You have arrived! You’re at Stage Four Chapter Books and the world is your oyster! This is where things really get going. Scroll down for the latest additions to this magnificent list of marvels….
Well, Harry Potter, of course.
But well before he discovered Hogwart’s, my son fell in love with The Screech Owls series, by Roy MacGregor, which he has read over and over again for almost two years now. There’s always a mystery for the co-ed hockey team to solve, and there’s usually a new place to learn about (Nagano, Moscow, Quebec City, Lake Placid…) as the players travel to tournaments and exhibition games. The writing is excellent for this level, and it’s no wonder: MacGregor is an accomplished journalist and writer.
Back to Gordon Korman, this time for three adventure series: Everest, Island and Dive. Each is made up of three books that chronicle a group of kids as they struggle to survive calamity.
Another trilogy, this time with an art twist: In Blue Balliettt’s Chasing Vermeer, a boy and girl try to find a missing Vermeer painting. USING PENTOMINOES! I’d never heard of them either, but apparently they’re a math thing. Next is The Wright 3, and third is The Calder Game. Balliett’s novels, full of puzzles, problems and mysteries, encourage keen observation. Personally, though, I’m most fond of her main characters, Petra and Calder — two odd ducks who meet and then thrive in their weirdness because they can see it mirrored in the other.
For some slightly more realistic fare, try Because of Mr. Terupt, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, and Wonder, all of which feature middle grade kids trying to figure out who they are and where they stand amidst their peers.
We booked a cottage and I took advantage of the situation by packing two new books in the Rubbermaid tote devoted to “entertainment.” That’s right! No re-reading this week, kid! No Harry Potter! No Slapshots! No Screech Owls! It paid off: Roy read two new books.
The first almost brought him to tears, but in a good way. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, is a deeply moving book about a gorilla forced to live in captivity. When a baby elephant arrives, she changes everything. The humour, the pathos, the characterization…Applegate gets everything right, and the story is deeply rewarding on many levels.
The second was a solid hit in the spirit of Gordon Korman’s middle school capers: Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers are out to solve a bank robbery AND rescue a few dozen stray dogs, and have enormous fun while doing it. Chris Grabenstein’s “Gnat Pack” love to rib each other and stir up a bit of trouble, but they’ve all got heart and courage. There’s a sequel, too.
We seem to have broken past the re-reading barrier — Roy has read a slew of new books and these are the ones he recommends….
In Boom, by Mark Haddon, Jim and his best friend Charlie learn that their teachers are actually aliens sent to collect people. I know — it sounds silly. But this is a very funny book, and it’s British, so I ask you, what’s not to like? Behind the comedy, however, rests a solid heart: Jim a Charlie, classic and chronic underdogs, are completely devoted to one another.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis should be a downer. Set in Michigan (depressing state!) during the 1930s (depressing decade!), it’s the story of Bud Caldwell. Bud’s been shunted from one horrific foster home to another for years, so he decides to set off on his own to find the man he believes is his father. And yet, despite all this, Bud carries on, pragmatic and accepting and funny, even. Here’s one of his “Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of Yourself:” “If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late.”
The Merits of Mischief is about a school for troublemakers…that teaches troublemaking. T.R. Burns has written a kind of Harry Potter for miscreants, in which our hero, Seamus Hinkle, is mistaken for a rabble-rouser and sent to a boarding school for the amorally-minded. But really, for dastardly kids, they’re pretty fun and actually quite decent (but don’t let that get out).
If your child loved the Fudge books by Judy Blume, chances are good s/he will like The Way to Schenectady and Of Mice and Nutcrackers, too. Richard Scrimger has created a lovable, slightly eccentric family and middle-grader Jane Peeler struggles to keep some kind of reason amidst all the madness.
I couldn’t understand WHY Roy hadn’t given No Coins, Please by Gordon Korman a try. It was my favourite Korman book, after all. So I sat down beside him one night and just started reading it aloud. By the end of the first chapter he’d grabbed it out of my hands and skibbled off to his room to read the rest of it himself. Cackles of laughter erupted at regular intervals. The story is about two counsellors who must chaperone a group of boys across the United States in a kind of van-tour summer camp. The problem is that one of their campers is a genius at disappearing and…I won’t spoil the surprise.
Roy and Geordie have both decided, however, that their absolute favourite is I Want To Go Home, about a singular character named Rudy who’s sent to summer camp against his will. Rudy’s deadpan dry wit devastate even the most positive, upbeat of counsellors, and his unpredictable skills provide laughs on almost every page.
The first of the Bruno and Boots series, This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall! is something of a classic, not only because it’s been loved by so many, but because it’s Gordon Korman’s first book. He wrote it when he was 12, for an English project. He’s gone on to write 80 books before his 50th birthday. Bruno’s schemes are a reliable recipe for hilarity and disaster; his best friend Boots goes along for the ride and does his best to reign Bruno in.
Aside from these Korman classics, Roy’s devoured his Zoobreak series — more kids’ hijinks and comedy, plus animals.
New chapter books for the summer of 2014! First is My Life as a Book, by Janet Tashjian: Derek has been labelled a “reluctant reader” at school, and all the usual strategies (reading lists, bribery, threats…) don’t work. What does work, finally, is a summer trip where new people are met and secrets are revealed, and where Derek finds a way to engage with storytelling and text in his own, satisfying way. Lots of smart-ass, ironic one-liners from Derek to keep kids laughing, and cartoons on nearly every page (Derek draws his spelling words).
In The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, Billy is afraid that he won’t fit in with his second grade class and he thinks his new teacher is mean (she forces her students to learn spelling!). The book is written in four parts, reflecting the four seasons of a year: in the first, he learns about his teacher’s love of spelling; in the second, he learns that his father is making something secret in his workshop; part three is devoted to his younger sister; and part four is about his mother. Essentially, the book ties together the most significant elements of Billy’s life — learning and family – and shows how these things come together to help him find a secure sense of place. This book has fairly large print and is well-suited for kids who’ve recently shifted into chapter books – age seven, perhaps?
I realize that many kids will know these books from their film adaptations, but Roy recently discovered the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series and the How to Train your Dragon series. Both are significant collections, coming in at 15 and 12 books respectively, and they’ve kept Roy enthralled through hundreds of pages.
Another book that’s been adapted to film is Because of Winn-Dixie, by the incomparable Kate DiCamillo. Again, we haven’t seen the film, but at ages 9 and 8, both my oldest children have really enjoyed this funny, touching book. I’ve been reading it aloud to Geordie, my 8 year old, and I’ve been impressed more than once by DiCamillo’s craft, so much so that I stop and re-read really good similes and metaphors. The acid test: Geordie will read chapters of the book on her own because she can’t wait for the next bedtime to find out what happens next….!
