“Caterpillar Summer” by Gillian McDunn

Image result for caterpillar summer by mcdunnThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Due to a last minute change of plans, Cat and her younger brother Chicken must spend 3 weeks of their summer vacation with grandparents whom they have never met.  They live on an island in North Carolina, which is at once an idyllic setting, but also presents challenges to Cat who must manage Chicken special needs, including his tendency to run off.  As Cat struggles with her brother’s behavior, she draws closer to her grandparents and to other children on the island.  Through these relationships, she discovers new things about herself, but also wounds that hopefully her time on the island can help heal.

My Take:  This is a strong first novel by Gillian McDunn and makes a respectable entry into the canon of realistic juvenile literature.  The central story of the book is Cat’s growth and change over the summer and her struggle to understand the things that have pulled her family apart in the past.  McDunn makes a strong argument that the youngest  members are sometimes the best ones to offer an opportunity for a family’s fresh start.  The author is adept at exploring several heavy themes — such as the inherent loneliness in care taking, the way that bullies themselves are victimized, the need to control, etc. — without making this into an ‘issues book.’  I would happily recommend this to any reader around 11 years who is ready to consider some heavy themes.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  The book Caterpillar Summer is in part inspired by McDunn’s relationship with her brother who multiple disabilities.

 

 

“Shiloh” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Image result for shiloh by phyllis reynolds naylorThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Marty Preston is an 11 year old who lives in the hill country of  West Virginia.  While out exploring the countryside, he encounters a beagle who follows him home.  Marty immediately takes to the animal and names it Shiloh.  He is soon disappointed when he learns that Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, a neighbor who abuses his animals.  Marty’s struggle over the ownership of Shiloh forces him to face questions about right and wrong, loyalty, and friendship.

My Take: Shiloh won the Newberry Medal in 1992 and the quality of Naylor’s writing certainly justifies this award. As I was reading the novel, I found myself wishing that I had read this book years earlier in my library career.  The story of a boy and his dog is a well worn theme in juvenile literature, but Naylor’s handling of the material never seems stale or cliche.  As readers we immediately appreciate the relationship between Marty and Shiloh and we know that it must endure.  Our hearts are invested.  Naylor deserves credit for rounding out the character of Judd Travers, a man who has himself experienced abuse.  I would recommend this book to anyone looking for the feel of a classic story.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her biography on her website, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was making ‘books’ as far back as the 4th and 5th grade.  She would write on scratch paper, draw pictures, and then staple it all together.

 

“Shouting At The Rain” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Image result for shouting at the rain by lynda mullaly huntThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  Delsie enjoys so many things about her life on Cape Cod:  the fishing, the storms that roll in off the ocean, and the close knit community of her small neighborhood.  Still, she can’t help but think about her mom who left her years before with her grandmother and what the reasons may have been for this abandonment.  Her relationships are also changing as her good friend Brandi begins hanging out with an older, mean girl.  Delsie finds companionship with a boy new to the Cape that summer who seems to harbor as much hurt inside himself as she does.  As new information comes forth about her mother, Delsie finds that she must choose whether to hold on to pain and resentment or to focus on the smaller blessings in her life.

My Take:  I found Shouting At The Rain to be a solid entry in the field of realistic fiction for young readers.  As an adult reader, I enjoyed learning about life on Cape Cod and how the ‘Capers’ and the tourist get along.  Hunt has a talent for conveying blue collar life without making it overly sentimental or pushing it too far.  One character, for example, must move with his family into a campground every summer because their landlord rents their house out to tourists for more money.  It’s an indignity that is mentioned only a few times, but it really serves as an example of what Delsie and the people in her community grapple with.  I would recommend this book to any younger reader interested in a book on changing friendships and life in the summer.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  As she notes on her website, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s first forays into creative writing were after the passing of her brother, who died shortly before his 4th birthday.   She “wrote songs about him for years–songs about when he was alive and songs speculating where he went after he died. I had always imagined him sitting on a cloud watching me.”  She admits that not a day goes by when she does not think about him.

“Orphan Island” by Laurel Snyder

Related imageThe 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.

“Pax” by Sarah Pennypacker

Related imageThe 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.

“Liar & Spy” by Rebecca Stead

Image result for liar and spy by rebecca steadThe 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!).

 

“Greenglass House” by Kate Milford

Image result for greenglass houseThe 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.”

“Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate

Image result for wishtree by applegateThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Red is a scarlet oak that has stood in a neighborhood for 216 years.  The local people use Red as a wishtree, writing wishes onto scraps of paper or cloth and tying them onto the branches.  When a Muslim family moves into a house close by, Red and its companion animals befriend the daughter named Samar.  But when an act of hate targets Samar’s family, Red finds that she must take a more active role in protecting the people and animals in her neighborhood.

My Take:  Wishtree is an excellent entry into the category of juvenile fiction that deals with immigration and racial tension.   This tale will certainly ring familiar to readers in Trump’s America.  Applegate doesn’t clutter up the tale and instead allows the simplicity of the story and the gentle voice of Red guide the narrative.  Adults who are struggling to explain racism and persecution to children will appreciate this book

One Interesting Thing About The Author:  Katherine Applegate is not only the author of The One And Only Ivan, 2013 Newberry Medal Winner, but also the Animorphs series.

‘The Ethan I Was Before’ by Ali Standish

ethan i was beforeThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Ethan and his family are moving from Boston to a small town in coastal Georgia, seeking a new start after a traumatic experience involving Ethan and his best friend Kacey.  As Ethan learns to adjust to his new settings and to try to make peace with the past, he makes a new friend in Coralee, a lively girl who helps Ethan settle into his new life.  But being friends with Coralee also brings its own complications, some that remind him of his painful experience with Kacey.  As Ethan and Coralee’s friendship deepens, they discover that the past has a way of resurfacing in painful ways.

My Take:  This was an excellent read and I can understand it’s inclusion on a lot of mock Newberry lists this year.  Ethan’s pain is convincing and as readers we are pulling for him to find some way to resolve his grief and find solace in his new relationships.   Standish does employ some well worn tropes (the mean girl, the bully, etc.) but none of that should bother younger readers.  I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for good realistic fiction about trying to make peace with the past.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her website, when Ali Standish was young, she and her mother would play a story game.  Ali would give her three things (like blueberries, a panda bear, and a snowy forest, for example) and her mother would be challenged to create a story out of it.

“The Girl Who Drank The Moon” by Kelly Barnhill

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Every year the members of the Proctectorate have taken an infant and left it in the woods as a sacrifice to the witch.  Unbeknownst to them, the witch, who name is Xan, has shepherded each baby to another town so that it can be raised by a loving family.  One year, however, Xan accidentally feeds a baby with moonlight, thereby enmagicking it.  She names the girl Luna and raises her by her side. As Luna’s powers develop, her past comes calling in the form of two women: one that has gone insane and another that feeds on sorrow and prowls with a tiger’s heart.

My Take:  This was an engrossing read and worthy of its winning the Newberry Medal.   Barnhill has the ability to create a fantasy world that is convincing but not indulgent.  Her writing moves the narrative along at a good clip while also taking the time to build the characters.  I particularly appreciated that so much of the story revolves around, in several forms, a mother’s attachment – or lack thereof -for her child.  You can tell that Barnhill enjoys exploring this subject from several different angles, ultimately arriving at a positive answer.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  On her website, Barnhill describes herself as a “former teacher, former bartender, former waitress, former activist, former park ranger, former secretary, former janitor and former church-guitar-player.”