More New Kid Stories

countingthymeOnce you start looking for something, you see it everywhere. That’s how it has been for me and books about being the new kid. I wrote about Catching a Storyfish a while ago, and since then I have been compiling a list of all the books I have come across on this topic. Just counting the 2016 pub dates, there are The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen, Wish by Barbara O’Connor, and Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin in addition to Catching a Storyfish. Has this always been a popular theme in middle grade or is it just that I am looking for it now? Either way, I suppose, I am happy to have found these books.

I particularly liked the way that Counting Thyme explored the idea that “home is more than just a place” because when you moved as often as my family did, this was a lesson you learned quite young. In the book, though, this is Thyme’s first move, and it comes with some serious complications: her little brother is sick and they have moved across the country so that he can receive some experimental cancer treatment. This isn’t an easy situation for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for anyone in Thyme’s family for a while. She says about the move,

“When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.”

So that’s how Thyme found herself starting middle school again and having to explain to everyone at her new school that her name is “Thyme with an H-Y” while they look at her like a creature from another planet. She doesn’t tell them that her little brother is sick because she doesn’t want to be “cancer boy’s sister.” If she has to be in New York City, she at least wants to be her own person while she’s there.

Counting Thyme is just what I love about middle grade fiction. It’s sweet and heartfelt. There are serious themes, but it isn’t overwhelming.  In the end, I was happy to have gotten to know Thyme and her family as they made their way in a new city in a difficult situation.

Check out the trailer for more:

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Monday Morning Music with Lunch Duchess

iamdrumsHow many female rock drummers can you think of? I could probably come up with five or so off the top of my head. But the girl in I am Drums by Mike Grosso doesn’t know of any other girl drummers, and other kids make fun of her for being the only girl in the percussion section of her school band. Not that she lets that stop her. She’s singularly focused and determined to play the drums no matter what. Even if her parents just think it’s an expensive hobby that they can’t afford or if her classmates say girls look stupid playing drums and have no rhythm. None of that matters to her.

Still, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.  after an assignment from her drum teacher to listen to amazing rock drummers, she discovers that other girl drummers actually do exist, including Karen Carpenter who sang while playing the drums, which is a bit of a surprise to Sam. She makes a whole list of women rock drummers to listen to for the assignment. I loved Sam’s dedication to her instrument. She didn’t always make good choices, and yet I couldn’t help but root or her in this cute story. Recommended for similarly music obsessed kids.

Today’s music choice adds to Sam’s list of amazing girl drummers: Katherine Seggerman of Lunch Duchess. Like Karen Carpenter, she is a singer/drummer. The quirky grunge-pop might not be everyone’s taste, but it’s well worth a listen.

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”

 

The Great Good Summer

greatgoodsummerThe Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon begins with God and ends with wonder, which may or may not be the same thing, I suppose, depending on how you decide to read this story.  In the middle, though, is a story of family, faith, and questions that will pull you in no matter where you stand on the God/not-God continuum.  At least it did for me.

For some people, religion means having answers and Truth with a capital T.  For others, that’s what science is for.  Most, I’d venture to say, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles.  I have long held that it’s the questions that are the interesting part, but everyone is different. For Ivy and the rest of her community in Loomer, Texas, church is a way of life.  Ivy has never thought of it any differently or questioned her faith at all until this summer.  Her mother has left with a preacher named Hallelujah Dave.

Her mother was as constant in Ivy’s life as God was, and her absence calls everything into question.  As Ivy starts looking at the world with questions rather than answers, she finds that not everything is as she thought.  Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Murray, has statues of Buddha in her home.  Ivy wonders as she looks at the statue, “Is there something holy or magic here that might help me find my mama, or even help me know if what I’m about to do is right or wrong?”  And she makes a new friend.  Paul Dobbs is the local “science kid,” and he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God.  At first he and Ivy butt heads over their differences, but he turns out to be one of the few people who will really listen to Ivy and try to help her.

One thing leads to another, and Ivy and Paul are off to find her mom and bring her back.  They are on the same side through thick and thin (despite some squabbles along the way).  When they set their sights on what was ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they believed different things.  It wasn’t about that.

You might think that a book that begins with God and spends so much time talking about faith would be preachy, and with most books, I would say you’d be right.  But there’s something about Ivy that keeps the preachiness at bay in this story.  Maybe it’s her questions.  Or maybe it’s her sincerity.  I don’t really know.  Whatever the case, the story didn’t feel, to me, like it was trying to change my mind, and I appreciated that.

