Category Archives: Middle Grade

12) The Girl Who Drank the Moon

By: Kelly Barnhill

Date Finished: 03.17.17

15. The Girl Who Drank the Moon

A story can tell the truth, she knew, but a story can also lie. Stories can bend and twist and obfuscate. Controlling stories is power indeed.

This is, perhaps, the greatest love story I’ve ever read.

There is hardly any romance — what little there is happens mostly offstage — but love oozes from every page like a bog. (That may seem like an odd simile; I will make you read the book to find out why it’s perfect.)

This is a story about family. About the family you choose and the family you don’t. About the family you desperately want but they’re lost to you. About the family you think you can’t have until all at once you can.

This is the story of a compassionate witch, an inquisitive boy, a quixotic dragon, a poetic swamp monster, a grieving madwoman, and, of course, an enmagicked girl who drank deeply from the boundless well of moonlight.

This is the story of hope and resilience which are bound together like the two sides of a coin. This is the story of the full range of human emotions especially the burden of sorrow. This is the story of the consequences of disengaging and the strength of community. This is the story of stories and memory and the way time re-sculpts both. This is the story of power that destroys and power that heals and controlling power and the power of control. This is the story of magic – the kind that exists only in fantasies and the kind that is accessible in the real world.

This story broke my heart, not for a lack of love but for an abundance of it. Thankfully, “there is no limit to what the heart can carry” and so I know the cracks will mend.

Apparently, this is also a story that inspires creativity. My sister and I read this at about the same time, and she made this masterpiece:

15. Lizaleegrace

The paper birds are an important symbol/feature in the book and each of these represent a specific character. As for the moss, well, I did say there was a reason for the bog simile. Check out @lizareadsbooks on Instagram for more.

My sister’s project inspired me to do one of my own. The idea planted itself in my head and I couldn’t rest until I went on a late-night run to Home Depot and made this guy:

15. Me

I’m quite fond of my little crow but I will make you read the book to understand the quotes.

It feels a bit unnecessary at this point to do an “end of the day” conclusion because I think my feelings are pretty obvious but it’s tradition so…

At the end of the day: Completely for me

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08) Inside Out & Back Again

By: Thanhha Lai

Date Finished: 02.05.17

08. Inside Out & Back Again

I admit that I have stalled in writing this. It’s been hard to get words around this book when it speaks so well for itself. In the simplest terms it’s the story of a young girl, Hà, who flees Vietnam with her family and ends up in Alabama. It explores her love for her home despite the dangers there and her struggle to find her place in a culture that wants nothing to do with her.

The story is fiction but draws heavily on the author’s personal experience. It’s written in a series of free verse poems — because it’s the closest structure to Vietnamese, Lai says. The poetry also allows Hà’s emotional life to be the central story. Through that emotion, Lai captures so perfectly the universal spirit of childhood. Hà is a young girl who is frustrated by limitations. A child who is selfish at times but is also lovingly sacrificial. A human who misses her father and her country and who she might have been if the war hadn’t torn apart their home.

A year ago, this may have been a beautifully written book with a historical setting. However, it’s impossible to read it today without thinking politically. With the refugee crisis continuing and xenophobic policies gaining momentum, every natural-born American would benefit from reading this. If this book does not grow your compassion, likely nothing will.

I often start with a quote but today I will finish with one:

Mother says,
People share
when they know
they have escaped hunger.

Shouldn’t people share
because there is hunger?

At the end of the day: Absolutely for me and absolutely recommended for where we’re at in the world right now

04) El Deafo

By: Cece Bell

Date Finished: 01.16.17

by Cece Bell

By day, Cece is a kid who has to wear a bulky device – the Phonic Ear – in order the hear. But in times of trouble, she’s a brave hero on a quest to find the most precious thing of all: a True Friend. El Deafo is Bell’s memoir of her experience of growing up with deafness which includes the fearless, made-stronger-by-disability alter-ego that she created as a kid. And, like all good superhero stories, El Deafo is a graphic novel.

This book perfectly reflects the mindset and logic of a kid. Young Cece is embarrassed by the Phonic Ear and is convinced that she needs to hide her deafness in order to be accepted. The adult in me kept thinking, “You’re making this harder than it needs to be,” and Bell admits as much in the afterword. However, the story itself is free from this kind of commentary. Cece never wavers in her convictions that the world is exactly the way she understands it.

Ultimately, this is a familiar story to anyone who’s ever been a child or dealt with loneliness. It’s the tale of girl dealing with deafness, yes, but it’s also the saga of a girl navigating the politics of elementary school friendships, sleepovers, and birthday parties. It’s also a great empathy builder in the way it shows several characters (including Cece) struggle to empathize with one another.

At the end of the day: For me

02) Brown Girl Dreaming

By: Jacqueline Woodson

Date Finished: 01.09.17

by Jacqueline Woodson

Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

infinity.

