Posts Tagged graphic novels

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 affiliate program or wherever fine books are sold.

Re-Read-19: A Short Meditation on Re-Reading in the time of Coronavirus

Bookhoarding: Early and Often

Growing up, a favorite Sunday afternoon outing was to the famed Children’s Bookstore in downtown Toronto. It was the 1980s, the heyday of the bookshop and of me and my siblings piling into the wood-panelled station wagon for squabbling as well as other more-intentional family activities.

A 1980 ad for The Children’s Bookstore in Toronto. Can you believe the talent it attracted!?

When it was time to leave the store my parents would first have to locate me hidden in one of the aisles, deep inside the pages of a book I hadn’t bought yet. I remember the pile of my selections and then their hefty weight in the bags as we walked back to the car. Being obliviously squished in the station wagon (for once unconcerned by who got to sit in the “backy-back”) while reading on the way home. Repeat this experience, perhaps on a different Sunday afternoon, at the Judaica store where I would stock up on Holocaust literature (which as the granddaughter of survivors I was obsessed with and is probably another blog post.) And the thrill of receiving the Scholastic mail order to my classroom. And every once in awhile my mother would bring home used books for me.

I am hard pressed to find any material objects from my childhood—my family moved many times and my mother is a ruthless de-clutterer. But I hereby publicly thank my mom for somehow holding on to my copy of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes—which she bought for me used and which I then made much use of myself, reading it over and over again; and which now exists in my own home library; and which I have now read twice out loud to various children; and which my eldest has read to herself countless times.

Edition of Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (published in 1937, this edition in 1979) in our home library, except our cover has disintegrated.

Reading is… Re-reading?

What I loved most about reading was the chance to re-read the books I most loved. It was rare that I would read something only once. The fiendish gobbling down of a new book was also in preparation for the judgment of “is this worthy of re-reading?”

There are many pleasures of re-reading. Because the first read is to find out WHAT HAPPENS. And WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. And HOW DOES IT END. But when you read it again you aren’t flipping the pages compulsively to know all that: you already know it. So in the next reading and any subsequent ones, you are reading to enjoy in a different way—to meander on the path a little more, to take pleasure in the characters and language, to understand better what happens, to laugh at the funny parts like one does at a cult movie—the hilarity often being in knowing exactly what’s going to happen and what will be said, the pleasure in the anticipation and then in getting to experience it all over again. Or the heartbreak. Or the unfairness. The antagonist getting their just desserts. Indeed, the satisfaction of a satisfying ending.

Middle Grade and Re-reading

I now see this with my own children. Most young kids delight in making their parents and caregivers (and any other unsuspecting victims) read their favorite picture books over and over (and over) again. But once children learn to read they often delight in reading their favorite books to themselves over and over again. Usually the middle grade book I am reading out loud to my 9 and 11 year old sons, they will then read to themselves—sometimes reading ahead of where we are together, sometimes taking it to re-read afterward, sometimes both. They will read anything in graphic format, and our collection of Big Nates, Dogmans, Captain Underpants, Hazardous Tales, along with Raina Telgemeirs (both the memoirs and the Babysitter’s Clubs) and other coming-of-age graphic novels such as New Kid, Awkward, Roller-Girl or the beautiful Holocaust-introduction White Bird are thickened and dog-eared.

Agents and editors often say that they will only represent and acquire a manuscript they love enough to see themselves re-reading and re-reading and re-reading. One which will stand up to that amount of scrutiny. In which they love the characters enough to see them through their plot again and again and again. Fair enough!

But middle grade books seem particularly designed to be read over and over again. They are filled with emotion, empathy and adventure. They are where kids can learn about the world, themselves, and each other. And middle grade readers seem uniquely designed to be re-readers. They have the time, the curiosity, the intelligence and the emotional ability to connect deeply and expansively with books and stories that move them, engage them or even just make them giggle.

Bookshelf in my sons’ bedroom, examples of what gets lots of re-reading love.

I’ve written before about the unique pleasure of reading a childhood favorite again as an adult, and the relief of it standing the test of time. Like meeting up with an old friend and immediately connecting once again, the kinship felt both the same and different, and maybe even deeper. But as an adult, I find that it is rare for me to re-read something. I am inundated by what’s new and what’s next—it always feels like there’s something else I should be reading, I should have read already, that I need to consume. Or the book I bought as part of a haul from a bookstore visit suddenly doesn’t seem compelling at the exact moment I’m ready to start something new, but I hear of something else—on Twitter, a book review in the paper, something jogs my memory, a friend’s recommendation—that does and order it immediately.

Panic-buying books

When my kids’ schools announced they were closing six weeks ago, and threats of a lockdown were looming, I found myself not only stocking up on toilet paper and canned food, but on books. Bookstores would close, libraries too, and what if Amazon stopped delivering? It was (AND IS) so scary to think about getting sick, people dying, the uncertainty of anything beyond each day. And so—as a further manifestation of stockpiling mentality or as way of sidestepping the things too scary to contemplate— I panicked about how we would manage without something new to read. How would I nourish my soul in a lockdown? How would I nourish my children’s? It felt like it might be the difference between keeping sane and coping with whatever came our way, and not.

Small graces in a difficult time

Over these lockdown weeks, however, I have watched my older daughter, 14, work her way through the new books I bought her that had been piling up, unread for lack of time due to being a teenager (read: school, friends, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix.) Now there is suddenly LOTS of time. And when she finished the new ones she started reaching in her bookshelf for all the old ones. The ones she loved when she was 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. (12 being the beginning of her literary teenage wasteland.) In one of the many surprising twists of lockdown and life in the time of the new Coronavirus, this is one of the positive ones for me, and her.

My new TBRR (To Be Re-Read) pile. I’ve started with Possession by AS Byatt.

So I have taken the lead from my children and have started re-reading again as a general practice.

For now my pantry is (thank goodness) well-stocked – and I’ve realized that I have an even better-stocked home library. I have almost every book I’ve bought or been given since college. (Unless I’ve loaned it to you and you haven’t returned it. It’s ok, I don’t mind.)  From picture book to middle grade to adult fiction, non-fiction and plays, all genres are gamely and lovingly represented (Lonely Planet Ireland circa late 1990s anyone?) Not only is self-isolation and lockdown a chance to work my way through my TBR stack, but it is also a wonderful chance to re-read the books that pleased me as an adult. Or on the cusp of adulthood. Great works that deserve more careful reading. Or which I don’t think I understood as fully in my twenties as I might now.

Indeed, with each re-reading we understand something different. The words remain the same, but we—whether it is our age or our stage or our mental place—are different each time. What new knowledge, understanding, satisfaction and joy will each reading bring?

Zatanna and the House of Secrets Interview and Giveaway

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgHi Mixed-Up Filers!

Today, I have the privilege to be talking to both Matthew Cody and Yoshi Yoshitani, whose graphic novel, Zatanna and the House of Secrets,  is available now from DC Comics.

Hi Matthew and Yoshi. Thank you for joining us today.

My first question is for both of you. Can you tell us a little bit about Zatanna and the House of Secrets?

Matthew: Zatanna and the House of Secrets is about a normal tween girl, Zatanna, who discovers that just about nothing in her life is what it appears to be – not her dad, not the house she grew up in, not even the family pet rabbit. There are magical secrets afoot, and more to Zatanna than she ever imagined!

YoshiIt’s a story of a girl growing up and trying to figure out her identity as the world and people around her change—figuratively and literally! And of course, lots of magic

Matthew, you’re books are, for the most part, a mix of fantasy and superheros. So, Zatanna’s story seems like a natural fit for you. Did you choose the character?

Matthew: I did. When this opportunity to work with DC came along, they asked me to pitch them three or four characters I’d like to write. Zatanna was a no-brainer, because she’s never been your typical superhero. She’s a magician! The story of how she became a magician – how she discovered her powers – was such a joy to conjure up (see what I did there?)

