Friday, July 19, 2013

Spotlight on Middle Grade Books

Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin

The moon has disappeared but only Rendi seems to notice, and only he seems to hear the plaintive moaning of the sky each night.  After running away from home, Rendi ended up in the Village of Clear Sky where he is working as a chore boy at the inn.  Rendi wants desperately to forget his past, ignore the “sobbing sky” and get away from this “poor, pitiful” village.  But when the mysterious Madame Chang arrives and begins telling stories, Rendi finds he is soon telling his own story and figuring out what he really wants.

Lin weaves her own versions of Chinese folktales and myths into the story -- “Foolish Old Man Moves the Mountain,” “Why Rooster Calls the Sun,” “Chang’e and Houyi the Archer,” and others -- flavoring it with the traditional while making it her own.  Similar in style to her Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky is a companion book (not a sequel) to that novel.

Framed, full-color, Chinese-style illustrations are interspersed throughout.

Flowing language and stories within a story make this a wonderful choice to read aloud.  Use it as an introduction to Chinese culture or just something different from the more familiar Western tales.

by Sage Blackwood

Life in the Urwald is dangerous, and no one knows that better than Jinx whose father was killed by werewolves and whose mother was carried off by elves.  In the Urwald just getting enough food to eat is rare, so when the harvest is poor and there’s a new baby in the hut, Jinx’s stepfather takes him into the woods to abandon him.  Luckily for Jinx, a wizard named Simon finds him, saves him from trolls, and takes him in.  Although Simon is cranky and neglectful, at least he doesn’t hit Jinx (“not even once”) and he bakes pumpkin pies.  It’s a better life than what Jinx had before, that is until the day Simon performs a spell that takes away some of his deep Urwald magic.  Before Simon’s spell, Jinx had the ability to see inside people’s thoughts -- not actually to see what they were thinking, but to see colors and shapes that helped him understand what they were feeling.  When Simon takes this sixth sense, Jinx feels angry and lost, and determined to find a way to get it back, he sets off into the Urwald where he meets two others who are working to undo their own curses.  Together they travel to the very place Simon told him to avoid -- the home of the Bonemaster.

Dialogue, particularly between these three, is smart and funny, and I think it’s the best part of the book.  Fantasy readers will enjoy much that is familiar -- witches, wizards, trolls, werewolves -- and plenty that is fresh in this imaginative tale.  My guess is they’ll be eagerly looking forward to the next book about Jinx due out in January.

One Came Home
by Amy Timberlake

13-year-old Georgie Burkhardt has a head for numbers; she can shoot just about anything with her Springfield single-shot rifle; she’s stubborn, claustrophobic, and smart.  And even though she watched as the town buried the body, she is doggedly determined to prove that her sister is alive, because, as she points out, “My sister would never die and then lie there.  It made no sense.” (6)

The search for her sister brings Georgie more adventure than she bargains for: she faces down a cougar, stumbles upon counterfeiters, and ends up in a shootout.

This story takes place in Wisconsin in 1871 during the largest nesting of passenger pigeons ever recorded.  It’s hard to imagine these large birds filling the sky and, as Georgie describes it, drawing “a shade on the sun” (13) so that in the middle of the day darkness falls.  And it’s hard to imagine a nesting that encompasses 850 square miles.  You won’t see it in your lifetime, but you can see it through Georgie’s eyes.

Zebra Forest
by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Sixth-grader Annie doesn’t have much adventure in her life.  She lives on the outskirts of the small town of Sunshine with her brother, Rew, and her mentally unstable Gran, who lately has had more bad days than good.  The only excitement Annie has had in the past year is when she watched The Iran Crisis: Americans Held Hostage with Ted Koppel on TV at her friend’s house.  Now it is summer, her friend is at camp, and the most exciting thing Annie has to look forward to is spending the summer afternoons reading and making up stories with her brother in the Zebra Forest -- a stand of white birch and chocolate oaks behind their house.  Then one night, Annie hears a rattling at the back door.  An escaped prisoner comes out of the Zebra Forest, forces his way into their kitchen, and holds Annie and Rew hostage.

What happens next changes not just their summer, but their lives.  Family secrets are exposed and each member must find a way to deal with those revelations.  At times suspenseful, always thoughtful, this story explores anger, mistakes, responsibility, and forgiveness in a way that is both emotionally honest and powerful.

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