As Jacqueline Woodson writes, “It’s easier to make up stories than it is to write them down.” Presently, it is easier for me to say, “Just read it; you’ll understand,” than to explain what makes this book so good. But I will try to give you something.

One, it’s beautiful. The story is told through a series of free verse poems. This structure lends a kind of buoyancy* to the tale so that while the subject matter is not always light the writing will keep you supported.

Two, Woodson masterfully says so much with so little (a clear advantage to poetry). She packs quite the emotional punch by describing the impact of events more than the events themselves. With just the right details, she shows how tragedy can alter a person. With just the right imagery, she makes you feel the difference between the sudden and the inevitable; she tightens the tension between the inevitable and the equitable.

Three, it adeptly captures the perspective of a child. This is non-fiction but there is little commentary on the events. The window through which we see Woodson’s world is that of a child standing on tiptoe to reach the sill and not of an adult stooping to look down.

Finally, the cultural context of the segregation cannot be overlooked. From the beginning there’s a theme of “emancipated but not free” when speaking of her family and her heritage. “So there’s a war going on in South Carolina,” Woodson writes, “and even as we play and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.” She explores the different types of protests without making judgments on what is better or more effective. She keeps observing and listening and telling stories until she finds her own way to make a difference. This book is a textbook on resilience, not just in herself but in her community. And this book is vital for spreading the empathy and compassion we desperately need right now.

At the end of the day: Absolutely for me

*This word felt right although I couldn’t explain why. I looked it up on Merriem-Webster to make sure I wasn’t forcing a metaphor that wasn’t there and found this definition: “buoyancy: the ability of someone or something to continue to be happy, strong, etc., through difficult times.” That definition could be the entire review.

23) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

By: Kate DiCamillo

Date Finished: 07.28.14

by Kate DiCamillo

There once was a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.  He lived on a grand house on Egypt Street with a little girl who loved him very much.  But he was spoiled, selfish, and did not know how to love.  When he became separated from this girl, he lost all his comforts and had to learn painful lessons about love and loss as he went from person to person.

This was my first read, but I was already familiar with the story having worked on a stage production last year.  I thought I’d left enough space between working on the show and reading the book, but I still heard the voices of the actors and the underscoring.  I still recognized when the lines from the book differed from the lines in the play.  But it’s a completely lovely story even with such strong associations.

One of the key elements about this book is that Edward Tulane, the china rabbit, cannot move himself or make himself understood.  We are privy to his thoughts, thanks to an omniscient narrator, but this isn’t a story about toys who come to life when the lights are out.  Edward is at the mercy of whoever has custody of him at the time.  His existence is fragile, and while this knowledge scares him, it also allows him grow.  DiCamillo doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, and Edward isn’t much of a hero at the beginning.  While he does learn how to love, that knowledge is hard-earned.

DiCamillo includes an interesting cast of characters for Edward to interact with – a young rich girl, a fisherman and his wife, a hobo and his dog, and an abused boy and his dying sister.  He becomes a different rabbit for each of them, filling the holes in their lives just by being there.  It’s really quite touching without becoming overly sentimental.

At the end of the day: For me

22) Charlotte’s Web

By: E.B. White

Reread Finished: 06.30.14

by E. B. White

I’ve got a new friend, all right.  But what a gamble friendship is!  Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty — everything I don’t like.  How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?

People believe almost anything they see in print.

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.

This is the classic story of Wilbur the pig who was saved at birth by Fern the human, and ultimately saved from a fate on the dinner table by Charlotte the spider.  It’s a story of friendship and, to a degree, the harsh realities of life – some of which you can change and others which must run their course.

This is one I experienced a few times as a child, reading it on my own and having it read aloud (I vividly remember giggling as a teacher read the gander’s peculiar spelling of “terrific”).  I saw the animated movie at least a couple of times, although all I remember from it is Templeton’s smorgasbord song.  It’s a story I always thought of fondly, but never reread after elementary school.  This summer seemed like the ideal time to revisit the book in anticipation of working on a stage production of Charlotte’s Web.

I like it.  It’s sweet and lovely and made me laugh more than once, but looking at it with adult eyes, I found a few things problematic.  Namely, Fern.  She’s fickle in ways that don’t make sense, even for an eight year old.  Otherwise, it is the charming story I remember.  The friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is inspiring.  Even Templeton the rat is endearing for all his baser instincts.  White breathes such life into his animal characters, and shows both the practical and idyllic views of farm life.

In discussing design ideas for the stage production, the scenic designer described the tone of the story as a watercolor, and I think it fits perfectly.  Hard truths are slightly muted, and the lines between reality and magic are blurred, yet it still paints a striking picture.  The story has endured for a reason, and has definitely earned its place on the shelves of so many classrooms.  If only Fern wasn’t so inconsistent.

