Category Archives: Middle Grade

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

Chomp – Carl Hiaasen

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Hooray for Carl Hiaasen and Chomp, the latest in his Florida wilderness adventures for intrepid kids. Chomp, as you might deduce, deals with a very large and toothy alligator but the comic romp (sorry, irresistible rhyming compulsion) ranges all over the exotic flora and fauna of the Everglades and the reckless foibles of the flawed human species as well. It’s wild, in every sense of the word. And it’s fun, because Hiaasen’s children’s books are educational and hilarious and this one is no exception.

Wahoo Cray plans to change his name to something normal as soon as he hits eighteen and can do so legally. For the time being, he helps his father wrangle the menagerie of critters that live on their property at the edge of the Glades, tossing nuked whole chickens to Alice the gator, who accidentally crunched off his thumb once, and feeding pythons, monkeys, turtles and whatever else wanders into their “zoo”. Wahoo’s mom is a language teacher who flies off to China as the book opens to make some cash from tin-eared executives so the family can catch up on the mortgage and avoid foreclosure. Not much money has been coming in since dad was conked on the head by a frozen giant iguana that tumbled out of a palm tree during a cold snap.

By the time a reader digests all this madness, the arrival of a reality TV crew and a fake made-for-television survivalist and adventurer seems almost tame. Alice nearly chomps the back end off the TV star when he ignores the Cray duo’s warning about provoking her. The show then hires the two of them to guide the production into the real Everglades to encounter actual wild creatures for the star to wrestle into submission and probably roast over a counterfeit campfire. While collecting supplies for the expedition, they rescue a girl named Tuna with a major shiner in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart where she lives with her drunk, abusive father in a trailer. And then things really get interesting.

Throughout the violence–staged and real–with chopper shots, stunt doubles, razor-toothed wildlife, crashed air boats and loaded guns, Hiaasen delivers a boatload of information about indigenous and invasive species, the destructive incursion of people into a pristine wilderness, the idiocy of same species, and the wonders to be glimpsed when you venture off the beaten trails. There are good old boys—and bad old boys—greedy media types, plucky kids, deluded and well-meaning grown-ups, fortuitous and disastrous accidents and nonstop action. He even manages to sneak in a subplot about vampires, capitalizing on the current craze for the paranormal without sacrificing the fine intelligence and irony that give every incident a delicious twist.  

Hiaasen has delivered another knock-out punch. Hoot, Flush and Scat are his previous books for kids and the discriminating adults I know who have sampled them are as enamored of the formula as younger readers. May he never run out of environmental crusades to wage so we can look forward to many more one-syllable escapades in Florida’s endangered and endlessly entertaining ecosystems. Chomp is excellent. Devour it at your earliest opportunity.

Chomp    Carl Hiaasen | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

The Calder Game – Blue Balliett

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The Calder Game is the third in Blue Balliett’s series about some eccentric Chicago middle school kids who solve mysteries using an idiosyncratic belief in coincidence and their own curiosity. Chasing Vermeer was the first book to introduce Petra who has a magical relationship with language and Calder who keeps a pocketful of pentominoes and is a mathier kid. Together they made a formidable, if sometimes perplexing team. A great fascination of book one was the puzzle around the Vermeer paintings and it led to perusal of the Vermeers in our own museum across the park—a delightful follow-up to an engaging book.

In The Calder Game, the third member of the trio, Calder’s friend Tommy who was introduced in book two (haven’t read it) gets his ink. I don’t find him a very compelling character—in fact, he is anything but appealing. Picks his nose, for one thing, and is too easily ruffled. But his presence does take some of the action away from Petra to her detriment. She seems a less strong character in this episode and that is a loss.

The story begins as Calder takes a trip to Oxford with his father, after a disastrous class excursion to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art to see an ambitious Calder retrospective. Calder, who was named after the artist, lugs his pocketful of pentominoes with him and is stunned to find a giant Calder sculpture installed in the medieval town square in the small village outside of Oxford where he and his dad are staying. Dad takes off for a conference at the university, leaving Calder to sightsee on his own and things pretty much go downhill from there.

A village full of suspicious characters resents the sudden appearance of a sculpture no one wants, ominous looks and coincidences shadow Calder’s tourism, nearby Blenheim Palace has a legendary maze that hides ugly secrets and ancient landscaping that might be deadly, a fat cat shows up rather often at auspicious moments. Then the Calder sculpture and Calder himself disappear. You need a powerful willing suspension of disbelief to puzzle through the rest of the story. Petra, Tommy and a neighbor are flown over from Chicago to help in the search for Calder. The neighbor has thoughtfully procured some sort of Chicago official police detective IDs for them so they can ignore police lines and sleuth at will. They come and go day and night without much supervision. Calder’s father and the neighbor believe the children will solve the mystery of the disappearances.

There’s a lot of adventure and the kids do act independently. The resolution of the various riddles—and crimes—is tricky to guess at because it doesn’t/can’t make sense until the explanations at the end. A bright boy like Calder doesn’t know that a cave with an entrance and cracks in the rocks isn’t a sealed oxygen-free chamber. Americans are boors and bad guys before they are heroes and okay after all. It’s very puzzly—a hallmark of these books—and it was entertaining. But the illogical bits were very distracting and I wish they were more seamlessly incorporated. Nice to learn about an artist, a math tool that looks like a toy, a few museums and botanical gardens. But Chasing Vermeer was a better book—Calder and Petra were a tough team together. Add the nose-picking Tommy and, not so much.

