Saturday, December 11, 2021

Fifth Graders

Fifth grade is just so different from 6th grade, especially if fifth grade is in elementary school and 6th grade is in middle school. These are both fine books, but I don't see them being of interest to my students. 

Finnegan, Margaret. Susie B. Won't Back Down
October 5th 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Susie B. doesn't think it's fair that the OTHER Susan in class gets to be Soozee and she has to be Susie B., just because the other girl is a "usual genius" and she herself is not. When her class is assigned a hero for a project and instructed to write letters to this person describing not only the famous person, but their own life, Susie is happy to get Susan B. Anthony. We learn a bit about the famous women's rights activist, but also a lot about Susie. Even though she struggles a bit in school, and has a lot of impulse control issues, she is determined to run for student council president. Her main motivation is that she would then get to use the big microphone at assemblies, and she also decides on various occasions that she could use her office to abolish the five paragraph essay and to get people to help the polar bears. Not surprisingly, her campaign does not go smoothly, and it is further complicated when she finds out that Anthony had a lot of racist beliefs that Susie cannot support. 

Readers who enjoy flawed but outspoken characters like Parks' Junie B. Jones or Giff's Hollis Woods will appreciate Susie's misguided exuberance. She has very decided opinions about her classmates, thinking that some are "fake" and others get lots of advantages just because they turn in work on time and behave in class. Susie also struggles with her older brother, Lock, who is very bright at school and doesn't irritate their parents. Her parents are rather long suffering, but try their best to understand her. 

Like many stories aimed at elementary readers, this includes lots of details about classroom activities and projects, and the dynamics between students as well as with various teachers. Susie starts the book with very clear ideas about what her classmates are like, but does change her opinions once she learns more about them. 

Information about Susan B. Anthony, including discussions of her beliefs that are now problematic, will interest readers who like biographies and histories. Steve Jobs gets his share of information included as well. My school has certainly done biography projects before, and I haven't seen anything in middle grade fiction that addresses the idea that "heroes" might not automatically be perfect. This is a great concept to introduce. 

Fifth grade is a pivotal time, as shown in books from DeClements' Nothing's Fair in the Fifth Grade (1981) to Winston's President of the Whole Fifth Grade (2010) to Shovan's The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (2018). Friendships realign, identities emerge, and boundaries are pushed. Young readers who are trying to navigate this difficult terrain will find it interesting to go along with Susie B. on her fifth grade ride.

McGovern, Kate. Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen
1 October 2021, Candlewick
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Maple, who father is Indian and whose mother is Jewish, making her "Hin-Jew", harbors a secret. She really can't read. She's a good student, and she loves books and making up stories, but she cannot decode text. Her parents have opted her out of standardized testing, so her learning disability has gone undiagnosed. Her teacher, Mrs. Littleton-Chan (whom Maple really likes, in part because she is also bicultural), recommends having Maple repeat 5th grade so that her reading issues can be addressed and she can start middle school on a stronger footing. Maple doesn't tell her best friends, Aislinn and Marigold, until right before school starts. They don't quite understand, and have trouble processing the fact that she is going to be in fifth grade again. They don't wait for her the first day of school, so she ends up walking alone. There is a new boy, Jack Wells, whom Maple is to show around, and she lies to him and tells him that she is repeating 5th grade because the teachers need help. He goes along with this, and Maple has to keep up this charade in order to save face. Maple's parents are both artists, and while they love their work, it doesn't create a lot of income, and while Maple says she doesn't care, she still feels a bit odd about some facets of their lives. There's also her baby brother, who is making life difficult for everyone with his constant crying. Maple feels that she has let her mother down with her lack of reading skills, and tries to make things better around the house to make up for it. Maple likes to create stories, and an ongoing one is about Mira Epstein-Patel, who solves mysteries. She loves words, but struggles to find a historic figure to study for a class biography project, since she wants to find someone who has a background similar to hers. There are a lot of stressors in her life, but can Maple use her second year of fifth grade to work through these?
Strengths: I really like the idea of having a book about a child who has to repeat a grade, and Maple's dilemma makes her a perfect candidate for this. It also seemed completely realistic that she would make up a story about why she had to repeat the grade and tell it to Jack. It was not surprising that her friends stopped talking to her; Aislinn's parents divorcing wouldn't make any difference, although that is used as an excuse for why she is mean to Maple. This is elementary friend drama at its finest. 
Weaknesses: I wish that there had been more positive help surrounding her reading difficulties. She is tested and given a diagnosis, but doesn't seem to find any of her teacher's interventions to be helpful. While this would certainly work in some cases, it seemed odd since Maple is also depicted as loving words and stories. It just seemed like she would be more interested in working on her reading. 
What I really think: The way the class is set up, the interaction with peers, and the family difficulties all make this more of an elementary school book. I'd love to see one where a middle school student has friends who are in accelerated classes while she is not, and how that placement affects their friendship, because my students experience that on a daily basis. 

 Ms. Yingling

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