Monday, April 29, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Time Federle

BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle (Simon and Schuster, February 2013)

Being the father of three boys who never saw a stage they didn't want to dance on, sing from, or declaim from, I was really looking forward to this one. It didn't disappoint.

The Story (from the jacket cover):

Nate Foster has big dreams. His whole life, he’s wanted to star in a Broadway show. (Heck, he'd settle for seeing a Broadway show.) But how is Nate supposed to make his dreams come true when he’s stuck in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where no one (except his best pal Libby) appreciates a good show tune? With Libby’s help, Nate plans a daring overnight escape to New York. There's an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical, and Nate knows this could be the difference between small-town blues and big-time stardom. Now's his chance to explore the city, wow the casting director, out-sing the competition, and hop the last bus home before anyone notices he's gone. No big deal, right? But exciting as it is, the Big Apple can be big trouble. And if Nate isn't careful, he'll be lucky if he makes it through Times Square, much less the audition.

Opening Lines:
"I'd rather not start with any backstory.
I'm too busy for that right now: planning the escape, stealing my older brother's fake ID (he's lying about his height, by the way), and strategizing high-protein snacks for an overnight voyage to the single most dangerous city on earth."

What I Liked:

The Voice. As you can see from the opening lines, Nate has got it in spades. "He's lying about his height, by the way" immediately characterizes the sort of kid we're dealing with: someone who is funny, smart, sassy at times. And there's lots of Humor, too.

The character of Nate: I love the obsession with Broadway plays that Nate and his best friend, Libby, share. For swear words, they use the names of Broadway shows they consider to be flops (Dance of the Vampires, no! Or "Oh, Carrie!!). Tim Federle makes us care for Nate--much less physically gifted than his older brother, Anthony--but so possessed by this dream of the stage that he is brave enough to set off alone for New York to audition for E.T.: The Musical.

The Stage. Gosh, for a stage Papa like me, this was a fiendishly realistic portrayal of the emotions bubbling under some of one's fellow stage parents as one waits with one's kids for their audition call. Here's a brief scene where Nate meets a boy, Jordan Rylance, whom Libby knows from her former school:
"Mommy," I watch him whisper, waving a thermos in the air, "my water isn't hot anymore."
His Mommy jumps up, dropping a weird leopard-print coat behind (presumably to mark the territory as her own), racing away with Jordan's water canister... (Nate then asks Jordan some questions about the audition.)...His Mommy returns, holding that boiling thermos of Jordan-water, and snaps to me: "Can I help you?" But not in an "I want to help you" way, like, at all."
There's also some great writing revolving around "the creatives" who are sitting in on Nate's audition.

The Way Federle deals with Nate's sexuality is very appropriate for middle grade. Nate, at 13, calls himself "undecided." "Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food--how would I know who I want to hook up with?" However, he regularly gets called "homo" and "Fagster" by school bullies; later in the novel, he catches sight of two men in New York kissing, and is amazed they can do so without anybody punching them.

The ending. There's family reunification (one of my own favorite themes), and a rallying around Nate after yet one more act of cruelty--a kid during Trick or Treat calling Nate "Super Fag." Nate's reaction? "That kid's an a-hole, and I'm not. Sometimes people are just a-holes, and you have to decide, every day, which kind of kid you are, (Not to get all preachy on you.)"

About the Author (from the book jacket): Tim Federle is the author of over seven hundred e-mails. Born in beautiful San Francisco and raised in character-building Pittsburgh, Tim discovered show tunes in elementary school, prompting bullies to discover Tim. Armed only with grit (and his father's credit card), Tim fled to New York City as a teenager. He has since worn a Tina Turner wig at the Super Bowl, a polar bear suit at Radio City, and a big fat grin in five Broadway shows. Better Nate than Ever is Tim's first novel. Say hi at and on Twitter @TimFederle.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl (first published in 1982)

Sometimes it makes a nice change to feature a classic...

I'm a huge Roald Dahl fan--but had not actually read this one until a few weeks ago. The local children's theater produced a play of it, and my middle son, the thespian, loved it so much that he begged me to do a BFG (which stands for BIG FRIENDLY GIANT) table at his school's book event which takes place next Friday. I've been able to persuade him I won't be on stilts, but we are planning to make some nifty-looking BFG ears!

The Story (via Goodreads):
The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It's lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, or any of the other giants—rather than the BFG—she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that the giants are flush-bunking off to England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

Opening Lines: 
"Sophie couldn't sleep.
A brilliant moonbeam was slanting through a gap in the curtains. It was shining right on to her pillow."
(Which goes to show that you don't necessarily have to open a novel with linguistic or situational pyrotechnics. However, it does help to start with making the reader question. In this case, "why can't she go to sleep?")

