouse run by the evil Mrs. Carbunkle. When he saves a bird groundling named Trinket, the two hatch an escape plan, and Trinket renames him Arthur, in honor of the brave medieval king. Once Arthur and Trinket are free from Mrs. Carbunkle, they set off on an adventure that will test Arthur’s destiny as a Wonderling, including his very unusual abilities to understand and speak to animals and to unknowingly sing a haunting song each night as he sleeps. He will have to head ear-first into danger and return to The Home to find out what that destiny holds. Written with clear and detailed descriptions, this novel drops readers into a strange, magical, mythical, and mechanical world. Fantasy fans will be swept along by the mystery and adventure, guessing until the end how the plot and characters connect. Bearing some similarities to Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” with shades of Erin Hunter’s “Warriors” series, Bartók’s title will appeal to readers who appreciate anthropomorphized animal characters, high-stakes adventure, and Dickensian settings. ­VERDICT A stellar new contribution to fantasy that should find a place in every middle grade collection. –Clare A. Dombrowski, Amesbury Public Library, MA

redstarBradley, Kimberly Brubaker. The War I Finally Won. 400p. Dial. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780525429203.

Gr 4-6 –Eleven-year-old Ada picks up her story shortly after The War That Saved My Life left off. She’s in the hospital, nervously awaiting the surgery that will fix her club foot, when Susan receives a letter from Lady Thornton that obviously upsets her. Turns out, Ada’s mother was killed in a bombing. Ada does not know how to feel about that, but, ever practical, she worries about where that leaves her and brother Jamie now that they are war orphans instead of child evacuees. Despite Susan’s assurances that the three of them are family now, Ada remains prickly and irritable, particularly when Jamie falls easily into calling Susan “Mum.” The three move into a cottage on the Thornton estate and are soon joined by Lady Thornton when the big house is needed for the war effort. Ada is leery of Lady Thornton, but living in close quarters brings out the best and worst in everyone, especially when Lord Thornton arrives with a German Jewish girl named Ruth whom he wishes Susan to tutor. Ada’s unique voice helps evoke the novel’s vivid setting and numerous complex characters. There is destitution but plenty of humor. There is also plenty of heartbreak and loss, so readers will want to keep a box of tissues handy. VERDICT Fans of the first book will love the sequel even more; truly a first purchase. While it stands alone, encourage readers to read both books to fully appreciate Ada’s remarkable and wholly believable triumph.–Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ

Heffernan, John. Hotaka. 224p. Allen & Unwin. Sept. 2017. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781760113766.

Gr 5-7 –In this riveting historical fiction novel, Heffernan offers insight into the devastating tsunami that occurred in Japan in March 2011 and forever altered the people of the coastal town Omori-Wan. The story is told through the eyes of Hotaka, who is in the auditorium of his school when the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit. He and his best friend, Takeshi, try to swim to safety, but only Hotaka survives. He must now rebuild his life after living through a horrible, traumatic event. Three years later, Hotaka is still grieving the loss of his friend. His trauma is compounded by the fact that thousands of Japanese survivors are still not living in adequate housing. His friend Sakura enlightens him that the Japanese government is spending money on a seawall instead of housing for the people. VERDICT A well-written book that will educate middle school readers about this catastrophic natural disaster and its long-term consequences.–Margaret Capobianco, Seaford Library, NY

Jackson, Linda Williams. A Sky Full of Stars. 320p. HMH. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544800656.

Gr 5-7 –Jackson’s second novel in the continuing story of Rosa “Rose” Lee Carter, a 13-year-old African American girl growing up in Mississippi. The year is 1955, and the town of Stillwater, MI, is still reeling from the injustice of Emmett Till’s murderers going free. The white folks are saying that ever since the trial, “the coloreds have gotten beside themselves.” Trouble is brewing closer to Rosa than it ever has before. Her best friend, Hallelujah, the preacher’s son, is stirring up talk of holding demonstrations in Stillwater. But it is Rosa’s cousin Shorty who is determined to take a stronger stance against whites, using guns instead of words. While the backdrop of the story depicts the violence and hatred toward blacks in the South, racial tension and injustice is weaved throughout Rosa’s own story. Many readers will be shaken by the level of violence that pervaded this time and region of the country, while others will see echoes of this history in current events. There is also much inspiration to be found in Rosa’s resilience and her determination to make something good of her life and not leave her beloved South for a “safer” part of the country. Jackson presents a raw and frank look at what growing up in the deep South during Jim Crow was really like. VERDICT A powerful and well-crafted novel that will spark deep discussion of this era in U.S. history— and its contemporary repercussions.–Carol ­Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools, OH

Young, Moira. The Road to Ever After. 224p. Feiwel & Friends. Nov. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250117298.

Gr 4-6 –Davy Davidson lives a bleak existence. His mother died in childbirth, and the children’s home he was raised in has long since closed. His small town is run by a menacing, hypocritical parson who is determined to drive out of town those who don’t subscribe to puritanical values. Now 13 and on his own, Davey takes solace in art. His life changes when he meets the eccentric Miss Flint, who plans to die on her 80th birthday in her childhood home and needs a driver to take her there. Initially just a business arrangement, the road trip evolves into a miraculous journey as Davy and Miss Flint race against time and develop a close friendship. Part one has a somewhat dystopian tone. It is difficult to get a sense of the time period or setting, and it is unclear why the parson has so much power. Many minor characters are introduced in this section who are never to be seen again. When Davy and Miss Flint meet, it’s a welcome relief. Part two takes place in a somewhat more familiar world and adds some needed energy and humor. The characters are unlikely friends and an enjoyable pair of outlaws. The novel takes a fantastical turn when Miss Flint begins to age backwards. VERDICT This fairy tale–like novel has good potential as a read- aloud and is just quirky enough to not be sentimental.–­Juliet Morefield, Belmont Library, Portland, OR

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