Monday, February 20, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MATILDA by Roald Dahl

MATILDA by Roald Dahl (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1988)

What It's About (via Goodreads): 
Matilda is a little girl who is far too good to be true. At age five-and-a-half she's knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Even more remarkably, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the large, busty nightmare of a school principal, Miss ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion who flings children at will and is approximately as sympathetic as a bulldozer. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.


She warms up with some practical jokes aimed at her hapless parents, but the true test comes when she rallies in defense of her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, against the diabolical Trunchbull. There is never any doubt that Matilda will carry the day. Even so, this wonderful story is far from predictable. Roald Dahl, while keeping the plot moving imaginatively, also has an unerring ear for emotional truth.

Opening Lines:
"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful."

My Thoughts:
Every so often at Middle Grade Mafioso, I present a classic. MATILDA was on the Oregon Battle of the Books reading list this year, and my son and I read it together. He couldn't believe how hard I was laughing. I was in tears!

Maybe this is because I'm originally British, and the book skewers a particular type of bullying British person. Matilda's parents are horrid, and Miss Trunchbull is an amalgam of all the hideous bullies Roald Dahl met as a small child in a British boarding school. She's vicious, self-centred, and prone to outbursts of violence. (Dahl's autobiography BOY: TALES OF CHILDHOOD gives one an unerring insight into what life was like in early 20th century British education.)

Many adults in a Dahl novel are ghastly. It seems as if he had an insight into how a child might see the world of adulthood and all its fearsomeness. Children, in his novels, can also be awful (think of the self-centred bunch who accompany Charlie into the chocolate factory.) But there's always one--Matilda, Charlie, James--who stands for something more noble, who has not fallen prey to the soullessness of modern life (Dahl can't stand the "telly," or "the dreaded box" as he sometimes calls it. I shudder to think about how he would react to the ubiquity of modern screens!) Personally, I think that's why generations of children have loved Roald Dahl's writing. In his heroes and heroines, they can see themselves fighting the good fight against bullies, braggarts, and goggle boxes.

Here's an excerpt from his poem TELEVISION. You can read the whole glorious thing HERE:

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start -- oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!

About Roald Dahl:
Born in 1916, Roald Dahl was a British novelist, short story writer and screenwriter of Norwegian descent, who rose to prominence in the 1940's with works for both children and adults, and became one of the world's bestselling authors.

His first children's book was The Gremlins, about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made, and published in 1943. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children's stories of the 20th century, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach.

Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990.

Website: http://roalddahl.com/





Monday, January 30, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: GHOST by Jason Reynolds

GHOST by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, August 2016)

Another great "sports" book. (And a middle grade finalist for this year's Cybils award.)

What It's About (via jacket copy):
RUNNING. That's all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race--and wins--the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger and a past that he tries to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him.

Opening Lines:
Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons... with his nose."

Five Things To Love:

  1. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is being embraced by the publishing industry, and I loved that this book is written by a black writer, and features a black male protagonist. The language and point of view was so authentic.
  2. Track and field. One of my favorite sports. I was a sprinter on my high school track team, and this took my right back to the feelings of being part of a team and of running fast.
  3. The theme. As it says on the front cover, "is Ghost running for his life, or from it?" In my opinion it could be both. His life is certainly tough, and he has been badly traumatized by a supposed loved one. Being part of the track team allows him the chance to find his way in the world.
  4. Male role models. The biggest wound in Ghost's life was caused by his father. Therefore, it is fitting that he should be fathered/mentored so well by the shop-keeper, Mr. Charles, and Coach. I loved the interactions between Ghost and these two important men in his life.
  5. Ghost's voice. As you can see from the opening lines, Ghost is humorous, engaging, and honest about what's going on in his life. His voice drives this short beauty of a novel. I was so hooked that, right after I finished it the first time, I turned once again to the first page and read it once more.
About The Author:
Jason Reynolds earned a BA in English from The University of Maryland, College Park. His novels include All American Boys (written with Brendan Kiely), The Boy in the Black Suit (both which were Coretta Scott King Honor books; When I was the Greatest, which won the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent; and As Brave As You. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, 


Monday, January 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BREAKING THE ICE by Gail Nall

BREAKING THE ICE by Gail Nall (Aladdin, January 2015)

I am a big fan of middle grade sports books (I'm currently reading one--GHOST by Jason Reynolds--and writing one myself. Mine's about tennis.) I read this for the Cybils awards in 2015, and really enjoyed it!

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Kaitlin has always dreamed of being a champion figure skater, and she’s given up a lot to pursue her passion. But after having a totally uncharacteristic and decidedly NOT figure-skating-approved tantrum after getting her scores at a major competition she’s dropped by her coach and prestigious skating club.

When no other club in town will have her, she's forced to join the ridiculed and rundown Fallton Club, jokingly referred to as the Fall Down Club. At first Kaitlin thinks this is a complete disaster, but after meeting some of the other skaters, including a boy (who happens to have the most perfect hair she’s ever seen) Kaitlin thinks it might actually not be so bad.


But when she’s tasked with learning a whole new program right before Regionals and figures out that almost all the other skaters target Fallton, she thinks joining the Fall Down Club may just be the second biggest mistake she’s ever made.

Opening Lines:
"I have my fingers crossed for a gold medal.
Not where everyone can see them, of course, but hidden in the sleeve of my maroon-and-white Ridgeline Figure Skating Club jacket. If I win this competition, it'll show the judges I'm the skater to beat at Regionals in October."

Four Things To Love:

  1.  I can't say I'm a diehard skating fan, but I do like to watch competitions like the Olympics and the World Championships. I also know what a salchow, a lutz, and a toe loop are. One of the riveting things about watching skaters compete is, as in gymnastics, the mix of artistry with power. And, with every jump, you have your heart in your throat, hoping there won't be a disaster. Which is all to say that I enjoyed the subject, and I think many sports-minded readers would do too.
  2. The character of Kaitlin. Technically strong, she needs to develop her artistry. Inwardly, she can be tempestuous (though not brattily so), so we know she can do it. Her concerns--about friendship and fitting in--are appropriately middle grade too.
  3. The friendships. In her former club, Kaitlin has a friend, Ellery, who is really what I've heard called a 'frenemy.' Ellery is superficial and drops Kaitlin like a hot potato when she is forced to change clubs. In the new club, Kaitlin finds people who are more worthy of friendship (Miyu). Gail Nall did a great job depicting this most important middle grade theme. 
  4. The parents. Both Kaitlin's mom and dad are alive. (You know my feelings about MG 'orphan syndrome.')
BREAKING THE ICE was Gail Nall's middle grade debut, and it was a good one. As you can see in her bio below, she is quite prolific!

About The Author (from Goodreads bio):

Gail Nall lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. She grew up skating, and as a teenager working at the local rink, she rented skates and made nachos (but not at the same time). She spends her early mornings writing contemporary middle grade fiction, her days writing grants for a non-profit, and her evenings reading and trying to stay up past eight o'clock. Her obsessions include hiking and camping, travel, history, and food. Gail's middle grade novels include BREAKING THE ICE and the YOU'RE INVITED series (co-written with Jen Malone), all from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. She is also the author of the YA novel, EXIT STAGE LEFT (EpicReads Impulse/Harper). Her upcoming books include OUT OF TUNE (Aladdin/S&S, 11/8/16) and the co-authored BEST.NIGHT.EVER. (8/15/17)

CONTACT: Website  Facebook  Twitter


Monday, January 2, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rundell


US Cover
I'm back, after a hectic December, and have a treat with which to start 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Children's September 2015)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Feodora and her mother live in the snowbound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora's mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teaches tamed animals to fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans.


When the murderous hostility of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back. And, of course, wolves.


UK Cover

Opening Lines:

"Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.
The girl was Russian, and although her hair and eyes and fingernails were dark all the time, she was stormy only when she thought it absolutely necessary. Which was fairly often.
Her name was Feodora."

