Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Annemarie Selinko, DESIREE

The fictionalized autobiography of Eugenie Desiree Clary, daughter of a silk merchant of Marseilles, former fiancee to Napoleon, and wife of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, later King of Sweden. (Yes, she was a real person, with an almost unreal life.) One of my favorite novels as a teen, it was written in 1951 and translated from the German; it's a good old-fashioned, well-researched, thoroughly engaging read. Takes you through French history from the late days of the Revolution through Napoleon's campaigns, and his death, yet remains Desiree's story. First lines: "A woman can usually get what she wants from a man if she has a well-developed figure. So I've decided to stuff four handkerchiefs into the front of my dress tomorrow; then I shall look really grown up."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kathryn Erskine, MOCKINGBIRD

A beautifully written middle-grade about a girl with Asperger's who must come to terms with her older brother's death during a high school shooting. Wonderfully layered, written so words and images play. The "Mockingbird" is (of course) from "To Kill A Mockingbird," which movie Caitlin has watched; her brother calls her Scout; at the time of his death he was working on a chest as part of his Eagle Scout badge. It all fits together, sometimes in unexpected ways. National Book Award Winner.

Michael Morpurgo, WAR HORSE

A well-written middle-grade (a runner up for the Whitbread) that has captured the attention of plenty ... partly because now it's been turned into a Broadway show and a major motion picture. I found myself making comparisons with Lassie Comes Home (the desperate trek back to the one True Master) and Black Beauty (there's even a scene, as with BB and Ginger, when Joey, the War Horse, sees his friend and former harness-mate dead, having been worn to pieces by man's cruelty). In Black Beauty, Anna Sewell constructed an argument against animal cruelty (remember the bearing rein?!); here, Morpurgo has an antiwar message. I don't mean that this book is a re-do or even derivative--only that there are deep mythic structures of homecoming, longing (for love, for peace), and loss that I think tend to find their way into books about anthropomorphized animals because they are so painful; but, as in fantasy novels, we can read about them at one remove from ourselves.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stephen Kelman, PIGEON ENGLISH

Shattering first novel about a boy from Ghana who has just moved to the London projects with his mother and two sisters. He's eleven and observant (which is charming for the reader, but deadly for the boy), and despite the senseless murder that opens the book, and the fallout from it, his voice remains frank and hopeful: "Manik's papa's quite hutious. He's always red-eyes. He knows swordfighting. Asweh, I'm glad I'm not Manik's enemy! Manik's papa put my tie on for me and made the knot. He showed me how to take the tie off without untying it. You just make a hole big enough to get your head through then you take the tie off over your head That way you don't have to tie the tie every day. It even works. Now I'll never have to tie my tie my whole life. I beat the tie at his own game!"
Harri has several (human) friends and also finds a friend in a pigeon that flies into his window--a benevolent pigeon whose voice comes in italics and who is an intermediary between the boy and God. (Sounds bizarre, but it works.) The narrative has two levels--Harri's 11-year-old related experience of the violent events around him and the reader's experience, for the boy's narrative reveals more than he knows. Beautifully done.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Books for the young reader: Between Judy Moody and Twilight

Do you have one of those Avid Upper Middle-Grade Readers?

Signs include: anywhere from 1-6 books lying half-read, spine-up, on furniture around the house at the end of the day (which you know you shouldn't pick up, teaches them all the wrong habits--grin); the phrase "Yeah, Mom, at the end of the chapter" uttered when asked to do chores; a flashlight under her pillow; a sensory dysfunction that manifests itself as an inability to hear when her olfactory organ is in a book.

I'm often asked, what do you let your 11-year-old reader read? People will tell me their daughters (it's usually girls) can read virtually anything (so far as skill level, sentence structure, and vocabulary) but need themes that are emotionally relevant for a middle-grader (roughly age 8-13). She's beyond Judy Moody, but not ready for Twilight. Well, here is my list of titles (supplemented by suggestions from my own AUMGR). Some of these are reviewed elsewhere on my blog.

Do you have any to add? My daughter's burned through these, and I'm still looking!! : )

Relatively new releases (as in things that weren't around when I was an AUMGR)

Diane Stanley, The Silver Bowl
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
M. Ende, The Neverending Story
Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me
Michael Mopurgo, War Horse (will be a movie soon)
Sharon Creech, The Wanderer and Walk Two Moons
Michelle Houts, The Beef Princess of Practical County
Andrew Clements, Things Not Seen and Things Hoped For
Julia Durango, Sea of the Dead (historical adventure)
Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Shirts and sequels (historical, about a boy whose father takes a job on Alcatraz, by turns funny and poignant)
Linda Sue Park, A Single Shard
Ann Rinaldi, Cast Two Shadows; The Fifth of March; The Coffin Quilt; The Hidden Staircase (verges on YA, complicated themes); this writer offers solid historical fiction about girls; well-drawn plots and settings, ie. Civil War, the Hatfield-McCoys, a New Mexico convent; some are better than others)
Patterson, Bridge to Terabithia (must confess I've never liked this one, but my daughter does)
Gail Carson Levine, Enchanted (she has other titles as well, in this vein) and Two Princesses of Bamarre
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Paula Fox, The Slave Dancer
Ann M. Martin, A Corner of the Universe
Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever, Chains and Forged (but maybe steer clear of her novel Speak, about date rape, for this UMG group)
Kirby Larson, Hattie Big Sky
Karen Cushman, The Midwife's Apprentice
Kate DeCamillo, The Tiger Rising
Hale, Princess Academy
Lesley Blume, Tennyson
John Grogan, Marley & Me

Classics (books I read as an AUMGR)

