Category Archives: middle grade

So many stories, so many mysteries–yippee!

ghosts ofIt’s almost always a wonderful thing to meet up with favorite characters again.  In this case, we’re back at Greenglass House at the beginning of another holiday season with Milo and his family, and eventually, with his ghost friend, Meddy, and some other folks, too.

Where to start on all the cool things in this book?  Milo and Meddy are soon back to their excellent role-playing game, because a mysterious group of characters (from a mysterious place) show up just as some old friends and thieves arrive, so things start happening.  There are smugglers and people pretending to be something they aren’t, some strange injuries and missing items, and just a whole lot of coffee and hot chocolate drinking.

There are a lot of characters and stories to unravel, and at times, I found it hard to keep everyone straight, but that didn’t really dim my enjoyment of the book as much as slow me down a little to figure things out.  It’s 452 pages long in print form, so you have plenty of time to figure out the relationships, the lies, and eventually, the truth.

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

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Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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Steampunk with Mad King Ludwig… where have you been all my life?

castle in the stars

Parents are always doing weird stuff, aren’t they?  Like flying their balloons up into the atmosphere to try to find some weird holy-grail-like thing called aether.

So you lose one parent.  Time passes.  Your dad tries to keep you from tagging along on his trip to follow up the mystery of your mom’s final trip log.  Um, no.  You must jump on that train and head for Bavaria, meet up with Mad King Ludwig in one of his awesome castles, help your dad build a steampunky ship to search for more aether, and then, oh, sure, also reveal a traitor to the king.  And this is just book one.  Book two had better get here fast.

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, book one by Alex Alice

 

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Big hearts, big feet

little-bigfoot-big-city-9781481470773_lgIt’s kind of sweet that this book came out on Halloween, since several of the characters are putting on masks or wearing metaphorical disguises.  Those smartypants publishing folks were probably planning that whole connection, right?

Even if they had, it wouldn’t take away from this book.  Sequels and trilogies can be problematic – the characters don’t hold up with more observation, there’s a temptation to do too much, or you find yourself realizing that the future you imagined for a character after the first book is wildly different from the author’s.  Maybe, just maybe, you still think yours is better.

What’s nice about Little Bigfoot, Big City is that the characters do grow and change, and they do it in realistic ways that didn’t bug me.  There are challenges, moments of confusion, misunderstandings and many mistakes to be made.  Deep down, however, you believe that each one of the main characters wants to do what’s best and what’s right, even if that isn’t easy.  They might be on what look like opposite sides of an issue, but they are really trying.

And that’s all we can expect of ourselves some days.  Am I perfect?  No way.  But when I mess up, I try to make amends.  I try to see the other person’s point of view.  Does it matter if I’m Yare or human?  Maybe not.

Little Bigfoot, Big City by Jennifer Weiner

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Mega-awesome

megaprincess1Maxie and Justine, princess and pony, have a moment with a fairy godmother, but it’s not cute and filled with rainbows and sunshine.  It’s spunky and silly and there’s a quest of sorts – find a baby or a bunch of babies, bring people together, be a friend, kiss a few frogs.

So fun.

Mega Princess by Kelly Thompson, Adam Greene, and Brianne Drouhard

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Resistance is futile

wishtree

Or not.  The pen is mightier than the sword, right?

What do we do in times of strife?  When neighbors and good people are being singled out for persecution or isolation or bullying?

Some writers write.  Katherine Applegate writes.

She’s written about cruelty to animals (The One and Only Ivan) and homelessness and hunger (Crenshaw).  Now Wishtree seems to be calling out to a moment troubled by anger and anti-Muslim sentiments, among other things.   Does it solve any problems?  No, not really.  Could it start some discussions?  Maybe.  In 211 pages, it manages to weave together a history of caring for each other with a tree, its residents, and the people of a neighborhood who might be on the edge of forgetting how we live together and care about each other.  It does this all quietly, with exactly the kind of stillness and humor you’d expect from a red oak.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

 

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Labyrinths, friends, being Bea

waytobeaMiddle school:  obstacle course or performance art?

It can be painful either way, right?  Bea is special and creative and perfect, but she doesn’t see that herself after she loses a friend over the summer before seventh grade.  She desperately wants to find a place for herself, but she questions everything.  These people can’t really like me!  No one will understand!  You almost wish you could jump ahead and know her as the really amazing young woman she’s going to turn out to be—the kind of friend who embraces the quirky in everyone and is kind and open-hearted and funny.

The Way to Bea is one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year, because it finds such simultaneously light and deep moments in its middle school characters at such a confusing, awkward, and sometimes painful point in their lives.  Our daily lives are not all extraordinary, but we might just be extraordinary once in a while.  It’s also very, very nice to see supportive and equally quirky teachers who are looking out for kids and not part of the problem.  I know so many great teachers that I find it kind of upsetting to read fiction that paints them as unfeeling, annoying, demanding, checked out, or creepy – the kinds of teachers who will always believe a bully because his dad is rich or just do not want to get involved at all.  I don’t know teachers like that – really – so it bugs me when writers use them as an easy target.

So read this one, and then spend a few minutes with Bea creating your own haiku.  Mine?

mazes and labyrinths

blind alleys or peaceful still

which path will you choose?

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

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Next time, just run.

van gogh deceptionThere is a lot of running in this book, mostly from bad guys.  Throw in a little amnesia, a lot of police officers, art thieves, and the occasional tranquilizer gun, and you’ll be swept up in it.

“Art” is a boy found in the National Gallery with no memory of his parents or why he’s there.  Over the course of a few chapters, we realize he’s somehow connected to a thrill-seeking bad guy who’s set up a plan to create what might just be the biggest fraud in history.  Fortunately, Art comes across Camille and her mom, and eventually figures out why people are trying to kidnap him.  Whew!

Definitely a fun, fast ride, and there are all kinds of mentions of great art and artists to boot.

The Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks

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Imagine middle school. Now add sword fights.

alls faire

Or imagine middle school. Then imagine you and your parents are big into the Renaissance Faire scene.  Yes, it could be incredibly awkward or incredibly cool.  It might depend on the day or the variety of mean girl or demanding science teacher you brush up against.  You might even do things you don’t think are nice and then be embarrassed by the outcome. So much drama.

All’s Faire in Middle School is a fun read, though, touching lightly on some things and more deeply on others.  Does being the new kid give you more choices or just more worries?  Who are your real friends?  And what about that annoying younger brother?

Definitely worth a look, especially for fans of Raina Telgemeier or Roller Girl (also written by this author).

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

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Lonely ghostly derelict mystery

thornhillWell, I guess I can’t blame my reaction to this one on an irrational fear of clowns.  There are no clowns of any kind in Thornhill, although there appear to be quite a lot of puppets, which in the right light might look creepy.  Who is this girl with the diary, and why has it just been sitting around on a ledge for 35 years?  Who is this awful child tormenting her?  Have the adults in this book had absolutely no training for working with troubled children although it appears to be their line of work?  Really?

There is much to find troubling in this book.  It is riveting and scary and frightening, and you feel one girl’s fear of the THUMP THUMP THUMP intensely.  Frankly, I don’t even know why I read it after seeing the four words above — lonely ghostly derelict mystery — on the back of it, since I am a complete scaredy-cat.  Could I not pick out that it might be a little on the dark and creepy side of things?

However, two things made me read on:  my love of The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) and my love of Brian Selznick’s work.  This book has a combination of illustrations and text, like Brian Selznick’s work, and it is also a kind of gripping scary, like The Graveyard Book. 

I found the ending very unsettling, and I’m not sure I can say I loved the book, because I am still a little freaked out by it.  But for readers who love ghost stories and chilling evil sorts of things – go for it!  It’s incredibly well-written and plotted, and you certainly won’t forget it soon.  And the puppets are not creepy at all.

Thornhill by Pam Smy

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