Middle Grade Sampler Platter

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been reading like a mad woman, trying to catch up on my Illinois Readers’ Choice Award books, namely the Caudills, Bluestems, and Monarchs. This has included reading LOTS of middle grade fiction. Below is a quick sampler of what’s been keeping me busy lately:

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo (2006)

Until last month, I was one of the very few who had yet to read any Kate DiCamillo. I mean, everyone has read at least something by her (Because of Winn Dixie perhaps, or Tale of Despereaux?), but not this girl. So I had no real sense of her writing style or character development. Really, the only thing I knew was that she generally writes about animals of some sort, and I generally don’t like animal stories because they generally make me sad (a lot of generalizations here, I know). And I have to say, although Edward Tulane is about a (toy) animal and the book did make me sad at parts, DiCamillo completely took me by surprise. First off, Edward Tulane (the ceramic rabbit toy) is a bit of an arrogant jerk. His owner, a sweet girl Abilene, loves him to death and takes him everywhere with her, yet he could do without her. He would rather be left alone to stare at the stars from the window, to be frank. Then one day, when Abilene’s family is on a journey, he is lost over the side of a boat and tumbles into the ocean. So begins his journey through the hands and care of a terrific cast of characters, each different from the one before. And along the way, Edward may just learn a little about love and loss. Enchanting and unexpected: 2 stars

The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere, Vol. 1, by Jacqueline West (2010)

Olive and her math-professor parents move into a giant, old, mysterious house, including all the furniture, decorations, and belongings of the previous owner. As can probably be expected, before long Olive notices that strange things are happening in the house, things that just don’t happen in real life. She swears she sees something move in one of the paintings. Next, she meets a talking cat named Horatio, who warns her to be careful. She then finds a pair of old glasses in a drawer, and after trying them on, realizes that with them she can go inside the paintings and talk to the people that she finds there! While this may seem all well and exciting, she soon discovers that inside the paintings — inside Elsewhere — lurks a dark and sinister power that may just be trying to take over the house and get rid of Olive and her parents. Can Olive safe the house from this shadowy villain?

Relatively interesting, but not particularly unique: 1 star

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech (2001)

Usually, I’m totally into novels in verse. I think it’s a delightful way to present a story that really requires the author to make every word count. I have to say, Love That Dog didn’t really impress me much (Shania Twain reference anyone?). The idea is a good one: fifth grader Jack doesn’t think he can write poetry. Poetry is too hard to write, and plus, it’s for girls. But his teacher convinces him that what he is writing is indeed poetry and good poetry at that. Written through Jack’s poetry letters to his teacher, Creech shows that poetry can in fact be for everyone. There are great connections to real poets and real poems, and like I said, I like the idea. Somehow, though, the execution of it missed for me.

I can imagine some kids that would enjoy reading it, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. 1 star.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger (2010)

This book was a riot. I picked it up at my favorite used book store (which happens to be in Milwaukee), and read it out loud to my parents in the car on the way from Milwaukee to Chicago. There was a little traffic, but still, this sucker didn’t take more than an hour and a half to get through, and had all of us snorting. One day, 6th grader weirdo, Dwight, comes to school with a small origami Yoda perched upon his finger, and even though all the kids in the school think Dwight is the epitome of nuts, this folded paper Jedi seems to know the future and offer sage advice. Tommy just can’t figure it out: is Dwight the one offering the advice to his classmates, or is this origami Yoda for real? Pieced together by stories from lots of different students, Tommy and his friends attempt to solve the mysterious case.

Funny and smart, 2 stars.

The Name of this Book is Secret, by Pseudononymous Bosch (2007)

I’ve been seeing this book around for years, and boy does it have good cover mojo. I’ve picked it up many times, just for that font/design/color combo. And plus, several kids have told me it’s great. But because of the narrator’s intense desire to keep the content secret, I’ve never known hardly anything about it. Finally, thanks to Bluestem, I had a chance to dig in. First off, if you are one of those people that doesn’t like when the narrator of the book talks directly to the reader, this is not the book for you. The narrator talks to the reader constantly, including footnotes and asides. But if that doesn’t bother you, or if you like that technique, you are in for a fun adventure filled with quirky characters, exciting plot twists, and laugh-out-loud moments. And to stick with the author’s wishes, I’m not going to tell you anything about it.

Goofy and endearing, 2 stars.

Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord (2010)

I had the privilege of meeting Cynthia Lord several years ago at a Children’s Literature Festival at my undergrad university when she was just starting work on Touch Blue. She was sharing with the students her motivations for writing her first novel, Rules , which was that she just couldn’t find books for her kids to read that showed families like theirs. She though there should be stories that showed all sorts of families. And I’m guessing the same is true for her motivations for Touch Blue. Eleven year old Tess lives with her family on a small island off the coast of Maine, and after her best friend’s family moves to the mainland one spring, the state says they will need to shut down the island school due to too few students. For Tess, this means moving from the only place she’s ever known and loved. That is when the island minister gets an idea: what if some of the families on the island take in foster children? The children would have loving, supportive homes and the families would get to stay on the island — a win-win for everyone. Soon, Tess’s father travels to the mainland to pick up the newest member of the family, 13-year-old Aaron. Tess and her sister have a lot of expectations for their new brother. But, of course, Aaron isn’t anything like they expected.

Engaging and honest, a beautiful story of what it means to be family, 2 stars.

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