Category Archives: realistic fiction

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 Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars got bumped to the top of my to-read list because one of my students, a 5th grade boy who is a self-professed nerd and huge fan of Green’s work on Vlogbrothers (which I confess I haven’t yet spent much time looking at), declared so sweetly and intensely and repeatedly his love for it.  After saying to this young man three times, “I’m sorry, I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet,” I really couldn’t live with myself any longer.  So I picked it up at last this morning, and spent the day soaking it in.

First, let me say that it is a rare 5th grade boy who will appreciate this book (I am dying to hear more about what he loved about it), but oh my, I can think of many, many older middle schoolers and upper schoolers who will devour it and come back asking for more stuff just like it.  There is some sex (not explicit, but the main characters are 16 and 17 years old, and it is part of their world) and some language and some heavy-duty subject matter (love and death, in particular), but in my opinion, all of those things in this particular book add to the beauty and reality of the novel.   This is not an easy, light read, but at the same time, it drew me in quickly and I flew through it one day.  I laughed out loud at several points, and teared up at several others.  I think if I had read it at age 14, I would have loved it even more.  It’s cliche to say it, but the novel is heartbreakingly funny and sad.  Hazel (the narrator) would cringe at that description, but it’s the truth.

The basic plot:  the narrator, Hazel, has had terminal cancer since she was 13 and is (understandably) quite depressed about her situation.  She meets Augustus, who is in remission from the bone cancer that took his leg, at a support group meeting, and the friendship/romance that develops between them is the focus on the novel.  Both Hazel and Augustus are wicked smart, funny, quirky, and thoughtful, and as a reader I kind of fell in love with both of them as they fell in love with each other.

I don’t know what it’s like to have cancer as a young person, or even to know someone in that situation.  I do have a close friend with a terminal illness, and I thought of her a lot as I read this book.  She doesn’t like to read books about people dying, so I’ll never know if I’m right, but I had the thought many times that things Hazel said would probably ring true for my friend, and I felt like maybe I came away with a slightly better understanding of what it might be like to be in my friend’s shoes.  And isn’t that what great books do–shine a little light on the mysteries of life that we ourselves haven’t experienced, or make us feel a bit less lonely in the ones we have.

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Filed under fiction, realistic fiction, sad

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

This morning, I read the first two chapters of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (recent Newbery winner) to two classes of 6th grade boys.  In one class, once we hit the part where the narrator, Jack, says “cheeze-us crust” as a substitute for the swear “Jesus Christ,” the laugh-fest began and continued off and on for the rest of class.  When I set the boys free to look for books in the library, I heard many exclamations of “cheeze-us! cheeze-us crust!”  It’s funny to me how I can never predict what the kids will go crazy over.

This is a great book to read aloud, because the voice of young Jack is so strong and so genuine.  Jack is young boy living in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962.  He has problems with nosebleeds that, in his own description, spurt out of his nose like water from an elephant’s trunk; some very humorous scenes in the book involve his unruly nose and its spewing of blood.  Jack has been grounded for the summer as punishment for firing his father’s Japanese sniper rifle without permission and then mowing down his mother’s cornfield (at his father’s insistence, but just try to get his mother to have sympathy for that!).  He is only allowed to leave the house to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, type obituaries for the town newspaper (her arthritis has made it impossible for her to type them on her own).

There were several things I liked about this book.  As I said, I loved the voice of Jack.  The humor was great; I laughed out loud several times, and it was the sort of humor that middle school kids would appreciate.  I enjoyed learning a bit about the history of Norvelt and how it fit with the New Deal and a series of planned government communities.  Seeing the history and learning about it through Jack’s perspective, as well as through the conflicting opinions of his parents, made it interesting.

So, I liked the book, and I think it will appeal to kids who like humor mixed with history.  However, I do not think I would have picked this to win the Newbery.  There were parts that dragged a bit for me, and I just did not think this book had the emotional punch of something like A Monster Calls or the beauty of Breadcrumbs.  It’s a solid little book, though, and if the laughter in class this morning was any indication, it’s a book that knows its audience and hits the mark.

Update:  Here is a short audio clip of Gantos himself reading the beginning of the book.  Thanks to Macmillan Audio for the link!

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Filed under funny, historical fiction, realistic fiction

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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Guest review: Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder

I’d like to sometimes change things up a bit on this blog and include reviews written by actual middle schoolers.  Here is the first of what I hope will be many guest reviews!

Guest Review by Claire H., 5th grader.

I loved Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. It is one of my favorite books of all-time. The book is about a girl named Rebecca, whose mother decides to leave her father, taking Rebecca and her little brother, Lew, with her to stay at their Gran’s house. On her first day there, Rebecca goes into the attic to get away from her mother and while she is there, finds a collection of old breadboxes. There is one in particular that sticks out to her because it is clean, unlike the others. She soon realizes that the breadbox is magical, whatever she wishes for will appear inside the breadbox, as long as it can fit inside. Rebecca struggles to figure out the true meaning of life and the breadbox in this novel.

I liked this book because it is something that, because I am a kid, is nice to see from a kid’s perspective. I really like books about girls like Rebecca, who have a hard time, and this book really fit into that category. It is also really suspenseful, which I like in a book. I finished the book in only two days, I couldn’t stop reading. It is a real page-turner.

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Filed under fantasy, fiction, realistic fiction, suspense, Uncategorized