At the end of the day: For my younger self

15) The Game

By: Diana Wynne Jones

Re-read finished: 05.03.14

by Diana Wynne Jones

The only life Hayley has known is within the tight confines of her Grandmother’s rules and the gentle, but distracted care of her Grandfather.  Hayley has a spirit that yearn for adventures and when her imagination invades Grandmother’s boundaries, she gets shipped off to stay with her many aunts and cousins.  In the middle of a bustling family for the first time in her life, Hayley joins in their secret game played in Mythosphere, where all the stories that have ever been told converge.  The Mythosphere is a marvelous place, but it’s controlled by a tyrant that only Hayley can stop.

This one’s a novella, if you want to be technical, but there’s a complete and brilliant world packed inside.  It is perfectly delectable for its small size.  I came across it somewhat accidentally while I was casually familiarizing myself with Jones’ canon.  I loved it.  And when I read the appendix explaining who the characters represent in Greek mythology I loved it even more.  Every time I re-read this one I discover something new, even though I practically know it by heart now.  Jones does a genius job capturing the essence of these Greek characters (or just a particular aspect of their personality) and making them into people you might meet on the street.

There is a certain amount of magic involved given the existence of the Mythosphere and the ability to traverse it.  Still, the magic is almost underplayed — it’s just something that happens so why make a fuss?  Truly, this is one of the richest morsels of literature that’s out there and after all these years, I’m still head over heels in love.

8) Holes

By: Louis Sachar

Re-read Finished: 02.24.14

By Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelants was given a choice.  The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”  Stanley was from a poor family.  He had never been to camp before.

Stanley Yelnats is an unlucky kid who was sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.  He ends up at Camp Green Lake where there is neither a lake nor anything that’s green.  There, the boys are forced to dig holes every day, on the pretense that it builds character.  Despite the unfairness of his situation, Stanley finds the courage to take charge of his life for the first time and along the way uncovers the secret of the holes.

I first read this book as part of my language arts class in seventh grade.  By this time, I had been drawn in by a persistent rumor that the books you read for class are always uninteresting.  Looking back, my experience had not yet substantiated that claim, but I still approached the book with low expectations.  Boy, was I blown away.

It’s not just a story of an outcast becoming a hero, like my short little description indicates.  There are two additional stories weaving through – the story of Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-grandfather and of the town of Greenlake when it was thriving around an actual lake.  All three stories have vibrant characters and a tongue in cheek explanation of serious situations.  The stories connect in many unexpected ways, wrapped up in a rather tidy, but well-earned bow.

It’s fun and slightly offbeat, a flawless example of magical realism.  While it was written for a young audience, it’s smart and holds up over the years.  As always, it was a blast to return to this world and I am immensely grateful to my seventh grade English teacher for putting this in the curriculum.

4) Ella Enchanted

By: Gail Carson Levine

Re-read Finished: 02.02.14

by Gail Carson Levine

Ella is cursed.  The fairy meant well, but forced obedience is restricting at best and downright perilous at worst.  When her father remarries a horrible woman with two horrible daughters, Ella cannot save herself from becoming a slave in her own home.  And even if the prince should want to rescue her, accepting his help will only put the whole nation in danger.

I needed something simple and light after Code Name Verity.  It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but it’s an old stand-by and definitely holds up over the years.  Looking back, I think this is the book that pulled me into the world of fairy tale adaptations and made this blog what it is today.  It is charming, sassy, quirky, and absolutely delightful (my summary above does not do it justice in the least).  Most pleasingly, it addresses that sticky love-at-first-sight issue with the Disney movie, allowing Ella and Prince Char to fall in love over the course of a year through a number of marvelous encounters and regular correspondence.  Well, done, madam author.  The book also gives Ella some serious spunk; she has a loving heart at the core, but refuses to be a puppet even with a curse that controls her will.

With a delightful heroine, a fantastic world, and a playful plot, Ella Enchanted is pure magic and, well, downright enchanting.

11) The Little Prince

By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Date Finished: 09.03.13

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.”

“In one of the stars I shall be living.  In one of them I shall be laughing.  And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You — only you — will have stars
that can laugh.”

Regrettably, I do not remember enough French to have read this in its original language.  But even in English it was a lovely book.  It’s an odd little story of a boy’s travels across several small asteroids ultimately landing him on Earth.  Just as the Little Prince is preparing to return to his home, he encounters our unnamed narrator — a young man who had grown up more than he intended.  The narrator had been a very imaginative child, but gave up on his artistic pursuits after discouraging reactions from the grown-ups.  Meeting the Little Prince reawakens his creative spirit so that he can determine what’s truly a matter of great importance.

There are a number of nonsensical elements, as one might expect in a children’s book, that fill the pages with charm and magic.  The imagery is marvelous, especially with illustrations worked into the plot.  It’s a quick read and an enchanting journey to follow.  Scenes flow seamlessly and while I do think a bit of the magic fell through the cracks of translation, the style really is superb.  There’s not much else to say without giving away plot, except to agree that it certainly deserves its place among enduring literature.  And if you want a spoiler-free taste of the story, I think the dedication will tell you all you need to know:

The Little Prince dedication

At the end of the day: For me