Posts Tagged The First Last Day

You Don’t Have to Be Age 8 – 12 to Love Middle Grade Novels

I admit it—I LOVE middle grade novels, and I’m not afraid to show it. Years ago, I was reading a middle grade novel on an airplane with my daughter. She fell asleep and I kept reading…until someone tapped my shoulder. The woman across the aisle said, “She’s sleeping. You don’t have to read her book anymore.” I smiled and said, “Thanks, but this is actually my book.” Her mouth opened wide, but she didn’t say another word to me the entire flight.

Another time, I was reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate in public and couldn’t stop smiling. The woman next to me couldn’t wait to find out what book I was reading. When I showed her the cover and she saw a giant gorilla, she didn’t know what to say. But I gushed about how amazing Ivan’s voice is (I even read her the first few pages) and told her that it says so much about humans in such a unique way…she decided to borrow a copy from the library.

Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this illustrated book is told from the point of view of Ivan himself.

Having spent twenty-seven years behind the glass walls of his enclosure in a shopping mall, Ivan has grown accustomed to humans watching him. He hardly ever thinks about his life in the jungle. Instead, Ivan occupies himself with television, his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. But when he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, he is forced to see their home, and his art, through new eyes.

 

And now I’ll make another confession…I can’t remember the last time I read an adult book. There are so many incredible middle grade novels on my must-read list, I just can’t pry myself away from them. I love the heart, humor, unique viewpoints, and amazing characters. Here are some of my favorite books. I hope you’ll love them, too.

I love meeting all kinds of inspiring characters, like Auggie in Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Everyone needs to read this book! I instantly fell in love with Auggie and love how it shows the story from different viewpoints in addition to his. And yes, I still highly suggest reading it even if you’ve seen the movie—I think it’s even more powerful.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid–but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.

WONDER begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

 

Speaking of inspiring—have you read Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart yet? It’s easy to see the heart in this book from the second you glance at the cover which says: Be brave. Be bold. Be you. How inspiring, encouraging, and validating. The back says: Sometimes our hearts see things our eyes can’t. Did this get your attention yet? Things have changed so much since I was in high school—and luckily, more and more people are realizing that nobody should have to hide who they are.

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade. Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse. One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.

 

Feel like laughing? There’s so much humor and heart in This is Not the Abby Show by Debbie Reed Fischer. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite movies—The Breakfast Club. I loved this book from the very first chapter heading: Pretty much everything I do is inappropriate. I totally relate to that, and rooted for spunky, impulsive Abby through her hilarious journey.

Abby is twice exceptional–she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty much under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.

Abby thinks the other summer-school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster. But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.

 

Have you ever gone on a vacation that’s so amazing, you don’t ever want it to end? Then you’ll love The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone. This book is full of heart, mystery, friendship, art, and really made me look closer at things I’ve wished for and choices I’ve had to make. It reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day.

What if you could get a do-over–a chance to relive a day in your life over and over again until you got it right? Would you?

After finding a mysterious set of paints in her backpack, eleven-year-old Haleigh Adams paints a picture of her last day at the New Jersey shore. When she wakes up the next morning, Haleigh finds that her wish for an endless summer with her new friend Kevin has come true. At first, she’s thrilled, but Haliegh soon learns that staying in one place–and time–comes with a price.

And when Haleigh realizes her parents have been keeping a secret, she is faced with a choice: do nothing and miss out on the good things that come with growing up or find the secret of the time loop she’s trapped in and face the inevitable realities of moving on. As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh worries it might be too late. Will she be able to restart time? And if she does, will it be the biggest mistake of her life?

 

Are you in the mood for something that’s both laugh-out-loud funny and scary? Read Night of The Living Cuddle Bunnies by Jonathan Rosen. This action-packed book has the hottest holiday toy come to life (and the live version is far from cuddly), hilarious dialogue, water guns, bubble wrap…and a quirky new neighbor who might be a warlock.

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.

 

Do you remember how you felt on 9-11? What about soon after that? I never looked at the world the same way again. Can you imagine what it would be like if you were a child then…and classmates turned on your best friend just because he was an Arab Muslim? Read Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra to experience this poignant world.

Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart–and outrun–the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI, and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. In the end, Jake must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

 

I hope you’ll proudly read middle grade novels everywhere you go, no matter what age you are!  And if you’re looking for more great ones to read, check out our New Releases and Unique Book Lists. They’ll keep you busy for at least the next few years.

What do you love about middle grade novels and what are some of your favorite books that you think everyone should read?

Symbols and Subtext in Middle-Grade Novels

The meme below, which gets posted around social media every once in a while, is something that I imagine drives teachers crazy.

the-curtains-wre-blue

I know a lot of writers who aren’t thrilled about it either. The reason: we writers often do mean the color blue symbolizes depression. Maybe not all the time. And obviously that’s not the only thing that makes a great novel. But I defy anyone to argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the light on Daisy’s dock green for several reasons and that it doesn’t enhance the important themes in The Great Gatsby. (For those wanting to read more about those reasons, click here.)

I’m not sure why looking for symbols and subtext in literature has gotten such a bad rap. In fact, close readings meant to uncover layers of meaning are widely thought to teach students to think critically in all areas of knowledge. In addition, this type of analytical thinking is tied to success in high school, college, and beyond.

