Book Lists

No Dead Dogs: contemporary dog classics for middle-grade readers

When I tell people my next book is a dog story for grades four and up, the question I invariably get asked is, “Does the dog die?” And they ask me this with such a pained, apprehensive look on their faces! Trust me, as a passionate dog lover and dog literature reader, I understand the question and the expression on the face. As much as I love the classics like Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows,and Sounder, as a librarian, I’m reluctant to recommend them to young readers.

Fortunately, there have been some wonderful dog stories written for middle grade readers that are destined to become classics and the dog is alive and healthy at the end of the book! Here are some contemporary dog classics I find myself recommending to my young library patrons over and over:

Ribsy, by Beverly Cleary

Forbidden to ride in the Huggins’ clean new car, Henry’s dog, Ribsy, runs after it until he is exhausted, forcing the family to stop and let him in. From then on he experiences one disaster after another. While shut up in the car at the mall, he accidentally hits the automatic window control, wiggles out and unsuccessfully searches for his owners. Confused, he jumps into another new-smelling car by mistake and goes home with the Dingleys, who give him a violet-scented bubble bath. Deeply insulted, Ribsy escapes and tries to find his way home. He meets many new people along the way, including a kindly old lady who dresses him in a hat and pipe, a bunch of school children who share their lunches, and a lonely boy harassed by the mean manager of his apartment building. After a dramatic rescue from a fire escape, Ribsy is reunited joyfully with his family. Written in an easy, conversational style and filled with funny situations and sly satire, the fast moving story, although set at least forty years ago, I find kids love this story and this dog as much as ever. Maybe that’s because Ribsy is the sweet, spirited embodiment of hundreds of beloved, scruffy children’s pets, back in the days before leash laws and animal control officers cramped their style.

Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo

Just last night, I had a lengthy conversation with a 5th grader at the library about how wonderful Kate DiCamillo is and, more specifically, her wonderful Because of Winn Dixie. In Because of Winn Dixie,  Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket — and comes out with a dog. With the help of her new pal, whom she names Winn-Dixie, Opal makes a variety of new, interesting friends and spends the summer collecting stories about them and thinking about her absent mother. But because of Winn-Dixie, or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship — and forgiveness — can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm. Recalling the fiction of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers, here is a funny, poignant, and unforgettable coming-of-age novel. My young friend and I agreed the book is a million zillion times better than the movie!

Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech

Given that my young patron loved Kate DiCamillo’s books, I recommended to her one of my other favorite authors, Sharon Creech. I added to her growing stack of books Love that Dog. Written in free verse, Love that Dog is told from the view point of Jack. Jack hates poetry. Only girls write it and every time he tries to, his brain feels empty. But his teacher, Ms. Stretchberry, won’t stop giving her class poetry assignments—and Jack can’t avoid them. But then something amazing happens. The more he writes, the more he learns he does have something to say, especially when it comes to a certain dog.

With a fresh and deceptively simple style, acclaimed author Sharon Creech tells a story with enormous heart. Love That Dog shows how one boy finds his own voice with the help of a teacher, a writer, a pencil, some yellow paper, and of course, a dog.

Trouble with Tuck, by Theodore Taylor

Taylor is probably best known for his award-winning The Cay. But Trouble with Tuck is a classic dog story that has every bit as much heart and action. Helen’s best friend is Tuck, a loving, playful golden Labrador. They go everywhere together. He brings her out of her shell and is the catalyst for her increasing self-confidence. Twice, he saves her life. When Tuck is three years old, Helen discovers he is having trouble with his sight. The vet confirms that Tuck is going blind. Two options offered by the vet; putting Tuck down or giving him to medical researchers; are rejected by the whole family. Desperate, Helen contacts a guide dog school, but is turned down. After Tuck is hit by a car, his days of freedom and wandering the neighborhood must be replaced with confinement to the yard. Chaining Tuck could break his spirit–and Helen’s. Enter Lady Daisy, a retired Seeing Eye dog. With the help of Lady Daisy and a book about elephants, Helen is able to train Tuck to depend on this canine friend to be his new eyes. Every animal lover can appreciate this tale of shared devotion and love, but I also love tell my patrons that it’s based on a true story!

