Archives for posts with tag: middle school

Crystal Allen’s new book, The Laura Linewas another book that I heard about at Winter Institute this year and was extremely excited to read (Balzer + Bray, $16.99). Overall I think this book has a lot of important things to say and for the most part, I appreciated Laura’s narrative voice; however there was one major plot point that didn’t seem right. Laura’s parents leave for two weeks for military duty. The aunt who usually takes care of Laura can’t make it this time, and she has to go live with her grandmother instead. Laura hates visiting her grandmother because she’s inordinately embarrassed by the slave shack that sits on the grounds. Laura doesn’t think that this part of her family history should be glorified in any way and she refuses to step inside or hear the stories about why it’s there. As the narrative continues, Laura finally does open herself up to the shack and it’s significance to American history. She finally recognizes that the shack holds generations of stories about the Lauras in her family who have lived before her and she is proud of their accomplishments.

I love the idea of the shack embodying the horrors from American history and how its physical presence forces Laura to struggle with the past and the shack’s place in her own life. She wants to forget slavery happened and live her own life, which makes a lot of sense and I appreciate Laura’s conflict between ignoring the past and being defined by the past. This conflict is particularly acute in middle school, when kids are simultaneously working to define themselves outside of their families as they also try to figure out their place within their families. What doesn’t make sense to me is that Laura has never engaged with the shack. She’s close to her mother and her mother is close to her grandmother. Surely as a young child, Laura would have wanted to hear the stories, feel connected to her mother, or be curious about the shack. She wouldn’t have yet felt the socio-historical implications of the shack, have been embarrassed by what her classmates think, or have been so afraid of something that her mother and grandmother obviously cherish. Again, there are a lot of excellent attributes to this book and it is a solid introduction to the personal history of slavery, as well as a great companion novel for studying family history. I think, perhaps, I would have enjoyed it just a little more if the story narrated Laura’s return to her family rather than a first discovery.

Laura is a spunky character who loves both fashion and baseball; I fully appreciate this fluctuation between gender norms. She’s smart, capable, and resilient. She cares about what her peers think, but she also stands up for herself and her best friend. She follows her intuition and accepts the consequences when she ignores it. There is a lot of life, character, and history in this book. Teachers and librarians take note.

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9781599902845I know I’m getting in a bit of a rut with the age titles. It’s so much easier, but not as helpful when you’re looking for subject recommendations. My goal over the next couple of weeks is to go back and add subject references to the blog titles. For today, however, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes is good for a kid who enjoys sports and is on the cusp of adolescence (Bloomsbury, $15.99). Joylin plays basketball. Her younger brother Caden is an artist. I’m always a fan of books that push gender boundaries and show young readers that what it means to be a girl or boy isn’t as clear cut as some would have you believe. The kids’ dad has a difficult time with his non-athletic son, although he is rather supportive of his daughter’s talent, and both kids struggle to align themselves what the perceived norms of their respective gender. Caden tries to learn basketball to impress his father and Joylin tries wearing skirts, heels, and lipstick to impress a boy. She’s just as surprised at her newfound interest as anyone: “There are suddenly // cute boys everywhere. //  I swear.// They keep popping up // all the time”. She’s never cared about clothes or giggling before and she’s not exactly sure what kind of girl she wants to be now. Caden basically embarrasses himself on the court and Joylin usually ends up literally falling all over herself in front of Santiago — not quite the impression she’s going for. Written in free verse, Joylin’s flowing narrative voice is pitch perfect. She navigates the highs and lows of early adolescence with her two best friends KeeLee and Jake and when she questions “Where is a parallel universe // when you need one?”, I had to smile. Ah, middle school. How many times did I have that thought, although never quite so poetic!

9781423105169I enjoyed Gordon Korman’s Ungifted so much that I decided it was time to read some of his other books. I don’t know why I’ve never read his stuff before; he is great! Schooled (Hyperion, $6.99) is a quirky book about Capricorn (Cap) Anderson, who has spent his entire life living on the all but abandoned commune left over from the 1960s. His grandmother, Rain, is the sole remaining resident and has raised and educated Cap entirely on her own. When she falls out of the plum tree, Cap, 13, drives her to the hospital, ending in his arrest (driving without a license) and a brief stint in the home of a social worker, who happens to have spent part of her childhood in the commune. And so Cap starts junior high. Little does he know — because honestly there isn’t much Cap does know about the outside world — the class’s biggest loser is always voted in as President of the 8th grade. When Cap is elected, when he is pranked, and when he is teased by his classmates, he takes it all in stride. Anger, jealousy, and vindictiveness are all completely outside his frame of understanding. Instead, he strives to do his best in his new position, as he knows it’s what Rain would expect of him. The longer that Cap stays true to himself and the principles that he’s learned from Rain, the more the student body starts to recognize and, sometimes begrudgingly, accept his strength of character. His belief in the individual skills of his classmates ultimately yields its own brand of community.

