Tag Archives: middle grade literature

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.

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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.

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Middle Grade Monday: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

FOR MORE MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY MAYHEM,
PLEASE VISIT SHANNON MESSENGER’S BLOG

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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.

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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.

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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?

FOR MORE MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY POSTS, VISIT Shannon Messenger’s Blog

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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

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Middle Grade Monday: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

I adored this book.

It’s the late 60’s and humankind is about to take the first step on the moon. But this isn’t having much impression on one fourteen-year-old who just moved to “stupid Marysville.”

from Amazon:

So begins a coming-of-age masterwork, equal parts comedy and tragedy, from Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt. As Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer—a fiery young lady who “smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain.” In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library and inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon’s birds. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

Yes, the odds are stacked against Doug Swietek. Most of the Marysville townspeople immediately decide that he and his brother are “thugs,” but their exterior demeanor is simply a survival mechanism from living with the regular verbal and physical abuse from their father. Doug finds little solace at home as his brother is following in his father’s footsteps, and his timid mother is simply trying to keep the household together.

But in this town is a library (open only on Saturdays), and in this library is something that changes Doug’s life forever: a book about birds, an Audubon original. Not only is he mesmerized by the illustrations of the birds, he reads the details of the drawings as stories he imagines they tell. Schmidt uses Doug’s voice to narrate his growing comprehension of the art, a combination of imagination and hope, that he extends to his outside world.

We see this change in Doug, his struggle to be a good person, but others don’t. And there were moments I wanted to reach into the book and throttle the adults who fed into his negative image of himself, that he was just a “chump.” But then, there are those adults who decide to give him a chance: his science teacher who tells him he’s not his brother (who has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is accused of burglary), the deli owner who gives him a job delivering food to a cast of characters who are slowly won over to Doug’s side, and most of all Mr. Powell who works at the library and teaches him how to draw . . . It makes one realizes how even small gestures, positive or negative, can make a difference in a child’s world.

(Of course I can’t forget the influence of a stubborn young girl named Lily, the deli owner’s daughter, who manages to see the good in him as well.)

When Doug makes it his mission to find and return all the missing plates from a valuable Audubon book, it gives his life purpose and direction when he could have easily slipped into a life of self-destruction. Yes, this book is about a boy who comes from an abusive home, but at the same time, there is humour here. There is redemption and love here. It’s not all tied up in a pink pretty ribbon, but I found the results very satisfying.

As well, Schmidt does an amazing job of making us see and feel abusive behaviour, but with little vulgarity or graphic violence. He does this through his narrator. Doug will say something like, “My dad’s hands moved really fast . . .” or “Well, you know what my Dad had to say about that.” So that the violence and swearing are left to our own imagination. There’s a few “freaking” this or that sprinkled in his father’s conversation, but I never got the sense of being inundated with it.  Schmidt has created a book that can live solidly on the middle grade shelves, where younger kids who need to find this book will.

I love the struggle between the two sides of this kid, trying to act tough and cool and uncaring, but his artistic, generous side, the side of him aching for approval, keeps on in spite of what his father and bully brothers have drilled into him. He just decides he’s going to prove himself no matter what. And it’s the discovery of his artistic side, of his ability to appreciate the beauty of Audubon’s work, that gives him this confidence. (Well, that and the attentions of a stubborn, and cute, girl. Did I mention that she’s cute?)

She came over and looked at the picture. Then she took my hand. You know what that feels like? Like what the astronauts will feel when they step onto the moon for the very first time. Like what might happen if Coach Reed rang the doorbell at The Dump some afternoon and sat down next to Lucas. Like knowing that Principal Peattie is wrong about what he said. Like laying a missing bird picture back where it’s supposed to be. Like someone seeing what a chump you are and getting you a cold Coke anyway. Like Possibility.

For MORE Middle Grade Monday posts visit Shannon Whitney Messinger

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Middle Grade Mondays: a Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A MONSTER CALLS was written from an original idea by author Siobhan Dowd who started the story and died of cancer before she could write it. An editor at Walker Books contacted Ness to write the book after she died. That right there should tell you something about the nature of this book.

from GoodReads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth

I don’t know if one could get through this book without having some sort of emotional response, especially if the reader has ever lost a loved one. This book triggers all those feelings one has as the loved one slips away. That helplessness, that anger.

I don’t know that this book is for every child. The language is that of a middle grade novel, but it deals with complex, real life, issues. It is a serious story about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer (this is not a spoiler). There are no harps and roses. The real monsters in this book, are the kind we will eventually have to deal with in real life.

