Category Archives: Middle Grade

An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is a great storyteller so I saved her book, An Acceptable Time, for last. It’s a different kind of wrinkle in time. Polly has moved in with her grandparents, both distinguished scientists, who live in an old farmhouse in New England on land that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It’s a very different world from the Carolina coastal island where her marine biologist parents live with the rest of their large brood. Polly is meant to study sciences and prepare herself for college but empirical science intervenes. She encounters a strange man and a dog in the woods and then an acquaintance from her summer job in Greece. Later she sees a frantic young girl with a long dark braid in her grandparents’ pool house.

When a neighbor, a retired Protestant bishop, brings Ogam stones, with their ancient carved alphabet, to her grandparents’ house, Polly’s story catches his attention. Because he has seen the same people–and traveled back in time just as Polly accidentally has, and suspects there is a tesseract, a fold of time that opens worlds, and that the whole thing has something to do with Druids. It’s very interesting if you like all things Druid. L’Engle circles and circles back to build her case for this opening in time. The charming but completely self-absorbed summer acquaintance inserts himself into Polly’s life.  The scientists are skeptical but they can’t discount independent testimony entirely. Samhain, the Druid holy time when the veil between worlds is thin, is approaching and every attempt to protect Polly from some danger in the time slip, including sending her off on a date with the summer boy, fails.

As Polly becomes enmeshed in a three-thousand-year-old society on the land where the farm now sits, her life is threatened in horrible ways and her trust in people is severely tested. There are brave hearts and blackguards in this tale and Polly will deal with each as she tries to mend hostilities, fractured psyches and an environmental catastrophe that could mark her as a blood sacrifice. The story never condescends to the ancient people in the time travel and, in the end, Polly is no Pollyanna, although I was exasperated by her even-tempered treatment of idiots from time to time. But the science is fun and the adventure is lively and the worlds L’Engle builds are convincing ones.  An Acceptable Time was a good choice for a last book. And now to bed. No more late late late nights finishing the story of the day. Or not too many anyway.

An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)   Madeleine L’Engle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1989

Squids Will Be Squids – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are like those bad boys at the magazine I once worked for who nearly always included jokes about Uruguay and boogers in their copy that you knew were coming but that made you snigger anyway. (I’m talking about you, Dave Barry.)  Squids Will Be Squids is a mad take on Aesop’s Fables that even manages to make fun of poor old Aesop. It’s kind of funny, though.

The art is wonderfully wacky, as it always is in Scieszka/Lane collaborations, and so is the text. Every double spread has a page of instructive parable in multi-sized fonts about creatures like elephants, ants, pigeons, termites, rabbits, duckbilled platypuses (Yes, that is the correct plural. I looked it up.), blowfish, echidnae, pieces of toast, Froot Loops–all the usual protagonists in a fable. There is a cogent moral to sum up each tale. An excellent and cautionary moral, if you are of the feathered persuasion, is: Whatever looks like a pigeon and acts like a pigeon usually makes good pigeon pie. (The particulars of that fable are too appalling to repeat.) Another really pithy reminder is: You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details.

One moral involving a beefsnakstick and the aforementioned platypus has a conclusion especially relevant in our carcinogenic consumer culture: Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special. Not your thing? How about: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Or: It takes one to know one?  I thought there was a moment of undeniable truth in the fable about Skunk, Musk Ox and Cabbage: He who smelt it, dealt it. You can imagine how that story went.

There were a couple of chuckles in Squids Will Be Squids and maybe a hilarity-fest for a small boy who likes fart jokes. Or a grown boy who likes booger humor. Or anyone who just enjoys the very mildly outrageous and slightly goofy and is willing to enter the Scieszka/Lane crazyverse for a while. If  you read this with some kids who think you are stuffy, hopelessly boring and humorless, they will get a marginally better opinion of you. Could be worth it.

Squids Will Be Squids (Picture Puffins)   Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith | Viking  1998

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone – Shannon Hale

I read Princess Academy: Palace of Stone on the recommendation of a trusted source for middle grade and YA lit. It was good. Shannon Hale is a wonderful writer and her novel, the second in a series, ventures into the murky and dangerous world of popular uprisings. Heroine Miri Larendaughter of the mountain village of Mount Eskel joins her former classmates in the Princess Academy to travel to the capital, Asland. There they will study and apprentice to learn medicine, music, ironwork, stone carving and scholastics. Miri has been accepted at Queen’s Castle, the college for academics. And the ladies of the academy will support and help their friend Britta to prepare for her marriage to the prince.

