Category Archives: Middle Grade Mondays

Middle Grade Monday: Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

Middle Grade Mondays happen… well, every Monday.
See what others have posted this week on Shannon Messenger’s blog.

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You don’t need me to sing the praises of this NY Times bestseller by Newbery winner Rebecca Stead. But I’m going to anyway because it caught me off guard.


from GoodReads:

Georges (the s is silent) has a lot going on. He’s having trouble with some boys at school, his dad lost his job and so his mum has started working all the time – and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment.

But moving into the apartment block does bring one good thing – Safer, an unusual boy who lives on the top floor. He runs a spy club, and is determined to teach Georges everything he knows. Their current case is to spy on the mysterious Mr X in the apartment above Georges. But as Georges and Safer go deeper into their Mr X plan, the line between games, lies, and reality begin to blur.

This book is a subtle and sneaky one. It started off by surrounding me with all these lovable characters, then reeled me in with its convincing 12-year-old sense of humour. I immediately related to this intelligent, thoughtful kid just trying to make it through middle school, staying out of trouble and ignoring the bullies using his mother’s philosophy of always “looking at the big picture.” (I was so like him in 7th grade.)

But his mother is missing in his life at the moment, as she has been working double shifts at the hospital since his dad lost his job. They communicate solely by scrabble pieces on his desk, he writing one before he goes to bed and she responding when she gets home from work. This is tender enough as it is… but, there’s much more to his story.

He meets an odd home-schooled kid in his apartment complex and begins to spend more and more time in his “bohemian” household. At first, I thought this was simply a quaint story about a quirky friendship taking place during this rough time in Georges’s life, but as Stead loves to do, she reveals that each boy has more going on for himself than either realizes.

This is Stead’s talent, this ability to weave a story slowly, revealing only when necessary, and at the same time tempting us along with this authentic, sympathetic voice. The authenticity arises from her amusing details, like a kid who gets nicknamed Bob English Who Draws and a painting by Seurat (who Georges is named after), which is misheard as Sir Ott.

Every story is a mystery, and hers happens to be a small mystery in the scheme of things. Ultimately, it’s about how we manage our own fears. I really appreciated the ending; it was satisfying without being too pat. And the hero solves his own bully problem in a clever, even uplifting, manner.

That’s all I’ll say about that, because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t gotten to it yet. It’s just too sweet.


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf

MGM (or YA?) The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

(Cynthia Heinrichs is the winner from our FUTUREDAZE anthology draw – yay)

Last week on MG Monday, Barbara Watson discussed and listed several MG books that she thought were on the cusp of YA. As a matter of fact, some of these books are difficult to place on shelves for this very reason.

These are the type of MG books that interest me the most. Books that challenge exceptional readers, have complex characters, address important themes, but steer clear from any sex and graphic violence. Teens who are not into love triangles need great stories, too.

Interestingly, on a panel at FaerieCon this weekend, I heard an author define YA as ages 14+, and this is not the first time I have heard someone in the industry say this (though many will define it as 12+). Since most people define MG 9 to 12 years old, where does that leave the 13 year olds?


The SWEET REVENGE OF CELIA DOOR by Karen Finneyfrock falls into this zone for me. A sweet coming-of-age story that cultivates in a cringe-worthy moment when we are reminded of the emotional pain and cruelty of 9th grade.

From GoodReads:

Celia Door enters her freshman year of high school with giant boots, dark eyeliner, and a thirst for revenge against Sandy Firestone, the girl who did something unspeakable to Celia last year.

But then Celia meets Drake, the cool new kid from New York City who entrusts her with his deepest, darkest secret. When Celia’s quest for justice threatens her relationship with Drake, she’s forced to decide which is sweeter: revenge or friendship.

I have known author Karen Finneyfrock for about 15 years. We met in the Seattle poetry scene (she used to MC the Seattle Poetry Slam and I used to run the Seattle Poetry Festival). Her poetic background is revealed with her lovely language and imagery. Of the protagonist’s nemesis she writes, “That’s Sandy Firestone. And if my heart were a crossbow, every arrow would be pointed at her.” Of the boy she meets, “His blue and yellow sneakers were a foot from me, their fat laces pouting over the shoes’ tongues like bloated earthworms after the rain.”  It’s this language that will make it a great read for older middle graders.

As well, the main character is a poet herself and writes poetry every day.

