So many kids today are the children of addicts. This is a horrible and intolerable fact. Jarrett Krosoczka’s sensitive autobiographical graphic novel is a dip into the life of just one of the many young victims of drug-addicted America. It is also just the thing to share with any middle grader touched by the drug use of someone close to them.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Jarrett’s mom, Leslie, is an excellent artist and a fun and loving mom. But she is single and far too young when she has him and her escalating drug use drives him to fend for himself in ways no young child should have to. Soon enough, her drug use has spun into an addiction fueled by theft and what might have been prostitution. Jarrett’s grandparents—always a strong presence for him, along with his mother’s young siblings—step in and take custody of him.
Thus begins Jarrett’s story of growing up with a sometimes-there mom, an argumentative and kooky grandmother (later revealed to be an alcoholic) and a grandfather who isn’t exactly “cool,” but is reliable, often fun and funny, and ultimately very encouraging and empowering of young Jarrett. Simultaneously, Jarrett’s mom goes to prison, his own artistic talents blossom, and childhood progresses, replete with a rock-solid best friend and typical middle-school and teenage fare, though tainted mostly by the long shadow of his mother’s abandonment, his father’s non-existence, and his grandparents’ rocky relationships with each other and their daughter, Leslie. Although Jarrett’s life is far from ideal, there are no monsters in the story, and Jarrett fares far, far better than many other children in a similar situation would.
The book is poignant and inspiring but, for me at least, not a weepy. It gives readers a deep–dive into the loneliness and powerlessness felt by children of addiction.
WHY I READ IT: I was intrigued by the story’s construction as a graphic novel using a limited color palette and historical ephemera from the author and his family. I am a fan of realistic MG fiction and I was curious to see how the drug addiction issue was handled, as it is so prevalent in our society today.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Absolutely, yes. It is not an entertaining read but it is a tale well-told and it stayed with me for a long time after I finished it. I loved that it was hopeful and showed how tools like art could pull people to safety, and how there are people along the way who can help if kids let them. I liked the message that his mother was not a villain—he allows her to remain likeable if deeply flawed—and I liked that his grandparents, while certainly heroes, are also flawed and just doing the best they can. All of that uplifted me.
This pacey, challenge-packed MG novel takes place in a quick 24-hour period, with seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against the hopeful and likeable protagonists.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Dusti Bowling’s 24 HOURS IN NOWHERE is kooky and vivid, with a rich and detailed setting, multidimensional characters, and a plot engine that roars ahead as the protagonists race to beat a ticking clock. Most amazing of all is how much we care about the main characters almost immediately. It’s hard to believe that Bowling can pack so much backstory into a book without bogging down the plot, but she deftly sprinkles crucial information throughout the story like cookie crumbs, so that by the end of the book readers have the satisfaction of really understanding the characters and the desolate town of Nowhere quite well. It is no mean trick to weave in so much exposition without boring the reader (especially in just 260 pages).
Here’s the story, in brief: 13-year-old Gus, abandoned by his dad, lives with his eccentric and disengaged grandma in a decrepit trailer where he dreams of using the SAT to launch himself out of Nowhere to a brighter future. When the local bully lays down a challenge that puts Gus’s honor at stake (along with the dirt bike of his crush), Gus sets out on a quest with limited supplies and a band of unlikely associates. Facing collapsed mines, mountain lions, pitch darkness, albino shrimp, claustrophobia, near-drownings, and more, Gus rises to the challenge, radiating kindness, leadership, and bravery while maintaining his dignity and sense of humor throughout.
WHY I READ IT: I read it as a reviewer for KidLitExchange, a kids' book reviewer collective I belong to. I requested it because I am trying to branch out of reading mostly girl-centric middle grade books (with a heavy leaning toward historical fiction). This was definitely a new area for me as a reader.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Yes! I loved it. 24 HOURS IN NOWHERE is an inspiring book about kids from very tough circumstances who, despite typical middle school issues, ultimately prop each other up when times get tough. It offers plenty of hope and some road maps to better living (college, competitive racing, homegrown industry) and shows how the everyday kindnesses of adults (social workers, parents who simply feed other kids, shopkeepers who offer discounts when needed) can be lifelines to kids who have so little. These lessons are delivered so palatably—with heaps of humor and action—readers won’t even notice that they’re gulping them down.
ABOUT THE BOOK: This YA by Kasie West has it all: back-to-school nerves, family rivalries, class rivalries, romance and podcasting!
