Middle Grade Gift Suggestions 2016

Last week I got to talk to one of my favourite people, Ann Foster, about middle grade fiction. When not working at the Saskatoon Public Library recco-ing kids and teen books, she is writing about fashion in TV over at You Know You Love Fashion (currently chronicling the enviable wardrobe of Phryne Fisher) and spearheading a number of podcasts, including Radio Book Club and You Were Going to be Fantastic.

Ann and I met on a book jury and we still love to find reasons to talk about books. Now you can hear us do that in this episode of Radio Book Club. The topic was near and dear to my heart (middle grade!) and I was happy to wax poetic about my fail-safe picks for this holiday, featured above.

Grab a cup of your favourite hot seasonal beverage and take a listen:

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/smy9s-655461

Follow Ann on twitter to learn about her many bookish and pop-culture endeavors

Middle Grade Monday: Fall 2016 Preview

This has already been a staggeringly good year for middle grade (don’t call it a comeback), with personal favourites such as Raymie Nightingale, The Wild Robot, Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts, and Pax garnering all sorts of buzz and attention. Here is a sampling of the new kids on the block this fall:

Ghosts 

GHOSTS Front Cover

Ghosts is probably my most anticipated read of the fall. When it comes to middle grade, Raina Telgemeier is the gold standard we all aspire to- funny, relatable, original, and lots of heart. Ghosts promises to delve into deeper and somewhat darker territory than Smile, Sisters, or Drama, but readers are always safe in Raina’s hands.

A Day of Signs and Wonders 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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Say the name ‘Kit Pearson’ to Canadian readers of a certain age and watch grown women turn into blubbering, starry-eyed tweens. She is as much a part of my childhood as Hypercolour T-shirts, slap bracelets, and the movie My Girl. Kit Pearson exploring the childhood of artist Emily Carr? Too perfect to be true

The Best Man

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Somehow Richard Peck, author of rich slices of Americana such as A Year Down Yonder and A Year in Chicago, has pulled off a pitch-perfect contemporary novel about a community-and one boy in particular- who have their biases checked when everyone’s new favourite teacher turns out to be gay.

The Inquisitor’s Tale

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If you’ve been following the buzz on this hotly anticipated novel from story-wizard Adam Gitwitz you’ll note that common themes among reviewers are “incomparable” and “hard to describe.” I have heard Adam speak about how religion is the last taboo in middle grade and he definitely gives readers a lot to chew on in this Medieval ensemble piece. I very much enjoyed the multiple narrators. Also, farting dragons.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

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I didn’t think this charmer could possibly stand up to the hype, but boy did it ever. This weeper is tinged with just enough magic realism to keep a reader guessing. Take The Secret Garden, set in during WWII, and throw in some winged horses for good measure. Deft prose and emotional resonance give this one the feel of a classic.

The Griffin of Darkwood  2000px-Maple_Leaf

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This latest offering from solid (if a little under-sung, IMO) Canadian author Becky Citra has a stellar cover and is getting good reviews. There is a strong Canadian tradition of gothic middle grade novels (The Nest, The Night Gardener, Flickers, The Swallow being just a few), and this seems to fit right in. Run-down castles, a side-kick who emulates his idol, Julia Child, AND the promise of griffins? Yes please.

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers 2000px-Maple_Leaf

clara

Most of the books on this list are middle or upper middle-grade, but Clara is appropriate for those younger readers in grades 3-5. How do you hook a reader for life? By offering them funny books featuring true-to-life scenarios with just enough imagination to delight. Featuring spot illustrations by Lisa Cinar, this is a spunky, zippy book that deals with change gently and with much humour.

MINRS 2 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I thoroughly enjoyed the action-packed first book in Kevin Sylvester’s latest series, about a group of tweens who find themselves stranded underground on Mars after an attack (from their own allies) leaves all of the adults from their settlement dead. Book one ended with a great revelation and a heck of a cliff-hanger. This is Survivor in space featuring resourceful tweens instead of fame-hungry “reality” stars.

