Category Archives: Childrens

Battle of the (Middle Grade) Books

Tomorrow is the Battle of the Books competition in my daughters’ fourth grade class. Battle of the Books is a 10-week reading and comprehension competition in which teams of fourth graders read the same five books and then have to answer questions from those books to see how much they understood and retained. I am the “team manager”, which means I have been in charge of making sure the team is prepared and has studied the right things. We’ve had several team meetings and I think the Fictionistas (our team is five girls, including two sets of twins) are ready for battle.

Being the type-A team manager that I am, I read all five of the books and prepared questions for them to answer. Since I read five books in the last week, and since it kept me from reading the usual fare I like to review here on EDIWTB, I figured I could at least write a blog post reviewing the books. I ended up liking them quite a bit. I think the teachers did a great job picking five books that would appeal to a range of interests and reading abilities, while still providing a challenge for the competition.

So here are my quick reviews of the books we read:


The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The World According to Humphrey is about a hamster who lives in a fourth (fifth?) grade classroom. He is used to being taken home at night by young, freewheeling substitute teacher Ms. Mac, but when permanent teacher Mrs. Brisbane returns to her job, she is horrified by the “rodent” in her classroom and leaves Humphrey alone overnight. Humphrey learns to fend for himself, but along the way he befriends the school janitor and wheedles his way into Mrs. Brisbane’s good graces. She decides to let him go home on weekends with students, and on these visits, Humphrey works his gentle magic. He helps parents parent better, he inspires kids to be more cooperative, and he lifts the spirits of hopeless, depressed adults. If I am making the book sound corny, it isn’t – it’s sweet and entertaining. Great book for fourth graders.


A Year Down Yonder by Richard S. Peck. A Year Down Yonder takes place in 1937 during the Great Recession, which occurred after the Depression. 15 year-old Mary Alice Dowdel has been sent by her parents to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois, because they have been forced to move into a Chicago boardinghouse that doesn’t have room for her. At first, she is very unhappy at the prospect of leaving Chicago and moving in with her abrasive, emotionally distant grandmother in her hick town. But Grandma turns out to be conniving and outrageous, as well as loyal and generous with a strong sense of justice. She puts people in their place and never apologizes for it. I really liked A Year Down Yonder. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book (usually at Grandma), and was touched by her relationship with Mary Alice and the people in her small town. Another good read for fourth graders, though there is some outdated language that they didn’t always grasp and some mature themes that thankfully sailed over their heads (a teenage pregnancy, a woman caught nude in a young man’s boarding room). This is a Newbery medal winner (2001) and, it turns out, a sequel – I think I may look into its predecessor as a possible Mother-Daughter Book Club book.


The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. More historical fiction from Speare, who also wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Sign of the Beaver is about thirteen year-old Matt, who has moved with his father to what is now Maine to build a house and settle land there in the late 1700s. When his father has to return to Massachusetts to retrieve Matt’s mother and younger sister, he leaves Matt in charge and promises to return in 7 weeks. While his father is gone, Matt has to learn to fend for himself. He ends up coming in contact with an Indian boy and his grandfather, and after a rocky start, Matt builds a relationship with them that becomes very deep and enduring. The boy, Attean, teaches Matt how to trap, fish, build a bow and arrow, and mark a trail. He also teaches Matt about his tribe’s culture, bringing Matt back to his village for some ceremonies and celebrations and integrating him into his family. In the end, Matt has to decide whether to wait for his family, who has not returned after five months away, or join the tribe as it moves further north. There are also good questions raised about the white man’s ways vs those of the Indians, and how those cultures clashed as settlers moved into lands long held by Indians. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Sign of the Beaver (a Newbery honor winner in 1984) and strongly recommend it for fourth graders.


The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John Erickson. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog is the first in a popular series about Hank, a cowdog in Texas who isn’t quite up to the job of protecting the chicken coop. In this first book, Hank and his even more inept sidekick Drover fail to prevent the murder of some hens on a neighboring farm, and Hank gets unjustly accused of doing the killing himself. He takes great offense at the accusation and runs away, eventually finding his way to a nearby community of coyotes. He manages not to get himself killed, but forms an uneasy peace with Scraunch, the meanest and nastiest of the coyotes, while slowly becoming part of the coyote community. Hank’s loyalty is tested when Scraunch plans a raid on Hank’s owner’s farm, and Hank has to decide whether he’s a bad guy or a good guy. Hank the Cowdog was my least favorite of the five books, but it wasn’t bad. There were some funny moments when Erickson poked fun at Hank’s ineptitude, and the portrait of the coyotes, while unsavory, was illuminating. My daughters liked this book least of the five too. Maybe’s it’s a boy book.


Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley, Jr. Who Was Milton Hershey? is part of a series of books for kids about famous people. This one focuses on the enterprising chocolatier, who lived in Pennsylvania from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. I learned a lot about Hershey in this book, but what stood out to me was what a decent guy he was. He provided services and amenities for his factory workers at a time when such benefits were rare, such as bank accounts where they could save their money, bonuses, running water and electricity. He built a whole town for his factory, and included things like parks, bowling alleys and theaters to improve his workers’ quality of life. Hershey was quite generous as well, founding a school for orphan boys and eventually donating all of his stock in the Hershey company to that school (which is now worth an astounding 9 billion dollars). Hershey didn’t raise the price on his Hershey bar for over 65 years, and he even installed electricity in the homes of his sugarcane factory workers in Cuba. Who Was Milton Hershey? was an easy and informative read for my fourth graders, and I think they will remember a fair amount about this creative, interesting, and socially progressive businessman.

So those are the books! I will report back on how the Fictionistas fared in tomorrow’s competition.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

This month’s mother-daughter book club pick was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, one of those books that’s billed as YA but which I saw all over the place when it came out in 2009, suggesting that its appeal goes well beyond kids’ fiction. (It won the Newbery in 2010.)


When You Reach Me takes place on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and is about Miranda, the daughter of a single mother, who has become estranged from her best friend Sal, a boy who lives upstairs from her. The two were walking home from school one day when out of the blue, he was punched by another kid. From that day on, their friendship was over, despite Miranda’s attempts to engage Sal and recover what they had. In the meantime, a cast of odd characters is filled out, including Marcus, the boy who punched Sal; a homeless man who lives on the corner and sleeps with his head under a mailbox; and Annemarie, a girl Miranda befriends who partially fills the void left by Sal. And some mysterious notes start appearing in Miranda’s apartment, each one making reference to events that hadn’t happened yet. Who could know these personal things about Miranda, and how did he or she know things that even Miranda didn’t know yet?

Books about time travel always make my head hurt – in a good way – and this one was no exception. References to A Wrinkle in Time abound (Miranda is reading it when When You Reach Me takes place), and there is a suggestion of the possibility of time travel throughout the book, as Miranda discusses it with her friends.

But it wasn’t the time travel that drew me into this book. It was the depiction of a lonely, 1970s latchkey childhood – a far cry from the overprotective, overscheduled lives middle-graders live now. Miranda spent a lot of time alone, with few people to talk to about her disappointments, sadness, and anxiety. I liked that the characters were not one-dimensional; even the rich girl/bully turns out to be smart and redeeming in the end. And the explanation at the end of where the notes came from and who wrote them was satisfying, if a bit headache-inducing. Miranda’s relationship with Sal is explained, if not rehabilitated, and she finds other flawed but rewarding friends to spend time with.

Here’s a great interview with Rebecca Stead on Amazon.

I think this is a great book for kids. It is a story about relationships and friendship wrapped up in science fiction and mystery. Miranda is a formidable heroine – she is self-sufficient and independent, but not infallible.

Our book club meets this Sunday – I expect that this one will be well-received by the group.

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach

Our Mother-Daughter book club met over the weekend to discuss Masterpiece by Elise Broach. I think this may have been the most enthusiastically received book we’ve read this year other than Wonder. (When asked to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10, one girl gave it a 70.)


Masterpiece is a book about art forgery, interspecies friendship, loyalty, and taking risks. James is an 11 year-old boy living in New York City with his distracted, materialistic mother and stepfather. His father, an artist, appears to see him only erratically. But James doesn’t know that there is a family of beetles living in his apartment, and that the youngest beetle, Marvin, is actually a very talented artist. One day, Marvin goes into James’ room and makes a drawing for James’s birthday of the view looking out the window. (He creates the lines by dragging his legs through ink and then transferring the ink to the page). Marvin’s drawing gets mistaken for James’ by his proud father, the three go off to the museum to see more art, and before they know it, James and Marvin find themselves dragged into a complicated scheme to recover a series of Albrecht Durer drawings that were stolen from the Met.

The premise may sound silly or juvenile, but Masterpiece is actually a substantive book that tackles some abstract concepts. If people steal art because they love it so much, should they be forgiven? Is it OK to lie in order to protect people (or creatures) that you love? Is it OK to risk your life to be a good friend? And then the art itself (which is fictional) is based on philosophical topics like Fortitude, Justice and Prudenc, and a good portion of the book focuses on why the artist chose those topics and what he was trying to say.

Masterpiece was a fun read, and even had some suspense in it, as James and Marvin try to recover the stolen works without being caught by the perpetrator. Both the moms and the girls (9 and 10 year-olds) in the book club found a lot to discuss in the book.

Highly recommended for middle grade fiction readers.

LILY’S CROSSING by Patricia Reilly Giff


Our latest read for Mother-Daughter Book Club was Patricia Reilly Giff’s Lily’s Crossing. It takes place in 1944, and is about Lily, a girl who lives in New York and spends summers with her grandmother and father at the ocean in Rockaway. (Her mother is dead.) The summer of 1944 proves to be different than the ones that came before: her father is called off to support the war effort in Europe (not as a soldier, but helping to rebuild once the Allies recaptured occupied cities); her best friend Margaret leaves Rockaway because her father has been recruited to build bombers in Michigan; and a new boy, Albert, moves to Rockaway. Albert is a refugee from Hungary who has left behind a sister in Europe.

Lily is understandably upset about her friend and her father leaving, and she is worried about her father’s safety. His letters appear regularly, but he cannot tell her where he is. Meanwhile, she befriends Albert and learns about the circumstances that brought him to the United States and his plans to find and retrieve his sister.

Lily’s Crossing was not my favorite book club pick. I found it a little boring, and Lily’s self-absorption was frustrating. She had suffered her own terrible loss in life, but seemed incapable of being sympathetic to anyone else’s losses or fears. Instead, she was just focused on how the war had affected her. She did mature some by the end, but it took a while. Overall, the story was sweet – and moving – but a little dull.

My 9 year-old daughter didn’t like Lily’s Crossing at all. She thought it was boring and predictable. And I think that the politics of World War II were confusing to her. It was a chore for her to finish it.

So… if you’re looking for middle grade historical fiction, Lily’s Crossing wouldn’t be my first recommendation.

WONDER by R. J. Palacio

What can I say about R. J. Palacio’s Wonder that hasn’t already been written about this beloved book? Not much, but I will try.


Wonder was this month’s pick for our Mother-Daughter Book Club. I chose it because my daughter absolutely loved it, and the buzz around it has been tremendous (which usually makes me shy away from a book, but I resisted this time). I didn’t expect that *I* would enjoy reading it as much as I did, since I don’t read much YA or middle grade fiction other than for this book club.

Wonder is the story of fifth-grader August Pullman, who has a terribly disfigured face due to a rare craniofacial genetic abnormality. He describes himself in the beginning of the book by saying, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” August is a smart kid who has been homeschooled by his protective parents. They decide that it is time to send him to school, despite their fears about how he will be treated by his classmates. When the book opens, August is meeting some pre-selected kids from his class whom the principal thinks will be nice to him and help ease the transition to school.

August is a funny, sensitive kid who just wants to be accepted – or even ignored – by the people around him, instead of causing them to shrink away in horror. He is acutely, painfully aware of the effect he has on people. Otherwise, he’s just a normal kid facing the usual ups and downs of growing up. That is partly what makes Wonder so powerful – August could be any of us inside; he’s just different on the surface. In addition to August’s, the book is told from the perspective of some other characters – August’s sister Olivia, her boyfriend Justin and friend Miranda, and two of August’s friends, Summer and Jack. I liked hearing their points of view, which not only rounded out August as a character by getting outside of his head, but also reinforced the book’s theme that everyone has problems and insecurities, and that being kind to those around you can help ease their burdens, whatever they are.

There are a lot of really sad points in the book, particularly when August’s dog dies, when he overhears very hurtful comments made by his best friend, and when he is bullied by older kids while on a school retreat. But Wonder is ultimately an uplifting story. Whether or not the acceptance of his classmates that August enjoys at the end of the book is realistic, it makes for a great message about how to treat other people.

There’s a lot of loneliness in Wonder – not just August’s, but among the other main characters too. I found the most poignant moments to be when they connected, when they really understood each other. So maybe the message of the book isn’t just to be kind, but to empathetic, to put yourself in others’ shoes and try to understand what it’s like to be them. What a great message for kids (of any age).

