Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Percy Jackson

This is another series I loved as a kid, but haven’t thought much about in years. This past week, I re-read The Lightning Thief, the first book of the original series. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, because first of all, I’m about twice the age I was when I first fell in love with the series, and secondly, I know a lot more about mythology than I did back then. And I can’t say I got quite as caught up in it this time around. But I can see what I liked about it, and maybe even appreciate it in new ways.

One thing in particular that I appreciate is how real the kids in the book are. Kids’ books where the kid characters are too grown-up or too perfect are a pet peeve of mine. These kids have flaws. They have insecurities. They sometimes get into trouble, and they’re definitely twelve-year-olds dealing with things bigger than anything twelve-year-olds should have to. But they’re good kids, and they rise to the challenge and mature as the series goes on.

The mythology is pretty decent, too. It’s all adapted for modern times, so for example, the entrance to the Underworld is in Los Angeles, Medusa runs a statue shop, and future heroes train with Chiron at a summer camp in New York. I remember finding all that very fun and not too difficult to separate from the “real” myths I learned about in school, although I do wonder if that’s still the case for kids who read the Percy Jackson books before they learn about mythology from other sources.

There’s a lot in mythology that’s really not appropriate for kids, and it’s a delicate balance telling the stories in a child-friendly way without warping them too much. The Percy Jackson books do a much better job of this than, say, Disney’s Hercules. I’m sure it helped that Rick Riordan was a teacher before he became an author, and already had some experience with adapting myths for children. It probably also helped that the Percy Jackson books are new stories, rather than strict retellings of existing myths.

The biggest difference, I think, between reading these books as a pre-teen and reading them now is … well, I’m a lot older now. I’m not dealing with the same things as my twelve-year-old self, I don’t find the same things funny or scary, and there’s something very over-the-top about the Percy Jackson books that was okay then but seemed cheesy this time around. I kind of expected that. I tried reading the Heroes of Olympus series when it came out and didn’t make it very far. It wasn’t that the books weren’t any good, but I was just too old for them by that point and couldn’t get invested in the new characters.

That doesn’t mean I disliked The Lightning Thief this time around. On the contrary, I found it to be fun and exciting. I’m thrilled that there are now so many of these books – not just the original Greek mythology series, but others that focus on Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology as well. Anything that kids enjoy and can learn something from is definitely worth reading, even if it’s something that most of them will outgrow as they mature.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Warrior Cats

The kids in my class love these books. I did, too, when I was their age. Of course, there were way fewer of them then than there are now, which makes me feel a lot older than I really am.

Anyway, as part of my summer reading project, I decided to re-read the Warriors books. Not all of them, of course – there are now 6 book series, plus various “super-editions” and graphic novels, – but just enough to get a feel for them again.

The books are about a group of feral cats living in the woods, but the characters don’t really behave like cats. They have a complex society, familial bonds, friendships, and leaders. They understand abstract concepts like loyalty and honor, they have culture and traditions, and their society is based on a set of rules that they’re all expected to follow. The adult cats train the younger ones, a few specialize in healing rather than becoming warriors, and everyone in the clan helps to care for the elderly. They’ve even learned to use basic tools, such as moss to carry water or cobwebs to bandage an open wound. In other words, they are imagined and characterized like a human society, despite not being human at all.

And yet, there’s a sort of realism that is often not present in talking animal stories. No one wears human clothes. No one can read or write. The cats sleep in the forest, hunt for their food, get into fights over territory, and face threats such as disease, wild animals, and of course, humans. Their society is human-like, but their concerns are those of cats. And this, I think, is part of why the books appeal to an older age group than most other talking animal stories. They still require a lot of suspension of disbelief, but a lot less than something like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.

The other big thing I noticed is that they’re coming-of-age stories. The main character of the first series starts out as a sheltered house cat, wanders off into the forest, joins one of the four Clans, and spends several books trying to prove himself before eventually becoming the Clan’s leader and uniting the forest cats against a common enemy. Future series choose to focus on new characters – always young cats trying to prove themselves – rather than continue to follow the original protagonist. This, I think, is another reason older kids seem to enjoy these books. Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, kids’ lives become a lot more complicated very quickly: they’re going through puberty, they’re given more responsibility and freedom than before, they’re realizing that Mom and Dad can’t always fix everything, and when they go on to middle school, they have to adjust to a whole new kind of school environment and peer group. There’s a reason so many books for kids around that age are coming-of-age stories. Everything is changing for them very quickly, and they see something of their own struggles in the fictional characters’ much-more-extreme ones.