Downside Up 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I love when my city is well-represented in literature, and in this fantasy story about family, grief, and second chances, we get two representations of Toronto: the regular one (Sorauren Park! High Park! Sunnyside Beach!) and a slightly tilted version, where what was lost is once again found. And then of course there’s the dragons. Don’t be fooled by Richard Scrimger’s talent for humour, this one tugs on the heartstrings.

What’s on your middle grade reading list this fall?

 

Middle Grade Monday: The Thing About Jellyfish

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Multiple people, including author Carrie Mac, Danielle at Bookish Notions and Michelle from Mabel’s Fables told me that this would be a book I would love. They were correct. This National Book Award nominated title falls under one of my favourite categories, Poignant Coming of Age Story, and is particularly adept at detailing not only the toll that grief can take on a tween, but how friendships can change and nobody knows how to hurt you more than your best friend.

A pastiche of memories, jellyfish facts, and current action, The Thing About About Jellyfish chronicles the life cycle of a friendship cut short by an accidental drowning. The death of a friend is always tragic. But what happens when that friendship died months before the accident? Suzy and Franny became fast friends the minute they met in the swimming pool when they were five. As the girls around them start to change, becoming obsessed with boys and clothing and turning into the meanest versions of themselves, Franny makes Suzy promise to send her a big message if she ever turns into those girls.

So what happens when your ex-best friend, current enemy, dies? Suzy does not know how to mourn Franny. It has been ages since they were anything even resembling friends, but the last memory she has of Franny is a sad one; Franny in tears as a result of the “big message” Suzy sent to her. Suzy is guilty, confused, and does not know what to do with herself. So she stops talking and becomes obsessed with jellyfish, concocting a theory that Franny was killed by a jellyfish sting and then setting out to prove it.

Through flashback, we see how Franny changes and the devastating effect it has on Suzy. The death of a child is always tragic, but this book is more about the death of a friendship rather than a person. The moments of greatest sadness and empathy for me were ones where Franny or Suzy were intentionally hurting each other. Lots of books talk about bullying but rare is the middle grade novel that goes into such excruciating detail about the cruelties soon to be former friends inflict on each other. There is no sting like the sting of betrayal, and Franny and Suzy are engaged in a cold war anyone who has been a twelve year old girl will recognize. Exclusionary tactics, whispering, cruel names, cold shoulders, public humiliation and the airing of private information are all weapons in the arsenal of warring tweens.

Suzy is an odd duck and she knows it. She feels behind her peers in terms of the traditional bench markers of adolescence yet feels superior in intelligence. She is lonely but can’t trust the friendly advances of misunderstood lab partner, Justin, a classic middle grade crush. Her interest in science reminded me a tad of Ellie from Jennifer Holm’s wonderful The Fourteen Goldfish. Very different narratives, but similar protagonists. I like these thoughtful, science-minded and goal-oriented heroines. Let this be something we see more of in middle grade fiction.

At times the piece-y format of the narrative felt a bit clunky and broke up the flow of the story, but overall I loved Ali Benjamin‘s insight into the mind of a growing, grieving tween. Suzy is a victim but she inflicts some pretty brutal blows of her own, which is a reality that is often ignored or omitted in fiction. Here is a complicated, crunchy and authentic character. I like how Benjamin makes strong choices in Suzy’s actions. Readers will want to wrap her into a hug at one moment, and then shake her at another. When Suzy is weird she is WEIRD, but she is also lovable and totally unforgettable.

The Thing About Jellyfish is available now in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company.

Middle Grade Monday: Something Wiki

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Middle grade fiction isn’t always gentle or fantastical. Sometimes it can be downright moody, icky, and gross. Thank goodness. Puberty is rarely gentle or magical, so why should fiction tackling the subject be?In Something Wiki, we get a peek inside the mind and body of tween Jo Waller. Each chapter opens with a wikipedia entry that our young narrator has edited to suit her own experiences. This is Jo in a nutshell- internet-savvy, smart, and just entering that phase of tweendom where she is keenly, physically aware of herself.

