Category Archives: middle grade

Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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A grim beginning, some art, some angels, a car chase or two…


theroadtoeveraftercover2Sometimes I don’t know why I pick books up.  Maybe I saw something about it online?  Maybe a co-worker added it my stack thinking I’d like it?  Maybe someone, somewhere mentioned it?  Maybe I liked the cover?

Sometimes books just call out to you, I guess.  The cover reminds me a bit of Moon Over Manifest, an excellent book by Clare Vanderpool which won the Newbery some years ago, although The Road to Ever After has a boy facing away and headed down a road with a dog, while Moon has a girl coming towards you on a train track.  It doesn’t suggest a grim dystopian beginning, the magic of a young artist, or anything resembling a walk with Death, but it drew me in, so let’s see where it goes, right?

It’s a quirky kind of a book, but a wonderful one.  Davy David, the unacknowledged angel artist of brooms and twigs, is on his own in a grim sort of town with some unpleasant and unkind adults.  The library, his sanctuary, is going to be closed, and he’s at loose ends until Miss Flint announces that she needs to drive him somewhere – he doesn’t know how to drive – so that she can die.  She might look old and feeble, but she’s smart and has enough of a spark to lead him on a minor crime spree on the way to the shore and her planned death.

It’s not your average middle grade read, but that might just be the reason to pick it up.

The Road to Ever After by Moira Young with illustrations by Hannah George


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a few days in the life of…

dream big dreamsWhether you’re a huge fan of Barack Obama or not, this book shows what our presidents might experience on an average day.  It’s not just photo ops in the Rose Garden or trips to fancy dinners around the world or meetings about military things.

What makes this an especially moving book, though, is the fact that Pete Souza found a way through these pictures, to show the tragedy and joy and quiet moments of one person in the job.  Obama: an Intimate Portrait landed on my desk the same day, and it’s pretty amazing, too, when you think about the world before and during and after this one president.  Both are worth a look.

Dream Big Dreams by Pete Souza




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Bears and libraries and funny little men

snow roseRe-imagining fairy tales can be a tricky business.  Some authors go for the updated, girl power versions.  Some go for the laughs.  Others reach back closer to the originals – more brooding, dark, even scary.

I guess this one does a little of all of that, although it’s more magical and serious than wacky or dark.  Rose and Snow are definitely girls with minds of their own.  Their father’s missing and their mother’s struggling, so they wander off to all corners of a mysterious forest, discovering a library of things and stories, an underground house, a boy who raises mushrooms, and a funny little man who’s really kind of awful, demanding, and mean.

It’s not a race to the end.  Things happen, and characters dip in and out of the story, but I never felt like I was being rushed or that the action was all there just to keep things ripping along.  That might actually be one of the things I liked about it, though, since it gave me time to think about which fairy tales were being woven together instead of being smacked in the face with it.

In the end, Rose and Snow triumph, the funny little man is ruined by his greed, and Father returns.  A happy ending, yes, but it felt more like a deserved happy ending than a story twisted to create one.  Nicely done.

Snow and Rose by Emily Winfield Martin

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2017 – at least we had some good books….middle grade!

There were so many great middle grade books this year.  Here are just a few (ha! 24!) of my favorites: 


Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Ryan Quinn and the Rebel’s Escape by Ron McGee

Yours Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery by Heather Vogel Frederick

Panda-monium by Stuart Gibbs

York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby

The Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks

First Class Murder: a Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens

The Assassin’s Curse by Kevin Sands

Vanished! – James Ponti

Realistic fiction:

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

Patina (Track: Book 2) by Jason Reynolds

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

Historical fiction:

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

 A little or a lot fantastic:

The Incredible Magic of Being by Katherine Erskine

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Little Bigfoot, Big City by Jennifer Weiner

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake

The List by Patricia Forde

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Pablo and Birdy by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Ana Juan

On to graphic novels next!

Where is my white polyester suit?

laser moose 2Am I obsessed with disco-related children’s books?  Perhaps.  A few years back, I found a 25¢ disco hits CD in the library book sale and brought it home to my son for his CD player.  (It seems very old school to actually have a CD player these days.)  There’s nothing quite like YMCA or KC & the Sunshine Band to get your morning routine going at 6:30 a.m.  Maybe disco is just something I find amusing?  Hard to say.

All you need to know about this book is that the rabbit totally rocks a John Travolta Saturday Night Fever suit in one panel that isn’t actually part of the story.  Who cares?  I’m telling you, that picture just wiped clean several hours of unpleasant news and painful, clumsy housework.

And then you throw in a moose shooting lasers from its eyes.  Um….YES!  And the chickadee is maybe an evil mastermind, but the porcupine is definitely on the dark side.  Forest animals, world domination, disco balls.  Wow.  I just can’t even put into words how much I love this.  I hope kids love it, too.  Apparently I missed the first book – Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy.  You can bet I’ll be tracking it down.

Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy: Disco Fever by Doug Savage

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Uni-sensors, FARTs, and Mr. X

incredible magicWow. Just wow.

Julian is special, but in so many ways that you don’t really even want to label them individually, because it might just make the greatness of who he is a little less.  His older sister Pookie is an angry teenage drama queen.  His moms have issues of their own.  And then there’s Mr. X, a neighbor who’s lost his wife and turns out to be special and mysterious in his own ways.

Julian is in the middle of all of them and on the outside all at once.  He loves science, space, and astronomers.  He wants to get a dog and name it Sirius after the Dog Star.  He wants to help his sister, his moms, and Mr. X, but he goes about it in ways that might be unexpected, funny, or slightly dangerous.

There’s a lot to like about this book—Julian’s funny and somewhat combative conversations with Mr. X, his “Facts and Random Thoughts,” also known as FARTS, Pookie’s fascination with Matt Damon and her biological father, the whole crazy family they are…

Just wow.

The Incredible Magic of Being by Katherine Erskine

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Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know

war i wonAda is finally in a safe place, after a whole lot of limbo – the state of uncertainty not the dance – in The War that Saved My Life.  It’s still World War II and she’s still in the countryside outside London, but now she’s got a horse, a guardian, and a safe place to live with her brother.

The war brings all kinds of confusing new things, but then, that’s nothing surprising for Ada.  So much is still new, since her mother had basically trapped her in their apartment in London for years before she escaped when children were sent to the countryside because of the bombing.

It’s hard for Ada, but over time, she comes to see how many of those around her struggle, too.  In her own awkward and uncertain way, she tries to help.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s harder.  She still struggles with fear and anger and not feeling safe.  Has she finally turned a corner at the end?  Maybe.  We hope so.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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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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