Tag Archives: Middle Grade

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

I probably wouldn’t have picked up this novel, except that I needed to review something for a teacher newsletter I’m doing.  A staff member said her kid loved this one – so what the heck, I thought.  Might as well try.

Again, I’m very glad it did.  This was another fun and funny read.  It’s not the best or most complex book – but it’s quirky and clever, and even a bit deep.  So not bad, not bad at all.  The idea is that Dwight is the school loser – most kids think he’s completely insane.  Maybe because he digs holes in his backyard and just sits in them; maybe because he wore the same shirt for a whole month; maybe because he says crazy things all the time.  In any case, one day Dwight (who is also amazing at origami) creates his own origami Yoda finger puppet.  Soon Yoda (who doesn’t sound much like Yoda) is giving students advice – and it is far more helpful, farsighted advice than Dwight could ever give.  So Tommy sets out to chronicle the Yoda incidents in order to sort out whether there might be supernatural powers inspiring Yoda’s advice – or whether Dwight is behind a very convincing hoax.

A very good read – and nice to watch the character of Dwight develop through his classmates’ eyes.  Great for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Star Wars, or even Gordon Korman’s Schooled (an even finer read that this one reminded me of).

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The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

This has been our number one hit in the kid’s section at my book store for weeks and weeks now.  And it’s had no staff assistance; I think it’s selling mostly on cover art and concept alone.  So finally I thought I should take a look and see what all the fuss was about.

I had low expectations (because I’m snotty like that sometimes), but I did enjoy it – more than I thought I would.  It’s fun and clever, though quite dark.  The plot is well done and capably told.  It’s certainly interesting and has some decent characters.  A very solid book.  It didn’t blow me out of the water, but I can see why it’s so popular.  One thing I did notice, is it’s got a lot of influences, or reference points.  As a Stephenie Meyer quote on the cover points out “It’s the oddest/sweetest mix of Little House on the Prairie and X-Men…”  She’s quite right: and I’m going to give you a summary of the book using the various references I found (I’m sure there are more).  Be warned: there will be spoilers!!  And also realize that this isn’t meant to be a criticism – I think you could do the same for many books… pick them apart and look at where the author might have got their ideas (enough people have done it for Harry Potter, that’s for sure).

Anne of Green Gables: Not sure if Forester has read this Canadian classic, but her main character Piper McCloud is young Anne all over.  She talks and talks and talks of nonsense, completely annoying/baffling those around her.  She lives on a farm with an old couple (her parents rather than an adopted family of a spinster and her bachelor brother) who are quite reserved and traditional. Oh, and there’s some very meddlesome neighbours.

Sarah, Plain and Tall/Little House/any other Newbery-winner -type-book about a young girl on a farm (there are dozens):  The narrow-minded folk in the town; the spark and heart of Piper; the gruff love of her family – all very much these rural heartwarming books.

The Sheep Pig/Babe: A wife who talks a lot, and a very silent husband.  Again – very Anne of Green Gables also.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Some of the weirdness is a little reminiscent; but mostly, Piper learns to fly by throwing herself at the ground.  Just like Arthur and his attempts to fly by missing the ground.

Catch-22: After she flies in front of the whole town and causes and international stir, Piper is picked up by the I.N.S.A.N.E. agency (surely another acronym might have inspired some trust?) by Agent A. Agent whose last name just happened to be Agent. Very Major Major Major Major.

Series of Unfortunate Events/anything by Roald Dahl: in tone, this book is very much going for the tongue-in-cheek style of these comedies and others in this genre.  Plus the adults are wicked and the children unfortunate in their luck.

X-Men: Piper gets hauled off to a secret school for children with special talents (I.N.S.A.N.E.).  They include people who can manipulate the weather; shoot electricity out of their hands; do telekinesis; out-think anyone; etc.  The trick is, here they are encouraged not to use their powers.

101 Dalmatians/Holes/Narnia/Wizard of Oz: The main villan, Dr Letitia Hellion (again, they should have been able to tell this by her name) is very much like the evil female villan in all of these books.  She’s cruel to animals (Cruella); has a funny thing with lipstick (the Warden of Camp Green Lake); seduces children to her side (the Witch from Narnia); and has an unexpected weak spot and a flying thing (Wicked Witch of the West).  I’m sure there’s another half-dozen evil villainesses that could also be cited.

Princess Bride: An obscure one, I know.  But the I.N.S.A.N.E. headquarters is divided into 14 floors; on each is a different group of animal/plant species.  As Piper first travelled through on an elevator, all I could think of was the Princess Bride scene (omitted from the movie) of Inigo and Fezzik travelling through room after room of predatory animals in the Zoo.  Although here the animals are being tortured and experimented on to remove their specialness.

The Odd Couple: When Piper finally teams up with super-brain Conrad to stop Dr. Hellion, it is very odd couple.  He’s a hard-hearted genius (we think), and she’s a soft-hearted yokel.  A very unlikely pair, though only Conrad seems to notice.

Disney: Most anything, really.  In particular, I’m thinking of the cricket that plays a fairly major role.  While he doesn’t talk like Jiminy, he does sing opera (that was delightfully unexpected).

James Bond: A crazy villain with a super-fortress in Antarctica (I think?).  It’s very spy and totally Bond.

Harry Potter: A school for wizar– no- for kids with special powers.  But then, what isn’t Harry Potter in this post-Harry Potter world?  Even stuff published earlier is Harry Potter retroactively, it seems.

The Invisible Man: There’s an invisible man.  Don’t get it confused with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison like I did; they are very different beasts.  But while we’re on the topic, I highly recommend Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint.  It was an amazing book, and much much better than the crappy Chevy Chase movie they made.

One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest: Hellion threatens to give Conrad a lobotomy, and the creepy control she has over the facility and the children is very Nurse Ratchett.  She subdues people just like patients from this book/movie.  And the kids behave with kind of the same desire for wild abandon (spurned on by Piper/Jack Nicholson) as the inmates.  It’s actually surprisingly similar to One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest.

1984/Brave New World/Clockwork Orange: In that characters are brainwashed to forget who they are and what’s important to them.  Here it’s a combination of drugs and physical torture.  Piper wasn’t quite saying that 2+2=5 after her treatment, but she certainly lost herself (for a bit).

Star Trek: The youngest of the children heals Piper by placing his hands on her – there’s a blinding white light as it takes effect.  I’m absolutely certain I saw this on a STNG episode once.

Any Heist Movie/Book Anywhere: There’s a couple of attempted and failed heists in this book, as well as the final revolt.  In addition to being quite spy-y, it’s also quite heist-y.
Hunger Games: Sort of, in that there’s a revolt.  I’m actually grasping because I didn’t pin down as many references towards the end.  It tied up quite cleverly, though the very end was a bit sickenly tidy.

Mysterious Benedict Society: Unusual children that manage to overturn a big evil using their unusual powers.  They end up being a fantastic team and prizing their unusualness.  And because this will have a sequel, just like Benedict.

 

These are just the ones I caught – and most probably don’t really apply… Forester may never have read/seen many of these things.  Or maybe she did.  But you can tell by the quantity and quality of most of the references (some of my very favourite things, ever), that even if this isn’t an original book, it’s made up of some great elements combined in an unusual mosaic.

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The Nine Lives of Travis Keating by Jill MacLean

This is another old(er) book (2009) – and a winner of multiple awards.  I picked it up to see if I could recommend it to a teacher, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  As you can tell by the rather unappealing cover, it is indeed a Canadian book.  Set in Newfoundland, it’s about twelve-year-old Travis whose mother has died, and who is having trouble dealing with the loss.  He and his father have moved to a tiny community on the coast of Newfoundland, and things are not going well for Travis.  The local bully Hud calls Travis a “townie” and makes him a target for a surprising level of violence.  Ostracized by any potential friends, Travis is completely isolated until he discovers a colony of starving feral cats.  Against his own better judgment, Travis begins to feed and name them, until soon he’s responsible for their survival.  As the cats become more important to Travis, he begins reaching out and soon has connected with two other misfits his age – Hector and Prinny.  Eventually other community members are brought onside, like charming but grumpy Old Abe who has a fierce dog and a threatening shotgun, but rather a soft heart.  In the end, Travis not only saves his cats, but earns himself a place in the community and creates a home.

