Friday, May 30, 2014

Tips for Evaluating Middle Grade and YA Books

I read a lot of middle grade. I also read some contemporary YA. Today, I'm sharing some of the criteria I use when I review books at this level. Below are 8 tips for evaluating middle grade and young adult books.
  • Don't judge a book by its cover.
    This is a cliche, of course, but it's a good place to start. Book covers can and do change from edition to edition. They reflect one illustrator's interpretation of an author's work, and sometimes the current design trends in the publishing field. Though books with similar content sometimes have similar covers, there are also many situations where the cover of a book does not live up to the wonderful story it advertises. At least read a little bit about a book before you completely dismiss it. Sometimes stories with hideous covers turn out to be real gems - and if  they're lucky, they get better covers when the paperback editions come out! 
  • Look for plot holes.
    Plot is a key component in books for older readers, and especially in middle grade stories.  As you read, pay attention to the way events unfold. Is the story plotted in a logical way? Do things happen in a sequence that makes sense and slowly builds up to a satisfying conclusion? Are things tied up plausibly? Are there loose ends? Truly well-plotted stories often make you forget that you're even reading a story in the first place because everything flows so smoothly and naturally.  
  • Consider genre conventions. 
    Some genres come with their own expectations. Mystery novels generally include a series of red herrings, followed by the eventual unveiling of  the truth. Fantasy novels require world-building and an establishment of rules within that world before they can proceed to tell a believable story. Historical fiction is bound by history, and anachronisms must be avoided. When you read, consider what readers expect from the story's genre and decide whether the book meets or fails to meet those expectations.   
  • Scrutinize the setting. 
    Whether it evokes a certain mood, creates certain weather conditions, or provides a character access to certain people, places, or objects, the setting of a story often enhances its overall success. Watch for the specific details an author uses to transport readers into his or her world. Do these details make it easy to imagine the setting? Has the author provided enough information about the setting to contribute something significant to the story? Conversely, does the setting overshadow other more important aspects of the book? The importance of setting varies from story to story, but it's a point worth considering in your reviews.
  • Look beyond likability.  
    Too often I read book reviews where the reviewer's opinion is completely wrapped up in whether he or she liked the main character. The likability of a story's main character is actually not an indicator of the quality of a book. There are books with intentionally deplorable main characters. There are books with unreliable narrators, who may or may not be likable depending on the lies they tell. Some narrators (e.g. Holden Caulfield) annoy certain readers and elicit hero worship from others. It should not be a question of whether you would like to hang out with a particular character, but whether he or she is interesting to read about. Truly well-developed characters will all have some flaws, and, in moving through their stories, they will make mistakes. This journey toward overcoming these flaws and mistakes is what makes a good story. Instead of simply dismissing a book because the character doesn't appeal to your taste, think about a book's other qualities before giving it a bad review.  
  • Tune into your inner child/teen.
    Some children's books - particularly the award winners and classics  - easily appeal to adults. Others (Junie B. Jones, for example) might annoy adults and appeal much more to kids. Since kids are the intended audience for middle grade books, and teens the intended audience for young adult, it's important to look at things from those points of view. Maybe you don't love a book now, but how would you have felt about it at sixteen? Maybe your adult sensibilities make a particular plot point annoying to you now, but thinking back, it might seem like just the kind of thing you would have done yourself as a kid. When in doubt, talk with the kids in your life about how they see the books they read. Understanding where they're coming from will help you better evaluate the books published for them.  
  • Call out cliches and stereotypes. Keep an eye out for tired and overused phrases, images, and stereotypes in books. Don't hesitate to point out instances of insensitivity to particular religions, races, or backgrounds, and be mindful of trite descriptions and contrived endings. Relying on cliches is a sign of lazy writing; the best children's books avoid cliches and look at familiar things in new ways.
  • Separate your personal and professional opinions.  
    Reviewers, like librarians, should try to be as objective as possible when evaluating books. If we are doing our best to put the right book in the hands of the right reader, then our personal feelings are far less important than our overall objective opinion of a book's quality. Some parents don't allow their children to read books containing violence, or sexual content. This does not mean that a book containing those themes is inherently poorly written. It just means that book is not for that particular family. It is possible to find the content of a book objectionable, boring, or otherwise dissatisfying and still recognize that the book represents quality literature. Whatever my personal reaction to a work, my professional instinct is always to find the people who will appreciate it and recommend it to them.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Favorite Short Stories

 I have always enjoyed short stories - both reading and writing them - so this is a topic I like a lot. I used to have a "Short Story Spotlight" feature on my old blog, which I stopped only because of how difficult it was to find short stories for kids. Still, I have my favorites, both for kids and adults, and I thought I'd share a list of them today. (Wherever possible, I have provided a link to the full text of the story.)

