The Compulsive Reader: A Semester of Middle Grade

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Semester of Middle Grade

As promised, here is a list of middle grade fiction that I read this past semester. You can go here to read about my exploration with middle grade, and if you're at all interested in what I read for school last semester, here is a link to my semester bibliography. I've been having a hard time deciding how I want to talk about middle grade books on my blog--some I don't necessarily feel inspired to review, and some I can't stop talking about. And yet, my blog has always been a YA book blog, and I am slow to change that. I'm just going to take it as it comes!

The first middle grade I read when I found out I was accepted to VCFA was MG written by faculty members!

The Grand Place to Fix Everything and The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami

These books follow Dini, a Bollywood-obssessed girl whose life is upended when her parents decide to move to India for her mother's job. The only bright spot is that in India, Dini is closer to her Bollywood heroine, Dolly Singh. I loved how these stories unfolded, mainly from Dini's perspective, but Krishnaswami includes perspectives from other characters to help tie all of the plotlines together in a lovely, seamless manner.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath, I am sad to admit, is a book that I would have never picked up as a kid. I was even hesitant to do so as an adult until my friend Cori McCarthy told me that I simply must. (And yes, I do whatever Cori McCathy tells me to do.) I was so not one for animals-as-main-characters when I was a young reader, and I would say I am still not, but Kathi Appelt's book is a definite exception. This book is so lyrical, so moving, and so beautiful. The characters--a cat and her kittens, an old hound dog, and a snake--all come together in unexpectedly wonderful and terrible ways. This book. It must be read by all.

One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you're the type of reader that is impressed by award stickers, then the cover of One Crazy Summer is awe-inspiring. And, as I discovered, the book is so deserving of its awards. The voice of protagonist Delphine and the voices of her two younger sisters are completely unforgettable, and their story is one that sucks you in, makes you cringe and laugh, and maybe even want to cry a little. The sequel? Just as good.

Before heading to residency, I also read a few books that I noticed were popular, or were recommended to me by friends (Cori again).

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

At this point, I had not read A Wrinkle in Time yet (stop gasping, that's to come!) but I found that it didn't matter too much with this book. The first chapter had everything that I loved about book beginnings: a strong voice, full of personality and wit, a well-established setting, and the presentation of a puzzling mystery. I loved everything about this story and how Stead told it.

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

This is a book that I was actually sent an ARC of back before it came out. I picked it up because I like fantasy with twists, and this book promised just that. While I was able to figure out the big twist pretty early on, I enjoyed how Nielsen took the reader through the story and how the protagonist reacted to all of his challenges. It was a fun first book and one I recommend often to customers at the bookstore. I am looking forward to the the second book!

Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

Cori's recommendation to me? "Read this book. It made me bawl." So naturally, I borrowed her copy as soon as I could. And it did make me bawl, too. But it is also so sweet, so quirky, and so heartfelt that I begrudged not a single tear. I loved this book.

Throughout my semester, I tried to read one book written and published before I was born. This system has educational value as much as it was an excuse to go back and read all of those books I never read as a kid (I blame you, Mom).

(Not really, Mom.)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Yes, it's true. I never read this book as a kid. It's funny, because I distinctly remember having a copy (it looked like the cover pictured) but I have no idea why I didn't read it. Since admitting that I had never read this book caused such a reaction among my classmates that I was afraid they'd vote me out of the class, I read this one pretty early on in my semester. I liked it. I hesitate to say I love it. I think that if I had actually read this book at age 11 or 12 or even 13, I might have loved it. As it is now, adult me appreciates it and finds it interesting, but...no strong emotional attachment. Sigh.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

If I thought that admitting to not having read A Wrinkle in Time was a crime among my VCFA class, then admitting to having never even heard of The Westing Game was treason. What can I say? I read it because my friend Emily kept writing the title and author down on cafeteria napkins and imploring me to go get a copy. I found this one endlessly fascinating because this book, while written for children, barely has any children in it. It's a great, twisty mystery that keeps you guessing, and even my mom loved it. Thanks, Emily. (Sorry it took me so long.)

