Best Middle Grade of 2011

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce

I thought I’d start this 2011 Reading Extravaganza off properly with a book that was published in 1958. Nice, huh? To make matters worse, Tom’s Midnight Garden definitely harkens back to another book about gardens, written in 1910. Oh, and it’s a historical fiction time travel book, too! Oh me, oh my.

Tom is your average rambunctious young fellow who loves nothing more but to play outside. So when his little brother comes down with the measles, and Tom is relegated to his boring aunt and uncle’s apartment, the first thing on Tom’s mind is “OH MY GOD! THEY HAVE NO BACKYARD.” City-living, Tom. City-living. I feel ya. Anyway, so Tom is so bereft from his lack of vitamin D, he develops a nasty case of insomnia… but as he lays awake each night, pouting and longing for the sun and worrying about his health, he notices that after midnight, the giant grandfather clock in the downstairs porch strikes 13 each night. Soon, Tom’s investigations reveal that every night, in that extra hour between midnight at 13, the parking lot behind the building becomes a beautiful, well-kept old-fashioned garden.

Okay, so maybe it seems like I am making fun of this book, but I really did enjoy it. I found Tom very likeable – quiet, inquisitive, a little sensitive- and I too became very interested in the hows, the whys, the physics of this “mystery garden.” As Tom becomes more involved with the mystery and the summer draws closer to the end, it’s fairly suspenseful to read along and wonder if he will figure it out before he must leave. I feel like this is a lovely classic-y children’s book that nobody has read, but more people should!

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost

After reading this novel, I have determined that I just like Helen Frost. I never feel particularly drawn to the subject matter of her books, and I am quite ambivalent about poetry as a form. But no matter my intentions to not enjoy Frost’s novels, I do. Actually, I feel a little fluttery about how much I like them. That’s rare for this jaded reader.

Willow is a twelve year old living in a small town deep in Alaska, where her family has lived forever. She has the usual smattering of twelve-year-old issues – grasping for friends, boys, and maturity – but what she really wants is to run her father’s sled dog team. She’s especially close to one of the lead dogs, Roxy, so when Willow loses control of the team and Roxy is injured, Willow is devastated.

What I loved most about this book was the way Frost interspersed Willow’s diamond-shaped poems – describing her sled-dog adventures as well as her everyday life – with poems from the point of view of the animals that watch Willow in the woods. These animals, the text quickly reveals, are the spirits of Willow’s ancestors. With this simple narrative decision, Frost places young, impetuous Willow within the context of this vast family unit, that not only encompasses her parents and relatives, but perhaps the entire natural environment where she lives. I find this to be a very compelling concept, and very well realized in this book.

Oh! And on a less abstract level, there’s a fairly awesome twist at the end that I definitely did NOT see coming.

The Old Country by Mordecai Gerstein

This story is one part fairy tale, one part folk tale, one part Holocaust narrative, one part complete nonsense. The story begins when Gisella leaves home on a grudge mission: a fox has been feasting on the family’s chickens, and Gisella is going to kill him.

The story gets weird when Gisella finds the fox, but the other woodland animals insist on a fair trial first, including a testimony from the chicken who has recently been ingested.

The story gets even weirder when Gisella looks the fox in the eyes for too long, and they pull a Freaky Friday mind/body swap.

Despite all the weirdness and talking animals and magic, I think the novel was supposed to, ultimately, provide commentary on warfare, on human oppression, and moral justice. I think the message gets lost underneath the crazy; there were many points in this short text that I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to find a scene completely ridiculous or completely horrifying. But you know what? I liked feeling uncomfortable about what the text was trying to do. I liked the weirdness. I am not sure you could compare this book to anything else out there.

Half Magic by Edward Eager

That was a nice little jaunt into the 2000s. Now back to 1954!

Edward Eager’s Half Magic is a short novel about a large group of siblings who get into adventures together. For those of you stuck in the 21st century, think of a retro version of The Penderwicks! For those of you who prefer things to be logical, think of The Penderwicks as a modern version of Half Magic... which itself is a direct result of E. Nesbit’s work, but that’s getting a little bit TOO logical.

The children in Eager’s Half Magic are somewhat bored. Their widowed mother works a lot to keep the family afloat and their nanny is quite stuffy. When they chance upon a magic coin, their summer vacation takes a turn toward exciting – the children suddenly can wish for anything they want. But they quickly learn that the magic comes with a catch – it seems the coin only grants “half-magic,” meaning the children are constantly having to wish for things doubly and devise clever phrasing to undo their misdeeds.

Maybe I am just a sucker, but I was won over early in the novel when the youngest sibling wishes her cat could talk. The next chapter is filled with this kitty speaking mangled half-words (half magic! remember!), attempting to communicate with the children. Once they figure out how to wield their new powers, they determine that the cat is just plain distressed at its new ability, and they quickly un-speech the poor thing.

What can I say. I was endeared. The rest of the novel continues with similar endearment.

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

Okay. Clementine. First, I present to you, Marla Frazee:

Marla Frazee is one of my favorite illustrators. She provides seriously impressive full page illustrations to the Clementine series that really do GREATLY impact the reading experience. Together with Pennypacker’s text, I found the first installation in this series to be completely beguiling. Yes, Clementine is Ramona Quimby, Clementine is Junie B. Jones, Clementine is Junie B. Jones… but Clementine is also Clementine. She’s self-consciously artistic, she gets upset at her family and friends, she’s ballsy enough to cut off her own hair.

She’s a little-girl character who is well-deserving of her own series.

Also see: Marla Frazee.

One Comment to “Best Middle Grade of 2011”

  1. Half Magic is one of my favorite books of all time.

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