Category: Middle School


nine open arms

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

Translated from the original Dutch, this book is the story of Fing and her family.  Fing’s mother died years ago and since then her father and her grandmother have taken care of them.  They are a big family, with Fing’s three older brothers and her two sisters, Muulke and Jess.  Fing’s father has decided to start a cigar business, so they move out of town to a big old house that has something very strange about it that Fing can’t quite figure out.  They call it Nine Open Arms, because that is how far across it is.  The house is near a cemetery, the front door is at the back, and there is a bed in storage that looks like a tombstone.  As the girls start a new school, they slowly begin to discover the secrets of Nine Open Arms and of their own community and family.

Delightfully wild and incredibly quirky, this book is one of a kind.  From the family that moves constantly, to the cemetery next door where they go to get their water each day, to the crocodile purse that is used to tell family stories, to the controlling grandmother who is dominant but deeply loving in her own way, to the one old story that is the key to understanding it all.  This is a richly rewarding read, one that you have to head out on before you even know what journey you are on.  It is a book that meanders but each turn is essential to the book in the end, where it all clicks into place. 

Told in the first person by Fing, the book unfolds before you, each reveal another piece of the family, another story, another moment that is meaningful.  It is a perfectly crafted book that has a plot that moves in its own time, another time, a less modern pace.  It ties to the pace of the family, one where things are revealed in their own space.  It’s incredibly well done.

Beautifully written, magnificently crafted, this Dutch novel is like nothing you have read before, and that is wonderful!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

turtle of oman

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

Aref’s family is moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan from where he has always lived in Muscat, Oman.  After his father heads off ahead of Aref and his mother, the two of them head home to finish packing and for his mother to finish working.  But Aref does not want to leave Oman, leave his bedroom to his cousins who will be living there while they are gone for several years, leave his pet cat behind.  But particularly, he does not want to leave his grandfather.  Aref pretends to pack, but finds himself playing instead, riding his bike, ignoring the packing entirely.  His mother gets frustrated and asks Siddi, his grandfather, for a hand.  So the Aref and Siddi head out on a series of adventures that let them spend time together, but also let Aref say goodbye to his beloved Oman and be open enough to greet the future in Michigan.

Nye is the author of Habibi as well as an acclaimed poet.  Her novel is short and wonderfully vivid, painting a picture of Oman for young readers who will be drawn to the natural beauty.  Readers will also be taken by the loving family, where parenting is done with grace and kindness, and where a grandfather is willing to spend lots of time saying farewell, as much time as a child needs. 

Nye’s writing shows her poetic skills again and again.  Her prose reads like verse, filled with imagery and striking wording.  When Aref goes to the sea with his grandfather, Nye describes it like this:

The sky loomed with a few delicate lines of wavery cloud, one under the other.  It looked like another blue ocean over the watery blue sea.  Aref took a deep breath and tried to hold all the blue inside his body, pretending for a moment he didn’t have to move away or say good-bye to anything or share his room and cat, none of it.

Many of the moments with Aref and his grandfather are written like this, celebrating the tiny pieces of beauty in the world, relishing the time, treasuring the wonder.  Her book is like a jewel, faceted and lovely to turn and marvel at.

This short novel is a vivid and majestic look at the Middle East, at familial love, and at the special relationship of a boy and his grandfather.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss.

fourteenth goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Released August 26, 2014.

Eleven-year-old Ellie loves doing puzzles, because the pieces fit together so neatly.  She doesn’t like change at all, like the way that her best friend Brianna never talks with her anymore.  She lives with her mother in a tiny house with the garage filled with costumes from her job directing high school theater.  Her mother wants her to find her own passion, but Ellie isn’t sure that she has one.  Then something very strange happens, and her grandfather comes to live with them.  But he’s not really himself, instead he’s thirteen years old again!  Now Ellie has a “cousin” Melvin who goes to school with her but dresses, talks and thinks just like her grandfather.  Could he really have found the key to eternal youth?  This is the classic story of growing up, mixed with someone who is trying to grow down.

Holm’s signature light touch is a large part of the success of this novel.  Dealing with big issues like aging, death, and growing up, Holm manages to keep the tone light enough to make the reading great fun.  She mixes science into the story, clearly displaying her own interest in the subject, but also making sure that the science is just as readable as the story.

She populates her story with great characters from the dramatic mother to Ellie herself who readers will relate to quickly and easily.  Melvin is my favorite character in the book, written for pure delight as a great mix of teen boy and aging man.  In particular, I love that Holm kept him wearing the same clothes, talking to his daughter in the same way, and relating with teens he meets as if he didn’t resemble them in the least.  He’s a brilliant character, a wonderful grandfather, and profoundly funny.

Grab this as a great book to share in a classroom, it has lots to discuss but is immensely readable and serves as a clever entry point to science fiction reading.  Also, get this into the hands of Holm fans who are ready for something beyond Babymouse.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.

anybody shining

Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Released September 23, 2014.

