Monday, June 25, 2018

The Romance of Middle Grade Literature

            Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for romance. Whether it’s movies or books, I’m all about that sweet moment when you see that spark of attraction between two characters, or when thwarted lovers finally embrace. This is probably why, when I have time to read just for fun, I usually choose young adult books, which almost always have a love story. Middle grade novels, on the other hand, are not thought of as being romantic, at least not in the sense that you might find in YA and adult books. And yet, if you look more closely, relationship romance is alive and well in the middle grade novel. It just looks and behaves differently.
          The question was raised to me this past school year, when a fifth-grade girl approached me looking for the romance books. I told her that in middle grade there isn’t really a romance category, but there are books that have a hint of romance in them. I was able to find a few for her off the top of my head – Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped, Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, the classic Witch of Blackbird Pond – but my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to see what else I could find for her.
          Digging a little deeper, I asked myself, what is it that sets a middle grade “love story” apart from the more traditional form we see in books for older readers? Not only is the physicality greatly reduced (mostly crushes, hand-holding and the occasional chaste kiss), but the build-up is different. Most middle grade romances are derived from friendships. We don’t see the instant, chemical attraction you might find in a YA book. Love in tween stories takes time to build up, often over the course of several books. Sometimes the affection grows naturally from a long-time friendship, such as that between Miri and Peder in Princess Academy. It’s only at the end of the book that they acknowledge the affection between them, and their relationship continues to develop, ever so slowly, through two subsequent books.

         This is not uncommon in a middle grade series. Over the first book or two, the friendship is built and established, and it often isn’t until book three or more that the hinted-at romance comes to fruition. Numerous series come to mind – Anne of Green Gables, The City of Ember, Harry Potter, Gregor the Overlander, The Golden Compass, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. In all of these series, readers are patiently rewarded with love finally requited, albeit in an age appropriate manner. And to the authors’ credit, we don’t always get the perfectly happy ending that we might have hoped for.
          Another device you might find is that the romantic element of the book involves not the main character(s), but side characters. For example, in Dianne Salerni’s 8th Day series, the love story involves the MC’s guardian. This sub-plot is engaging, and while it may not be essential, it adds interest and depth to the story. Also interesting to note is that Dianne originally wrote The 8th Day as a YA novel, but later revised it for middle grade, and for that reason, she actually had to tone down the romance significantly.
          Love in the middle grade novel is hardly a new-fangled thing. In addition to the afore-mentioned Anne of Green Gables and Witch of Blackbird Pond, there are other, decades-old books that involve romantic relationships. In The Westing Game, Turtle has a crush on Doug Hoo through most of the book, while her future husband, Theo, is mesmerized by her sister, Angela. Calvin and Meg hold hands and awkwardly kiss in A Wrinkle in Time. If you’ve read the further books, (spoiler alert if you haven’t!) you know that they end up married with children. The Little House books eventually have Laura being courted by and married to a local farmer.
          So, is romance appropriate in children’s books? I suppose some parents would tell you that unequivocally, NO, it's not. But if handled sensitively and carefully, romantic love, which is a natural part of life and something that older children especially are curious about, can be included in books for kids. What follows is a list of books that I came up with in my research. If you can think of others, or you want to share any of your favorites, please feel free to comment. Hope you “love” these books!

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker
The Penderwick’s series, by Jeanne Birdsall
Doll Bones, by Holly Black
The Underland Chronicles (Gregor the Overlander), by Suzanne Collins
The City of Ember series, by Jeanne DuPrau
The Goose Girl series, by Shannon Hale
Princess Academy series, by Shannon Hale
A Wrinkle in Time series, by Madeleine L’Engle
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine
Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery
Agnes Parker, Keeping Cool in Middle School, by Kathleen O’Dell
His Dark Materials Trilogy (Golden Compass), by Philip Pullman
Magnus Chase series, by Rick Riordan
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
The 8th Day series, by Dianne Salerni
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Emma Jean Lazarus Fell in Love, by Lauren Tarshis
The One Safe Place, by Tania Unsworth
Flipped, by Wendelin VanDraanen


Thursday, June 21, 2018

A middle grade Adventure: Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma (post by Paul Greci)

NayaNuki by Kenneth Thomasma came to me via an old friend in Hawaii who discovered it in a used bookstore, thought I would like it, and sent it to me. It is one of those books that sucks you in from page one and takes you on journey. I cracked the cover on a Sunday and by Tuesday morning was turning the last page as a very satisfied reader.

From the back cover:

Naya Nuki was only eleven when she was taken captive by a rival Indian tribe. She and her best friend, Sacajawea, were forced to march 1000 miles from Montana to a North Dakota Indian village, where Naya Nuki became a slave.

Escape and reunion with her Shonshoni people was the only thing on Naya Nuki’s mind. She secretly began to prepare for her escape along the Missouri River. All during the long march east she had been watching for landmarks and hiding places.

Finally the opportunity to run away came. Naya Nuki traveled alone in the wilderness for more than a month. Her journey presents an amazing story of danger, courage, and survival skills.

Published in 1991 by Baker Books.
Reading level: Ages 9 to 13.

I’d recommend it for girls and boys who are drawn to survival stories.

Naya Nuki was Kenneth Thomasma’s first novel. He has written and published nine additional novels, which you can learn more about here. He’s also the author of the nonfiction book The Truth about Sacajawea.

I feel fortunate that my friend sent me Naya Nuki. I can't wait to check out another Kenneth Thomasma book!

Thanks for stopping by.

Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection. Forthcoming soon is Follow the River, a sequel to Surviving Bear Island to be published by Move Books. In January 2019, Paul's first young adult novel, The Wild Lands will be published by Macmillan. It is available for pre-order here.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Land of Yesterday, by K. A. Reynolds

I'm thrilled to present you this interview with Kristin Reynolds (K. A. Reynolds) as the publication date of her debut The Land of Yesterday from HarperCollins approaches (July 31, 2018!).  Everyone please pre-order it! It's beautiful, lyrical, emotional, and so perfectly crafted! I met Kristin several years ago when we were both looking for agents, and I've been so inspired by her journey to publication.

After Cecelia Dahl’s little brother, Celadon, dies tragically, his soul goes where all souls 
go: the Land of Yesterday—and Cecelia is left behind in a fractured world without him. Her beloved house’s spirit is crumbling beyond repair, her father is imprisoned by sorrow, and worst of all, her grief-stricken mother abandons the land of the living to follow Celadon into Yesterday. It’s up to Cecelia to put her family back together, even if that means venturing into the dark and forbidden Land of Yesterday on her own. But as Cecilia braves a hot-air balloon commanded by two gnomes, a sea of daisies, and the Planet of Nightmares, it’s clear that even if she finds her family, she might not be able to save them. And if she’s not careful, she might just become a lost soul herself, trapped forever in Yesterday.

1- Have you always been a writer? When and why did you start writing?
Like many authors, I feel like I’ve always been a writer. Like maybe the seed came planted within me. Writing was how I processed pain, misunderstandings, beauty. How I made sense of my world and better understood myself. I have something of a disconnect between my thoughts and mouth, trouble articulating what I want to say. This really makes for interesting conversation when I’m nervous! But when my thoughts roll down my neck, into my arm and out my fingers? My true voice flows free. 

I started writing poetry very young, seven or eight, after my mother died. The older I grew, the darker my poetry became. And yet it was always an outlet. Sort of like bloodletting, but with emotions—anger, sadness, hatred, fear, the usual suspects—and always felt better once I had written. As an adult, I let my writing go until my youngest child was born, but finally rediscovered my pen. I wrote my first novel in 2011 and haven’t stopped since!

2- What was the seed from which this story sprouted? Was it different from other things you’ve written before? Similar? How so?
Goodness, that’s so hard to answer! I think The Land of Yesterday is something of a slow creeping ivy, much like the vines on the cover of the book. Sad and dark little seeds planted after my mother passed away. I have few memories of my childhood, but one is clear and sharp. Of seven-year-old Kristin writing my mum a letter on the red carpet in the basement, asking her why she died, why she left me, and when she was coming home. I stood in the center of that bright red carpet and threw it to the sky, hoping my mother would catch it in heaven. When it hit the ceiling and floated back down, I fell with it and cried. I think that letter was the first seed. Because soon after we meet my main character, Cecelia, she is writing her mother a letter, asking her why she left and when she was coming home.

This was my first middle grade book. I’d written four books before it—two adult and two YA—that were eventually shelved. So, it was 100% different than any before. Well . . . okay maybe not 100%, because this was dark and whimsical, lyrical and heart-heavy, like those before it. I love fantasy, what can I say!

3- You’ve mentioned on different places that The Land of Yesterday will appeal to fans of Coraline and The Little Prince. What other works/artists influenced your style?
Love this question because I love talking up my favorite authors. In no particular order:

*Tove Jansson: all the Tales from Moominvalley books. As a girl, I was obsessed. My gran read these to me before bed each night. I swear, their bizarre little fantasy worlds wrapped around my heart and grew the perfect foundation for the writer I would become.

*Stephen King: I was reading him at twelve and couldn’t get enough. The Dark Tower series is still my all-time favorite adult series, and The Stand is right up there for standalones. He writes people so freaking well. I learned a lot about voice and characterization from King. 

*Haruki Murakami: My favorite author. He writes the way most dream. And, like dreams, one thing always means something else. He is philosophical, poetic, and his metaphor game is on point—all things I love. I learned a lot about writing what I love from Murakami’s genius. 

*J. K. Rowling: I mean . . . the woman is a goddess for writing a series that changed the world. It wasn’t until I finished reading book 7 that I thought, I want to write a book. She showed my how to weave backstory and pull all the tangled threads of a story together. 

*Laini Taylor: When I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in Laini. She paints poetry in full color, stories of all my favorite things. I struggled to balance poetic language and plot for years. Laini’s books showed me this balance could be mastered. Plus, she’s an amazing human being and I still can’t believe she blurbed my book!

4- What’s your writing fuel? (Can be food related or emotionally related) 
Tea, water, walking, and living. Green tea in the morning. Water all day long. Walking on the treadmill and writing helps keep my spinning mind on task. And remembering to live. To experience the real world. This last one is most important for writing, I think.

5- What’s something you’ve been wanting to share about The Land of Yesterday that no one has asked you before?
What were the former titles of The Land of Yesterday? As a HUGE name and title nerd, I really love talking about and brainstorming titles. 
The original title for The Land of Yesterday was The Letter Writer. After that, The Lamplighter of Widdendream. The title I finally chose, and the one that went on sub, was The Last Paper Dahl. When we were ready for a new title, I threw some out to my editor and we both agreed that The Land of Yesterday was the way to go. 

6- What are you working on next? 
My second MG fantasy, THE SPINNER OF DREAMS. This is a fairytale-ish story about Annalise Meriwether, a girl with anxiety, panic disorder, and OCD, who must find the courage to battle the Fate Spinner inside an enchanted labyrinth for a chance at making her greatest dreams come true. This was a hard book to write and took two years to finish. Many times, I wanted to give up, but I felt it was too important to quit. Mental illness in middle grade is rarely explored, even less so when the main character is the one with the illness, yet it occurs more often than many might think. As a child living with these mental illnesses, I’d have loved a book with a main character whose mind and body worked like mine. A book filled with magic that gave no magical cure for my mental and physical challenges, but showed me that I could still be strong, that I was still brave, that I was magical and lovable, not despite them, but because of them. I love Annalise and I hope others love her, too. 

K. A. Reynolds
K.A. Reynolds
I’m also drafting a secret project that is really different from my last two, but with a voice I really love and am really excited about! 

7- What would you tell your younger writer self about the writing journey and especially the days previous to your book release? 
Kristin, the path to becoming an author is going to try you like nothing else. You’re going to feel like you can’t go on. Like you’re a failure. Like nobody wants to read your words and nothing you write will ever be good enough. Like the one thing you always thought you were good at was a lie. But you mustn’t listen to these doubts. Instead, listen to your heart. To the joy you feel when opening a new document and writing down your epiphany. To writing that perfect line or paragraph that runs a tingle up your spine. To the secret smile you don at 3:00a.m when your story opens wide and shows you who you are. And, one day, when your books are on shelves and in the hands of children just like you used to be, you will know that all you went through to get here was worth it. That, in fact, without all that practice to failure and unflinching faith, you’d have never have made it. Believe in yourself. Believe in your words. Believe you are magic, and the right story will fall into place.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Tales of a Reading Buddy by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

At the beginning of the school year, I finally took the plunge and became a “reading buddy.” I’d always told myself I was too busy, and could give the one hour a week that the program asked for, but now the coordinator sounded a bit desperate. There were so many students struggling to read, and too few “buddies” to help them along. I said I’d help.

I was assigned two 4th graders. Anthony was new to the school. Ian had had a reading buddy since 1st grade. I’ve never had any formal training in teaching reading, and wondered how much I would be able to help. “Just help them to see that reading isn’t something to be feared,” the coordinator said. “Try and make it fun.”

At our first meeting, Anthony told me he hated reading. He could read, but it was a struggle. He picked out a graphic novel and, with a heavy sigh, started to read.

It soon became apparent that he found the very act of reading to be physically taxing. Every minute or two, he would stop, apologize, and yawn loudly. I asked him if he hadn’t slept well, and he said no, he’d gone to bed early. It was just that reading hurt his brain.

I decided to ask him about his interests and his life. He was into Minecraft. He lived with his mother, and she had a boyfriend, but I was never sure if the boyfriend lived with them or not. He also had a cat. Sometimes, he went to visit his grandmother, and she lived in the country, but he wasn’t sure where. Somewhere in Oregon. Kids at school were always mean to him, but he had one friend, Gabe. He hoped to have a sleepover with Gabe some day.

My other reading buddy, Ian, I soon discovered, was not really going to read aloud to me. His agenda was to play Dungeons and Dragons, as well as share his own comic books. They were miniature, and I marveled at how small his writing was. I also told him that I thought the title of the story he was writing, “The Knight in Shiny Shorts,” was fantastic. He shrugged off the praise, but at the end of our very first meeting he told me he was sad about the end of the school year. “You are?” I asked, astonished. “Why?” This was October. There were months to go. “Because your kid’s in fifth grade, and he’ll leave the school, and I won’t have you as a reading buddy any more.”

I met with them every week. Ian eventually lost interest in Dungeons and Dragons, and became obsessed with The Guinness Book of World Records.” We read every page of every edition from 2007, the year he was born. Anthony, for his part, still yawned a lot, but he seemed happy to read books on Minecraft. He also liked the “I Survived” Series, as well as a graphic novel series called Stick Dog. Graphic novels allowed him to do what he was best at: read dialogue with great expression. “Anthony, I told him. “Maybe you should think about being an actor.” He smiled slightly, shyly.

A week before the end of the school year, the reading buddies, student and adult, were invited to a pizza party. The coordinator gave out certificates to each student participant, and they were then let loose on the pizza, cookies, and juice. I gave both Ian and Anthony a card, saying how much I’d enjoyed spending time with them. Quietly, Anthony said he had a present for me in return.

He handed me a gift bag. In it, there was a lollipop and a little blue cat. Folded in a handmade yellow card were two dollars. “Thank you, Anthony,” I told him, knowing that this was a substantial sacrifice for him. “Read the card,” he said.

I opened the card. In it were words which I will always treasure, and which made every minute of being a reading buddy worthwhile. Words which surely would delight every teacher, every reader, every writer.

Anthony had written: “To my reading buddy. I appreciate everything you did. It changed my life and helped me read. Thanks."

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast -- A Review by Caroline Starr Rose


Clark writes with a lyrical and appealing rhythm, as she viscerally explores childhood emotions of fear and anxiety relating to bullying, abandonment, and getting lost. 
-- Publishers Weekly

An unforgettable, life-affirming tale. 
-- Booklist

With a sharp focus on the isolated protagonist and his internal struggle, it is character development that shines most clearly, though the external environmental dangers and the mystery keep the suspense taut….A poignant story. 
-- School Library Journal

This first novel from Clark offers unusual imaginative and emotion-driven introspection, earning its several allusions to The Little Prince.
-- Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books


I’m a long-time fan of survival stories. I even wrote one of my own. The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast is a wonderful new addition to the genre.

The story begins with a Boy waking up on a beach. The Boy doesn’t know how he got there. He doesn’t know his history. He can’t even remember his name. He soon comes to realize a Beast lurks in the woods.

Survival stories face unique challenges, especially when a character is all alone. There are no other characters to play off of. That means there’s no one to talk to, either! The brilliant solution in the movie Castaway was the addition of the volleyball, Wilson. In The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, the Boy must face a Bully — an antagonistic version of himself. Like Wilson, the Bully let’s readers listen in to the Boy’s world. We hear his doubts and struggles firsthand.

Survival stories are deeply internal. They often rely on backstory and memories. As the Boy struggles to remember who he is and how he might find his way home, he is faced with pieces of his past. Sometimes they seem real enough to touch. Some memories are hopeful and warm. Some leave him feeling inadequate and even more alone. And as the Boy gets glimpses of his history, readers get a clearer picture of the Boy.

Of course, survival stories must also be external. There are physical challenges. Struggles. Obstacles that feel impossible to overcome. This story has all that, too.  

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast takes the survival genre one step further in ways it would be unfair for me to share. The story must speak for itself. But I can promise you this is memorable and powerful read --  as Booklist describes it, an unforgettable, life-affirming tale. 

