The Waiting Game

“Often middle grade books are tackling similar issues to their adult counterparts but with a more hopeful perspective.” Allison Ruth @ sometimes the wiser blog

            It’s fun to see the lists of books nominated for awards. We read them and judge winners. I am collecting Agatha and Edgar mystery awards, especially those written for children and YA readers. Following the mystery reading I was challenged to read some great children’s contemporary fiction as a Round 2 Judge for the CYBILS organization of bloggers. All the nominees were exemplary titles, but the themes were difficult. The committee had to choose the best book of 2019 from a list of 7 books all with a theme about grief and loss.

“If nobody’s grieving, then the book wasn’t published in 2019.” Betsy Bird (Amazon reviewer and librarian)

            I agree with the reviewer. You may be wondering if this subject is too difficult for young readers of ages eight to twelve (or fourteen). The fact is that grief and loss are realistic in contemporary life. The challenge for the writer is to show how the characters, especially the young protagonists, cope and find resilience in the face of adults who do not always make the right decisions for the main characters. Middle grade readers want to see characters acting bravely, even during their uncertain years. We all had to grow up with conflict of some type, although deaths and abandonment aren’t present in each family.

            And the winner is:  The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Geminhart. Homeschooled Coyote lives in a school bus named YAGER (the letters Vo came off) with her strange-looking father she calls Rodeo. The cover grabbed me at first, with our protagonist sitting on the top of the yellow bus in her huge sunglasses, her braid flying away from her body, her cat observing her. The back cover graphically introduces the rest of the diverse characters who are an unpredictable, interesting cast you want to know. Geminhart’s language and the various voices kept me reading this book all in one sitting. Adventure and mystery, intense grief and resilience, all combine to make this MG realistic novel a winner!

            Almost a winner: the second title we discussed is Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly. Here is a book about a deaf ‘tween who is misunderstood literally and figuratively. Although her grandparents are deaf, her parents and classmates aren’t as willing and able to sign ASL with Iris. Only her brother and her grandmother understand her love of radios and sound communication with whales. I wanted to understand the poetry shape game that Iris played with her grandfather before he died, but the author wasn’t able to draw me into the image. Although this book seemed to be an example of realistic fiction, I think the trip her grandmother shared with Iris wasn’t plausible. Read it yourself and see if this is exemplary fiction.

            If you like resilient female protagonists, let me introduce you to Ellie. She has lived her life in a wheelchair, but she can do anything except walk with her cerebral palsy. She wants to be a prize baker; her mother and grandmother encourage her dreams, offering her their kitchens so she can perfect her skill. Her life changes when she has to move to a trailer park far from her home to help her grandmother with her grandfather, whose memory is failing. This book is realistic and not filled with grief like the others I read in this contest. Ellie and her mother learn to Roll with It in Jamie Sumner’s novel where disabilities are handled expertly and humorously. 

            Right as Rain by Lindsey Stoddard stars Rain, a young runner who tries to cope with the guilt of blame for her brother’s death in Vermont as her family escapes to a new apartment in NYC. Nothing she does endears her to her grieving parents and her new classmates until she finds a kindred spirit in a track star Frankie, who has her own secrets. Although her parents love her, their feelings toward Rain aren’t evident as they struggle with their loss for their son. The title didn’t resonate with the themes of the book for me. Rain’s voice wasn’t as strong as other titles in this contest. 

            The Bridge Home by Padma Venkataraman has won awards and starred reviews from major literary publications.  My only quarrel with this survivor story of four resilient South Indian orphans, homeless on the streets of Chennai, is that it may not appeal to a young MG audience. I recommend it be taught in middle school social studies classes. Aisha Seed, author of Amal Unbound, declares it captivating and the characters brave. The hard truths of children growing up on the streets of India reminds me of Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, another harsh story but one written for adults. 

            Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger almost appears like a graphic novel until you realize that only one of the characters communicates by drawing because that is his best mode for sharing his feelings. The strength in the novel is that each voice of the various children is presented as a journal entry to the teacher. The concept with eight protagonists works well, but the theme of the frog class mascot seems silly compared to the other great MG books I read. One Amazon reader called it “a very cleverly written, fun story.” I agree that it is not great children’s literature. 

            Maybe He Just likes You I by Barbara Dee needs a better title. No one can understand the anxiety that Mia feels when the boys in her class come too close to her and begin to touch her. This story is a #MeToo for ‘tweens, but it doesn’t seem sincere enough to me. The title makes light of the issue the protagonist is facing. The only saving grace, which comes late in the book, is the connection to bullying that a guy friend experienced the year before. Mia was strong in her support of Max, but she was slow to recognize the similarities and the resolution that could be used to help herself and others. Barbara Dee wrote about a realistic, current topic, but I think her handling of it was too subtle and simplistic as some Amazon readers pointed out. 

            I titled this blog post THE WAITING GAME because I couldn’t wait to share these titles with you after we judges were sworn to secrecy until the results were announced. February 14, 2020 came and went and I still couldn’t complete this post. Why you ask? I finally realized that I had trouble releasing my feelings about these seven books. They had been presented to us from other judges who read over 30 MG fiction novels. I knew they all were worthy, but it was difficult to evaluate them. It took a team effort to decide which ones were the best. The comments above are mine alone. I thank all the judges and reviewers of children’s fiction who share their recommendations of great authors with us.

            Please let me know what you think of my reviews. 

Happy Reading in 2020!

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