Call me a planet orbiting a revenge-colored sun
Or a seed growing in the soil of settling a score…

What makes this a more mature read are the subject matter and a bit of swearing. The book claims on the back that it’s for the 12+ reader and I think that’s a good call. Parents should know that there are a few F-bombs dropped, but they don’t seem out of place in the halls of 9th grade (and the character gets into trouble for using the word at school). As well, bullies at the school call Celia a lesbian at least once. She’s not, although one of her friends turns out to be gay. This is only spoken about between the two friends and the book’s one kiss happens “off screen.” Some drinking also occurs “off screen,” but it’s not at all pervasive in the story.

This is a story of outcasts and bullies. I would have loved this book in 6th or 7th grade. I was also a poet as a kid, so there’s that, too. For the mature middle grader, I think would be a fine choice.

For more Middle Grade Monday selections, see Shannon Messenger’s Blog!


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, YA literature

Middle Grade Monday: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Current Giveaway: Enter to Win a copy of FUTUREDAZE: an anthology of YA Science Fiction. Click Here for information (Deadline: Friday, Feb 22)

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When I first came across THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK  in an elementary school library, I knew I had to get a copy of my own. You may not think you know who the mysterious “Harris Burdick” is – – but I’ll bet you’ve seen some of this artwork before (which is really the work of award-winning author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg of Polar Express and Jumanji fame).


In 1984, Van Allsberg published a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The “gimmick” around the book was that a mysterious author-illustrator dropped off 14 black-and-white drawings, each from a different picture book he had written, at a fictional editor’s house. He left with a promise to deliver the complete manuscripts if the editor chose to buy the books, but, as the story goes, Burdick was never seen again. The 14 illustrations were all that remained of his supposed books and readers were challenged to imagine their own stories based on the images in the book.

Fast forward 25 years… The CHRONICLES of HARRIS BURDICK re-releases these 14 subtly surreal pieces of art and pairs each with a short story by a renowned author. The list of participating authors reads like a veritable Who’s Who of children’s literature, and upon coming across the book I’ll wager that any contemporary author immediately thinks, “I want to play, too!”

At least that’s what I said to myself.


The list of participating authors includes Sherman Alexie, Cory Doctorow, Kate Dicamillo, Lois Lowry, Walter Dean Myers, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, and yeah, you get the idea. Some of the stories landed better than others, some incorporated the illustrations more organically, but all were at least interesting. That’s the joy of a short story collection, though, isn’t it?

I think my favourite was Cory Doctorow’s piece, based on the illustration above, which deals with a young boy’s loss of his father at sea, at the same time the little guy grapples with the idea of non-linear time (and space). I was also drawn to Sherman Alexie’s story about a set of twins who pretend they have an invisible triplet sister and carry an empty dress around with them everywhere they go, insisting everyone treat the dress as a real person. It’s a fantastically dark comedy on an MG level.


With an introduction by Lemony Snicket, you can bet it is a strange collection. The stories tend toward the dark, and even twisted, although there is nothing graphic or inappropriate here. Some of the most frightening ideas are simply left to the imagination. That said, I’d recommend this for the 10+ crowd.

What I most love about this collection, though, is the opportunity for personal interpretation of the surreal illustrations. I am looking forward to using them as jumping off points in my own classroom assignments and discussions.



Filed under Middle Grade Mondays

Middle Grade Mondays: ALA Con Books for Boys (2013 Preview Part Two)

Last weekend I attended the ALA Midwinter Confence and returned with a suitcase full of books, an iPhone full of cover shots, and an earful about the fabulous books being released in 2013. It was really difficult to limit it to just a few, so I decided to focus specifically on books for boys.

IMG_0572Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi
Charlesbridge, July 2013

Since Ms. Ying Ling mentioned it in her comment last time, I thought I would talk about Prisoner 88, which was recommended to me when I said the middle school group I’m working with was predominantly boys.

This debut novel is “inspired” by the true story of a 10 year old boy (James Oscar Baker), the youngest prisoner in the history of the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary. From the back cover of the ARC:

Convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 5 years, Jake is taken under the wing of a young guard and the kindly warden, as well as a few fellow prisoners. He is taught to read and given a job tending hogs at a nearby farm. In prison, Jake finds a home he has never had in a place most people are desperate to leave. But when he has to make a choice about right and wrong during an explosive escape attempt, Jake jeopardizes his friendships and his security.

