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!

CONTENT WARNING: Child death.

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.

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graphic nonfiction

Book Review: When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

My daughter has gotten super into graphic novels, which I love. My library has a so-so collection of these, but there’s a library in the next town over that has an absolutely fabulous collection of graphic novels for the middle grade set, so I was browsing through there one day, trying to find her new books to fall in love with, when I came across When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books, 2020). A quick glance at the premise had me immediately tossing it into my bag…for me. (My daughter got like four other books that trip, so it’s all good!)

Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan are growing up in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, because their native Somalia hasn’t been safe for years. Their father was killed there; they became separated from their mother when they were fleeing and haven’t seen her since. Hassan is nonverbal; Omar spends his days taking care of him. A fellow refugee serves as a foster mother, but really, the boys are on their own, dreaming of a better life in America, Europe, or Canada.

When Omar finally gets the chance to go to school, he hesitates; what about Hassan? When his friends and foster mother encourage him, he nervously takes his first step towards a better life and finds out he’s actually an amazing student. But school is not without its challenges, and for his female friends, the odds are stacked even higher. And even when prayers are answered, those answers may not always be what Omar anticipated, nor are they easy. Life as a refugee is a struggle everywhere, but there are some refugees who manage to use that struggle to better life for everyone, and Omar Mohamed does just that.

What a beautiful, remarkable, soul-tugging book. This would be an excellent introduction to life in a refugee camp for the younger crowd. It’s a thick book, but as it’s a graphic novel, it’s easy to read and the pages fly by quickly. Omar’s story is tragic, though it does have a happy – or at least a happier ending than most. The hunger he and his brother experience, due to their meager rations, is constant; the images of the two of them sleeping alone in a tent their entire childhoods is one that will likely make an impression on even the most internet-jaded of middle grade readers, as will the images of Omar’s pregnant schoolmate who has been forced to leave her education behind and get married while still a child herself.

This book doesn’t sugarcoat the refugee experience, but it’s not a super-harsh book. It cuts off when Omar and Hassan are able to leave Kenya behind to be resettled in the US (though it does give an update on what their lives were like after they came here); I’d love to see a follow-up of a more fleshed-out version of their stories, because I’m always interested to know what life is like for the immigrants and refugees who come here, and what I can do to make life easier for them. Omar has started an organization called Refugee Strong, which aids refugees in places like Dadaab, providing them with support and educational materials, which is something I find remarkable. It would’ve been entirely understandable if he couldn’t face the trauma he’d been through there and just focused on building a life in the US for himself and his brother; instead, he turned back and works to make a better life for all the people still there. Amazing.

If you’re looking for a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that tells a remarkable story of resilience, When Stars Are Scattered is a great choice.

Visit Victoria Jamieson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Refugee Strong’s website 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: I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

Putting together a third-grade curriculum for my daughter this summer was a lot of fun, along with being a lot of work. We’re talking probably at least six weeks of several hours per day, figuring out what she needed to learn this year, and then searching for what resources I have available to me so I can help her learn that. One of the many things I’m excited to study with her are some of the many Native American tribes around the US. Thanks to my various online homeschool groups, we have a fantastic curriculum that uses almost entirely Native voices, which is so much better than the little bits and pieces I learned in school that weren’t from Native people themselves. Of course, one of the pitfalls of constantly searching for books for my daughter was that I also found books I wanted to read as well, so my TBR definitely took a few hits during this process, but I came across some great books like I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day (HarperCollins, 2019), so it was absolutely worth it!

Edie has grown up knowing that her Native American mom was adopted by a white family, and that’s really all she knows about that side. Her mom doesn’t like to talk about her childhood, Edie knows almost nothing about her heritage, and for her, questions like, “Where are you really from?” and “What are you?” started early. Edie wishes she had more answers, regardless of how rude and inappropriate these questions are. When she and her friends stumble across a box of pictures in the attic, pictures of a woman named Edith who resembles Edie in an almost eerie way, she can’t help but be curious. Could this woman be the key to unlocking all these family secrets?

With the pictures and letters in the box, Edie begins a journey to understanding her family history, how it came to be that her mother ended up adopted, and what it all means. With heartfelt emotion, author Christine Day tells the story of one family and a country’s racist policies, the effects of which are still being felt today.