But all is not serene in the kingdom nor in its capital. The shoeless are hungry and desperate and there are salons to foment revolution. Hired assassins are in the city to dispatch the royal family. Britta becomes their main target through a careless move on Miri’s part. But there is nothing Miri can do to repair the damage. Her mind and her heart are in turmoil. She fears that the brutal tributes demanded by the king will plunge her village and her family back into starvation and despair. She is frantic to protect Britta. She finds herself stepping back from her lifelong love, Peder, who has come to Asland with her to study sculpture, even as she is attracted to a fellow student, the son of a noble, who covertly works for the revolution.

And there is the mystery of the stone. The king’s palace is made of linder, the stone quarried with great difficulty from Mount Eskel. People from Mount Eskel can speak quarry, a memory-thought language transmitted silently through the stone. But linder has other, little-known properties. Miri discovers a secret lost to the current monarchy  in a dusty tome in the palace library–a secret about the stone that could cost them their lives, or save them.

Hale has written a high-stakes adventure for a girl who knows how to ask questions but can’t sort through the conflicting answers. The story is very inventive and full of intelligent surprises that keep the plot racing along. This is one of those books that kids love and grown-ups read straight through to the last page–well, grown-ups who know that a well-made fantasy is just a good read, no matter what your age.

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone   Shannon Hale |  Bloomsbury   2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland – Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not your Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Catherynne M. Valente has concocted a mash-up of pun, wit, traditional fairytale conceits, cautionary fable and pure, unadulterated insanity. This is a very Earnest Story about a Deadly Serious twelve-year-old who seems a little reflective for an American pre-teen and a lot naive for a kid that age. It’s somewhat Dorothy Does Oz After Abandoning Kansas and as full of epic challenges and unusual traveling companions as anything Judy Garland sang her way through.

September is disaffected with her life in World War II Nebraska as mom goes off to play Rosie the Riveter each day and dad has vanished into the European front somewhere. When she is whisked away to Fairyland she goes without a backward glance. Children that age have yet to grow a heart, we are informed, and September is mercifully unencumbered by one. Things begin to go haywire immediately. September receives any number of warnings about the laws in Fairyland and promptly forgets a few and misinterprets the rest. She does try to have an Adventure with No Strings Attached but she isn’t as cool and calculating as she imagines herself to be.

Fairyland seems to be under a deeply wicked spell and the magical creatures that cross paths with September all need something important from her–she gives it without much hesitation. The girl isn’t aware that she is beginning to grow a heart. Hearts are dangerous things and September’s will cost her dear. But she acquires a good soaking in courage and a jeweled sceptre that provides convenient rubies when she needs a bit of change and a faithful flying key and a warm green jacket, although she has lost a shoe. The shoe thing isn’t Cinderella all over again as there are no princes in this tale but there are dragonish creatures and pirates who trade in shadows and covet pookas and a wicked girl with sausage curls who has designs on the powers of September’s new-found heart.

It’s a really unique and fascinating book, although I found it tiring to read–there is so much cleverness crammed into every sentence that it takes effort to stay focused, line by line, so you don’t miss anything. After I finished it I discovered that the book started out as a chapter-by-chapter online serial story, which may account for my sense that I had just read a whole collection of fairytales and not one book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is pretty good but a kid will have to be a VERY accomplished and dedicated reader to stick with it.  Terrific vocabulary and word plays. Not for the faint of heart. And not for cramming into a one-day read like a crazed marathon. But, oh well, all my reading is like that now. One month to go. Battling evil forces in Fairyland seems like child’s play compared to reading a book a day on pure adrenalin and not much sleep. But then, I’m living several hours a day inside books and  nothing about an imaginary world is exactly easy.  Dragons? Wicked spells? Dashed hopes and broken promises? Deadly storms and impenetrable gaols? Bring ’em on.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making   Catherynne M. Valente | Macmillan  2011

Witchlanders – Lena Coakley

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Witchlanders is a fantasy about black, white and the red of spilled blood and witches’ clothes. In Lena Coakly’s imaginative world the Witchlanders and the Baen are mortal enemies, their wars have decimated populations, destroyed families and embittered the survivors. Ryder struggles to bring in the harvest after his father dies, leaving his grief-stricken mother half-mad and addicted to a hallucinogenic plant that grows in the river. She was a bonecaster, able to see visions of the future in the bones. But no more. Now she is desperate and spouting crazed prophecies of doom and his two younger sisters are dependent on him for survival.

