Genre: Social Issues

ARC Middle Grade Review: Extraordinary (2015) by Miriam Spitzer Franklin

ARC Middle Grade Review: Extraordinary (2015) by Miriam Spitzer FranklinExtraordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin
Published by Sky Pony Press on May 5th 2015
Genres: Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Social Issues, Special Needs
Pages: 256
Goodreads
four-stars

Last summer, Pansy chickened out on going to summer camp, even though she’d promised her best friend, Anna, she’d go. It was just like when they went to get their hair cut for Locks of Love; only one of them walked out with a new hairstyle, and it wasn’t Pansy. But Pansy never got the chance to make it up to Anna. While at camp, Anna contracted meningitis and a dangerously high fever, and she hasn’t been the same since. Now all Pansy wants is her best friend back—not the silent girl in the wheelchair who has to go to a special school and who can’t do all the things Pansy used to chicken out of doing. So when Pansy discovers that Anna is getting a surgery that might cure her, Pansy realizes this is her chance—she’ll become the friend she always should have been. She’ll become the best friend Anna’s ever had—even if it means taking risks, trying new things (like those scary roller skates), and running herself ragged in the process. Pansy’s chasing extraordinary, hoping she reaches it in time for her friend’s triumphant return. But what lies at the end of Pansy’s journey might not be exactly what she had expected—or wanted. Extraordinary is a heartfelt, occasionally funny, coming-of-age middle grade novel by debut author Miriam Spitzer Franklin. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Cynthia Lord’s Rules and will inspire young friends to cherish the times they spend together. Every day should be lived like it’s extraordinary.

What I Loved:

The book’s depiction of the ups and down, the trials and joys of life in the 5th grade: I know Spitzer Franklin has worked as a teacher, and that she drew on her own experiences as a teacher in the writing of this book. I appreciated the portrayal of life in the classroom for Pansy, and the way she navigated her friendships—both old and new.

The adventurous antics of Pansy: Pansy is a delightful character! You can’t help but cheer for her as she seeks to become “extraordinary” for her best friend, who is set to have surgery in the near future. Pansy is certain Anna will return to her normal self and they’ll be able to pick back up as the best friends they were before Anna became ill. Pansy is motivated to become the top reader in class, to become good at ice skating, and to be the best girl scout she can be—all for her dear friend Anna. Through each of these endeavors, Pansy learns valuable lessons, and she changes a bit too.

The role of Pansy’s parents: Pansy’s parents play a significant role in her life in the story, and you don’t always see this in Middle Grade Fiction. Pansy’s parents encourage her as she strives to become “extraordinary” and they comfort her as she faces the sadness about who Anna has become because of her illness.

Illuminations of Spirituality:

The Desire to Be a Better Person for Those Around Us: Pansy’s motivation to become extraordinary for her best friend, who has recently suffered brain damage, is inspiring and reflects the great value she places on her friendship with Anna. Even though there are things Pansy wants to attempt that are scary (ice skating lessons & rollerblading to school, for example) she perseveres because the goal of making her best friend proud is more important.

Hope: Even when the reality of what we see doesn’t match what we hope for, we still hope. Sometimes things change and sometimes they don’t. But the act of hoping is itself important.

Being Thankful for What You Have: It’s easy to take for granted all the things we have—and that includes friendships. Pansy’s friendship with Andy is extremely important, but there are times in the story when she definitely forgets this, and runs after other opportunities and friendships that detract from her relationship with Andy. It takes some time, but Pansy learns something important about being thankful for what’s right in front of us.

Who Should Read This Book:

Spitzer Franklin has written a character driven book featuring all things relevant to upper elementary students—school, friendships, and new opportunities (ice skating, girl scouts, classroom competitions!). There are certainly some sad parts—the fact is that Pansy’s best friend has suffered a major medical condition, and she is not the same girl Pansy was best friends with before she became ill. Certainly, children today might have to go through something like this, whether it’s a serious illness with a friend or a family member or the death of a loved one.

I won’t lie—this book does have its heartbreaking moments, but it’s ultimately a hopeful story that illuminates the importance of being comfortable with who you are, being thankful for the good in your life, and relying on the love and friendship of friends and family when things don’t go the way you want them to go.

Extraordinary really made my think of my own 5th grade experience–and how well I remember that desire to fit in and have friends, and yet there was the tug to be my own person and stand up for myself too. This book reminded me of the variety of kinds of kids in any 5th grade class–there are the kids who are “mean” sometimes, the kids who try to get others to follow them, and the ones who are appealing just because they were comfortable with being themselves.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, you know. You just have to do it on your own.”

