Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj [in Booklist]
Karina and Chris are next-door neighbors and attend the same school, but they “have [their] own paths”: Karina – ebulliently voiced by Priya Ayyar, who shares her character’s Indian American ancestry – is drawn to photography and books; Chris – earnestly narrated by Christopher Gebauer – seeks all things basketball. Karina’s wariness of Chris has history – she calls his friends-pack “the hyenas” for all the cackling, racially charged humiliation they caused last year.
Now, “of all the crappy karma,” Karina and Chris share five of seven classes as seventh grade begins. They’re pushed even closer together when Karina’s widowed grandfather – called Papa – moves in with Karina’s family, volunteers at her school, and becomes Chris’ math tutor. Forced proximity gradually unites Karina and Chris – and Papa, too – their bond solidified when the trio is targeted in a violent hate crime. While Papa slowly recovers, the dynamic duo figures out how to bring their community back together.
Perennially youthful Ayyar embodies Karina’s journey from quiet tween to outspoken activist, while Gebauer manifests Chris’ metamorphosis from unaware complicity to supportive ally. Both convincingly enhance Varsha Bajaj’s sophomore middle-grade title, ensuring #CountMeIn gets distinctly, powerfully heard.
Readers: Middle Grade