It’s historical fiction and not the true story of what happened to the real “Jake,” although the author does provide some information about that at the end of the book. For those looking for books for reluctant boy readers, this might do the trick. At 136 pages, it will be a quick read. (But apparently not quick enough for Danika to do an actual review. Hey, I’ve got a lot of books going on right now!)

I also thought this would make for excellent class discussion on any number of topics: How old does someone have to be to know the difference between right and wrong (they key in the real boy being tried for manslaughter)? How old does someone need to be in order to be sent to jail? What was the penitentiary system like back in the 1800’s and how was it improved?

TwerpAnother “boy book” inspired by real life (this time the author’s own experiences growing up in 1960s Queens,) that came highly recommended was Mark Goldblatt’s Twerp. Goldblatt is mostly known as a political commentator. This is his first novel for younger readers.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt
Random House, May 2013

It is a “humorous and heartfelt” story of male friendship and bullying:

Julian Twerski isn’t a bully. He’s just made a big mistake. So when he returns to school after a weeklong suspension, his English teacher offers him a deal: if he keeps a journal and writes about the terrible incident that got him and his friends suspended, he can get out of writing a report on Shakespeare. Julian jumps at the chance. And so begins his account of life in sixth grade–blowing up homemade fireworks, writing a love letter for his best friend (with disastrous results), and worrying whether he’s still the fastest kid in school. Lurking in the background, though, is the one story he can’t bring himself to tell, the one story his teacher most wants to hear.

There is seriously a lot of buzz about this one on the Interwebs. I’m bummed I did not get an ARC of this one and will be on a mission to find it when it comes out. I’ve been stressing the need for more humour in contemporary MG/YA books.

paradoxAnd finally, for something a little less reality-based, Paradox, is a new YA sci fi novel. It’s listed for 12 years old and up, so a good one for the older MG boy.

NOTE – I was told this is not the final cover.

Paradox by A.J. Paquette
Random House, July 2013

Billed as a book for fans of James Dashner’s Maze Runner (also listed as a 12+ book, though that seems a bit young for the violence if you ask me), the rep was pretty ga-ga over this one. She said she really liked the strong female protagonist, the real-life issues that the characters deal with (even though it’s a sci fi), and the plot twist (which she revealed to me, but I won’t spoil a book before it’s even released):

Ana only knows her name because of the tag she finds pinned to her jumpsuit. Waking in the featureless compartment of a rocket ship, she opens the hatch to discover that she has landed on a barren alien world. Instructions in her pocket tell her to observe and to survive, no doubt with help from the wicked-looking knives she carries on her belt. But to what purpose?

Meeting up with three other teens–one boy seems strangely familiar–Ana treks across the inhospitable landscape, occasionally encountering odd twists of light that carry glimpses of people back on Earth. They’re working on some sort of problem, and the situation is critical. What is the connection between Ana’s mission on this planet and the crisis back on Earth, and how is she supposed to figure out the answer when she can’t remember anything?

On a side note, Paquette is also author of a book for slightly younger MG readers called Nowhere Girl, which looks like it’s definitly worth picking up. Has anyone read it?

10583281Luchi Ann only knows a few things about herself: she was born in a prison in Thailand. Her American mother was an inmate there. And now that her mother has died, Luchi must leave the only place she’s ever known and set out into the world. Neither at home as a Thai, because of her fair skin and blond hair, nor as a foreigner, because of her knowledge of Thai life and traditions, Luchi feels as though she belongs nowhere. But as she embarks on an amazing adventure-a journey spanning continents and customs, harrowing danger and exhilarating experiences-she will find the family, and the home, she’s always dreamed of. Weaving intricate elements of traditional Thailand into a modern-day fairy tale unique unto itself, Nowhere Girl is a beautifully rendered story of courage, resilience, and finding the one place where you truly belong.

There are an overwhelming amount of books I’ve left out for sure. One of the things I really enjoyed about the conference was the pure authentic enthusiasm each publisher’s rep had about particular books. They would get starry eyed, some even teary-eyed, when they spoke of their favorites. A few, yes, even hugged the books while they described them to me.

For more Middle Grade mayhem, visit Shannon Messenger’s blog. And have a great week. Happy reading.


