Category Archives: friendship

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I should probably wait and process Liar & Spy before I make grand statements–I only just finished it about ten minutes ago.  But here I go anyway:  this just might be a perfect middle grade novel.

Georges (named after painter Georges Seurat) and his family have just sold their home and moved into an apartment as a result of his father losing his job.  Georges still attends 7th grade at the same school, where he is bullied about his name (“Gorgeous”), among other things, but the new apartment brings new friends, in particular an odd boy named Safer and his younger sister, Candy.   The novel centers on Georges and Safer trying to solve the mystery of Mr. X, a neighbor who dresses all in black and comes and goes from his apartment carrying suitcases.  Safer speculates that Mr. X might be a murderer, and the spying that ensues includes some tense moments.  The mystery here is solid and ultimately unpredictable, and the resolution of the novel is immensely satisfying.

What is also solid is the character development, and this is really a realistic coming-of-age story as much as it is a mystery.  Georges’ voice is spot-on and unique, and the other characters who populate this story, kids and adults, are equally compelling.  A bit of the school dialogue struck me as unrealistic, but on the whole, it felt like I was reading about real, often quirky people, and if you read this blog, you know I love quirky characters!

I think middle school students, especially 5th and 6th graders, are going to really enjoy this story, both for the thoughtful mystery and the realistic fiction elements centered on family and friendships.  It’s a short, readable book, but there’s real depth to the story and the ending packs a quiet punch (is there such a thing as a quiet punch?  there is now!).   I can’t wait to share this story with students next week and start hearing their feedback!

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Filed under fiction, friendship, mystery, realistic fiction

The One and Only Ivan

Have a hankie handy when you read this one.  For sad tears and for happy ones.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the story of a gorilla, Ivan, who has lived for decades as one of a handful of animals at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, a combination shopping mall, arcade, and tiny roadside circus.  Ivan has friends–elephant Stella, stray dog Bob, and Julia, the young daughter of the man who cleans the windows of his cage.  He has his art–drawings he makes with crayons and paper slipped into his cage by Julia and that his owner, Mack, sells for $25 each (with frame).  He tries not to think about what he doesn’t have–freedom, companionship of other gorillas, space to roam around and explore.  The painted jungle on one wall of his cage is as close as he can come to that, and he learned when he was very young that wanting more would just cause him more pain than he could bear.

So, he doesn’t think about it.  Until a baby elephant, named Ruby, comes to live at the Big Top Mall.  When he sees Ruby, and envisions her future as a lifetime spent in a small cage, Ivan does begin to think.  His protective instincts kick in, and he comes up with a plan that he hopes will lead to a better life for Ruby, and maybe for himself as well.

What I love about this book:  it is moving, and I would call it a feel-good book in the end, but it doesn’t shy away from some harsh realities of how animals are treated in some environments.  As Ivan talks about in the novel, there are good humans, and there are bad humans.  We see both kinds in this novel.  This is definitely a good book to give to kids who love animals, but I think I would let the kids know that there are a few places in the book that are difficult to stomach, especially if reading about an animal being hurt or dying is too much.  It ends on a very happy note, but there is some rough stuff along the way.

I also love Ivan’s voice.  I did not expect to love this book, because the concept of a gorilla narrator seemed hokey to me, but Applegate really pulls it off.  Within a few chapters, I was able to suspend any disbelief I had and just surrender myself to the story.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but Ivan’s voice came off as authentically gorillan to me, even though I know that a gorilla would not actually think or talk that way.  Maybe what I want to say is that Applegate didn’t simply stick human thoughts into a gorilla narrator; she tried to imagine how the world would really look to a gorilla, and how, if a gorilla could think and talk in our language, that would look/sound.

As far as age range, this one is excellent for grades 4-6.  The chapters are short, and there is an added bonus of beautiful illustrations by Patricia Castelao.  But I would not limit this book to younger readers.  The subject matter of animal rights is something that could interest any reader, and while the language is somewhat simple, the story being told is complex.  I certainly learned some things in reading this story.

I suspect we’ll see this on some Newbery lists, for good reason.  Highly recommended.

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Filed under animal books, fiction, friendship, realistic fiction, sad

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

There was a moment, about a quarter of the way into Wonder, when I stopped breathing, felt like I had been sucker-punched in the gut.  Up until that point, I was enjoying the novel and thought it was good, but I had this distracting feeling in the back of my mind that it just wasn’t quite realistic enough.  Let’s just say I was wrong.

Wonder is the story of August Pullman’s 5th grade year at Beecher Prep, told not only through his voice, but also those of his sister and her friends, and his classmates.  August would like nothing more than to be seen as the normal kid he feels he is, but he knows that is not likely to happen.  He has a genetic birth defect (actually a rare combination of defects) that has caused his face to look shockingly different from a “normal” face, even after multiple surgeries.  Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”  When he goes out in public, people look away, whisper, stare, or sometimes even scream.  But aside from the difference in his appearance, Auggie is a pretty normal kid–he loves Star Wars and science; he plays with his dog; he argues with his older sister; etc.