I’d never heard of Suzanne Selfors until Roy picked out one of her books as a prize during our library’s summer reading program. What a find! I think her Homer Pudding series is hampered slightly by an overly-juvenile cover design; in fact, Smells Like Dog is a blend of Harry Potter’s fantastical adventures; Bruno & Boots’ wild MacDonald Hall romps; and Kate Davies and Mark Haddon’s dry wit. Suspense, laughs, pirate treasure, brother-and-sister devotion, a helluva dog – what’s not to love? It has two sequels: Smells Like Pirates and Smells Like Treasure. Ahoy.
I’ve been waiting for Roy to pick up the copy of Maniac Magee sitting in his bookcase, but so far, no luck. Oddly enough, instead of reading Jerry Spinelli’s Newberry Medal-winning novel, he chose Spinelli’s relatively unknown Jake and Lily during a trip to the second-hand store. He started reading it in the store, continued in the car on the way home, and finished it after a spell on the living room sofa. Since then, Geordie’s read it and loved it too, so I can attest to its appropriateness for 8 and 9 year olds, at the very least. Jake and Lily are twins who can feel each other’s pain and communicate telepathically; so yes, there’s a bit of mystery and fantasy at work here. But the tone of the book is similar to the likes of contemporary stories like Flora & Ulysses — normal, everyday kid talk, humour, and anxieties. The crux of the matter is when Jake makes decisions that lead him away from his previously-inseparable sister.
Lauren Child is best know as the creator of the massively successful Charlie and Lola books, which have been turned into a tv series and concomitant merchandising products. She’s very cleverly picked up on a character from her Clarice Bean books — fictional girl detective Ruby Redfort — and actually written the Ruby Redfort books that Clarice loves so much: Look Into My Eyes and Take Your Last Breath. Geordie picked up both the Redfort books this summer and she would recommend them — highly — for their suspense and their humour, and Ruby’s infallible, tenacious talent for sniffing out the truth, no matter how many grown-ups may get in her way. Breaking news! A third installment — Catch Your Death — came out a year ago! (Well, it was breaking news to us…the library might have a copy by now….).
Roy discovered Rick Riordan this past winter, and proceeded to binge-read three of his series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians (of course — this is a blockbuster series and has spawned a major motion picture…which we haven’t seen); The Heroes of Olympus; and The Kane Chronicles. I’m impressed with just how much mythological info he’s gleaned from these, including the Greek and Roman names for gods and how their territory overlaps and/or differs.
More on the blockbuster front: he gobbled up all four of The Maze Runner and Hunger Games books – no, we haven’t seen these movies either. At the age of nine or ten, it’s one thing to read fairly graphic violence and be limited by one’s own limited experience in that area; it’s quite another to see it splashed across a screen in vivid detail.
Less well-known might be The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, in which a boy witnesses a murder and must race through an astounding train that’s almost a thousand cars long. He does this with the help of a girl from the circus car.
Different altogether are the Horrible Histories, by Terry Deary. Roy absolutely loves these books, which give kids a good look at myriad historical subjects and periods, like the French Revolution and ancient Roman history BUT does it through the most disgusting and ridiculous bits. Such as: WWI soldiers at Gallipoli had to wear the same clothes for weeks without ever taking them off. One soldier finally took his socks off only to see them move, now seething masses of lice. Note to parents of reluctant readers: THESE ARE CARTOON BOOKS!!! The text is broken up not only with multiple headings and sections, but also with Martin Brown’s comedic pictures of people enduring the more humiliating and gross aspects of human experience. Irony and sarcasm abound, but Deary still manages to communicate the real suffering and injustices of history. In other words: dark humour, but never glib. Masterfully done.
Still another genre / style: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I love this book – Geordie is a few weeks from turning nine, and she and I are reading it together (although she has snuck off to read ahead a few times). It’s 1939 in London and ten-year-old Ada has been kept in her flat – a tiny, poverty-stricken world — her whole life, the victim of a clubfoot and an abusive mother. When her younger brother is set to join the London’s children’s evacuation at the outbreak of WWII, she forces herself to learn to walk in secret and then steals off with him. The world she finds herself in is, of course, a revelation to a brave, determined girl whose never been taught to read – never even seen an apple, let alone tasted one. Wonderful stuff.
Another bestseller, but not an adventure story or a post-apocalyptic thriller for once: Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I read this book a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it – Roy finally picked it up at age nine and was really moved by it. August is a middle-grader who’s never been to school because he suffers from a severe facial deformity. But his parents agree that he must finally get out and learn to make his way in the wider world. Very touching, genuine, and absorbing, especially since it’s told not only from August’s perspective, but by those around him, including his sister, her boyfriend, August’s new friend, etc. In other words: we learn how August’s presence amongst others makes lives better. Palacio has a deft touch here, addressing the boy’s disability without clichés or melodrama, nor is he treated as a “lesson” for others to learn.
We found quite a few good reads over the summer of 2015: here are the ones the came after June 2015….
Definitely give Lisa Graff a shot: my daughter and son both read A Tangle of Knots and Absolutely Almost and loved them. My daughter also enjoyed Double Dog Dare, which is for a slightly younger reader, and The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower.
Roy devoured Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess by Richard Platt, which gives an engaging look into the everyday medieval castle life. Another to try: Platt’s Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter, which Roy said he might have enjoyed even more.
Fish, by Greg Mone, is another historical fiction selection about an Irish boy who finds himself aboard a pirate ship, where he can put his extraordinary (and extraordinarily rare) swimming skills to good use.
Loads more to try — here’s a list of contemporary stories:
The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden by Philippa Dowding; All the Answers by Kate Messner; Rules by Cynthia Lord; Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt; and The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (this one is a door-stopper but it kept Geordie steadfastly turning the pages for two days straight, right until the end).
Geordie fell in love with The Guests of War Trilogy (The Sky is Falling, Looking at the Moon and The Lights Go On Again) by Kit Pearson, in which three British children are sent to live in Canada during WWII. I’m not kidding — she carried this giant book around for a week. Published in the 90s, these books have won multiple awards, and with good reason. Excellent historical fiction — perfect for fans of The War That Saved My Life.
I have to give special mention to Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan; I sat down to skim the first page out of curiosity and I couldn’t put it down. Very similar to Wonder — read it all in one sitting and cried at a couple of points. The kids didn’t try it, but I’m sure they will when they’re ready, and that they will love it too.
Kathryn Lasky followed up her Guardians of Ga’hoole series with another: Wolves of the Beyond begins with Lone Wolf, the story of Faolan, who finds himself a perpetual outsider due to being born with a splayed paw. There are six books in the series, and Roy’s enjoyed it just as much — possibly more, he says — than the Guardians books.
None of these wolf books, however, are as good as Firstborn, by Tor Seidler. It’s more complex and therefore more rewarding: what does a classic alpha male father make of his gentle eldest son? And what about when that son is drawn to his first real friend who happens to be a coyote? These themes are as old as the bible and Shakespeare — how do sons live up to fathers’ expectations? How does one find individuality in a tribe that depends on conformity? Do you follow your own path or the one your family wants to to tread? Highly relevant stuff, beautifully wrought.
