Posts Tagged Beverly Cleary

Family Book Club: Middle Grade Books That Can Be Enjoyed by ALL

As I write this I am preparing to leave New York where we’ve been for the summer and return to London (where we live during the year) in time to quarantine for 14 days before school starts. I am kind of freaking out about what I am going to do with my kids in quarantine, but probably like most people with children or who are around children, the theme of this summer has certainly been “unstructured time.” My kids are currently 15, almost-12, 9.5, and almost-6. And thinking back to lockdown, one of the things that worked well was spending some time a few days a week listening to an audiobook while we colored or just relaxed. Okay, the 15-year-old did not involve herself in this, but for the rest of us it was nice. And when I would be reading a middle grade book to the 11 and 9 year old before bed, she would often casually come in and listen, or if we were discussing a book she’d read or I’d read to her when she was younger, she would happily weigh in.

How about a Family Book Club, in whatever shape that might look like to you?

So, for other people struggling with how to fill the last weeks of kids’ summers with something other than screens and devices, I thought I’d make a list of middle grade books that family members of different ages and genders would all enjoy reading (or listening to) and could then discuss.

I’m thinking middle grade books that work on a number of different levels—understood even by little ones not quite reading chapter books to themselves, hit the sweet spot of middle grade readers (either to be read out loud to or to read themselves), might interest your teen if they’ll deign to participate (boredom works in interesting ways), and sophisticated and nuanced enough to be truly enjoyed by adult readers too. 

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea—this moves quickly because of short chapters narrated by different voices. The classroom dynamics are realistic and I found it wise in a way that I, as an adult, have taken the subtle lessons, for example how to handle a “girl wars” bully. There are now 3 additional sequels.

 

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo—written deceptively simply, this one is funny and moving and heartwarming—an all-round winner for everyone every time I’ve read it. I’d say ANY Kate DiCamillo is a good choice for family book club: as Ann Patchett writes, some people like the magic animals ones (her) and some the realistic childhood ones (me) but they all “crack you open and make you a better person.”

  All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor—written in the 1950s about a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, this one just never, ever, feels dated. We are working our way through the sequels now.

 

 

Fudge books, in particular Superfudge by Judy Blume—laugh-out-loud funny and relatable about 6th grader Peter and the antics of his irrepressible 5-year-old brother Fudge. (My teen daughter’s suggestion was Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great).

 

Fortunately The Milk, by Neil Gaiman—madcap storytelling that’s fun for all ages.

 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White—honestly, I hadn’t read this since I was a kid and pretty much remembered nothing from it. Reading it to my almost-6 year old this summer, the writing blew me away as well as the story. Garth Williams’ illustrations are a delight for everyone. A classic for a reason.

 

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary—again, funny and relatable situations that make moving drama out of everyday circumstances and relationships. These have been a big hit over and over again and provoke great discussions about relationships and difficult situations. My personal favorites are Ramona and Her Mother and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

 

All of the above are available as audiobooks too. And speaking of audiobooks, a special mention for How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell narrated by David Tennant because on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group someone queried if people had recommendations for an audio book for a long car ride with an 8-year-old that everyone else in the car would enjoy, and this was the overwhelming favorite.  

An important note:

When I looked at my list above I realized that it had no real diversity or POC in it. While many of the books we’ve enjoyed as a family do (see below), I couldn’t think of one that worked as well with my criteria of working for young children too—please, if anyone has any suggestions please add them in the comments.

 

Books next on my own family to-read list that I think will work well:

George by Alex Gino

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Babysitter’s Club, the original books by Ann Martin—I loved this piece in the New York Times recently about boys reading these and my sons have devoured the graphic versions, not to mention that all of us are LOVING the fabulous Netflix series. Thought this might work well for us in audio. The first 5 are narrated by Elle Fanning.

 

Family Book Club for Middle Grade Readers and Up:

Graphic novels abound with moving stories and are great for reluctant readers or for kids ready for sophisticated themes but aren’t at a reading level for more advanced MG novels. They don’t work as well for the littlest members of the family, but if that’s not your situation, these books sparked lots of conversation and good book discussion in our family recently.

New Kid by Jerry Kraft —code switching and discomfort in either world when middle schooler Jordan changes schools, but instead of art school where he’d wanted to go, his parents send him to a prestigious academic school where he is one of the few kids of color. My kids have each read this several times and have asked a lot of questions sparking great discussion.

