Monday, December 10, 2018

Spooky Holiday Reads

What better time of year than the dark of winter to pick up a great spooky read? I asked a few of my fellow #SpookyMG authors from to recommend spooky books that are great to read during the holiday season. Here's what they said:

"If you’re looking for a fun, spooky, action-packed read for the holidays, you’ll want to check out Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, in which twelve-year-old Devin Dexter must wage battle against the season’s hottest new toy that ends up going bad. Very, very bad.

"If you’re a fan of mildly-spooky mysteries, you’ll enjoy GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford. Set in the quirky Greenglass Inn during a very snowy Christmas, it’s a tale filled with legends, secrets, and strange ghostly happenings."


"During this season of giving, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is the perfect Holiday story. It is the story of an unexpected gift--a brand new playground--and the pandemonium the gift unleashes upon the children of the neighborhood.

"The commercialization of December has drummed into our heads the need for more, more, more! We want gifts, more gifts, and even more gifts! But not all gifts are created equal. Dr. Fell is a morality tale of the danger of just accepting each and every gift flung your way. There is a price for everything, even things which appear to be free.

"So this Holiday season, give your children the one gift that serves as both a glorious present and a life lesson. Give them Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. :)"


This holiday season, I'd like to recommend two of my favorite spooky reads. First, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE by Joan Aiken. It features a grand old house set in a remote wintry wood, man-eating wolves, an evil governess, a mysterious stranger, a cruel orphanage owner and three plucky children who struggle to outwit them all. I love the book so much, I even made a video about it! Watch it on the #SpookyMG YouTube Channel

Another all-time favorite of mine is CLOCKWORK by master storyteller Philip Pullman. This book features a storyteller weaving tales in a tavern on a wintry night, characters that come to life, a bargain with an evil doctor, a boy made from clockwork, a killer knight, murder and true love. Truly, a masterpiece of storytelling that unravels like clockwork.

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Time for Every Story

In recent months, I’ve come across a few excellent posts and twitter discussions about the importance of including sad or difficult stories in children’s books (including one here on MG Minded), and I agree 100%. The world needs these stories. Kids need these stories, so much. I love the “windows and mirrors” metaphor for books – the idea that books can be both windows that offer a glimpse into worlds very different from our own, thereby increasing empathy, and mirrors that reflect something of our own experience, making us feel less alone. Both types of stories are so very important, and both types often, and necessarily, include sad, scary, or otherwise difficult topics.

When my daughter was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago, I was thrown into depression for the first time in my life. Not that I hadn’t faced difficult situations in life before…of course I had. But depression was new for me. Having a kid with cancer was new for me. It was easy to feel alone in my sadness, even though I wasn’t. 

Books have long been for me places of refuge, and they have been comforters, escapes, eye-openers, entertainers, heart-breakers, and heart-menders. So naturally, when life gave me lemons, I opened a book. (Wow, way to mess up the clich├ęd metaphor there, Shari.) However, instead of craving mirror books – books that reflected what I was going through – I found such stories traumatizing. I would've thought they'd ignite a spark of hope for me, as I witnessed a character I related to find their way through difficult times. But instead, mirror stories often struck too close to the wound. As a self-protective measure, I refused to read any more sick-kid books. Many of the books I missed out on probably have a good measure of hopefulness tucked into the story, but I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) immerse myself in the heartache long enough to get to the hope.

I’m better now, but I still find myself intentionally avoiding sad stories. And you know, that’s okay. Sad and serious books are often called important books, and they are. But happy, silly, funny, “light” books are important, too. Some days I need light. Some days I need silly or sassy or ridiculous. Some days, when I look at the state of our world, I simply need happiness and hope, and I expect I’m not alone in this.

Writers, keep writing the serious stories. Keep tackling the tough topics. We need those books. But if the stories that call you are of the lighter variety, then please, write them. Don’t ever tell yourself you’re not doing important work. We absolutely need happy books, too. To misquote completely rip off and rewrite a famous passage from Ecclesiastes: To every book, there is a reader, and a time for every story under heaven.

We can trust kids to put down books that aren’t right for them emotionally. We can trust them to know when they need to read the stories that reflect the harsh realities of their lives or their world, but we can trust them, too, to know when to put such books down and pick up lighter fare. Trust them to know when their heart needs Archie comics or rom-coms or fart jokes, and never think such reading is unimportant. Because truly, there is a time for every story.

