Premise: It’s been 278 days since Rain’s brother Guthrie died, and Rain and her parents are moving 288 miles to have a fresh start (even if her mom is the only one who wants one). What happened that night is a big who knows to everyone except for Rain, but that secret means Guthrie’s death is her fault. With her secret and very few other items packed, Rain moves to NYC to process through the loss of her brother and the degradation of her parents’ marriage while she tries to fit into a new environment where she’s off on the wrong foot. (Check out the motifs section, there’s a ton of issues brought up by this book — and all well done.)
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4-8
Title: The title’s meaning remains open to numerous interpretations — so it’s a great discussion point post-read. I’ll wait for you to tell me your interpretation before I divulge mine.
Great for…* (readers): who have friends experiencing grief. As a mother of kids with nuclear family member loss, I want to give this book to all their friends so that they get an inside perspective of what it’s like. Also good for kids who feel alone, different, isolated, or are experiencing change.
Great for…* (teachers): This book is rife with figurative language and symbolism. It even weaves poetry in (as a school assignment), so it’s kind of asking for work on that front. Many allusions to The One and Only Ivan make for a great pairing if Ivan comes first.
Parental Warning(s): For children who have experienced death of a nuclear family member, this book could stir up difficult emotions.
Interact: Rain runs to wipe her thoughts away and empty her brain. What works for you?
Premise: Graduating from high school in 1959 Nebraska means its time to be an adult: get married, take over the farm (if you’re male), have babies (if you’re female). Mazie Butterfield wants no part of that. She plans to leave her small town for NYC to chase her Broadway dreams. To do so, she’ll have to leave her love behind, breaking both their hearts simultaneously before arriving in a city that doesn’t care if she succeeds or not. Mazie has to figure out what parts of herself she’s willing to let go of and what different ways of thinking she’s willing to accept on the way.
Rating: 4/5, easy to read Target: 8 & up
Title: The book is a character study. There’s plenty of fun historical content. The time, context add a lot, but boil it down and this book is all about Mazie: what she wants, who she is, where she’s going.
Main Character(s): Mazie Butterfield, 17-turns-18 y/o (she/her)
Great for…* (readers): I want to be able to say anyone who feels boxed in and wants to break out will love this book, but I think the Broadway setting may act as a barrier for some. However, there are men and women who must deal with what is expected of them in this book, choosing to accept, push back, or reject it in figuring out their own identity. A classic YA trope, right?
Great for…* (teachers): setting (historical and regional), diction (though Crowder didn’t spell the accent in, the accent can be heard), allusion, character study, hopes/dreams project and planning
Parental Warnings: some cursing and unwanted sexual advances from the female perspective
Interact: If you could play in any film, show, production, who would you be and why?
If you likeStage Door (1937), you’ll like this book.
Premise: 12 y/o Will Levine just wants to be left alone with his four turtles. He doesn’t want to be called Turtle Boy by the kids at school. He doesn’t want to have surgery on his jaw. He doesn’t want new friends and he doesn’t want his one friendship to change. When Will must complete community service hours in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, though, his world begins to shift. Will hates hospitals but is assigned to visit a terminally ill teenager with a bucket list he needs help completing. Can a boy who prefers a habitat inside his shell venture beyond it without destroying himself in the process?
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4-9
Title: The title has multiple meanings. The kids at school taunt Will with the name “Turtle Boy” because of the way he looks, but he is also interested in turtles. However, the significance of the title really rests in Will’s propensity to shelter himself from discomfort — like a turtle in a shell.
Great for…* (readers): who are shy, bullied, anxious, or frightened. Many male characters make this a good read for boys while still being appealing to girls, too.
Great for…* (teachers): There’s a bucket list project, a community service project, and a cross-curriculum science/nature project waiting to happen with this book. Plenty to explore there, but the literary merit is mainly in character development, round/flat, dynamic/static, etc.
Parental Warning(s): For children who have experienced death of a parent/friend, this book could bring up memories.
Interact: Will’s favorite animal is, of course, the turtle. He does have a room full of terrariums and turtles, after all. Will says they are not pets, but, for the sake of this activity, let’s talk pets. What kind of pet did/do you want as a kid? Why? And did you ever get it?
Premise: Jessica was in an accident that left her in the hospital, recovering as an amputee. She’s a runner without a leg, and she must learn what that means for her present and her future, her family and her friends, her schoolwork and her social life.