It is clear that Canadian author Suzanne Sutherland remembers what it is to be a tween. This is a very physical book and there are lots of discussions about the physical experience of adolescence. The kind that make adults cringe and tweens go YES, MORE, PLEASE! Jo is constantly concerned about her acne, the treatment of which runs through the whole book like a low-grade fever. There is also lots of blood, but not the guts and gore kind, the everyday kind- from stepping on a tack, to pimples that have popped, to good old once a month menstrual blood.

One of the things I love best about middle grade is the navigation of relationships. Jo is in the middle of some mean girl games in addition to hard-core adulation of her older brother, a very cool musician with a downtown apartment. I love how much Jo looks up to her big brother and his girlfriend. When she discovers her brother’s girlfriend is pregnant, she starts to think more about sex and also comes to realize that they are both people with problems who make mistakes- not these big, cool, unattainable gods she has worked them up to be in her mind.

I also like the glimpses of Toronto, something Sutherland did well in her debut novel When We Were Good. So much middle grade seems to be set in small-town, middle-of-somewhere North America (something I am guilty of)  but here we are firmly in downtown Toronto. Urban readers will appreciate a glimpse of their lifestyle and rural or suburban readers get all the fun of experiencing the truth of city life (still pretty boring when you’re underage). Other than Susin Nielsen, who sets her novels in Vancouver, not many Canadian kids’ writers use major Canadian cities as a backdrop.

With short chapters, lots of believable dialogue and a breezy pace, young readers will fly through Something Wiki before passing it off to their friends.

Something Wiki is available in paperback now from Dundurn Press.

Middle Grade Monday: Goodbye Stranger

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A Rebecca Stead book is always unexpected and always a delight. I very much enjoyed her Northern fantasy First Light and remember hand-selling the heck out of it to die-hard City of Ember fans in my bookseller days. Then I read When You Reach Me and was struck by how timeless it felt, despite being very rooted in a time & place. Liar & Spy was a quieter character study, very much setting up the reader for the meditation on friendship and contemporary adolescence that is Goodbye Stranger.

My favourite Judy Blume novel is Just As Long As We’re Together, which is essentially about girls navigating the politics of being a trio of best friends. In a way, Goodbye Stranger is a post modern meditation on Just As Long As We’re Together, exploring a spectrum of relationships, from downright cruel to occasionally toxic to fair-weathered to remarkably strong. It sounds unbelievable to say that Stead touches on all the questions of adolescence in one novel (friendships, first romance,  changing relationships to parents, finding your tribe, identity), but not only does she manage it, she does it so deftly it left me stunned and unable to pick up another book for days.

There are essentially three story lines about friendship that overlap- though the plot told entirely in second person feels relatively separate until all is revealed in the end. Bridge, Tab and Emily represent the healthiest possible kind of friendship. Even when dealing with little betrayals they stick to their promise of no fighting and when they DO argue, it is remarkably mature if not a touch idealistic. This is contrasted by a second-person anonymous storyline chronicling the ups and downs in another group of girls that is heartbreaking and at a times chilling (THE CINNAMON)!)

This is also a book about the first stirrings of romantic relationships. Much of the narrative is taken up with a photo Em sends to her maybe-boyfriend that is seen by a group of boys and eventually the whole school, threatening her reputation.  Stead handles this murky and topical scenario carefully and dare I say gently, addressing the issue and its implications but choosing for the best-case scenario. To me this makes perfect sense for the age group, some of whom will be scared silly by the idea of sending a photo of themselves to a boy, and others who have already done so and may relate to the stinging repercussions.

While Em is getting into kissing and embracing her burgeoning sexuality Bridge is moving at her own slower pace with Sherm, who is the cutest of cute and quite possibly my favourite tween love interest since Thomas J in the movie My Girl*. Bridge and Sherm clearly have a mutual interest but neither is ready to take it past spending time together and conversation. Adults are terrified by the desires and awakening romantic appetites of tweens but the truth is that they exist and deserve to be addressed. I love that Stead has two characters of the same age in very different places, romantically speaking. But romantics are rewarded with a truly gorgeous epilogue that I will refrain from re-typing word-for-word except for the following sentence, my new favourite line about love:”Kissing Sherman was like saying “And. . .and. . .and. . .”