I Can Make This Promise is a story for the mature middle grade reader due to its coverage of such a painful part of Native American history, but truly, it’s something all Americans should be aware of. Children were taken away from their parents at various ages in order to strip their language, culture, and history from them and force them to assimilate. These acts of genocide created horrific effects that are still affecting Native communities today, as generational trauma does, and the US educational system doesn’t teach it (and with idiot parents out there whining like toddlers every time schools try to shine a light on some of our not-so-great history, this probably won’t get better anytime soon), so this is a much-needed book that illuminates a story and voices that our culture too often neglects.

Edie is a typical middle schooler, trying to figure herself out and struggling with friend drama. Certain events in her life have her questioning her history and heritage, and wondering why her mother is so secretive about her background. Not knowing is frustrating; the truth, when it comes out, is shocking and painful, but it’s also liberating, and Edie comes to feel more herself when she’s able to connect with some of what makes her her. I Can Make This Promise is a story of the trauma and pain that has shaped far too many Native families, but it’s also the story of growth, of reclaiming what’s been stolen, and blossoming. While not a difficult read, it tackles a difficult subject matter; its curious and charming narrator helps ease the story along. Explaining traumatic history to young children is a difficult task, and Christine Day manages this with grace and strength.

I Can Make This Promise would make for a great parent-child read, or a parent-child book club (is this a thing? I really want this to be a thing for like the 8-12 crowd). Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Day.

Visit Christine Day’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy

Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.

Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!

With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?

This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.

Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.

There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.

The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )

Visit Joanne Levy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

I’ve read more middle grade this year than I have in the past, which is a good thing, because I always kind of tend to forget about it as a genre. Now that my daughter is getting older, however, middle grade books are more on my radar, and a few really great ones have ended up on my TBR. It was a list of Jewish middle grade books that made me aware of The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissmann (Dial Books, 2018). Due to its location at a different library, I hadn’t gotten to it yet, and I hadn’t even meant to check it out when I did – we were just visiting that library for a quick escape to its air conditioning on a day when ours had died (all good now, thankfully!). I had books at home, but my daughter wanted to play in the empty children’s play area, so I grabbed this book off the shelf and was hooked within the first few pages. And by hooked, I mean HOOKED.

Imani is not only preparing for her bat mitzvah, the ceremony that will mark her entry into Jewish adulthood, she’s grappling with her identity as an adoptee. What does it mean to be adopted? What were her first parents like, and why did they choose for her to be raised by her parents? What’s her ancestral background? The death of her great-grandmother Anna, who traveled alone to America at age twelve, raises more questions than answers for Imani, until she discovers Anna’s diary among the books she inherited. Anna’s story of leaving her twin sister, parents, and other siblings behind in occupied Luxembourg to travel to safety in America is one of discovery, stress, and worry, all things Imani is grappling with, albeit in a much different context. But Imani is able to relate, and reading Anna’s story (and sharing this journey with her best friend) is able to help her put her own questions into context.

When the journal ends abruptly, Imani isn’t satisfied, and she begins to delve deeper into her family’s story, and to gain the courage to ask the difficult questions that will shed some light on her own identity.

This is an amazing book. My write-up doesn’t do it justice at ALL; I didn’t want this to end, but when it did, I immediately marked it as five stars. Ms. Weissman deals with some heavy issues here: the Holocaust, death, adoption, identity, but she does it all with grace and a deep understanding of tween emotions. Imani wants nothing more than to understand her own background, where her genetic ancestors came from and why she’s not living with the people she came from (questions that non-adopted kids are almost always readily able to answer); her search for knowledge about herself is contrasted with her great-grandmother Anna’s solo journey to America, leaving behind her entire family to live in safety with relatives. Anna’s guilt at living in safety, with abundant food, while her family remains behind in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg, weighs heavily on her, especially with the dearth of information coming out of Europe, and this is something that affects Imani deeply. Her desperation for knowledge of her background helps her understand exactly how frightened her great-grandmother must have been.

Imani’s feelings about her adoption are complicated. She loves her family and her Jewish community, but the answers she craves about her biological family depend on help from her parents, and she’s not sure how to begin that conversation in a way that won’t wound them. Things don’t always good smoothly, especially between her and her mother (who, at one point, does react in a somewhat hurtful way – there’s no manual for this, and we as parents all fail from time to time), but with great-grandma Anna’s story as a launching point, Imani is eventually able to find a place of wholeness and acceptance within herself…along with moving her family in a new direction after a surprising turn of events.

