Front Desk by Kelly Yang is so good. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me want to rush out and give a copy to all the kids I know (starting with Larrabee).
Set in the early 1990s, Front Desk is the story of ten-year-old Mia Tang, who just moved to the United States from China. Her parents take a job managing a motel in Anaheim, California, and Mia often handles the front desk. The motel owner, Mr. Yao, makes life difficult for her parents, while she has to deal with his son Jason at school.
Some of the things I loved most about this book are:
- Mia. Mia is a terrific narrator. She’s caring, brave, resourceful, and optimistic. Kids will root for her whether she’s helping her father wash towels in the bathtub when the washing machine breaks or navigating 5th grade as the only girl who can’t afford jeans.
- Mia’s friendship with Lupe. At school, Mia bonds with Lupe, the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
- Mia’s relationship with her parents. Mia’s mother and father want only the best for her but sometimes fail to understand what she’s going through.
- Mia’s hotel community. Mia and her parents left their extended family behind in China, but they find a new one with Hank and the other weeklies and with the Chinese immigrants they feed and house at the hotel.
- Mia’s letters. Throughout the story, Mia writes letters, including demand letters, thank you letters, and letters of recommendation. Although she’s not a native English speaker, Mia is a character who changes the world with her English words.
This book tackles tough, discussion-worthy topics, such as immigration, poverty, and racial discrimination, but it does so in the context of a story that’s engaging and accessible to kids. Highly recommend!
Inkling by Kenneth Opel is a fantastic story about an ink blot who comes to life and helps the Rylance family get unstuck.
Sixth grader Ethan Rylance is frustrated. Just because his dad is a famous artist, all of his friends assume he can draw too, so they’ve put him in charge of the art for their group graphic novel project. It’s not going well. And his dad is no help. Ever since his mom’s death, his dad has suffered from writer’s block. He often leaves it up to Ethan to take care of his younger sister Sarah, who has Down syndrome.
Then, one night, an ink blot pulls himself off of Mr. Rylance’s sketch pad and starts exploring…
You might think that an ink blot wouldn’t make a very interesting character, but you’d be very wrong. Inkling is a fascinating creature and an empathetic and loyal friend. He can make himself small enough to fit on the top of a shoe or large enough to splash a giant King Kong across a wall. He can be a drawing tutor for Ethan or a puppy for Sarah, and he might even be able to help their dad. My favorite thing about Inkling is that he eats stories and pictures. Superhero comics make him hyper, and The BFG makes him spell out things like “I is having a frothsome adventure!”
This book is both entertaining and heart-warming. I recommend it highly.
Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book. It will be available in bookstores on November 6.
If you like stories about math, shelter dogs, or middle school friendships, you should check out The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it.
Twelve-year-old Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning when she was in 2nd grade. The damage to her brain turned her into a mathematical genius and also left her with some obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Since then, she’s been home schooled by her grandmother, and she happily spends most of her free time in an on-line math forum (where she’s known as LightningGirl).
She wants to take on-line college courses starting in the fall, but her grandmother has other plans. She’s sending Lucy to public middle school. All she asks is that Lucy try it for one year, make one friend, do one thing outside the apartment, and read one book about something other than math or economics. (Lucy notes that this year is brought to you by the number “1”).
But all that is not as easy as it sounds for Lucy. In addition to navigating English class and the middle school lunchroom, she’ll have to complete a community service project with two or three other 7th graders. It turns out, though, that her friendship with Windy and Levi and her volunteer work with the Pet Hut and a dog named Cutie Pi (π!) are the best things that could have happened to her.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is an engaging read, with short chapters, good pacing, and plenty of funny and heart-warming parts. Highly recommend!
Masterminds is the first book in a thrilling trilogy by Gordon Korman. Larrabee loved it and insisted that I drop everything and read it.
Eli Frieden lives in Serenity, New Mexico, an isolated and idyllic town with a population of 185. Eli’s dad is the school principal and the mayor and reminds him often how lucky he is to live in a community with no crime and no poverty.
