Middle Grade Monday: Summer Reading Picks 2016

Whether you’re lakeside, poolside, or inside, summer is the best time to read. Silly, spooky, thought-provoking and engrossing; here are some new(ish) books guaranteed to keep you or the middle grade reader in your life occupied this summer.

Wolf Hollow

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We all have those keystone books in our lives, the ones so deeply affecting that we remember exactly where we were when we finished them.The Giver, The Sky is Falling, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are some of mine. These books transcend the joy of the reading experience and forever alter how you look at yourself, the world, and the importance of a book. Many readers will feel this way about the taut, tense Wolf Hollow.

Set in the grim aftermath of the first world war, the relative peace of a small American town is upset when a bully named Betty sets off a chain of life-altering events. Annabelle is one of Betty’s favourite victims, but she feels compelled to speak up after a gentle but misunderstood war vet is blamed for Betty’s disappearance. This is the moonshine of poignant-coming-of-age stories; straight up, potent, and guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

Perfect read for the deep thinker, or the kid who wants to make the world a better place.

You may also like Raymie Nightingale  and Pax 

Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts

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The Fitzgerald-Trouts are a family of loosely related siblings living in a car on a tropical island full of (delightfully) terrible adults. They are fully capable of looking after themselves, but the one thing they would love is a house to call their own. This first book in a new series does a great job setting up the world of the Fitzgerald Trouts, which is just the slightest bit fantastical. The story is lovingly told by a narrator who walks into the story as a character about half way through the book in a delightful twist.

Spalding’s storytelling is effortless and breezy. Her adult characters would be at home in a Dahl novel but the reader never worries about the Fitzgerald Trouts, who are just too darn resourceful and and devoted to each other to raise any alarm bells. I adored their ingenuity and devotion to each other. Sydney Smith’s accompanying illustrations are spare and whimsical, like the island itself. This book is as summery as sand between your toes and sticky, melty-popsicle hands. 

Perfect read for free-spirited, independent makers or the kid who likes a subversive giggle.

You may also like The Fantastic Family Whipple or The Box Car Children.

The Inn Between

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The Inn Between reads like The Shining for middle grade readers. Quinn and Kara are on a cross-country road trip when Kara’s family decides to stop over at hotel called The Inn Between, located in the middle of the desert. The hotel is described as an ornate Victorian building with a pool, incredible pizza and limitless breakfast. But Quinn feels uneasy and soon the creepier things about the hotel come to the surface. Like how some people are allowed on the elevator and others are not. Or the angry-eyed man who keeps showing up. And when Kara’s parents and her brother disappear, Quinn takes a good hard look at the hotel and what it means to be “in between.”

Cohen’s pace and timing is excellent. There are some deeper implications here- letting go, moving on, grief- but this isn’t a realistic contemporary fiction book about loss, it’s a horror story with shades of realism in it. Cohen does not get caught up in blocks of description or too much philosophizing. Realizations dawn on the reader just as they dawn on Quinn.  This is a satisfying, page-turning horror story with just enough gravitas to elevate it out of campy Goosebumps territory.

Perfect read for lovers of scary stories and devoted BFFs.

You may also like Flickers  and The Swallow 

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

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It was a dark and stormy night. So begins a true classic of children’s literature, A Wrinkle in Time. Science fiction in its various forms (sci-fi lite, speculative fiction, epic space opera) seems to be popping up everywhere, thanks to the omnipresence of The Star Wars franchise. A Wrinkle in Time is likely the most famous sci-fi novel written for children, featuring frustrated Meg Murry, her mind-reading little brother Charles Wallace, and gangly, endearing love interest Calvin O’Keefe. Adapting this beloved story to graphic novel form is a stroke of genius worthy of Mr. Murry himself. The time-bending and scientific theory may be mind-boggling for some readers, who will appreciate a pictorial rendition of these abstract concepts. Touches of blue lend an otherworldliness to the illustrations. At nearly 400 pages, this is a hefty book and will keep readers engrossed into the wee hours of the night.

Perfect read for sci-fi novices or kids who are looking to try something beyond the Star Wars universe.

