Congratulations to Karen Larson on winning our Dear Justice League Prize Pack. Thank you so much for participating in the giveaway and for being a part of the Mixed-Up Files community.
I just going to say it. I’m a cat person. Their aloof disdain for my humanness and the general consensus that they are just using me for food and a few scratches behind the ears just makes me love them all the more. They are not needy in the least, at a time in my life when I often feel my nurturing resources are close to depleted.
Despite my cat person-ness, I am a complete and total sucker for dog books. A Dog’s Purpose tied me up in knots and I read The Art of Racing in the Rain in one sitting. With the dog days of summer behind us, why not a cool dog reading list for your middle grade reader? These are some of my favorites. They range from heart pounding to heart breaking to laugh out loud funny.
Take your pick and happy tails, friends.
Hero, by Jennifer Li Shotz
Hero, a retired search-and-rescue dog, is not prepared for a stray puppy to come into his life. But when he and twelve-year-old Ben find Scout injured and afraid, the new addition leads them down an unexpected and dangerous path.
When Scout goes missing, it’s up to Hero to use his search-and-rescue skills to find Scout and bring him home.
Get ready for a canine adventure full of danger, loyalty, and the unbreakable bond between a boy and his best friend.
(and don’t miss the other titles in this ongoing series!)
Rules of the Ruff, by Heidi Lang
Twelve-year-old Jessie is in for a long summer at her aunt and uncle’s house. Her cousin Ann has a snotty new best friend, which leaves Jessie all alone. But Jessie is industrious, and—not content with being ignored all summer—she convinces Wes, a grouchy neighborhood dog walker, to take her on as his apprentice.
Sure, dog walking turns out to be harder than she expected, but she has Wes’s dog-walking code, the Rules of the Ruff, to guide her, and soon she’s wrangling her very own pack. But when a charismatic rival dog walker moves to town, she quickly snatches up most of Wes’s business—and Jessie decides she isn’t going to take this defeat with her tail between her legs.
Ruff vs. Fluff, by Spencer Quinn
From the outside, Queenie the cat and Arthur the dog appear to have a lot in common. Both pets live in the charming Blackberry Hill inn. They both love their humans, twins Harmony and Bro. They both have a fondness for sausage.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they are mortal enemies.
Goofy, big-hearted Arthur loves everyone he’s ever met . . . except the snobby, scheming cat who’s devoted her life to ruining his.
Queenie is a bit choosier. And who can blame her? When you’re brilliant AND exquisitely beautiful, you can’t be expected to rub tails with commoners. Especially not slobbery dogs.
But when the twins’ beloved cousin is framed for murder, Queenie and Arthur must work together to clear his name . . . something Queenie finds even more distasteful than inexpensive caviar. Can two enemies put aside their differences long enough to solve the mystery?
Wish, by Barbara O’Conner
Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite.
But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is, until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.
From award-winning author Barbara O’Connor comes a middle-grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.
Good Dog, by Dan Gemeinhart
Brodie was a good dog. And good dogs go to heaven.
Except Brodie can’t move on. Not just yet. As wonderful as his glimpse of the afterlife is, he can’t forget the boy he left behind. The boy he loved, and who loved him in return.
The boy who’s still in danger.
So Brodie breaks the rules of heaven. He returns to Earth as a spirit. With the help of two other lost souls — lovable pitbull Tuck and surly housecat Patsy — he is determined to find his boy and to save him.
Even if it costs him paradise. Even if he loses his eternal soul.
Because it’s what a good dog would do.
Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin
Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She’s thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose’s obsessions, her rules, and the other things that make her different―not her teachers, not other kids, and not her single father.
When a storm hits their rural town, rivers overflow, the roads are flooded, and Rain goes missing. Rose’s father shouldn’t have let Rain out. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.
