Books for Kids
Realistic Fiction
Book Reviewed: Brashares, Ann. (2001). The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. New York: Random House, Inc.

Summary: What happens when four fifteen-year-old girls get together on the last day before they go their separate ways for the summer? Well—they decide to try on a pair of old and speckled pants and a miracle occurs—the pants fit each one! The girls make a pact, called the sisterhood of the traveling pants and the rest, as they say, is history. The girls go their separate ways and into their own individual adventure—Bridget goes to camp and immediately gets in trouble by falling for an older coach, Carmen travels to North Carolina to visit her father and gets a surprise when he reveals to her he has found a new wife. Lena is off to Greece and a summer with her grandparents. Meanwhile, Tibby has to stay home working for low wages at a local store. As the pants travel around, from girl to girl, the stories of each friend evolves and changes, just as the summer progresses. What adventures will the pants have by the end of the summer?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a famous book which many critics term a coming-of-age novel. And what is a coming-of-age novel? It’s basically about kids learning something about one another while transforming into a young adult. This book has become famous for many reasons. One, it is well-written. Two, the characters are engrossing, funny, and interesting. And three, everyone will be able to relate in some way to the trials and drama each one of the girls find themselves involved. The pants, which really don’t play into the actual story of each girl very much, are simply a unifying device to tie their friendship and love for one another together. There are some scenes about girls thinking about kissing boys and scenes in which this actually happens. In addition, there are some scenes in which characters having nothing on their mind besides attracting someone of the opposite sex. Consequently, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone younger than seventh graders.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is ultimately a story about friendship and unconditional love for four friends who are quite unique and different from one another. Some of the scenes are very funny and yet also poignant and it is hard to not feel for the girls as each one of their circumstances evolves and changes. Ultimately, each girl learns a little bit about herself and we learn something about how we may change our perspectives in our own daily lives. This is a girls’ book and it may be difficult to talk boys into reading the novel. Many boys will sooner be covered in leeches for five minutes than be forced to read this book. This is too bad, because if boys read books like this more often they might not be so socially inept around girls and actually learn something about how girls think. Imagine that.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the purpose of the pants? Why do you think the author included them in the story? Find at least one example from the book to support your answer.
  • How are the girls different? How are they the same?
  • Which girl do you relate to the most? Why do you think this is?
  • Write a five page story about a group of your friends going their separate way over the summer. What would be your friends’ “traveling pants?”
  • Which girl learned the most over the summer? Give two examples from the book to support your claim.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a really good book. Far better than most of the friendship-girl-mush that is turned out today. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Cooner, Donna.(2014). Can’t Look Away. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Torrey Grey is a blogger who makes videos about fashion and make-up for attention-starved teenagers. Unfortunately, during one of her video shoots, Torrey’s sister was killed and many of her followers have turned on Torrey, blaming her for her sister’s death. Shunned by her former applauding fans, Torrey’s family moves to Texas in an attempt to leave behind the past and begin anew. But can Torrey stay out of the limelight? Will anyone recognize her as the famous fashion and beauty queen advisor? Who is Luis, the son of parents who run the local funeral home? Will Raylene become her friend or will the vain Blair be the one to connect with Torrey? Read the book to discover the answers to these questions.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a somewhat vapid look at the inner machinations of a young girl who craves being the center of attention and yet doesn’t want to be the center of attention. Sound confusing? It is also to Torrey Grey. The main character’s anguish over her popularity is sometimes over-the-top, but it’s also fairly realistic as to how a self-centered girl views herself. This is not great literature but kids—especially girls—will like it.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Even though the narrator—Torrey Grey—sometimes gets on our nerves because of her self-centered viewpoint, kids will still find her to be a likeable character, especially because of her self-doubt, the lure of being popular via social media, then the ultimate resolution by the end of the book. Which kid hasn’t dreamed of being famous because of a video they posted online? I think most kids have had this fantasy, at one point or another. Kids will love this angle and the mystery of who is onto her secret—will only serve to deepen their appreciation of this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Each chapter starts with a short blog from Beautystarz15. How does this help or hurt the story? Give two reasons.
  • Did you find the main character—Torrey Grey—to be likeable? Why or why not?
  • Think about your own life. Would you want to have Torrey’ Grey’s life? Why or why not?
  • Pretend you are Raylene or Blair or Luis. Write a short letter to Torrey Grey talking about your feelings toward her as a person. What would you say?

