My Favorite Middle Grade Novels of 2017

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For those of you with a reader between the ages of 8 and 12 on your holiday shopping list, here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017. Because “middle grade” includes a wide range of readers, I’ve divided this list between younger and older. Obviously, the categories are fluid depending on the child, but it may provide some guidance. Middle grade is that big section of novels that kids begin reading after Magic Tree House-style early chapter books. Common transition books include Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and of course Harry Potter.

Middle grade novels keep are typically fast paced, and the plot generally moves in a straight line rather than jumping around. But as kids get older, the stories become more complex and thoughtful.  It’s also helpful to look at the age of the protagonist. Most of the time, the main character is about the same age as the potential reader.

Here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017:

Young Middle Grade

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes

Older Middle Grade

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

See You In the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Saving Marty by Paul Griffin

The End of the Wild by Nicole Helget

Amina’s Voice by Amina Khan

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

In other holiday news, on Saturday I was one of the judges for the Scituate Harbor Gingerbread House contest. My qualifications? I enjoy eating gingerbread, and I certainly appreciate the time and creativity the participants dedicated to this festive start to the season.

 

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New York, Kipling, and Midnight at the Electric…

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We were in New York last weekend, but although it was a short visit, there was still time to go to the Strand. We arrived at 10:55 a.m. on Sunday for the bookstore’s 11:00 a.m. opening, and there were people lining up outside.  It was a wonderful moment – to see a line at a bookstore. I should have taken a picture, but instead we hurried into line. One of the best things about the Strand is the display signs. This was one of our favorites:

I purchased a copy of Midnight at the Electric, a young adult novel by Jodi Lynn Anderson, to read on the train ride home.  The starred Kirkus review sparked my interest, but I didn’t expect the novel to be so powerful.

This is a really good book and definitely one to add to your list for anyone ages 12 and over.  It opens in the year 2065 and a sixteen-year-old named Adri is preparing to move to Mars. To train for the launch and life on Mars, Adri goes to Kansas to stay with her 107-year-old cousin, Lily. At Lily’s house, Adri finds letters that lead her to the story of Catherine, who lived during the Dust Bowl and then to Lenore, who lived in England during WWI. It sounds confusing, but all of the stories are connected in a way that left me tearful at the end of the book. This is my favorite kind of reading experience – a book that was not on my “list,” but ended up being one of my favorites of this year.

Speaking of the Strand, this week’s The New Yorker cover is awesome – an illustration by Jenny Kroik of a woman shopping at New York’s go-to independent bookstore. This one will find a place on our walls.

While we were in New York, we saw an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center. John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London focuses on Kipling’s work as an illustrator and designer in British India. He was also the father of Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and Kim.  I read about the exhibit when it was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but it would have been a challenging day trip.

Kipling spent ten years teaching at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) and eighteen years as the curator of the  Lahore Museum in Pakistan. His influence on both cities was remarkable. As part of the exhibit, there are videos about the buildings he helped to design, but his illustrations are the stars.

This one is interesting. It’s a menu for Rudyard Kipling’s twenty-fifth birthday celebration. Designed and drawn by John Lockwood Kipling, the illustration shows Rudyard as a baby being carried and below that, Lockwood and his wife looking into Rudyard’s crib. The adult Rudyard is the man smoking a pipe.  It’s hard to read the menu, but it includes turbot and oyster sauce and plum pudding.

This is an 1884 illustration of Rudyard’s sister, Trix, that reads: “An unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed, happy in this — she is not yet so old, but she may learn.” Not sure what to make of that, but a beautiful picture.

I’ve also been working with Nancy Perry, my friend and colleague at the Norwell Public Library, to prepare for our annual presentation of our favorite children’s books of the year.  This year’s program will be on Thursday, November 30 at the James Library in Norwell at 7:00 p.m. It is a free and fun evening of conversation about books. An added bonus is that Buttonwood Books and Toys will be there to sell books. Please join us if you can.

At school, I’m reading Countdown by Deborah Wiles with our middle school students as part of our focus on life in post-WWII life in America. Inly’s 6th graders are learning how to be responsible and smart news consumers. Yes, we are talking about how to spot fake news!  We are looking at how to navigate the wild world of the internet and who to trust – no easy task in this divisive climate, but the kids are having fun.

I’ve been somewhat obsessed with book covers recently.  Given all of the “noise” in our ears and eyes, a book cover that causes you to stop and look is powerful.  Books may be old technology, but seeing someone’s art as a billboard for a story, is one of the greatest pleasures of book shopping.

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

A friend saw this copy of Brave New World at her parent’s house –

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of RBG vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter has a wonderful dust jacket, but….

This is what’s under the jacket –

And the end pages are worth the price of the book –

All of the sudden, it’s really cold and windy and there is no denying that winter is almost here. My response was to buy these:

Happy Reading!

