Ten of My Favorite Middle-Grade Authors

Lisa Graff

“Some people aren’t good at anything. Some people just really like donuts” (Absolutely Almost).

Lis Graff writes empathetic books that focus on the trials of everyday children.  Some of them, such as the protagonist of A Tangle of Knots, might live in magical worlds where people possess extraordinary talents.  However, a great many of them, such as Albie from Absolutely Almost, are trying to find their way through life when feeling like they are not worth very much.  Graff reminds readers that there’s nothing wrong with being ordinary.

Victoria Jamieson

“So take it from me, kids: If you find yourself in hot water with your parents, try talking to them about your ‘crazy, mixed-up teenage feelings.’ It might just get you out of a jam” (Roller Girl).

Jamieson reminds readers of the trials of middle-school in her heartfelt graphic novels Roller Girl and All’s Faire in Middle School.  Her heroines make mistakes while trying to navigate new relationships, but, even when they fail, they remain redeemable and lovable.  Plus they get to do cool things like try out for roller derby or train as a squire at the Renaissance Faire.

Gail Carson Levine

“Step follows step,
Hope follows Courage,
Set your face towards danger,
Set your heart on victory” (The Two Princesses of Bamarre).

Ella Enchanted is a middle grade classic.  The Two Princesses of Bamarre, however, has always been my favorite.  I love Levine’s ability to create magical worlds with unexpected creatures and strong female friendships.

Natalie Lloyd

“Some people are born starry. Some people shine so bright you can’t help but sit back and stare. Some people can’t help but shine” (A Snicker of Magic).

Natalie Lloyd tells heartwarming stories where the characters are lovable and real, the type you want to call your friends.  She also has a way with words.  Her prose is often as magical as her stories, where the everyday and the fantastic quietly coexist.

Shannon Messenger

“‘I told you, Mr. Snuggles’s visiting hours are over,’ he called through the door” (Neverseen).

Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series is absolutely magical.  It’s full of action, mystery, and drama–all set in an astounding world that readers get to explore, from an Elfen school to prisons deep beneath the earth.  Plot twists galore keep things exciting, but the humor ensures that readers don’t get too scared.

Kate Messner

“You have to let go before you can reach” (All the Answers).

Kate Messner is an empathetic author who takes the small trials of her characters very seriously, from wanting to buy a new solo dress for Irish dance to trying to pass science class.  She also sensitively addresses issues such as homelessness and the heroin epidemic.

Katherine Rundell

“Neither could speak. It was the day that a silence settled on the pair of them, and they were bound close by it. Will felt, in that moment, too small to face such misery, but she knew that she would have to expand now, with a terrible rush, to fill the empty space” (Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms).

Katherine Rundell is, in my opinion, a sadly overlooked middle-grade author.  Her books are poetical.  They take readers from Africa to boarding schools to the rooftops of Paris.  Everything is an adventure.  And everything feels just a little bit magical.

Trenton Lee Stewart

“She announced her age right away, for children consider their ages every bit as important as their names” (The Mysterious Benedict Society).

Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy is the epitome of great middle-grade.  It heralded a new generation of quirky books that allow readers to solve the puzzles along with the characters.  Its emphasis on teamwork marks it apart, however.  The children each bring something valuable to their journey and, in the end, form a real and lasting friendship.

Jonathan Stroud

“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up” (The Screaming Staircase).

Stroud is rightfully known for his incredible Bartimaues trilogy, which introduces readers both to a brilliantly-developed world and a cleverly sarcastic narrator.  Both make the story work.  What sets it apart, however, is its reluctance to talk down to its readers.  Stroud believes they are mature and he gives them a complex work.  Also a great read is the Lockwood & Co. series, which takes place in a modern-day England where ghosts walk the streets.

N. D. Wilson

“Cowards live for the sake of living, but for heroes, life is a weapon, a thing to be spent, a gift to be given to the weak and the lost and the weary, even to the foolish and the cowardly” (Empire of Bones).

If I absolutely had to choose the finest middle grade author currently writing, I would pick N. D. Wilson.  His stories are bright, shining things that reminder readers that goodness really exists–and that it depends on them.  Wilson never talks down to his audience.  He knows children really believe in good and evil.  He knows that they understand the stakes.  And he helps them to look inside themselves to see how they measure up.

