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[DiverseKidLit] Finding One’s Voice and Identity in 2017 Middle Grade Novels

Reviews of Newbery Medal Winner "Hello, Universe" by Erin Entrada Kelly, and "All's Faire in Middle School" by Newbery Honor Winner Victoria Jamieson.

Myra here.

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We have just launched our new reading theme until end of June this year. We are not just looking for biographies, but also stories that are written in the first-person – or what we are calling here to be self-constructed narratives. I am glad to be sharing three amazing middle grade voices that establish a sense of self and identity, as they struggle to find their voices in the chaos that is middle school.


Hello Universe

Written by: Erin Entrada Kelly Illustrated by: Isabel Roxas
Published byGreenwillow Books, 2017 ISBN: 0062414151 (ISBN13: 9780062414151). Literary Award: Newbery Medal (2018) 
Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

I immediately borrowed this book from the library as soon as the Newbery winners were announced this year. I read and enjoyed Erin Entrada Kelly’s The Land Of Forgotten Girls (also illustrated by the inimitable Isabel Roxas – see my review here). Hence, to say that I was looking forward to reading this book would be an understatement.

Here, Kelly upped her game a little bit by telling the narrative in alternating voices. It is also marked by little icons (similar to the images above and below) symbolizing the character’s perspective and peculiarities – see “The Universe Knows” for Kaori below.

While it is only Valencia Somerset’s story that is told from a first-person narrative (she is described to be quite tough, smart, and with a hearing impairment), the reader still gets a first-hand immersive experience of what it’s like to see the world through the painfully shy Virgil Salina’s eyes; or the strange-Luna-Lovegood-vibe of Kaori Tanaka – only Asian; and Chet, the bully who picks on the weak, the small, the outsider.

It was a strange and almost surreal feeling reading Virgil’s story. For one, his Filipino-American family pretty much resembles that of my own family members and friends. His parents are in the medical field – my own sister-in-law happens to be Head Nurse in California, along with quite a number of very good childhood friends of mine who live in the US. Then there is the presence of Virgil’s no-nonsense, smart-talking, infinitely-wise lola, who truly sees him, and who has a predilection for sharing tall tales and scary stories of monsters that are the stuff of legends, or unlikely heroes whose lives end in suspended animation or inevitably-bittersweet never-afters.

Thus, it felt like Erin Kelly is talking directly to me, sharing family secrets, making me laugh and cry at the same time, with how she skilfully navigates her way around such resoundingly-real middle-grade voices that can be exasperating but also delightful in its fumbling, initial attempts at identity formation.

While I felt an instant tug of recognition reading Virgil’s middle-class narrative living the All-American, successful-immigrant dream – it was Kaori Tanaka, the enterprising, oblivious, sharp-eyed psychic with the sidekick younger sister, Gen, who managed to make me laugh out loud so many times.

While it started pretty slowly for me (I’ve been reading quite a number of adult novels, so I had to adjust somewhat to the change in pace), this is a page-turner that provides spaces for the characters to inhabit themselves – taking on the skin that they will eventually become and try it on for size. There is evident transformation through chance encounters, unlikely acts of heroism, and the ownership of one’s voice – where before there were only squeaks, incoherent mumbles, and alternate-selves-who-are-confident-only-in-theory-and-imagination.

I can not recommend this novel enough; truly worthy of its Newbery Medal win. It made me teary-eyed to finally see myself, recognize my skin colour, and identify with my brown narrative that is represented and portrayed so thoughtfully and sensitively in this story.


All’s Faire In Middle School

Written and Illustrated by: Victoria Jamieson
Published byGreenwillow Books, 2017 ISBN: 0062414151 (ISBN13: 9780062414151). Literary Award: Newbery Medal (2018) 
Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

While I absolutely adored Roller Girl (see my review here), this one caught me off-guard with its strangeness and truth.

I especially like how in recently-published picturebooks and graphic novels, there is a cinematic presentation of the title page – a few scenes presented first before the opening credits roll in, quite dramatically.

Admittedly, I know very little about Renaissance Fairs, except perhaps for what I’ve seen in a few episodes of Gilmore Girls. 

