MIDDLE GRADE AUTHOR REVIEW
The Benefits of Being an Octopus: Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there's Lenny, her mom's boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.
At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, & since they're in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it's best if no one notices them.
Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability & steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.
Unfortunately, she's not totally invisible, & one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia's situation, & her own place in this town of people who think they're better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she's ever had?
Why pick it up: Braden has written a tender & honest book that vividly captures childhood poverty. Readers will appreciate her characters’ strong perspectives & the hope that runs throughout the story.
First line: I settle onto the couch with the chocolate pudding I saved from Friday’s school lunch.
Just South Of Home: Twelve-year-old Sarah is finally in charge. At last, she can spend her summer months reading her favorite science books & bossing around her younger brother, Ellis, instead of being worked to the bone by their overly strict grandmother, Mrs. Greene. But when their cousin, Janie arrives for a visit, Sarah’s plans are completely squashed.
Janie has a knack for getting into trouble & asks Sarah to take her to Creek Church: a landmark of their small town that she heard was haunted. It’s also off-limits. Janie’s sticky fingers lead Sarah, Ellis & his best friend, Jasper, to uncover a deep-seated part of the town’s past. With a bit of luck, this foursome will heal the place they call home & the people within it they call family.
Why pick it up: Karen Strong has created a playful-yet-gripping story about the ghosts that haunt the South. Her characters encounter traditional spirits, but also the echoes of a dark past that can still be felt today. This is a story of place & of heart.
First line: It wasn’t a mirage but a miracle.
Hope in the Holler: The poignant—and funny— story of a girl trying to be brave & find her place in the world after she’s sent to live with scheming relatives.
Right before Wavie’s mother died, she gave Wavie a list of instructions to help her find her way in life, including this one: Be brave, Wavie B! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it! But little did Wavie’s mom know that events would conspire to bring Wavie back to Conley Hollow, the Appalachian hometown her mother tried to leave behind. Now Wavie’s back in the Holler—& in the clutches of her Aunt Samantha Rose. Life with the devilish Samantha Rose & her revolting cousin Hoyt is no picnic, but there’s real pleasure in sleeping in her own mother’s old bed, & making friends with the funny, easygoing kids her aunt calls the “neighborhood-no-accounts.” With their help, Wavie just might be able to prevent her aunt from becoming her legal guardian, & find her courage & place in the world.
Why pick it up: This book is nothing short of glowing. Wavie’s story immerses the reader in Appalachia—both its magic & its poverty. Fans of precise & powerful writing & captivating storytelling will fall hard for this one.
First line: An actual clown conducted my mama’s funeral.
The Splintered Light: Ever since his brother Luc's disappearance & his father's tragic death, Ishmael has lived a monotonous existence helping his mother on their meager farm where everything is colorless. Until one morning a ray of light fragments Ishmael's gray world into something extraordinary: a spectrum of color he never knew existed. Emboldened, Ishmael sets out to find answers hoping his long lost brother might hold the key.
He finds Luc in the Hall of Hue, one of the seven creative workshops at The Commons, the seat of all new creation. Luc is completing the final days of his training as a Color Keeper, adding the finishing touches of color to a brand new world designed & built by a team of young artisans. Although his heart calls him to a future as a Color Keeper, Ishmael feels too guilty to leave the duties of his old life behind. But when a catastrophe destroys nearly all of the color & light at the Hall of Hue, Ishmael & Luc are suddenly at severe odds. Torn between his family & his destiny, Ishmael must learn when to let go of the past, when to trust the path ahead, & when to believe in himself.
Why pick it up: This book is perfect for those who love unique world building. Johnson’s characters are full of intriguing & deliberate conflict & readers will appreciate her ability to craft powerful images.
First line: Ishmael’s first memory was rolling down Commons Hill, its massive stone wall behind him and the open market square before him.