Archive for the ‘MG books (ages 8-12)’ Category

western frontI used to be skeptical of authors commissioned to continue a beloved series. Surely, the new sequel couldn’t be as good as the original. Then I read Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows and was thoroughly charmed. So I had high hopes for Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and I’m pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. Saunders’ reboot has all the humor and heart of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, but it goes deeper, and feels more grown-up while remaining quintessentially middle-grade. Bonus: it lacks the casual racism of Nesbit’s book.

As the title suggests, Western Front takes place during World War I. The Pemberton kids are all grown up now, with Cyril off to war, Anthea a volunteer nurse, Robert in college but expecting to join the army at any point, and Jane itching to become a doctor. Even the Lamb is 11, too old to spend much time with the Psammead when the sand fairy mysteriously returns. Luckily, Saunders has introduced Edith (Edie), a younger sibling not found in Nesbit’s books, and she soon becomes the Psammead’s best friend.


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20150911_191359I’ve been terribly delinquent about writing up the Jack Gantos talk I attended a few weeks ago, when he came to Porter Square Books to promote his latest novel/memoir, The Trouble In Me.

Gantos being Gantos, he took a long, meandering path toward explaining his book. It took him 15 minutes to mention Trouble. First, he summarized his writing process (fountain pen and paper), and how every book crystallizes through the messy process of jotting down random ideas and observations in a journal, which he carries everywhere. Somehow he transitioned from this to reminiscing about his childhood, and the day he stood on the U.S.S. Intrepid watching a military plane explode in the sky after a mechanical failure (no one was hurt–the pilot parachuted safely down). His father’s naval career features quite prominently in Trouble, not to mention Dead End in Norvelt.


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listen, slowlyTwelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.

Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.

So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.

In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.

Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.


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After reading Kelly Jones’ wonderful book, we decided to ask the author some questions about her writing and her inspirations. Kelly kindly responded–take a look:

author Kelly Jones with her unusual chickens (photo courtesy of Kelly Jones)

Author Kelly Jones with her unusual chickens (photo courtesy of Kelly Jones)

1. Your author’s note says you keep chickens. How did you get into poultry farming?

I grew up in a small town, and my best friend had chickens. Later, when I had my own suburban yard, I started reading up on chicken-keeping and touring urban farms. Finally, I took the Chickens 101 class from Seattle Tilth, and decided to give it a try!

2. How did your (presumably normal) chickens inspire the unusual characteristics of Sophie’s super chickens?

Henrietta’s telekinesis was inspired by a chicken who shoved other chickens out of her way. Chameleon’s camouflage came from not being able to find a chicken who was hiding in my backyard (it’s amazing how well they blend in!). And watching one chicken grab a slug and take off running, with all the other chickens in hot pursuit, inspired Roadrunner’s super-speed. I liked thinking about which superpowers would actually be useful to chickens doing chicken stuff, instead of, say, saving the world, which is just not that interesting to chickens.

3. Are any of the characters based on people you know? Is Sue?!?

All of them — and none of them! Sophie isn’t based on any one person; she turned up in my head exactly how she is in the book. The rest are all a mix of bits and pieces of people I’ve met or imagined. Real people are too complex to fit easily into stories; they don’t do what I want them to do. But to help characters feel real, I tend to borrow characteristics, names, hobbies, and other pieces from people I’ve met.
photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

Photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

4. What was your favorite book when you were 12 (Sophie’s age)?

I was a very strong reader, so by twelve, I’d already read and loved all the Daniel Pinkwater books I could get my hands on, including Sophie’s favorite: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. I was ready for something new! On special occasions, when my family went out to dinner, we’d go to our local bookstore afterwards (RIP A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Larkspur, CA!) and my parents, my brother, and I would each choose a book. An awesome bookseller recommended Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer to me (it was first published the year I was twelve), and it immediately became my favorite. I’d never read an epistolary novel before, and I loved the idea that two writers wrote a whole book in letters to each other! I tried to talk all my friends into trying the letter game.


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penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks in Spring is pretty much everything you could want in a quadrequal. (Okay, I know that’s not a real word, but let’s move along…)

Like all successful sequels of books with sequels, it:

1) retains the spirit (read: oodles of genuine Penderwick charm) of its predecessors,

2) is perfectly satisfying to read as a stand-alone,

3) yet builds upon the existing story/universe thus far by bringing something new

One such “something new” is Batty’s (now almost eleven!) love of music and budding passion for singing. And she, her musical mentors, and Birdsall by extension, have impeccable taste in music.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” or the song when Batty first realizes she has real singing talent. Larghetto in the key of C. (more…)

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penderwicks in springI was lucky enough to catch Jeanne Birdsall on her book tour to promote The Penderwicks in Spring. Porter Square Books was packed all the way to the door–and the person we have to thank for it all is a young Penderwicks fan who wrote to Birdsall awhile back, asking her to put the bookstore on her list of tour locations. That fan was in the crowd when Birdsall spoke, and I hope she got a free book or two as a reward.

Predictably enough, one of the first questions Birdsall got was, “where do you get your ideas?” You could almost sense Birdsall rolling her eyes, but she must be used to it by now, and patiently explained the influence of childhood favorites like Five Children And It, not to mention Little Women (though she stressed several times she wouldn’t be killing off any of the sisters). She also emphasized her steadfast belief in the importance of books for the 8-12 age range, which is why Penderwicks in Spring leaps forward five years in time, allowing Batty, age 10, to be our narrator. Although Jane, Skye and Rosalind show up, we never see anything from their perspective, and Birdsall confirmed she has no desire to get inside their teenage brains. Other highlights from her talk:

  • the Penderwicks have a new sibling! Lydia, age two, was added to the story so Birdsall could write the fifth and final book from Lydia’s perspective, when she’ll be ten or so. If Lydia’s toddler personality is anything to go on, I have high hopes for the sequel.
  • by Penderwicks in Spring, faithful Hound was so old he had to die, but Birdsall was kind enough to kill him off between books. Not that it made it any easier…any mention of Hound in this book is a tearjerker.
  • Hound’s willing-to-eat-anything personality is based on a dog Birdsall had as a kid. Her dog really did eat everything, including the labels off all the canned goods in the kitchen, setting off pandemonium on the cooking front.
  • for anyone who dreads the prospect of a Penderwicks movie, fear not. Birdsall has no intention of selling the rights, and she’s not a fan of the book-to-movie route, since it ruins how every reader has imagined the book. As Birdsall pointed out, can anyone separate Harry Potter from the face of Daniel Radcliffe anymore?
  • when Birdsall first began writing, the Penderwicks were named the Pendergasts. But when Birdsall showed the draft to friend and fellow author Patricia MacLachlan, MacLachlan, with much swearing, kept getting the name wrong by adding extra “r’s” where they didn’t belong, and got so frustrated she convinced Birdsall to change the name.
  • Birdsall may be the only New Englander who welcomed this past winter. Penderwicks in Spring begins in April, when there’s still snow on the ground. But the past winters have been so mild that Birdsall considered changing the book to begin in March–until this year, when the weather confirmed that snow in April still makes sense.

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CallitCourageI’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.

Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape. (more…)

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