Tag Archives: middle grade fiction

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

Whoa. Two weeks since my last post! Not good. My kids are back in school and I’ve been up late at night doing other stuff, I guess. I am halfway through two books – My Sunshine Away and Did You Ever Have A Family, so expect some reviews soon.

Meanwhile, I interrupted my adult reading to read our first Mother-Daughter Book Club book of the year: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. This book ended up on our club reading list because it was one of the summer reading recommendations from my daughters’ school. Mockingbird is about an 11 year-old girl, Caitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her beloved older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, and her father, a widower, is deep in his own grief. Caitlyn is trying to process what happened to her brother and make it through the 5th grade with her limited emotional vocabulary, without a whole lot of support.

Mockingbird is a good middle-grade introduction to Asperger’s and spectrum disorders. Caitlyn’s syndrome manifests in a number of ways: she is extremely literal, she has trouble reading other people’s emotions through body language, she’s not empathetic, she hates loud noises and finds colors “messy”, and she likes memorization and definitions. Caitlyn’s school counselor spends a lot of time trying to get Caitlyn to make friends and understand how others are feeling. Over the course of the book, Caitlyn makes some progress on these fronts, and she and her father begin to connect and share in their grief.

Our book club conversation ended up changing my feelings about the book. One of the moms/daughters in our club has a family member with autism, and they explained that the book oversimplified several components of spectrum disorder and didn’t give an accurate picture of what someone with autism is really like. They took issue with some of the therapies Caitlyn’s counselor used to help her understand other people’s emotions, finding them patronizing and insulting. To be fair, Caitlyn has Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism, and the author has a daughter with Asperger’s so she was clearly basing the character on her real-life experience. But my friend’s and her daughter’s reactions did color my view of the book. Also, I was bothered by the way that Caitlyn’s guidance counselor kept trying to “fix”or change her, rather than accepting Caitlyn for who she was and helping her navigate the world as Caitlyn.

The girls found Mockingbird to be very sad. They felt sorry for Caitlyn and her father, and were touched by the friendship Caitlyn developed with a younger boy who had also lost a family member in the same shooting. The book was appropriate for 5th-6th grade and held their attention. I found it very sad and compelling as I was reading it, but took issue with the end goal, which was to “fix” Caitlyn rather than work within her limitations.

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate

Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.

The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.

How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?

The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.

The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.

HOLES by Louis Sachar

Our last Mother-Daughter book club read was Holes by Louis Sachar.

Holes is a weird, dark book. It takes place at a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert, where delinquent boys are sent as punishment for their crimes. While at Camp Green Lake, the boys are required to spend their days digging holes – circular in shape and 5 feet deep and in circumference – in a dried up lake bed. They aren’t told why; they are just told to dig. All day, every day.

Stanley Yelnats has been sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn’t commit – stealing a famous baseball player’s sneakers which had been donated to benefit a homeless shelter. Stanley was convicted of stealing the shoes, and arrives at Camp Green Lake resigned to serve his time there. He’s an overweight, out of shape, unpopular boy, but after his arrival at Green Lake, he is eventually accepted by the other boys there and starts to fit in. He gets in better shape from the unending digging, and even starts teaching one of his fellow campmates how to read. But Stanley carries with him a curse that was delivered on his family a few generations before, and he believes it is the Yelnats’ fate to fail, despite his increasing self-confidence.

The boys in Stanley’s group figure out that they are digging the holes because the warden is trying to find something that is buried in the lake bed. When Stanley finds a lipstick case that is of great interest to the warden, the boys’ desire to find whatever else might be buried – and possibly put the endless digging to rest – only intensifies.

Holes reminded me of a fable. There are some elements of the fantastic, like lethal spotted lizards who are repelled by the smell of onions, as well as coincidences and plot twists that steer the book strongly off of the path of realistic fiction. And it’s a dark story, with some pretty awful authority figures and a lot of greed to go around. But it kept my attention, and it certainly kept my daughters’ attention. I was surprised by how high the girls in the book club rated it – most gave it a 9 or a 10. We had a good discussion about what they would do if they were in the boys’ shoes, and whether Camp Green Lake was worse than jail (everyone thought it was).

By the way, it had a happy ending.

Holes was an interesting, offbeat pick for middle grade readers.

BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea

Our February Mother-Daughter book club book was Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. It was a big hit with the girls.

Because of Mr. Terupt is about a fifth grade teacher, Mr. Terupt, and the effect he had on seven of his students one fateful year. The students are a diverse lot – the class bully, the class clown, the brain, the withdrawn boy, the new girl from California, the outcast, and the bully’s sidekick. Over the course of the year, they each change – for the better – thanks to their teacher, who recognizes the good in them and gently coaxes it out.

