Jenny's Library

Reading Round-up 2013: week 22 – middle grade and young adult novels

Posted on: November 17, 2013

cover image for BelowBelow by Meg McKinlay

“On the day Cassie was born, they drowned her town.”

(Sorry, the opening for this book is just so perfect, I had to steal it.)

Twelve year old Cassie has lived her entire life in New Lower Grange.  But before she was born, before the damn was built, her family’s house was in Old Lower Grange.  Then, with the flip of a switch, an entire town was buried in water, leaving Cassie wondering what secrets may lie hidden beneath the waves.

Intriguing and full of wonderfully written lines (see above, also: “When I got home, Dad had a finger in someone’s eye and another in their ear.” and “Liam was clever yesterday. While I was worried about being prosecuted, he was counting his strokes.”) Below is one of those novels that I wish had gotten more attention.  While not without flaws (McKinlay’s opening lines aren’t quite matched by the rest of her writing) it’s both different and yet not, in all the ways a middle grade book should be: unique in concept, but familiar when it comes to themes and relationships.

cover image for Zebrea ForestZebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewitz

Annie and her brother live with their grandmother, the father dead and their mother having abandoned them.  With Gran’s brooding spells getting worse, Annie has her hands full keeping up at school and keeping the social workers of their backs.  She and Rew find their own solace in stories they make up about the father they never knew.  Until a stranger arrives and holds them hostage, and Annie and Rew learn the truth of their father’s death.

I ranted about this book earlier this year.  The short version being that my problem wasn’t so much that Annie was quick to forgive her father, but that the book did an inadequate job of exploring why, and why this might not be the safest choice for her to make.  Also, the backstory about their parents is disturbing in ways that the narrative seems dangerously oblivious to.

cover image for DreamlandDreamland by Sarah Dessen

When Cassie ran away, Caitlin lost more than a sister.  Her parents shock and grief absorbs all their energy, leaving Caitlin without anyone to turn to.  Then Rogerson Biscoe walks into Caitlin’s life and suddenly she once again has someone who listens.  But who will Caitlin turn to when Rogerson turns out to be more dangerous than she suspected?

While abuse in romantic relationships is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than it gets (in YA literature and out of it) this is, unfortunately, not the most engaging problem novel ever.  Possibly because it is so clearly a problem novel rather than a typical Dessen story about interesting characters dealing with various interpersonal issues.  Although Dreamland is far from an after school special, neither is it quite what it could have been.

cover image for The Madness UnderneathThe Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

After the events of The Name of the Star [redacted for spoilers], Rory’s parents have been understandably overprotective.  Neither they, nor her new therapist, believe her when she tells them that she’s more than ready to go back to school. It doesn’t help, of course, that she can’t tell any of them what really happened, or why she so desperately wants to return to Wexford.

I definitely did not expect this book to end up going in the direction it did.  So while it suffered from the typical middle book lulls at certain points, it still managed to push the story along in interesting ways. And yes, it made me cry.  And no, I wasn’t expecting that either.

cover image for The Garden of My ImaanThe Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

Aliya worries about getting her homework done. Avoiding bullies at school. When she’ll finally wear a bra like her friends.  If the holidays will be still be any fun now that her disapproving great aunt is coming to visit.  Now, on top of everything else, her Sunday school friends are asking if she’ll fast for Ramadan this year; Aliya doesn’t feel ready – but she doesn’t want to be a baby either.  And when a new muslim girl arrives at her elementary school, suddenly Aliya’s Glen Meadow classmates are full of questions about why Marwa wears a hijab and only eats halal, and why Aliya doesn’t.

The Garden of My Imaan is a typical middle grade story about friends and family and navigating one’s place in the world.  Except for all the ways in which it’s very much not your typical middle grade school story.  That is to say, except for the fact that it’s about a muslim girl whose household contains four generations of Indian Americans, rather than yet another Ramona Quimbly, Junie B. Jones, or Judy Moody.  What makes this story truly unique (although it shouldn’t be as unique as it is, alas) isn’t just the parts that make Aliya different from her literary peers, but the way that Zia keeps the story focused on Aliya and her dilemmas, rather than letting it become a Very Special Lesson for everyone else.

By the by – can we please stop saying things like “Aliya…may be a young Muslim girl of Indian descent, but her story is one that will resonate with readers of many backgrounds” when reviewing books that feature characters we rarely see in (Western) fiction?  That’s just insulting all around.  Why wouldn’t her story “resonate” with all kinds of readers?

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1 Response to "Reading Round-up 2013: week 22 – middle grade and young adult novels"

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