Series Books, A Pretend King, and a Pig….

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The other day, unpacking a box of new books, I noticed that every one of them was part of a series. Lots of kids were waiting for them, and it’s always fun to make special deliveries, but it occurred to me that many of the new books we get are installments in popular series. Sometimes, while shelving Dog Man or The Bad Guys, I look at the stand-alone books and wonder how to get them into kids’ hands.  I totally understand their passion for a series. It’s fun to re-enter the lives of familiar characters and worlds – like seeing an old friend. And for new readers, a series can help build fluency since the basic structure of each book remains the same.

When I display new books, older students will often ask if a book is going to be a part of a series. I don’t lie, but I don’t want to discourage them from reading it so I give a non-committal answer like “that would be awesome!”

Of course, the best way to sell a book is reading it myself so this week I read two new stand alone middle grade novels, The Player King by Avi and Saving Marty by Paul Griffin.

Avi’s new book is a rags to riches (and back again) set in 15th century England. A young orphan boy, Lambert Simnel, is “discovered” by a friar with his own agenda who transforms Lambert into the prior king’s nephew and the rightful heir to the throne. After a “My Fair Lady-style”crash course – polishing the boy’s appearance and language, he successfully fools others (and himself) that he is the true  king. Naturally, his efforts do not go over too well with Henry VII’s crowd, and palace intrigue and a big battle ensues. I thought the story seemed somewhat far-fetched, but some internet research backed it up.  Recommend The Player King to fans of historical fiction.

I chose Saving Marty because it’s a story about a boy trying to save a pig.  Of course, it reminds me of Wilbur, another pig who was rescued from becoming a ham sandwich. While Saving Marty is not Charlotte’s Web, it is a lovely and moving story.

At the center is Renzo, a boy who lives with his mother and grandfather. Since Renzo’s father’s death, the family has struggled to make ends meet, relying on their failing peach farm and the sale of pigs and puppies among other work. Marty is Renzo’s best friend. He’s a pig, but he doesn’t know that. Marty happily follows the family dog around and sleeps indoors. He’s grown up as a house-pig, and Renzo depends on him for friendship. Saving Marty is a gentle book. In some ways the tone is reminiscent of one of my favorite adult novels, Jim the Boy by Tony Earley – hard truths at the center, wrapped up in the strength of family.

One of my favorite book lists of the year was released this week. The New York Times Book Review announced its 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017.  Here’s a link to the list:

There are three books I predicted and hoped would be on the list: On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, Town Is By the Sea illustrated by Sydney Smith, and The Way Home in the Night by Akiko Miyakoshi.

Two are new to me, but I ordered them today: Plume by  Isabelle Simler and Feather by Rémi Courgeon.

There may be too many series on the library shelves, but what did I order this week?  A new series. After reading this New York Times article about Hilde Cracks the Case by Hilde Lysiak and her father, Matthew Lysiak, I had to order it.

The perfect combination of a real girl, solving real mysteries, and now real books!

And finally….. Halloween. I took this picture of students looking at new books on my desk:

A friend who lives in Cambridge sent these two pictures of a neighborhood that chooses a Halloween theme for their decorations. This year….books!

Happy Reading!

Notes From My Deck….

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I’m taking advantage of this bright and sunny Sunday by spending every possible minute on our deck.  I’ve gathered the food and books I’ll need and have set up camp – Frederick-style!  Just as Frederick collects colors for the grey months ahead, I’m holding on to the warm sun and the full green trees to call up a few months from now – when our deck is shut tight against the cold.  I’m also mindful of how this brilliant day is at odds with what is happening in Florida right now, and I’m keeping a “weather ear” on NPR for updates.  Like so much of the news today, it feels a bit overwhelming.

A few scattered book notes to share today….

Last week I finished reading No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, and although I read many good books this summer, this is the one that stands out.  Watts’ book has received glowing reviews, and it’s the inaugural selection of Book Club Central, an American Library Association program. No One Is Coming To Save Us is loosely based on The Great Gatsby, but takes place in an African American community in present day North Carolina where the furniture factories have been boarded up leaving many people feeling anxious and depressed. The story’s central characters, Sylvia, her daughter Ava, and JJ (the Gatsby character) are all searching for something and wondering how they arrived at this point in their lives.  Ava is in a bad marriage and desperately wants a baby. JJ builds a mountain top house and dreams of Ava returning to him. And Sylvia, the novel’s most memorable character, is mourning her dead son and trying to understand that the life she made for herself is not the one she expected.  The writing is beautiful, poignant and moving:

“The sting of not having or not having enough bores a pain black hole that sucks all the other of life’s injuries into one sharp stinging gap that you don’t need a scientist to remind you may be bottomless…..That beautiful house is just a street away, but as out of reach as the moon. But that house-pain is just one lack, and everybody knows one pain is far better than a hundred. That is the mercy. That is the relief – the ache of one singular pain.”

