Tag Archives: Middle Grade Fiction

Middle Grade Summer Reads

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Two more wonderful books to add the this summer’s read:

Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan by Sheila Agnew:

Evie Brooks has just lost her mom. With no father to account for, she must choose between living with her uncle Scott, in New York, or staying with her godmother Janet, in Dublin. “That’s kind of the whole point of having a godparent; that’s the person who brings you up, you know, if something happens and your parents are not on the scene.” As much as Evie would prefer to have things not change, her mother’s dying wish was for Scott to become Evie’s guardian, and “a guardian is basically the chief godparent,” – so she must at least give that a try.

Thus, Evie’s journey half way around the world begins. She has a lot to learn when she gets to New York—like how to help Scott in his veterinary office and how to tell the difference between heading Uptown or Downtown. She also learns that she’s not too smooth when talking to older boys, and that Scott’s girlfriend, Leela, is pure unadulterated evil.

Sheila Agnew’s Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan provides a humorous outsider’s perspective about life in New York, filled with touching moments about loss, family, and true friendship; but not without adventure and mischief in the Big Apple.

A Nearer Moon by Melanie Crowder:

Luna and Willow are sisters who live in a small village by a toxic swamp, which once used to be a beautiful, life-giving, free-flowing, river. Because of the dangers of the swamp, the wicked creature that lives deep within it, and the incurable wasting illness that succumbs to those who drink from the water, Mama has three never-to-be-broken rules:

“Don’t go past the bend in the river.

Don’t go below the dam.

Steer away from the slick.”

Luna’s rational nature and thirst for adventure prevent her from believing too deeply in these silly tales about such nonsense as “sprite magic.” But when Willow accidentally drinks from the black swamp water, Luna must break every single one of Mama’s rules to save her baby sister… or to at least be able to say, “I did everything I could.”

Through alternating perspectives between Luna and the water sprite, Perdita, Melanie Crowder weaves a magical story about sisterly love and devotion. A Nearer Moon is a mesmerizing fairytale told in poetic prose and rhythmic descriptions that transport the reader to a magical place with playful sprites, supernatural powers, and evil curses. It is a captivating tale of self-sacrifice, perseverance, and the true meaning of love.

Both reviews will be on the San Francisco Book Review… so much to read, so little time!

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Middle Grade Fiction, San Francisco Book Review, Summer Reads

Other Beach and Poolside Reads…because it’s summer!

Mindy & Lemoncello

As soon as summer vacation rolls around, my reading list drastically increases — and it’s awesome! One of my favorite pastimes involves reading by any body of water… basically, if my toes are in the sand, there’s sure to be a book in my hand. (Did I mean to rhyme? Maybe… maybe not… but it’s true!)

And so that brings me to my beach and poolside reads while vacationing with family and friends on a lovely cruise to Bermuda:

* Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling. Let me start by saying that Mindy is hilarious! She is a funny, accomplished woman who is also quite different from the typical Hollywood gal — and I love that she embraces it and celebrates it and that she felt her musings and struggles and selfies were the makings of a book… because I found it all very entertaining! There are funny anecdotes (and pictures) of her childhood, explanations of her struggles to make it into the comedy industry, and a whole lot about how much she loves her friends. I giggled, laughed, and connected with many ways. It’s a great summer read. (I am looking forward to her upcoming book this fall!)

* Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. Now, I’ve been seeing this title on the New York Times best seller list for a while, and so I figure, let’s see what all the fuss is about… but I didn’t actually know what the book was about. (I like to just pick up a book and start reading). So, I thought this was a book about some crazed Mr. Lemoncello who trapped children in his evil library and they had to escape to save their lives! … That is NOT what this book about. It is actually about an eccentric billionaire game-maker, Mr. Lemoncello (who just so happens to be very “Willy Wonka-like”). He is from a small (and imaginary… it’s not a real place, kids!) town in Ohio, called Alexandriaville. When Mr. Lemoncello was young, he found the town’s library to be a safe haven for his thoughts and learning. Thus, when the library was closed down, the decided to rebuild it in style! This takes a very long time — and so the children of the town (12 year-olds, to be exact) have never known a library. For a grand opening, Mr. Lemoncello chooses 12 twelve year-olds to partake in a sleepover game at the new and improved library. It’s full of puzzles, riddles, and games! It’s a whole lot of fun… for those who are really into working with others and enjoying the discovery of knowledge… for those who a selfish, egotistical jerks, not so much! The objective: be the first to escape from the library… without using the entrance through which you came in. It’s a really fun read!

And now… off to find some new books! (Unfortunately, I don’t think many more will be read with my toes in the sand). Thus, I will also be looking for some great spots to do my reading. Stay tuned!