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Through a Man’s Eyes: Helping Women Understand the Visual Nature of Men by Shaunti Feldhahn and Craig Gross

Information

Goodreads: Through a Man’s Eyes
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2015

Summary

Shaunti Feldhahn and Craig Gross write to help women understand what it means for men to be visual. Whether that means explaining how to support men fighting an addiction to porn or how to talk to their sons after guarding their eyes and respecting women, the two cover a variety of questions women might not even know they had.

Review

The book is based on the knowledge that studies exist demonstrating that pornography hurts relationships and harms women.  As it becomes increasingly accessible, it becomes increasingly violent in order to get users to the next high.  We know now that increased viewing is related to an increased tendency to view women as objects.  And that the violence depicted in it sometimes is brought by viewers into real life.  Shaunti Feldhahn and Craig Gross offer a way for women to understand how something so destructive can seem so attractive.  And how even men who do not want to view it sometimes fail.

Some reviewers of the book have misunderstood it, claiming that the authors are either 1) blaming women for what men do or 2) completely absolving men for any responsibility and saying that watching porn or objectifying women is okay.  In fact, the authors do neither.  They simply explain how the sexualized culture we live in bombards men every day with images of women as objects–even if men do not want to see them.  It’s like, they say, seeing a piece of chocolate cake.  You might or might not find the cake tempting.  You do, of course, have a choice as to whether you will eat it.

The cake analogy actually makes a lot of sense to me.  If I saw chocolate cake every time I passed a billboard, opened a magazine, watched a movie, or walked down the street, I would be fighting what might end up be a losing battle.  (I mean, who can resist chocolate cake?)  It actually made me feel quite sorry for men who might be struggling with fighting a porn addiction only to find that they can’t even watch a movie with their wives without being exposed to something that could trigger a relapse.  I hadn’t realized before that living in our culture might be so hard.  After all, I might find certain images offensive or degrading, but they’re not like a piece of chocolate cake being waved in my face all day every day.

Of course, the book assumes that you are a reader who wants to help men fight the stumbling blocks they might face.  (Might.  After all, all men are not the same.)  If, however, you don’t see porn as a problem, the idea that you might want to talk to your son about how he can “bounce his eyes” away from certain images, or the idea that you might remove certain catalogs from the kitchen table, might be ideas that you aren’t sure you can get behind.  But I think the authors might still want to talk to you.  Because the underlying message of the book is that there really is a lot about how men’s brains work that women might not understand.

Personally, I found the anecdotes in the book pretty eye-opening.  I had no idea there were men who could recall images they had seen decades ago.  I had no idea men could watch a movie and have images from it randomly pop into their heads the next day.  I probably would not have predicted that the number of men who could not remember the content of woman’s speech if she was showing cleavage would be so high.

Now, some readers will find this disheartening or gross.  Many reviewers have. But again, that is not the point.  The point is to be aware that doing certain things is like waving a chocolate cake in front of someone on a diet.  It’s not very polite and it’s not very helpful.  It’s not anyone’s fault that they are being exposed to chocolate cake or can remember the scent of the chocolate cake that keeps popping up everywhere they go.  They still have a choice to reject the chocolate cake and, if they do, that’s quite a feat of strength.

The underlying message of the book is, I think, meant to be heartening and empowering.  After all, if women help men fight the temptations that lead to behavior that treats women as objects, women are ultimately helping themselves as well.  And even if you aren’t 100% about the message in this book or the steps presented in it, it’s very likely you are still interested in empowering women.  And how to do that is always a discussion worth having.

4 stars

Last Star Burning by Caitlin Sangster (ARC Review)

Last Star Burning

Information

Goodreads: Last Star Burning
Series: Last Star Burning #1
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: October 10, 2017

Summary

Last Star Burning is the exciting story of Sev, a girl who only ever wanted one thing: to be a good citizen of her country and make a place for herself. So it is a terrible misfortune when her mother betrays the whole nation, and the whole family is branded criminals as a result.  It is an even great misfortune, years later, when the government frames Sev for a fatal bombing in the middle of the city.  Suddenly, all the work she has put into her “re-education,” into keeping her head down and trying to prove she fits in, is wasted.  The only choice she has left is the one she never wanted to make: she will need to leave her beloved nation and see what dangers lie outside the walls.

