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Archive for the ‘Middle Grade Books’ Category

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes we forget that. Some of our adult library patrons are bullies and we hesitate standing up to them. ReluctantJournalOfHenryKLarsenSo imagine how a high schooler who has been subjected to bullying for years might feel. Well, Jesse Larsen was one such teen and he did something about it that affected himself, his family, his school and his community.

In the aftermath if IT, as Henry K. Larsen refers to it in his Reluctant Journal (only written because his therapist suggested it might help), Henry explains how everyone feels and the lasting impact of his brother’s murder/suicide at the local high school. One parent won’t talk about it. The other parent is hospitalized for depresssion. Henry’s best friend, the sister of the bully, isn’t allowed to talk to him any more. Friends stopped being friends and instead became antagonistic. There are feelings of guilt. Another consequence: Henry’s family crumbled. He and his father moved to a new city where Henry could/had to start over again making friends, dealing with the tragedy.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is another entry on the important topic of bullying. Henry is only a high school freshman. He’s a little chubby and nerdy. Of course, cliques are already established at school and he, unavoidably, joins the geek clique…which is subject to bullying. Susin Nielson has written for such TV series as DiGrassi and knows how to reach the middle school/lower high school audience. The characters, although somewhat stereotypical, are ones you root for (at least the good guys). The dilemma of “telling a parent or teacher” is touched on. The feelings of guilt are a major factor in the book. Whose fault are these tragedies?

In the instant news world we live in, it seems like every minute there’s a news article on Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter about bullying. I’m sure we all know some family that has been affected by bullying. I don’t think there can ever be enough good books on the subject and The Reluctant Jouranl of Henry K. Larsen, winner of the Canada Council for the Arts Governor General’s Literary Award, joins a growing list of worthwhile books on a difficult subject.

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DogCalledHomeless“My name is Cally Louise Fisher, and I haven’t spoken for thirty-one days.” So opens the heart-warming A Dog Called Homeless, the debut novel by Sarah Lean, which won the Schneider Family Book Award which honors “an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences”. Not bad for a debut novel.

What started out as a fund raiser, get sponsors who think you can stay silent for one whole school day, turned into a 31 day rally for Cally, because once she saw that people treated her no differently, it didn’t seem important to talk.

Background: Cally’s mother died in an auto accident a year before. Since then, her father has withdrawn, they’ve had to move into a smaller apartment and her best friend ditched her. She ‘sees’ her mother in various places, the first time at the cemetary on the anniversary of her death, but no one believes her. So, what’s the sense of talking. The second time Cally sees her mom, a big grey wolfhound is with her…except the dog is real.

Her downstairs neighbor is Sam, who is totally blind, mostly deaf  and has a heart murmer. Sam’s mother teaches Cally how to ‘write on Sam’s hand’, which according to Cally isn’t considered talking. Together, the two tackle the hardships of their particular worlds.

As I said at the beginning, A Dog Called Homeless is a heart-warming, charming book that will teach you about what’s important in life, how to deal with the loss of someone close to you and the love of family. I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t. It was a great ending, as far as I’m concerned. Cally is a darling of a girl and A Dog Called Homeless is a darling of a book.

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OneAndOnlyIvanIvan is a gorilla at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. His domain is a cage with a tire swing, a pool of dirty water and a wall painted to resemble a jungle with a waterfall. His main friends are Stella, an elephant and Bob, a dog who likes to sleep on Ivan’s stomach.

Ivan recounts his life in this unique book, The One and Only Ivan, the Newbery Award winner by Katherine Applegate. Ivan’s life is a sad one, his parents killed, losing his twin sister, Tag, en route from Africa, and being confined to a cage after losing his baby gorilla attractiveness.

Stella’s life is no better with her leg tied to a spike on the floor of her cage, limiting her mobility. Their only true human friend is Julie, the young daughter of the mall’s janitor, George. Through Applegate’s imagination, Ivan and Julie have one thing in common, they’re both artists.

Based on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan (known as the Shopping Mall Gorilla) who spent 3 decades in a solitary cage, never seeing another gorilla, Applegate ably brings to light the desolation of being separated from your own species and living in a bland environment. She describes but doesn’t dwell on the atrocities that man manages to enact against animals.

