Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

Under Pressure

Title: Under Pressure:The Science of Stress

Author: Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1-5253-0007-3

I usually limit my reviews to middle grade fiction. But I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, partly in preparation for the release of my non-fiction title on gene editing next year. Under Pressure caught my eye for several reasons: I’m a fan of Tanya Lloyd Kyi, it’s published by Kids Can Press, and most importantly…. who doesn’t need to know more about stress?

Under Pressure covers all different types of stress, including things you may not even consider stress like “Helpful Highs”. Each chapter ends with a section on “Stress Busters” and the final chapter is totally devoted to “Tension Tamers”.

A lot of material is covered here, including the biological and genetic basis of stress. Canadian-based studies of stress are also featured. It may not be a book that can be read cover to cover by the average 12-year-old but there’s stuff in here for everyone – from the zen to the totally stressed. Under Pressure is the kind of non-fiction I would like to write. It’s also a book both me and my kids will go back to again and again.

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Focused

Title: Focused

Author: Alyson Gerber

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1338185973

Clea really tries to do well in middle school and meet her parent’s expectations by being organized and on time. Trouble is, she’s constantly distracted. Pretty much the only thing she’s able to focus on is chess. But her position on the chess team becomes threatened by bad grades, the insecure (but popular) girl on the team, and her pending diagnosis of ADHD.

Before she can get the medication she needs, she blurts out some personal information about her best friend, Red, who’s tired of Clea’s lack of inhibition. Through it all, she’s supported by her family and a new friend, Sanam. Along with medical and educational professionals, her supportive group of friends and family help Clea to start advocating for herself and asking for the help she needs.

Someone I’m very close to has ADHD. But until I read Focused, I didn’t have a clear idea on how it affected that person internally. I’m very grateful to Alsyon Gerber for sharing her personal insight into the condition through the fictional story of Clea. While everyone’s experience with ADHD is different, Clea’s struck me as authentic and relatable.

I can not recommend this book highly enough. Focused should be in every middle grade classroom – and not just for the students, but teachers and parents too.

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My Life as a Diamond

Title: My Life as a Diamond

Author: Jenny Manzer

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781459818316

The start of My Life as a Diamond provides a brief glimpse into ten-year-old Caspar Cadman’s life “before” in a scene where he (still going by the name “Cassie”) decides to cut his hair. The story really starts with the family’s move to a suburb of Seattle, however, after Caspar (now “Caz”) is rejected by his baseball team in Toronto. In his new hometown, he joins a summer baseball team and enjoys the freedom of being himself without anyone knowing “his secret” (which – spoiler alert- eventually catches up with him).

This is another 2018 baseball title I discovered on holidays. Compared to Mascot, there’s a lot more focus on the actual game. The scenes on the diamond are fast paced with just the right amount of baseball lingo and detail. Not all the characters on Caz’s team are well defined, something I find tricky to do when writing sports stories where the main character is part of a big team. I also would’ve liked a bit of insight as to why the bully on the opposing team is so mean (and I didn’t care for the characterization of the vegetarian).

Based on information in the back matter, where there’s a list of transgender resources, the author did a lot of research to create Caz. Since we’re both cis gendered, I have trouble knowing whether the representation of his transition is accurate. I’ve read a few reviews that suggest there are some problems with the “born-in-the-wrong-body” narrative.

Overall, My Life as a Diamond gave me a good insight into what it might be like to fill Caz’s cleats. Baseball fans will enjoy this book, which is an important addition to the increasingly diverse collection of middle grade books.

 

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Mascot

Title: Mascot

Author: Anthony John

Publisher: Harper Collins

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780062835628

I’m a little late reviewing (and reading) this 2018 title. Not sure how I missed it, especially since I’ve been focused on recently published middle grade books about baseball. Thank goodness for holiday libraries!

Mascot introduces readers to Noah Savino five months after a car accident that killed his father and put him in a wheelchair. A former little league catcher, the spinal cord injury doesn’t just change Noah physically. It changes his relationship with his peers and his mother and leaves him with a bitter outlook on life.

The book isn’t really about baseball. Noah talks about being a catcher, particularly in reference to his nemesis, who Noah and his friends challenge to a pitching/hitting competition. The St Louis Cardinals also play a role, mainly in Noah’s memories of his father and the mystery of whether his mom’s new friend is actually the team’s mascot. But overall, Mascot is really about Noah mourning the loss of his father and adapting to his new life.

The characterization’s a bit over the top, especially the two VERY mature 9-year-olds. I also found the dialogue between Noah and his friends (and the bully) unrealistic for 12-year-olds. It reminded me of the Gilmore Girls – the banter between them was too clever to be real but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the show. And these little things won’t stop middle graders from loving this book.

