Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Middle School Reading

There is much talk about Young Adult literature and much out that is great.  It is a bit of a problem to find YA works that do not have more sex and/or violence than some parents want to have shared with their middle school students.  If you are trying to avoid those books that are really directed at high school it does not mean that there are no great books out there for eager and adventurous readers.  Here are a few suggestions.  Some also appeared on my fourth and fifth grade list. They won't be as much of a stretch for middle school readers as they are for those younger readers, but I would hate for them to be missed.

Little White Duck:  A Childhood in China by Na Luc and Andres Vera Martinez is a graphic novel that is a lovely look into life in Mao's China.  Some of the memories are happy and some reveal the harsh realities of life at that time.  It would be good to pair with The House That Baba Built:  An Artist's Childhood in China by Ed Young which is a highly illustrated memoir by this popular artist and author.  Another in the same vein is Drawing From Memory  by Allen Say, though he grew up in Japan rather than China.

Addie On the Inside by James Howe is a companion to the set, not really a series, that began with The Misfits, a book about four middle school kids who do not fit in for various reasons.  They unite to make the school more accepting of differences.  That book was followed by a book about one character, Joe, in Totally Joe.  This book takes another view point for looking at what happens with the original misfits, this time through the eyes of a girl who could be popular but does not want to neglect her friends with their quirks.  The subjects covered in these books include LGBT issues, inter-racial dating, socio-economic issues, intelligence and the perceived lack of it, and other issues that are very real in middle school.

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer is a heart-pounding rescue story that takes place in the Congo.  Sophie is 14 when she returns to the Congo where she was born and where she visits her mother every summer since her parents divorced and her American father moved back to Miami.  Even before she gets to the house and labs where her Congolese mother works with bonobo apes, Sophie has done something her mother has repeatedly told her not to do--purchased a baby bonobo to try to save it from a shady looking man on the street.  Her mother agrees to let Sophie raise the baby as long as she is totally responsible for it.  When war breaks out in Congo while the mother is visiting a rescue center away from home, Sophie takes her bonobo and flees the fighting, struggling to keep both of them alive while searching for her mother.

Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle is another graphic work that will challenge any reader.  It tells two parallel stories, one of life in a Japanese internment camp and one of a boy who shoplifts from a Japanese man.  It is a little difficult to follow at times, but the story is powerful.  The juxtaposition of the two stories in which the term "take what you can carry" has very different meanings supports thought and discussion.

Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six , Seven, Nate by Tim Federle struck my funny bone with their first view of New York City through the eyes of a 13 year old  boy from rural Pennsylvania who has travelled alone to try to audition for a Broadway musical production of E. T.  His awe struck me as very realistic, as are the descriptions of the audition experience and, in the second book, trying to fit in with other, more experienced actors.  The first book hints of Nate's interest in boys and the second book includes an innocent romance with one of the other actors.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand is carried best by its quirky characters who are working to rescue kids who are being kidnapped for retraining whenever they express an interest in thinking for themselves. 

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City by Ransom Riggs  come immediately to mind when quirky characters are mentioned.  These are odd stories of a boy facing evil and trying to track down a home that his grandfather visited during World War II.  The home takes in peculiar children who expect to live forever as they are.  I was fascinated by the origins of the characters in the mind of the author who collected old, odd photos and postcards and then created the people in his book based on these mystical, magical, unusual photos.  This story is creepy and intriguing.  It is written for older readers than the others so far on this list, but will appeal to readers who appreciate stories that are a little bit bizarre.

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills has an interesting premise that is very much in the news these days.  A student leader in a middle school inadvertently takes her mother's lunch to school one day and discovers that her mother had packed a knife to cut her apple.  Knives are forbidden at school as a part of the zero tolerance policy. The girl immediately takes the knife to the cafeteria supervisor who rushes her to the principal who has no other choice than expulsion.  The question is whether anything can be that black and white and how should school policies be determined.  I am happy that kids are being asked to think about these things.  The story goes down hill when parents and lawyers get too involved and cloudy issues further.