I will tell you that I could visualize Ivan and Stella and Bob and Julie. I could see their living conditions. I could feel their pain, their longing to go home. It takes quite a talent to do that.

I won’t tell you the ending, although you could find out quite easily without reading The One and Only Ivan–Ms. Applegate gives you a short bio of Ivan in the back of her book. However, that would be sheer silliness because the book is addicting. And I assure you, you’ll like the ending. Plus I love the opening quote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” by George Eliot. It is true for Ivan and for us.

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If one thinks there is a lack of imagination in the world, one need look only as far as Lauren Oliver’s TheSpindlersThe Spindlers. It is full of wonderful imaginary characters (or are they imaginary?). Everyone knows that the spindlers come at night and steal children’s souls, replacing them with spindler eggs so that more spindlers can be born. When Liza wakes up one morning and her brother Patrick isn’t really Patrick anymore, with his glassy eyes and lack of emotion, she is panic-stricken. While brothers and sisters have their ups and downs, generally they do love each other.

Of course her mother sadly thinks she’s making up yet another story, but Liza knows she must rescue Patrick’s soul before it’s too late. She ventures into the basement, with a broom as her only weapon, moves a bookcase covering a hole in the wall and enters the Below.

The first thing she meets is a rat almost her size named Mirabella. Mirabella is wearing a newspaper skirt, a hideous wig, a hat and enough makeup and mascara to scare anyone…including Liza. This is the delicious beginning of a dangerous journey the two take to reach the spindler’s nest, meeting along the way troglods, nids, lumer-lumpens, nocturni and more.

These days, when kids grow up too fast, when they are bombarded at a young age with activities that will get them into a good college, a good dose of fun and fantasy is the prescription for bringing back childhood. (It even works for adults who have forgotten the wonders of childhood.) Lauren Oliver has supplied a goodly dose of adventure. I was with Mirabella and Liza every minute of their journey, beside them on the dangerous River of Knowledge, there when Liza had to outsmart a three headed dog, there in the troglod market. Knowing in my heart that Liza would save Patrick’s soul, I couldn’t wait to get to the next adventure, to get that much closer to what I knew to be a satisfying ending.

We all know that Lauren Oliver is a talented writer. She writes in multiple genres for middle schoolers and high shcoolers. Liesl & Po is another wonderful fantasy book of hers. So, if you’re looking for something wonderful for your child to read OR you yourself want something wonderful to read, pick up The Spindlers and Liesl & Po. It is imagination at its best.

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CourageThe Triple Nickles were the first Black paratroopers in America. While they did not see combat in World War II, they were instrumental in showing that Black soldiers were equal to White soldiers and, along with a farsighted General, began the process of integrating the U.S. Armed Forces.

Tanya Lee Stone’s latest book, Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers is an immensely readable and enjoyable history of the Triple Nickles, from their humble beginnings (training themselves by performing the same exercies as the White paratrooper soldiers) to becoming a formal unit in the military to being decorated as heroes decades after the war was over.

Unsure what to do with this highly trained group, the Triple Nickles were sent to the Western United States as firejumpers, those firefighters who parachute directly into fires to combat them. This was in response to the Japanese sending balloons laden with bombs across the Pacific with the intent of bombing the U. S. on its own turf. Some did actually land and start forest fires. Firejumping was a new profession in the mid-1940s and the Triple NIckles performed this function with honor. Although it was not fighting Hitler, it was still serving their country.

Courage Has No Color was an eye-opener to me because I never realized the segregation and bigotry that existed in the Armed Forces during W.W. II. Stone’s writing style brings the action and people to life. The extent of her research is obvious in the writing and footnotes. In my mind, Stone, along with Susan Campbell Bartoletti are the two major forces in readable Young Adult non-fiction.

For another eye-opener, read Stone’s previous book, Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. I couldn’t put either book down. You won’t be disappointed.

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Talk about a book you can’t put down. Courage Has No Color, The True Story Courageof the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone is one such book. Was seriously considering taking some personal time today so I can finish it. It is a wonderful blend of prose and photos, facts and quotes. This is coming from someone who’s not a non-fiction guy.

Read it. That’s all I can say.

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Are you in the mood for just the right amount of magic and puppetry and suspense and thievery? SplendorsAndGloomsIf that’s the case, then you’re in the mood for Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, whose previous book, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village was a Newbery Award winner. Splendors and Gloooms is no slouch either, being a 2013 Newbery Honor Book.

