Monday, April 27, 2020

MMGM: MG Comfort Reads

With all that's going on, I thought I'd post some links to some MG books that either make you laugh or take you to another world. Books can heal. They can also take you to other worlds when travel is not an option. I've also added a few classics at the end of this list that are in the public domain should you not be able to access your library.

Funny MG:

Alvin Ho--This kid who is afraid of everything will appeal to the younger middle grade set. My favorite is his book about traveling to China.

Ungifted--I've enjoyed all Korman's books I've read so far, but this one about an ungifted boy who ends up in a gifted school is especially hilarious.

Watsons Go to Birmingham--This is a serious book about the civil rights movement, but it has many funny moments. I especially enjoyed how this family dealt with their teenage son. :)

A Whole Nother Story--I'm always surprised this title is not more well known. How can you not chuckle about this family with their ever changing secret identities, a pet sock puppet, and a narrator doling out unsolicited advice? A favorite of my senior in high school when he was in late elementary school/middle school.

Take Me Away MG:

Penderwicks: I've enjoyed this whole series. This is a great title for anyone who likes to live with a family who's creative and intelligent and has adventures in our ordinary world. Great inspiration for ways to have fun that's not digital.

Gail Carson Levine Books--This link will take you to The Two Princesses of Bamarre review, my favorite, but all of her books take you away to another world with intricate languages, customs, fairy tale elements, and cultures.

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place--This series about children raised by wolves and their governess reminds me of The Series of Unfortunate Events, but not as dark. It has a lot of literary humor woven throughout by the omniscient narrator. And its settings include the seaside, London, the English countryside, and Russia!

Bloomability: I don't have a review posted for this book yet, but it's my favorite Sharon Creech. A girl unwillingly goes to a Swiss international school and learns to "bloom." If you have had to cancel travel plans due to the epidemic, this book might help ease the pain.

Classic MG:

Railway Children or The Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

Nesbit was one of the first writers to write for children. These are my two favorites. Railway Children, like the Penderwicks, will inspire you to find fun in the ordinary. Five Children and It is a fantasy about a creature who grants whatever you wish with hilarious results! (However, I don't recommend the movie. The book is so much better!)

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I include this one, because Sara is a great example of how to keep your dignity when your life is turned upside down. She acts like a true princess, being kind to everyone no matter her circumstances or how she is treated.The ending of the book is different (and more believable) than the movie.

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

Pollyanna gets a bad rap for being too perfect at times. But personally, I needed this book to remind me to play the “Glad Game” and count my blessings right now.

I hope that you are finding solace in stories right now. What are your favorite comfort reads? What you watching right now? Let me know in the comments!

To join the MMGM fun or read more MG reviews, go to Always in the Middle.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Why Best-Tacy Books are Still Relevant 80 Years Later

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy series, which was published in 1940, but the books are set at the turn of the last century. The series is loosely based on Maud Hart Lovelace's experiences growing up in this time period.

I fell in love with these books as a child and can still read them with the same wonder. I related to Betsy and her desire to be a writer from a very young age. And like Betsy, I have a friend like Tacy, a kindred spirit I met at six. We're still in touch (through snail mail, of course!), though we live miles apart.

If you’re looking for a comfort read, don’t look any farther. And since it’s Lovelace’s birthday on Saturday, I thought this would be a great time to revisit her.

But apart from the nostalgia and the desire to read about a simpler time, what makes these books relevant now?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. Betsy is a woman of her times, yet before her time. I love that Betsy never questions for a second that she can be a woman and a writer. A wife and a writer. She is a trail blazer, yet she doesn’t think family and a creative passion are mutually exclusive (unlike in the most recent Little Women.)

2. Betsy has wonderful, strong female friendships. It is so rare to see strong female friendships in  middle grade and young adult fiction. Boy-girl friendships are far more common. Maybe authors are trying to appeal to both boys and girls. But as some of my best memories of my childhood were with my girl friends, I’d love to see more of this in modern kidlit.

3. Betsy grows with you. Lovelace did something groundbreaking with her books for that time. The books when Betsy is young are simpler in language and plot for the younger middle grade reader. The books about her teens are geared in language, themes, and complexity to readers in what we now call the young adult genre. 

4. Betsy has adventures. One of my favorite books is Betsy Tacy and the Great World. This novel is loosely based on Lovelace’s travels in Europe. Who can forget the scene when Betsy is in England waiting to hear if England will declare war (WWI) on Germany? Betsy is the kind of character who goes places.

5. Betsy has the best family. It’s lovely reading about a family that has so much fun together as Betsy’s family with their music nights and Sunday suppers and muffins on the first day of school. Although think I might skip Dad's onion sandwiches myself. 

These books are rich in the details of ordinary life. And that’s why we love them. They make us feel like our lives, however ordinary, can be exciting too.

If you'd like to celebrate Maud Hart Lovelace's 128th birthday next Saturday, here more information about the virtual celebration: Betsy Tacy Society Page.

What kind of book to you like to read for comfort? Have you read any Maud Hart Lovelace? What is your favorite? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, April 13, 2020

MMGM: Restart

I picked this book up because it was my Goodread's Middle Grade book club’s choice for February. I have enjoyed every book I've read by Korman. He captures the middle grade voice and angst so well. The premise reminded me of Liane Moriaty's What Alice Forgot, and if you don't take it too seriously, you will enjoy it. 

From Amazon:

Chase's memory just went out the window.

Chase doesn't remember falling off the roof. He doesn't remember hitting his head. He doesn't, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

He knows he's Chase. But who is Chase? When he gets back to school, he sees that different kids have very different reactions to his return.

Some kids treat him like a hero. Some kids are clearly afraid of him.

One girl in particular is so angry with him that she pours her frozen yogurt on his head the first chance she gets.

