Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mini Middle Grade Reviews: Dear Sister, Dodger Boy, Oddity

I'm frustrated, because I recently came across an article or post about great 2018 middle grade books. I put a bunch on hold at the library, and they've started coming in. But now I can't find the original article I read to credit for these terrific finds!  I thought it was Nerdy Book Club awards, or Cybils finalists, but I was wrong on both counts. At any rate, whoever made the list did a great job. I've enjoyed the ones I've read so far, and look forward to the rest of the stack. And two of the three books featured below are books I would NOT have picked up on my own, which means the reviews did a good job at selling me the books.

Dear Sister is an epistolary novel ("epistolary," meaning written entirely in letter format, and "eponymous," meaning the character whose name is in the title are two of my favorite book terms). Unlike many such novels, it's entirely one-sided, with "brother" writing all the letters to "sister." It covers the period of about ten years and includes drawings and sketches done mostly by brother, but occasionally he adds a drawing from his baby sister into the collection. It could become too sugary sweet if the author weren't careful, but between the brother's ambivalence about "Sister," (he signs his letters "from" instead of "love" for YEARS!), his grumbling about The Wardens, aka their parents, the pain of a best friend first moving away and then, inevitably, growing apart, there's enough bumpy reality to keep it relatable.  I will be adding it to my classroom library ASAP.

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Dodger Boy is a very interesting book in that it's pretty adult for a MG novel, yet pretty innocent for a YA novel. A lot of what is billed as middle grade seems a tiny bit babyish to my actual middle schoolers, yet not all of them are ready, as people or as readers, for the complexity of young adult. This book hits the mark in a way that's rare.  In 1970 Canada, the remarkably level headed 13 year old protagonist, Charlotte, and her best friend, Dawn, dedicated to not falling into any of the teen stereotypes of boy craziness, meet an American draft dodger and bring him home. (The slight unbelievable aspect of this is mitigated by Charlotte's family's Quaker beliefs, having and continuing to host visitors and strays of all sorts.) Charlotte enjoys a friendship with the young man based on his respect for her mind, Dawn develops a crush on him and assumes Charlotte feels the same way, and the only person who isn't delighted with their guest is Charlotte's big brother. SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS

***SPOILERS***
As the book began, I wondered if Charlotte might realize she's queer, based solely on the fact that she found Juliet prettier than Romeo in the 1968 movie. But ti's the older boys who are gay. I loved aspects of this storyline, but was a bit surprised at how comfortable James was with being gay and having his little sister know, given the attitudes of the day. It seemed anachronistic to NOT have him ask her to keep it a secret on some level.


My only complaint is that I kind of loathe the cover, which looks like  was the winning entry in a middle school yearbook cover contest. I'm sure that's intentional (the hand-drawn bubble letters make it obvious), but since I've seen school librarians have students draw new covers for books that LOOK dated but are still awesome, it gives it a weird dated vibe to me. So I'm all the more happy I read that mysterious post about MG books, because if I'd only judged it by the cover, I would have missed a really good book.

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Oddity was not actually on that list I was talking about. I came across it thanks to a twitter campaign, #KidsNeedMentors, that works to connect authors with classrooms. I was matched with author Sarah Cannon and figured I should read her book before we Skype with her next week. Talk about covers I would not have picked up on my own! It features a girl with the unnaturally large head and eyes of the stuffed animals my kids used to covet but I wouldn't buy because I find that look so creepy. Also, the girl is black, and the author is white, which usually raises all sorts of questions for me about appropriation and tokenism. Finally, it had the look of a "wacky hijinks" novel, which is not my thing.

Just--eww. No. 


YAY, I WAS (mostly) WRONG! The book starts off with a group of fifth graders being hunted by leopards in the gym--as a regular part of gym class. The book isn't "wacky," it's surreal, from the thing floating in glass that runs the local mini mart to the town policy of making your own prosthetics should you lose a limb. There are zombie rabbits in onesies that aren't actually zombies or rabbits, but have characteristics of both. There's friendship and sister-ship and evil puppets who control their puppeteers. It's bizarre and funny, and Ada is ferocious in a way that goes far beyond the condescending term "spunky." I still don't quite get why the white author wrote a black family, other than a whole lot of talk about her braids.

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2 comments:

  1. That last one sounds really weird. The first two seem pretty cool, though. (Well, except for the covers.) Great reviews!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  2. I agree with you - the cover for Dodger Boy is hideous. I do find everything else about it really interesting, and I remember a lot of stuff from that time period too. Dear Sister sounds delightful. I need to read it.

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