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

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

TRASH by Andy Mulligan

Published by Ember (Penguin Random House), October 2011

Suggested age range:  12 and up

 

SUMMARY:

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

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

-courtesy of Amazon

 

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

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

 

So what did we think?  

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

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

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

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

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

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

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

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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.

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

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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.  

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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!