A Dog’s Life: the autobiography of a stray, by Ann M. Martin

Okay, so you know this name as the author of the ubiquitous Babysitter’s Club series, right? But she’s also the author of some amazing, beautifully written novels for middle graders and teens, including A Dog’s Life. Normally, I don’t like “talking dog” stories: I find them too precious. But Martin tells this dog’s story in a voice that is both dignified and true. Squirrel is not like most dogs. Born a stray, she must make her own way in the world, facing busy highways, changing seasons, and humans both gentle and brutal. Her life story, in her own words, is marked by loss, but also by an inspiring instinct to survive. And when it seems she will roam the woods and country roads alone forever, Squirrel makes two friends who, in very different ways, define her fate. This is not a bouncy, easy story. I tend to recommend it to older middle graders or dog-loving teens and adults. It is a haunting and hopeful story.

Martin has since written a sequel to A Dog’s Life titled Everything for a Dog.

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Eleven-year-old Marty Preston loves to spend time up in the hills behind his home near Friendly, West Virginia. Sometimes he takes his .22 rifle to see what he can shoot, like some cans lined up on a rail fence. Other times he goes up early in the morning just to sit and watch the fox and deer. But one summer Sunday, Marty comes across something different on the road just past the old Shiloh schoolhouses—a young beagle—and the trouble begins. What do you do when a dog you suspect is being mistreated runs away and comes to you? When it is someone else’s dog? When the man who owns him has a gun? This is Marty’s problem, and he finds it is one he has to face alone. When his solution gets too big for him to handle, things become more frightening still. Marty puts his courage on the line, and discovers in the process that it is not always easy to separate right from wrong. Sometimes, however, you do almost anything to save a dog. In the tradition of Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows comes this boy-and-his-dog story set in rural West Virginia. And the dog lives!

Bobbie Pyron is the author of the teen novel The Ring (WestSide Books). Her own middle grade dog story, A Dog’s Way Home, will be published in winter of 2011 by HarperCollins. Her own three dogs are waiting for her to finish this blog post so they can all go for a hike. Visit her at her website www.bobbiepyron.com

Interview and Book Giveaway with Donna Gephart, Award Winning Author

You couldn’t have picked a better day to visit From the Mixed-Up Files! Donna Gephart’s debut middle-grade novel, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! won numerous awards, including the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Her sophomore novel, How to Survive Middle School, which came out early this May, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I ask you, does it get any better?

Why,YES—yes, it does!

Donna is here today to answer questions for the inquiring middle-grade minds. And if that isn’t good enough, Donna’s going to give a brand new hardcover of How to Survive Middle School to one lucky commenter.

But first, a little more about Donna! I explored her website, and I found a question in her Q & A section that was oh, so appropriate to introduce Donna with and to explain what middle-grade means to her. The question posed was, “Why did you decide to write How to Survive Middle School?”

Here’s Donna’s answer:  Middle school (also called Junior High in some places) was very hard for me . . . and for our sons . . . and for most people. When I was about thirteen and fourteen, I went from feeling deliriously happy to miserably depressed often in the same day . . . even in the same hour!  I wish someone had explained that it was just my hormones going a little crazy and they would calm down again.  I wish someone told me that I didn’t really “hate” my mother, but it was a normal part of adolescence to push away from her.  I wish someone had told me I’d survive the acne, the braces and the crush on a cute guy who didn’t like me.   I want young people to know they are not the only ones having a hard time.  I also want young people to know that they can get through middle school.  So hang in there.  It gets better.  Much better.

Thanks for the good words, Donna. Middle-graders, take heart!

And now for THE INTERVIEW!

Your first book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Has winning for humor affected your writing and confidence?

It was a thrill to hear Lin Oliver’s and Steve Mooser’s voice on my answering machine, telling me I’d won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  The award allowed me to give a workshop about writing humor at the national SCBWI conference in L.A., which led to other speaking engagements, like The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, OH .  After writing humor for over twenty years, it was an honor to win an award named after such a kind, generous and hard-working man.

You’ve woven sad and scary threads into your books, yet your stories are funny. How do humor and grief fit into the same book?

I strive to create books that combine humor and heartbreak, which mirror life.  Funny without substance gets boring quickly, so I try to create characters with whom young readers can relate and connect.  Of course, there will be problems—big problems—or else why write the book, right?  It’s just that the heartbreak is handled with humor to cushion the blows.

When I picked up my copy of How to Survive Middle School (available everywhere!), I spotted the toilet on the back jacket flap! My first thought: What on earth? But I thought this with a smile on my face, and it set my expectations for the book—I knew it would be funny. What was your reaction when you saw the jacket design?

My first thought was:  There can’t be another book with a singing hamster on the front and a toilet on the inside flap!  The jacket design captures what the book is about in a fun, funny way.

