February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

5 Middle Grade Titles Perfect for Reading Aloud

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Though picture books are often the go-to format for classroom read-alouds (and for good reason, given the range and breadth of topics and themes, not to mention the interplay of art and words), sometimes a longer book is desired. The following middle grade titles feature strong vocabulary, detailed settings, and authentic dialogue, along with themes that will spark discussion, making them ideal selections for classroom use.

Bailey, Linda. The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library. illus. by Victoria Jamieson. 336p. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Jun. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062440938.

Gr 3-5 –Eddie is a beetle who lives with his family in a crack in the wall of the fourth grade classroom at Ferny Creek Elementary School. When his book-loving Aunt Min fails to return from her most recent trip to the school library, Eddie sets out to search for her, only to find her injured, hungry, and marooned atop the librarian’s desk. Hiding out in the paper tray, the bugs overhear a disturbing phone conversation between the substitute librarian and the school superintendent: their plan is to close the library and turn it into a testing center. As they watch Miss Visch start packing away the books, Eddie hatches a plan involving blueberry juice, licorice, and yellow sticky notes. Using his legs to write messages, he leaves the notes stuck to books on the shelves, raising suspicion that the benign ghost of a former library volunteer is interceding to save the library. The obvious message is pleasantly tempered by subtle humor, many references to beloved children’s books, and themes that celebrate bravery, perseverance, and storytelling. There’s lots of action as Eddie faces dangers navigating the world of “squishers” who may trample him at any moment. The writing is breezy and accessible, and children will enjoy the bug’s-eye view. A bibliography of referenced titles is included. VERDICT Despite the length, this is a good choice for younger readers and would work well as a classroom read-aloud.–Marie Orlando, formerly at Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY

Bowling, Dusti. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. 272p. Sterling. Sept. 2017. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781454923459.

Gr 5-8 –Aven Green has always loved her life in Kansas—hanging out with Emily and Kayla, her best friends since kindergarten; planning pranks; and playing on the school soccer team. Though Aven was born without arms, she has never let her “lack of armage,” as she calls it, deter her from doing anything she sets her mind to. But when her father gets a job as the manager of Stagecoach Pass, a rundown Western theme park out in Arizona, the family’s move, right after Aven has started eighth grade, presents her toughest challenge yet. Having to deal with the many stares and questions of new schoolmates, Aven sorely misses her old life back in Kansas. However, her unflinchingly optimistic spirit, accompanied by her infectious and indomitable sense of humor, keeps her looking for the silver linings in her new life in Arizona, such as making friends with the cute but prickly Connor (who has Tourette’s syndrome) or enjoying the ability to wear flats all year-round. But the most fascinating thing is the unusual mystery at the heart of Stagecoach Pass: the disappearing tarantulas, a missing photograph, and a secret necklace. Aven is determined to get to the bottom of the secret. She is a perky, hilarious, and inspiring protagonist whose attitude and humor will linger even after the last page has turned. The tale of Stagecoach Pass is just as compelling as the story of Aven, and the setting, like the many colorful characters who people this novel, is so vivid and quirky that it’s practically cinematic. VERDICT Charming and memorable. An excellent choice for middle grade collections and classrooms.–Evelyn Khoo Schwartz, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC

Cole, Henry. Bayberry Island. illus. by Henry Cole. 176p. (Brambleheart: Bk. 2). HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. May 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062245519.

Gr 3-6 –In this slim sequel to Brambleheart, Cole picks up the adventures of young chipmunk Twig, his rabbit friend Lily, and their nemesis-turned-accomplice Basil the weasel right where they left off, sailing out to sea in a found boat. On a mission to return lost baby dragon Char to his family, the young animals cheerfully leave everything they know behind, braving unknown creatures, high seas, and, finally, shipwreck with resourceful optimism. Exposition and character development are almost nonexistent, and readers who skipped Brambleheart may find themselves a little out of sorts. However, Cole’s writing is actually more suited to straightforward adventure, and this sequel is a fun and fast-moving, if not deep, read. Detailed pencil drawings enhance and enrich the simple text. VERDICT An enjoyable read-aloud or easy middle grade selection for readers of gentle nature fantasy.–Katya Schapiro, Brooklyn Public Library

Mitchell, Todd. The Last Panther. 256p. Delacorte. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399555589.

Gr 4-7 –Mitchell’s latest novel transports readers to a future where people are divided over the preservation of wildlife and their natural environment. Eleven-year-old Kiri lives outside the city’s walls with her father in the jungle. Her father, a scientist, works diligently to protect wildlife in the jungle. Although Kiri loves her father, his job often puts them at odds with the nearby villagers. When Kiri encounters a panther that everyone thinks is extinct, she tries to shield the creature from the people in the village, who need the animal to survive, and her father, who wants to cage the panther in a zoo. Kiri’s desire to safeguard the panther and bring understanding between the villagers and her father takes her on a dangerous and exciting adventure. Mitchell has crafted a story that will not only engage readers but also prompt them to ask important questions about conservation and what it means to protect wildlife. The future world Mitchell has created is not completely fleshed out, but the action and mystical encounters make the book difficult to put down. Teachers can connect this absorbing tale to lessons on ecology, endangered species, social structures, and more. VERDICT An important addition on a timely subject. Hand to fans of Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot.–Aileen Barton, Choctaw Public Library, OK

Williams-GARCIA, Rita. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. 176p. HarperCollins/ Amistad. May 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062215918.

Gr 4-6 –Clayton Byrd has some complicated relationships in his family. His strict, demanding mother refuses to marry his father, but allows him to be a presence in Clayton’s life. Clayton adores his grandfather, “Cool Papa,” though his mother does not. Cool Papa nurtures Clayton in many ways—cooking his favorite foods, reading to him each night, and teaching him the harmonica and the blues. He’s allowed to tag along with Cool Papa when he and his band, the Bluesmen, busk in Washington Square Park. When Cool Papa dies unexpectedly, in a scene that is understated and heartbreaking, Clayton is devastated. His mother not only sends Clayton back to school too soon but sells or gives away all of Cool Papa’s belongings, some of which were promised to Clayton. School becomes complicated when Clayton is assigned to read the very book that Cool Papa read to him every night. Clayton’s plea for another book is ignored. When his frustration and grief become overwhelming, he cuts school and takes the subway, intent on finding and joining the Bluesmen. Williams-Garcia packs a lot of story in this slim book. Clayton’s an appealing character, and his anger and loss are palpable. The neighborhood scenes are so vivid, one does not need to be a denizen of New York City to appreciate them. VERDICT This complex tale of family and forgiveness has heart. A first purchase.–Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ


Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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