Five Good Stories

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An 8th grade girl said something very interesting today. During a conversation about why parents are so often “missing” from young adult novels, the conversation turned to Harry Potter. We talked about the reasons why authors might decide that their young protagonists would be better off without parents.  We also discussed other thematic elements of the Harry Potter novels and what they meant to the story.  

“I liked the novels better the first time I read them – when they were just about the story,” said the student. As I thought more about it today, I think her point was a good one. Other students agreed that, while it was nice to learn about Rowling’s influences and to understand the symbols, it was even more fun not to know and to just read the series oblivious to the way things work.

There is that special time in a reader’s young life when they aren’t burdened by figuring things out or understanding the scaffolding of the story. That’s when reading is most magical. It’s why picture books are so enchanting to very young children or, as my student pointed out, why they remember the first time they met Harry Potter and Hagrid.  Here are 5 middle grade novels that are guaranteed to add a touch of whimsy – and magic – to the holidays.

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck (I just finished this book today and think I laughed on every page. An adventure story with mice. It’s 1887, and the mice are sailing to England to help “their” human find love. Need I say more? It’s excellent.)

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor (I’ve written about this one before. I love Barbara O’Connor’s novels for middle grade readers. They are charming, well-written and have memorable characters – no easy task, but O’Connor makes it seem effortless)

The Flint Heart by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson (An updated version of the 1910 fairy tale)

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (If you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you know why this one is on the list. A triumph of the imagination)

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (I saw a reference to the excellent game of Pooh Sticks today and was reminded how timeless the Pooh stories are. Not new, but absolutely necessary in any conversation about fun and whimsy)

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Barbara O’Connor’s Visit to Inly

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As soon as Barbara O’Connor arrived at Inly, small heads began to peek around the corner to catch a glimpse of the well-known author. Every time I looked up, there was another 10-year-old child looking for an excuse to come into the library and say hello. O’Connor could not have been more welcoming. She was as warm and delightful as her popular novels for middle grade readers. O’Connor’s visit was the culmination of our 4th, 5th and 6th grade summer reading program. The students selected from How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis or The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester – and some kids read all three!  O’Connor met with each of the groups, answered lots of questions and talked about her writing process and her new book.

O’Connor’s 10th novel – On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s – will be published next fall. The new book, O’Connor said, has been the most challenging of her career since it includes nine points of view. Her novel, Greetings from Nowhere, was told from four points of view and remains one of her favorites.  When I asked her about authors who have inspired her work, she said that Cynthia Rylant’s Newbery-winning novel, Missing May, is one of her favorites and helped her to find her voice. She also admires the work of Kate DiCamillo, Richard Peck, Katherine Paterson and Louis Sachar, among others. 

One particularly cool feature of O’Connor’s presentations is that she brings personal items that play a part in her novels. For example, she showed the kids a music box of a little bird sitting on a nest of flowers that is exactly like the one in Moonpie and Ivy. It’s a great way to make the books come alive, and for a few aspiring young writers in our group, I could just imagine them thinking about how to use their own treasures in a story.

“We have enjoyed Barbara’s creative stories, poems, and plays,” Barbara’s teacher wrote on her 6th grade report card. That bit of foreshadowing could not have been more accurate. Today, kids – and their teachers – continue to enjoy Barbara’s magical stories.

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor

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Luckily for me, 2011 began with a winner. The first book I read this year is Barbara O’Connor’s The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.  Over the past few years, O’Connor has written a number of charming and adventurous novels for the 3rd through 6th grade reader, and this one is terrific. In fact, the reason Owen Jester moved to the top of my to-read pile is that it was named one of School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2010. 

Owen Jester lives in Carter, Georgia and at the beginning of the book he has caught a big bullfrog that he decides to name Tooley Graham. But that’s just the beginning. Soon after catching Tooley, Owen hears the sound of something falling off a train which turns out to be a submarine – the Water Wonder 4000…and Owen can’t wait to share his secret with his two best friends. Of course, the boys want to put the submarine in the water, but when Owen’s nosy neighbor, Viola, learns what they are up to, she wants to be part of their plans. It’s a really fun story, but it also feels old fashioned in the best sense of the word. Owen and his friends are outdoors rather than playing video games or texting one another.  Actually, I felt like Owen’s adventures could have belonged to Opie from the Andy Griffith show!

Spending a few hours with Owen and Viola was a gentle and delightful way to begin 2011…