RSS Feed

Tag Archives: middle grade book

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.

 

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.

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

 

20518906

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.  

graham-cracker-plot

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.

 

IMG_0610

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.  

 

IMG_2102

Come back soon for more Middle Grade Bookshelf posts!

 

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead on Eva & Meagan’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead  on Eva & Meagan’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf

This post is the first of my new monthly feature, Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf.  To learn more about this feature — what it is and why we’re doing it — read here.

Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…

GOODBYE STRANGER, by Rebecca Stead

Published by Wendy Lamb Books, August 2015

A NYT Editors’ Choice and NYT Notable Children’s Books of 2015

suggested age range:  10 and up

51IiW2FCopL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

SUMMARY:

When Bridge was a kid she got hit by a car.  She spent a long time in the hospital and she nearly died.  Now she’s in middle school and wondering whether she’s alive for a reason — whether anyone is alive for a reason — or if life is just one big accident.  At least she’s still part of a “set” with her best friends:  Em (with her “curvy new curves”) and Tab (who is “kind of a know-it-all”).  In seventh grade, Bridge and her friends face big decisions, big mistakes, first crushes, and new identities.  And the strange new teens they are in the process of becoming must say goodbye to the no-longer-familiar kids they once were.

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  Goodbye Stranger touches lightly on the topic of sexting, but it’s in a middle-school appropriate way.  The book also deals with friendship, divorce of grandparents, first crushes, and growing up.  

 

IMG_0610

Eva & Meagan

So, what did we think?  

Meagan:  Overall, I loved this book.  The author has painted a painfully true picture of what it’s like to be in middle school.  The concrete details and well as the emotional details all feel super-realistic.

 

Eva:  I totally agree.  The book worked so well because it was true-to life:  specific yet universal.  The characters were fully-formed (and quirky).  The dialogue was spot-on for middle school.  The book was definitely character-driven, but even though it wasn’t a race-to-the-climax plot, I was never bored.  And speaking of character, I LOVE that Bridge decides her “thing” is going to be wearing cat ears every day:   

The cat ears were black, on a black headband.  Not exactly the color of her hair, but close.  Checking her reflection in the back of her cereal spoon, she thought they looked surprisingly natural.

I was so impressed at how Stead kept me engaged without a traditional plot.  And yet, there WAS some tension-building in the main plot as well as a triumphant and satisfying ending that I don’t always find in character-driven novels.

 

Meagan:  Right, it’s not what anyone would call a plot-driven, but the everything-is-high-stakes setting of middle school helps this work and still feel about as engaging as a more plot-driven story.  To me it sometimes seems pretty daunting to think about writing “literary” (vs. plot-driven) work for kids, but Rebecca Stead has clearly figured out how to do it.  I read another of her books, When You Reach Me, a while back.  It was great (and a Newberry winner). This is possibly even better, in my opinion.

 

Eva:  Yes, I remember reading When You Reach Me and enjoying it, but I might say Goodbye Stranger is more memorable, if not better.  Overall, I was very impressed.  The only thing I DIDN’T love about the book were the short sections that were written in second person.  For example:    

You paint your toenails.  You don’t steal nail polish, though.  Vinny calls you chicken:  all of her polish comes from the six-dollar manicure place…

The reader doesn’t find out until the end who these sections are about, and I have to say I found the mystery a bit confusing and unnecessary.

 

Meagan:   I actually liked those sections.  I thought they created a fun mystery for the reader to puzzle over, simply by withholding information (the identify of one of the narrators), but giving you enough detail that you could eventually figure it out.

 

Eva:  It was a gutsy move on Stead’s part to use second person, and I wonder about her decision to include this certain character’s story.  The sections DID add a layer of mystery, but I didn’t think the mystery was needed because there were so many other interesting storylines.  

Come to think of it, there were a lot of B plots in this novel, and I wonder about Stead’s decision to include them all — they certainly weren’t all necessary to the larger story.  And yet, they totally worked (except for the second person one, in my opinion).  It’s interesting to me how she so deftly crafted the novel with so many storylines.

 

Meagan:  What did you think of the title?  I normally don’t think much about titles, but this one stood out to me.  I think for a young readership, it does a good job of pointing to the book’s deep theme, without coming right out and saying what the theme is.  The transition from child to teenager is so huge that “goodbye” is not a bad way of describing it, and “stranger” is just about right for describing the person you are/were on the other side of the teen/child divide.

 

Eva:  I’m kind of dumb sometimes, so it took me a while to figure out how the title related to the book.  But once I got it, I loved it.  I remember being a kid and thinking how weird it was that I was going to become an adult who would essentially be a stranger to my kid self.  I’m not sure that middle school kids would get all the themes on their own, but this would be a great book to discuss with a group of kids.

 

IMG_2102

The Middle Grade Bookshelf

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

A Judy Blume book because it goes through the realistic, day-to-day life of specific characters and touches on a hot button issue.    

In this case, the hot button issue is sexting.  It’s addressed in a serious, yet middle-school appropriate way (not too graphic). Still, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book under sixth grade unless the reader’s parent is ready to talk about this topic and feels their child is ready as well.  

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Realistic contemporary middle-grade
  • Close 3rd person voice
  • Use of second person voice
  • Fully-formed characters
  • Character-driven plot
  • Weaving of main plot with several B plots
  • A difficult topic handled in an age-appropriate way (sexting)

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  John Hodgeman once said “specificity is the soul of narrative.”  This is a specific story about very specific characters, and yet it feels universal and totally relatable.  I really enjoyed it.

Meagan:  As a writer, I could imagine coming back to this book for a closer read if I decided to tackle a contemporary, realistic fiction project (especially if I hoped for it to be more on the “literary” side).  Stead has done that so well here, I think there’s a lot I could learn from as a writer if I were to reread this and study the way she develops her characters and plot events.