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

My knowledge of the Peter Pan story begins and ends with viewings of the Disney movie and Finding Neverland. I really enjoyed this bizarre little story, although it did sort of break my heart in a way. It has definitely stuck with me and I am sorry it took me so long to read it, yet happy I read it when I did. Make sense? (Don't worry, I'm not even sure if that sentiment makes sense to me.)

My exploration of MG was slow at first. I mainly stuck with re-reading books and authors I remembered liking as a kid.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.K. Konigsburg

Yes, a classic kid's book I did read as a kid! I remembered finding this one a bit bizarre and funny, but ultimately really great. After re-reading it, I loved the wordplay between Claudia and Jamie, and I loved how the story was written as a letter. It reminded me, in a way, of Rebecca Stead's writing.

Turtle in Paradise and Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

I read and loved Jennifer Holm's Boston Jane trilogy when I was a kid, and I remember empathizing deeply with Our Only May Amelia (I grew up the only girl with four brothers and at my private school I was the only girl in my class for three years). I wasn't crazy for Turtle in Paradise but I really enjoyed Penny From Heaven. Holm's books have a great, conversational tone to them and her protagonists are always strong characters who have a knack for getting themselves in too deep and then finding a way out of their messes.

Once I got started with MG, I couldn't bring myself to stop!

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I read Stead's third book since I loved When You Reach Me. I can't decide which book I like more! While this book does't have the high concept plot, it does have a mystery, and the emotional arc of Georges' story is so well-written. I loved this book.

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

I am a big fan of all things fairy tales and I especially like the Rumpelstiltskin tale. My friend Kelly told me I must, must read this book, and I am so glad I did! Rump was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to see what else Shurtliff will publish! (Bonus: I totally wrote an entire paper on this book and villainy in middle grade novels. That's how much I loved this book!)

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

This book is a retelling of "The Snow Queen" and I adored it. I loved Ursu's language and the lyricism of this story of friendship and resilience and the power of imagination. I recommend this book to almost everyone that comes into the bookstore looking for MG fiction. I should also mention that the interior art in this book is gorgeous. The illustrator, Erin McGuire, does an excellent job with this book!

Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

This book has one of the best first scenes and best uses of tension that I have ever read. The first chapter hooks you in and makes you empathize for the protagonist, and the rest of the story is just as good. I can't wait for Snyder's next book, Seven Stories Up!

Pie by Sarah Weeks

I remember hearing a fantastic pitch for this book at a GLIBA conference I attended two years ago and I am so glad I got a chance to finally pick up Pie! When Alice's Aunt Polly, the Pie Queen, dies unexpectedly, Alice struggles to find a way to honor her memory while at the same time protecting all of her pie secrets from Polly's enemies. This book was quite a fun read, despite the sadness of Polly's death.

The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford

Two of my favorite YA books are by Standiford: How to Say Goodbye in Robot and The Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. I read this book in a day. The protagonist is Minty, an aspiring roller derby girl, who finds a tree in the woods behind her house that holds all of the neighborhood secrets, written on pieces of paper. If you like Rebecca Stead, you'd like this book!

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

I will admit that part of the reason why I picked up this book is that my VCFA classmate Gilbert Ford illustrated the cover (and isn't it fantastic?!). I really enjoyed this story about plucky heroine Mo who begins investigating a murder in her small Southern town, and uncovers answers about her own past along the way. It reminded me a lot of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. (This one also gets a star because my mom LOVED it.)

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

This is a quick, quirky story that would make an excellent read-aloud for any kid. I enjoyed the illustrations and the clever twists and turns, the zany characters and great wit.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This book is a really great "in between" books for kids who are starting to grow out of MG but may not be completely ready to go all YA. The protagonist is in eighth grade, she's smart yet a bit naive, and her story really appealed to me as a YA reader, yet I'd feel comfortable handing this book to a MG reader.

It's been quite a semester, and I can't wait to do it all again starting next week! What MG books do you love?

1 comment:

Tara Dairman said...

What a terrific list! Also, I felt the same way about A Wrinkle in Time, which I only read as an adult after loving When You Reach Me--but it's hard admitting that to my writer friends who have adored that book since childhood.

Best of luck at VCFA!