The Final Illumination:

Extraordinary is a heartwarming and solid debut from Spitzer Franklin, reminding me of my own adventures in 5th grade and the tension between the balance you had to maintain between forming friendships and being your own person. I love that Pansy is not afraid of being unique—she’ll wear two different color shoes and she’ll risk falling down while rollerblading to school. She’s a good example for all of us who struggle with being confident in who we are, young and old.

**I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

**If you missed my interview with the author, you can find it here.

four-stars
What Katie Read

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. Arnold

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. ArnoldThe Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 3rd 2015
Genres: Death & Dying, Family, Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Religious, Social Issues
Pages: 208
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Sixth-grader Iris Abernathy hates life in Corvallis, Oregon, where her family just moved. It’s always raining, and everything is so wet. Besides, nothing has felt right since Iris’s best friend, Sarah, died. When Iris meets Boris, an awkward mouth-breather with a know-it-all personality, she’s not looking to make a new friend, but it beats eating lunch alone. Then she learns that Boris’s very existence is a medical mystery, maybe even a miracle, and Iris starts to wonder why some people get miracles and others don’t. And if one miracle is possible, can another one be too? Can she possibly communicate with Sarah again?

“Bad things happen, Iris thought. People die. Eggs sometimes do not hatch. But miracles…they happen too.”

What I Loved:

Iris asks the Hard Questions: I think Iris is such a wonderful character. Even though she doesn’t understand something—why miracles happen for some people and not for others, she keeps asking and  wondering. She is determined and if there is a glimmer of hope for a miracle for herself (seeing her best friend again), she’s going to pursue that.

“…maybe there was another part to her—a soul—and maybe that part was still out there.”

“But what I want to know is, if there is a God…if divine intervention is possible…then why would miracles only happen sometimes? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if God could make good things happen, that miracles would happen all the time?”

The Treatment of Grief in the Narrative: Even though this is a Middle Grade story, with a sixth grade protagonist, the author doesn’t shy away from tough topics. I think the way grief was treated in the book was sensitive and honest. The fact is that Iris’s best friend was killed the previous school year, and though the family has moved from California to Oregon and Iris is seeing a counselor, that kind of traumatic event is certain to have effects on Iris. This is a slim book, but I felt that there was a satisfying resolution to Iris’s working through getting over the death of her friend (and saying goodbye). The metaphor of gardening represents another important aspect of the story and played into the overarching themes of the story. When Iris joins her father to help with his garden, it represents more than just an activity to get Iris thinking about something else.

The Spiritual Aspects of the Story: Whether it is Iris wondering if a miracle is possible to bring back her best friend, Sarah, or her realization that Sarah’s ghost may in fact be living in her house, Arnold’s narrative features several pretty explicit spiritual aspects. At one point, Iris leaves a gift for Sarah—Sarah’s favorite book, Anne of Green Gables. Iris’s mother realizes Iris has left the book for Sarah, and the resulting conversation isn’t patronizing or discouraging. I thought the presence of these aspects in the story added a rich dimension to a sensitive topic, and I was glad the author didn’t shy away from some of the more difficult questions her protagonist asks.

This leads directly into the next category….

Illuminations of Spirituality:

Because of Iris’s journey throughout the book, the story also positions the reader to ask these (spiritual) questions:

What happens to our family and friends when they die?

Is there any way to contact them after death?

Why do miracles happen for some people and not for others?

All of these are pretty serious questions, but the book is an excellent jumping off point for talking about some of these questions with the middle grade crowd (or older readers too).

Who Should Read This Book:

Fans of The Secret Hum of a Daisy and Counting by Sevens would see similar themes in this book, though it’s certainly unique on its own, and I loved these characters, including Iris’s parents. In some Middle Grade books, the parents aren’t major players, but I appreciated the roles Iris’s mother and father played in the story.

I loved this book and have already purchased it for my collection. A true gem of a debut for 2015!

The Final Illumination:

This debut is strong, refreshing, and unique. I loved The Question of Miracles, perhaps more so because of its unflinching spiritual dimensions, which I felt were treated sensitively and with grace. Though there are many Middle Grade stories (at least that I’ve been reading lately) treating the death of loved ones in the lives of young people, that doesn’t mean each doesn’t have a unique contribution to make about questions that young people deserve to voice.

