Tag Archives: middle grades novels

Short But Meaty: Middle School Books for Less Prolific Readers

You may dream of reading thick classics of literature, long YA historical novels, and piles of other great works in middle school. But not all kids are up for those choices. Some kids read fine but rebel at required literature. Others have reading issues. Others excel at nonfiction and want to keep their required books as short as possible. Basically, there are lots of reasons that the dream of starting in on the canon of Western lit may not be happening at your house like you anticipated.

And so I give you an alternative to giving up: the short but meaty middle school novel. Middle grades and young adult novels started becoming tomes in the wake of Harry Potter two decades ago. But many older classics are shorter. What follows is a list of twenty books that are all about 200 pages or less (page counts can vary greatly by edition, obviously). All of them have rich themes, language, or both.

2839

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Pages: 143
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy to understand.
What it’s about: A boy becomes friends with a new girl who lives nearby and they invent an imaginary world together, where she encourages his love of art and imagination.
Why it’s worth the read: This book tends to starkly divide readers, which is interesting in and of itself. The very jarring, sudden death of one of the main characters causes some readers to feel betrayed by the quiet narrative up to that point. However, the author wrote the book that way on purpose to try and reflect her own child’s experience of a friend’s death. There are class and economic themes as well as family relationships all worth discussion, but the main theme of grief is the reason to read this story.

47281Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Pages: 137
Difficulty: This is a very easy read in language and style.
What it’s about: This is the story of how a Danish girl and her family help their Jewish friends escape to safety on the eve of being rounded up by the Nazis. It’s one of the gentlest Holocaust related novels you’ll find.
Why is it worth the read: The writing isn’t a standout, but the themes around the Holocaust are really important ones and discussion of the true story of how the people of Denmark saved so many Jews from the Nazis is a really inspiring story. It’s told with such a child’s innocence and exploring how that innocence changes during the novel is an interesting topic of discussion.

22232Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 186
Difficulty: This is a fairly easy read.
What it’s about: A formerly homeschooled girl begins attending a suburban high school and really shakes things up. The narrator slowly develops a crush on her but has to figure out how important fitting in is to him.
Why is it worth the read: The tension between conformity and individuality is basically the tension for all middle schoolers. Discussing Stargirl and Leo’s various choices is one of the meatiest discussions you’re likely to get at this age for many kids.

3636The Giver by Lois Lowry
Pages: 208
Difficulty: This book is very much on the easy end.
What it’s about: A boy grows up in a seemingly perfect society and is chosen to become the next Giver. However, as he acquires knowledge his peers and even parents lack, he may never fit in again.
Why is it worth the read: The ideas and themes that are thought provoking and discussion worthy in this dystopian novel. Imagining a world without color and passion can spark discussion, as can the costs of living in a utopia where everything is orderly. What are we willing to give up for such a world? What is the value of conformity? The ending of the book is nebulous (there are sequels, though they don’t pick up the story right away) and talking about why the book ends where it does is also worth the time.

18131A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 211
Difficulty: It’s not a hard read, but for a novel that has a great deal of plot, it also has a lot of discussion of ideas, which may not carry all readers forward very easily.
What it’s about: This book is difficult to describe. In a nutshell, Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin, are taken by three mysterious alien women to help save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who is being held captive on a strange, evil planet.
Why is it worth the read: There’s an amazing looking film adaptation coming soon! If that’s not enough, the ideas about good and evil are thought provoking and worth discussing. Readers may identify with how Meg often feels like she’s not the special one. Exactly what makes IT so evil, and what makes the darkness so pervasive and how we see it in our own world are all wonderful discussion topics. The science tie ins to dimensional theory and hyperspace may also hook some readers.

598117Sounder by William Armstrong
Pages: 116
Difficulty: The language in this is pretty simple, but the fact that it’s slow moving in places as well as a small amount of colloquialisms and dialect can make it a little harder for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age novel about a black boy in a sharecropping family. He and his dog, Sounder, survive hardships after his father is imprisoned.
Why is it worth the read: This Newbery gem isn’t read like it used to be. However, its depiction of racial issues and poverty in the Jim Crow south still have a lot of resonance. Reading this book and pairing it with some modern discussion of how small tickets and fines can keep poor people always under water would be a good way to bring the issues even more to the forefront. The language is stark but beautiful, so it’s also worth a read for the writing. There are many other great books by African American authors that are commonly read in middle school, but most of them are a lot longer. This is one of the shortest books on this list.

1852Call of the Wild by Jack London
Pages: 172
Difficulty: The vocabulary level and excellent descriptions make this a difficult read for many kids. It’s a good stretch book for middle schoolers.
What it’s about: Buck is a well cared for city dog who is sent to the Alaskan wilderness and must learn to survive.
Why is it worth the read: Obviously, this book is worth a read for its status as a classic. It’s a good choice for nature lovers since the power and cruelty of nature are major themes. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, as well as Buck’s transformation as the story goes on. The whole theme of survival of the fittest is one that’s full of meaty discussion potential.

84981Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Pages: 132
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy.
What it’s about: The Tuck family has the ability to live forever. A young girl, Winnie, joins them, but learns that their lives are not all others might imagine.
Why is it worth the read: Babbitt is just a great storyteller and created a very good fable in this book. The language is easy to read but rich with metaphors. The book begs the reader to consider immortality for themselves and what they would do in Winnie’s place.

231804The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Pages: 192
Difficulty: Some of the bygone language may throw kids off, but overall it’s not a very difficult book.
What it’s about: This is a story of 1950’s era teenage gangs. When a fight leads to a death of a rival gang member, the main characters have to deal with consequences of their actions.
Why is it worth the read: The themes of violence and youth are still ones that resonate today, especially with class overtones like in the novel. The extent to which people are a product of their environment and to which they can change their fates is also a theme. It’s also still just a compelling read for many kids.