Honoring a Middle-Grade Legacy
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) left an essential legacy for middle-grade readers, even though she didn’t write directly for them. You won’t find her books in the MG section of the bookstore, nor are they on the reading lists for the 4th-8th grade set, as are the novels we talk about here on this blog. And yet, many of her characters were middle-grade children, and most of her themes had to do with the formative experiences of those years, experiences that ground and shape us as adults. So, when she died on August 6th, I gave myself permission, based on those reasons, to pay homage to her here.
Doors and Mirrors
I wanted to honor her brilliant and groundbreaking work as a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and her crucial role in bringing forward many of the threads of the African-American narrative to the larger American conversation. But even more than that, I wanted to talk about how she opened doors for a new generation of passionate, creative authors who write a wider, more diverse world for young readers. By doing that, she lifted up mirrors for children to see themselves in a rainbow world. She painted a world in which we could all be beautiful. As a writer and a woman of color, I am deeply grateful to her for the path she forged.
The truth is, my gratitude is both professional and personal.
When I was in college in the mid-eighties, I read THE BLUEST EYE (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1970), and I cried over Pecola and her desire for blue eyes.
My deep sadness wasn’t just for Pecola though–it was also for me and my own secret childhood desire: I too wished I had blue eyes. Like Pecola, I bought into the standard of White beauty that didn’t include my mixed-race identity, and certainly not my brown eyes, hair, or skin. I actually wished away my Black heritage.
And because, like any self-respecting young teenager, I vigorously rejected everything my parents told me, I didn’t believe them when they told me I was pretty. I knew I wasn’t. To be pretty, I needed to have not just blue eyes, but also straight, blonde or at least light brown hair. Hair that did what Farrah Fawcett’s or Jaclyn Smith’s did. Not curly, unmanageable, humidity-challenged like my own. Fawcett and Smith were my version of Pecola’s and Frieda’s admiration of Shirly Temple.
Definitions of Beauty
Fortunately, finally, I evolved and learned to identify and reject my own racism. I lived in Africa for a few years and discovered a treasure trove of literature that celebrated dark skin and curly hair. I reexamined THE BLUEST EYE and saw more clearly what Morrison was saying about what beauty is, and what it isn’t.
Morrison clarified even further when she said, in an Afterword published in 1993, “…the novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her (a friend who, like Pecola, wanted blue eyes)…The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common on all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”
I wasn’t necessarily “cured” of my own internalized assumptions, but that’s a whole different story. I did, however, continue to grow, and as I did, other writers of color were adding their voices to the joyful noise: Ntozake Shange, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, bel hooks, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker.
Middle-Grade Genre Growth
Over the glacial timeline that is publishing, the middle-grade genre has exploded as a viable commodity, as has the demand for diverse books and #ownvoices authors. Today, it’s delightfully harder to assume the “white default” with many fictional characters because they’re not the only ones on the tableau. I’m not saying the characters-of-color have reached parity – not by a long shot. But their numbers increase every year, and I’m thrilled to witness and be a part of that growth.
I believe we owe that in large part to Toni Morrison, and so for that, I say, THANK YOU. Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for being the light, the creative force, the energy, passion, and intellect that will continue to shine long past the years you were here with us.
“And so here I am now. Here we all are. Toni Morrison as light, as way, as ancestor. And the many writers she has left in her wake, and the many writers coming after, and those after them, will hopefully always know this: that because of her, we are.” – Jacquelyn Woodson, from her tribute essay in the Washington Post, August 11, 2019
And because here at the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors, we do booklists, here’s one for Toni:
Book List in Honor of Toni Morrison
BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
THE MOON WITHIN, by Aida Salazar.
Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?
GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN, by Alicia D. Williams
There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.
SHADOWSHAPER, by Daniel Jose Older (Actually YA, but appropriate for older MG readers)
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one. Now Sierra must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.
A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, by Lisa Moore Ramée
twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?
ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia
Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. But when the sisters arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with their mother, Cecile is nothing like they imagined.
KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE, by Kristi Wientge
Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip. Read author Kristi Wientge’s interview here on this blog.
MEXICAN WHITEBOY, by Matt De La Peña
Danny is brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.
That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. But to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see–the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming.