Okay, here’s something different and beautiful: Daniel Lieske’s Wormworld Saga, a free online graphic novel. Only one chapter exists thus far (with Chapter 2 due in December), so I might be premature in recommending it, but I feel pretty comfortable giving a strong thumbs up to Chapter 1. The story centers on a young boy named Jonas’ fantastical adventure into another world via his grandmother’s attic, and it looks like he’s going to be fighting both inner and outer demons along the way.
I’m no art critic, and I’m not our resident graphic novel fanatic, but I just got pulled into this story and artwork so quickly and so deeply. I could try to describe what makes it great (the drawings! the color! the dialogue! the emotion!), but I’m not sure I have the language, so it’s easier to just tell you to click on the link above, read Chapter One, and decide for yourself. Apparently, there is also an iPad app that contains both the story and cool stuff like production notes, sketches, and other stuff about how the comic is being made. I suspect that is worth checking out, and hey, also free! (I think some of the production bits might cost something, but you can definitely get Chapter 1 for free.)
(Thanks to Chris L. for the heads up about this one. Keep those recommendations coming!)
When I was about 12, I read Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, a slim novel about a girl coming to terms with her older sister’s death from cancer. Then I read it again. Then I read it yet again. I don’t know how many times I ultimately read that book, but I can tell you that I still have that same battered copy, and the folds and stains on the pages attest to many, many travels through them.
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls has a similar magic, I think. The narrator, a boy named Sam, is dying from leukemia. The book is a collection of Sam’s journal entries, lists, questions (mostly ones that grown-ups refuse to answer or can’t answer, like “How do you know when you’ve died?”), goals, and sketches. Sam loves science (the fun kind, where you learn about UFOs and loch ness monsters, and make volcanoes that actually blow up), and he approaches his illness like he would a complicated science experiment–observing, asking questions, researching possible answers. He knows he is dying; he wants to understand why and what it means and what will happen next. Sam and his best buddy Felix, who also has cancer, have very different ways of seeing and coping with their illness, and their friendship adds a lot of humor and a bit of adventure to the story.
The result is a story that is, all at once, tender, hilarious, sad, and hopeful. Kids who I’ve talked to about this book always ask, “Is it sad? Did you cry?” Yes, I cried. Yes, it is sad. But it is also funny, and quirky, and true. Sam doesn’t seem like a character in a book. He seems like a real boy, with real questions that don’t always have answers, and it feels like a gift to be able to go on this journey with him.
Reading The Only Ones felt a bit like dreaming. I flew through this book in just a few days, and always had a hard time putting it down, and when I finished, it felt like I had dreamt the whole thing. Starmer writes beautifully and compellingly, and I guess he sort of pulled me into this alternate world so well, I had to wake up from it when I was finished. I’m still not sure I have entirely woken up yet!
The Only Ones is about a boy, Martin Maple, who grows up on a small island with his father. Tourists come and go every summer, but Martin and his father only interact with each other, focusing much of their energy on building and rebuilding a mysterious machine. Martin can take apart and rebuild the machine, as his father has taught him, but he doesn’t know what the machine is for, what it can do. There is a missing piece, but he doesn’t know what it is.
Then one day his father leaves the island, promising to return before Martin’s 11th birthday. The birthday comes and goes, and Martin’s father doesn’t return. Tourist season comes and goes, and the tourists don’t come to the island. Martin finally decides he must leave the island to see what has happened, and discovers that, with the exception of a group of about 50 kids, all of the people in the world have disappeared without a trace. The kids who remain are all drawn mysteriously to a town they name Xibalba, where they create a society in which each child’s special talent or interest helps them all survive. But can they figure out a way to get their families back? Can they figure out what happened to make everyone disappear?
Part science fiction, part mystery, this well-crafted story was moving in ways I didn’t see coming. This is one that will stick with me for a long time.
Dwight, a goofy, odd kid who can barely walk across a room without tripping over something, knocking someone over, spilling something, AND saying something weird, does something incredible. He makes an origami paper Yoda, sticks it on his finger, and suddenly is the wisest, most perceptive kid in the entire 6th grade, possibly the whole world.
No, wait. Dwight isn’t wise. Origami Yoda is wise. But how is that possible? How can a folded piece of paper be wise?
Each chapter of this book is devoted to a different kid’s story about how Origami Yoda gave him/her great advice and solved a problem s/he was having. Toss in some drawings (a la Diary of a Wimpy Kid–kids who have enjoyed that series will love this book), some comments from Harvey (who is skeptical about Origami Yoda’s powers), and loads of middle school mishaps, and you end up with a delightful, funny, light read.
We have about 100 holds on this book in the library right now. I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of the kids who read it will come back anxious to read Darth Paper Strikes Back, the sequel.
Last year, I was completely taken by Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. Seeing a writer incorporate all those awesome old Grimm tales into a story that spoke to contemporary readers made me so happy, and all the gore and humor made my middle school students even happier. You know a book is good when a class of 5th grade boys is begging to miss recess so they can hear more of it!
Today, I am just as taken by Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, but in a very different way. While Gidwitz is laugh-out-loud funny, Ursu captures the loneliness of the quirky kid’s childhood in metaphor and rich description. Hazel is the odd girl out–always daydreaming, always disappointing people, always teased by the other kids because she Just. Doesn’t. Fit. Except with Jack. Jack is not only Hazel’s friend, but he is her Best Friend, the one person who totally understands her and joins her in her daydreamy world.
But then Jack suddenly turns mean, rejecting Hazel as if they had never been friends at all. And here is where the old fairy tales come in. Jack’s heart has been pierced by a wicked piece of glass, and soon the white witch has taken him off into the woods, and Hazel must go on a quest to find him and bring him home. Most of the story deals with Hazel’s quest, but there are also some chilling scenes that center on Jack and the white witch.
Ursu is an incredibly gifted writer. I loved her Shadow Thieves, which would appeal to many of those Percy Jackson fans with its connection to mythology (the scenes that take place in the Underworld are thrilling), and Breadcrumbs is even better. It’s a bit quieter, with more focus on Hazel’s inner world, and that does slow it down in places. But it’s a great story, and I suspect we might see it on some award lists soon.