The book is not just about girl relationships. Bridge’s older brother Jamie is embroiled in a competitive and toxic friendship of his own with Alex, a frenemy who is bent on tricking Jamie out of his beloved possessions in a cat-and-mouse game involving a limited number of steps per day that seems rigged to make Jamie fail. Sherm, Bridge’s not-quite-love interest, is also present in a series of letters written to his absentee grandfather who he hasn’t quite forgiven for up and leaving him. There is much to be gleaned here about the complications of tween and teenage friendship, male or female.

I haven’t even mentioned Tab and her glorious indignation at injustice and her strong moral code, or the cat ears that Bridge has seemingly inexplicably started to wear and what they represent. This book is an embarrassment of riches and I don’t want to waste your time praising them here- go read it yourself! I will say there are coincidences and twists of fate one has come to expect from a Stead novel and the uncanny dialogue that feels not only authentic but also transcends time and place to feel timeless, like dialogue in a play. This book begs for multiple readings and each time the reader will come away with new insights and a deeper appreciation for Stead as a middle grade magician.

Goodbye Stranger has vaulted into my all-time top ten and I can’t recommend it enough. Rebecca Stead is now the Golden Standard that I personally aspire to as a middle grade writer and belongs in the ranks of Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and E. L. Konigsburg. Give this book to a tween in your life and take a peek yourself to get a glimpse of the complicated world contemporary tweens are navigating which is perhaps not so different from what you experienced, but likely has not been so deftly or eloquently expressed as by Stead.

Goodbye Stranger is available now from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*For  proof of my undying love for Thomas J and his impact on my own writing, please see Benji in my books Words That Start With B; Love is a Four-Letter Word and Days That End in Y

Melancholic Perfection: Jane, The Fox and Me Review

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At this point Jane, The Fox & Me has collected so many accolades that I am just one more voice in the choir. The story of a girl who feels bullied and so retreats into the world of Jane Eyre only to be enchanted by a fox appeals to me in all possible ways. I loved the design of the book so much I almost bought it in the original French, despite my French skills being somewhat lacking. Thank goodness the smart cookies at Groundwood Books jumped all over a translation.

Fanny Britt’s text (translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou) is intense and internal and feels like a long-form poem. There were no obvious translation quirks, in fact the prose is quite rhythmic and has lovely poetic moments. Isabelle Arsenault is the perfect illustrator for this kind of prose, having worked with the lovely and lyrical Kyo Maclear on various projects in the past, such as my beloved Virginia Wolf. 

In Jane, The Fox & Me, our narrator Helene constantly refers to herself as fat, and the main source of her bullying seems to be about her weight. Yet in the illustrations she appears quite thin. Some critics have said that this misrepresentation is harmful to readers and that by calling a slim girl fat is perpetuates unattainable body issues. However, I interpreted this difference as reflective of how Helene (and many young girls) sees herself. We, the reader, see her as average, but she cannot see herself as anything but fat.

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The muted colour-scheme does much to set a melancholic tone. Even the Jane Eyre sections, though punched up with brighter shades of red and blue, are quite somber. I also love the quirky French-ness of the book, which to be is summed up in a forest green bathing suit with sailboats. How French is that?

I love that Jane Eyre makes Helene happy. It is a rare bird that finds joy in this bleak tale, and yet adolescent girls time and time again find themselves siding with Jane. Perhaps it has something to do with the smart, miserable girl finding love. This book has no love angle but instead ends in new-found friendship.  Geraldine is a bit of a manic pixie dream friend, arriving in a cabin full of misfits and transforming them with her joy and kindness, but it does speak to how transformative a friendship can be at this age.

Jane, The Fox & Me is available now in hard cover from Groundwood Books.

BOOK PARTY ALERT!