Some of Mr. Terupt’s efforts were done unconsciously. He was hit by a snowball during recess about halfway through the book, and shockingly ends up in a coma. Yet even when he was in the hospital, he managed to bring the kids together and help resolve some of their problems, especially those that originated outside the classroom.

The girls in the book club really enjoyed the book. They liked the complexity of the characters, who faced difficult situations like the death of a sibling, very strict parents, and absent fathers. They liked Mr. Terupt. We even had a discussion about negligence, fault and causation, which reminded me of my torts class in law school. Some of the girls had read the sequel already – Mr. Terupt Falls Again – and my daughters have already downloaded it onto their Kindle (and book club was today). Definitely the mark of a good book! Recommended for the middle grade set.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.

 

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

This month’s mother-daughter book club pick was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, one of those books that’s billed as YA but which I saw all over the place when it came out in 2009, suggesting that its appeal goes well beyond kids’ fiction. (It won the Newbery in 2010.)


When You Reach Me takes place on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and is about Miranda, the daughter of a single mother, who has become estranged from her best friend Sal, a boy who lives upstairs from her. The two were walking home from school one day when out of the blue, he was punched by another kid. From that day on, their friendship was over, despite Miranda’s attempts to engage Sal and recover what they had. In the meantime, a cast of odd characters is filled out, including Marcus, the boy who punched Sal; a homeless man who lives on the corner and sleeps with his head under a mailbox; and Annemarie, a girl Miranda befriends who partially fills the void left by Sal. And some mysterious notes start appearing in Miranda’s apartment, each one making reference to events that hadn’t happened yet. Who could know these personal things about Miranda, and how did he or she know things that even Miranda didn’t know yet?

Books about time travel always make my head hurt – in a good way – and this one was no exception. References to A Wrinkle in Time abound (Miranda is reading it when When You Reach Me takes place), and there is a suggestion of the possibility of time travel throughout the book, as Miranda discusses it with her friends.

But it wasn’t the time travel that drew me into this book. It was the depiction of a lonely, 1970s latchkey childhood – a far cry from the overprotective, overscheduled lives middle-graders live now. Miranda spent a lot of time alone, with few people to talk to about her disappointments, sadness, and anxiety. I liked that the characters were not one-dimensional; even the rich girl/bully turns out to be smart and redeeming in the end. And the explanation at the end of where the notes came from and who wrote them was satisfying, if a bit headache-inducing. Miranda’s relationship with Sal is explained, if not rehabilitated, and she finds other flawed but rewarding friends to spend time with.

Here’s a great interview with Rebecca Stead on Amazon.

I think this is a great book for kids. It is a story about relationships and friendship wrapped up in science fiction and mystery. Miranda is a formidable heroine – she is self-sufficient and independent, but not infallible.

Our book club meets this Sunday – I expect that this one will be well-received by the group.

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach

Our Mother-Daughter book club met over the weekend to discuss Masterpiece by Elise Broach. I think this may have been the most enthusiastically received book we’ve read this year other than Wonder. (When asked to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10, one girl gave it a 70.)


Masterpiece is a book about art forgery, interspecies friendship, loyalty, and taking risks. James is an 11 year-old boy living in New York City with his distracted, materialistic mother and stepfather. His father, an artist, appears to see him only erratically. But James doesn’t know that there is a family of beetles living in his apartment, and that the youngest beetle, Marvin, is actually a very talented artist. One day, Marvin goes into James’ room and makes a drawing for James’s birthday of the view looking out the window. (He creates the lines by dragging his legs through ink and then transferring the ink to the page). Marvin’s drawing gets mistaken for James’ by his proud father, the three go off to the museum to see more art, and before they know it, James and Marvin find themselves dragged into a complicated scheme to recover a series of Albrecht Durer drawings that were stolen from the Met.

The premise may sound silly or juvenile, but Masterpiece is actually a substantive book that tackles some abstract concepts. If people steal art because they love it so much, should they be forgiven? Is it OK to lie in order to protect people (or creatures) that you love? Is it OK to risk your life to be a good friend? And then the art itself (which is fictional) is based on philosophical topics like Fortitude, Justice and Prudenc, and a good portion of the book focuses on why the artist chose those topics and what he was trying to say.

Masterpiece was a fun read, and even had some suspense in it, as James and Marvin try to recover the stolen works without being caught by the perpetrator. Both the moms and the girls (9 and 10 year-olds) in the book club found a lot to discuss in the book.

Highly recommended for middle grade fiction readers.