Archives for posts with tag: ages 9-12


Orphans are a common trope in children’s literature. I’m sure many people have researched and written on this topic, so I won’t do that here. But I will say that Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell with illustrations by Terry Fan (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, out today), delightfully plays with and challenges all the conventions of books about orphans. It is wonderfully mystical, and laugh out loud funny. Charles Maxim finds Sophie floating in a cello case in the English Channel after a shipwreck. According to the pin on her front, reading 1! it is probably Sophie’s first birthday. Charles, a scholar, takes her in and plans to care for her, despite the consternation of one Miss Eliot from the National Childcare Agency:

‘But it’s a child! You’re a man!’
‘Your powers of observation are formidable,’ said Charles. ‘You are a credit to your optician.’
‘But what are you going to do with her?’
Charles looked bewildered. ‘I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I’ve read is anything to go by.’

So Sophie isn’t alone; Charles does love her, and despite her rather unconventional upbringing and the fact that Charles allows her to wear trousers (!), she is happy. They are happy. Until Sophie turns 12 and the National Childcare Agency decides that Charles is an unfit guardian for a young woman. Sophie, who has hair the color of lightening, and loves to play the cello, has memories of her mother aboard that ship. She also finds an address for a music shop in Paris in the cello case that Charles finds her in. The two of them spirit away to Paris to look for her mother. There Sophie discovers a world of urchins — not street urchins, but rooftop urchins. With a little friendship, music, and just a touch of magic, Sophie might find exactly what she is looking for on the rooftops of Paris.
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Holly Black’s Doll Bones (Margaret K. McElderry, $16.99) and Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $15.99) both deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood, but are very different in their approach to the process. Hokey Pokey imagines an almost idealized world of childhood, where the rules are a little less formalized that the wild frontier. Kids rein bikes like horses; they move in packs, and there is a clear distinction between boys and girls. This world is filled with candy, games, and not a little recklessness. It doesn’t quite fit with my own memories of childhood and I do wonder how kids under 12 will respond to it. Do they recognize their own world in this book? Is it only possible to see childhood, once you’re looking back? The biggest problem I had, though, was the insinuation that the the border between childhood and adulthood was both abrupt and definitive. Once you leave Hokey Pokey, or ‘grow up’, there is no going back. One day you’re a kid. The next day you’re an adult, which doesn’t seem very realistic to me. I don’t know any kids who make the transition easily and singularly. I certainly didn’t.

Alternatively, Doll Bones also narrates the transition from childhood to adulthood, but despite the fantastic elements this book feels more realistic. First, the transition isn’t so abrupt, but rather happens over a journey. Also, there is a significant internal conflict about the change for each character, that varies from character to character. Zach’s dilemmas are different than Alice’s, who again is struggling with different things than Poppy. Finally, by the end of the book, although Zach, Poppy, and Alice have grown up, there is a clear sense that they each have more growing up to do and that on occasion, they might even ‘relapse’ and not grow up at all. Doll Bones is described as “spooky” and “scary”, which I didn’t find when reading it. I liked the ambiguity, even at the end (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) about whether the game was a game or the game was real. Because games are always real. And reality is a game. And I see no reason to make a distinction. Is Doll Bones a ghost story or a growing up story? Well, yes. Also, Black demonstrates that gender is just as fluid as ‘growing up’. Zach enjoys playing imagination games with dolls in the afternoon with Poppy and Alice. He also likes playing basketball. He doesn’t switch from boy to girl. He’s a boy who likes a variety of things. He doesn’t broadcast his afternoon games — he knows that some of the other boys wouldn’t approve — but he doesn’t feel the need to stop either. Doll Bones is ultimately about the between spaces. Maybe it is a ghost story after all.

