Children’s Favorite

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

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Melody is brilliant.  She has a photographic memory, and she has spent an abnormally large portion of her life watching educational television programs.  After all, it is very difficult for her to anything else.  Because of her cerebral palsy, she cannot walk or talk or do many of the things kids her age take for granted, like eating or changing clothes.  But not being able to talk is the most difficult.  Because she cannot speak, most people outside of her family don’t realize how brilliant she is.  They see her in her wheelchair and assume that her mind must be limited—and Melody can’t tell them otherwise!  When she starts inclusion classes in fifth grade, Melody struggles with new dynamics of bullying and friendship.  But when she obtains a computer that allows her to communicate verbally for the first time, Melody is ready to show her classmates her true mind and prove that she is the smartest of them all.    

With compelling, realistic characters, humor, and even a bit of suspense, Sharon Draper weaves a beautiful and engaging story that is difficult to put down.  Readers who have experience bullying or the challenges of a disability will find Melody’s struggles and triumphs accessible and inspiring, while many readers will find themselves looking at their community and classmate with a new perspective.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers who enjoy realistic fiction.

If you liked Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, you might like Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.

WONDER by R.J. Palacio

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August is just an ordinary ten year old kid.  He likes Star Wars, playing with his dog, and eating ice cream.  The trouble is that no one else realizes how ordinary he is.  All they can see are the “craniofacial anamolies” that make his face look so different from everyone else’s.  Some people, like his sister Via, see him as a fragile person who needs protection and support.   Others see him as a freak to stare at or make fun of.  When August’s parents decide the time has come for him to go to a regular school, he knows that it will be the most challenging experience of his already trying life.

I hesitate to oversimplify Wonder by saying it is a book “about” bullying, but it is refreshing to read a story where bullying features prominently that is still incredibly uplifting and inspiring.  Perhaps that is why Wonder does not seem to be “about” bullying at all.  Instead it is about friendship, understanding, and the building of a community.  By sharing August’s first year at middle school from the point of view of August, his sister, and his classmates, Palacio subtly crafts a story of the transformation of an entire community.  We see the emotional journey of each character as they deal with the challenges of middle school and high school–some of which are related to August’s presence in their lives and others which are not.  Palacio shows us the balance in the Beecher Prep community; while August’s physical deformity creates challenges for him, classmates struggle with school, family, friendships, and relationships.  By the end of the novel, we come to understand that Auggie’s challenges, though unique, are not extraordinary.  As he says at the start, he is an ordinary kid, with human strengths and weaknesses, struggling to fit in–just like his classmates.  But the community of understanding, kindness, and hope that he and his friends and family build around him is truly a wonder.

The attention this novel is receiving is well deserved.  I highly recommend it to kids, teens, and grown ups!    If you liked Wonder, you might like Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.

WOLF BROTHER by Michelle Paver

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Torak can remember the exact moment that his life changed.  He and Fa had been setting up camp, happy and laughing, when the bear exploded from the forest—the great demon bear that no hunter could destroy—and attacked Fa.  Numb with shock and grief, Torak swears to Fa’s dying request.  He will find the mountain of the World Spirit that no man has ever seen.  He will trust the guide that the spirits send him, whoever or whatever it may be.  And he will stay away from the clans, avoiding people at all costs, so that they do not hinder him.  He will fulfill his quest or die trying.

The guide is certainly not what Torak expected.  Almost as soon as Torak finds the orphaned wolf cub, he feels a connection between them.  Though he does not know how, Torak can communicate with the wolf, understanding his wolf speech and speaking back with grunts, whines, and growls.  Realizing that the wolf must be his guide, Torak follows the cub through the forest, hoping that the young wolf will lead him to the mountain of the World Spirit.  But Torak forgets his father’s hunting advice—“Look behind you, Torak”—and before his quest is fully underway, he is captured by hunters from the Raven clan.   Yet if he had not been captured, he never would have met Renn, learned about the prophecy, or discovered the secrets of his father’s past and the demon bear.  Now, Torak is more determined than ever to find the mountain of the World Spirit—but first he must escape the clutches of the Ravens. . . .

I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough!  Sir Ian McKellen’s narration is phenomenal.  The story itself is dark, suspenseful, and very exciting.  It has all of the story elements you could ask for: action, mystery, complex and evolving characters, friendships and rivalries, puzzles to solve, and evil to defeat.  I especially recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical fiction and/or high fantasy and to dog lovers. Wolf Brother is the first in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series.

If you liked Wolf Brother, you might like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, or Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.

BUD, NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Since Bud’s mother died, he has been bounced around among orphanages and foster homes–none of which have been particularly good places to live.  It seems like the only people willing to take in an orphan child during the Depression are either mean or crazy.  But as long as Bud follows his “Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar out of Yourself,” he never loses spirits.  He also has his trusty suitcase with the flyer his mother gave him before she died advertising Herman E. Calloway’s Dusky Devastators of the Depression, a Grand Rapids jazz band. 

Although his mother never said so, Bud is convinced that Herman E. Calloway is his father.  After Bud escapes from a particularly nasty foster home, he decides the time has come to travel the 120 miles from Flint to Grand Rapids to find his father.  When he actually meets Mr. Calloway, however, it isn’t quite the reunion Bud was expecting. 

Bud, Not Buddy won both the 2000 Newbery Award and the 2000 Coretta Scott King Award for good reason.  It is a phenomenal historical fiction novel that immerses readers in the worlds of jazz and the Great Depression.  Bud is a wonderfully realistic character–determined, resilient, creative, and just a bit naive–with a great sense of humor that makes his story very funny, as well as touching.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers who enjoy humor and/or historical fiction.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

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Devon’s Eagle Scout project, a large wooden chest he was building with his father, sits in the corner of the living room covered with a sheet.  Caitlin fears it will never be finished now that Devon is gone, one of the three victims of the Virginia Dare Middle School shooting.  Caitlin’s father hasn’t smiled since the tragedy, and she can often hear him crying.  Mrs. Brook, the counselor at James Madison Elementary School, tries to encourage Caitlin to talk about what she is feeling, but Caitlin doesn’t know what she is feeling.  She has Asperger’s and doesn’t always understand emotions–either other people’s or her own.  But at Mrs. Brook’s prompting, Caitlin tries to “work at” understanding emotions and to develop empathy so that she can make friends.  And when she learns that there is something called Closure which might give the tragedy an “emotional conclusion” for herself, her father, and her new friend, Michael, she is determined to figure out how to get it.

This is one of those books that other people might describe as depressing but that I see it as uplifting–sad and tragic, but heartwarming in the end.  The focus of the story is on families and friendships and dealing with loss as a community.  For Caitlin, the journey toward Closure is closely tied to her efforts to build friendships.  Despite the tragedy that set the plot in motion, there is a lot of love and hope in this story.  School Library Journal recommends Mockingbird for 4th-6th graders.  I think older middle schoolers and possibly high schoolers would enjoy it as well.  It is a very complex story and the themes of friendships, family, and coping with loss will be relevant to teens and even adults.

If you liked Mockingbird, you might like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

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The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

THE STAR OF KAZAN by Eva Ibbotson

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While on holiday in the Austrian mountains, Ellie and Sigrid find baby Annika abandoned in a church and bring her back to Vienna.  The three Professors for whom Ellie and Sigrid work as a cook and housekeeper are upset at first by the introduction of a noisy, messy baby to their home.  But within a few weeks, Annika becomes a beloved part of the household.  Although she works hard around the house helping Ellie and Sigrid, Annika loves her life in Vienna.  She loves the Emperor Franz Josef and his dancing Lipizzano horses.  She loves her friends Pauline and Stefan and the games of make-believe they play in the abandoned garden.  In fact, the only thing about life in Vienna that Annika does not love is Loremarie Egghart, the snobby, rich girl who lives across the street and who turns her nose up at Annika, the “kitchen girl.”  But when Loremarie hires Annika to read books to the bed-ridden great-aunt whom none of the Eggharts can stand, Annika finds a new friend, a friend with exciting and exotic stories of a glamorous past life, stories that will live with Annika long after the old lady herself passes on.

Everything in Annika’s world changes, however, when her real mother arrives in Vienna. Annika had always dreamed hopefully of a day when her mother would arrive to claim her long-lost daughter.  What Annika never expected was that her mother would be a “von”–a German noblewoman–Frau Edeltraut von Tannenberg.  She also never dreamed of what would come after her mother’s arrival–the part where she would take her away from Vienna and everyone she knows.  Annika’s new life in Germany is wonderful in some ways.  For one thing, there is Zed the stable boy, with whom Annika immediately forms a strong friendship.  And of course she is with her mother!  But Annika quickly learns that there are secrets in her noble family, and not all of them are good.

This novel is simply superb historical fiction–one of my favorite children’s books.  I highly recommend it to middle grade readers, and any adults who enjoy children’s fiction.  It has an engaging plot, wonderfully drawn characters, and clean, evocative writing.