And then the terrible day dawns when Ryder discovers his mother may have been saner than he realized, and more gifted with terrible magic, and his damaged world is rent apart. His sisters go to live with the witches up on the mountain–the mediums and hags who foresee what the village will face and who take a quarter of all the farms can produce as tithe. Ryder sets out to find his real enemy as voices in his head tell him about a strange life, a Baen life. When he meets a Baen youth his own age, their enmity and their improbable bond set events in motion neither believes he can control. 

Excellent fantasy. Completely thought-through world–and one full of surprises. In places, the motives of a few key characters were muddier than I might have liked. Much of the power in this book belongs to the women but so does a fair amount of the chaos and destruction. A dread mythical animal isn’t as fearsome as it might have been and some of the horrors are targeted to the typical audience for fantasy, middle grade kids, so not so horrible.  But, on the whole, Witchlanders is a satisfying Book One of a series–it seems clear that it is designed to be an ongoing story as the end is left open. The book was recommended to me by a connoisseur of fantasy novels and it lived up to its glowing review. I’d probably read a Book Two if Lena Coakley decides to write one.    

Witchlanders   Lena Coakley | Atheneum  2011

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World – E. L. Konigsburg

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E. L. Konigsburg will forever reign as the spellcaster who handed us the secret desire of every child who has wandered the halls of a great museum. In The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Konigsburg smuggled two runaways into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They proceeded to take up clandestine residence and to discover a treasure and resolve their own prickly problems of belonging. They were extremely bright and precocious children who didn’t act very much like children at all. Great book.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World is a variation on a theme, although its hero, Amedeo Kaplan, lives in a Florida backwater next door to a retired opera diva who used to play boys and bitches–the trouser roles. The great, or maybe not-so-great mezzo outgrew her career many decades ago, married a distinguished European and, now widowed, still lives in the Italianate mansion her family’s fortune built in an overgrown hammock on the river. Amedeo and his mother have just moved into the Spanish-style grand house next door.

He’s an odd kid, more like one of the grown-ups who have been his real company for most of his life. Extremely bright. And happy to make a friend, the equally misfit William, part-owner of a property liquidation business with his very nice conciliatory mother. When Aida Lily Tull, now Mrs. Zender, decides to sell her house and move to a retirement community, William and his mom are hired to catalog and sell her stuff. Amedeo gets himself invited to volunteer decluttering and cataloging–a prospect that makes him happy for two reasons. One, William is a cool friend, possibly the first real friend his own age he has  ever had, and a fellow conspirator, mature beyond his years. Two, Amedeo has always wanted to discover something–like the caves at Lascaux or a woolly mammoth or something to astonish the world and secure for himself a celebrated place in it. Mrs. Zender’s treasure trove of memorabilia seems to be fertile ground for discovery.

The plot is a little too neat in this one but the characters are so outrageous and so marvelous that you can forgive that. Mrs. Zender’s theatrical life holds some dark secrets. Almost everyone in this book has at least one huge secret and they are hinted at but not always revealed. That keeps things interesting. There are issues upon issues dealt with in the course of the story. Once again, art is front and center and this time it’s the “degenerate” modern art looted during Hitler’s march across Europe. The boys are sharp and self-confident but it’s Mrs. Zender who steals the show. As she means to, being a great diva in every possible sense of the word. Mrs. Zender is so much larger than life that she deserves more than one book.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World   E. L. Konigsburg | Atheneum   2007

The Secret of the Old Clock – Carolyn Keene

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Once I’d worked my way through all the British children’s books in our sleepy little library, there wasn’t much left to read. Kid lit wasn’t a booming business in those days and the Brits had a lock on the market–until I discovered Nancy Drew. I was hooked at once–a girl with her own cool car and a father who admired her audacity, no particular work to do (she must have been finished with high school) and unlimited funds to pursue her whims. Which were mostly about solving crimes. The girl dug up a lot of crimes.

 I knew nothing about teams of writers and syndicated series with composite pen names. I thought Carolyn Keene must be some wise and fabulous author-creature just spinning out these heartstopping adventures with the redoubtable Nancy and her eventual girlfriends George and Bess (not in the first book) and her faithful if mostly absent boyfriend Ned Nickerson. And that blue roadster–was a brilliant sleuth ever so blond, so clever, so free?

