Thanksgiving vacation reads: middle grade books

I read a lot of picture books, and a lot of YA (to say nothing of adult fiction and nonfiction). Recently, though, I went on a middle-grade kick, and found some fantastic books. (Plus, it felt great to read an entire grocery bag full of books in a week. You can do that when the print is a little bigger, and you don’t have to go to work.) Some of these were recommended to me by friends and librarian-friends, some I chose from the ALSC summer reading lists for grades 3-5 and 6-8, and others came from review journals or blogs.

Print books

bookcover_questforamaidQuest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry: Someone at my book club was staggered that I hadn’t read this growing up, so I remedied the situation, and this book was right up my alley. It’s got a little bit of magic and a lot of adventure, with a gutsy young heroine, Meg, and her loyal friends: Peem Jackson, a cottar’s boy whose life she saved (and who, in turn, saved her life several times over), and Davie Spens, a clever young boy with a harelip that prevents others from understanding him. (Meg can understand him, though, and they wind up betrothed at a young age.) Meg winds up as the protector of the young princess of Norway during an ocean crossing that is cursed – by Meg’s own adored older sister Inge. (Inge is definitely the most complex character in the book, but it’s Meg’s story.) This fits perfectly between The Boggart by Susan Cooper and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. The Scots dialect isn’t too tricky, and there’s a glossary in the back.

bookcover_wednesdaywarsThe Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Set on Long Island during the 1967-68 school year, this is the story of seventh-grader Holling Hoodhood, lone Presbyterian in a class full of Catholics and Jews, often at the mercy of his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who makes him read Shakespeare, probably because she hates him. (Actually, Holling realizes pretty quickly that she doesn’t, and also that Caliban has some pretty good curses.) Beyond ordinary seventh-grade concerns, world events intrude into the everyday life of teachers and students, most notably the war in Vietnam. This is a great piece of realistic recent-historical fiction that features a character who is beginning to be aware of the world and people around him, including his conservative father, flower child sister, disempowered mother, and his teacher, who, it turns out, wasn’t born behind that desk.

bookcover_lemoncelloEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein: This was such a fun read! It reminded me of The Westing Game and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’ve always liked mysteries and puzzles, and this is full of both, plus there are tons of allusions to other books and authors, from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Sherlock Holmes. The main character, Kyle, is the youngest of three brothers, and he loves playing games, especially Mr. Lemoncello’s games. It turns out that Mr. Lemoncello has designed the new library in town, and Kyle is one of the lucky twelve to enter it first. The lock-in turns out to be a contest, a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Kyle quickly teams up with his friend Akimi. Kyle demonstrates a really interesting set of qualities: he loves games and is competitive, but he’s also fair to the other players, and he’s generous with his family, friends, and teammates. Charles Chiltington provides a foil for Kyle: he’s got all the competitiveness but none of the sense of fair play, and he’s arrogant besides. Naturally, Kyle’s team prevails, but the tight time frame and the puzzles make for a page-turner. (Grabenstein’s next book is out in March 2015!)

bookcover_dollbonesDoll Bones by Holly Black: He wondered whether growing up was learning that most stories turned out to be lies.” Poppy, Zach, and Alice are all struggling with the transition from childhood to adolescence: Zach’s dad, who has been absent for years, wants him to be more manly; Alice’s grandmother will ground her for the slightest offense; and Poppy is afraid that she isn’t changing, when her closest friends are. These realistic fears blend with the surreal: a doll they call the Queen makes ghostly overtures to Polly, sending all three of them on a quest to return her to her home. Will this be their last game? Or is it for real? Between Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, I actually expected this to be much creepier than it was. It has remained pretty vivid in my memory, though.

bookcover_grimmlegacyThe Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman: This was a really enjoyable read full of fairy tale lore, set in modern-day New York. Elizabeth Rew hasn’t really made friends yet at her new school, but one of her teachers sends her to interview for a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Depository. It’s a library of sorts, but instead of lending books, it lends all kinds of things – including objects from the Grimm Collection, objects associated with the fairy tales the Grimm brothers collected. Something shady is going on with the GC, though, and Elizabeth has to figure out if she can trust her fellow pages – hotshot basketball player Marc, prickly Aaron, and beautiful, competent Anjali – and how they can find out what’s going wrong, and put a stop to it. The Grimm Legacy is fast-paced, magical, and realistic; it will capture the imaginations of those who want to believe magic exists, but know that sometimes it creates more problems than it solves. (It inspired me to pick up Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, too.)