 

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed—family love, education, and a Somali refugee’s story as told to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. Both my sons devoured this. My 9-year-old described it as about “a boy with a brother who can’t speak. Really sad but really good.”

 

Other MG books on my (older) Family Book Club list:

One Crazy Summer trilogy—The first book, the story of 3 sisters joining their estranged mother in tumultuous 1960s San Francisco, has been a big hit with all my kids over the years and coming late to the party I’ve just discovered that there are two sequels which I can’t wait to try.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman—“Imani is adopted, and she’s ready to search for her birth parents. But when she discovers the diary her Jewish great-grandmother wrote chronicling her escape from Holocaust-era Europe, Imani begins to see family in a new way.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough—I think my boys will be ready for it this year and really look forward to reading it with them. I also gave it to my older daughter’s best friend who loved it and I hope my daughter will read it too!

High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson—this just won the prestigious Waterstones Book Prize in the UK and I’m excited to read it with the kids. 

If mysteries are your family’s thing, check out some of these.

 

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein. I just finished this and want to hand a copy to everyone I know. In a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, this book explores self-image, grief and friendship and is a wonderful, wonderful, thoughtfully-written debut.

Middle Grade for All

In truth, minus needing to encompass a little one’s needs, to me the perfect Middle Grade book is written in a way that absolutely resonates on many levels and to many ages. My list includes a lot of obvious ones–classics and award-winners. But there are thankfully untold numbers that are amazing for a Family Book Club. In addition to the ones mentioned above, here are some suggested by friends of mine who said these worked well for different-aged readers in their families:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (for fans of The Westing Game)

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (have just ordered this for myself)

Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, adapted for young readers edition

And Finally, In Her Own Words:

One of my favorite middle grade readers, who was in a neighborhood mother-daughter book club with her mom, recommends these (and her mom endorses them too 🙂

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Drop of Hope by Keith Calabrese

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt 

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Let me know how you get on with any of these, and please write more Family Book Club suggestions in the comments. With fears of a second Covid-19 wave and another lockdown looming (and who knows what will be with school), we all might have a LOT of time on our hands. But I can think of worse things than spending it reading and discussing great children’s books. Stay safe and Happy Reading! 

 

All books can be bought on MUF’s Bookshop.org affiliate program or wherever fine books are sold.

Nostalgia and Those Childhood Favorites: Which books are we just sentimental about, and which books stand the test of time?

Fresh or Frozen?

For many of us of a certain age, there comes a time where we want to impart to our children, or children we know, the culture that we got at their age that essentially made us “us.” What I mean is, when our child is nine, we really want them to love the books that we loved when we were nine. That we read over and over again. That we can instantly recall incidents and episodes from; as well as the smell of the couch we would lie on when we read it; the ache of our hearts and taste of our tears from the sorrow of a character dying, experiencing cruelty or even just going through heartbreak. The same goes for movies. Cue me excitedly putting on Grease for my then-nine-year-old daughter in the hospital room TV as she waited to be wheeled down to surgery for her tonsils to be taken out. Wow, bad idea on so many levels. She didn’t enjoy it, not just because she was a nervous wreck about the impending surgery, but also because she didn’t get it. The movie went right over her head—thankfully. (I was mortified to be watching it with her. And felt like the worst parent!) And let’s just say the film has not aged well in terms of values, in terms of feminism, in terms of #metoo, in terms of America as a white world, in terms of anything frankly. But happily, for the most part, many of the books I loved as a child I have been able to read to my children with more confidence in my parenting skills—and with the added bonus that my kids loved these books too.

What is the Common Denominator?

Jonathan Rosen spoke here on the MUF blog about his nostalgia for the books he read as a child which have inspired the spooky books he writes today. And Marjorie Ingall, who reviews children’s books for the New York Times and is a culture columnist at Tablet Magazine, while on the faculty of the TENT writing residency mentioned The Carp in the Bathtub “as a book that holds up for today’s kids and isn’t purely a nostalgia exercise for adults.” I started thinking about this idea of nostalgia when I was planning a tribute to Judith Kerr and the relevancy of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

A nostalgic-feeling cover of the All-of-a-Kind Family series from 2014

What other middle grade books from my own childhood stand the test of time—both for me and for my own kids? Is there a common denominator? When I first started writing my middle grade novel HONEY AND ME, my eldest daughter was at an age where I had begun to read to her some of my favorites as a child— Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family. My daughter is now fourteen, but I have been reading these to my sons too—currently ages eight-and-a-half and nearly eleven—and they’ve also loved them. One of the things I think connects these books is writers who deeply understand the magnitude of the smaller dramas of every day life, and are interested in the details of them. (What I particularly loved about the All-of-a-Kind Family books was that they did this about being Jewish, in a way that was both integral and incidental.) I very much try to bring this sensibility to my own writing.

