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The High Road to Middle Grade

Middle

Middle grade books are generally geared towards ages eight to twelve, but there’s plenty for adults to engage with, too, whether you’re stocking a school library or choosing something to read with your kids. We’ve chosen eight outstanding new titles on a broad range of topics. In nonfiction we highlight the aurora, the American labor rights movement, do-it-yourself architecture, and historical hoaxes; in fiction we feature thrilling novels about wilderness survival, softball and magical lands. As different as the subjects are, these books have something in common: they never talk down to children, but assume and reward intelligence and curiosity.

Fannie Never Flinched

One Woman’s Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights

Book Cover
Mary Cronk Farrell
Harry N. Abrams
Hardcover $19.95 (56pp)
978-1-4197-1884-7
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

On August 26, 1919, Fannie Sellins was shot dead in Natrona, Pennsylvania, while trying to defuse a fight between striking coal miners and police deputies. In Fannie Never Flinched, Mary Cronk Farrell charts her heroine’s transformation from sweatshop worker to union president and martyred protester. Broadening her scope, she also springboards off Fannie’s experience to give a concise history of the labor movement in America.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Fannie, a thirtysomething widow, was working at the Marx & Haas Clothing Co. factory in St. Louis, Missouri, to support her four children. The sweatshop demanded ten- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week, in poor working conditions. Fannie and her fellow seamstresses formed a local branch of the United Garment Workers of America union in 1902. Marx & Haas soon agreed to nearly double wages and to shorten the workday. It was just the first of Fannie’s many triumphs. She traveled between the Midwest and the East Coast to hold the picket line during strikes and negotiate for pay raises.

Hers was a life of highs and lows: she became president of the local union branch in 1909, but in 1913 she was arrested during a fight surrounding a West Virginia coal miners’ strike and held in the county jail for four months. Though Farrell brands Fannie’s death a murder, a coroner’s jury exonerated the police who were involved, saying that Fannie had incited a riot.

“Today, we still need leaders with Fannie’s courage, commitment, and compassion, leaders who will not flinch but will keep dreaming of and working toward fairness for all,” Farrell insists. Her book—full of archival research, period photographs, and background information on the labor struggle, including a timeline of key events and a glossary of terms like arbitration and xenophobia—is a worthy tribute to Fannie.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places

Book Cover
Pete Begler
Capstone Young Readers
Hardcover $14.95 (384pp)
978-1-62370-799-6
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Something strange is happening in the coastal town of Mist Falls. A purple, skull-shaped cloud appeared overhead a week ago, and now several mothers have disappeared, including twelve-year-old Nell Perkins’s mother, Rose. Nell and her little brothers, George and Speedy, turn to Duke Badger, a shopkeeper/steampunk hero with a leather trench coat and weaponized umbrella, for help. Freyja Skoll and her coven of Dark Daughters have turned Rose into a bird and trapped her in a cage. With Badger as their chaperone, the Perkins children must undertake a dangerous journey to the Wicked Places, a land of nightmares, to find a Dreamer who can change their mother back. But will Rose remember her children after a transformation that wipes her memory?

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places, the first novel from movie and television writer Pete Begler, is a triumph of world building that combines familiar fantasy elements in surprising ways. It has magic spells and talking animals—including a sea-turtle boatman and a haughty cat that was once a queen—but also evil clowns and animate skeletons. Begler doesn’t shy away from some pretty dark, scary territory, as when Nell sees a bloody shoe falls out of the sky. He successfully balances the cozy anthropomorphism of a Narnia-type land with the borderline horror of Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. The vividness of this imaginary world would undoubtedly lend itself well to a big-screen adaptation.

At its heart, this is the story of a gutsy family outfoxing everything that’s thrown at it. Yet it’s also about finding the hero inside each one of us. Nell develops into a fearless traveler over the course of her adventures; while readers might not encounter witches and octopus-wolf hybrids, they’ll emulate her courage as they face the everyday perils of growing up.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

Dragonwatch

A Fablehaven Advenature

Book Cover
Brandon Mull
Shadow Mountain
Hardcover $18.99 (384pp)
978-1-62972-256-6
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Dragonwatch is the first follow-up volume to Brandon Mull’s best-selling Fablehaven series. Siblings Kendra and Seth Sorenson live with their grandparents on a farm in Connecticut, but theirs is no ordinary pastoral life. Ever since they first drank milk from Viola the magic cow, Kendra and Seth have been able to see the fairy world. Their days are filled with enchanted swords, naiads, and unicorns; they see satyrs and ogres where their mortal cousins see only goats and bears. And that’s not to mention the restless dragons being guarded at Wyrmroost, and the vengeful demons—roundly defeated at Zzyzk, the battle where Kendra killed the demon king.

