RSS Feed

Category Archives: Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

TRASH by Andy Mulligan (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Posted on
TRASH by Andy Mulligan (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

TRASH by Andy Mulligan

Published by Ember (Penguin Random House), October 2011

Suggested age range:  12 and up

 

SUMMARY:

In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city.

One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  extreme poverty, greed, corruption, police brutality, justice

IMG_0610

For more Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf discussions, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Eva: I LOVED the setting of this book.  I know there are places like this in the world — enormous garbage heaps that children pick through — but I’d never thought about what life would be like there…. or the fact that people actually LIVE there: “The shacks we live in grow up out of the trash piles, bamboo and string, piled upwards — it’s like little villages in amongst the hills.”   The author did a great job of bringing the setting to life, with all the disturbing sights and smells (and rats!) that come along with it.  For example:  

It was dead trash underfoot, and it was damp — you were up to your knees.  

Soon we came to one of the old belt-machines, but this one was disused and rotting.  The belt itself had been stripped out, and the wooden panels had been taken.  It was just a huge metal frame, rusting away.  The arm that held the belt pointed up into the sky like a big finger, and now and then kids would climb it and sit in the breeze.    

I think it’s very important for kids to read a book like this; to be aware that places like this exist.  

 

Meagan:  I agree.  We’ve talked before about one of the major functions of literature being to increase your empathy range.  That’s definitely the case with this book.  Even though the characters’ life circumstances would be hard to relate to for lots of kids, the characters themselves aren’t hard to relate to at all.  They are funny and sweet and struggle with things that many kids struggle with (like loyalty to friends and trying to decide the right thing to do in a complex situation), and that makes them relatable, even though their circumstances are much more dire than the average kid’s.  

 

Eva:  I found out about Trash because some of the 7th graders I tutor were assigned it for summer reading.  I’m sure it provides a great jumping off point for class discussions about poverty, class differences, and the environment.  Hopefully those who read it will think twice every time they throw something away!

 

Meagan:  I could definitely see reading this book with a class.  Not only does it have some powerful social issues to discuss, but I think it could be an easy entryway to talking about theme in literature.  The book’s title, Trash, is an overt theme throughout the book and comes up in multiple ways.  There’s all the literal trash the boys pick through and live amongst, but there are also several situations in which human beings are treated like trash or called “trash.”  I think this is a sort of gateway literary theme that almost any middle school kid could pick up on.  They might even be able to make the leap to realizing that the author is using the dumpsite setting to get readers to think about the “trashification” of people.

 

51KM-co187L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

Eva:  I think many middle school kids will enjoy this book.  It’s fast-paced and written in a simple style.  It contains plenty of action and suspense.  However, as a writer, I wondered if the story as a whole could have been put together in a different way.  

For example, the story is told in turns by the three boys, as well as a few chapters here and there narrated by minor characters — all are in first person.  I’m not sure if it was necessary to give all these characters their own chapters, and there wasn’t always a clear distinction between various voices. Also, the book makes it clear that all of these accounts were written down except for Rat’s (he can’t write so he narrated to someone who wrote it down for him).  I couldn’t help wondering how Raphael and Gardo, who never went to school, were able to write their sections.  I think I would have preferred keeping the story solidly in one perspective, or at least from the three boys’ points of views only.  (And I’d recommend either third person, or, if in first person, making Raphael and Gardo’s voices more distinct from each other.)  

 

Meagan: I wondered about the narration choices as I was reading, too.  The multiple narrators didn’t make it confusing to me, but I’m not sure how necessary it was.  For me, when I read a book with multiple narrators, I am looking for each new point of view to add something critical to the story.  I enjoy a viewpoint shift that gives me an “aha!” moment and allows me to see plot events or character in a new way that undeniably drives the story forward.  While some of the viewpoint shifts were interesting, I wouldn’t quite characterize them as critical.