Overall evaluation of this book: People magazine meets The Kardashians. Girls will like this book because most kids dream of being famous and (maybe) running a popular video blog. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Cormier, Robert. (1974). The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf.

Summary: Jerry Renault is a new freshman at Trinity and he has arrived just in time for the annual chocolate sales. Jerry, however, refuses to participate in the school fundraiser and draws the ire of Brother Leon, the assistant head of the school, who is in charge of the chocolate sales. Soon, other students begin to think about not selling chocolates, which, mysteriously, are now twice as expensive as last year. In addition, the students also have to sell twice as many boxes. To encourage the student body to sell the chocolates, Brother Leon enlists the help of the school gang known as the Vigils, headed up by Archie Costello. Archie is mean and ruthless and sets about getting all the students at Trinity selling chocolates, regardless of whether they voluntarily want to participate or not. Archie cannot, however, get Jerry to sell chocolates. Finally, Archie comes up with a diabolical plan to put Jerry in his place and show him who the real boss at Trinity is. Will Jerry “give in” and sell the chocolates, or will he, “dare disturb the universe?”

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is an older book which is somewhat famous in the canon of adolescent literature. The book is famous primarily for two reasons—one, it is a well-written psychological thriller about the power of the few to control the will of the many, and two, because of the violence at the end of the book and the portrayal of the twisted mind of Brother Leon, as a representative of the church. Consequently, over the years it has sometimes been a target for those who wish to ban it from school and public libraries. This pressure to ban this book from libraries, however, has considerably lessened over the past decade.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Although the story is no longer “new” it is still worth reading because of the themes which emerge from the book—individualism vs. the will of the masses, and courage vs. cowardice, among others. Primarily, however, the most important lesson kids may take from the book is how the power of the masses can be awoken and turned on the unfortunate few who dare to take a stand against the larger group.

Discussion points with kids:

  • When is it appropriate to take a stand against the will of the larger group? Use specific examples from the book to defend your argument.
  • What is Brother Leon’s true purpose behind the chocolate sales? Find three examples to support your case.
  • Why don’t any students come to rescue Jerry Renault and tell Archie and the Vigils to leave him alone?
  • What does the phrase, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” mean? Use several examples from the book to support your argument.
  • Could you do what Jerry Renault did? Why or why not?
  • Think of an alternative ending for this book and tell someone how you think it should have ended.

Overall evaluation of this book: An oldie-but-goodie. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Hautman, Pete. (2005). Invisible. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Summary: Dougie is a perfectly abnormal 17-year-old boy who can’t stop thinking about fires and blowing things up. This doesn’t go over well with his classmates, and he is often the butt of jokes. Bullies often find Dougie in their crosshairs. But Dougie has one friend, Andy, who lives next door. Sometimes they will talk with one another at night from their open windows. Dougie’s parents and therapist think he is making these conversations up and that Andy is an imaginary person. Dougie spends a lot of time in the basement working on constructing a railroad set. In fact, it is one of his obsessions—fire being primarily the other. The ending of the story comes quickly and in a puff of smoke—if you can excuse the pun. Ultimately, the book is about the spiraling descent into a world other than reality, taken by a young boy who struggles in many social arenas.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is not an optimistic book, nor does it necessarily have a happy ending with the plot line wrapped up in a nice, tidy ribbon—but who said kids should only read material which is positive, happy, and has resolution to the problem at hand? Sometimes the best stories are those which make you say, “I wonder what happens next…”

