Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French

Julian Carter-Li’s mother is following her photography dreams in China but that means she left him behind in San Francisco for the summer. Unfortunately, she left him with his aunt and uncle, who seem to hate him.  He does love his younger cousin, Preston, but he really wishes that his mom would come home sooner rather than later. His aunt and uncle are far from kind (and reminded me a little of the Dursleys!).  When the school calls to say Julian is sick, no one will pick him up!  His aunt sends a cab to take him to his uncle’s office, where he is left to lay on the couch til later that night.  However, while his Uncle Sibley is at a meeting, Julian intercepts an email from a girl his age, Robin, who is furious that Sibley will be clear cutting a redwood forest near her home.  Julian spontaneously responds to her and he and his friend, Danny, begin exchanging emails with her.  The boys and Robin come up with a scheme that helps Julian escape the dreaded math camp  he is being sent to and lands him an exchange with the Robin’s family. On their farm, he discovers the true meaning of family of the beauty of the redwood forest.

Before he realizes it, Julian is working against his uncle’s company to save the grove of old-growth redwood trees from the clear cutting Sibley has planned.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a good companion for Carl Hiassen’s eco-novels and I imagine it will really appeal to my middle schoolers.  Julian and his friends are in middle school themselves and their reactions and plans for the protest are very realistic.  I could imagine myself making the same decisions they did as a preteen.  Plus, who has not wanted to run away and live in a treehouse at some point in their life?

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher for the Cybils. All opinions are my own and not those of the panel as a whole.

Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning by Danette Haworth

Violet Raines reminds me a little bit of Anne of Green Gables. She’s impulsive, a bit of a wild child, and has a good heart. She is the perfect modern-day heroine for middle graders, especially those about to enter middle school.

Violet lives with her mother in Mitchell Hammock, a tiny town in Florida. Mitchell Hammock is small enough that she and her Ma don’t need a car to get around because everything they need is right there in the neighborhood. Violet’s best friend in the world, Lottie, even lives right down the street. Together Violet, Lottie, and their friend Eddie explore the woods around town, hang out in their secret hiding places, and collect BrainFreeze cups so that they can redeem them for a free BrainFreeze.

All of this changes when Melissa Gold moves to town. She and her parents move to Mitchell Hammock from Detroit, Michigan. Far from being small-town folk, they have central air conditioning installed in their house, they wear “city clothes”, and they obviously have more money than the rest of the townsfolk. Melissa’s hoity-toity attitude irritates Violet, who decides that playing pranks on Melissa and otherwise torturing her will be a great way to end the summer. She is counting on Lottie’s help in that area, but is shocked when Lottie befriends Melissa. Suddenly, Violet’s world is turned sideways. She is slowly losing her best friend, Melissa will not stop teasing her about her “boyfriend”, Eddie, and Violet can’t even begin to sort through all of her feelings.

To make things even worse, Lottie’s house is struck by lightning and almost completely destroyed.  Lottie and her sisters are staying with Melissa’s family and may lose their house completely.  So while Violet is furious at Lottie’s betrayal of their friendship (in her eyes), she is also heartbroken for the family she has come to know as her own.  Whoever said growing up was easy, never had to grow up!

Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning is the perfect book for rising middle schoolers. It beautifully depicts the struggles and triumphs of middle grade friendships- especially those tricky friendships that cross gender lines. It also provides a wonderful picture of growing up, growing friendships, and growing maturity. This is a home run book that I expect will find an audience similar to Shug.

As an aside, I love, love, love the first line of this novel:  “When Eddie B. dared me to walk the net bridge over the Elijah Hatchett River where we’d seen an alligator and another kid got bit by a coral snake, I wasn’t scared- I just didn’t feel like doing it right then.”  The voice in that line alone will pull you into the book, because you can already sense that little bit of defiance in Violet.