Category: Middle Grade

Drama

Cover image for Drama by Raina Telgemeierby Raina Telgemeier

ISBN 978-0-545-32699-5

Callie has loved theatre, especially musicals, since attending a production of Les Miserables as a child. Quickly realizing that she couldn’t sing, Callie gravitated towards the stage crew of her middle school theatre group, where she becomes head of set design for the department’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.  There she struggles to realize her grand visions on a limited budget, particularly her dream of incorporating a spectacular cannon into the show. But the drama department also has plenty of rivalries and personal dramas, including relationships between the performers, and conflicts between the different technical departments. When two cute twin brothers join the show, Callie’s life in the drama department becomes even more of an emotional rollercoaster.

As in real life, Raina Telgemeier’s fictional drama department is a haven for misfits and gay kids, who are welcomed by their peers. Truly reminiscent of the middle school years—even for those of us who didn’t actually go to a middle school—Drama brings to life familiar scenes of friendship and early romances. It is a daring for a middle grade book in that it features a young gay character who is slowly starting his coming out process, figuring out how to tell his friends and family. Telgemeier’s story mirrors the structure of a play, incorporating different acts, and setting an intermission in the middle of the story than allows for a jump cut to the dress rehearsal, moving the story along nicely. Her familiar bright, cartoony style echoes her popular autobiographical comic Smile, as well as her work on the Babysitter’s Club comics.

Callie’s romantic life was a bit overly busy, including two crushes (not an unrealistic number), but also a friend with an unrequited crush on her, and being mistaken for a friend’s girlfriend, after she’s spotted hugging him when he comes out to her. The constant changes in direction in her love life did sometimes threaten to overwhelm the story of the play, but things were on track to work out relatively well, before Telgemeier goes in for one twist too many, and actually ends up undermining a powerful scene. However, Drama remains a thoughtful and sympathetic story that gives middle grade readers credit for being able to deal with subject matter that is often present in their own lives but absent from fiction intended for them.

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Also by Raina Telgemeier:

Cover image for Sisters by Raina TelgemeierSisters

The Iron Trial (Magisterium #1)

Cover image for The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clareby Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 978-0-545-52225-0

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“They all yelled in excitement. Tamara yelled because she was happy. Aaron yelled because he liked it when other people were happy, and Call yelled because he was sure they were going to die.” 

Callum Hunt has been raised by a single father, who has taught him to fear and avoid magic, which took his mother’s life in the last mage war. But as the son two legacy students of the Magisterium, he must attend the Iron Trial, and do his best to fail the admissions test. If he passes, he will face a terrible choice between becoming a servant of the Magisterium, or having his magic bound, and his memory erased. But despite Call’s best efforts to fail the Iron Trial, one of the Masters sees something in him, and chooses him as an apprentice. If he can survive his Iron Year at the Magisterium, he will have learned enough to control his magic, and leave the school forever. But the Magisterium knows how to bind its apprentices tight, and in a year, Call may not want to leave after all, whatever his father has taught him.

Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) and Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) team up for The Iron Trial, the first in a planned series of five books about a magical world haunted by its war-torn past. Given Clare’s background as a writer of fan fiction, comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, and certainly there are parallels beyond the magic school setting. Call’s mother died saving him from The Enemy of Death, a Voldemort-like figure who defected from the Magisterium. Once at school, he becomes friends with Aaron and Tamara, forming a familiar trifecta consisting of two boys and a girl. However, those who dismiss The Iron Trial as a Harry Potter rehash may not have read all the way to the end.

In the introduction to the Advance Readers Edition of The Iron Trial, Black and Clare write, “We wanted to tell a story about a protagonist who had all the markers of a hero: tragedy and secrets in his past, magic power. We wanted people to believe they knew what kind of story they were in for. And then we wanted them to be surprised…” However, the first major reversal doesn’t come until about 200 pages in; subverting tropes means setting up expectations beforehand, and the first two-thirds of the book are heavy on world-building. Anyone who quit before that point could be forgiven for thinking they had been reading an unremarkable addition to the magic school genre. However, the book really comes together in the final 100 pages, where we see Black and Clare making good on their promise to surprise readers that “are familiar with the tropes of fantasy.” The Iron Trial clearly acknowledges its debt to Harry Potter, and other magic school books that have gone before, while paving its own way forward. This is a series to watch.

Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies

Cover image for Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Liesby Jordan Jacobs

ISBN 978-1-4022-7560-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013.

“With her entire being, Samantha wanted to be an archaeologist, just like her Uncle Jay. On weekends, her parents would sometimes drive her from their home in Davis, California, and drop her off at her uncle’s university on the far side of San Francisco Bay. Samantha and Jay would talk for hours, sprawled among his notes and photographs.” 

Twelve-year-old Samantha Sutton dreams of being an archaeologist when she grows up, just like her Uncle Jay. So when her Uncle invites her to spend the summer helping him on an excavation at Chavín de Huántar in the Peruvian Andes, it’s a dream come true. Unfortunately, the only way to convince her parents to let her go is if her thirteen-year-old brother, Evan, goes too. Sam is determined not to let her brother ruin her summer, even when the grad student assigned to supervise them seems to prefer Evan, despite his lack of interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, Adam’s prejudice isn’t her biggest problem. Chavín de Huántar is being looted despite the careful precautions being taken at the site, and tensions between the archaeological team and the local government are rising. Residents of the valley blame El Loco—the Madman—for the thefts, and it is up to Sam to figure out if El Loco is really the culprit, or just a ghost story.