*  *  *  *  *

[ETA: Just stumbled across a wonderful art piece by Jarrett Lerner - "kids need books of all kinds". Check it out! Free download on his site.]

Monday, December 3, 2018

What I learned this year from Middle Grade Novels

This has been a banner year for Middle Grade novels!


As I looked back over all the books I read this year, I realized that I learned so much from the stories that made my reading life so wonderful!

Diversity Changes Everything

The books I read by diverse authors entertained me, enlightened me, and energized me. Want to build a better world? Read something from a completely different point of view!

Some books that did that for me this year:

The best stories are ones when you realize someone else is going through stuff, too.

Take me on adventures to places and worlds I've never been.

Victorian England, the South, a neglected churchyard in Harlem, a world of privateers, the Scottish highlands.

That laughter really is in the best medicine...

Just when I think middle grade literature can't get any better, I read another book and am blown away.

Thank you to the authors of these books and all the other middle grade books I read in 2018.  I can't wait to see what 2019 brings!!!!

Monday, November 19, 2018

10 Rules for Middle Grade Novelists

Not long ago Johnathan Franzen wrote a list of 10 Rules for Novelists, and writers all over Book Twitter had things to say about it. Following that same thread, let’s take a look at the idea from the perspective of middle grade writers.

1 - Remember there aren’t any magic formulas or checklists you have to follow. If you come across advice that seems useful, sure, give it a try. Ultimately though, you have to do what works for you. 

2 - Focus on where you are in the now. Don’t spend too much time looking longingly at what you hope could be the next step you reach on this never-ending staircase of writing and publishing. If you think too much about why the things beyond your control haven’t happened yet, you will carve out your own personal spiral down the darkest and smelliest of rabbit holes. 

3 - Remember that the publishing world has one of those light-speed time differential things going on. What might seem like endless weeks or months to you as you wait to hear back about query letters or manuscript requests, or submissions, is the everyday passage of time for the people on the other side of your waiting. They aren’t trying to tie you in knots; they’re just doing their jobs and living their lives. (The opposite of this could also be true if you ever end up with tangible writing deadlines in front of you and the calendar seems to flip forward at double speed.)

4 - Read a lot of middle grade books. Find the ones that reach you the most. Enjoy them for what they are, and think about why they work so well for you. Try to figure out why you connect to those stories and what you can do about that as a writer. 

5 - Don’t just read middle grade. Read all over the spectrum, and soak in everything you can that will help you find your best voice.

6 - Write every day or don’t. It doesn’t matter. If you have the luxury of being somewhere in life that allows you to make that choice, figure out what kind of schedule works best.

7 - Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all you need to do is insert dragons or graphic-novelly illustrations or robots or narwhals or fart jokes into your work to guarantee it will have wide middle grade appeal. Be genuine. 

8 - Please don’t underestimate middle-grade readers. They are absolutely merciless when it comes to abandoning books they don’t find interesting. Seriously. It takes most of them mere paragraphs before they decide.

9 - End your chapters with good mini-cliffhangers. Teachers around the world will appreciate this. It makes read aloud time much more engaging, and fills the classroom with disappointed groans every time the story has to stop.

10 - Remember what your true, core reasons for writing in the first place are. No matter what successes you ever have along the way, you’re going to have setbacks and disappointments, too. Some of them will be absolutely crushing. Knowing your reasons to write will give you the purpose to keep moving forward when that happens. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Have you ever written a masterpiece, forgotten about it for a few days, and come back to find it littered with discordant phrases or scenes? We’ve all had that experience. And when faced with our own less-than-stellar work, sometimes we’re tempted to throw it all away and start over, or worse, give up.

Let me tell you a story.

Recently I sat down at my piano after several weeks away. My fingers danced across the keys. I felt my shoulders relax and the tension of the day bleed away. But very soon I noticed a problem. Low D wasn’t working. No matter how hard or soft I pressed, no matter how I concentrated and bit my lip, no music came from Low D.

What could I do?

