Thursday, January 19, 2012

Middle-Grade Favorites: 2011

So, I posted about my favorite picture books a few days ago -- now I thought I'd mention a few great middle-grade novels from 2011.

Middle-grade fiction is the genre most often recognized by the Newbery committee (technically, the award could go to a picture book, early reader, work of nonfiction, poetry, play, etc. -- but those wins are in the minority).  This year I let myself be guided entirely by my own interests, so there are several books out there that are getting a lot of attention from reviewers, Mock Newbery programs, and the like . . . but if I didn't want to read them, I left them alone!  So, it's even more likely this year than other years that the Newbery Medal will go to a book that I've heard about, but haven't read.  (Of course, there's always the possibility that it will go to a book I've never heard about, too.  That's happened before.)  That said, here are my favorites:

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt -- realistic fiction, set in the 1960s.  This book has been a little divisive in some of the online discussions I've read.  There are a few coincidences that some readers may find a little over-the-top.  On the other hand, those of us who love it really love it.  Here's what I wrote about it when I first read it:
Fans of Gary Schmidt may remember tough kid Doug Swieteck from The Wednesday Wars. In Okay for Now, Doug's family moves to a small town upstate New York because his dad has a friend there who can get him a job at the paper mill. Doug's home life is rough, no two ways about it, and he doesn't have a lot going for him. In fact, at the beginning of the book, you might suspect that Doug is just another punk kid headed for juvie -- but then Doug meets Mr. Powell, and the works of John James Audubon. He meets a few caring teachers who are willing to look beyond his rough exterior. He meets Mrs. Windermere, who teaches him a thing or two about creativity and inspiration. And he meets Lil Spicer, who gives him an ice-cold Coke, gets him his first job in her father's store, and teaches him a thing or two about love and friendship.

The real beauty of this book is how Schmidt manages to foreshadow events expertly, but they still come as a surprise to the reader. Life lessons come hard for Doug, and he doesn't get a perfect ending for every little problem. Still, readers will find themselves cheering for him long before they reach the final page.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu -- fantasy; a retelling of the fairy tale "The Snow Queen."  I wrote a summary, but not a review, after I read the book:
Lots of things have changed in Hazel's life recently, and not for the better. Her father has left, and Hazel feels like he is ignoring her, caught up in his new life away from Hazel and her mother. Hazel is now going to public school, instead of the private school she's always attended, and she's having a hard time adjusting. But Hazel always has Jack, her best friend and next-door neighbor. Then one day, after a mysterious accident, Hazel doesn't have Jack any more -- he starts ignoring her, then he disappears without saying goodbye. Hazel doesn't believe that story about him going to visit his elderly aunt -- even Jack's friend Tyler's story about seeing Jack leave the park with a woman in white driving a sleigh pulled by wolves seems plausible, compared to that. Hazel packs her backpack, steps into the forest, and embarks on a quest through a shifting fairy-tale world, where the wolves lurking behind the trees are the least of her worries. As she journeys, the question that arises is, if she finds Jack, will he even want to be rescued?
I found it well-written, funny, true to the experience of childhood, and entirely magical.

Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sarah Pennypacker -- realistic fiction.  This is the fifth book in my favorite early chapter book series, so when I recommend it, I generally recommend starting with the first book (titled Clementine).  However, I think this one does stand on its own fairly well.  In this book, Clementine's parents call a Family Meeting, causing Clementine to wonder what she's done wrong this time -- but the meeting has actually been called because their family is about to increase by one.  Clementine is already a champion big sister, but the uncertainty of adding a third child to what she had always considered a complete family makes her a little anxious.  I just can't express how much I love the Clementine series.  There are plenty of early chapter book series out there with a female heroine, but Clementine manages to never be annoying, which is more than I can say about, for instance, Junie B. or Judy Moody.  I recommend Clementine all the time, foist the books upon young relatives, and talk this series up whenever I can -- it deserves way more recognition than I think it gets, sometimes.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall -- realistic fiction.  This book is also part of a series, but I feel that it stands on its own, possibly even better than the Clementine book.  Here's the review I wrote after I read it:
The Penderwick family is about to be split up for two whole weeks! While Mr. Penderwick and his new bride go to England for their honeymoon, Rosalind has been invited to spend the time with her friend Anna at the Jersey shore, while Aunt Claire and the three younger Penderwicks go to Point Mouette in Maine. Skye is extremely nervous about being the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick), and all three of the girls are disappointed that Jeffrey, their friend from the previous summer, is not going to be allowed to come with them. Then, at the last minute, word comes that Jeffrey's mother has had a change of heart, and he will be joining the girls at Point Mouette. Each of the girls embarks on a project: Skye is determined to keep working on her soccer skills, and make sure that no catastrophes overtake the sisters while they are in her care. Jane is writing her next book about adventure-loving Sabrina Starr, and is determined that, in this book, Sabrina will fall in love. Unfortunately, Jane has no experience in that department herself . . . until she meets silent, skateboard-riding Dominic. Batty begins collecting golf balls from a nearby golf course, and learning how to play the harmonica that Jeffrey gives her -- despite the fact that no other Penderwick has any sort of musical talent whatsoever. Of course, all of these storylines meld together into another sweet, heart-warming summer story of family and friendship, with a few surprises and, yes, minor catastrophes along the way. Readers new to the series should start with the first volume, but those who already know and love the Penderwick sisters will delight in their further adventures.
I'll give honorable mentions to The Emerald Atlas by John Stevens, Mo Wren, Lost and Found by Tricia Springstubb, Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George, and Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck.  Looking back, I read a lot of great middle-grade novels last year.  Two of my friends are on this year's Newbery committee (if they are reading this: Hi, Laura!  Hi, Peter!), so I'll be particularly interested in this year's results . . . and I'll be sure to post a follow-up here after the awards are announced!

What about you?  Any favorites this year?  Have you read any of the above?

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