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Book Review: Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

Publisher’s description

This hilarious and poignant #ownvoices tween debut about dealing with bullies, making friends, and the power of good books is a great next read for fans of Merci Suárez Changes Gears and John David Anderson.

Ahmed Aziz is having an epic year—epically bad.

After his dad gets sick, the family moves from Hawaii to Minnesota for his dad’s treatment. Even though his dad grew up there, Ahmed can’t imagine a worse place to live. He’s one of the only brown kids in his school. And as a proud slacker, Ahmed doesn’t want to deal with expectations from his new teachers.

Ahmed surprises himself by actually reading the assigned books for his English class: HolesBridge to Terabithia,and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Shockingly, he doesn’t hate them. Ahmed also starts learning about his uncle, who died before Ahmed was born. Getting bits and pieces of his family’s history might be the one upside of the move, as his dad’s health hangs in the balance and the school bully refuses to leave him alone. Will Ahmed ever warm to Minnesota?

Amanda’s thoughts

12-year-old sixth grader Ahmed Aziz (who is Indian American, but he says he just prefers to say “American” as he’s never even been to India) isn’t exactly excited to move from Hawaii to his dad’s hometown in Minnesota. But it’s one of the only places his dad can get an experimental treatment for his hepatitis, so off they go! It’s not an easy time for Ahmed, whose dad undergoes surgery and then spends a long and scary time recovering in the ICU. That alone would be enough. But he’s also in a new place, a new school.

Listen, sixth grade is a terrible time. I would like to erase the memory of having had to raise my own child through 6th and 7th grades. Bad times. Bad. And Ahmed is definitely not thrilled to be at a new school at this point in his life, especially once he becomes the target of his neighbor, Jack’s, bullying. Jack is horrible to Ahmed, but thankfully he has other new friends he’s made in his language arts class who stick up for him and help him feel less alone. Together, they read some modern classics of children’s lit and explore the common feelings and experiences that help make Ahmed feel less different, less alone. Ahmed also finally begins to learn more about his uncle, who died as a child from the same disease Ahmed’s father has now. Though things are often quite rough, all of these new connections help Ahmed forge ahead in middle school.

Ahmed’s story about courage, identity, and trying on personalities shows that while it may be okay to fake it till you make it, the real best thing is getting to just be who you are. He learns that he gets to define himself, that he gets to choose who he is. And when he finally has the perfect moment to exact his revenge on bully Jack, he learns that that self he wants to be is not someone who tears others down. A solid read full of heart, friendship, and growth.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063024892
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/22/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, how I hope middle schoolers pick up this book. Beatrice is asking the biggest question: who am I? Having recently survived parenting a human through middle school, I am convinced that, in general, there is no worse age, no worse time, no worse everything than middle school. What a hard age. Hagan deftly captures how complicated this age is, and how all-consuming the questions of identity and fitting in can be.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is Beatrice’s relationship with her grandma (Mamaw) and her mom. It’s loving and inspiring and accepting even when it’s challenging and frustrating and disappointing. With her Mamaw, she has a wonderful role model for embracing eccentricity and being yourself, whoever that is. She encourages Beatrice not to observe life from the sidelines, but to get right in there and live life.

Beatrice longs to show people more of who she really is, the parts that no one ever sees, her multitudes and complexities. She’s feeling a pull between her old self and the new self she maybe wants to be. She knows she sometimes mimics who she’s with, that she changes depending on who she’s around and the expectations. She’s worried about shaving, bras, periods, dating, kissing, and popularity. She wants to be noticed, to be really seen, to be liked by a boy. She does and feels all these things in the company of two totally accepting and unique best friends, friends who let her grow and change and make mistakes. Listen, for middle school? that’s a great depiction of friendship.

The message to be yourself, to be free, to not let others define you, and to not hide yourself away comes across loud and clear as we watch Beatrice fumble her way through early adolescence. This novel in verse will speak to many who so totally and completely relate to how Beatrice is feeling. She’s yet another middle grade character I want to give a hug and say, I know this is hard, but you will be okay. Thankfully, she has wonderful people in her life to do this. A beautifully written book with an empowering message.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Book Review: The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan

Publisher’s description

An accessible and beautifully written middle grade novel-in-verse by award-winning Irish author Meg Grehan about Stevie, a young girl reckoning with anxiety about the many things she has yet to understand—including her feelings about her friend Chloe. Perfect for fans of Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, Star Crossed, and George.

11-year-old Stevie is an avid reader and she knows a lot of things about a lot of things. But these are the things she’d like to know the most:

1. The ocean and all the things that live there and why it’s so scary
2. The stars and all the constellations
3. How phones work
4. What happened to Princess Anastasia
5. Knots

Knowing things makes Stevie feel safe, powerful, and in control should anything bad happen. And with the help of her mom, she is finding the tools to manage her anxiety.

