Friday, April 3, 2015

The Books That Got Away

If anyone questioned Jane's commitment to finding the best in middle grade writing (which no one really questions) how about this - not only did she serve on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher committee this year, selecting books for the master list, but she also went straight from that to reading a new pile of books for our April 10th materials review. That is a lot of middle grade fiction. Possibly more than the rest of us read across our years spent in actual middle grades. Here are her thoughts on some of the books not on the DCF list, but on her list of recommended reading. 

Choosing 30 middle grade books every year for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award list is easy, and at the same time very difficult. It is easy to find plenty of good middle grade novels each year to read. It is difficult to read almost 100 books in the span of about 9 months.  It is difficult to take a list of about 70 books and whittle them down to a list half as long for the final nominees. It is easy to spend time with other children's book lovers talking about each book and why we like it.

Each year we end up with several books that don't make the DCF list but wish we had extra wiggle room for. Sometimes it is because the book isn't eligible for various reasons. Sometimes it is because we have to create the right balance of book genres and so have to leave off one in favor of another genre. And inevitably there are the personal favorites that just don't get majority vote.

The new 2015-2016 DCF list is made up of great books. Here are a few other notable middle grade novels that did not make the list, but certainly have the chops.

Screaming at the Ump delivers a realistic portrait and engaging story about a boy who lives with his father and grandfather and helps them run a small academy for aspiring umpires. Casey is still stung by his mother's new marriage and subsequent move out of state, and is hoping to finally write for the newspaper at his new school. Many realistic situations are woven into the plot, including his discovery that one of the trainees is a former major leaguer (and someone he had looked up to) who quit under a cloud of drug-use suspicion-- a truly publication-worthy scoop. Vernick uses a light touch to weave multiple threads together in a well-crafted way when Casey realizes the same skills an umpire needs—being objective and fair, knowing the rules, and being in the right spot to make the call—also apply to becoming a good journalist and healing his broken relationship with his mother. There is deep reader satisfaction as Casey comes around to making some good choices for himself.

Accomplished author and editor Andrea Pinkney Davis creates a sensitive mirror into a distant tragedy in her latest novel in verse The Red Pencil. Pinkney was inspired to research and write The Red Pencil after learning about what was happening in Darfur, Sudan, in 2003. Through deceptively simple prose poems, she has 12-year-old Amira tell her story. Living with her family on their farm in South Darfur, the artistic Amira expresses herself in ephemeral drawings on the sand, yet she also yearns to learn to read and write. While her father is supportive, her more traditionally minded mother is not — it is simply not their way. A dutiful daughter, Amira goes along with her mother’s wishes. But one day everything changes. Their village is brutally attacked and many are killed, among them Amira’s beloved father. She and her sister and mother make a long, hard journey, both physical and emotional, to a refugee camp. There, made mute by the horrors she has experienced, Amira is given a red pencil by a relief volunteer and uses it to begin to reclaim her voice and life through drawing and writing. Pinkney's choice to use short prose poems and simple imagery is very effective at guiding young readers through difficult terrain, and paired with Malala Yousefzai's story would make for some solid current events discussion.

One of my favorite fantasy novels from last year comes from a UK author Piers Torday who grew up on the floor of his mum's bookshop in Northumberland. The Last Wild is an inventive and offbeat quasi-apocalyptic fantasy in which Kester Jaynes learns that he is the chosen savior of “the last wild,” the few remaining animals on Earth. The larger world is in tumult, wrecked by global warming and “the red-eye,” which killed off most animal life and threatens humans with extinction. Torday manages to keep the plot from becoming maudlin and infuses deep love in the relationship between Kester and the animals, who save him from the Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children. Boy needs the wild, the wild needs the boy-- the passionate reciprocity between both is palpable.

To learn more about the new DCF list of nominees, and to hear about many other great newly published books for kids from middle through high school, join us on April 10th at 9:30 am in the Children's Room. We'll have a panel of reviewers, including yours truly, and plenty of lively discussion and of course, yummy pastries.

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