bookcover_titanicTitanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson: No matter how much I read about the Titanic, it turns out I can always read more – and learn something new. Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic is an excellent new resource, with a clear, chronological narrative; she highlights a few lesser-known survivors, including men, women, children, passengers from all classes, and crew members. There’s plenty of added value in the form of photographs, illustrations, charts and lists, a timeline, primary source documents (such as letters from survivors), and a bibliography. One letter from a third-class passenger who survived read: “Our ship struck an iceberg. I went on deck and met a sailor who asked me to help lower the boats. The sailor said, ‘Take a chance yourself.’ I did, as did my friend, but the officers came along and ordered us off the boat. A woman said, ‘Lay down, lad, you’re somebody’s child.’ She put a rug over me and the boat went out, so I was saved.”

bookcover_wimpykidDiary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney: This “novel in cartoons” takes us through a year of middle school for Greg Heffley. Greg’s certain he’s amazing, but he’s stuck with a lame best friend, a jerk older brother, and bullies at school. He gets himself (and hapless friend Rowley) in trouble trying to circumvent rules and/or make money, but despite the repercussions, he doesn’t really change his ways – he continues blithely on with his self-confidence intact. He’s honest, if unreflective, in his journal, and it’s clear he’s trying to do his best to jump through all the hoops set up by school and parents. The cartoons are entertaining and I can definitely see the appeal, though I’m not the target audience.

bookcover_bignateBig Nate: In a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce: Nate knows he’s “destined for greatness,” and a fortune cookie fortune confirms that he will “surpass all others today,” so it must be a great day! But class after class, Nate collects detention slips from each of his teachers…when is his good fortune coming? Irrepressibly optimistic and confident, Nate is somewhere between Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Jeff Kinney’s Greg (Wimpy Kid). Text is interspersed with comics, and both are pretty funny. (“You have so much POTENTIAL!”
“And this is news? Dude, I KNOW I have potential. I’m just SAVING it for something more important than school.”)

bookcover_countingby7sCounting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan: For someone grieving, moving forward is the challenge. Because after extreme loss, you want to go back.” Twelve-year-old Willow Chance was adopted at birth, and she is also a genius, but that doesn’t help her fit in during her first day at middle school. It also doesn’t help when she loses her adopted parents in a car crash. Without extended family or close family friends, Willow latches on to teenage Mai, Mai’s mom Pattie, and her brother Quang-ha. Willow’s unimpressive school counselor, Dell Duke, is also drawn in, by virtue of having been there when Willow got the news. Over the next few months, in shock and grief, Willow binds these people to her and begins to rebuild her life. Willow’s insights and the way she processes her loss are unique; this is a memorable book.

Audiobooks

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: This is YA, and I’ve read it before, but the audio version is amazing. Should you happen to be going on a seven-hour car ride, you can’t bring a better traveling companion than Tiny Cooper.

bookcover_nightmaresNightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller: I’ve been waiting for this to hit the shelves ever since I first heard about it. Celebrity books can be hit or miss, but I had faith in Jason Segel (The Muppet Movie, How I Met Your Mother, and did I mention The Muppet Movie?), and my faith was rewarded. I missed out on the illustrations in the print version, but his narration more than made up for it. Segel and Miller used some familiar elements – a stepmother (“stepmonster”), a haunted house, a doorway/portal between worlds (the waking world and the Netherworld where nightmares reside) and spun them into an original tale about Charlie Laird, a boy who faces his fears and defeats them. Charlie is afraid – his fear is so big that it allows the door between the worlds to open – but when his little brother Jack is threatened, Charlie finds he has the courage to rescue him.

bookcover_gregoroverlanderGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins: I’m less than halfway through this right now, but I like it very much so far. Eleven-year-old Gregor and his two-year-old sister, Boots, fall through an air duct in the basement laundry room of their New York apartment and find themselves in the Underland, which is populated by four-foot-tall cockroaches (“crawlers”), pale and violet-eyed humans, bats, and most terrifying of all, rats. Gregor realizes this is the place his father disappeared to over two years ago, and he makes it his mission to find him. The Underlanders believe Gregor is the warrior in one of their prophecies, so they agree to help. Fly you high, Gregor: I suspect you’ll survive your mission, as this is a series now.

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

altheaoliverSometimes it’s easy to remember why you picked up a certain book: a friend recommended it, or you read a great review somewhere, or you liked the cover or the title. Sometimes one recommendation or review isn’t enough, and it’s not until you hear about a book a few times that you’re motivated to pick it up. In the case of Althea & Oliver, I first heard of it in a Booklist review, then it showed up in my e-mail through Penguin’s First to Read program. I liked the names in the title; I liked the fancy ampersand. Was that all?

