When Halloween approaches, the kids at the library always start looking for spooky books. This year, I have a new recommendation for them: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. It’s a quick read that combines chilling action sequences and a satisfying supernatural mystery.
One day, Sixth grader Ollie Adler sees a woman preparing to throw a book in the creek. She can’t bear to see a book destroyed, so she grabs it, takes it home, and starts to read it. It’s a very old book called Small Spaces about a farmer from Smoky Hollow who makes a deal with the Smiling Man.
The next day is Farm Day at Ollie’s school, and the whole sixth grade class takes a field trip to a local farm. As Ollie explores, she discovers hints that Small Spaces is a true story set on this very farm. Then, on the way back to school, the bus breaks down. With darkness falling and the mist rising, Ollie flees with two of her classmates, Brian and Coco, and the real adventure begins.
I promise you, after reading this book, you will never look at scarecrows the same way again!
And if you want more chills, check out the sequel, Dead Voices.
In The Reckless Club by Beth Vrabel, five students arrive at an assisted living home on the last day of summer. They’ve all been invited by the principal to do a day of service instead of serving a suspension for their bad behavior on the last day of school.
At the beginning of the day, they know each other only by reputation. Lilith is the Drama Queen. Wes is the Flirt. Ally is the Athlete, Rex is the Rebel, and Jason is the Nobody.
The story is told over the course of a single day from alternating viewpoints. As the five kids interact with the residents and with each other, they unravel the mystery of the Teddy Bear Nurse and reveal what they did to earn this punishment. In the process, they develop a surprising bond and figure out both who they’ve been in middle school and who they want to be going forward.
The book’s title is a nod to The Breakfast Club, of course, a movie I loved when I was younger. I expect that most middle grade readers (Larrabee included) haven’t seen it, but that won’t impact their enjoyment of the book.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez is one of my new favorite books!
I knew I’d like this book based on the “back seat” test. Larrabee often reads in the car on the way to baseball practice, martial arts, etc. If I hear him laugh, I put his book on my to-be-read list. If he insists on reading lines out loud to me, I move it to the top of the list. And if he brings it inside rather than waiting to read more during the next day’s car ride (like he did with this one), I have to blog about it.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is kind of a hard book to describe. On the one hand, it’s science fiction. Sal is able to tear a hole in the space-time continuum and see into other parallel universes. He can even bring people and things from them back into our universe. On the other hand, it’s a story about a middle school for the arts, a friendship story, and a story about family relationships.
What you really need to know, though, is that it’s a book that hooks you from the first page. The main character, Sal, is a talented magician (even when he’s not using the multiverse). He’s just moved to Florida with his dad and stepmom, and he’s dealing with a lot of issues–being the new kid in school, missing his mom, and managing his diabetes. His counterpart, Gabi, is the student council president and the editor of the school paper, and she has lots and lots of dads. Both are kind-hearted kids who make you root for their success.
This book was published by Disney-Hyperion under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Larrabee has read most of the books they’ve published in the past year and a half and has enjoyed them all. We are particularly looking forward to Sal and Gabi’s next adventure (coming in 2020).
Recently, Larrabee and I saw Wicked in San Jose. In preparation, of course, we had to re-watch The Wizard of Oz, which he didn’t remember at all. I told him that now that he’d seen it, he’d probably come across references to it all over the place.
And he did. The next day, he started reading The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez. In the first chapter, twelve-year-old Malú makes a zine called “There Is No Place Like Home.”
The First Rule of Punk is a charming coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old half Mexican girl who likes punk rock and zines. She doesn’t want to move with her professor mom from Florida to Chicago. And she definitely doesn’t want to dress like una señorita.
But somehow, over the course of the first couple of months of middle school, Malú finds her own “Yellow-Brick-Road posse” and figures out how to be true to all the parts of herself.
In addition to Wizard of Oz references, the book is full of Malú’s creative zines (and includes instructions for making your own), and it’s a lot of fun.
Graphic novels are wildly popular at Larrabee’s school, but he and I generally prefer regular novels. Occasionally, though, we come across a story that is best told in a graphic novel format. New Kid by Jerry Craft is that kind of story.
New Kid is about a 7th grader named Jordan Banks who likes drawing cartoons and playing video games. He hopes go to art school, but his parents insist on sending him to a fancy private school. It’s not easy being the new kid, especially since he’s one of the few kids of color and one of the few kids on financial aid in his class.
During the course of the school year, Jordan confronts racism, privilege, and unfair situations. He also tries new experiences that turn out to be not so bad (such as soccer and abstract art) and makes new friends.
Jordan is a fantastic narrator. Some of the most fun parts of the book are his cartoon commentaries on everything from his dad’s advice on handshakes to his mom’s use of a camera with actual film to the contrast between mainstream and African American book covers (“a thrilling magical tale” vs. “a gritty, urban reminder of the grit of today’s urban grittiness”).
Whether or not you’re a fan of graphic novels, put New Kid on your reading list for this fall.
It’s back-to-school time at our house, and I have the perfect book recommendation for the occasion: The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin. It’s thought-provoking and lots of fun. Larrabee liked it too.
Caitlyn is the new kid in the 7th grade. She’s not happy about leaving her friends in New York behind to move to a small town in Vermont. To make matters worse, her new school has only ten other students, and most of them have known each other since kindergarten. Worst of all, she finds that she’s taken the place of the legendary Paulie Fink, who’s described as a troublemaker, master prankster, and evil genius, and is sorely missed by the rest of the class.
Caitlyn is preoccupied with the unwritten rules of fitting in, but nothing she learned in her previous school seems to apply in this unconventional crowd. Soon, the others convince her to plan and judge a reality show-style contest to name the Next Great Paulie Fink. As she finds her place in this new group, she reevaluates the way she treated other kids in the past.
There are lots of things to like about this book: the way the class’s lessons in Greek philosophy take on surprising relevance to their lives, the 7th graders’ relationships with the “minis” (kindergarteners), all the humorous Paulie stories, and, of course, the goats.
The Newbery winners are always interesting, well-written books. But, let’s face it. Some of them aren’t the type of book you’d choose to read during your last week of summer vacation.
This year’s winner–Merci Suárez Changes Gear by Meg Medina–is an exception. It’s a heart-warming and funny coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Cuban-American girl. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it.
The story begins on Merci’s first day of sixth grade at Seaward Pines Academy, a fancy private school she attends on a scholarship. The new school year brings a lot of unwelcome changes for Merci. She misses her fifth grade homeroom teacher, she wishes she could still play sports with the boys during recess, and she feels like she’ll never figure out how to get along with Edna, the most popular girl in her class.
Things are changing at home too, where Merci lives with her extended family in three neighboring houses they call Las Casitas. Her older brother is learning to drive and applying to colleges. Merci is asked to take more responsibility for her younger twin nephews. Most importantly, her grandfather, Lolo, who has always been her companion and confidant, seems unusually forgetful lately and sometimes gets angry for no reason. Merci is worried, but no one will tell her what’s wrong.
The story alternates between Merci’s life at school and her life at home during the first half of her sixth grade year, and both parts are equally engaging. My favorite scene is one in which Merci and her classmates make a mummy for their Great Tomb Project in social studies class. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it will make you wince and giggle.
If you just have time to read one more book this summer, I recommend this one.