- Puzzles — also clues, ciphers, and mysteries to solve.
- Quirky public transportation options and elevators that go sideways.
- Kids out to save their world from an obnoxious developer.
Fun, fun, fun.
York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby
Fun, fun, fun.
York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby
Stevie’s parents weren’t connected to their extended families, so when they’re killed in a horrible accident, Stevie is sent to live with her not-so-welcoming grandfather at his down-on-its-luck motel. A long list of quirky characters enter her life – an older disabled couple who still haven’t gone on their honeymoon, the handymen, a few kids, an elderly woman who becomes her tutor and a some long-distant relatives.
It’s realistic middle grade fiction at its best. There’s not a lot of action, although there are always things happening. The days move forward and slowly, Stevie begins to rebuild her life in this new family of sorts. The people around her are open to loving and including her in their lives, and she begins to open up, too, even towards a grandfather who is the opposite of warm and huggy. It’s not just the garden that begins to bloom – Stevie and everyone around her do, too. Nicely done.
Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt
Sometimes it’s enough to read a story that could take place next door to you. No magic, no long-lost rock star parent, no spy agency looking for kids to recruit.
Steffy is that kid you know who likes to cook and is kind of quiet but a good friend. She likes her sister, at least most of the time, and she loves her Auntie Gina who has taken care of her since her mom’s accident years ago. Mom is living in a care facility for people with brain injuries. Dad is gone. Until he isn’t.
Is it a good thing Dad is back? Maybe. Maybe not. Lives are so complicated. Grief and loss and change are complicated. Cooking is simple.
I’ve started a lot of realistic fiction lately, but I haven’t made it past the first few chapters very often. This book was different. It’s a quick read, but not one you have to read all in one sitting. Steffy and the other characters are people with flaws, who make mistakes and then make other mistakes while they’re trying to fix things. Kind of like all of us. It has a happy ending, but maybe not the happy ending you expect. Like life, I guess. I think that’s why I liked it so much – its imperfections make it special, and it doesn’t force a predictable happy ending on what we see around us every day.
And there are recipes. That’s good, too.
One Hundred Spaghetti Strings by Jen Nails
I understand (I think) the beauty of Timmy Failure books. I have written before about the joy I find in reading the chapter titles, stunners like Unforgivable, That’s What You Are and Wasting Away Again in Marge and Rita-Ville.
And there is always Timmy, so fabulously clueless about absolutely everything that you begin to wonder if he is really an absurdist genius. Or maybe he’s an existentialist. (Merriam-Webster defines existentialism as “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”) I looked it up, just to be sure. It’s been a while since I studied philosophy.
Yes, yes, I know. The author of Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants is not writing for middle-aged white women who go off on philosophical tangents. And yet. There’s a certain genius about a character and a series of books which both make you laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of it all – something most definitely NOT to be sneered at in this troubled world – and then very quickly bring you back to the reality of a character’s life. How does any kid deal with an absent father, an imaginary and difficult polar bear sidekick, AND a confusing world which demands both doing what everyone else does and being an individual?
And those frog underwear are to die for, too.
Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis
Giraffe, Penguin, Seal and Pelican are all kind of bored. Pelican’s sign sets things in motion, and before you know it, animals from very different parts of the world are communicating and becoming friends. It’s a little silly, very sweet, and pretty short – just long enough to create a perfect picture of the characters and carry them to their predictable yet wonderful conclusion.
Letter-writing is something of a lost art these days. Taking the time to sit down with paper and a pen or maybe at a typewriter – who takes the time to do that now? There are not even that many emails; we seem to live by text and emoji.
I miss those days – the six page letters from a boyfriend about nothing important, the cards from my grandmother about the weather and her flowers, the musings my much-loved college friend wrote about her writing and her life, although I rarely knew what she was actually doing with her time. Because of this, I think, dipping into an epistolary novel is a delightful escape, especially if there are penguins and pelicans involved. I would have loved it for its form, but the characters are a joy, too. It’s perfect as a bedtime story read over a few nights or as a read-aloud for younger kids.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake
“This group…it’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club.”
Hmmm. I was just thinking the exact same thing. And the author has now taken care of my whole intro to the book. Whew! That was hard work.
Petula’s art therapy group is an emotionally bruised group of kids which she would rather not be a part of. If only she hadn’t thrown that cup at the other counselor… They snipe at each other and make rude remarks, yet are somehow exactly the kind of people she needs. It’s only with Jacob’s arrival that they really begin to pull together and trust each other, however.
Adults are often making life miserable for Petula, but even the principal, her parents, and the goofy and well-meaning art therapist have their moments. I loved the way the author took these wounded and struggling people and made them real, bringing their joys and sorrows into the light. There is sadness galore, but there is also hope. And it is funny, at least in the way that people joke after death or screwing up their lives or alienating their families. Oh, and there are Canadians in it. That’s a bonus, too.
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Once in a while I find myself reading along, thinking “oh, this is nice realistic middle grade… problems to be solved, problems solved… everyone learns something… and we’re good.” I’m waiting for predictable things to happen, and then when they happen, they’re somehow not quite as predictable as they seemed in my head.
Amina and her friends and family are so well and lightly drawn – little details scattered here and there which highlight who they really are—that an otherwise predictable story floats along for a while. Then you realize there is more to all of this than making new friends and keeping the old. Hena Khan managed to sprinkle in things about Amina and her friends’ families and cultures which further the story instead of falling like heavy look! here’s the diversity part bricks.
And it’s genius, because the differences within all of our families are about who we are in all parts of our life – school, friendships, home – and life is complicated. I liked the book while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how special it is. Listen to this voice.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
I can relate to Clayton Bird. I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain. I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up. I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life. And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.
Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up. That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work. Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique. The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever. His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live. It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.
And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book. We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt. I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them. And I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly. Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous. Clearly, I’m just going to get worse. Prepare. Beware.
Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
There’s something about a new Stuart Gibbs book that makes me set aside almost anything else on my to-be-read pile. (If Kathi Appelt, Kate DiCamillo and Stuart Gibbs all had books coming out the same week, I’d have to flip a coin, but how often does that happen?) They’re always full of action. They always make me laugh. The characters are quirky, difficult, and smart or vain, prone to accidents, and resourceful. Or maybe they’re all of these things at once. Throw in a polar bear exhibit or an air lock in space, and you can count on crazy things happening while you pick up some fun scientific information, too. They’re 100% fun.
Panda-monium is no different, and although you won’t actually see much of the main animal character, you will get more adventures and mystery at FunJungle with Teddy and his friends and foes. And you’ll learn some interesting panda facts and find out why you’ll never want to become too familiar with polar bear enclosures, too. Read on!
Panda-monium by Stuart Gibbs
This book is horribly, scientifically inaccurate. Tulips and monsters on Mars? Really? But apparently I don’t care about all of that squishy science stuff, because I love this book.
It’s not about actual science. It’s about a boy in a rocket bringing cupcakes to Mars. Why? Because he believes there’s life there. Because he wants to prove something. Does it matter that he’s not all that observant until a yellow tulip practically jumps out at him? It does not. My kindergarten friends are going to love this book. And so do I. Did mention that? Did I mention loving it?
Life on Mars by Jon Agee