The 47 People You'll Meet in Middle School by Kristin Mahoney; Knopf, 288 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This utterly charming novel, written as advice from sixth grader Augusta "Gus" Reynolds to her little sister, explores middle school through the lens of the people Augusta meets there as she attempts to find her "village," her "people," as her perceptive English teacher advises.
Gus finds herself navigating changing friendships and discovering new truths about herself as she encounters a clique led by a bully, a free spirit not afraid to be herself, an uptight Junior ROTC kid who has the locker above hers, a student who roams around pinching girls in the butt, a boy she's known since age 3 but who seems like a new friend. Mahoney brings to vivid life the misery of the middle school cafeteria as Gus and a few others seek refuge in the overgrown school courtyard at lunchtime. Gus is also adjusting to complications from her parents' recent divorce (her parents withdraw the offer to buy her contact lenses to replace her glasses due to their tight budget; her father neglects to read the school email directing sixth graders to use the back school entrance on the first day).
The amusing portrait gallery of teachers includes one who is privy to all sorts of personal information about Gus through her Facebook friendship with Gus's mom, the homeroom teacher who has it in for a few students, a teacher who wields a baseball bat he calls "Lorenzo," pounding it on kids' desk to get their attention. The description of Augusta's miserable experience at the middle school dance is classic.
Filled with humor and spot-on observations of the middle school experience, this is also a coming-of-age novel, as Gus comes to new understandings of herself and ways she needs to step up both as a sister and a friend.
My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi; Dutton, 256 pages, ($16.99) Ages 10 and up.
Harlem in the summer of 1984 makes a vibrant backdrop for this intriguing middle-grade debut by Haitian-born Ibi Zoboi, a 2017 National Book Award finalist for her fine YA debut novel "American Street."
Rising seventh grader Ebony-Grace Norfleet has left her home in Huntsville, Ala., to visit her father, who operates a junkyard in Harlem, while her mother deals with some unspecified trouble involving Ebony's beloved grandfather, one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA in the 1960s. Through her grandfather, Ebony has developed an obsession with space and science fiction, using what he calls her "imagination location" for wondrous imaginary voyages to the stars in the vein of her beloved "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" adventures. As we first meet Ebony, she's aboard a Boeing 727 headed for New York City, but in her mind, she's space cadet E. Grace Starfleet, on a mission to rescue Captain Fleet, until a bout of airsickness rudely jolts her back to reality: "There's nothing out-of-this-world about a too-stiff white shirt, ugly pleated skirt, lace-trimmed socks, a greasy press 'n' curl, big ol' glasses, and a tummy that feels like volcanic explosions on the surface of Mars."
Ebony has led a very sheltered life in Huntsville. Terrified she's going to end up stuck permanently in Harlem (which she refers to as "No Joke City"), she only wants to play spaceship games in her father's junkyard, games her friend Bianca has outgrown in favor of double Dutch. Ebony vastly prefers her imaginary games to hanging out with the Harlem girls who call her “Ice Cream Sandwich” (“chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside”) and make fun of her superhero T-shirts.
The extreme culture shock Ebony experiences as a vulnerable adolescent plopped into what might well be another planet makes for some painful moments, and Zoboi does a wonderful job bringing to life this struggling, noisy Harlem neighborhood of the 1980s with its break dancing and rap battles and colorful characters (including Ebony's uncle, who brings women back to the house when his brother isn't home). Ebony eventually learns to see Harlem with new eyes. However, her complete immersion in an interior fantasy world comes off as so extreme (upon arriving in New York she leaps into the baggage claim at the airport in a desperate attempt to return home) as to present as a mental health issue (or possibly an Asperger's diagnosis), possibilities that are never addressed or explained.