One day, his best friend suggests that they ride their bikes out of Serenity, something Eli’s never done in all his thirteen years. When they get to the town limits, though, Eli starts to feel sick. Before they know it, they’ve been rescued by the local security force (nicknamed Purple People Eaters by the kids) in a helicopter. A few days later, Eli’s friend is shipped off to live with his grandparents in Colorado, but he leaves a note where only Eli can find it: “There’s something screwy going on in that town.”
The story of what’s really going on beneath Serenity’s perfect facade is told through the point of view of five different kids. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot twists, so I’ll just say that Masterminds has a mix of action, mystery, and suspense that’s rare in middle grade books.
The other two books in the series are Criminal Destiny and Payback, and Larrabee highly recommends them too. He says the series gets better and better!
The Wishmakers by Tyler Whitesides is a very funny book about wishes and their consequences.
One day, twelve-year-old Ace opens a peanut butter jar without reading the fine print and releases a genie named Ridge. The good news: He’s now a Wishmaker and may make as many wishes as he likes. The bad news: For every wish, the Universe imposes a consequence and he has just thirty seconds to decide whether to accept. The worse news: The Universe has given him a quest, and unless he completes it in seven days, all the world’s cats and dogs will turn into zombies.
Things get even more complicated when he meets Tina and Jathon, other young Wishmakers with quests of their own that seem to conflict with his. And things get more complicated still as they make more and more wishes with consequences on top of consequences (which may last for an hour, a day, a week, or forever). For example, at one point, whenever anyone says Tina’s name, she claps, and whenever anyone claps, Ace’s shoelace comes untied. Ace also accepts a day without his left arm, a week without being able to read, and a lifetime with a green tongue. It all adds up to a fast-paced and zany adventure.
Larrabee and I both enjoyed this book and are looking forward to the sequel, The Wishbreaker. It’s coming soon!
Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman is a book that will make you smile.
Ten-year-old Gabe is excited about his summer for two reasons: (1) he’s been accepted to the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, a six-week sleepaway camp, and (2) his father is getting remarried, which means that he’s getting a new brother his age named Zack.
But Zack is not at all what Gabe expected in a brother. Zack is a cool ten-year-old from L.A. with a cell phone and gel in his hair. He dismisses as “nerdy” a lot of things Gabe likes (such as reading and math team). He’s jealous of Gabe’s plan to go to sleepaway camp, but Gabe doesn’t dare admit what type of camp it is.
The truth is that Gabe is looking forward to learning logical reasoning, writing poetry, and memorizing the digits of pi with his bunkmates in addition to kayaking and swimming and all that camp stuff. But Zack’s perspective makes him ask the question: “Am I a nerd who only has nerdy adventures?”
His hypothesis is “no,” but it will take a summer full of nerd camp escapades for him to prove it to himself.
This book won the Cybils Award in 2011. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it, and Larrabee’s already read the sequel, Nerd Camp 2.0.
Highly recommended for cool nerds of all ages (especially ages 8-10).
Nightbooks by J. A. White is a modern day Hansel and Gretel meets The Arabian Nights with a twist.
Alex feels like a weirdo because he writes scary stories in journals he calls his nightbooks. One night, he sneaks out in the middle of the night, determined to get rid of them once and for all. But the sound of his favorite horror movie lures him into a strange apartment, and he finds himself trapped by a real-life witch. This witch likes scary stories, and she’ll keep him alive as long as he comes up with a new one each night.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The stories Alex tells the witch. Deliciously creepy.
- The insights into Alex’s writing process, including his spark of inspiration, his understanding of interior logic, and his tips for overcoming writer’s block.
- The witch’s magical apartment with doors that lead back into the same room, a black light nursery for exotic plants, and an enormous library with a spiral staircase!
- Lenore, the witch’s cat, who can make herself invisible.
- The growing friendship between Alex and the witch’s other prisoner, Yasmin.
Blaine would have loved this book when he was younger. Larrabee found it a bit too creepy. I would recommend it to kids who crave scary books, such as Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, or Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.