3 2022 MG Fic Finalists: Attack of the Black Rectangles, Freewater, and Thirst

The Cybils winners will be announced next week – I’ve read all but one of the middle grade fiction finalists and am excited to see which one wins.

Attack of the Black Rectangles by Amy Sarig King. Scholastic, 2022. ISBN 978-1338680522. Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

Mac and his two best friends, Denis and Marci, are most worried about their new 6th grade teacher’s reputation for enforcing good posture and no sweets. Both of these are true, as well as a strict dress code, only enforced for girls.  Things really come to a head when they’re assigned to read The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen in a small group, and find that key phrases have been blacked out with Sharpie.  All the kids are outraged – but the adults just smile indulgently and tell them that not all boys are as mature as they are.  

At the same time as Mac is figuring out how far he trusts himself to take this fight, his always odd father starts to act even weirder.  Though the dad doesn’t live with Mac and his mother and grandfather, he starts showing up in the middle of the night to take Mac for drives in Mac’s grandfather’s vintage convertible, which he tells Mac is his spaceship, all while saying increasingly dismissive things about Mac’s mother.  

Interspersed with the chapters are letters from the comment section of the local newspaper (lucky Mac to live in a town that still has a locally operated print newspaper!) where people argue about the town’s restrictive regulations. My daughter found this book on my library shelf and read it through before I did.  The regulation she was most incensed about was one requiring all houses to be painted white, because of white being the best and most historically accurate color.  This is a solid look at censorship from a middle school perspective, with Mac also learning to deal with a bummer of a dad and a first crush.  And it’s a rare one that my daughter pulled off the shelf and read straight through before I got to it at all. While looking the author up, I discovered that she just recently had a stroke – I’m sure she could use the support of you going to buy one of her books!

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson. Little, Brown, 2022. ISBN 978-0316056618. Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

Twelve-year-old Homer and his seven-year-old sister Ada flee their plantation in the night, planning to go north with their mother.  Unfortunately, their mother is captured and they get lost – but find a guide who takes them to the hidden swamp community of Freewater, where escaped formerly enslaved people and some freeborn children make their home, living off of the swamp and raiding plantations.  Meanwhile, we follow several other characters.  One of the children of Freewater, Sanzi, chafes at not being able to leave Freewater and longs to help with the work of raiding that Homer and Ada’s guide provided.  And at the same time, Homer’s best friend Anna, long ago sold away from her mother, plots to make her own escape, while the Master’s youngest daughter feels more at home in the kitchen with Homer and Ada’s mother than with her own family, and only slowly comes to realize how much separates them.  Even as Homer plans to rescue his mother and Anna, he learns of danger to Freewater itself. All of these strands wind tightly together into a climax at Nora’s older sister’s wedding, an event that will be as memorable as her mother hoped, though definitely not in the way she planned.  This is a gripping look at a resistance too long forgotten.  It deserves the notice it’s been getting – I just felt so lucky that I already had it checked out because it was a Cybils finalist before it won the Newbery.

Thirst by Varsha Bajaj. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. ISBN 9780593354391. Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

12-year-old Minni and her older brother Sanjay live with their parents in a shack in the slums of Mumbai.  The ocean views are beautiful, but fresh water comes from a slow and unreliable communal tap.  Then her brother and his friend run into some water mafia in the city, while Minni and her best friend watch from a car.  Soon Minni’s life has changed dramatically: Sanjay and his friend must go to the country to hide from the mafia, while Minni’s mother gets sick and goes to her mother’s house to rest.  Minni has to fetch and boil the family’s water and take over her mother’s job cleaning for a wealthy family, all while trying to keep up with her studies so she can pass her exams to go on to the next grade.  As Minni contrasts her life with that of the 12-year-old daughter of her employer, she has more and more questions about the inequality she and her community experience and is determined to do what she can to change it.  

This is a brief book that manages to paint Minni’s relationships with her family and friends, the struggles for water and phone connection, and her school’s rigid focus on punctuality and memorization in vivid colors.  Her community’s needs are many and deep, but while Minni starts to fight as she learns more, she wants to bring positive change to the community she loves, not leave it.  Short poems at the ends of chapters reflect her changing feelings. I felt while reading this that it would make a great read-aloud, and found when I looked the author up on Twitter that it is also a Global Read Aloud Selection.

About Katy K.

I'm a librarian and book worm who believes that children and adults deserve great books to read.
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