Category Archives: middle grade

Epistolary joy

Yours-Sincerely-Giraffe-cover-LRGiraffe, 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

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A voice in the wilderness. Or Wisconsin.

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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

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Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan 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

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Sometimes one trick is all you need

nathan hale one trick ponyStrata is not a rule follower.  She and her buddies have gotten away from their Mad Max-ish caravan and are looking for treasures.  Probably they shouldn’t be doing this, because the Pipers (evil, energy-seeking aliens) are close enough that—oops!–Strata and her friends might uncover something that would attract them.

But there’s a pony!  And Kleidi (the pony) is a neat twist on the cliché of girls and ponies, because Kleidi is a robot, a fast and clever robot. Kleidi can also stop really fast and hard.

Along the way, we learn about the dystopian homeland that the Earth has become, and how humans have adapted and yet are still losing against aliens who see them and their planet simply as food and minerals.  It’s nothing like Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales about moments in U.S. history, and yet the storytelling and art are equally perfect for the topic.

Pick up Zita the Spacegirl  (Ben Hatke) and you’ve got an excellent double feature for a rainy afternoon of reading.

one Trick Pony by Nathan Hale

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Swim with me a little while

fishgirlDavid Wiesner’s work has always been a magical and whimsical wonder.  In the author notes on this one, he mentions moving into unfamiliar territory – graphic novels – to grow as an artist.  I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this earlier, because this guy doesn’t even need words to tell a story beautifully.  Tuesday is one of my favorite picture books ever, and is one of the few author-signed books on my shelf, thanks to a family member who went to an ALA meeting several years ago.

Here, though, with Donna Jo Napoli (another wonder of storytelling), his genius rises to a whole new level.  The detail and movement in his art is perfect for the story, and it’s still magical and whimsical.  A girl without a name becomes a miracle.  Friendships grow on many levels.  We see smart girls and difficult choices and danger.   The innocent are protected and an evil is overcome.

More, more, more.

Fish Girl by David Wiesner & Donna Jo Napoli

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A poem is a small but powerful thing

out of wonderI borrowed my title from Kwame Alexander’s introduction to this beautiful book.  Since I’m giving him credit, it’s ok, right?  If I were writing poetry myself at this moment, I might find a way to move beyond the quotation to twist or turn the words into something just slightly different, as writers and poets do.

There is a lot of borrowing going on here, but it’s the kind of borrowing that honors and illuminates other writers.  From Maya Angelou to e. e. cummings, there are so many journeys to take, and this is an exercise in the light and color and beauty of words, with brilliant art to accompany those words.

It’s the perfect book for National Poetry Month.  Read a poem, find its inspiration, write your own.

Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, Marjory Wentwork and Ekua Holmes

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Panda-monium hits FunJungle

pandamoniumThere’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!

For more on Stuart Gibbs’ other books, see my posts on Big Game and Spaced Out.

Panda-monium by Stuart Gibbs

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The war here, the war there

genevieve-warWhen I was young, World War II stories always drew me in.  There’s something about Nazis that makes it seem pretty easy to pick out good guys and bad guys.  I knew who to root for – the Nazis were bad and the French resistance fighters were good.  There’s something comforting about knowing things fall into such simple categories.  I knew if faced with that kind of evil, I would resist.  We’re always the good guys when we’re kids, right?

I still enjoy reading about World War II.  Even now, stories of real people from that time come out and reveal lives, loss, and resistance that was hidden or forgotten.  One of the teens I worked with described his trip to the Holocaust Museum by saying, “That Hitler was one bad dude.”  So, that hasn’t changed.  But in fiction, there’s room to explore a little.

In Genevieve’s War, for example, some Nazis are really awful, but others seem just as trapped as Genevieve and her grandmother, who are trying to survive on a farm in Alsace.  Genevieve is American, but her parents have died, and what starts as a summer vacation with Mémé turns into a years-long relocation.  Under the Germans, even friends are eyed suspiciously.  Who can Genevieve trust with her secrets?  Will she and Mémé be exposed?

Patricia Reilly Giff explored the World War II homefront in the U.S. in Lily’s Crossing, which pairs perfectly with this story.  They show different sides of the war (for Americans) and the challenges people faced.  As part of a larger discussion of the war (or wars in general), they demonstrate how ordinary people live in difficult times without dwelling much on the actual violence of war.  There are explosions and people are taken away to prison, for example, but the ugliness of war is felt more in the constant fear and threats against Genevieve and the village rather than in graphic descriptions.

Good guys.  Bad guys.  Sometimes it’s just not that simple.

Genevieve’s War by Patricia Reilly Giff

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When your whole world is complicated

goldfish boyOne line on page 79 is what did it for me.  Matthew is watching the neighbor’s grandchildren playing outside.  Casey, the little girl, has drowned her doll in a wading pool.

“She is one scary kid,” I said to the Wallpaper Lion.

Matty talks to a scrap of wallpaper, but he’s judging Casey?   Excellent.

To Matty, world outside is maddening.  His Wallpaper Lion and obsessive hand-washing make sense.  Others in the neighborhood also have their quirks – Old Nina leaves a light on all the time, Melody saves notes to the dead and so on.  It turns out, Matty understands more about what’s really going on than most of the neighbors do.

There are more moments like this throughout the book, moments when Matty calls out the crazy in other people while clinging to his own as if his beliefs are rational and the others aren’t.  It’s done so well that you find you’ve entered into Matty’s world completely, and it does make sense.  Maybe he’s on to something?

Take a look.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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Join the Parade

harlem-charadeHarlem is full of history, street life and art, and it’s endangered by a city councilman who’d like to turn it into a theme park.  A bit hard to imagine at first, but maybe not as crazy as it sounds.  Jin, Alex and Elvin come from different backgrounds, but they (and some of their family members) will lose if the theme park succeeds, so they band together and start peeling back the layers of a decades-old mystery.

It’s a perfect combination of classic kids’ mystery, middle grade friendship, and a walk through a big city with a little bit of history thrown in.  As the author notes, the people and some places are fictional, but there’s a lot about The Harlem Charade that rings true about big city life and kids who are becoming more independent.

What’s really wonderful about this book is the depiction of friendships, new and old.  It’s hard making and keeping friends, and we’re all imperfect in some way.  It’s not just Jin, Alex and Elvin who are working through lies of omission, hurt feelings, and moments of anger.  The adults in the book have their own struggles and moments of insight, too.  In the end, the hard work is worth it, the mystery is solved, the theme park is stopped, and friendships are strengthened.

The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley

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