Pretty soon, it's not only a question of who Chase is--it's a question of who he was . . . and who he's going to be.

From the #1 bestselling author of Swindle and Slacker, Restart is the spectacular story of a kid with a messy past who has to figure out what it means to get a clean start.

What I liked:

1. Chase gets a second chance. While this plot point is a little unbelievable—most amnesia plots are—it was fun to watch Chase realize who he used to be and want to change.

2. Multiple POV. I’m not normally a fan of multiple POV, but it really worked well in this book. Hearing from the bullied characters built sympathy for them and showed us what Chase was like before.

3. Lots of humor. There was a really fun subplot about a boy obsessed with becoming a You Tube sensation. My son and I laughed ourselves silly over some of those chapters.

4. Redemption. What can I say? I love a good story where a character gets redeemed.

5. Pace. This was a fast-paced read that was hard to put down. Korman really knows what appeals to kids and gets inside their heads. He’s certainly popular at my house, and pacing is part of that.

What I didn’t like as much:

The jocks and the artsy students were a bit stereotypical. Not all jocks are jerks, and not all art students are nerds or bullied. And I couldn’t believe that the administration took the side of the jocks. But I did like how the Dad (a former jock) had some glimmers of change.

What do you think? Are jocks always the bullies and art students the bullied? Have you read any Gordon Korman? Let me know in the comments!

Want to get on the MMGM fun?  Go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle  to sign up.

Monday, April 6, 2020

MMGM: Red Scarf Girl

I wasn’t sure about highlighting this book right now with all that is going on with Covid 19. I thought people might not want to hear about a serious book right now, especially one set in China. But then I realized that I often like to read books about people surviving extraordinary times when my own life is difficult. It puts things in perspective.

Red Scarf Girl was recommended for kids who were old enough for YA, but not ready for edgy YA on the Read Aloud Revival, a great website for finding book recommendations!

I'm drawn to books about communism, because I lived in the Crimea in the 90s right after communism fell. It surprised me then how many of my Russian friends were nostalgic for communism, despite how their families had suffered under it. But it was all they’d ever known. This child’s perspective on the Cultural Revolution might surprise you as well.

From Amazon:

In the tradition of The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala, this is the incredible true story of one girl’s courage and determination during one of the most terrifying eras of the twentieth century. This edition includes a detailed glossary, pronunciation guide, discussion questions, and a Q&A with the author.

It's 1966, and twelve-year-old Ji-li Jiang has everything a girl could want: brains, popularity, and a bright future in Communist China. But it's also the year that China's leader, Mao Ze-dong, launches the Cultural Revolution—and Ji-li's world begins to fall apart.

Over the next few years, people who were once her friends and neighbors turn on her and her family, forcing them to live in constant terror of arrest. And when Ji-li's father is finally imprisoned, she faces the most difficult dilemma of her life.

Written in an accessible and engaging style, this page-turning, honest, and deeply personal autobiography will appeal to readers of all ages.

Ji Ji Jang, the author, from her website,

My thoughts:

While reading this book, I couldn't help thinking of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a fictional account of a boy in Stalinist Russia. My son, 15, read the first part of Red Scarf Girl, and said, “But she thinks communism is okay!”  We had a great discussion about propaganda and its effect on people.

What endeared me to this book was its simple story telling. The author doesn’t use a lot of fancy language. The occasional metaphor doesn’t detract from the prose. I liked how she included an afterward on what happened to her and her family after the end of the book.

Like Breaking Stalin’s Nose, it’s Ling's connection with her family that helps Ji-Ji break free from the brainwashing/propaganda she’s believed. Both books are really about the triumph of the human spirit and love for family over a system that seeks to separate families and neighbors and pit them against each other.

Highly recommended. Although Red Scarf Girl takes place in the 60s and was written in the 90s, the message is still very relevant today.

Content warning: While there is some violence in this book, the one death (a suicide) happens off the page. Of course, you know your child or students best, but I would recommend this for MG readers.

To learn more about Ji Ji Jang, go to

What kind of books do you like to read during difficult times? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

ISWG: Writing and Adversity

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan is one of my favorite books about writing. Tan's story about finding CliffsNotes about Joy Luck Club is hilarious! Most of the book, however, is about being a daughter of an overbearing, critical mother. What I found most interesting is how her adversity shaped her. She says that if she’d had a more “normal” mother, one who was encouraging, she might’ve been a doctor instead of being a writer. Her experience of feeling like an outsider was good training for writing. It taught her to observe.

Sometimes we tend to think that life gets in the way of our writing. While I’ve enjoyed a lot of posts lately on “how to write through difficult times,” I think ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you keep writing during difficult times or wait till life settles down. It matters how you use that pain.

I’ve had my share of difficult times, some of which I’ve written through, some of which I didn’t, and some too personal to share. 

But all those difficulties shaped me. They’ve caused me to feel like outsider at times. They’ve caused me to understand pain and the human condition. They’ve given me empathy, an important trait for a writer.  I know adversity has given my writing—and my life--depth.

Writing is life. Life is writing. You can’t separate the two, and even if you’re not writing right now, you are still storing up material for later. Darci Pattison uses Frederick in Leo Lionni's picture book as an example of this in "For the slow times of writing." While all the rest of the mice are storing up seeds for winter, Frederick seems to be doing nothing. But when winter comes, he entertains them with poetry. Maybe like Frederick, you are storing up life to create poetry later.

How are you managing during Covid-19? Are you writing or taking a break?

My update on this month's question:

Covid-19 isn’t affecting that severely. My husband and I already work from home, and our children attend an online school. We do miss seeing our friends and being able to attend church and other activities (and toilet paper in the grocery store!) My heart and prayers go out to those of you who are harder hit.

To learn more about Insecure Writer's Support Group