Four middle grades

I’ve been thinking about how there’s a certain sort of break-your-heart-open quiet that middle grade novels do better than any other age/genre of books I know.

Here are four quiet middle grade books I’ve enjoyed this year, in reverse order of their reading:

Journey of Dreams, by Marge Pellegrino
Part historical novel and part adventure story, this story follows Tomasa, her father, and two siblings as they flee their Guatemalan village in the mid-1980s, crossing two borders in an attempt to find and be reunited with Tomasa’s mother and brother. The later parts of the story also touch on the sanctuary movement in the United States, which was based in Tucson and still echoes through its politics today, but the focus is on Tomasa and her journey — which is told, for all its hardships and horrors, with a surprising and lovely gentleness.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, by Kate Messner
In the past decade-and-a-half I’ve thoroughly imprinted on the rhythms of the southwestern fall, but it was lovely to return, through this book, to the more deciduous version of the season, with its crisp air and crunching leaves. Leaves are an issue for Gianna, who has to collect 25 of them for a leaf collection project (and bring up her science grade) or else lose her place in an upcoming cross-country meet. The story isn’t about the leaf project so much as all Gianna’s struggling to deal with as she works on the project, especially with watching her grandmother’s increasingly frequent moments of memory loss. Along the way, the leaves become metaphors for the various people around Gianna, while Gianna herself always feels very real and true.

(I read The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z over Rosh Hashanah, and Journey of Dreams over Yom Kippur, both of which seemed appropriate, somehow.)

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Many reviewers have commented on the startling science fiction twist at the heart of this story, and so I’m not sure everyone would label this a quiet book. Yet to science fiction readers, I suspect the SFnal twist actually won’t be all that startling — it wasn’t to me. Read this book instead for the small realistic details of growing up in New York City in the late 1970s, and for the quiet shifting of protagonist Miranda’s world as she navigates family and middle school friendships, all of which feel very true and real.

Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry
When twelve-year-old Brother’s father leaves to serve in Iraq with his reserve unit, Brother resolves to keep the family’s ranch running while his father is away. Again it’s the small details — in this case of ranch life and living in a rural ranching community — that make this book shine, and that form a backdrop against which Brother struggles to figure out who he is and what his place is within his family and his world.

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