What I Liked:
The inventiveness of the language was the most immediately dazzling thing. Dahl gives the giants their own variant of English ("redunculous," "squackling whoppsy appetite,"rotsome snozzcumbers" are just three of the BFG's phrases taken at random.)
The relationship between the BFG and Sophie. Although the BFG has effectively kidnapped Sophie (and this fear is well-portrayed in the first pages) he is very tender and protective of her--and she comes to like him too. Together, they plan to stop the giants who eat "human beans."
The BFG himself. A "titchy" runt of a giant (at a mere 24 feet tall), the BFG is a dreamblower, and takes great delight in finding the right dreams to bestow on children. His giant ears are attuned to the slightest sound, and he tells Sophie that each dream has its own music. He's a delightful character.
The illustrations by the illustrious Quentin Blake.

About the Author:
Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was born in Wales of Norwegian parents. After successfully publishing adult fiction and short stories, he began writing children's stories in 1960, as entertainment for his own children, to whom many of his books are dedicated. Other novels include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. You can visit his website and see yet more wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations there! (It does make "whizzpopping" noises too!)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE ADVENTURES OF BEANBOY

THE ADVENTURES OF BEANBOY by Lisa Harkrader (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

The last of the Cybils' finalists I'll be featuring, this one was unknown to me before I read it. I'm glad someone had the sagacity to nominate it, and that the first round panelists saw fit to place it in the final seven.  It's a good read, and the illustrations (plus cover) are great.

The Story: Never underestimate the power of the bean. Tucker MacBean has been drawing comic books almost as long as he’s been reading them. When his favorite comic has a contest for kids, he hopes he has finally found a way to fix his family—all he has to do is create the winning superhero sidekick . . . Introducing “Beanboy”—the first comic book character to truly harness the power of the bean for good. He is strong, he is relentless, he can double in size 
overnight (if given enough water). (Goodreads blurb)

What I liked: This is classic middle grade. Tucker's a likable character, with a fine, bassoon-playing sidekick--Noah. He has a younger brother, Beecher, who is developmentally delayed (and whom he loves and yet feels frustration about); a dad who has left the family; and a mom who is absent because of constantly having to work, as well as study for college, because of this. There's a nemesis at school--a girl called Sam Zawicky, who seems full of rage--and a popular girl, Emma, who is also nice. It's a believable exploration--without ever becoming preachy--of having to deal with a broken family and consequent lack of money. It also has a lovely vein of humor running through it.

The voice is great. Here's an example: "I fired up my computer and found an e-mail from my dad. Which I kind of wanted to open (because it was from my dad) and kind of didn't (because it was from my dad.)

And: "The whole school would hate me. Including Emma. I doubted even Noah would talk to me. Nobody would. Probably not even the teachers. I'd have to be homeschooled. Except since I'd be the only one home, I'd have to homeschool myself."

The whole writing comics thing is skilfully done, and Lisa Harkrader's drawings are great. This would be a great novel to hand to a reader who might struggle with something too text heavy. As the Kirkus review said, "With a full comic adventure that includes a farting superhero, this is an excellent recommendation for kids transitioning between graphic novels and traditional books."

Recommended reading age: 9-12

About the Author: Lisa Harkrader is from Kansas, and has written a number of non-fiction books, as well as the well-received novel AIRBALL: MY LIFE IN BRIEFS. You can learn more about her at her website

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sometimes A Graphic Novel: DRAMA by Raina Telgemeier

DRAMA by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic 2012)

Okay, so very occasionally this mafioso--mad about middle grade though he is--will read something that's YA. Even more occasionally, he'll read a graphic novel. (And that's enough talking about me in the thrid person.)

This one came to my attention because it won a Stonewall Honor from the ALA this year. Add to this, that all three of my boys are into theater, and I had to read it.

I was surprised to see, the other day, that a whole bunch of my son's 4th grade pals were reading it. I think this is because graphic novels are more accessible to younger readers because of their reliance on telling a story mainly through illustration. However, the themes are quite advanced for 4th grade (romance, both of the straight and the same-sex kind, figures prominently.) I would think this is more suited for the 6-7th grader.

The story revolves around Callie, who loves theater but who is most definitely not a performer. Instead, she is the set designer for the drama department's stage crew, and has grand plans for the upcoming show--the major one involving the firing of a cannon. There's drama aplenty both on and offstage!

This was a quick and engrossing read. I enjoyed Telgemeier's artwork, and the story truly captures the feeling of what it's like to be one of the "drama kids." There's laughter, and longing, and just plain old confusion, which is the touchstone for middle school life.

In fact, I liked it so much that I might just go and read another graphic novel soon. Raina Telgemeier's earlier novel, SMILE, might be just the thing.

