Personality Switch

Restart by Gordon Korman is my penultimate Nutmeg nominee.

Chase Ambrose goes from star football player to amnesia patient after a nasty fall from his roof.  He can’t remember anything from before his fall, but his classmates sure do. He was one of the school’s worst bullies along with his two best buddies. Now he isn’t able to play football due to concussion protocol. He finds himself hanging out with the very kids he used to terrorize while still trying to keep a foot in his former life, all while trying to remember what happened before the fall.

Major changes in his character include becoming a member of the film club, as well as befriending a war veteran at the senior living facility. This facility is the same spot where Chase and his football buddies were doing community service for a terrible bullying prank.

His football friends think he might be faking the whole thing for his own gain. It all comes to a head when they devise a way to implicate Chase in another bullying episode.

Will he resort to his former antics or has he truly changed?  What caused him to fall in the first place? This is a solid middle school read including relatable topics and important themes such as standing up for oneself and making positive changes. 

A Wild Ride

We’re Not from Here by Geoff Rodkey is another Nutmeg nominee taking place in outer space, but it’s WAY out there!  Mars is home to Lan’s family, including his parents and sister Ila, along with the remaining humans after a catastrophe wiped out planet Earth.  Time is of the essence for them to find a liveable planet.  The only prospect is the planet Choom, which is twenty years away and is currently home to some unique species.  The Zhuri, giant mosquito-like beings, are its main inhabitants, but there are also the Ororo and Krik (there were also the Nug- more about what happened to them in the story).

By the time Lan’s ship finally arrives in Choom’s orbit, the new regime has decided that humans are no longer welcome.  Lan and his family are the only ones allowed on the planet for a trial period.  His family needs to assimilate to life among the mostly hostile Zhuri, or the entire ship of humans will die. Lan and his family have several close calls as they try to fit into work, school and daily life on the planet.  

It is a uniquely strange story about how they manage to find a few understanding beings and how a dangerous government and its media twists events to best suit their agenda.  Readers of science fiction along with anyone looking for something very different will enjoy this one!

Moon Mission

I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Barstow-Logsted takes place in 1969 with events focused on Apollo 11’s moon mission. The entire story is written as letters to Michael Collins, which started as a final school assignment before summer break.  Mamie is a character who is not afraid to be herself, even if that makes her stand out. She is the only person in her class to choose Michael Collins instead of Buzz Aldrin or Neil Armstrong.  Mamie decided to keep up the letter writing through summer vacation. I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who  Michael Collins was before reading this!

Mamie and her best friend/neighbor Buster are obsessed with everything related to the upcoming moon mission. During the excitement, Mamie’s family is going through some tough times. Her mom leaves after an argument with her dad, and Mamie fears this indicates a divorce. Her dad eventually leaves to win back his wife, leaving Mamie with her sixteen-year-old sister Bess. Bess’s only concern is her boyfriend.  Meanwhile, their older sister Eleanor comes by to help, but she doesn’t stay for too long. Mamie finds herself home alone quite a bit.

The story includes strong messages about true friendship, courage to not follow the crowd, and the essence of teamwork.  Every team member may not get the glory, but every contribution is crucial to reaching the mission’s goal.  This story lends itself to so many research possibilities- the time period, NASA and all the elements that go into a rocket launch, and letter writing to name a few.  This is a solid read for intermediate grades! 

Forever Friends

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman is an early edition copy I received. I decided to read this book due to its subject matter around the Chernobyl explosion, which is a new historical fiction time frame for me.

The main characters are Valentina and Oksana.  They begin as enemies but grow to be lifelong friends due to experiences that link them together. Their fathers were both working at Chernobyl when it erupted. Now they are being forced to evacuate their town. Oksana’s mother is sent to a hospital for radiation leaving Oksana with nobody to care for her. Valentina’s mother decides to take her with them. This sets the girls off on a new path living with Valentina’s grandmother (whom she has never met) in Leningrad.

Family history becomes a parallel story throughout the book, as “new” character Rifka is sent away from her mother and young brothers to escape the German soldiers during WWII. Eventually, the two stories’ connection is understood.

The plot is mostly engaged with the girls’ struggles and changes. But, I found it interesting to read about how the explosion was at first kept hidden. There are also tidbits about how they treated radiation exposure such as drinking milk, eating cucumbers, taking iodine pills, and staying low to the ground to name a few. For many, the exposure was too high for these remedies to work.

Sensitive topics of religious discrimination, physical abuse, and alcoholism are present. These topics are balanced by friends who become family with a message of being strong, kind, and generous.  It is a jump into a time period that may be unfamiliar to some, which can be a gateway to nonfiction about the place and time.

In the Details

Framed by James Ponti is another Intermediate Nutmeg Nominee to check off my reading list. The story begins with main character Florian being  kidnapped, before backtracking to the events leading up to this moment. 

Florian just moved to Washington with his parents. He is quite brilliant, owing much of his intelligence to TOAST (Theory of All Small Things). Basically this means he pays close attention to the small details in order to better understand the bigger picture. His new neighbor Margaret bonds with him over TOAST, and they use it to analyze people.

This is what gets them involved in a case of stolen artwork from their local museum.  Florian’s  attention to detail gets him recognition from the FBI and from the bad guys.  He is asked to be a covert asset to the FBI and goes through undercover training.  Unfortunately, he may not be as hidden as he thought.  Readers will find out how/why the head of the Ukrainian cartel kidnapped Florian, and if the true art robbers will be caught.