You may also like Wonderstruck or  the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline

The Gallery

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1928, Brooklyn. Martha is the daughter of a housekeeper who has started working in the home of newspaper magnate Mr. Sewell. Martha accompanies her mother only to get caught up in a mystery surrounding his wife, Rose. In her youth Rose was a charming party girl, but now she spends her days ranting and raving about paintings in a locked bedroom. What happened to Rose? Why is she obsessed with the paintings? And who is leaking stories about the Sewells- some of them untrue- to the tabloids?

From the first chapter we understand that Martha is a girl with modern ideas. She talks back to her teacher (a rather unforgiving nun), is suspicious of Mr. Sewell’s charm and intentions, and takes the side of woman most people have dismissed as mad. Her dialogue is saucy and her devotion to the truth is inspiring, which will speak to readers’ strong sense of justice. There is a cinematic quality to the narrative and Fitzgerald uses visual and historical details to paint a clear portrait of 1920s New York. There is glitz in the form of Sewell’s mansion , but there is also poverty- represented by Martha’s own crowded apartment and her mother’s dashed optimism. But perhaps the most impressive feat is how Fitzgerald deftly handles a narrative that is essentially about involuntary confinement and turns it into a caper. Rose’s story has parallels to the suffragette movement and is a grim reminder of the challenges women faced at the time. This historical caper feels fresh and exciting, thanks to a breezy writing style and excellent pacing. 

Perfect read for history junkies, especially those interested in hidden histories.

You may also like Under the Egg and Chasing Vermeer.

Middle Grade Monday: Flickers

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Middle grade horror is difficult to pull off. Some authors go for camp, with lots of gore and over-the-top scenarios that are almost humorous, therefore defusing any terror the reader might experience. Governor-General award-winning author Arthur Slade is the other kind of author-genuine thrills created by uncanny situations, eerie coincidences, and a slow-burning sense of impending doom.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had a new Slade novel and Flickers is a return to the atmospheric and chilling storytelling in his GG winner, Dust. The Hunchback Assignments  series was epic in scope, a swashbuckling grandiose adventure- Flickers is quiet. Even though the implications are huge- introducing other realms huge- this is Beatrice’s struggle. We are invested in her, not the fate of the world.

Slade plays with all sorts of tropes, including the psychic connection between twins and the sinister ability of cameras to steal souls of the people they capture on film. I just so happened to be hard-lining the You Must Remember This podcast, all about the hidden or forgotten stories of Hollywood, which added texture to Slade’s depiction of the tempting yet ultimately poisonous apple of Hollywood’s allure. Slade manages to balance the opulence of golden era Hollywood with a sense that something is truly, truly wrong. As a reader you don’t want Beatrice to look too closely at the world around her, convinced that it’s all a sham for something horrible. And how horrible it is, the stuff of steampunk nightmares.

Despite their differences, there isn’t much in the way of rivalry between “ugly” Beatrice and “beautiful” Isabelle. I appreciated their supportive relationship, which is not without its challenges, but never delves into nasty territory. Both Beatrice and Isabelle are complex and interesting heroines with varied interests and plenty of agency. In a world of increasingly cookie-cutter Strong Female Protagonists, Slade bucks the trend of ass-kicking assassins and presents a different kind of heroine, proving strength has many shades. Beatrice doesn’t let what others refer to as physical deformity stop her from seeking out friendship or the things she enjoys in life, despite remaining basically a captive on Mr. Cecil’s estate. She has a good friend in the form of Raul, the gardener’s son, her ‘friend bird’ (instead of ‘lovebird,’ as her sister insinuates.)

In addition to Slade’s own Dust, now a Canadian horror classic, I was reminded of The Nest (Kenneth Oppel) The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier), and Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, all Canadian, all horror.Perhaps there is something about our landscape or literary culture that inspires eerie storytelling- in any case, Flickers is a welcome addition to the genre.

Flickers is available on April 26, 2016  from Harper Collins Canada.

Middle Grade Monday: Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

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Sophie Quire lives with her father, a bookmender, in Bustleburgh. Her mother died mysteriously years before. Bustleburgh is becoming a dangerous place for Sophie and her father. All nonsense, particularly that found in books, is outlawed. So when a blindfolded boy and a cat with hooves show up with one of four magical books promising adventure, Sophie goes with them.

