A Book Lover's Middle Grade Gift List

Monday, November 27, 2017

I love reading middle-grade fiction, which may be why I write it. With the gift-giving season upon us, I decided to share some of my favorites. I also decided to follow a theme and concentrate on middle-grade protagonists who are struggling to accept their differences and/or rise above them. Since I am only including books that I have read in the last two or three years, you might notice a preponderance of historical fiction. And, unfortunately, most of them have female protagonists, making them less appealing to boys. If you are shopping for boys, check out Wonder and Half a World Away, both described below.


  • The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is one of my favorites and my clear winner among those published in the past two or three years. The protagonist was born with a club foot and has led a very restricted life. The story moves from London to the English countryside and begins in 1939 at the start of World War II, which is the war of the title. I just finished reading the sequel titled The War I Finally Won, which takes place a year later but refers to a different war—this one inside the protagonist. Both books are excellent, and I highly recommend them.
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a very inspiring contemporary story about a boy who was born with facial deformities. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book earlier this year. Amazon kept prompting me to buy it and I kept refusing because I thought it would be depressing. When I finally gave in, I discovered that the story isn’t depressing at all. A good book for boys as well as girls, you will even enjoy reading it yourself.
  • I don’t recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for this age group. It’s a good book and I liked it, but there was some language that I was uncomfortable with. In addition, the autistic protagonist’s thought process is complicated and, although that’s part of the point, I think it might be too confusing for middle-grade readers.


  • The Colored Car by Jean Alicia Elster takes place in 1937. The protagonist has grown up in a black community in Detroit and doesn’t understand anything about prejudice until the summer she visits her grandmother in Tennessee and has to ride in the “colored car.” Back at home, she begins to notice the subtle discrimination that surrounds her in the North, and the way she views the world is forever changed.
  • Desert Jewels by Kaye Page doesn’t rank with the others on this list, but I had to include it because, after all, I wrote it. A story about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the book has a protagonist with a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother. In those days, that meant her family was shunned by people from both the Japanese and the white communities. But by the time the story ends, Emi has learned that her value doesn’t depend on her ancestry.
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan could fit here or in the next group because both ancestry and poverty are strong themes. Esperanza has grown up as a spoiled heiress in Mexico. When circumstances force her to flee with her mother to California during the Great Depression, she must suddenly adjust to a new life. The lot of a Mexican farm worker is not an easy one, and the reader joins her as she tries to rise above it.  

Poverty and Homelessness

  • Hold Fast by Blue Balliett is a contemporary story about a girl who loses her home and must move into a homeless shelter. The ending feels a little unrealistic, but the description of life in a homeless shelter really held my attention.
  • The Truth about Sparrows by Marion Hale is another story that takes place during the Great Depression. The protagonist doesn’t want to move, but there is nothing left for her family in Missouri. She hates Texas, where she works in the cannery to help her disabled father. But when times get tough, she discovers that a community can exist anywhere.

Foreign Adoptions

  • Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata is the other book that is good for boys. The protagonist was adopted from Romania four years earlier, when he was eight, and he is a problem child. He thinks the child they are in the process of adopting from Kazakhstan is a replacement, and he doesn’t blame them for wanting to get rid of him. After all, he doesn’t love them—or does he? This book shows the difficulties that come with foreign adoptions, but it also highlights the joys.

Creative Titles under Siege

Monday, November 20, 2017

I’ve been doing research for the book after the one I’m currently working on, and I’m fascinated by the creativity that went into the titles of the articles published as reminiscences on the subject, most of which were published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here are some examples:

  • “A Girl’s Experience in the Siege of Vicksburg” (Lucy McRae Bell)
  • “A Child at the Siege of Vicksburg” (William W. Lord, Jr.)
  • “A Woman’s Experiences During the Siege of Vicksburg” (Lida Lord Reed)
  • “A Woman’s Diary of the Siege of Vicksburg” (Dora Richards Miller)

At least the Miller article is subtitled “Under Fire from the Gunboats.” Slightly more creative is Vicksburg, A City Under Siege: Diary of Emma Balfour, but it still contains many of the same elements.

The best-known eyewitness account of civilian life in Vicksburg during the siege does have a more unique title. Mary Ann Webster Loughborough’s book is called My Cave Life in Vicksburg. Even that, however, was published with the subtitle “A Woman’s Account of the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863.”

No wonder I’m having so much trouble coming up with a title. All the good ones are taken.

Obviously, there’s some sarcasm there. Still, some of the best descriptive words are “siege” and “cave life,” and both have been used, especially when you factor in more recent children’s books such as Lucy’s Cave and Under Siege.

Fortunately, I have plenty of time before I have to come up with a title, and inspiration will probably strike before then.

It was easy to come up with titles a century ago.

But I’d rather be creative.

Broken Traditions

Monday, November 13, 2017

This year brought two broken Christmas traditions. The first we can resume next year, but the other is literally broken.

When it snowed Friday morning, I blamed Roland. I joked that it was his fault for breaking the first tradition, which is to put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving. I’m not sure when we started doing it on that specific day, although it probably began when the children were young. Roland had the day off and my company let us out early, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Before that, we probably bought the tree sometime in December. We have NEVER put it up before Thanksgiving.

Until this year. Roland bought a new tree, and it arrived on Thursday. So rather than taking it to the storage locker for two weeks, he put it up. Actually, we broke tradition in 2011 when we purchased our first artificial one. The house was on the market and had to be kept pristine for showings, and we weren’t sure how well a real tree would work in the condo we wanted to (and did) buy. Since we were empty nesters by that time, I allowed Roland to persuade me to get one that was more practical. I do like the convenience, but I miss the sentiment. Oh well.

Since we already had the tree up, there was no sense leaving it bare. So Roland retrieved the decorations from the storage locker and I began sorting through the ornaments to see which ones I wanted to put on our new—and narrower—tree. A few are not optional—they simply must get hung. One of the required ornaments is the little plastic mouse that I bought in Chicago in 1972 from a bin at Woolworths. I had just graduated from college, it was my first year on my own, and the mouse was my first ornament. He has been on my tree ever since, and the children love him. In fact, I think Caroline expects to inherit him eventually.

But here’s where, or how, the second tradition got broken. When I opened the box of ornaments, the mouse was missing his legs. I didn’t even know he was fragile, but I suppose anything can happen after 45 years. I can’t put him back together, but I can, and did, hang him on my tree in his broken state. If you don’t know what he looked like before and don’t look at him from underneath to see the ragged edges, you wouldn’t know he is damaged. But I was heartsick and still am.

The mouse ornament reminds me that memories are fragile, too. They can be lost if they aren’t written down. Once I’m gone, will my children remember that I bought my first Christmas ornament from Woolworths, which is also gone now? Or will they even know that in those days of living in Chicago I used to buy a real, full-sized tree from a nearby lot and drag it along the sidewalk and up the stairs to my apartment? My roommates helped, but none of us had a car.

Traditions are nice, but broken ones can’t ruin Christmas. The only way to ruin Christmas is to celebrate it without Christ.

Even so, traditions bring us closer, and I like having them.

So I’ve salvaged as much of the mouse as I can.

Falling Off the Mountain

Monday, November 6, 2017

When I was a child, we used to play a game called “King of the Mountain,” where somebody stood on top of a mound or other raised area and the other children tried, one at a time, to shove the King (or Queen) off. Actually, I probably watched more than I played since I would have had no chance at winning. I don’t know if children still play it, but adults do. And one of the places they play is on a TV game show called “Divided.”

“Divided” used to be shown on the Game Show Network during prime time, but GSN recently moved it to midnight Eastern time, which is 11:00 p.m. Central Time. I don’t know why they made the change, although presumably the show received lower ratings than the “Family Feud” episodes that replaced it. My biggest problem with the change is that eleven is my bedtime—except, now, for those nights when new episodes of “Divided” air.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, four strangers work as a team to earn money but, as the host explains, in the end they are playing for themselves. They increase their bank when they answer questions correctly and lose it when they get the answer wrong. They must agree on the answer before they can lock it in, and time and money wind dwindle until they do. Or, if they have either of their two takeovers left, one person can lock his or her answer in for everyone before the others agree. The contestants vote one person off in the middle of the show, but the biggest drama comes at the end. The final winnings are divided into three amounts—60% (A), 40% (B), and 10% (C), and the players must agree to each take a different amount. As with the answers to the questions, time and money disappear while the contestants are debating who gets what share of the pot.

I enjoy guessing the answers to the questions. But as a former psychology major, I’m most interested in the group dynamics, especially at the end.

Sometimes the final three contestants work well together and walk away with significant amounts of money. At other times their teamwork is shaky but they still leave with something, often because a person who deserves more agrees to take the least. Then there are the few times when the contestants let the clock wind down to zero and walk away with nothing. This is where the King of the Mountain analogy comes in.

The most common scenario for a zero recovery is where two players hold out for the highest amount and neither will budge. Usually, they both claim to have earned it. In one episode, however, a man admitted that he didn’t deserve the most but was determined to leave with 60% or nothing. When the clock stopped on nothing, the other two contestants blamed him and called him a jerk. In fact, in most situations where the contestants end up with nothing, at least one of the two deadlocked players blames the other. That’s when I want to yell at the TV and tell them that it takes two to make a stalemate. If you want money, you can’t let your ego stand in the way. If you were part of the stalemate and end up with nothing, blame yourself.

That’s how the normal scenario goes when the contestants end up with nothing. But Thursday night/Friday morning (depending on the time zone) it played out differently. The two women (and I) agreed that the man deserved the most, but they both thought they deserved the middle amount. As the money ticked down, the male contestant changed his vote to take the lowest amount so that they would all walk away with something. Then the two women both changed their votes to take the highest and the money disappeared anyway.

I don’t feel sorry for the women. They were two cats who were so intent on scratching each other’s eyes out that they both ended up blind. Or maybe they started blind, because surely they didn’t want the viewing audience to see them as fools. But that’s what happened.

But I don’t feel sorry for the man, either. Yes, it would have been nice if he had gotten some money, especially since he wanted to use it to buy an engagement ring. But he was still a winner. He showed the viewing audience that he was a classy guy whose self-worth didn’t depend on being at the top of the heap.

And that’s how to be the real King of the Mountain.


I took the picture along the Shenandoah stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2012.