About the author: Raina Telgemeier grew up in San Francisco, then moved to New York City where she earned an illustration degree at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Astoria, Queens, with her husband and fellow comics artist, Dave Roman.


Twitter: @goraina

Monday, April 8, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PALMETTO PRINCESSES by Susan Connell

PALMETTO PRINCESSES by Susan Connell (2012)

Now that I've officially joined the e-book revolution (I am always late to each and every revolution) I was able to zip this title onto my Nook and read away. (Prior to Nookery, I had to lug my laptop around to read any e-pubbed books--with the fear that it would fall into The Don's hot tub--where of course we Mafioso spend a great deal of our time.
The Story: Being "the new girl" at Palmetto Bay Middle School is hard enough for archaeologist's daughter Isabella Jones (Izzy, to her friends...if she had any.)All this eleven year old wants is to fit in and, if she's lucky, maybe make some real friends, especially with the fun loving, always loyal clique known as the Palmetto Princesses.
But the road to friendship grows rocky when an imaginary relative leads to an embarrassing misunderstanding. Will Izzy be a 6th grade outcast for the whole year? And is her widowed father really starting to date her teacher?! It's not easy being a 6th grade new girl. WARNING: No wizards, dragons or bullies appear in this book.
Opening Lines: I pulled the brush through my hair one last time, looked in the mirror and winced. If I wasn't happy with my shoulder length, crayon brown hair, it was too late to do something about it now. Dad had already stopped the car in front of Palmetto Bay Middle School.

Why I Liked It: Having Princesses in the title made me think this was going to be all about spoiled, entitled, and possibly mean girls--but Susan Connell took a different route. These 6th grade kids are very sweet and accepting of one another (which may not be realistic, but may be the right kind of escapism that kids this age need.) The girls have mild crushes on the boys, one of whom--"Big Beemer"--is a good-natured goofball.

The main character, Izzy, is very likeable. Even better, she's believable. New to town, she wants to be part of the in-crowd, and she does become so--but she often has niggling thoughts about whether the girls have totally accepted her. Her relationship with her widowed dad is sweet--but once again, she really doesn't know what to think about the fact her dad may be interested in her teacher. I thought Susan Connell's portrayal of what a girl this age worries about (and enjoys!) were spot on.

I did see the ending coming a mile off, but didn't mind it because it made me "feel-good." We all need those kind of feel-good novels now and again, even we hard bitten Mafioso types.

I'm not usually a pink-cover kind of guy, but I liked this one because of the looks on the girls's faces.
Particularly recommended for girls aged 8-11

About the Author: Susan Connell is a well-established writer of adult romances. She lives in Florida with her husband, and the two of them love to travel. They have three daughters and six grandchildren. You can find more about Susan Connell on her Website.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: HECK: WHERE THE BAD KIDS GO

HECK: WHERE THE BAD KIDS GO (Dale Basye, Random House 2008)

The Heck books have been around a while--in fact, I think #6 has just been published. I saw the author at the recent 90-second Newbery festival, and he was as funny as all get-out. I decided to give HECK a shot.

The Story (via Goodreads): When Milton and Marlo Fauster die in a marshmallow bear explosion, they get sent straight to Heck, an otherworldly reform school. Milton can understand why his kleptomaniac sister is here, but Milton is—or was—a model citizen. Has a mistake been made? Not according to Bea “Elsa” Bubb, the Principal of Darkness. She doesn’t make mistakes. She personally sees to it that Heck—whether it be home-ec class with Lizzie Borden, ethics with Richard Nixon, or gym with Blackbeard the Pirate—is especially, well, heckish for the Fausters. Will Milton and Marlo find a way to escape? Or are they stuck here for all eternity, or until they turn 18, whichever comes first?

First Lines: 
Chapter 1. Last Wrongs (my itals--get it? Pun on "Last Rites.")
"In Generica, Kansas, Christmas wasn't something you felt in the chill of the winter air or the warmth of a generous smile. It was announced by the sixteen-foot tower of crystal angels at Grizzly Mall--the Mall of Generica." 
What I Thought: This was downright funny, clever, and gross--classic middle grade, in other words. There's a bunch of very inventive word play, particularly with names. There are "hall demonitors" and other freaky creatures of Heck. Principal Bea "Elsa" Bubb is horrid, and there are several utterly disgusting descriptions of trudging through the sewers of Heck. (Not for the squeamish.)

I also loved the cover art, the drawings above each chapter heading (illustrations by Bob Dob--can this be a real person? I guess so) and the fact that one of the heroes is a ferret called Lucky.

About the Author: (From the back cover) Dale E. Basye lives in Portland, Oregon, as part of the criminal witness-relocation program, where he lives every day in fear that he will be discovered... oh, poop. (Me: He also has a great website.)