I recently reviewed Patina by Jason Reynolds for School Library Journal. Here is an excerpt from my starred review:

“Twelve-year-old Patina Jones not only loves to run, she needs to run—and win. She’s a gifted athlete, and since the death of her father and her mother’s life-altering health problems, Patty’s track club has become the focal point of her life. Running helps her to navigate the changes she and her younger sister, Maddy, are experiencing. They have left their urban neighborhood to live in a different part of the city with their uncle Tony (who is black like Patty and Maddy) and their aunt Emily (who is white) and attend a new school, Chester Academy. In this follow-up to Ghost, the award-winning author continues to display his mastery of voice…….Patty’s story is an invitation to grapple with the need to belong, socioeconomic status, and the dangers of jumping to conclusions. This “second leg” of Reynolds’s series is as satisfying as its predecessor and a winning story on its own.”

As you may have read, the farm where E.B. White lived and wrote Charlotte’s Web is for sale. At $3.7 million, it’s a bit out of my price range, but I’m hopeful the new owners will turn it into a place where the public can visit to channel Charlotte, Wilbur, and Fern. Friday’s New York Times featured an article by someone who visited the house:

While I was in Boston yesterday, I visited Goosefish Press, a stationary store I’d been curious about.

For a paper lover like me, it was a magical store. Here’s the awesome treat I bought….

Another week begins….Happy Reading!

Late Summer Thoughts….

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It is still technically summer, but as soon as the calendar turns to August, I can hear the faint sound of the new school year approaching and there are bright orange visual clues in the grocery store where I can already stock up on Halloween candy!  But before I take a couple of weeks away from my blogging life, here are a few things that have caught my attention….

The Great American Read, an eight-part PBS series about the “place of reading in American culture,” will begin next May.  The first episode will be a two-hour program featuring a list of America’s 100 best-loved books – and the last week will include the top ten titles.  I think it’s a safe bet that To Kill a Mockingbird will be #1.  The Great Gatsby?  Huckleberry Finn?  Charlotte’s Web? The guessing begins…

Earlier this week, I walked through the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and learned that Catie, star of the Catie Copley picture books, died in May. But Gracie, her successor as the hotel lobby ambassador, is just as welcoming and lovable.

During a recent trip to Philadelphia, we visited the Benjamin Franklin Museum where this interesting box was on display:

The “Lion’s Mouth Box” was used by members of the Library Company of Philadelphia to leave suggestions.  If there was a book you wanted in the library collection, you left the title in the “Lion’s Mouth.”  Note that it was only “gentlemen” who could make suggestions.

In a display about Franklin’s childhood, I found this quote from his Autobiography:

“From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books.”  I could relate completely. His quote reminded me of when I first began making money from babysitting and would spend it as soon as I could get to a bookstore.

I also read a book this week – The Losers Club by Andrew Clements.  Clements is one of the most popular authors for middle grade readers, and I wanted to be ready to talk with kids about it when school starts next month. As always, Clements captures the reality of school life perfectly, and this book has the added bonus of being about books and reading!  It’s about a sixth-grade boy named Alec who loves to read so much that he often misses what his teachers are saying because he’s reading something else. When he finds out that he has to join an after school club, he decides to start his own and call it the Losers Club so other kids will stay away.  A quiet club means more time to read. But of course, things don’t go exactly as planned.

The Losers Club should go on display with Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein and Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.  Rather than a “loser’s club,” there could be a club for kids who want to read books about books!

On a completely different note, this was also the summer I went to my first book-themed bathroom…

When I was in Amherst for the Emily Dickinson program, one of our classes was in a building on the Amherst College campus. During a “bio break,” we discovered the Harry Potter-themed bathroom – immediately obvious to one of my classmates when she recognized the Mirror of Erised…

We all took pictures before returning to class!

And last but certainly not least…

Our niece’s daughter with a book that is clearly worthy of taking down the slide!

I hope the end of your summer includes a slide – and a book!

 

Mid-Summer Reflection….

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Summertime and the living is…..kind of busy actually, but in a good way.  Ordering books for school, meeting with my book group kids at Buttonwood Books and Toys, and reading – along with helping my son get ready to move to his first post-college apartment. No complaints.

Next week I will be in Amherst to participate in a program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place – a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Humanities.  Along with other middle and high school English teachers, I will spend the week immersed in Emily Dickinson’s world, and according to the description, gain “a deeper understanding of the forces that shaped Dickinson’s development as a poet and a greater appreciation for the quiet yet powerful presence she exerted at home, within her community, and, now, throughout the world. A diverse range of experiences will illuminate Dickinson’s life and poetry and inspire you to share that poetry as well as Dickinson’s story with your students back home.”

