These two books are part of a series titled, The Kids Under the Stairs. These are the first two in the series. The third is also available now, JORDAN J AND THE TRUTH ABOUT JORDAN J. I would expect future novels to be available soon that feature the rest of the main characters in the stories.
BENBEE AND THE TEACHER GRIEFER
The Kids Under the Stairs #1
By: K.A. Holt
Published: September 22, 2020 – Paperback March 14, 2023
Publisher: Chronicle Kids
Ben and three of his fellow middle-school classmates are forced to sit in summer school because they all failed the Florida State Reading Test. Each of these four kids has a struggle going on outside of school as well. This book focuses on Ben, but also weaves in and introduces the other characters, Ben Y (Benita Ybarra), Jordan J, and Javier. Ms. J and another student, Ace, appear in the story and are carried through the series.
These middle-grade novels are told in verse and use illustrations throughout the story to reach those resistant and reluctant readers that might not naturally pick up a regular book. The four classmates are big into gaming and spend their evenings chatting and building their world in Sandbox, much like what we know to be Minecraft.
This series of novels is called The Kids Under the Stairs because when they arrive at their summer school class, created directly to help them pass the standardized Florida test, the classroom is literally a group of desks tucked under the stairs. The kids can’t believe this is where they have to spend their summer, in a dark corner of the school where no one seems to care about them, except for Ms. J, their summer school teacher who seems a bit odd, but ends up being the person that saves them.
This book focuses on the summer in the lives of these four classmates and their struggles both in school and at home. Their relationship with Ms. J shows readers that there are teachers that see them and want to make learning fun and reading accessible. When Ms. J incorporates the Sandbox game into their curriculum, the kids and Ms. J find they will need to rely on each other more than they could have imagined.
Kids will identify with at least one of the characters and love the gaming features added to the telling of the story. Since Javier only speaks through his illustrations, kids will wonder what is going on with him. My heart broke when I realized why Javier refused to speak or read aloud as it was something that affected our boys as well.
These books should be on every middle-school bookshelf as kids will be exposed to poetry and lyrical writing as well as kids who think differently about the world and their access to learning.
BEN Y AND THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
The Kids Under the Stairs #2
By: K.A. Holt
Published: September 28, 2021 – Paperback to be published August 15, 2023
Publisher: Chronicle Kids
We first learn about Ben Y (formerly Benita) in the first book in The Kids Under the Stairs series, BENBEE, AND THE TEACHER GRIEFER. This is the type of series where it is pretty necessary to read the books in order. All the books in this series are written in a novel-in-verse format with illustrations as well, perfect for reluctant readers.
Ben Y, like her three other friends, BenBee, Jordan J, and Javier, have just spent their summer in a classroom under the stairs working to pass their Florida standardized test. Each of these four students struggles with reading and also has their own personal struggles at home. Ben Y, her sister, and their mom are grieving the unexpected death of Ben Y’s older brother in a car accident. Nothing at home is the same and Ben Y is having trouble finding a way to express herself and her frustrations.
The book begins with a new school year and the Sandbox players as part of their Typing Club are now tasked with writing the school newspaper. Ben Y’s grief expresses itself in destructive ways including skipping school, lashing out at her friends, and misunderstanding a possible new friendship with Ace. Ben Y turns to the Sandbox game and her former chat room with her brother to share her personal thoughts and feelings. Then, her brother starts to type back. It can’t be possible, but who could have hacked into their secret chat room that her brother created?
The second in The Kids Under the Stairs series is a bit heavier, literally and figuratively. There is a lot of heavy, emotional stuff going on with Ben Y, and could be hard for some readers including identity, grief, bullying, and anger. But, the book is also quite a bit thicker. In the first book in the series, the novel in verse is in two columns on each page, but in this second it is just one column per page, which has upped the page count considerably. When teachers and librarians are trying to reach out to reluctant readers, usually the first turn-off is a thick book. Even though the word count is MUCH LESS in a novel in verse, the page count still seems daunting. So, you’ll definitely want to hook the students with the first book in the series so they will HAVE to read the second and third.
Even though this novel has some hard themes, Ben Y finds a way to reach out to her mom and Ms. J and resolve some of the underlying issues she has with school, friendships, and life at home. Ben Y shows kids that talking about our feelings is important and bottling them up only results in reckless and harmful behaviors. I appreciate how the author shared Ben Y’s struggles with the readers as I felt they were realistic in today’s middle-school world, but I want to remind kids to be careful with any and all online conversations. Even though this one turned out to be appropriate and someone Ben Y could trust, I caution kids to reach out to an online conversation where the person on the other end may not be who they say.
Overall, The Kids Under the Stairs series is one I recommend for middle-grade readers, especially those who are resistant to reading “bigger books” and those who prefer video games over reading.
Kari Anne Holt has dedicated her writing career to making sure kids (and adults) understand that anyone can be the main character of a book, and everyone deserves to see themselves reflected on the page. From her award-winning middle-grade novels-in-verse, Ben Bee and the Teacher Griefer, Redwood & Ponytail, Knockout, House Arrest, and Rhyme Schemer, to her prose novels From You to Me and Gnome-a-geddon, to her picture book, I Wonder, illustrated by Kenard Pak, KA Holt’s readers will discover main characters that struggle, celebrate, wonder and discover in ways both new and familiar. Check out her website, HERE.