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a good story about the inner working of a mind which doesn’t function like the minds of most other kids. In this sense, it will help middle schoolers understand why some kids have so much trouble relating to their classmates and how they can sometimes seem “invisible.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • The name of the book is Invisible. Why is this the title of the book?
  • When did you first understand there was something wrong in the way Dougie thinks? What clues did Pete Hautman leave you?
  • How would you write the ending of the book?
  • Pretend that Pete Hautman had written the story from the point of view of one of the other characters in the book. How would the storyline change? How would it remain the same?
  • Are there any kids in your school like Dougie? What can you do to help make their days go better?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is one of those books that will compel kids to think after they have finished the last page. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Johnson, Angela. (2012). A Certain October. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Summary: Scotty is a junior in high school who doesn’t feel like there is anything special about her. She compares herself to tofu—the bland vegetarian “filler” food. She also is a part-time babysitter for her seven-year-old brother, Keone, who happens to be autistic. One day, while taking Keone to an appointment with a physician, there is a terrible train accident and Keone is severely injured. Several others also die in the accident. The grim irony of the accident is that Keone loves trains. The rest of the book is mostly about Scotty as she comes to terms with the accident and her own resolution that she was not to blame and is not responsible for what happened. In addition, she also must come to grips with her feelings for a boy who begins to pay attention to her.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There is swearing by the characters in this short novel and one scene in which a boy places his hands on the main character’s breasts. In addition, there are references to characters that clearly are gay. However, the storyline involving Scotty’s brother is strong and gives a taste of what life is like living with a sibling who has autism. There is also a lesson to be learned about whether or not you are responsible when tragic accidents occur.  

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids only read bland fiction, this author will take them out of their comfort zone. The author, Angela Johnson, inserts scenes into her stories that other authors would never dare include into their stories. That said, the storyline is more realistic as to what life is really like for kids, in contrast to what is portrayed by other authors. This book is more appropriate for upper middle school kids.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How is life different when one of your brothers or sisters is autistic? Could you do what Scotty does—take care of an autistic sibling?
  • Did the swearing and scenes bother you? How so?
  • What is the author’s purpose in having the characters swear and talk about things the way they do?
  • If something bad happened to you or someone from your family, or maybe even a close friend, would you feel responsible?
  • How do you overcome feeling responsible for something which isn’t your fault?
  • The author moves quickly from scene to scene. What effect is the author trying to accomplish? Did she accomplish her goal?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a fast read but it can feel a bit uneven because of how quickly the author races from scene to scene. The author does, however, get it right as to how some kids talk with one another. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: McDowell, Beck. (2012). This is Not a Drill. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

Summary: Stutts is a disgruntled man who takes control of an elementary classroom one day. He shoots the security guard and refuses to let anyone else leave the classroom. Soon the school is evacuated and police surround the building The story is primarily told through the viewpoint of two adults who are left in the classroom, Jake and Emery. A continuous stream of flashbacks by Jake and Emery frame the story and how they ended up in a classroom, held hostage by a middle-aged man wearing camouflage and holding a gun. Through a series of negotiations and smart thinking, Stutts allows some of the elementary kids to leave the classroom, but he keeps some as hostages. The ending has a few twists so I won’t completely spoil the book for you but I can tell you the day does not end in disaster for the young students.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a dramatic book with violent scenes—but most of the detail is left to the readers’ imagination. If you or your kids don’t like the concept of reading about elementary kids being held in a dangerous situation by an unstable man, then you should probably leave this book on the shelf. Most of the horror found in the book revolves around the concept of a school shooting, and you may not find it particularly appealing. The book is fairly well written and the plot zips along. Kids may not like the fact that the narrators in the story are adults and not kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story line is engaging and the element of danger is always present. Many middle school kids like to read about unlikely situations set in modern times, especially if the plot line involves guns and shooting—and this story has both. Consequently, in a macabre sort of way, kids will probably enjoy reading the book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Speculate as to why the author tells the story from the viewpoint of adults. Could this story have been told from the point of view of the kids? Why or why not?
  • Find three examples from the book on how the adults in the room tried to create a sense of normalcy with the kids.
  • Think about Stutts’ mental state of mind. What circumstances caused him to act the way he did? Did he have any control over these circumstances?
  • What could Stutts have done to have solved his problems before resorting to holding a classroom of kids as hostages?
  • Is it important to practice fire drills and intruder drills and lockdowns? Are they really necessary? Do they create more worry and fear than what really exists? Explain your answer.