**I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

four-half-stars
What Katie Read

ARC Review: The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver

ARC Review: The Secrets We Keep by Trisha LeaverThe Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver
Published by Macmillan on April 28th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Death & Dying, Family, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Siblings, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 304
Goodreads
four-stars

Ella and Maddy Lawton are identical twins. Ella has spent her high school years living in popular Maddy's shadows, but she has never been envious of Maddy. In fact, she's chosen the quiet, safe confines of her sketchbook over the constant battle for attention that has defined Maddy's world.When--after a heated argument--Maddy and Ella get into a tragic accident that leaves her sister dead, Ella wakes up in the hospital surrounded by loved ones who believe she is Maddy. Feeling responsible for Maddy's death and everyone's grief, Ella makes a split-second decision to pretend to be Maddy. Soon, Ella realizes that Maddy's life was full of secrets. Caught in a web of lies, Ella is faced with two options--confess her deception or live her sister's life.

**I received this e-ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the book.

What I Loved:

The Plot: I was intrigued by this concept of a twin switching places with her sister the moment I read the blurb on Goodreads for The Secrets We Keep. This was a book that I knew I would get sucked into. And I did—you know I’m a fan of fantasy and science fiction, but I love a good realistic novel that reflects complex and well-developed characters facing issues that seem almost impossible to overcome. In many ways, the problems that Ella faced in this story were huge.

For how long can you live a life that isn’t yours?

The Relationship Between Ella & Josh: You’re going to love Josh! You can imagine he’s crushed when “Ella” dies, and I won’t give anything away, but you can imagine how difficult it would be for Ella to act like she doesn’t miss her friend. Since she “becomes” Maddy, she is forced to act differently around Josh, and this has its consequences.

The Pacing: The pacing of this story was spot on for me. I probably could have finished this book in a day, but wanted to stretch it out a bit, so read it over a week in January. Loved it!

jessica_fletcher

The Mystery: After assuming Maddy’s identity (and her boyfriend as well) Ella soon discovers that Maddy may have been harboring some secrets. Ella is determined to get to the bottom of what Maddy was hiding—very quickly you realize that Maddy’s boyfriend is determined to keep these secrets undercover. This aspect of the story kept me reading, and I was combing the pages closely, trying to figure out what Maddy had been involved in before she died…

Illuminations of Spirituality in The Secrets We Keep:

Of course, you know I would have to bring up potential spiritual aspects in the book, and I found several that could definitely lead into more extensive discussions.

The intense bond between sisters. Sometimes sisters can finish each other’s sentences or know what the other is thinking. Since Maddy dies, there obviously isn’t the opportunity for the two to have any interaction, but the fact that Ella is willing to sacrifice her own identity in order to allow Maddy to “live” points to something in her that is still deeply connected to her twin.

This leads me to another dimension—Ella denies herself in order to embody Maddy for those around her. Though in some cases, “denying oneself” from a spiritual perspective might be a positive thing, it’s not always good. And this is definitely one instance where Ella’s choice to do so was detrimental to her and other people (even though she thought she was atoning for what she had done). Ella is just as important and valued as Maddy and has every right to live her life as herself.

Seeking forgiveness. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is forgive ourselves. There can be a spiritual component to this because we often have to go beyond ourselves in order to do this. This is a challenge for Ella, and as I read the book, I remember thinking, “Come on, girl, you’ve got to forgive yourself! You and everyone around you will be happier once you’ve done this.” Of course, it’s not always easy. But I enjoyed reading about Ella’s journey in light of this.

Who Should Read This Book:

I couldn’t help but think of both Before I Fall and Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver after I read this. Yes, these books are quite different than Leaver’s, but they all treat tensions among friends and VG and TSWK both illuminate the strength of bonds between sisters. There have been a handful of YA titles that deal with the strong bond between sisters, and I don’t think I’ll get tired of them anytime soon. Even though one sister dies at the beginning of the book, the narrative illuminates a realistic relationship with all the ups and downs that a sisterly connection endures.

The Final Illumination:

One journey we all have to go on for ourselves is the journey of finding our identity—figuring out who we are. I was intrigued by the way this novel engaged with that idea, and no matter what your age, the issue of identity is a relevant one. Of course, this time of finding identity is especially significant for young adults, and the way that Ella comes to terms with her identity is beautifully drawn in The Secrets We Keep.

I’m definitely looking forward to more YA Contemporary from Trisha Leaver, but seeing as she writes other genres besides Contemporary, I’ll be certain to look out for any titles she writes in the future.

Also, I’m lucky enough to be in a writing critique group with Trisha, so you can bet I’ll be reading her future work!

celebrate

You can visit Trisha’s website here.

You can tell I loved this book! What about you? Have you read The Secrets We Keep? Or are you planning to?

four-stars
What Katie Read
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