If it was, it was enough. Taking place in the pre-cell phone 1990s, Althea & Oliver reminded me of some other excellent YA novels, including John Green’s Paper Towns, Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility, Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Set in Wilmington, NC, Althea & Oliver has a few things in common with these books: the focus is close on two characters; it takes place in the South (mostly); and while parental supervision isn’t entirely absent, Althea’s dad Garth and Oliver’s mom Nicky aren’t helicopter parents, either.

Althea and Oliver have been best friends for ten years, but just as Althea begins to see Oliver as more than just a best friend, Oliver falls asleep. Not metaphorically, and not just for a nap: Oliver falls asleep for weeks. While Oliver is asleep, he has episodes – an incident at Waffle House, for example – that he can’t remember when he wakes up. When he wakes up for real, he wants everything to go back to normal. But when it happens again, his mom Nicky begins to do some research, and discovers that Oliver isn’t the only one; what he has is called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), and there’s a study going on in New York.

Oliver doesn’t tell Althea about the study and his imminent departure, at first because he doesn’t know how, and then because of something that happens between them during one of his episodes. When Althea realizes that Oliver is gone, not just asleep, she finds out where he went and goes after him, launching herself into a new phase of life, alone. Althea arrives at the hospital in New York just minutes after Oliver falls asleep again; she winds up in Red Hook, in a house with a bunch of other young adults, and astonishingly – after being friends with no one but Oliver for years – Althea makes friends with them.

Oliver wakes up just before New Year’s, escapes the hospital with another boy in the study, and goes in search of Althea. Improbably, he finds her. He tells her about a possible solution to his KLS, but even if it solves his sleep problems, it won’t solve what went wrong between them. They can’t go back to normal – they can only go forward.

Unconventional and utterly, convincingly real, Althea & Oliver is full of well-rounded, believable characters. No one is a prop, no one is one-dimensional; from Wilmington punk friends Val and Howard (a.k.a. Minty Fresh) to the Red Hook house full of dropouts and vegans, every character in this book could be the center of his or her own story. But it is Althea who is the heart of this one; Althea who is angry and violent, heartbroken and determined, scrappy and searching; Althea who realizes, at last, that neither she nor Oliver are going to get what they want, but that there is something else out there for them both.

I received an e-galley of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program. Althea & Oliver will be published in October 2014.

Half Magic, Half Real: Reading in childhood and adolescence

halfmagicRecently, over on my library’s blog, we’ve been doing a series of collaborative blog posts, where we come up with a question and each offer our answers. We started with how to fit reading into a busy schedule, and then we discussed book-to-movie adaptations. This month, I asked the impossible: One favorite book you read as a child, and one favorite you read as a teen. Naturally we struggled to choose just one each, and some of us (ahem) outright failed. But it’s a good failure, when you think back to all the books you grew up reading and they’re all so deeply embedded in your memory that you can’t choose between them.

As every librarian and bookseller and book lover knows, there are many ways to categorize books, but what I noticed about the books I remembered from growing up was the division between fantasy and “realistic” fiction. (I didn’t really read nonfiction for fun as a kid, except those DK Eyewitness ones – Crystal & Gem, anyone? – and one about King Tut’s tomb with that terrifying black and gold death mask on the cover.)

I wish I’d kept a reading log my whole life so I’d know now when I encountered each of these, but I haven’t. Here are some of the earlier books that I remember reading and re-reading:

castleintheatticHalf Magic by Edward Eager
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville
Matilda / The Witches / The BFG by Roald Dahl
Wait Til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck
The Boggart by Susan Cooper
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Lion Tamer’s Daughter by Peter Dickinson
The Golden Compass / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

boggartThat whole batch – and these titles came to mind almost instantly once I’d formed the question – are fantasy. Magic, dragons, ghosts, time travel, ageless Scottish spirits, doppelgangers. I read realistic fiction too – the Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell, and several standalone works by the likes of E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Lois Duncan, Joan Lowery Nixon, and Caroline B. Cooney – and I remember those as well, but the books with an element of magic seem set apart, unique. The authors had to invent whole new worlds, or twist and shape our world in such a way that it seemed foreign. Then – Once upon a time…It was a dark and stormy night… – they invited the reader in, as a co-imaginer, a sidekick, a tagalong.

wrinkleintime2Part of the appeal of fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, fairy tale, myth, and horror is that they invite the reader to consider how she would react when placed in a strange situation, or how she would fit in to an unfamiliar world, from the safety of wherever she happens to be reading. These genres open the imagination of all readers, young and old, who are willing to suspend disbelief and engage with them. Books with these elements are, sometimes, more memorable than strictly realistic books. That element of magic catches at us, makes us think; these stories use otherworldly frameworks for concepts we have, but have no name for.