The Calder Game   Blue Balliett  | Scholastic   2008

Turtle in Paradise – Jennifer L. Holm

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Turtle is ten when her mama gets a job cleaning house for a lady who can’t tolerate children. So she’s shipped off to Key West to live with a family of Currys she’s never met, in a place her dreamy mother calls “paradise.” Turtle knows better, even before she arrives on the steamy island courtesy of a traveling salesman who owes her mama’s current boyfriend money. One looong free ride with Smokey the cat and a chatty hair tonic entrepreneur and a quick introduction to her bratty cousins and surprised Aunt Minerva and she is stashed in a tiny bedroom on Curry Avenue, named for all the Curry clan who have lived there since before anybody can remember. It’s 1935. Shirley Temple is the reigning queen of cinema. Jobs are hard to come by and kids are forced to grow up pretty fast.

Jennifer L. Holm writes a spunky, clear-eyed preteen realist of a kid in Turtle in Paradise, a Newbery Honor book. Turtle knows mama will always believe in silver linings and better days just around the corner. But Turtle squints at what she sees, takes its measure and accepts no guff or fancy promises from anyone. She tags along with her ragamuffin cousins as the boys drag babies around in their Diaper Gang business. She isn’t allowed in the gang so she gets none of the candy they are paid for babysitting and curing diaper rash with their magic formula. But she cons the guy in the ice cream truck out of a scoop with no trouble at all and puts a little fear of the lord—actually fear of Turtle—into those bad boys from Day One.

Life in hot, poor, crowded, neighborly Key West softens Turtle’s tough shell and she acclimates to a new reality with Cuban food, a surprise—and crotchety—grandmother, grown-ups who look out for kids and a few who are too worn down by them to be anything but exasperated. She learns how to go barefoot after her prized shoes are stolen, talks herself into a job sponging and nearly drowns, discovers a possible key to buried treasure and survives a hurricane, stranded on a tiny barrier island. The real treasure has nothing to do with pirate gold and everything to do with open hearts. Turtle finds a bounty of those and knits herself into the fabric of a family like a bright silver thread.

Turtle in Paradise gives children a colorful glimpse of history, a legendary island community, and a young survivor wise beyond her years and sassy enough to brighten economic hardship and displacement with razor-sharp humor.  

Turtle in Paradise   Jennifer L. Holm | Random House   2010

Spellbound – Jacqueline West

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Elsewhere is a mysterious world inside framed paintings in the haunted house where Olive Dunwoody and her wonky parents live. Olive is nearly twelve and pretty much on her own. Her mathematician mother and father teach in the university and are absentminded even when they are present at home. Olive is missing the math gene but she makes up for it with extreme right-braininess—she lives in a powerful imaginary world that is, unfortunately, not imaginary.

The house is as alive as those paintings. The three gigantic and ornery cats who came with the house are not actually cats—by any common definition, in any case. They speak English, for one thing. And they boss Olive around like crazy for another. She puts up with this because they have the ability to move in and out of the living pictures—into and back from Elsewhere dragging Olive along—and Olive is desperate to know more about that world.

Morton is a frail, apparently albino boy who was trapped in a painting decades ago by an evil witch and has gradually faded into paint. He isn’t precisely alive, in a conventional way, but he is lonely and Olive is the only kid he ever sees. She would like to figure out a way to return him to the world but even her imagination can’t solve that one. And there is the little matter of the deadly nature of a few inhabitants of Elsewhere. Olive was close to killed by one or two of them in her last adventure.

Rutherford Dewey is an irritating boy about Olive’s age who comes to live with his grandmother next door and invades Olive’s backyard and her half-haunted existence. He seems to be able to read her mind, whenever there is something she wants to hide from him. Mrs. Niven lives on the other side. She has the neatest yard on the block but there is something off about her, especially in bright sunlight. The McMartins no longer live in Olive’s house. They were inherently evil and met unhappy ends, abetted by Olive whom they nearly succeeded in murdering.

The cats, Horatio, Harold and Leopold, grow more eccentric by the day. Leopold guards a trapdoor in the dark basement 24-by-7. Harold is usually a pirate or a knight or a secret agent on a mission. Often this involves painting himself green or black so he can blend in with his environment. Horatio hangs around Olive but he is very grumpy and seldom wants to take her inside a painting. When Rutherford asks Olive if the house has a grimoire, a witches’ spellbook, she begins to see a way to help Morton and to tap into the peculiar powers around her. But what happens when Olive looks for the grimoire is way outside her expectations and puts her and every living and a few non-living creatures in the neighborhood in mortal peril.

Spellbound is well-written and full of surprises. The dangers feel real and the characters—feline and otherwise–are engaging and believable. Olive’s parents are as clueless and unavailable as any obliging parents in a children’s book so she is free to pursue her questionable escapades at all hours. Jacqueline West’s series is entertaining enough for anyone who likes a good fantasy based on an original premise.

Vol. 2 Spellbound (The Books of Elsewhere)   Jacqueline West | Dial Books   2011