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Filed under Book Review, Memoir, Middle Grade Fiction, New York Times Best Seller, Summer Reads

The Wrong Boy and his Words

Magic words The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill is essentially a fairy tale that combines multiple story lines, while tugging at your heart strings from the very first page.

The mischievous and happy twins, Ned and Tam build a make-shift raft that will take them from the Great River to the sea. “The sea, Tam…. the sea!”

Unfortunately, a raft built by 7 year-old boys can hardly be deemed sea-worthy…

“The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He kicked and swore, but as he reached one boy — the closer boy — his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. […]
‘We should have known he’d bungle it,’ they said.
‘He saved the wrong one.'”

And so Ned, the wrong boy, lived — while Tam, the smart one, was carried away by the current and drowned. But his mother, Sister Witch, could not bear that one of her sons had died, while the other lay struggling for his life… so she did something she shouldn’t have: she used the magic kept under her care to keep her child alive.

Saving Ned’s life came at a cost to him — he barely grew, he was small and quiet, he stuttered:

“Words were his enemies. They rattled in his mouth like broken teeth, or tumbled off the page like scattered dust after a sneeze.”

… he also forgot how to read:

“There was a time when he could read. Both he and his brother could. Before. But then everything changed. Now, whenever Ned looked at the sign (or any writing for that matter), the letters seemed to wobble, shift, and scramble themselves. They wriggled like snakes and swarmed like locusts.”

The townspeople think him dim-witted… they are unkind. However, larger events come into play as the Queen comes to this little village while visiting different towns throughout her realm. Her family — the Queen’s nephew in particular — would love to see her dead. Fortunately, Sister Witch is able to save the Queen’s life… and is then invited to visit the castle. Using magic is exhausting for Sister Witch, and so she leaves the magic at home, safe within its little jar, and asks Ned to look after it. Unfortunately, the Bandit King comes along with his band of ruffians to take the magic — he is consumed by greed and power, and even threatens to kill Ned’s father to force Ned out of his home along with the jar of magic. But Ned discovers he can be brave… he cannot let his father die… he opens the jar, and the magic melds within his skin, burning, and itching, and causing so much pain. But it does not kill him. The real adventure begins!

The magic within Ned is volatile — constantly causing him to war within himself: Will he do what is right? Will he do what is selfish? Will he do what is best? Will he be merciful? Will he give into the power within him? Ned’s family has been keeping the magic good for generations… can he do the same? The magic requires a strong will to be kept in its place — it requires strong commanding words:

“A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed. And Ned was not a powerful boy.”

As he runs through the woods to escape the bandits, the Bandit King plots with the over-indulgent and power-hungry King Ott of a nearby kingdom against the Ned’s small village. He convinces King Ott to attack — now Ned has an even greater task ahead: he needs to save himself, and warn his people.

While lost in the woods, he meets a wolf… and Áine – the Bandit King’s daughter. Upon her death bed, Áine’s mother told her, “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his. And the wolf –” Well, she’d have to guess about the wolf.

Together, this trio runs through the woods, escaping bandits, making some difficult decisions, and taking care of one another. They learn to trust, they learn to care, and most of all, they learn about true friendship and sacrifices.

It is difficult to choose only one theme within this lovely tale of good versus evil. It is about friendship, it is about greed, it is about making the difficult choices, it is about forgiveness, and it is about accepting loss…

The Witch’s Boy is poetic in it’s repetition, melodic in it’s tone, and deep in it’s message. Ned undergoes many different transformations throughout the story: a mischievous boy, a mourning twin, a scared kidnapping victim, a commanding magician, a caring friend, a self-sacrificing person, an imposing kidnapper, a normal villager, and an adventurous wanderer….

After all, how else could the story end? “The sea, Tam… the sea!”

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Kane Chronicles & Percy Jackson: WIN!

son of sobek

So I finally had some time to sit down and read The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis. I just can’t get enough mythology… or Percy… or Annabeth…. or Kanes! These short stories are an excellent way to get a quick Rick Riordan fix while he writes… the millions books he seems to be working on simultaneously.

The Son on Sobek focuses on Percy and Carter as they battle this huge monster that’s been trampling a neighborhood on Long Island. The monstrous crocodile has been enchanted by an Egyptian amulet, but it’s on Percy’s turf — thus Greek and Egyptian mythology collide. Carter does his battle armor thing… Percy does his water thing… they’re both suspicious about each other, but they work so well together. It’s good fun!

The Staff of Serapis is about Annabeth and Sadie, who meet on the subway as a three-headed staff is in the midst of putting itself together and wreaking havoc during rush hour. This wolf/lion-plus-dog-monster, which is also stuck in some kind of cone, is making its way to its master: a god created by Alexander the Great– part Egyptian, part Greek… and completely insane. Annabeth and Sadie work really well together and become fast friends. Girls just work better!

I like that these stories seem like part of a greater mystery — someone is messing with Egyptian and Greek magic and is simply experimenting to see what happens when these characters come together. And I’m loving it!

Keep them coming, Mr. Riordan!!

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Tuck Everlasting… What if you could live forever?

life's got to be lived

… What if you could live forever?

Natalie Babbitt raises some very interesting questions within this relatively simple story of Tuck Everlasting. Winnie Foster is a rich little girl who feels oppressively confined within the gates of her own home. Her mother and grandmother are constantly watching her… asking where she is… wondering what she is doing… it’s positively stifling! She dreams of running away… and even tells a little toad all about her wondrous plans of escape. But Winnie is a good little girl — she wouldn’t actually run away. Where would she run away to? Who will she run away with? So she just wanders into the woods near her home. Once there, she sees a boy sitting by a tree, and watches him sip some water from a spring. Soon, his mom and older brother join him — and they must explain to Winnie why she must never, ever drink from that spring or tell anyone about it!

The spring is magical. It allows those who drink from it the ability to live forever… unchanged. The Tucks discover this the hard way, over 8 decades ago. And while some might consider living forever a blessing — or a profitable business — most of the Tucks feel that this has caused them to lose far too much. Nonetheless, unsure about whether Winnie really believes them or not, the Tucks take her to their cottage to speak with the father… surely he can make sure she understands. Technically, this is kidnapping… but Winnie goes willingly. Finally, an adventure of her own! Unfortunately, an awful and greedy little man who has been looking for the Tucks and is curious about their secret, sees them taking Winnie… and hears their story. He runs right back to Winnie’s family hoping to coerce them into selling him the woods… and thereby, the magical spring.

There are opposing views about whether the spring is a blessing or a curse. The greedy little man sees it as a way to profit — he wants to be able to see the spring water to a select few people: only those he deems deserving of everlasting life. But should such a questionable character even be allowed to make that kind of judgment calls? Mae Tuck doesn’t seem to mind it much, so long as she can see her boys every so often. Miles, her older son, does mind a bit: he lost his wife and daughters once she noticed there was something odd about his inability to age. Jesse loves it — he can see that there is so much to do when you can live forever… and yet, he wants Winnie to drink from the spring, so she can join him on his adventures later on — clearly, even he is a bit lonely. Meanwhile, Angus — the father — sees the loss this has brought along with it; the life cycle has been disrupted, and he feels the Tucks are stuck… unable to pass on, but still unable to join life fully. They cannot be like regular families — makes people suspicious after a couple of years. They cannot ever die, but they must watch those around them age and die instead.

In the end, is the moral of the story that living forever is a curse? Seems to me the idea is that, as Mae cleverly states, “Life’s got to be lived, no matter how long or short.”

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Bridge to Terabithia: a Bridge of Tears and Courage

dandelion

Bridge to Terabithia is the story of Jess and Leslie — the very bestest of friends. Jess is the only boy in his large family — way too many girls, he has tons of work to do around the farm, his dad works away from home for most of the week to make ends meet, his mom is busy keeping track of his millions sisters… life is tough for hard-working little Jess, who’s about to enter the 5th grade and wants to be the fastest kid around! But then he meets Leslie; she has just moved into town, her parents are writers… she calls them Bill and Judy — and even though she’s a girl, SHE’s the actual fastest kid in 5th grade. They don’t exactly hit it off right away… but then, they click… and they’re inseparable!

Leslie has a beautiful imagination fueled by the many stories she’s read, and her natural ability to create magical worlds with her words. Jess loves being around her, exploring the magic of friendship, and being away from his many daily chores and sisters. Out in the woods, and across a dry creek, they create a world of their own:

“‘We need a place,’ she said, ‘just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.’ Jess came swinging back and dragged his feet to stop. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. ‘It might be a whole secret country,’ she continued, ‘and you and I would be the rulers of it.'”

… and so, Terabithia is born!

Life is great for Jess and Leslie for a good while… they tackle bullies at school, find the best of gifts to exchange, even visit Church on Easter. But as the rain beats down on their town, and the creek leading to Terabithia overflows, Jess’ fears begin to get the best of him. He’s afraid of the water —  the fear of drowning begins to be too much for him to venture any more visits to his kingdom until the waters recede. But how can he tell that to Leslie? How can he admit he’s scared? How do you simply lay your biggest secret out in the open… even to your best friend?

