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.
Rebecca Stead’s latest novel Goodbye Stranger is a shining example of how amazing children’s realistic fiction can be. Stead dares to believe children can grapple with big questions that secretly plague us about our place in the cosmos and that they will understand and relate to complex characters that can’t explain why they do things, like wear cat ears every day. What she creates is a beautiful story that will be loved by readers young and old.
The story is told from three different points of view and different perspectives in time. Much of the narrative focuses on Bridge and her best friends. They’re trying their best to hold fast to one another during the tumultuous times of seventh grade as they navigate their first forays in love and finding their place in the bigger world around them.
Bridge also becomes close with Sherm, the second narrator of the story, who speaks to us through unsent letters to the grandfather he isn’t speaking to. The final narrator is an unnamed high school student speaking from Valentine’s Day. Her story seems unrelated to the other characters except that it touches on the same themes of friendship and finding out who the person you are becoming really is. In the end, the stories fall perfectly together into an intricately crafted plot. This book is sure to appeal to fans of Stead’s other works as well as fans of Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” — Mr. Daniels quoting “a wise person” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
In Hunt's new novel, sixth grader Ally is one such Fish in a Tree. Because her father is in the military, Ally has transferred to her sixth school, where she is already known as a troublemaker. She will do anything to get out of reading or writing, including defiantly drawing on the desk right in front of the teacher. When she gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card at her baby shower, her teacher and principal are horrified. The reader, however, knows the truth: Ally can’t read.
Expertly portraying the reality of a learning disability and the impact it has on a child’s academic and social life — as well as her self-esteem — Hunt delivers a heartfelt, beautiful story about school, friendship and hope. Ally’s savior is her new substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. Besides figuring out her secret, he convinces Ally that she is smart and that he can help her. New friendships with other “outcasts” boosts her morale and brings a little more happiness to her life.
This is an overall great read with believable characters the reader will cheer for. Fans of Hunt’s other book, One for the Murphys, and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will enjoy this book for its characters and theme of overcoming an obstacle to survive in middle school.
For sixth grader Anna Wang, life is presenting her with some serious and exciting challenges. She’s learning her way around middle school, trying to make new friends and accepting her adopted baby sister Kaylee. In The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng, Anna’s also been offered the chance of a lifetime. Her family’s friends, the Sylvesters, have invited Anna and her mom to travel to China. Being a Chinese-American and having a basic understanding of the language, Anna realizes that this trip is a way to connect with her Chinese relatives, see the orphanage where her sister used to live, and improve her language skills. Unfortunately, Anna’s mom cannot get time off from work to accompany her so she has to travel by herself.
This third installment in the Anna Wang series gives the young heroine some real-life issues to deal with in a thought-provoking way. While Anna has never even travelled out of state by herself before, the chance visit to China is one that she cannot turn down, even though it takes a lot of inner strength and courage for her to go. Cheng effectively portrays how Anna, being one of a small number of Asian-American students in her home town, is suddenly thrust into a culture where she no longer sees herself as a minority. Yet, while the Chinese people do not stare at Anna as an outsider, she comes to realize that she is not just Chinese or just American but both. Cheng also nicely integrates some simple Chinese words and symbols throughout the story so young readers can learn something about the language.
Fourth grade can be tough, especially when it seems like your best friend has thrown you over for the new girl in school, your dog is being sent away to obedience training camp, and you have to sing a solo in the school play. In Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake, Julie Sternberg’s heroine Eleanor is back for another series of ups and downs. Eleanor’s latest set of woes begins when Ainsley arrives on the scene and seems to steal away her best friend Pearl. Unsure what to do, Eleanor becomes frustrated by Pearl’s apparent fascination with everything Ainsley does or says, and accidentally blurts out a secret about Ainsley that causes a rift between the girls.
On top of this drama, Eleanor is also selected to star in her school’s fourth grade show, an original, all-rabbit musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Petrified of singing by herself, and possibly looking foolish in front of her friends and Nicholas (the boy she may have a crush on), Eleanor looks for ways to back out of the show. Can Eleanor overcome her stage fright, prove to her parents that her dog has been broken of his bad habits and find a way to make things right with Pearl?
Sternberg has created a likeable heroine in Eleanor. While it’s not necessary to read the first two books in the series to understand the story, readers will undoubtedly want to discover more about her. The story is told in verse, which may appeal to reluctant readers who are daunted by traditional chapter books with long passages of prose.
When A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo opens, the main character, Michael, is an old man trying to discover the place in Belgium where his grandfather died during World War I. As he wanders the peaceful countryside where a battle once raged, he thinks back to his childhood in London and the events that led him to this spot.
Called “Poodle” by his classmates due to his curly hair and his French mother, Michael quickly discovers ways to deal with the taunts and prejudices that he encounters throughout his childhood.
Although his father died when Michael was a baby, his mother stays in touch with his father’s family, which consists of two rather eccentric, elderly aunts. Michael wonders about his father and wants to know more about him, but no one is willing to tell him much. However, one day, Michael receives a package from one of the aunts that contains a small notebook that reveals secrets about his father and grandfather that he could have never imagined.