Not gonna lie, Zatanna is one of my favorite DC characters, and my go-to for cosplay. Yoshi, I love the new character design. I’m already planning on rocking this as my next cosplay. How did you approach the character design?

Yoshi: Yes! Zatanna is one of my absolute favorites too! Zatanna’s fully grown costume is over the top and confident, so it was fun to work backwards and consider what her pre-evolution outfits would be. Maybe some vintage finds, maybe her dad’s old shirts – she has a style but has yet to nail down her look. I really wanted to capture that transition.

One of the things that I really liked about this story is how it explored the relationship between Zatanna and her father and the idea that our parents aren’t always the heroes we expect them to be. Matthew, was that something that you wanted to focus on early on?

Matthew: Definitely. Middle school is hard for a lot of reasons, but one of the toughest aspects of it is that push/pull between still needing your parents tremendously, while at the same time feeling like you need to separate yourself in some ways. So, we took fantasy and did what the genre does best – we externalized that conflict. At its heart, this is a very family focused story about the mistakes we make both as kids and adults. And how we deal with them.

Another thing that I particularly loved was that the House of Secrets is like a character itself in the story. So, another question for both of you: How did you approach the world-building?

Matthew: The House of Secrets has been around in DC Comics lore for a long, long time. It’s been interpreted and reinterpreted in a many different ways, so I kind of took that meta-fact and applied it to the house in our story. Our House of Secrets has been passed down from Caretaker to Caretaker for centuries, and each one left their mark. Poor Yoshi then had to being all that to life on the page (btw, she knocked it out of the park)

Yoshi: Matthew had the idea that the House of Secrets had been passed through many different owners in different parts of the world and different eras. I absolutely loved that, and I personally relish any opportunity to kit-bash multiple cultural influences. Plus those huge stylistic changes really gave the impression of a magical unpredictable house—one you were just dying to run around yourself!

We see Teekl throughout the illustrations before we’re ever introduced to the character. Yoshi, was this an easter egg or is Teekl spying on the Zataras?

Yoshi: I was hoping someone would notice! And yes, Teekl is definitely a warning that Klarion and his mother are nearby, not that Zatanna understands that at the time. Its an Easter egg that’s fun on the reread.

Are there any other easter eggs that fans should keep an eye out for?

Matthew: Oh yeah! Yoshi’s art has a ton of clever hints and nods, but if you want to look for one in particular that might excite old school DC fans, pay special attention to the stone busts and portraits throughout the house to get a glimpse of the house’s original “caretakers”.

Yoshi: There are a few visual Easter Eggs for those who are familiar with the DC universe. I won’t give anything away, but definitely check out the school dance. Also, those in the know will recognize the Witch Queen’s assistants for what they are.

Speaking of fans, I’m going to geek out for a little bit here. In DC canon, Zatanna was the caretaker of the House of Mystery, which is similar to, the House of Secrets. Can we expect to see another story featuring the House of Mystery, perhaps a different caretaker?

Matthew: Huh. That’s a great idea! 😉

Is there anything else about the story that either of you would like to share?

Matthew: It’s really, really good!

What’s the best piece of creative advice that both of you have received and would like to pass on to other writers and artists?

Matthew: For writers, read more than you write – but write a lot.

Yoshi: Breaks are important to creative flow, and pursue a creative process that brings you joy.

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

Matthew: I tried to break into comics as a writer before I became a published novelist.

Yoshi: I’m allergic to coconut.

What are you working on next?

Matthew: I’m finishing up a novel for older readers and am working on a couple of kids comics projects that I’m really excited about.

Yoshi: Something else with DC!

How can people follow you on social media?

Matthew: On twitter I’m at @mattcodywrites. I tweet rarely but always respond!

Yoshi: Twitter @yoshisquared. Insta @yoshiyoshitani  Website

Thank you so much for the interview!

Zatanna and the House of Secrets is out now, and here at The Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy. Enter our giveaway below.

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The winner will be contacted  via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.