Planet Middle School

Planet Middle School Planet Middle School is told in poems that show moments in Joylin’s life during her first year of middle school. Although spare in words, it’s full of emotion and insight. My daughter identified with the things Joy is going through even though the specific details of their lives are different.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but it worked really well for this book. The poems are freeverse—vignettes that don’t have to follow rules of prose or of poetry. It’s a very quick read—it took me well under an hour to read the whole thing—but so much is covered with the suggestions of scenes and conversations. Some of Joy’s missteps seemed a little exaggerated to me, but since we get them through her eyes, that makes sense. What, a grownup thinking a middle schooler is overreacting and exaggerating? Shocking!

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Stereotypes and Expectations

Joy is an athlete and not really a girly girl. She wears baggy clothes and a ponytail most of the time. She gets some good-natured ribbing from her parents, but it still hurts. She gets some really not good-natured ribbing from her peers, and that hurts a lot. But she gained one of her best friends when KeeLee stepped in and rescued her from the teasing. When Joy does wear a skirt, her parents are excited and relieved—but soon the skirt gets kicked to the back of the closet because it just isn’t her. She hasn’t magically turned into a girly girl.

Glory is also on the basketball team—she wears jewelry and makeup, so Joy at first assumes that she can’t be a real athlete. Then Glory proves her wrong on the basketball court. At this point, Joy starts to wonder if she can let herself be a little more girly and still identify as an athlete.

KeeLee is a PK—preacher’s kid. She chafes against the expectations that she will be perfect and good all the time, yet she does it without rebelling. She’s mature and insightful for her age, holding herself above other people’s assumptions. Not that they don’t still hurt, mind you.

Caden is Joy’s baby brother. He’s not an athlete, which is an endless disappointment to their father. He tries hard to get his father’s attention by being a more stereotypical boy, but he’s an artist and a reader, not an athlete.


Joy’s family is pretty healthy for the most part, although the relationships are full of mild conflicts. They want Joy to be more girly, but they’re very supportive of her athletic career. Her father in particular is proud of her athletic ability. Joy and her mother spar a bit about things like buying bras. It’s all stuff that’s easy to identify with.

Joy loves her baby brother, but he also makes her crazy. When Caden struggles to get their father’s attention, it hurts Joy to see him fail. Their father needs to learn to love the kids he has instead of the ones he thought he’d get. But he’s getting there—by the end he appreciates Caden’s talent in drawing, once Caden figures out how to get him to really see it.


It’s not really an issue in the book, although details (and the cover photo) certainly suggest that Joy (as well as most if not all of the other characters) is African American.

Being Who You Are

Like middle school, the book is all about figuring out who you are and how to express that. All of the characters are changing—for instance, KeeLee is experimenting with heels because she wants to. Many of Joy’s transformations, though, are either due to biology and mostly unwelcome, or they’re because she’s trying to figure out how to impress the boy she has a crush on.

Joy feels betrayed by her body that is growing breasts and getting her period. These things are kind of devastating to her, partially because they drive home how much this isn’t in her control. She’s changing whether or not she wants to be.

It’s not until the end when she starts making changes for herself and in her own way (like trading in the baggy jeans for more fitted jeans with a slightly girly embellishment) that she also starts to come to terms with how she’s changing and to accept that she can change while still not losing who she is.

Boys and Girls

Joy has been friends with Jake forever—they play basketball together regularly and she’s always been “one of the boys” to him. When she gets a crush on Santiago, Jake teases her and it becomes one of the first things she starts hiding from him. Now that her body is changing, Jake is more self conscious about playing physically—she wishes he would just get over it. Jake seems interested in KeeLee, which worries Joy—she doesn’t want that weirdness coming between her two best friends.

Joy’s discovery of boys as something other than kids to play basketball with is cute and funny. She’s both horrified at herself for getting so silly and defensive about how it’s actually fine that she’s changing like this. The muddled soup of reactions feels honest and easy to identify with.


The first poem mentions seeing a friend in the hospital—it’s a flashforward that we won’t understand until the last few poems. Jake is hit by a driver who was texting and things are rough for a bit, but he pulls through. This happens after he and Joy had a fight, and it’s a catalyst for Joy figuring out what her priorities are—what things she needs to hold on to as she grows up.


This is a great book, especially for middle school girls who I think will easily identify with what Joy is going through. It’s honest and funny and touching. It’s probably best for kids who are starting to deal with puberty and middle school, because its spare storytelling relies on the reader understanding what Joy is going through. It’s great for reluctant readers with the text spread out and few words on each page—the idea of poetry might be intimidating at first, but these poems are very accessible.

My daughter borrowed this from her school library, but she grabbed up her own copy when she saw it at a Scholastic Book Fair—that means it’s a book she intends to read again and again.


Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes
Published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Books for Young Reader
Read my daughter’s school library book

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