They’re also violent books, and I’d forgotten just how violent. Or maybe never noticed in the first place. In the same way that big fantasy battles featuring swords or magic wands are comfortably removed from reality, cats fighting each other doesn’t seem nearly as bad as when it’s humans doing it. And then there are forest fires, floods, diseases, winters when prey is scarce, other wild predators, cars on the highway, and dozens of other ways to get hurt. If these were books about humans instead of cats, they really wouldn’t be appropriate for ten-year-olds – and yet, I know I read them at about that age, and they didn’t bother me.

To answer the question I asked myself when I started reading, no, they’re not as good now as they seemed when I was a kid. They require a lot of suspension of disbelief, not just for the talking animals but for the supernatural aspects of the story as well, and as much as I love the fantasy genre, it was a little bit too much. The cats’ naming system (two-part names, ie. Fireheart, the first part given by the cat’s mother and the second part earned when the cat becomes a warrior) seemed awesome at the time, but now it’s just a little too complex and I’m not into it enough to keep track of all the changing names. And the basic premise just doesn’t appeal to me as much as it did then. I’ve outgrown them.

And yet, they are certainly not bad books. There’s some nostalgia there for me, but there are also worthwhile questions and themes that run through the series. What does it mean to be loyal and honorable? What does it mean to be a leader? How do we treat those who are perceived as outsiders? Is breaking the rules ever just? When should we fight, and when should we look for a peaceful solution? The series isn’t written as a moral lesson, but it explores these ideas via its feline characters.

It’s not (at least for me) the kind of series you keep coming back to your whole life, and it’s probably never going to be a children’s classic or be studied in schools. But not every book needs to be. I can understand why I liked them, despite not being a big fan of cats in real life, and I can understand why the kids at school continue to read them as more and more are released.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Verse Novels

At the beginning of the summer, I discovered verse novels, which are novels written as a long series of free-verse poems. There aren’t a lot of these books out there, but I’ve eagerly explored the genre this summer. I’ve already written about Inside Out and Back Again, by Thannha Lai, and Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech. Here are four more that I’ve read this summer:

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Unlike Heartbeat, Love That Dog is not necessarily intended to be good poetry. It’s supposed to read like a kid wrote it, and a kid who hasn’t figured out yet that breaking a sentence up over several lines does not make a free-verse poem. In this way, it’s almost more of an epistolary novel (a novel written in diary entries, letters, blog posts, etc.) than a true verse novel. We’re supposed to believe this is work a student did for English class. It’s a very sweet story, though, and the pieces come together very well, so that details that seemed random early on mean something by the end.

Blue Birds, by Caroline Starr Rose. Set in the lost Roanoak colony, this is the story of a friendship between an English girl and a Native American girl. The poetic form works very well for this story. At the beginning, the two do not even speak each other’s languages, but since it’s written in poems, the reader is able to understand what both of them are thinking and feeling.

May B., by Caroline Starr Rose. This is another one where free verse poems work better than prose possibly could. It’s a survival story, but unlike, say, The Black Stallion, it focuses on May’s emotions more than her physical struggle to survive. The poems linger on her loneliness, fear, hope, and determination in a way would seem odd in prose but flows naturally in verse.

Eva of the Farm, by Dia Calhoun. Possibly my favorite verse novel that I’ve read so far. The main character, Eva, is an imaginative and adventurous pre-teen whose family’s farm is about to be foreclosed on, and she’s determined to save it. Eva herself is a poet, and her own poems are interspersed throughout the story. As seems to be a trend in this genre, the plot matters less than the character development and emotional depth – but that’s okay, because Eva’s emotional journey is 100% worth reading.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Everything on a Waffle

There’s this funny thing that happens with books you read as a kid. Some of them stick with you. You somehow never outgrow them, and just keep coming back again and again to savor the familiar stories. Others fade from memory almost entirely, until years later, you find yourself face-to-face with a vaguely familiar title and think you might have an idea how it ends. You open it up, turn the first few pages, and the story feels almost new, but every now and then there’s something that triggers a memory.

