A couple of memorable middle grade books that I’ve read recently:
We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson: I just finished We’ve Got a Job this morning and, wow. I thought it was fantastic on a number of different levels. First, it’s focused, staying tightly on four main characters, James, Arnetta, Audrey, and Wash. Each of them help to pull out different threads of the struggle the black community in Birmingham faced, because of their different backgrounds and attitudes (Wash, for instance, had a real problem with nonviolence, while the other three were extremely committed to that ideal). Levinson does pull in contexts that will help the reader understand the background for the story, but she does so minimally, in one or two sentences. At the same time, it read like fiction in the sense of there being a plot, a conflict, a set of stakes. I will admit that it’s also extremely emotional–I got teary at least twice. Finally, one of the things I really appreciated was that Levinson was able to tie together what most of us experience as separate moments in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, namely the Children’s March in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the March on Washington. But, going back to my earlier point, she is able to do this because her main characters had ties to all three of those events.
Reading back over that paragraph, it strikes me that I’m using the language of fiction, probably because Levinson is such a fantastic narrative writer. I should make it clear, though, that it’s also clearly a meticulously researched book.
Wonder by RJ Palacio: This is one which I definitely don’t feel is perfect–there were moments where the plot seemed just barely too coincidental, and I though the ending wrapped up very neatly. At the same time, I think that at the target age, I would not necessarily have noticed either of those issues. And overall I though Palacio did a fantastic job of taking a situation that is difficult to write about without sounding twee and after school special-ish, or else completely depressing, and making it honest and heartfelt and real. I didn’t mind the chunks of different narrators, though I didn’t think their voices necessarily sounded all that different from each other except for Justin’s (and even there I think it’s just a difference of grammar). I was glad that August rounded out the book, though, as I think it would have been hard to tie everything back together with a different narrator.
This is such a minor quibble that I almost don’t want to mention it, but I really didn’t like the inclusion of the precepts at the end of the book. I understood why they were there–the metaphorical postcards after the end of the year–but I strongly felt that the narrative should have been allowed to stand on its own. In addition, Julian’s seemed to suggest a level of character development that I did not see anywhere else in the text.
I also read Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendours & Glooms recently, but I’ll talk about that one in my next post because I do think that it’s really just over the tipping point into YA.