Roy finally dove into The Eye of the Crow, the first of Shane Peacock’s Boy Sherlock Holmes series. He enjoyed it enough to read the rest of the books, and he’s not much for mysteries, so I think this is a solid recommendation.
Great adventure series to try: Airborne, by Kenneth Oppel, followed by Skybreaker and Starclimber. These are not for the faint of heart — some creepy stuff and intense adventure — but exciting as heck. And sciency, too.
It’s mid-June and I have a tantalizing list of chapter books to recommend for summer reading. Huzzah!
For a slightly older version of the Ivy and Bean paradigm, try Stephanie Watson’s Elvis & Olive. Ten-year-old Natalie faces a long, boring summer vacation in front of her until she meets Annie, a no-nonsense, rough-around-the-edges, altogether entertaining and mesmerizing character. But not everyone understands or likes Annie, so Natalie must learn how to negotiate her new friendship amidst the rest of her family and neighbourhood relationships. Complications and emotional struggles ensue.
Another of Lisa Graff’s books, Lost in the Sun, has won high praise from my nine-year-old daughter. Fallon and Trent become fast friends, perhaps because they’re both dealing with scars. This is a touching book with genuine, endearing characters who inspire sympathy and care from the reader. A lot of books for this age range are about fairly mundane, everyday problems (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but these two have really had to deal with some stuff. Compelling, heart-rending, soulful – superb. Fallon is a girl and Trent is a boy — Trent’s dealing with the aftermath of a tragic hockey accident — consider this one for both girl and boy readers!
If your reader loved The One and Only Ivan, s/he’ll love Crenshaw. Once again, Katherine Applegate tackles an enormously difficult topic – poverty – with hope and gentle humour, kindness, sadness… it makes us want to be better people. Ten-year-old Jackson’s family is on the verge of homelessness again when his imaginary friend, Crenshaw, comes back into his life. Here’s how it starts:
I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.
Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.
Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE. DOGS DROOL.
Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.
Thing number four: No one else on the beach seemed to see him.
I picked up Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones largely because of the title, I fully admit. But the whole book is just as good: Sophie has found a small white chicken, who she decides to keep. The book is a series of letters in which Sophie tries to find out where the chicken belongs, and how to take care of her, and what to do when her flock of one turns into a flock of two, three, four… Funny but not silly; informative and inventive.
The Fog Diver by Joel Ross, is a futuristic book about four teenagers; Hazel, The captain, Swedish, the pilot (who is at, not a steering wheel, but a steam-powered piano), Bea, the mechanic, and Chess, the tetherboy. They are scavengers from the slums, and they navigate their Zeppelin-like salvage raft for their survival. There’s a Lord with evil plans, but the most compelling part of the book is the camaraderie of the crew.
Spy School by Stuart Gibbs is well-known by now, along with its sequels, and rings many of the same bells as The Merits of Mischief, and the Ruby Redfort books if your reader enjoyed those. Self-explanatory title!
My nine-year-old daughter LOVED Rooftoppers – she finished it in less than 24 hours. Orphans form a rooftop community in PARIS. At the turn of the century!!! Sophie is the courageous protagonist who was found as a baby floating in a CELLO CASE in the English Channel. Are you KIDDING ME?! What’s not to love! Gorgeously imagined by Katherine Rundell.
My son’s addiction to Rick Riordan shows no signs of abating, so we went with the mythology theme but tried to branch out a bit by buying the first in the Pegasus series by Kate O’Hearn. Pegasus and the Flame turned out to be my daughter’s read first, however (although Roy picked it up shortly after), as she sped her way through the first four in the series. Good news: another strong female protagonist! Emily is 13 and she finds winged stallion on her roof who leads her into a world of legends, battles, chases, etc.
Another myth-based read, Loki’s Wolves, uses Norse mythology to build the story of Matt, who needs to find his ancestor Thor’s hammer and shield to…well..save the world. That old chestnut. This is the first in the Blackwell Pages series by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr. One of the three protagonists is a resilient girl who gets a turn telling the story one third of the time; the book switches point of views like Riordan’s do.
More summer reads! Geordie, aged 10, has entered a new phase of her reading life: the sofa years. She will flop down and fall into a book, reading it for hours over a couple of days, sometimes oozing from the sofa to the floor, hanging out somewhere between the two. These are the reads that have been most sofa-worthy so far….
Geordie’s Summer Sofa Series…
First off MUST be The Mother-Daughter Book Club series, by Heather Frederick Vogel. Geord’s inhaled these books, demanding them from the library and looking panic-stricken when they’re not in the collection. We sprang for our own copies when it became apparent that she would be re-reading them…several times over.
Summerlost by Ally Condie is kind of heartbreaking, but that was one of the things Geordie liked most about it. “It’s real,” she told me: “In real life, bad things happen.” Roy has also talked about this: he appreciates when it’s not necessarily a fairy tale happy ending, “like it always is in kids’ books.” Cedar’s father and brother have been killed in an accident; her mother, brother and herself are starting fresh in a summer house. How Cedar makes a new start – a new job, a new friend – is compelling. There’s also a bit of mystery thrown in for a good measure of pull and suspense.
An oldie but a goodie: The View From Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg, published in 1996 and winner of a 1997 Newberry medal. How did a 6th grade “Academic Bowl” team win? The four team members and their teacher are an unlikely collection – how they came together is revealed in four short stories, one from each of the students.
Feathered, by Deborah Kerbel, is another one that kept Geordie on the sofa for a while. Finch is trying to deal with a whole mess of conflicts, both at home and a school. She lets out her frustration in a graffiti message in a school bathroom stall, and the next day, someone answers her message….
Out Of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper, is about one of the most interesting and different characters in YA fiction: 11-year-old Melody is mute, and she has a photographic memory. When a discovery helps her speak after a lifetime of silence, not everyone is ready to hear her.
I love the premise of Ruby On The Outside, by Nora Raleigh Basking: 11-year-old Ruby’s mother is in prison. There’s a huge need in beginning YA for this kind of realistic exploration of kids who are struggling at the margins – it’s a sensitive, engrossing read that will encourage empathy and understanding. *Roy loved this one too!
In Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life, Pearl Littlefield compiles a list (one item per chapter…plus sub-items) to answer the essay question as old as time: what did you do on your summer vacation? A lot happened to Pearl…both good and bad.
Stephanie Meyer’s description of this book is so perfect I’m not going to try and come up with my own: if you were to mix Little House on the Prairie and X-Men, you’d get The Girl Who Could Fly and its sequel, The Boy Who Knew Everything, by Victoria Foster. Loads of strong, quirky, admirable female protagonists with names like Myrtle, Daisy, and our hero, Piper. *Roy loved these too!
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper is a great introduction to the issue of segregation and prejudice in America’s civil rights era. Geordie shies away from violence and cruelty (she’s walked away from Kung-Fu Panda, Star Wars, Secrets of War…) but this book was tame enough, and bittersweet enough, that she was able to find a way in to an understanding of this period. Fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Wynn-Dixie will likely love Stella by Starlight just as much.
