Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Torg's Top MUST READ books: Middle Grade Fiction

Ok. I haven’t blogged in a while, and I have read some top ten book list blogs lately, and it has me inspired to do my own. So, each week, I will feature a different genre and highlight my favorite books in that genre.

So here we go! Today’s genre:

Torg’s Top Middle Grade fiction

As a teacher of middle school, this is where in the past, I have done the most of my reading to prepare for teaching my students. I have taught 6th grade, 7th grade, and now I am currently teaching 8th grade. In that time, some of these books I have had to read because I teach them, and some I have come across in trying to find age appropriate books that will pull reluctant readers in and engage them. So, in no particular order, are the top middle grade books everyone should read.

1.       Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbruck
 “I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that’s the truth, the whole truth. The unvanquished truth.”

In a world where bullying and people feel left out and disconnected from others, this book, even though it was published in 2001, still resonates in a way that in undeniable. This is a book that makes even the most reluctant “I don’t like reading and never will, it’s boring” reader turn the page for more. And if you already like reading, then you’ll fall more in love with books.

For anyone who thinks all middle grade books are full of snot picking and fart humor, this book will introduce you to a whole new world, one where middle grade fiction can be full of heart and humor, and weighty issues such as pre-judgment, overcoming obstacles, how the disabled and handicapped are treated, and death.

The narrator, Max Kane, is the classic school bully doomed to a life in special education classes. At over 6 feet at only 12, he’s managed to use his physical presence to get by. He’s been told his whole life how dumb he is and he believes it. So he uses brute force and his absentee father’s reputation as a convicted killer to shrink away from anyone who would ever come close to him.

The real heart of the book is when Max meets Kevin, aka Freak. At first, Max wants nothing to do with Freak, but soon Freak breaks through Max’s defense because he is the first one to see Max as something other than a bully, he sees Max as an equal. Together, with Max’s brawn and Freak’s brain, they become one whole unit as Freak the Mighty, slayer of dragons, rescuer of fair maidens, and believer in all things. Together they take on school bullies, a flawed education system, and eventually Killer Kane himself.

Even as I type this, I get misty thinking about this book. The story unfolds in a beautiful way, and we see how these two misfits who don’t seem to fit in anywhere, find each other. The way Philbrick crafts this book is a study in character creation. Yes, the plot moves the story, but seen through the eyes of Max and Freak together, we see how much they need each other and how each of them completes the other. They are perfect foils to use a literary term.

Suffice it to say, if you haven’t read this book, I do not care how old you are, get it NOW. And while you’re out, get some tissues. You’re gonna need them.
This one has a tissue index of: how many tissues are in a box?

2.       Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

"Maybe there's a little bit of Jesus inside of all of us. Maybe Jesus is just that something good or something sad or something...something that stays with us and makes us do stuff like help Trevor up, even though he's busy cursing us out. Or maybe...maybe Jesus is just that thing you had when the Jesus Boy first got here, Samantha. Maybe Jesus is the hope that you were feeling."

A sixth grade girl is changed forever when a new kid arrives one day. Frannie, the narrator, becomes a tad obsessed with the new kid, nicknamed “Jesus boy” because he is white and has long hair. In an all-black community in the 1970’s, it wasn’t everyday a new white kid joined the class. Jesus boy seems to be not only odd, but soon Frannie’s bestie (a preacher’s daughter) starts believing he actually IS Jesus. With his calm manner and his avoidance of conflict, Frannie begins to believe it too.

Woodson tackles issues like bullying, prejudice, and disability with beauty and elegance without ever getting preachy about it. And Frannie as a character, who has endured a lot of pain, poverty, and judgment about her older deaf brother, never loses hope that things will be better. Frannie is an inspirational character who is a great example that a strong heroine doesn’t have to be about muscles. Quiet strength and faith are just as much of a force to be reckoned with.

Frannie’s grandmother is always there to give her advice about the world and her place in it. Though it is simple, the story hits hard with lessons about doing the right thing, even when it isn’t easy.

This is a quick read and can be done in a night. This is a great one to read with your kids because it will inevitably bring up questions and discussions about faith, hope, and how to treat others.
Torg’s tissue index:  two

3.       Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

“It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

What is there really to say about this book? So much that it is hard to pare down. As a teacher of literature one thing I will go on record saying is that Harry Potter will, like it or not, will stand the test of time as a classic. Rowling pretty much wrote this generations’ Star Wars.