I picked up this title to fill out the Action Adventure category of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, but for the most part, there was more mystery than action or adventure, as Samantha tries to suss out who is looting the site. Most of the action and adventure comes towards the end of the novel. The mystery takes a while to build up, and the interim is about archaeology, navigating a foreign culture and language, and sibling rivalry. These are all great themes, and Jordan Jacobs does them justice. I particularly liked his attention the ethics of the situation, and the conversation Sam and her Uncle have after the grave of an Incan girl is unearthed on the site. Jacobs is an archaeologist himself, and this book does a much better job of representing the realities of the discipline than other media kids might be familiar with, such as Indiana Jones, or Tomb Raider.  However, I think that young readers might appreciate a little more action mixed in with the educational material. If I found this book to be a bit slow-paced, I can only imagine how it would feel for a kid. I would recommend this title for middle grade readers with a strong interest in archaeology or South America, but I think other young readers might struggle to get through it. It could also work well in the classroom in conjunction with a unit on Peru, or ancient civilizations.

Volume two, Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen, is due out in January.

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2013eclecticreaderThis title fulfills the Action Adventure requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.

Fortunately, the Milk

Cover images for Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Skottie Young (US) / Chris Riddell (UK)

ISBN 978-0-06-2224077-1 (US) / 978-1-4088-4176-1 (UK)

I think there should have been some nice wumpires,” said my sister wistfully. “Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.”

“There were not,” said my father.

Mum has gone off to a conference to present a paper on lizards, and Dad is left alone with his two kids. He thinks he has the situation under control, but after making tea and hot chocolate, there’s no milk left for breakfast cereal, or worse, for that essential morning cup of tea. Dad goes out for milk, and returns much later, spinning a wild tale about being kidnapped by aliens, held captive by pirates, traveling through space and time with a stegosaurus, and nearly being eaten by wumpires before finally making it home. Or possibly he got caught up talking with Mr. Ronson from over the road. But whatever happened, fortunately, the milk made it home, too.

Playfully told by Neil Gaiman and comically illustrated by Skottie Young (US edition) or Chris Riddell (UK edition), Fortunately the Milk is an imaginative lark through space and time. Dad’s adventure is filled with shameless exaggeration and matter-of-fact ridiculousness. Parents will appreciate the lengths to which Dad will go to spin his story, and kids will delight in the way his children try their best to catch him out. The plot has a slightly Whovian feel, albeit the sort that you might find from a Dad telling his kids a story about the legend of the Doctor, as opposed to an episode of the show itself.

The American edition is illustrated by Skottie Young, whose exaggerated art style lends itself excellently to Gaiman’s over-the-top narrative. Look especially for Sister’s imagining of “nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.” Young also wins extra points for depicting bottled milk, while Riddell opts for a carton.

The Dad of Chris Riddell’s book is reminiscent of Gaiman himself, although the hair isn’t nearly wild enough. If you are reading the UK edition, don’t skip the afterword on the artist; keep a special eye out here for the wumpire Pale and Interesting Edvard. There is also a fantastic fold out page in the middle of the book, featuring Splod, the “god of people with short, funny names.”

The good news is that no matter where you live and which edition you will be getting as a result, Fortunately, the Milk is an excellent tongue-in-cheek adventure. Though different, both artists bring their own sense of humour to bear to complement Gaiman’s writing.

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Also by Neil Gaiman:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Chu’s Day

The Graveyard Book

Sandman Volume 1

Click-Clack the Rattlebag 

Poison

Poison by Bridget Zinnby Bridget Zinn

ISBN 978-1-4231-3993-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

She didn’t like children at the best of times, and now was certainly nowhere near the best of of times. It was even possibly the worst of times, though Kyra kept thinking she’d hit bottom only to discover that things could still get worse.”

Sixteen-year-old Master Potioner Kyra had made a pretty good life for herself in the Kingdom of Mohr. After defying her parents’ wishes and becoming a potioner’s apprentice at age ten, she quickly mastered her craft. She set up the Master Trio of Potioners, and met her fiancé in the process. But after attempting to assassinate her childhood best friend, the Princess Ariana, Kyra has been forced to go on the run. Her former teachers, business partners and the entire King’s Army are all out to get her. With nowhere left to turn for help, Kyra makes an uneasy bargain with master criminal Arlo Abbaduto, who provides her with the means to track down the princess, who has gone into hiding. Accompanied by her pet pig, Rosie, and a strangely persistent young man named Fred, Kyra sets out to save the Kingdom from certain doom which only she can prevent.

More fairy tale than fantasy, Poison is a whimsical, irreverent romp through a classic magical kingdom. Although the publisher has recommended this novel for grades seven to twelve, I would suggest it for readers at the lower end of that spectrum, as well as upper middle grade readers. While not without its surprises, Poison may be a little too predictable for older teens. Fortunately, Zinn’s saucy and impertinent attitude and her willingness to make fun of the clichés and conventions that make the plot predictable ultimately save it from itself. Despite the potentially dark premise—what if you had to kill your best friend to save the world?—Poison is much more humour than drama. I suspect that The Princess Bride was a strong source of inspiration for this novel. Although it was not my cup of tea, I would recommend it as a fun read for readers in the 10-14 range.

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