(NOTE: these books often depended less on immediate thrilling action and--hate to say it--tend to be better written than some of the fare out there these days; if your child is reluctant, read some aloud; sometimes it "takes")

Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Wind in the Door, Swiftly Tilting Planet
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie series (the later ones, esp. Little Town on the Prairie, are better for AUMGRs; early ones are a bit "young")
Carol Ryrie Brink, Caddie Woodlawn (tomboy girl growing up in Wisconsin; good for younger AUMGR)
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (historical adventure/romance, but clean)
Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins; Thunder Rolling in the Mountains; The Black Pearl; Streams to the River, River to the Sea
JC George, Julie of the Wolves
Louisa May Alcott, LIttle Women
LM Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables series
Irene Hunt, Up a Road Slowly (for older AUMGRs; this is probably my favorite UMG/YA book ever; Witch of Blackbird Pond is #2) and Across Five Aprils
CS Lewis's Narnia series
Benedict and Nancy Freedman, Mrs. Mike (16-year-old Katherine moves from Boston to Canada, meets a Mounty, marries; true story, great voice)
The Diary of Anne Frank (for older)
Doughty, Crimson Moccasins

Adventure and other series: If your reader gets hooked, you are off the hook for finding a new book, for a bit. I've starred the books that have high "boy" appeal.

*John Flanagan's "The Ranger's Apprentice" series about a young boy who trains to be a spy in a fantasy world that sounds a lot like England/Scotland (about 10 books in the series)
Brandon Mull, The Fablehaven Series
The Penderwicks (and sequels)
Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society and sequels
*Barry/Pearson, Peter and the Starcatchers series (about Peter Pan before he was Peter Pan; about half a dozen in the series)
*Chris Bradford, The Young Samurai series (may be too scary, dark for some; I'd recommend for the 10+ crowd)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (OK, the premise is dark ... kids fighting kids to the death in an arena at the direction of evil politicians ... but it is "clean," with no sex, no swearing; it is primarily a book about teenage alliances; and Katniss the heroine rocks. NOT for every reader, but for some older middle-graders.) This is the first in a trilogy; the others are Catching Fire, Mockingjay (and the good guys win); compulsively readable
Kathryn Lasky, Guardians of Ga'hoole series
Anything by Rick Riordan--he has three series out right now, my daughter says
Sarah Prineas, The Magic Thief series
The Royal Diaries series from Scholastic (Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, etc.)
Jessica Day George, Dragon Flight series
Angie Sage, the Septimus Heap series (Magyk is the first)
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass trilogy
Harry Potter (of course)

Sunday, October 16, 2011


The author is a poet (*Primitive*, 1991 and *Ashland*, 2003), and some of the language makes me a bit envious, wishing I'd written it myself. It never sounds as good out of context, but here's some excerpts: "the horses began to walk alert, their ears scissoring with curiosity"; "the ground around them [was] poxed with fallen fruit that lay in layers of years, squelching beneath the horses' hooves"; he had a "look on his face that would etch glass." Much of it made me want to reread the lines for their sound and freshness.
But the plot felt thin to me. A woman kills her husband (he's unambiguously rotten; he abandons her on their honeymoon night to gamble, losing $50 and a watch, and then cheats on her); and his two brothers chase her through the West in 1903. That's the story. In the wilderness, she meets a man who takes care of her and sleeps with him; she meets a man who takes care of her and then meets his wife; she meets a man who takes care of her and moves in with him. (The narrator recognizes the repetition: "Here she was, wandering behind a man again.") Finally she gets caught by the two brothers. Breaks out of jail. Hooks back up with man #1.
There's plenty of tension in the "chase" narrative ... I (for one) know those frightful nightmares of being chased by someone who comes closer and closer and nearly nabs me. But aside from the fact that she's not very good with horses or snares, we don't know much about the widow Mary. Maybe that's why I just didn't care that much about her, whether she lived or died, whether she was caught or not. Another reader might feel differently, maybe especially if they like stories set in the American West at the turn of the century.
But this was Adamson's first novel, and I would give her next one a look.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


By turns heart-rending and hilarious, this is Fuller's memoir of her mother, who, it seems at the outset, has not quite managed to forgive her daughter for writing what she calls the "Awful Book" (the title is never named; I imagine she means DON'T LETS GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, which laid bare Alexandra's peculiar and at times traumatic childhood).
Prose is lovely and quirky and witty as usual. Opening line: "Our Mum--or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself--has wanted a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember, not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in *them*) but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe."
The cover shows Nicola with her first best friend, a chimpanzee, who is dressed in a blue jumper that matches her own. It's all very curious ... otherworldly ... and at times painfully sad. Nicola loses three of her five children, survives a brutal war, and relocates again and again with her husband, the pair of them seeming at various times happily aimless, uneasily restless, and searching for something unnamable. But by the end, it seems that the Awful Book has become something of a joke that the mother and daughter share, and that Nicola's governing characteristic is her resilience.

Geraldine Brooks, CALEB'S CROSSING

Another wonderful historical novel from Brooks, this one set in the 1660s on the small island of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard) and at Harvard. Narrated by a Calvinist minister's daughter, Bethia Mayfield, it begins with pages that she writes, from the time she is 15, as she looks back on her friendship with a boy she calls Caleb, a Wampanoag who eventually goes to the "Indian College" at Harvard, created for their conversion. As usual with Brooks, many of her sentences sing: "The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of night. ... I love the fogs that wreathe us all in milky veils, and the winds that moan and keen in the chimney piece at night." Caleb's father Tequamuck is a seer who predicts the destruction the Europeans will bring; it's embodied in the brilliant, passionate boy who tries to cross from one culture to the other. Knowing how the story would end didn't matter; I found myself dreading it all the way.