  • Good Country People
    by Flannery O'Connor
    This is probably my favorite short story of all time. Its main character is a woman named Hulga who uses a prosthetic leg. Hulga becomes friends with a Bible salesman named Manley Pointer, who charms her out of her usual cynical worldview and then turns the tables on her in a most unexpected way. Anything Flannery O'Connor has written - including her letters - is worth reading at least twice, but this story in particular really sticks with me.
  • The Girls in their Summer Dresses
    by Irwin Shaw
    On a Sunday morning in New York, Michael and his wife Frances go for a walk, during which they discuss Michael's consistently wandering eye, which is always sizing up beautiful women. I read this for the first time in high school and have reread it several times since. I like the interesting dynamic between the characters, but more than that I just enjoy the feeling of Sunday morning in New York which the author perfectly captures in his descriptions. 
  • A Father's Story
    by Andre Dubus
    There is nothing like reading this story for the first time. It's one of those pieces of writing that is so perfect, I just marvel at the way the words are put together. It's the story of a father whose closest friend is a priest, and who harbors a secret that puts him at odds with his religion's teachings about right and wrong. (The secret involves protecting his daughter; hence, the title.)
  • Will
    by Adam Rex
    This is a children's short story from the Guys Read: Funny Business collection. Set in a school for kids with superpowers, it explores what happens when a supervillain breaks into the school looking to destroy its nemesis. The story is laugh-out-loud funny, appealing to boys and girls, and a great read-aloud, especially for grades 5 to 8. It is my number one go-to story for reading on class visits, and I hope to see it get lots of attention when the 2015 summer reading program focuses on superheroes.
  • Winter Dreams 
    by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Though this short story shares much in common with The Great Gatsby and with Fitzgerald's other works, this story stands out for me much more than the others. A golf caddy at a country club falls in love with a beautiful woman who does not return his affections. The writing is very accessible, especially given the age of the story, and it's a good one to use to introduce teens to the short story form.
  • The Lottery
    by Shirley Jackson
    This chilling account of one town's brutal yearly tradition is best read with little or no introductory comment. This one is commonly taught in high schools and colleges, but anyone who has not read it absolutely must. It's unforgettable and thought-provoking. I also think it would be so interesting to pair with The Hunger Games.
  • All Summer in a Day 
    by Ray Bradbury
    I only read this story once, when I was taking a Teaching of Reading course in college. The story was included in a basal reader we looked at in class, and I believe we read the story as a class to practice a particular teaching technique. Though the lesson intended by the professor has long since been lost, the story sticks with me. The setting is an elementary school classroom on planet Venus, where the sun is only visible every 7 years. A little girl from Earth is looking forward to seeing the sun, as she can still remember it from her childhood. Sadly, through an act of harsh bullying, her fellow students deprive her of the experience. This may not be intended for children, but it is appropriate for them to read, and a nice way to prompt critical thinking about acts of bullying.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

10 Things To Know About Middle Grade Literature

Lately, I've seen a lot of blog posts discussing middle grade literature as though it is a new, difficult-to-define category. I hope to clear up at least some of the misconceptions with this quick list of things to know.
  • “Middle grade” is not a new term. It’s been in use in publications like Booklist and The Horn Book since at least 1967, and is also sometimes used synonymously with juvenile fiction (as differentiated from picture books or young adult fiction).
  • Middle grade refers, literally, to the middle grades of a child’s education, roughly grades 4 to 7, or ages 8 to 12. Education literature often uses the term “middle grade” to define a level of education, not just a level of reading ability. I have seen references to “middle grade math” and “middle grade science” as well as “middle grade fiction.”
  • Books read by middle school students may or may not be middle grade. Most middle school libraries I have seen have a mix of middle grade and young adult books designed to suit the interests of a student body ranging in age from 10 to 14. Many middle school books are on the upper end of the middle grade reading spectrum, and might not be appropriate for kids on the lower end.
  • Middle grade is not a genre. Middle grade books can fall into any number of genres - mystery, fantasy, realistic fiction, biography, self-help, how-to, etc.
  • Middle grade novels do have chapters, but they are different from chapter books. A chapter book is a transitional book for kids who have mastered the basics of reading but are not quite ready for the complications of plot and character introduced in a children’s novel. Chapter books can be appropriate for kids ages 5-8, while middle grade books straddle the late elementary and early middle school years.
  • Middle grade books will typically include stories of family, friendship, neighborhood happenings, school, bullying, fighting the forces of evil, overcoming hardship, and beginning puberty. Middle grade books will not include sex scenes, drug use, heavy violence, or other edgy, dark concepts. (Books for kids containing these subjects are young adult books.)
  • A middle grade book does not have to be appropriate for the entire 8-12 age range to be classified as middle grade. Books that appeal only to 9-year-olds are middle grade, as are books that appeal only to 12-year-olds. The middle grade category is a spectrum, and it encompasses a continuum of reading levels.
  • Authors of middle grade books sometimes write young adult fiction and vice versa. What determines whether the book is middle grade or YA is the subject matter and reading level, not the person who wrote the story. Though both are by Suzanne Collins, Gregor the Overlander is middle grade, and The Hunger Games is young adult.
  • Middle grade is a concept understood by teachers, librarians, authors, and publishers, but most kids don’t know which category the books they read fit into. Teens might know to ask where the young adult section is, but a middle grade child is probably going to ask, “Where are the fifth grade books?” not “Where is the middle grade section?” Middle grade is a useful term to use among children’s literature professionals, but it’s jargon and not necessary to use with the general public.
  • Categories are useful for organizing libraries and guessing at what a collective body of kids might be interested in reading, but terms like "middle grade" only matter insofar as they are helpful. The best way to determine whether a given book is appropriate for a given child is to gather facts about both and make an informed recommendation based on what you learn.

Tips for Interacting with Authors In Person and Online

Now that I have been blogging for three years, I receive a good number of comments and emails from authors whose books I have reviewed. I have also met a fair number of authors over the years (starting from childhood), and have had both positive and negative interactions. Based on these experiences, I have made a list of tips for interacting with authors in person and online.

In Person 

When meeting an author in person:

  •  Have realistic expectations. When you really love a book, or a body of work, it is easy to build up the author in your mind. Unfortunately, sometimes you imagine such a specific image of what the author will be like  that the actual meeting feels like a bit of a let-down. 
  • Don't freak out. 
    It can be hard to remember that authors are regular people. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer, so in my mind, meeting an author was a similar experience to meeting a major celebrity. Even as an adult, I sometimes find myself getting nervous standing in line at a book signing, thinking about meeting this person whose writing I have so admired. But it's best to remain calm. Sometimes the author is just as nervous as you are.
  • Plan something to say. 
    Book signing lines can be long, and you don't usually get a lot of time to talk with an author. Therefore, I find it is wise to prepare ahead of time what you'd like to say. (This also helps with the nerves I just mentioned.) I usually like to say something specific about one book: "I really identified with that character" or "This book meant so much to me when I was fifteen." I might also say something complimentary like, "You are a story time favorite at my library" or "My daughter absolutely loves your books." Statements like these are meaningful, they let the author know how much you like his or her work, and they take just about as long to say as it takes an author to sign his or her name.
  • Respect boundaries. 
    Some authors like to pose for photos; others don't. Some authors allow fans to hug them; others don't. Some will sign anything you bring with you; others will only sign books. These boundaries are usually put in place for the author's comfort, and sometimes for logistical purposes (to keep the line moving, for example.) Even if you're dying for a photo, a hug, or an autograph on your tee shirt, it is important to respect the limits the authors have put in place.
  • Say thank you. Even if you can't get the courage to say anything else during your in-person interaction with an author, make sure to thank them for their time, and for taking the trouble to sign your book. 


  • Don't spam. 
    While the internet makes it very easy to connect with people we admire, authors are entitled to their privacy and their personal space. While the occasional reply on Twitter is probably fine, I make it a practice not to tweet my reviews at authors. Instead, I inform publishers of my review dates and provide links, and I let them get in touch with the authors. Then, of course, if an author responds to me directly, I happily acknowledge their comments.
  • Reply to comments and messages.
    Whenever an author takes the time to comment on my review, or to send me an email or tweet, I do my best to reply. Even if it's just a quick "thank you for reading" or "I'm glad you liked my review," it lets them know that you value their comments. If the author or publisher sent you a review copy, it also shows them that you are appreciative of their generosity.
  • Be tactful.  
    Because online reviews are public, and because these are often shared with or stumbled upon by publishers and authors, it is important to remain courteous and professional even when you dislike a book. There is no reason to write only positive reviews, as critical reviews are how librarians, readers, and others often determine whether to purchase or read a particular book. Still, it is a good idea to focus your criticisms on the book only, not on the author as a person, and to restrain yourself from swearing or name-calling in your review.

