Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part One
(Including One Scrotastically Testacular Book)

h1 April 17th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Hi there, one and all. We’ve been reading a whole slew of intermediate-aged novels and decided we’d review them in a round-up post. Some are newer than others (yes, you’ll see that we’re just now getting to titles like The Higher Power of Lucky and Rules, but better late than never, eh?). And, you know, we here at 7-Imp never really addressed Scrotumgate (or what Kristen McLean at pixie stix kids pix aptly called “the Great Scrotum Kerfuffle of 2007“). So, in honor of speaking out against those adults who feel “discomfort . . . {about} . . . references to body parts in children’s literature. . . {and the} fear of giggling” and in defense of scrotums as children’s literacy tools (in the words of Susan Patron herself), we’ll try to use at least one scroadjective in each review of this round-up — such as, the profoundly erudite “scrotastically testacular ” in the title of this post. (And we hope the authors of each book below will forgive us and will know that we have only the utmost respect for them).

And when we say “intermediate” or “middle-grade,” keep this in mind: more or less. All the below titles pretty much fit into the “ages 6 to 12” category, if we must use categories; Mary Hanson’s new book is for the younger set, while Rules and Lucky technically get labelled “9 to 12” a lot. But blah blah blah, what matters is that these are some brand-new titles or titles from the previous year (with which we’re getting caught up) that will appeal to your older elementary and middle-grade students and that we think are worth your time for one reason or another. Enjoy! (Oh, and look for a Part Two soon — we’ve got even more to say) . . .

How to Save Your Tail: *if you are a rat nabbed by cats who really like stories about magic spoons, wolves with snout-warts, big, hairy chimney trolls . . .
and cookies, too

by Mary Hanson and illustrated by John Hendrix
Schwartz & Wade Books
April 2007
(review copy)

What It’s About: A cookie-lovin’ rat (named Bob) manages to save himself from being devoured by two hungry cats, Brutus and Muffin, by serving them cookies and telling them fairy tales about his family.

Jules: Yes, it was “his love of books that almost killed Bob,” we learn on the very first page, as he notices a book on the garden bench, leaps to it out of curiosity (“Was it a new book? OR was it one of his favorites that he had read a hundred times? Either way . . . {h}e had to have it”), but is thwarted by two hungry cats. How Bob manages to save his tail throughout the book is through his storytelling skills; he tells tale after tale to the cats (with cookie breaks all throughout), who are enchanted by the stories, despite their best efforts to resist. These short stories are so cram-packed with fairy tale illusions that fairy tale lovers’ heads will be spinning (as there are even a few times when too many unrelated references seem too hastily crammed into one small part of a story). But, all in all, it’s scrotrageously fun, since Bob can be a captivating spinner of tales, since there’s a fun map of Bob’s home as well as his amusing family tree, and some mouth-watering cookie ideas gettin’ swapped in these pages (the author points out that her favorites are chocolate-layered toffee crackers. Mmmmm, toffee). There’s some real spunk and lively humor, and — combined with the name-that-tune fairy tale references that permeate the stories — this one would make for a good read-aloud (and, to boot, there are wolves with foul breath and warts on their snouts).

by Jacqueline Woodson
Putnam Juvenile
March 2007
(library copy)

What It’s About: In the winter of 1971 everything is changing for 6th grader Frannie. Her deaf older brother is increasingly frustrated by his inability to fit in with the hearing crowd. She’s worried about her mother, who has suffered several miscarriages in the past. And a new boy –  a white boy – has joined her predominantly African American school. Nicknamed “the Jesus boy,” his presence challenges Frannie’s assumptions about race, religion, and friendship.

eisha: I loved this one. I’ve read a few of Woodson’s works, and I have a lot of respect for her already – she’s got a lovely poetic touch and a gift for creating believably introspective characters. But I think this slim, quiet little gem is my favorite novel she’s written so far. It’s got so much going on – the political and social upheaval of the time period, racism and segregation, faith and doubt, people with disabilities, death, family, cliques, friendship… but it never gets cluttered or veers off track. Woodson keeps all the various elements together, connected by the central theme of hope.

The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem that Frannie’s class is discussing:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

At first Frannie doesn’t know what to make of it. But with each new challenge she gains a little more insight into herself and the world she inhabits, and she keeps coming back to the poem, puzzling it out until she’s finally able to find a little hope in her own soul.

My only gripe: the cover. It actually fits the story beautifully, once you’ve read it. But I’m afraid it has limited child appeal. And if you don’t know anything about the story… it looks like something scroterrible may have happened to Big Bird. 

by Cynthia Lord
Scholastic Books
April 2006
(library copies)

What It’s About: This one was a Newbery Honor Medal winner, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and an ALA Notable Children’s Book. The rest of the world has already read it and loved it, but if we must, here’s the scrofficial CIP summary: “Frustrated at life with an autistic brother, twelve-year-old Catherine longs for a normal existence but her world is further complicated by a friendship with a young paraplegic.”

Jules: Have you read this one? Oh drop everything and do. It’s got all the necessities for a winning middle-grade novel — a completely authentic, believable, enchanting yet flawed protagonist (as School Library Journal put it well, “Catherine is an endearing narrator who tells her story with both humor and heartbreak”); a strong sense of place (the coast of Maine); family dynamics depicted in an honest, credible manner (in this case, a family whose emotions revolve around a child who is disabled); humor; strong themes (self-acceptance, accepting others, issues of guilt and embarrassment that plague many tweens, and much more); and Lord’s overriding respect for the middle-grade reader. But what I loved the most about Rules is what it has to say about communication and art and how the two intertwine. Catherine gradually gets to know Jason, a 14-year old paraplegic she sees weekly at the clinic that David, her autistic brother, frequents. Ever the artist, she enjoys making him new communication cards that he uses for making his point with others; in her fervent opinion, he needs cards and words that are entirely more expressive than what he currently owns. And it’s when she creates these cards for Jason (his only means of communication with the outside world), both as an act of kindness and a way of fulfilling her own unexplored need for self-expression, that Lord hints at the formidable power of the written word and the beauty of art as a creative outlet for children, or — as we see here — both the power and humility that comes with ineffability, with not being able to conjure up just quite what you need:

“I. Am. . . . . Incomplete.”

I find an empty pocket for Torn. “I feel like I’m ripping in half. One half wanting to run away and be a regular person with my friends, but my other half is scared to leave David because he can’t make it on his own.”

Expression – trying to find a word for the “more than awesome” feeling of seeing the ocean. Even though we’re blocking the sidewalk and people have to step on the grass to go around us, I take a blank card from my pocket and write “more than words” across the top. Searching for something to draw, not even the ocean seems enough.

No. Picture.

In his book the card stands out against the others I’ve made, plain as a field of new snow. “You’re right,” I say. “This way it can be anything you imagine.”

And the book has a pitch-perfect ending. Just perfect. And I mean the final five words. Just couldn’t end on a better note.

eisha: I agree. I loved this one. And the young patrons I’ve recommended it to have loved it too. All I can add to what you’ve already said is that maybe the most striking thing for me about this book was the character of Catherine. She is so believable, and so complex – the way she veers between being so fiercely protective of her autistic brother to being mortified by his more public antics and resentful of the responsibilities he creates within the family. And the way that she related to Jason and reacted to his disability… yeah. Lord did a fine job creating her.

Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale
by Bonny Becker with illustrations by Abby Carter
Clarion Books
November 2006
(review copies)

What It’s About: Holbrook, the lesser earless lizard, loves to paint (and does not paint squiggles, thank you very much) yet feels isolated in the town of Rattler’s Bend, where no one seems to understand how meaningful art is. So, Holbrook leaves Rattler’s Bend for Golden City, where he hopes to find appreciation for his talents and where he meets a lobster art critic, an operatic snail, a trickster pigeon, an orangutan chef, the world-renowned ballerina Margot Frogtayne, and an art patron — Count Rainier Rumolde, a mink — who isn’t all he seems to be and who introduces Holbrook to other artists of the day. Soon, Holbrook realizes that the town and its inhabitants are not all they’re cracked up to be, and he must devise a way to save himself and his art, all the while learning what being an artist extraordinaire truly means.

Jules: And, while we’re on the subject of art (see Rules above) . . . Here we have Holbrook, the lizard, who essentially poses this grandiose, high-minded question to the reader via his many adventures: What does it truly mean to be an “artist”? Is it — as Enrico Escargot, one of the many animated characters he meets on his journey suggests — “{t}o show the world your world?” Or is Holbrook right when he grandly (but not so earnestly) opines, mid-journey, “{a}rt is about truth, but it doesn’t have to be real”? Is art for everyone? Are popular artists lesser artists? Yes, your elementary-aged art-lovers will be drawn to Holbrook’s tale (though it’s well-written enough to be appealing to all children), Holbrook being a creature who “inside . . . felt something so big, he thought he might burst with it.” It probably goes without saying that eventually he learns that each person paints objects in quite different ways, “because they all came from the thing inside, which was different and special for each creature.” There is much humor here (particularly, via Carter’s expressive black and white illustrations), including Becker’s amusing caricatures of famous artists (poets, dancers, you-name-it), though parents, teachers, and/or librarians may have to stop and explain a few.

eisha: Yeah, this was a neat little book. It asks all the big questions you mentioned about the definition of “art” and what it means to be an artist. It has a lot of humor and references to famous artists and performers. It has a lovable, relatable hero. But it also hinted at things like involuntary servitude and psychopathic cannibals. I was surprised by how dark and deep it went – I just didn’t expect that from a book with a scarf-sporting lizard on the cover. But I liked it – it was a scrotabulous mix of humor, adventure, and intrigue. Just right for those early middle-graders who like something a little different. We have some Geronimo Stilton fans at my library – I bet this would be a good step-up for them.

