I should probably wait and process Liar & Spy before I make grand statements–I only just finished it about ten minutes ago. But here I go anyway: this just might be a perfect middle grade novel.
Georges (named after painter Georges Seurat) and his family have just sold their home and moved into an apartment as a result of his father losing his job. Georges still attends 7th grade at the same school, where he is bullied about his name (“Gorgeous”), among other things, but the new apartment brings new friends, in particular an odd boy named Safer and his younger sister, Candy. The novel centers on Georges and Safer trying to solve the mystery of Mr. X, a neighbor who dresses all in black and comes and goes from his apartment carrying suitcases. Safer speculates that Mr. X might be a murderer, and the spying that ensues includes some tense moments. The mystery here is solid and ultimately unpredictable, and the resolution of the novel is immensely satisfying.
What is also solid is the character development, and this is really a realistic coming-of-age story as much as it is a mystery. Georges’ voice is spot-on and unique, and the other characters who populate this story, kids and adults, are equally compelling. A bit of the school dialogue struck me as unrealistic, but on the whole, it felt like I was reading about real, often quirky people, and if you read this blog, you know I love quirky characters!
I think middle school students, especially 5th and 6th graders, are going to really enjoy this story, both for the thoughtful mystery and the realistic fiction elements centered on family and friendships. It’s a short, readable book, but there’s real depth to the story and the ending packs a quiet punch (is there such a thing as a quiet punch? there is now!). I can’t wait to share this story with students next week and start hearing their feedback!
It is once again time to start reading the nominees for this year’s Virginia Readers’ Choice Award. I love reading my way through this list every year! There are always titles I missed when they first came out, and a great variety of books, so reading and talking about these titles is a great way to start off a new school year.
The first title I want to share this year is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces.
This is really an incredible book. As someone who is not inclined to love historical fiction, and also not inclined to love novels written in verse, I will admit that I chose it as one of the first from the list to read because I wanted to get it out of the way. I thought I would like it okay, but I didn’t expect to be as enthusiastic as I am about to be. As it turns out, I loved this book.
The story takes place in the United States, a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, and centers on a boy named Matt Pin. Matt grew up in Vietnam and was given by his mother to American soldiers as the war was ending. He has loving adoptive parents; a kind piano teacher and baseball coach; and a great pitching arm. But he also has intense, vivid memories of growing up surrounded by war; confusion and sadness about his mother’s choice to hand him to the soldiers, staying behind in Vietnam with his injured younger brother; and real problems with bullies who blame him for the war and the pain it has caused their families. This is a heavy load for a 12-year-old kid.
But here’s what I love about this story. It is a heavy load, no doubt, and the book doesn’t shy away from that. There are scenes from the war, Matt’s memories, that are tough to read and will be tough for sensitive readers. But there is nothing gratuitous, and I feel like Burg was very aware of her audience in writing this story. She was careful to convey the reality/horror in an appropriate way and realistic about Matt’s struggles in coping with his past, but she balanced these out with positive scenes and emotions that were just as realistic . The book is very readable for a wide range of kids; the simplicity of the language and verse form make it friendly for a kid who is not a huge reader, and the depth of emotion and complexity of the situation make it a great story for a more advanced reader. Highly recommended!
P.S. This is a great choice for kids who enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I preferred this over that book; I felt like the verse form made more sense here than it did to me there, for some reason. But I have had kids who, on hearing me talk about All the Broken Pieces, say that they read and loved Inside Out & Back Again, and I think this is a great next read for them. I’ll be curious to hear how they compare the two.