I appreciated this book’s clear plot and writing style. I think the story can lead to fun conversations and observation/writing exercises for kids to try TOAST in real life. 

Haunted Happenings

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie is another Intermediate Nutmeg nominee fitting the spooky category. Tessa’s family (mom, dad and little brother Jonah) moved from Florida to Chicago for her dad’s new job. Everything is different, especially their creepy, old house. 

Strange things start happening the very first night there.  Tessa hears strange noises, has random drawings appear in her sketch book, and her brother’s creepy doll seems to watch her (among other ghostly events).  Luckily, she manages to connect to a group of new friends who are willing to help her figure out the ghost’s message.  Andrew, along with twins Nina and Richie, join forces with Tessa to get to the bottom of the haunted house.  In doing so, they cause a riff with their friend Cassidy who seems angry to have Tess in the picture. 

Similar to a Scooby Doo episode, the gang goes out to solve the ghostly mystery which takes them on a search into the library, local cemetery (chase scene minus the music! lol) and secret places in Tessa’s home.  Eventually Tessa is able to figure out the cause of her ghost’s anguish.  

This book is a creepy mystery for grades 3-5 showcasing the undeniable strength provided by friends.  

Books and Cookies

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green is an Intermediate Nutmeg nominee written in lyric narrative form. This is a beautiful story in both its message and its writing.  

Macy is deaf, relying on sign language to communicate with family and friends.  This alone can be challenging.  She is dealing with her mom’s upcoming marriage to a man with younger, twin girls which will entail moving from her beloved home and losing their family duo.  It’s been just Macy and her mom her whole life.  Added to this is a major argument with her best friend over an upcoming family tree project.  

Macy is enlisted to help an elderly neighbor pack her bookshelves for her upcoming move to an assisted living facility.  In the process of helping her neighbor, the rainbow goddess Lily, Macy learns quite a bit.  The pair share snips of their lives through notes to each other. Books, cookies and people’s stories have the answers and uplifting messages needed to get through many of life’s struggles. 

She eventually overcomes her frustration with the new family dynamic, heals her friendship and realizes her worth.

Keeping the Peace

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks is a fast-flying read about Kaidu, a young teenager who is beginning training to be a fierce Dao. The group of boys are trained to fight in order to keep their people in control of the city.  Kaidu feels anything but fierce after his first day of training. The only positive is that his father lives in the city too.

Kaidu doesn’t conform to expectations, and he begins venturing into the city on his own.  He meets a skral girl called Rat whose parents were killed by the current ruler’s regime. They become friends as she teaches him how to run across the building tops in exchange for food. 

Rat overhears a plan to kill the ruler and his son, and she is almost killed in her effort to alert someone at the palace. Luckily Kaidu’s lessons serve him well in helping to reveal the plan in time. And to save his friend.  It seems that peace will stay in the city… for now. 

This is a graphic novel with a message of compromise and being open to others; it will appeal to readers who enjoy a quick read with action. It is also a 2021 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee.

Drawn Together

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a well-deserved 2021 Intermediate AND Middle School Nutmeg nominee.

Jordan Banks is transferring to the elite Riverdale Academy Day School to start seventh grade, when all he would really like is to pursue his dream of attending art school.  This graphic novel portrays the first year at RAD, while his personal commentary on various events are drawn/noted along the way.  Humor is a constant throughout the book with many relatable, laugh out loud moments, and a straightforward approach to serious topics.

First are the discriminatory remarks made by fellow student Andy to each character of a different cultural descent.  There are microaggressions from faculty as well; for example, the teacher who calls every black student by the wrong name, and the book fair arranged by stereotyped categories.  There is also the stigma attached to students who use financial aid to attend.  So many important conversations can stem from the behaviors and events in this book.

The characters are written well, and I think students will connect to them.  Jordan is a nice person who takes time to get to know everyone, even oddball Alexandra who always wears a sock puppet on her hand.  Jordan has a way of finding classmates who are most genuine.  In doing so, he ends up having a decent year, making true friends and learning to speak up for himself and his friends.

I read this story in a day, and enjoyed every moment of it.

Ups and Downs

Front Desk by Kelly Yang is a close to firsthand account (based on the author’s note) of the lives of Chinese immigrants doing their best to provide for family in the face of adversity.

Mia’s parents moved from China a couple years before the story begins, and ever since have moved and changed jobs several times. The book centers on their time running a motel in California. They work around the clock every day of the week.  The motel owner is an unpleasant, demanding man who has them working for nearly nothing, and his son is in Mia’s class.  This in itself creates some unique conflict.

Mia is a pretty amazing kid. She works the front desk so that her parents can clean and manage the rest of the motel.  She befriends their permanent residents while managing yet  another new school.  She dreams of getting her family off the poor roller coaster, an analogy shared by her friend Lupe, and decides to enter a writing competition to win their own motel.  In order to do this, she needs to face insecurities her mom has instilled in her about writing in English.  Mia learns that working on her writing is worthwhile; she has a powerful voice.

Mia is a witness to discrimination, dishonest and at times violent customers, poverty and her own struggles with trying to fit in. There is no denying that her character is destined for greatness based on her strength through all of life’s obstacles. Readers will find out how she helps her family and others. 

This is an inspiring and important story.