The Nitty Gritty: When You Reach Me

I’ve never kept my love for middle grades novels secret. Given the option between a book for a full-grown & a middle grades book, well… middle grades wins every time.

As a bookseller, I have a place to channel my love of middle grades fiction: 4th & 5th grade book club!

We just finished When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It’s become a middle grades classic over the last decade. And for good reason. Y’all, we just finished–and I already want to read it again!

It’s got some themes that I’m in love with: people are always more complicated than they seem, everyone deserves respect, and friendships shift and evolve (and that’s okay).

The protagonist is infinitely relatable–a girl who isn’t used to hanging out with girls (her bff is a boy), who is finding her place in school & in the world, who loves but pushes against her mom, and who ultimately wants to be a more giving, kinder person and is working on it in tangible ways that will make sense to kids.

I really dig books where it’s obvious that the author remembers precisely what it’s like to be a kid. Without romanticizing childhood. Or making the decision to be “good” straightforward (because it isn’t always). Life is complicated. And, for me at least, childhood was the most complicated, confusing time. This author honors that without weighing the book down. It’s not dark. It’s just … real.

Here’s the BEST part, though: for kids who like science but aren’t always into novels, When You Reach Me focuses on time travel… in no small part because the protagonists’ favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time. I love sci-fi shows, but don’t really read sci-fi, because the even the time travel talk in this kids’ book almost melted my brain. But I was also totally sucked in.

Oh! And it’s also a mystery.

Honestly, When You Reach Me may very well may be the best middle grades book I’ve ever read.

It’s a great kids’ book club pick. It would also be really fun to read with your 4th through 7th grader (I think kids younger than 4th grade might struggle to understand some of the mystery/sci-fi elements). There’s a LOT to discuss and conjecture about.

And, you know, if you happen to be almost 45… maybe its the perfect book to escape into during a pandemic.

Not that I’d know anything about that.

Jolene Hightower: A Character Study

Jolene Hightower stretched her arms high in the air, freckles gleaming against skin that she was sure looked a lot like the underbelly of a frog but that her mama said was beautiful as fresh-fallen snow. Her fingers reached toward the sky, then fluttered back down. She smushed her palms together and held them up to her third eye. Namaste, she breathed so quietly that not even the cicadas buzzing in the sweltering Georgia summer could hear.

Now, before you get all to thinkin’ that Jolene was an alien or some other nonsense, you should know that her third eye wasn’t something you could see on the outside. In fact, when you looked at Jolene, she looked pretty much like a regular girl, I suppose. Except for her hair. It was the color of a fresh copper penny, rubbed shiny. Folks said maybe she had a family of mockingbirds nesting up in that mess. But no one could know for sure. She always kept that curly hair piled up on her head. Except for one curl that kept escaping, which she quickly tucked behind her ear.

Jolene wasn’t the kind of girl that had a lot of time for fussing over hair. In fact, just this past school year, her teacher had accused her of having ants in her pants on account of that she moved around so much. She bounced her leg so hard during math class her spiral notebook and pencil case clattered to the floor. Happened about every day. Then during reading, which she always finished first on account of that she pretty much ate books for breakfast, she’d jump up and twirl around until Ms. Frisbin suggested that maybe a trip to the library for a new book might be just the thing to keep her busy. And Jolene would take off, skipping down the hall, getting a pretty good bounce in because Jolene was strong, too. Because of all the trees she climbed and the chickens and goats she was always running after on Grandmother’s farm.

But this summer, something was different about Jolene. Her eyes, which were the same color as fresh sprung grass, still jumped from place to place, even when she promised she was listening to you. But that buzz of energy that she always used to put off, that made you feel like the whole world might just go up in flames if Jolene was forced to hold still any longer, well that was gone.

Maybe it was the yoga that was helping Jolene get ahold of her energy. But more likely, it was that her mama was back after 5 years being gone. Which ain’t a small thing to an 11 year old. And when her mama came back, she was what Jolene started calling Zen. Which seemed to the rest of the town like a blessing, because even if they thought maybe she shoulda found Jesus instead of spending time meditating. But, really, the town was pleased as punch to see Jolene’s mama come home. Which she did during church supper on a Wednesday night.

Folks were eating big slabs of red velvet cake baked by Ms. Juanita. And when you ate one of Ms. Juanita’s cakes, it was kinda like a religious experience all in itself–if you listened real quiet, you could hear the flutter of angel wings.

But all that was interrupted by a hush that descended on the room. 50 people standing totally still, some of them with forks still in mid-air. Then Pastor Lamar broke the spell with a hearty, “Well, look what the cat drug in!” Then suddenly everybody was shouting “Mandy Mae!” and muttering “Bless her heart” and rushing up to Jolene’s mama.

Except Jolene, who stood holding her piece of cake, her hands shaking so hard her fork clattered off the plate and onto the floor. And then, something happened that not a soul in Horsefly, Georgia had ever seen.

Jolene Hightower burst into tears.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Stef Soto, Taco Queen

A taco truck + protective parents + tween angst = Stef Soto’s seventh grade year.

Middle school is a train wreck, no matter who you are. But as a kid, you don’t know that. The popular kids seem to have discovered the key to survival, while you’re fumbling around trying to hide zit on your nose (or in this case, the smell of taco sauce in your hair).

Add one old taco truck and a set of overprotective parents (few things are EVER as embarrassing to a seventh grader as their parents) and you’ve got Stef Soto’s life wrapped up in a tortilla.

As much as I love middle grade fiction, Jennifer Torres’ novel missed the mark for me because I’m not a seventh grader. Torres captured the self-absorption of being a tween so well that I found myself rolling my eyes at Steph. She exasperated me the way that seventh graders often exasperate their parents. Which is perfect, really.

At 12 years old, I would’ve found pieces of myself reflected in Stef Soto, for sure. I knew what it was like to feel wrong so much of the time and to constantly work to throw off the labels my peers had stuck me with. But Stef also would’ve taught me things, like how fragile the American Dream can be. And that sometimes an entire family has to invest in that dream for it to succeed. All eye rolling aside.

Stef Soto is perfect just the way she’s written. She’s honest, angsty, eye-rolling, grateful… She’s learning. And she gives other kids space to do the same.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Wednesday Wars

Sometimes, my stubbornness pays off. This book is one of those times.

I got through one chapter of The Wednesday Wars– and I wanted to quit.

My passion is middle grades fiction. I adore it. And this book had a Newberry Honor Medal right on the cover. But I was bored. I didn’t take to Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, right away. He kept prattling on about Treasure Island, which I’d never read & didn’t give a flying fig about. Plus, he seemed kind of whiny.

But I kept reading…

The Wednesday Wars turned out to be one of the most moving, gut-punch real feelings books I’ve read in a while. I will cop to being enamored that much of the book works its way around and through Shakespeare’s plays (the Shakespearian curses–and the big themes, too). It’s set in 1967-68, so the book also reckons with the Vietnam war and the tense political climate (A+.for being historical without feeling preachy or teachy).

I loved all those things… but  most loved that Gary D. Schmidt creates a seventh grade protagonist who likes Shakespeare AND baseball, who says stupid things AND cares deeply that he said them, who is learning AND feeling AND making the reader laugh. (And maybe cry, too.) Schmidt’s artful turns of plot and his ability to narrate with stark honesty and beauty made this book a stand-out.

We need more protagonists like Holling: boys who are sensitive, kind, brave, and real. And seventh graders need more adults who take them seriously, who listen, and who remember how hard seventh grade can be.