If Not Now When?

Beverly Clearly’s Ramona books (the first one is from 1955), all the Judy Blume books, but especially the Fudge series (first one is from the 1970s) and All-of-a-Kind Family (first one is from 1951) all particularly still feel fresh and relevant. But I do wonder: could these books be published today?

I clearly like the old-fashioned—or lets say the character-driven and safe-feeling. But in my own writing I constantly feel like I come up against (probably rightly) what works for today’s audience. It would seem that with all the above books all still in print, the market generally does keep the books worth keeping. However at the same time, the fashions have changed so when it comes to what is being published today even when something has an old-fashioned feel to it, it’s still done in a modern way. I’m thinking for example of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser—it’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright’s beloved The Saturdays, but when I tried the episodic The Saturdays with my then-eight and ten-year-old sons they were bored—whereas The Vanderbeekers has a modern-feeling plot structure and they were immediately sucked in. (Just to say also, I think of my sons’ reading tastes as a litmus test—if they don’t like something it’s not necessarily conclusive, but when they do like something, especially novels that you wouldn’t automatically think to hand to tween boys, it is telling about the strength of that particular book.)

A range of eras in these covers from my personal evergreen library

 

…. Then again, just because something has gone out of print doesn’t mean that is deserved. I recently tracked down two 1980s favorites to read to my kids: This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, about the antics of a duo called Bruno and Boots at their boarding school—which was still hands-down hilarious to both my sons and me; and Here She is Ms. Teeny Wonderful by Martyn Godfrey about a girl who likes to jump BMX bikes and to her utter dismay becomes a finalist in a national beauty pageant. I haven’t read this last one to my sons yet, it’s next on the list (we’re currently on Rita Garcia Williams’ One Crazy Summer: historical fiction and over their heads that they’re still enjoying)—but when I read it again myself I was delighted to see that notwithstanding the cover, it was still funny, fast-paced and feminist. I should also mention that the Bruno and Boots books (there were several sequels) I was able to find were a 35th anniversary edition, reissued by Scholastic in 2013, and the Kindle editions are still available for purchase.

Some things never change

So perhaps this is all to say: a well-constructed book with sympathetic characters, emotions you can relate to and dramas you feel invested in no matter how similar or foreign they might be to your own life, will always have the power to suck a young reader in so the pages keep turning. And long after they have turned the last page and closed the book, or perhaps even started the whole thing again from the beginning, —the story, the experience of reading it, and the memories of that experience—will become baked into their very being. And one day, many years later, they will wish to impart this multi-faceted cultural experience on to the important young people in their own lives. Just as we did to them.

The Most Important Thing that Beverly Cleary Taught Me About Writing

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forgot what it was like to be a tween. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. How could this happen? After all, I teach an online course, Middle Grade Mastery with the Children’s Book Academy, and exhort my students to crawl into the head of a kid and stay there. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. I hate how my children and their friends are on the phone in the car and don’t talk to each other. I don’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly make them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is really patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

Let’s look in more detail how to do this. Beverly Cleary recently just celebrated her 103rd birthday, and I can think of no better middle grade mentor to learn from than her. Cleary clearly (I just have been waiting to put those two words together for a very long time), understands and remembers what it is like to be a child.

Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser this is how it is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for a racing pencil lines.”

Of course, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult losing an eraser may seem minor, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just an common school supply but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

And because the family is struggling financially, as Mr. Quimby has left his job to go back to school, it is even further appreciated.

I love how efficiently Cleary sets up the importance of the eraser. After its introduction, within a few page turns, the eraser is missing. This all happens on the first day of school. Not an ordinary day but one that is ritualized.

Try this exercise to get back to the child mindset:
1. Go back to being 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12. Think about an inanimate object.

2. Consider how much you love the object.

3. Name the object.

4. Touch it. Smell it, feel it. Using your senses describe it.

5. Write down why it is so important to you.

6. Why do you have such strong feelings?

7. Not consider how you would feel if that object were taken from you!

If you’re getting all the feels—then pat yourself on the back. You’re remembering the magic of childhood. Let’s all celebrate the master of understanding children, Beverly Cleary.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.