In a new crop of exciting and emotional middle grade reads, summers spent by the water take center stage, but not necessarily how readers might imagine. Whether these stories take place by a lake or on an island, their coming-of-age themes will echo as young readers deal with their own families and friends and weather the storms of growing up.
In Josephine Cameron’s debut Maybe a Mermaid, an 11-year-old girl named Anthoni is looking forward to her first summer at the Showboat Resort at Thunder Lake, a place that her mother has spoken of as almost mythical. Mother and daughter have been constantly on the move in order to sell her mother’s Avon-like beauty products, so Anthoni is looking forward to spending time in one spot long enough to make a “True Blue Friend.” But when they arrive at the Showboat, it’s clear the resort’s heyday has long passed. This is the final straw for Anthoni, who realizes she must confront mother—who has been her rock and moral compass—about her increasingly unethical behaviors. Soon Anthoni befriends Charlotte, the former Boulay Mermaid who now owns the resort. While helping the aging performer, Anthoni discovers secrets from the resort’s past. Amid all of these unexpected twists, Anthoni begins to spend time with the other children living at the resort, and she still believes that the summer holds the promise of a true friend. But has Anthoni breached the trust of DJ, the most likely friend candidate, while vying for the attention of popular girl Maddy? How far will Anthoni go to redeem herself? This summertime coming-of-age story chronicles how a young girl discovers life’s many shades of gray.
Ali Standish, author of The Ethan I Was Before, addresses more of life’s big questions with another summer book set on the water. August Isle offers personal and public mysteries for three friends to solve. Having grown up seeing her mother’s postcards of August Isle, an island off the coast of Florida, Miranda has always yearned to visit this wonderful place. But when work assignments come up, Miranda’s parents have to leave home for the summer. When Christy, Miranda’s mother’s friend, comes to take Miranda to the island for the summer, nothing goes the way she imagined. Determined to make the best of her summer situation without her mother, Miranda timidly agrees to take sailing lessons, even though she has yet to make it out of the tadpole level in her swimming class. Eventually she decides the time is right to become Miranda the Bold when she accepts a dare to enter the neighborhood’s (reportedly deserted) haunted house at night. When Miranda is caught by the owner of the house, she and her friends have to spend the rest of the summer helping him sort through his old boxes of treasures. As Miranda sorts through the man’s things and gets to know him, she realizes her strained relationship with her mother is tied to a secret on August Isle—a secret that everyone is keeping from Miranda. With dogged determination, Miranda swallows her fears and pursues the mystery, but she puts herself in harm’s way trying to unravel the truth about her family. In August Isle, young readers will learn that bravery comes in many different forms and that internal bravery is even more important than external bravado.
Gillian McDunn’s debut novel, Caterpillar Summer, is another island-set story of finding family. Fifth-grader Cat, short for Caterpillar, is the glue that holds her small family together. This summer, Cat and her brother Chicken expect to spend three weeks with Cat’s best friend’s family, but when her friend’s grandmother has a stroke, that plan falls through. Meeting Chicken’s special needs in a new city would be too hard for Cat to do alone, so Cat’s mother decides to leave them with her parents (Cat’s grandparents) on an island off the coast of the Carolinas. This comes as a shock to Cat because she doesn’t know anything about her mother’s parents. While Cat’s grandmother is warm and welcoming, her grandfather is a bit scary and aloof. Cat longs to ask her grandfather about her mother and the issues that stand between him and her mother, but that conversation doesn’t seem likely. After a few heartwarming gestures, Cat and her grandfather begin to understand each other little by little, bonding through fishing and walks on the beach. Eventually, Cat does learn what separated their family, and she comes up with a plan to bring them all back together. Readers will cheer for Cat’s development and maturity and will hope her mother can let go of the pain she suffered as a child.