But there’s one something Stevie doesn’t know, one thing she wants to understand above everything else, and one thing she isn’t quite ready to share with her mom: the fizzy feeling she gets in her chest when she looks at her friend, Chloe. What does it mean and why isn’t she ready to talk about it?

In this poetic exploration of identity and anxiety, Stevie must confront her fears to find inner freedom all while discovering it is our connections with others that make us stronger.

Amanda’s thoughts

This is a lovely, heartwarming, achingly honest book and I just want to jump into the story and tell Stevie that I love her and she’s perfect.

The summary up there tells you everything you need to know, plot-wise. Unsurprisingly, this is a character-driven story with a small plot, but that hardly detracts from how wonderful and necessary this book is (and, as I always prattle on about, I don’t care how tiny a plot is—tiny-seeming plots cover HUGE ground, like here, where Stevie is worrying about what it means to maybe, possibly, like girls. THAT IS HUGE!). But it doesn’t fully convey the heart this story has. Stevie is so dear, her heart so tender. Her own anxiety looms large, but she’s often concerned about making her mom worry and feel anxious (something her mom tells her is not her job to be concerned about). Stevie’s anxiety manifests as stressful dreams, stomach aches, a “noisy head,” and lots of overthinking. She suspects she knows what’s behind the “fizzy feeling” she gets around her friend Chloe, but needs to know more to be sure. Stevie loves knowing things, which is actually another manifestation of her anxiety. She’s overwhelmed by how much she won’t ever know/understand/see, and she really likes to know things because she can feel in control that way, she can feel prepared for anything. Hello, totally relatable aspect of anxiety! I see you, Stevie.

A clandestine trip to the library to seek out answers proves to be the opening she needs to finally talk about what she’s feeling. My notes just say, “Oh, the librarian! <3” and “Oh, her mom! <3.” At the library, Stevie learns the most important thing: she’s loved, she’s accepted, and while there’s plenty in life to worry about, her mother’s reaction to her revelation is not one of those things.

A gorgeous, heartfelt, affirming story perfect for upper elementary students. I want to hug sweet Stevie.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358354758
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Revenge of the Red Club by Kim Harrington

Publisher’s description

A tween reporter discovers an important and beloved club at school is being shut down—and uses the power of the pen to try and activate some much-needed social change in this period-positive and empowering middle grade novel about the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

Riley Dunne loves being a member of the Red Club. It’s more than a group of girls supporting each other through Aunt Flo’s ups and downs; it’s a Hawking Middle School tradition. The club’s secret locker has an emergency stash of supplies, and the girls are always willing to lend an ear, a shoulder, or an old pair of sweatpants.

But when the school administration shuts the Red Club down because of complaints, the girls are stunned. Who would do that to them? The girls’ shock quickly turns into anger, and then they decide to get even.

But wallpapering the gym with maxi pads and making tampon crafts in art class won’t bring their club back. Only Riley can do that. Using the skills she has cultivated as her school paper’s top investigative reporter (okay, only investigative reporter), she digs for the truth about who shut the club down and why. All the while dealing with friendship drama, a new and ridiculous dress code, and a support group that is now more focused on fighting with each other than fighting back.

Can she save the Red Club before this rebellion turns into a full-scale war?

Amanda’s thoughts

My friends. MY FRIENDS. This book came out in October. I read it over the winter break after picking it up at my public library. I didn’t even take notes as I read. I figured I’d write a Post-It Note Review about it and be good. BUT. This book is SO good and SO important that I needed to give it its own space. I know we all have towering TBR stacks and endless scrolls of lists, but you really do need to find a few hours to sneak this book in. If you work in a middle school/middle school library/serve young teens, you especially need to familiarize yourself with this book. I was going to say, when I was growing up, all we had was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for books that talked at all about periods, but guess what? Periods are STILL so often completely ignored in books for young readers and teens. So here you go. A whole book about breaking the stigma that comes with having/acknowledging periods.

The Red Club is amazing. They support each other, provide each other with supplies and information, and work hard to normalize periods. There’s a lot more that goes on in this story—the dress code rears its ugly head, the principal demands prior review of newspaper articles (hey, I wrote my entire senior year project/paper about that very issue way back when I was a teen!), and The Red Club gets shut down. Riley and friends organize, protest, and speak up about all of these injustices and ways of shaming girls. I love the club and want it to exist in all schools. ALL schools need a locker that students can access for supplies and extra clothes. ALL schools should have this book.

