Today was the first day of school for my students (weird calendar, we start about a month early.) For middle schoolers, every year is a new beginning – new teachers, new classrooms, new challenges, new opportunities. They need to see this reflected in the literature they read. They need to know it’s not just them needing to make new friends. They are not the only ones who are trying (and not always succeeding at) new things.
I’ve been switching back and forth between two Advance Copies of upcoming books that I think address this need in very different ways. The first is Always Abigail by Nancy J. Cavanaugh. Abigail has two best friends from elementary school, and the three of them are tight friends. They plan to take their middle school years by storm and become members of the prestigious pom pom squad. However, Abigail’s besties Alli and Cami end up in the same homeroom, while Abigail is stuck in another. They also make the pom pom squad, and Abigail does not.
I have to say, initially I was struck but how unlikable Abigail is. She’s consumed by the idea of being a part of her threesome of best friends and by being POPULAR. Nothing else seems to matter, including the feelings of other students who might stand in the way of her achieving her goals. Conversely, I think these are issues that a lot of middle grade students struggle with, and they will easily feel a kinship with Abigail. I’m excited to finish reading it.
The second book is Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Callum Hunt has spent his life knowing two things – magic is dangerous and best left alone, and he is essentially crippled by an accident that shattered the bones of one of his legs as a child. Call’s father has continually warned him about the dangers of the Magisterium, a training school for teens with magical abilities. It’s been described as a place where teacher treat students’ lives as something to be toyed with, where danger waits around every corner, where nothing good can happen. Similarly, however, this seems to have been Call’s experience of life in the regular world up to the beginning of the book. He is somewhat of an outcast, both due to his physical limitations and his personality. When he does his best to fail at the “Iron Trial” which determines the students who will be trained at the Magisterium, he fails horribly, ensuring that he is one of the first candidates chosen. On the bus ride there, he is confused by the other students’ enthusiasm over being chosen. Haven’t they heard that they will be lucky to live out the year? Everything Call has learned about the Magisterium is challenged, as is quite a bit of what he ‘knows’ about himself.
Both of these titles represent the great challenges faced by middle school students, and they do it in equally good, if considerably different ways. I’m looking forward to introducing both of thm to my students this year.