Three terrific new novels for young readers

Nothing signals spring better than a newly-published crop of books. These three novels for middle-grade readers (ages 8-14), feature interesting young narrators and strong, unique stories.

When My Sister Started Kissing By Helen Frost Farrar, Straus and Giroux 208 pp. Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel By Kimberly Willis Holt Henry Holt 336 pp. See You In the Cosmos By Jack Cheng Penguin Random House Dial Books 320 pp.

 When 11-year-old Claire and her older sister Abigail return to their family’s cottage this summer, things are different. They’ve always kayaked on the lake and whiled away long days with friends; now they have a new step-mom and a baby brother on the way. The memories of their mother, who died here, are strong and sweet, but everything they care about is changing, especially in Claire’s eyes. From shopping trips with Abigail to adding her own touches to the cabin, her stepmother is replacing their mom.

To make matters much worse, her sister not only discovers boys, they’ve discovered her. Told in stunning, clever, and often funny verse by three narrators, When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost is beautiful to look at and delightful to read as both poetry and story. Claire’s stanzas are particularly charming, innocent yet smart: “When did my sister learn this whole new talking-to-boys voice? She sounds like she got a part in a play and this is the first practice.”

An afterword, “Notes on Form,” explains the various poetic forms, from quatrains to the clever acrostics in the voice of the lake. Frost, whose previous books have won acclaim and awards, seamlessly weaves together three characters to tell this coming-of-age story. "When My Sister Started Kissing" will appeal to girls and boys, their parents, teachers and anyone who appreciates a touching and heartwarming tale of family unraveling and coming back together.

National Book Award winner Kimberley Willis Holt creates books full of heart, populated with characters full of spunk. Thirteen-year-old Stevie Grace, the narrator of Holt’s newest novel, Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel, has plenty of both. When tragedy in the form of an accident involving their family’s farm stand takes the lives of both parents, Stevie boards a bus alone, headed to her estranged grandfather’s run-down motel. Although secrecy about her mom and her grandfather’s reticence to share keep Stevie in the dark, the Texas Sunrise Motel is home to funny, odd, loving characters – some of whom knew her mom – and they soon adore her.

An eccentric older woman homeschools Stevie and helps her understand her grandfather. An eighth-grader, who might just have a crush on her, even cousins she never knew she had, all give her reasons to stay in Texas. This multi-faceted story is about dealing with grief, about families and their stories, and how one girl’s determination to make the best of a life she didn’t ask for. This novel not only teaches an invaluable lesson, it’s truly fun to read.  

When was the last time you read a book narrated by a space-obsessed kid who names his dog Carl Sagan? Or a story told entirely via a spray-painted “Golden iPod” recording device? This is the beauty, the hilarity, and the poignancy of See You In the Cosmos, a debut novel by Jack Cheng, a young writer who manages so much in 320 pages.

Convinced there is life in space, 11-year-old Alex Petroski plans to share every facet of his world by sending voices of his human and four-legged encounters into the universe. He’ll blast his Golden iPod off at a rocket festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On his own, he’ll travel from his home in suburban Colorado. Or that’s Alex’s intention.

Early hints reveal that all is not perfect in his unusual world – if his mom isn’t lying on the sofa watching her shows, she has “quiet days she’ll need fresh air so she’ll go for a walk.” And some readers might argue that the author plays reckless with expectations of 11-year-old behavior. But the distinct voice of this young science whiz and the cast of characters – older siblings, his mostly-adult friends, and traveling companions – make this unique novel’s journey one totally worth taking.


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