Monday, March 25, 2019

#AmReading Middle Grades

The Size of the Truth
Andrew Smith
Series: Sam Abernathy, #1
Age/Genre: Middle Grades, Fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A boy who spent three days trapped in a well tries to overcome his PTSD and claustrophobia so he can fulfill his dream of becoming a famous chef.

When he was four years old, Sam Abernathy was trapped at the bottom of a well for three days, where he was teased by a smart-aleck armadillo named Bartleby. Since then, his parents plan every move he makes.

But Sam doesn’t like their plans. He doesn’t want to go to MIT. And he doesn’t want to skip two grades, being stuck in the eighth grade as an eleven-year-old with James Jenkins, the boy he’s sure pushed him into the well in the first place. He wants to be a chef. And he’s going to start by entering the first annual Blue Creek Days Colonel Jenkins Macaroni and Cheese Cook-Off.

That is, if he can survive eighth grade, and figure out the size of the truth that has slipped Sam’s memory for seven years.
When Sam was four years old, he spent three days trapped in an abandoned well. From that day forward, he promised himself, that he would never worry or disappoint his parents again. As he grew older, he found that promise harder and harder to keep, as his parents' and his idea of his future began to diverge.

I don't think anyone understands how excited I was to see that Sam was getting his own series. I met Sam in Stand-off and was eager to read more about young Sam's life. As expected, Smith delivered a story that was odd and interesting, as well as heartwarming and thoughtful.

Smith touched upon a myriad of issues, but there were two which stood out to me - a child's need for autonomy and being true to themself. You see, Sam loved to cook, and aspired to train with great chefs to create food that makes people happy, but his parents wanted him to got to MIT and study science or math or BOTH. They pushed him in academic pursuits, skipping him two grades ahead, though he was not socially or emotionally prepared for it.

I often found myself frustrated with Sam's parents, especially his father, but some of that was Sam's own fault. He kept going along with their plans, while abandoning his own. Slowly, while remembering his time in the hole and developing an unlikely friendship with James, who he had always blamed for his accident, Sam began to assert his own desires and needs, and I was really proud of the way he handled it.

I have to say, Smith really knows how to write a great bromance. I wasn't always on board with the James and Sam friendship, because I wasn't so sure about James' motivations, but as Smith revealed more and more about him, I found myself liking him more and more, as well as empathizing with him about the box he was trapped in. Watching Sam realize that he and James were more that same than different was a big moment in the story, and from there, their friendship grew and grew. And you know what? I totally loved James by the end of this book.

The time in the hole was odd, but I expect something strange, when I read an Andrew Smith book. The purpose of flipping between Sam's time in 8th grade and his time in the hole was not obvious, but became clearer as the story wore on. I enjoyed those parts, but I loved the last few chapters. I think I wore a smile on my face the from the first chapter during the Blue Creek Days section all the way through the end of the book.

It was quite a treat getting to know Sam better, and I am excited to read more of this series, because it looks like he's heading to Pine Mountain Academy in the next book, and I am more than ready to go back there.

The Astonishing Maybe
Shaunta Grimes
Age/Genre: Middle Grades, Contemporary
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A middle-grade novel about a girl searching for her father and the boy who helps her find him.

Gideon hates the idea of moving to Nevada from the East Coast. It's so empty and hot in his new neighborhood. Only one person his age lives nearby: the girl next door, Roona.

Gid notices right away that Roona is . . . different. She wears roller skates and a blanket as a cape when she needs to feel strong. What he doesn't bargain for, however, is how far outside his comfort zone Roona will take him as she enlists his help in finding her long-gone father. For a kid who's not allowed to ride his bike more than a few blocks from home, this will be the adventure of a lifetime.

Friendship, heartbreak, and defining what family means are rarely as sensitively, beautifully portrayed in middle-grade fiction. Shaunta Grimes is an extraordinary new talent.
Gideon was not happy about relocating from the Jersey Shore to the Nevada desert. He thought this move would equal disaster, but then he saw a girl, his age, wearing a cape while roller skating. He was immediately drawn to her. She was vivacious, adventurous, and imaginative. Essentially, the opposite of him, but Gideon soon discovered that Roona was dealing with a lot of grown up things.

