Middle-Grade Readers – Are they worth your time?

As part of my job as a teacher-librarian, I have to read books aimed at the middle school reader. I find books aimed at this age group, difficult to read and I realised that there are a lot of books pitched at this age group that aren’t particularly good reads.

I do tend to pick and choose which books in this category I will read. I should read more widely in this age group, but for the most part, I find these books a chore and the reading is more a requirement of my job than for pleasure.

Recently I read four books in this category and all four books are solid reads for the middle-grade reader. Over the next few days, I will write about each book. The three books are How to Make a Movie in 12 days by Fiona Hardy, Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles Secrets of a Schoolyard Millionaire by Nat Amoore and Nullaboo Hullabaloo by Fleur Ferris.

I had high hopes for this novel. I thought it was going to be a stand out amongst a pretty ordinary crowd.

‘Fiona Hardy has written a cracker of a story. Budding filmmakers, scriptwriters or any readers with annoying siblings and a sense of humour will enjoy this book.’ Books + Publishing magazine 4-star review

High praise from Books & Publishing, but I am not sure I would agree to the four-star rating. Most reviewers gave this book a big thumbs-up. I did read that Fiona Hardy is a bookseller, so maybe they are supporting one of their own – I am not quite sure.

Maybe I am too critical. When you compare this book to some of the garbage that is written for this age group, this novel is worthy of four stars.

How to Make a Movie in 12 days is a lovely change from most books in this category – a good story with relatable characters.  It isn’t stupid humour. It isn’t over-the-top storytelling. It doesn’t have any significant issues that it is trying to tackle.

The story revolves around eleven-year-old Hayley who loves movies. Her love for film comes from her family, mainly her father and her grandmother. Hayley and her grandmother had always planned to make a movie together. Hayley as the director and her grandmother as the star. Hayley’s grandmother has passed and Hayley is determined to make the movie as a tribute to her grandmother.

Of course, making a movie is a vast undertaking and Hayley finds herself under a great deal of stress. Lots of things go wrong and Hayley is suspicious. Who is sabotaging her movie and why? The story revolves around Hayley, her friends and family making her movie and it also adds the element of who is disrupting Hayley’s movie.

I did think the novel went on too much and I do believe that at least a third of the book could have been cut. I do worry that a typical middle-grade reader won’t persevere with the story, which would be disappointing because the ending is a highlight of the book.

What I did love about the book was that Hayley was making a horror movie which gives the story a different edge and I love that Hayley’s grandmother wasn’t your “stereotypical” grandmother.

This conversation wasn’t going well. If Grandma had actually been listening, she would’ve said something like, ‘Get to the point before I stab myself in the eye with it.’

Hayley’s grandmother wasn’t your classic grandmother and nor was her best friend. I love that Hayley’s grandmother and her friend Annabel were portrayed as two feisty, bad-tempered (at times) and fiercely independent women. I hope when I am older, someone describes me as Hayley describes Annabel.

As always, with Annabel, I couldn’t tell what she meant. She was so perpetually irritated, and almost always rude, and it was hard to tell if she liked you or not.

A highlight of the book was the different characters. Fiona Hardy writes characters well. She challenges the reader to think differently.

As I write this review I realise there is a lot to like about How to Make a Movie in 12 days; I guess I wished it wasn’t as long because at times I found it dragged out – like a movie that goes for two and half hours and should have gone for two hours.

Rose, Rose Bush, Rosewood, Red Rose, Red, Nature, Plant

 

Sick Bay – a gentle, heartwarming story about friendship!

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Author: Nova Weetman
Publisher: UQP

As soon as I heard that Nova Weetman had a new novel out, I wanted to read it. When it arrived in the Australian Standing Order package at school, I pounced on it (quite literally). My library assistant asked me what it was about and I couldn’t answer her! I just knew that it was by Nova Weetman, so it was definitely going to be a good read – and I am happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Sick Bay is a heartwarming, empathetic and often hilarious novel about the beauty of friendship.

A dual-narrative story about two girls in Year Six who meet in the sick bay at school. For Meg, the sick bay is a place of refuge to avoid the bullies and her life at home. Whereas Riley, a diabetic, doesn’t like sick bay and she can’t understand why anyone would choose to hang out voluntarily in such a place.

Riley is a type 1 diabetic who finds school relatively simple. She’s well-liked and smart and her life at school is pretty good except for her diabetics, which she finds herself hiding from her “popular” friends who wouldn’t understand.

Meg isn’t like most girls her age; she quotes Anne of Green Gables and she has a slightly different take on the world.  Her dad has died and mum isn’t doing a great job of looking after Meg because she’s battling with depression and dealing with her grief.