Since I’m having trouble these days describing books, I’ll take the description off of the Association for Library Services to Children website: “Lizzie Rose, Parsefall and Clara are caught in the clutches of a wicked puppeteer and a powerful witch in this deliciously dark and complex tale set in Dickensian England, where adventure and suspense are interwoven into nuanced explorations of good versus evil.” It is deliciously dark and scary. You can feel the London fog wherever Lizzie Rose and Parsefall travel.

Parsefall is the perfect Dickensian ragamuffin and Lizzie Rose is his prim and proper, although poor, partner in crime, both dominated by greasy, master puppeteer Grisini–a perfect name for him. When these three perform at Clara’s twelfth birthday party and she  disappears soon thereafter, the plot thickens. How the bigger than life Cassandra, the powerful witch in her remote castle, enters into the story is for readers to find out. Even Ruby the spaniel is adorable.

Readers will feel like they are living through an 1860s London winter.They’ll certainly feel like they are part of the story, not merely reading it. They might find themselves shouting out loud, “No Parsefall, don’t do that!” or “Watch out. Grisini’s hiding there!” Even I was afraid of Grisini.

My daughter recommended this book to me, before it was voted an honor book, indicating her good taste in books. For some reason, Splendors and Glooms, to me, was a middle school version of Night Circus because they had that same foggy aura (although their subjects are somewhat different).

So, my 2013 has started off with a bang. I’ve finished Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool and now Splendors and Glooms. Next up is Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone which is getting great reviews and The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver which has gotten great reviews. And then coming down the pike soon is Beth Kephart’s Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, a prequel to Dangerous Neighbors. I know, also, that Susan Campbel Bartoletti’s new book, Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose, is due out in March.  If my reading keeps up at this pace, 2013 is going to be a banner year.

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NavigatingEarlyWe are all on a quest. It is 1945, Early Auden is searching for his brother, thought to have been killed in France in World War II. John (Jackie) Baker III, uprooted from his land-locked Kansas home and relocated to coastal Maine soon after his mother died of cancer, is searching for redemption because he wasn’t at home when she died and he was supposed to take care of her in his father’s absence.

Early and Jackie meet at the Morton Hill Academy boarding school. Jackie’s first sight of Early is on the beach as Early is filling sandbags and piling them up. Early being a loner and Jackie being new to the school, it is an interesting fit.

When Jackie’s Naval father can’t make it to school to pick him up for Fall break, Jackie decides to accompany Early on a real quest, rather than be alone at school for a week. Interspersed with the journey is Early’s fascination with Pi and the thought that numbers in this equation might disappear, thus introducing the possibility that it is a finite vs. infinite number. Early sees Pi as more than merely numbers. It has color and shape and texture and he has created a story based on his vision, much of which plays out on their journey.

Although I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘coming of age’, Clare Vanderpool has written a fascinating story about two boys and many other characters that learn the truth about themselves and their worlds. There’s the ancient Mrs. Johannsen, waiting 50 years for her son to come home from the woods and the pirate MacScott carrying around his own burden. There is Gunnar, the woodsman, who has lost his way and his love because of one act. There is Jackie’s father who has divorced himself from memories of his wife. And there is Early and Jackie, two of the most likeable characters you’re likely to meet in a very long time.

Ms. Vanderpool’s Ackowledgement explains the ‘story behind the story’ and is worth reading.

The words. The story. The characters. I wouldn’t change a word of Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early. It is certainly in contention for one of the 10 Best Books of 2013..and it’s ‘early’ in the year…pun intended.

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I’m not one of those people who keeps track of the number of books I read. To me, it’s not a contest. And many times, by year’s end, I forget the books I read at the beginning of the year and wonder whether I’ll have to scramble to come up with 10 books. So it was a nice surprise that I had 9 books which I gave the top rating of 5 in Librarything. What was even nicer, was that there were even more 4s, so 2012 was a darn good reading year from my perspective.

