Tag Archives: middle grade


So pretty!

Look, I’m feeling too lazy right now to come up with a more creative blog post title.

Wonderstruck (Scholastic Press 2011) is Brian Selznick’s much-anticipated follow-up to his rule-breaking, genre-bending, Martin Scorsese-adapting, Caldecott-winning middle grade novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Using the same mixture of prose and wordless illustration that made Hugo such a critical darling, Wonderstruck tells the story of two kids, born 50 years apart, who are just trying to find their place in the world.  In 1977, Ben (whose story is told almost entirely in words) is going through the house that he used to share with his recently deceased mother when he comes across evidence of the father he’s never met. Just as he’s picking up the phone to follow a lead on his dad, lighting strikes the phone lines and Ben is seriously injured, losing his hearing in the process. While in the hospital, Ben impulsively decides to sneak out and hop on a bus to New York to try and find his father.  He eventually seeks refuge at the American Museum of Natural History when his search comes up with nothing but dead-ends. Meanwhile in 1927, Rose (whose story is told almost entirely in pictures) is a deaf girl who feels trapped in her cold, loveless home.  She copes by sneaking out to the cinema to see movies starring her favorite silent-movie actress.  When she notices that the theater is installing equipment for those new-fangled talkies, she’s so upset that she runs away to New York City to find her favorite actress. It does not go well, so Rose finds sanctuary at the American Museum of Natural History.  Are you sensing a pattern here?  Ben and Rose’s lives continue to parallel before finally intersecting in a really interesting way.

Before I get into the meat of the story, I want to briefly comment on the design of the book. I’m not talking about the illustrations, which except for a few wonky figures,  are gorgeous. I’m talking about things like endpapers, borders, folios, and fonts. AKA things I never really paid attention to before I worked in publishing.  I think with a story like this that is so visual,the book design is crucial.  The design elements aren’t showy, but they add to the magical, old-fashioned children’s book vibe without distracting the reader from the story.

Though it’s still unusual, the mixture of text and illustrations here doesn’t have quite the same novelty that it did with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And for some reason I thought that the two stories would be more segregated, like you would get all of Rose’s story and then all of Ben’s. Instead, Selznick weaves the stories together to truly emphasize how much Rose’s and Ben’s lives parallel each other despite living 50 years apart. I do wish that Rose’s story was developed more though.  I liked that because her story was illustrated that we are forced to use our imaginations more, but it also means that we don’t go as deep inside her head as we do with Ben. The other big problem with the format is that when the two story lines finally intersect, a big expositional wrap-up has to happen in order for the plot to make sense, but it slows the story momentum to a crawl.

Despite those minor gripes, the format of Wonderstruck is still a very effective method of storytelling, particularly in Selznick’s very skilled hands. The style of illustrations combined with the old-fashioned tone of the text gives off a fairy-taleish vibe, though the story is grounded in the real world. I think think that vibe helps the reader overlook some of the more implausible elements of the story (deaf kids run away to New York and nothing too terrible happens?  Umm, ok.) At least the adult readers.  The middle grade target audience is probably already more likely to forgive that kind of stuff.  And though the story is certainly emotional, it never crosses the line to mawkish or cheesy, which would be very easy to do considering the protagonists are two deaf kids who have THE WORST LUCK IN THE WORLD.  I totally cried while reading the book, but never felt like I was manipulated into doing so.

I know the size and page count of Wonderstruck might be intimidating to younger readers, but considering 460 of the 640 pages are illustrations, it takes no time at all to read. So not only do you get to experience a beautiful story, but you get the smug satisfaction of reading a long book so quickly. It’s a win-win! So check it out if you have the chance; it’s worth your time.


You Can Solve Mysteries Without Boxcars (Bet You Didn’t Know That)

Several months ago, when I was at NCTE I had a break and made my rounds of the booths in my normal covert way.  Here’s the deal:  I feel like some publishers frown on giving away galleys to their rivals.  Maybe they don’t understand that I’m just a much a fan of The Mortal Instruments as the next English teacher.  Anyway, I have a complex system that involves stealth, and holding things in front of my badge.  But either way, I always feel guilty picking up galleys.

