Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: Wish

Besides a dog on the cover (which really is a part of the story, not a trick to get you to buy it), Wish has lots to recommend itself to middle grade readers. For this very reason, even though it was published in 2016, it still hits the NYT top 10 bestseller list now and then. Still! And is among the top-ranking books on Amazon right now with 83% 5-star ratings. (Most of the 1-star ratings were upset about how the book was printed incorrectly, which an author has zero control over.) 

You may know Barbara O'Connor from How to Steal a Dog, and Wish hits on the same themes--love, family, home, belonging. And a dog. 

Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly, Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

From award-winning author Barbara O'Connor comes a middle grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.

The "blurb" for this book tells you everything you need to know, so I won't blab on about it. Lovely book. Kids adore it. Grab a copy now. 

I have seen bits online saying a sequel to Wish will be coming soon. You can bet I'll be reading it!

*I saw reviews for Wish that were upset by some of the content. Charlie's parents are neglectful (why she's sent to North Carolina). The teenager smokes. Doesn't seem like anything most eleven-year-olds would be shocked by, but you decide for your child. Maybe read it yourself first to judge. Your local library is certain to have a copy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: Little House in the Big Woods

I've often joked that if the world comes crashing down, grab your copy of Little House in the Big Woods. It teaches you how to make cheese, smoke meat, and many other useful skills. 

The books in this historical fiction series by Laura Ingalls Wilder have come under criticism in recent years because of their depiction of Native Americans during horrible times in our country's history. 

Yes, what Laura describes is awful, but also based on her truth and real events. To simply stop reading books that portray racist or problematic issues is to also refuse to look at those actions and not only realize humans could have done better but that we must in the future. The conflicts between new settlers (mostly White) and the indigenous populations already in place is a sad part of many histories around the world. Don't shy away from looking it dead in the face and discussing it. 

If you have concerns about the glamorizing Wilder added to her novels, remember they are historical fiction, not a direct retelling of facts. She wove her own personal experiences with that fiction and often shifted the real events for a smoother or more interesting story. But what remains true is the Little House series depicts a time in American life that is honestly not that long ago and fascinating to experience through Laura's young eyes. 

Based on the real-life adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in the award-winning Little House series, which has captivated generations of readers. 
Little House in the Big Woods takes place in 1871 and introduces us to four-year-old Laura, who lives in a log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin. She shares the cabin with her Pa, her Ma, her sisters Mary and Carrie, and their lovable dog, Jack.

Pioneer life isn’t easy for the Ingalls family, since they must grow or catch all their own food as they get ready for the cold winter. But they make the best of every tough situation. They celebrate Christmas with homemade toys and treats, do their spring planting, bring in the harvest in the fall, and make their first trip into town. And every night, safe and warm in their little house, the sound of Pa’s fiddle lulls Laura and her sisters into sleep.

The nine books in the timeless Little House series tell the story of Laura’s real childhood as an American pioneer and are cherished by readers of all generations. They offer a unique glimpse into life on the American frontier and tell the heartwarming, unforgettable story of a loving family.

It is still listed as a "teacher pick" on Amazon and ranks high up in sales. Don't let the controversies keep you from reading and enjoying this first book in the series. Little House in the Big Woods itself is free from all the political dramas that follow Book 2: Little House on the Prairie

If you continue with the series, use it as a launch pad for discussing America's sad history and how Native Americans were treated. Discuss the Trail of Tears that Laura describes seeing. Then move on to the other books in the series. There are enormous lessons there for both home and school conversations. 

One year when I was teaching a kindergarten/first grade classroom, we studied pioneer life all year, and I read the series aloud after lunch each day. While The Long Winter got genuinely long and boggy, it still led to fantastic discussions about how we rely on others to produce and deliver our food to this day. What would happen these days if that system broke down (as we have since seen during COVID lockdown)?  

If you really want to go deep with your young reader, do some research into what is fact and what is fiction in the books. Like the fact that the family didn't actually have to leave their little house on the prairie because of where it was located--on the wrong side of the border from Indian territory. That makes for a good story, but the truth is much less dramatic and all about finances and the unsuccessful sale of the house in the Big Woods.