Book Review: Betsy-Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace (1941)

Betsy and Tacy are best friends. Then they meet Tib. Tib is a bit more serious-minded and practical than the other two girls, but despite the naysaying of adults, they all get along just fine. In this second book of the series, the girls have a variety of adventures, including begging at a neighbor’s door for food, cutting off half of each other’s hair, trying to crash Betsy’s and Tacy’s older sisters’ club, and cooking a pudding containing everything in the kitchen.

Though this series is quite old, there is a freshness to each of the girls’ escapades that easily compares to mischief perpetrated by Ramona Quimby, Ivy & Bean, Clementine and other contemporary girls in chapter books. The tone of the books is lively, and it’s clear the author’s tongue is frequently in her cheek as she relates with complete seriousness the wild imaginings of girls with runaway imaginations. Some of what the girls do clearly dates the book to the 1900s, when it is set, but many of their ideas could easily pop into the minds of girls living today. Young readers will delight in the trouble caused by Betsy’s silly ideas, even if they themselves are more like Tib.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia Has the Answers by Lois Lowry (1986)

In the sixth novel of the series Anastasia Krupnik is asking the important questions: who, what , where, when, why, and how. The answers ought to be simple enough, but things are complicated for Anastasia by her adoration for her gym teacher, her inability to climb ropes like the rest of her classmates and her little brother Sam’s fascination with reenacting the funeral of their recently deceased aunt.

I feel like I repeat myself a lot in my posts about this series, but each addition is truly every bit as enjoyable as the last. The dialogue is spot-on, the characters are memorable and believable, and Anastasia’s positive attitude and sense of humor in the face of adolescent embarrassment are both entertaining and comforting. I was struck this time by how much I enjoyed Sam’s strangeness, and I found myself laughing out loud each time he found a new way of reenacting his aunt’s funeral procession and burial. This might seem morbid, but it rings perfectly true for Sam’s age and personality, and for the overall tone of the series.

As a person who hated gym class as a teenager, I would have related strongly to this book had I read it in seventh or eighth grade. I also loved the fact that Anastasia’s gym teacher wears a sweatshirt bearing the name of my alma mater, Vassar College. The overall sensibility of the story is still very dated, but Anastasia’s awkward adolescent experiences are universal, and with the right book talk, I think certain kids could still be sold on the series. It would really help, though, if the books could get some decent new covers.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book Review: Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck (2014)

In his eighth grade year, Diggy Lawson raises a steer for a 4-H competition while coming to terms with the discovery that his father has another son.

This wonderful upper middle grade novel tells a touching family story, but without drowning its readers in sentimentality. Diggy’s love for his father, his steer, and later, for Wayne, the brother he never knew about, are the driving forces of the story, presented realistically and with a heavy dose of humor. The story is structured based on the growth of Diggy’s steer, which helps the plot unfold naturally and logically, and Diggy himself is such a well-rounded character, the reader sympathizes with him instantly and finds many reasons to root for him, both in the 4-H contest, and in life. The supporting characters in this book are a colorful bunch, the kind of characters who could make readers want to live inside this book. Chief among these is Pop, Diggy’s delightfully immature 30-something dad whose parenting style involves more practical jokes than true discipline.

Steering Toward Normal, while especially appealing to 4-H members, is by no means restricted to kids who raise their own animals. Diggy’s emotional journey as he makes peace with his dad’s past, his mother’s choices, and his new brother’s presence, is a story any reader can appreciate, and one well worth making available for readers ages 11-14.

Read-alikes for Steering Toward Normal include Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park and Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book Review: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L'Engle (1994)

In her final Austin book, Madeleine L'Engle sends Vicky Austin on a trip to Antarctica funded by Adam Eddington's Aunt Serena. Vicky unwittingly becomes embroiled in a volatile international conflict involving nuclear weapons, kidnapping, and murder.

Now that I have read all of the Murry, O'Keefe, and Austin books, some of the stories very clearly stand out as the best, while others are obviously the worst. Troubling a Star falls somewhere near the bottom of the heap. L'Engle creates this strange sense of false suspense. I could tell I was supposed to be eagerly anticipating a big bombshell ending, but I never actually felt that sense of urgency. Truth be told, from the time Vicky left home, I was bored and kept checking to see just how many pages I had left to read.

Though I adore Vicky in the early Austin books, in this story she was less of a character and more of a vehicle for allowing the reader to witness events in Antarctica. I constantly kept forgetting that she was Vicky and not Polly, as the two characters basically become interchangeable by the end of the series. I really wish L'Engle had stuck to the more realistic family stories such as The Moon By Night. Even The Young Unicorns, which involves some implausible dangers, is more interesting than this cross between Dragons in the Waters and A House Like a Lotus.