Re-reading a classic Nancy Drew mystery may not have been an inspired idea. The Secret of the Old Clock is the first book in the series and it was daring and thrilling–and antiquated and a bit yellowed around the edges. Everyone thinks Nancy is the bee’s knees and she gets into and out of Mortal Danger as easily as you might change your socks. There is a mysteriously missing will that may or may not actually exist–although Nancy is sure it does. There are poor but deserving relations and horrible, greedy beneficiaries of a coerced will. There are frightening storms and bad guys who Harm Our Heroine (by locking her in a closet) and barely a clue–but Nancy misses nothing. No clue is safe from her relentless prying.  She’s a bit too prissily honorable but that just made her an unambiguous White Hat in a gray world–kids love that stuff.

Serviceable writing–would not make it out of the slushpile today. Nancy tells every thought in her mind in an extremely awkward attempt at exposition. I devoured those books and never knew–ah, well. Reflections of the times: caretakers were “colored” and spoke in a pronounced southern dialect that could have been lifted from a minstrel show. Crooks are very crooked, and unlettered and crude–and kind of stupid, too. Coincidence is practically all caps–a clue is dropped and the foreshadowed disaster happens within a page or two; Nancy wants to find something and she suddenly needs to look in a place she has been invited to just that moment. 

But, for a little kid in a boring life who had been expressly forbidden to check out any Francoise Sagan novels after demolishing the juvenile section, Nancy Drew was salvation. The books were first introduced in the 1930s (hence the dated cultural references, later cleaned up) and the series continued so I had to wait for Christmas and birthdays for each new one. Vivid memory of small child wedged behind the Christmas tree, head buried in a brand new book. I should thank Carolyn Keene, whomever they were. (There were a number of royalty-free ghostwriters over the years, since identified but probably not cut in on the loot.) I’ve never stopped reading since. And I still love a good detective mystery, even without the snappy blue roadster.

Nancy Drew was good at everything, pretty, smart, popular, confident, wealthy and successful. Guess who I wanted to be when I grew up? So that’s how you hook girls. Give ’em an old clock hiding a secret, an intrepid heroine with an expensive car, and a crisis to manage. A modest dash of personal danger spices things up nicely. And, if a perfect, pampered girl with not much at stake who speaks several languages and always wins her cases doesn’t do it for you, give the girl a makeover, a bow and arrow, national TV exposure and a fight to the death and…oh, wait. Vintage Nancy Drew lived in a utopia. Maybe her world wouldn’t make any sense to a little girl today. 

NANCY DREW THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK #1   Carolyn Keene | Grosset & Dunlap, Simon & Schuster, Applewood Books 1991

The String Bean – Edmond Séchan

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I first encountered The String Bean (Le Haricot) as a film and loved it. The mostly black and white French movie by Edmond Séchan, who also created the text for the book, has music but no dialog. It is the story of an old Parisian seamstress who lives alone, many floors up a winding staircase in a dark, shabby building. She is wizened and bent but her spirit is full of color and life.

Each day, after she makes glittering, pearl-encrusted evening bags for sale to elegant shops and has her sparse and simple meal, she puts on her hat and goes out to the public gardens. Wandering the Tuileries—scenes that are in color–the old woman dreams of the lush gardens of her childhood. On the way home, she makes a stop to window-gaze at a florist’s, full of gorgeous blooms she could never afford. One day, she finds an old clay pot with a dead plant that someone has tossed in the trash. She takes the pot home.

Once she has removed the dead plant with her only fork, she carefully pokes a bean into the soil and waters it. Then she sets the pot on her window ledge where it will get the few rays of sun to reach her apartment every day. She tries to protect the seedling from predatory pigeons and neighbors shaking out dusty rugs; she stakes the new leaves so the stem will grow tall. But the pigeons are too many and the sun is too weak for her plant to survive. She pulls a chair out to the hall, where a patch of brighter sun from a skylight will fall on the plant, and sets the pot on the seat.

It isn’t enough. The bean plant wilts and grows pale. So she decides to clandestinely transfer it to a boxwood border surrounding the Tuileries flower gardens. She will lose her daily companion but the bean plant will get plenty of sun and water to flower and grow. What happens next is both heartbreaking and hopeful. The photographs and straightforward text of the book are evocative and powerful, just as the film is.

The tale is an allegory for life and hope that is deceptively simple. As a book, The String Bean could certainly be handed to a kid but the emotions and the underlying concepts are very big—it might take some guidance or some maturity for the story to be appreciated. I’m happy to have experienced both the film and the book. You might have to search for a copy of either but the hunt would be worth it.    

The String Bean   Edmond Séchan | Doubleday  1982

Ida B – Katherine Hannigan

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Ida B is a planner with big ideas about having fun, avoiding incarceration in kindergarten and managing the trees and the brook on her family’s land. She’s too exuberant for classroom schedules and too sharp to be fooled about it so Mama homeschools her and that is just about perfect. Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World is the story of how a bright, imaginative and rather stubborn little girl faces the loss of everything comforting she knows and fights back the only way she knows how—with her whole self.

