Friday, December 11, 2009

The Best Middle Grade Fiction: 110 Years' Worth of Books

You thought this was the time of year for endless Christmas carols on the radio and too many cookie choices in your office, but actually, it's the time of year for lists. Here's me jumping on the bandwagon with my Top 50 middle grade books from the twentieth century, followed by an annotated list of my Top 10 (+1) from the first decade of the new millenium. Please note that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Little Women were published prior to 1900, as were Treasure Island and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The books below are funny, heart-wrenching, influential, and flat-out creative. See if there are any you've missed reading, and if there are any you feel I should have listed, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

My Top 50 from the Twentieth Century

--Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (series)
--Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (series)
--Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
--The Borrowers by Mary Norton (series)
--Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
--Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
--Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (series)
--Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
--Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
--The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (series)
--Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
--From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
--The Giver by Lois Lowry
--Half Magic by Edward Eager (series)
--Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (series)
--Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
--The High King by Lloyd Alexander (series)
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
--Holes by Louis Sachar
--Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (series)
--James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (series)
--Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (series)
--A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
--A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
--Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
--Matilda by Roald Dahl
--Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
--Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien
--Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
--The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
--Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
--Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (series)
--Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (series)
--Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
--The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
--Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
--Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
--The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
--Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
--The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
--The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
--The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
--The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
--Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
--The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
--The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
--A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

My Top Ten for the 2000's

In compiling this list, I certainly relied on personal taste, but I'd like to think there was a little more to it than that. All of these books have strong, realistic characters who make you care about them for page after page. The characters inhabit fresh plots, as opposed to stale plods. Their authors also have a way with words, to put it mildly. And humor adds grace notes to each book (or, in the case of Jeff Kinney, creates the melody!).

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

This is one of the best children's books I've read in years and an extra good pick for reluctant boy readers. Moon lives with his survivalist father, a Vietnam vet with a pathological distrust of the government, out in the middle of a forest in Alabama. His clothes are made of animal skins and he's always hungry, but it's the only life he knows. When his father dies, he tries to follow the man's instructions to go to Alaska, but the outside world has other ideas. Pretty soon Moon is applying his survival skills in a boys' home, but he doesn't stay for long, and when he escapes, he takes his new friends with him. Moon is a unique character, just the right combination of strength and vulnerability as he realizes that, unlike his father, he needs other people. The boy is this generation's Maniac Magee.

The Casson Family books by Hilary McKay (Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose)

I am suffused with a true reader's joy whenever I talk up these books about a family of artists in which the kids are all named after paint colors. It's about the only time I act like a car salesman, since I'm usually not the marketing type. How shall I describe the Cassons? The parents aren't particularly good parents, but there's such a core of love at the heart of this family and of these books—along with a great deal of humor, the rich kind that emerges from interactions between strong characters. A friend of mine once said of a situation, "That's so lifey," which is also a good description of McKay's books. Get to know Saffy, Indigo, Caddy, and especially Rose, along with their friends. It might just ruin you for other books!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (series)

Jeff Kinney's wildly popular series is another hit for boys in grades 4-8, but frankly, my 12-year-old niece laughed her head off when she read them. As did I—and I'm practically an old lady! The funniest thing about Greg Heffley is that he doesn't know how self-centered he is, or why people react the way they do in various situations. He's such a perfect embodiment of a middle school boy. The humor here is worthy of a Jerry Seinfeld, with ordinary life writ large. And just when you think author Kinney will zig, he zags. The hand-lettered-style font and cartoon illustrations perfectly complement the writer's narrative.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book has won so many awards that Gaiman had to install a special weight-bearing wall to hold up the shelf he puts them on. Or so I've heard. The fact is, the author is a very talented guy, and his greatest gift is probably his ability to infuse darkness with tenderness. Here he gives us a loose retelling of Kipling's The Jungle Book, only he sets his tale in a cemetery. Bod (Nobody) Owens is our new Boy Who Lived, a baby who escapes when the rest of his family is murdered. Having toddled across the road to the cemetery, the child is adopted by ghosts and given the freedom of the graveyard. Bod's upbringing is utterly unique, yet somehow deeply human. And then there's the humor: it runs through The Graveyard Book like a black ribbon, trimming the story perfectly with its dark shine.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (third book, after The Thief and The Queen of Attolia)