Review

Last Star Burning is billed as a fantasy (and, indeed, it is), but because the official summary and marketing have focused on the fantasy aspects, as well as on Sev’s romance and personal development, I was not expecting the story to have as much in common with dystopian fiction as it does.  It’s clear once one starts reading the book and sees that there’s a rigid caste system, and government keeping secrets, and a conspiracy to frame Sev for a bombing she almost died in herself, and a wall that barely anyone crosses…that the novel is basically a dystopian that happens in an imagined world rather than in a future version of our own world. I’m perfectly okay with his, however, because Sangster deals with the elements well, making them seem fresh and exciting even to someone who has read her share of YA dystopians.

The plot is well-paced, and there are a lot of twists and turns that will keep readers engaged as Sev begins to piece together what is really going on in her world.  She quickly learns that much of what she learned was true, truths she held very dear, are not true at all–yet it’s unclear whether her new sources of information may also have their own agendas and biases. Throw in some camping and some fighting, and the story is a great mix of action, intrigue, and world building.

Sev herself is a fun character to tag along with.  Her devotion to her country comes across as admirable rather than unfortunate, and it’s great to see her take steps towards turning her nation into the good place she once believed it was.  Her personal relationships are also very interesting, as she navigates friendship,  romance, and family ties.  One of her most defining characteristics is loyalty, and I loved see her fighting even for people who never quite believed n her.

So, Last Star Burning is not quite what I expected, but is a very good read. I’ve been disappointed with some of the YA I’ve been reading recently, but I love how Sangster puts a fresh, riveting face on plot elements that could easily have seemed old.

4 stars Briana

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Information

Goodreads: The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.
Series: companion book to The Exact Location of Home
Source: Library
Published: 2009

Summary

Gianna Zales is looking forward to run in sectionals–if she can pass science class. Unfortunately, she forgot all about her leaf project.  If she can’t collect enough leaves in time, her arch nemesis will run in her place.  But how on earth is Gianna supposed to focus on school when she’s worried about her Nonna’s memory, she’s wondering if her best friend Zig might ever be something more, and her dad keeps embarrassing her by driving her around in the family hearse?

Review

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is the type of book that reminds me why I love middle-grade so much.  Kate Messner provides an empathetic portrayal of one middle schooler’s attempts to keep it all together as she battles embarrassment from her family, new feelings for her best friend, a nemesis who wants her spot on the track team, a failing science grade, and a grandmother who might be experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s. Some people might think Gianna’s life not so hard after all.  But the young at heart remember that everything takes on great significance in middle school.

Gianna and her friends and family are a sympathetic cast of characters, who make you want to love them from the start.  From Gianna’s no-nonsense mother to her perfectly understanding grandmother to her tech-savvy friend Zig, the book is full of people who seem so real they might walk off the page.  They may be flawed, but they are still lovable.  Gianna’s wish to keep them all together, safe and happy, is a wish readers will share.  It’s that bond that readers form with the characters that makes the book so special.

There are not many authors who can capture my heart, but Messner’s work is consistently empathetic as she tackles issues like Alzheimer’s, homelessness, and the effects of the heroin epidemic.  The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is another reminder of why all Messner’s books are now on my must-read list.

5 stars

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None

Information

Goodreads: And Then There Were None
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1939

Official Summary

First, there were ten – a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they’re unwilling to reveal – and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

Review

My primary criterion for determining whether a mystery is good is whether I had a difficult time solving the crime (within fair boundaries; the author has to provide enough clues that it would theoretically be possible for a careful reader to figure out what’s going on).  And Then There Were None is only the second Agatha Christie book I have read, but she delivers complex mysteries in a way I haven’t encountered from any other author.  (Though I suppose the disclaimer here is that I read only a modest amount of mysteries to begin with.)