This story is not about changing minds.  It’s more about considering why people believe the things they do, why they sometimes question long-held beliefs, and what it means to listen to yourself.

In the end, Ivy seems to find a place where it’s okay if truth doesn’t have a capital T.  At one point she says, “My fingers find the little cross I wear on a chain around my neck.  It was Mama’s when she was a little girl, and it’s been mine since Daddy got her a new one.  I love it, even though the gold has worn off in places and you can see a sort of unshiny silver underneath.  Which I guess means it’s fake, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.”

I spent most of my life with a capital T Truth, so I related to a lot of Ivy’s experience of faith and questioning.  These days I identify as a Unitarian-Universalist, a religion in which truth is never capitalized and sometimes it’s in quotation marks.  So I appreciated Ivy’s feeling that it was what you do with ideas that mattered more so than what one believes or doesn’t.  That resonated with me a lot.

I could quibble with parts of the the story that I didn’t agree with, but I will leave those things be.  We won’t always agree with everyone or everything around us, and that’s okay.

When Ivy finally finds her mom and speaks her piece about feeling like her mother abandoned her, they are in a car.  Ivy listened to her mother’s explanation and apology. “I still don’t turn to look at her, but I listen.  I think Paul’s listening too.  I mean, really, what choice do we have?”

We’re all in this together.  If I can teach my daughter any one value, it is that.  We are all in this together.  We have to learn to listen to one another, to connect, and to move past our differences.  What choice do we have?

 

Speaking of wishes…

wishDandelions are not the only way to make a wish.  Some people wish with kites or feathers.  Candles or weasels. Yes, weasels.  Roseanne Greenfield Thong shares wish traditions from around the world in her picture book Wish. Some will be familiar–like the little boy with the dandelion on the cover of Something Extraordinary–and others will be new to young readers.  But there is something enchanting about all the different ways to make a wish.

Middle grade novels are the real place to find wishes, it seems.

dreamerSome are magical like Dreamer, Wisher, Liar by Charise Mericle Harper, which featured a jar of wishes written on paper that transported Ash to when the wishes were made.  This sweet middle grade novel about friendship, mothers & daughters, and secrets.  I’ve actually mentioned it on this blog before in a post about mother-daughter connections.

waitingforunicornsOthers are searching for magic. Like Waiting for Unicorns by Beth Hautala, which is about grief and healing.  After her mother’s death, Talia wishes she could say goodbye to her one last time, and she latches on to the idea of wishing on a unicorn like in a story her mother once told her.  The writing is beautiful, and the story is sad but hopeful.

wishgirlThen there are the wishes that we make come true.  In Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin, Annie tells Peter that she is a “wish girl,” and he thinks she means magic.  Really, she is a Make-a-Wish girl because she is very sick. The story, however, is not without its own magic as Peter and Annie bond over sharing their wishes.

We wish for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways.  Some of our wishes come true and some don’t.  In the end, I think that all of these books share the idea that what is important is connecting with people–friends, family, community.  The next time you blow out birthday candles or drop coins into a fountain, think about these stories and the people you love most.

Everyone’s Favorite Beatle

Blackbird-Fly-200x300“I wondered who his favorite Beatle was. Probably Paul.  Grown-ups always seemed to like Paul the best.” — Apple Yengko in Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Apple’s favorite Beatle is George, but “Blackbird” written by Paul is her favorite song.  Maybe because she would like to fly away from her life in which she isn’t pretty enough or American enough for the girls at school.  Whatever the reason, it’s worth a listen now no matter who your favorite Beatle happens to be.

I have admitted my pop culture ignorance on this blog before, but I’ll share it again for those who missed it: I would not have recognized a Beatles song until I was in my twenties.  But I have since become a big fan.  As Apple says, “Once you listen to the Beatles, you can’t go back.” I’m not sure I have a favorite Beatle, but I do think most of my favorite Beatles songs are on the Blackbird Fly playlist.

If you have ever felt like music just might save your life, Blackbird Fly is for you.  Share this book with middle schoolers who appreciate realistic stories about fitting in and making friends.  If Apple’s enthusiasm for the music doesn’t make Beatles fans out of the kids who read this book, I don’t know what will.