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Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Title: Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Author: Meg Medina

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780763690496

Not only is this book a Newbery Award winner, the author is represented by my dream agent. To say I had high expectations would be an understatement. It took me a few chapters to get into it but once I did – I was hooked.

In her front cover book blurb, Robin Yardi calls Meg Medina “the Judy Blume for a new generation”. I totally agree. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is a wonderful coming of age novel. It’s not really about anything – which is probably why I had trouble getting into at first – but it’s also about everything in the life of Merci Suarez, a truly engaging character.

Everything is changing for Merci Suárez. Now in sixth grade, friendships are shifting and so are expectations – which are especially high for Merci who helps earns her way into private school by doing “community service”. At home, her Lolo’s acting very strange. Merci lives with her extended family in three connected houses called La Casitas, but she’s particularly close to her grandfather who bikes with her every Sunday morning and pays her to help with her dad’s painting company.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears reminds me of the books I loved growing up. It’s the type of book I want to write. The fact that it’s done so well – not just on the award circuit but on the New York Times Bestseller list as well –  gives me hope that contemporary books without a strong hook or fast-paced plot still have a place in the market. Oh – and the 13-year-old boys in my house liked it too.

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Nikki on the Line

Title: Nikki on the line

Author: Barbara Carroll Roberts

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0316521901

If you liked Inside Hudson Pickle, you’re going to like Nikki on the Line. And for those of you who wished Hudson was more about basketball and less about genetics (I’ve heard from a few of you and believe me, I’m listening), you’re going to totally love it!

Thirteen-year-old Nikki loves basketball – until she makes the elite travel team. To help her single mom pay the fees, she offers to babysit her energetic little brother every day after school. In addition to practice and games, this takes up a lot of her time. So much that her grades start to slip and her relationship with her best friend (who’s also on the team) becomes strained.

To make matters worse, Nikki’s no longer the star of the team (but still the shortest) and her lack of confidence really hurts her play. But when she listens to her coach’s advice to “not let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do” and learns to shoot a 3-pointer, everything changes.

Nikki’s family history is complicated and there’s a great subplot involving a class genetics project. The characters are wonderfully nuanced, especially Booker, who also has a non-traditional family and helps Nikki with her 3-pointers. The one character who didn’t seem authentic was Nikki’s mom – I don’t understand why she spent so much time reading and ignoring her kids when she worked so hard to have them. Otherwise, it’s a well paced, great read. The only downside? Nikki on the Line will have basketball fans wishing the summer was over so they could get out on the court!

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Mya’s Strategy to Save the World

Title: Mya’s Strategy to Save the World

Author: Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Publisher: Puffin Canada

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0735265257

I bought this book because I’m a big fan of Tanya Lloyd Kyi and because I thought it might be a Authors for Earth Day Eco-Book of the Month selection. It turns out I was right about Tanya’s writing skills, wrong about “Saving the World” referring to the environment (definitely a bias on my part). Instead, it’s focused on social justice – an equally important topic for middle grade readers.

Twelve-year-old Mya Parsons plans to work for the United Nations one day so she can save the world. She’s so passionate about issues such as Rohingya refugees that she forms a Social Justice group at school to do letter writing campaigns and fundraising. But when her best friend gets a cell phone, Mya suddenly has a slightly more selfish concern: she wants one too.

The pros and cons of cell phone use are well presented. With her mom away in Myanmar caring for her grandmother, Mya’s put in charge of her little sister, who’s an avid skateboarder. Having a cell phone would make this safer, she argues, along with presenting other “pros”. Her dad mainly represents the “con” side of the argument but when Mya does a school project on texting, she comes up with some cons of her own, including the use of cobalt mined by children living in Africa in cell phone production.

Mya has the same problems as many other 12-year-old girls, especially with her mom away for an extended period of time. All the issues are presented in a balanced way, without ever slowing down the pace of a good story. The social justice aspects are well presented with just the right amount of information and Mya’s causes are easy to root for. Good summer reading!!

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To Night Owl From Dogfish

Title: To Night Owl From Dogfish

Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780525553236

I have always liked books told through correspondence. Once of my favorite books of all time is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Yes, the movie is good but the book is much, much better). I tried incorporating letters into my historic middle grade novel Twisted Fate, staring  Rosalind Franklin, but it was a struggle – that book is either “in the drawer” or a “work in progress” depending on my current mood. There aren’t many middle grade books I can think of that do this well, until… now.

To Night Owl From Dogfish starts off as email correspondence between two wildly different 12-year-olds that live on opposite sides of the United States. Avery and Bett’s dads have started dating and want them to go to the same summer camp. The girls are strongly against this but as they get to know each other, things change. And once they do go to camp together (spoiler alert!) the correspondence changes too. This is why it works – bestselling authors Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer never waver from the correspondence-style but as things progress they add letters, texts, emails between different characters, and even some formal written reports to move the plot along.