So far, we can add these to Roy’s list of favourites this summer:
Sara Pennypacker, of Clementine fame, really flexes her writing muscles with Pax. For those who are now too old for Clementine, Pennypacker remains a dependable choice. It’s the story of a boy and his adopted fox, their separation, and their reunion. The writing is wonderful – exciting, funny, suspenseful, thoughtful, endearing… We loved it.
Elemental Island was settled by a “bunch of scientists” who have created a predictably science-based, advanced society, complete with 2.06 children per couple to keep the population stable. Astie is one of those children, and she chafes against “Rule 1.1: For the safety of all inhabitants, it is forbidden to leave Elemental Island.” Why? And what happens when someone from the “mainland” arrives on the island? Roy stayed up late (against the rules) to finish this one – would NOT put it down.
Time for Christmas! How to buy for kids? As the saying goes, “Something they want, something they need, something to wear, SOMETHING TO READ!” (I tend to skip straight to that last one….)
Roy’s five most recent recommendations are, first, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne. Roy’s expressed some frustration / cynicism about war stories, because they’re always told from the perspective of the “good guys.” In Boyne’s book, we see a much more complex characterization of a “bad guy” – in other words, a humanizing look into how he became a young disciple of Hitler’s. No apologies are made for his behaviour, and there is certainly a time at which he must reconcile and make amends, but we get a bit of an understanding of how Hitler’s mania took hold in Germany. This is a fairly sophisticated book, probably best for those 12 and older.
Second is Leslie Connor’s All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, which has a very original premise: Perry has been born and raised in a prison. When he’s 11, however, a new district attorney finds out about his living arrangement and makes things “right” by putting him in a foster home. As his mom’s parole hearing draws near, Perry tries to find out he truth about how she ended up in prison in the first place so that they can be together again. This isn’t too grown-up for kids – Perry interacts with plenty of other middle-graders (he goes to a school during the day) so there’s a lot of dialogue built around topics that will be familiar to readers, in addition to all the fascinating details of prison life.
Third is A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi. This book is such a rich, rewarding text: a Pakistani immigrant child in the USA must transition from cricket from baseball – one of the many cultural adaptations he must make. The star player on his team is a girl who’s father is a soldier overseas. And when will he see his father again? What can he do to find him and bring him to their new home? The children in his story must negotiate myriad challenges, all of them compelling and believable – this is all the more impressive when done without the crutches of magic, battles, evil, etc.
Last is The Memory Wall by Lev AC Rosen. In it, 12-year-old Nick escapes to a video game where, increasingly, the line between reality and fiction are starting to blur. Accordingly, the novel takes place in both a kind of medieval fantasy game world and Nick’s contemporary real life world of cereal and homework. The best of both worlds – genius idea.
In The Bicycle Spy, Yona Zeldis McDonough depicts WWII France as experienced by a twelve-year-old boy, and does a very convincing job of it. While Marcel is exposed to the dangers and secrecy of war, he’s also concerned with details like whether or not to tell his parents about his involvement, and how to get a bicycle to carry out his work – details that will be familiar preoccupations to children who feel genuinely ready for more mobility and independence but are restricted by their age.
Geordie’s been on a bit of a tear lately…here are her (many) new recommendations….
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord got read twice in only a week, so it must be pretty good: not only does Lucy decide to secretly enter a photo contest being judged by her famous photographer dad, but she must reconcile how her photography intersects with her new friend, Nate, whose struggling to deal with his grandmother’s worsening dementia. As with many classics, this takes place in a cottage community over summer break, but the photography angle is fresh and it works brilliantly.
I’ll admit I picked up The Summer we Saved the Bees by Robin Stevenson because the mother in it sounds a lot like me (I just got a bee hive because of my worries about bee colony collapse). I’m not as far gone (committed?) as Wolf’s mother, though – she takes her “bee awareness” show on the road, complete with four kids and costumes. Geord thought it was very funny, often speaking up to read a passage aloud and share the laughs. On another level, I love this book because it tackles an increasingly important theme: what to do when parents really embrace the environmental movement? How do the kids feel about this? How does it change the dynamics of the contemporary family?
For those who liked A Tangle of Knots, take a gander at A Clatter of Jars, also by Lisa Graff. Unlike a lot of fantasy or sci fi books, Graff takes magical elements and makes them central to the plot by makes the story as a whole a very realistic, familiar world. Think Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. Another summer camp book, but this one involves magically revealing and possible stealing people’s talents…in jars sunk in a lake….
Sometimes, the kids walk over to me and flourish a book in front of me: “THIS one should be in the blog.” Such a flourish occurred when Geordie presented me with Flannery, by Lisa Moore. Flannery is 16 and suffering from many of the problems that plague teenagers: she’s poor, her father is absent, her best friend has a new boyfriend and forgotten her, and she’s in love with a bad boy. Oy vey. An entrepreneurship project presents an interesting solution: make and market a love potion. Rumours that it works go viral… This isn’t just some teen romance book – it’s much bigger and better than that.
A page-turner: think The Glass House for preteens! In Survival Strategies for the Almost Brave by Jen White, Liberty, aged 12 and Billie, aged 8, have been sent to live with their father after their mother’s death. He abandons them in the middle of nowhere and Liberty has to figure out how to somehow get home. But where is home, now? (Roy read all of this one but didn’t like it as much as Geordie.)
A bit fraught, but it appeals: in Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb, 12 year old Nella must deal with shifts in her understanding of friendship, family and, most bravely, race. A good book for helping kids learn about the complexity of race issues in our neighbourhoods and the broader community.
In Everyday Hero by Kathleen Cherry, we meet Alice, a middle-grader who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Much as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon and Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Cherry shows us the world from the perspective of someone “on the spectrum,” and it’s fascinating. This is not to say, however, that Alice is alien – she is endearingly, honestly human and engaging. And when she meets Megan, a tough kid who inhabits the detention room, she gains new perspectives on the advantages of not being average. Geord LOVED it, and reported thoughtfully, “I think it showed me that you can’t tell if people are tough just by looking at how they dress.”
One is another British book that’s been celebrated at home but remained almost unheard-of here in North America (I just don’t get how this happens – what up, globalization?!). Geordie loved this book – she finished it in one long sitting. Sarah Crossan’s story about conjoined twins Tippi and Grace is incredibly rewarding. It’s written in free verse poems that are actually as easy to read as prose, but have the added weight of poetic techniques like line breaks and verses. Don’t let this scare you off – start reading the first page and you’re hooked. (Side note: it’s easy to get books from the UK for relatively little money – I use www.abebooks.com or www.amazon.ca and check out the used booksellers’ listings. Many of these books are new or in new condition. I’ve also ordered new from www.amazon.co.uk and, while I have to pay for shipping, it’s still pretty reasonable.)
And more from Britain: The Secret Cooking Club by Laurel Remington. Thirteen-year-old Scarlett is shy, but she’s thrust into the public eye when her mother starts blogging about her. Yikes. Success for Mum means embarrassment for Scarlett, who starts withdrawing in order to limit the amount of material her Mum can turn into posts. She finds, however, an empty kitchen next door provides good therapy that attracts friends one by one. Geordie (aged 10) loved this one, and her brother Roy (aged 11) enjoyed it too.
