Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spring Sampler of Middle Grade Books

It's spring, so that means pale green leaves, tulips, and a fresh bunch of books for middle grade readers.

Chomp by Carol Hiaasen

Why did I want to read this book? I've read Hoot, Flush, and Scat, as well as Hiaasen's mysteries for grown-ups. Hiaasen is a funny, off-the-wall author with a unique Florida setting and environmental focus.

Wahoo Cray's dad Mickey is an animal wrangler with a menagerie of critters in the backyard. Wahoo himself is missing a finger thanks to the family's gator, Alice. (It was his fault, as he is quick to tell anyone who asks.) The first sentence reads, "Mickey Cray had been out of work ever since a dead iguana fell from a palm tree and hit him on the head." Mickey has headaches after the concussion and stops working. Finally his wife goes off to China to teach English in order to pay the bills. So when Wahoo gets a call about a high-paying job for his dad working on a wildlife adventure reality show, he takes it. Only thing is, the show is pretty much a fake, especially its star, Derek Badger, who doesn't know how to treat animals and will eat any small animal (live) as long as he's on camera—but wants lobster and creamy desserts the rest of the time. Naturally, Mickey clashes with Badger, and Wahoo has other troubles when he invites a girl from school who is trying to escape her abusive stepfather to hide out by coming along for the ride into the swamp.

Excellent craft, crazy characters, plenty of action and suspense, comedy, and a great send-up of wilderness reality shows make this another winner from Hiaasen. Our boy Wahoo manages to be a nicely dimensional main character in the midst of the various chase scenes and animal attacks. As for Alice the gator, she practically joins the cast of human characters even as she retains her reptilian nature.

The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith

I like the author's #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and this is a book about "Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case." Better still, it's an early chapter book, which is a nice change for an adult crossover.

The plot is simple: when a school friend is accused of stealing treats from students' lunches, Precious sets out to find the real culprit. The solution is very easy to see from an adult perspective, but young readers may not catch on right away. What I found most interesting was that the child Precious uses her knowledge of human nature as well as sensible tactics to solve the mystery—just as her grown-up self will someday do.

Considering most books for children published in the New York-dominated market are set in the United States, it's refreshing to see an African setting for this age level. The book joins Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus books as a reader-friendly story that will show children in America a little more about life in Africa, in this case Botswana. The book is made all the more effective by its truly lovely illustrations, done by Iain McIntosh in what appears to be woodcut. (The Great Cake Mystery was originally published in Scotland a year ago.)

The book begins: "Haven't you ever said to yourself, Wouldn't it be nice to be a detective?"

Celebrity: Lights, Camera, Cassidy #1 by Linda Gerber

My friend Linda Gerber just launched a new series for tweens, so of course I wanted to check it out.

Speaking of reality TV shows, Cassidy Barnett travels the world with her parents, the stars of a travel show called When in Rome. (Her mother presents cooking, while her father talks about history and culture.) Cassidy is getting some unexpected attention herself since starting a blog about her life traveling with the show. Now she's in Valencia, Spain, and her parents are threatening to send her to live with her grandmother—just because she snuck out of the hotel at 4 am her first morning in Spain and posted some pictures about it on her blog. On the bright side, Cassidy meets a very cute Spanish boy named Mateo whose dad is helping the show, and then her former friend Logan reappears. Gerber has fun with making Cassidy jealous of the two boys when they hit it off and leave her out at times—not the usual triangle!

Cassidy is definitely the st
ar here, but the secondary characters are fun, as well, e.g., Cassidy's tutor Victoria and the show's fixer, Bayani. (You'll pick up a little about the ins and outs of putting on a show like this by reading Celebrity.) Cassidy keeps getting in trouble by using poor judgment, AKA running off having fun. And it turns out one of her photos from that first morning she slipped out puts her in conflict with a local mob boss, eventually attracting a big pack of paparazzi. Cassidy is suddenly a celebrity, and she has to decide how she feels about that.

Here are the first few sentences:
I like a challenge.

My grampa used to say my determination was something that could get me far in life. What he didn't say was that it could also get me in trouble.

This book does have a message, but it's handled fairly lightly. Mostly, I enjoyed
meeting Cassidy and seeing her start off on her adventures. There aren't always a lot of good reading choices for this age group, who are a little young for some of the many dark YA books but aren't always interested in middle grade fiction anymore. Gerber's Lights, Camera, Cassidy series makes an appealing alternative.

Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood St. by Peter Abrahams

I really like Abrahams' Down the Rabbit hole MG mysteries and his YA, Reality Check, so when I saw he was starting a Robin Hood series set in contemporary New York City, I was excited!

Robbie Forester tries to help a dying homeless woman and ends up with her bracelet—which turns out to have magic powers. Little by little, Robbie and her new friends figure out what the bracelet does—but it isn't easy, which makes more sense to me than when the mysterious amulet practically has an instruction manual in some other books. The bracelet helps in fairly illegal ways, trying to achieve justice in classic Robin Hood style. For example, it takes a bunch of money out of a wealthy man's pocket right when he's trying to raise the rent on the local food pantry... Robbie is pretty shocked by all this, and she's also trying to deal with being at a new school and playing on the basketball team. The plot is classic "stop the evil developer," but the premise is new, and Robbie is a likable heroine. Her sidekicks include a boy from Haiti with a severe stutter, another basketball player, and a hacker nerd. Oh, and Robbie's dog, Pendleton. Each character has secrets and struggles.

This first book in what seems to be a series is slightly marred by clich├ęs, but Abrahams is too good with character and storytelling to let that slow him down much. I predict these books will only get better—and Robbie Forester is already a face-paced, clever read for fans of books like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series.

The book begins: "At first I thought it all began with a foul—if an elbow to the head's not a foul, then what is?—but I figured out, maybe not as soon as I should have, that the beginning had come a little earlier."

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

HarperCollins sent me this fairy tale mash-up, which stood out because it features four fairy tale princes after their not-necessarily-happy endings.

Perhaps the funniest
thing in Christopher's send-up is that all four main characters are called Prince Charming, at least by the minstrels. Their real names are Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav, and they are famous for rescuing Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel. But when this book starts off after "The End," things aren't so rosy for our heroes. Two have been dumped by the fair maidens, the third princess wants some alone time, and the last one is a total mean girl. As for the boys, think super prince, metrosexual (really), odd duck, and Viking thug. For an example of the kind of humor here, I'll just tell you that Gustav is the youngest of 17, but his brothers are only a few years older. Seems his mother had two sets of octuplets in short order and then him.

The princes are more or
less randomly on quests and end up trying to rescue a bunch of minstrels from a glory hog of a wicked witch. They meet a sensitive giant, rude dwarfs, and a 10-year-old bandit king. They team up and bicker a lot. They're really pretty funny, especially Duncan, who reminds me a tiny bit of Fregle from the Diary of the Wimpy Kid books and seems to be extra lucky. Duncan really wants some friends, and this is his chance. Each hero is struggling with a different problem, complicating everything else that happens. We also get to meet the four princesses, though we see much less of their adventures. Oh, and there's an extra princess, Prince Liam's little sister. I want to see more of her.

This book is pretty goofy, but it's a rollicking read, and I'm curious to see what happens next. Here are the first few sentences f
rom the prologue:
Prince Charming is afraid of old ladies. Didn't know that, did you?

Don't worry. There's a lot you don't know about Prince Charming.

Storybound by Marissa Burt

I liked Inkheart, and this book sounded like a fresh take on the world of book ch
aracters. Another one from HarperCollins.

Twelve-year-old Una Fairchild is magically sucked into the realm of Story, where she interrupts a hero saving a damsel in distress. Only not really: the two are beginning characters taking an exam, and Una ruins the whole thing. That's before she meets a talking cat named Sam and finds out more about the place she's landed. It's a world where students take classes in villainy and—in Sam's case—eating. A world led by the Tale Master, Mr. Elton, who's pretty unpleasant. As hero Peter Merriweather explains, Una has been Written In, and that makes her a wild card. In fact, Peter and Sam try to keep her a secret as the three play detective to figure out what's going on with Una, the missing Muses, and the person who appears to be conspiring with Mr. Elton.

Storybound begins this way,
Una often told herself that she was invisible. Perhaps that was the reason people passed her in the halls, their eyes skimming over her slight form as if she were part of the scenery: a desk, a book, a classroom, a girl.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, and I think it's because there are a lot of explanations about who the Muses and the Tale Master are and the history of Story and some special books—anyway, quite a bit of backstory. But Una and her friends make a good team, and I like the fact that mean girl Snow's mother teaches Villainy classes. Snow seems pretty bad at times, but she's more dimensional than most characters of her ilk and winds up having her own subplot. I suppose Storybound suffers from being one of those setup books, but the series might turn out just fine.

Pick a spring book, pick some flowers, and breathe that fresh air as you turn the first page!

Spring Note: I planted the tulips in the photo above on our second-floor balcony to keep the deer from eating them.

1 comment:

Ms. Yingling said...

Storybound was hard for me to get into as well.