Filed under conferences and festivals, Middle Grade Mondays, Reviews and Interviews

Middle Grade Mondays: Live from the ALA Midwinter Conference

This is my first time at the ALA conference and for someone who is easily over-stimulated, it’s quite overwhelming. And this isn’t even their big one. Imagine booth upon booth of book displays for the latest award-winners, reviewer picks, and up-and-coming releases (with a definite slant towards children and young adult literature). Book-lover / educator paradise.


I had to stay focused or I would have imploded, so my tour of the publishers’ booths was primarily geared toward the upper middle grade reader, especially since I have to create a reading list for an up-and-coming class I’m teaching.

ARCS are Us

ARCS are us!

Below is a short list of some of the books I am excited about and I will post more later this week. I’ll list a variety – some literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction.

A few of the books I picked are young YA (generally 12+ on the ARC stats) with content that the publishers said would be “all right” for advanced MG readers.

Since I have no shelf-space at home, I might do a few ARC giveaways. If you’re lucky.

1) PARCHED by Melanie Crowder (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

IMG_0512The poster for this debut release immediately caught my attention. Set in the near future, it’s described as “very real,” not dystopian or post-apocalyptic, but “straight-up apocalyptic.” A world teetering on the brink tips into devastation.

It’s a story told from three points of view about a girl, a boy, and a dog struggling to survive in a parched and barren land.

Sarel knows which tree roots reach down deep to pools of precious water. But now she must learn how to keep herself and her dogs alive. She knows they can’t last long without water—and she knows, too, that a boy is coming; a boy with the water song inside him.

Musa’s talent for finding water got him kidnapped by brutal men, yet he’s escaped, running away across the thirsty land that nearly claims his life. Sarel, Musa, and the dogs come together in what might be their last hope of survival.

This sounds like a fantastic thought-provoking novel with curriculum tie-ins. I WISH I had a copy of this one to give away, but alas, they had no ARCS there.

IMG_05302) MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE by Annabel Pitcher (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

This one is not brand new, but it’s by a British author and was just published in the US in August. More importantly, I had never heard about it and the publisher’s rep said if she could pick ONE book for me to add to my MG list, this would be the one. She recommends at least 1/2 box off tissues on hand if you pick it up.

From the publisher:

My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece.
Well, some of her does.
A collarbone, two ribs, a bit of skull, and a little toe.

To ten-year-old Jamie, his family has fallen apart because of the loss of someone he barely remembers: his sister Rose, who died five years ago in a terrorist bombing. To his father, life is impossible to make sense of when he lives in a world that could so cruelly take away a ten-year-old girl. To Rose’s surviving fifteen year old twin, Jas, everyday she lives in Rose’s ever present shadow, forever feeling the loss like a limb, but unable to be seen for herself alone.

Told with warmth and humor, this powerful novel is a sophisticated take on one family’s struggle to make sense of the loss that’s torn them apart… and their discovery of what it means to stay together.

After the glowing recommendation I received from the rep, I have indeed added this to my student’s reading list.

3) CLOCKWORK SCARAB – by Colleen Gleason (Chronicle Books, 2013)

Clockswork ScarabI feel a bit giddy being able to post this one, as there was a bit of a buzz around it and the fantastic cover is brand new – you can’t even find an image online. It’s a photo of a real bug re-imagined. (for some reason winged creatures were the trend on covers – lots of moths and butterflies).

This one is on the tweens and up end of things and the concept sounds tantalizing: the half-sister of Bram Stoker and niece of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve a murder mystery in a steam-punk London.

Oh, yeah.

from GoodReads:

An unlikely pair, the fierce Evaline Stoker and logical Mina Holmes must follow in the footsteps of their infamous families—Miss Holmes has inherited her Uncle Sherlock’s keen investigative skills, while Miss Stoker has accepted her family calling as a hunter of the undead. The partners must find a way to work together, while navigating the advances of a strange yet handsome American, a clever Scotland Yard investigator, and a cunning thief, to solve the mystery of the clockwork scarabs . . . Steeped in Egyptian mythology and literary references, with a surprising time travel twist and compelling romantic triangles, Colleen Gleason has crafted a fast-paced and romantic debut young adult novel.

The fact that it has a “love triangle” screams YA, but the publisher said the pace and intrigue will hold the interest of younger readers not interested in romance.