Five Things to Love: 

  1. Setting. I love stories set in Russia, especially in the snow.
  2. The character of Feo. She is brave, determined, and has an incredible bond with the wolves she is wilding
  3. The wolves. They are powerful forces and, although the idea is for them to be brought back to their wildness after spending time being accoutrements to the Russian aristocracy, they are fiercely protective of their "wilder."
  4. The other children in the novel. They include a boy soldier who wants to be a ballet dancer and who defects to accompany Feo and the wolves, as well as a band of peasants, lovingly described. Their entry in the novel brings both companionship and comedy, with Feo on the run and fearing for her life.
  5. The writing style. It is written to sound almost like a fable. There are beautiful descriptions--here's an example: "The girl would have been extraordinary whatever the weather. A blood-red cloak, freshly washed, flapped behind her. Her forearms, from elbow joint to wrist, were covered in scratches and bruises, but her eyes were gold. The set of her chin suggested she might have slain a dragon before breakfast. The look in her eyes suggested she might, in fact, have eaten it."
About the Author:
Katherine Rundell was born in 1987 and grew up in Africa and Europe. In 2008 she was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Her first book, The Girl Savage, was born of her love of Zimbabwe and her own childhood there; her second, Rooftoppers, was inspired by summers working in Paris and by night-time trespassing on the rooftops of All Souls. She is currently working on her doctorate alongside an adult novel. TWITTER
She recently wrote an article in The New York Times about tightrope walking. There's also an interesting article on her published in 2014 by The (London) Daily Telegraph.

Katherine Rundell atop All Souls College, Oxford
(photo by Andrew Crowley)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday -- WOOF: A Bowser and Birdie Novel by Spencer Quinn

WOOF: A Bowser and Birdie Novel by Spencer Quinn (Scholastic, April 2016)

Another one from the Oregon Battle of the Books' list. My 4th-grader is one a roll, and I'm going to interview him later to see what he thought. (For the record, I loved the humor, and it was a great one to read-aloud together.)

What It's About (from Amazon):
There's trouble brewing in the Louisiana swamp -- Bowser can smell it. Bowser is a very handsome and only slightly slobbery dog, and he can smell lots of things. Like bacon. And rawhide chews! And the sweat on humans when they're lying.

Birdie Gaux, the girl Bowser lives with, also knows something is wrong. It's not just that her grammy's stuffed prize marlin has been stolen. It's the weird rumor that the marlin is linked to a missing treasure. It's the truck that seems to be following Birdie and the bad feeling on the back of her neck.

When Birdie and Bowser start digging into the mystery, not even Bowser's powerful sniffer can smell just how menacing the threat is. And when the danger comes straight for Birdie, Bowser knows it's up to him to sic 'em.

Opening Lines:
Two humans stood outside my cage, a white-haired woman and a gum-chewing kid. Gum chewing is one of the best sounds out there, and the smell's not bad either. I liked the kid from the get-go.

What My Guy Liked About It:
"It was a good mystery which, like in all good mysteries, ended in a lot of cliff hangers. Bowser was always thinking about food, and sometimes it was hilarious.

WOOF was an interesting story about a girl and her dog discovering what happened. It was fun, as a reader, trying to figure out what would happen next."

About the Author:
Spencer Quinn is the pen name for thriller-writer Peter Abrahams. Under the Spencer Quinn name, he writes the Chet and Bernie mysteries for adults, and the Bowser and Birdie series for middle grade readers. A father of four grown-up kids, Abrahams lives on Cape Cod with his wife and two dogs, Audrey and Pearl, whom he calls "the kind of researchers writers dream of, showing up every day and working for treats." WEBSITE  TWITTER

Monday, November 28, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC by Sarah Mlynowsi, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins (Scholastic, September 2015)

It's been a while since I've posted! As all parents know, every day is busy--but some seasons are busier than others. My 8th-grader is currently rehearsing for the local children's theater's production of The Wizard of Oz, and my 4th-grader is playing basketball. Wow! I'm putting in the miles on the minivan.

For the past few weeks, I've put off my blog post till the last minute, and then something invariably pops up, and the last minute becomes too late. This week, with Thanksgiving, I have had a few more moments of time, so HOORAY! I get to do Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

The book I'm featuring is on the Oregon Battle of the Books list. Also, my son's 4th-grade teacher asks them to do a monthly book report. November's theme was Fantasy, so we read the book together and killed several birds with one stone. Another HOORAY!

What It's About (via Amazon):
In a world of elite magic academies, weird and wonderful things happen when you’re sent off to public school . . . and put in the Upside-Down Magic class.

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky.

For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time—a dritten.

For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure.

For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling.

For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a . . . actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause . . .

Opening Lines:
"Nory Horace was trying to turn herself into a kitten.
The kitten had to be a black kitten. And it had to be completely kitten-shaped.
It was the middle of summer. Nory was hiding in her family's garage. Kitten, kitten, kitten, she thought."

Things to Like:
This is a quick read, with an appealing main character (Nory) who comes from a successful magical family--her father is the headmaster of an elite magical academy--but who is cursed with being 'wonky.' Her talent, that of Fluxer, means that she should be able to turn herself into an animal at will, as well as control herself in her animal body. Nory can do neither. Her kitten becomes a bitten, or even a dritten (dragon/kitten), and once transformed she acts more animal than human.

Comedy is a great part of this novel's appeal (imagine what happens when Nory turns into a skunkephant (skunk/elephant) when dealing with some bullies at her new school! I also enjoyed the camaraderie between the so-called outcasts, and the way they eventually come to accept their differences and see that their are strengths in their "wonkiness." (Having a lovely, affirming teacher helps.) I was a little concerned that Nory's father basically seems to ignore her once she leaves for the less prestigious school, but maybe this abandonment is address is later books in the series.

The 4th-grader gave it a thumbs up!

About the Authors:
One of the things that left me wondering was how three well-established authors could collaborate so well. There was no obvious difference in style between the chapters, so I did a little digging about their method. As Sarah Mlynowski says:
"I wrote this book with Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins, two brilliant writers who happen to be two of my closest friends. How do three people write a book together? In a nutshell: I outline, Lauren writes the first draft, and Emily edits. But we all do a lot of everything.
The best thing about working with friends is that because we love and respect each other, it's completely okay to share ridiculous ideas. In fact, it's encouraged. The best scenes come from ridiculous ideas. Our friendship gives us the freedom to jump as high as we can-and to trust that we are each other's built in net. Just in case any of the ideas are a little too upside-down."

Here are links to the respective authors' websites:
Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Emily Jenkins.

Also: a guide for teachers to use UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC in the classroom

Here's hoping that things don't go back to being so hectic, and I'm able to be back next week. Ciao!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: JOURNEY'S END by Rachel Hawkins

Blog Tour for JOURNEY'S END by Rachel Hawkins (October 25th, 2016)

What It's About: 
The town of Journey's End may not literally be at the end of the world, but it sure feels like it to Nolie Stanhope. Spending the summer with her scientist father in the tiny Scottish village isn't exactly Nolie's idea of a good time, but she soon finds a friend: native Journey's Ender Bel McKissick.

While Nolie's father came to Journey's End to study the Boundary--a mysterious fog bank offshore--Bel's family can’t afford to consider it a threat. The McKissick’s livelihood depends on the tourists drawn by legends of a curse. Still, whether you believe in magic or science, going into the Boundary means you'll never come back.

…Unless you do. Albert Etheridge, a boy who disappeared into the Boundary in 1914, suddenly returns--without having aged a day and with no memory of the past hundred years. Then the Boundary starts creeping closer to the town, threatening to consume everyone within.


While Nolie's father wants to have the village evacuated, Bel's parents lead the charge to stay in Journey's End. Meanwhile, Albert and the girls look for ways to stop the encroaching boundary, coming across an ancient Scottish spell that requires magic, a quest, and a sacrifice.

First Lines:
"Albert Macleish woke up early on the morning he disappeared.

It had to be early is he was to leave without his mum and da noticing, so it was still murky and dim when he opened the front gate and slipped out into the quiet, rutted lane that ran past his house..."

Impressions:
I'm just in love with this cover! Spooky Scotland seems to be all the rage this year, Earlier this year, I reviewed Janet Fox's THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, and if you liked that I believe you will like Rachel Hawkin's JOURNEY'S END also. The friendships are strong, the fog is scary, and who doesn't feel the hairs on the back of their necks prickle when you hear the words "ancient Scottish spell that requires magic, a quest, and a sacrifice"?

About The Author:
Rachel Hawkins is the author of the Hex Hall series. She lives in Alabama.

Rachel Hawkins' Tumblr photo
Other stops on the Blog Tour:
10/24: The Reading Nook 
10/25: Buttermybooks 
10/27: Novel Novice 
10/28: In Wonderland 
11/2: YA Bibliophile 
11/4: The Book Wars