12-year-old Arie Mae loves living in the Appalachian Mountains.  She is so proud of her mother, who sings the old songs like an angel and her father who loves modern and traditional music.  All that is missing in her life is a best friend.  Arie Mae starts writing letters to her cousin who lives far away in Baltimore and whose mother had grown up in the mountains.  After sending letter after letter, Arie Mae gets no response, but continues writing anyway, sharing the details of her life and adventures.  Then Arie Mae gets another chance to make a new friend.  A group of children from Baltimore are coming to the mountains along with the song catcher ladies, who will record the traditional songs and who have also created a new school for people to learn traditional crafts that can then be sold.  Arie Mae knows right away that she won’t be friends with the bossy girl who looks down on the mountain children.  But there is a boy with a limp who loves to hear the traditional stories and refuses to let his limp stop him from exploring.  His mother warns Arie Mae that he should not exert himself much because of his health, but nothing is going to slow either of them down now that they are friends and there are woods and mountains to discover together. 

Dowell writes with a beauty that brings the Appalachians to life.  She captures the lifestyle of these people without flinching from the poverty that they live in, but also revealing the incredible simplicity of this life that makes it possible.  She shows the tension between traditional ways of life and the modern world in a very developed way, where the outsiders are the ones who want the traditions to continue and their lives to be undisturbed by modern conventions.  This is a beautiful novel about the power of writing, the question of whether those living in the mountains need saving, and the quest for a best friend.

Arie Mae is a wonderful character.  She is the lens through which we see the mountains and it is her love for them that appears on the page.  So does her voice, which is clarion clear and written with the rhythm of the mountains entwined in it.  Here is a passage from page 22 of the e-galley where she writes to her cousin about how writing has changed her:

I have found that since I started writing letters to you I’ve been paying close attention to all the doings and comings and goings of a day.  It’s like saving secrets to share with a friend late in the evening, when the lights are dimmed but for a single lantern hanging on a neighbor’s porch across the holler.

These are the sorts of images shared throughout the book, sprinkled throughout.  The setting of the mountains is as much a character on the page as Arie Mae is.  And it is brought to life just as vividly.

Strongly written, with beautiful passages, this novel for middle graders invites them to spend time with Arie Mae in the mountains and to join in the adventures.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

sisters

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Released August 26, 2014.

The exceptionally talented and incredibly popular Raina Telgemeier returns with a sequel to her beloved Smile.  This is the story of Raina and her little sister, Amara.  Raina was desperate to have a little sister, but Amara is not working out the way she had pictured.  Now Raina is stuck on a road trip with her sister, little brother and her mother.  They are all stuck in a van traveling from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion.  The relationship between the two sisters is tense, not only because they have very different personalities but also because they are both artists.  Then you add in the clear issues of Raina’s parents and you have a dynamic view of a family on the brink of big changes.  It’s just up to Raina and Amara as to how their relationship with one another will change.

Telgemeier has created another breathtakingly honest graphic novel for elementary and middle grade readers.  Through her illustrations and humor, she shows a family at the crux of a moment that could change things forever.  The book though focuses on flashbacks showing the family and how relationships have altered.  Readers may be so focused on the story of the two sisters that they too will be blindsided along with Raina about the other issues facing their family.  It’s a craftily told story, one that surprises and delights.

As always, Telgemeier’s art is fantastic.  She has a light touch, one that invites readers into her world and her family and where they long to linger.  Her art is always approachable and understandable, more about a vehicle to tell the story than about making an artistic statement on its own.  It is warm, friendly and fantastic.

Highly recommended, this book belongs in every library that works with children.  A dynamite sequel that lives up to the incredible first book.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

graveyard book

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volume 1 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell

The first volume in a two volume graphic version of the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, this book celebrates the original story as well as several top graphic artists, who each take a chapter in the tale.  True to the written story, this graphic version has a wonderful creepy vibe and does not shy away from the horror elements.  The story is brought vividly to life by this new format and also brings it to new readers who may not have read the written work.

Thanks to the signature illustration style of each of the artists, the book takes different views of the graveyard, the characters and the story.  With each change in artist, there is a sense of refreshment and wonder anew.  At the same time, the illustrators adhere to certain elements, so that Bod looks like the same character throughout the book as do other main characters.  The various ghosts glow on the page, Silas is a gaunt dark figure who commands attention, and Bod himself is a luminous child that is the center of the story both visually and thematically.

Beautifully and powerfully illustrated, this new version of the book is a masterpiece.  Readers will wait eagerly for Volume Two.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.

boundless

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Will found his first adventure when he headed out into the wilderness on a train to see his father after the transcontinental railroad was completed.  Will not only got to witness the final golden spike being driven but got to finish driving it in himself!  After the ceremony though, disaster struck with an avalanche that took Will and his father along with it.  They survived despite the large amount of snow and being attacked by sasquatches.  Now a few years later, Will and his father are aboard the Boundless, the most amazing train ever created.  Will’s father is no longer a laborer, instead working as an engineer aboard the train where Will will be riding first class.  The train carries with it a circus as well as thousands of people riding in different classes.  But there is also danger aboard the train and it’s headed right for Will. 