In Eleven and Holding, Mary Penney has created a strong, funny, earnest protagonist in Macy, who refuses to turn twelve until her dad gets back from his “important work,” whatever that is. Here’s a quote that typifies the book’s wry, intelligent voice: “I felt like a big bull snorting and pawing in the dirt, and he just wouldn’t wave the red cape like he was supposed to. It was maddening.”
Three more to recommend from Roy’s Christmas reading…he stayed up late to finish all of these in one go….
In Blitzcat by Robert Westhall, we learn about WWII-era Britain through the eyes of a black cat well known in her Coventry neighbourhood. The story focuses on a handful of human characters, so it’s a gripping story rather than a kind of survey of people.
Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds is now a major series — very canny of her too, as it’s described as “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter!” on the front jacket.
Here’s another that’s done well in Britain but’s relatively unknown in North America: After Tomorrow, by Gillian Cross. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel that’s actually feels more like a reflection of the refugee crisis gripping the world now, as two boys, and a girl they meet along the way, try to make their way to France to escape the dystopian nightmare they’re living in Britain.
Loads of good reads have blossomed from their Christmas wrapping paper…
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, about a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome.
The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Stone, about a boy who must defend his cabin and the Aboriginal friend who helps him (originally published in 1983, but recently reissued with a slick new cover).
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly, which Roy described as “weird and kind of like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas, which Geordie read in a day — funny, touching story about an Iranian immigrant girl’s life in 1970s California.
Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty, about a dark forest, disappearing children, stolen talents…and a man in black cloak…another one that Geordie finished in a day — she loved it.
Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer: a historical novel about Henry VIII’s first daughter. Along with: Beware, Princess Elizabeth! Both great reads, Geordie says.
Here’s a great one for middle grade readers who enjoy some realism in their books: Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young. Tink, the grade six protagonist, is feeling like nothing fits anymore — not her nickname, not her clothes, not her friends… Hers is a funny, authentic voice in the genre of “everyday drama” chapter books, with plenty of classroom drama and comedy to boot:
“Mr. Alva,” said Ms. Cho. “Please do whatever is required to compose yourself.”
“Sanctuary!” said Bushwhack from the floor.
This book seems to have stayed under the radar, which is absolutely criminal — we loved The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. A medieval adventure that takes story-telling inspiration from the Canterbury Tales and is full of illustrative grace-notes in the style of medieval manuscripts, this book manages to be exciting and funny, and yet also to deal with important themes like tolerance, faith, hypocrisy… Wonderful.
Here’s a top-notch thriller that Roy enjoyed: The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose. The title is fairly self-explanatory, but, to expand slightly: a small group of teens in Denmark are shockingly effective at foiling Hitler’s army.
Great news for fans of the truly wonderful book, Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan: she has another book out! Short is the story of Julia, who is indeed short, and is sick and tired of being short. But this summer, as one of the munchkins in a local theatre production of The Wizard of Oz, Julia will meet new people and learn that, miraculously, little people can “call the shots” too. As with Counting by 7s, this book shows how quirky, genuine, caring people can find each other and create a kind of family unto themselves, and Julia is a deftly wry and comedic observer: “He’s wearing his hair pulled back in his man-bun. I’m glad, because I think it makes him look more organized.”
For fans of the Mother-Daughter Book Club series: Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, by Lesley M. M. Blume. Geordie loved this book and insisted it be recommended. Cornelia is 11 years old and the daughter of two world-famous classical pianists; she’s rescued from her isolation by a glamorous and audacious girl who moves in next door. Note: Cornelia is fueled in part by her passionate logophilia (love of words): “”You are being a virago, Madame Desjardins!’ Cornelia pressed on, growing a little excited that things were going so well. ‘Virago’ meant a ‘fierce, bad-tempered woman,’ according to page 111.”
And speaking of the Mother-Daughter Book Club: it’s author, Heather Vogel Frederick, has created a dynamic historical heroine in The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed and its sequel, The Education of Patience Goodspeed. These aren’t easily found unless you’re willing to order affordable used copies online, but I think they’re worth the effort. Patience is a 19th century sailor who can handle all kinds of adventure on her father’s tall ship.
Both Roy and Geordie tore through the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, by Shannon and Dean Hale, and both have picked it up to re-read it. Though she has her roots in Marvel comics, this is a chapter book about Squirrel Girl (aka Doreen Green, who was born with a squirrel tail…and tale, ha ha), but with bonus footnote commentary from Doreen and occasional text messages reproduced in graphic novel style. Doreen is supremely sardonic, so the action and mystery are offset by regular helpings of humour.
Richard Peck is an institution in children’s literature, but I’ve been unsuccessful (so far) at getting the kids to read his best-known novels — Here Lies the Librarian and A Year Down Yonder — both of which are have been waiting, unopened, on our bookshelves for several years now. His latest, though, The Best Man, made a trip home with us from the library and Geordie picked it up immediately, and finished it within a couple of days. It’s an easy read in terms of its mechanics — probably a Stage Three book in this respect — but the topic might be best suited for Stage Four readers, since the story is about Archer, a middle-grader who watches things unfold as his favourite teacher, Mr. McLeod, and his favourite uncle, Uncle Paul, fall in love and get married. What does love mean? What does it mean to be open-minded? What makes a family? These are questions that can come off as painfully insincere and politicized, but Peck has created a funny, genuine, relatable story packed with endearing characters who feel like family.
For something light and funny, consider The It Girl by Katy Birchall, which Geordie adored and read twice in row. In it, 12-year-old Anna discovers that her father is dating a famous actress. When they get engaged, Anna freaks out about her complete unsuitability for the role of “new It Girl,” as she’s been dubbed by the British press. How will she ever transform from awkward, invisible kid to ultra-cool It Girl?! I’ll admit, the humour here was well-done — excellent deadpan delivery to offset the occasional hyper pre-teen excitement about boys and stuff.
Roy read Murder Most Unladylike and enjoyed it so much that he immediately asked me to buy the rest of the series for him (which I did, since the library didn’t have them…?!). Robin Stevens mysteries feature Daisy and Hazel — the pre-teen’s answer to Sherlock and Holmes — as the heads of their Detective Society. Upper class Britishisms abound.
Geordie was glued to The Thickety for two days: J.A. White’s novel tells the story of a brother and sister who’ve been shunned by their village since their mother’s conviction of witchcraft. Things take a turn when they’re lured by a bird into the dark, mysterious woods called the Thickety.
Celebrated author Emma Donoghue’s first novel for kids was a hit at our house: in The Lotterys Plus One, we meet a thoroughly modern family with four parents, seven kids, and various species of pets. Multicultural, lesbian, gay, vegetarian… This is a book for TODAY! The Lotterys are completely comfortable and happy as this alternative unit, but when a grumpy grandfather moves in, things get more complicated. Very funny, very smart.