Unfortunately, a tragic event prevents Jess from ever telling Leslie his secret. Jess’ reaction (right after denial) is anger: “She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there — like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”

Leslie changes Jess for the better. She expands his imagination, encourages his dreams and ideas to flourish, and even makes him king of their small little place in the woods. But then she’s gone… yet Jess is still changed. He is braver, he is kinder, and he is forever indebted to Leslie’s friendship for the gift of every day magic.

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A Trilogy Comes to an End with The Serpent’s Shadow

serpent

The Serpent’s Shadow brings the Kane Chronicles to an end as the third (and “probably”) final recording of Sadie and Carter. Just like the previous two novels, this one has a great hook:

“Sadie Kane here.
If you’re listening to this, congratulations! You survived Doomsday.
I’d like to apologize straightaway for any inconvenience the end of the world may have caused you. The earthquakes, rebellions, riots, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, and of course the giant snake who swallowed the sun — I’m afraid most of that was our fault.”

So there you have it: Apophis swallowed the sun! That’s one burning question down, and a whole lot of others to go — like, how did they survive Doomsday if the snake got away with his plan? Well, I guess that’s when you need to read and find out.

However, I did have some other very serious questions at the end of The Throne of Fire:

Are they making the right decision? Despite Ra being a crazy old guy who played with cookies, he was rather needed. 

Is this a trap? Everything’s a trap! You need to go with it anyway. 

Why would anyone try to ride a double-headed snake? Clearly this earned Carter some serious street cred. It was totally necessary.

What’s with the zebras and the weasels? Well, Zebras are clearly awesome and Ra’s very favorite… and Weasels are sick… though not beyond salvation. 

Who’d make a better boyfriend, Walt or Anubis? The answer is… YES.

So many things go wrong as Doomsday approaches — go figure. Sadie and Carter, along with Walter and Zia, the Brooklyn House, and any stragglers… er, supporters, of the First Nome, must fight the greatest threat to human kind. What could possibly go wrong? … Well, they survive to tell the tale, so clearly a few things go right.

The Serpent’s Shadow is driven not only by the impending deadline of the end of the world — as Sadie and Carter search for a way to defeat Apophis and vanquish him– but also by the characters’ interactions, hilarious events (just imagine a kindergartener running around with crayons, screaming “Die! Die! Die!”), and senile senior gods who just want to partake in the fun of fighting the forces of chaos. The third and final installment of this trilogy may not tie everything into a neat little bow (because we know Rick Riordan loves his loose ends… as do we, since it leaves the possibility of continuing the tale), but it is a satisfying end.

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The Quest Continues with The Throne of Fire

game of senet

In The Throne of Fire, the quest to bring balance to the world and Ma’at continues, as evil forces gain power and Apophis attempts to break free from his prison so he can destroy the entire world as we know it. No pressure, Kanes! Thus, Sadie and Carter start their recorded narration with no preamble: “Look, we don’t have time for long introductions. I need to tell this story quickly, or we’re all going to die.” With only 5 days to find the lost Book of Ra, bring this senile god back from… wherever he is, and face Apophis as he rises… oh, while also either fighting against or joining forces with the House of Life (who is also currently trying to destroy them), Sadie, Carter, and their recruits are facing an impossible task. But impossible is what these guys (and gals) do best!

There are some new characters joining the Brooklyn House — including Jaz, the healer, and Walt, the charm-maker — who are holding their own under the Kane’s tutelage. But of course, the end of the world waits for no one, thus they must all try their best to fight evil and save the world. Sadie and Carter face some daunting challenges not only against their enemies, but with their own desires, and with each other. Still, Sadie manages to show she can hold her own, and make some odd-looking yet lovable friends (aka Bes). Meanwhile, Carter remains obsessed with finding Zia — but will she recognize him when she awakes? Their main struggle, however, is choosing what will be the best solution to the impending doom that awaits when Apophis rises: Do they go ahead and wake Ra, despite the fact he is old and weak and the gods don’t want him? Do they throw their support behind Horus? Should Carter take charge and rule? These are very difficult choices for teenagers who are barely dealing with the adult responsibilities already thrust upon them — albeit successfully.

In the end, they must simply take a leap of faith. Despite unnerving decisions, selfless sacrifices, and heartbreaking losses, the Kanes move forward. The future of the world is at stake, and so Sadies’ and Carter’s recordings go out into the world for anyone willing to listen and support the Brooklyn House at their most vulnerable time.