Meg and Riley’s home life, much like their school life is entirely different. Meg’s mother is consumed by grief and so is neglectful of Meg. Meg has been left more or less to her own devices and is raising herself while also trying to make sure that her mum is okay. Meg’s mother isn’t working and money is tight – there is barely enough money for food, let alone new shoes, so Meg finds herself wearing slippers to school because her regular shoes no longer fit. Of course, this makes her the object of ridicule at school and she is given the nickname ‘slipper girl’.

Riley, on the other hand, has an overprotective and overbearing mother who believes that only she knows what is best for Riley. She doesn’t understand that Riley wants a life that isn’t always ruled by her diabetes.  Riley wants to have control of her diabetes. She wants to live a life that isn’t always about her diabetes. As Riley is leaving childhood and entering teenagehood, she wants to take control of her body.

The two girls meet in sick bay and both are curiously drawn to each other. When they first meet, the two girls know relatively little about each other, but slowly they develop a friendship – a real friendship.

Sick Bay isn’t just about Meg and Riley; there is a whole supporting cast that gives you great insight into the two girls. One of my favourite characters was Dash – another regular in sick bay. Dash is an asthmatic and his visits are twofold – to deal with his asthma and to visit Meg. He and Meg have history and a bond and even though Dash is younger and popular, he has a protective nature towards Meg. One of my favourite lines in the book is about Dash.

I think he’s just observant, like most kids who’ve had to sit out of things and watch the world go on around them.

A lot of our understanding of Meg and Riley stems from their interactions with the supporting characters. Every character adds an element to the story from Sarah, the school receptionist to Meg’s favourite aunt. I love how Nova Weetman places these minor characters in the story and gives insight on how different people will affect us throughout our lives. We are all touched by different people in our lives and Weetman highlights this beautifully. I am sure that Meg will remember Sarah’s kindness for a very long time.

Sick Bay is a heartwarming story of friendship and staying true to yourself and it reminds us that it is the little acts of kindness that make all the difference.

Sick Bay

The Things That Will Not Stand

 

The Things That Will Not Stand - Michael Gerard Bauer

Author: Michael Gerard Bauer

Publisher: Scholastic Australia

Sebastian is at a university open day with his best friend Tolly when he meets a girl. Her name is Frida, and she’s edgy, caustic and funny. She’s also a storyteller, but the stories she tells about herself don’t ring true, and as their surprising and eventful day together unfolds, Sebastian struggles to sort the fact from the fiction.

But how much can he expect Frida to share in just one day? And how much of his own self and his own secrets will he be willing to reveal in return?

I love Michael Gerard Bauer’s writing. From the beginning, I enjoyed this book because it was full of Bauer’s trademark humour.

As the book progressed though, Frida started to irritate me. I am not good with people who can’t tell the truth. I guess this comes from associating with people who lie constantly. I hate it when I am not sure if someone is telling me the truth because they have told so many lies in the past, so I had a hard time with Frida and her pathological lying.

I did love the banter between all the characters and I particularly adored Tolly. Seb, at times, was a little pathetic and Frida with her lying irritated me, but Tolly was perfect. He was funny, intelligent and the type of person you wished you were friends with. To be perfectly honest I couldn’t understand why Tolly was friends with Seb.

Tolly stole the book from the moment his character was introduced.

‘We’ve had numerous complaints from our other patrons regarding the excessive drug use, offensive language and obscene behaviour at this table.’

I check Frida’s reaction. She’s observing him closely, like she’s dissecting him and peeling back the layers with her eyes.

His introduction is perfect. He flawlessly moves into the banter without missing a beat with Frida and Seb. For some time during the book, I seriously couldn’t understand why Frida preferred Seb over Tolly.

Bauer’s writing is hilarious. The Things That Will Not Stand is wonderfully funny and you will find yourself laughing out loud. Yes, I was little irritated by Frida and her lying. Yes, I thought that Seb was a bit of an idiot, but Bauer writes in such a way that you go through these emotions and yet at the end of the book you feel genuinely for these characters.

The Things That Will Not Stand is pure Bauer. It is heartbreaking and funny. I will admit that towards the end of the book I had reached my limit with Seb’s idiocy and Frida’s lying and then suddenly Bauer takes a different direction (and it isn’t like you didn’t know it was coming), but somehow he had me caring for these characters.  When reading the final chapters, I had tears running down my face (and I hardly ever cry when reading). I finished this book and I realised that for all their annoyances I liked Frida and Seb and I wanted them to be happy.

