Tag Archives: middle grades novels

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

Best of the Year

I know one is supposed to post these in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, but I didn’t get around to it.  So, here it is, our best children’s books of the year.  For me, I only included books I read for the first time this year, which ruled out a number of wonderful rereads.

Farrar’s Top Five
(fiction only, in no particular order)

    

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
middle grades classic
I can’t believe it’s only in the last year that we read half a dozen of the Moomin books (only Moominpappa at Sea was a bust for us).  We love their weird, fantastic, nonsense world.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Cathrynne Valente
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, this book, with its complex language and plot blew me away.  There should be more challenging fantasy like this in middle grades.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
middle grades historical fiction
This award winner brought together so many elements without it feeling forced and managed to wrap everything up neatly while still letting the characters be messily human.  Oh yeah, I reviewed it.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
young adult contemporary fantasy
This satire was probably the best young adult book I read this year.  It was hilarious and insightful, as I said in my review.  Count me as a firm Libba Bray Devotee.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, never have I read a book for children so dark yet so appropriate.  This one continues to push my thinking even months after I read it.  I think it may be my very favorite of the year.

Mushroom’s Top Five

    

Dodsworth (the whole series) by Tim Egan
easy readers
These are funny.

Your Very Own Robot (Choose Your Own Adventure) by R.A. Montgomery
easy reader
In this book, there’s a kid who makes a robot and does all this crazy stuff with him.  You can make a way through the book and choose which way you want to go to, like if I say, would you like to have ice cream or soda, you can pick which one and go through the book differently, so you can read it as many times as you want.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
This book is about a few kids who go to Arundel for vacation.  And they meet a kid named Jeffery, but his mother is evil and the person she marries is evil too.

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
middle grades classic
This book is little like The Penderwicks but it has not as many parts with sadness or badness inside it.

You Can Cook by Anabel Karmel
cookbook
A lot of the things inside here, kids can’t cook by themselves.  I love it because it has chicken tikka masala, Swedish meatballs, and burgers.  It also has lots of treats at the end.

BalletBoy’s Top Five
(BalletBoy didn’t have anything to say about his choices.  He was more concerned that I get the appropriate cover images.)

  

The Fog Mound: The Travels of Thelonius by Susan Schade and Jon Bueller
middle grades fantasy

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
middle grades classic

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
BalletBoy might not have anything to say about it, but I did review it.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi
middle grades graphic novel

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
middle grades fantasy

Into the Dark Woods

Wildwood by Colin Meloy is a thick middle grades fantasy with an imaginative premise.  Outside Portland, there’s a vast wilderness that no one is allowed to visit.  Prue McKeel’s baby brother is carried away by crows into the wilderness while she’s watching, so, joined unexpectedly by her classmate, Curtis, she travels into the forest to rescue him.  Once they get there, Prue and Curtis become separated and encounter a complex world of talking animals, political intrigue and warring factions.

I wanted to like this book so very much.  I was prepared to love it, I tell you.  Colin Meloy is the lead singer for the Decemberists and I love the Decemberists.  The illustrator, Carson Ellis, whose work you may know from The Mysterious Benedict Society, created amazing artwork for the book.  The concept is right up my alley and I could feel all the wild and weirdness of some Decemberists lyrics as I started reading.  Heck, Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis even have a cool music playlist to go with the book.  Some of the language and the descriptions are lovely and really set the mood of the story well.  You feel Portland in the opening and then you feel the strangeness of Wildwood.

But I’ll admit it.  It lost me somewhere.  The dual perspectives of Prue and Curtis shifted far too quickly for me, as if every scene was fast cut like two sides of the battle in a film.  Mostly though, the length just became a slog.  Somewhere in the middle, I began to feel like not that much had happened since Prue and Curtis’s initial separation, or, at least, not enough to justify two hundred pages.  That marked the end for me; I’m afraid to admit it, but I was just skimming from there on out, curious how the story came out and whether it would grip me again.  There was some good stuff in there as characters learned lessons, changed sides, and purposes were revealed, but it never quite did recapture me.

