Onwards with my reading of this year’s middle grade fiction finalists! To recap, I had already read Flight of the Puffin before the list was released, and read and reviewed Violets are Blue, Many Points of Me, and Finding Junie Kim back in February. I have so much respect for Cybils Round 2 judges – it’s hard enough narrowing a long list down to seven finalists, but I don’t know how I could ever pick one best book among so many different but great choices! (In case you missed the news, Linked by Gordon Korman was this year’s winner in this category.)
Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas. Amulet Books, 2021. ISBN 9781419751028 Read from library copy.
This story alternates between two boys at a Nova Scotia junior high. Red-haired Brian struggles with what he calls Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, which makes it hard for him to talk or make friends, even on the basketball team, and makes him a target for bullying. When his father, who’s made a living growing not-quite-yet legal substances, runs away from the police, his family falls apart. Soon, he and his little brother are on their own, trying to figure out what to do and whether to listen to their father’s friend Hank or a sympathetic police officer.
Meanwhile, Jamaican-Canadian Ezra, on the same basketball team, has a much more stable home life but has been struggling with losing the close relationship with his former best friend. That former best friend is picking up the openly homophobic attitude of the boy he’s now hanging out with – especially painful since Ezra is considering coming out. Ezra just might have feelings for Brian – but will they be able to open up to each other? Ezra’s many interests, including playing guitar and making playlists in addition to basketball, round out the story and keep it from being as bleak as it could easily have been. This was a great balance of tension and sweetness, with a coming out story that was neither unhappy nor overly rosy.
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0823447053. Read from library copy.
Inspired by the Pevensy children’s evacuation from London during World War II in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this historical fiction novel imagines life for three children similarly evacuated to the countryside. The Pearce children – William, Edmund and Anna – have a secret mission as well. Their uncaring grandmother, with whom they had been living, has died just before the start of the book, leaving them without any living relations. Their solicitor hopes that they’ll be able to find a nice family to take them in while they’re being evacuated. But this is much harder than they hoped, especially as no one really wants to take in three children together, and the siblings refuse to be separated. Will they be able to stick together through bullying and poverty? The only person who understands them and their love of reading is the librarian, Mrs. Müller, but both the town and the London evacuee coordinators dislike the children spending time with her for differing reasons.
I won’t try to introduce you to the children and their different traits here, to save you the joy of discovering them yourself. They have distinct personalities that feel realistic, all of them and the story filled with the charm of classic children’s books like Ballet Shoes. Despite the children being without a home or family, this felt like perfect comfort reading for these difficult times, a book which I happily passed on to my mother, who also enjoyed it.
Linked by Gordon Korman. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 9781338629118 . Read from library copy.
The voices of three main characters and a couple of occasional extras link together to tell the story of Linked. Michael Amoroso, art club president and the only Dominican kid in Chokecherry, Colorado, has had to bike back to his middle school late to retrieve his forgotten phone, when he sees a giant swastika painted on a large blank wall. Lincoln “Link” Rowley is an inveterate prankster, not at all deterred by his father’s ambitious plans both for him and for the future of Chokecherry. His most recent prank is putting fertilizer in the new paleontology office that’s taking over everything since a small dinosaur bone was discovered. Dana Levinson is one of the so-called “egglets”, the daughter of two of the paleontologists who’s trying to fit into her new middle school despite the double whammy of the disdain being called “egglet” demonstrates and being the only Jewish girl in Chokecherry. This last feels even harder as more and more swastikas appear around the school, leading the teachers to start a tolerance unit that only makes things worse. And as Michael comes up with the idea to make a paper chain 6 million links long, to demonstrate the scope of the Holocaust, Link makes a discovery about his own heritage that puts everything that’s been happening in a new light.
With kids of different backgrounds and perspectives, the horrors and the thoughtfulness well-balanced with humor and middle school ennui, this story is classroom gold, excellent for class assignments or read-alouds, in addition to choice reading.