Music opens us up to brand-new emotions and depth of feeling, and has the strongest effect on us when we’re young. These two middle-grade novels take on the heavy topic of starting middle school and navigating independence, responsibility, and friends while also diving passionately into new musical interests. Both books are profoundly hopeful. The protagonists of both of these books are relatable and face realistic stakes; these books are perfect for students just starting middle school or for whom junior high still looms a couple years ahead.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez
Perez, Celia (2017). The First Rule of Punk. New York, NY: Viking.
12-year-old Malu is moving with her mom to Chicago—and leaving behind everything she knows and loves about Gainesville, Florida. Goodbye to her dad’s record store, Spanish moss, her favorite pizza place, and everything she feels confident in about punk culture. Hello to a city she doesn’t yet know anything about—and to two years with her mother, who Malu thinks is way too uptight. Malu calls her mom “SuperMexican” to tease her; in contrast to her laid-back dad, her mother is always trying to talk to her about Mexican history and art and culture, and while she supports Malu’s artistic inclinations and her zine projects, she is suspicious of skateboards, weird hairstyles, or pants with holes in them. When Malu starts her school year, though, her mom’s concerns about dress code pale in comparison to the drama she encounters at school. On her first day, when she comes in wearing punk dark eyeliner, two other Mexican girls in her class tease her and tell her to act more normal. As Malu learns more about Chicago and the Mexican-American punk scene and real bands that preceded her, she starts a band—but things don’t immediately get easier. Offensive school fiestas, a ban on punk music in the school talent show, and more make Malu uncertain of how to reconcile different parts of her identity in public.
Malu isn’t a perfect protagonist, quick to jump to conclusions and equally quick to idolize her dad over her hardworking, hyper-smart and hyper-caring mom. But her struggles at the start of middle school, her artistic ambition and abundant interests and passions, pull the reader along on a narrative ride that’s fun every step of the way. The integration of Malu’s zines into the text of the book, plus a hefty dose of information both about Mexican-American art and history and local punk scenes in Chicago, make this a great novel for young people developing their own tastes and interests in music and seeking out ways to express their identity in public. While the stakes never get impossibly high and Malu is surrounded by caring adults and ultimately finds like-minded friends, the fear she feels of alienation is profoundly real, and makes the reassuring triumphs she achieves all the sweeter.
All Summer Long by Hope Larson
Larson, Hope (2018). All Summer Long. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
As the school year bleeds into summer, 13-year-old Bina is looking forward to spending her days with her best friend and next-door neighbor, Austin. Bina and Austin have spent every summer tallying points in their Summer Fun Index—rescuing cats, getting ice cream, playing basketball, and having adventures in their neighborhood. But this summer, Austin tells Bina at the last second that he’ll be gone for half the summer at soccer camp. So without warning, Bina finds herself all alone. She spends a few weeks watching TV on the couch, until one day she locks herself out of the house when she goes to get milk and, when trying to get the spare key to her house from Austin’s bedroom next door, she runs into Austin’s sister, an older teenager who had to quit her job as a lifeguard after breaking her arm skateboarding.
Austin’s sister likes the same indie bands as Bina, and Bina starts to find new bands she likes through her record collection. As she practices guitar, she starts to think about what she could do to make music a bigger part of her life. But when Austin comes back from camp, he’s still acting different, and at the same time, his sister seems to remember suddenly that Bina is just a kid, and abruptly ignores her. Will she end summer as lonely as she began it? Will she ever find other people that like the same music? Can she ever start a band?
Even though the story focuses on Bina’s introspection, passion and loneliness, the story is fast-paced, partly because of Bina’s incredible energy and wide range of passions. The book is full of a large cast of characters, including Bina’s extended family and Austin’s mother and friends. I really like the fact that Bina’s best friend is a boy with interests very different from hers, and that the book tackles how to handle a changing friendship in middle school. The two-tone yellow and orange art adds dimension to the simple, liquid lines Larson uses to illustrate Californian suburbia. The most vivid art is saved for the facial expressions of the characters, which are stylized and expressive. The struggles Bina has with navigating responsibility and independence, and her efforts to understand the interests and occupations of adults and older teenagers, make this a great book to help bridge the difficult transition to middle school and adolescence. In addition to being thematically very similar to The First Rule of Punk, this is a great book to pair with Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, or This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.