In typical Rick Riordan fashion, The Throne of Fire is a whirlwind adventure of constant suspense. We wonder about all kinds of serious questions: Are they making the right decision? Is this a trap? Why would anyone try to ride a double-headed snake? What’s with the zebras and the weasels? Who’d make a better boyfriend, Walt or Anubis?

Despite completing this part of the quest, much more remains to be answered — off to read The Serpent’s Shadow.

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The Red Pyramid and Egyptian Mythology

red pyramid

In an effort to get over the Percy dry spell, I thought I’d give Rick Riordan’s other ventures a try:

The Red Pyramid grabbed my attention from the very first line: “We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.” Since the death of his mother, Carter has been traveling all over the world with his dad, who is an archeologist. His sister Sadie, however, has been living with her grandparents in London, and only sees Carter and her father twice a year. The relationship between Carter and Sadie is rather strained, since they are practically strangers — until their dad decides to blow up the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. Nothing brings a brother and sister together like being possessed by gods and running for their lives. The siblings are on the run from Egyptian gods who want to destroy the world, the House of Life who wants to destroy them, and any other suspicious obstacles they meet along the way.

Throughout the story Rick Riordan brings up some very interesting observations about mixed race families: Carter is dark-skinned like his father, while Sadie is light-skinned like her mother — people look twice when they say they’re related. Carter’s father makes it a point to let him know that as a person of color, he needs to try harder to look and act his best at all times– which just isn’t fair to him. But as Julius say, “Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same… Fairness means everyone gets what they need. And the only way to get what you need is to make it happen yourself.” There’s a lot of pressure on Carter! Meanwhile, Sadie has a more rebellious streak: she has the freedom to dye her hair with different colors, wear combat boots along with her school uniform, and break the rules any time someones say “Don’t…” Still, the siblings find a way to care for each other, join forces for the greater good of the world, and come together as a family.

With humorous chapter titles, slightly deranged and funny-looking gods, as well as some passive aggressive clay statues, The Red Pyramid makes for a really fun read. You just need make sure to keep your accents straight while reading!

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Before We Were Free: a testimony

butterflies and cage“It is the responsibility of those who survive the struggle for freedom to give testimony. To tell the story in order to keep alive the memory of those who died.” — Julia Alvarez Julia Alvarez’s writing resonates with those of us who have been through the difficulties of assimilating to American culture, and that awkward in-between experience of fitting in neither here nor there. But in Before We Were Free, she goes a step further to bring to life a different struggle — the one that takes place before assimilation is even an issue… the struggle that causes a family to flee their native land in the first place. She depicts the coming of age of Anita Torres, who must grow up in the midst of a dictatorship, while experiencing the gradual disappearance of her surrounding extended family. Through Anita’s observations and diary entries we learn about cousins who from one second to the next have a plane to catch, an uncle who has been neither seen or heard from for a while, hushed conversations among the adults, a family compound that progressively becomes deserted, a housekeeper’s ominous prophesy that “not everyone can have wings,” as well as Anita’s slow realization that her beautiful country is not as full of the liberties and opportunities she once imagined she possessed.

Although Anita is at first your typical spoiled little girl of privilege, she becomes more complex at the story develops. She uses her diary as a safe haven for her thoughts and her story — very reminiscent of Anne Frank — “It’s like my whole world is coming undone, but when I write my pencil is a needle and thread, and I’m stitching the scraps back together.” The SIM raids, the missing relatives, and Chucha’s haunting riddles, drive Anita into a silent protest: she stops speaking altogether. Thus, her only salvation is to write… the only way to fight oppression and fear is to write in that diary. And though at first she must erase every page as soon as she writes down the events of her day for fear of being discovered, soon Anita realizes that words are power, that her story is important, and that if you allow someone to take away your words and your story, only then are you truly left defenseless. “For days I wasn’t able to write a single word… but then I started thinking, if I stop now, they’ve really won. They’ve taken away everything, even the story of what is happening to us.” Freedom of expression, however small, is an immensely powerful weapon against cruelty and brutality.

Alvarez also raises questions about justice — ajusticiamiento. “It’s so unfair to have to live in a country where you have to do stuff you feel bad about in order to save your life.” Under most circumstances one would call a murder plot an assassination; yet in this case it is not so. It is considered a “bringing to justice” and it makes you wonder about your own ideas of justice, and fairness, and the desperate acts of a desperate people. Most of us don’t spend too much time questioning the freedoms we have — more often than not, we take them for granted. But Anita’s poignant words remind us that it has not always been so everywhere… they remind us that it isn’t so today…

“I wonder what it would be like to be free? … free inside, like an uncaged bird. Then nothing, not even a dictatorship, can take away your liberty.”

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