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein reminded me of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin since they both involve solving mysteries and riddles.  Mr. Lemoncello offers a more literary bent with myriad references to popular books and library organization.  The premise is that a group of kids get to enter a new library ahead of everyone else and may win big prizes IF they can solve all the puzzles first and not get kicked out for any reason. 

The Last Dragonslayer and The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde begin a promised fantasy trilogy that features 15 year old Jennifer Strange who runs a magic store until she called to help save magic on earth.  She must seek someone to slay dragons or perhaps do it herself.  Jennifer is a spunky heroine and she deals with a vast variety of quirky, interesting, odd characters both human and magical.

What we Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark is good fluff reading if kids are feeling the need to relax a bit.  A couple of kids find a strange sofa by the side of the road and it draws them into wild adventures in a mysterious old house.  The sofa, they soon discover, is a sentient being that survives on dust bunnies.  Inside the house they meet a strange man who convinces them that using the sofa and items found between the cushions they can save their city and the world from evil that is tricking people into flash mobs and regulating a growing coal seam fire that is devouring their town.  While it is fluffy, it also has some parts that require some thoughtful consideration.

The Thing About Luck is the latest book by Cynthia Kadohata.  It tells about Japanese migrant workers in mid-America who work on the combines, specifically grandparents and two children who have worked for the same company for years.  It defines a difficult life as well as the inter-generational relationships.  Has Kira-Kira or Weedflower by this same author.  They are other stories about be Japanese immigrants in the U.S. and struggling to fit in.  Kira-Kira  is the most well known and has won numerous awards.

Counting By 7s by Holly Sloan explores how people cope and adapt in difficult times.  Willow Chase has always been identified as highly gifted, but when she starts a new school she is promptly accused of cheating because she does the standardized testing so quickly and gets a perfect score.  The school sends her to a  school counselor who does not seem to care much about anything.  Also seeing the counselor is a Vietnamese refugee boy who is brought by his sister Mai.  The two girls gradually get to know each other so that when Willow's parents are killed in a car accident, she attempts to live with the Mai and her family. This synopsis just skims the surface of all this book discusses. 
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson kept me on the edge of my seat from the first heart-pounding rithmatic duel to the last.  Rithmatism is a kind of magic that uses intricate drawings and clever strategies to fight battles between good and evil.  One has to be able to prove as a young person that he or she has the power to be a rithmatist and Joel, the protagonist of this story, did not pass the test.  In a private school that  he is only allowed to attend because his late father was a well-respected chalk maker (a vital force for this magic) and his mother works cleaning and cooking, Joel sneaks into the rithmatic classes to learn strategy that he can never perform.  It remains one of the most exciting books I have read in many years.  This first book ends with a "to be continued" so there is something waiting for us to read.  Sanderson has written many other fantasy and adventure books.  Our library also has the series that begins with Alcatraz Vs. the Evil Librarians which I originally read for its title but found to be a great, light-hearted fantasy series and made me a Sanderson fan.

How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks is set in Victorian England in the less savory parts of London.  Ten year old Birdie is apprenticed to a bogler who traps and destroys odd, evil creatures who live in houses in the area.  Birdie is a strong girl with courage, skill, and heart.  This has a real feel of the time and place.

Constable and Toop by Gareth Jones transfixed and haunted me.  I loved this detailed story of a young boy who is the son of a coffin maker and can talk to ghosts.  He, and the reader, learn about ghost culture and rules, which, not surprisingly, can be a bit macabre. Included in this story is a creepy uncle who may be Jack the Ripper, quirky ghosts and living beings who delight in the world of Victorian England.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Wilson is a memoir written in sonnet-length poems.  They follow ten years of the author's life, ages 4-14, during the 1950s and 1960s.  Her family is African-American and her father is in the military so they move a great deal and experience the world of Jim Crow as well as a life in which they are almost treated as equals.  The poems don't dwell on civil rights, but they are always on her mind.  I think Hannah would especially like this book.

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