Like Gideon, I was immediately drawn to Roona. I saw an early description for this book that described it was Pippi Longstocking meets My Girl, and I thought that was a pretty fair comparison. Roona came across as larger than life, and swept you away with her magical stories and adventures. She had a way of convincing Gideon to do things, which he normally wouldn't do, but, she was also generous and loving, and most of her schemes were for the benefit of others, not herself.

I thought Gideon was enamored with Roona, because she seemed so free, whereas Gideon lived under the very overprotective watch of his mother, being normal and Quinton-ish. I could totally understand this pre-teen wanting to explore beyond his boundaries, and who better to go on Tookish adventures with, then someone with an alter ego called Super Roo.

But, this wasn't the only way Gideon grew over the summer. I watched him become a better friend and a better brother. He learned to appreciate his family a little more, while still trying to do some un-Quinton-like things, such as getting involved in Roona's life, when she really needed some support. He also had to makes some big decisions about keeping secrets, and he learned the difference between when it's ok to keep a secret for your friend, and when you need to ask an adult for help.

Though Roona came across as a free spirit, she actually had to worry about many grownup things due to her absentee father and depressed mother. I thought the author handled these issues, and other that arose, beautifully, and reading them from Gideon's perspective softened the blow a little too. I won't lie, watching the demise of Super Roo was tough for me. It's always heartbreaking to see someone so young have to deal with these issues, but what's more heartbreaking is that I know there are non-fictional kids with similar struggles. I can only hope they are lucky enough to have a friend like Gideon, who worked so hard to try and resurrect Super Roo.

Overall: A charming and moving story of friendship and finding those people you know you can count on in your time of need, which tugged on my heartstrings and put a smile on my face.

Alyson Gerber
Age/Genre: Middle Grades, Contemporary
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Following Braced, which had three starred reviews, comes a story of a girl caught between her love of chess and her ADHD.

Clea can't control her thoughts. She knows she has to do her homework . . . but she gets distracted. She knows she can't just say whatever thought comes into her head . . . but sometimes she can't help herself. She know she needs to focus . . . but how can she do that when the people around her are always chewing gum loudly or making other annoying noises?

It's starting to be a problem—not just in school, but when Clea's playing chess or just hanging out with her best friend. Other kids are starting to notice. When Clea fails one too many tests, her parents take her to be tested, and she finds out that she has ADHD, which means her attention is all over the place instead of where it needs to be.

Clea knows life can't continue the way it's been going. She's just not sure how you can fix a problem that's all in your head. But that's what she's going to have to do, to find a way to focus.

In a starred review, Booklist called Alyson Gerber's first novel, Braced, "a masterfully constructed and highly empathetic debut about a different kind of acceptance.” With Focused, she explores even further how, when life gives you a challenge, the best way to face it is with an open mind, an open heart, and the open support of the people around you.
Clea felt like she was failing at EVERYTHING! She was messing up her class assignments, hurting her friends and family - she just couldn't seem to do anything right. After a string of poor grades, her parents had Clea tested and discovered that she had ADHD. Now that she had an explanation for why these things were happening, would Clea be able to repair all the damage she had done?

Maybe it's because Gerber is writing from experience. Maybe it's just because she's a great writer. Whichever the case, I must say, that Gerber is so good at writing these types of stories.

I loved Clea so much, and my heart went out to her as she was trying to adjust to her new normal. Gerber did an incredible job capturing her emotional ups and downs. First, as Clea was trying to deal with her lack of focus and impulse control, and later as she was coming to terms with her diagnosis and trying to learn to navigate her needs and advocate for herself. I really thought this part was handled wonderfully, and I believe it was important that we saw Clea's successes and setbacks.

