RSS Feed

Tag Archives: middle grade books

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

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

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh

published by Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

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

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

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

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

IMG_0610

So what did we think?  

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

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

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

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

Twitter_Flying Lessons & Other Stories_1.jpg

 

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

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

The most beautiful girl

in school

walks up to me

fast and furious

like a wave rushing

to the shore.  

I feel like

I’m about to drown,

but I don’t care,

because like my dad says

about my mom,

“She’s a stone cold fox!”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 10.02.46 AM

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

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

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

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

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

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

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, by Kate Dicamillo

Illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline

Published by Candlewick Press in 2009

Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction

suggested Age range:  7-10 years

 

SUMMARY:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who treated him with the utmost care and adored him completely.

And then, one day, he was lost.

Kate DiCamillo and Bagram Ibatoulline take us on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of the ocean to the net of a fisherman, from the top of a garbage heap to the fireside of a hoboes’ camp, from the bedside of an ailing child to the streets of Memphis. And along the way, we are shown a true miracle — that even a heart of the most breakable kind can learn to love, to lose, and to love again.

(from the official Edward Tulane website)

 

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Love and loss.  Includes the death of a child.  

edward-tulane

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I am always impressed with Kate DiCamillo’s writing.  It is imperceptible.  She manages to write in a way that feels immersive and natural and lets me read the story without being aware of her writing.  Her use of language, pacing, tone etc. is borderline perfect.  

I read a feature article in Compose literary magazine a while back about the bad advice great writers give to beginning writers.  One of the examples of common bad advice was “In order to be a great writer you need to read a lot of great books.  From them, you’ll learn how to write.”  The writer went on to say that this is bad advice because one of the characteristics of a great book written by a very talented author is that you lose the sense that you’re reading a book someone wrote.  The story just is.  Great authors are great at hiding the machinery, in other words.  I think that is very true of Kate DiCamillo’s writing.  The machinery’s hidden from view pretty well.

 

Eva:  I one hundred percent agree.  Kate DiCamillo’s beautiful language and masterful storytelling make this book shine.  It begins with:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.  He had china arms and china legs, china paws and a china head, a china torso and a china nose….

You can hear the rhythm of the repeated words, and young children love both repeated words and poetic language.   

 

Meagan:  But despite the beautiful writing, I can’t say I really enjoyed this book much.  It was okay.  After talking a couple weeks ago about the super-active protagonist in The Graham Cracker Plot, it was such a departure to read a book with a completely inactive protagonist.  Edward literally cannot move or speak.  We hear his thoughts, and stuff happens to him and around him.  This is breaking a major writing “rule,” which the author gets away with because she’s fantastic and well-respected already.  I seriously doubt this would fly as anyone’s debut novel.  

 

Eva:  On the other hand, the story follows John Truby’s “rule” from The Anatomy of Story that a main character should begin with a weakness or moral flaw that he/she will overcome by the end of the story.  Of course, it’s not Edward’s actions that help him overcome his flaw because, like you said, he can’t act.  Still, it makes for a satisfying story because he starts with a flaw and changes for better by the end.  

the-miraculous-journey-of-edward-tulane-by-kate-dicamillo

Illustrations in the book by Bigram Ibatoulline

 

Meagan:  Reading this felt like being told a very sweet bedtime story that begins with “Once upon a time there was a toy rabbit who didn’t know how to love.”  Once you read the beginning, you pretty much know it’s going to end up with, “And then he learned how to love.  The End.”  I can forgive it, because the story in the middle is pretty and well-written, but it’s not anywhere near compelling enough to make it onto a favorites list for me.   

 

Eva:   You’re right; this is a sweet, old-fashioned bedtime story with a predictable ending.  And I will even add that a lot of characters seemed like stock characters: the train-hopping hobo, the poor girl with consumption, etc.  BUT, I enjoyed the book overall.  It was beautifully written, and I think it makes a great read-aloud story for parents with kids ages, oh, 3 to 10.  In fact, I heard about this book because a woman I knew said she was reading it out loud to her five and eight year old.  This is the sort of book you could do that with.  It has a classic, story-telling tone and is accompanied by lovely illustrations.  In some ways it reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit, which I will go into more in a bit.    

I will say one thing about the plot.  It is very simple and episodic.  In one chapter Edward is found by a new owner and experiences life with him/her.  Then, in the next chapter, he loses this new owner and is put in dire circumstances (thrown into the ocean, thrown into a dump, thrown off a train, etc.)  He is found by someone new and the cycle continues.  But again, the simple plot works because it’s DONE SO WELL.  It also works if you are reading the story out loud to younger children who don’t mind a simple plot.  

 

Meagan:  In my opinion, this is a book that adults are more likely to love than kids.  It’s very sentimental and tear-jerking regarding love and relationships and the transient nature of all that is most precious in life.  As a mom, I would definitely cry if I tried to read this to my son.  But, I think it’s the rare child who would embrace this book.  There certainly are some kids for whom a sweet story about love is going to be exactly their cup of tea, but it’s not for most kids.  As a teacher I would not read this to a class, or assign it, for that reason.

 

Eva:  In some ways I agree that this book is too sweet and sentimental and young for older elementary kids, but on the other hand, I remember LOVING The Velveteen Rabbit when I was a kid.  I remember rereading it even when I was in 5th and 6th grade — when I knew it was too young for me.  Now, do I think that The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane will become a classic like The Velveteen Rabbit?  No.  It’s a beautiful little story, but it’s not original enough, in my opinion, to be included in the cannon of classic children’s literature.  That honor can go to two of Dicamillo’s other books:  Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux.     

IMG_0610

Eva & Meagan

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  As I said, I was reminded of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (first published in 1922).  They both have that classic, story-telling tone and a heartstring-plucking message.  The Velveteen Rabbit is a bit shorter than Edward Tulane, but for fun, let’s compare the opening lines of the two books:

THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE:  

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.  He had china arms and china legs, china paws and a china head, a china torso and a china nose….

His ears were made of real rabbit fur, and beneath the fur, there were strong, bendable wires, which allowed the ears to be arranged into poses that reflected the rabbit’s mood – jaunty, tired, full of ennui.   

 

THE VELVETEEN RABBIT:  

There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.

 

Rather similar, don’t you think?  As I was reading Edward Tulane, I couldn’t help thinking, “couldn’t she have picked something other than a toy rabbit?  A toy rabbit has already been done!!”   

220px-the_velveteen_rabbit_pg_1

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Classic, story-telling tone
  • Rhythmic, poetic, beautiful language
  • Simple, episodic plot
  • Read-aloud story for younger middle-grade
  • Inanimate object as main character
  • A main character who overcomes a weakness/flaw

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A beautifully-written, read-aloud story, but not Dicamillo’s most original;  it will never replace The Velveteen Rabbit as the classic children’s book about a toy rabbit.   

Meagan:  I am tempted to say this is the kind of book you get to write once you’re already an established author.  But on the other hand, I do believe you should write what’s in your heart and not worry too much about what you can or can’t sell as a debut.  You never know.  So, if this kind of story is what’s in your heart, go for it.  If it speaks to you, it will speak to someone else, too.