Overall evaluation of this book: I didn’t find the book compelling, but the school shooting aspect will result in some kids liking the book. Two Stars ★★

Book Reviewed: Naylor, Phillis Reynolds. (2009). Faith, Hope and Ivy. New York: Yearling.

Summary: This is the classical story of two young kids who live with one another for a few weeks to experience life “on the other side.” Ivy is a seventh grader from the coal mining country of Kentucky and Catherine is also a seventh grader, but from the wealthy town of Lexington. A contest has placed them in a unique situation—Ivy gets to visit Catherine for two weeks and then Catherine gets to visit Ivy for the same period of time. As might be expected, Ivy feels out of place in Lexington and doesn’t feel right wearing new shoes and clothes while Catherine is disappointed to discover she can’t wash her hair every day. As the story progresses, both girls realize that, although they have differences and live apart from one another in seemingly unique environments, they have just as many similarities between themselves. The climax of the story, in which Ivy’s grandfather becomes trapped underground in a coal mining disaster and Catherine’s mother has significant health issues, draws the girls closer together as the possibility of loss looms before the girls.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a “girl’s book” so don’t be surprised if boys want nothing to do with it. There are no swearing or inappropriate scenes in the storyline so you don’t have to worry about that. The plot is very well done and the differences and similarities between the girls and the coal mining region of Thunder Creek and the wealthier city of Lexington, Kentucky are somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s always good for middle school kids to think “outside their box” and know something about other kids on the planet Earth. This book will help accomplish that. The author tells the story from both points of view, through narration and diary writing, but the primary storyteller is Ivy, the coal-miner’s granddaughter. This story should help kids mute some their quibbling about inane things like being fussy about food, clothes, cars, money, and “who has the best smartphone.” None of those things ultimately matter in this story.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Which one are you the most like—Ivy or Catherine? Find three examples from the book to defend your statement.
  • Which one are you the most unlike—Ivy or Catherine? Find three examples from the book to defend your statement.
  • What is this book really about? What is the author trying to say?
  • Do you have any friends that, when you first met them, you didn’t appear to have much in common with? How did you eventually become friends? Did the friendship begin slowly or quickly?
  • What are the most important parts of a friendship? (Think about friends who have been together for a long time before answering this question.)

Overall evaluation of this book: I enjoyed this book even though the message of friendship isn’t a complicated one. Maybe the most important things in life aren’t supposed to be complicated. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Ness, Patrick. (2011). When a Monster Calls. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Summary: Connor O’Malley has lots of problems. His father has left for America to start his new family. His mother is dying of breast cancer. His grandmother doesn’t seem to be able to figure him out. And he seems to be invisible to his classmates and pitied by his teachers. What else can go wrong? Well, things get worse when Connor is visited by a monster at exactly 12:07 a.m. every night. Is the monster real or a product of his depressing imagination? And what about the stories told by the monster? What do they mean?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a novel about loss, grief, despair, and then again, hope. The tone and mood of the story is dark and somber. This is not an uplifting book to read, until the last several pages are absorbed. Kids who have suffered the trauma of losing one of their parents may need extra discussion when they have finished reading. This is not a classical ghost or horror story, although it may appear that way from the title and cover illustrations.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The loss of a mother to cancer is handled beautifully, as are the fears of Connor that he will ultimately be left alone in the world. The monster is an interesting symbol of Connor’s fears and we are left to wonder whether the monster, which always appears at seven minutes after midnight, is real or a figment of Connor’s imagination. The graphics make the book appealing to middle school readers and will result in kids reading the book who normally would not.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the story out loud to someone. Try to remember as many important parts as possible.
  • Draw a picture that might have been included in the story. You have the choice to make the drawing anything you want.
  • Why does the monster tell stories to Connor? What is the purpose of the stories?
  • Did you predict the ending of the book? If yes, when in the story did you know what was going to happen? If no, what made it difficult to predict the ending?
  • If you had a monster which was made up of your fears, what would it look like? What would it say to you?