Morpurgo is a masterful storyteller whose past work includes the best-seller War Horse, and he is at his best when writing historical fiction. His plot for A Medal for Leroy is loosely based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army. This book is a rare one for me: Not only was it suspenseful and poignant, but I could not put it down, and I read it in one sitting.
Billy Miller is about to start second grade and is very worried. He hit his head in a fall over the summer and is worried he won't be smart enough for school. Reassuring him, his father tells him this will be The Year of Billy Miller. Follow Billy through his second grade year in this charming novel by Kevin Henkes. Broken into four parts, Billy’s school year is told through his relationships with his teacher, sister, father and mother. Realistically portraying the worries of a 7-year-old, The Year of Billy Miller touches on a little bit of everything.
Does his teacher like him? When Billy thinks he has offended his new teacher he worries and wonders how to fix it. Can his little sister fill in for his best friend when a planned sleepover is cancelled? He really wants to stay up all night. Is he really too old to call his father “Papa?" That’s what the know-it-all Emma says. Will he be able to recite the poem for his mother in front of everybody? Will his mother like it?
Henkes delivers a poignant, realistic portrayal of Billy that is relatable to any elementary school student. Fans of realistic fiction such as the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary will enjoy this novel. Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author of over 50 picture books as well as numerous novels for children. The Year of Billy Miller is a worthy continuation of his great body of work.
Ava loves words and wordplay, especially palindromes, due in part to her name being a palindrome: A-V-A. So are her sister’s, mother’s and father’s: Pip, Anna and Bob. It’s no wonder that palindromes are an important part of her life, along with writing in her diary and trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. In Ava and Pip by Carol Weston, fifth grader Ava uses her diary to share her feelings and thoughts about such critical issues as her sister’s shyness, her parents’ tendency to ignore her and her hope of becoming a writer.
Although Pip is 2 years older, Ava feels responsible for her sister and wants to help her overcome her shyness and be more outgoing. In an odd turn of events, she finds help from a new seventh grader named Bea, who seems to be everything that Pip is not: bold, confident and mature. However, Ava and Bea’s plan to turn Pip from a wallflower to a social butterfly may not be as easy as they believe.
Weston’s book is reminiscent of the Ramona and Beatrice stories by Beverly Cleary, particularly the relationships between the sisters and their parents. The character of Ava is well-drawn even if she does seem unusually precocious at times for a fifth grader. This book would especially appeal to children who are going through the trials and tribulations of middle school, and also those who love playing with words.
Check out Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora, a fresh rendition of the classic nursery song set in majestic Africa. The illustrations radiate in vibrant collages through the use of pencil shading, newspaper clippings, textile designs and watercolor. With all new animal sounds, you can find out along with your child what noises warthogs, springboks and dassies make. Perfect for preschool through second grade, this bright picture book’s melody and theme are familiar enough to have children singing along while introducing lesser known animals to help broaden both their vocabulary and global cultural awareness. The glossary of animals in the back is a fun and informative feature, too.
Off to Market, written by Elizabeth Dale and illustrated by Erika Pal, tells the story of a drive to market on Joe’s bus. While driving through a Ugandan town, Joe picks up a variety of community members such as women with baskets of fruit, a woman with two goats and an elderly nun. However, trouble begins when Joe’s generosity causes him to overload the bus with passengers. It’s up to the little boy Keb to save the day with heart, smarts and kindness.
In The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, Gabrielle Wang introduces the 12 animals who raced across a river in order to have a year named for them by the Jade Emperor. From the courageous tiger to the wise snake, each animal is exquisitely illustrated by Sally Rippin, who used Chinese painting techniques. This fanciful retelling shows the character traits each beast embodies as they brave the waters to claim a cherished spot. The descriptions of each zodiac animal, their years and their attributes make this an easy yet delightful way to introduce children to the Chinese zodiac.
As Gabby tells it, she was named after the angel Gabriel. Yet, her mother cannot seem to understand her imaginary world. In Gabby’s words: “Mom names me for a/creature with wings, then wonders/ what makes my thoughts fly.” Nikki Grimes has created a very memorable young girl in Words with Wings. We come to know Gabby through a series of poems. Similar to author Karen Hesse in style, Grimes manages to tell a good story that is lyrical and a quick read to boot.
Gabby faces many issues that modern children can relate to: divorcing parents, moving to a new home, starting over at a new school and trying to make friends. Her inability to fit in is due to what her mother and teachers call “daydreaming.” However, her imagination allows Gabby to escape the sadder parts of her life. The book may be short at just over 80 pages, but the scope of what Grimes is able to communicate in so short a space is remarkable.
Additionally, students who are studying poetry will find that a variety of types of poems are used to tell Gabby’s story. From haikus to longer free verse stanzas, the book provides examples of poems that could stand alone for their expressive language and imagery, but put together, they tell a compelling tale.