I could go ahead and play a symphony without Low D. I might pretend I didn’t notice or didn’t mind, like I wasn’t cringing every time the note didn’t play. I could improvise by adding in the even Lower D. That might make up for it. Sort of.

But after a few tries, I was ready to pull my hair out. 

I could quit playing piano. People quit things all the time. They change their life direction. Reprioritize. And piano is hard work. There’s lots of practice to achieve any sort of mastery. And while there are rewards, there are also problems, like notes that don’t work. It wouldn’t be a big deal for me to give it up, would it?

The thing is, I love playing piano. I love the way it feels to have my fingers move as if by magic while beautiful music fills the room. I love how the songs I play elicit emotion in other people. It can comfort them, stir their spirits, or make them think.

Sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it? Back to the broken piano...

Another option would be to open it up and try to figure out what’s going wrong. This is usually my first approach. Poke around, find what’s broken, and try to fix it. Sometimes I take the piano apart, piece by piece. Not an easy task and not for the fainthearted. Sometimes I even manage to solve the problem on my own.

But often, I need outside help, a piano tuner, who can spot problems I overlook and who knows how to make the piano sing.

Writing is a lot like that, too. When we come back to a project and find it in need of repair, there are vital steps to take to refine our story and make it sing.

Take some time away from your draft.  

Taking a break from what you’re writing and viewing it with fresh eyes is often an illuminating experience. You will see your work in new ways. You will spot areas that need a little polish or maybe a heavy rewrite. Don’t be afraid of this. The purpose of early drafts is to get the words on the page. Then you make them pretty.

Put on your editing hat

Do overall story editing first – plot, character, pacing, etc. There’s no point in refining sentences to perfection when you might end up throwing them out later to adjust for larger, overarching issues.

After you’re comfortable with your large-scale changes, then focus on perfecting imagery and sentence structure.

Don’t be afraid to share

One of the best ways to see if your story is working is to share it with friends, or better yet, a critique group. Put on your thick skin and be prepared for questions suggestions. If you get some, that’s a great thing. No one bothers making suggestions if the work is a disaster. Ask people what they liked and what they didn’t. This can help your story development as well as your writing overall.

Hire help

Even the best stories receive professional editing. A good editor has a pulse on the market and can help position your book to excel. They can help your story hit the emotional and plot points you’re shooting for and identify areas where you need to put in a little extra work.

Best of luck as you polish your masterpiece! 
As for me, I’ll be calling a piano tuner this afternoon.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Unconventional Structures

How can you make your middle grade book stand out in an already-crowded market?

The answer might be an unconventional structure.

What is this, you ask?

Well, it might be writing every-other-chapter from the perspective of a different character, like Erin Entrada Kelly does in YOU GO FIRST.

Or it might be including hilarious footnotes at the end of some chapters, like Tae Keller does in THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS.

It might mean writing alternating chapters in verse, like in Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison do in EVERY SHINY THING.

If you are artistic, it might mean including charts, maps, or drawings to enhance the text.

Creative chapter titles are another way to make your book stand out. In YOU GO FIRST, the chapters written from Charlotte’s point of view all begin with facts called the “Rabbit Hole”. A rabbit hole was what Charlotte’s dad called it when she got swept up researching useless information online. The facts seem random, but all relate to something that will happen in the upcoming chapter. (“Rabbit Hole: In 2017, Haitian immigrant Denis Estimon started a club at his Boca Raton high school called We Dine Together. Its purpose is to make sure no one eats lunch alone.”)

Breaking your book into sections is another way to get creative. Like THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, the novel THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS is divided into the parts of the scientific method. Each section begins with quotes from the protagonist’s seventh grade science teacher:

Step One: OBSERVE: This is the first step in the scientific process! Sharpen and hone your observational skillz! What is going on in the world around you? Note everything you see and experience! #MrNeelysScientificAdventure

Step Two: QUESTION: What baffles you about the world? Find something that intrigues you and study it with all your heart! Don your detective cap and become your own private investigator! Or, should I say, your own scientific investigator! #SeventhGradeSleuths

Step Three: INVESTIGATIVE RESEARCH: Grab your magnifying glass and your decoder ring because you’re going to be investigating! Investigating science, that is! You’ll all be researching your question, because research is fun, fun, fun! #SherlockScientificProcess