Overall evaluation of this book: Sometimes not an easy read—kids who have below grade-level reading skills may not understand everything which happens—but the story is a cut above what is available in middle school literature. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

Summary: Auggie is a ten-year-old boy who is attending public school for the first time. He has a severe facial deformity which has resulted in him being homeschooled for his entire school career. Many of his early years were spent wearing an astronaut helmet, to avoid having people stare and make fun of him. Of course, he couldn’t wear the helmet all the time and people did stare and make fun of him. Still, Auggie has a positive attitude and tries to have people see him as a real human being and not as a child with a facial deformity. Will Auggie be accepted by his new classmates? Or will the teasing and bullying begin again? Does Auggie have anything to teach the students and teachers of his new school?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel has generated lots of positive press ever since it was first published. It has also caused many tears to be shed by adults and kids who picked up the novel and learned of Auggie’s trials and tribulations as he tries to find a place for himself in the world. The novel has resonated both with parents of special needs children and parents of regular education children. The story carries a powerful emotional impact so don’t be surprised if middle school kids want to talk about the book after they have finished reading it. This book is destined to become a classic in middle school literature.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a heart-warming story of how a kid with a disability can rise above his disfigurement and become a shining example of what it means to be a human being. The real story, however, is not about Auggie’s transformation into a public school student, but about the transformation of others who come into contact with Auggie. Anyone who isn’t cheering for Auggie by the end of the story probably is an alien who recently dropped onto the Earth, impersonating themselves as a human being.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Does Auggie have a disability? Find three examples from the book to defend your answer.
  • Pick one character from the novel and explain how their viewpoint of Auggie has changed from the start of the novel to the end of the novel.
  • Predict what will happen to Auggie when he reaches adulthood. Will he have any problems as an adult?
  • If you had some type of physical deformity, how would you want other students and adults to treat you? And why would you want them to treat you this way?
  • How do you treat kids who are different—either because of the way they look or the way they act—from other kids? Think hard about whether you treat them the way you would want to be treated.

Overall evaluation of this book: An outstanding book that all middle school kids and teachers should read. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Parry, Rosanne. (2009). Heart of a Shepherd. New York: Yearling.

Summary: Eleven-year-old Ignatius, or “Brother” as he is known in the community and family, lives on a ranch in Oregon. His mother is somewhere overseas working on her career as a painter and his father has been called up to serve in the military. A series of circumstances have also resulted in his four other brothers being up for military duty or absent because of school. This has left him, along with his grandparents, to run the family farm. Can Brother handle the extra duties and pressure of making sure the family farm is working well until his father and other members of the family return? How does he handle the wildfire and the cow who has trouble delivering her calf? What can he learn from his Quaker grandfather and the new Catholic Priest?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a religious book which isn’t a religious book. This is a rare popular novel which openly discusses the issues of religion and how it relates to a middle school aged kid. Somehow the author manages to do this without becoming overly pedantic or didactic, which usually are the problems when authors attempt to write books like this. The setting and information about living on a ranch are very well done. Both adults and middle schools kids will like reading this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is essentially a coming-of-age-story in a setting and with a plot line slant usually not applied to middle school literature. Because of the nature of the story, there isn’t any bad language to be concerned with or scenes of violence which may offend. This book is very short and most kids won’t need more than four hours to finish the story. The vocabulary words in the story are suitable for even fifth graders to understand. The author does embrace the issue of Brother trying to decide what he will do with his life. His ultimate desire to be a chaplain in the corps seems to be a natural extension of his talents and desires.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Find three examples in the book of what living on a ranch in Oregon is like. How is this different from your life?
  • Why did the author include grandparents who were Quakers? What is their role or purpose in the story?
  • Why did the author include a Catholic priest in the story? What is his role or purpose in the story?
  • Tell the story line (or plot) to someone. Try not to forget any of the important details.
  • If the author wrote a second book to follow-up Heart of a Shepherd, speculate what details or events the author might put in the story. List at least three details or events.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is an excellent book. Short and touching. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Paterson, Katherine. (1977). Bridge to Terabithia. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Summary: Jess Aarons is a fifth grader who suddenly has a new neighbor, Leslie Burke. After learning that Jess is no match for Leslie’s fast legs in competition, Jess and Leslie settle down and become the best of friends. They create an imaginary world named Terabithia, which can only be reached by an old hanging rope which swings back and forth over a gully. Once in Terabithia, the two battle imaginary creatures such as giants and the dead who walk again. They even make time to conspire and think of plans to take on the bullies who tease them in school. They anoint themselves king and queen of Terabithia and everything is in good fun. The two adventurers travel to Terabithia on a regular basis until something terrible happens. But even out of the depths of despair an event happens which brings hope and a new traveler to the land of Terabithia.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The main characters in this book are fifth graders, which may cause some kids to shy away from wanting to read this book. This would be a mistake, however. Bridge to Terabithia is one of those few books which transcend ages. Even adults have really liked this book. So continue leaving this book in conspicuous places so kids will find it and perhaps begin reading. This is not a love story, even though the two main characters are a boy and a girl.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids have loved this book for years and the odds are very high your kids will also enjoy this book. The story of friendship, unencumbered by romance, will be hard for them to resist. (Not all stories about boys and girls need to have a romantic sub-plot and this one doesn’t.) There is a death which occurs in the book so you may need to “decompress” the events with your kids when they are finished reading the story. This is not a difficult or long book to read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why is Terabithia so compelling to Jess and Leslie? Do you have your own Terabithia? Why do you go to your own Terabithia—either in your own fantasy or an actual physical location?
  • How have parents been responsible for how Jess and Leslie view the world? Find three pieces of evidence to support your claim.
  • Why did the author end the book the way she did? What is Van Draenen trying to say?
  • Imagine if one of the main characters had not died. How would this story be different? How would it be the same?
  • Do you know anyone like Jess and Leslie? How do other kids treat them? Why do you think this happens? What should you do if you see this happening?

