I’ve been reading middle grade and young adult books, mostly novels. They all end on bittersweet, complicated but hopeful notes. Which feels right at a time like this—and probably always.
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman (Viking, $16.99)
A novel about two eleven-year-old classmates in 1986 Chernobyl. One from a Jewish family whose estranged grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, and the other from a family that harbors anti-Semitic prejudices common to that time and place; this family sees violent physical punishment as ordinary and acceptable childrearing. The two girls, despite the initial passionate antipathy between them, end up escaping together from the radiation explosion that turned their world upside down. All this, in a regime that prioritized spinning the news over protecting the safety and health of its citizens.
Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking, $17.99)
This coming-of-age young adult novel is narrated by a teenage girl from a family of circus performers. After her mother has disappeared, she escapes from Nazi-occupied Warsaw with her dad and a developmentally delayed baby sister to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Daringly resourcefully, she makes valiant efforts to take care of herself and her family, sporadically attends school, makes friends with a Chinese boy and finds work as a performer at a “gentleman’s club” without her father’s knowledge.
Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed (Balzer & Bray, $19.99)
A put-upon, awkward, 17-year-old older brother—who dreads this—will have to make a speech at his sister’s bat mitzvah. The narrative, set in contemporary Atlanta, pairs him with a Ramadan-fasting girl he knew as a toddler; they both semi-willingly become volunteer canvassers for a Democratic candidate for state senate, in a campaign rife with anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim tropes. There’s a sweet and tentative romance here, too.
Gravity: A Novel by Sarah Deming (Random House, $20.99)
Half Dominican and half Jewish, Gravity Delgado is a young female boxer with a big heart and lots of smarts, growing up in a broken home in contemporary Brownsville, Brooklyn. She is literally a fighter, and her grit is inspiring as she finds her way to a Cops ’n Kids gym and eventual Olympic ambitions. I am so not into literal fighting—metaphorical, yes—that I was surprised how much I became absorbed in this YA novel.
White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio (Random House, $24.99)
In Palacio’s bestselling middle-grade novel, Wonder, about a boy with a disfigured face who begins to attend school for the first time, one of the characters, Julian, eventually comes to regret his initially bullying behavior. In Palacio’s new book—this time a graphic novel— Julian, in fulfillment of a school assignment, corresponds with his grandmother, who survived as a Jewish girl in hiding in France during World War II. It turns out her life was saved by a boy who had polio and had been bullied and ostracized by everyone in their class.
The Long Ride by Marina Budhos (Wendy Lamb, $16.99)
In the early 1970s in Queens, New York, three close friends—mixed-race girls who always felt like outsiders at their local, mostly white elementary school—learn that they will be bussed to junior high school as part of an experiment to racially integrate the schools. As we find out in this middle-grade novel, the results are complicated…
Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (Norton Young Readers, $16.95)
A timely memoir tells of living in poverty in America. A boy is growing up with his mom and her boyfriend, both of them out of work and depending on food stamps and pawn shops. In an environment occasionally punctuated with violence, the boy learns to navigate middle school, where he struggles to find inventive ways every day to avoid having to shout out to the lunch lady that he gets the free lunch.