Archive for the ‘Middle Grade’ Category

Crow was set adrift in a small skiff when she was only hours old. Osh, a hermitic man, finds her and takes her into his isolated hut in the Elizabeth Islands near Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts and raises her as his daughter with the help of local resident, Miss Maggie and a cat called Mouse.

Osh made his way north from his southern home because things were getting bad, leaving whatever family he had. Over time, he tries to forget his past. However, Crow’s past is unknown and as she grows she wants to know where she came from, especially whether she came from nearby Penikese Island, a former leper colony. The townspeople assume that was her heritage and keep their distance although Crow has shown no sign of the disease.

Lauren Wolk, author of the Newbery Award winning Wolf Hollow, has written an adventurous coming of age, “family isn’t necessarily biological” story that keeps readers attention from the first page, which starts “I’ll never know for sure when I was born. Not exactly.”

In telling Crow’s story in Beyond the Bright Sea, Wolk weaves in some of the history and folklore surrounding Penikese  and other of the Elizabeth Islands, especially rumors of buried treasure. However, it is the stories of Crow, Osh and Maggie and their relationships that make Beyond the Bright Sea a beautiful book. Taking place in the 1920s, readers also get a flavor of life in the remote islands and also in ‘bustling New Bedford’, only miles away geographically but light years away in life style.

Beyond the Bright Sea is a heartwarming story. Even if you’re not much of a middle grade reader (which I’m not), it is worth reading. An excellent book.


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Precocious nine year olds can be exasperating and when you’ve got a heart disease and a helicopter mother, you are a uni-sensor (someone who knows things before or as they happen), and a science nerd, it can be a bit much. Julian is just such a person. He, his moms and his sister, Pookie,  move from Washington, D.C. to the boondocks of Maine to open a bed and breakfast. Upon arriving they receive a notice that their elderly neighbor, Mr. X, is suing them to demolish the addition they put on the house for the B&B because it hinders his view of the ocean.

Pookie suggests Julian go over and befriend Mr. X in hopes that he change his mind, thus beginning a relationship between Julian and Mr. X, who recently lost his wife to cancer, and has been described as a lonely man with nothing to live for.

The Incredible Magic of Being by Kathryn Erskine (author of Mockingbird among other tween books) describes exactly that…the magic of being alive, the magic of the world around us, the magic that is family. Everyone in the book, Julian’s moms and sister, Julian,  and Mr. X all have issues that they must deal with. But it’s Julian’s positivity (is that a word?) that shines through and, in many instances, gets people through their issues.

Julian is a science nerd and through Julian, The Incredible Magic of Being cites many scientific facts and theories. It also has “farts”, Facts and Random Thoughts, at the end of each chapter, some of which we learn from (facts) and some of which are merely random thoughts. (Julian is a font of information and I got the feeling that he is on the autism spectrum somewhere, although that might not have been the author’s intention. Caitlin, in Mockingbird, has Asperger’s Syndrome, by the way.)

The one thing about science, according to Julian, is that whether or not you believe it in, it is there. And the fact that we don’t believe or understand it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So, when Julian talks to his best friends in parallel universes, you’ve just got to believe. When he can sense occurrences in other locations, you just have to believe. When he describes his sister as a black hole, you’ve got to believe.

I love upbeat characters. In some ways, The Incredible Magic of Being reminds me of Soar by Joan Bauer whose main character also has a heart problem but won’t let it keep him down. I think kids will relate to Julian and his teenage sister and enjoy his thoughts and escapades. The Incredible Magic of Being is a fun, light read even though the subject sounds kind of heavy. Have fun with it and even learn something, such as what the Messier Objects are.

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Although The Warden’s Daughter is about a child growing up inside prison walls, the resemblance to Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts ends there. The latter is a humorous book, with some serious overtones while the former is a sensitive look at a girl looking for a mother, with some humor included.


Cammie’s mother sacrificed her own life to save Cammie, when she was just an infant, from being hit by a milk truck. Her mother pushed the carriage Cammie was in across the street, while taking the full impact of the vehicle. Cammie incurred only minor bruises.

Since then she and her father have had a series of ‘trustees’, responsible convicts, tend their house, cook their meals, dust and clean. At age 12, however, Cammie decides she needs a real mother and Eloda Pupko, the current trustee, is a good choice. Yet no matter how much she cajoles, schemes, manipulates, Eloda keeps her distance, remains aloof.

The story is told by Cammie when she is in her mid-60s (although it is not always apparent). It story evokes 1959, on the cusp of Cammie’s thirteenth birthday. American Bandstand and the songs of the late 50s play a big role and will bring back memories to those adults choosing to read The Warden’s Daughter.

