Tag Archives: middle grade

Explorer: The Lost Islands

Editor: Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Perhaps it’s a place where festivities turn to horror. Or maybe it’s a place where stories are broadcast from all over, where magic is made. It may not be an actual place at all, but rather something symbolizing our sense of self. Whatever the case, the idea of a lost island, isolated and strange, is tantalizing and full of equal parts fear and wonder. Come and see what’s there to find.

I’ve read one volume of Kibuishi’s Explorer series previously, The Hidden Doors, which I quite enjoyed. The Lost Islands brings a similar experience–a collection of graphic shorts by a variety of authors/illustrators, all somehow connected by the titular idea. It’s great to see the immense variety that is presented in this collection. You’ve got light, fluffy pieces and scary, adventurous stories and even one that’s contemplative and psychological. All in all, it’s a good selection; I don’t think there was a single story I didn’t enjoy. The art is all excellent, again with a good bit of variety between styles. The stories are generally middle-grade appropriate, but recommended for basically all ages, in my opinion. I especially appreciate that the stories aren’t just existential occurrences; they focus on ideas such as hard work, self-awareness, being true to oneself, and the importance of being a good friend. I would definitely recommend Explorer: The Lost Islands, and I look forward to reading more by the authors/illustrators represented here.

Contributors: Jake Parker, Chrystin Garland, Jason Caffoe, Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, Braden Lamb, Michel Gagné, Katie Shanahan, Steven Shanahan, Eric Kim, Selena Dizazzo, & Kazu Kibuishi

 

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The Janitor’s Boy

Author: Andrew Clements

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.

Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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Cosmic

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 5 of 5

Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.

So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Author: Kimberly Willis Holt

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty.  His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.

Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.

 

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The Inquisitor’s Tale

Author: Adam Gidwitzthe-inquisitors-tale

Illustrator: Hatem Aly

My rating: 5 of 5

The year is 1242, and one dark evening a disconnected group of travelers find themselves together in a small French countryside inn, trading stories to pass the time. Surprisingly, the one evening it seems that all their stories are part of a larger story, a story of three children with seemingly miraculous powers and their faithful dog who is revered as a saint by local peasants. And the tale doesn’t end with the miracles these children have performed, for the very king of France has now declared war against these children. Perhaps, through their interwoven tales, the travelers can puzzle out why such a thing would be.

I was deeply impressed by Gidwitz’s work on The Inquisitor’s Tale. The story is obviously well researched, emulating a storytelling style similar to that of Chaucer’s tales (but in prose), which adds an air of authenticity. It also makes the development of the plot quite interesting, although the pace is slower than that of many tales because of the style. The story draws heavily on both historical research and on the saints tales and folklore of the day, creating a tale that is equal parts historical fiction and fantasy. It’s quite appealing. Also appealing are the characters and the manner in which they develop over the course of the book, particularly after the four of them begin traveling together. Oddly enough, the author does at times choose to use terms which wouldn’t have been common (or even known at all) in 1242–like “allergic” for instance; however, this practice does serve to keep the writing more colloquial, which fits the setting. One of the most powerful and poignant aspects of this story is the way in which it addresses the issues of ignorance and hatred of the alien that were present in that particular place and time, discussing these issues in a way that makes the reader sorely aware of the similarity there is to the discord present in our own day. A painful reminder that we could save so much heartache if we could just learn from history. I also appreciated the way in which complex and difficult theological ideas were incorporated into the story and the way in which the plot tended, ultimately, towards hope and encouraging the reader to be the change we want to see in the world. Demographically, The Inquisitor’s Tale is intended for an upper middle-grade audience, but I think it is an incredible story for anyone that age or older.

 

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The Magic Thief

Author: Sarah Prineas/the-magic-thiefIllustrator: Antonio Javier Caparo

Magic Thief, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

In a city that runs on magic–magic that is inexplicably running out–young Conn survives by picking locks and picking pockets. But one hungry evening, he unwittingly picks the pocket of the wizard Nevery, stealing the wizard’s locus magicalicus which ought, by all rights and expectations, have killed Conn instantly. Surprised at the boy’s survival, Nevery decides to take him on, first as a servant and then as an apprentice. Because Conn may have a greater talent for magic than has been seen in the city for quite some time . . . and he may just be able to find out what’s been happening to the city’s magic.

I first read The Magic Thief  at the recommendation of Anastasia @Read & Survive (thanks for the suggestion!), and I must say that the story more than lived up to my expectations. The world building is excellent, immersing the reader in a magically-powered Dickensian world without being unnecessarily descriptive or wordy about it. The author does the same thing with the characters–they are full of character and life, and she does a fabulous job of showing this to us through their words and actions rather than telling us about them at length. Also, I really love the way Prineas plays with phrases, turning them outside-in or changing them just a bit to make them attention catching and unique; it adds to the impression that this is set in a different world quite effectively. As an additional plus, there’s a lot of interesting plot that is gripping and fun even for an adult but that is also completely age-appropriate for the book’s primary intended middle-grade audience. I love it! I would definitely recommend The Magic Thief both to most children and to adults who like fantasies and/or children’s books.

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How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay

Author: Julia Álvarezhow-tia-lola-came-to-visit-stay

My rating: 2.5 of 5

After his parents’ divorce, Miguel, his mom, and his bratty little sister Juanita move to Vermont to start a new life. Of course, Miguel misses his friends in New York, his baseball team, and his artist father who is always teaching him the names of colors. But soon, it seems, he’ll have more to worry about in Vermont. Mami’s Tía Lola is coming all the way from the Dominican Republic to stay with them for a while and help out. Tía Lola is embarrassing–she’s colorful and loud and talks to everyone, but she only speaks Spanish! But maybe she’s not all bad. . . .

Well, I must admit, How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay was a surprise for me. I really expected to love it. I probably ought to have loved it. It’s a solid middle-grade story with all the right stuff–helping kids deal with divorce, sports, family, cultural diversity, the works. Plus it gives a good look into Dominican culture, and it helps introduce kids to lots of Spanish words. Plus it teaches about giving people a chance and looking for unexpected ways to handle problems. But the truth is that this book just fell kind of flat for me. A large part of it is that the entire story is written in present tense, which has always been challenging for me to adjust to in a book. I love the premise of playing with tenses and persons in writing, but when it comes down to it, present tense is just awkward in large quantities. Also, for all the colorful details Álvarez put into the characters, they never felt like solid, real people; I could never really see them or connect to them. So, although I think I would like to give Álvarez’s writing another try in a different book, I didn’t love How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay like I expected and wanted to.

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