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The Tween and Friends Top 14 Reads in 2014

Many Friday nights I have anywhere from 2 to 5 preteen girls hanging out at my house. Not all of them are readers, but two of them are very fervent readers. In fact, I was surprised recently to learn that The Tween’s BF had almost 5 times the AR points as her, which is astounding when I think about how very much The Tween reads. Though to be fair, The Tween still reads largely in the MG category, which means her books are often worth fewer points, while the BF reads a ton of YA books which can tend to be worth more points. Also to be fair, The Tween reads a lot of the ARCs we get for TLT to give me her point of view and they are, of course, worth no points. Anyhow, it’s always interesting to talk to the kids that come to my house about books. Last Friday I had The Tween and Friends put together a list of their Top 14 Reads of 2014. For the purposes of this list I didn’t not limit it to new books, but just wanted to see of all the books they read between them what they liked best in 2014.

1. A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

This should be surprising to no regular TLT reader. The Tween was crazy about this book and we even took the BF to Tween Reads to meet the author, where they both got their own signed copies. I also listened to this on audio because my daughter was such a huge fan and to be honest I really liked it a lot. When I ask The Tween why she likes it her #3wordbooktalk is “magic, hopeful, happy”.

2. The Neptune Project by Polly Holyoke

The Tween actually just read this book this past week. I sent her off to the Scholastic Book Fair and she came home wanting 3 books: The Neptune Project, The Spider Ring and the 3rd book in the Land of Stories series. She bought both The Neptune Project and The Spider Ring, both of which she read immediately. She commented frequently that it was “sad” and that she “wants to speak to dolphins” while reading. In the end she said, The Neptune Project is “one of those books that just really gets to you and make you realize that you have a good life.” Note: The Spider Ring technically has a January 2015 publication date but it was sold early at her school’s Scholastic Book Fair.

3. Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

The Tween’s BF LOVES this series and since I do too, we talk about it a lot. She thinks she is weird because she “likes bloody books”, but I keep assuring her that lots of people do which is why mystery and horror are so popular. We even talked a little bit about why people are drawn to these types of stories and how they help us process the darkness of life in a safe environment. Not that she cares about any of that, she just thinks the books are incredibly cool.

4. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer

One of the best things about this new group of Tweens is that they are just now finding both the Harry Potter and Twilight series. So while I was there to experience it the first time, it is fun watching them experience it for their first time. The BF is a HUGE fan of the Twilight series. Although I will be the first to point out some of its flaws (I can’t stand the scene, for example, where Edward disables Bella’s vehicle to stop her from doing something she wants to do under the pretense that he is protecting her, it genuinely enrages me), I can’t help but remember the appeal for young teens who are just starting to think about romance.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This year I took The Tween to a Dallas meet and greet for the movie. Then I took her and her friends to see the movie. AND THEN she read the book. That’s right, she did it totally backwards. But her and her friends were compelled to read the book after watching the movie (which is also true for If I Stay), which is why I am a big champion of book based movies. The Tween didn’t cry at the movie (I sobbed like a big baby) but she did cry reading the book. All of the tweens said they liked the positive relationship in the book and that was why they were drawn to it.

6. Savvy by Ingrid Law

It was the BF who insisted this book be put on the list, neither The Tween or I have read this one yet. But that same girl who likes bloody books, she said she liked this book because “it’s one of those feel good books”. A reminder that readers aren’t drawn to just one type of book and we can take what we know about our readers and introduce them to new types of books as long as we keep them connected to the appeal factors of our audience.

7. The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer and Brandon Dorman

This is one of The Tween’s favorite series at the moment. She won’t stop talking about it and – shhhhh don’t tell – I went ahead and bought her book 3 for Christmas. Land of Stories fits nicely into the twisted fairy tales genre that is really popular at the moment, but The Tween also says she really likes the good brother/sister relationship.

8. The Giver by Lois Lowry

I was really impressed when they brought up this book because I know that 1) it’s not something they had to read for school and 2) neither one of them saw the movie (The Mr. and I went but did not take The Tween). That means that they discovered this book on their own, and yes probably sparked in part by the movie advertising, but they chose to read it and connected with it. The appeal factor for them was that it is “different than most stories.”

9. Leisl and Po by Lauren Oliver

The Tween is a huge fan of Lauren Oliver, who happens to be the first author she met in person on what our family refers to as Lauren Oliver day. She got a signed copy of Leisl and Po probably two years ago, but read it for the first time this year where she really became a fan of fantasy. In fact if you ask her, she’ll tell she is a “fantasy girl.” The appeal factor here is once again the relationships. The Tween states that Leisl and Po “taught the meaning of having a good friend.” I mean if you’re cool with your good friend being a ghost and all.

10. Dark Life by Kat Falls [Read more…]

MG Moment (Book Review): Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner is a contemporary mystery with a touch of history (in the form of historical facts), just perfect for middle grade students and younger tweens.

Anna, Jose and Henry (7th graders) don’t meet each other at a special reception for THE flag that inspired the writing of “Star Spangled Banner”.  They do, however, meet each other the next day when they are all snowed in at the airport.  And it turns out they all have something in common, their ancestors all played a part in history and their family is part of a secret society that has pledged to protect important works of art and history.

While stranded at the airport the news breaks in to announce that the flag was stolen from the Smithsonian museum.  What are three resourceful – and bored – kids supposed to do while stranded at the airport?  Why try and find the flag of course.  Could the flag be at the airport? 

At the airport Anna, Jose and Henry meet a variety of characters, and potential suspects, including a senator running for president, a young boy and his very hungry dog, and a whole orchestra who played at the museum the night before.