Still, I think I may have to chock this one into a pile of good children’s books that just didn’t do it for me personally.  Maybe it can share a shelf with Summerland somewhere.

One Crazy Book

I’ve been catching up on my backlog of books to write about.  Many of them have a summer theme, like this one (and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which I reviewed last week).

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is an award-winning middle grades novel from last year.  It tells the story of three sisters in 1968 who go from their home in Brooklyn to get to know their absent mother in Oakland.  Unfortunately, their mother, a poet who is involved in the Black Panthers, proves hard to get to know and the girls encounter a world with very different ideas about what it means to be black than the ones they knew at home.

Everything I had read about this book made it sound great and I wasn’t disappointed.  Not only is the story, narrated from the oldest sister’s point of view, beautifully told with sharp writing and a great voice, but the plot interweaves a complex set of elements.  Characters themselves are left messy enough for my taste – the middle sister continues to annoy her older sister and never fully pays for some bad behavior and the mother’s behavior is explained but never fully redeemed – while the plot is brought together neatly, connecting several unexpected pieces.  That’s just the sort of narrative I like – with wiggle room for real people to be real, but a strong, resolved story.  You wouldn’t think that you could find such a gentle middle grades novel about the Black Panthers, but there it is.

Can I Be a Penderwick too?

I just finished up the most recent Penderwick book, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall.  If you don’t know the Penderwicks, they are a family of four girls who look out for one another, in part because their mother died when they were young.  Each girl has a different strong personality, but they all support and love one another through various family adventures.  This latest book is the third in the series.  All the books have an old-fashioned, timeless feel about them.  They remind one much more of Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats or Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy series than anything coming out these days.  The books have a similar target age as well, for middle grades readers, though I hear they work nicely as read alouds (we intend to read the first one to Mushroom and BalletBoy soon as a break in our trail of older books, and I think they will enjoy it greatly).

I’m enamored with the whole series, and this volume was no exception.  This book takes us back to a summer setting, a year after the first volume.  The girls lose their motherly oldest sister to a separate vacation, while they (along with their honorary brother, Jeffery) go off with their aunt to Maine.  Skye must struggle with being the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick, that is), Jane has her first crush on a boy while trying to write a novel about love, Batty discovers a talent for music, and Jeffrey continues to have to deal with his difficult family.  The story lagged a little in the middle for me, but it’s a minor quibble.  Overall, I enjoyed it greatly.  The language and the way the perspective of the books flows from one Penderwick to the next is as enjoyable as always.

A Cheerful Post-Apocalyptic Tale for Kids

Okay, the post-apocalyptic thing is just implied.  But if there aren’t any more humans left, then I count that firmly as post-apocalyptic.

The Travels of Thelonious: The Fog Mound by Susan Schade and Jon Buller is a hybrid graphic novel.  Chapters alternate between comics and old fashioned text.  It’s a middle grades book, but short enough and illustration heavy enough for many chapter book readers.

The story is about a young, talking chipmunk named Thelonious (get it?) who accidentally gets swept into the ruins of a city and then on a journey to figure out what happened to all the humans, who have become no more than fairy tales to many of the animals.  The comics are well done, in blue and black with a sort of old fashioned, small detailed style.  The writing lies a little flat for me, honestly, but the concept is interesting enough, both in the format and the plot, that it kept me going reading it.  The story had a lot of elements that I think probably appeal to young readers.  There is the mystery of what happened to the humans, but also several other layers of mystery involving a crime boss dragon lizard and a missing bear.  The scenes of Thelonious figuring out how canned goods work and trying on Barbie clothes are imaginative and fun.

Even though it wasn’t the most literary of offerings, I asked BalletBoy if wanted to try it.  He flew through the first three chapters and declared it to be “great!”  So that’s an endorsement for you.  The story ends with most issues unresolved.  There are two more volumes that continue the tale.

Not for the Faint of Heart

I just finished A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.  Why did I resist this book again?  I think it had something to do with an overdose of fairy tale re-imaginings.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I went back and read it, because…  WOW.  Just, wow.

