J Memoir

NETTIE AND NELLIE CROOK: ORPHAN TRAIN SISTERS by E.F. Abbott

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Twins Nettie and Nellie spent a lot of time together, just the two of them.  Their father was often away for long periods of time to find work, their older brother worked all day, and sometimes their mother would disappear for weeks–especially after their baby sister died.  But one day a man arrives to take the children away, saying that they are not being cared for properly.  At six years old, Nettie and Nellie find themselves in an orphanage, even though their parents are still alive.  Not long afterward they are put on a train and sent West with a group of other children in search of “forever homes.”  But some homes are not as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

Based on the true story of the Crook sisters, Abbott’s book gives readers a glimpse into what it might be like to be placed in foster care or adopted in the early twentieth century.  Neither the characterization nor the settings are particularly vivid; the book is plot driven.  But the subject matter is interesting, and may especially appeal to readers now that Simone Biles’ Olympic wins are raising awareness of what foster care and adoption are like today.  I would recommend this book to third and fourth grade readers who are interested in history.

EL DEAFO by CeCe Bell

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After an illness severely damages her hearing, four year old CeCe must wear hearing aids and learn to read lips.  As she goes through elementary school, she sometimes struggles to fit in with her classmates, some of whom treat her differently because of her disability.  She constantly wonders what people are thinking about her and feels left out in situations where she can’t understand what others are saying or listening to.  But she also knows that her hearing aids let her do some things that the other kids can’t, and someday her classmates will need El Deafo to save the day.

This graphic novel is sure to resonate with all middle grade readers, who will relate to CeCe’s struggles to find true friendship and fit in with her peers.  Reader’s with disabilities may find CeCe’s story particularly easy to relate to, while typically-abled readers will get a glimpse into the frustrations of being treated differently and set apart (for example, when CeCe’s friend refers to her as her “deaf friend” rather than just her friend).  This novel will both introduce readers to what it is really like to be deaf and remove some misconceptions and other barriers that may have made hearing children hesitant to befriend a deaf classmate.  Engaging, educational, and a great story–I highly recommend it!

If you liked El Deafo, you might like Smile by Raina Telgemeier.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline’s childhood was shaped by the Civil Rights movement, her grandfather’s garden, the kids playing in the streets in Bushwick, and so many other things.  She gathers her memories and turns them into poetry in this National Book Award winning memoir.  Her story is accessible and beautifully told with vivid imagery and a depth of reflection that inspires similar personal reflection from readers of all ages.  A beautiful book.  I highly recommend it!

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.

SISTERS by Raina Telgemeier

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Sometimes Raina wonders why she ever wanted a little sister.  She thought it would be fun to have someone to play with, but instead she wound up crowded into a bedroom with two other siblings, arguing about everything, and trying to hide her stuff so that Amara doesn’t steal it.  The snake incident was just about the last straw.  But when Raina, Amara, Will and their Mom crowd into the family van for a two week long camping road trip, the nightmare is complete.  Is there any way they will make it through the vacation without tearing each other apart?

A companion to her previous memoir, Smile, Telgemeier’s newest book captures the frustrations, rivalries, and deep loving bond of sisterhood.  While Sisters is not quite as suspenseful and compelling as Smile, Telgemeier weaves flashbacks to the past into the story of the roadtrip to build a more complete picture of the family dynamic, as well as to create an engaging story arc.  The story will resonate with middle grade readers who have siblings and will also appeal to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and graphic novels.

SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

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Raina was already dreading getting braces–particularly since correcting her overbite would require her to wear headgear!  Even if she only had to wear it at night, it was still a social nightmare.  But when she tripped and accidentally knocked out her two front teeth, the nightmare got even worse.  Raina had to endure a series of painful operations and start middle school with a set of fake teeth that she was sure everyone would notice.  In the format of a graphic novel, Raina tells the story of her experience growing up with braces, as well as dealing with friendship troubles, trying not let her crushes know she likes them (but secretly hoping they’ll find out!), making decisions about her dreams and goals for the future, and trying to keep her self-esteem high despite the metal in her mouth.

This graphic-memoir is a great book for girls who are going into middle school and/or getting braces.  It touches on all of the friendship and self-esteem issues that are typical for tween and teen girls and normalizes a lot of the challenges of growing up.  Plus, Raina’s story is engaging and fun to read.  It will likely appeal to girls who like realistic fiction books like Dork Diaries, Babymouse, Dumped by Popular Demand, or Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf.

If you liked Smile, you might also like El Deafo by CeCe Bell.