fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Repairing the World by Linda Epstein

There have been so many great Jewish middle-grade books out lately, and I haven’t been able to let many of them slip by me without them ending up on my TBR. And I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Repairing the World by Linda Epstein (Aladdin, 2022) on a recent library trip. It was just sitting there happily on the new books shelf when I walked by, and into my bag it went!


Daisy and Ruby have been best friends all their lives. They’re inseparable, doing everything together, complementing each other perfectly and being able to finish each other’s sentences. They’re looking forward to starting middle school together in the fall, beginning their journey to growing up, when the unthinkable happens, and Daisy is left alone to face the future and grow up without her best friend.

Grief weighs heavily on her, and Daisy finds it difficult to even speak about what happened. Two new friends – Avery, a science-minded girl who appears in many of Daisy’s classes, and Mo, a boy from Hebrew school and her regular school, whose mother is suffering from breast cancer – appear on the scene, helping her to crawl at least a little out of the shadows that Ruby’s death have left behind, but Daisy still continues to shove her grief down. But grief and pain can’t stay buried forever, and when they erupt in Daisy like a volcano, she’s going to have to figure out how to fix the damage her hurt caused.

At times in the beginning, I felt like the writing got a little clunky and awkward, but where Repairing the World really shines is both in its descriptions of grief, and in the deep understanding Daisy’s new friends show her. The descriptions of grief are heavy, but they’ll seem familiar to anyone who’s struggled with loss. It’s not just emotional, it’s physical as well, and survivor’s guilt is very, very real. Daisy is tasked with carrying a lot, and Ms. Epstein really nails how difficult this all is for a tween.

Avery and Mo are exceptional characters. Avery is spunky and analytical, with a personality not unlike that of Ruby, but different enough that she really sparkle. Mo, struggling with his own pain, provides support and a way for Daisy to begin processing her loss. Aunt Toby, home to help Daisy and Daisy’s heavily pregnant mother, also serves to give Daisy some breathing room and new ways to move forward in a life she never expected. The supporting cast in this book are phenomenal and provide a wonderful scaffolding for Daisy and her grief.

This book contains Bridge to Terabithia-levels of anguish; if your middle grader is especially sensitive for any reason, check in with them if this is something they express interest in reading. It might be tough for them; on the other hand, Repairing the World might make them feel not so alone, especially if they’re dealing with loss and grief (and we all know, far too many kids are struggling with that these days. Tough as it is, this book is SO necessary). Daisy’s hurt is almost palpable; Ms. Epstein’s portrayal of what that kind of pain looks and feels like is absolutely commendable, and I think a lot of hurting kids will be able to relate.

Repairing the World will squeeze your soul, and my hopes are that it will provide comfort to kids who see themselves in the story, and understanding and enlightenment for kids fortunate enough not to see their own journey in Daisy’s.

Follow Linda Epstein on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

I learned about A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion Books/HMH, 2020) a while ago, but while the premise interested me, I learned about it at a time when I wasn’t reading much middle grade, so it never ended up on my TBR. But a trip to the library last week had me walking past a display of books about food from the children’s section, and this book was on there. ‘Wait, I know that book!’ I said to myself as I passed it. ‘Guess it’s time to finally read it!’ And into my bag it went. Dual narrative middle grade. So fun!

It’s the first year of middle school for sixth graders Sara (that’s SAH-rah, not Sarah as in Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Elizabeth, and neither is having the best of times. Sara’s new to the school, having transferred from her small private Muslim school after her parents could no longer afford it; Elizabeth is struggling with friend issues after her best friend has taken up with a more popular girl. It’s Elizabeth who’s enthusiastic about joining the after-school South Asian cooking class club; Sara is only there because her mom is teaching it. Their first interactions are hostile at best, and neither walks away feeling great.

But as their time together in the club increases, Sara and Elizabeth realize they have a lot in common. Both are daughters of immigrant mothers; both are having trouble making the transition to middle school; both are desperately in need of friends. But in order to forge a new friendship, both will have to learn to listen to each other, to form a bridge over what divides them and learn to appreciate what makes each of them unique. A cultural festival and a cooking competition will force them to work together, and what they create at the end will be far more than just a new recipe.

What an enjoyable novel. I love dual narratives, and I can’t remember ever having read one from the middle grade section. Sara is downright prickly at the beginning, and this is completely understandable. She’s a Muslim student at a new school, and it’s not like this country is super understanding about non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Her mother’s accent and unfamiliar-to-everyone-else dishes make her feel like she stands out even more, and her defensiveness, even to the most basic of inquiries, is a learned skill. She’s also carrying the financial stress of her family with her, knowing her mother’s catering business is struggling and costing the family money they can’t afford. She lashes out a few times at Elizabeth, and I wanted to hug her. We don’t make life for immigrants or second gen kids easy at all here.