Ida B would be in fourth grade when Mama gets a diagnosis of cancer, Daddy turns into the Deputy of Doom and Disaster and suddenly she is catching the smelly old yellow bus in the morning. So much goes wrong when the tight-knit, warm family is split wide open by illness that Ida B shrinks her heart into a hard black stone and refuses to go along with anything. Part of her beloved orchard is sold to pay the medical bills and the new owners cut down trees who are her friends in order to build a house. The kids in school welcome her but Ida B turns her back on them. Her strong feelings threaten to overwhelm her all the time so she withdraws from the family and nurtures a major case of misery.

But after she discovers how hurtful her clever revenge on the new neighbors is, Ida B begins to feel a little regret. Maybe a LOT of regret. Only fixing what you’ve broken is a million times harder than not breaking it in the first place. As her empathetic teacher gently draws her out in the classroom, Ida B finds a reason to unlock her heart, risk responding to the love and pain of her parents and make her peace with the remaining trees on the property. Damage is damage, she decides. But love is just as enduring and an intelligent and independent soul ought to be able to balance the good and the bad in her life.

The story gets off to a folksy and slow start that made me wonder if I was in for a colloquial slog through cute kids and country living. But Ida B grows on you—the book and the character—and her struggle is very well portrayed. I’d recommend it as a good children’s to younger middle grade book and a particularly excellent choice for a child who is dealing with loss or illness in the family. Even on the dark days, the ones that zoom a million miles beyond wrong, Ida B manages to be fun as well as instructive—snooty cat, slobbering hound, clairvoyant trees, preoccupied but caring parents and all.     

Ida B: . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World   Katherine Hannigan | Harper Trophy  2004

The Giver – Lois Lowry

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I never read The Giver. When I picked out books for my kid to read, The Giver always looked too sad, too solemn, too serious. Now that we are both dystopia fiends—probably because we live in a dystopia—the other insatiable reader in the house has passed along The Giver to me. Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal for this amazing tale of what it means to be human and how even pain is a privilege to be treasured. The Newbery must have been no contest that year because the novel is flawless and superb.

Jonas lives very carefully and precisely in the Sameness. Children are guided, year by year, by immutable rules that govern behavior. At certain ages you have jackets that fasten in the back so you learn interdependence. Then you graduate to front-buttoning jackets and in a year or so to your own bike as you are gradually introduced to more independence from your family unit. Pain is contained by medication. Courtesy is absolute. Everyone has an assigned role in life and at twelve you receive your Assignment—the task you will learn and perform until you are old enough for the House of the Old and, one day, celebrated and Released.

It is December and Jonas, an Eleven about to become a Twelve, is nervous, anticipating the news he will get at the annual Ceremony but unsure about which job he will draw. His father, who works at Nurturing with the newchildren has requested and been given permission to bring home an infant who is too fussy and failing to thrive. The baby will be Released if it doesn’t reach weight and development milestones by the time it should be transferred to a family who has applied for a child. But Jonas doesn’t think Nurturing will be his Assignment. He certainly won’t be a Birthmother, coddled for three births in as many years and then graduated to Laborer for the rest of life. He can’t imagine himself as Caretaker of the Old, a Doctor, or a Director of Recreation.

But then the Chief Elder skips him when she is handing out Assignments and his anticipation turns to anxiety. His unease isn’t much relieved when, at the end of the Ceremony, she explains to the puzzled audience that Jonas has been selected to be the Receiver of Memory, a prestigious and mysterious position that is seldom awarded and little understood. Jonas begins to study with the old Receiver, the Giver, and is stunned at the unusual transmission of skills that comprises his apprenticeship. And everything changes.

Jonas learns about the exhilarating and excruciating colors of life, about feelings he didn’t know could exist, about history, wisdom and emotion. The Giver shows him what Release really means and awakens a humanity that has been trained out of everyone in the community for generations. And, as Jonas awakens, he discovers that his bland and comfortable life is really an intolerable nightmare. The choices he will have to make demand a courage he isn’t sure he has.

It’s an extraordinary book, smooth as a polished stone, and as capable of stunning you as a polished stone aimed to hit you squarely between the eyes. The Giver explores the demanding terrain of memory, the significance of what it means to give, and the impulse to know the truth and follow it into an uncertain future.

The Giver (Newbery Medal Book)   Lois Lowry | Delacorte Press 1993