But Eloda and Cammie, a confused twelve year old with flowing hormones which make her irrational at times, are the main characters. Eloda is the gruff but caring housekeeper and Cammie is the unhappy almost teen who gets excited one minute about her best friend, Reggie, getting on American Bandstand and the next is kicking all of her friends out of her birthday sleepover because one of them starts crying because she forgot to bring a toothbrush and her mother won’t let her use any but her own.

Jerry Spinelli, known for Stargirl and Love, Stargirl, always comes up with a good story. The Warden’s Daughter is sensitive and fun and shows there is a good side to everyone.


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SoarJoan Bauer is one of my favorite authors. But there’s something else at play here and maybe you feel it as well. There are so many middle grade and YA books that deal with issues, serious issues, so when a book comes along that really has no serious issue, a totally feel good book, you sort of feel cheated. Soar by Joan Bauer is just such a book.

Twelve year old Jeremiah has been through a lot. Abandoned in a corporate snack room as an infant, he was taken in and ultimately adopted by Walt, one of the workers. At age ten, after months of illness and waiting, Jeremiah had a heart transplant. By age twelve he had lived in four cities and is about to move to Hillcrest, OH. An avid baseball fan, Jeremiah is unable to play baseball after the transplant because he can’t really exert himself. He decides he would like to coach. Hillcrest is perfect as it is known for its excellent high school baseball program. However, upon arrival Jeremiah finds the high school baseball coach embroiled in a steroid controversy, the program suspended and the middle school program non-existent. It is going to take all of Jeremiah’s coaching skills to resurrect middle school baseball.

Joan Bauer, author of books told from a middle AlmostHomeschool girl’s perspective, most recently Almost Home, has switched genders narrating Soar in Jeremiah’s first person voice. Soar is a feel good book in all respects. The steroid controversy, which is a serious issue,  takes second place to Jeremiah walking into a new school in March, gaining the respect of the middle school baseball team and coaching them to a respectable finish with minimal adult help and supervision. How many twelve year olds can do that? Middle school is tough, no matter what you think and middle school kids don’t readily take to the ‘new kid’ especially when the year is three quarters over. And how many school principals would let a twelve year old coach the baseball team?

Bauer makes no attempt to hide Walt’s budding relationship with Jeremiah’s cardiac doctor and well as Jeremiah’s ‘friendship’ with Franny from across the street. And Franny’s grandfather just happens to be a former baseball coach, who towards the end of the season is asked to coach the team. Hmmmm!!!!

Also, when Jeremiah visits the new cardiac doctor, she immediately adjusts his medication. Would any doctor do that without consulting the previous doctor who has been treating him for two years? I would hope not and unless Walt’s crush has taken over his common sense, neither should he.

But these are questions raised by an adult reading a middle grade book. What kid would think of them?

Readers who like sports action will find little of it in Soar. Instead, they will find a boy determined to overcome the odds and that’s the reason, as is true with all Joan Bauer books, Soar belongs in every middle school book collection. Because there are kids who strive to overcome the odds against them and kids need to read about them, issues be damned. It may be sappy and it may smack of sugar, but you know what, every now and then you need your sugar fix. Soar will take care of that.

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Reading, like other things, go in cycles. TheThingAboutJellyfishThe Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is the first of two books in a row I’ve read about a girl losing her best friend. (The second WhenKaceyLeftis When Kacey Left by Dawn Green.)

Twelve year old Suzy (aka Zu) lost her best friend Franny during the summer. Franny drowned while on vacation. However, Zu can’t come to grips with this because Franny was a great swimmer. She remembers when they met at their first swim class when Zu didn’t want to go into the pool and Franny just plopped in and swam to the other side. Zu then did the same and they became fast friends. Her mother’s explanation that ‘things just happen’ doesn’t quiet her mind.

Zu evaluates all the possible causes of Franny’s drowning and comes up with the idea that she was bitten by a poisonous Irukandji jellyfish and her goal now is to prove it. She decided not to talk (because there is nothing important to say) until she’s proven her hypothesis, which of course worried her parents who sent her to ‘the kind of doctor you can talk to.”

But there’s something else bothering Zu as well: she and Franny did not part on good terms. Would it have been different if she had known she’d never see Franny again? Of course, but you can’t change the past.

The Thing About Jellyfish is finely written middle grade book about losing a best friend, about being or becoming a loner, about overcoming loneliness and remembering good times. In the process, Benjamin contemplates the changes middle graders (especially girls) go through, how a loner in elementary school might be part of the ‘in-crowd’ in middle school and what she might do to a best friend to maintain her social status and the impact of her actions.

And finally, Ms. Benjamin imparts a tremendous amount of information about jellyfish that boggled this reader’s mind: their longevity as a species, their lethal venom, their growing population and its impact on other water borne species and their ability to regress in the face of danger.