This is not to say that I think kids shouldn’t read about serious issues (see Wonder and Mockingbird). I’m just saying take into consideration the sensitivity and maturity of the child (especially if he or she has recently lost a loved one). Then again, kids can surprise us by how much they can handle.

Yes, there is a monster in this book (a yew tree that turns into a giant), but Connor is not frightened by this monster, he’s frightened of the monster within him. The story is really about how our feelings of guilt and anger can eat us up, how we are our own worst enemies sometimes, and how we need to forgive ourselves.

The main character has anger issues, and rightly so, but in the story he does a few things so heinous, that I found myself wishing them undone. There is nothing offensive or graphic in the story, but it still may disturb some children. On the other hand, it could be used as a great healing tool for both children and adults.

I’ve seen some label this as fantasy and some label it as horror. I don’t think either label quite does the job. When the monster calls, he tells Conor three stories that come across as fairy tales, but they each have twisted and complex endings that don’t make sense in the world of right and wrong that children live in. That’s something they will eventually learn; that in life, sometimes there are no clean answers.

The artwork, by Jim Kay, is dark and disturbing, and complements the tone of the book.

Click for Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls artwork

NOTE: I realized later that I didn’t state whether I enjoyed the book or not! I thought it was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-conceived..

For more Middle Grade Mondays, visit Shannon Messenger’s blog.

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Middle Grade Mondays: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Every culture has its rules of storytelling. Books that are more “literary” often break those rules, which either serves to irk readers or intrigue and impress them. Cloud Atlas, for instance, caused a flurry of commentary when it ended chapters in the middle of a

We don’t often expect middle grade literature to break the “rules,” we expect it to be linear and simple enough to be understood by children. BREADCRUMBS, a beautifully written book by Anne Ursu, not only breaks a few rules, the journey has so many layers I’m beginning to think this is really a story for adults in the guise of a fairy tale for children. At the very least, it’s a book for highly literate children, as it has so many nods to other books (Narnia, Coraline, Harry Potter, and When You Reach Me) to name a few.

From GoodReads

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else.

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

When I was young I used to read fairy tales of the Hans Christian Anderson type. Breadcrumbs reminds me very much of those fairy tales, but grown up, more sophisticated. I have a vague recollection of what Anderson’s Snow Queen was like (Ursu was inspired by it), but you don’t have to know that story to enjoy this one.

The book reads like “literary fiction” for the first half of the book and fantasy for the second. But, like an old-school fairy tale, there’s no wizard-on-wizard action or fey coming out of the woodwork. It’s much quieter than that. As a matter of fact, as I was reading it, I never saw it as fantasy. I saw it as allegory. Because Hazel is introduced as such an imaginative child, I read her outward journey as her inward journey.

There is a great deal of loss in this book and there’s no tidy answer in the end. Sometimes we grow up and we grow apart and it’s never going to be the same again. This is how it is for Hazel and Jack, and it’s a hard lesson to learn for a lonely, artistic girl who doesn’t fit in.

Hazel is adopted (she’s from India and her parents are unspecified Caucasian), and is in the fifth grade in the midst of changes that are both typical for one her age and personal in respect to her own family situation. Her parents are recently divorced, and she is nearly abandoned by her father, who is across the country and about to get remarried. Her mother is struggling financially, which necessitates a change in schools, from a private school for creative children to a rule-bound public one. The only thing she likes about it is that her best friend Jack goes there. But we all know how boy-girl friendships change at that age. The fairy tale aspect of this book explains away how a boy could possibly change his attitude toward his best friend, a girl, seemingly overnight.

The POV shifts at times, which didn’t take me out of the story like it did for some. For the most part, it is from Hazel’s limited perspective. But it is also sometimes told through Jack’s POV, and sometimes the narrator actually speaks to the reader and opens up a slightly larger view of the magical happenings behind the scenes.

The climax is more quiet than your standard fantasy, in the way the ending to Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is quiet (when they turned it into a movie they had to excitementize the climax so as not to disappoint the masses). It’s not a “loud” book, so I think a battle of some sort would have definitely felt wrong. The story ends a bit abruptly, in that grey area where loss meets new understanding. It’s not an uhappy ending; it’s happy because Hazel manages to navigate the challenges before her, but it’s inconclusive.

No, Hazel and Jack will not be able to return to their previous friendship. They will struggle through that loss, and find love and loss with other people as they grow up, which is one of the tragedies of growing up. And life goes on.

The vocabulary in Breadcrumbs is rich and challenging for the discerning 10 year old. There will be concepts beyond the mental grasp of young ones, but to me this only serves to keep the book timeless while those readers grow up and enjoy it with new insight.

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