Yet Jamieson managed to somehow welcome the reader into the Faire-mily, without making it sound too exclusionary to an outsider. It had an inviting feel to it that showed its distinctiveness as a group, but never at the reader’s ignorant expense or lack of knowledge.

Then, of course, there is the entire prepubescent experience in middle school as told through the eyes of our intrepid female knight, Imogene, who after being homeschooled, is now thrust into the biggest challenge of her life – attending traditional school with mean girls, cliques, and the predictable bullies.

There is also a class issue inserted into the narrative, but done so masterfully, that it does not end up with the reader feeling guilty or defensive. Rather, it encourages a more empathetic stance towards Imogene who is struggling to make some sense of what their lifestyle is like compared to her wealthier classmates with bigger houses.

Then there is Imogene’s entire relationship with her father, its light-heartedness, casualness, and enveloping warmth. I think my favourite scene that brought unbidden tears to my eyes was when Imogene stood up for her father when he was being questioned by an irate White customer and bullied for his brown amigo skin – an issue which was never really mentioned in the story, but cleverly alluded to as seen in the image below.

Once again, it is the transformation that made my heart fill up as I was reading this narrative: the realizations that Imogene had to arrive at on her own – for her to speak up, find her voice, own her reality, while juggling her imperfections expertly using both hands; and recognizing, with an ache brought about by growing up, what truly matters in life.


The Wild Book

Written byJuan Villoro Translated by: Lawrence Schimel
Published byRestless Books, 2017 (First Published 2008). Original Title: El Libro Salvaje ISBN: 1632061473 (ISBN13: 9781632061478) 
Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

The story revolves around a thirteen year old boy named Juan who was sent off by his mother to this strange, book-loving Uncle Tito during his summer break. Juan’s parents are on the verge of breaking up and the first few chapters of the novel deal with this uncertainty, and the heaviness of heart that both Juan his younger sister are feeling, as they witness their mother’s unraveling, and their father’s evidently choosing another woman, as he goes off to France for work.

I feel that this way-too-real introduction provided the perfect backdrop to the surreal, magical, fantastical experience that Juan had in Uncle Tito’s house whose home happens to be a veritable library. The bitterness of Juan’s reality was somehow balanced off with Uncle Tito’s frequent tea-breaks (resulting to frequent visits to the lavatory), the book-inspired meals, and Juan’s meeting the girl of his dreams, Catalina. But perhaps, the thing that really caught me the most was the intense book love that was palpable throughout the narrative. This was conveyed by Uncle Tito to Juan, who apparently, was an unusual reader – a Princeps Reader, evident in the way the books physically respond to him. For a well-read grown-up, though, Uncle Tito struck me as somewhat prejudiced given his somewhat offhand, careless remarks about specific countries or cultures. However, I simply chalked it up to one of his quirks, and possibly one of the things that an adult reader could discuss in greater depth with younger readers.

When Juan asked his uncle whether he has read all the books in his library (a question that most of our visitors in our home frequently ask me as well), Uncle Tito responded in this manner:

The Wild Book, however, takes the popular bibliophile notion that books find us at the perfect time – just a wee bit further, to the realm of the marvelous and the strange, what with books moving of their own free will, or the presence of malignant books that poison other books around them, not to mention a wild book that will only make itself visible to the right reader, under the right circumstances.

Clearly, this is a must-read for bibliophiles. While the narrative is universal, it does have a distinct voice all its own.


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4 comments on “[DiverseKidLit] Finding One’s Voice and Identity in 2017 Middle Grade Novels

  1. Yes! I loved the amigo moment in All’s Faire. It was well done and even if Imogene didn’t understand the man’s words, she certainly knew he was being disrespectful to her father and was not having it. So good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My daughter is Filipino (adopted), so I am interested in Hello Universe. Thanks for the review and for sharing!

    I’m part of #DiverseKitLit blog hop. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read All’s Faire recently. I enjoyed it. I have Hello Universe on my list. The Wild Book is new to me. It sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: April 13th| Week in Review | Vamos a Leer

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