Although I can’t speak for all writers, I know that in my most recent novel, every symbol or simile was deliberate. And after close readings of a couple of my favorite middle-grade novels, I’m sure even some of the tiniest details were not casually thrown in and were included to enhance deeper meaning as well as to illuminate certain truths about life.

 

5138cpo40slFor example, in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, a National Book Award finalist, the narrator says, “The baton looked like a needle.” DiCamillo could have written that the baton looked like a twig or a sword or even a pool cue. But I would suggest that the simile was chosen purposely to reinforce Raymie’s belief that the baton will help stitch her family back together when she uses it to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire.

In addition, it’s evident that a deliberate pattern of light imagery is woven through the book to emphasize Raymie’s struggle to come out of the darkness of her mother’s depression and her own sadness as a result of her father leaving. From the jar of candy on Mrs. Sylvester’s desk, which is lit up by the sun “so that it looked like a lamp” to Raymie’s beloved book, A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, to the sun glinting off the abandoned grocery carts, making them “magical, beautiful,” it’s clear this light imagery is important to both the story and to Raymie herself. At the end of the novel, the observant reader is rewarded when these images come full circle (spoiler alert) and figure into Raymie’s transformation into a girl who comes to believe in her own strength. As she attempts to save Louisiana from drowning, it’s that magical glint of the shopping cart that points her in the right direction. And as she and Louisiana swim to the surface, Raymie has the realization that it’s “the easiest thing in the world to save somebody. For the first time, she understood Florence Nightingale and her lantern and the bright and shining path.” At that moment, we realize everything that Raymie has observed and learned so far in her life has helped her find her way out of both literal and figurative darkness.

 

51t7dzpi9lRebecca Stead is another author who uses rich symbolism and imagery to enhance the reading experience. Her novel, Liar & Spy, begins with this passage: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since. But it’s wrong—all wrong.” In this opening passage, Stead is basically hinting to her audience that they should read critically and not believe everything at face value. This is a clue as to how to read the book. Astute readers who parse that passage might read with a more critical eye and at some point realize they are dealing with an unreliable narrator—as unreliable as that map of the tongue.

Important subtext can also be found in the novel with references to Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jette. Georges’s mother has told him that the artist’s pointillist technique of painting with tiny dots requires the viewer to take a step back to look at the big picture rather than each dot. Later when Georges’s father urges his son to stand up to bullies, Georges repeats his mother’s philosophy about the big picture, that the little things don’t matter in the long run. His father, however, tells him that some things do matter in the here and now. This conversation results in Georges rethinking his perspective on life: “The dots matter.” Stead could have merely written that sometimes you look at the big picture and sometimes you don’t. But how much more memorable has she made this truth by using such a beautiful analogy?

 

51zcudf9d3lIn my own novel, The First Last Day, the main character Haleigh gets her wish to live her last day of summer over and over again. Each morning, her mother throws her an apple to take with her as a snack. The first time Haleigh misses the apple, and it falls to the floor. The second time, since she’s ready for it, she catches it and throws it back to her mother. By the end of the novel, after Haleigh takes the final step that will reverse her wish to stay in summer forever, she takes a bite of the apple and “waits for the future to happen.” I could have chosen a peach or a banana for those scenes. But I chose the apple because of its almost universal cultural significance. Haleigh, like Eve, revels in her innocence, at first rejecting the apple, which will bring her knowledge and, possibly, pain. Her finally taking the bite of the apple reinforces the novel’s subtext that the loss of innocence is a necessary rite of passage, which can also bring positive experiences along with the pain.

In another recurring image, Haleigh sees a waxing crescent moon, on its way to being full, and imagines it to be “the final curve in a pair of parentheses, the close of a single thought, suspended in the infinite sky.” Once she makes her decision to move on, she sees the moon differently: “No longer a closed parenthesis, it seemed more like a giant comma, a pause in the middle of a sentence, ready for the rest to be written.” The moon symbolism and Haleigh’s thoughts about it, underscore the meaning of Haleigh’s evolution from someone who is content to live a secure life, suspended in time, to someone who is now eager to move forward and see what the future will hold.

As both a writer and a reader, I’ve found that uncovering the significance of such examples of symbolism and subtext that I’ve cited here can reap great long-term rewards, making the whole reading experience richer. I’d urge all readers, even those who already were annoyed by that meme above, to do a little detective work by taking a closer look at the similes and symbols woven through some of your favorite books. You’ll no doubt enhance your critical thinking skills. And along the way, you just might discover some of life’s universal truths in a more memorable way.

Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/

The Winners of THE FIRST LAST DAY and a critique from Dorian Cirrone are…

Thank you all for your sweet comments on Dorian’s interview. I loved hearing how she came up with the idea for THE FIRST LAST DAY, and how much revision went into it. She shared so much great advice! Thanks again, Dorian.

The winner of a signed copy of Dorian’s newly published middle grade novel, THE FIRST LAST DAY, is…

The First Last Day Cover

Technology Integration Director

And the winner of a critique from Dorian is…

Mia Wenjen

If you’d like to find out more about Dorian’s huge revision of THE FIRST LAST DAY and read how the first page evolved from the earliest version through several other attempts until Dorian came up with the published version, check out this awesome post on Dorian’s blog.

Congrats to the winners, and thank you all again for commenting on Dorian’s interview and entering the giveaway. Dorian will e-mail the winners soon.