Wednesday, January 10, 2018

18 Middle Grade Books You (And Your Kids) Will Love

My good friend Carrie has a great idea. She and her husband's New Year's resolution is to read 35 children's books by the year's end. One reason is they have 5 children and are running out of books they know will be enjoyable for their middle grade readers, but also not filled with overly-adult scenarios or subject matter. They also didn't read a lot as kids and want to explore children's books for their own enrichment and enjoyment.

I love this idea! I've been happily reading middle grade fiction, a term for books written for 8 to 12 year olds, for the past 3 years. I have pilfered my local library's children's section and enjoyed these books which are full of wonder, imagination, and (usually) an innocence long lost in young adult fiction.

I started to think maybe there are other parents out there, like my friend, who would appreciate a run down on new books to read, or to let their kids read. So I have put together a list, not exhaustive, but merely the best of the 50 or so books I've read lately. I can't vouch that all the books will meet every parent's criteria, but they do all have a good message and are well-written. I have also given a pitifully brief summation of the plot/theme that I beg your forgiveness for and pray the authors of these books never see.

So here you go Carrie, my top recommended middle grade books!

18 Middle Grade Books You (And Your Kids) Will Love

1. From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg. Newbery Award.
A couple of kids run away to live in a museum.

2. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Newbery Award.
A story told from the point of view of a Gorilla living in a run down tourist attraction.

3.  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Newbery Award.
A beautifully written story about friendship, imagination, and fighting giants.

4. Ramona Quimby, age 8 by Beverly Cleary.
What can I say? If you haven't met Ramona before you're in for a treat.

5. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Newbery Award.
A homeless boy who runs and manages to bring a town together. It does show some violent attitudes of racist people.

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. Newbery Award.
Meg must save her physicist father and go on a journey through time and space.

7. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Newbery Honor.
A girl struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia then blossoms after getting help.

8. Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban.
A girl moves with her family to a Japanese internment camp. The story is told in a beautifully simple style.

9. Penelope Gilbert and the Children of Azure by Emily A. Steward.
This book was written by an author friend of mine! The tagline from her book trailer says, "Where magic meets machine, and pirates rule the sky." It is available through several sellers, just do a Google search, and also as an audio book.

10. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.
A boy races to save rare owls from obliteration at a building site before it is too late. A fun, quirky book.

11. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson. Newbery Award.
I read this a few years ago, but I remember it was a good story about living gently with our animal friends, and had rabbits.

12. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.
A lot of natural science in this story of a girl and her Grandpa.

13. Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper.
A special needs girl who can't talk, or walk, but is cognitively healthy as she embarks on the challenges of school, friends, and an Academic competition.

14. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead.
A boy and his quirky home-schooling neighbors set out to spy on a mysterious man in their apartment building.

15. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Newbery Award.
A tale that goes places you would never expect.

16. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Newbery Award.
A depression-era story of a vagabond girl who ends up giving more to a town then they exp

17. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Newbery Award.
Denmark (I believe?!) in WWII, a girl and her family join in the risky venture of saving their neighbors.

18. Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs.
A lighthearted, fun mystery. A boy who lives with his zoologist parents at a zoo/amusement park must solve the suspected murder of the meanest hippo who ever lived.

Happy Reading!

What middle grade books do you love? Let me know below and I will check them out!

Friday, March 24, 2017

EVERYBODY Was Not Kung Fu Fighting (because it takes years to learn Kung Fu)

I can't even keep track how often I've wanted to be really good at something; to really excel at it; to master it.

Breakdancing? Yes!

Learning Arabic? Bring it on!

Playing Rachmaninoff? Where's the piano!

But the truth is, life is not Kung Fu Panda. You can't go from being a flabby panda to a master in the martial arts after a few scenes of training with a mentor.

I just watched this movie the other day with my four Hippos. In the middle of the morning we all piled on my bed, because I had thrown out my back trying to single-handedly move a wooden play house. I know I have a bad back, but I had to move it. Our beagle was using it as a trampoline to propel herself over the fence and I couldn't take the shame of the dog-loving neighbor down the street bringing my dog back to me one more time, looking at me like "Why is your dog always getting out?" Not only that, my dog always comes back smelling to high heaven because she rolled in some stanky-dead nastiness.

But back to the movie.

I was stuck in bed and meditating on the plot and structure of Kung Fu Panda. I got to thinking how all these kinds of movies have the same point in the plot where the person (who isn't any good, or isn't good enough) suddenly works hard at it, usually with a mentor, and becomes great. This part is usually shown through a montage of scenes, with a motivating song dubbed over it. As cheesy as it is, I love those scenes. They're motivating and satisfying. Hey, the panda can now do Kung Fu!