Some readers may recognize the blindfolded boy as Peter Nimble, from Auxier’s first children’s novel, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes. Scrappy, arrogant Peter plays second-fiddle to thoughtful, practical Sophie in this adventure. It is not necessary to have read Peter Nimble to enjoy Sophie Quire, although if readers have not read Peter Nimble I imagine they will want to after finishing Sophie.

In a few short years Jonathan Auxier has become a household name in Canadian children’s literature, racking up almost every major award. Sophie Quire is a rich fairytale told in Auxier’s signature omniscient style. In all three of his novels Auxier employs a third person narrator that feels like an old-timey storyteller. The balance between effective and irritating is precarious in this style of narration, but Auxier manages splendidly. He has a beautiful way with words and his somewhat elevated language lends itself well to being read aloud.

All the classic fairytale elements are here. An orphan with mysterious parentage. A funny and heartbreakingly loyal animal sidekick (if one considers Sir Tode in his hooved-cat form ‘animal’). Potential romance. Spells. A chase (actually a number of chases). Just when things start to feel familiar and the reader starts to think, “Hey, I know this story, isn’t it…” Auxier introduces the unexpected. I was particularly enchanted by Akrasia, a somewhat inscrutable but loyal talking white tigress.

The theme of the book- that stories are magical- is explicitly stated in beautiful, quotable ways a number of times. One certainly feels this is true while reading Sophie Quire. Perfect for fans of both classic (Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone) and contemporary fantasy (The Land of Stories, The Unwanteds, Circus Mirandus). A magnificent ode to stories from a gifted storyteller.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is available in hard cover on April 12th, 2016 from Puffin Canada (Abrams in the United States.)

 

 

Middle Grade Monday: Raymie Nightingale

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There is a whole generation who will look back at two-time Newbery medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo the way my generation looks back at Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Kit Pearson or Beverly Cleary. In fact, in an EW article DiCamillo names Cleary as a major influence for her latest novel, the superlative Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo has defined American contemporary children’s literature in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.

Raymie Clarke’s father has run off with a dental hygienist. She is convinced if she does something spectacular- such as win the Little Miss Central Florida pageant- he will see her in the paper and come back. Raymie’s story  (abandoned by a parent) is not uncommon, but DiCamillo’s greatest gift is the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her deft hands a baton, a jar of candy corn, even a swamp becomes something tinged with wonder.

My favourite Kate DiCamillo novel is Tiger Rising, which I think gets lost in the mega-bestselling, highly-decorated books such as Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Tiger Rising is a very simple narrative about poor children leading hard lives and stumbling upon something so unexpected it feels magical. DiCamillo revisits this idea in Raymie Nightingale. In Tiger Rising, the unexpected is an honest-to-goodness tiger in the woods. In Raymie Nightingale, it is friendship.

Raymie’s new friends, prickly Beverly and painfully optimistic Louisiana have burdens of their own. They are all desperate to be heard and understood, but have been made cautious by past disappointments. There is real sadness here, but as always in a DiCamillo book, hope triumphs over all. Of all the hurting characters in this book, I worried the most for Louisiana. Of all the girls, her situation is the most dire, and yet she is the most hopeful. But even when things looked very bad, I trust DiCamillo to not only point out, but buff up the silver lining.

If I could narrow down the one thing common to DiCamillo’s range of work  it would be her warmth. Whether she is writing fantasy, realistic contemporary, early readers or historical fiction (which  is technically what Raymie Nightingale, set in the 1970s, falls under) genuine warmth for her characters, for her readers, for people permeates the language.

Raymie Nightingale is available on April 12th from Candlewick Press.

 

Middle Grade Monday: The Wild Robot

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You may know Peter Brown as the author-illustrator of the very funny Children Make Terrible Pets, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) or the earnest and lovely The Curious Garden. In his first middle grade book The Wild Robot Brown asserts himself as a deft novelist, with a fresh twist on the classic survival story, told with insight and lots of heart.

The concept of a robot (Roz) waking up in the wilderness and learning to adapt is simple but genius. The novel unfolds as one might expect- animals are suspicious of robot, robot wins animals over, and in her hour of need those animals come to her aid- but the delight in this novel comes from Roz’s ingenuity and the Brown’s animal characters. At first the animals fear Roz, calling her unnatural and a monster. Roz patiently explains that she is a robot, not a monster, and wins over the creatures one by one by asking for their advice and assistance. She compliments opossum on his superb acting (i.e. playing dead) skills, enlists the beavers to help build her a lodge, takes gardening advice from the deer, etc.