A friend recommended this book to me, informing me that he had not cracked the case.  Apparently this is common, and Christie got some irate letters from fans during her lifetime, claiming that the whole thing was unfair and impossible to solve.  The truth is that Christie does provide enough clues for one to go on, but, wow, this book is tough.  I only pieced together a reasonable working theory based on some prodding and hints from my friend.  Left to my own devices, I might have sat around, delaying reading the end of the book until I came up with a satisfactory solution, for a good week or so.  As it was, I basically threw out a theory I thought was alright but probably wrong, then tossed up my hands and let Christie tell me how the whole thing had been done.  If I wanted to come up with a theory I was more certain of, I’d probably have had to reread the book.

So, yes, I was impressed.

Other than that, the book has a good cast of characters.  Christie (again, based on the whole two books of hers I have read) seems to have a penchant for throwing together a largish cast of dissimilar characters; minor characters often remark that the group is diverse, spanning different social classes and professions.  This adds some variety to the book, and often some clues, if having money or social connections might make a difference as to which characters would have the means to commit certain crimes.  Christie does seem to rely on character tropes sometimes, but this does not really bother me.  Again, I’m really reading for the mystery, not in-depth character studies.

I think I’m quickly becoming an Agatha Christie fan after reading And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, and I’m planning to pick up more of her books in the future.

5 stars Briana

Eight Interesting Posts of the Week (10/8/17)

Post Round-Up

Around the Blogosphere

  1. May lists reasons she won’t follow your blog.
  2. Bridget explains how hype can make or break your book’s rating.
  3. Isla lists 10 ways to support and appreciate your favorite books and authors.
  4. Readerly Geek talks about how Under the Dome reminded her why she loves reading.
  5.  Kristen Berns lists 10 lesser-known books about vampires.
  6. Shooting Stars Mag shares a giveaway for a Hunting Prince Dracula prize pack.
  7. Teacher of YA recaps Sarah J Maas and Leigh Bardugo events.
  8. Bridget tells you what to do while waiting for an anticipated book.

At Pages Unbound

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Information

Goodreads: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Jill Lepore discusses how the personal life of William Moulton Marston–including his open marriage with Sadie Elizabeth Holloway–affected his creation of one of the world’s most familiar superheroes.

REview

The Secret History of Wonder Woman promises a shocking look at the origins of the superhero who has become a feminist icon.  The cover blurb promises an overview of her cultural history over the decades.  The truth?  The book focuses on the personal life of Wiillam Moulton Marston, not the history of Wonder Woman, and not much of the information seems to be new–and I am hardly an expert on or avid reader of comics.

The book seems to rest on the expectation that readers will enjoy the salacious details of Marston’s life and that they will find it simultaneously shocking that 1) the books are filled with sexual imagery and 2) Marston considered himself a feminist.  However, readers of the comics are not likely to be surprised by either revelation.  The amount of chains and bound woman, the scanty clothing–it was, as the book explains, not very subtle and it was found offensive and disturbing even by readers of the early issues.  And Wonder Woman tends to fight (in Marston’s stories at least) those who would deny women rights.  The “secrets” are written all over the page.

However, most of the book does not focus on Wonder Woman at all, but on Marston’s life from childhood to death.  Readers learn about his marriage to Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, their open marriage with another woman, and later the addition of Olive Byrne as a mistress.  (Jill Lepore makes much of Byrne’s being a niece of Margaret Sanger, but I have to admit I closed the book not really understanding why this was so notable since Marston and his women were already ardent supporters of womens’ rights.  He did not seem particularly influenced by Sanger.)  Readers also learn about Marston’s generally failure-filled career as an academic, his creation of the lie detector, and his (generally laughable) attempts at achieving public interest and fame.  Altogether, Marston comes across as possessing some admirable qualities, but also as being…a little creepy.

I did not pick up the book to learn about the personal life of its creator but was rather hoping to learn more about how Wonder Woman arose from a specific historical context and how she transformed over the decades.  This is briefly touched upon, but there are also a lot of moments in which Lepore simply notes parallels between Marston’s personal life and the story (Look!  Byrne wears bracelets!  Wonder Woman can detect lies!  There is a child in the story with a name similar to Marston’s child!).  I admit I am not particularly interested in biographical criticism of this nature.  Instead, I was hoping the book would continue farther past Marston’s death and cover the iterations of Wonder Woman up to the present day.  Because the book was largely a biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, I closed the pages feeling rather disappointed.

3 Stars