Step Four: HYPOTHESIS: A hypothesis is an educated guess! And since you’re all educated and good at guessing, this assignment is perfect for you! Time to put those ol’ brainz to the test! #EducatedStudentz

Step Five: PROCEDURE: Time to create a plan of action! How will your experiment work? Take a moment to lay out your steps. Remember: planning makes perfect! #PlanForPerfect

Step Six: EXPERIMENT: And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Time to test those hypothesis! Will your educated guesses stand up against the Great Scientific Process? #MomentOfTruth #GetPumped

Step Seven: RESULTS: All your hard work has paid off! Now reap your rewardz! Record the results of your experiments. Remember: there are no losers in #science #life.

Step Eight: ANALYZE YOUR RESULTS: What can you learn from your results? What would you do differently? Your journey has finally come to an end, and I hope you had as much fun as I did exploring, investigating, and experimenting! Turn in your lab notebooks on Friday, and have a great summer. #TheEnd

I love the hashtags at the end of each step!

What other interesting structures have you seen in middle grade?

What have you tried in your own writing?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers' emotions. No matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today's foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories? I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren't quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories? For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I've always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can't see - like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life - fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test - and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness - even if it's just a candle - can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That's what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That's the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round? I would say that's why spooky stories are always in season - they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories? I get scared easily when I'm reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything's going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I'm scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there's an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it's okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'" And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that's a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories? I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories? I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

 Why are spooky stories important all year round? Spooky stories aren't just about Halloween. They're about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.

Friday, November 2, 2018

MG New Release Round-Up!

My TBR pile is perpetually out of control, but does that stop me from adding more to it? Um…no. 

In case you're like me and want ALL THE BOOK RECS!!!!, here are ten new or upcoming middle grade books on my radar.

  • Louisiana’s Way Home, Kate DiCamillo (Oct. 2) – This is the only one on my list that I’ve already read. I loved it! Classic Kate DiCamillo, it’s a quirky/sad/hopeful story.
  • Everlasting Nora, Marie Miranda Cruz (Oct. 2) – about a girl living in a shantytown in the Philippines' Manila North Cemetery 
  • Dog Days in the City, Jodi Kendall (Oct. 2) – a heartwarming story that sounds perfect for dog-lovers (me!), from the author of The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City
  • The Reckless Club, Beth Vrabel (Oct. 2) – a Breakfast Club-ish MG set in a retirement home, from the author of Caleb and Kit
  • In Your Shoes, Donna Gephart (Oct. 9) – friendship story from the author of Lily and Dunkin

  • The Lighthouse Between the Worlds, Melanie Crowder (Oct. 23) – secrets, a portal, and a boy's search for his father (fantasy)
  • Counting to Perfect, Suzanne Lafleur (Oct. 23) – a road-trip sister story
  • Blended, Sharon Draper (Nov. 6) – contemp story about a biracial girl, from the author of Out of my Mind
  • The Prophet Calls, Melanie Sumrow (Nov. 6) – about a girl growing up within a polygamous community (for older MG readers)
  • It Wasn’t Me, Dana Alison Levy (Nov. 18) – a MG take on The Breakfast Club, from the author of the Family Fletcher books

What's on your radar? (In other words, go an enabler and tell me about MORE BOOKS I need to add to my pile, lol.)   

Monday, October 29, 2018

Book Review and Giveaway: THE HOUSE IN POPLAR WOOD

Middle Grade Minded recently received an ARC of THE HOUSE IN POPLAR WOOD by K.E. Ormsbee.

I immediately flung my digital hand up in the air because I am a sucker for any books that take place in the woods because

1) the woods can be creepy
2) the woods can be magical
3) the woods can be soothing

My money was on number 1, though it turns out K.E. Ormsbee managed to include 2 and 3 as well!

What it's About:

For as long as the Vickery twins can remember, Lee and his mother have served Memory, while Felix and his father assist Death. This is the Agreement. But one Halloween, Gretchen Whipple smashes her way into their lives. Her bargain is simple: If the twins help her solve the murder of local girl Essie Hasting, she'll help them break the Agreement. The more the three investigate, however, the more they realize that something's gone terribly wrong in their town. Death is on the loose, and if history repeats itself, Essie's might not be the last murder in Poplar Wood. Simultaneously heartwarming and delightfully spooky, The House in Poplar Wood is a story about a boy's desire to be free, a girl's desire to make a difference, and a family's desire to be together again.