Brown is very careful with his portrayal of animals. They are not so humanized that their natural instincts or qualities are ignored, but they are perhaps more cooperative than they would be in a nature documentary. Chitchat the squirrel is charmingly verbose and scatterbrained. Fink the fox is charming but sly. There are a number of truces the animals agree on- the daily Dawn Truce and a celebratory Party Truce- that allows natural enemies time and space to safely discuss island matters (what to do with Roz, how to survive a particularly harsh winter, etc). I love this concept. By providing the conceit of the truce, Brown is  able to be true to fox, badger, pike, and bear’s natural hunting instincts outside the safe space.

The most central relationship- and the one that allows Roz to develop the deepest understanding of friendship, parenthood, and love- is between Roz and her adopted “son,” Brightbill the gosling. Following an accident in which Roz kills the rest of Brightbill’s family before he is hatched, she assumes responsibility of the gosling’s care. The reader watches Brightbill grow from a runt to a champion flyer. Much of the poignancy of the novel comes from these two, such as the scene where the young goslings are being chased in the water by a hungry pike and Roz is watching, helpless, or the scene where they decide to switch Roz off to see what happens.

The narrator reminds us that because she is a robot, Roz does not have emotions. Her delivery is neutral, bordering on dead-pan which is both funny and endearing. Because Roz doesn’t have feelings the reader feels protective of her, and our empathy is cranked up into overdrive. Roz’s goal is to fit into her community. When the animals debate what her purpose is, she states that perhaps she is meant to help others. She starts to imitate the animals and starts acting like she has emotions, and by the end of the book we believe she does have them.

Survival stories are not a new middle grade trope, but they seem to be popping up this year in a variety of re-imagined ways. In Pax we have a boy and a fox learning to survive without each other in environments completely outside of their element. Roz, never having other experiences, believes the island is her home and adjusts to it accordingly. For example, when Roz learns about camouflage she covers herself in mud and plants, resulting in a poignant illustration of a walking, robot-shaped garden. After an accident causes her to lose a foot, the animals help fashion her a new one out of wood, sap and vines. There is something about the camaraderie on the island reminded me of E.B. White, particularly The Trumpet of the Swan. There are also hints of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant and even Disney’s Bambi.

Brown’s prose is straightforward and without artifice. He does not milk emotional moments. At times he points out maxims or greater truths, but they are presented without fanfare. In this way he emulates Roz, but he also gets to the brutal truth of the animal world. There is no dressing up or philosophizing on good or bad, right or wrong. The world is what it is.

I would be remiss if i did not mention the gorgeous packaging featuring lush Pacific- Northwest greens and the very simple silhouette of Roz on the mountain. There are effective spot illustrations inside, though I found myself wishing they were in colour, or featured in tipped-in illustrated plates. The Wild Robot is a classic in the making and worthy of such luxury treatment. It has already garnered four starred reviews and will win over the hearts of readers as well. Like Roz, Peter Brown has entered into a new  landscape and is not only surviving, but thriving. Justifiably so!

The Wild Robot is available now from Little, Brown.

I Heart TheSix: My Fave Toronto Places

Drake isn’t the only one who loves TO. I truly love my adopted city and was thrilled to talk up my top six places in TheSix for 24Hours. This was a hard list to narrow down, but I wanted to show some love for my neighbourhood (The Junction) as well as highlight a few destinations for bookish types.  Check the original piece out here online, or see below for links!

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Articulations is everything I love about the Junction in one spot: friendly, artsy, and community-minded. It is here, in their cozy studio, that I get to realize my secret dream of being an artist, at least for an hour or so. Featuring a wide range of classes for adults and kids, the annual Sketchbook challenge, and Wes Anderson-themed paint nights, Articulations is a staple in local Junction festivals and events.

Twitter: @_ARTiculations_

Instagram:  @articulations_TO

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Black Daffodil has everything I need to walk through life as a modern Nancy Drew or Agent Carter. This vintage-inspired clothing boutique is my go-to shop for t-strap shoes, 1940s blouses, and the perfect femme fatale dress for book launches.