Overall evaluation of this book: An engaging book about a serious topic. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Paulsen, Gary. (1989). The Winter Room. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for young readers.

Summary: This is the story of the tales and recollections of old men as they sit together in the “winter room,” huddled around a wood stove in the dead of winter. The narrator is a young boy who lives with his parents, brother, great-uncle, and an old Norwegian man, on a farm somewhere in rural Minnesota. Even though the stories are sometimes told by the elderly men, it is the narrator, Eldon, a young boy, who breaths real life into the tales. The stories are organized around seasons—fall, spring, summer, and winter. The stories are much what you would expect—the impressions of a young boy as he moves around the farm site, the memories of ancient men reflecting back upon decades of farming, and the recollection of the best and most interesting tales which haunt and delight an elderly man’s thoughts. I especially liked the last story, “The Woodcutter,” but you’ll have to read it to find out why it was so good.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is one of the better books which talks about what life was like on the farm “in the old days” for Northern European immigrants. The concept of family across multi-generations is very strong in this book and the book is very short—so if your child reads well they may find themselves finishing the book in only a few hours. The prose in the book is somewhat lyrical—especially in the introduction.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Books written by Gary Paulsen seem to resonate with middle school kids—especially with boys—but girls also seem to enjoy reading his stories. The odds kids will not like this book are very low. It is a refreshing break from the modern trend of writing books for kids which are heavily plot driven and seem to move at a hundred-miles-an-hour. This is a slower book, one which relies more on character development.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Does your house or apartment have something equivalent to the “winter room,” where the family gathers to tell stories about things that happened in the past? What happens when relatives visit? Do any rooms in your house or apartment become the “winter room?” Why do you think this happens?
  • Think back on your life. What stories do you have which you could tell in your “winter room.”
  • Look at the first three pages of the book. What is Gary Paulson saying?
  • The author divides the book up into sections; spring, summer, fall, and winter. Why does he do this? What is he trying to accomplish?