In Listen to Your Heart, Kate Bailey’s summer on her beloved lake has come to an end, and school has started with a bang. Her bestie has a crush on handsome Diego Martinez, her family rival Frank Young is taunting her as usual, her cousins are underfoot, and she’s suddenly thrust into hosting the school’s “Dear Abby” podcast with a trying co-host. Kate is a likeable character who readers will root for, even as her own interests conflict with those of the people around her. We cheer as she finds her footing as a talk show host and recovers from her past relationship to fall for someone unexpected.
The teen romance is drawn so well here by Kasie West, it took me right back to high school and left my heart fluttering. With lots of subplots and characters to keep track of, the book is meaty and ties everything up in a satisfying conclusion. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of realistic teen fiction.
WHY I READ IT: This was a review copy from KidLitExchange, a children's book reviewer group I belong to.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Yes. It is wholesome and sweet and perfect for young teens (though the romance escalates a little too rapidly at the end for my taste). It shows a reluctant and likeable protagonist taking on new challenges and moving away from the safety of her home setting. That she ultimately thrives makes all our shared anxiety for her worthwhile.
It’s a miracle I’m alive to tell you about “Betty Before X.” I listened to it as an audiobook, flying south on Connecticut’s winding Merritt parkway in the dark, well over the speed limit, with tears pouring down my face.
ABOUT THE BOOK: This wonderful historical retelling of the life of Betty Dean Sanders (later the wife of Malcom X, among MANY other achievements) is heart-warming, shocking, sad, and funny. I loved it because it offered the domestic and peer-centric warmth of a middle grade novel while simultaneously imparting a great deal of biographical and historical information. Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar, it helps the medicine of the early years of the civil rights movement go down. Written by one of Betty’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz—along with powerhouse novelist Renée Watson—it is well-structured, pacey and beautifully told.
Betty Dean Sanders was a person of great strength and character, even from a young age, and readers will find much to be inspired by in this book. Like most middle graders, she had a smashing mix of fearlessness and vulnerability, and here it is writ large against many circumstances beyond her control.
Bounced around from one household to another, Betty ultimately chooses new parents for herself as a tween, and then models herself on their brave, charitable, upstanding characters. It is a great choice by Betty, and one that lands her squarely in the lap of the beginnings of Detroit’s civil rights movement. Her rise as an activist was inevitable, based on her character, but it was her foster parents who guided her to her cause.
Though the story is lightly fictionalized to make it flow, the end of the book has twenty pages of actual historical information (including a timeline) that give readers the facts. They also make it useful for research, reference, and in-school use.
WHY I READ IT: This was a pick in my middle grade book club but I’d been meaning to read something by Renée Watson for a while. I will now eagerly look into her other work.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Wholeheartedly yes, and especially for schools and libraries.
Mason Buttle broke my heart and put it back together again in The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor. He was the sweetest middle grade protagonist, with a great voice and unusual attributes and conflicts. Despite his difficulties in school, Mason was a beautiful communicator who verbalized complicated feelings and social nuances in a way that will enlighten readers and warm their hearts.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Mason Buttle’s best friend Benny Kilmartin died in the Buttle family orchard a little over a year before the story opens. Mason is a heavyset 7th grader with a major sweating disorder and a lot of learning differences that make him an outcast at school and the perennial victim of relentless neighborhood bullies. This story arc covers his efforts to convince the local policeman that he did not kill Benny, as well as his endeavors to make a new friend in neighbor Calvin Chumsky, avoid the local bullies, and redeem his family’s farm and reputation, among other things. A wonderful subplot covers Mason’s relationship with the neighbors’ dog, whom he dogsits and adores. (Note to dog lovers: bring Kleenex.)
The setting and premise were very realistic and relatable, even as the central issues were unique. Mason’s unconventional family was made up of characters who were sometimes puzzling and mostly warm and who, when the chips were down, came to his aid.
The conflict was unrelenting, though, and by the middle of the book I almost had to put it down because it was so sad and there was no end of sadness in sight. However, I am so happy that I finished the book and enjoyed [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] the redemption of Mason Buttle’s reputation in Merrimack and the cementing of his friendship with the quirky and appealing Calvin Chumsky. The book ends on a high note and my tears dried quickly as I felt very satisfied with the wrap-up.
WHY I READ IT: This was the first book we read in our brand new Middle Grade Book Club here in NYC—made up of writers, teachers, and school librarians—and it was universally acclaimed a winner. (Thanks to author Jackie Davies for the rec!)
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Yes! I encourage anyone with younger middle grade readers to buy this book or check it out of a library. Ideally, you would read it aloud to your reader or at least simultaneously, to temper the occasional hopelessness and heartbreak within. Maybe you need two copies!