The book covers two summers and more than a year in the life of Avery (Night Owl) and Bett (Dogfish). A lot changes and there are more than a few twists a long the way. Every character in the book is nuanced and unique and since we get to read correspondence from them in their own words (even the camp counsellor and the bully), the reader really feels like they know each one. (Gaga – Bett’s grandma – was my favorite.) The fact that To Night Owl From Dogfish is written by two different authors likely helped ensure that the main characters, in particular, are different and completely fleshed out.

One of my 13-year-old sons (13 – how did that happen?) tried reading this book but found it difficult to follow the emails back and forth. I was surprised – I thought the format was ingenious and engaging. His twin brother didn’t even crack the cover. He’s more interested in non-fiction and doesn’t like anything to do with camping. Still, I was surprised (my kids never fail to surprise me) – I thought the front cover (and subject matter) would attract a variety of readers. In a way, our different opinions on To Night Owl From Dogfish support the book’s theme, which I’ll sum up with two quotes from the wedding speech at the end of the book:

No one’s supposed to tell anyone, “You two shouldn’t love each other.” But maybe, also, no one’s suppose to tell anyone, “You two should love each other.”

&

Families can look different from how they used to. And sisters can look different, too.

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Everlasting Nora

Title: Everlasting Nora

 

Author: Marie Miranda Cruz

Publisher: Starscape

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780765394590

12-year-old Nora and her mom live in a grave house in Manila’s largest cemetery. That’s right – a grave house. They sleep and eat next to the tomb of her father, who died in a house fire.

They are poor but they survive by doing laundry and selling Nora’s dried flower wreaths. That is until Nora’s mom goes missing – a victim of debt associated with her gambling addiction.

It sounds depressing. And it is. But Nora’s determination and resourcefulness  keep them both alive – and keep readers of Everlasting Nora turning the pages of the book to find out what happens.

Although the story contains many heart-thumping, action scenes, Cruz does not skip on the details necessary to bring the setting to life. I learned a lot about Filipino culture, especially the food (I can’t wait to try banana-que).

Life is unrelentingly hard for Nora. But her courage fills the story with promise and hope. Everlasting Nora is a heart-filled glimpse into a piece of the Philippines, filled with characters that are easy to root for (especially Jojo). I hope Nora makes it back to school!

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Fadeaway

Title: Fadeaway

Author: Maura Ellen Stokes

Publisher: Yellow Jacket

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781499806748

Since this review is not really a review at all but more of a personal reflection, I’m going to start with a quick description so I can get into listing the things I love about Fadeaway.

Publisher’s blurb:

When Sam’s best friend Reagan dies after her heart suddenly gives out, Sam must learn to deal with her grief and ultimately discover who she is without her best friend by her side.

What I love about it:

1 – The main character is 14-years-old

Fourteen was a very formative age for me: my family moved cities, I experienced by first true heartbreak, resisted peer pressure and remained vegetarian (pressure that came less from peers and more from family and cattle country in general), and discovered a passion for sport that would get me through several more life-altering changes. I don’t really remember being twelve and by sixteen, I had already figured a lot of stuff out. This is why I find it frustrating that authors are generally told not to write 14-year-old characters because they’re too old for middle grade and too young for young adult. (Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote a great post this week about the subcategories of MG and YA). Readers need characters of all ages, including fourteen. And Sam’s a great one.

2 – Sam’s grief is shown in a raw but totally realistic way

My dad died when my twin sons were 2-years-old. It was a very difficult time for me and my grieving process was very complicated. I love that Sam’s grief is not shown as a linear progression where each day is better than the day before. There are days that Sam misses Reagan so much she can’t get out of bed. There are moments that she laughs out loud at a memory of Reagan. More often than not, these moments are followed by a wave of sadness. I love the coping mechanisms she develops as she figures out how to be Sam instead of Reagan&Sam. I have not lost a best friend but I’ve left many friends behind when I’ve moved between cities. Every time, it felt like I was reinventing myself as I learned to navigate a different world without the support network I’d come to rely on.

3 – The story is sad and sweet and even a bit slow – without being boring

For so many reasons, our society is becoming more and more about instant gratification. I see this everywhere, including in the books we give to children. I worry about how this will affect my own kids. I worry about how it has affected me. So I appreciated being reminded that books do not have to be action packed. Or set in a fantastic fantasy world. Or heavily illustrated. Or a mash up between one best seller and another. I refuse to call Fadeaway quiet but I love that it takes time to unravel. And I love that there are some good basketball scenes along the way.

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