This month, I read Shirley Jackson’s literary horror novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. The latter had an introduction (“Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors”) by Penguin Horror editor Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, “[I]t is a fact that, through the ages, most storytellers have had to resort to the fantastic in order to elevate their discourse to the level of parable….At a primal level, we crave parables, because they allow us to grasp the impossibly large concepts and to understand our universe without and within.”

goldencompassThe books I mentioned above aren’t parables, exactly; they are, first and foremost, stories, and if they have lessons in them, they are more subtle than most parables (or fairy tales or myths, for that matter). But many of them do offer a way to grasp “impossibly large concepts” at a young age. Think of the tesseract from A Wrinkle in Time, where instead of traveling in a straight line from point A to point B – commonly thought to be the shortest distance between two points – points A and B are instead brought together. Or think of any number of Philip Pullman’s inventions, from the daemon – an aspect of the personality or soul that lives outside the human body in animal form, invisibly connected – to the intention craft (just what it sounds like), to particles of consciousness (the misunderstood Dust), to a simple concept that resonates: you can visit other worlds, but they cannot sustain you for a full long lifetime, as your home world can. We can travel very far, but we still have to return home from time to time for sustenance we can’t get from any other place.

What’s your favorite childhood or teen book, magical or non-magical?

7/29/14 Edited to add: Further reading from YALSA’s The Hub: “There’s No Escaping the Power of Fantasy Fiction”  by Kelly Dickinson, and “YA Books That Changed Our Lives” by multiple contributors.

 

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

404 Day: Action Against Censorship

Join EFF!

Today is 4/04, “a nation-wide day of action to call attention to the long-standing problem of Internet censorship in public libraries and public schools.” Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) piece about Internet filtering in libraries and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Though CIPA requires some Internet filtering in libraries that accept federal funding, libraries often go further than is required. (Also, no filter is perfect: some “bad” content will always get through, and plenty of legitimate content will be blocked.)

Barbara Fister at Inside Higher Ed is also eloquent, as always, in her piece “404 Day: Protecting Kids From…What?” She mentions Gretchen Casserotti, a public library director in Meridian, Idaho, who live-tweeted a school board meeting in which Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was, ultimately, removed from the school curriculum. (Book Riot collected these tweets in order.)

Kids don’t need to be protected from literature. They need to engage with it, think about it, and discuss it; if adults can help with that, all the better. But as Fister points out, it would be better to protect kids from, say, hunger, than from “dangerous” books.

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?

Letter to the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School

Two of John Green’s books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, are being challenged at a high school in Colorado. They are two of the nineteen books (see list below) proposed for the elective course in young adult literature. Parents are petitioning the school board to change the book list. John Green is asking for letters in support of the teacher, who is standing by her curriculum. Here’s my letter:

To the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School,

I am writing in support of the books in the new YA literature course, and in support of their authors, the teachers and librarians who wish to teach them, and the students who want to read them.

Parents have a right to decide what their own children read, watch, and listen to, but they do not have a right to dictate what other parents’ children read, watch, and listen to. Parents who object to the content of the books included on the YA course syllabus may choose not to allow their students to participate in the course, but they ought not be able to dictate to other parents, students, and teachers.

An earlier letter/petition to this Board asked, “How can students develop into strong and productive citizens when their minds are fed with that which is criminal and vile, crass and crude?” I would respectfully disagree with this characterization of the books included in this course. (I have read thirteen of the nineteen books on the list, including the two by John Green.) I would also argue that this question does a disservice to teens, as does the statement that “Teens have very impressionable minds.” Children and teens are able to tell right from wrong in life and in literature, and literature is one of the safest places to explore the gray area between the two. In her book Reading Magic, Australian author Mem Fox wrote, “The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Presumably, these same teens who may be denied access to and, crucially, guided discussion about, these YA novels are learning about “criminal and vile, crass and crude” events in their history classes. They have grown up with graphic images not just in music videos and magazines but on the nightly news. They are aware of the real horrors in the real world. Please don’t underestimate their ability to process literature – especially literature in which the characters are dealing with very real situations.

Fiction has a proven link with empathy*; if you truly want your students to develop into compassionate individuals with good judgment and strong character, you should be encouraging them to read and discuss the novels on this list, and many more besides.

Sincerely,

Jenny Arch
Librarian
Hampshire College, 2003-2007
Columbia Publishing Course, 2007
Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2010-2012

*See “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul for The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:

  1. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  2. Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
  3. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  4. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  5. Taken by Erin Bowman
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
  7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  8. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  9. Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  10. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  11. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
  12. Paper Towns by John Green
  13. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  14. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
  15. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  16. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  17. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  18. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
  19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis