You Can’t Have One Without the O-o-other

Reader-writer, writer-reader: I’m never sure exactly which I am, though I do know the writer would not exist if not for being an insatiable reader first. Lucky for me, I get to wear both hats when I review middle grade novels and non-fiction for the Cleveland Plain Dealer–and let us all now raise our voices in a song of praise for a scrappy little newspaper that still has a book page and still prints original, not syndicated reviews.

It’s been an especially wonderful year for MG fiction, a real treat for readers. Here are just a few of the books I’ve loved reviewing:

The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste, Algonquin Young Readers, 240 pages, $15.95, ages 9-13

Jumbies aren’t real. Corinne La Mer is sure of that–until she comes face to face with one in her own house. In this haunting tale based on Caribbean folklore, Corinne lives beside a mahogany forest where few dare tread. The day she does, she’s followed home by a jumbie who works evil magic on her father. The spirit reveals a secret so startling and terrible, it takes all the young girl’s courage to save her island and family. Incorporating bits of true history and tantalizing myth, this is a terrific spooky story as well as a delightful peek into a rich culture.

A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord, Scholastic Press, 192 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12

This simply written, deeply felt book is set in a Maine few tourists know. French Canadian Lily becomes friends with Salma, whose migrant family works in the blueberry barrens. Both girls adore Lucky, Lily’s dog, and together try to raise money for an operation to cure Lucky’s blindness. Salma, a gifted artist, inspires timid Lily. “To do brave things, you don’t have to be hugely brave. You only have to be a little bit braver than you are scared.”  Salma is the first dark-skinned girl ever to enter the town’s Downeast Blueberry Queen pageant. Prejudice flares, but friendship wins out.

Half a Man, by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Gemma O’Callaghan, Candlewick Press, unpaged, $16.99, ages 10 and up

This slender, singular book by the author of “War Horse” tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather, whose ship was torpedoed during the war. Grandpa, badly burned and horribly disfigured, was one of the very few survivors. He now leads a reclusive life as a fisherman on a small island. Most people, including his own daughter, cannot bear to look at him, but the young narrator is an exception. Quiet prose, exquisitely enhanced by O’Callaghan’s prints, limns the pain of isolation, and the healing power of empathy. This would make a fine companion to the best-selling “Wonder”. (Many thanks to my children’s librarian friends for alerting me to this book, which otherwise would have fallen through the cracks.)

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, Dial Books for Young Readers, 240 pages, $20.99, ages 9-12

This terrific graphic novel should instantly take its place on the shelf besides favorites like “El Deafo” and “Smile”. The moment Astrid sees her first Roller Derby bout, she’s hooked. Unfortunately, her BFF prefers ballet, and the first crack in their friendship appears. Roller derby is a punishing sport, and Astrid’s struggles are realistically, often hilariously, served by the ka-pow-packing art. In Jamieson’s nuanced telling, Astrid doesn’t become a star, but begins to understand how in life, as in the rink, we need to thread our own paths. Her bumpy relationship with her mom brought tears to the eyes of this  mother of three girls.

Stella By Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, $16.99, ages 9-12

I cherish any  novel that makes history both personal and compelling. It’s 1932 in the little town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. Stella’s father is determined to vote for the first time in the upcoming election, despite the intimidation of the Klan. “I gotta show that I am somebody—no one else is gonna do that for me,” he says.  Draper bases her story in part on her own family history. Stella, a plucky girl curious about the world beyond Bumblebee, collects newspaper clippings. Before this wonderful story ends, she grows to be a hero worthy of any front page. Bonus: writing tips!

I’ve just touched the tip of this year’s glittering iceberg! More reviews in weeks to come. For now, hurry out to the library or bookstore!

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