From the action-adventure-post-apocalyptic quarter: Icebreaker by Lian Tanner. The protagonist, Petrel, is alone amidst three warring tribes; she hides in an abandoned ship, alone until a boy is discovered on an iceberg. But what if the boy wasn’t found, but sent? Roy asked for the sequel the minute he finished this one.
The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargreave, is a mythic adventure about a girl who must use ancient maps the stars to find a lost friend. Suspenseful, well-written – Geordie said it was “like legends coming alive.”
Roy’s all about WWI and WWII these days, so Fly Boy came along at just the right time: Eric Walters’ story about a 17-year-old’s time in the Royal Canadian Air Force and as a navigator on a Lancaster. There’s loads of conflict and intrigue here, as the protagonist lies about his age to get into the RCAF, and, though he’s a talent and passion for piloting, is relegated to the role of navigator. Roy loved it.
UPDATES AS OF NOVEMBER 2017:
Another Eric Walters book to recommend: End of Days. Imagine Good Will Hunting meets Deep Impact – ie teenaged boy genius is recruited to help thwart an asteroid strike. How Walters envisions the mechanics of trying to solve a problem like this is especially engaging – the sheer detail of it.
If you have a reader who loves Rick Riordan’s myth-based adventures, then you might want to try Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, which retells the old myths in one narrative arc, with updated language and Gaiman’s usual skill.
Love this: in Zomboy by Richard Scrimger, the new kid in class is actually a zombie. Very funny, but also some important themes about tolerance, popularity, honesty….
Roy and I had a bit of a debate about whether The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, by Randall Platt, was a chapter book for older kids or a young adult book. He pointed out that there wasn’t any sex, which is the main yardstick he uses in evaluating such things, but I think that the subject matter is pretty violent. The protagonist, Arab, is a girl who disguises herself in Nazi-occupied Poland. She survives by staying with her street gang and avoiding the Nazis. But then the Resistance comes calling.
I’m very curious about how the publishers of Beautiful Blue World decided on the jacket design: to look at it, you’d think it was an elementary age book about a friendship between two girls – kind of a lyrical, thoughtful and heartfelt Ivy and Bean. The reality, though, is very different: Beautiful Blue World, by Suzanne LaFleur, is about a fictional world at war. The army is recruiting children and paying for their services, which offers one girl some hope for her family but also threatens her close friendship with another girl – a friendship that has kept them going in terrible times. Roy read this one in a day and immediately asked to get on the waiting list for the sequel.
Here’s some lighter fare: I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, by J.B. Cheaney. Izzy agrees to star in her friend Ranger’s movie, against her mother’s wishes. Excellent historical fiction about the very early days of film and Hollywood. It’s 1919 and Izzy and her sister Sylvie are going to California with their mother for the summer; their father left to join the war in France months ago: “In Father’s absence Mother had swung about and pointed south, like a contrary compass needle.”
I honestly don’t know why I picked The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry – I don’t remember how I came across the title or decided to borrow it from the library. The book involves a dairymaid with a magic map, a lost cow, a terrible emperor….the dairymaid encounters all types of fairy-tale-ish characters as she presses onwards, searching for her cow, getting closer to the emperor’s palace. It doesn’t sound like anything I’d pick, and the cover art certainly doesn’t inspire (a guy riding an ostrich?!), but Roy picked it up, read it, and pronounced it “Weird but good.” So, if you’re looking for “weird but good,” give it a try.
Many thanks to a new friend for recommending we try Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books! In The Astounding Broccoli Boy, Rory Rooney is put in isolation after turning green. No one seems to know what’s wrong with him…but he suspects he might have become a superhero. In Millions, a bag of money falls out of the air and lands at Damian’s feet, but it’s all in pounds sterling, and Ireland’s converting to euros in a matter of days, which inspires him and his friends to try and spend all the money before then…not an easy task for this much dosh…. In Sputniks’ Guide to Life on Earth, a boy meets an alien who tells him that Earth is going to be destroyed. Prez has come up with ten good things about planet Earth to show the alien and save the world. His list is different, however, from the alien’s. Roy said that this one started off a bit slowly and confusingly, but then quickly took off.
Another hit from Lisa Graff: The Thing About Georgie, about a fourth-grader who endures teasing at school because he’s a dwarf. His grades aren’t that good, and he hates the violin, which his parents really want him to play because they’re both musicians. Georgie doesn’t feel much good at anything until he gets signed up for the school play…. Roy was really frustrated by Georgie’s rude behaviour, but this lead to some good discussions about why people might try to push others away – are they expecting to be rejected, so they do the rejecting first? And how might all “bad” behaviour actually be a result of fear?
Caddie Woodlawn is a classic, and for good reason. Carol Ryrie Brink’s Newberry medal-winning story about pioneer life on the prairies is based on her grandmother’s experiences. Geordie, at 11, finished this book in a day; despite the differences in time periods, she felt she could relate to Caddie, who chafes against the expectations placed on her (sewing, baking and behaving like a “proper” lady-in-training). Instead, Caddie hunts with her Indian friends and outwits her brothers.
The Booky trilogy, by Bernice Thurman Hunter, begins with That Scatterbrain Booky, when Booky is nine, in 1932. The trilogy follows her until she’s 17, and provides a gripping account of how the Depression affected families. Like Caddie Woodlawn, Booky can’t stand watching her mother do domestic chores, and tends to disappear when it’s her turn to do the dishes….
For fans of Rick Riordan: the W.A.R.P. series by Eoin Colfer (involving a worm hole…) and the Going Wild series by Lisa McMann (author of The Unwanteds series). The latter is fairly new, but the second book is coming out in the fall of 2017 – it has TWO girl protagonists and one boy (HUZZAH!) and the W.A.R.P. series shares top billing equally between a male and female protagonist.
Eva Ibbotson is a classic British children’s author, and with good reason: have your reader start with The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, in which a boy and girl turn a haunted castle into a tourist attraction with the help of some truly hilarious ghosts. Sadly, a competing castle hoves into view… Very funny stuff.
I brought home Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre for Geordie, but it was Roy who picked it up and read it in a day. Lou, a Tennessee tween, is a cracking good character, full of sarcasm and wit, ruefully aware of the pros and cons of her dad being a junkman. When teased by another child, she responds, “You better stand back. My dad’s used to picking up useless crap and hauling it away. You could be next.” Things get less funny when the town votes to raze the junkyard and Lou’s home along with it. But when she finds an old Civil War diary, full of stories about her rebellious ancestors, she also finds clues that might lead to hidden treasure.
Funny Girl is an inspired collection edited by Betsy Bird – such a great idea. The organizing principle seems to be, “Whatever it is, if it’s funny, it’s in.” Cartoons, quizzes, short stories, essays, letters…. Top notch authors like Lisa Graff and Raina Teigemeier contribute to make this a funny, eclectic book that Roy enjoyed just as much as Geordie.
For a lighter read in the vein of Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life, try The Summer of Bad Ideas, by Kiera Stewart. Edith (Edie) is a tween who has to spend a summer in small-town Florida with her much cooler cousin. In order to break out of her safe, rule-following character, Edie decides to follow a list of “Good Ideas for Summertime” once written by her eccentric grandmother. There are a lot of characters here, so The Summer of Bad Ideas has a very social feel, where the kids constitute a world of their own as they reach for adulthood.
Roy and Geordie both really liked The Losers Club by Andrew Celements. The protagonist, Alec, is an obsessive reader who’s constantly getting in trouble at school for reading instead of paying attention to the teacher. Frustrated that people won’t just leave him alone, he decides to start a club that no one will want to join (ergo the title), so he can be the only member and read in peace. But when kids start sitting down beside him to read, one by one, things start to change. There are greater themes at work, here, of course: is Alec using books to hide from the risks (and rewards) of dealing with real people? Alec’s voice rings true – kids will relate to him, whether they’re devoted readers or not. As a bonus, at the end of the book Clements has included a middle school book club reading list as read and discussed by The Losers Club – all real books you can get for your own reader.
In Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske, fifth-grader Kat deals with some common kid problems (her friend is obsessed with boys…she didn’t get the lead role in the school play…her parents are divorced…) but the real heart of the novel is Kat’s realization that her mom suffers from OCD, wearing her hands raw from all her scrubbing, organizing and sterilizing. We’ve moved into a time when all kinds of disorders are part of the zeitgeist (ADHD, OCD, depression, bipolar disorder…) so this book is especially relevant and important as an introduction to what it’s like to live with a parent who’s struggling so badly. Roy didn’t like it too much (“Boring.”) but Geordie loved it and insisted it be included in the blog right away.
Seventh-grader Joseph Friedman is a complete outcast at school, complete with phobias and bad grades. But when a teacher pushes him to join the school’s track team, things start looking up. Sidetracked, by Diana Harmon Asher, uses a classic format (outsider joins group of misfits and characters and finds a place to belong) to tell a funny, entertaining and truthful story about kids muddling through puberty and winning you over on almost every page.
Love this one: David’s half Chinese and half Jewish, which makes for a lot of confusion and conflict as he near his bar mitzvah. Plus two of his friends on the trivia team hate each other. And he doesn’t know how to talk to girls. And then there’s the threat of nuclear war…. This is Just a Test, by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang, is another look at middle school struggles, but the multi-cultural aspect is a fresh take and David’s voice is authentic – a blend of wit, worry, dread, and hope. Good stuff.
In One Mixed-Up Night by Catherine Newman, Frankie and Walter are such big fans of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that they decided to embark on their own adventure, but instead of running away to the Met Museum in NY, they decide on….their local IKEA!
The world of zines and punk come together in Celia C. Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, which is liberally sprinkled with zine-style collages, illustrations and hand-written notes. Malu, the protagonist, has to start a new school after a big move with her mother, a 1000 miles away from her father. Her passion for punk doesn’t go over well, but she manages to find a new group of friends, start a band, and always obey the first rule of punk (be yourself?! I thought the first rule was to hold your clothes together with safety pins?!)
The Wild Robot got a lot of attention when it came out, and inspired a sequel. First, I LOVE that the protagonist is a female robot – this is so rare in kids’ books. Roz wakes up to find herself alone on a deserted island. As she learns to make a life for herself and survive, author Peter Brown creates a new kind of folk tale about nature and technology. This is a chapter book with many illustrations and short chapters, so it’s perfect for less confident readers, but there is plenty of action and emotion to satisfy.
What an absolutely fantastic idea! Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s Book Scavenger charts the adventures of Emily and James as they try and unravel the secrets of the new online game devised by its famous inventor, who’s in a coma after being attacked. In order to succeed, they have to find hidden books…but they have competition…. Roy gobbled this one up in one sitting.
Another great read from Avi: Old Wolf, in which a wolf, a bird and a teenager cross path in the mountains of Colorado. A few full page illustrations, with fairly spare pages, not packed with loads of text or small font, so probably a good bet for reluctant, slow or unconfident readers. The themes explored by young people having to contend with the wild are fairly common, but Avi adds something different by drawing telling comparisons of the real world to a teenager’s video game world.
Cressida Cowell scores again with The Wizards of Once! Xar is a wizard with no magic, and Wish is a warrior with magic; the boy and girl must get along and make it to the inner dungeons at Warrior Fort! It’s not all danger and dungeons, though – much the same comic tone as Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series – right up Roy’s alley.
Prairie Evers and The Education of Ivy Blake, on the other hand, were right up Geordie’s alley. Ellen Airgood’s pair of novels about Prairie and Ivy, who become best friends and have to work out how to support one another even when things get tough. Lots of familiar situations here: moving to a new school, having an absent parent, feeling different from everybody else….
Similarly, Kristi Wientge’s brilliantly-titled Karma Khullar’s Mustache will appeal to reader who love fish-out-of-water protagonists. Not only is Karma’s family from India but living in the USA, she has started middle school and so far it’s not going well; her former best friend is drawn to a more popular girl; her parents have switched roles; and most shockingly, she’s growing hair on her upper lip. Karma’s voice is engaging, funny, wistful, authentic….
SUCH a great idea here: with Innocent Heroes, Sigmund Brouwer has taken various stories about animals in WWI and woven them together into a kind of mythic Canadian platoon in which three of its soldiers become friends. Roy absolutely loved this book, and it will appeal to fans of fiction and non-fiction: the facts that inspired all the story’s threads are laid out with pictures throughout the novel.
I will admit that I’m partial to The Wonderling by Mira Bartok simply because of her wicked sense of humour – Roy read parts of this book to me that had me laughing out loud. It is, however, an adventure novel at heart with a Dickensian flavour: part animal, part human, “groundlings” are kept in an orphanage that’s really more of a workhouse that’s decorated with slogans like: “Remember your place! It’s at the bottom!” and “Music is the root of all evil!” There’s a strong Victorian tone here (Chapter One is “Part The First: On the Mysterious Origins of the Wonderling & His Arduous Life at Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward & Misbegotten Creatures”) and very dry humour – it should be a hit with any fans of Harry Potter.
Susan Adrian’s Nutcracked is pure genius from a marketing perspective: a middle grade novel about a young ballerina doing The Nutcracker?! Hello, Christmas present! If you have a young reader who also happens to be taking ballet classes, this might work out to be a very good Christmas gift indeed: Geordie really enjoyed this one. It’s a fairly typical “best friends” story in which the heroine wins a coveted Clara part and must negotiate her friend (and fellow-Clara competitor)’s jealousy, and this is done well, with authentic voices and actions, but it’s also got a thread of fantasy woven in that seems especially appropriate for Christmastime.
Don’t let the Pixar-ish cover illustration put you off: Caleb and Kit is a solid middle-grade novel that deals with serious, weighty themes that will resonate with many. Caleb has cystic fibrosis – the effect on not only him but also his brother and their relationship is profound. It doesn’t help that their parents are divorced. When Caleb meets Kit, a girl who seems to live in the woods but is really escaping a precarious home life, his life changes. This isn’t a tween romance, however – it’s a coming-of-age story that’s well worth a read. Don’t worry – it’s not all gloom and doom: the mood is lightened by Caleb’s quips and sarcasm.