Overall evaluation of this book: A quick and nostalgic read. Anyone who has grown up on a farm or in a farming community will especially resonate with this book. Others will wish they had. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Schmidt, Gary D. (2011). Okay For Now. New York: Clarion Books.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old Doug is an eighth grader who has moved into a small town because his worthless and abusive father lost his job. Doug isn’t enamored with the change and he finds quite a few things to be “stupid.” It doesn’t help that the teachers and police in his new hometown believe he is a “skinny thug.” Fortunately, Doug finds a friend, Lil Spicer, another student in the “stupid” town. Together they discover the local library and are especially intrigued by a book containing plates of the famous wildlife painter, James Audubon. When Doug and Lil discover some of the plates are missing—because the town has sold them to raise money or given them away—they take it upon themselves to find the missing plates and return them to the library. Along the way they encounter a coach who hasn’t quite recovered from his own war wounds, a librarian whose son is still missing in Vietnam, and Doug’s own brother who returns from serving in Vietnam, a shell of the former self.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: At first glance, you may not be impressed with the vocabulary of the author. After all, one of his favorite words is “stupid,” because that is how the main character views the situation in which he has found himself. This is one of those books, however, that you shouldn’t judge by the vocabulary. (It is, after all, the main character who is speaking.) There are references to child abuse which may be disturbing to some middle school kids. But a conversation with the kids after (or before) they have finished reading the book may be all that is needed to put everything into context.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This book is primarily about redemption and closure and how someone initially disliked by so many people can actually work to improve the lives of so many shattered lives. This book has a deeper meaning to it than many other books kids will read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • The novel contains many pictures of the birds John Audubon painted and placed into his famous book. How does each picture connect with the contents of each chapter?
  • Find three examples in which Doug makes a change or decides that not everything is “stupid.”
  • Doug works hard to try to have his brother and coach meet together. Ultimately he is successful. Why is it important for his brother and coach to meet?
  • Doug meets a character in town who throws horseshoes. What is the purpose of the author including the man who throws horseshoes into the story?
  • How would you feel if you suddenly had to move to another town and attend another school? What would you have to do to find new friends?
  • Predict what Doug will be like when he is twenty-five-years old.

Overall evaluation of this book: A surprisingly good book with themes that will resonate with middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Van Draanen, Wendelin. (2001). Flipped. New York: Random House.

Summary: Julie Baker is in the eighth grade and wonders what she ever saw in her neighbor, Bryce Loski. You see, ever since Bryce moved into the neighborhood several years ago, Julie has been infatuated with Bryce and his blue eyes. Ironically, Bryce, who previously thought Julie was an insane girl who did strange things like raise chickens and climb trees, is now mysteriously attracted to Julie. It’s a case of their attraction, or dislike for one another, of having been “flipped.” What follows is a beguiling story of attraction and revulsion, told in alternating chapters from Juli’s and Bryce’s point of view. Along the way, Juli has contact with Bryce’s grandfather, who offers his assistance, and her own father, who has a keen eye for art and the impact of art in the surrounding world.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a funny and yet poignant book which runs counter to some of the tried-and-true-love stories kids have available at their fingertips. The chapters alternate between Juli’s and Bryce’s viewpoint, but don’t be alarmed—most middle school kids won’t have any trouble figuring this out. In fact, they are more likely to revel in how the same incident can look so differently from opposite points of view. There are some serious messages here—such as about how “love at first sight” just isn’t true and that “opposites attract” is a bunch of bunk—so be ready for kids to learn about the fallacy of aphorisms.

Why middle school kids should read this book: For all the reasons mentioned above. Sometimes the old adages aren’t true and our opinions about people change over time. This is also a good book for kids to begin learning about “true love” and the silly beliefs that often accompany the first time kids believe they are falling in love. It is also a good way for them to become exposed to the concept that two people can have very different perceptions and opinions about the exact same event or incident.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why is the title of this book “Flipped?” What else could the title of this book have been?
  • How can two people view the same incident and have two different opinions as to what happened? Find two places in the book where this happened.
  • Are you satisfied with the ending of this book? Why or why not? Why did the author end the book the way she did?
  • Do you know anyone in your neighborhood who is like Juli and Bryce? How are they similar to Juli and Bryce? How are they different?
  • What makes good marriages and relationships last? Do opposites attract? Is there a soul mate out there for everyone? What happens when one person is interested in someone but the same interest is not reciprocated?

Overall evaluation of this book: A good book for middle school kids—especially those who think they are “falling in love” with someone. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Walton, K.M. (2012). Cracked. New York: Simon Pulse.

