The first one is called "Towers Falling" by Jewell Parker Rhodes. It's about 11 year old Deja who has grown up in Brooklyn. Her family has always struggled financially but this year, they've had to move into a homeless shelter. It's not awesome. She has to take a lot of responsibility for her younger sister and brother but she feels angry a lot. She's angry that she's had to change schools (even though her new school is much better than the old one), she's angry that she has to wear clothes that don't fit properly and that aren't fashionable, she's angry that the new kids don't understand what it's like to be homeless, she's angry that they have to share a small place and eat in the shelter's dining area. But she does make two new friends-Ben and Sabeen. Ben has also just moved to the area-he's from Arizona where he lived on a ranch and had a horse. His mom and dad just split up so he's hoping the move will be short term. Sabeen has been at the school longer but her family came to NY from Turkey. Sabeen is Muslim and wears a head scarf to school. As the book progresses, the kids become better and better friends. They start working on a history project together and as they are talking about big events in history, Ben brings up September 11. Sabeen has a bit of breakdown because of the treatment of Muslims and Deja has no idea why because her family believes that she is too young to learn about September 11. As Deja digs deeper into understanding what happened during September 11, she finds that her connection to that terrible day is deeper than she thought. This is going to be a really great one to have in our library. Our students do a big unit on social issues and this one has so many (homelessness, post traumatic stress disorder, divorce, treatment of Muslims, September 11) that it will give the kids a lot to talk about. It's terrific that there's finally a book for the middle grade kids about September 11 that isn't too scary with details about the horrific things that happened.
The second one is called "The Hill" by Karen Bass and it's probably at the high end of middle grade fiction. I'm not sure I want to put this in my library because some of the language that's used in the book is offensive to my little kids (you know how that goes"Oh my gosh, Mrs. Tanner, look! It's the s word!!!"). It was a good story though and I think a lot of kids will like it. It's about two boys, Jared and Kyle, who although they are about the same age, could not be more different. Jared comes from a divorced family and as he's flying to visit his father (who owns diamond mines), the private plane he's flying in crashes. He survives the crash and is rescued by Kyle, one of the indigenous First People of Canada. Kyle lives as a part of a large family group but his parents are out of the picture so his grandparents are the ones who care for Kyle. Jared is pretty sure he knows everything and so when Kyle suggests a route to safety, Jared decides to ignore his advice and go in the opposite direction. So to start with, it feels a bit like a Gary Paulsen novel and then, something completely different happens. I don't want to give away too much, but let me say there are supernatural elements and some completely scary creatures that made for a very exciting story. I also need to say that I found it very hard to like Jared at first-he is so self centered and so entitled that I almost put the book down. I don't know any kids like Jared at all and his deep concern over the kind of jeans he was wearing and the kind of shoes he had and his complete disregard for the advice of someone who was from the area seemed almost cartoonish. His wise Native guide, Kyle, seemed a lot more realistic to me and I liked him enough to stick around. This would be a good one paired with "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen or "The Talking Earth" by Jean Craighead George.
This year there has been a lot of conversation about having culturally diverse stories. This one is an example of Native American culture, which seems like a piece that's been lacking, at least in the books I've been reading. It's called "Soldier Sister, Fly Home" by Nancy Bo Flood. This one is about a girl named Tess. She is home on the Navajo reservation for the summer. She's been at a boarding school in Flagstaff which she doesn't really love. She's endured some teasing about being a Native American there but back home on the reservation, they tease her about being a white girl (her dad is white). In addition to trying to figure out her own identity, her older sister is trying to find her place as well. Her sister's plans have always centered on going to college on a track scholarship, but last year she had an accident and broke her ankle and shattered those dreams. She decides she's going to join the army, which seems pretty scary since one of her friends was killed in the war (the girl who was their friend is Lori Piestewa, who was a real Navajo soldier who was killed in Iraq). The writing in this one is really vivid and I hope it's culturally appropriate because I really liked all the different pieces of Navajo culture that were portrayed here-the respect the grandparents, the religious ceremonies, the summer rites of passage, even the acceptance of her dad by the tribe. I think this one will be an excellent way to open a conversation about different cultural expectations and how difficult it is to try to straddle two cultures. This one would be a good one to connect to"The Talking Earth" by Jean Craighead George or "Dream On Amber" by Emma Shevah.