“Turbulent times await us all,” a witch warns Seth: this uneasy post-battle truce won’t last long. A “storm of dragons” will be upon the world unless someone can keep Celebrant the Just, the king of the dragons, from breaking out of Wyrmroost. When Agad the wizard pays the Sorenson family a visit, he announces that he is reinstituting Dragonwatch and invites Kendra and Seth to be the next caretakers of Wyrmroost. The role comes with its fair share of danger, which paves the way for some intense action scenes. In searching for one of seven scepters that can create safe places, the siblings will face a gate troll, an assembly of the undead, and a death-defying ride on the back of a griffin.

Mull sets up an intriguing contrast between the humdrum real world and the exhilarating fairy world Kendra and Seth experience. That mixture of the familiar and the unknown will intrigue young readers with a fondness for Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The dialogue and descriptive prose shine too: “The stars were fading. A light wind ruffled the sequoias.” With dragons on the loose and key characters missing, there’s plenty of scope for sequels.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

Dot to Dot in the Sky

Stories of the Aurora

Book Cover
Joan Marie Galat
Lorna Bennett, illustrator
Whitecap Books
Softcover $16.95 (68pp)
978-1-77050-210-9
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

“High in the sky, green, white, red, and purple ribbons of light flicker and wave, as if dancing to the sounds of a celestial choir.” That lyrical description of the aurora opens Joan Marie Galat’s Stories of the Aurora, the sixth title in her Dot to Dot in the Sky astronomy series. These educational books are original blends of fact and fiction, science and stories.

Auroras have been known by a myriad of evocative names throughout history and across cultures, like the “Buddha Lights” in Ceylon and the “Dancing Goats” in France. Most visible near the North and South Poles in the spring and fall at sites sufficiently far from city lights, the aurora occurs when particles from the Sun enter Earth’s magnetic field and collide with gas in the atmosphere. Diagrams and color photographs make the book’s information appealing and accessible, and pull boxes share some amazing trivia.

World folklore is rife with stories of how the aurora originated and what it means. Galat gives a thorough survey of different peoples’ beliefs about signs in the sky. For instance, in Greenland the lights were interpreted as a communication from the dead, perhaps from children who died at birth. The Alaskan Inuit saw auroras as the spirits of hunted animals, while in Denmark they were imagined to be flocks of geese trapped in the ice. The aurora has also been associated with omens, whether good or bad. The Chinese consider it a benevolent sign protecting childbirth, but on the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing, one was seen as far south as Cleveland, Ohio—a visible portent of war.

This beautiful book, enhanced by Lorna Bennett’s illustrations, holds two ideas in perfect tension: the aurora is a comprehensible scientific phenomenon yet remains a mysterious force that provokes universal wonder.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

The Future Architect’s Tool Kit

Book Cover
Barbara Beck
Schiffer
Hardcover $29.99 (48pp)
978-0-7643-5193-8
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

“Design is problem solving and creativity mixed together,” Barbara Beck observes, a unique combination of art and science that will appeal to any kid who is often to be found with a pencil in hand. As a sequel to The Future Architect’s Handbook, The Future Architect’s Tool Kit is not just a book but a complete hands-on course in architecture. It opens by explaining the different drawings that are essential when designing a house: the site plan and elevation show the external view, while the floor plan (one per story) and section view give the internal perspective. Aaron, the fictional protagonist of the previous work, returns as the creator of these sample drawings.

Beck encourages her protégés to consider the physical setting of their proposed property—things like trees and hills—and to keep in mind local building codes and the required setback from the property line. She also points out how individual families’ needs will determine the qualities of a house, like its number of rooms and any space set aside for specialist hobbies.

The first half of the book provides the theoretical groundwork for every budding “master builder” (the literal meaning of the Greek architektón) to follow, while the remainder gives clear, step-by-step guidance to creating first a two-dimensional set of architectural drawings and then a three-dimensional cardboard model using the pencil, eraser, graph paper, and scale included in the tool kit.

Before leaving eager designers to it, Beck offers a list of potential clients. It’s a shame these scenarios are silly—a sorcerer, dolphin, and so on—and thus at odds with the rational approach and assumed skills of the rest of the book. Still, with its detailed sketches and bonus goodies, this is an impressive set of supplies to gift to the young artist in your life.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

A History of Ambition in 50 Hoaxes

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Gale Eaton
Tilbury House Publishers
Hardcover $24.95 (288pp)
978-0-88448-465-3
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

The “History in 50” series collects linked essays on particular topics; the previous volume was about disasters. In A History of Ambition in 50 Hoaxes, former children’s librarian Gale Eaton examines history’s hoaxes and asks why they still capture the collective imagination.