 

Eva:  Overall I enjoyed the action and mystery, but I think there could have been more clues and foreshadowing.  For example, there is a climactic scene set in the graveyard on the eve of All Souls Day, and it is only then that we find out that in this culture people believe this is the time when “ghosts come up and walk around.”  I would have liked this information planted earlier in the story.  Instead it felt like the author saying, “oh, and by the way, what’s happening right now is a big deal because…”    

 

Meagan:  I was surprised at the lack of foreshadowing or lead up to the All Souls Day scene, too, but I really liked that scene for a whole separate reason.  Without spoiling it too much, what the boys end up doing (in a graveyard, at night, during a storm) would terrify most people.  Even imagining it is terrifying, but for the boys in the story, the horror-factor barely even registers.  This struck me as so noticeable, but then I realized what a strong comment this was on the condition of their lives.  The vague notion of spookiness about being in a graveyard at night is nothing in comparison to the real violence and risk that these boys are facing all the time in real life.  Imagined spookiness is much more of a threat if you are accustomed to a secure life, I think.  These boys have virtually no source of security (no family, no trustworthy government or protection from crime etc.).  So what do they have to fear from the idea of ghosts?

 

Eva:  As usual, it’s likely I’m being too hard on this book.  One of my students, a 7th grade girl, told me that she loved Trash and that it was pretty much her favorite book ever.  I think that says it all.

Image result for trash andy mulligan

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In a way it reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar.  In Holes it becomes clear that the boys at a juvenile detention center aren’t just digging to build character — they are trying to find something, although their Warden won’t say what or why.  Similarly, in Trash the police are looking for something that is obviously important, but they won’t say what or why.  Both are books of action and suspense, and both are about  disadvantaged boys who are mistreated by tyrannous and greedy authority figures.  The difference would be that both the setting and that story in Trash are a bit more serious than in Holes and bring up some more serious real-life issues.    

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Setting
  • Easy-to-access theme
  • Action and suspense
  • Social and environmental issues
  • It is an example of multiple first person narrators, but I wouldn’t say it’s a great example.  

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A fast read with an intense setting that provides a great prompt for classroom discussions on social issues.  

Meagan:  I think I’ll remember this book for its empathy-enlarging social issues, but also as an example of literary theme with “training wheels.”  

Image result for trash andy mulligan

Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Posted on
Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh

published by Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Various because it’s an anthology.  Stories touch on identity, perseverance, prejudice, friendship, family influence, and individuality vs. conformity, just to name a few.

IMG_0610

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections, but I really enjoyed this one. I’m glad Ellen Oh and We Need Diverse Books put this together.  It was a great way to get exposed to a bunch of authors all at once and I found myself taking note as I read of authors whose longer books I’d like to read.  

Eva:  Definitely!  I thought some of the stories, though self-contained, could have been the first chapters of novels … novels I’d like to read!  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a middle grade short story collection before, so this book was unique in that way, not to mention the diversity of characters, settings, and situations.  It makes me wonder why there aren’t more short story collections for this age group. Middle grade readers are notorious for their short attention spans, so it seems like a great idea.

Meagan:  If I were still teaching 4th grade, I’d absolutely use this book in my classroom.  For one thing, it’s great for kids to see stories with different kinds of protagonists representing the wide array of kids’ backgrounds and experiences.  For another thing, middle grade short stories aren’t super common, and it’d be helpful to have short read-alouds that could be finished in one or two sittings.  Perfect for before a vacation or some other time when it’s not practical to start reading aloud a new novel.  

Also, for both students and writers, short stories can work as a quick snapshot to help you focus on a particular skill or topic without needing to tackle a whole novel.  “How does an author establish a memorable and believable character in just a few pages?” is a great question to investigate whether you’re a kid learning about characterization and making inferences, or an adult writer who’s looking to improve your own craft.  Gift this book to teachers you know!

Twitter_Flying Lessons & Other Stories_1.jpg

 

Eva:   Let’s talk about the particular stories.  One that stood out to me was “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents:  A Story-in-Verse” by Kwame Alexander.  Books in verse seem to be very “in” right now, especially in YA, but I’ve avoided them because I thought it would be annoying to read a novel in verse.  But I really enjoyed Alexander’s story and wasn’t annoyed at all by the format.  If anything, it made it a fun, quick, and interesting to read.  

It seems like this story could be a good way to introduce kids to verse.  It shows that poetic language doesn’t have to rhyme; poetry is also about rhythm, word choice, and imagery:  

The most beautiful girl

in school

walks up to me

fast and furious

like a wave rushing

to the shore.  

I feel like

I’m about to drown,

but I don’t care,

because like my dad says

about my mom,

“She’s a stone cold fox!”  

Also, I imagine that, like me, kids might be more willing to try a short story in verse before jumping into an entire novel written that way.  