I also liked that the story showed how Clea's ADHD affected those around her. Clea generally was a wonderful friend and sister, but there were times, when her lack of impulse control got her into trouble. There was one friendship rift, that broke my heart, and though I sort of understood, I was also frustrated with the situation. However, I liked that Clea never tried to use her ADHD to excuse her behaviors, but rather, as she learned more about her disability, she became more cognizant of her the things she did, and utilized the techniques the doctor equipped her with to curb the interrupting and blurting out, which was largely responsible for the friction between herself and her loved ones.

Another thing I thought was great, was how Gerber took us through the whole process - identification, testing, diagnosis, and treatment. There was quite a bit of good information relayed in the book, and it was worked into the story in a very organic way too.

She also showed, that being neurodivergent didn't mean you were broken. It meant that your brain just worked differently and you need to approach things in a little different way. I was really proud of Clea, when she figured out what she required to succeed. Not only did she figure out what she needed, but she was very mature and asked for these accommodations when necessary. It's so important that people understand there is no shame asking for things that will help them succeed.

There were a ton of things I loved, and here's a short list of some of my favorites:
  • Clea's friendship with Sanam was really special. They bonded over their love of chess, as well as over their mutual learning disabilities, and Sanam was such a positive force in Clea's life as well. Loved her! 
  • I never really played chess seriously, but I was so intrigued by all the chess stuff in this book. Gerber was able to transfer some of Clea's excitement to me, which I thought was great. 
  • There's a little touch of romance in the story, which was so, so sweet and cute. *heart eyes* 
  • Clea's little sister was a precious little star. The kid was able to bring happiness to every page she popped up on. 
This book was heartwarming and informative. I think it would be a valuable read for a young person trying to come to terms with their own ADHD diagnosis, as well as for those, who love them. 

**ARCs received in exchange for honest reviews.

Do you play chess?
Let us know in the comments!


  1. I am really interested in reading Focused for my daughter. I am glad you enjoyed it and it was informative. It sounds like an interesting read on ADHD. The others sound good as well. I don't read that many MG books but I have found that I do like them.


    1. Gerber's last book was about scoliosis (also OwnVoices), and it was similar in that we get a lot of info and insight. It was well done, and I really enjoyed it.

  2. All of these look super cute! I especially like the sound of Focused. It sounds like a very informative book.

    1. I have a family member on the spectrum, and I think his sister (or even father) could have benefitted from reading a book like this, just for the insights alone.

  3. Sounds like some fun reads, especially Focused. I could see a lot of MG readers knowing someone with ADHD or having it themselves.


    1. There are a lot of great messages in Focused. Moving away from that stigma, that someone on the spectrum is "broken" and helping people understand that someone with one of the many spectrum disorders just has a brain that works a little differently.

  4. I really love the sound of Focused. That sounds like one a lot of young readers will relate to. The cover on that first book is fantastic too!

    1. It was a my favorite of the bunch, but I think I connected to the book, because I have a loved one with ADHD and other spectrum disorders.

  5. All of these sound good. Focused especially has me curious. My son has social anxieties and I like to find insight through fiction too.

    1. She touches upon that a bit, but it's more about ADHD

  6. I've been really interested in reading Focused. My daughter read Braced and liked it a lot--I've been meaning to read it to, but haven't gotten to it yet. But a book about ADHD is really interesting to me. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. I requested Focused, because I loved Braced so much. I like the way Gerber approaches the issue from all side. She presents the facts, as well as the emotional side of it, and how the person with ADHD/brace is affected as well as their friends and family.

  7. I was actually taught chess by a seven year old when I babysat him. I felt it to be a humbling experience to learn something from a child. I then proceeded to beat him at the game (I'm competitive and don't lose just for the sake of losing) but I have since forgotten how to play again DD: I don't usually read middle grade but your reviews make me happy because I am glad to know there are good books out there for the younger half of YA readers, and that they also address very important topics and different mental health illnesses too!

    1. I used to love when the kids at camp taught me stuff. That's an awesome story about how you learned to play chess.