ISBN-13: 9781534435728
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/22/2019

Book Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Publisher’s description

amina's voiceA Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was wonderful. I will say right at the beginning of this review, so you don’t miss it, that this book should be in every library collection and is a super easy one to recommend to middle school students. This is the first book from the Salaam Reads imprint at Simon & Schuster (I have a post about the imprint coming up soon) and I am so glad this imprint exists. Living in Minnesota, a place with a very large Somali population, I know firsthand the difficulty in being able to recommend books to readers who want Muslim main characters. In both the high school and public library I worked out, I would get asked this (particularly at the high school) and I can’t imagine how much it would have meant to readers had I been able to say, hey, look, this imprint is dedicated to books by and about Muslims! 

 

Sixth grader Amina is finding that middle school is making her feel a little anchorless. Her best friend Soojin, who is Korean, is about to become an American citizen and is considering changing her name to something more American (whatever that means). Amina finds that idea troubling, but it’s just one of the many ways that her best friend seems to be changing. Soojin’s suddenly hanging out with Emily, a popular girl who’s never been particularly nice to them, and Amina feels threatened by that. At home, things feel different, too. Her older brother is not the studious boy he was in middle school. Now, in high school, he’s on the basketball team and his grades are slipping. Her uncle is also staying with them, spending three months in their Milwaukee-area home. Here from Pakistan, her uncle is more traditional than Amina and her family. Her parents worry a little that, because of his kufi and long beard, he may be treated unkindly or judged. Amina, who loves to sing (but only in private) and has played the piano for years, overhears her uncle reminding her father that music is forbidden in Islam and she should be spending less time with her music. When she hears her father agree, she’s devastated. Who is Amina if she doesn’t have her music? Her uncle also feels her parents should only speak to her in Urdu. Amina’s already struggling with feeling insecure about her Arabic as she prepares for a Quran recitation contest. After the Islamic Center and mosque are vandalized, Amina feels especially upset and uncertain, but as her greater community comes together to support the Muslim community, things begin to fall back in place for Amina, with some surprises.

 

The title serves both literally and metaphorically, with many of the characters, not just Amina, learning to find their voice. Amina is a great character—thoughtful, fun, smart, and authentic. This is an excellent and completely satisfying look at culture, family, friendship, faith,and identity. A solid and necessary addition to all collections. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781481492065

Publisher:Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 03/14/2017

Book Review: My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin

Publisher’s description

seventh gradeFootball hero. Ninja freestyler. It’s seventh grade. Anything is possible.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor in this kid-friendly humorous debut by Brooks Benjamin.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book came out on Tuesday this week. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ve already waited too long. Open up a new window and order it from your favorite bookstore or your library. I’ll wait. I’ll just be here flipping through the book, revisiting all of my favorite parts.

 

You’re back? Okay, good. Without spoiling anything for you—because I know you’re going to read this book—I’ll say that I loved this book. I was hooked from the very first pages. Middle grade novel about a boy who just wants to dance? Yes, please. Dancers Dillon, Carson, and Kassie, along with their friend Austin, who films all of their dancing, have an oath: “The crew comes first.” That oath becomes harder to keep when Dillon auditions for a dance studio scholarship. Suddenly, he’s not seeing eye-to-eye with his friends and wondering how to make his own choices, knowing they will likely upset his friends. He’s getting dance lessons from Sarah, a brilliant dancer who happens to be Kassie’s nemesis. He isn’t sure if dance studios are the enemy. Kassie sees them as enforcing rules and killing creativity, but Dillon starts to see the benefit in leaning choreography and being taught technique.

 

It all becomes a muddled mess in his head—betray the crew and pursue his studio dreams or follow through with Kassie’s plan of winning just to throw things back in the studio’s face? To complicate things further, his dad doesn’t seem on board with his dream of dancing, preferring Dillon to keep playing football (though “playing” isn’t really accurate for this perpetual bench-warmer). He’s got Sarah on one side, telling him to copy her, and Kassie on the other, telling him to be himself (though her version of Dillon looks suspiciously like a carbon copy of herself). Before long, Dillon is lost in the mix, forgetting who his true self really is. His new friend DeMarcus cautions him to hurry up and figure out who he is before he gets stuck being someone he’s not. As Dillon dances his way toward the important Heartland competition, he’s going to have to decide if he should follow the steps laid out for him or put his own spin (or ninja-kick) on things.

 

The message to be yourself is a good reminder for middle school students who might be trying to figure out just exactly what that means. I loved the focus on friendships, both old and new, and seeing how those can change not just because of fighting or having hurt feelings but from starting to feel like maybe you like someone—you know, like like. Dillon is funny, kind, and determined. His friends are well-developed and all have their own things going on. Without spoiling things, I’ll just mention that this book also some LGBT characters and I loved the small storyline there, too. Excellent dialogue, fast pacing, and lots of humor—this book has all the right moves. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780553512502

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 04/12/2016