Goodness, what a masterfully written middle-grade novel! I honestly don’t think I could have possibly loved this more.

Visit Elissa Brent Weissman’s website here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Abby, Tried and True by Donna Gephart

An article came out a while back about Jewish middle grade books, and my TBR blew up after that. I try to keep it to manageable numbers, but sometimes you just find one of those lists, and everything goes downhill in the best possible way, right? One of those books from that was Abby, Tried and True by Donna Gephart (Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021). The premise sounded emotionally heavy – you know I love the heavy books! – and the main character was Jewish, so all of this earned it spot on my TBR. I was so happy to finally be able to grab a copy from the library in the next town over.

The story opens with what Abby thinks is the worst day of her life – her best friend, Cat, is moving to Israel. She’ll be gone for a few years, and Abby, who is shy and doesn’t really have any other friends, doesn’t know how she’s going to survive seventh grade. Fortunately, she’s got her two moms and her older brother Paul to help her through the tough spots, along with her turtle, Fudge. And the cute boy who moved in next door, into Cat’s old house, might turn out to be a friend as well…if Abby can stop being so awkward whenever she tries to talk to them.

But turns out Cat moving to Israel isn’t the worst thing. Paul is sick – really sick, with testicular cancer, and Abby’s not sure she can handle the possibly that he might die. His treatment is going to be tough on everyone, and Abby’s going to have to come out of her shell a little in order to be the supportive one this time.

Abby, Tried and True is sad and fun and sweet all at once. Abby is timid, yet vibrant; she’s a grade-A introvert who’s perfectly happy with one best friend, spending her time at home crocheting, writing poetry, and talking to her turtle. She’s close to her family: her two moms, her sixteen-year-old brother, and her grandparents, and she hates being in the spotlight. At the start of the novel, she’s entirely content with all of this, but Cat’s move to Israel throws her into the frying pan of seventh grade alone. It’s Conrad, the cute new boy next door, who provides the first opportunity for Abby to step into some leadership skills, showing him around at school. He’s just as nervous as she is.

Paul’s shocking diagnosis sends tremors through the whole family. Testicular cancer isn’t uncommon in teen boys, but it doesn’t necessarily get the attention it deserves (who wants to talk about testicles???), so in reading about Paul’s treatments and how he dealt with not only his illness, but the side effects and emotional fallout as well, really taught me a lot. I knew a little bit about what the struggles looked like when chemo ended, but not quite as in-depth as Ms. Gephart went here, so I found myself especially interested in that part of the story. Abby’s struggle to understand and support her brother and her moms through all of this is genuine and heartfelt; her growth throughout the story is natural and admirable.

Her friendship and budding romance with Conrad is adorable and provides some lighter moments from the stress and strain of Paul’s illness. It’s all very sweet and innocent, and Conrad, whose uncle survived testicular cancer, is excellent support and friendship for Abby. And the Jewish rep? Top notch. Multiple Jewish holidays and their traditions are portrayed, and it’s so enjoyable to see how Abby and her family celebrate.

All in all, Abby, Tried and True is an excellent middle grade novel about a tough subject.

Visit Donna Gephart’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Sometimes you learn about the existence of a book and everything about it just clicks for you. Main character is a tween adopted as an older child from overseas? Whoa. He’s struggling badly to connect to his new family? Holy cow, never seen that done in middle grade before. His parents are adopting another child and the majority of the story is set in Kazakhstan? Whaaaaaaat??? Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014) went onto my TBR immediately, and I was thrilled to finally be able to pick up a copy at the library in the next town over. What an incredible and sad book.

Jaden is twelve, adopted from Romania at the age of 8 (although his parents thought he was much younger, since he was so very small when they brought him home). He’s struggling badly: struggling to connect to his parents, struggling to feel anything other than rage at having lost the only home he’d ever known (the comforts of this home now don’t matter; that kind of loss is still trauma), struggling to control his behavior: hoarding food, lighting fires, shutting down. He’s receiving help for all of this, but none of it is easy and Jaden knows exactly how difficult it is on his parents. That’s why they’re adopting a baby: because they’re tired of him and want a kid who doesn’t do all these things.