And despite my irritation, there were times when I enjoyed Frida and Seb a lot. I emphasised with Seb a lot more than I would like to admit (maybe he annoyed me because I saw a lot of me in him!).

There are two words I’m desperately hoping no one utters while we are here. Audience participation. More like audience humiliation is the way I see it. Why couldn’t we have gone to the drones? I’m missing them already. Drones are great. Drones do their thing in the sky. Alone. Drones never expect you to get up there and join them. Drones don’t force you to be part of their show. Drones don’t expect anything of you at all. They just let you be. People should be more like drones!

Oh Seb, I hear you!

Lenny’s Book of Everything

Author: Karen Foxlee

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The story takes place in Ohio, a state in the USA. It’s set in the 1970s. A time before technology overtook our lives. The main character, Lenny, lives in an apartment with her mum, Cynthia Spink, the proud, hard-working, sharp-witted, anxious mother of two and her younger brother, Davey – her happy-go-lucky brother who has gigantism. Her father, Peter Lenard Spink, has left them. He hopped on a Greyhound bus and never returned.

Lenny’s Book of Everything is captivating, charming and magical. Lenny, her mother and brother, live an ordinary life except for the fact that Davey grows at an alarming rate. At age six, he is four foot and ten inches or the equivalent of about 147 centimetres.

So what makes this book so charming? Is it because it set in the 1970s when life was simpler? The highlight of the children’s week is the arrival of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-Home Encyclopaedia which their mother won for the children through her talented writing. Cynthia Spink’s communication with Burrell’s (through letters) is a memorable part of the book.

The encyclopaedias allow the children a glimpse of the world that exists outside their apartment and their small town. They experience the wonders of the world through the books. Lenny discovers a fascination of beetles and dreams of being a coleopterist. Davey becomes enthralled with birds of prey and travelling to Great Bear Lake. I often wonder if Lenny fulfilled her dream and became a coleopterist.

A lot of the charm and magic of the book lies with the characters. Every character adds an element to the story from Lenny’s best friends CJ Bartholomew and Matthew Milford to the school principal Mrs Dalrymple – keep an eye out for Mrs Dalrymple and Mrs Oliver towards the end of the book!

My favourite character was Mrs Gaspar. The odd old Hungarian woman who lives in their apartment block and who looks after the children when Cynthia works. Every child should experience a Mrs Gaspar when growing up – she’s so beautifully disagreeable.

“The abominable snowman,” said Davey.

“Pah,” said Mrs. Gaspar, and she waved her hand as though we bored her. “I saw him once when I was walking home from school in Hungary.”

This bittersweet tale is full of so many perfect moments that remind you that our best life is experienced through kindness, hope and love. Lenny’s Book of Everything is gorgeous and borders on perfection. Thank you, Karen Foxlee, for giving me the reading collywobbles ♥

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Undead Girl Gang

Author: Lily Anderson

Publisher: Razorbill/Penguin

Undead Girl Gang is a hilarious and quirky novel. As we know, I am susceptible to a great book cover and I am also known not to read a book if I don’t like a cover. I didn’t like the cover of this book.  I know that many fans have swooned over the cover, but I can’t cope with the denim or the enamel pins. Luckily, for me, I received it in hard copy and was able to take the cover off to read it. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel about this book but I wanted something light and fun to read and the blurb suggested this may fit the bill and it did.

Lily Anderson has written a well-crafted and unique tale but what I loved most was the characters, particularly the main character Mila Flores. Mila is snarky, sarcastic and witty and I fell in love with her immediately. We meet Mila at her best friend’s funeral. According to the local police, Riley committed suicide. The third suicide in less than a week at Cross Creek. Mila doesn’t believe that Riley would commit suicide and feels there is foul play at large. Mila is at Riley’s funeral and she’s annoyed. She’s annoyed that Riley isn’t there, she’s annoyed that everyone believes that Riley committed suicide and she’s annoyed that Aniyah Dorsey wrote a poem for Riley and that the Fairmont Show Choir is going to perform.

“Your poem fucking sucks,” I growl at her.

I was enjoying Mila’s internal dialogue while at the funeral, but when she utters those words to Aniyah Dorsey I was hooked and so I began chapter two.

Mila is Mexican-American, overweight and Wiccan. Before Riley died, Mila and Riley would dabble in spells and so Mila decides that she needs to bring Riley back from the dead to prove that she didn’t kill herself and was instead murdered.

In bringing back Riley, Mila also unwittingly brings back June and Dayton – the two other girls who had committed suicide. Bringing back June and Dayton wasn’t part of the plan. June and Dayton were popular girls and as such had little to do with Mila and Riley who were seen as Fairmont Academy outcasts.