Readers, it’s true—the toilet picture is not random. In fact, the combination of the cool singing hamster on the cover  and the toilet photo on the jacket flap mirrors the dissimilar parallel lives of David Greenberg, the main character in How to Survive Middle School.

David is a celebrity in the cyberworld but a regular kid—sometimes overlooked—in the real world. I felt this was a good commentary on the social world in which today’s children are involved. What do you think of our lives online—are they real? Are cyber-friends true friends? Are children losing anything with or do they benefit by interacting online?

What a great question.  The answer to this could fill a book.  With two teenage sons, I’ve watched our kids sit next to a friend, each with an electronic device in hand.  “Hello,” I want to say.  “You are sitting next to an actual friend; you don’t need to text/IM/chat with your virtual friend right now.”  The Internet is a great means of connecting to the wider world. It’s a wonderful way to share information and ideas and create communities.  But it must not replace actual interaction with human beings, connecting with communities in the real world and being part of nature.  As with all things, there must be a healthy balance.

I reread As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! in preparation for this interview, and I enjoyed it even more upon this reading. The voice rang true. It had a loneliness to it, a slight melancholy that I liked. And in both books, the MCs feel like losers even after hurdling major accomplishments. What’s your take on this aspect of your books?

My parents divorced when I was young, and I lived with my mom.  She worked full-time and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I spent a lot of time alone.  Sometimes, I was quite lonely.  Other times, I found companionship in the pages of a book, borrowed from our local library.  Oh, I loved that library!  As an author, I want to provide those books that provide companionship, that may keep a lonely child company.

Good books do become good friends! When children read your books, they’re left unattended in the playground of imagination–their parents are trusting you, Donna Gephart, alone with their kids. With that in mind, what responsibility do you feel you have to parents and your readers?

I love your phrase:  “In the playground of imagination.”  Of course, there is a big responsibility in creating books for young people.  And my responsibility, I feel, is to be honest and true in my writing.  I just got an e-mail from a young reader, thanking me for being real in my books and including things that might not make people happy, but are the way it really happens.  I loved that e-mail.  I try to be true to my characters and therefore, true to my young readers.  It’s a wonderful thing that young people can explore some of life’s challenges through the safety of books.  They can experience things on the page instead of in real life.  Parents who try to “protect” their children by limiting their reading choices are often simply not allowing them to “prepare” for challenges they might face in the real world.

That’s a perfect lead to my next question: When you write for middle-grade audiences, what experience do you hope to deliver? By this, I mean aside of the plot, what do you want your readers to take from your books?

It’s my hope that young readers of my books will feel like they’ve made a new friend.  It’s my hope they will understand that all people have flaws and faults and it’s okay that they do, too.  It’s my hope that they will realize they have power to affect changes in their lives and in the lives of others.  And it’s my hope they will learn a bit of compassion and empathy for themselves and for others.

Nice goals, Donna! I think you deliver that sense of flaws and self-acceptance because, as I mentioned before, your main characters, especially Vanessa, engage in the kind of critical internal dialog common to that age. Middle-graders don’t always realize how much they have to offer or how wonderful they really are (and that not just their mothers think that!).

If you could choose one book to be made into a movie, which novel would it be and whom would you cast for the main roles?

AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT . . . would be a fun movie because of the spelling bees, the political process, life in the governor’s mansion and the mystery element of the threatening notes and the assassination attempt.  Meryl Streep would make a great potential president, don’t you think?

Oh, my gosh, Meryl Streep would be perfect for that role!

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL might make a fun TV series because of its connection to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and the main character, David Greenberg’s love of creating funny videos.  I hope the book inspires young readers to create their own shows/videos.  I’d love Jon Stewart to have a guest appearance, if this ever were made into a TV show or movie.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

Okay, Hollywood, are you listening? You never know! But one thing I do know is you’re not sitting around with your feet up–what’s next for you, Donna Gephart?

The next book down the lane is OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a twelve-year-old trivia geek, who will do anything to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!

That sounds like a winner! (Haha! Okay, that was lame.) Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers, Donna.  It was fun!

Folks, if you have questions for Donna or would like to jump into the conversation, post a few words in the comment box. Remember, one lucky poster will be selected by a random number generator to win a hardcover of Donna’s new book, How To Survive Middle School.

~~

Danette Haworth is the author of The Summer of Moonlight Secrets and Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Danette stays up past her bedtime to read and write into the wee hours; she swears the next morning that she will go to bed on time the next night. It never happens.

