Dear Student by Elly Swartz
Autumn Blake has just started sixth grade with two new friends and a secret job: She’s the voice of Dear Student, the advice column published in Hillview Middle School’s paper. Autumn worries what others think and often feels nervous when she’s in the spotlight, so her anonymous role feels perfectly safe… until she answers a letter with advice for one friend that is certain to upset the other.
I really loved Autumn; she is so earnest. I could relate to her middle school worries and her desire to do the right thing. The book does a great job at examining choices and feelings. Some choices are complicated. Feelings often are, too. I suspect a lot of middle schoolers will find courage alongside Autumn as she learns to speak up and be brave.
The Lucky Ones by Linda Williams Jackson
Ellis Earl, an eleven-year-old growing up in 1967 in the Mississippi Delta, has dreams of becoming a lawyer and teacher someday, but first he’d be happy to have enough food for his family. At the recommendation of his teacher, Mr. Foster, Ellis Earl reads Charlie and the Chocolate Family, a story he feels a connection with: At last, here’s a family poorer than his own. Then Ellis Earl learns he might get to see Robert F. Kennedy arrive in Mississippi as part of his “Poverty Tour,” but Mama is convinced it wouldn’t be safe for a colored boy like Ellis Earl.
I am taken by everything Linda Williams Jackson writes. She has opened my eyes to the hardships African Americans faced in the not distant past. Her stories are honest, touching, and hopeful. Ellis Earl is a precious child. I promise you, you’ll root for him to find his own happy ending. Check out the book trailer here. And listen to Linda read a portion of The Lucky Ones here.
Lucy, who is still friends with her ex-husband, William, is drawn back into his world after she’s recently widowed. William is having a hard time sleeping and is haunted by memories of his mother. He convinces Lucy to join him on a trip to Maine to dig into a recently unearthed family secret. Oh William! is a book about choices and family and connection and joy and sorrow. In other words, it feels like real life.
I love the way Elizabeth Strout writes. Her books make me feel I’ve met people with the same real and unremarkable and extraordinary lives we all have, much like the authors Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Berg, Marilyn Robinson, and Ann Tyler so expertly do. Strout’s books aren’t stories so much as experiences. I had no idea this was the third book in a series, especially because it stood so well on its own. Must read the other two soon!
I was certain I’d read my latest book club pick, at least in part, sometime during school, but none of Frederick Douglass’s story was familiar to me. The book recounts his twenty years in slavery. As a child, he only saw his mother when she was allowed to travel the twelve miles that separated them. (She had to return the same night.) At seven or eight, he was sent away from the plantation he knew to a family in Baltimore. There he largely taught himself to read after his master forbade his wife from teaching Frederick anymore. Back and forth he was sent from family to family, enduring endless labor and countless indignities.
This was a riveting read that was deeply moving. As powerful and important as it is today (it should be required reading for Americans, I think!), I can’t imagine its influence when it came out in 1845, naming specific people and their atrocious crimes against the enslaved. This is a testimony to the evils of slavery and the human dignity Douglass was able to maintain. He specifically calls out the “Christian” slave holders who clearly didn’t know the Christ Douglass knew. I am so glad this book exists. Please, if you haven’t read it, do so.