You know how A Series of Unfortunate Events started a trend of talking to readers, warning them that bad things might happen or that they should be careful with the book they’re holding?  Well, this book warns the readers too.  Only instead of something a bit sad, if comically over-the-top, happening to some otherwise good kids, this warning is serious.  If you keep reading, there will be blood, and a lot of it too.  There will be what amounts to serial killers and gruesome details about deaths.  Gidwitz takes the most dark, terrifying bits of the Grimm Brothers’ stories and brings them to life in his tale and he never holds back from the pain of it all.  Honestly, some of this stuff would make Stephen King cringe.  So don’t say the book (or this review) didn’t warn you.

However, it is a story solidly for kids and relatively young ones too.  The book is middle grades, not young adult, and I think the audience is definitely upper elementary schoolers.  Gidwitz is a writer more on the side of the kids than almost any other I’ve read recently.  The recurring theme of how corrupt and evil grown-ups are runs through the entire story and it never comes back around to re-evaluate that point either.  The plot twists and turns a great deal, but the set up is simple.  In a mishmash of the real Grimms’ tales, Hansel and Gretel are the prince and princess of a kingdom where their parents’ history leads them to a terrible plot against their own children’s lives.  They run away, first to the witch’s gingerbread house, but after that into several other re-imagined fairy tales, meeting violence and bloodshed along the way, mostly, but not entirely, perpetrated by those horrible grown-ups.

This is a story of actual darkness in the way the original Grimm Brothers’ stories were.  There’s no candy coating, yet the bloodshed isn’t gratuitous either.  And more importantly, the lessons aren’t simple.  There are a lot of transformations – people in monsters, souls into birds, and the like.  There are also a lot of journeys that are clearly at least as metaphorical as they are real.  In short, there’s a lot of meaty stuff to mull over for the serious young reader, especially when the ending brings the children back to face their murderous parents.

The book isn’t for everyone, but I hope those who would be interested by its dark story find their way to it.

Keeper

I got some good reading done over the holidays, trying to dip into a couple titles off the best of the year lists.  First up, the middle grades novel Keeper by Kathi Appelt.  This book follows a young girl named Keeper who has had one of the most disastrous days of her life, after ruining the special meal, not to mention the keepsake cooking bowl, that was supposed to be the moment when her neighbor finally proposed to her adopted mother.  First of all, let me just say that this may well have been the least linear children’s book I’ve ever read.  The story is fairly straightforward: Keeper is upset about her disaster so she runs away on her boat to consult her mother, who she believes is a mermaid.  However, the events that led up to Keeper’s disastrous day are revisited several times in different ways.  Appelt slowly takes us back and forth between the present of Keeper sitting in her boat trying to carry out her plan to fix things and various moments in the past.  We see not only Keeper’s story and the story of her adopted mother, Signe, but also the story of all the inhabitants of their little cul-de-sac on the ocean, including a number of the animals.  The perspective shifts from person to person (and to animal) and many events, such as Keeper’s disastrous day, Keeper’s birth, and the day Keeper’s mother left, are told repeatedly with new perspectives and snippets of information.  To add more layers into the mix, the history of the Texas coast as well as the mythology of mermaids is also explored in different ways throughout the story.

At one point, I thought the whole story might get bogged down by its complexity and repetition.  It’s not a short book and I began to worry as I read if the story could really sustain the twisty storytelling style.  However, Appelt’s poetic writing carried it through to the end.  It was a satisfying read.  Because of the mermaid element, I’ve seen the book listed as fantasy, but I think it would probably appeal much more to readers of realistic, literary fiction.  There’s a blurb quote on the jacket from Sharon Creech and I think fans of hers might really enjoy this book.

Read Origami Yoda You Must

Tom Angleberger’s middle grades novel The Strange Case of Origami Yoda was finally in at the library when I was, so I checked it out to see if the buzz was true.  I’m here to attest, it’s totally true.  This book is pretty excellent.  I’ve read a number of reviewers who’ve said that it reminded them of their middle school experience.  I can’t say that, but the way that Tommy, Dwight, Harvey and the other characters in the book act reminded me a lot of middle schoolers I’ve known over the years.  The author got that mix of grown up emotions and deep thoughts with childish play and immaturity that can characterize middle schoolers just right.