Meagan:  How about “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina?  I loved the journey the protagonist went on.  She began very confident in a simplistic way then got exposed to a complex world that included some class- and race-prejudice.  She sees how her older brother and her father deal with things.  At first she looks down on her brother and dad’s responses, but through the story she comes to understand why they act the way they do.  By the end she seems to neither adopt their approaches completely, nor look down on them for their choices.  She will have to face injustice in her own way and also be compassionate towards those who choose to face it in a different way.  I think this is an appropriately nuanced problem for middle grade students to grapple with, both theoretically in the story as well as in real-life application.

Eva:  I think my favorite story was “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin.  All the other stories were set in the U.S. in contemporary times, but from this story’s first line, the reader is transported to a totally different time and place:   

“When I was sold to the Li family, my mother let Mrs. Li take me only after she’d promised that I would be taught to read.”  

I was immediately drawn into the world, and this was one of the stories I wished was the first chapter of a novel.  I also would have liked if at least one of the other stories in the collection was historical fiction and/or set somewhere other than the U.S., like this one.  

41hqWFNDuKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

Meagan:  I think I have a tie for my favorite between Meg Medina’s story, which I described above, and “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist.  I thought this one was a great little primer on showing-not-telling.  The author sets up a sympathetic character in a very difficult family situation with perfectly chosen details that give the readers everything they need to know, without resorting to telling or labels.  We’re never told “my mom is depressed” or “we got evicted” or “now we’re homeless.”  The reader experiences everything right along with Isaiah and his sister and can easily get the scariness of the situation without needing to be told the names for the problems.  Yet despite some pretty dark circumstances, there is also hope in the story.  

I liked this story so well I went immediately to the Internet to find out what else the author had written, only to discover that she doesn’t yet have a published novel!  This story is her debut publication!  Kelly J. Baptist…I’m waiting for your novel to come out!  You are writing one, right???

Eva:  I hope so!  I just want to mention one last story (the last one in the book):  “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers.  I think what comes to many people’s minds with the “we need diverse books” campaign is race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation — which are all types of diversity found in this collection.  What isn’t so often considered are kids with disabilities.  I was glad to see this story — about a boy who plays wheelchair basketball — included in the collection.  

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:   I don’t know.  I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of middle grade short stories.  

Eva:  I don’t know that I’ve read an anthology before, but I definitely used to read short stories for middle grade readers.  When I was a kid I subscribed to the American Girl magazine.  In each issue there was a short story, and I remember one in particular about a girl who finds out that her grandmother had her feet bound when she was a little girl in China.  I think that was how I first learned about foot-binding, and obviously the story was so powerful that I still remember it quite clearly now, twenty-five years after reading it!  So short stories can definitely have just as much power as novels for the middle grade age group.       

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 10.02.46 AM

The first issue of American Girl magazine from 1992.  I totally remember reading this issue from cover to cover (several times!)

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Short stories for middle grade readers
  • Diversity
  • A short story in verse
  • First person narration (Almost all of them are)
  • Middle grade stories that deal with race, class, sexual orientation, and disability.

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A quick, interesting collection of short stories for middle grade readers.  Not only is there diversity in the subject matter, there is diversity in the way the stories are told.  One is told in verse, one is told in second person, some are in past tense while others are in present, etc.   

Meagan:  A good reminder that a short story anthology with a variety of authors can be a great way of discovering authors you might like to read more of.  As a reader, it’s a way to sample more broadly and try out the styles and stories of a lot of writers in a short time.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015

Suggested age range: 10 and up

An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers

SUMMARY:

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)

IMG_0610

Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf here.

So what did we think?  

Eva:  Wow.  Just wow.  This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.  

Meagan:  Me too.  This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations.  Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book.  Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.   

Eva:  It’s one of those books that defies categorization.   Is it an eerie fairy tale?  A psychological thriller?  A morality tale?   I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children?  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.          

Meagan:  This book reminded me so strongly of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors).  Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier.  The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story.  Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on.  This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult.  MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.

Here’s what I came up with:  While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward.  Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination.   Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side.  They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist.  I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child.  That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG.  It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!

Eva:  Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest  because I don’t want to give too much away.    I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad.  I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:  

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.  What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them?  Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me.  They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.  

Slide1-2-470x260

Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together.  So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.

Eva:  What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic.  The book really plays with emotions and expectations.  Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax.  I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.     

Meagan:  I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity.  I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic.  While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own.  Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box.  The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once.  Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.

Eva:  I like that comparison!  (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”)  Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline.  He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school.  Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines.  Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.).  Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.

The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message.  The story is also so imaginative.  Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:  

“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”  

“Right again.”  

“It’s a real place.  But I thought…”  

“What did you think?”  

“That I just dreamt you.”  

“You are dreaming.  But it’s also real.”

I wasn’t sure this made any sense.  “But how can I fit inside?”  

“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world.  “Outside the nest you’re big.  Inside you’re small.”  

The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool.  Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent.  When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon.  I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.  

the-nest-9781481432337_hr

Meagan:  Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.”  This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are.   Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.”  Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.).  Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions.  He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion.  It is intense to say the least.  

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:   Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well.  Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters.  At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge.  Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.   

Meagan:   Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison.  And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).  

Coraline

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • An eerie fairy tale
  • Pacing
  • Building of suspense
  • Deep themes in a simple story
  • Simple yet effective language
  • Keeping the focus on a single storyline

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.  

Meagan:  Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do.  I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.

Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Posted on
Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

SIREN SISTERS by Dana Langer

published by Aladdin, January 2017

suggested age range: 9 – 13

SUMMARY:

A soon-to-be siren finds herself responsible for the lives of her sisters–and the fisherman they curse–in this haunting debut novel.

Lolly Salt has three beautiful sisters. When they’re not in school or running their small town’s diner, they’re secretly luring ships to their doom from the cliffs of Starbridge Cove, Maine. With alluring voices that twelve-year-old Lolly has yet to grow into, the Salt sisters do the work mandated by the Sea Witch, a glamorously frightening figure determined to keep the girls under her control. With their mother dead after a mysterious car accident, and their father drowning in grief, the sisters carry on with their lives and duties until a local sea captain gets suspicious about the shipwrecks.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Death of a parent, grief, the environment, making choices

IMG_0610

Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf discussions here.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I almost gave up on this book because I was reading too many things at once, and I wasn’t totally hooked by the first two chapters.  I’m SO glad I stuck with it though.  Around chapter three it really turned a corner, and I loved it after that.  In fact, I texted you as soon as I finished it and told you it was a MUST READ.

Eva:  I felt the opposite — I was drawn in almost immediately!  Maybe because I loved the setting:  a quaint and quirky New England sea town that holds an annual folk festival and is seeped in the legends and history of its colonial days.  In some ways Starbridge Cove felt like a real, specific place, and yet it in other ways the town had a mystical quality that made the sea witch and the existence of sirens seem believable.

Meagan:  Let’s talk about the sea witch!  She is first introduced in chapter three.  Prior to her introduction, we’ve only been told that Lolly is becoming a siren and her sisters are sirens but none of that felt tangible to me until the witch came on the scene.  From that point on, the whole story was a rich and complicated tapestry with threads coming together from hundreds of years of the town’s history, cultures from all over the world, and the interplay and of many complex characters.  I often find myself drawn to complex stories, and this definitely fit the bill.

Eva:  Yes, one of my favorite things was how the town’s history and the ancestors of some of the characters played into the story.  (There’s an old diary, for example, that I couldn’t get enough of.)  I, too, loved the complexity of the sea witch — she was a great character who winds up being both an enemy and a friend.

She also has some of the best lines in the book:  

She narrows her eyes.  “Young man, ‘witch’ is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s just a name… Let’s not talk of witches and thieves and try to figure out who is or isn’t crazy.  That’s nearly always a waste of time.”

Meagan:  I wonder about Dana Langer’s earlier drafts.  The story and characters were so complicated, I imagine this book could easily have been twice as long.  I’m curious if her first draft was enormous and then she edited it down a lot.  For so many characters and subplots we get just the tiniest taste of what’s going on and the rest is left to the imagination of the reader.  I don’t find this to be very common, but I really thought it worked.  It was like the opposite of over-writing.  I guess that’s called “trusting your reader.”

IMG_4783 (1).jpg

Siren Sisters is Langer’s debut novel.

Eva:  I agree.  I thought she did a great  job with pacing.  I wasn’t always 100% on board with some of her plotting choices (for example it’s a little too easy for Lolly to get the info she needs from the sea witch), but from the middle of the book on the stakes were high and the tension was mounting.  