Summary: Victor is a very quiet high school boy who isn’t very happy with the way his life is going. He has no friends. His parents constantly criticize him. And there is a bully who constantly torments him. Bull is a very angry high school boy who also isn’t very happy with the way life is treating him. He sleeps on a sofa at his house where his grandfather beats him up after drinking too much and his father isn’t capable of showing him any degree of love. So Bull takes it out on Victor, a wimpy kid who momentarily makes Bull feel better whenever he can harass the little weasel. Strange events coincide with one another that land both boys in the same hospital at the same time. The boys hate one another and yet can’t escape from each other. To make matters worse, they share the same room in the hospital. Will they be able to reconcile their disgust for one another and emerge as being able to allow the other to live his life? Or will they destroy one another and themselves in the ultimate confrontation?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book contains lots of foul language and swearing. There are also references to sex and drugs, although nothing is overt. Younger middle school kids should probably not be reading this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Walton does weave together a compelling story line about bullying and victimization. The author includes enough backstory for us to feel sorry for the bully because of his chaotic, dysfunctional family. The author rotates the chapters between Victor and Bull’s point of view, so the point of view is always refreshing and interesting. It is difficult to find realistic fiction books for boys told from sympathetic points of view but this one does the trick. The ending is slightly hokey but then so is life sometimes.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does Bull’s family life help create his mean personality? Give examples from the book.
  • How does Victor’s family life help create his shy personality? Give examples from the book.
  • How do the characters in the hospital either help or hurt Bull and Victor? Give examples from the book.
  • In the beginning of the story, what would you do if you were Bull?
  • In the beginning of the story, what would you do if you were Victor?

Overall evaluation of this book: A realistic book about the impact of bullying and how bullies are sometimes created by dysfunctional families. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Woodson, Jacqueline. (2012). Beneath a Meth Moon. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: After Hurricane Katrina has killed her mother and grandmother, fifteen-year-old Laurel is the new kid on the block in Galilee, Mississippi. She appears to be recovering from the loss of her family members and joins the cheerleading squad and has a new boyfriend, T-Bone, who is co-captain of the basketball team. But one day T-Bone introduces her to crystal meth, or “the moon.” Laurel is immediately hooked on the drug and begins a rapid descent into addiction. She ultimately ends up on the street, homeless, and begging for money to feed her addiction, but is eventually helped by an artist named Moses and her friend, Kaylee. Kicking the addiction is not easy and it takes several rounds of treatment before she begins her recovery.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The book describes the unpleasantness of teenage addiction and doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The author doesn’t try to glorify drugs, but she does mention the wonderful feeling of bliss which accompanies taking crystal meth. Of course, the author also points out the debilitating consequences of the drug, which is one of the main themes in the novel. There’s no swearing and there aren’t any extended scenes of gore or violence. If you want kids to be scared away from using drugs, this is one that may do the trick.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The book is set in the time of Hurricane Katrina so kids may have some sense of the story. If not, they may need a little bit of background on the hurricane. This novel is unique in that it doesn’t paint a glorious picture of what happens when kids use drugs. There are no drug-addicted characters who end up well in this story. Laurel’s situation changes dramatically when she begins taking the moon (crystal meth) and kids will be fascinated by how quickly Laurel goes from being on the cheerleading squad to squatting in the streets, in the rain, with a chipped tooth, looking for handouts so she can buy more of “the moon.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • Laurel’s mother and grandmother are killed in Hurricane Katrina. Why do you think they didn’t leave when they had the opportunity?
  • Laurel’s descent into addiction happens very quickly. Do you believe someone can become addicted so quickly? Why or why not?
  • Think about yourself and the friends you know. If someone offered yourself or your friends “the moon,” do you think they would take it? What are the circumstances which make it difficult or easy for kids to refuse drugs when they are offered to them?
  • The author goes back and forth from the present to the past on a regular basis. How does this make the story line stronger? Or do you think it makes the story hard to follow? Why?

Overall evaluation of this book: A good book on the perils and resulting tragedy of using crystal meth—which as any policeperson, social worker, or treatment counselor will tell you is one of the easier drugs to get hooked on and one of the most difficult to become “clean” of. Four Stars ★★★★

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