The thing that has surprised me most about being a Middle School fiction panelist for the Cybils is the number of books that are solidly appealing to middle schoolers. The “middle grade” category basically includes books in that 8 – 12 range, but how many books would be enjoyed by an 8-year-old 3rd grader and a 12-year-old 6th or 7th grader? I’ve loved discovering these books for middle schoolers that are very current and relatable to the age group without being too full of snark, attitude, language or inappropriate activities that are sometimes featured in the YA books that kids in this age-group often read.
The Red Blazer Girls: The Vanishing Violin by Michael Beil is a delightful book. It’s actually the second mystery featuring the “red blazer girls” (so named for their NYC private-school uniform), but I listened to this one first and didn’t feel like I missed a thing (however it did make me want to go back and read the first one). These middle-school girls are a little snappy (think Gilmore Girls-type dialogue), but they are really fun, too. I wonder if author Michael Beil grew up with sisters or has tween girls of his own, because he’s right on with the characters.
They are smart and talented — the kind of girls you’d want your daughters to hope to be, instead of the latest Disney teen sensation.
Though they act and experience life as the kids of today do (complete with cell phones, laptops, and an overachieving level of involvement), this book also reads as somewhat of a classic kid’s book — the kind that I would have liked when I was 12 (and the kind I like right now).
The girls are hot off of solving their first case, The Ring of Racomadour, when the nun at their school asks them to help her figure out who is responsible for all the unexplained goings on in the school. In the midst of investigating this, the girls get pulled in to another mystery when Rebecca (the musical one), is sent a mysterious letter directing her to find a rare violin.
The mystery unfolds as more notes are sent, and it involves wordplay and puzzles, which would be fun for the reader to try to discover on her own, or marvel at Margaret (the brainy one), as they discover the answers, and is probably the one drawback, though slight, to the audio version.
AUDIO NOTES: The narrator did a great job of sounding like a teen. Sometimes this can be hard. She was bright and upbeat and made listening to it a joy — so much so that when my 12-year-old did go back to book one, The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour she selected the audio version of that as well.
The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee Frazier is a very thoughtful book that explores race in a completely original way. Woven throughout is the popular middle-school theme of identity and fitting in.
Minni and Keira are biracial twins. That’s not all that unusual, but the fact that Minni looks completely like her father — fair and red-headed — and Keira looks like her mother — darker with curly dark hair — is unusual. When their grandmother invites them to stay for the summer and participate in the Black Pearl pageant, it makes their differences stand out even more. Not only does Minni not look Black, but she hates being in the spotlight, something her sister Keira loves.
The novel focuses on Minni figuring out if she really can consider herself to be Black, learning what it’s felt like for her sister Keira to be one of the only dark-skinned people in their class at home, and just figuring out identity and who she wants to be.
You’re my daughter. And your daddy’s daughter. And Keira’s sister. And your own strong human self. Not a color. Got it? (p 60)
It’s a great look at sisters, mothers, estranged relatives (their grandmother), and facing your fears. Both sisters are likable and relatable heroines, and the message that comes through is that we should celebrate our similarities and our differences.
Thirteen-year-old Moxie has never felt that she lived up to her name (not only Moxie, but Moxie Roosevelt Kipper). She’s never felt that she was anything special. When she goes off to a nearby boarding school, she figures that this is her chance to reinvent herself. The problem is that with every different person she meets and likes, she ends up showing a different new personality — from the Mother Earth Goddess, the Juvenile Delinquent, to the Sporting Enthusiast, to the Activist, to even — accidentally and most inexplicably — the Amish girl.
The Reinvention of Moxie Roosevelt celebrates friendship, and reminds the reader that a person is more than what is on the outside. I liked the authentic and eye-opening relationship that Moxie had with two of her teachers (helping her to see that adults are people too). It’s also funny, which is always a hit. Though the conclusion was somewhat predictable (Moxie comes to term with her own unique gifts and personality), the way that Kimmel wrapped up the story was not predictable and completely satisfying.
This Is Me From Now On is a book in the Aladdin Mix imprint, one that is targeted specifically at this age group (The front page on the site says “So you are too old for kids’ books, but your mom will freak if you come home with anything scandalous”). It’s the summer before 7th grade, and conservative Evie is faced with examining who she is (or who she’s been trying to be) when free-spirited Francesca comes to live with her aunt in the building next door. Evie is mostly embarrassed by Francesca’s outlandish clothes and behavior, but after learning more about her, Evie begins to see herself in a new light as well.
She starts to be influenced by Francesca (not in the best way), but as she sees the error of her ways, she also begins to see that she’s let her other conventional friends influence her too. She eventually comes to terms with who she wants to be, and what kind of friends she wants to have, realizing that though different, her two sets of best friends can all have a place in her life.
A funny tone, realistic voice, and enough “rebellion” to appeal to adolescents who are trying to separate their identity from their parents, will make this an appealing book for your middle school girl.
Although she probably didn’t come to a firm realization of who she was and who she wanted to be until she was 18, middle school wasn’t SO terrible for reviewer Jennifer Donovan. She blogs at Snapshot about her journey as the parent of a middle-schooler.