Cap is adorable. The narrative alternates between a number of characters, which allows for a more comprehensive development of the school environment. Korman utilizes this rotating narrative strategy effectively in both Schooled and Ungifted and conveys equal parts disdain and sympathy for both the school bully, Zach, and Hugh, Zach’s biggest prey (besides Cap). He also paints a very realistic picture of the middle school experience. According to Hugh, “Adults are always trying to figure out what makes kids tick. . . . Know what? They don’t have a clue”. The adults in Korman’s books, at least the ones I’ve read so far, do try really hard but they often miss the point, demonstrating that Korman, himself, does have a pretty good clue. I’m going to start recommending his books to kids who have read and enjoyed Andrew Clements’s school stories. I’m also really excited to eventually read more of Korman’s books and will let you know if they measure up to these two.

9780545326995I don’t often read graphic novels. Not because I don’t respect them; quite the contrary, actually. I think comic books and graphic novels are a great medium for reluctant and avid readers, but I do often recommend them to adults who are buying for a reluctant reader. Even as I say that, I realize that it sounds like I think graphic novels are easier or something. I don’t. It takes a lot of skill and patience to read text and illustrations, which is why I don’t often read graphic novels myself. Moreover, I think they are accessible to reluctant readers and are often overlooked, so I like to encourage people to consider them as a viable and respectable genre.

I’ve had the ARC for Drama, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, $10.99) sitting on my bookshelves for a while now, but haven’t read it out of laziness. When it won a Stonewall honor award for the ALA recently, I was intrigued, especially since there is nothing on the cover or in the blurb that made that connection. What a surprise! First, I loved the reading experience. I think you have to get in the rhythm of graphic novels and because I don’t read a lot of them, I forget how to read them. But it didn’t take long before I got swept away. I’m sure I missed a lot of crucial parts of the illustrations, but I got better about taking the time to read them along with the text. Second, I was really taken aback by the pragmatic inclusion of the LBGTA plot lines. Callie loves theatre, but she’s discovered that she’s better behind the scenes than on the stage. She builds sets and props for her school’s drama productions. When she meets twins Jesse and Justin, she discovers two new recruits for the department. Justin craves the limelight and Jesse is perfectly happy to help Callie on the crew. When all the drama starts, during the final performance, Jesse shows that he is just as talented as Justin and also brave enough to push the boundaries of acting. Justin is relatively open about his sexuality. Jesse is more ambiguous. Callie stays pretty cool even in the midst of all the drama and by *not* turning this story into a romance, Telgemeier manages to focus the attention on Callie, her passion for theatre, and the value of friendship.

9780152066086I buy my god-baby books for her birthday. Fortunately she still enjoys reading, so I have not yet become ‘the worst god-mother ever’ as predicted by one of my non-reading friends. My god-baby is actually 9 so not technically a baby, but I like the title. As much fun as it can be to buy books you’ve read and loved, doing so can sometimes put too much pressure on the recipient so this year I decided to buy books I hadn’t read, books I picked out specifically for her. My boss recommended A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (Sandpiper, $6.99). Zoe, the main character, has musical aspirations, and I thought that would be good choice since the god-baby’s mother plays the clarinet and the god-baby in question takes piano lessons. (Sidebar: maybe some time I should write about all the times I spent at band and orchestra rehearsals in high school despite the fact that I wasn’t ever in the band or an orchestra — the things we do for our friends.) Although I never heard the final pronouncement, A Crooked Kind of Perfect was the first of her birthday books that the god-baby started reading and her initial reaction was enthusiastic — melodramatic, but enthusiastic: “I looooooooved the books you picked out! Thank you soooooooooo much!” kids. gotta love ’em. gotta not take ’em too seriously.

So now it’s my turn to read the books and yes, I did a great job picking them out (with help, of course), because A Crooked Kind of Perfect is kind of delightful. Zoe wants to be a pianist, more specifically she’d like to be a child prodigy on the piano. What she gets is an organ, more specifically the The Perfectone D-60. Pianists play at Carnegie Hall. Organists compete at the Peform-O-Rama organ competition. Zoe wants her two parents to be at her first competition. Zoe has a workaholic mother and an agoraphobic father. Zoe wants her best friend to remember that they are best friends and not spend so much time with Joella. Zoe gets Wheeler Diggs following her home after school. Zoe wants perfection. She finds a crooked kind of perfect.