Meagan:  For such a multi-faceted story, it managed to move along pretty quickly.  Near the end, as the pace picked up, I found myself noticing these truncated scenes where whatever the main action was occurred and then the narrative just skipped straight to the next scene with practically no transition.  The author didn’t waste any time describing how the characters got from place to place or what happened along the way.  I don’t think I’d want a whole book to be paced like this, but for the climactic section, I was okay with it.  

Eva:  Although I thought the action-packed second half was done well, I was disappointed by the ending.  It ended rather abruptly (in my opinion) and left some major things unanswered. I wonder if there might be a sequel…

I more enjoyed reading about Lolly’s everyday life in the first half of the book, where she is trying to balance being a normal middle schooler with becoming a siren.  She comes to school late and is always tired and disorganized (because she was out late with her sisters causing shipwrecks).  She hopes no one will notice the scales that are starting to grow on the bottoms of her feet or the way her hair is changing color.  She wonders if her best friend Jason will still like her when he finds out that she’s really a monster.  I thought this was so relatable for middle school kids who are going through their own changes at this age.  (Turning into a teenager is sort of like becoming a mythical beast, right?)  

Another thing I loved was Jason’s “evil” stepdad, Mr. Bergstrom.  He was probably the most farcical character in the book, but I didn’t mind.  His comedic obsession with his own Viking heritage and his creepy comments towards Jason’s mother made him very a specific bad guy.  

SIRENSISTERS (1).jpg

Meagan:  Yeah, he was an interesting and funny villain.  I loved that there were actually two “bad guys” operating against each other, and really, the main character is a “bad guy” in her own right.  Absolutely no one in the story is totally innocent or 100% good, but you still root for Lolly and want things to get better for her.

Eva:  I agree.  When I first heard about this story, I was skeptical.  How could the protagonist be a siren?  Aren’t sirens bad?  But this book explores the gray areas.  The sea witch and her sirens are protecting the ocean and its sealife from commercial fishers… but they are hurting people in the process.  It’s an interesting take on an old myth.  

Meagan:  Speaking of old myths, I noticed that this book came out right around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, but apparently it’s flying off the shelves.  Gaiman has a huge fan-base of both adult and kid readers, so maybe some kids who are newly hooked on mythology will find their way to Siren Sisters.  I hope so!

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  This is an adult book, but it reminds me of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Both books explore how historical wrongdoing can have a lasting impact on a community, and both books involve the use of magic to attempt to change those consequences.  

Eva:  It reminded me of an Alice Hoffman novel.  Hoffman (author of Practical Magic and many others) often writes about quaint and quirky New England towns steeped in history, legend, and magic.  She apparently writes middle grade and young adult novels as well, although I’ve only read her books for adults.    

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A specific setting
  • Trusting the reader
  • Keeping a complicated story to a reasonable length
  • Fast pacing of a complicated story
  • Great (and complex) villains
  • A story that explores ethical gray areas

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A magical and specific setting, two complex villains, and a relatable protagonist come together in this fast-paced yet richly-woven tale.   

Meagan:  I can imagine coming back to this book for writerly guidance on telling a complex story in the simplest and shortest possible way.

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso

Published by Clarion Books, September 2016

Suggested age range:  10 – 12

 

SUMMARY:

Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.

But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?  

 An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.

-from Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:

Communication.  It can be difficult to express what you’re really feeling or what’s really going on with you in a way that others can understand, BUT it’s necessary in order to be fully yourself and to participate fully in relationships with people you care about.

 

IMG_0610

Eva & Meagan.  You can read more of our middle grad book reviews here.

 

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There are a lot of things to like in this book.  I like that Sam is a strong female protagonist who wants to play the drums — despite the fact that she gets made fun of for her interest.  I like that we learn a lot throughout the book about the specifics of drumming.  (This would be a great book for a kid who is interested in drumming or percussion.)  I like that Sam has to work hard to get what she wants and that things don’t end perfectly — very realistic.  

 

Meagan: I enjoyed this book, too.  On a purely personal note: I was once a middle school girl in the percussion section of concert band.  Sam’s experience of it as a “boys’ club” as well as the goofing-off-antics that occur back there definitely rang true to me.  Unlike Sam, however, I really didn’t care about drumming or practice very much.  It wasn’t my thing.  But it’s neat to read from the perspective of someone who thinks differently than you and has her own unique passion.  I appreciate the showing-not-telling Mike Grosso has done to help me get into Sam’s head. Instead of just telling us that she wants to be a drummer, he shows how she has rhythms running through her head all the time and observes the world around her through the lens of drumming.  

 

Eva:  This is Mike Grosso’s first novel, and it seems like he crafted it in the way all the advice books and blogs suggest.  He starts with a very clear inciting incident (Sam’s school is getting rid of the music program!) and a very clear desire (Sam wants to take drum lessons, but her parents won’t let her!)  Sam takes action, but a series of roadblocks keep getting in her way.  Things go from bad to worse until we get to the climax and the “core emotional experience.”  The structure of this novel is exactly what agents tell writers they want a novel to be.  

 

Meagan:  Yep, I agree.  Mike Grosso gets a gold star for textbook execution of how to plot a middle grade novel.  

 

Eva:  Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about how to write MG books, but it was sometimes too easy for me to see the innerworkings of the plot and predict what would happen next.  I doubt a younger reader would pick up on this, but I do wonder if the book will hold the attention of kids who are not so interested in drumming.   

 

Meagan:  I think what he did works (it kept my attention, and I feel sure there are kids who will enjoy this book), but the plot is not the wow-factor here.  It’s very effective, but not surprising or intriguing really.  I think character, rather than plot, is his strength in this book.  We get a window into the mind of a person who has a musical way of thinking.

 

Eva:  Right.  The book actually has a metaphor for that “window” into Sam’s head.  Sam starts out the book by wishing she had a headphone jack in her head:

“With a headphone jack in your head, you could let anyone plug right in and listen to your thoughts, especially the complicated stuff… I want people to understand me when I can’t say what’s on my mind.”  

It’s a cute idea and shows up throughout the book as a very obvious theme.  At the end of the book, Sam sums everything up by going back to her favorite metaphor:

“…I love drums.  It might not be the headphone jack in my head I’ve always wanted, but it’s kind of the same thing when you think about it.  It lets you say something you can’t express any other way.”

28114562.jpg

 

Meagan:  The other thing that I think this author does well regarding character development is get me to identify with a basically sympathetic main character and then lead me down a slippery ethical slope as she does more and more wrong things in pursuit of her goals.  Even though some of her actions are pretty bad and things I would not have done as a kid, I totally believe that she does them, and I get why.  Believable motivation can be a difficult thing to nail, so I went back to the book to try and pick apart what he is doing to achieve it.  

One of Sam’s early wrong decisions is deleting a phone message intended for her parents.  As she listens to the message from the school administrator she worries about how her dad will react.

“–oh man, you don’t want him mad.  You lose pretty much every privilege you can imagine, even if it’s only a little bit your fault.  Even if you just lost control for a split second.  Even if you felt totally humiliated.”

So we’ve got both emotion and rationalizing here.  But she doesn’t go right for deleting the message.  She thinks through her options.

“I pull the phone away from my ear and try to come up with a way to explain this to my dad…”

And then before she takes action, the voicemail system gives her a prompt she can act on without thinking.

“‘Press nine to delete this message.’

My hand shakes, but I slowly bring my index finger down.  It lands on the number nine.

In the moment of action she’s trying to distance herself from the action by describing her finger as the actor.

“I hang up the phone and run back upstairs, trying to forget the message ever existed, because as far as anyone besides me or Dr. Pullman knows, it never really did.”

More rationalizing and distancing.    

I think it can be tempting as a writer to describe your character taking big actions and making big decisions, just assuming that your readers will get where your character is emotionally or why a person might do something like that.  I know I have been guilty of that at times–just assuming it’s obvious.  And it is a fine line.  No reader wants too much explanation.  But I think Mike Grosso does a good job bringing us along for the ride with Sam’s bad decisions by using her interior voice.  He provides both the rationalization and the emotional basis for her choices and we get to be in her head and she makes them.

 

Eva:  That’s a really good point.  In previous posts we’ve talked about how interiority — a character’s interior thoughts — can really help us understand character motivation, and this book does a great job of that.  

153 crop color.jpg

Author Mike Grosso is a musician and a 4th grade teacher.  Here is his author website.

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  When I was a kid there was a time when I was obsessed with Olympic gymnasts and wanted to be one, despite the fact I wasn’t even taking gymnastics lessons.  There was this very short novel (I can’t remember the name of it) that I used to read obsessively when I was about eight years old.  It was about a girl gymnast.  I couldn’t tell you anything else about the book, and I don’t think there was very much to it other than her challenges on the balance beam.  And yet I LOVED it because I loved gymnastics.  