What I thought of the book:

I really liked this book!

I liked the twins' friendship and their longing to be a real family with their parents.

I liked the fact that Death and Memory were real characters, not only known to the children, but also to the rest of the nearby town.

I liked that there was an unbreakable pact, because I am fascinated by how authors come or don't come up with creative ways to break the plot.  K.E. Ormsbee handled this VERY well.

And I loved the character of Essie Hastings, whose dogged determination to make things right for both her family and the Vickery family is both poignant and at times hysterically funny.

I highly recommend this book!

About the Author:

Visit her website here.

Follow her on twitter: @Kathsby

or on instagram: @kathsby

or on Facebook:

How would you like to win the arc? Leave a comment below! All comments submitted by November 3rd at midnight will be put in the draw to win the ARC!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, October 15, 2018

Why Include Suffering in MG Fiction

Children today already have enough to deal with. News about devastating hurricanes, school shootings, and political turmoil weighs on everyone, but especially on our youth. They’re in the process of figuring out who they are, who they want to become, and what life is all about. Even simple life challenges can be overwhelming. And many kids face problems that are not simple by any stretch. Shouldn’t reading provide an outlet where they can be stimulated by entertaining tales delivered in a safe, nonthreatening way? 

The answer is a resounding NO. 

Suffering and tragedy are part of life. When children read about the challenges their favorite characters face, they contemplate how to handle problems in their own lives. Fictional characters can model how to face tough situations and recover from painful mistakes. They can inspire readers to cultivate similar traits. 

Recently I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I’d heard of it before and had read excerpts highlighting the courageous choices of many prisoners amid horrible circumstances. I’m not recommending this as a book for Middle Grade readers. But it is definitely a must-read for adults and an illuminating text for writers.

You’ve probably heard of character arc. That’s basically a summary of your main character’s growth. For instance, a character might move from fear to strength or from jealousy to self-confidence or anger to forgiveness. But your characters need to go through something for this transformation to happen. 

It’s true, change and growth can happen without major challenges, if we are seeking to change and grow. But there’s nothing more sharply and quickly transformative than serious life problems, if we allow them to change us.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes his years in the Jewish concentration camps during World War II. As a psychiatrist, he sought meaning in the suffering around him, recognizing that if there wasn’t meaning to be found in suffering, especially when the suffering was arbitrary and beyond his control, life could hold no meaning at all. He wrote that suffering can be ennobling, if we let it, and that it can change our perspective, that every choice to be positive and kind can be a triumph as well as an exercise in self-discipline.

Most people will never find themselves in such dire circumstances as Viktor Frankl and the other victims and survivors of the Holocaust. However, we all will find ourselves, at some point, facing challenges we did not choose and cannot easily escape, if at all. Sometimes the only was is through. Sometimes all we can control is our attitude.

When writing stories, there is tremendous value in putting our characters through extremely tough situations. It’s not just because it makes for an exciting plot, although it does. Or because major obstacles can yield major changes in character arc. 

It’s because this is what real life is about, facing challenges that seem insurmountable and triumphing anyways. The external triumphs – reaching the castle, defeating the dragon, saving the princess – are exciting and vital to your plot. 

But what matters even more are the inner triumphs that happen along the way when your characters face their own flaws, correct their own faulty thinking, and rise above themselves to become stronger and more complete.

The images included here are of some of my favorite MG novels whose characters triumph over terrible opposition. Sometimes the challenge is removed once the triumph occurs. Sometimes it isn’t. Either way, there is triumph over self, the most meaningful triumph of all.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Garbage Island, by Fred Koehler

Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew) by Fred Koehler is the kind of book that feels like a throwback to earlier days of middle grade literature and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. Archibald (he prefers to go by “Archie”) is all exploration, creativity, and invention, the kind of character that any STEM student will recognize in themselves.

