Three wonderful new middle grade novels with main characters who exemplify determination in the face of adversity

Reading can often teach empathy. Reading about diverse characters can often serve to show young readers that we all — no matter our skin color or religion or financial status or family makeup — have more in common than not. Three new middle grade novels serve to exemplify exactly that: “More to the Story” by Hena Khan, “Strike Zone” by Mike Lupica, and “The Fresh New Face of Griselda” by Jennifer Torres.

more story“More to the Story” by Hena Khan is a story that will ring true for any child whose parents might be in financial difficulties and who, to make matters worse, has a very sick sibling. It just happens that Jameela Mirza, the first person narrator, is Muslim, and on the very first page of the story, the family is celebrating Eid, the holiday which celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan. Their father, Baba, had to fly for an interview for a new job, and he is missing this important family holiday. Readers learn that Jameela wants to be a journalist, and her desire to make a difference through her writing resonates throughout the story. Jameela’s parents are from Pakistan, and words like “inshallah” are peppered throughout the story, and Khan cleverly uses an article that Jameela writes to provide information about microaggresion. There is also the handsome Ali from Britain, who is staying with the Mirza family’s close friends, and who provides some young male perspective to complement the perspectives of Jameela’s three sisters. It’s a touching story of family, friendship, adversity, and diversity. (Salaam Reads)

“Strike Zone” by Mike Lupica, unlike the other two novels featured here, is a story that is told in third person, but from the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy. Nick and his strike zonesister Amelia were born in the USA, but their parents were not. And they live with the day-to-day worry of having ICE show up at their door to deport Nick’s father. Their situation is also extremely difficult because Amelia has lupus, and she is pretty sick because of it. They survive with short-term insurance policies and visits to urgent care centers and free clinics. Nick’s obsession is baseball. He plays and is a star pitcher, and his hero is Michael Arroyo, who was the main character in Lupica’s “Heat,” and who is a pitcher for the Yankees. When trouble strikes, Nick finds that help can come from very unexpected places, and that trusting — while not easy — can be life-changing. This is a book that will appeal to many young readers. It would make a fabulous read aloud, and like all of Lupica’s middle grade books, it’s about sports but also about so much more that’s important in life and the world around us. (Philomel)

In “The Fresh New Face of Griselda” by Jennifer Torres, we meet Griselda Zaragoza, fresh new faceaffectionately known as “Geez,” who feels like life hampered her with an unwieldy name and an even more unwieldy nickname. But when her father loses his company, and then they lose their house, she finds out what read adversity is. In fact, her family is lucky. They are able to move in with her grandmother while her father moves to Los Angeles to look for more work. Griselda’s sister, Maribel, has put off college for a year because of their circumstances. To make money, she’s started selling Alma Cosmetics, and she’s really good at it. When Griselda reads a brochure advertising a contest for young sellers of cosmetics, she decides to enter and win so that she can give her dad the money, so he can come home and start up his business again. In the meantime, her sister is working hard to sell as many cosmetics as she can. Griselda begins to sell makeup at school during lunch, and with tips from the talented Maribel, she does really well. But at what price? And what happens when she can’t tell her best friend about what’s happened to her family and the fact that she’s getting a free lunch at school? Even Logan, the guy  who lives next door to her grandmother and whom she’s been friends with since they were small, doesn’t know what has happened because she has avoided him all summer.

Will Griselda win the contest and be in the running for the $5000? Will her friends understand what she is going through? Will they forgive her for not trusting them? It’s a lovely story, and many children will identify with Griselda’s frustration and feelings of insecurity.

It’s also one of several middle school books in which the family of the main character is going through some difficult times financially, and that certainly represents the situation for many children’s families. And the main character, whose parents speak Spanish, will give Hispanic students a main character with whom they can identify in terms of her name and skin color. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

These books are winners all around — perfect for elementary and middle school libraries and classrooms. Because of the universal themes and diversity presented in these novels, they will be enjoyed by many children. Any would be great as a class read aloud, and all are fabulous choices for every school library and class library from 4th grade through middle school. In fact, a great activity would be to have groups of students read the books and then have a whole class discussion about the common themes in the novels.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

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