Tag Archives: middle grade reader

The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

“You’re such a Button.”

Tugs Button has heard this more times than she can count.  Her family is known for being unlucky.  They aren’t good at sports or art.  They aren’t talented musicians or exceptional cooks.  They certainly never win anything. 

But all that changes at the 1929 Fourth of July picnic.  For the first time ever, Tugs partners with cool girl, Aggie Millhouse in the three-legged race – AND WINS!  Then her essay on “progress” wins first prize in the essay contest!  And finally, Tugs’s ticket is chosen as the winner of brand new Brownie camera in the raffle.  Tugs Button, the awkward, clunky, much-less-than-graceful tomboy, could possibly turn her luck around.

But Tugs is plagued by the new man in town, Harvey Moore.  He says he’s here to bring a newspaper back to Goodhue with the help of monetary investments by the townspeople.  Everyone in town is enamoured with this dapper gentlemen – everyone, that is, except Tugs.  What will come of Tugs’s suspicions?  Has her short streak of luck already run out?

Ylvisaker’s novel is a an utterly charming look at small-town life in Iowa in the 1920s. 

The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker
Juvenile fiction | 224 pages | Candlewick Press | April 2011 | 0763650668 | Library copy

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Falling In by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Isabelle Bean doesn’t quite fit in.  She’s a quiet girl (but isn’t shy), who talks in riddles (but is never rude).  Her teachers, classmates and even her own mother can’t seem to figure her out.  A fall through a door in the nurses’s office sets Isabelle off on an adventure to figure out who she is and where she belongs.

The world Isabelle falls into is like something out of a fairy tale; fairies stealing babies, witches hunting children.  Despite the fact that the children she meets are running away from the witch, Isabelle thinks it might be interesting to meet one.  She tricks a lost girl named Hen into accompanying her on her journey but instead of a witch, the girls find Grete, a healer who lives alone in the woods.  As Grete teaches Isabelle and Hen the ways of her craft, secrets are revealed and Isabelle finds herself faced with an important decision and shocking information about her true identity.

Falling In by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Juvenile Fiction | 256 pages | March 2010 | Atheneum | 141695032X  | Library copy

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The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little

“Nothing was right in my family, and I dreaded the day my sins were gonna catch up with me, but the bayou made me feel like the world was full of beauty and possibilities.  Like someday, somehow, just maybe, I could be the girl I wanted to be.” (p. 124)

Livie Mouton’s mother has the “sleeping sickness”.  After an accident on the bayou that Livie believes is her fault, her mother is now lying in a coma in their front room at home.  Everyone else seems to know how to help Mama, how to believe that with their love and care she will get better.  But Livie is so burdened with guilt over the accident that she can’t even go near her mother.  Livie has always felt like an outcast in her own family, unable to be helpful and capable like her older sister Faye, or sweet and charming like her baby sister, Crickett.  Since the accident, Livie has felt more out of place than ever.

Livie decides to visit a traiteur (healer), with the hopes that she will be able to help where the doctors have failed.  Miz Allemond instructs Livie to make a healing string, that with faith and prayer, is sure to work.  She must tie nine items that are special to her mother onto the nine knots and then tie the whole string around her mother’s ankle.  Then she must find nine good memories.  This worries Livie, as she’s spent most of her 12 years at odds with Mama, the two never able to see eye-to eye.  Once the string falls off, Mama should be healed.

The Healing Spell is wonderfully atmospheric and Little’s vivid descriptions of life on the Louisiana bayou are fantastic.  I could feel the sticky air, smell the hyacinths, hear the buzz of the mosquitoes.   Livie’s intensely fragile emotional state was palpable throughout the story.  I could relate to her fear of her mother lying motionless on the hospital bed, of the way she felt as though she didn’t understand how to help when everyone else just seemed to know what to do.  Despite a few instances where the author told rather than showed to  move through the action, I found The Healing Spell to be a thoroughly enjoyable and moving story about family, growing up, love, guilt and ultimately, forgiveness.

The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little
Juvenile fiction | 368 pages | July 2010 | Scholastic Press | 9780545165594 | Library copy

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A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (2010)

There is no one left to help me.  They think I am weak and useless. Salva lifted his head proudly.  They are wrong, and I will prove it.” (p. 66)

We’ve heard that clean water can change lives in developing countries.  It’s a difficult thing to imagine, given our access to all the water we could ever want.  In A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park takes us to Sudan to bring this message home in a powerful way.

2008.  Nya must walk for eight hours every day, for seven months out of the year to fetch drinking water for her family.  It’s not always clean and sometimes it makes people sick.  When a team of workers tells her small village there is water buried deep beneath the ground they’ve been living on, it changes Nya’s life in ways she can’t even begin to imagine.

