Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Middle Grade on my Radar

Among my typical grab-bag of library treats the past few weeks, I've picked up a few Middle Grade books that have won me over. This actually surprised me, because Middle Grade isn't my favorite genre.

I have my favorites from my own childhood, "The Westing Game" and "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler". And once my oldest kids reached the right age, we immersed ourselves in Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Ranger's Apprentice. 

Which are all awesome!

But you start talking about literary Middle Grade, you know, stuff that tells of a typical tween that doesn't have powers, doesn't fight monsters, doesn't have a major plot point in every chapter, and I start yawning.

Or maybe its contemporary Middle Grade that I don't like. Going back to middle school with Greg Hefley is not my idea of fun. And reading about the drama and minutia of everyday life as a 10-14 year old doesn't thrill me.

But, a few recommendations crossed my path and I was pleasantly surprised.

First off is "Capture the Flag" by Kate Messner. This is a caper/mystery at its heart which is probably why it didn't lose my attention. Three very different kids are all at a party at the Smithsonian the night some thieves steal the Star-Spangled Banner. But a snowstorm locks down the city and traps the kids and the thieves at the airport (I imagined Dulles, but it didn't say) and unable to return home. The kids begin searching. Lots of great character sketches and chase scenes and as one of the kids says, "It's a lot like National Treasure." Which must be why I like it. I loved that movie. :)
Also, a follow-up book, "Hide and Seek" was just released last month. The same trio heads down to Costa Rica to find the Jaguar Cup that was stolen from their secret society. I'm thinking a kid version of Indiana Jones. Can't wait to see if I'm right. 

Another that captured my imagination is the quiet seeming book, "Bigger Than a Breadbox" by Laurel Snyder. On the outset, its about a 12-year old girl from Baltimore who's mother and father separate. Rebecca barely talks to her mom on the road trip or when they reach her grandma's house in Atlanta. To keep away from her mom, she explores the attic and finds a collection of rusty breadboxes. One, though is shiny and grants wishes. Rebecca uses this power to comfort herself in this difficult, emotional time. But things get complicated when it turns out that the things Rebecca wished for weren't just made magically by the breadbox, but acquired from elsewhere and other people. Rebecca's quest to set things right gets her into an even deeper muddle, and kept me turning pages long after I thought I'd quit.

Another book that I loved was "Plain Kate" by Erin Bow. Now this book is technically a YA, but the entire time, it felt like a Middle Grade book. Perhaps it was because the story focused on Kate's problems and coming of age and not any romance. This is a story full of magic, dark wishes and grieving, so I wouldn't recommend it to the younger set, but it would be great for the precocious kiddo or the one who has one foot in Tweenville and not quite ready for the smexy YA stuff out there. 

Plain Kate is set in medievalesque eastern Europe. (There was some language used that looked/sounded like Polish, so that's where I set it in my head.) Kate is left alone at the outset of the book and has to fend for herself from a young teen/tween age. She is chased out of town on suspicion of witchcraft and soon travels with the gypsies. Very rich description of medieval/renaissance town life, gypsy life, creepy magic and a non-gory horror show of a slow-moving plague.
I'll tell you honestly, I cried. Quite a bit. For the last quarter of the book, it seemed like. Hard choices. Sacrifice. Redemption. More hard choices. More sacrifice. More Redemption. 
But absolutely lovely. 

Changing gears, I have to tell you about an author that I am just cuckoo about: Ally Carter.
I LOVE her YA book, "Heist Society" and the two that follow. 
Heist Society (Heist Society, #1) Uncommon Criminals (Heist Society, #2) Perfect Scoundrels (Heist Society, #3)
(Seriously LOVE them!
... Picture "Ocean's 11" performed by an awesome teen cast of art thieves. 
Sooooooo goooooood.)

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls, #1) Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy (Gallagher Girls, #2) Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover (Gallagher Girls, #3) Only the Good Spy Young (Gallagher Girls, #4) Out of Sight, Out of Time (Gallagher Girls, #5)
But Carter's Gallager Girl's series is almost as wonderful and surpasses any teen-girl series I've read so far. It starts with "I'd Tell You That I Love You, but Then I'd Have to Kill You". Other similarly catchy titles follow. 
The books take place in a private spy school for girls in Virginia (very easy to imagine a location near Winchester, where I used to live) and the lead character is known as the Chameleon, because she always blends into the background. I remember feeling that way as a teen and not in a good way. But Cameron, is a wonderfully understated character who succeeds at being good-girl and kick-butt all at the same time. This is wonderful for older middle graders who want a bit of romance, giggly girlfriends in the story with something more than 'conquer the mean girls at school without becoming one of them' dramas. 
Seriously, these books are wonderful! I wish I had them in ninth grade. Would have made that year soooo much better!

A couple of other titles that have caught my eye (that I haven't read yet, but plan to in the near future) are "The Humming Room" by Ellen Potter, which supposed to be like "The Secret Garden" but with sci-fi/fantasy elements. I bought it at a school book fair and lost it, only to find it two days ago. On the top of my TBR pile.