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let's Talk More About . . . Fear, by Anne Nesbet

I've been putting together a set of teaching materials (under the rubric of "History through Primary Sources") to accompany The Orphan Band of Springdale, which tells the story of 11-year-old Gusta Neubronner's arrival in the rural town of Springdale, Maine, in 1941, and so I find I've been thinking a lot about a topic that doesn't get an enormous amount of treatment in middle-grade books: fear

"Wait!" you say. "There are lots of scary books out there! And--ahem--look at your cover, Nesbet--that does NOT look like a book about fear--"

 Well, right. I don't mean the kind of fear that makes a zombie story so delicious. I am interested in exploring the way "fear" wriggles into our brains and gets us to do sometimes hurtful things, as if fear itself were a rational reason.This sneaky, powerful kind of fear is very much at work today--and it was very much at work in 1941.

Here's the basic blurby version of what The Orphan Band of Springdale is about:

It’s 1941, and tensions are rising in the United States as the Second World War rages in Europe. Eleven-year-old Gusta’s life, like the world around her, is about to change. Her father, a foreign-born labor organizer, has had to flee the country, and Gusta has been sent to live in an orphanage run by her grandmother. Nearsighted, snaggletoothed Gusta arrives in Springdale, Maine, lugging her one precious possession: a beloved old French horn, her sole memento of her father. Gusta finds herself facing patriotism turned to prejudice, alien registration drives, and a family secret likely to turn the small town upside down.

In Springdale, Maine, in 1941, people are afraid of a great number of different things:

--having family secrets exposed;
--labor organizers and Communists;
--vision charts (and other tests they cannot pass);
--Germans and in general anyone with "foreign" names;

The fear of cows doesn't necessarily cause a lot of harm (though it's embarrassing if your family runs a dairy), but some of these other fears can reshape our view of the world and affect the way we treat the people around us. 

In 1940 the United States passed a law known as the "Smith Act" or the "Alien Registration Act." One of its provisions was that all non-citizens ("aliens"), no matter how long they had been living in the United States, had to go in to an official place (often the post office), fill in forms and be fingerprinted. 

The local effects of this new law can be seen in the Sanford Tribune (the real-life newspaper covering the area of my fictional "Springdale"):

In my teaching materials about the Smith Act, I ask some questions about this article, and the way it must have affected the residents of Sanford-Springvale when they read it:

What word is used here to describe people who are not United States citizens? What effect does that word have, do you think?

If you came from a French-Canadian family and had been living in the Sanford area for a long time (generations, perhaps), but had not switched your official citizenship to "United States," what did the new law make you do?
What words in this article might worry you, if you were a non-citizen in 1941?

What would the effect of this article be on someone who WAS a citizen in 1941? What new thoughts about their non-citizen neighbors might the article make them have?

Notice how the words "person" or "people" do not appear once in this article. The people without U. S. citizenship--the same people who used to just be your neighbors on the next street--have been entirely transformed into "aliens."

In The Orphan Band of Springdale, the characters are afraid of all sorts of different kinds of things. At one point Molly Gowen, one of Gusta's classmates, argues that registering "aliens" is "just trying to be careful": 

As the narrator comments, "Some conversations are like two people picking their way toward each other across a swamp." And fear is very hard to talk about. Some of Molly's fears seem pretty reasonable, right? But some of them have serious side-effects, like getting the Sheriff wondering whether Gusta or the German refugee oculist Mr. Bertmann belong in town at all.

Here's how Gusta responds to Molly: 

"Even if my papa came here from Germany, haven't you ever thought for one minute that some people might leave Germany becausethey don't agree with what the Nazis are doing? Haven't you thought for a moment how dangerous it would be, to be someone who disagrees with what the Nazis think? If someone like my father put his foot into Germany, you know what they would do? They would lock him up! And then they would probably kill him."

Fear is a complicated feeling with complicated effects--which I guess means it is exactly the sort of thing middle-grade fiction should bravely explore. Fear can make us do hurtful things--but it can also make us cautious (which isn't always bad)--and it can even inspire us to be brave, despite our fear.  I realize now, thinking it over, that there are examples of all sorts of different reactions to fear (hurtful actions, cautious actions, brave actions) in The Orphan Band of Springdale. I didn't know this book about love and family and courage and music would turn out also to be a book about fear, but I'm glad it did.

Let's dig thoughtfully into ALL the tangled feelings and emotions and motivations in our books--in our reading and our writing!