Rating: 4/5 Target: 8th grade and up
Main Character: 16 y/o Jessica (she/her)
Title: Jessica has a reoccurring dream about running with her dog early in the morning, something she did regularly before the accident. The dream is both literal, in that when she sleeps she experiences it, and figurative, as her greatest desire is to be able to run again. The latter dream is the arc of the narrative (and then some….read it to find out what I mean, no spoilers here).
Premise: Carmen Aguilar must complete a summer project if she wants to graduate high school this year. She’s ruined one project, but her best friend helps her land a new internship with a party princess company. Carmen plays the role of Belle and is mortified when her ex shows up as the Beast. Now she has to learn to deal with him and with her wicked stepsister of a cousin who’s just hired the company to perform at her quince.
Rating: 4/5 Target: 8th grade and up, Latinx especially
Title: The motif of dreams and muddled realities, Disney princesses and villainy run rampant through this novel. I don’t love the title, but it makes sense.
Motifs (not exhaustive): coming of age, Latinx culture, Cuban-American culture, OWN voices, princesses, Disney, beauty & the beast, family relationships, mending broken relationships, growth, multiple cultures, extended family
Great for…* (readers): from a Latinx culture, interested in Latinx culture, or needing exposure to Latinx culture — some Spanish (occasionally, though not always translated to English)
Great for…* (teachers): character arc/growth, motif/theme, culture exposure
Parental Warnings: clear sexual references and scenes, intermittent cursing
Premise: Who is Edie Green and what makes her different? Firstly, she didn’t know she was different until kindergarten when her teacher asked her where her family is from and all she could say was Seattle. Secondly, her mom is Native American, adopted into a white family. As far as Edie knows, they have no connection to her mother’s birth family. She doesn’t know if she’s a part of a local tribe or not. What she does know is she has Native American features — strikingly similar to a woman in a photograph Edie and her friends discover hidden in the attic. But who is the woman in the picture? And how could her parents be hiding information about this woman that may relate to her identity from her?
Rating: 4.5/5 Target: 5-8
Title: The title encapsulates the entirety of the book and only takes its full significance in the final pages. So, to be purposely vague, it’s poignant.
Main Characters: Edie Green, 12 y/o (she/her)
Motifs (not exhaustive): identity, friendship, truth & hidden truth, disagreement, artistry/creativity, otherness, acceptance, coming of age, Native American history/culture, American history, family/adoption
Great for…* (readers): who are themselves coming of age, figuring out who they are and how they fit into a world with ever-changing knowledge about themselves. Readers who appreciate OWN voices, a bit of mystery, or history will also enjoy this book.
Great for…* (teachers): x Native American history, x Washington state history, motif and theme development, x art/film project, MAKE SURE TO READ THE AUTHOR’s NOTE FOR RELATED CLASS CONTENT/PROJECTS.
If you find yourself getting asked “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” how do you respond? What do you want the people who ask those questions to understand?
Premise: Jessie’s mom passed away 733 days ago, she’s counting. A bit too soon for her to confront her dad’s news that he is remarrying and they are moving from Chicago to LA. Jessie must start a new school, leave her friends behind, and join another household/family. At a private school for the wealthy (paid for by her new step-mother), Jessie struggles to establish a groove until an anonymous student starts emailing then texting with her. Who is this “Somebody Nobody” with whom conversing is easy and what will become of their relationship? Can you blame her if she’s struggling to feel confident in the midst of so much change?
Rating: 3/5 Target: high school, college
Title: “Tell me three things” derives from a pattern of communication between Jessie and SN (exact identity: unknown) where they begin conversing by telling each other three things about themselves, whether important or unimportant, factual or opinion-based. Record your three things in the comments, and see mine as well.
Motifs (not exhaustive): grief, moving, new kid, step families, adaptation, coming of age, friendship, romance
Great for…* (readers): fans of romance and romantic comedies (like Happily Ever After or the film You’ve Got Mail) who want something fun to read
Great for…* (teachers): students who may be reluctant readers but who get swept up in the drama of high school, free reading, quiet/bookish students
Parental Warnings: some sexual innuendo and referencing, sexual coming of age in minor characters, intermittent cursing
Start a conversation like Jessie and SN: what are three things about you? List in comments and expect a response.