Archie is a shrew living on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which gives him a seemingly endless supply of resources to tinker with as he invents new objects meant to make the lives of those on the garbage patch a bit better. He shares the patch with a diverse collection of animals who have organized their different cultures and priorities into a workable truce under the leadership of their mayor, a mouse named Mr. Popli. While Archie’s strongest motivation for inventing is to be helpful, he commonly lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, which often leads to problems within this society. One day one of these moments leads to a chain of events that sets Archie and Mr. Popli off on an adventure at sea, one which could also have a lasting impact on the welfare of the citizens of Garbage Island and their home itself.

There were a number of things I enjoyed about this book. It was a lot of fun to read a story with animals for characters, and fully-realized characters at that. Each character or group had their own collection of traits and motivations working together to keep the story moving. The extensive world-building on display here was both amusing and disturbing — amusing because of the way Fred Koehler came up with imaginative ways to introduce everyday items as useful parts of the environment, but disturbing to realize that many of Archie’s abundant resources could likely be found out on the Garbage Patch in real life. The world-building didn’t stop with the physical though, but also permeated throughout the community the different animals had created together, to say nothing of their politics.

Fred Koehler won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for his illustrations for ONE DAY. THE END. He is the author-illustrator of HOW TO CHEER UP DAD, which received three starred reviews, and he is the illustrator of THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT DRAGONS and PUPPY, PUPPY, PUPPY, and FLASHLIGHT NIGHT. He lives with his children in Lakeland, Florida.

Monday, October 8, 2018

After Zero, by Christina Collins

In After Zero, a debut middle grade by Christina Collins, twelve-year-old Elise finds it hard to utter more than a few words, especially when she is at school. At home, and with her best friend Mel, Elise is comfortable enough to speak freely. But at school, her anxiety takes over. Elise, formerly homeschooled, doesn’t know the “rules” about her new school, Green Pasture Middle. She’s never been in a classroom before, and every time she opens her mouth to speak, she accidentally spills secrets or says wrong answers. It’s easier not to talk. Elise carries a notebook full of tallies, each stroke marking a word spoken. Five tally marks isn’t bad. Two is pretty good. But zero? Zero is perfect. 

At home, things aren’t much easier. When she’s not teaching an online class, Elise’s mother is locked inside her bedroom.One night when Elise can’t sleep, she discovers her mother rummaging through a shed in their backyard. Later, Elise discovers bins full of teddy bears, photographs, and sympathy cards inside the shed—evidence that her father was killed in a car crash on the day she was born. From the cards, it appears that her two toddler brothers survived the crash. When Elise discovers a card from a grandmother she never met, she’s convinced her granny is raising her brothers.

Armed with her grandmother’s return address, Elise sets out to meet her granny and the family she’s always longed for. After a dangerous journey through a forest, Elise approaches a cliff where she sees two boys in wheelchairs, playing violins. A grandmother figure appears and tells Elise that she will be reunited with her brothers on her 13th birthday if she remains silent. If she doesn’t say a word, all her wishes will come true.

Elise, determined to remain quiet so she can be reunited with her brothers, falls further into what she calls her “bubble”. She is silent to the point where can’t even bring herself to cry out for help when school bullies lash out, both physically and verbally.
When Elise can’t tell the guidance counselor why she didn’t cry for help during the abuse, a beloved English teacher encourages Elise to write a letter detailing all that has happened to her in the past few months. In the letter, Elise shares that she saw her brothers and will be reunited with them if she remains silent until her 13th birthday. The school counselor shows the letter to Elise’s mother, who is befuddled because Elise’s toddler brothers died in the same car crash that killed Elise’s dad thirteen years ago. The counselor explains that Elise’s silence, a condition called selective mutism, often co-exists with other types of anxiety. Elise’s sleep deprivation caused hallucinations, making her “see” the brothers and grandmother she wanted to believe were still alive.
And now, for the happy ending...
An epilogue shows Elise two years later, after therapy, entering high school. The word “Quiet” still feels inked into her like a tattoo. But like the mysterious raven that follows her throughout the story, Elise is now ready to spread her wings and fly.
My review: Four stars. Selective mutism is a topic not covered in middle grade literature, and this book will be a helpful addition to the genre. Although the hallucination scene was a bit confusing for me as a reader of realistic fiction, the gripping, fast-paced plot left me rooting for Elise. I appreciated the recommended resources at the end of the book for kids who struggle with selective mutism.