1985-2006.  Salva Dut is 11-years-old when he is forced to flee into the bush as the civil war in Sudan reaches his home in Loun-Ariik.  His trek from his home in Sudan across the Nile, through the desert and to Ethopian and Kenyan refugee camps spans years and is full of peril, danger, and heartache.  Yet, despite the hopelessness of his situation, Salva displays incredible bravery and perseverance. His mantra of facing just one day, one moment at a time allowed him to surmount incredible obstacles and achieve amazing success.

Don’t let the slimness of this volume fool you; Park’s sparse, matter-of-fact writing will sneak up and into your heart before you even realize it.  Salva’s story will stick with me for a long time.

See Nicki’s review.

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A Faraway Island by Annika Thor (2009)

In 1938, Sweden offered to take in 500 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Twelve-year-old Stephie and seven-year-old Nellie Steiner were among those children.  Forced to be separated from their parents, Stephie and Nellie were sent to Sweden in hopes that they would be protected from the Nazi invasion.  But from the beginning, things don’t go as planned.  First the girls are separated from each other; Nellie goes to live with warm, loving Auntie Alma while Stephie is sent to stuffy, grumpy Aunt Marta.

Nellie seems to assimilate nicely into her new home, makes friends easily and begins to act just like any Swedish child.  For Stephie, the transition is much more difficult.  She is constantly hounded by the school bully, Sylvia, doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle like all of the other kids her age, and struggles to feel liked by her foster mother.  Stephie’s unhappiness begins to strain the relationship between her and Nellie and too often she finds herself lashing out at her sister.  On top of all of this, Stephie finds out that is unlikely her parents will be able to join them anytime soon.  The situation in Vienna is getting worse and it is nearly impossible to leave the country.  Stephie must put on a brave face in her letters to her parents, while inside she feels as though her whole world is crumbling.

But as the months go by, things start to turn around.  Stephie makes a few friends.  Her exceptional hard work at school is recognized by her teacher.  She learns things about Aunt Marta that helps their relationship move forward.  And though fear, confusion, and worry for her parents are still a part of her life, Stephie begins to appreciate her life on the faraway island that seems like it’s at the end of the world.  For that, she can be grateful.

Though a little bland at times, A Faraway Island is a thoughtful depiction of displaced children during World War II.  This is probably the type of book I would have enjoyed when I was younger, but doesn’t necessarily have the depth of emotion I appreciate as an adult.  I would recommend this book to middle graders who like historical fiction.

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Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis (2009)

Driving across the county with their cigarette-smoking, fast-driving, very unconventional grandmother, Mare is the last way Octavia and Talitha Boylen want to spend their summer vacation.  But as Mare begins to tell them about her childhood and the forces that drove her into the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, Octavia and Tali come to a deeper understanding of their grandmother and themselves. 

Alternating chapters break the story down between “now” and “then”, but Mare’s story is where this book shines.  The road trip parts were less interesting and seemed unnecessary to me, although Davis does bring the two stories together in the end.  What stood out most to me are the themes of family, loyalty, and inequality.  It was heartbreaking to see Mare struggle with her mother’s silence after she joined the WAC and uplifting to witness the fierce love and sense of duty she felt towards her sister, Feen (which paralleled the relationship between Octavia and Tali).  Davis also highlighted the disparity with which African Americans were treated during the war.  They were good enough to fight but were still segregated in barracks, at drinking fountains and at nightclubs.  Mare’s frustration is palpable: 

“It is crazy to be here fighting for freedom and democracy when we are not free.  It tears me up to wonder why we are here, why our colored men go down fighting, when things will stay the same at home.” (p. 195)

 The only thing I felt was lacking was character connection.  The plot moved quickly, but I didn’t feel for the characters. 

Pair with Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.

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Joey Fly, Private Eye in Creepy Crawly Crime by Aaron Reynolds (2009)

“Life in the bug city.  It ain’t easy” (p. 7)

 Have you ever had one of those days?  When your brand new assistant doesn’t have the first clue about collecting evidence, bungles eyewitness interviews and nothing generally goes right?  Joey Fly, Private Eye is having one of those days.  But he’s determined not to let little things like a clumsy assistant and getting fired stand in his way of solving the case of the missing diamond pencil case for the beautiful swallowtail butterfly, Delilah.  As Fly gets closer to the truth, something is fishy, and it’s not just the smell of scorpion aftershave.  Will he be able to solve the case?

 I don’t normally read graphic novels but I really loved Joey Fly.  I was amused by Reynolds’ use of what Booklist calls “this noir-type story filled with classic detective dialogue and swarms of insect humor.”  The art is clean and stays firmly within its designated boxes, which I appreciate because it helps me follow the story better.  I’m not a big fan of more cluttered pages with a lot happening, like The Secret Science Alliance.  My only concern would be for the audience-will they appreciate the element of film noir?  Or will it be lost on them?

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