I recently read several middle grade novels in preparation for a book club at the local middle school I help with. The school librarian selects about half a dozen books each year, and each month kids sign up and read one, and various adults volunteer to lead one of the discussion groups. These are some of the books selected for this year:
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen, 2010. Wendy Lamb Books, 164 pages, ages 12 and up (I'd say 10 and up).
13-year old Samuel lives with his parents in a tiny un-named settlement in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania at the beginning of the Revolutionary war. He is an accomplished woodsman, and provides meat not only for his parents, but the rest of the settlement as well. One day while out hunting he spots smoke coming from the settlement and rushes back to find that Redcoats and Iroquois natives have burned the cabins and killed most of the inhabitants. But, he is relieved that he doesn't find his parents among the dead and can only guess they were taken captive instead. Samuel tracks them, determined to catch up with them and somehow rescue his parents. Along the way, he faces more danger and death, but also finds help in unexpected places.
This is a fast-paced story full of action and adventure, that does not sugar-coat the horrors of war. I just have two criticisms: one, is that it was a little too short and the situation resolved a little bit too easily in the end. I think adding some kind of obstacle or unexpected problem during the rescue would have been more realistic and added to the drama. The second is that after every chapter or two the author inserted notes with factual information about the war and conditions of the time, meant to give context to the story. However, I found this additional information an unnecessary interruption to the story, and really took away from the flow rather than adding anything. I think it would have been better to put all this information at the end of the book
I would recommend this book for middle grade readers interested in historical fiction, (particularly the Revolutionary War), survival stories, and adventure. I think it would be good for reluctant readers due to it's short length, fast pace, and high interest.
Someone Was Watching by David Patneaude, January, 1993. Albert Whitman & Company, 224 pages, ages 10 & up.
The Barton family is mourning the loss of their 3-year old daughter Molly, lost and presumed drowned in the river by their summer cabin. Three months later, they are still having a hard time dealing with their feelings, and on the advice of their therapist, they return to visit the scene, and later watch the home video they took during their vacation, up until the time Molly disappeared.
But something keeps bothering 13-year old Chris, and he just has a nagging feeling all isn't what it seems. Reviewing the video reveals a possible clue, and visiting the resort town only seems to confirm his suspicions. He tries to explain it to his parents; however their fear of getting their hopes up keeps them from listening. So Chris and his best friend Pat embark on a daring adventure to find out the truth.
This is an intriguing mystery that middle-grade readers will find full of action and suspense, though adult readers will note there really aren't any plot twists or big surprises after the initial clues that lead Chris to suspect his sister didn't really drown. I enjoyed reading it, but I also couldn't help noticing how dated /or unrealistic some of the plot is. For example, there is no way two underage boys would be able to buy plane tickets and board a plane by themselves, and no decent motel will rent a room to anyone under 21, and usually not without a credit card. I'm sure kids today will wonder why Chris didn't just use Google to find out where places were, as well. But I would still recommend it to readers who enjoy mystery/adventure stories.
Waiting For Normal by Leslie Connor. January, 2008. Katherine Tegan Books, 290 pages. Ages 10 & up.
Twelve-year old Addie lives in a trailer with her mother, after her mother's erratic and impulsive behavior cost them their house and their family. First Addie's mom divorced her husband after he attempted to control her spending, then he gained custody of Addie's little half-sisters after their mom abandoned the girls for a week. Though he loves Addie like a daughter he was not able to get custody of her as well because he was not her biological father. Then the bank took the house after Addie's mom blew their mortgage money on her latest scheme.
Now Addie is left to deal with her mother's extreme behavior alone, though she does find support and friendship from Soula and Elliot, who work at the convenience story next door. She finds the brief periods of normalcy when she visits her step-father and little sisters start to become too painful, knowing it's only temporary. Will Addie ever get to have the normal life and stability she needs?
This book was longer and definitely "meatier" that the other two selections I reviewed above. This was a very touching, sometimes heart-wrenching, story about a child having to grow up too fast and take on adult responsibilities because the adult in their life does not. Some readers will probably recognize that Addie's mom is likely suffering from bi-polar disorder, with her erratic, impulsive behavior. The characters are well-written and Addie's pain and feeling torn between loyalty to her mom and her desire to live a normal life with her step-father, which she defines as having some idea of what each day is going to bring.
I would recommend this for readers who are interested in realistic fiction with a meaningful story, stories about regular kids dealing with real problems that they might be able to relate to, or anyone particularly interested in stories about living with a family member with a mental illness (though this isn't spelled out in the book).