Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

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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Inkling

Title: Inkling

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Illustrator: Sydney Smith

Publisher: HarperCollins

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781443450287

I’ve seen this middle grade novel on a lot of book lists (Quill & Quire Best Book, CYBILS Awards, CBC Best Book of the Year, New York Times Notable…) but the premise of an ink blot coming to life didn’t really appeal to me. Then my kids picked it up at the library and started raving about it too. So I cracked the cover and at the risk of sounding cliché – couldn’t put it down.

Inkling comes to life out of Ethan’s dad’s sketch book but Ethan finds him first (unless you count the confrontation with the cat that opens the story). Soon Inkling’s helping Ethan with a graphic novel project for school. He becomes the dog Ethan’s sister (who has  Down syndrome) always wanted and eventually starts working for Ethan’s dad (who’s a comic artist).

As Inkling becomes a member of the family, Ethan reconsiders everything from the definition of cheating to the real reason his dad’s stuck. But the moral dilemma at the heart of the story is Inkling’s well being. Ethan’s dad thinks Ethan gives Inkling too many human qualities. Ethan’s horrified when other characters in the story treat Inkling like a caged animal. What’s the difference between letting Inkling help and taking advantage of him?

When Inkling goes missing, I felt as horrified as Ethan and his family. That’s when I saw the true brilliance of this character. Inkling starts out as an extension of Ethan’s dad’s imagination but learns from the diverse books Ethan feeds him, changes from experience and grows through his relationship with others. All the characters in this story are strong – and all develop in their own way – but Inkling’s the star.

I got distracted by a few typos and didn’t pay much attention to the black and white illustrations. But the cover art is brilliant and as a package this book definitely checks boxes for publishers wanting middle grade novels with more artwork and magic realism. For me, though, it was all about the heart of the story and the quick paced action that brings Inkling and his family to a tear-worthy conclusion.

 

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No Fixed Address

Title: No Fixed Address

Author: Susin Nielsen

Publisher: Tundra Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0735262751

This is the second book by Susan Nielsen that I’ve reviewed on this site. I usually like to share the love but her latest title is too good to be overlooked. Unlike We Are All Made Of Molecules, this book does not cross the line into young adult content – it’s definitely upper middle grade.

Twelve-year-old Felix and his mom (who he calls Astrid) live in Vancouver. For many reasons – some associated with Astrid’s unnamed mental illness (she has “slumps” and takes medication) and some associated with her poor decision making (particularly with respect to relationships) – they lose their home and end up living in a van that may or may not have been stolen.

At first, life in the Westfalia is fine. But as Felix settles into school and the temperature starts to drop, he becomes desperate for access to things most of us take for granted: a private toilet, regular access to a shower, an address, a meal that does not come from a can, and perhaps most of all – a sense of security.

Since Astrid seems incapable of finding (and keeping) a job, Felix searches for other ways to get the money they need for an apartment including asking for a loan from his “DNA Donor Dad” and winning a trivia game show. The one thing he refuses to do is ask for help. Or let his new friends know that he’s homeless.

The relationship between Felix and Astrid is complicated and realistic. As is the resolution to their story. The back matter includes resources and a discussion guide that both provide further information on hidden homelessness and poverty. While there are many important issues addressed in the novel- and a diverse cast of interesting characters – there’s also enough plot twists to keep young readers turning the page.

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Book Deal!

Here’s the good news I teased you with in my previous post…

I just signed a nonfiction book deal with Annick Press for a book on gene editing aimed at students in grades 9-12!!

Maybe you’ve never heard of CRISPR. Or more likely – since it’s regularly in the news – you’ve heard of it but never quite understood what it is (unless you’re one of my many genetic counseling friends, of course). Either way, this book is for you too, regardless of your age. I have no doubt gene editing will be a big part of our future and it’s up to us to decide how it’s used.

It was fun writing the proposal and it’s been super interesting to continue researching this important topic and drafting the book. But since the deadlines are tight, you might not hear much from me on social media until sometime this spring… until then, happy hibernating (I hope you have a good book… or two)!!

 

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The Dollar Kids

Title: The Dollar Kids

Author: Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780763694746

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Richard Jacobson both as a writer and a person. She was my mentor at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop and I have so much respect for her knowledge and talent. I have previously reviewed Paper Things but I’ve read everything she’s written and I love it all. I had no doubt The Dollar Kids would take me on the same emotional journey I’ve come to expect from her middle grade titles.

I was not wrong.

The Dollar Kids opens with the tragic death of 12-year-old Lowen Grover’s neighbour and younger friend, Abe. The responsibility Lowen feels for Abe’s death drives the rest of the narrative from the Grover’s family decision to buy a dollar house in a small, rundown old mill town to Lowen’s interactions with the new people he meets in Millville. Lowen’s guilt drips off the pages, making it hard for him to live next to a funeral home, make new friends, and continue to draw comics – formerly his most favourite past time.

What I love most about this book is the nuanced characters. Jennifer Richard Jacobson does a great job of showing how the entire Grover family reacts and adjusts to Abe’s death. She also examines the concept of dollar houses as a way of revitalizing dying towns. At the climax, a town divided has become a community and Millville is saved through sheer determination and co-operation. I especially love what Mr. Avery – a former Mill worker and one of the most verbally opposed to the dollar houses – learns from his grandson:

“At one time or another, everyone needs help – and everyone, at one time or another, can find a way to be helpful.”

Highly recommended.

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