That’s why I enjoyed Tor Publishing house so much.  Even after I introduced myself and my company, their rep not only talked at length to me about our blog, my favorite books, but also plied me with galleys, and got Bill Willingham to sign me a copy of his new book Down the Mysterly River.

When Bill asked who I wanted to have my book autographed for–I said myself, of course!  I wish I hadn’t packed all my books so you could see the inscription.  Apparently I am very ‘selfish.’

I like to set the stage of my book review by warming you up with pointless, boring anecdotes.  Ready for the real thing?!

Down the Mysterly River begins by introducing us to Max ‘the Wolf,’ a boy scout slash master sleuth.  His mystery of the day is ‘Where Am I and How Did I Get Here?”  Being that he’s a boy scout, and they’re always prepared and such, he isn’t too concerned about how he ended up in a large forest with a talking badger.  Banderbrock (the badger), is pretty certain that he died, and that this is the afterlife, but he’s none too sure, and McTavish the nasty-tempered barn cat and Walden the black bear are iffy on their details as well.  But Max is an experienced detective, and he slowly puts together the pieces of 1) why he’s in an afterlife surrounded by talking animals 2) and why hunters wielding magical blue swords want to destroy him (and his friends).  Their group sets out to reach a wizard’s sanctuary–down the Mysterly River, natuarally–misnamed by McTavish, who is more brawn than brains I’m afraid.  The book isn’t shy about violence, more than you’d expect for most middle grade lit—the Blue Cutters purpose is to remake or ‘cut’ the creatures of this world into ‘better’ or ‘more pleasing’ forms of themselves, and they aren’t above a little torture or murder to do so.  I would like to make a judgement call that it’s no worse than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter–but I’m also not acquainted with any children, so I’m not certain what’s considered appropriate these days.  I can tell you with certainty that it wouldn’t have bothered me at ten.  Most importantly though, this is definitely a book for people that enjoy talking animals, drawings, and some fantasy elements in their children’s books (and luckily I do).  The story is quick-paced and the main characters are all lovable and vaguely familiar (you’ll see why at the end, don’t make me spoil it for you).  Overall, a very enjoyable read–and if I knew any children, I would definitely recommend it to them.

Beware the Braided Kicking Tortoise!

I have a confession to make. Before this week, I’d never read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.

I’m not really sure why. It was certainly around when I was a kid, and I remember others reading it, but somehow in between finding out what wacky hijinks the Babysitter’s Club was going to get into next and reading every book in our town’s library about Pocahontas (it was a thing for a while), I just never picked it up. And so last weekend, my thirty-two year old self made her way to the children’s section of my local library and took the residents of Sunset Towers for a spin.

Two months after moving into the new, modern apartment building of Sunset Towers (which doesn’t really face the sunset or have any towers), sixteen of the building’s residents are called to the estate of the late Sam Westing, town millionaire and owner of the Westing Paper Company. There, the hodgepodge group finds out that not only are they all potential heirs to the Westing fortune, but that only one will claim the inheritance – the one who wins the Westing game and discovers the killer of Sam Westing. Teams are formed, clues are uncovered, and the game is on!

As the story unfolds, secrets are discovered about each of the potential heirs, and their stories begin to weave together into an intricate tapestry that connects the group of seemingly unrelated people. The more that is discovered about each of the players, the more it becomes apparent – both to the characters and the reader – that no one is who they seem, and that the biggest mystery of all could be Westing himself.

This is the sort of book I think I would have loved as a kid. It’s a puzzle to figure out as you are reading. As an adult, it was a fun read, but I didn’t love it the way I know many people do. But I found myself absorbed in it, particularly the last half, when all the pieces started to fall into place and I felt invested in the characters. I like the way Raskin connected everyone in the story without the connections seeming too trite or unrealistic. It was easy to believe that Sam Westing had been a part of the lives of all of these people, and through them, it was fascinating to uncover who the man himself had been.

Will it goes down as one of my favorite books? No, but I see why it is for those who were lucky enough to read it when they were a kid. And for those of us who weren’t, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend spending an afternoon getting to know Turtle Wexler and her fellow heirs.