Visit Danette at www.danettehaworth.com

Seven Books I’ve Enjoyed Talking About at Guys Read

I spent two summers facilitating boys book clubs and some of the winter in between. Book clubs are a great way to encourage boys to read and a great way for boys who do read to make new friends. I would have loved to have had that kind of opportunity in fifth or sixth grade.

However, not all good books are good book club books… at least not for this facilitator. A book could be a fun read but prove tough going when you talk about it, and an unpopular book can lead to a great discussion, when kids get excited to tell you what they didn’t like about it. I won’t include any of those on this list, but I will include a short list of the selections I felt were a hit with the boys and generated great discussion. Incidentally, Guys Read groups don’t have to be about novels — many boys like to read magazines and non fiction — but mine were.

How Angel Peterson got his Name, Gary Paulsen

This series of anecdotes is just a blip on Paulsen’s amazing career, but is a bona fide book club hit with middle-grade boys. Why? Because the book is about stunts, dares, and misadventures. Boys can’t wait to share their own. This makes it a perfect first book to discuss with a new group. There’s no better ice breaker than, “what’s something stupid you did that nearly got you killed but if you had to do it over again, you would anyway?” On top of that, there are youtube videos of people wrestling bears and using makeshift parachutes that are a fun way to finish the session… if you can get the boys to stop talking about their skateboarding mishaps to watch.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud’s sense of humor makes a grim story set in the Great Depression fun to read and fun to talk about. The surprise came when the boys talked about the back pages, where the author describes the real-life inspirations behind the story, including photographs. I thought kids would be bored by the story-behind-the-story material, but it was their favorite part. They liked knowing how Curtis came to write the story, and the fact that the characters were based on real people made it more important to them. Lesson learned. A book club facilitator can often search out and find similar source material for other historical novels.

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

This is a real winner with boys and an easy book to talk about — I started by generating lists of all the stunts and tall tales that are in the book (frog baseball, anyone?). Kids have fun trying to remember them, and then marvel at the list when it’s done. My book club was a diverse group in Crystal, Minnesota, so the boys were confused by the theme about segregation and disinclined to talk about it. It just didn’t feel relevant or real to them. I took that as a good thing. They were still able to connect emotionally to “Maniac’s” search for a family and loved the book’s humor.

Circque Du Freak, by Darren Shan
I had a “book group” that met during the school year, and only one kid was a regular attendee. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, so that’s all we read: Rick Riordian, James Patterson, Chris Paolini, and Darren Shan. I dreaded this one because I am as sick of vampires as anyone, but actually quite liked it. It’s an interesting book club selection because the story is written as if it is all true; the main character is named Darren Shan and the writer’s name is Darren Shan. I never expected to be talking narratology in a boy’s book club, but this one opens the door — we talked about how Shan’s technique and confessional tone quickly built an alliance with the reader, and give a far out story a feeling of immediacy and verisimilitude. I don’t know if the kid learned anything, but I did.

Dog Sense, by Sneed Collard III

This one hits the trifecta for things boys like to talk about — their pets, their experiences with bullies, and their favorite sports that usually nobody writes about. We also had a good discussion about a questionable decision made by the protagonist — and one which I think was a huge mistake even though things turned out OK. It’s an easy framing of an important moral question: do the ends justify the means? I think Sneed must have had book clubs in mind when he wrote this one.

Crossing the Wire, by Will Hobbs

A great way to start a discussion about a book is to list all the ways the main character nearly got killed, and this book has enough to sustain the discussion. It’s about a Mexican teenager’s attempts to enter the U.S. so he can work. The kids responded well, and analyzed each situation and the decisions the hero had to make. It was a very provocative discussion, especially since a couple of kids in the group have family members in Mexico. One understood the sentiments in the book but also wanted to tell the other kids that Mexico isn’t as bad as the book made it sound, which I thought was a fair critique. He still liked the book.

Memory Boy, by Will Weaver

It’s great to talk about a book that begins in your own neighborhood. Vaguely described as the western suburbs of Minneapolis, the kids could pretend it was their own home town. Like Under the Wire, this is a survival story, and it’s easy to talk about the dangers that a hero comes across and how he or she overcomes them. Also like Under the Wire, this has political subtext, but it’s trickier to unpack. It’s about an apocalyptic scenario and a family’s attempt to survive by fleeing to the Minnesota wilderness. We were able to talk about camping and the end of the world all in one book club session.


Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, both published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. He offers free virtual visits to kids book clubs — see http://www.kurtisscaletta.com/visits for more information.