The Plot: Mason Buttle is a large, sweaty 7th grader with a cognitive disability. His best friend died a year and a half ago under suspicious circumstances and Mason was the last person to see him. Since the incident, the police have been questioning Mason trying to piece together clues to understand how it occurred. Unfortunately Mason does not understand that they suspect that he murdered his friend.
My Take: I really enjoyed this book from the beginning because I found Mason’s voice to be authentic. The murder case propels the story forward, but the reader will also appreciate the warmth of Mason’s character and his decency in the face of his challenges. He endures social ostracism and rejection but still finds constructive activities and works on the few relationships that give back to him. A highly recommended book to middle grade readers.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Leslie Connor was born on the floor of her family’s home — no time to get to a hospital!
The Plot: Iris and Lark are 11 year old twin sisters who have been close all of their lives. As they enter 6th grade, they discover that, for the first time, they will have different teachers. Both girls struggle in the new school year to fit in and find their identity. Iris takes solace in an after school camp, the local library, and visiting the gentleman that runs the local antiques shop. As the sisters’ relationship comes under strain, Iris looks for ways, some of them fantastical, to heal the division between them.
My Take: This book was an enjoyable read with a few minor problems. I appreciated Ursu’s development of the closeness of the bond between the sisters, but I found that there was a little too much exposition. Some of the first third of the book could be removed and the storyline would not suffer. I also found that the fantastical elements seemed like an awkward fit with the realistic tone in the rest of the book. Still, I would recommend this to readers looking for a book on the bonds between sisters along with a hint of magic.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Anne Ursu’s profile handle on twitter describes her as an “obscure children’s book author with three cats and a murderous rage.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time. But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time. In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny. As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place. Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.
My Take: Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there. Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal. The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters. Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies. It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end. It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever. I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations. At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless. This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: War is approaching and Peter’s father must go off to fight. Before he leaves, he forces Peter to leave his pet fox, Pax, in the woods; it is not welcome at his grandfather’s house where Peter must stay for the time being. After leaving Pax and traveling to his grandfather’s, Peter is wracked by guilt and decides that he must journey to find his fox. Alone in the woods, Pax learns the way of the wild foxes and learns that as the war draws closer, the animals must travel to safety. Both Peter and Pax find themselves on a journey on which they will discover much about themselves.
My Take: I thought that this was an engaging book from the first page. Pennypacker manages to relate the story of a child’s attachment to his pet in a way that is heartfelt but not sentimental. I also appreciated that she portrays realistic fox behavior but also uses a deft amount of anthropomorphism to draw in the reader. The foxes came across as both believable animals and interesting characters. I found that the narrative slowed down a touch when Peter sought refuge at a hermit’s house, but I thought the ending was sheer magic and more than made up for it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Pennypacker is also the author of the Clementine book series.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Georges is a 7th grader in Brooklyn whose family has just experienced job loss and moved from a house to an apartment building. Life at school isn’t much better because he is lately the target of the class bullies. At the new apartment building, a strange boy named Safer ropes him into spying on a tenant nicknamed Mr. X. As Georges grapples with the school bullies and struggles to understand Safer’s behavior, he finds that navigating the social waters of adolescence is often times confusing but also rewarding in the oddest of moments.
My Take: I greatly admired Stead’s Newberry Winner When You Reach Me (2009) and consider it one of my favorite middle grade books. I enjoyed Liar & Spy, but it was a less pleasurable reading experience for me. Stead has a gift at creating characters for realistic fiction that are believable, quirky, and endearing to the reader. I enjoyed getting to know Safer and the odd world that he inhabits in his mind. I did feel that there were some minor problems with the plot. Georges’s father seems to contain secrets in his sadness that are never fully fleshed out and there is a plot point involving the mother affixed near the end that feels unnecessary. Still, this is an enjoyable read about a middle schooler in transition.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, before her writing career, Rebecca Stead was a public defender (she thought being a writer was impractical!).
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: It is Christmas break and Milo is hoping to use his time off from school to rest and relax. Unfortunately, he lives with his parents in an old house turned inn located in the town of Nagspeake. As soon as he settles in with his books and hot chocolate, Milo’s vacation is interrupted by a strange group of characters that arrive at the inn. When some of the guests’ items go missing, Milo and his friend Meddy are drawn into deeper mysteries about the history of the house and the people that once lived there.
My Take: This is a finely realized mystery that will appeal to advanced elementary aged readers who do not mind wading through some exposition. I admire Milford’s ability to develop the world of Nagspeake and Greenglass House and to settle the reader in this interesting environment. I did find myself wishing for a mystery that was more finely focused on one point rather than spreading it out between the relationships of the guests, the missing items, and the history of the house.
One Interesting Thing About The Author: According to her website, Kate has also written articles on such arcane topics as “self-aware ironmongery and how to make saltwater taffy in a haunted kitchen.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Fish Girl is a mermaid who lives in a water tank at a private ocean attraction aquarium. The owner is a man who claims, and Fish Girl initially believes, to be the ocean god Neptune who tells her that he saved her and that she must stay hidden from everyone else. A girl named Livia spots her and begins regularly visiting with her and informing her of the outside world. Fish Girl yearns to break free from the tank and to learn more about her past and what the wider world is like. She begins to take risks, to defy Neptune, and eventually find where she belongs.
My Take: I am so impressed by this book. Library patrons often ask me for something like CeCe Bell’s El Deafo or any of the graphic novels by Telgemeier. I feel like Fish Girl would appeal to these readers looking for a strong female protagonist.
Culturally, Fish Girl also feels very relevant to the times in which we live. For those who participated in The Women March in D.C. or are interested in promoting the ‘She Persisted’ philosophy, Fish Girl will hold a lot of appeal.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Donna Jo Napoli has a LOT of pictures of her family on her website! It’s kind of neat because you don’t see that too often!
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: A black thoroughbred is born on a farm and lives his first days in favorable conditions. As he grows and is given the name Black Beauty, his circumstances change, gradually becoming more grim. Black Beauty finds himself sold from master to master and is ill treated in some of his new homes.
My Take: It was a pleasure to encounter this children’s classic for the first time. I found Black Beauty’s voice to be even and genial under the most trying of circumstances. Some readers may find Black Beauty’s attitude to be cold, distant, or perhaps a bit 19th century-ish, but I appreciated the lack of sentimentalism and the eschewing of pity. To me it drove home the noble character of horses and made even more grievous the wrong done to them by people. My one criticism is that many of the human characters were flat and interchangeable. The power of the story might have been heightened had Sewell given the reader one or two people to get to know deeply. Still, I can understand why this books has lasted.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to history.com, the novel Black Beauty was written in the final days of Sewell’s life, after she was confined to her home, and published just before her death.
The Plot In Five Sentences: Henry is spending the summer with his Aunt Dotty, Uncle Frank and their 3 daughters on their farm in Kansas. His stay takes a strange turn when he notices plaster peeling off the walls of his attic bedroom one night. Strange knobs and doors begin to appear and Henry eventually discovers that his walls are filled with cupboards. Along with his cousin Henrietta, he comes to realize that these are no ordinary cupboards, but rather possess a magic that proves to be as dangerous as it is enchanting.
My Take: I found the pace of ‘100 Cupboards’ to be deliberate. Wilson grounds us in the reality of small town Kansas life for the first third of the novel, making the big reveal of the cupboards and the attendant magic they possess all the more powerful. By the end of the book, when the presence of a great evil appears, I was thoroughly engaged and emotionally invested in the story and characters. I recommend this novel for any child who enjoys the fantasy genre and will not be put off by a slow start.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his online bio, when he was in preschool, N.D. Wilson dug up a dead cat out of his sandbox.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: When the great paper magnate Samuel G. Westing dies under suspicious circumstances, 16 people are summoned to his mansion to hear his will read aloud. In fact, they are all drawn into a game where they must pair up with another heir and decipher clues that are handed to them in order to determine the identity of the killer and inherit the Westing fortune. Could it be Turtle Wexler, the wily 13 year old who can play the stock market like a champ? Or perhaps it’s Sydelle Pulaski, who copies the will down in short hand — in Polish. Suspicion abounds and the plot twists and turns as the 16 heirs narrow down who among them may have killed Samuel Westing.
My Take: I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time because it comes recommended whenever I search for mystery books for kids. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I found the characters, while quirky, to not be emotionally fleshed out. I also felt that the emotional hook of the narrative — to find Sam Westing’s killer– to be lost in an ocean of detail. To be fair, Raskin is juggling over 16 characters and trying to keep them all distinct in the reader’s mind–a high wire act for any writer to be sure. But over half way through the book, I found that I had stopped caring who the killer was.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Ellen Raskin designed the dust jacket for the first edition of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.