Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions: Middle Grade Fiction

There’s no way around it—realistic fiction for the middle grade reader is likely to have a message of some kind. It’s even likely to be a so-called “problem novel.” And, in a Newbery contender kind of way, it might just feature a troubled child of about 10, often left in a small Southern town with a bunch of colorful characters. Think coming-of-age story.

Of course, this doesn’t mean such books aren’t good. In fact, the five I’m going to introduce today are all very good reads. It’s also true that other types of books, such as fantasy, have messages. I'm guessing there’s no such thing as a book without some kind of message!

Having come full circle, then, I’ll talk about excellent middle grade reads and the New Year's resolutions they might suggest. Three of the books are entirely realistic; the other two have elements of magical realism.

Almost Home by Joan Bauer

I like this author’s books very much, so I was happy to read her latest. Sugar Mae Cole is trying to keep it together, but life is falling apart for her and her mother—with no help from Sugar’s unreliable, mostly-absent father, who has a gambling addiction. Sugar’s mother is sweet, but starts to lose it when she and Sugar are evicted. Pretty soon the two of them are in Chicago, homeless.

Sugar has a lovely if slightly unusual support system. Even after she leaves town, her English teacher Mr. Bennett is there for her. “E-mail me,” he says, and eventually she does. Then Sugar finds a frightened puppy and manages to keep it even when she gets dropped into the foster care system. A group home is rough, but she ends up with a couple who are kind to her. This doesn’t go over well with her mother, who is still in a shelter, still struggling. Sugar handles her divided loyalties as best she can. She also helps her fearful puppy, too, reassuring herself at the same time. Slowly, Sugar's life takes on a new shape.

Bauer may be prone to overly tidy endings, but I’m good with that. I believe a children’s book should end on a note of hope—as long as it’s not sicky-sweet. Sugar’s life has improved by the last page, but it’s still not going to be an easy road. Sugar is a thoroughly likable character, and I’m rooting for her all the way into that fictional future of hers. Bauer’s portrait of homelessness may end more happily than most such scenarios in the lives of actual children, but it will certainly clue young readers in to how hard it is to be poor and adrift. That kind of empathy will serve them well in this life where so many people are in difficult situations.

Resolution: Awful as life may get, there are good people (and dogs) in this world. I will reach out to them.

Note: Here’s my review of Close to Famous, the book Bauer wrote before this one.

A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

By the time you finish this book, you may forget you are reading a story with magical realism in it, which is fine. The most important thing about Cally Fisher is that her mother just died and her father is too grief-stricken to do much of anything for his daughter. When Cally sees her dead mother at the cemetery, her father tells her to stop talking about it and her aunt explains that it’s wishful thinking. But then Cally sees her mother again. And again.

She sees a dog with her mother, too, a friendly wolfhound that she eventually names Homeless. The dog seems connected to her mother, but he is connected to a homeless man named Jed as well. Cally’s father doesn’t want her to have anything to do with the dog or the man, but they keep appearing in Cally’s life.

Cally’s best friend at school dumps her just as she and her father and brother move into an apartment. Starting with a fund-raising challenge at school to go all day without talking, Cally decides not to talk anymore at all. Still, she makes friends with Sam, the boy downstairs who apparently has cerebral palsy and is blind and mostly deaf. Cally is diligent and kind-hearted in her efforts to be a true friend to Sam. Meanwhile, her family finally notices that Cally has stopped talking.

This book is a little heavy-handed with its message and its plot points, but I still liked it. Cally is an interesting character in that she seems to be a little hyperactive, which makes school and social situations harder for her. Her silence is out of character, but it says what no one seems to be hearing otherwise: “Hey, I’m really upset here!” As the book ends, the dog takes on a whole new meaning for Cally and her family, wrapping things up nicely.

I will just add that some would argue that Cally imagined seeing her mother, but the book as a whole seems to say otherwise. I’m in with the magical realism (or maybe faith) on that one.

Resolution: If no one’s listening, I’ll try being quiet and doing something for someone who needs my help.

Fourmile by Watt Key

I will warn you up front that this is a gritty book, pretty violent by MG standards. The author’s website lists it as “YA/9 and up.” That may sound a little conflicted, but I do think Fourmile
might be a good fit for some 5th through 8th graders as well as for readers in their teens, especially boys. Southern writer Key has written two other books with strong male characters in tough situations: Alabama Moon and Dirt Road Home. All three include a certain amount of violence, though all three end on a note of realistic hope. (I’m particularly fond of Alabama Moon.)

Fourmile is the story of a 12-year-old boy named Foster whose dad has died recently. His mother is about to lose the farm and is dating an unpleasant man named Dax. Foster rightly dislikes Dax and tries to protect himself, his mother, and his dog Joe as best he can—which isn’t much. When a Shane-like character comes walking up the road with his backpack and a dog, Foster instantly latches onto him, and the man, Gary, stays a while doing work on the farm. Naturally, Dax and Gary clash. Gary’s secret past comes back to haunt him, but not before Gary fights back against Dax and his thuggish friends to protect Foster and his mom.

Fourmile is a heart-wrenching story that is ultimately about fathers and father figures, good and bad. Gary can’t solve Foster’s problems or his mother’s—Gary can’t even solve his own. But he can give Foster and his mother a little courage for grabbing hold of the future.

Watt Key is good at writing adventure-suspense novels for boys, but these books are character driven. Key is good at showing just how hard it is to be human. And at showing how people can keep going just the same. There's a reason this book got three starred reviews!

Resolution: I can't make exactly the life I want, but I will still make a life for myself.

The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell

When sixth grader Abigail Walker stands up to her mean little group of friends at school, they turn on her. She has been trying to be “the most medium of the medium girls,” but it’s not working anymore. The girls especially tease her about her weight. Her own father gives her a hard time about it. But, like she tells herself, she’s only 17 pounds heavier than her friends. Is that so terrible?

Abby slowly makes new friends with a couple of school outcasts, who are very nice, but her former “friends” won’t leave her alone. Meanwhile, her mother makes things harder by insisting that everything be lovely and positive at all times. This insistent Panglossian approach winds up exposing Abby to more bullying.

There are new events in Abby’s life, however. She has been nipped by a strange fox and has found something else to think about after crossing a stream, led by a dog. Here’s where the magical realism comes in. Well, in some ways things on the other side of the stream are ordinary. Abby gets to know a boy named Anders, along with his grandmother and his troubled father. Anders’ father is suffering from post-traumatic stress after serving in Iraq.

The fox, however, is magic. Or more properly, mythic. Short chapters here and there in the book are told from the fox’s perspective. The fox follows stories, winding in and out of people’s lives, and you would think she would remain unscathed. But she has been hurt by recent events in a far-off land, and she is not the same, after all. I realize some readers will be put off by these interludes and by the fox’s brief interactions with the other characters, but what is Dowell doing with all this? Bullying is like war, maybe. Human hurt and human suffering for no real reason. And the damage done is incalculable, even epic. It is deserving of stories, of symbols and heroes. Something like that.

This book talks about bullying in unusual and effective ways. Ask yourself, for example, in what way Abby’s parents are bullying her. Abby doesn’t think of this, precisely. Her focus is mostly on her struggles with the other girls. In one amazing passage, Anders asks Abby what the two mean girls can actually do to her. She thinks for a bit about how to explain it, then says, “They can kill you… Only, other people don’t know that you’re dead. Only you know, on the inside.”

This isn’t just a book about bullying; it’s about hope. It’s about looking at the bigger picture and becoming a bigger person. Abby’s second life isn’t just about crossing the stream. It's about helping someone with worse troubles than hers. It’s about growing into a life that isn’t medium size at all.

The Second Life of Abigail Walker is an odd little book. It is also one of my favorite books of 2012.

Resolution: I will not let petty people define and limit me.

Note: Gotta hand it to the Brits. The UK cover shows a girl who’s a little overweight and is facing the viewer with hope and moxie. But the U.S. cover gives us a girl who doesn’t look the least bit overweight. She is shown mostly from the back, staring away from the viewer. She is blandly pretty and very much sans moxie. I swear, one of these days I’m going to move to London!

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

This book has been getting some Newbery talk, so I put it on my To Read list and finally got to it. Did I mention books about girls getting dumped in small Southern towns full of colorful characters? Yep, this one embodies that scenario. But let’s move past that and consider Turnage’s work on its own merits.

Mo (Moses) LoBeau washed up in a little town in North Carolina when she was still a baby during a terrible hurricane. A man most people just call the Colonel rescued her, and now he and Miss Lana are basically her parents. Only, the Colonel wound up with amnesia during the storm, so he doesn’t know about his past. As for Mo, she wonders and wonders about her “Upstream Mother.” The people of Tupelo Landing help her drop messages in bottles farther up the river for her missing mother to find.

But that’s not how the book begins. It starts like this:
Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt. Almost before the dust had settled, Mr. Jesse turned up dead and life in Tupelo Landing turned upside down.
Pretty soon Mo has inserted herself and her buddy Dale into a murder investigation. She is also curious about why Detective Joe Starr seems fixated on finding out the Colonel’s secrets. Plus Dale has a guilty secret of his own, though it means he might be able to help with the investigation.

The plot swirls and twirls around Mo, who doesn’t stop moving herself. As you can probably tell from the pass above, Mo has a bright and strong voice, which is what really makes the story. Three Times Lucky is a vivid, fast-paced read that manages to address questions like “What is family?” while solving more than one mystery. All with the help of Moses LoBeau, naturally.

Resolution: I will stick my nose in whenever possible and find out what's really going on.

Now, if none of these resolutions work for you, try this one on for size: This year I will read some very good books!

Note for Worried Parents: As mentioned above, Fourmile is decidedly violent and unsettling. That is, it is appropriate for older children and teens, but may be a little too rough for some parents. The violence is not constant, though a threatening mood hovers over most of the book and some sad, painful things happen. There is something ultimately hopeful and definitely human about the book, but it is not an easy read. 


Irene Latham said...

Hi Kate - just popped over to congratulate you on WATER SINGS BLUE making the Cybils short list - what a gorgeous book! As for middle grade, I am loving the resurgence of dog books and am a huge fan of Watt Key (and not just because we live in the same state!). Also, I got a kick out of the audio version of THREE TIMES LUCKY. Love me some southern adventure. Happy new year to you!

KateCoombs said...

Thanks so much, Irene! I know--whole lotta dog books going on! Though one of the dogs in this set of books dies, and that always makes me think of Gordon Korman's book, No More Dead Dogs. :)

Ms. Yingling said...

It is funny how many dog books there were this year. Ididn't care at all forThree Times Lucky (I have a quirky/Southern allergy), but like most of the rest you mentioned!

KateCoombs said...

Ms. Y--Well, I will say I liked Fourmile and The Second Life of Abigail Walker the best. :)