That’s what Everything on a Waffle was like for me. I know I read it when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I know I enjoyed it. And I remembered the strangest things about it: the main character’s hair “the color of glazed apricots (recipe to follow)”; her insistence that sometimes you just know something, deep down, without any proof; and the unexpected flashes of wisdom amid a chaotic storyline.

  • “At heart, we’re all a pack of violent, raging wolves, but in our actions, we can be pacifists”.
  • “The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart”.
  • “Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better, but in doing so, you lose what was so wonderful to begin with”.

These are quotes I halfway-remembered, although I’d never have been able to tell you where they came from. And they kind of sum up why I like this book.

When I say it’s chaotic, it is. It’s got a huge cast of supporting characters, unexpected events, odd coincidences, and so many difficulties for the protagonist that it would almost have a Series of Unfortunate Events feel to it if she didn’t react with such a positive attitude. It really shouldn’t have worked – and yet, somehow, it does. And every so often, from out of the chaos – maybe even as a product of the chaos – there’s a moment that’s just so thoughtful and profound it makes you stop and think. Like a flash of lightning in a thuderstorm, lighting up the world for just a moment.

Primrose is a delightful narrator, and she tells her own story in a funny, upbeat way. She’s full of joy for life and has a unique voice that could only belong to a precocious pre-teen. The glass is always half-full in her eyes, and the narrative rewards her optimism with a happy ending. Rather than orphaned and alone, she ends up surrounded by people who care for her, from Uncle Jack to her foster parents to the owner of a restaurant who serves everything on a waffle – and, at the very end, an even happier twist that I probably shouldn’t spoil.

The book is quirky and fun, with plenty of humor and a few distinctive features, such as ending each chapter with a recipe for a food that featured in that chapter. If there’s a moral, I’d say it’s that life is what you make of it, and you can choose to dwell in self-pity or you can choose to make the most of what you’ve been given. I loved this book, and I’d definitely recommend it.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

This week, I’m reviewing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I first noticed this book at Barnes and Noble about a month ago, on the same trip where I picked up Inside Out and Back Again. I didn’t buy it at the time, but I decided to come back to it later, because a Newbery Honor fantasy-adventure story set in ancient China isn’t something you get to read every day.

This is cliché, I know, but the book really is a breath of fresh air. A lot of the basic elements are familiar. Minli, the protagonist, is the quintessential young hero on a quest. The plot borrows a lot from The Wizard of Oz and reminds me a bit of the first Harry Potter book as well. But it’s built up around Chinese folklore, which provides an unusual setting and a completely different tone than any other comparable stories. The world is beautifully constructed and endlessly creative, and every part of the story is woven together by the end.

Talking goldfish, dragons that emerge out of paintings, and red strings that tie people’s destinies together are not always easy to believe in. I often found myself as skeptical as Minli’s parents. But even they learn to have faith by the end, and likewise, I found it easier and easier to suspend my disbelief as I continued reading. It’s fantasy. It’s not meant to make sense, and yet, in a weird way, it does. I’ve always been able to appreciate books about magic spells and fantastic creatures, and the book did well at drawing on the conventions of fantasy while still coming up with something unique and original.

There are some beautiful themes in the story. Like Dorothy, Minli learns in the end that she already has what she needs. It’s her selfless decision to help a friend rather than herself that gives her a way to help both of them, and it was only through the things she encountered on her journey that she was able to arrive at that decision. It’s a book about faith, selflessness, family, coming-of-age, and many other things, but if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say it’s about gratitude. It’s only once Minli learns to be thankful for what she has that she’s able to improve her own life and her village’s welfare.

I especially loved the emphasis on storytelling. This is not the first book to ask meta-fictional questions, such as, “What is the value of telling fantasy stories?” However, it answers that question beautifully by weaving storytelling throughout the main narrative. Almost every chapter has a shorter story in it that – sooner or later – turns out to be true. Lin sends her protagonist on a journey through a world of stories, which come to life all around her. It gives the impression that we only have to look to see the magic in the everyday world.