The Thing About Jellyfish, deservedly,  has been getting accolades in all the library journals and The New York Times. It is a tenderhearted story that kids and adults will enjoy.

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GoodbyeStrangerRebecca Stead, author of When You Reach MeLiar & Spy and First Light has penned another thoroughly enjoyable middle grade book in WhenYouReachMeGoodbye Stranger.

When Bridget Barsamian was eight years old, she got hit by a car. Skating down the Manhattan street ahead of her friend Tabitha, she turned to look back, and when she turned back she realized that a car was coming through the cross street and it was unavoidable that she and the car were about to meet. One year and four surgeries later, Bridget was as good as new, but she had changed. Every now and then when she saw a car coming she froze. Also, she no longer felt like a Bridget and shortened her name to Bridge. Lastly, when she was discharged from the hospital, a nurse told her “…You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” The question that was stumping her, though, is what is that reason?

Bridge missed third grade but when sheFirstLight returned the following year for fourth grade, Tab introduced her to Emily and the threesome became the ‘set of three’ among the entire fourth grade class, a set that would remain in tact through seventh grade.

Fast forward to the third Monday of seventh grade. For some unknown reason, Bridge  wore a pair of black cat ears to school. While at first they felt odd, by Wednesday they became part of her ensemble. It is this year that is recounted in Goodbye Stranger. The book deals with some issues prevalent in the lives of today’s kids. While it follows the seventh grade escapades of Bridge, Tab and Emily, some of which are fun, it also delves into serious issues. It is during seventh grade that boys become a part of their lives when Bridge meets Sherm and Emily meets Patrick. Each must deal with the complicated feelings that surround boys; a boy–friend vs. a boyfriend. Another major story line recounts Sherm’s reaction when his grandfather leaves his wife of 50 years for another woman. Both lived with Sherm and the one moving out creates quite a hole in his life.

LiarAndSpyThe book also follows an anonymous person on Valentine’s Day (which is the title of each chapter dealing with her disillusionment) as she recounts the events leading up to it, her realization that some people are just downright mean and most likely not someone you want to be friends with, regardless of the fact that you are drawn to them.

The convergence of Bridge and Anonymous came as a surprise to me, although my daughter figured it out.

Goodbye Stranger is certainly a ‘coming of age’ story in that the girls must understand their feelings about friendship and love. They must also deal with a situation that they both know is wrong, but weigh friendship against rightness.

Rebecca Stead has populated Goodbye Stranger with some spectacular characters primarily Adrienne, the barista (would be boxer) in Bridge’s dad’s coffee bar, Celeste, Tab’s older sister, and Anonymous.

My one criticism? One significant issue, while handled realistically (probably/possibly), seemed to be minimized…in my mind anyway. Despite that, Goodbye Stranger is a fun read. Some authors write the same book over and over and then others, like Rebecca Stead, keep reinventing themselves, which only increases the anticipation for the next book as soon as you’ve finished the current one.

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TheSummerWeSavedTheBeesTwelve-year-old Wolf did a school report on the dangers caused by the world’s declining bee population prompting his mother, Jade, to take up the cause. She pulls Wolf, his 5 year old twin sisters, Saffron and Whisper, and his 15 year old step sister, Violet, out of school early to spend the summer traveling across Canada doing performance art regarding this danger. It would not be so bad if Jade doesn’t insist on Wolf wearing the same bee costume worn by the five year olds.

Violet rebels because she wants her 17 year old boyfriend, Ty, to come on the trip, a request that Curtis, Violet’s father and Jade’s live-in boyfriend, vehemently deny. Meanwhile, Whisper, always quiet, is now not talking at all and has stress meltdowns, of which Jade is in denial. According to Jade, Whisper is growing at her own rate and shouldn’t be compared to her extrovert twin sister. Violet and Wolf decide something must be done to derail the trip and get Jade to realize Whisper needs help. Ultimately, they steal away early one morning to Curtis’ mother, who they haven’t seen in years, in the hope that she might be an advocate for Whisper.

The story told in The Summer We Saved the Bees by Robin Stevenson would best be understood by children two or three years older than the nine year old and up target audience.

There are several things that didn’t sit right with this book. Both Violet and Wolf act older than their respective ages. Wolf, in my mind, acted more like a girl than a boy. There is no mention of why Jade named him Wolf, obviously not a common name. Characters, especially Curtis, are not fleshed out and there’s little explanation of why he and his mother are estranged. The book’s plot is unlikely.  The ending is somewhat pat.

The darlings of the book are Saffron and Whisper who are cute and act like five year olds. You’ll fall in love with them.