Elizabeth is struggling with problems of her own. Her grandmother died over the summer and her mother is grieving. Her father travels for work most of the week, leaving Elizabeth and her brothers on their own while Mom knits, listens to podcasts, and cries. Elizabeth is deeply worried her mom is going to return to England and leave the family behind, and to top it all off, her best friend is following in her racist father’s footsteps and making hideous comments about Muslims and immigrants. Cooking club and learning to make delicious food for her family helps with the stress, but she’s not having the greatest year either.

The friendship the two girls forge is fascinating. It’s not an easy one; it takes work for Sara to let down her guard and accept that Elizabeth is well-intentioned; Elizabeth has to learn that Islamophobia is a constant part of Sara’s life, and that it’s also her responsibility to speak out and defend her friend from it. (I really loved the role Sara’s friend from her private school played in this; she’s a super chill character and the voice of reason in their interactions, whereas Sara is more impulsive and fiery.)

Both girls are carrying an enormous amount of stress for their ages, an unfortunately not-uncommon experience these days, and while readers may not be personally familiar with their exact problems, I feel like most middle graders will understand what it’s like to worry about family matters you can’t control.

The authors really worked well together to create two middle school girls who are challenged in a variety of ways, and who begin not quite as adversaries, but as two distinct characters who aren’t necessarily on the same page…but who, with a little hard work and understanding, make it there, and the results are great.

What a fun, meaningful book, from an excellent writing team!

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Laura Shovan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Way I Say It by Nancy Tandon

So I was wandering through the library with my daughter last week when she took off to go hunt for Digger, the construction-equipment stuffie that the library stashes in various places in the children’s department. If you spot Digger, you get a sticker, so my daughter’s all in on the search. (They use Digger because our new library building is currently under construction; the computer screensavers play videos of the construction updates, it’s actually really cool.) I went around front to peek at the new children’s and middle grade books, and among all the awesomeness, I found The Way I Say It by Nancy Tandon (Charlesbridge, 2022). Intrigued by the title, I opened the cover to read the inside flap, and within a few words, I was in.

Rory, a brand-new sixth grader heading to middle school, still struggles to say his r’s, a daunting sound for new speakers that usually fully resolves around second or third grade, but for some kids, it’s a little tougher. And being named Rory? Ouch. To make matters worse, his former best friend Brent has ditched him for the cool wrestling group, and he’s gone a step further, making fun of Rory right along with them. Rory’s got a stable and supportive friend group of his own, but losing Brent and being subjected to constant teasing because of his speech impediment? It hurts. A lot.

His new speech therapist, Mr. Simms, has some unorthodox ideas of what speech should look like, and from him, Rory picks up an appreciation for the life and struggles of Muhammad Ali. After a disastrous parentally-enforced get-together with Brent and some other old friends, Rory, along with his fellow students, is shocked when Brent is involved in a terrible accident that leaves him with a traumatic brain injury. Unable to reconcile this new, damaged Brent with the one who had hurt him so badly, Rory can’t quite muster sympathy. As his r’s continue to improve, Rory’s emotions remain in a tangle, and they only get more complex as Brent returns to school and becomes Rory’s partner for the big English project.

My recap absolutely does not do this book justice. First off, a book about a middle grader struggling with speech? I. Was. In. I’d never read a book about a kid in speech before, and my heart soared at this wonderful representation. While I never needed help with speech, I know how very common it is, and how much kids need to see themselves in fiction, and I can’t help but absolutely thrill at how many kids are going to see this book and feel a little less alone. Middle school, bullies…a traumatic brain injury and all the complications and messiness that entails? My goodness. This book packs a LOT into its 240 pages, and it does so masterfully.

Rory is so very real. He gets angry, he’s resentful, he shows how very hurt he was by his former best friend’s betrayal in so many realistic ways. His friends’ and fellow students’ reactions to Brent’s post-injury behavior is portrayed incredibly well. Some are sad; some are scared; some seem to use mockery and insults as a means of masking their fear (because if this could happen to Brent, it could easily happen to them as well, and middle school is about the age where this really begins to hit home…just in time for the teenage brain to take over and go, “Nah, it won’t happen to me!”). The teachers turning a blind eye to some of the less-than-acceptable behavior from Brent’s friend group is, unfortunately, all too real. Mr. Simms? Hands down one of the best adult characters I’ve read in a middle-grade novel. If only more teachers had that kind of magic!

The Way I Say It is an absolute gift to middle-grade writing. If your child struggles with speech or has in the past, they’ll see themselves in Rory and hopefully pick up some of Mr. Simms’s lessons along the way. And if your child knows someone who has experienced a traumatic brain injury, watching Brent’s struggles might be a gentle introduction as to what TBI recovery might look like, and how they might feel as they support the injured friend. I’m so very, very glad I came across this book on the new books shelf, because it was an utter delight to lose myself in.

Visit Nancy Tandon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.