The other is, "The Zebra Forest" by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Annie and her brother, Raw, have been taught by their Gran to do whatever they do with excellence, perhaps even lying to their social worker. Gran says little about their father, only that he was killed by a very angry man. Then a prison escapee breaks into their home and the kids find out that Gran sure didn't tell them everything.
Seriously cannot wait to read this. But my library hadn't even ordered it yet last time I checked. Grrr. Will have to check in with them this week. 

Until next time. Happy Reading, and may you never run out of good books!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Read-Aloud Faves We're Raving About

I am a Mom first. My title of 'blogger' comes somewhere around 8th or 9th on the list of badges I wear. That is the only excuse I'll give for my month-long absence from the blogging world. I'm a Mom...'Nuff said.

As the weather's been (finally) warming up the past month, my preschooler and  I have been taking lots of walks to the library. We live within walking distance of a LIBRARY!!! (Dream come true, I'm telling you!) So we load up the hefty canvas bag of picture books, Middle Grade books, YA books, and kid movies and pull out the little guy's "motorcycle" (envision tough looking plastic tricycle) and walk the half mile to our new library.


Isn't it cool-looking! And it has lots of awesome-sauce inside!

Today, I wanted to share some of the super gems we've found inside these walls. First of all is one of our staples: Elephant & Piggie books by the ever-funny Mo Willems.

If you haven't read these books, stop right now and go pick up one. These are great for any kiddo between the ages of 2-6. But I find these are especially great for the fidgety kind. The words are multi-sized with lots of emotion. Its not just reading at a monotone. But shouting and whispering and groaning and crying. For example:

All these emotions in one book. And there are a TON of them! I couldn't afford to buy them all, so I'm reallllly glad that Libraries are around to foot the bill and make them available to all of us.
These are also great for early readers. Lots of simple words. But NOT BORING....AT ALL!
My older kids still pick them up and laugh. 
Real humor, real humanity (even though they are animals), real emotions. 
'Caveat Lector'...after reading a couple, especially at full volume, you might need a Big Gulp to rehydrate your vocal chords. :)

Another fun couple of books are two I brought with me to our elementary school's Reading Is Fundamental  winter program. Let me tell you, the kids Looooooooooooved them. They wanted tons more time with these books and had a hard time going to pick out their own free book. 
Our theme for the day was "Let your Imagination go Wild" and these two really fit the bill.
(Images via

In the first book, author/illustrator has Jack telling his dad all about the awesome car, HE would build, and boy, does he pull out the stops, from gel-filled bumpers that don't crumple to a snack bar to a robot and beyond. Just watch the eyes of a kid reading this book for a the first time and you will not bemoan the future of the next generation. Promise.
The next book, Jack has a conversation with his mom about their boring, run-of-the-mill house and the ideas he has for improving it. Again, it is filled with lots of pink and turquoise and mid-century kitschy-cool blended with Jetson-esque remodeling.

The kids really got excited about this, as each room becomes more outlandish and outstanding. Here's an image of the kitchen, the FIRST room that is described.

It gets really does. And there are glimpses of the car from the first book, which are fun 'Easter eggs' for the kids to find on their multiple readings afterwards. Which there will be. I promise.

Another fun read, we only discovered this year was "Traction Man". If any of you have sons into action figures or who had action figures yourselves or had brothers, buddies, or friends who had them, then you will enjoy this wonderful book that takes a look into the life of the new Christmas present and his exploration of his surroundings and heroic activities that day.
But what happens when Granny gives Traction Man a wonderful gift???

You have to read! There is a sequel that takes place at the beach with some new Barbie-esque friends. And it looks like there is another one out that I haven't read yet:

Looks good!!!

I'm noticing a trend here of Author/Illustrators. Well, we shall keep that up with my last recommendation with the ever-wonderful, Lauren Child. My family hadn't heard of her until 3-4 years ago when some friends introduced us to the fun TV series, 'Charlie and Lola' based on Child's books. We watched all of them available on DVD at our local library. We were hooked. And I polished my British accent so I could read the REAL books aloud to my crew without making them protest, "Say it right, Mom!!!" My all-time favorites are the one about picky eating and the one about Lola's make-believe friend, Soren Lorenson. 

The way the book was printed to make Soren there, but not there in the illustrations was simply amazing. You have to check out the book to see what I mean...I'm not spoiling. :)
Below is another book I love, just because I am a bibliophile and I HATE it when the book I want from the library or bookshop is NOT there! Child totally captures that feeling.  

Lauren Child's 'Clarice Bean' books are great. At least one is a picture book, and I believe the rest are upper elementary chapter books which are great for the almost-tweener.
But one of my favorites of hers is "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book?"
I am planning to share this one for next fall's RIF day. (Shhh! Don't tell.)
In this wonderful read-aloud, Herb has been cutting the pictures out of his books and when he is sucked into his fairy tale book one night, he discovers the consequences of messing about with good books. Its' like a fractured fairytale/fairytale retold with wonderful illustrations and story line. And lots of humor. I mean, Goldilocks is the Antagonist!


Made my Happily-Ever-After heart go pitter-pat. Absolutely loved.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite author or illustrator or storybook series? Please share? I love to get new recommendations. :)