Oppel, the author of Airborn, has created a great adventure aboard a marvelous train.  The train itself is incredible from its sheer size to the number of people aboard.  The descriptions of each class of the train are done with an attention to detail and to the feeling of each area, each one significantly different from the others.  This setting is richly drawn and used as a clever device to keep the plot moving and also to isolate Will and the others from help. 

Will is a fine protagonist.  He is brave, somewhat bored, artistically gifted and living a surprising life.  Through it all he shows a spunk and willingness to throw himself into life, exactly the thing that his father despairs of him ever having.  The other characters are also well drawn: the villains are horrifically awful, Will’s companions are complicated and have their own motivations that are revealed as the book progresses. 

This is top-notch adventure writing set on a moving train traveling across a world filled with monsters, many of which are human.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

through the woods

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This graphic novel is haunted by authors like Neil Gaiman and the Brother Grimm.  The tales here are gruesome in the best possible way, frightening and oozy and delightful.  Our Neighbor’s House is a strange tale of a family that disappears one by one into the frigid snow following a man in a wide-brimmed hat until there is only one girl left.  A Lady’s Hands Are Cold tells of a women married into a loveless marriage who begins to hear voices calling from the walls and floors of the house.  His Face All Red is a story of murder and the undead. My Friend Janna tells of what happens when fakery of the occult becomes real and dangerous.  The Nesting Place will have your skin crawling, or perhaps it’s what lurks behind your skin.  Each story is a gem, strange and beautiful and entirely horrific.

Carroll does both the stories and the art here and they are married together so closely that they could not be extricated.  Though they are all clearly done by one person, the art changes from one to the next, definitively showing that you are entering a different place with different people.  There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales too. 

Yet though they are clearly different, you start each one with that unease in your stomach that Carroll seems to be able to generate through her use of colors and the way that her characters gaze from the page.  Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is.  The effect is haunting, haunted and wildly exhilarating.

A true delight of a read, this graphic novel for teens is completely disturbing and filled with horror.  In other words, it’s perfection for horror fans.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from McElderry Books.

zane and the hurricane

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick

Zane lives in New Hampshire with his mother and is sent to visit his newly discovered great grandmother in New Orleans.  Unfortunately, he is there when Katrina hits.  Headed out of the city with his grandmother’s pastor in their church van, Zane is safe until his little dog, Bandit jumps out of the open window because some larger dogs in another vehicle are barking at him.  Zane goes after him, walking for miles until he catches him.  Realizing he’s closer to his grandmother’s house than the vehicle, he heads back there.  Then the storm comes.  Zane is in a house that is leaking, the flood waters start to rise, and he climbs with Bandit up into the attic.  From there he is rescued by an older musician wearing a wild looking hat and a young girl.  As chaos descends on the city, Zane finds that all of the rules change but that it is human kindness that makes all the difference.

Philbrick has crafted a very well-written book about Katrina.  He melds the details of the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans into the narrative, allowing it to form the backbone of the story.  At the same time, this is Zane’s specific story, one of luck and bravery.  The flooded city becomes the foundation of the tale, those happy to take advantage of the situation appear and the support of police is nearly nonexistent. 

Philbrick’s story is very readable, the storm offering a structure to the book that readers will feel approaching in an inevitable and inescapable way.  The beginning of the book is rife with dread and fear, knowing what is going to happen.  That fear never lets up even after the storm has passed.  Zane is a strong and resourceful character, one who is forced to trust others and their generosity. Race plays an important role in the book, from Zane’s mixed race to his two African-American companions after the flood. 

This is definitely a story of Katrina, but it is even more a survival story of a boy and his dog.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Blue Sky Press.

misadventures of the family fletcher

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

The four Fletcher boys could not be more different from one another.  There is the serious ten-year-old Eli who is starting a private school separate from his brothers for the first time and who just may have made a horrible decision changing schools.  There is Sam, aged twelve, who loves sports and is popular at school but who will find himself stretching into new interests this year.  There is Jax, also aged ten, who has a huge homework assignment that will have him talking to their new grumpy neighbor for help but only after he calms down from a number of things.  Finally, there is Frog who is just starting kindergarten along with his imaginary friend and who may have a new imaginary friend named Ladybug.  It all adds up to a wonderful read with lots of humor and one amazing family.

Filled with laughter, an angry neighbor, elaborate Halloween parties, soccer, hockey and plenty of pets, this book is sure to please middle grade readers.  Add in the diverse backgrounds of the four boys in the family and their two dads and you have a book that celebrates diversity without taking itself too seriously.  It’s the ideal mix of completely readable book with its diversity simply part of the story not the main point. 

All of the boys as well as the two fathers are unique individuals with their own personal responses to crises and situations.  Each chapter begins with a note from one character to another, usually funny and always showing their personality.  Perhaps the best part of the book is that this family dynamic is clearly one of love but also filled with normal chaos and the daily strain of work, school, neighbors and friends.  It reads like a modern classic.

I hope we get to read more of their misadventures in future books, because this is one family that I want to see much more of!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

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