All in all, I am glad to have undertaken this reading exercise, and equally glad to be through with it. I was surprised by how inconsistent L'Engle's writing is over the course of each series, and I couldn't help but wonder whether some of these books would ever find an audience if not for their connection to the beloved A Wrinkle in Time. I appreciate L'Engle's willingness to experiment and try different genres. I just never liked the unshakable feeling that she was often writing fanfiction based on her own earlier works.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Ten Little Babies by Gyo Fujikawa (1989)

A group of babies dwindles from ten to one as they engage in daily activities and lose members to such things as play time, tummy aches, and seasickness in this classic board book.

This is a larger board book, and each illustration fills a two-page spread. It suits a number of popular themes for babies and toddlers including babies, counting, and even family. Gyo Fujikawa’s babies are diverse, mischievous, playful, and full of life. The text is a simple rhyme, but the story is really in the illustrations, where little faces convey everything from delight to outright anger. The babies are both childlike and comically adult, adopting mature stances and facial expressions even as they drink from bottles and dig in the sand. The babies are easy to count on each page, always appearing in formations with plenty of space between one baby and the next. The baby who leaves the group at the end of each verse is also easily identifiable on each spread, and little ones will have fun picking him out each time.

This book is similar to Karen Katz’s Ten Tiny Babies, and to many of the baby board books by Helen Oxenbury in which groups of babies participate in various activities. Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is another perfect readalike. People looking for old-fashioned kids’ books with a classic feel will be thrilled with this one, which feels both timeless and contemporary.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach (2014)

In his first YA novel after his trilogy about Felton Reinstein, Geoff Herbach looks on the lighter side with a story about the controversy surrounding the soda vending machine in a high school cafeteria. Gabe, also known as “Chunk,” buys several sodas from the machine each day, both because he is addicted to Mountain Dew Code Red, and because he knows the money he spends helps to fund the school band, of which he is a member. He is horrified, therefore, when he learns that administration has reallocated the soda machine money to the cheerleading squad, without notifying the student body. As a result of this affront, Gabe becomes the unlikely leader of a movement of dorks who come together to reclaim their funding - and their dignity - from the clutches of the popular cheerleaders and their friends.

This book is structured so that the text of the story is actually the transcript of Gabe’s statement to the school principal after he is arrested for his involvement in the movement to win back the soda machine. Though this conceit is not completely necessary, it provides the story with an easy conversational tone that connects the reader closely to Gabe. Gabe himself is a fun character, with just the right mix of angst and humor, and his perceptions of himself are not always positive, but neither does he wallow in misery over his weight for the entire book.

Though the dorks vs. popular kids story has been done a thousand times over, Gabe makes it new again through his unique voice and his relationships with the supporting characters. Especially interesting is Gabe’s grandfather, a former bodybuilder who helps Chunk get into better shape, while also occasionally advising him on his newfound interest in activism. Also significant to the success of this book is its ability to tell a story about bullying without delving into darkness or didacticism.

Unlike Stupid Fast and its sequels, which mainly suit a high school audience, Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders is more appropriate for middle schoolers. Though it pales in comparison to Herbach’s other books, it’s still a solid read and it could appeal to readers who have enjoyed Fat Kid Rules the World, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and Nerd Camp.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Book Review: An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1989)

 In this conclusion to L’Engle’s Time Quintet Polly O’Keefe and Zachary Grey find themselves trapped in a tesseract that allows them to step back in time 3000 years. In the past, they meet The People of the Wind and The People Across the Lake, two primitive societies with differing belief systems. Zachary, who has been told he will die of his heart condition, seeks to be cured by one of the tribe’s healers, while Polly tries to make him understand that the price for this treatment might be her own life.

Like A Swiftly Tilting Planet, this muddled novel was very difficult for me to finish. Polly, who was so emotionally compelling in A House Like a Lotus, is back to her boring Dragons in the Waters self, and Zachary, who has never been interesting, is even less so now that he thinks he is dying. The cast of characters the pair meets 3000 years in the past are not very well differentiated from one another, so I couldn’t keep track of them, and I couldn’t find a reason to be invested in their fate. The Murry grandparents, with whom Polly is staying, who have formerly seemed like courageous and encouraging people, spend this entire book overprotecting Polly and acting like they can’t believe time travel is happening in their own backyard. There is very little consistency in L’Engle’s characters from book to book, anyway, but this is one of the more egregious examples of that problem.

I enjoyed the feeling of things coming full circle that was created by the return of Polly to the place where her mother and later her uncles experienced their own adventures with time, but I was disappointed when L’Engle didn’t somehow bring all those experiences together to mean something greater. It’s very obvious from this story that L’Engle didn’t set out to write a series, and based on how flat this book fell for me, I almost wish she hadn’t!