Considering this a middle grade series gets complicated the farther you get through the titles. By the end, Laura is an adult with adult concerns. But that doesn't mean young readers aren't still thrilled by the journey. I enjoyed this whole series as a child, read it multiple times, and would be remiss to leave it off my blog list of middle grade books I love. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: A Snicker of Magic

I’m not sure how I first ran across A Snicker of Magic in February of 2014, but I have been a devoted fan of Natalie Lloyd ever since. She’s adorable. Her stories are delightful. After reading a copy of A Snicker of Magic from my local library, I purchased a paperback of my own to sit on my shelves and read again someday. I don't do that often, but when I do, it's a book I tell everyone about. 

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere---shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog's floppy ears---but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she'll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that's been cast over the town . . . and her mother's broken heart.
It always surprises me to discover how few readers/librarians/teachers know about Lloyd and her books. Maybe this can help correct that! Check her out on Facebook, at Amazon, or at your local library. 

And while her Problim Children books are a bit odd for me as an adult, kids adore the wacky adventures and love them. Hummingbird is a wonderful example for "lived-experience" of a disability (in this case, brittle bone disease/osteogenesis imperfecta) being represented in kidlit. I'm super-excited for her upcoming book, The Witching Wind. You can bet it will jump the TBR line the moment it comes out in September.

Check out Natalie Lloyd and discover which of her middle grade books speak to you and possibly hold a snicker of magic for your child. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: Charlotte's Web

Since Charlotte's Web was published in October of 1952, not many children make it through without reading this themselves or having it read to them. One day when I substituted in a first grade classroom, I was asked to read aloud from it after lunch. The part where Charlotte dies. Alone. Yes, I cried. Could barely make it through. The kids thought I was a drama-mama and very silly. Ah well. As a child, that part didn’t get me as much either. It reminded me of the time my mom tried to read me the end of Watership Down and just dissolved into sobbing. I was around 11, and she'd read it to me during one of our unending road trips during the summer. I thought she was a drama-mama then, but later I named an adopted stray cat El-ahrairah so . . . Anyhow.

Charlotte’s Web is listed as one of the top 100 most-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read.

The day I checked, it was ranked #487 among the over 8 million books listed on Amazon. Still selling. So maybe I don't need to even mention it in this series. But it's definitely one of my favorites, so here we are.

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte's Web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. Charlotte's spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.

E. B. White's Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

White also wrote two other fabulous books for middle grade readers, but we'll get to those another time. I already have a guest blog in mind after seeing a post about an editor reading one of them to her daughter. 

That's what we do with books we love. Save our copies. Pass them on to our children. Read them aloud. Maybe we don't dissolve into tears. Maybe we do. 

El-ahrairah, El, or YaYa (as our toddler at the time called her) in 1991.
Yes, we have an affinity for tuxies. She was a stray found in the woods.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

 Yes, you've probably seen the movie. I've watched it many, many times. As a child, it was part of our Thanksgiving Day tradition to watch it on TV. But it veers so far from the book many times . . . You should really read the book of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Or the series! Despite what the movie depicts, Oz is absolutely real, and Dorothy (who is a child younger than ten, not a teenager) goes back many times. 

A Kansas farm girl named Dorothy ends up in the magical Land of Oz after she and her pet dog Toto are swept away from their home by a cyclone. Upon her arrival in the magical world of Oz, she learns she cannot return home until she has destroyed the Wicked Witch of the West. 

My childhood was ruled by Oz. Not the movie, the books. I have 34 on my shelf right now, though some are possibly original and would fall apart if I tried to read them. I also still have my childhood Oz bedsheets printed with illustrations from the first book, just sure I’ll do something interesting with them, like make a quilt. My best friend and I were Ozma and Glinda one Halloween, and her mother painted a beautiful Oz mural on her bedroom wall. One sleepover, when we were in maybe second grade, her mother found us sound asleep on our individual cots but holding hands in the middle. Because you have to hold hands when you cross the Deadly Desert or someone won't make it. Oz was at the center of our play life. 

