In Ronald L. Smith’s novel Hoodoo, twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s family has a history of practicing hoodoo or folk magic. Despite his name Hoodoo can’t cast a single spell. His grandmother, Mama Frances, tells him that his heart-shaped birthmark under his eye is a sign he’s marked for magic and his ability to conjure will come in time, but Hoodoo’s time is rapidly running out. A mysterious and malevolent man called the Stranger has appeared in town and he’s stalking Hoodoo. Hoodoo has to discover the truth about his family’s past and find a way to conjure before the Stranger destroys Hoodoo and everyone he loves.
Part coming-of-age story, part Southern Gothic tale, Hoodoo is creepy and mysterious, perfect for any middle schooler who enjoys the supernatural. Even though the story is set in 1930s Alabama during Jim Crow, Hoodoo’s world is a self-contained society with its own secrets and powers. Hoodoo is a likeable and relatable narrator, struggling not just with supernatural forces but also with bullies and his first crush.
Smith currently lives in Baltimore and he recently won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. His writing is smooth and easy, with a rhythm to it that lends well to reading the book out loud. Hoodoo is a good read for any fan of scary stories, but fans of Lemony Snicket should definitely check this book out. Read the Between the Covers author interview of Ronald L. Smith here.
Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but in Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, teenager Kai must learn how to continue on after the loss of almost his entire world. March 11, 2011, should have been a normal day for Kai and his classmates; instead, it quickly turns into horrific tragedy as the students struggle to escape as their hometown is destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami. In the course of a few hours, Kai goes from a normal student who loves soccer to one of the few survivors left alive to salvage what they can from the destruction.
The story then follows Kai through the next year as, angry and grief-stricken, he must come to terms with what has happened to him. This includes travelling to New York City to meet with young adults who lost their parents 10 years previous on September 11. Kai is encouraged to go as a way to heal and connect with others like him, but agrees only when he realizes he has a chance to find his estranged American father if he goes. But once in New York, Kai gains a greater understanding of how tragedy shapes us, and is inspired to reclaim his life.
Author Lowitz was living in Tokyo when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan and took part in the volunteer relief efforts. While fictional, Up from the Sea is inspired by her experiences and by the survivor’s stories. Lowitz creates memorable images with very little description, allowing readers to share in both Kai’s grief and his burgeoning hope. Because it is a novel-in-verse, it’s a fairly fast and clear read, good for all kinds of readers. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Kai’s journey from the dangers of the earthquake and tsunami to his struggles as he learns just how strong he can be.
Even though Kai’s loss is caused by an unexpected natural disaster, Kai’s personal journey is universal, one we all have or will have to face. Up from the Sea is ultimately a hopeful and encouraging story of humanity’s strength of will to persevere. Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira.
As societal awareness of the transgender identity grows, the conversation on what it means to grow up transgender is also gaining new voices. First-time author Alex Gino’s book George puts readers inside the mind of a transgender child struggling to understand her gender identity and to convey that identity to those important to her.
George is a fourth-grader with a mother and older brother, a best friend and a secret – she’s a girl who wants to be called Melissa, not the boy named George that everyone thinks she is. It’s distressing for her to have to use the boy’s bathroom, to keep her hair cut short and to be called “young man.” George’s greatest fear is that her family won’t understand or accept her if she tells them the truth. She decides, instead, to hide her identity, causing her to continue to feel isolated and frustrated.
This changes the day her teacher holds auditions for the class play of Charlotte’s Web. George desperately wants to play Charlotte. Not only does she admire Charlotte’s strength, but also believes that if she can land this key role she can show everyone, especially her mom, the girl she is. However, her dream is dashed when her teacher won’t let her audition for the part; after all, Charlotte is a girl role and to her teacher George is a boy. When her best friend Kelly comes up with a plan for George to be able to perform as Charlotte, George has to gather her courage to show everyone who she is.
While the book is recommended for middle school readers, George is the story of a child discovering and accepting herself that everyone, child and adult, transgender and cisgender alike, can relate to. George’s quest to be accepted for who she is gives readers insight into her world in a way that is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Readers interested in children’s books with a transgender protagonist should also read Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson.