If you’re looking for some contemporary realistic fiction, here are three solid titles for a range of tastes from full-on adventure to more introspective.
To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016.
The officially-ended Greene Gang of the Great Greene Heist returns with a new issue: they haven’t been up to any mischief, but they have been framed with a doctored video showing them flooding the school. It was clearly a very deliberate effort, timed to show them doing it when none of them have good alibis. Even though Jackson and his best friend Charlie have been going through a rough spot lately, they badly need to prove their innocence. Who could have pulled such a clever con, and why? It will take all of the combined smarts of the diverse group to figure it out. It’s a lot of caper fun, with some friendship issues and a smidge of middle school-appropriate romance. There’s even a guide to the various cons and their sources at the back. It’s short and snappy, especially perfect for kids who have trouble finding time or focus for reading.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018.
I went into Johnson’s new book expecting more of the fun of his last two books. It is fun, but it’s longer and takes on more serious issues within the framework of a direct tribute to Ellen Raskin’s classic The Westing Game.
Candice’s parents are newly divorced, and while things are being worked on in their house in Atlanta, Candice and her mother take a trip to Candice’s grandmother’s old house in a small town in South Carolina. That grandmother, the first African-American city manager the city had, was fired after digging up the tennis courts looking for treasure. But when Candice finds a letter in the attic from an eccentric billionaire promising a large reward to the city if they can find it, Candice is determined to find it and prove that her grandmother wasn’t crazy.
She’s helped in her quest by neighbor and fellow book lover Brandon, who’s also eager to stay out of the way of bullies who persecute him because they think he’s gay. Frustratingly, his grandfather’s reaction is to try to scold him into being more stereotypically masculine.
Meanwhile, we also get flashbacks to 1957, and a high school girl named Siobhan Washington, the daughter of the tennis coach at the town’s Black high school, as well as a secret night time tennis match between the town’s two high school tennis teams that ended with Coach Washington and his family being forced out of town.
Though racism is an obvious and large issue, the book also deals with many others, including passing, the aforementioned bullying, the importance of treating gay people as people and (quite unexpectedly but sweetly) romance writers as real writers. It’s all woven together with a tricky puzzle mystery that should indeed appeal to fans of The Westing Game or Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan. Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Middle school and a visit from an uncle from Pakistan bring changes for Amina. She feels her best friend Soojin growing away from her as she’s suddenly interested in boys, hanging out with a girl who was cruel to both of them in fourth grade, and – after years of being the only kids with non-Western names in school – thinking of choosing a Western name for herself when her family finally gets their American citizenship. Then, there’s a plan to hold a Koran-reciting contest at her mosque, and Amina has trouble pronouncing the Koran the proper Arabic way and is worried of being humiliated when her father says she has to participate. Music – especially playing piano while singing Motown – gives Amina comfort and confidence, but the visiting uncle doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a good Muslim girl. All of the personal issues take a backseat, though, when the mosque and related community center are burned and vandalized. Introverted, musical Amina, working hard to balance faith, family, and friends, reminded me so very much of myself at the same age. I loved her so much and am very glad I read her story.