Reading’s a personal thing, as you know and there are a myriad of factors that go into enjoying a book: your mood when you read it, your favorite author, impeccable wording, an engrossing plot, believable characters. These top 10 books have it all: I was in the right mood, it was my favorite author (or singer, in one instance), the plots ranged from family, to heroism, to illness and the characters were pretty much all people I would like to meet. So, here goes:

SmallDamagesAlthough the top 5 are all magnificent books, I’ll always put a Beth Kephart book on the top of the list. She’s an incredible author whose words, many times, are poetic and lyrical and she outdid herself in Small Damages about a young pregnant girl who finds out that the true meaning of family isn’t always biological. If you read one of Beth’s books, you’ll find you have to read them all.

John Green’s Fault in Our Stars takes us through the harrowing ordeal of cancer but the love and friendship and perseverence that its characters exhibit is incomparable. It might just make you shed a tear. I described it as a book of strength, of philosophy, of humor and determination. It is all of those and more.

At the end of Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Mr. Tushman, Director of Beecher Prep School, Wonderaddresses the 5th grade/6th grade classes with a quote from J. M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird: “Shall we make a new rule of life…always try to be a little kinder than is necessary.” That is the theme of this gem of a book. It is the realistic story of a boy born with a serious facial deformity, overcoming the odds by mainstreaming into the local school. Told from various points of view, once you start it, you won’t put it down.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein comes in at number 4. It is a touching story about two young girls during World War II, one a pilot and the other a spy behind enemy lines in France, if you will. Their heroism and their friendship, while to them small, is huge. It is not like any other war story you’ve read. It is captivating (no pun intended) from the beginning.

LeaveYourSleepRounding out the top 5 is Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep. A five year labor of love, Merchant put to music children’s poetry written from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s and released a wonderful CD of the same name. She then, with illustrator Barbara McClintock, published a book with some of the poetry and beautiful illustrations. I’ve heard Merchant sing these poems several times in concert and have the CD, and as she said ““Poetry speaks of so much: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment…But poetry on the page can be difficult to penetrate; sometimes it needs to be heard.” But once heard, reading it and seeing the colorful illustrations adds a whole new perspective.

Since this is getting long, I’ll briefly mention the next 5:

The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale: if you’re the “grunt” who gets picked on, you want to find the Bully Book and destroy it. Bullying seems to be an epidemic and Gale tries to reverse the tide in this excellent book.

Period 8 by Chris Crutcher: Crutcher seems to have found his stride again in this honest book about honesty and relationship. Not as ‘in your face’ as Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (my two favorites), it’s still up there with his best.

Stay With Me by Paul Griffin: Violence is a fact of life to some people. Some people are good and some aren’t and what happens to them doesn’t always make sense. Stay With Me had me rivited and, it indeed, did bring on a tear or two.

NoCrystalStairNo Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: A marvelous picture book and more about Nelson’s great-uncle Lewis Michaux, a driving force for educating Blacks in Harlem. Michaux started out with nothing and built a tremendous bookstore in Harlem that attracted the likes of Malcolm X.

Almost Home by Joan Bauer: Bauer is one of the foremost writers for middle school readers and her stories are uplifting. In Almost Home Sugar Mae Cole survives her mother’s depression and a foster home by spouting the words of her grandfather, King Cole. A must read–plus the dog on the cover is adorable.AlmostHome

And the last of them are:

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Ask the Passenger by A. S. King

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

I read so many more great books in 2012, but this is the best of the best, to me. I hope you enjoy some of them.

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I admit it. I have a thing for scratchy old farm women who are hard on the outside, soft on the insideTendingToGrace and full of solutions to life’s problems. That’s why I like Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way to Chicago. And that’s also why I like Tending to Grace by Kimberly Newton Fusco. Grandma Dowdel and Agatha Thornhill are birds of a feather, scruffy old hags with hearts of gold.

When city-bred fifteen year old Cornelia is thrust upon her country Aunt Agatha because her mother is running off to Las Vegas with her boyfriend, C-c-c-cornelia’s world is torn apart. She is sure her mother will be coming back soon, even though the signs point elsewhere. Because of her stutter, Cornelia tries to be invisible. Agatha won’t hear of it. She’s a ‘stand up for yourself’ type of person.

Fusco’s writing is so expressive, from the beginning, comparing Cornelia’s life to a clothesline, through to the end, as both Cornelia and Agatha learn things about the other. Tending to Grace has mountains and frog races and fiddleheads and fun. It’s a feel good book, so feel good and read it.

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