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Middle-Grade Books to Empower Kids, Starring Boys Who Aren't Superheroes

Lee Littlewood on

Kids ages of 8 to 12 or 13 can seem happy and well-adjusted on the outside but be full of fears and insecurities on the inside. These books help them see that other kids face the same challenges and that, by all means, they're normal no matter what. They also star boys, a demographic that's becoming harder and harder to reach with books.

"The Icarus Show" by Sally Christie; David Fickling Books/Scholastic; 217 pages; $17.99.

Acclaimed author Marcus Sedgwick notes, "It's possible for even children in loving families to find themselves alone, isolated by problems that seem insurmountable." This is certainly true, especially for children on the cusp on teenagehood. "The Icarus Show," set in England, introduces a thoughtful boy named Alex Meadows who works out a foolproof plan to avoid being bullied like David, a boy branded as an outcast and a weirdo.

With a bit of Greek mythology, a flying possibility, a feather and a note that force Alex out of his safe little world, Sally Christie's breathtaking story is a powerful but easy read about individuality, the importance of being a bit strange, loneliness and friendship. It's also short enough that reluctant readers won't shy away.

"The Ethan I Was Before" by Ali Standish; HarperCollins; 368 pages; $16.99.

Twelve years and 4 months is how old Ethan is when his family moves from Boston to a small town in Georgia. Ethan wants to escape the memories of an accident that sent his best friend, Kacey, to a nursing home in a coma. With so much weighing on his shoulders, Ethan's narration is heavy at first but lightens up some when he meets new friend, Coralee, a girl with a big personality who also has secrets.

Ali Standish's absorbing, serious story has adventure and family drama but is also heartfelt and moving. Though Ethan eventually finds out Kacey won't make it, he has the chance to save Coralee, who is also trying to save something: baby wolves in danger.

Hope, friendship and forgiveness reign high in this stirring tale that proves even after tragedy, happiness and normalcy are possible.

"The Goldfish Boy" by Lisa Thompson; Scholastic Press; 315 pages; $16.99.

It's not often that mysteries are also full of heart and compassion, but "The Goldfish Boy" certainly is all of that. Lisa Thompson's empathetic debut novel stars tween Matthew Corbin, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder brought on by the death of his infant brother. When the story begins, his hands are cracked and bleeding from his excessive cleaning, and he hasn't gone to school in weeks, because he's afraid of contamination.

Matthew begins to think outside himself when a neighbor toddler goes missing. It turns out Matthew holds the key to finding the boy because of his diligent practice of reporting all the details of his street from his window.

This read has heart-wrenching moments coupled with suspense and the hope that Matthew can save a child. It is unique, adventurous, compelling and sensitive. It should inspire kids, boys and girls who feel different or have special needs, and remind them that they are just as important as other kids.

"Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth" by Frank Cottrell Boyce; Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins; 336 pages; $16.99.

New York Times best-sellng author Frank Cottrell Boyce pens another heart-filled, funny novel with lots of adventure and poignancy for middle graders. It stars Prez, a spunky boy sent out of the country to a foster family when his beloved grandfather can't care for him anymore. (That's too bad, because Granddad is hilarious. He looks in the mirror and shouts: "Who's this old bod in the mirror? What's he doing in my bedroom?")

But all good things sometimes change, and Prez, as he adjusts to life in his new home, encounters a nutty dog named Sputnik that can manipulate the laws of space and time. Turns out he's an alien, but a helpful one who needs Prez's help to save the Earth. How? The pair needs to compile a list of 10 reasons why Earth should be saved.

As Prez and Sputnik set out to research and make the most important list, the ensuing summer is the best ever for Prez, especially since Granddad plays a part in it.

Boyce's fifth novel rocks is truly funny and "out there"; it proves that life is worth living no matter where you are.


To find out more about Lee Littlewood, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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