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron with illustrations by Matt Phelan
Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
November 2006
(library copies)

What It’s About: Let us lift School Library Journal’s wonderful summary: “When Lucky’s mother is electrocuted and dies after a storm, Lucky’s absentee father calls his ex-wife, Brigitte, to fly over from France to take care of the child. Two years later, the 10-year-old worries that Brigitte is tired of being her guardian and of their life in Hard Pan (pop. 42) in the middle of the California desert. While Lucky’s best friend ties intricate knots and the little boy down the road cries for attention, she tries to get some control over her life by restocking her survival kit backpack and searching for her ‘Higher Power.'”

eisha: Is there anything that hasn’t already been said about this outta-nowhere Newbery winner? Probably not. But I’ll just chime in and say: loved it. I fell for Lucky in that first scene where she’s listening in to the AA meeting, and fell even deeper when she had all her preserved bugs spread out on the kitchen table, envisioning a future museum exhibit. What scrotalicious imagery. What great characters. What more could anyone want from a book? Well, maybe one thing… I did find it a little hard to believe that Brigitte would come to a podunk town in the California desert to care for her ex-husband’s child from another marriage. I don’t know if we were given quite enough about her character to understand that – but then, we’re getting the story from Lucky’s point of view, and I think that issue is puzzling me as an adult reader. So I’ll let it slide.

Jules: There was something about this book that possessed an old-skool Beverly Cleary vibe for me. The illustrations, the story — I don’t know which. Maybe both. Anyone else? Anyway, yes, loved it, too. And you covered its greatnesses. I loved its child-centeredness, such as when she talks about looking for that nebulous Higher Power:

She didn’t get why finding it was so hard. The anonymous people often talked about getting control of their lives through their Higher Power. Being ten and a half, Lucky felt like she had no control over her life – partly because she wasn’t grown up yet – but that if she found her Higher Power it would guide her in the right direction.

And then even later, Lucky says again: “It’s almost impossible to get control of your life when you’re only ten. It’s other people, adults, who have control of your life, because they can abandon you.” Wham, zam, I felt like I was ten again. (Not that I was ever in danger of being abandoned, but, well . . . that whole loss of control in the early tween years. She nailed it).

And I’ll close on one of my other favorite excerpts from the book, since you mentioned the great imagery in the book:

Lucky thought how strange it was that some small things turned out just right, which was rare for big important things to do. As the sunset faded and faded and the sky darkened, she and Lincoln ate eggs, Miles got a Fig Newton, and HMS Beagle polished off a carrot. The feel of the air, soft and nearly still, was something you usually wouldn’t even notice. But now, after the dust storm, it felt like a kindness, a special thoughtful anonymous gift.


Well, that’s it for now . . . until the next middle-grade post. We’ll keep ’em coming.

Scrota la vista!

10 comments to “Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part One
(Including One Scrotastically Testacular Book)”

  1. Wow, friends. Again, excellent and thorough reviews. One of the books I haven’t read yet (and will quickly procure) is _Rules_.

    I have to say, the two of you have some prominent cojones putting forth all your scrotesque adjectives. I had a ball reading all of them.

  2. Oh, inscrotable wise ones, thank you so much for your kind words about Holbrook. How I would love to take this blurb from your review, but I don’t know quite how to get away with: “a scrotabulous mix of humor, adventure, and intrigue.”


  3. Good one, Shannon.

    Bonny, I already thought of that. I think I can safely speak for Eisha when I say you have our permission, should you want to take an excerpt of our review that actually includes a pathetically distasteful scroadjective, to turn it into its original form — in this case, “fabulous.” ‘Cause, uh, yeah, out of context it’s a bit weird.

    “Inscrotable” — I’m impressed, Bonny. Oh the possibilities with the word.

    (Shannon, I think you’ll really like Rules).

  4. Your title wins Blog Title of the Year. You are so funny.

  5. MADE MY DAY. Seriously. Best Review Ever.

  6. Aw, thanks you guys.

  7. Thank you so much! This really made me smile!

    Cynthia Lord

  8. Well, thank YOU for writing such a kick-ass book!

  9. Good times, ESPECIALLY Rules.

  10. Just returned from a ski trip to find this and begin dancing and squealing.

    So, at the risk of not maintaining proper author distance….. thank you! I’m honored to be included in the round-up with such illustrious company!

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