Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
Whatever Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is an author who aspires to express what her readers are feeling. She writes to an audience of teenage girls about the challenges of maintaining equilibrium in the face of adversity. The appeal of her books lies in the first person narrative voice of genuine and likable characters who work through their own reactions to difficult events in their lives. While she does not shrink from difficult subjects, neither does she indulge in shock value. Her steadfast message is one of the value of being real, forgiving, and true. This, and her natural writing style, make her books suitable and of interest to girls as young as middle school and enjoyable reading for their parents as well.
In this book, Dessen’s latest and seventh novel for young adults, seventeen-year-old Mclean tells the story of her reaction to her parents scandalous divorce. She struggles with a loss of identity, resentment, and disorientation. After several moves with her dad, a consultant for a restaurant chain, she lands in a town where the people she encounters begin to help her bring her life back into focus, if not to stability. For Dessen fans, it is another visit to her emotionally satisfying fiction; for those new to her writing, probably the first of many.
Matched, by Ally Condie
Dystopias typically exist in a future world where some kind of organizational force tries to control a population whose flaws nearly destroyed life in a previous time. That organization and that control, however, tend to painfully crimp the human spirit. In Matched, the first book in a trilogy, the Officials attempt to control every aspect of an individual’s life: what they eat, what they wear, who they marry, where they live, where they work. By doing this, they intend to eliminate disease, strife, and unhappiness.
But, of course, it doesn’t work. The individual’s desire for freedom is stronger than the desire for bland happiness, as it turns out, and as we all know too much power in the hands of the few tends to corrupt. In Matched, a seventeen-year-old girl has been officially “matched” with her intended husband, but there seems to be a catch–a second intended has somehow slipped into the picture which conspires to cause her to question the life the Officials have arranged for her. Once that question arises, the desire to make her own choices and pay her own dues can no longer be corraled.
For a dystopic novel, this story has an unusual sweetness. There is a lot of kindness and genuine caring among the characters. The depiction of two young people falling in love is very tender; the conniving of the Officials almost takes a background role. I think middle school girls who like books about relationships will want to read this book and the theme of independence and making your own choices is strongly appealing to young teens. It is not a challenging read by any means and may appeal even to reluctant girl readers.
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key
When my students finished Alabama Moon, Watt Key’s popular first novel, they all said they hoped Key would write another book so they could find out what happend with Hal. Well he did. As Moon was headed off to a regular life with long-lost relatives, Hal, the buddy he escaped from the “home” for boys with, is looking at the possibility of spending time in a tougher boys’ home that turns out to be more like a real prison.
Hal finds himself in this boys’ prison in Key’s second book and it is run by mean and corrupt adults who allow a viscious gang environment to thrive. Hal, who usually has no difficulty taking on trouble, will only get out if he stays out of trouble. Since that is virtually impossible, his only hope is to rely on friendship and to find a way to outwit those who want to keep him down.
Like Alabama Moon, this book is a compelling read driven by the reader’s empathy for a strong main character, constant action, and by lines clearly drawn between the light and the dark. While Alabama felt like an entirely new hero to literature, Hal is a more familiar one–a smart, brave kid with a good heart and a childhood that worked against him but that he is driven to get beyond. Key’s books are about boys and are written for boys in middle school or higher. Yet I enjoy them (I’m well past my school years and female) and look forward to the next one.
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan is the author of the immensely popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, The Kane Chronicles. Whereas Percy Jackson had the Greek gods to contend with, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane have dealings with the ancient Egyptian gods. Both series are action and imagery packed. Both have protagonists who are super-cool mid-aged kids with parents who are absent and need their help. Riordan’s second series should be every bit as popular as his first, although kids who began with the first book in the Percy Jackson series may have gotten too old by now for the new series.
While there are plenty of scary monsters, tragic deaths (with options for reconstitution), and ongoing life-threatening near-misses, the self-confidence and cheery wit of the two siblings who tear through this novel make it more fun than frightening. Since Riordan strikes such a chord with middle-school readers, and since there is so much Egyptian history and lore in this book, it would make a great whole-class read for sixth graders, who, in California at least, study Egyptian history. It would also be a good book to give to a reluctant reader of either gender from ages of about nine up through thirteen.
Sweet Little Lies by Lauren Conrad
The only thing really wrong with this book is that it has an obvious sequel. And the only reason it has an obvious sequel, is because the obvious sequel is going to make a lot of money, just like this book has. And that ruins what is really good about this book, which is this: Two hometown girls make a deal with the devil. They will get to be T.V. stars, get nice clothes, go to lots of flashy L. A. parties, have plenty of boyfriend opportunities, make real money, and have oodles of persistent fans. But since they are going to be on a Reality T. V. show, they will no longer have private personal lives and they will no longer be able to tell who their true friends are. This is anguishing.
These two girls are still pretty young. They are trying to gain their footing as independent young women who crave both respect and personal fulfillment. But the directors of the reality show continually throw obstacles in their way and then keep the cameras rolling while they flounder about trying to maintain their balance. For the reader, it’s like watching someone trying to swim with huge anchors tied to their feet, or watching a squirming bug pinned under a miscroscope. The only salve to this anguish is the expectancy that they are going to figure it all out, and regain their true friendships along with their self-respect. Which they do, but only briefly, because we have to be prompted to want to read the next book when they are probably going to go through more of this same mess. So what really is the point?
Of course, the fascinating story here is that it is very autobiographical. The author has lived this story. She has seen the devil in it, and she has made a raging success not only of this book series, but of her TV shows and her clothing design business. Wow! She appears to have wrestled the devil to the ground and used him as a step stool to reach her aspirations. Why can’t this novel’s characters do the same?
This book is very popular with teen girls–the slippery slope of transition from girl to woman must feel at times like being on reality TV. And while the plot is predictable, it doesn’t lag and the characters do snag the reader. It is really only kept from being a good read by its insistence on keeping up its deal with the devil.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
Exiled to Siberia. After several weeks on a train, “enemies” of the Russian state have been dropped off to be forgotten in this nearly empty five million square miles for four hundred years. Ten-year old Esther Rudomin’s parents and grandparents are accused of being capitalists by the occupying Russians in 1941. They are yanked from their life of luxury and privilege in Vilna, Poland one morning and thrown into cattle cars with nothing but what they can carry. They end up being “lucky” for they are Jewish and the Germans who invade soon after did not practice the art of exile.
Esther spends the next five years in Rubtsvosk, Siberia. Extreme cold, constant hunger, filth, and fear are her constant companions. Yet she can still fret, like any young adolescent, about fitting in with her peers to the point that she will sacrifice food if it means she will belong. She creates, through pure force of will, the early teen years that she desires and when it is time to leave, she experiences the separation anxiety any teen feels when they must leave the first world they have created for themselves.
This is a story of resilience, pride, and determination, an intimate portrait of one slice of a significant time in relatively recent history. Girls from about fifth grade up to early high school will appreciate this story.