The audiobook (narrated by Patricia Connolly) is also excellent!

THE CASE OF THE MISSING MARQUESS by Nancy Springer

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On her fourteenth birthday, Enola Holmes discovers that her eccentric mother has vanished. Even her older brother Sherlock cannot find the marquess. As her eldest brother, Mycroft, makes plans to send her away to boarding school, Enola discovers a series of clues that her mother left specifically for her, and she begins to realize that the mystery may not be quite what it seems.  Her investigation and her desire to avoid boarding school at all costs prompt Enola to flee from her brothers and seek refuge in the city of London.  With the help of her analytical mind and her gift for disguise–traits which she shares with her brother Sherlock–Enola is determined to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and any other mysteries she stumbles across along the way.  And nothing–especially not her being a girl–will stand in her way.

Springer builds a vivid and detailed picture of life in Victorian London, the poverty of the East End, and the challenges of being a woman in the nineteenth century.  Add a brilliant, snarky narrator, hilarious disguises, codes to crack, clues to unravel, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes as a rival and adversary and you have one of my favorite children’s mystery books!  The only down side to this wonderful mystery series is that its reading level is a bit more difficult than its interest level.  It is best for advanced upper elementary readers, (possibly also middle school readers) and will probably be of most interest to girls.  I highly recommend it!

Five books follow The Case of the Missing Marquess in the Enola Holmes series:
2. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3. The Case of the Bizarre Bouquet
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan
5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
6. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye

 

RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE by D., S., & N. Hale

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Rapunzel’s mother, Gothel, raised her in a beautiful home surrounded by luscious gardens–the product of Gothel’s growth magic–and a high stone wall which separated them from the outside world.  When Rapunzel grows old enough to wonder what lies beyond the wall, she disobeys her mother’s orders and climbs to the top.  There she sees the barren wasteland outside her mother’s protected garden, land stripped of all fertility by the witch’s powers and peopled by laboring peasants, Gothel’s slaves.  Rapunzel also learns that one of the peasants is her true mother, from whom Gothel stole her in infancy.  When Rapunzel confronts the witch with her new knowledge, Gothel takes her to a far off forest and imprisons her in the hollow of a tall, tall tree.  Gothel expects that her “daughter” will eventually come to her senses and choose to support the system of slavery that keeps them living in luxury.  Instead, Rapunzel grows increasingly bitter in her isolation.  Gothel’s growth magic that made the tree tall also makes Rapunzel’s hair grow quickly and soon she has enough to create a lasso to help her in her escape.  Teaming up with a young thief named Jack, Rapunzel adventures across the desert countryside, trying to devise a plan to destroy Gothel’s empire and using her hair to bring vigilante justice to the lawless towns she passes through.

This adventurous Wild West retelling of Rapunzel is tons of fun.  The graphic novel format is perfect for the story’s fantastic action sequences.  Plus, it is very, very funny!  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers.

The sequel Calamity Jack came out recently and I am very excited to read it!

A MURDER FOR HER MAJESTY by Beth Hilgartner

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As the daughter of a nobleman, Alice Tuckfield probably shouldn’t have been climbing trees.  But when she sees her father murdered by his supposed friends, her hiding place in the tree saves her life.  After overhearing the murderers imply that their orders came from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Alice doesn’t know who she can trust.  She immediately sets off on her own in the hope of finding her father’s old friend Lady Jenny, who lives miles away in York.  When she finally reaches the city, exhausted and starving, Alice runs into some boys from the choir school—or rather they run into her, literally.  After sneaking her into their boarding house and getting her some food, the boys decide that it would be a great laugh to dress Alice up like a boy and see how long it takes their choir master to notice that he (she) is in the choir.  Alice (now known as “Pup”) realizes that this is the perfect opportunity to disguise her identity and hide from her father’s assassins, who might be after her next.   But as she gets comfortable in the choir school with the boys–and even begins to develop a friendship with the cantankerous organist who seems to get along with no one else–the assassins get closer and closer to discovering her whereabouts.

This book is an old favorite of mine, with a great blend of mystery/intrigue and schoolyard shenanigans, and of course the classic “girl-disguised-as-a-boy-so-she-can-do-things-she-wasn’t-allowed-to-do-in-the-olden-days” plotline.  And as someone who sings and plays piano myself, I greatly appreciate the music in this book!   (Also, Master Kenton, the organist, is a great character and I really want to be his friend.)   A Murder For Her Majesty is targeted for older elementary readers.

If you like A Murder for Her Majesty, you might also enjoy The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.