(and I DO have an ARC … we’ll see if I can part with it)

More from the ALA Winter Conference to come (today is the final day).

In the meantime, please check out other Middle Grade Monday posts today at Shannon Messenger’s Blog.


cruising for books at ALA


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, YA literature

Middle Grade Mondays: All Creatures Great and Small

I’m always trying to find books for solid middle grade readers who aren’t mature enough or interested in YA matters yet. Who don’t care about love triangles, but want something challenging.

I wasn’t a big reader of horse or dog stories when I was a kid, but I adored the ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL series by James Harriot when I was in 6th grade. And I mean every time I read them (the first three, at least), they warmed my heart all over again. I kept forgetting how good they were.

32085I haven’t read them in years and wondered if my taste was suspect as a child. So I looked them up on GoodReads and, sure enough, all the books score consistently high marks.

They are heart-pulling, authentic (semi-autobiograhic) stories by an English veterinary surgeon. He worked in a rural area for the bulk of his life, delivering calves and the like. He had always wanted to write his stories, but didn’t do so until encouraged by his wife at the age of 50.

From his GoodReads bio:

The Herriot books are often described as “animal stories” … and given that they are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of the stories. Yet animals play a lesser, sometimes even a negligible role in many of Wight’s tales: the overall theme of his stories is Yorkshire country life, with its people and their animals primary elements that provide its distinct character. Further, it is Wight’s shrewd observations of persons, animals, and their close inter-relationship, which give his writing much of its savour.

There are a few squeamish bits (back in the day, farm animal medicine could be pretty messy), but I can’t recall anything shocking me, and I was a fairly sheltered 6th grader. I think even back then I detected Harriot’s ability to observe and comment on the human condition. I remember him being a kind, hardworking  man who treated all his patients (and their owners) equally.

I think this would be a great series to read as a family or parent-child book club. As well, the chapters are each separate stories, so no cliff hangers. You can pick the book up and put it down as you need to.

Just writing this post makes me want to read them all over again.

FOR MORE Middle Grade Reviews, visit Shannon Messenger’s Blog


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, writing life

Middle Grade Mondays: We Like Spies

I mentioned before that I’ve been going through an adult fiction (no not THAT kind), reading streak to stretch my perspective and challenge my mind a bit. (and increase my vocabulary, I’ve picked up these words among others: commove, impecunious, and avoirdupois). It feels good, like yoga for the brain.

So, this week I decided to ask some fellow writers (and one husband) what their favourite books were when they were 10. And why.

I’ll start with The Husband, whose favourite book was THE SPY LADY AND THE MUFFIN MAN by Sesyle Joslin. It’s actually the only kids book he owns other than The Places You Will Go (by Dr. Seuss).

imagesNever heard of it? Neither had I. And unfortunately, not many other people have either. It came out in 1971, it’s out of print, and there’s not even an image in GoodReads or Amazon for it.

I read his copy 8 years ago when we exchanged favourite kids books (he read my copy of Phantom Tollbooth).

It’s about four brothers and sisters, the members of the Secret Society For The Detection And Solution Of Crime, who are faced with a dull summer on Cape Cod with their single Dad until the Spy Lady comes to live next door. Of course everything she does is highly mysterious and they make it a point to figure out her evil plans. They’ve got code names and disguises, and the book contains the children’s spy log book and is illustrated by the youngest brother.


I won’t tell you how it turns out, just in case you can get a copy of it. But it’s definitely more Harriet the Spy than Alex Rider. It is Cape Cod after all.

When I asked my husband why he liked the book so much he said, I liked the humour in it. And I loved kids books in which the kids were spies. I don’t think that trend has changed. I think kids still love stories about young sleuths.

Speaking of… Tod McCoy (author and publisher) said that his favourite books were ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE THREE INVESTIGATORS (by William Arden and a few other authors). Thirty books in the series were released between the years 1964 and 1979.  I hadn’t heard of this one either (when I mentioned them to The Husband he said – Oh, I loved those books).

557103According to GoodReads, these classic mystery/adventure stories feature three boys who establish a detective firm with the motto “We Investigate Anything!” In the first book in the series, the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle–home of a long-deceased horror movie actor–and soon find that the place lives up to its name.
Of this series, Tod says: it had almost nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock. Why did he like it? There was just something so cool about having a junkyard all to yourselves, with secret entrances all over the place.

