Here are two recent middle grade books that I was inspired to read by Kidlitcon, as both of these authors were there.
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. Arthur A. Levine Books, January 31, 2017.
I received this as an ARC at Kidlitcon. Obe is a kid with some problems. He’s got recurring nosebleeds, for a start, and no one else seems to care as much as he does that the cornfields around his house are being replaced by subdivisions. The creek that runs through a small woods is filling with garbage from the construction workers and from the gang of boys now running through the woods, a gang that includes Obe’s former best friend. His father’s bonding attempts consist of trying to convince Obe to join a sports team to help him “man up” and cheating at Monopoly. Even his new friendship with a girl known as Putrid Annie is widely mocked. As Obe is trying to clean up the creek, he finds a strange animal that doesn’t fit any pattern that Obe has seen before and that clearly eats plastic.
The environmental theme is clear here, of course, but Sarig resists easy answers by making the strange animal, Marvin Gardens, its own environmental problem. She also looks at bullying, what consent means at a middle grade level, the weight of societal expectations, and more. That’s a lot to fit in, but it’s dealt with matter-of-factly, with characters solid enough to pull it off. I’d like to cheer here for a book in which telling adults about bullying, rather than the kid trying to tough it out, solves the problem. It’s an odd story, somewhere between fantasy and realistic fiction, but compelling and hard to put down.
Ninja Librarians: The Sword in the Stacks by Jenn Swann Downey. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2016.
Dorrie and her big brother Marcus return to the magical Petrarch’s library as official apprentices after some months spent at home in modern-day America, following their adventures in Ninja Librarians. The mission of the Lybrary: to protect threatened literature and authors throughout history. Dorrie is upset when her master Savi is off on business and can’t tutor her, leaving her to be temporarily apprenticed to the grumpy Archivist. Marcus finds trouble in ancient Greece. Dorrie and her best friend Ebba, from medieval Africa, sign up to do a training mission together. They’re especially hoping to help suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett – but instead get sent to early 20th century England, not America, and are assigned to protect the writings of a group of anti-suffragists whose newsletters keep getting stolen. All along, they are trying to see if there’s anything they can do – in secret and unofficially, of course – to help the senior Lybrarians recover an artifact currently in the hands of the bad guys.
This has lots of adrenaline-filled adventure elements – chases, secret rooms filled with booby-traps, and fencing – mixed with the historical characters who staff the Lybrary and whom the students are sent to help. The sticky and often painful nature of censorship and standing up for truly free speech is also shown as Dorrie and Ebba wrestle with their assignment. I’m grateful that Downey has carefully filled in the backstory to make this accessible to people starting off here – my son is partial to audiobooks and this second book (though I read it in ebook) is available on audio, where the first book is not. I still had some trouble keeping track of the large cast of characters and wished that I had a physical book where I could easily switch back and forth between the story and the guide to the characters in the back. That felt like a small price to pay in a book that deals with important issues with such humor and élan. I look forward to sharing it with my son.