Trials and tribulations - Middle School recommended reading
Each week, the English Department here at AKS, Lytham will recommend some reading which we hope that teenage readers might enjoy.
Last week, we looked at classic ‘coming-of-age’ novels. This week, we will look at the marginalized protagonist – a young person who comes from ‘the wrong sides of the tracks, or is a different racial origin, gender or religion to the mainstream. All this week’s recommends have young heroes or heroines who swim against the tide in some way and encounter prejudice.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera (2017)
Our first book is a protagonist who comes from a secure background and is forced through circumstances to un-learn her privilege and see the wider world.
The novel is set in the US where a wealthy Puerto Rican-American family does everything it can to maintain a veneer of perfection for bratty entitled teenage daughter, Margot.
But when she’s caught stealing money, she winds up working in her father’s South Bronx grocery store, and that’s where her education truly begins. She was supposed to spend the entire summer with her popular best friends in the Hamptons – on the beach, having parties, and getting into a relationship with a guy she’s had a long time crush on. But when her father finds out she stole his credit card to buy clothes, he tells her she must spend the summer working at the family grocery store to pay it off.
When she walks into the grocery store to begin her summer of torture, she does so while wearing designer clothing and assumes that she is going to be helping in the office – until her father and older brother, Junior, set her straight – telling her that she will be working in the deli and stocking shelves like everyone else. Now she learns how the other half live. Margot begins to question her prejudices and adjust her values.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (2005)
Another classic tale of someone who suffers immense hardship is Zusak’s classic young adult novel set in Nazi Germany. Our narrator is Death himself who tells the story of a little girl determined to preserve literature from the oppressors’ flames.
Liesel Meminger, a nine-year-old German girl, is shown sitting at the grave of the last remaining member of her family, her brother Michael. War has taken everything from her, leaving her truly alone and terrified. As she walks away from her brother’s grave, she notices a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Although she has not learned to read, she “steals” the book, hoping it will be a keepsake of her brother and bring her comfort.
Liesel is sent to live with the Hubermanns, a compassionate German couple who become her foster parents. They soon discover that Liesel’s experiences with war have left deep emotional scars. Her foster father teaches her to read, and that becomes her means of escape. Books give her what she needs to survive.
A couple of “stolen” or borrowed books help Liesel forge some special friendships. There’s Max, a 24-year-old Jewish fighter who is secretly hidden and protected in the basement of the Hubermanns’ home. Liesel shares food and her books with him. Their precious time spent reading together saves Max’s life. It also helps create a surprise at the end of the book.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)
Shuggie is a young boy growing up in 1980s’ Glasgow, who is sensitive and effeminate. In this tough environment, he stands out from other children and is bullied mercilessly. His father, Shuggie senior, is uncaring and selfish and his mother, Agnes, a beautiful woman, but a hopeless alcoholic.
Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning young Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realised that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her—even her beloved Shuggie.
Shuggie’s optimism and strength of character take him through many trials and tribulations in this tragic but heart-warming story that depicts working-class life with gritty realism and much humour.
How I live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)
The book is narrated by Daisy, who is your average, stereotypical, American teenager; always causing trouble for her dad and pregnant stepmother, self-involved and always wanting attention. Her father sends her to England to live with her aunt and cousins, so that they can have some peace and time to prepare for the new arrival. Daisy arrives in the strange land but soon begins to settle in her new life with her cousins on the farm.
Their life is simple and peaceful, and they enjoy many long sunny days by the river. However, all their lives are uprooted when war erupts - a war none of them understands, or really cares about, until it lands on their doorstep. The family is separated. The perfect summer is blown apart. Daisy's life is changed forever - and the world is too. They are forced to separate and help their country through the difficult times.
The book follows her and her cousins' lives as they struggle to survive in a land that is still strange to Daisy. Both humorous and heart-breaking, and set in an ambiguous time period (the war is not World War 2, but a fictitious contemporary war – Daisy has a mobile phone), the book enables teenagers to understand what it might have been like for their older relatives who were in previous wars.
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines (1968)
Famously filmed as ‘Kes’, this book concerns the life of Billy Casper, an undernourished barely literate 15 year old boy who is bullied by his older brother, despaired of by his teachers and neglected by his mother.
Hines was from Barnsley where this book is set, and was a teacher himself. His depictions of school life and his ear for dialogue are superbly accurate. The terrors and casual bullying of school life are dealt with unflinchingly.
The book shows that there are two sides to this grimy Yorkshire town – the world of the factory, council estate and ‘pit’ (mine) and the beautiful surrounding countryside. Billy discovers a new passion in life when he finds Kes, a kestrel hawk. He identifies with her silent strength and she inspires in him the trust and love that nothing else can, discovering through her the passion missing from his life.
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2020)
This book is about unfairness and how to cope with it. It uses the trope of two brothers, whose skin tone varies. It challenges our hidden assumptions about race, challenging the inbuilt prejudices that the author sees in Western culture.
Dante and his brother, Trey, both attend Middlefield Prep. But Dante is singled out, mistrusted and unfairly targeted by both students and teachers because his skin is significantly darker than Trey’s. When he is suspended and arrested for something that he didn’t do, Dante knows he must take a risk and fight for justice for himself.
Fencing might not seem like the obvious route, but Alan, the lead aggressor in Dante’s bullying, holds the role of team captain, and Dante wants to beat Alan at his own game. He finds an unlikely mentor in Arden, a local youth centre employee and former Olympic fencer. With Arden’s help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain. As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis (1983)
This story is an inspiring tale of a young girl whose world is torn apart when her mother dies, leaving her to be brought up in an institution. This Cinderella rags-to-riches tale looks at how Beth Harmon uses her prodigious chess talent to build a life for herself.
Young Beth learns to play chess from the orphanage janitor, while developing a dependence on the tranquilisers given to the children daily.
The relationships in this story are well-written and realistic. Beth spends many years in the orphanage before she is adopted by Alma Wheatley, a woman with issues and addictions of her own who provides Beth with a home and the opportunity to compete professionally in chess.
She goes on to rise to the top of her game, travelling the world to win chess championships, usually against all-male opposition.
Walter Tevis was an amateur chess player himself so his depictions of chess in this novel are very realistic. We root for Beth despite her social awkwardness and self-destructive behaviour. She provides hope in a world where orphans were pitied as charity cases, and females side-lined in the male competitive chess culture.