And finally, author friend Jennifer D. Munro (who I will ALWAYS be jealous of for being anthologized in the book The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater – for those who know your Judy Blume), had this to say about one of her favourite childhood book series: the THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

I recently re-read the first Little House on the Prairie and loved it. I learned all kinds of things, like how they made a balloon for the kids out of the pig’s bladder after it was slaughtered, and how Ma at certain times of the year would strain grated carrots to add more color to the butter (at other times of the year, depending on what the cow was eating, the butter was already yellow enough), and how for guests they would buy white granulated sugar instead of the lowbrow brown sugar or natural maple syrup they had. I don’t think I understood any of that when I read it growing up in Hawaii.

At least with Little House, they weren’t missing a parent (or two) like so much kids’ lit. (Nancy Drew and Black Stallion both feature a kid with one dead parent.)

I didn’t see a real prairie until I was 35… Yup, on our cross country motorcycle trip, we ended up by accident on Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

Why would a little girl in Hawaii care about Little House on the Prairie? Because I think it had all of those universal themes, most important of which was how was Santa going to get to them during a record blizzard on Christmas?

I am fairly certain I never read any of the Prairie books. I was, like Tod and The Husband, more into spies. But, perhaps I’ll give them a shot one day. They are classics, after all. Plus I want to find out how to make a balloon from a pig’s bladder.

Are there any old, out of print, hard to find children’s books that were your favourites?



Filed under Middle Grade Mondays

Middle Grade Mondays: The One and Only Ivan

(I just realized this is my first post of the New Year. So, Happy New Year!)

At the end of the year I was cruising through several “Best of 2012 Middle Grade Reading” lists and I would say that the most common denominator among them was this book:

11594337I really don’t need to sing its praises to you. If you spend any time in the blog-o-sphere looking for middle grade reading material, you came across this title.

As a matter of fact, I had heard so much universal praise for it that I bought it, hoping to be able to use it in the classroom at some point. I actually thought it was a novel in verse when I bought it (may have something to do with the book store owner telling me it was a novel in verse).

It’s not marketed that way as far as I can tell, but visually it does appear like a novel in verse, the rhythms of Applegate’s language sometimes come across as poetry, and at the very end of the book there are a few pages of what looks to be genuine poetry.

Ivan Page Sample(sample from page 2 of book)

Personally, I wouldn’t have put this book at the top of my general MG 2012 list, but before anyone boos me off my own blog, that’s only because this book is geared younger than the MG books I generally read and enjoy.

I would definitely put it on top in terms of the lower MG range.

Based on a true story about a gorilla that spent 27 years in a tiny cage in a shopping mall before public outcry got the gorilla moved to the Atlanta Zoo, the premise was enough to break my heart. I tend to be quite sensitive when it comes to the treatment of animals, as are most children. (Don’t worry, the true story and this one both have a happy ending).  Kids will also love that the real gorilla and the fictional one both like to draw.

In the book, Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade and vaguely recalls life in the jungle. His old life doesn’t haunt him much, instead he thinks about TV shows, talks with his friends Stella, an elderly (and injured) elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who sleeps on his chest, and tries to figure out how to capture the things around him in his drawings. To save their dying attraction, their keeper adopts Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and through her innocence and loss, Ivan see their home—and his art—through new eyes. Ivan vows to make life better for Ruby.

Kids will love the animal perspective, told with subtle gorilla humor, and I think it would be a great book for 3rd-5th graders to have discussions about endangered species or our human responsibilities on the planet when it comes to the other beasts who live here.

Applegate does have a talent for treating complex emotions with a verbal simplicity that will appeal to both children and adults. Adult readers will also appreciate her subtext. She manages a restrained tone of fear underneath Ivan’s child-like voice. I personally enjoyed his dead pan humor.

If you haven’t picked this one up yet, and you enjoy the kind of profound simplicity only a middle grade book of this quality can provide, I highly recommend it.

For more Middle Grade Monday postings, visit author Shannon Messenger’s Blog


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, writing life

Middle Grade Monday: Best of 2012

Really, that title should read Best IN 2012, because the books on my own “best of” reading list were not necessarily published in 2012, that’s just when I happened to read them.

I case you feel hornswoggled by this, I have added some other reviewers “Best of 2012” Middle Grade fiction lists of books that actually were published this year.