I can see kids who are interested in playing the drums (or playing in a band) being interested in I Am Drums in the same way I loved that gymnastics book as a kid.   

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A clear inciting incident and character desire.
  • A main character who takes action to get what she wants
  • Strong use of interior voice (interiority) to ground character motives
  • A character with a unique way of thinking

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A sweet and well-executed book though it did not quite knock my socks off.  On the other hand, if I Am Drums encourages any little girls out there to become rad female drummers like Patty Schemel or Meg White, I’m ALL ABOUT IT!  

Meagan:  In realistic fiction (like this book), the escapism aspect of reading relies heavily on character.  There’s no magical fantasy world for your reader to get lost in.  Instead, use your character’s unique interior voice to invite your reader to get lost in the mind of a person different from him or herself.   

 

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE VOYAGE TO THE MAGICAL NORTH by Claire Fayers

Published by Henry Holt & Co., July 2016

Suggested age range: 8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she’ll find her place in the world. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Themes include history (What counts as history?  Who writes it?) and stories.  Also there are pirates and magic.

IMG_0610

Eva & Meagan. Read more of our opinions about middle-grade books here!

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There was so much to enjoy in this imaginative book.  I love the way magic is described in Brine and Peter’s world:  

“The magician takes a quantity of magic, forms it into the correct spellshape, and releases it.  The process appears mysterious because most people cannot see magic.  All they see is the magician’s hand moving and the flash of light as the spell is released.”  

I was tickled by the notion of a “magical north,” which is like the magnetic north pole except with magic.  I also liked that the famous and heroic pirate, Cassie O’Pia, is a woman, and that there is an island library where no men are allowed.

 

Meagan:  Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting detail in the imaginary world the author created.  The role of fish and birds as magical minions was funny.  I also liked that the librarians and the pirates both functioned as essentially “good guys” but neither were perfect.  They all did some wrong things.  

 

Eva:  Fayers earns an A+ for imagination and world-building.  I’m not so sure about the point of view she chose to use, however.  I suppose we can call it omniscient narration, but it wasn’t really.  It was more like close third — hopping from one character’s POV to another’s, chapter by chapter, as it served the story.  In some ways this is good — readers can choose to identify with Brine or Peter or even the pirates.  But because of the POV-switching, I had some trouble getting fully invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t always understand their motivations.   

9781627794206.jpg

 

Meagan:  I had a hard time with character motivation as well, especially with the changeable relationship between Brine and Peter.  They were friends one minute and rivals the next.  That could be okay, but it often didn’t feel properly motivated.  In a given moment, I couldn’t predict whether they were going to work together or against each other until the author told me.  It’s like their motivations didn’t really grow out of the story, but rather were there to facilitate what needed to happen next in the story.

 

Eva:  I agree.  Character motivation can be really hard to show in writing.  One way to do it is through interiority — the character’s internal thoughts.  We definitely got some interiority in this book, from Peter especially, but maybe getting more interiority from him about his feelings towards Brine would have helped us understand their relationship.  

 

Meagan:  My favorite parts of the story were the scenes between Peter and the evil magician Marfak West.  Without giving too much away, it felt totally believable that Peter would be drawn to learning from Marfak West even though he knew he shouldn’t trust him.  This made for great tension because I never quite knew what Marfak West’s plan was, and I didn’t know how far Peter would go in aligning himself with Marfak West.

 

Eva:  Those scenes were interesting, and definitely a large source of tension in the book. My favorite parts were the little book snippets at the beginning of each chapter that gave us insight into Brine and Peter’s world.

I also really liked the beginning two chapters — they totally sucked me in.  But, they were also problematic in light of the rest of the story.  I remember hearing an agent talk about the “promise of the first page.”  Essentially, if you introduce a mystery or question on page one, it should be answered by the end of the book.  

On page one of The Voyage to the Magical North, we get this:  

“[Brine] had one clear memory of waking up in a rowing boat three years ago, surrounded by people, and that was all.  They’d asked her her name, and she couldn’t remember — she couldn’t remember anything.  So they named her Brine because she was crusted head to foot in sea salt.”   

