Gibbs, Stuart. Belly Up.
Finalist for the Cybils Middle Grade Novel category. Teddy's parents both work for FunJungle, a new zoo/theme park in the middle of nowhere. Since there aren't any kids his age around, Teddy is wont to pull a lot of pranks, so when the mascot of the park, Henry the Hippo, dies unexpectedly, no one but the owner's daughter, Summer, believes Teddy that Henry was murdered. Teddy and Summer start to investigate the murder, and become targets of attempts themselves-- a poisonous snake is let loose, tigers attack, and it becomes clear that something very serious is up. But what? Animal liberation leagues? Disgruntled employees? Or is there something even more sinister going on?
Strengths: This was an excellent mystery with a lot of good twists. The characters were all multidimensional and interesting, and there was a good amount of action as well. Enjoyed this after the first chapter, when I realized it was not going to be overly goofy.
Weaknesses: The cover is a bit juvenile, and the description did not entice me. This will be a fantastic mystery to give to my students, but because of the cover, it may take some handselling.
Potter, Ellen. The Kneebone Boy.
Finalist for the Cybils Middle Grade Novel category. The Hardscrabble children have a difficult life in the wake of their mother's disappearance, especially since Otto stopped speaking after this. Their father paints portraits of deposed monarchs, and when he is called away suddenly, he sends the children off to London to stay with a relative... who ends up being gone when they get there. After a harrowing time trying to "sleep rough", the three decide to find their great-aunt Haddie, whom they believe has information about their mother. Haddie lives in a castle folly, a small version of the Kneebone castle across the street, which is rumored to have a half-human, half-animal boy living there. The three try to discover the mystery of this boy, and while doing so, find out some unusual information about their own family.
Strengths: This hit a cord with many people, and I can see students who like Lemony Snicket picking this up. I love Potter's work; she's an excellent writer.
Weaknesses: I dislike Snicket intensely, and this book also had too many overly precious asides for my taste. I was also confused as to when this took place, was it going to be a fantasy, etc. I'll buy it for the students, but personally didn't care for it, which surprised me. Check out the Cybils reviews to read more reviews because I must have been having a bad morning.
Pauley, Kimberly. Still Sucks To Be Me.
Now that Mina has been turned into a vampire (since her parents both are, and after finding a vampire boyfriend, it seemed like a good idea), her family must relocate to a small Southern town from California. Mina is irked because her boyfriend, George, is off in Brazil, the students in her new school are somewhat hostile, and she misses her best friend, Serena. Also, her house is small, she doesn't have her clothes, and she has to take continuing education classes with her mother on how to be a better vampire. All of this, however, pales when Cameron, a hottie vampire, starts hanging around Mina, and Serena shows up in town and is given permission to stay with Mina's family while she decides if she, too, wants to be a vampire. The problem? Serena has been targeted by an initiate of the Black Talon, and her life is in danger. Will things ever stop sucking for Mina?
Strengths: Students love the first volume of this title, and have been picking this up so frequently since it came into by library in September that this is the first time I've been able to check it out. The treatment of vampire lore is fresh and interesting.
Weaknesses: Mina whines. A lot. Teens will empathize, but I did not.
Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Where the Streets Had a Name.
Hayaat's family has lost their land on the West Bank and are forced to live in a small apartment. Hayaat's grandmother is elderly and ill, and would just like to see her home in Jerusalem one more time, but is unable to because of all the curfews imposed on the Muslim population and the difficulties in traveling. Hayaat decides to make the trip herself and bring home some soil from the property, and talks her friend Samy into going with her. Their trip is not easy, but they get some help from two Americans who are in the middle east trying to work for peace. A secondary plot involving the wedding of Hayaat's older sister, and a back story about how Hayaat's face was disfigured adds a lot of cultural depth to the story.
Strengths: Abdel-Fattah's Ten Things I Hate About Me and Does My Head Look Big in This have been very popular with my students but are for high school students and set in Australia. This is perfect for middle school, with more adventure making the cultural problems seem more interesting to a younger group while being informative.
Weaknesses: Something about the pacing of this was a little off. I liked Naomi Shihab Nye's Habibi a little better.
Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health- and a vision for change.
I would love to see a middle grade version of this book; it's clearly adult and goes into great detail about things like waste-stream management and extraction of natural resources. Still, this is a topic dear to my heart and one that most middle schoolers don't realize is a problem. If they all knew how much work and how many natural resources went into a simple t shirt, perhaps they would be less apt to change fashions so quickly. I learned a few things, such as the fact that really, we shouldn't buy aluminum cans at all even though most are recycled, and that Goodguide.com is a good source for checking on the environmental viability of products. An informative, if upsetting, read.
Bierderman, Lynn. Teenage Waistland.
I was really enjoying this story of four teenagers from different walks of life who are selected to participate in an experimental lap band gastric procedure trial, but then a couple of the characters decided to go buy sex toys for the birthday of a sister. *Sigh* Just went on in too much detail for me to be comfortable handing this book to middle school students. A shame, really, because eating disorders on both ends of the spectrum are fascinating to students, and this did a good job of describing the underlying emotional problems that cause people to overeat.
Williams, Lori Aurelia. Maxine Banks is Getting Married.
This is another book more suited to high school students. It started out sort of like Anne Emery's Going Steady-- girl's best friend gets married and she thinks that doing the same thing will get her away from her uncaring mother-- or Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, or even Cleary's Sister of the Bride, but veered off quickly into a book not suited to younger students. Maxine convinces her mother to let her get married by lying about being pregnant, and all goes well for about five pages before her husband has gotten a neighbor girl pregnant and decided he doesn't want to be married to Maxine. The boy's father offers to let Maxine stay in the house he provided as long as Maxine cares for a younger, troubled relative of his. Just not what I expected.