Two must-read middle grade novels are ‘Attack of the Black Rectangles’ and ‘Island of Spies’

Two books published in 2022 that on the surface seem quite different, but share an important theme, are “Attack of the Black Rectangles” by Amy Sarig King and “Island of Spies” by Sheila Turnage. Both are about children who are determined to deal with problems that they are told are best left to adults. One of the books is about censorship and speaking out for what is right; the other is a WWII historical fiction in which kids are told they have nothing to contribute even as spies come ashore and ships are sunk on the east coast of the US by German submarines. In both novels, we meet kids who are strong and not afraid to speak out against wrongdoing. We see adults who want to shield the children from unpleasantness only to find that the children are determined to understand the truth and deal with it. We see girls being underestimated and adults who think only they know best. The children know otherwise. Both books are inspiring, and both definitely deserve a place in every library and classroom bookshelf.

“Attack of the Black Rectangles” is a powerful and emotional reading experience. And it’s a story that isn’t easily put down because we want to find out what happens next and how it all turns out. The story centers on three best friends: Mac, Denis, and Marci. They are in 6th grade, and their teacher is the woman who has supported the ever-more-restrictive rules that exist in their small town. Rules including no junk food, a 9:00 pm curfew, homeowners restricted to painting their houses white, girls not allowed to wear shorts to school, and what finally causes the children to protest and become activists, the censorship of parts of the literature they are given to read in school. Ms. Sett is the 6th grade teacher, and she’s all about keeping harsh realities from children because she doesn’t think they should know, for example, that Columbus didn’t “discover” America. Mac tries to explain, as they are talking about Columbus Day, that you can’t discover a place where there are already people living and thriving, and he shares the information that Columbus “enslaved, tortured, and murdered Native people…” When Ms. Sett shuts down the discussion, Mac realizes that while Ms. Sett knows the truth about Columbus, she is still teaching the kids that he’s a hero. “So you want us to learn lies?” he asks.

Then, during their literature circle, the kids come across words in the book they are reading that have been crossed out with black marker. There are black rectangles covering the word “breast” in “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen. Actually, they have to go to the local bookstore and compare their copy to the uncensored book to see what’s been covered. Incensed, they go to the principal of their school to complain. She brushes them off. But we soon realize that Mac, Marci, and Denis aren’t going to just let this go. They talk to their parents, and they start to protest. Mac’s grandfather surprises Mac when he tells him that he’s been reading banned books to Mac his whole life. Mac doesn’t believe it, but his grandfather brings out “Charlotte’s Web,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” Captain Underpants,” Henry’s Freedom Box,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” and more. Mac thinks, “I had no idea that my entire childhood was made up of books that other people didn’t think I should read.”

Because the book features Mac’s first person narrative, we are especially privy to his home life. His parents are divorced and his father comes on Saturdays to spend time with Mac since his apartment is too small for Mac to go there. We quickly see that his father has profound mental and emotional problems. He thinks he’s an alien, and they spend time in the garage working on Mac’s grandfather’s car, which his father claims (only to Mac) is a spaceship. He wakes Mac up in them middle of the night to go “flying” with him and buys Mac junk food. Out of loyalty to his father, Mac hides this from his mother and grandfather, who lives with them. But soon Mac realizes that there is more wrong with his father than he had realized.

Kids will relate to the characters and their struggles not only with censorship, but with just being kids. Marci is a feminist who is very aware of the fact that boys can wear shorts to school in the hot days of summer, but girls can’t. Mac is afraid of what his friends will think if they find out that his father isn’t a normal dad. Denis is worried about the fact that he’s never had a crush on anyone while his friends have. Normal kids’ problems, but we see how these three deal with those as well as their fight for justice.

The scenes with the school board gave me shivers, and I almost cried when Jane Yolen helps (no spoilers, read the book!). The takeaway is that kids should be treated with respect. They should be told the truth and given time to process difficult realities. There are those in our society who want to whitewash our history and pretend that the founders of the U.S. were perfect men, but as Mac observes when they visit Independence Hall, 41 out of 56 signers of the Constitution owned slaves. It puts things, and those men, in perspective. While we revere the Constitution, it clearly states that slaves, Black people, count as only 3/5 of a person. Children who are old enough to learn American history are old enough to be told the truth. And children (and their parents) should demand it.

One thing that the author does that I really liked is that she presents a student whose family values and whose thinking are almost in opposition to that of the three friends. Their parents seem openminded and educated, but this student, Aaron, tells the class that the Earth is flat and that the moon landing was fake. But when it comes to censorship, his parents don’t want someone else censoring a book that their child should be able to read as written. It’s a masterful touch at demonstrating that while people might have different beliefs and ideas, they can still have shared values. Just another reason that this might be the most powerful children’s book I’ve read this year. (Scholastic Press)

Sheila Turnage’s latest middle grade historical fiction, “Island of Spies,” illustrates perfectly why teachers and librarians work diligently to instill a love of reading for pleasure in students. We often learn more complex truths about life from fiction than we do from nonfiction. In “Island of Spies,” we not only learn some life truths; we also learn some facts about our history that I’m guessing most of us didn’t know.

I had no idea that within a few weeks of the Pearl Harbor bombing, German U-boats, submarines, started patrolling the waters on our east coast. They hunted passenger ships and ships carrying goods in the Atlantic Ocean, from Canada to South America. But because of favorable currents, they especially found hunting successful along the coast of North Carolina. As a result, by the end of the war, almost 400 ships were sunk along the East Coast. I had no idea of these facts as very few people do — and most of America had no idea at that time because those frightening events were hushed up. They were hushed up because there were simply no military ships available to send to the East Coast; they were all in the Pacific Ocean, fighting the war on that front.

But of course, this novel isn’t just about the history of WWII. Turnage creates three compelling and relatable characters who lead the action. Stick is the narrator, and she and her two best friends, Neb and Rain, are determined to become FBI agents. In their quest, they investigate everything suspicious that happens from their “office” in the abandoned lighthouse at their home on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. The island is small, and everyone knows everyone else. But when newcomers arrive, the trio suspects that everything is not as it appears to be.

Turnage shines a light on the misogyny of the time: when an official comes to the island, he holds a meeting for the men and boys. Stick, her older sister Faye, and other girls attend anyway. They are determined that if protection is needed, if information is going to be shared, they are going to be involved. And, in the end, it’s the children and the women who are ready and able to protect the island.

We see firsthand the shock of the explosions from ships being torpedoed and how the bodies and oil wash on to the beach. We see how easy it is for the enemy to sneak ashore and try to blend in. Through the protagonists’ addiction to dime store novels (they call themselves the Dime Novel Kids), we are provided with plenty of clues about codes and how to investigate suspicious activity. The narrative is filled with humor, but also with sadness. We are privy to prejudice as Rain and her mother are treated as “less than,” and sadness as Neb’s father is suffering from a deadly disease. Stick’s father, whose ship supplies the island, disappears, and we don’t know if he’s alive or dead. The trio suspects the postmistress, Miss Agnes, of nefarious activity. There are other significant suspects, and the narrative deftly keeps us guessing about who is or is not a German spy.

Brave children and brave women are the ones who finally save the day, proving that bravery and dedication are not linked to gender or even age. Kids will love many aspects of this novel, from the action to the characters and the thrills as they work undercover to expose the spies. This would make a fabulous read aloud, and I’m guessing that many students would be inspired to look up the little-known history that Turnage so ably shares about the war that came to our East Coast. (Dial Books for Young Readers)

Thank you to the publishers for the copies of these books for reviewing purposes.