There are only a handful of books I've reread more than once, and The King of Attolia is one of them. You really need to read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia first, and then you should go on vacation, turn off your cell phone, and savor Megan Whalen Turner's craftsmanship along with her story. Gen (Eugenides) is now the king of Attolia, but nobody is ready to acknowledge his role, least of all Gen himself. Still, as a trickster and the former Thief of Eddis, he can't help manipulating the people around him, even if it's usually to try to make things right. These are some of the most real characters I've ever met. Very few authors working on this planet can tell a tale as skillfully or movingly as Megan Whalen Turner, so I'm pleased to note that A Conspiracy of Kings, the next book about Gen, is coming out in March 2010.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (series)

A few years ago, the hot series was The Spiderwick Chronicles. Before that, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events. Will Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series stand strong or head for the sidelines, replaced by the next big thing? All I know is that these lively adventures appeal to reluctant boy readers—perhaps more so than Harry Potter—and that alone endears them to me. Percy Jackson finds out that the reason he's a little out-of-control is because he's the son of a Greek god, Poseidon. Percy turns his energies to fighting evil, aided by new friends from Camp Half-Blood (Hogwarts for demigods): Grover (Ron), an awkward young satyr, and Annabeth (Hermione), a daughter of Athena. Naturally, there's an end-of-the-world prophecy relating to Percy, and young readers will enjoy watching him struggle to fulfill his destiny in this five-book series. Note that a movie version of The Lightning Thief is coming out in February 2010. Riordan is launching a new series based on the Egyptian gods in May 2010—which may mean that Percy Jackson and the Olympians will be sidelined by its very own author!

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo (also Because of Winn-Dixie and The Magician's Elephant)

I just finished reading The Magician's Elephant, and it struck me that Kate DiCamillo is our twenty-first century Aesop. Of course, her fables are long and intricate, though she often pauses to address the reader in the nicest possible way, just as Aesop might if he were telling stories today. DiCamillo also has a fresh way of looking at the world. Her hero is a mouse who happens to be in love with music, as well as with a princess named Pea who is too kind to laugh at his dreams of being a knight errant. As for the villain of the piece, is it the narrow-minded elders who exile Despereaux, or is it Roscuro, the cynical rat brooding in the castle cellars? In a way, there can be no villain, not in a book filled with philosophy, soup, and forgiveness. DiCamillo's work is stylized, but written in such a clear, thoughtful voice that you will wish you could sit down and let her tell you her stories in person.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (also A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith)

The way I see it, Terry Pratchett honed his skills writing satirical fantasy in the form of the Discworld novels for years before focusing on children's books. The Wee Free Men is the story of a young girl living up in the chalk or rather sheep country of a place resembling the English countryside. Tiffany Aching is a witch, only she doesn't seem to know it yet. Nobody notices except the Nac Mac Feegle, a fierce and funny tribe of little blue men along the lines of pixies. That and the forces of evil, which always seem to notice their counterparts. Tiffany is soon caught up in an adventure to rescue her brother from the Queen of Fairyland. But then, plot isn't really as important in a Pratchett book as humor and especially character; the author revels in human nature with all of its quirks and kindnesses. Tiffany Aching is determined to figure things out and do what needs to be done—just like her quiet, tough grandmother once did. Any young reader who delights in fantasy will be happy to meet Pratchett's young witch, she of the big boots and the crew of pesky little blue bodyguards.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This book has evoked comparisons to Harriet the Spy and A Wrinkle in Time, and it's partly an homage to them both. What most touched me was the way the author manages to quietly imbue the smallest details and events with significance. It's as if the whole story were a string of symbols like handmade ceramic beads. And yet this quality of the book does not draw undue attention to itself. It doesn't distract from the simplicity of the storytelling, or from the realism of the characters and their lives. When You Reach Me also surprises—and not just in a Sixth Sense kind of way. The book reminds us that we misunderstand people and their motives every single day of our lives. Yet this is no condemnation. Instead it is merely the way we must share the world, hopefully with kindness and patience, and maybe even with humor. When You Reach Me isn't a hefty tome, but it's powerful. There's something poetic about this book.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (framed by A Long Way from Chicago and A Season of Gifts)

