Here it is, the end of summer. While I’ve enjoyed these mostly schedule-free days, I am looking forward to seeing my students again. One of the things I enjoy most about being an elementary/middle school librarian is introducing our students to new books every year. As of this writing, there are 145 brand new, never-before-checked-out books ready to go from shelves and spinners to the hands of (hopefully) eager readers. Of course we still love our old books just as much. As I tell my kids, an old book is new to someone who hasn’t read it yet. But that’s a post for another day. Today it’s about the shiny, new volumes.
Specifically, it’s about what I read this summer. More specifically, it’s about my five favorites. For the purposes of this post, I’m only referencing middle-grade and YA books. We have some awesome new stuff for the younger students, but they’re easier to persuade. My toughest customers are my upstairs kids.
In our school, grades 4 through 8 are in classrooms on the second floor of the building. Something about going up one flight of stairs changes some of my sweet, compliant(ish) primary-grade patrons. Yes, many remain dedicated readers who can’t wait to get downstairs to the library for their next book. However, with each succeeding grade, there are those who may range from picky to aloof to downright disdainful when it comes to reading.
I’ve been at this long enough to know not to take it personally. It’s the natural order of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up without a fight. And if I’m going to win any of them over, I have to be prepared. So I read. And read. And read some more. So far this summer, I’ve read 11 of our new middle-grade/YA books (I have two left in my pile, so we’ll see how that goes). There’s not a single one I didn’t like, but I didn’t love all of them. I loved five of them, roughly 45%. Not bad. So here they are, in no particular order, except for my absolute favorite which I’ve saved for last.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Deafo, a graphic novel memoir, but was intrigued by the title and the cover illustration (yes, I’m a book-cover-judger). My interest was also piqued by the fact that author/illustrator Cece Bell was awarded a prestigious 2015 Newbery Honor by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). This is a big deal. This is the first graphic novel to earn this distinction. Newbery books get a lot of attention and a lot of readers. This honor can only help the format. If you aren’t familiar with graphic novels, you can read more about them in my previous post, “I Was Wrong”.
I read El Deafo in one evening. Yes, graphic novels are generally quick reads, but I couldn’t put it down. Bell tells the story of how, as a small child, she lost her hearing and gained a superhero alter-ego. It’s fantastic. If you’ve been unsure about graphic novels, this one is a great introduction. It’s quirky and relatable at the same time. It shows that differences are nothing to fear, but it’s not heavy handed about it. The illustrations are perfect for the story. Cece and the other characters are portrayed as rabbits. This may sound odd but once you start reading it, you won’t give it a second thought. You’ll be too focused on Cece’s story and themes familiar to anyone who’s ever been a child, like friendship and identity. Bell is deserving of the Newbery honor, as El Deafo really is a “…most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (“Welcome to the Newbery Medal Home Page!” http://www.ala.org). You can learn more about author/illustrator Cece Bell here.
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
I’m a longtime fan of Christopher Paul Curtis. He is a gifted storyteller and a master of historical fiction. What he can do with words is practically magic, as you can see from this picture, which is page 119 of The Madman of Piney Woods. This story is a companion to his 2008 Newbery Honor winner Elijah of Buxton, but you can enjoy Madman without having read Elijah.
Although it’s historical fiction (set in Canada in 1901), themes of friendship, family, loyalty, and prejudice make it something with which many middle-grade readers may identify. Madman’s two protagonists, Benji and Red, tell their stories in alternating chapters. Some young readers don’t like this method of storytelling, but it’s brilliantly done here. Though Benji and Red’s stories intertwine, they each have separate points of view which are best expressed in each boy’s first-person voice. It’s the best way to gain an appreciation for each boy’s different experiences and how they lead them to the same place. It’s a suspenseful story, as well. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the outcome for potential readers, so I’ll just leave you with this plea to read it. Curtis really is a word magician. Here’s a terrific interview with him from earlier this year that gives great insight into the man and the author.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
I love a story written entirely in free verse poetry and authors who convey the beauty of words so naturally that their readers are enveloped by it. And I love a memoir. Brown Girl Dreaming has all of that, and more. In Woodson’s own words, it’s the story of “what it was like to grow up an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.” (www.jacquelinewoodson.com)
A big part of this story’s appeal is that, although set in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is relevant to children of the 21st century. In addition to the societal themes, this story is very much about family, friendship, and realizing one’s gifts. The free verse writing also makes for a quick read, so a middle-grade reader who may be put off by 319 pages need not be. Get to know Jacqueline Woodson here.
.The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley
The Dumbest Idea Ever, as it turns out, wasn’t. This is another memoir in graphic novel form (see El Deafo, above). It’s an engaging story about how high school student Jimmy Gownley became graphic-novelist Jimmy Gownley. It’s a great story for kids who dream of a career as an author and/or illustrator, but also for anyone who simply has a future goal that seems unattainable in his or her young mind. Gownley went on to become the author/illustrator of the popular Amelia Rules series and founder of Kids Love Comics, which uses graphic novels to promote literacy.
On a big-picture level, The Dumbest Idea Ever is a realistic look at the transition from middle to high school. Jimmy assumed this was going to be an easy transition but circumstances worked against him. He had to struggle to find his place. The graphic novel format makes it accessible to students of all abilities, and is a great way for readers to make self-to-story connections about goals, disappointments, and perseverance. Gownley doesn’t preach, he just tells (and shows) what he experienced, and what generations of kids have experienced at that time in their lives. It’s a charming story with a bittersweet epilogue that many students will enjoy.
My favorite book of the summer is about a harmonica. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. But even though I don’t know much about the instrument and have no talent for music, after reading Echo, I wanted to learn to play the harmonica (your ears are safe; I never actually attempted it). It’s practically the protagonist of the story. Practically. Actually, three children from different places and slightly different times and very different circumstances are the protagonists. The harmonica, though, is the tie that binds their stories together. It seems enchanted to the point that it literally and figuratively saves lives.
Ryan’s Echo is part fairy tale, part historical fiction, and completely mesmerizing. It may be a little intimidating for middle-grade readers at 592 pages, but it’s a magnificent story and worth the time and effort. For kids who would scoff at independently reading something this long (and even those who wouldn’t), it is a wonderful family read aloud. It has male and female protagonists. It has adventure, hope, despair, triumph, tragedy, music, magic, and relatable themes. If you can be brought to tears by a beautifully-told story (stop looking at me!), keep a box of tissues handy. Perhaps the biggest draw for me (though it’s hard to choose just one) was that I cared about Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy, the main characters of the three stories-within-the-story. Ryan portrays them in a way that makes them seem like flesh-and-blood people. I wanted things to turn out right for them, for them to no longer experience hurt or loss. I won’t tell you if I got my wish, but I will implore you to read this book so you can find out for yourself. I would also suggest that you consider other works by this award-winning author.
I hope you found something in this personal bibliography that captured your interest. What was your (or your young reader’s) favorite summer read? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, keep reading!