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

makoons.jpgThe Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.

One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness? (more…)

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littleHouseMaking the drive from the Dakotas to Missouri, I passed the exit for De Smet, South Dakota, aka the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake through The First Four Years are set. This awoke a deep nostalgia in me, and the urge to revisit the series starting with Little House on the Prairie. (Sorry, Big Woods. I wasn’t in Wisconsin.)

Rereading Little House was a strange visit. On one hand, some parts were as charming as my childhood memories of Laura’s pioneering life. Then again, I’m astounded the Ingalls managed to stay alive for the entire book, much less the series. As protective as Pa is of his family, he has no qualms about putting them in dangerous situations to begin with.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out, but I kept a running tally of all the ways they could have died on the prairie:

  1. The ice cracks the day after the Ingalls crossed over the frozen Mississippi River in their covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Indian Territories aka Kansas.
  2. Then they ford a rising creek where their horses almost drown.
  3. While building the walls of their log cabin, Ma narrowly avoids getting crushed to death by a rolling log.
  4. Their cabin is encircled by a pack of wolves at night and they don’t have a real door — only a quilt nailed across the door frame.
  5. Pa and their nearest neighbor Mr. Scott dig a well and narrowly avoid being overcome by fumes underground.
  6. Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura contract “fever ‘n’ ague” aka malaria and it’s unclear who is taking care of baby Carrie while the rest of the family is delirious and bedridden. (Baby Carrie gets ignored during this chapter.)
  7. The chimney attached to their wooden house catches fire.
  8. The prairie surrounding their wooden house catches fire.
  9. A panther visits them.
  10. The U.S. government is in the process of “resettling” the Indians from their land, and meanwhile the Ingalls are homesteading illegally on Osage land, though they don’t realize this until the end of the book. It’s amazing every encounter the family has with an Indian doesn’t end badly…

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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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