Suddenly Mila has three undead girls and all the girls have issues that need to be resolved. None of the girls can remember what happened to them leading up to their deaths, but all three are adamant that they didn’t commit suicide and so begins a hilarious chain of events that eventually brings the unravelling of what happened to all three girls.

Though it wasn’t the mystery that kept me reading until the end, it was the characters. I enjoyed getting to know Mila, Riley, Dayton and June. All four girls were smart, sassy and funny. The four girls get to know each other and realise that they actually like each other.

It was the character of Mila that I relished the most.  I enjoyed her snark. She was a character that I would love to see in a television show. Lily Anderson did a great job with her.

“People are assholes,” I say.

He laughs quietly. “That should be your catchphrase.”

Undead Girl Gang is a well-paced page-turner that will make you laugh out loud. Yes, the book does lack suspense but it is much more than a mystery and the snarky, witty narration definitely makes up for any weakness in the plot. A book that is highly quotable and completely relatable – particularly if you find people incredibly annoying. This is a joyful and hilarious book about friendship. So if you like books with quirky, funny, snarky, sarcastic and witty characters that will make you laugh out loud, this book is perfect for you.

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Optimists Die First

 

Author: Susan Nielsen

Publisher: Andersen Press

Well, when you consider yourself a cynic and your boyfriend gives you a book called Optimists Die First you are hooked without even reading the title or the blurb. I didn’t read the blurb at all; I just started reading. I enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t say that it is the best- written book that I have read, but it is an enjoyable read with great characters.

The main character Petula is eccentric, likeable and funny. Petula is still reeling from the death of her little sister, Maxine. Sixteen old Petula blames herself for her sister’s death and as a result now realises that freak accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Petula now lives her life on high-alert and is always fearful of bad things happening and as a result, she has developed a wide range of fears (though, to be perfectly honest I thought some of her worries were quite rational).

Petula even has a list of lessons that she learnt from her sister’s death.

Life is not fair. Tragedy can strike when you least expect it. Always expect the worst. That way, you might stand a chance of protecting yourself and the ones you love.

You would think from that list that this was going to a book with no light or humour but even when Petula is at her most cynical Nielsen writes her with warmth and humour. I also think that if you are an introvert, you will be drawn to Petula and her eccentric ways. Who hasn’t felt this way (as an introvert) when the teacher announces that the assignment will be completed in pairs.

My skin felt clammy. My heart started pounding. Pairs were for the socially adept. I would have to talk to Mr Watley. Get an exemption, for medical reasons. He could write me a note. No longer plays well with others.

It is the characters that make this book. Susin Nielsen writes flawed, loveable characters very well. Petula is forced to attend a group art-therapy course for emotionally, disturbed teens and this is where we are introduced to a supporting cast of characters. What I love the most about this book (at the beginning) is that the kids who attend group therapy aren’t being helped by therapy. They are resentful and are raging against the system. Of course, it the friendships that they form that helps them to heal.

In the beginning, the group show a lot of anger and disinterest towards each other, then enters Jacob. Jacob is charismatic and optimistic and he somehow manages to draw this group of misfits together and make them a group of friends. Jacob takes a particular interest in Petula and he becomes determined to make her live life because he feels that she has stopped living.

There are a lot of heavy themes in this book – death of a child, drink-driving, car accidents, drug use and alcoholism but despite these heavy themes, the book remains light-hearted with a cast of endearing characters.

Another aspect of the book that I loved was all the pop culture references. There are lots of book, movie and music references.  Nielsen weaves these references into the story in quite a simple and easy way.

Good God. ‘Harriet the Spy is only the best kids’ book ever written. Louise Fitzhugh gave the world a whole new type of female protagonist. One that was feisty and opinionated and sometimes quite mean.’

Even though I do feel that the book is quite averagely written. I was drawn to Petula. I saw a lot of myself in Petula and this is why I liked the book because I was so connected to the character of Petula.

‘Loads of reasons. For one thing, he doesn’t read. This speaks of poor moral fibre and probably poor intellect.’

Optimists Die First is heart-warming, empathetic and often hilarious – a delightful read.

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Ballad For A Mad Girl

Grace Foley is the girl who lives by her own rules. She’s the prankster in her small group of misfit friends. Grace is the one who always pushes the boundaries. Her friends ground her and they may be the misfits of the town, but they each have a place in their small circle – Grace is the funny one. The trouble is that Grace’s small group is growing up and they are changing and unlike Grace, they want more than what their group can offer them. Grace fears change because change has not been kind to Grace Foley.