I think 12 is one of the hardest ages to recommend books for, especially when the kid isn’t present and the parents or other adults are asking about recommendations. It’s not hard because of the books. There are tons of excellent books for this age range; it’s actually one of my favorite sub-sets of children’s literature. It’s hard because kids at 12 are so varied, even within themselves. Are they kids? Adults?  The store owner once told me that she often asks, “Are they 12 going on 13 or 12 going on 18?”, which sums it up perfectly. Don’t get me wrong. I love working with kids this age. The ambiguity and constant movement between childhood and adulthood is interesting and they are hilariously sarcastic, with such pointed insight into the world around them. The kids themselves are great. It’s trying to pick a book for a 12 year old who isn’t there or I don’t know that poses the problem. I don’t want to insult them by giving something too young, but I don’t want to hand over material they might not be ready for (or interested in). And at this age, if you pick wrong, they will remember.

9780061742668Last night I read Gordon Korman’s new book, Ungifted (Balzer + Bray, $16.99) and I think I might have found my answer. Ungifted is about an eighth grade boy, Donovan Curtis, who realizes that the statue of Atlas on his school grounds has a huge butt, so he whacks it with a stick. Unfortunately the statue isn’t well crafted; the globe falls off of Atlas’s shoulders, rolls down the hill, and crashes into the glass doors of the gym during a basketball game. Fantastic opening chapter. Don’t you want to read it already? Caught by the superintendent, who obviously does not know every student in the district, Donovan becomes the beneficiary of a paperwork mixup and ends up being invited to attend the gifted school for academic excellence. He decides the school would be an excellent place to hide out for a few weeks and so he goes. The problem is that Donovan isn’t really gifted.

The chapters alternate between Donovan and other characters in the book — the superintendent, fellow students and teachers at the new school, and his sister — narrating the story. Donovan (IQ 112) is full of action: “He was probably right. They were all right. But when the thing is right there in front of me, and I can kick it, grab it, shout it out, jump into it, paint it, launch it, or light it on fire, it’s like I’m a puppet on a string, powerless to resist. I don’t think; I do“. Chloe, and the other kids at the academy, on the other hand are full of thought. Chloe Garfinkle (IQ 159) is constantly generating hypotheses and wonders what life is like for “normal” kids: “She had a point. Most of the guys at the Academy for Scholastic Distinction weren’t exactly what you’d call Hollywood hunks. I didn’t expect body-builders, but it would be nice if they could grow a set of shoulders between the lot of them”. Abigail (IQ 171) is the high-strung overachiever who is afraid to fail and Noah (IQ 206) is the genius that can’t seem to fail, even when he tries. All of the characters were well-developed and engaging. The story made me laugh out loud throughout.  His classmates teach Donovan a little something about thinking and he teaches them quite a bit about acting, thus single-handedly challenging the definition of “gifted”.

I’m heading straight for this book the next time I have to recommend something for a 12 year old.

R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, $15.99) has been receiving excellent press since it was released in February of9780375869020 this year. It made the New York Times Notable Children’s Books list for 2012 as well as the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of the year. It’s also been flying off our shelves since summer and is on our store’s Picks of the Year so I figured it was finally time to read it.

August Pullman is starting 5th grade and for the first time in his life, he is going to school. Due to a statistically improbable genetic condition, he doesn’t look like anyone else: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”. Auggie’s perceptions and ability to read people have become so acute over the years that — regardless of the severity of someone’s response — he always registers the exact moment that a person first sees him. Some people scream, some express quiet shock, and some only pause for one millionth of a second, but Auggie always knows. Fifth grade, as the principal of Beecher Middle School indicates, is the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. His classmates reactions to him range from innocent curiosity to maliciousness.

While the narrative is primarily focalized through August’s perspective, Palacio gives the story more depth by incorporating other character’s interpretations. As perceptive as Auggie might be, he is young. He is so aware of people’s initial impressions that he often misses the changing over time as people get to know him. Hearing his friends’, his older sister’s, and some of her friends’ voices allows for more complex understanding of the full story. Shock doesn’t always mean fear. Sometimes people say things they don’t really believe. And first impressions fade into deeper understanding.

“my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. . . . maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.” ~ Justin, Wonder


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