I can see why this book won all the awards – it was charming and well written, and Travis is a lovely character – sensitive, but tough at the same time. It also manages to be bleak and Canadian, while still uplifting and fun.  Nevertheless, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids would enjoy this book.  As a 10 or 12 year old, I might have… but then I was a very keen reader and liked reading about real life kids and their struggles.  What I wonder is how many boys – or what kind of boys – would like this book?  In my experience I mostly meet boys and their adults looking for action/adventure or magic/sci fi – or straight nonfiction.  I hope there is a huge contingent of boys out there who are interested in reading about smart, sensitive boys and their real life problems.  I’d like to meet some of them.

My question links to a larger question I have that eats away at my subconsious, and my integrity as a bookseller.  Us adults read, write, and sell these books for kids – but do we really know what kids like?  Do we actually like the same things?  I mean, obviously there is a lot of overlap a lot of the time (Hunger Games or Harry Potter spring to mind)… but how many books are produced each year that won’t appeal to very many kids at all?  How many of those end up being my favourites, or ones that I recommend a lot?  I try to keep in mind all the times that I see kids in the section enthusing over something I’ve loved; or all the conversations I’ve had about books with kids who’ve liked the same things as me; or the fact that adults’ taste in books is also incredibly diverse.  Surely there are men who enjoy reading books about smart, sensitive men and their real life problems?  Surely they must have needed something to read as children?  Hopefully they find this one – it will fit the bill perfectly.

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Top Ten Reasons to Love Holes by Louis Sachar


So far I’ve been very critical about a lot of the books I’ve reviewed on this site.  Part of the problem is that I’m not picking up books that would be my first choice – I’m reading my way through a constantly-renewing stack of novels that are being released this summer and fall.  So I’m going to take a moment out from all these ARCs (advance reader’s copies) to talk about an old favourite.

Holes doesn’t actually need another good review.  Written in 1998, it won the Newbery Medal (and several other prizes), gained enthusiastic and wide-spread acclaim, and has been made into a major motion picture (77% on Rotten Tomatoes).  Holes has also been done to death in schools.  It makes for an ideal novel study and teachers love using it.  I suspect that battles are fought in some schools over who gets to study it in their class.  It’s rightly a grade 4/5/6 novel, but I’ve heard of grade 2 teachers reading it to their classes.  Imagine the frustration when your class of ten-year-olds informs you with weary blase that they’ve already read the novel you’ve based a whole term around.

So Holes doesn’t need any more ink, virtual or otherwise, spilled on it.  But I’m going to slosh some more its way anyway – and I’m going to use what feels like an outdated method (because Letterman uses it, and surely that’s enough to outdate anything?) – the Top Ten List.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Loved Holes

10) Because I read it to two classes of students while in England, and they loved it.  In the middle of Essex (actually an eastern corner) I was able to do a terrible American accent and get away with it.  They loved it – the accent, the characters, the weird twists and bends.  We all had such pleasure settling down to reading time with Holes that they started requesting it.  Each time I opened the book and brought out that slow drawl, I felt like we landed up on a dusty desert in North America, and escaped to where yellow-spotted lizards spread agonizing oblivion, and where long-lost treasures and old-world curses can determine your fate.

9) Because of the author, Louis Sachar.  I can’t tell you what a soft spot I have for this guy.  He’s the author of the Sideways Stories series – books that still make me laugh today.  He also wrote There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, and while I don’t remember a single scene of it, it surely makes the list as one of the best titles ever for an intermediate novel.  Finally, his newest book, The Cardturner, manages to make bridge almost understandable, and quite interesting.  So props for that.