The word “hoax” might be derived from “hocus pocus,” Eaton notes, which speaks to the successful hoax’s blend of convincing detail and trickery. Starting with the Trojan Horse, the book proceeds along a chronological timeline, illuminating each fascinating four-page anecdote with color images—paintings, photographs, and maps—and a pull box giving further context in a different font.

From fake archaeological discoveries to Orson Welles’s prank Martian landing, Eaton argues that “there is something artistic about a fine hoax; like a good novel or a conjuror’s trick, it creates an alternative reality.” There can be many reasons for initiating a hoax: for William-Henry Ireland, forging a Shakespeare play and other Bard memorabilia in the 1790s was an attempt to please his father; for Charles Dawson, the likely “Piltdown Man” faker who fused a human cranium with an orangutan jaw in the early 1900s and passed the skull off as proof of a human ancestor, it was the search for scientific acclaim.

Nowadays crop circles have replaced the medieval con of alchemy, but the human response is markedly similar: we want to believe, Eaton observes, and “our beliefs affect the way we experience what’s out there.” The same optimistic credulity that led Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle to believe in photographed “fairies” still drives us to hope UFOs exist and Ponzi investment schemes might work. “Hoaxes and ambition come from the same human capacity to imagine things that haven’t happened,” Eaton notes; to avoid being gullible, we have to think critically. That’s a valuable lesson for kids everywhere.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

Margie Makes a Difference

Book Cover
Dawn Brotherton
Blue Dragon Publishing
Softcover $6.60 (130pp)
978-1-939696-13-7
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Dawn Brotherton is a retired colonel in the US Air Force and has been playing fast-pitch softball since the age of nine. Her Lady Tigers series encourages preteens to get reading and make friends through playing group sports. In the second book of the series, Margie Makes a Difference, eleven-year-old Margie Clark plays second base for the twelve-and-under Lady Tigers softball team. She’s delighted to have her parents there cheering her on but can’t forget that a big change is on the way: her father, an Air Force master sergeant, is being deployed to Afghanistan for another six months. How can she prepare for starting middle school and help her mother look after her baby sister without her dad around?

Luckily, Margie has her two teammates and best friends, Trish and Nikki, to keep her spirits up with sleepovers and invitations to go get frozen yogurt. She also manages to keep in close contact with her dad through texting and Skyping. Wanting to do something special for the kids on base whose parents are serving overseas, Margie and friends set up a softball clinic, which attracts thirty kids between the ages of six and ten. Eight-year-old Jake Grafton has a particularly bad attitude about being coached by girls, but Margie learns that his bravado hides deep sadness about his pilot mom being away and takes him under her wing.

Game blow-by-blows will be exciting for sports enthusiasts, but beginners can also use the glossary of softball terms at the end of the book to keep up. This plucky book affirms the value of hard work, team effort, and compassion. As Margie learns when she helps kids connect with their parents abroad, you can always use your own experiences to help other people—and volunteering gives you a great feeling, too.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

Grizzly Peak

Book Cover
Jonathan London
WestWinds Press
Softcover $12.99 (174pp)
978-1-943328-77-2
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Jonathan London’s Grizzly Peak is the third novel in the gripping Aaron’s Wilderness adventure series. Aaron has changed: he has quit sports, gotten into rap music, and let his grades slip. Then a teacher finds a Swiss Army knife in his backpack and pronounces automatic expulsion, just weeks before eighth-grade graduation. The school makes a deal: instead of being expelled, Aaron can do a two-week British Columbia wilderness trek with his father, provided he writes up the story of the trip. There’s typical teenage friction between Aaron and his dad, so he’s reluctant: “Somehow I’d have to survive two weeks alone with my dad, and become a writer!” he grumbles.

Kayaking from lake to lake in Western Canada, Aaron and his dad set up camp and portage the boat in between. It’s a grueling routine, even without accounting for the mosquitoes, moose, rainstorms, and a persistent grizzly bear outside their tent. One day they face greater danger than usual, and their roles reverse: Aaron is now in charge, and it takes all his strength and courage to plan a safe return.

The book is presented as budding author Aaron’s journal turned story, and he’s a pro at chapter-ending cliffhangers and convincing dialogue. Black-and-white illustrations by the author’s son, Sean London, are a great addition, especially the eagle’s-eye view of the kayak.

Best of all, it’s touching to see Aaron and his dad repair their relationship. Rebellion and disagreement made Aaron feel he’d lost his dad’s approval, but their wild expedition reminds him of two things: “Sometimes it’s a battle. But he cares about me. I know that,” and “I can be my worst enemy or I can be my own best friend. It’s up to me.” This is a survival tale in the vein of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, but also a story of family bonds enduring.

REBECCA FOSTER (December 12, 2016)

Rebecca Foster

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