Premise: When Lily, her mom, and her sister move from California to Washington to live with her halmoni, Lily comes in contact with a car-sized tiger who her mom and sister can’t see. The tiger claims Lily’s halmoni stole stories that belong in the stars. Lily must return the stories to the tiger in order to get what she wants from the tiger. But can tigers ever be trusted? Can halmoni? Can her mom or sister? Can she?
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4th-8th grade
Motifs (not exhaustive): Korean folklore, family, female relationships, grief, coming of age, independence, tame vs. wild, captive vs. free, identity, otherness, truth
Great for..* (readers): students who are quiet or feel left out, children dealing with grief or moving
Great for…* (teachers): character development, figurative language, folklore, Asian literature/studies, character contrasts
Other Reviews referenced by KZ in this vlog: Fighting Words, a Newbery Honor book
I will say it again. (I said it on social media already.) And again and again and again. Holy Snow.
I love books. I enjoy most books. I read fun books, mostly, with some element of depth to them, but let’s call a spade a spade. They’re mostly about entertainment and empathy. But this book. Holy snow.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a powerful, heart-wrenching work about more than its premise, which is weighty and deserving in itself. Although statistics vary, data shows 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys fall victim to sexual abuse at some point in their childhood. Yet, I cannot think of a single middle grades book (other than this one) that deals with the topic at all, let alone as tactically and expertly as Bradley’s Newbery Honor Book.
Della informs you that she’s ten from the start of Fighting Words, the story she narrates. She begins with the simple facts and builds to the difficult narratives and sub-narratives. From the beginning of Della’s account, she and her older sister Suki find themselves in foster care. Their mother, whom Della barely remembers except for one explosive incident (literally), is an incarcerated meth addict. The man with whom they were left at her incarceration, well, that’s where some of the difficulty resides. It was his inappropriate assault of Della that led to their removal from his care. The scene gets told, once Della is ready to tell it, leaving the reader with a sense of horror and revulsion without feeling the scene crossed a literary line for the target audience. How can a scene be appropriately inappropriate? I don’t know. But I read one in this book.
The quality of the writing and the voice is worthy of the topic here. It would have to be to have the audacity to attempt to deal with sexual abuse, abandonment, and the aftermath. Importantly, Bradley writes from experience, and confesses to such in the author’s note. But this is not a book about trauma; it’s a book about healing.
Like any healing process, Della and Suki do not have a clear and easy path to follow. Della has trouble with a boy named Trevor at school. She pushes people away with her use of four letter words (which, in the book, she substitutes for snow, snowman, snowflake, etc.) both deftly and intelligently. Suki is the only person Della could rely on to take care of her. But Suki has had to parent Della since she was herself six. Now that they’re in foster care, and preparing for court with their abuser, there are plenty of proficient adults to care for Della. And for Suki, too. But Suki and Della don’t always know how to let them or how to trust them.
The characters grow in themselves as the narrative progresses. Della tells you the hard parts. Even the hardest part. (Read with tissue nearby. She’ll warn you it’s coming.) And show you their courage along the way.
There are multiple characters with “bad stories” in this book. Some of which you hear, some of which you don’t. (Even Della and Suki shy away from the explicit and ugly details of everything– making it both tasteful and challenging for a middle grade audience, yet better to be read with someone to talk to through it.) Some of those bad stories relate to poverty, some to abuse, some to mental health. What Bradley makes clear is each character has a story whether they tell it or not.
Fighting Words embodies its title. This is Della. Telling you her story. In her words. With courage. With bravery. With love. With fight. You may not hear many ten-year-olds tell you about their abusive experiences. I pray you don’t (not because they won’t tell you but because they don’t have them to tell). Listen to her voice. It may inspire you to use your own.
You’ve gotta read this book. It’s the kind of book I live for because it’s not just literature. It’s art.
Rating: 5/5 Target: 6th grade and up for general audience, younger for children of abuse
Parents, please read this book with your child. Do not send them off to read this and struggle through its content on their own. Better yet, you read it first. Then read it a second time with them. There’s nothing easy about it. But, much like parenting itself, it’s valuable and important. No one said it would be easy. For snowflake’s sake.
Readers, don’t scoff at the target audience. This book is for older readers as much as it is for middle grade readers. Snow. I could use this in a college course curriculum. It’s that well done.