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

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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.

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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!

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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.  

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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.       

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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 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.

A New Monthly Feature: Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

A New Monthly Feature:  Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

I am excited to announce a new monthly (or potentially bi-monthly) feature on In the Garden of Eva!

As many of you know, I am an aspiring novelist. And though I never quite intended it, nearly every time I write a novel these days, it comes out as middle grade. For now, I’m just going with it!

My friend Meagan Boyd is also an aspiring middle grade author. We have a mini writing group in which we give each other feedback and discuss books we’ve read… And naturally we read a lot of middle grade books.  Hence, the idea for Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf was born.

At first, it was going to be a podcast. (And it might be someday!) But Meagan has a toddler, I’m about to have a baby, and neither of us is particularly savvy in the technology department. So instead of figuring out a new medium, we decided to use the tried-and-true blog format for now.

Below is more info about this new feature.  And you can look forward to reading our first full-length post tomorrow, in which we will examine Rebecca’s Stead’s Goodbye Stranger.

 

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Eva and Meagan with a few of our favorite MG books!

 

MEAGAN & EVA’S MIDDLE GRADE BOOKSHELF

 

Who Are Meagan & Eva?

Two aspiring novelists currently writing middle-grade books and hoping to get them published. We are also both former teachers and graduates of The College of William & Mary (which is how we met). Meagan has a degree in English, and I have an MFA in Fiction Writing.

 

What Is a Middle-Grade Book?

A book written for the 8-12 age range. Think Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Except those books are old news. If you’re interested in writing (or reading) middle grade fiction, you should be checking out new stuff!  And Eva & Meagan’s Middle Grade Bookshelf will help you decide what new MG novels to read.

 

What Is This Bookshelf Exactly?

In an attempt to learn how to write middle grade fiction, Meagan and I have been reading A LOT of (relatively) recent MG books. We then discuss what we notice from a writer’s perspective. For example: “this book has an interesting point of view” or “this book is a great example of a character-driven plot.”

We wanted to share what we’ve been noticing and learning with other middle grade writers (both aspiring and established).  I think this will also be helpful for parents and teachers looking for books for their kids/students. Our hope is to create a resource of sorts; writers can use our posts as a way to find books they’d like to read as well as books that are good examples of whatever area of craft they are working on.

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What Will I Find in Each Bookshelf Post?

Each Middle Grade Bookshelf post will discuss one book and include following:

  • A brief summary
  • A list of important topics and themes in the story
  • Our thoughts and comments (but no spoilers!)
  • A few short excerpts to give you a taste of the writing style
  • What “classic” children’s book(s) the novel reminded us of
  • The areas of writing craft that this novel is a good (or interesting) example of
  • News and resources for MG writers
  • Our final take-aways on the book overall

 

Meagan & Eva’s Bios:

Meagan Boyd studied English and Theatre as an undergraduate at The College of William & Mary and has her M.Ed. in Elementary Education from The George Washington University.  A former fourth grade teacher, Meagan is now a full-time mom of a toddler and an aspiring novelist.  She loves middle grade books with a passion she can never quite muster for a adult books.  Some of her favorites are A Wrinkle in TimeCoraline, and Ender’s Game.

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Meagan Boyd

 

Eva Langston received her MFA from the University of New Orleans, and her fiction has been published in many journals and anthologies.  She is the Features Editor for Compose Journal and the leader of an adult writing workshop about YA and middle grade fiction.  A former math teacher for students with learning disabilities, she now tutors part-time.  Two of her favorite middle grade books are  Holes by Louis Sachar and Blubber by Judy Blume.

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Eva Langston

 

Come back soon to read our first full-length feature!