Despite the fact that this first book in the lengthy series (14 by Baum, an additional 19 by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and a few others added later by other authors) was published in 1900, it’s still listed as a #1 Bestseller at Amazon. The 7th grade reading level pushes the top end of middle grade, but that hasn’t stopped millions of kids from devouring these stories for generations. Maybe it can be a read aloud bedtime story for your middle grade child. Cuddle up and enjoy!

There are delightful (and scary) characters to meet! If nothing else, read the original Oz book and enjoy comparing it to the movie. Which one do you like better? 

PS We won't talk about Return to Oz, which was very close to the books it covers but visually nightmare inducing. Some things are better left on the page. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: Socks

 For the second spot in my series, I'd be remiss not to talk about Socks by Beverly Cleary. She was a librarian who often struggled to find appropriate books for voracious young readers, so she started writing them herself. Socks was one of the later stories (1973), but it is my favorite. 

Socks is one happy cat. He lives the good life with his affectionate owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bricker. Ever since the day they saved him from a life spent in a mailbox drop slot, Socks has been the center of their world. And he always has everything he needs—tasty kitty treats and all the lap room he could want! But when a new baby arrives, suddenly the Brickers have less and less time for Socks. Little Charles William is the one getting all the attention. Socks feels left out—and to show it, he starts getting into all sorts of trouble! What will it take to make Socks realize just how much the Brickers care about him?

This was one of my favorite books growing up, and based on the majority of my published books at this point, it obviously influenced my choice of writing subject as an adult. Cleary announced to young Meg that it was perfectly fine to write about your beloved cats. And I certainly have! I own an original copy (or a very early one) on my shelf still. It has been read dozens of times. Just writing about it now makes me want to pull it down and curl up with Socks again. 

If you are looking for wonderful middle grade stories, anything by Cleary is a good bet. 91 million copies of her books have been sold. Ramona and Henry and Ribsy the dog, not to mention the mouse and his motorcycle, are still popular choices! 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Middle Grade Books I Love: A Wrinkle in Time

 In March of this year, I was asked to speak to a group of college students at the Beebe campus of Arkansas State University about the history of middle grade books. Middle grade is one of my favorite age levels to read and write for, and I had a wonderful time doing research on this topic. Mainly, I discovered that, until the 1970s, there were a limited number of books that would meet the middle grade qualifications of today. This is why most of my friends and I went from picture books and Little Golden Books directly to our parents' bookshelves. I was reading Dragonriders of Pern when I was ten or eleven. Good readers would devour what was available for elementary school kids and then move straight to adult novels. Not usually the best plan because the subject matter is far from appropriate.

So I'm going to take a few months here and feature the middle grade novels I loved when I was the age those are written for, as well as the ones from more recent history that I've loved. I'm aiming for twenty books in this series, but it may be hard to stop. Too many good books in the world!

Just to clarify, middle grade books are:

  • written for ages 6-12 and that reading level
  • focused on the child having and solving the problem, free from adult assistance (though there is often a mentor who helps and supports)
  • featuring a main character who is 6-12 or maybe 13--the same age as the reader
  • addressing issues for 6-12 year olds, like bullying, school, family, and very little on romantic relationships beyond crushes

It seems only proper to start this series with the book that was one of my favorites in elementary school. Thanks to the recent movie version (which was actually pretty well done for a book-to-movie translation), kids are still well-aware of this book. But I'll start there anyhow, just in case.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Originally published in January of 1962, Amazon still lists it as a #1 Bestseller, and the day I checked, it ranked #1 in Children's Time Travel Fiction. The heroine inspired and impacted me so much, I literally changed my name. I’d grown up a Margaret who was called Molly. But going into a new school for 6th grade, I announced my nickname was now Meg. It stuck. Attachments to a book character don't get much stronger than that!

This is Book 1 of the Time Quintet Series.

It was a dark and stormy night. Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn't know) is a wrinkle in time. A Wrinkle in Time is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (athlete and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg's father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

A Wrinkle in Time is the winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal.

If you've never read this fabulous book, grab a copy right away. One my absolute favorites!