8.) Stanley Yelnats and his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.  Because one is a palindrome, and the other is funny, no matter how many times you read it.

7) Because the plot itself is a palindrome.  Or a web.  Or a mobeus strip.  Or a spiral.  Or a braided tapestry.  Or something.  The story takes place in the present, the past (about a hundred years ago) and the distant past (three generations ago).  At the start, Stanley Yelnats is being sent to a detention centre for troubled boys, Camp Green Lake.  He is going because everyone believes he stole a pair of used and stinky (but very valuable) sneakers.  In order to improve their character, each boy at the camp must dig a hole exactly five feet wide and five feet deep every day. Oh, and did I mention that there is no water at Camp Green Lake – just a deserted dried-up lake bottom filled with holes and deadly yellow-spotted lizards.  But read on and you’ll learn that Stanley’s bad luck, the dried-up lake and the camp itself all have their roots in the past.  Only with the help of onions, lizards, sploosh, mountains, and a song will the curse of Stanleys great-great-grandfather be lifted and another old wrong righted.  The present fixes the past and the past saves the present.

Holes Map

6)  Because every detail is used and every detail is important.   And because just about every detail is used at least twice – once in the present and also in the past.  And sometimes it will be an echo of one, and sometimes of the other.

5) Because it’s exactly the right length and ends exactly when it should.  So many books I read are too long: they go on with pointless scenes and plot twists that are there just for the sake of adding length or tiresome but pointless obstacles to the resolution.  This book is mindbendingly complex, but it is also elegant in its simplicity.  The pacing is perfect and the writing is evocative and sparse.  There’s no wasted text, but also no holes (har, har) where you’re just not sure what happened.

4) Because it improves with more readings.

3) Because Sachar deals with issues of race and privilege in a shockingly real and understandable way.  The boys at Camp Green Lake are all troubled kids and from a variety of ethnicities.  Race isn’t plastered away with political correctness in this book – it is real and tangible.  The boys accuse Stanley of practicing slavery when he gets Zero (the outcast at the camp) to dig his holes for him in exchange for reading lessons.  In another storyline, a black man is killed for daring to kiss a white woman – and she is cast out of her job and town by an enraged community.  Sachar doesn’t try to ignore history or fix it, or even present solutions for the present.  And he doesn’t hide from ugly issues but rather makes them the centre of his spiraling narrative.

2) Because it’s funny as well as clever.  It doesn’t just try to be funny.  It doesn’t just think it’s funny.  It is funny.

1) Because even after all the hype and attention, it is isn’t overrated – it still kicks ass.

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The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan

This was a nice read for ages 9-12.  I particularly love the romantic and unexpected premise.  Every day in Bombay (Mumbai) a group of deliverymen, dabbawallas, carry thousands of boxed lunches – tiffins – to workers all over the city.  Only one tiffin in millions is ever lost – but that’s what happens in this story.  The missing tiffin in this case has an important note in it, and because it is lost a young boy, Kunal, is separated from his mother.  He grows up in very Harry-Potter-pre-Howarts conditions (except worse), until he is finally rescued by a kind dabbawalla named Vinayak.  When he learns of his mother’s existence, Kunal is determined to find her using the powerful network of tiffins and dabbawallas.

Overall, this was a great read and a very good story.  I sometimes was annoyed by Kunal’s actions and the silly decisions he made out of desperation, and the constant forgiveness he always got from those around them.  But he is young and the forgiveness became important to the story’s end, so I forgave it.  Mostly, I loved the dabbawallas and their network.  I enjoyed the sense of dedication and professionalism they had, and their achievement of delivering those hot lunches all over such an enormous city.  So often India (along with many others countries outside of Europe and North America) is shown to be a place with too much waste, inefficiency and nepotism.  So it was nice to see a network that worked like a well-oiled machine.

A very solid and interesting book for its age range.

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