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

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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

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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.”

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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.  

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.  

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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.

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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.   

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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.   

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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…

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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.  

 

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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.     

 

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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.

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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.   

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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.

Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Just in time for Halloween…  A spooky edition of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!

 

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

Published by Doubleday Children’s, May 2013

Winner of a 2014 Newberry Honor Medal

suggested age range:  10 – 14

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SUMMARY:

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.

But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.

Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?

-courtesy of Holly Black’s website

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  Friendship, growing up, loyalty.  Includes the idea of the death of a child in the past, but this is not the main focus.    

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Back cover of Doll Bones hardcover.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I was almost too scared to read this based on its description.  I’m glad you talked me into it, but it WAS scary to me–enough so that I avoided reading it at night.  I don’t read enough ghost story type books to know if this is typical, but I liked how the story always seemed to have two possible explanations for anything ghostly.  So it was easy to read along thinking, well….maybe Poppy is making this up.  Or, maybe it was a raccoon who trashed the campsite, etc.  

 

Eva:  That’s funny because although I enjoyed Doll Bones, I was hoping for it to be MORE of a straight-forward ghost story.  For a lot of the book it seemed like Poppy was perhaps just making it up, and that made me a little disappointed and made the stakes for getting The Queen to the graveyard not as high.  I kept thinking, “this better be real or I’m going to be disappointed!”  Of course, I was a kid who LOVED reading ghost stories in upper elementary and middle school.  

 

Meagan:  One thing I loved was the specificity of the setting.  It’s set in modern-day, post-industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and having been in that part of the country, it feels spot on.  The buildings, the landscapes, everything feels just right and not generic.

I also saw that Doll Bones was a winner of something called The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature.  According to the award website, It honors books for beginning readers to age thirteen, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.  I will definitely look at their nominees and award recipients for reading recommendations in the future!

 

Eva:  I’m not surprised this book has won awards!  I thought this was well-written with good pacing.  And the mix of ghost story and real-life adventure was unique and interesting.  I liked the characters — although Zach annoyed me sometimes —  and I liked the adventure overall.  Black did a great job of blending magical aspects with real life adventure.  Like you said — the very specific setting was a great benefit.  

But honestly, I think my favorite thing was the creepy doll and the ghost story surrounding her.  I love that she lived in a locked glass cabinet in Poppy’s living room and that the three kids called her The Queen:  

The Queen was a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin.  Her eyes were closed, lashes a flaxen fringe against her cheek.  She wore a long gown, the thin fabric dotted with something black that might be mold.

And I loved the stories the kids made up about the doll:

According to the legend they’d created, the Queen ruled over everything from her beautiful glass tower.  She had the power to put her mark on anyone who disobeyed her commands.  When that happened, nothing would go right for them until they regained her favor.

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Doll Bones is illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

 

Meagan:  I also want to mention that the themes are superbly developed.  They aren’t overly obvious, but once I started thinking about what they were, I found they were woven in in so many different ways.

Reality versus Fantasy is an obvious one.  Is the ghost of Eleanor real?  Is she really doing these things?  It’s also present in the way the three kids play:  a pretend quest (like with the action figures at the beginning or a real quest that they go on later).  It’s also in their struggle with middle school identities.  Are their childhood selves their real selves?  Are their newer interests in sports and dating pretend identities that they are putting on in order to fit in, or are these part of their real selves too?

Another theme is Hanging On versus Letting Go. There’s the whole idea that a ghost is hanging onto life in this world versus passing on to the afterlife.  There’s also the story of how Eleanor’s father couldn’t let her go and hung onto her in a creepy way.  And then there’s the challenge Zach, Poppy, and Alice face:  can (or should) they hang onto childhood and their friendship as it was?  Will hanging onto it actually destroy it?  Should they let go and be okay with becoming teens and introducing a new dynamic to their friendship?

 

Eva:  You’re absolutely right about the themes.  This is much more than a straight-forward ghost story because Black did such a great job of weaving in coming-of-age themes.  

I have to say, though, one thing that bothered me was Zach’s motivation.  At the beginning of the book, his dad throws away his action figures, so Zach tells Alice and Poppy that he can’t play the make-believe game anymore.  I kept thinking, “couldn’t he just get some more action figures?” and “Does he even need the action figures — aren’t they just playing make-believe anyway?”  

I understand that he was upset with his dad and that it sent a message to Zach that he needed to grow up, but I think his motivation for quitting the game would have been stronger if his father forbade him from playing with the girls, OR, even better, if some of his teammates found out about the game and he was embarrassed.  As it was, I didn’t totally buy the fact that a)  his father throwing away the toys makes him decide to quit the game and b) that even after days go by he still feels like he can’t tell his best friends what happened.

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Meagan:  Really?  That didn’t bother me at all!  I was impressed with what believable interiority and emotional reactions we get from Zach.  His response to his fight with his father (hiding it from his friends for fear of crying about it) feels tragic, but also so real.  Holly Black is a female writer writing a male protagonist very well.  It can be done!

My one writing criticism is that I was a little surprised by some of the “telling” descriptions of the characters.  There’s a fair amount of “Poppy is fierce” and “Alice is quiet” rather than just showing us that through choices and action.  It didn’t wreck it for me though.

 

Eva:  Yeah, although there were a few things I would have changed, I really enjoyed the book overall.  I thought she did a GREAT job of writing an appropriately scary/creepy story for middle grade readers.  When the kids find the little bag of ash inside the doll — oh!  So creepy and awesome!  But also, the story was never too creepy and scary for middle grade readers.  I also liked the historical explanation at the end.  It seemed very plausible.  Like I said, I really enjoyed the ghost story aspect of it, and I think kids will, too.    

 

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Eva & Meagan are the hosts of Middle Grade Bookshelf.

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I don’t know!  If I had accidentally started reading this book or one like it when I was a kid, I would have put it down in a hurry!  I can tolerate (though not totally embrace) the ghostly stuff as an adult, but as a kid, it would have given me nightmares.  So…I can’t think of any titles for comparison.

Eva:  Meanwhile, I LOVED ghost stories as a kid, especially anything by Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes, The Doll in the Garden).  But I was most reminded of The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, which is also a Newberry-Honor-winning novel (1967) about a group of kids playing a make-believe game.  I remember reading this book multiple times as a kid, and each time I expected it to be something different than what it was.  I thought it would involve real magic, but it was just kids playing make-believe (and there was a real-life menace).  So I came to Doll Bones with that same sense of wanting there to be a real supernatural element, but not sure whether or not I was going to get it.

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Adventure story
  • Setting and tone
  • Well-developed themes
  • Interiority
  • Close 3rd person narration
  • Appropriately scary story for middle-grade

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Meagan:  For me as a writer, this book is an inspiration to develop multi-thread themes!  A good theme isn’t too obvious (not stated outright) and shows up again and again in the main plot, the subplots, and in different ways for different characters.

Eva:  This is a great books for kids who like ghost stories and/or action/adventure.

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The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…

THE GRAHAM CRACKER PLOT, by Shelley Tougas

Published by Roaring Brook Press, September 2014

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

 

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SUMMARY:

Daisy Bauer doesn’t have much.  She doesn’t have a nice place to live or especially responsible parents (her mom is on vacation with her new boyfriend, and her dad is in jail).  What Daisy does have is hope, a vivid imagination, and an after-school friend named Graham.  When Daisy and Graham are left at their trailer park on their own, they hatch a plan to bust Daisy’s dad out of jail and escape to Canada to start a new life.

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Touches on a number of hot-button issues:  poverty, alcoholic parents, neglect, parent in prison, mental illness, and a brief mention of drugs.      

So what did we think?  

Eva:  This book is so fun and funny!  The story is made up of letters that Daisy is writing to Judge Henry in an effort to explain herself, so even though we don’t know at the beginning what Daisy did exactly, we know it was something bad enough to land her in major trouble with the law.   Daisy’s voice throughout is great; she explains her world with humor, and the story deals with difficult topics in a light-hearted and middle school appropriate way:  

The Chemist is my dad, but he’s not the kind of dad who lives in your house.  He doesn’t drive me to school or fold socks or put away dishes.  My parents were never married, so he didn’t learn that stuff.

The Chemist’s the kind of dad who buys presents and lets you watch zombie movies and gives you ice cream even though you already had cookies.  Mom was like that, too, back when she’d put booze in a travel mug and pretend it was coffee.  But now, she’s all, “Eat your peas and do your homework and that’s enough TV for one day.”  

Meagan:  I agree that Daisy’s voice is memorable and a very strong part of this book.  Shelley Tougas writes Daisy’s socio-economic status into her voice subtly and in a way that is driven by Daisy’s character.  Daisy is a fast-talking, no-filter kind of person to begin with, and her lack of mature adult role models shows up in her word choice and topic choice.  