My favourite MG book I read that DID come out this year was WONDER. I was afraid this book would be too “Hallmark” for me and it wasn’t. A three-hankie read, I appreciated the multiple POV storyline, which I had not been expecting. You can find my original review HERE.

9918083My favourite Upper Middle Grade book this year was Scott Festerfeld’s GOLIATH (released late 2011), the conclusion to his Lethiathan series. Granted, I did like the first two books in the series slightly better than the third, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the story, which I find rare. I literally closed the book and sighed with satisfaction. As I’m struggling on my own series right now, I find the way he managed his story particularly remarkable.

I posted about the whole series HERE.

9591398A close second was Catherine Valente’s THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYWORLD IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING. If I could bottle her imagination and sell it, I’d make millions. I’ll just have to settle for reading her books. Review here.

1194366And finally, my favourite MG book I read this year that came out not-even-close to 2012 was Adam Rex’s TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY. (published 2007) This is the only middle grade book that I have ever been in danger of peeing my pants from laughing. Original review HERE.

It goes without saying that I recommend any of these as holiday gifts for the young readers in your lift.

There are so many MG books I did not get around to reading this year, so here are some other Best of MG Reads from around the Interweb:

The Atlantic Wire’s: 2012 MG/YA Awards – More YA heavy than MG, this list has categories such as “Most Lyrical,” “Most Page Turning,” and “Best Reality Check.”

THIS LIST by School Library Journal that I conjured runs the reading age gamut, but the bulk appears to be Middle Grade books.

And the Top Ten MG books of 2012 according to Amazon is HERE

If you have any top 2012 MG book lists you’d like to share, please do. (not that my reading list needs any more books to be added to it).

And if you want to read more Middle Grade Monday reviews, check out that list on Shannon Messinger’s blog.


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, writing life

Middle Grade Mondays: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien

I was thinking back to the books I read as a child, remembering my all time favorites, and I realized I had never blogged about one that I must have read a dozen times.


MRS FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH was released in 1971 and the author died two years later. Two subsequent books were published by his daughter to make it a trilogy, but those books never garnered the same interest (and I didn’t read them myself).

I hadn’t remembered that this was a Newbery Winner (and winner of many other awards), I simply remembered it as mysterious, suspenseful, and a bit ingenious.

from GoodReads:

Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma.

What is not mentioned here is that their winter home is located where the farmer will be doing his plowing, so yes, certain death if they don’t move. The mystery that follows uncovers the secret relationships, and a secret life, that Mrs. Frisby’s husband had with the NIMH lab rats.

I’ve always wondered about this author, where he got his inspiration and what his background was, and it turns out he was a noted journalist for National Geographic Magazine and didn’t start writing children’s literature until he was 45 years old. Just a side-note for those of us who began late in the field. Yay us.

In general, books featuring animal protagonists are geared for middle grade readers and below. Sure there are exceptions, like May Sarton’s Fur Person (or if you consider werewolves to be animals). The quintessential “talking animal” book, I think, is WATERSHIP DOWN, and there are some comparisons here, as well as a dash of Flowers for Algernon. RATS OF NIMH, however, can be enjoyed by a slightly younger audience, is less graphic than WD, and a much quicker read.

It’s interesting that the protagonist is a widowed mouse, not something that would generally pique my interest, but this book is definitely a standout in the genre, and has plot enough to keep young readers interested. The more savvy reader (which I thought I was back when I was 10) will pick up on some of the clues early. Mrs. Frisby and her family can read? They can use medicine? These skills might not sound odd in a “talking animal” book, but the story is set up as more of a realistic one, with some grown-up concerns, as much as scientifically “smartened” rats who know about things like electricity can be considered “realistic.”

To this day I still shiver when I think of the scene where Mrs. Frisby must go inside the farmhouse to put sleeping powder in the cat bowl.

BTW – while I was looking up the age-level for this book, I came across a site called COMMON SENSE MEDIA where the site, parents, and kids rate the age-appropriate level for books, movies, games, etc. (Not surprising, the kids tend to rate the age-appropriateness a year or two younger than their parents. HUNGER GAMES, for instance, was rated appropriate for 13 by parents and 11 by kids).

RATS OF NIMH was rated appropriate for 9 year olds by parents and CSM and 8 year olds by the kids themselves.

For links to more of today’s MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY roundup, CLICK HERE.


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays