Ciel by Sophie Labelle

Ciel is a character-driven, slice-of-life, coming-of-age novel featuring a gender nonconforming trans kid named Ciel as they start their first year of high school in Montreal. For my fellow American readers (I had to google this myself), that covers ages 12-17. Ciel and their friends are on the lower end of that age range, so this is solidly a middle grade novel. Kids will relate to the excitement and anxieties that come with being in a new school, making new friends, having crushes, further exploring one's own identity, and having the courage to be themselves. Ciel's inner dialogue will resonate really well with tweens and young teens. Best of all, trans and nonbinary kids get to see themselves in a…

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Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

The town of Lucille is essentially a utopia. Its older citizens have done some hard, difficult work. Justice is restorative, not punitive. There's a deep sense of community, of caring for each other as if they're all family, of getting to the root of problems and working them out. The community emphasizes free access to knowledge and the importance of public spaces like libraries. But Lucille is also a reminder that when we think we've figured things out, we must stay vigilant; complacency makes us unable and/or unwilling to acknowledge that injustices continue to occur. The characters in Pet are wonderfully diverse without their diversity being a plot point. And Jam and Redemption's friendship is the most loving, beautifully written…

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Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Confession: I'm really not fond of Alcott's Little Women. But Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy is a contemporary retelling, in graphic novel format, and it removed a lot of the reasons I couldn't make it past the halfway mark of the original story. Sometimes the girls' letters to their dad felt clunky, more like an info dump than realistic letters from his children. (This didn't bother my 10-year-old at all, though. She said she enjoyed the letters.) The Women's March illustration at the end included some trans-exclusive imagery, which was especially disappointing considering how diverse and inclusive the book otherwise was. But overall, I enjoyed this retelling. The characters are facing situations and issues that kids today can relate to,…

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Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Wishtree is a sweet story about loving your neighbor and taking action in the face of injustice. Red, a 216-year-old raggy tree, is our narrator; the community ties wishes to Red's branches once a year. Interesting nature facts and vocabulary are casually woven into this beautiful narrative. I would have liked this to be a tad longer so the friendship between Stephen and Samar could have been fleshed out more. If insta-friends are a thing, these two were it. But I otherwise really enjoyed this gentle early middle grade novel.

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The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is a middle grade novel that follows two girls as they begin to trust each other and develop a friendship. Reema is a Syrian Muslim refugee, and Caylin is a school bully with a difficult family life. They are united by the discovery of an injured mother fox and her newborn kits behind their apartment complex, as well as a shared talent for running. Difficult themes (war, death, bigotry, alcoholism, bullying) are treated honestly, in a manner appropriate for the book's somewhat narrow target age (10-12). It's a moving story told in Reema and Caylin's alternating perspectives, with the mother fox's perspective making periodic appearances in verse. 20% of the author royalties of…

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Newbery Challenge Mini-Reviews

It's only March, and I've read four of the six books I selected for the Newbery Reading Challenge. I reviewed Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming last month. Here are mini-reviews of the other three Newbery books I've read so far: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai This novel, based on the author's own experiences, follows 10-year-old Hà as she and her family flee Saigon during the Vietnam War, ultimately ending up in the United States, in Alabama. This is a child's perspective of not only a complex political situation and humanitarian crisis, but a family crisis as well: Hà's father was missing, so they had to leave Saigon without him. Hà talks about the painful process of learning English: She…

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The Pants Project by Cat Clarke

I felt wary about checking out The Pants Project because, as far as I can tell, this is not an #ownvoices book and, honestly? I'm kind of tired of cis authors writing what feels like the same trans story over and over again. (Also, the wording of the synopsis raised some flags for me.) But I'd heard good things about this middle grade novel, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. I ended up reading this straight through! I could not put it down. I loved the characters and the representation (a trans main character, a happy, close-knit family with two moms, and a secondary character with a disability). I enjoyed the storyline and above all, the hopefulness! Everything about…

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

"I am born in Ohio but the stories of South Carolina already run like rivers through my veins." In her free-verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson shares what it was like growing up Black in the midst of the civil rights movement, having an absentee father, having a beloved uncle who goes to prison, is released, has become a Muslim. She talks about growing up Jehovah's Witness, hearing rhythm and music in the words she hears at the Kingdom Hall, and having doubts about her faith. She remembers noticing the differences between being Black in her home in the North, and Black in her grandparents' home in the South. Woodson's recollections of her childhood are powerful, even when sharing simple moments.…

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Kid Presidents by David Stabler

When Kid Presidents arrived in the mail, I didn't expect to share it with C. It's geared for ages 9-12, and she's only a kindergartner; I had planned to read through it and maybe save it for homeschooling use in a few years. But C saw the cover, got super excited, and immediately confiscated it. Seriously. I could not get it back until she was good and ready to give it up . . . and what parent is going to take a book out of a 5-year-old's hands, right? She flipped through its pages, pointing out everything she saw, cackling away the whole time (Doogie Horner's illustrations really are a lot of fun). We started reading the book that same…

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Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson is a compelling, heartrending piece of middle grade fiction that kept me reading, pretty much straight through, into the wee hours of the night. I thoroughly enjoyed Polonsky's writing style and her realistic characters, and I was completely impressed the way she dealt with difficult topics in an age-appropriate manner. I don't normally do this, but I read some of the book's reviews on Goodreads prior to writing this. A number of readers commented that they felt as if the explanation for Grayson's feelings was too focused on wearing skirts and not much else. I disagree: There were plenty of other clues beyond wearing skirts and dresses, but these clues were more subtly expressed. Choosing to use glitter…

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