4381Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Pages: 158
Difficulty: The language is somewhat old fashioned and may be difficult for some readers. The themes are definitely more adult than some other books on this list.
What it’s about: In a future dystopia, the main character has the job of burning books. However, as the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not that’s right.
Why is it worth the read: The themes definitely hit you over the head in this one. There’s nothing subtle about book burning as the story’s central plot. Even the melodrama in the characters’ personal lives is over the top. However, sometimes over the top is good for readers this age. And no one does over the top but thought provoking like Bradbury.

13642A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Pages: 183
Difficulty: The language in this is definitely a stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age story about a young man named Ged who becomes a wizard. He must grow up and undertake a quest to defeat a mysterious dark force that’s after him.
Why is it worth the read: This story is so dripping with archetypal plots and characters that it nearly bursts at the seams with them. It’s incredibly well-crafted and the writing is strong. However, introducing students to these recurring archetypes in writing is a must and this book is one of the best for doing that. Reading it will enhance any fantasy reader or movie watcher’s enjoyment of the genre by deepening their understanding of it.

18553The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Pages: 105
Difficulty: The old fashioned style of this book and the dialogue written in dialect may make it a slight stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: A boy is shipwrecked and blinded and must turn to an impoverished West Indian man to help him survive.
Why it’s worth the read: I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this novel, but some people really love it. Taylor does a great job of building up the adventure and survival elements of the story and those are things that many students love. The racial and class issues at the heart of the story are obviously worthy of discussion. In some ways, the story feels a little pat by today’s standards, so that’s definitely something to bring up in thinking about the book as well.

87226Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 176
Difficulty: This is a pretty easy read.
What it’s about: Crash and Penn, two seventh grade students, are opposites in almost every way. A series of events bring them together and force Crash to change his bullying attitudes.
Why it’s worth the read: This book covers a great deal of ground in short time. There are references to literature, history, and religion. There is a lot about friendships and bullying as well as family relationships. Penn’s religious beliefs are worth a discussion. It’s also just a very identifiable “everyday kid” novel for most middle schoolers.

15595The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Pages: 128
Difficulty: The language is very sparse and easy, however, some of the style and historical terms might throw off some readers.
What it’s about: A young, homeless girl in the middle ages is taken in by a midwife and trained, but she may lose her confidence before she ever delivers a baby.
Why it’s worth the read: This book has one of the most amazing, beautiful passages in a children’s book about confidence and the loss of it. While the story is from the middle ages and the details are true to life then, the author does an amazing job of making the themes feel very contemporary and very much something middle schoolers will identify with, especially girls.

139253The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Pages: 110
Difficulty: This is a surprisingly easy read, though the style is probably different from what most students are used to and smatterings of Spanish may throw some students off.
What it’s about: This book is a series of short tales about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Why it’s worth the read: The writing is often lyrical and compelling. The story looks at coming of age issues like identity through a different lens than most other novels. Racial identity and immigration are both strong themes of the book as well as women’s roles. It’s very short, but it packs in a lot of worthwhile topics to consider.

39963A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Pages: 160
Difficulty: The language isn’t too difficult, but it’s not a breeze either.
What it’s about: These are short tales about a brother and sister and how they spend summers with their grandmother during the Depression.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a hilarious book. I can’t think of many books better for looking at characterization and humor in writing. The writing makes a great creative writing model as well.

24780The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 190
Difficulty: The old fashioned language is denser than some students may expect, though the plot is straightforward.
What it’s about: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest and a fight against an invading bad guy with a prince when his magical pig is kidnapped.
What it’s worth the read: Like A Wizard of Earthsea, this book is a classic of fantasy and reading it brings a better understanding of the conventions of the genre as well as archetypes in literatures. It’s also just a very well crafted, well-written, classic quest story. It’s a good book to read for sense of place as the writing vividly brings to life a world that only exists in imagination.

24783Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 184
Difficulty: The language is slightly dense. Some students may struggle with it.
What it’s about: This is a fantasy story without magic. In Westmark, Theo becomes a wanted man through a mistake and ends up traveling with a con man and a homeless girl who is more than she seems.
Why it’s worth the read: This series explores ideas related to the Enlightenment in a sort of fake European country of the 1800’s. It especially looks at what makes good governance, why freedom of the press is important, and how power corrupts. What people can morally do to survive when hunted by the law unjustly is also explored. This first volume of a series just touches on those issues, but it does it within a lively story and a short page count.

Homeless BirdHomeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Pages: 192
Difficulty: The writing is pretty easy in this book.
What it’s about: A young girl is sent to an arranged marriage in India, but when she becomes a widow, she has to figure out how to make her own way, even though she’s still only a child.
Why it’s worth the read: Whelan is really good at conveying complex historical and contemporary themes in a simple way through a straightforward story. This is no exception. Gender, religion, and tradition are all strong themes in this book. The symbolism of the title and the various homes that Koly finds are good ways to look at symbolism. It’s excellent for learning about one side of contemporary Indian life (it would be wise to pair it with something else, such as a film, that shows other aspects). There are literary allusions to the great writer Tagore and reading some of his poetry would be a good tie in for the novel.

165149The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Pages: 176
Difficulty: The language is fairly simple in this plot driven story.
What it’s about: A Korean family struggles with what to do as World War II ends and their country is divided, with them on the wrong side of the line. It’s written like a novel, but it’s actually a memoir of the author’s childhood.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a great look at history that has deep connections with current events today. It’s also a good story of political oppression and how individuals deal with it.

 

 

 

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.