Twitter: @BlackDaffodil

Instagram: @blackdaffodil

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When I first walked into Junction gift shop The Beau & Bauble I felt like I had walked into my dream apartment. Described as ‘a treasure trove that caters to the whimsy of women of all ages,’ here you’ll find cotton-candy pink cuckoo clocks, mint-green office supplies, witty stationary, unique jewelry and a carefully curated selection of clothes that you won’t feel the slightest bit guilty about indulging in.

Twitter:  @BeauAndBauble

Instagram: @beauandbauble

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Books go best with tea and scones, and St. Clair West cafe Baker & Scone offers a wide selection of traditional (buttermilk, chive & sea salt) and more avant-garde (pear-hazelnut) faire.

Twitter: @bakerandscone 

Instagram: @bakerandscone

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With its perfect combination of nature and kitsch, Toronto Island is my favourite summer destination. Beaches? Check. Zoo? Check. Summer concerts? Check. But my favourite landmark is the hand-carved wooden carousel, accompanied by an honest-to-goodness Wurlitzer, that dates back to 1907 and is one of only 30 in the whole world.

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When I’m in need of a little writerly inspiration I like to head to The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, housed in the top floor of The Lillian H Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. The collection has over 80, 000 rare and notable children’s books, featured in fascinating themed exhibits such as When Cinderella Went to the Ball: 500 Years of Fairytales. I’m also very partial to the gryphon who guards the entrance to the library, designed by Phillip H. Carter and fashioned out of bronze by Ludzer Vandermolen.

I heart TO!

Kids’ Books Recommendations- Classical 96.3 FM

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This week is my book birthday and boy am I spoiled girl! Check out the incredible cake made by colleague Barb, senior manager of advertising and design at Penguin Random House Canada. It was just as delicious as it was beautiful and certainly made this author feel loved.

On Thursday I dropped by the Classical 96.3 FM studios to chat about my book, If I Had a Gryphon, as well as some of my fave new books from PRH Canada. A version of this segment will air tonight, Friday February 12th, around 7:30. If you’re not in the GTA you can check it out online here.

Over-scheduled Andrew by Ashley Spires

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How do I love Ashely Spires‘ latest book? Let me count the ways. Humour? Check. Adorable characters? Check. Timely and relatable scenario? Check. Bagpipes? French film club? Musical Theatre? Check, check, check. This story about an over-scheduled chickadee will feel familiar to busy families. A good book is the start of a conversation, and Over-scheduled Andrew encourages families to talk about the pleasures of slowing down and being “free to be distracted.”

Miss Moon: Wise Words From a Dog Governess by Janet Hill

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It’s hard to come up with an age range for this beauty of a book because it truly is for everyone. The pairing of Stratford-based artist Janet Hill‘s lush oil paintings of sophisticated Miss Moon and her dog charges romping around their estate on an island off the coast of France with pithy life lessons will hit the spot for so many people: children, dog-lovers, art collectors, recent graduates. True story: while prepping for this interview I spent alot of time drooling over Janet Hill’s etsy shop and purchased myself this print, which is how I’d like to think I look when reading *my* Nancy Drews:

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For older readers, I chose two books on a theme that feels especially pertinent in these long winter months: survival.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

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Canadian writers have defined the survival narrative. Iain Lawrence‘s latest is a contemporary addition to the literary canon of Man. vs. Nature, pitting Chris and Frank against the wild when they are stranded off the Alaskan coast after a boating accident. The book is gritty and tense, with welcome moments of comedic relief in the form of antics from a raven named Thursday. A wonderful companion for the millions of Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) fans out there.

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive by Eric Walters

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Child-whisperer, Order of Canada recipient and best-selling author Eric Walters is at his best with this “it could happen to you” survival story of a suburban neighbourhood dealing with a drastic lifestyle change after all power (computers, phones, automotive, etc) is cut and shows no sign of ever coming back. The dangers here come from people, not environmental or weather-related factors of The Skeleton Tree. The first book in this series, The Rule of Three, earned Eric the 2015 Red Maple award and readers have been impatiently waiting this concluding installment.

Thanks for having me, Classic 96.3 FM!