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9780375825446I picked up Wendelin van Draanen’s Flipped (Knopf, $8.95) years ago on a business trip because the cover is so great. It is streamlined, uncluttered, and just intriguing enough to spark my curiosity. The back matter is also very well done, the two stories are intertwined and upside down. You read Bryce’s story from top to bottom and then flip the book over to read Julianna’s. I bought the book and read it over dinner. (I once read this Dilbert comic where he says to the server, “I’m not a loser who can’t get a date; I’m a business traveler.” I’d always think about that line when I was traveling for business and eating alone.) Anyway, Flipped is really amazing. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and I love it every time. Julianna and Bryce are in 7th grade, but they met the summer before 2nd. They live across the street from each other and even this tiny distance completely affects their perspective on what’s happening between them. Each chapter flips the story; we hear Bryce’s perspective and then Julianna’s. Or the other way around. Not only are their stories flipped, from the beginning Julianna has flipped over Bryce. Julianna is a phenomenal character. She’s not like all the other kids and her unique perspective on the world, along with her ability to rise above and see the bigger picture, makes her one of my all-time favorite literary characters. Bryce tries really hard to keep his feet on the ground, and stay safe, but he grows on you. It might be his bright blue eyes. Or maybe it’s because he starts to step outside his comfort zone and flip his own perspective, slowly becoming even more awesome than the one-dimensional image of him that Julianna has created. Although, by this time Julianna’s own views about Bryce have started to flip . . .

Lest I’ve given the impression that this book is a cute romance à la Little Manhattan, I do want to say that there is a lot more going on in this book besides Julianna and Bryce’s tumultuous relationship. Both characters have extremely interesting and complex family structures. I cry every time Julianna and her dad visit her uncle and then again when Bryce learns about his own birth from his grandfather. There are no easy answers in either family, but the connections and family dynamics create depth and complexity for both Julianna and Bryce. Secondary characters, including their teacher and friends, are fleshed out enough to give the story more depth. As for the movie that came out in 2010, it is surprisingly true to the story and I admit I love it. But the book is better : )

9780547763484At Winter Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Urban, author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect. She is currently promoting her latest book, The Center of Everything (HMH, $15.99). I had sent a copy of A Crooked Kind of Perfect to my godbaby for her 9th birthday and she love it, so I asked Linda to sign a copy for her. That was weeks ago and I just got around to mailing it off today, because of course I wanted to read it first. Ruby, age 12, is also the Essay Girl for her town’s local parade, which celebrates Captain Bunning, the town founder and inventor of the donut hole (not really). Thanks to a rather complicated local tradition (successfully toss a quarter dated with the year of your birth through the outstretched hands of the founder’s statue on your birthday after repeating your wish 90 times), Ruby has earned herself a Bunning Day wish. Ruby’s grandmother, Gigi, has recently passed away, and Ruby wants something that can only come from a wish. But wishes are funny things and often have rules and guidelines just tricky enough to allude even the most accomplished wisher. Ruby’s wish — the one she wished on her birthday, and all the wishes she hasn’t dared to wish in case she jeopardizes her hard-won birthday wish — flits through the narrative. Her wish dances around her, carefully nudging her along, so that by the time she realizes her wish isn’t going to be granted, she’s found everything that she didn’t know to wish for.

9780547237657In The Lemonade War, by Jacqueline Davies (Sandpiper, $5.99), siblings Evan and Jessie usually get along. But when Jessie, younger by 14 months, skips third grade and winds up in Evan’s class, Evan needs a break from his little sister. The more he tries to get rid of her, the more she tries to prove that she’s not just a little kid. Misunderstandings pile up and soon the two are in an all-out battle to see who can make the most money selling lemonade during the final heat wave of the summer. The stakes are high, pride mostly, and in this war, it’s winner takes all. Evan has the people skills, the friends, and the gumption. Jessie has the math skills, the strategies, and the organization. Evan needs to not feel dumb next to his younger sister and Jessie needs to learn how to make friends and connect with people. This war might be exactly what both kids need to discover a little about business, step outside of their comfort zones, and learn not to take each other’s gifts for granted.

9780440228004I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on.  I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.

Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan.  He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.

Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.

I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.

Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety.  Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of  Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.

Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.

9780440228004A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that in honor of the MLK holiday weekend she was planning to read Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Laurel Leaf, $6.99). I thought this was such an excellent idea, that I decided to jump on board and read it as well. I’ve enjoyed Curtis’s other books, but haven’t gotten around to reading this one, and her post was the inspiration I needed. So I bought my copy over the weekend, but regret to admit that  I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet. I’m going to do so after my work meeting tonight and will write about it tomorrow. I can already tell that it’s going to become one of my go-to recommendations. Apologies for the cop-out, but I didn’t want this holiday to pass without mentioning it. And if it’s not too late, read, or re-read, The Watsons Go to Birmingham —1963; we can compare notes tomorrow! 

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