Despite this, The Summer We Saved the Bees is enjoyable and I’m glad I read it (if only for the twins)

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Twelve-year-old Missy McKenzie does not want things to change butTheSecretsOfBlueberries in the year after her parents’ divorce that is what is occurring. Her fourteen-year-old brother Patrick, once her main support, is changing. He is conscious of his physique and is trying to bulk up to lose that ‘stick boy’ nickname. He is interested in clothes and a girl, Shauna, he met at the McKenzie’s summer jobs picking blueberries on a local farm. Missy’s friends have outgrown the ‘3-D glasses without lenses’ that they made and decorated. Her father has decided to remarry. Regardless of how much she wishes, things are changing. The place she feels the most comfortable is on the blueberry farm, owned by Moose and Bev, communing with nature. However, there, too things are changing and secrets are being let out. The unexplained blood feud between Moose and his brother Lyle is consuming the imaginations of the young blueberry pickers.

The Secrets of Blueberries by Sara Nickerson is a new twist on growing up. It is difficult for a younger sibling to watch an older one venture out on his/her own. It is even harder when friends mature a little faster. It is rare that a suburban tween can experience farm life and feel bound by nature. Nickerson does a fine job of reminding readers that our food does not grow in cans and plastic wrap; there are dedicated farmers who grow these crops. Missy’s growing pains will strike chords with young female tweens and provide an enjoyable read.

The Secrets of Blueberries is a cute read.

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Moving from the big city of San Antonio, Texas to small town TwintuitionAura is tough, but especially on 11 year old twins Cassie and Caitlin Waters. And while everyone thinks twins are the same, that’s not the case with Cassie and Caitlin. Caitlin always sees the positive side of things while Cassie is somewhat negative. Cassie gravitates towards the ‘cool’ kids while Caitlin is more nerdy.

Things are even harder when you start out on the wrong foot, as it did with Caitlin. Chasing after her sister, she meets three kids selling pie as a fund raising project for their school. Liam is kind of dorky but OK. Megan and Lavender are part of the cool clique. But when Caitlin touches Megan, her world gets distorted. She sees a vision in which the real Megan is blurry and in the background while a new Megan is crystal clear and yelling. Once they part, all is normal but in those togetherness seconds, Caitlin appeared totally out of it. She’s immediately branded a nerd and, by association, her sister as well. So, the first day of school is particularly tough, especially for Cassie.

The problem is both sisters have been getting these visions for a while and hasn’t told the other. The more visions Caitlin gets, the clearer they are. However, neither girl knows what they mean. And this is the story of Twintuition: Double Vision, put forth by TV personalities Tia and Tamera Mowry. Twintuition is a fun read geared for the higher end of the 8-12 year girl old range. It’s got clothes and boys and make-up and school issues and cliques.  It touches on mother-daughter relationships, sister-sister relationships. Chapters alternate between Cassie and Caitlin as narrators as they try to muddle through the visions while trying to overcome their ‘nerd’ label.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted romp through sixth grade, my intuition says Twintuition.

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NestNest by Esther Ehrlich is another one of my “Cape Cod” books. It’s a sad book, uplifting but sad overall. Naomi (aka Chirp because she loves to bird watch) is eleven years old and her mother, Hannah, has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Hannah has not taken the news well and has gone into a deep depression, so deep that Chirp’s psychiatrist father has her committed. Taking place in 1972 when electroshock therapy was a common treatment for depression, Hannah undergoes this therapy. Chirp’s older sister, Rachel, is repelled by the thought of what her father is forcing on her mother and uses every opportunity to act out against him. Unfortunately, Chirp is caught in the crossfire.

Chirp’s next door neighbor, Joey, is an odd duck. It is implied that he gets beaten up at home. The two form an unlikely friendship, both going through hard times, somewhat lost in the world.

Each has a secret place to go when they need to be alone, shoot off some steam, contemplate their lives. Chirp’s is a spot under a tree where she can take out her binocs and bird watch. Joey’s is a glass house where he can throw stones and break glass.

The complications in their lives come to the point where they can no longer cope. They decide to run away…to Boston and the swan boats in Boston Commons, because Chirp has happy memories of going  there with her dancer mother. As you might expect, though, an eleven year old’s memories may not jive with current reality.

Nest is Ehrlich’s first novel. She paints a realistic picture of a home torn apart by illness. Children are helpless and sometimes don’t understand the actions taken by adults. The stigma of having a parent in the ‘nuthouse’ (Ehrlich’s word, not mine) can wreak untold havoc on a child…thus their need to keep it a secret. The quiet friendship between Chirp and Joey, two kids realizing the other is going through tough times, is heartwarming. The Cape Cod backdrop plays a minor role in the story. Nest is a story worth reading and Esther Ehrlich is an author worth watching.

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