The book is beautifully illustrated, the world vividly constructed, and the characters human and relatable. The story is like a mosaic, made up of bits and pieces of something recognizable, but put together in unexpected ways, resulting in something utterly unique – and yet the themes it explores are universal and relevant. Not only did I find it enjoyable and refreshing, I also felt that it had a great deal of value as a piece of literature. It’s not hard to see why it won a Newbery Honor.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech

A few weeks ago, I read Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, which is written as a long free-verse poem. I loved the effect that this had on the story and started looking for more books like it. Today, I finished reading Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech.

Heartbeat is a book about a twelve-year-old girl named Annie. She loves to run, and the way the poems are written evokes the rhythm of her running, the thumping of her heart and the pounding of her feet against the ground. The story deals with her grandfather’s memory loss, her mother’s pregnancy, and her very symbolic attempts to draw the same apple every day for 100 days. It’s more emotion than plot, but it works, and the poetic format is a big part of why.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my teacher read this book to us as a read-aloud, but I didn’t remember much about it except that I sort of vaguely liked it. I don’t remember it having that heartbeat rhythm to it, though, and half of the story’s beauty is in the way it makes you feel as if you’re running right along side the main character, heart pounding and feet hitting the pavement, thump-thump, thump-thump.

This isn’t a book that every kid would enjoy. Aside from the unusual format, it deals with serious subject matter (in a kid-friendly way), and it’s character-driven and abstract. However, I think that for the right kid – a kid who is mature enough to deal with the serious themes and is open to inventive forms of storytelling – it would be an excellent choice. It was certainly a breath of fresh air for me.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: No Talking, by Andrew Clements

Yes, I know: I said I’d be reading a kids’ book a week, and it’s been nearly two. But better late than never, right?

I chose No Talking, by Andrew Clements, because I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read so far and thought it had an interesting premise. The fifth graders at an elementary school challenge each other to a competition – boys versus girls – to see who can talk the least, each trying to prove a point about the other. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go the way they planned, but they learn something much more important in the end.

The fifth grade boys and girls don’t usually get along, and that’s something of an understatement. As Clements explains it, they both still think the others have cooties, except they “didn’t actually use the word ‘cooties’ anymore … They used words like ‘dumb’ or ‘gross’ or ‘immature’ or ‘annoying’”. This isn’t too surprising, given that they’re fifth graders, but they take this to a whole new level with the contest they organize. They decide to spend 48 hours in near-total silence, allowing themselves only to speak to teachers or adults, and only in reply to direct questions, in less than three-word answers. Any words aside from those get tallied up by Dave and Lyndsey, the two team leaders, and the team with the lowest number at the end wins.

However, this odd sort of game the kids are playing has all kinds of real-world effects. They have to figure out how to problem-solve (by communicating through notes, clapping a beat for jump rope instead of chanting, etc.), how to compromise (singing doesn’t count, or else music class becomes impossible), and how to react to opposition (when the principal tries to order them to start talking again). By the end of the 48 hours, they aren’t thinking in terms of boys vs. girls so much anymore, and it’s almost a relief when the score comes out as a tie.

The thing I like about Andrew Clements’ books is that his kids are realistic and relatable. They’re not all perfect angels. They’re not always respectful to adults, and they don’t always follow the rules. But they’re always good kids who learn from their experiences and become better kids as a result. The best part is that it happens in a way that’s not preachy or condescending at all, even when there’s an important moral to the story. And that’s definitely the case with this book.

It’s a wonderfully light, humorous book, realistic without seeming mundane or dreary. This is something I love about the Andrew Clements books: they’re imaginative and larger than life. What happens in them is rarely impossible, but it’s still unusual and empowering. Most kids don’t write novels that get published, invent new words, or save classmates from a tornado. I think I would have enjoyed these books when I was a kid, even though they really weren’t in one of my preferred genres. I certainly love them now.

I didn’t love No Talking as much as I did The School Story, About Average, or The Landry News – most likely because the stakes aren’t quite as high, and the “no talking” competition seemed sillier to me as an adult than it might if I were reading it as a child. However, it was entertaining and engaging, and it had a great message at the end. I’d definitely recommend it for either boys or girls in the upper elementary age group, especially those that are looking for a humorous, realistic story.