…was the marvelous title the NoveList Newsletter Editor, Kathy Stewart, gave to her January edition.  I loved her title and also loved that I got to write about possibly the most difficult changes of all–those that arrive with coming of age.  Below is the article that originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of NoveList’s Kids and Books


Characters Coping with Change: New Books for Middle Schoolers

The years between ages 9-12 are full of change.  Many middle schoolers soldier through without acknowledging the difficulties that beset them.  Whether or not they recognize the turmoil, there’s a comfort in discovering books whose characters struggle with changes during early adolescence.

Characters Change People Around Them

Middle schoolers are known for their pack mentality.  Students may feel as if they’re slashing their way through a jungle where the unspoken law is survival of the fittest. However, some peers have an almost magical power to alter those around them.

The Mystery of Meerkat Hill (Random House, 2013, ages 8-10) is the second in Alexander McCall Smith’s series about young Precious Ramotswe, the character who grows up to form the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  She proves herself a character who cares about people as she reaches out to Pontsho and Teb, two new students at her school. The two might be poor, but they have a rich secret.  They have a pet meerkat, a creature that fascinates Precious and becomes a curious partner in her solving a mystery to help Pontsho and Teb’s family.

Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is the hero of Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, 2013, ages 8-12). Chap is trying to deal with his grandfather’s death when his family’s business and his home is further threatened by Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who plans to turn the swamp into an alligator wrestling theme park. Chap determines that he will step up and protect the swamp and his family just as his grandfather had. Appelt delivers multiple viewpoints in short chapters. Her conflict-rich writing varies from gorgeous descriptions to slapstick situations.

Characters Change Because of Their Worlds

Sometimes the ferocity of life can feel like it is attacking preteens on an almost steady basis.  There’s consolation in watching the struggles of literary heroes.

Heroes like Delphine, a character who, after spending a summer with the Black Panthers and a mother she barely knows, expects to return to her old life. But change is a constant in Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven (HarperCollins, 2013, ages 9-12), the sequel to Newbery Honor-winning One Crazy Summer. Every facet of this book rings true: flawless research, reminiscent references and descriptive writing.  Truest of all are Delphine’s overwhelming feelings — joy at her uncle’s return from Vietnam, sadness when he gets swallowed by street drugs, the thrill of The Jackson Five, confusion at her father’s remarriage, and typical preteen problems.


Lisa Graff’s Tangle of Knots (Philomel, 2013, ages 9-12), told through multiple intriguing viewpoints, occurs in a fantasy world in which characters search to find their “Talent” and gain their sense of selves.  When everyone around her seems to understand their “Talent,” will Marigold move out of the world of the “Fair,” those whose gifts are not yet defined? Can her spectacular spitting somehow be at the center of everything?  Amazingly, Talents, numerous characters, and tangled plot twists come together through the author’s considerable writing talents.

Characters Change Their Worlds

Most adolescents are quick to criticize, but some decide to transform the elements of life that make them unhappy.

Red Porter’s adored father has died suddenly and life transforms rapidly in Kathryn Erskine’s Seeing Red (Scholastic, 2013, ages 10-12). His mother is consumed by grief and plans to sell both the business and the house and move.  Amid concerns at home, Red’s lifelong friendships are strained. His feelings are intensified by  his growing awareness of 1970s racial prejudice, his family’s possible role in past cruelties and his desire to live up to his father’s strong belief in him. Red does so by making difficult choices that go against tradition and the status quo.

Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon(Candlewick, 2013, ages 10-12) takes place in a world where 15-year-old Standish Treadwell lives in bombed out, rubble-ridden Zone 7 with his grandfather. Standish stands out physically (with one blue eye and one brown eye) and mentally because of his dyslexia.  Clearly different than the “train-track” thinkers, maybe Standish has a chance of freeing the world. Gardner’s poetic voice beautifies this ugly world and adds poignancy to this allegorical tale.

Two protagonists both seek change in Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White (Scholastic, 2013, ages 11 and up) a fantasy that takes place in two worlds. Madeline, 14, lives in present-day Cambridge and is adjusting to life after she and her mother leave her father. Elliot, 15, lives in the Kingdom of Cello where colors can attack inhabitants at any moment, and his father has mysteriously disappeared.  Through a tiny crack between their worlds, the two exchange letters and support each other.  The complex plot of this unusual fantasy leaves much unsolved, setting readers up for sequels.

Characters Are Changed By Family

Sometimes middle grade stories minimize the role of parents and family, but in these books, characters’ families are crucial in order for change to happen.