I liked the writing a lot. I am not sure that the dialogue (internal and spoken) was accurate for fifth graders – it seemed a bit advanced to me – but I’ve read reviews that said that it didn’t seem sophisticated enough, so there you are.

So I am adding my voice to the chorus of fans of this touching book. Highly recommended.

THE YEAR OF THE BOOK by Andrea Cheng

Our November choice for Mother-Daughter Book Club was The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng. It’s about Anna, a 4th grader who is a first generation American. Her mother is learning English, studying for her driver’s license, and training to be a nurse, all while cleaning houses on the weekends, and her father runs a convenience store. Meanwhile, at school, Anna has lost her best friend to some mean girls, and takes refuge in books and her friendship with Ray, the crossing guard.

This isn’t an action-packed book (which the girls in the book club pointed out).  But it’s a quiet and moving story about a girl trying to find her place and weather grade school when her family and customs aren’t like everyone else’s. Anna escapes into reading – she loves books like A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – and into sewing and crafts. She develops a relationship with one of her mom’s clients, a widower in a wheelchair who passes along his wife’s watercolors and sewing supplies to Anna. And she is devoted to her teacher, Mrs. Simmons – so much so that she lobbies her principal to have Mrs. Simmons teach her in fifth grade the following year.

There are some sad themes here – the demise of a marriage and its impact on a girl’s family, another girl’s learning disability, and, of course, the feeling of being left out by one’s peers. But the book ends hopefully. Ultimately, Anna must decide whether she should trust her best friend again or continue to retreat into her books for comfort.

Andrea Cheng’s writing was a little choppy, but the book was very easy to read. My girls really enjoyed it, as did I. It’s a gentle story that addresses some important and universal topics for middle-grade readers, and of course it celebrates reading, which is always a good thing.

THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson


Our second Mother-Daughter book of the year was The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I picked this one because my all-time Paterson fave, Bridge to Terabithia, is so terribly sad, and I wasn’t sure book club was the right venue for it. And the other Paterson I remember, Jacob Have I Loved, got surprisingly bad reviews on Goodreads and I feared that my (positive) memory of it was flawed. So I opted for The Great Gilly Hopkins, which I don’t remember reading as a kid.

Gilly is a 11 year-old foster child who has been shuttled from home to home, and in the process has developed a tough veneer, a terrible reputation, and an undying hope that her mother, who lives in California and periodically sends her postcards, will come and rescue her. When the book opens, Gilly has landed in her latest foster home, living with a large, mostly uneducated woman named Mrs. Trotter and another foster child, W.E., who is meek and quiet. Gilly makes a snap decision upon her arrival: she is better than these people, and she needs to get out. By the time she has hatched an escape plan, however, she finds that she is slowly warming to Trotter and W.E., and ultimately learns to care for them. Unfortunately, she has set the wheels in motion, and her happy-ever-after at the Trotters is soon at risk when an unexpected relative shows up to take her away. Will Gilly have to say goodbye to the first people who have ever made her feel loved?

The Great Gilly Hopkins is a bit dated. First, there is the theme of racism through the book – Gilly’s teacher is black, as is Trotter’s neighbor who comes to dinner every night – and Gilly has to face her own prejudices as they both win her over. Second, Gilly’s birth mother is a former flower child who has lost her way, a concept that 2013 9 year-olds didn’t get. There are also a lot of bad words throughout that probably wouldn’t be in today’s middle grade fiction.

Gilly is also a sad read. Gilly’s not a terribly nice kid, but sad things happen to her, and pretty much everyone in the book has lost loved ones and is leading a somewhat lonely life. My daughter didn’t love the book (only one of them read it). She thought it was sad and kind of weird, and that Gilly wasn’t a nice person. Other girls in the book club felt similarly – I don’t think any of them said that they liked the book.

That said, we had a robust and substantive conversation about Gilly. There is a lot of fodder for discussion – when did Gilly decide she liked the Trotters? was the ending a happy one? did she change over the course of the book? what did she learn about racism and judging people? etc. This was one of our best discussions yet. The book may be dated but there are some universal themes here that have withstood the last 40 years.

So while The Great Gilly Hopkins was not an easy or pleasurable read for 9 year-olds, it provided some good food for thought. Perhaps Bridge to Terabithia would have been the better option in the end.