I am the first one to admit I am not a fan of fantasy. I really don’t read it because I don’t relate. Even when I was a kid and everyone around me fantasized about living in a castle and riding unicorns, I was wondering what it would be like to travel through time and live in space. Still, to this day, if I had a choice to read about the renaissance or modern day history, I will always choose the modern. It’s in my blood. Which is why Harry Potter is all the better of a book.

Because if you can make me, a self-professed non fantasy reader, read and enjoy fantasy, you are doing something right.

It is the classic tale of an everyman who ends up finding out he is the one meant to save everyone, at least Muggles anyway. The thing I love about Harry Potter is that even though there is attention paid to building the world of Hogwart’s, readers are not drowned in a sea of fantastical jargon and otherworldly creatures. Are they in there? Sure. But they aren’t what drives the story.

Classism, family, and friendships are what the story is about. Everything else is a side note. So, I am able to believe in this world and love these characters as if they were my friends because I know them inside and out. I know their interests, personalities, quirks, and their entire families. Rowling weaves a tale so strongly bound by family and relationships that rather than me thinking “here we go with trolls and dragons”, I think “Is someone going to get hurt? Will they go back for Harry?” These are the things that pull me through the pages.

Not to mention, I love how Rowling takes cues from Greek and Roman mythology rather than relying on just the typical “fantasy” type beings. Cerberus, a phoenix, and a bit of Pandora ’s Box all make appearances.

It is a book series that will stand the test of time as not only great world building, wonderful craft and structure, and damn entertaining storytelling.
This one has a tissue index of: one to ten depending on which book you are reading.

4.       The Giver by Lois Lowry

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

The Giver was my first dystopian novel I ever read aimed directly at teens. Before then my experience in science fiction dsytopic worlds were always for adults; the classics like Brave New World or 1984. Those books were my favorite in school. And still, when I think about them, I think about how amazing they still are. They continue to fuel my imagination as a writer.

But what Lois Lowry did was what I would call nothing short of amazing. She made dystopia reachable to teenagers. She asked the big questions all dsytopic writers ask: “What if?” And every year, as I teach this novel, I fall in love with it all over. It is simply put, one of the best books ever written, period. And it is the best book for teens specifically.

The plot is simple. Jonas lives in a utopian society where everything is wonderful. No poverty. No greed. No hunger. No war. Everyone is happy. Until Jonas receives his Assignment and meets his mentor and trainer, The Giver. Soon, the perfect world he lives in is uncovered bit by bit to be dark, twisted, and horrifying.

Lowry’s prose is gorgeous, her descriptions poignant, and the way she delivers one twist after another, it awes me. She pulls me into this futuristic world by making me think it is one thing, then as we figure out the rules for the world, she pulls the curtain back, revealing the darkness behind each rule.

The book is an easy read for most middle schoolers, but the content and ideas should be discussed. She uses symbols, allusions, character foils and it’s only as you get further into the book, you realized the things you thought you read, were never there.

Lowry is a master at her craft. And the ending? It is my favorite part. Though it is a bit polarizing, it leaves the reader without a clear resolution. The ending is interpretive and it is for each reader to understand for themselves. It was a bold move, and I think it worked.

If you have never read it, you must. Again, a short read, only 180 pages. You won’t regret it.
This one has a tissue index of: five tissues

5.       Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

“It seems to me that we can’t explain all the truly awful things in the world like war and murder and brain tumors, and we can’t fix these things, so we look at the frightening things that are closer to us and we magnify them until they burst open. Inside is something that we can manage, something that isn’t as awful as it had a first seemed. It is a relief to discover that although there might be axe murderers and kidnappers in the world, most people seem a lot like us: sometimes afraid and sometimes brave, sometimes cruel and sometimes kind.”

This is a perfect instance where you cannot judge a book by its cover. I wish the folks who did the cover would get off their butts and change it though, because this is a book I never wanted to pick up. It just looked “boring.” I have never been more wrong in my life.

This book is everything a book should be: meaningful, poetic, rich in character and in verse, story, humor, just everything.

This story is actually a story within a story within a story. It literally has three levels and completely different story strings in it. The first, on the surface, is about a girl, Salamanca Tree Hiddle, who goes on a cross country adventure with her grandparents using the same journey her mother disappeared on many years ago. As she is traveling and stopping at destinations like the Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone, she entertains her grandparents with a story about some of her friends, one Phoebe Winterbottom who shares the experience of a missing mom. As she tells the story of Phoebe’s mom, it begins to mirror her own search. At the same time, Sal’s grandparents tell Sal about how her grandparents met, then about her mom’s childhood and life.

Because the stories interweave, readers are always left wanting more of the story they were hearing, thus keeping them turning the page. At the end, you realized nothing is what you thought and every prediction you made was wrong.

Every character from Sal, to Phoebe, to the grandparents, to the lady with the red hair, comically named Ms. Cadaver, are so rich and developed. Creech writes with beauty and wit and wisdom, but crafts it from a tween’s point of view so effortlessly. Past and present is entwined in a mosaic of words and images that are flawless. It is books like these that make me want to be a better writer. If you have ever wanted to write multiple narratives into one book, you need to read this to see how it is done well.

This book is so much beyond a coming of age story. Again, it is about family bonds, friendships, and garnering the strength to move on even when all you want to do is bury your head in the sand. It is deep and moving. And it is one of the best middle grade books ever written.
Oh yeah…this one has a tissue index of: A WHOLE DAMN BOX.

6.       Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

“She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

This is one of the few middle grade stories that are told with a male protagonist, which is why this is a great book for both males and females. Though Leo is 16 and in high school, this book reads like a middle grade book because of its easy flow and nice pace. It takes the view of Leo, who is curious all people are, about the new girl in school. Susan, who goes by the name of Stargirl, is someone who marches to her own beat.

Stargirl knows everyone’s birthday, dances in the rain, sets her desk up with a tablecloth and flowers in a vase,  and cheers for the opposing basketball teams. At first, people shun her, but soon they begin to appreciate her new ways of approaching life.

However, as time goes by, what people used to love about Stargirl when she was new become the things they make fun of her for now.  Leo, however, continues to see something in her that he can’t let go. But when Leo and Stargirl get close, he asks her to become like everyone else. She obliges, but the light she once had begins to fade. Leo gets stuck between being happy or letting Stargirl go and learns a powerful lesson about acceptance and the cost of individuality.

With a lightness and touch of humor, as usual with Spinelli, we experience how hard it is to be in high school and we relearn the lessons we all know so well. Spinelli is a wizard at creating contemporary novels with characters who live on the fringe of society and his constant message is that we need to look at these people who seem so different from us, and learn from them, perhaps becoming our own version of strange.

After reading Stargirl, you’ll want your very own Stargirl singing songs on the ukulele and buying you your own version of a porcupine necktie. Oh, and you’ll find yourself talking to Mr. Saguaro too.
Tissue rating: 1-2 tissues

7.       Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby

This was a difficult decision for me, whether to put this on the list or not. I decided to put it on here because not of the great storytelling, although it is decent. I put it here for the characterization of a deaf girl who because of her mother’s own fears keep her isolated emotionally and socially from her peers by not letting her daughter learn how to read and understand sign language.

The other reason I put it on this list was for the amazing story of a friendship between animal and human. The story is loosely based in reality.

Joey is a 13 year old deaf girl struggling to fit into a hearing world. Joey was not born deaf, but came to it due to a tragedy that I won’t go into as I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just say she struggles with her mom because her mother is so afraid of anything else happening to her and feels guilty. While it is hard to believe a parent would do such a thing, learning the reason why helps a bit.

But the strongest part of the story is when Joey meets a local scientist who is teaching a chimp how to sign. Through the friendship that forms between Joey and Sukari, Joey begins to learn how to communicate. About midway through the book, the story slides into a slightly different narrative. The story soon changes when Charlie, the scientist, suffers a heart attack and dies, thus leaving Sukari homeless. And without the means or the legal authority to take care of a “wild animal” Sukari has to be taken to a research facility.

There are some pretty horrific scenes not for the faint of heart. I literally cried out loud as I read this section. As an animal lover, it is hard to read. And the fallout is pretty traumatic. Though the bias and slant of this book is pretty evident, it doesn’t take away from the power of the book.

The continual piece threaded throughout the text is that Joey struggles to find her place in a world not made for her, and her trial mirrors Sukari’s search for a safe place of her own. In order to help Sukari, both Joey and her mother must face their fears.

It’s a powerful story of triumph, courage, strength, and forgiveness.
I give it a tissue rating of 5.

So that’s it for now. I may add to this later as I read more books. Middle grade fiction is a tricky thing. You want a book to be not too heavy but to stand the test of time, it needs to hit all the right notes. For me, every single one of these do that, yet all in different ways.

If you read one of these, let me know what you think.

If you have any other recommendations for middle grade must reads, please leave them in the comments below!

Next week: my picks for the top YA books. J




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