Middle Grade Novels Set in the Last Century | SLJ Spotlight

Four middle grade titles explore childhood in the 1900s.
The early-to-mid 20th-century continues to be a popular subject and setting for many middle grade novels. In our November issue alone, several titles spanning the pre- to post-war period explore what it was like to come of age before the advent of smartphones and Snapchat. A boy tries to live up to his heroic namesake, a German American girl navigates prejudice in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, a tough pup becomes a silent film sensation, and a teen endures the Blitz.

Camlot, Heather. Clutch. 240p. Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Nov. 2017. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780889955486.

Gr 5 Up –After his father dies of a heart attack, Joey Grosser, a young Jewish boy living in post–World War II Montreal, tries to step into his old man’s shoes. He takes care of his younger brother and helps his mother run the family store, while also keeping up with school, studying for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, and running an ever-expanding empire of small businesses in a determined attempt to raise his family out of poverty. Camlot connects this struggle to that of pioneering baseball player Jackie Robinson and his historic run with the Montreal Royals. Joey looks to Robinson as a role model, and while this sense of connection feels legitimate, it is never fully woven into the story, instead coming across as a device that pops up periodically to help move readers through this quiet coming-of-age tale. Joey’s obsession with getting his family to the other side of town where the rich folks live—while certainly understandable—begins to feel a bit cliché after a while, primarily because it never seems to grow into any deeper realization. There are a few notable historical references throughout, especially an encounter with a man who lost his entire family to the Holocaust, but overall the book doesn’t quite capture the grit of Joey’s neighborhood. VERDICT A coming-of age novel with a sports hook to round out middle grade historical fiction collections.–Bobbi Parry, East Baton Rouge Parish School System, LA

Erwin, Vicki Berger. Different Days. 278p. Sky Pony Pr. Nov. 2017. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781510724587.

Gr 5-7 –Twelve-year-old Rosie wakes up on Sunday, December 7, 1941, expecting to read the newspaper funnies with her dad while her little brother Freddie plays with his toy soldiers and her mother bakes breakfast muffins. But as the title and date suggest, Rosie’s day will be anything but normal. Rosie’s family are U.S. citizens who have lived in Hawaii for many years—but they are German Americans, and when martial law is declared in Hawaii, Rosie’s parents are taken away under suspicion of being German spies. Rosie and Freddie begin their “different days” living with their prickly Aunt Yvonne, who is eager to hide her German heritage, and then with Aunt Etta, who is more loving and supportive of the two frightened children. In addition to Rosie’s anxiety about her parents’ whereabouts and concern about the loyalty of her closest friend, she is also fearful about the motives of Mr. Smith, the property manager who is responsible for protecting her family’s belongings. A fan of Nancy Drew, Rosie begins following Mr. Smith and using her notes to make a case that he is selling people’s treasures. Based on a true story of one of the lesser-known chapters of World War II, Erwin’s novel about a young girl hoping to be reunited with her parents is an important one. Although a few plot twists seem contrived, this book will appeal to readers of historical fiction. VERDICT Recommend this to fans of Lois Sepahban’s Paper Wishes or Kirby Larson’s Dash.–Shelley Sommer, Inly School, Scituate, MA

Fleming, Candace. Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen. illus. by Eric Rohmann. 256p. Random/Schwartz & Wade. Feb. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781101934104.

Gr 4-6 –Fleming and Rohmann (Bulldozer’s Big Day; Oh No!; and Giant Squid) team up on a new book based on the true story of Strongheart, a vicious police dog turned lovable silent movie star. A puppy named Etzel is taken from his family and trained to act against his gentle instincts. Meanwhile, Larry Trimble and Jane Murfin, movie producer and screenwriter, respectively, are searching for a canine who can actually act. When Larry discovers Etzel, he renames him Strongheart and sets out to make him a silent movie star. He becomes a Hollywood sensation, able to convey emotions on-screen and sniff out the bad guys in real life. Rohmann’s illustrations largely consist of Strongheart in various situations (at police dog training, on his first movie set, meeting orphan boys), with very few drawings of the human characters. The subject matter, coupled with the illustrations, make Strongheart ideal for reluctant readers, particularly animal lovers. The back matter (which includes photos of Strongheart and his on-and-off-screen partner, Lady Jule) is extensive enough to satisfy curiosity about the real Strongheart and illuminate the sections of the book that are Fleming’s speculation, such as those parts of the story told from Strongheart’s perspective. VERDICT This fictionalized account of true events provides a look into the life of a little-known historical figure, and makes an excellent choice for general purchase.–Jessica Ko, Los Angeles Public Library

Hughes, Shirley. Whistling in the Dark. 240p. Candlewick. Nov. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763690724.

Gr 5-8 –For 13-year-old Joan Armitage, World War II has settled like a shroud over her family and community. Joan and her three siblings live alone with their mother after suffering the loss of their father, a merchant naval officer. Despite the ever-present danger of the Blitz, Joan and her school friends continue with their daily lives and adjust to a new normal in which they collect salvage, deal with shrinking food rations, and take cover in air-raid shelters when the German bombers speed by to barrage nearby Liverpool. When a Polish refugee girl arrives at school, Joan becomes embroiled in a covert effort to reunite her with her uncle, a British army deserter. Hughes’ own memories of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s inform Joan’s character. The protagonist’s authentic humor shines in her wry descriptions of family dynamics and mundane events like school dances against the backdrop of war, capturing the turmoil of Joan’s struggle to comprehend the unimaginable while trying to live an ordinary life. Readers will be thoroughly drawn into the lives of the vivid characters, and will become invested in their downfalls and triumphs. VERDICT This must-read novel seamlessly blends history and coming-of-age without being didactic or overly nostalgic. Hand it to middle grade fans of World War II–set fiction.–Tara Kron, Aurora Public Library, Denver

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