And we get that it's not supposed to be happening in 5 minutes (even though that is all it takes in the film). The transformation is usually over days, weeks, maybe a month or two. But really, who can really excel at something even in this time frame? I tried to point this out to my kids, that nobody could master Kung Fu in a few days. They just said, "Yeah, yeah, Mom. We know. We get it."

But do we really get it?

I can do one breakdancing move. It's a simple freeze, a position you hold for a second or two. It took me awhile to learn it.

I know "Yalah" in Arabic means to "Hurry up." I know "Habibi" means "My dear ones." That's all I've learned in the 15 years since I went to Egypt.

I can play about 4 bars of a Rachmaninoff piece that I memorized in high school.

And none of this is bad. It's fun to whip these kinds of things out at parties, or impress people with how I'm full of little surprises. There is no law against tinkering with this hobby or that. But I can see the reason why I don't progress past tinkerer with these things. For one, I quickly learned it was a lot of work to become a breakdancer, or learn a foreign language, or play like Rachmaninoff. And I didn't care enough about any of those goals, or whims, to really put in the time, sweat, and hard work.

Okay, so we get that we have to work hard to really achieve a goal. But do we really get it, or does somewhere deep down inside believe it shouldn't take too long to become truly good at something?

Are you frustrated at yourself that you aren't farther along than you thought you would be with your goal? I often am. I mean, I've been writing a novel for over a year now, and I'm no where near being done. Sometimes I think, why can't I just montage my way through this part - the WORK - and speed up to where I'm accepting my Newbery Award? Because you can't skip the work. Really you can't skip the GROWTH that comes from putting in the work. I am not a good enough writer to win awards, or to be published, yet. But don't forget the yet!

That doesn't mean I'm giving up. No way. I'm working toward my goal by:

1 - Reading books on the craft of writing: Story Genius, The Art of Fiction, Bird by Bird
2 - Reading books, especially new/current books, in my category of fiction (middle grade)
3 - Bolstering my woeful understanding of the finer points of grammar by studying on
4 - Listening to podcasts on of interviews with published authors discussing pertinent areas of writing I need to improve in.
5 - Participating in a critique group with other local writers that meets once a month
6 - Oh, and writing! (This should be first, obviously, but it's easy to get discouraged and stop, or do this last. Don't do that! This step also includes revising and shaping what I have written so far)

And maybe some day, years down the road, I will think back on this time in my own little mental montage, with maybe a Paul Simon song playing over the top? "The Obvious Child?" "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?" (I don't know how this could fit, but I just like rhythm of it). I could probably spend a lot of time trying to pick the perfect song. But I won't. I think I'll go write.

What is the thing you are working toward? 

What helps you stay patient with the process as you work toward your goal?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Creative Jealousy, Frustration, and a Cattle Dog

If you're like me, you've felt the green-eyed monster's bite on occasion. This, of course, is Jealousy.

While I've never been one to get jealous of other's possessions or things, I have been jealous of other's creative endeavors. I've been surly to see the success of creative people, and I've belly-ached over why it can't ever be me. It wasn't a pretty thing.

My poor husband would listen to me complain over and over again, "How come THEY get to do all this creative stuff, and I don't ever get to!" Not that I disparaged people for being creative, or thought they weren't any good (at least most of the time). It was usually more like I was baffled and envious. How come other people could pursue their artist things and have success and how come I couldn't? And it was doubly worse if they got paid to do art; it was the final straw on my straw pile of self-pity. As a side note, in case you've never seen a straw pile of self-pity, it isn't pretty. And like fighting a straw man, it is energy going towards nothing.

The question I should have been asking was, "Why does the artistic success of others bother me so much?" This is a harder question to ask then "why do they get all the breaks?" I think part of the reason lay in my own frustration. I was not pursuing any of my creative dreams; I was not using any of my creative propensities for much beyond the occasional sewing or craft project. I had something in me that wasn't being used, let out, developed. And I was frustrated.

To better understand frustration, follow me back a few years to the sad tale of Moondog. It begins when my husband and I were living in a big city with no kids and one aging dog and decided, on a whim, to adopt a 5 month old Australian Cattle Dog.

 At first things weren't that bad. We went to dog parks, went on lots of walks, and the dog was just a puppy. But then we had puppies (or babies) of our own. We moved out of the city. The dog moved down a level in our attention and ability to give it the exercise it needed. And make no mistake, a dog bred specifically to herd cattle for 10 hours a day in the rough terrain of Australia NEEDED exercise. These dogs were herding dogs bred with wild Dingoes to give them the stamina they needed, because all the regular sheep dogs kept dying. These are some serious working breed dogs. 

But of course we didn't know any of that. And we didn't know that these dog's were very smart and needed mental work as much as physical work to do. Without this need fulfilled in some meaningful work, Moondog was neurotic. Although sweet (at least to us) he was nervous and aggressive around other dogs and people. On walks he would lunge at people in uniforms, old ladies, anyone who walked funny, and on and on. He would lunge at kids on skateboards, trying desperately to aggressively herd anything he could. He ripped a kid's pants, and scratched his leg. Other times, he would be fine. It drove us crazy. 

We hired an Animal Behaviorist to help us figure him out (even though we couldn't afford to). My husband often went on long bike rides with Moondog running beside. He taught him to catch frisbees. We hid things around the house and played games with him to find the objects. But Moondog continued his aberrant behavior (at least aberrant for a city dog). We often mourned the fact he couldn't just do what he was bred to do, because we knew he would be great at it.  

In the end, we know we couldn't have done more for him, but we feel like we failed that dog. And when eventually he bit a man (for real) on the thigh, we realized we couldn't ensure he wouldn't hurt someone. We had to put him down: a beautiful, healthy dog that just wasn't meant for the world he found himself in. 

When I think of him, I realize the frustration that dog must have felt. And although it is not the same thing exactly, I think when creative people don't do what they have the strong desire in themselves to do, it creates all kinds of unsightly things. I know for me this has been true. I used to feel that I could do creative things and do them well, but I was so paralyzed by fear of failure that I didn't want to even try.  I figured if I didn't try for my dream and lose, or have it taken from me, at least I still had my dream. And it was precious to me and well-guarded. And so I felt jealous. I was jealous when people who were pursuing their dreams had success. And I started to see it like others got to do things and I didn't get to. 

But my friends, having come out the other side of this kind of stinky-thinking, I can now see that the only thing successful creative people really have is actual something pretty simple. They have the tenacity to not give up, the drive to work hard to improve their craft, and they find the right venue for their natural artistic abilities. It's not magic. It's not a special calling or blessing from the Cosmos that says they get to do this and other people don't.  

So if you find you are jealous at the success of others (or mean, spitting, and hateful), take a moment to ask yourself, "What is it I wish I could do?" And once you've named this, why aren't you doing it? No matter where you're at, there is some small step you can take to start down the path. For me the small step was just letting myself peruse the writing section at the library, and checking out a book called On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner. 

And I think you'll find, even if you are still a long, long ways off from your end goal, you'll find joy just in moving and not plopping and grumbling at all the people who are passing you by. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

When it all feels impossible

Some days it seems the universe is aligning against you. You want to write (or, insert your own pursuit, i.e. exercise, read War and Peace, practice break-dancing), and everything else suddenly needs your attention. It feels impossible to pursue your dream. Everything else needs you and your goal will have to wait, again.

Maybe yesterday the water company decided to tear up your street and shut off your water, leaving you today in heaps of laundry and dishes, with sadistic flies that swirl over your head, taunting you.

Or you find that Hippo 4 leaked out of his diaper in the night, and you have to change all the bedding, again (because he just did it the night before as well).

Or maybe another nameless Hippo used the toilet and somehow pee ended up all over the place (although he doesn't remember how) and you have to do a thorough cleaning of the whole place (which to be honest, really needed it anyways, but still).

And what if, two days before the day you're going to "really get a whole lot done" you decide to be kind and include a stray cat who looks sickly while you're feeding your own two to three cats (the ownership of cats is a fluid thing around here, as they decide to hang around or not). And then, you're just guessing, that stray cat sometime in the night decided to leave the grossest poop-apocalypse on your front porch, and chair, and bench that you've ever seen (I won't go into details). And you find yourself devoting at least 45 minutes to scrubbing your porch with bleach, like an old scrub-brush woman, on your knees. This on the day you're going to "really get a whole lot done."

So what's the point? The point is that there will always be something important, or immediate, or that you have to do right now, and it will always try to pull you away from what you want to be doing, which is working towards your dream. And you will probably get frustrated at these circumstances, or people, or animals.

But you know, what you really need to do is just get those things done (if they really are important, and you're not just procrastinating, more on that later...), and get back to work. And you will find, even on a day like I mentioned above, which if you didn't guess, was my day today (for the most part)... you will find that you can still deal with a number of fairly gross emergencies, and it will only be 10 o'clock in the morning by the time you're done. (This assumes that you didn't wake up at 9:45).