Immediately, I was intrigued, and I assumed that the book was going to be about figuring out the mystery of who Brine is and where she came from.  But instead, Brine and Peter take up with some pirates and journey to the magical north.  It’s a grand adventure, but I was confused because it wasn’t the journey I was promised.

Towards the end there are some hints that Marfak West knows who Brine really is, and it seems like perhaps the sequel is going to be about Brine’s journey to find out about her past, but in some ways I felt tricked — I got invested in a mystery that was barely addressed.   

journeytodragonisland_finalcover

Will we learn about Brine’s mysterious origins in the sequel?

 

Meagan:  You make a great point about the “promise” of the story.  It reminds me of the concept of Chekhov’s gun.  If you place a noticeable detail (such as a gun) in a scene, the detail must be essential to the story (someone has to fire the gun later), otherwise leave it out.  I think the same goes for statements like “she couldn’t remember her name.”  The reader is going to implicitly trust you that you intend to either reveal her name, or at least reveal why she can’t remember it.  All they must do is keep reading.  In fact, hooking readers with interesting mysteries is one of the major ways to get them to keep reading, BUT you gotta keep your promises in order for your reader not to feel cheated.

 

Eva:  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who will enjoy this book and not care a hoot about “the promise of the premise.”  As I’ve mentioned on Middle Grade Bookshelf before, sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my adult sensibilities with what I liked as a kid.  This is a very imaginative story with lots of adventure — sea monsters, pirates, magic.  Fun stuff that kids tend to like.  
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I haven’t read the Pippi Longstocking books since I was a kid, but are those kind of similar, aren’t they?  Light, humorous, episodic adventure.

Eva:  I haven’t read them since I was a kid either, but I can definitely see that as a parallel.  They include some sea-faring adventures as far as I remember.  And I LOVED the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid.  I’m beginning to think that kids are much more accepting of episodic stories than adults are.  Maybe adults want a plot that culminates whereas kids want a story that just keeps on going?  Something to ponder…

51yawPCM+VL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Imaginative world-building
  • Inverting tropes (i.e. female pirate, a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl)
  • Building tension

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  For me The Voyage to the Magical North didn’t fulfill the promise of the first page, and ultimately I was not as invested in the characters as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the world-building was incredibly fun and imaginative.  Kids who love adventure will certainly love this book.  

Meagan:  There can be a lot of successful anchors for story.  A story can be primarily character-centered, plot-centered, theme-centered, setting-centered, etc.  A story needs all of those things, but not every story is going to be equally strong in every area.  It seemed to me that this story was anchored in its setting.  The unique world and its fun details seemed like the freshest and most inspiring aspects of the novel.  They were enough to keep me reading, but not enough to push this book onto my personal favorites list.  

 

9781627794206.jpg

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015

National Book Award Finalist

Suggested age range:  10-13 years

 

SUMMARY:

Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination.  Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.

(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.     

 

IMG_0610

Eva and Meagan display their favorite MG books.  To read more posts from Middle Grade Bookshelf, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  This book is formatted as a lab report.  It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away.  First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction.  It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy.  She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.

 

Eva:  Exactly.  The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc.  This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story.  John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:  

“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.  It is… what makes the parts  hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original.  And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.      

 

Meagan:  I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer.  This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.

 

Eva:  Totally.  Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too.  She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:  

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.  I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large.  Three billion.  Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting…  And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.  

I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine.  The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.

jelly.jpg

 

Meagan:  I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes.  It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why.  That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character.  Very well done.

 

Eva:  Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates.  I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:  

“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.”  I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.  

Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow.  That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again.  “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?”  …  “It’s kind of like pee,” I say.  “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”  

 

Meagan:  Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best.  I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks).  It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how.  Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.  

 

Eva:  I thought the flashbacks were well done, too.  And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:  

You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.  

The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened.  We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.  

 

Meagan:  I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well.  Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic.  Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic.  The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.  

 

Eva:  I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.”  On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable?  I’m not sure.  

 

Meagan:  I also thought the book was about 30% too long.  I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more.  Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.  

 

Eva:   Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both.  Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying.  In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure.  But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.    

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.  In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does.  The Curious Incident also has a designing principle.  Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math.  Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.   

41AVVhtHugL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A book with a “designing principle”
  • Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
  • A unique voice
  • Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
  • Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
  • Contemporary middle-grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.   

Meagan:  I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction.  I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way.  This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.