Richard Peck is a Very Good Writer. Better than most people you'll meet, his books better crafted than most you'll read. Did I mention funny? His books have a wry, elegant humor befitting a Jane Austen or a P.G. Wodehouse, so it's almost surprising to encounter it in these tales of a small-town grandmother and her visiting grandchildren. If the best characters in literature could become a pantheon of gods, Mrs. Dowdel would surely be among their number—a mythic trickster and a towering personality. She is also physically towering, armed with a shotgun and hiding her kindness beneath a much-tougher-than-nails exterior. This book is narrated by 15-year-old Mary Alice, who's come to spend the school year with her grandmother because of the Depression and quickly finds herself sucked into the formidable old woman's schemes. Mary Alice expresses what you might feel as a reader after spending time with Mrs. Dowdel: "I knew not to ask. It was just better to go along with her." Go along with these books, starting with A Long Way from Chicago (narrated by Mrs. Dowdel's grandson Joey), followed by A Year Down Yonder and A Season of Gifts.

Special Mention for the New Millenium

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival is one of the most beautiful, haunting books I've ever owned. Other than the deliberately incomprehensible language included in the illustrations, it is entirely wordless. Using sepia tones and grays, the author tells the story of an immigrant to a new land. The immigrant experience at first seems recognizable, but we soon realize that the entire book is set in an imaginary realm. This results in making the story far more universal. We are able to follow the man who immigrates, sharing in his misunderstandings and his attempts to make new friends, as well as in the kindness of those who reach out to help him. The visual narration of The Arrival is touching, yet understated enough that it avoids being saccharine. My favorite part is the way the author manages to show us the reasons different newcomers have fled their homelands. Well, I have a lot of favorite parts. This book calls for a quiet spot and a thoughtful read—and yes, it is a reading experience, its absence of words eloquent.

Suggestions from the Comments

--The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (series)
--Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (series)
--The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
--The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
--Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
--The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
--Tangerine by Edward Bloor
--The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
--The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (I have to remind myself that this is a children's book! Yes, I'd better add it above!)


Gerb said...

Fabulous list, Kate. I would include in my favorites the Artemis Fowl books and The Amulet of Samarkand (the best of the Bartemaus Trilogy, imo) oh, and one of my favorites from years back - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (was that MG or younger?) And I'm sure there are others I am forgetting...

Kate Coombs said...

I know I missed some! Besides which, I made myself stop after a certain point, or I just would have kept going... Those three would be great additions to the list.

Another good one I left out was Ursula LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan (and sequels).

Sheila JG said...

Great list. I loved Alabama Moon and give it to all the boy readers I know. Many of the others you mentioned are favorites of mine, too. My favorites that didn't make your list - The House of The Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and Clementine by Sara Pennypacker.

And like you said, it's so easy to go on and on (The Penderwicks, Tangerine, The Wednesday Wars, Hugo Cabret, etc.). There are so many good ones out there.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Sheila! And you've brought up some more great titles--I'm a big fan of Tangerine, for example, and of course Hugo Cabret is in a class by itself... It's nice to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good books for kids!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Wow, great list! The books I've read from your list I love, so it makes me want to read the others on there. Oddly enough, I just bought that Terry Pratchett book at the used book store yesterday. Next on my list will be the series by Megan Whalen Turner -- they sound like my type of books!

Kate Coombs said...

Oh, enjoy, Sherrie! And Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

I think you've collected a good treasure chest of children's fiction here but I am rather befuddled that Harry Potter should show up on the list while The Hobbit should not.

Kate Coombs said...

xiyiwang--I confess, I personally have a hard time thinking of The Hobbit as a children's book. Although technically, it was published for children, it seems a bit mature in its sensibility and is often read by adults and teens. In any case, The Hobbit is an incredible book that changed the world of fantasy literature--thanks for bringing this up!