The whole family is traveling to Kazakhstan for this new adoption, but once they’re there, things don’t go anywhere as smoothly as they’d hoped. The baby they thought they’d be adopting has already gone home with other parents. Jaden’s folks are devastated and while they begin to consider the other babies at the orphanage, Jaden meets a toddler, Dimash, likely with special needs, with whom he bonds – and for the first time, he’s able to feel a connection with someone. Dimash is about to age out of the baby orphanage, and Jaden knows exactly the kind of life that’s in store for him when he does. Can he convince his parents that having Dimash as his brother, a boy he already feels protective of, is what will truly bond them all together as a family?

This is one of the saddest middle grade books I’ve ever read. Jaden is a tough case, but the thing is, none of his behaviors are abnormal for a kid who’s been through what he has, and that’s what’s so heartbreaking about it. Nothing in his formative years was terribly stable; he lived in terrible conditions until he was eight, when he was pulled away from the only place he’d ever known and thrown into a new country, with a language he didn’t understand, in a family he couldn’t quite get the hang of interacting with. How long until all of this fell apart and he’d be thrown into the next situation? All of what he’d been through, including having been given up by his mother (whom he couldn’t quite fully remember), was traumatizing, and Jaden is absolutely suffering in this book.

His parents are well-meaning but often get things incredibly wrong. Dad is way more distant than he should be; Mom already seems exhausted (and they’re adding a baby into this mix!); together, they make some really bad decisions, like leaving Jaden alone in the apartment while they run off to the market in Kazakhstan – he’s twelve, but emotionally, he’s a LOT younger. And of course, predictably, he leaves the apartment under the guise of finding them…and gets lost. Bad move, Mom and Dad.

Jaden’s connection with Dimash was really well written and incredibly sweet to read. For the first time in his life, he’s able to see something outside of himself and his own pain, and this is a major breakthrough. The scenes where the two of them were interacting were so sweet, maybe a little bittersweet, a little like the sun breaking through storm clouds.

This is a heavy book for middle grade, and younger kids may struggle to comprehend the depth of Jaden’s trauma-induced anger and his more difficult behaviors, like starting fires. They might not fully understand why he often still sleeps on the floor like he did in the Romanian orphanage, when he has a perfectly good bed in his American room. This would make for a good parent-child read-together or book club selection; if your kiddo is reading it alone, be available to answer questions and have some discussions about what trauma is and how it can manifest.

Beautiful, heartbreaking book, one that will stick with me.

Visit Cynthia Kadohata’s website 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.

nonfiction

Book Review: Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz

I don’t often review the books I read out loud to my daughter (though I do count them on Goodreads), but once in a while, a really great one comes up. I’m always on the lookout for great reads about strong, motivated girls and women for my daughter. She’s a bit of a spitfire and I’d like to ensure that one day, when she’s ready, she’ll use her powers for good, because there’s so much in this world that needs fixing. So when I stumbled across Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2018) on a library trip, I knew that was one that needed to go into her brain. And it was a great one.

In brief columns and write-ups, Rad Girls Can shares stories of young girls and young women who made a difference in the world, spotting a problem and taking action to solving it, or who persevered with remarkable courage when times were tough. Some of the girls featured come out of history, like Anne Frank, Elizabeth Cotton, and Maria Mitchell; others are modern-day rad girls, like Jazz Jennings, Egypt “Ify” Ufele, and Memory Banda. The girls come from many different countries and societies; they fight for an end to discrimination, racism, and misogyny; they work for fair wages, better opportunities, and more access to education. They start companies, forge global movements, compete, and perform. They’re the kind of girls we want our daughters to take courage from, and the kind of girls we look at in amazement and come away inspired.

This is a seriously great book. The writeups are short enough that if one doesn’t necessarily interest a reader (hey, not everyone is into rock climbing or stories about warriors), the next one very well may. The girls portrayed are varied and interesting, and there are enough topics covered that at least one should stand out to a reader and intrigue them enough to make them want to learn more. This would be a great jumping-off point for a larger project on an inspiring woman, and a great parent-child read. Heads up for some mentions of forced marriage and periods (this sparked a good discussion with my daughter).

Excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this to my daughter.

Visit Kate Schatz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.