Book Review: Middle Grade Goodness

Greene Popular

I’ll admit it.  I struck gold last weekend.  Have you been following the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag on Twitter?  It blew up probably three weeks ago now, and it’s been pretty great.  I found an amazing resource for people wanting to write diverse characters that are outside their experience, here:  http://diversitycrosscheck.tumblr.com/, which was only one among many things I learned.  I also learned about The Great Greene Heist, and Popular.  Basically, these books were a fest of stuff outside my experience, and I loved them.  After all, experiencing new things is the best reason to read ever.

The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson:

There’s a movement behind this book founded on a single principle: in America capitalism rules – we all have to put our money where our mouths are in order to ensure that diverse books keep being published.  If we could get one on the Bestseller list, that would be even better.  That’s how I came across The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson.  In a bid to show people that diverse books can make money, publishers, booksellers, and authors are banding together behind this book to make it a best seller.  Kate Messner’s website has more on this, here: http://www.katemessner.com/more-than-words-a-challenge-for-everyone-whos-been-asking-for-more-diversity-in-kids-books/.  It’s a story with a Black protagonist, a Hispanic love interest, and a very diverse cast of characters pulling a heist for the good of the school.  Most importantly it features the protagonist, Jackson Greene, prominently on the cover.  It does a great job of including all the things people say they want when they want diverse books.

If I read middle grade, I usually read fantasy.  I will admit that I wouldn’t have purchased the book without urging.  Still, I figured that it was worth the ten bucks just to support a movement that only good can come from.  I was rewarded tenfold.  Ten bucks was more than worth it for the entertainment I gained.  I loved, loved, loved the book.  Can I say loved one more time?

The basic plot is this: Keith is trying to buy his way into becoming class president, and along the way he has plans to slash the budgets of every club that isn’t his beloved Gamer Club.  Gaby, the gal who should be president, isn’t sure what to do.  Especially because she has an honest and smart platform that Keith keeps stealing.  It’s all up to Jackson to stand up to middle school authority and  run a heist guaranteeing Gaby a win – despite her protestations that he shouldn’t and his certain expulsion if he fails.

From the Blitz at the Fitz to the Mid-Day PDA, to all of Jackson’s gutsy ideas, I was hooked so fast.  If the Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s 11 happened in a junior high, this book would be it.  There is even a set of con rules.  If I could have been half as confident or as fun as these kids are at that age, I bet Junior High wouldn’t have been as terrible.  Johnson’s characterizations were spot on as well, avoiding cliche and treating racial issues with maturity and respect.  This is a book about people in a school that feels so real, with just a smidgen of utopia thrown in to make it irresistible.

The bonus part of this equation is Varian Johnson.  I didn’t know about his writing before picking up this book.  Most of his older stuff is the kind of thing I read: books for adults.  I can’t even tell you how happy that makes me, because probably 75% of the new stuff I read is just not worth talking about.  This is good new stuff, guys!

So the long and short of it is that I would have told you to go buy the book anyway to support diversity, but the quality of the work makes me say it WAY more emphatically: this one is worth your time.

Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen:

At the urging of her mother, Maya Van Wagenen decides to follow the advice of a self-help book her father unearthed from the attic.  The book was written in the 1950s by a woman named Betty and she’ll follow it all to the letter, keeping a diary in between.  While the concept is a cute one, it’s really Maya’s situation that makes the book unusual.  She’s living in a town on the Texas/Mexico border where there are constant drug dogs and alarms where they have to shelter in the multipurpose room and keep silent because of police activity. That’s a lot of pressure for middle school.  Maya is chipper throughout it all.

This book is just great.  I was attracted by the paper dolls on the cover (I’m a sucker for paper dolls), but I cracked the spine and couldn’t put it down because of Maya’s strong (and often funny) voice.  The book started with the sweetest forward by Betty about Maya which swept me off my feet.  Despite the huge differences in circumstance, Betty’s words ring true and are still helpful to Maya.  That’s what was most mind-blowing to me.

The pictures in the book were my favorite parts, as were the times when Maya had to follow anything that clearly wasn’t applicable advice anymore.  Like her cotton gloves, huge straw hat with a bow, and pearls that she has to wear to church all the time.  Or the gigantic girdle.  The diagram she draws of how the girdle rides up and gives her four butts is especially amazing.

So, in short, this book is another one I highly recommend.  I burned through it in only a day because I couldn’t put it down.  It’s rare these days that I read two books in a single weekend but I just did.  I wish I had this kind of luck with all the new books I pick up!

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