So here's a funny story. Brand new student comes to the library; I press her to get a book so she's prepared for Sustained Silent Reading. There is a faint nose wrinkle. "I have a book with me," she says.
"Oh! May I ask what it is? Do you like it?"
"No, it's a Dork Diary book. It's stupid."
"What would you like to read?"
"I don't really like to read. Anything is fine." She gives a huge sigh and a big shrug.
"Let's see. You're a 7th grade girl and it's past February. Let's get you a depressing book!" The girl looks at me like I was dressed for my own personal Bay City Rollers Roller Disco Day, which is silly, because that was on Friday.
I whip out several Melody Carlson True Colors books. The seventh grade student guide murmurs "Ooh. Those are really good." New girl still looks apprehensive.
"Okay," I say, laying the books out on the top of the shelf. "We have alcoholism,anorexia, cutting, depression, or divorce. Any of those sound good?"
Her eyes light up. She snatches up the silver one, about cutting. "Can I check out this one?"
"Sure," I reply. "It's the best match with the outfit you're wearing."
People seem to think that my ability to get children books that interest them is somehow magical. It's not. It's based on two things: knowledge and observation. I know all of the books in my library, and I know students. I was able to look at the way this particular 7th grade girl was dressed and made up, and realizes that she was not going to be a Warriors kind of reader.
There are developmental stages, and the urge to read depressing books is certainly one of them. It's a tough balance, though, in middle grade fiction. That's why I was SO pleased to read Stronger Than You Know.
Perry, Jolene. Stronger Than You Know
September 1st 2014 by Albert Whitman Teen
Joy has been raised by an abusive mother who rarely let her leave their small trailer and did not protect her from a succession of friends who thought it was funny to extinguish cigarettes on her back and boyfriends who did even worse. Taken away and put into the custody of her aunt and uncle, Joy is having difficulty fitting in and working through her understandable anxiety. Men make her nervous, she doesn't like to eat in front of others, and crowds make her want to disappear. She has a hard time connecting to her cousins, Trent and Tara, and rarely speaks at school. She is making progress, however, and her therapist, Lydia, has her write down how things have changed. The biggest change is that she makes the acquaintance of Justin, a neighbor boy, and is able to talk to him while walking to school. She also goes to kung fu lessons with her uncle, and is empowered by them. Things are not all smooth sailing-- she is still shy with Justin, and he doesn't understand her whole story, she is unhappy that she must rely on drugs on occasion, and she feels that her aunt and uncle have made their own lives worse by taking her in. With the help of her support system, she is able to make steady progress toward a more standard "normal", even when she has to testify against her mother.
Strengths: This brilliantly elucidated Joy's terrible past not by describing it in sordid detail, but in evidencing it in her inability to cope at her aunt's. Her insistence that the cigarette burns, which everyone thinks are so horrible, were the least horrible part of living with her mother is chilling. Worldly readers will be able to guess at exactly went on, and more naive readers will just know how traumatized Joy is without becoming so themselves. Brilliant. Joy's difficulties are not made light of, but the people in her life try to do the right thing. I thought that her relationship with her uncle was very well done, especially his motivation for being so concerned about her. Justin is perfectly understanding, while being angry about Joy's treatment and a little bit frustrated. Her cousins care for her but also feel inconvenienced until they fully understand what she went through. I will be very happy to give this to students!
Weaknesses: Justin was a tiny bit too perfect, and Ty a little too randomly jerky, but otherwise this was pitch perfect.
What I really thought: Disappointed that Perry's other books are more young adult!
Belford, Bibi. Canned and Crushed.
March 3rd 2015 by Sky Pony Press
E ARC from Edelweiss
Sandro has difficult family circumstances-- even though his mother is a US citizen, his father came to the US for an engineering job that fell through, and is living and working illegally. When he is injured on the job and unable to get workers' compensation, he is unemployed and doing odd jobs like picking up dead animals for the city. Things get even tighter for the family financially when Girasol, Sandro's sister, is diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome and must eventually go back to Mexico for treatment, leaving Sandro and his father in the US. Sandro is usually in trouble-- he thinks it is a good idea to put a dead cat on his teacher's car window when he thinks she has been mean to him. He hopes to help his father financially by winning an art contest, and also by organizing can recycling at his school. He feels that Abiola, a girl in his class, is mean to him because she tattles on him, and he starts to bully her. He eventually damages her bicycle because he is jealous, and is accused of race bullying. He deletes all of the correspondence that the school sends his father and gets himself deeper and deeper in trouble. Eventually, he finds out that the school is getting the money for the recycling, and they are using it for the school playground, but help comes from an unexpected place and does make things easier for the family.
Strengths: I was really hoping for a book that featured cultural diversity in a positive way, and this has many good things-- Abiola's mother is understanding and helpful, and even Abiola herself isn't as bad as Sandro thinks. It addresses the fact that some families have one parent who is a citizen, but the rest of the family can have a precarious status. It's also good that Sandro wants to help his family out.
Weaknesses: However, Sandro is an unpleasant character. Even though he has serious issues facing his family, he ignores all of the support out there and makes things worse. His repeated use of the phrase "Cheese Whiz" didn't help. I really have to debate this one, because while I liked the community around Sandro, I really wanted to slap Sandro himself.
Bliss, Bryan. No Parking at the End Times
February 24th 2015 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC from Edelweiss
Of course, Canned and Crushed was STILL cheerier than this book. Again, I wanted some diversity (family living out of van, religious), but the parents were so dysfunctional and caused so much trauma to the family that it was just horrifying. Perhaps this would be a better book for high school readers. I think perhaps the cover also appealed to me.
From Goodreads.com: "Abigail doesn't know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn't have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the "end of the world." Because of course the end didn't come. And now they're living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love. "