Childhood may be the easiest time to go to bed as one person and wake up feeling like someone else. In two new middle-grade novels, young heroines discover that adults are not always truthful, and that the world is more dangerous than anyone has been letting on. They’re life-changing realizations, for sure, and in both books they present an opportunity to find a moral compass.
Inspired by the journal of her grandmother, who had to leave school in fifth grade to help on the family farm, Sharon M. Draper, the author of many young adult books, including “Out of My Mind,” sets “Stella by Starlight” in the South of the early 1930s. The line of segregation cuts through all aspects of life in Bumblebee, N.C., from inequitable schooling to inadequate health care to the denial of voting rights.
At the center of the novel is a young storyteller named Stella Mills, who ventures outside at night to write, wrestling words onto the pages of her secret notebook. Stella, who is African-American, witnesses a frightening event involving the Ku Klux Klan. Draper conveys a full, rich picture of Stella’s world, beginning with the importance of religion in the fabric of a rural, black Southern community. After decades of injustice and terror under Jim Crow laws, it is the local pastor who encourages his flock to stand up and be counted. “I will be at the voter registration office at 9 a.m. when it opens,” he tells the congregation. “Anybody who wants to come with me is welcome. I am a man. Amen. Amen.”
There’s a very particular allure to a picture book that teeters on the verge of becoming a chapter book — that divides into three or more micro-stories featuring the same characters, with a title page for each vignette. James Marshall’s classic “George and Martha” books from the 1970s, with their hilariously bickering pair of hippos, are probably the gold standard, but there are many good examples from recent years, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s “Dog and Bear” books and Grace...