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!

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