Eva:  Not only is Daisy’s voice great, I love the humorous (and realistic) banter between Daisy and her friend, Graham.  For example:   

“I’m definitely the brains of this operation.” (Daisy said.)

“More like the butt of this operation,” he said.  

Meagan:  Speaking of butts, as a writer, my favorite line in the whole book is: “My butt was cold.”  It’s a totally unnecessary thing to mention, she’s just telling it like it is, AND it gives away that Daisy has not had a model of a more formal, respectful way of speaking that one might use with an authority figure such as a judge.  To me, that one line exemplifies the author’s brilliance in bringing Daisy’s voice to life.

Eva:  Daisy is also a great example of an active protagonist.  She is not just an observer.  She makes bold (often misguided) decisions that propel the plot forward.  At the beginning of the story, she throws a tantrum and gets banned from visiting her father in prison.  Not only is this realistic for a kid in her situation, it shows us her emotions and it sets the rest of the story in motion.  

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Meagan:  Another notable element of this book is the story-framing device. As mentioned, the story is told as a series of letters Daisy writes to Judge Henry.  It gives a strong, authentic-to-the-character reason for the story to be told and adds an extra layer of humor because you’re constantly thinking I can’t believe she’s telling the judge about the sound of someone peeing or dog barf or whatever.  Initially I didn’t think much of the letter format.  It seems to me like this sort of thing has been done before.  But on the other hand, it works, it supports the story, and I don’t think any kid readers would be bothered by it.  

Eva:  The book also manages to be hugely visual.  There is a part where Daisy and Graham accidentally trash a stranger’s house, and I could see it all playing out in my head like a movie:  the dog’s muddy footprints on the white comforter, the refrigerator tumbling over onto the kitchen floor…  Tougas isn’t afraid to make things go from bad to worse and beyond!  It’s a great example for writers who tend to be too cautious or “quiet” in their storytelling.  

Meagan:  Yes, she does a great job with her action scenes, like the house-trashing incident you mentioned.  Writing action scenes can be a real challenge.  At least it is for me.  I remember when I first started trying to write action, I wondered what really made a scene “actiony.”   I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it, but my working hypothesis is something like this:  a character makes a plan to do something difficult and midway through something goes wrong and they have to change course and make a new plan on the fly.  I know there’s more to it than that, but I do find that to be a useful definition to work from.  So, by that definition, the entire book of The Graham Cracker Plot is practically one big action scene, and that IS kind of how it feels to read it.

Eva:  That’s a really good observation.  Maybe that’s why I could so easily see this book as a kids’ comedy-adventure movie.  It’s a series of hilarious mishaps and plans going awry.  

The only concern I had was about the character of Ashley, who is mentally-impaired.  Sometimes she seemed like nothing but a plot device, and I wonder if her character was perhaps not handled in the most sensitive way.  But otherwise, I was impressed with the book, and it seems like you were, too.  It was action-packed and a lot of fun.

 

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Eva & Meagan

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I distinctly remember the books Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson making a big impression on me because they were about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (one who is homeless, the other in foster care).  Learning to love characters with lives that are very different from your own is one of the ways that reading can really enlarge your world as a kid (and as an adult).

Eva:  I had a similar thought.  While reading The Graham Cracker Plot, I thought of a book I LOVED in middle school:  Silver by Norma Fox Mazer.  Although it has a totally different tone (much more somber), it was about a girl who lived in a trailer park and had to deal with difficult issues.  I remember thinking it was refreshing to read about a character who didn’t have a lot of money.  

In the same way, I think Daisy is a great character because certain kids can identify with her and her situation, and other kids, by reading Daisy’s story, can learn to sympathize with kids who are in difficult situations.  

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Active protagonist
  • Character/narrator voice
  • Story framing device
  • Humor
  • Dealing with difficult topics in an age-appropriate way
  • Contemporary middle grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  If The Graham Cracker Plot were a movie, it would be a family-friendly  comedy-adventure.  I think kids will love it.  I really enjoyed the voice and the action-filled plot.

Meagan:   I’ll put this on my writer’s reference shelf as an example of brilliantly crafted character voice.

FINAL FINAL NOTE:  

Shelley Tougas has a new middle-grade book coming out in October:  A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids.  Click here for my interview with the author.  

 

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Come back soon for more Middle Grade Bookshelf posts!