Although I’ve never included Dickinson’s poetry into our middle school literature classes, her themes: death, faith, science, and love, connect with almost every book we read. One connection I’m especially interested in exploring is how to integrate our reading of Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, with Dickinson’s poetry.  Although the two women write about dramatically different personal experiences that were separated by 150 years, they both challenge readers to think about their identities and beliefs.

Other book related news….

The New Yorker has a wonderful piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of E.L. Konigsburg’s classic novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Here’s a link:

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler-fifty-years-later

I recently reviewed Kat Yeh’s new middle grade novel, The Way to Bea, for School Library Journal – and loved it. The factor that moved her book into “starred review” territory is the way Yeh’s secondary characters come to life.  Bea, the protagonist, is wonderful, but her supporting cast do not feel like stock characters, rather each is distinct and memorable. Here’s an excerpt from my review.:

“Seventh grader Beatrix Lee puts a lot of faith in haiku. Since her family and friendships are changing dramatically, Bea abandons her love of free verse poetry and takes solace in the haiku’s dependable five-seven-five rhyme scheme. After an embarrassing incident at a pool party causes a painful rift with her longtime best friend, Bea writes most of her poetry in invisible ink, a reflection of the loneliness she feels at school and at home, where her parents are happily preparing for a new baby. Bea’s love of words starts to reemerge with the encouragement of a supportive librarian who introduces her to the kids at Broadside, the school newspaper. During lunch time, Bea takes refuge in the Broadside office, where she meets Briggs, the paper’s editor, who makes her feel like a valued member of a team, and Will, who is obsessed with labyrinths…..As Bea works her way through the maze of new friendships and a new role in her family, she begins to see herself and her friends more clearly.”

Once again, I’ve gone “off list” from my summer reading plan.  I’m currently reading a short memoir, The Hue and Cry At Our House: A Year Remembered by Benjamin Taylor.  I read about it on a book website and started reading it later that day.  The jumping off point is Taylor’s memory of being eleven-years-old and meeting his hero, President John F. Kennedy. He shook the President’s hand in Fort Worth, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963.  Of course, only a few hours later, Taylor’s teacher announces that the President had been shot in Dallas.

Taylor grew up in a financially privileged Jewish family at a time when the world was going through seismic changes, and the book is an elegantly written story of one boy’s coming of age.

Finally….rocks.  During a morning walk earlier this week, I passed by a house with this on their front steps:

I’ll be back after spending the week with Emily…maybe I will leave a rock in her garden!

 

New Books!

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New books – two of the most beautiful words in the English language!

This one is amazing.  A Newbery contender perhaps?

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson will be released in early September, and I anticipate a waiting list by the end of the first day of school. Fans of Jamieson’s first middle grade graphic novel, Roller Girl, are going to love All’s Faire in Middle School.  At the center of the story is eleven-year-old Impy who is beginning 6th grade in a “real” school after being home schooled.  As Impy describes it herself, her life with her parents and younger brother is pretty “normal.”  There is one thing though that makes Impy’s family stand out: her family is part of the Florida Renaissance Faire.  In fact, her parents are both cast members during the weekend festivities, and Impy is looking forward to training to be a squire. She fits in perfectly at the Faire, but middle school is a different story.  The rules are different and not as clear.

During weekend performances on the Faire’s main street, Impy is comfortable asking visitors if they are “looking for victuals” and using phrases like “loggerheaded rump-fed giglet,” but trying to figure out what shoes she should wear to school is more challenging.  Of course, mistakes are made and there are consequences, but Impy and her family are memorable characters.

And there’s this…..

I read The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli and immediately started thinking of various ways to use this book in classes – and making a mental note about kids who will enjoy this fascinating story. It’s a picture book based on the life of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who spent years searching for a mythical civilization in the Amazon rain forest.  Born in 1867, Fawcett was born into an adventurous family, and from the beginning he was committed to learning to surviving in the jungle. He took numerous trips deep into South America where, Pizzoli writes, Fawcett “heard stories from locals that gave him clues to the possible location of the lost city of Z, and he became obsessed.”  Ultimately, Fawcett disappeared during one of his explorations, but his story caught the imagination of people then and now.  Pizzoli writes: “It’s estimated that as many as one hundred people have disappeared or died in the hunt for Percy Fawcett and the blank spot on the globe that he called Z.”

In fact, this book reminded me of a bestselling book from a few years ago, The Lost City of Z: A Deadly Tale of Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann.

Speaking of new books…

I went book shopping today with a 5th grade Inly student. Our mission: her summer reading plan.  It was a successful trip:

Based on her interests and Inly’s summer reading list, here are the books she is going to read this summer:

Happy Reading!