Tag 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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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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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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Unexpected Brady Bunch references

stef-soto

Well, hmm, that’s not what I was expecting when I started this book.  I was thinking I’d be getting something along the lines of realistic, middle grade, family, coming of age fiction.  Estefania “Stef” Soto, definitely lives in that world – the world of her dad’s taco truck, Tía Perla, the world of Saint Scholastica School and a former friend who now calls her the Taco Queen.  Friends and parents and school are the center of her life, and Stef is really trying to come into her own.  Her parents are nervous about almost everything, and then the city announces possible changes to the rules for food truck, and her art teacher runs out of supplies.  Well, you might not guess it, but it’s all going to be connected.

And into this drops Davy Jones.  Actually, Davy Jones is Viviana Vega here.  Stef pulls a Marcia Brady and sort of hints she can get Viviana Vega to come to the school dance.  Will it work out?  Let’s just say that Viviana is no Davy Jones.  But Stef Soto is still pretty awesome.  Fun, light, and a great story about real people and real families.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres.

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Classics I’ve missed

rascalWell, at least one children’s classic.  Rascal.  It was definitely published long enough ago (1963) that I should have heard about it or read it somewhere during the many happy (and sad) hours I spent reading about boys and their pets – Sounder, The Yearling, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows.  Somehow, though, I missed this one about a raccoon and his boy.  (Just an aside, but why don’t I remember books about girls taking off in a homemade canoe with raccoons or dogs, or am forgetting something?  Were girls just not good campers?  And if that was the case, why did I spend all that time in Girl Scouts?)

Rascal is a nostalgic book, full of memories of a time long past.  Sterling has what must have looked like a dream life for a boy, although he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and is worried about his brother off in the Great War.  His dad lets him build a canoe in the house and gives Sterling more freedom than seems wise at times.  He doesn’t even blink at having a baby raccoon thrown into the mix.  Sensibilities have changed, and I doubt a wild animal as a pet would work as well in a middle grade book now, but this kinder, gentler version of family and community life still provides some interesting talking points.  How do you deal with meddling relatives?  How do you decide what’s best for you or a loved one?  How much supervision do kids really need?  Is life just too structured now?  Could you give up your electronic devices for two weeks and just live off the land?  (I’m reading it with a group of 5th graders, and I guess we have to have something to talk about when we’re “discussing” it.  We aren’t the best at staying on task.  Our last book, Number the Stars, revealed some interesting misconceptions about the geography of Denmark, royalty and Nazis, so who knows where the pet raccoon will take us?)

Now if I could just get myself to take another stab at some of that 18th century French literature I should have read in college… 

Rascal by Sterling North

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A priest, a doppelgänger and a gorilla go into a bar…

murderers-apeActually, it’s mostly just the gorilla.  But while reading this book, I was reminded so strongly of two other great, complicated, similar stories that I’m including all three in my intro.  This one’s just for me, people.

The Murderer’s Ape is shelved with the teen books in our public library, but I don’t remember any teens or children in it.  (It’s kind of unusual to have a middle grade or teen novel populated almost entirely by adults.)  The book is narrated by Sally Jones, a gorilla who understands human languages and is something of a mechanical genius.  She also plays chess, reads and writes, types, and appreciates Portugese Fado music.  She travels the world and solves tricky and dangerous mysteries.  In 588 pages, there is a lot to keep track of – political intrigues, lost loves, the majaraja’s wives and mother, untended graves, how to build an accordion.  I could feel the real world falling away as I read, leaving Sally Jones and her friends and the quest to free an innocent man.

It was a bit of a slow start, but once it got going, it reminded me of Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango series, which I happened across a few years ago and was just thinking of re-reading not long ago.  Between Sky and Earth begins with Vango (a seminarian about to become a priest) escaping from the police just as he’s about to make his vows in Notre Dame de Paris.  It’s an absolutely wonderful adventure, crossing oceans in zeppelins, avoiding Nazis, protecting the innocent, revealing corruption and honoring friendship.  The story continues in A Prince Without a Kingdom.  Find them if you’re looking for an epic escape.

And then there’s an even more obscure story, The Saxonian Affair.  Some years ago, my husband told my son stories during the time they spent together commuting, always coming to a cliffhanger as they pulled into the garage.  In it, a detective who isn’t really a detective finds out he looks exactly like Prince Ruprecht of Saxonia.  Marco’s adventures take him across several continents at different points.  We finally self-published the first group of stories just for us.  Once in a while, I tell my husband he should really write down the rest of them, since the world (mostly me) is really missing out on the lesser known characters of Alice Dodds and General Tostito.  But at least we’ve got Marco, Princess Marie, and all the others – it means I love the Vango stories and The Murderer’s Ape even more.  So, I might be biased.  No, really, I am biased, but I still think you’ll love this one. 

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

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