So here's the real point. Setbacks and emergencies will come, but they really don't have to be that bad. Just get in there and scrub up the gunk, and get back to what you want to do. Don't use it as an excuse to lament how the universe is against your dreams/goals and there's no point even trying, or that there is no point doing anything today. Each today is actually pretty long. You CAN find little moments in the day to get even one thing done. One scene. One blog post. One session of stretches. Whatever it is.

And hopefully tomorrow you will really get to get a whole lot done. But if not just do something. And you'll get there.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Pursuing Dreams Part 2 - Rainy Days, and Mondays, and not Getting There (yet)

I love the Carpenter's song "Rainy Days and Mondays." I often sing it to myself on rainy days, or Mondays, or days that just feel like Mondays. Today happens to be a day that both feels like a Monday and is a Monday. Partly because I'm frustrated I'm not where I want to be, creatively speaking, yet. Today, it's hitting me that this whole pursuing dreams thing can be hard work.

It's hard sometimes to kick yourself in the pants and get back on the saddle when you get bucked off. We've been in Cowgirl mode here, for Hippo #3's eighth birthday. As I sit here, she is roping a chair in the living room with her new lariat (a rope/lasso).

Here's what I'm referring to. The graphic novel idea I was working on with a friend is a bust. It did make it to the editorial board, but won't be in print this year. Ah well. Also, in the time between submitting it and waiting to hear about it my collaborator and I decided the project had some real flaws, and wasn't coming together well enough to continue with on our own (through self-publishing), or to send out to other publishers. We each have new ideas, ideas with more promise, so that's what we are going to put our energies into.

And although creative work is energizing and interesting work, it is also frustrating to struggle to be better, and realize you just aren't there yet. It's just writing, and rewriting, and pruning, or sometimes hacking away at most of what you have. I'm glad for advice I heard prior to submitting the book proposal. It said start working on a new project as soon as you can, and don't sit around waiting to hear back. Just move ahead.That has helped a lot. When the news came that my first real literary attempt at publication was a no go, I already had another work-in-progress underway, which made me feel hopeful.

But sometimes the new ideas give you problems too. I had this whole plot worked out for the middle grade novel I'm working on, but then I realized it wasn't any good. Or at least, not good enough. It wasn't really the story I wanted to tell. It was becoming something else. It was a false start. I'm realizing that's okay too. Sometimes you take a wrong turn, the path is impassable, you back track, you go down another trail, and hope to find a better way through.

I think the "not good enough" part of creating is a tricky one. On the one hand, you have to allow a little new seed of an idea to sprout and grow. You have to protect it from harsh criticisms and people who will trample it. You have to avoid pulling it out of the ground because it might be a weed in disguise. I've been trying to tell myself to let it grow. See what it will become. Chances are there will need to be some major shaping and pruning as it gets bigger, but how can you shape something that you don't first let grow? How can you make something better until you at least let it exist.

However, that said, you also (at the right time) have to listen to that gut feeling that says, this isn't right, this isn't the direction I want to go in. And you have to listen to the part of you that says it isn't good enough, because it probably isn't. Not yet. That's the big part, not yet.

Ira Glass, who does kind of radio essays on This American Life, said it best in an interview I heard awhile back. He said being a beginner can be frustrating. There is a gap between your taste (or sense of what is good) which is usually pretty reliable and your ability to produce work that you see as good, and that you are satisfied with. Here it is:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Right now I'm in this stage, and it can be frustrating. I guess though, the important thing is to let yourself be a beginner. Let yourself not yet be there.

But not yet doesn't mean never.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

It's About Dreams, but it's not ALL About Dreams... part 1

You may be thinking, "What does that title even mean?" And, "What's with the picture?"

I'll tell you, eventually.

First, let's look at a poem.  I'm sure you know it, and like me, may love it already. 

So much depends upon these kinds of things. If you don't know why, I'm not sure you have a soul. Well, maybe that's a little harsh. Maybe you just don't have a heart. But for the sake of less argument, let's pretend you are not the kind of person to make sense of things only with your head (which I'm sure you aren't, anyways). 

And now the poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
William Carlos Williams
I love William Carlos Williams (that's him above). I love his simplicity and ability (and choice) to see poetry in the everyday. I love his conventionality: he was both a writer and a medical doctor, keeping an established practice in his hometown of Rutherford, NJ for 41 years. He was married, and seems to have had a good marriage. She read to him when he was old and had had too many strokes to read anymore. He had two kids. 
And yet, he was a prolific writer. He wrote plays, essays, translations of other works, and novels. He was also the United States Poet Laureate and eventually a Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry. And as a major figure in Art and Literature, I love his unconventionality: he doesn't seem to have led a heartbreaking life as an alcoholic, he didn't commit suicide, he didn't leave behind a slew of broken relationships.
The reason I'm mentioning him today is not because he was perfect at balancing his artistic and "regular" life, which I'm sure he wasn't, but because his life as a writer gives me hope. Maybe you can do artistic things and not leave a string of tragedy and heartache behind you. Maybe someone can pursue a dream, and not let the dream be everything, not let it be a force that absorbs the totality of a person's life, relationships, and self. Maybe you can even have more than one dream: to do art and do life well. (And learn about colons: their use, their flare, their purpose).
Williams didn't just gruel out an existence at medicine to do what he really loved either. It appears he genuinely liked being a doctor, in addition to pursuing writing. It gave him access to people at their most intimate times, birth and death, and he seems to have loved humanity and American folks. He found a true American voice from the voices that filled his life. 
Literary Critic Randall Jarrell wrote, " Williams's poetry is also characteristically honest: There is no optimistic blindness in Williams, though there is a fresh gaiety, a stubborn or invincible joyousness." 
I love that: "A stubborn or invincible joyousness." That's what I want in life and art. 
Dreams are important, but they can't be all important. Despite the common thinking that you must throw your all into your dream  (at least among creative types), don't sacrifice your self as a balanced person, your relationships, your health, your other deeply held convictions. 

Don't pursue a dream at the expense of all else.

so much depends
the rest of life. 
It's about dreams, but it's not ALL about dreams. After all, a dream can't read to you when you're old.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"It's the Eye of the Tiger, it's the Thrill of the Fight..."

Sheesh. It's been almost a month since my last post, and I need a good motivational post to carry me through the rest of winter and the slumps. I don't know how it is at your home or workplace, but around here we routinely play an old 45 of "Eye of the Tiger," by the group Survivor (not so good at surviving as it would turn out). Of course, it is the iconic theme song to Rocky, as well as all the Rocky sequels 1-100.

That song, we love it around here. Some days I love it less when it's been playing for the 12th time straight while kids pretend-box each other, or run around the house in a giant, looping, never-ending race. However, you can't help feeling pumped and motivated when that song is blaring. Even Hippo 4 likes to toddle around babbling loudly and getting in the groove. 

Some of the words are actually quite deep. Well, not really. But they at least get stuck in your head and you find yourself thinking they seem kind of deep. Take this jewel for instance, "Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past / You must fight just to keep them alive." 

This is very true. How many times do we let something we care about shrivel and die because we are afraid to try, afraid to go after it. Yes, if you try you may fail, and if you don't try you won't fail,

But actually, you will.

That's what I didn't realize for so long. If you don't do anything to pursue your dreams, you are failing them and yourself. I was afraid to pursue my dream of writing because I cared so much about it. If I pursued it and failed then my dream would be dead, or so I thought. Actually, failure is rarely so total as all that. If you keep trying, changing, growing, and rethinking your dream, chances are you won't fail. If the dream is not a good fit for you, that will become apparent. Or if there are ways in which you need to grow before it can be realized, that will become apparent too. But if you never get into the ring with that contender, you'll never stand a chance at the title at all.

If you don't fight for your dream it is destined to die. 

And so who is the contender? Oh, this is a harder one to answer. But, by and large, I think we are typically our own worst enemies. Almost every day I have to fight sneaky, snarky thoughts that loom over me like an 8 foot tall Soviet with an attitude. Reaching my dream can seem impossible as the thoughts do their best to unnerve me:

 You can't write a book, you'll never fully understand the magnitude of comas and semi-colons. 

one, two, punch.

This is such a stupid idea for a novel, and your characters are like cliches from some after-school special.

ugh, dodge, block.

You don't even have your household together, Hippo 4 has his breakfast stuck in his hair, and what makes you think you can pursue a career anyways? 

and she's down, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...

But you have to pop back up. Take the beating, but keep coming back until your enemy runs out of stuff to throw at you.

Look at the sidelines and listen to the voices cheering you on. There's your couch, and all the people who are rooting for you. Don't throw in the towel. The more you ignore the thoughts and just keep plugging away, the less hold they have over you. The enemy is only as strong as you allow them to be.

Unless, of course, you're Rocky and your 8 foot tall Soviet may be an actual 8 foot tall Soviet. But even then, don't underestimate what strength a living, breathing dream can give you. It can give you that second wind in round 12. So don't give up.

Now, go on and watch it, you know you want to.