August has never been to school before–in large part because of all of the surgeries he has had to undergo–but now he is starting middle school at a small private school.  Needless to say, it is not easy to be the new kid in middle school, but if you look as different as August does, it’s almost unimaginably difficult.  Yet, R.J. Palacio does, I think, an admirable job of trying to imagine what it’s like for August, as well as for his family and classmates.  There were some moments that were a bit too feel-good for me, but in the end, I was thankful for those moments.  There were certainly plenty that were not at all feel-good, and for a book written for kids (I would say it’s appropriate for ages 8 and up) about such a heavy topic, there is a real need for balance.  This is at times a sad book, but it is not a depressing book, and ultimately I would describe it as triumphant.

I’m curious to see how kids react to this book.  I think many of them will like it for the well-paced story and humor, and will take something away from it as well.   Highly recommended for kids who like realistic fiction, and probably a good book to use as a class read for talking about issues like bullying and prejudice.

UPDATE:  Kid response to this so far is really good.  I am reading the first few chapters in class, and getting a fair number of holds on it from both boys and girls (6th graders this week; will have 5th next week).  My own kid (5th grade) read it and loved it.

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The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

What a funny little book The Unforgotten Coat is.

Two Mongolian refugees show up at sixth grader Julie’s school one day, and she becomes their guide to navigating life in Bootle, England.  The opening scene, when Chingis (the older brother) takes on a teacher in a battle of wills, had me literally laughing out loud, and those bursts of laughter continued throughout the book.  Frank Cottrell Boyce has a true grasp on middle school humor.  At the same time, there was an undercurrent of sadness and fear.  Nergui, the younger brother, worries about being taken away by a demon, and much of the story revolves around his and Chingis’ various tactics for avoiding this demon.  (Which might sound kind of silly, until you get to the end of the story, which I won’t spoil.)

I read a review that criticized this story for being insensitive and misrepresentative of Mongol culture.  I did not see what that reviewer saw.  I saw this experience of being confronted with difference, through the eyes of a young girl who does her best to understand and help these two boys, who become her friends.  But I’m curious to know more about what might be offensive or incorrect; this particular reviewer did not elaborate.

This book would be wonderful to read aloud to a class; I can’t wait to read part of it to my 5th and 6th graders.  It is short, and funny, and in the end, gives you a lot to talk about.  Be sure to read the Afterword, which describes the true story that inspired Cottrell Boyce to write this tale.  This book reads very much like nonfiction, with a series of Polaroid photos (including ones of the characters), so I wondered if it were actually true.  It is not, but the story behind the story made me feel like it kind of was true.

The only thing that bothered me about this book was the setting in terms of time.  The narrator is looking back maybe 20 years, but talks about doing searches on Wikipedia.  The present day bits read like they are in the true present (the narrator uses Facebook).  It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a bit jarring to my former editor’s brain.

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Filed under fiction, friendship, funny, realistic fiction

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

I am not sure exactly how I feel about The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer.  I wanted to really like it, and in some ways I did, but in other ways it just didn’t quite make it for me.  But there was enough good in there to make it a book I will recommend to students.

Pros:

The novel grabbed me right away, and I flew through it.  The writing is strong, and it felt to me like Wolitzer captured the language and world of middle school well.  And while I wouldn’t call it a mystery exactly, there were some little mysterious elements to the story that kept me engaged and wanting to keep reading.

The main characters, three middle school kids who are all headed to a major Scrabble tournament, each for very different reasons (Duncan because he hopes to win the cash prize; Nate because his father is pressuring him to win in order to avenge his own loss when he competed in the same tournament years ago; and April because she simply loves the game), are all interesting and quirky and appealing.  I would happily read a novel devoted to any one of the three of them.

Cons:

The very thing that grabbed my attention at the beginning of the novel (and would likely grab students’ attention if I read the first few chapters out loud to them) is probably the most problematic part of the book.  Duncan Dorfman, one of the three main children, has a strange special power that allows him to “see” with his fingertips.  In the world of Scrabble, this means he can reach into the tile bag and know exactly what letters he is pulling out–an obvious advantage at a tournament.  As the novel progresses, this special talent isn’t really central to the story, or at least not necessary, and in the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger without that element of magic.

It felt like there were a few too many plots thrown in.  The main stories of the three children were all compelling, but a side story about Nate’s dad’s former Scrabble partner didn’t grab me and just seemed like too much.  I also felt like the ending of Duncan’s story was too rushed and superficial.

In the End:

In the end, I would recommend this book to kids who like realistic fiction with a bit of a twist; kids who like E. L. Konigsburg (this book has a similar feel to many of her novels); and kids who like to write.  And I would definitely recommend it to kids who like Scrabble–there are a ton of neat tips and word lists included in the novel!

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Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

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.

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Filed under fiction, friendship, funny, realistic fiction, sad

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

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.

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Filed under fairy tale, fantasy, fiction, friendship, misfit