Capture the Flag in essence becomes a locked room mystery, with an airport full of suspects and some adventure through the baggage claim area.  In tone it reminded of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (a childhood favorite).  There are touches of humor, breadcrumbs of clues, and a mild dash of intrigue.

In order to get a tween perspective (my tween is 10), my family read this book at night as a read aloud and all of us enjoyed it.  The adults figured out the whodunit and why fairly early in the book but the tween did not and it kept her guessing.  One of the biggest issues we  had was one of the characters name is Senator Snickerbottom; every time I read the name the tween started snickering and The Mr. ultimately asked me to stop reading the name out loud because he just felt it was too absurd, but the tween and I got the humor Messner was going for and felt it worked.  Wimpy Kid and Origami Yoda fans will also be tickled by some of the drawings inside the book by Sinan, a younger boy travelling with the orchestra, as he tries to learn common American sayings like “scapegoat” and “we bit off more than we can chew.”

In the past, Stephanie and I have complained about the whiteout of characters of in MG and YAlit.  In Capture the Flag, Messner presents a strong female (Anna), a Hispanic boy (Jose) and an African American boy (Henry); here is a diverse cast that reflects a large variety of our kids in healthy, respectful ways.  Jose makes mention of stereotypes about Latino characters and immigration policies, but for the most part Messner presents a well-rounded cast of characters where race is not an issue.  Each character has their own strengths and passions, including reading and playing video games, that helps the group solve the mystery.  In fact, the stereotype that most bothered me is that of the video game playing boy, but eventually even his game playing becomes an asset. My favorite part: a backpack full of Harry Potter books helps to save the day!  As a parent and librarian, I appreciated that the kids were presented as intelligent and I loved that Jose collected quotes (I do too).

Capture the Flag has a nice balance between historical facts learned, mystery elements, character development and dashes of humor.  The mystery is a slow start and could use a few more potential suspects for more sophisticated readers, but it seemed to be the perfect read for young tweens.  3.5 stars out of 5 and recommended for elementary and middle school libraries and collections.  Definitely pair this with The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and add in some good old fashioned Encyclopedia Brown.  There is what many would consider to be a “safe” or clean read.

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner is published by Scholastic.  ISBN: 978-0-545-39539-7

MG Moment: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Please join me me in welcoming school librarian Amianne Bailey to the TLT team.  She will be joining us periodically to review middle grade fiction and provide us with a Middle Grade Moment (MG Moment).  Today she reviews Okay for Now by Gary d. Schmidt.

A Story of Baseball, Birds, and Bullies

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt resembles the story of so many of our kids. On the surface, these “smart alecks” appear to not care about school or their grades. On the surface, these “slackers” appear to not be very smart because they refuse to play the game. That’s why it is dangerous, especially as an educator, to look at kids (or anyone for that matter) from a surface perspective—to confine them to a certain stereotype and not give them the chance to surprise you.

I thought I had Doug Swieteck all figured out as the typical jaded protagonist. He comes from an extremely dysfunctional family that moves to upstate New York in the summer of 1968. Doug’s oldest brother is returning from Vietnam; his father is a “chump;” he calls his new home “the Dump.” Doug has every reason to be mad at the world. But when he stumbles into the local public library and discovers the plates of Birds of America by John James Audobon, the power of art begins to chip away Doug’s protective armor to reveal a sensitive, deeply perceptive, and talented young man.

This shift happens with several characters in the book. I admit that I first looked at each of them from a surface perspective, thinking I had them all figured out, and then Schmidt surprised me with a change—an authentic, believable change that tied to the universal theme of this powerful book: there are reasons behind our actions and reactions, and when we understand these motives, then we better understand the person, and we can help him/her heal and become whole again. Even though their horrible actions qualify these characters as “villains,” (Doug’s father and gym teacher each made me want to scream several times in the book), Schmidt slowly exposes the reasons behind their actions, and Doug begins to see them from a different perspective (and so did I). 

Doug’s voice reminds me of so many that I have heard over the years as a high school English teacher. I could not help but laugh out loud when I read the following paragraph:           

            “You know, there are good reasons to learn how to read. Poetry isn’t one of them.

            I mean, so what if two roads go two ways in a wood? So what? Who cares if it

made all that big of a difference? What difference? And why should I have to

guess what the difference is? Isn’t that what he’s supposed  to say? 

Why can’t poets just say what they want to say and then shut up?” (Schmidt 235)

 For me, the sign of a great book is that the characters stay in my head after I close the pages and nag at me to return to their story. Doug and his family kept calling me back to the book. As an adult reader, I loved Okay for Now. But I am not sure this will appeal to average middle-grade readers because of the context that needs to be established and explained in order to truly understand the power of this book. The late 1960s setting and references to the Vietnam War, New York baseball, and Audobon’s work might not interest some kids due to a lack of background knowledge. But in the hands of a skilled teacher who could establish the context, this could be a powerful read-aloud for middle grades.

Overall, kids can relate to Doug’s struggle and will root for him to overcome it. With the help of caring adults and strong friendships, Doug realizes that he will be okay for now. It is an important message to share with our kids, especially those, like Doug, who try to fool us into thinking that they do not care.

This MG Moment brought to you by the letter A and the number awesome. You know, if Awesome were a number.  Amianne Bailey is in her third year as the librarian at Shaw Elementary in Mesquite, Texas. Before she found her “dream job” in the library, she worked in the trenches as a high school English teacher for eleven years. She loves to read (obviously), spend time with her family, and watch sports.  You can visit her blog at http://mywesternsky.blogspot.com/.