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Branching Out

January 8, 2013

Up until this point, this very point right here, I have only shared my picture book picks with you guys. Well, get ready for change, y’all! “New year, new blog,” I say. Well, not entirely a new blog. And that actually isn’t something that I say on a regular basis. Anyway, what I am trying to say–rather inarticulately, I must add–is that I have decided to branch out a bit and share my Middle Grade and Young Adult recommendations with you all, as well. GASP! I know, pretty life changing, right?

So, for an ever-so-brief lesson on what Middle Grade and Young Adult actually mean, I shall put my professor-pants on and explain that…

Middle Grade refers to the division of children’s books that are intended for readers aged 8-12, give or take a few years on either end depending on reading ability, maturity level, parental strictness, etc.

Examples: Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Island of the Blue DolphinsBasically Everything Written By Beverly Clearly (aka: my favorite person on this planet / best friend)

and…

Young Adult (aka: YA) refers to A. A pretty bad movie with Charlize Theron, but more importantly for this blog, B. children’s books that are intended for readers 12 and up. Notice how vague that “and up” is? That is because more and more 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, you name it, are buying these books for all of their Twilighty goodness. I could go much more into depth on how this is a relatively new realm of the children’s publishing world, and that it is BOOMING, and that you could credit/blame the Harry Potter Generation* for this boom, but I won’t… for now at least…

Examples: Twilight, The Hunger Games, Go Ask Alice, The Outsiders

Usually, bookstores will divide their children’s area into sections for Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. But for a quick test on whether a book is Middle Grade or YA, look at the age of the protagonist. Under 12? Middle Grade. Over 12? YA. Just 12? Well, good luck with that one. No no, just kidding, read the back cover. Is there any mention of sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll? If so, it is YA. If not, Middle Grade. All joking aside though, YA usually contains much more mature language and themes, so be wary.

Some books are in that uncomfortable in-between section, like the Harry Potter series for example, which begins with 11-year-olds, but those 11-year-olds grow up over the span of seven books and they deal with really dark stuff (however, just as an aside, HP is usually shelved with Middle Grade, because it seems like kids are picking them up younger and younger). Kids themselves also fall into that uncomfortable in-between zone. Precocious readers, for example: they may be 10, but they can read War and Peace. But just because they can read War and Peace, or The Hunger Games, it doesn’t mean that they should. The content in those books, and most YA novels in general, is not appropriate for ten-year-olds. And even if they have “really cool parents who don’t care about that stuff,” they won’t grasp the deeper themes that are central to the book itself. For example, as a bookseller, I have had kids as young as 7 asking me for The Hunger Games. At which point, I ask them if they know what  “dystopia” and “tyranny” mean, and they look at me blankly, and I hand them something else. I just don’t want to deprive these kids of the better reading experience I know they will enjoy later if they just hold off for a bit. (In the same vein: Why on earth do they have 9th graders read To Kill a Mockingbird?)

Now that my ever-so-brief lesson as turned into something not-so-brief, I will cut myself off and dive into my latest recommendations. And I must apologize for the lack of pictures, my computer is not cooperating today, so I must paint WORD PICTURES instead… ok… too cheesy… let’s continue, shall we?

Middle Grade:

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall, is everything that a Middle Grade book (and series) should be, in my opinion at least (and it was Birdsall’s first book, so she really hit the nail on the head with this one). This best-selling, National Book Award-winning, ultimately five-book series (there are only three out right now), is nostalgic yet fresh, touching yet laugh-out-loud hilarious, and is, at its essence, a total gem. The books follow four sisters: Rosalind (12), Skye (11), Jane (9), and Batty (5). Each girl has a big personality, though they vary greatly from one another. Rosalind is motherly, and just starting to find boys not-so-disgusting, Skye is science-minded, soccer-obsessed, impeccably neat, and impossibly short-tempered. Jane is a dramatic and lovable slob, who writes endless stories about her heroine, Sabrina Starr. And Batty, well Batty is the best, with her shy demeanor, strange connection to all animals, particularly the family’s dog, Hound, and her insistence on wearing butterfly-wings wherever she goes. The four girls have been brought up by their father, a botany professor at the local university, who tends to speak in Latin half the time. Although the girls’ mother passed away when Batty was just a baby, this is not a sob story by any means. Birdsall’s elevated language, and amazing sense of humor, makes this series an absolute joy to read. I love these books because the characters feel real to me, as in, I could very easily live next-door to the Penderwicks (I WOULD LOVE THAT, by the way). And, they display childhood as childhood. The girls aren’t trying to grow up too fast, and they aren’t dealing huge, and horrible, and depressing life-issues. The books are timeless, modern-day Cleary, if you will. I really can’t praise them enough. Perfect for any age (I may or may not be forcing them on all of my 20-something friends), and they are great for reading out loud. Because the sisters themselves span in age-range, the book is appropriate and enjoyable for anyone as young as Batty or as old as Rosalind. While the reading level itself is probably best for 8 or 9-year-olds, they will be enjoyed by kids as old as… well… me… The three books out right now are The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Go read them. I don’t care how old you are. They will fill your heart with joy. Don’t deprive yourself of that.

Young Adult:

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is epic. Epic and addicting and amazing and awesome! I’m not even exaggerating. It is about two female friends during World War II, one is a pilot and one is a spy. AND THAT IS ALL THAT I AM GOING TO TELL YOU BECAUSE ANYTHING ELSE I SAY WILL GIVE IT ALL AWAY! I mean it. Don’t read the back of the book, or the inside cover of the jacket. Don’t read the review on Amazon. Don’t read any review, really! Not even this one! Stop reading! Ok… keep reading this one. Just go and get it and start reading it. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, because it is such a fun and edge-of-your-seat read. Warning: the first fifty pages or so are a little slow, but power through, because you will NOT be disappointed. Then message me so we can discuss it, ok?

Picture Book:

You didn’t honestly think that I wouldn’t include a picture book recommendation, did you? This Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers, is just as quirky and lovable as most of Jeffers’ other books. One day, Wilfred comes across a moose in the forest, and he decides that it must be his moose. So he names the moose Marcel and things go well for a little while until Wilfred realized that Marcel doesn’t quite understand that he belongs to Wilfred. Wilfred soon learns that a moose likes to go where it pleases, when it pleases, and to make matters worse, other people think that Marcel belongs to them! A hilarious look at love and ownership, Jeffers’ latest book is a new favorite of mine. His weird, and random, and enjoyably formal text pair perfectly with his weird, and random, and adorable illustrations (which are juxtaposed beautifully against the decidedly Bob Ross-esque backdrops). Another winner from the great Oliver Jeffers! In other news, moose are adorable, and I can’t figure out what the plural of “moose” is or should be…

 

 

 

*The Harry Potter Generation is what I lovingly like to call kids like me who were the first generation to devour those 900-page works of love and genius at the ripe age of 10 or 11, and who are now avid readers but perhaps a wee-bit stilted in their tastes. Ya, I said stilted. And ya, I still refer to myself as a kid, got a problem with that?

 

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