The story centers around an origami Yoda who acts as an oracle for the 6th graders.  Different characters share what happened when they followed Origami Yoda’s advice.  A variety of different fonts, as well as an assortment of doodles and back and forth comments pepper the text.  As Tommy, the principal narrator, tries to figure out if Origami Yoda can really see the future, he tackles some big questions about faith and romance.

I laughed out loud reading this one.  I think fans of lightweight books like the Wimpy Kid novels as well as more complex stories may both find something to enjoy in this short novel.

Five Books…

…that I’d Like to Recommend, but No One Ever Asks!

So, some of you may know that I spend way too much time on certain homeschool forums recommending books for peoples’ kids to read.  I don’t know what it is about recommending a book that makes me feel so good, but I get a special pleasure out of suggesting a book to a kid.  Clearly I missed my calling as a librarian, though I did get to fulfill this role back when I was a middle school teacher in my former life.

As I glanced at my shelves the other day, I realized that there are a lot of books that I really like, but that I never seem to recommend, mostly because no one seems to be looking for them.  People are always looking for read alouds and not-to-be-missed classics.  Historical fiction gets heavy play among the homeschool crowd too.  However, here are a few books I think I’d like to put into the hands of some kid, I just don’t know who.

Lost in Time by Hans Magnus Enzenberger
This middle grades novel is a strange one.  A boy looks into a picture and finds himself going back in time to the setting of the picture.  Again and again, this happens, taking the boy on a backwards trip through slices of European history all over the continent.  Each place has its own characters and issues.  But will he ever be able to find his way home?  The writing in this novel is sharp and compelling.  It’s in translation, by the way, since the author is German.  It’s a lesser known book of several years ago, but one that I really remember vividly.

The Adventures of Blue Avenger by Norma Howe
Another unusual upper middle grades or possibly YA novel.  It sounds like fantasy, but it isn’t at all.  The main character is a boy who changes his name to Blue Avenger, setting off a strange series of events involving a girl (with another unusual name) and the recipe for the perfect key lime pie, among other things.  The story is decent, but it’s the philosophical musings about the nature of our actions that really elevates this story.  I loved it and I feel like there’s a deep thinking 12 year old out there who would love it too.

Westmark, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen by Lloyd Alexander
This middle grades series isn’t unknown.  Alexander is a Newbery winner, after all.  However, they aren’t quite fantasy and they aren’t quite historical fiction so somewhere I feel like they get lost in the shuffle.  The books follow a young printer’s apprentice named Theo as he gets caught up with the government and with rebels searching for democracy.  In the course of the series, Theo goes from being a young idealist to a bloodthirsty general and then to a man searching for moderation in the midst of a counter-revolution.  The nature of “just war” is explored, as well as many of the political ideas of the Enlightenment.  As I said, it’s almost historical fiction and would make a nice go-along for a student studying the first half of the 1800’s in European history or for any kid interested in war and politics.

Operation Redwood by S. Terrel French
I happened to hear the author read a snippet of this middle grades novel at an SCBWI conference awhile back.  The snippet was amusing, so I tried the book and really enjoyed it.  It was a sweet story of a boy who, after accidentally seeing an angry email directed at his uncle, gets caught up in trying to save a small patch of old growth redwoods.  The environmental message in the book is a little simple, but the story is solid and amusingly told.

The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater
This one might be cheating because I think I did get a chance to recommend the whole oeuvre of Daniel Pinkwater once.  If you’re not familiar with his works, Pinkwater is a writer of outrageous fiction.  This middle grades novel is as outrageous as any I’ve ever read.  It follows Neddie Wentworthstein (Pinkwater is a master of names) as he moves with his family to Hollywood.  There are ghosts, movie stars, aliens and a Los Angeles that has disappeared into glimmering history.  As with all of Pinkwater’s works, this is a book where one wonders who it can possibly be for.  However, it must be for someone.  Some kid with an equally outrageous sense of humor, who has graduated from Roald Dahl and needs something even weirder.