Roy, having thoroughly enjoyed the Spy School series, has delved into the entire Gibbs canon, and would like to report: “Recommend anything by Stuart Gibbs.” So, pick up his Space series, Panda-monium, Poached, Big Game…all of it. These are well-written, funny books with healthy doses of action and suspense.
The territory in The Way to Bea, by Kat Yeh, isn’t exactly new – a seventh grade girl finds herself no longer fitting in anywhere because of changes in school and family – but the conceit is fresh: Bea starts writing poems in invisible ink…and then someone starts writing back. But who? Dashes of sarcasm, hopefulness, infatuation…very authentic tween voice here. Geordie loved this book and Roy was less enthusiastic, but still gave it a thumbs up. See also The Truth About Twinkie Pie, by the same author, which Geordie devoured in one afternoon. Any plot summary would be impossible – there’s just too much to mention – but essentially, two very different sisters on their own are going to try to win a national cooking contest.
Posted, by John David Anderson, is effective on several levels: in creating a believable middle school world where things can veer from caring to cruel with disorienting speed, Anderson has delivered an exceptionally taut novel for kids that acknowledges just how clearly they can see the hard edges of life. The action hinges on a school-wide ban on cell phones, which leads to communication through post-it notes stuck to students’ lockers. Things get ugly, and provoke a lot of questions about what, exactly, everyone is really thinking, and what they’re really like. Excellent – both Roy and Geordie loved it – complete page-turner.
I’ve recommended Janet Tashjian’s My Life as a Book already, but since then it’s spawned a whole series – Roy enjoyed My Life as a Ninja just as much as Book. These would be ideal for a reluctant reader who’s graduated from The Wimpy Kid books and is ready for something with more text, fewer pictures, and more substance.
Roy recommends another in the fantasy realm: The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence, which features a story-within-a story, and plays with ideas about narrative and story-telling. It’s 1955 and Laurie’s friend Dickie has polio: when she visits him in the hospital, she meets other kids also trapped in iron lungs. Laurie, a natural storyteller, distracts the children by entertaining them with the story of the terrible giant Collosso, and the boy Jimmy, future giant-slayer. But what happens when Laurie’s prevented from finishing the story?
Also from Roy current list of winners: The Lost Property Office, by James R. Hannibal, which chronicles the adventures of young Jack Buckles, a tracker who can find all manner of lost things…but especially mysterious, magical things. Here’s an interesting twist: Jack has synesthesia, which causes him to “see” smells and sounds and such as colours, shapes and textures. Beautifully written – even fairly plain action is graced with carefully crafted diction: “The sound of Gwen’s apologies followed in Jack’s wake as he slipped and shouldered his way through the commuters.”
UPDATES FOR DECEMBER 2017
Saturdays With Hitchcock, by Ellen Wittlinger, is a solid addition to the middle-grade novel genre, in which a plucky, smart heroine navigates a quirky family, first love, and a passion for old movies that don’t necessarily reflect the life she’s living. Like, at all.
Material Girls by Elaine Dimopoulos got zero attention when it was published, which is a head-scratcher because it’s actually very good, tackling the fashion industry’s tyrannical, often arbitrary dictums as to what’s in and what’s out. Marla, once a powerful teen arbiter of taste, gets tossed after disagreeing with her peers. Ivy, a singer, feels a teen pop princess nipping at her heels. A very compelling look at fashion and music and how they manipulate and control public attention.
Another wonderful book from One author Sarah Crossan: The Weight of Water is about a girl who immigrates to England and feels almost unbearably out of place. Thankfully, she has the water: swimming is the only place she finds peace. Excellent reading, particularly now when so many millions are seeking refuge in countries not their own.
More from the adventure/fantasy realm: Beast & Crown, by Joel Ross, author of The Fog Diver and its sequel, which are also recommended here. Beast & Crown’s has a trio of protagonists (one boy and two girls) who are fed up with the drudgery and misery of being servants. They plot to escape to a magical ritual in the hopes that their fortunes will change. The change ends up being much more than they could ever have expected. This is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of humour, orgres and goblins.
The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy does not appeal based on its cover. It looks kind of self-published and text-booky. However, if your reader perseveres past the jacket, there are rewards to be discovered: this book has been given a slew of awards, nominations and “best” lists. This is a sequel to The Nine Lives of Travis Keating; its heroine, Prinny, is saddled with more than her fair share of challenges (alcoholic father, remedial reading class, bullying…), but a new teacher helps her see a world beyond.
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson is both funny and adventurous; our middle school hero (whose superpower is extreme sensitivity…irony?!) is actually in training to be a sidekick to a hero. Great spin on the typical superhero plot.
Victorian mysteries and crime novels have long been a staple in the fiction world, and now, YA fiction has added a worthy heroine to the genre that will probably work well for pre-teen readers too. In The Agency: A Spy in the House, Y.S. Lee introduces us to Mary Quinn, a 12-year-old thief who’s rescued from hanging by a girls’ academy which secretly trains its students to be investigators and crime-solvers. At 17, Mary is ready to graduate and begin her career as an undercover agent… Geordie loved it.
Ortega is the kind of sensitive, intelligent, gentle, funny, sad book that will appeal to readers who love Kate DiCamillo’s many beautiful, compelling books. Maureen Fergus tells the story of a gorilla whose been taken from the wild and trained to talk, read and write. And now they want him to go to school. Any child who has felt out of place will relate to much of what Ortega thinks and feels, and truthfully, what child hasn’t felt at one time or another as if they’re being studied, trained, and possibly forced into a life they don’t necessarily want?
How to (Almost) Ruin Your Summer by Taryn Souders is one of Geordie’s picks – if your reader liked Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life or The Summer of Bad Ideas, they might like this one too. Chloe is one summer away from starting middle school and she desperately needs a new bike that does NOT have Dora the Explorer stickers all over it. But instead of babysitting and making money, she’s headed to a summer camp her parents have picked out where she’s supposed to explore career opportunities. What?! Very funny – especially the goat named King Arthur.
My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson takes place in 1961 Cuba, as 13-year-old Lora volunteers to leave home and join a corps that will teach literacy to all Cubans. Her parents are dismayed, but Lora is determined, and she finds adventure and a new maturity. Another hit for Geordie.
In The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore, Lolly must learn how to exist without his older brother, who was killed by gunfire. Part therapy, part escape, Lolly builds an epic Lego city that soon becomes too big for his family’s apartment. Roy’s pick.
Impressively original idea: in Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker, Felix is 13 and approaching the day of “The Procedure,” when he will be separated from the “hyperintelligent fourth-dimensional being” his scientist father accidentally fused to his son when he was only 3 years old. A lot of humour here, but a brilliant interpretation of what it feels like to grow older and still feel like a child. Roy’s pick.