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If you’re in the Toronto area this Saturday, November 9th you can come celebrate books like this and more at the 35th Birthday Party Celebration for Groundwood Books at the Lillian H. Smith Library from 1-4pm. There will be crafts, readings, and birthday treats from the ever-festive Small Print Toronto.  I will be reading from a Marie-Louise Gay classic. Hint: it stars a cat. Would you expect anything less of me? See you there!

YA is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

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I can’t remember when I learned what the word gay meant. I remember people snickering when Maria sings “I feel pretty and witty and gay!” in West Side Story and not getting the joke. I remember how “that’s so gay” was used as an insult in middle school and I repeated it, not fully understanding what it meant. Will & Grace came on the air just as I entered high school. That is likely when I started to understand what gay meant, though it was packaged in a bright, shiny, made-for-prime-time TV package.

Will and Grace

There have been many TV shows, movies, and books since the explosion of Will & Grace that address LGBTQ issues and feature well-rounded characters instead of just stock characters. YA fiction in particular has been very good at addressing the need for more LGBT content. More Than Just Magic is doing a month long YA Pride series, so be sure to drop by and check out her recommendations (including my book Days That End in Y). Teenagers are famously preoccupied with love and relationships, so it’s only natural that questions of sexual identity and preference are explored in YA fiction. But the middle grade years (ages 9-12) are when kids are the most in need of answers, empathy, and someone to relate to. YA is too late. You need to reach children in their middle grade years, when it really counts.

So I wrote for them.

I knew many boys like Benji growing up. I babysat them, drove them to camp, sang in choir with them, sat next to them in school. Only they were not openly gay then. Some of them were too young to identify. They may have felt different, but couldn’t put their finger on why. They may have understood that it wasn’t safe for them to come out, and so they waited until they were much older and long gone from their hometowns to do so. Do these boys see themselves in fiction? I certainly had a hard time tracking them down.

Days That End in Y Cover

It was always my intention to address Benji’s sexuality but it needed to be at the right time. I am thankful to Scholastic Canada for giving me three books to develop his character and bring him to a place where he can admit such a deeply personal and scary thing to his best friend. I hope that my readers who have grown to love Benji can accept him as well, and in turn, accept those in their lives who need all the love and support they can get.

I hope that when children read my series about Benji and Clarissa they learn something about empathy and bravery. I hope kids who are struggling with their own sexuality are inspired by Benji’s bravery and comforted by Clarissa’s acceptance. I hope it prepares kids to be open and compassionate when their own friends come out to them.

We still have a long way to go. Books featuring gay characters are among the most consistently banned or censored books in America. I recommend the following middle grade novels featuring positive LGTBQ characters or children questioning their sexuality. Please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments:

Updated in June 2017:

lotterys

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

felix

Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker

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The Best Man by Richard Peck

jack 1

Jack & Louisa: Act 1 by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kate Wetherhead

jack 2

Jack & Louisa: Act 2 by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kate Wetherhead

jack 3

Jack & Louisa: Act 3 by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kate Wetherhead

pants

The Pants Project by Cat Clarke

friends

Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss

lily

 Lily & Dunkin  by Donna Gephart

fletch

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

fletch 2

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island by Dana Alison Levy

georgia

Georgia Rules by Nanci Turner Steveson

TheThingAboutJellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

husky

Husky  by Justin Sayre

ashes

Ashes to Asheville by Sarah Dooley

george

George  by Alex Gino

letters

Letters in the Attic  by Bonnie Shimko

starring kitty

Starring Kitty 

better nate

Better Nate Than Never by Tim Federle

 

five six seven

Five, Six, Seven,  Nate! by Tim Federle

Boy in the Dress JKT_FINAL_REV.indd

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

misfits

The Misfits (book 1) by James Howe

joe

Totally Joe (The Misfits Book 2)by James Howe

stitches

Stitches by Glen Huser

drama

Drama by Raina Telgemaier

seeyouh

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

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Marco Impossible by Hannah Moscowitz

Pride is about love and acceptance- so go forth and spread the love!

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