Wakefield draws you into Grace’s narrative immediately when in the opening pages of the book Grace sneaks out of home to defend her position as the record holder for the fastest time crossing the 40-metre pipe running 15- metres above a gully at the local quarry. Grace has completed the pipeline run hundreds of times and she is fearless when it comes to this challenge, but this particular night she freezes and is paralysed with fear.

“I stop, steady myself, blink. Stretch my arms and wait for the edges of the world to come back. Fear is in front of me now, and to the side, above and below.”

Not only is Grace paralysed with fear. A strange blue mist has crept in and Grace begins to see, feel and experience the presence of another.

“I trace the word with my finger. It shimmers. A sharp impact near my ribs knocks me sideways and the pipe seems to buckle and twist. My legs lose grip. Close by, someone is sobbing as if their heart could break.”

After that night Grace begins to change, even though she’s desperately trying to hold on to the world, she knows. Grace learns of a mystery that is associated with the gully – a twenty-year-old mystery. A blonde, blue-eyed teenager named Hannah Holt disappeared without a trace and it’s rumoured she’s buried in the gully.

Grace is convinced that Hannah is haunting her. Hannah wants Grace to reveal the truth of what happened that night. That until Grace can do this, she won’t be free of Hannah.

Wakefield writes so beautifully and hauntingly; you feel the creepiness of what is happening to Hannah so vividly.

“A lone crow drifts in lazy circles above. Overhead, the powerlines are humming, and the pitch is maddening. I cup my hands over my ears and lean against the tree. My vision is leached – it’s as if I’m the only person breathing in an abandoned world.”

Wakefield writes her characters so tenderly that you truly ache for them and the dilemmas they find themselves in and Grace is no exception. Wakefield’s characters are real and nuanced.

Vikki Wakefield’s writing is to be appreciated and though this is a book that you want to read quickly because of the riveting mystery. Do yourself a favour and slow down because you may miss those moments that only add to Wakefield’s brilliance. Savour her writing.

Ballad For a Mad Girl is a beautifully creepy book. There is Wakefield’s usual edgy brilliance combined with a thrilling mystery. Ballad For a Mad Girl is Vikki Wakefield at her best – brilliant, edgy and disturbing.

Ballad

Take Three Girls

 

 

Take Three Girls is one of those novels that comes with high expectations. Three award-winning authors are writing together in one book. The first time I read this novel, I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about and it was only on my second reading that I appreciated the three narratives that Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood had blended together.  The book’s chapters switch between each girl’s individual view. Take Three Girls is a book so well written that you take the subtleties and the nuances of this beautifully crafted novel for granted.

Ady, Clem and Kate are thrown together as part of their elite school’s Wellness Program. The three girls are put together in a group (based on their thumb size). The Wellness Program forces the girls to interact with one another and it is through this compulsory group that the three girls get to know each other better, eventually becoming friends. These three girls were barely acquaintances and without the program most likely would never have become friends – Clem is a star swimmer, Ady is the Queen Bee and Kate is a quiet over-achieving musician.

As the book progresses you realise there is more to each girl then the label they have been given. All of them are trying to find their way in the world. The girls are on an exploration to discover who they are and how they fit into the world that they live. The book also introduces us to the online site called PSST (Private Schools Secret Tracker). PSST is an online social media site that takes delight in bullying – mainly through body and slut shaming (most of which is untrue). PSST is a toxic website that shows how toxic online social media sites can be and the damage they can unleash.

“The class is filing in for Wellness, a new program designed to cure us of the urge to trash each other on social media. I love the internet, code, computers. I love that if I miss Ben, I can summon him into my room and talk to him over Skype. It’s the most mind-bending invention in the last century and how do humans use it? They access porn and talk smack about each other.’

What I love about this book is that it is a celebration of friendship. Take Three Girls captures what good friendship looks like but it also shows what bad friendship looks like.

“Friends. It seems so simple it’s dumb, but it took you a while to get onboard – a friend is someone you can be real with. No games, no faking it, no showing off, no putting down, no power plays. Not cool or hot or mean or unpopular or fashionable or competing with each other. Just being true. And how that makes you feel is…relaxed.”

This book also celebrates how a few can make a difference in a small way. This is a book about showing teenagers that if everyone made a stand (even in a small way), then the bullies can be put in their place. Online bullying is most likely here to stay, but rather than embracing it and relishing the gossip and takedown of others – stand up, speak out and do what you can. It may only be small. It may not make a huge difference, but it will make a difference. Teenagers are an influential group and they can make a change. Ady, Clem and Kate took on an online site and they may not have stopped it but their small action brought joy and beauty to many and this ultimately is what life is about – giving happiness and taking away pain, even if it is for just a moment.

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