I've been researching kids' books so that I can rewrite a middle school book of my own. Here's three titles I've recently read.
The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere: Vol. 1)
by Jacqueline West
Dial Books for Young Readers
4 1/2 spangles out of five
While waiting (and waiting and waiting) for my take-out salad at Cracker Barrel, I spun their books-on-tape carousel. It was there that I saw Meg Cabot's Insatiable, which I later went home and looked up reader reviews to, which is how I wound up reading The Boy Next Door (readers hated Insatiable, and pointed instead to The Boy Next Door). I also spotted this book, went home, read some reviews, and ordered it.
If not for Harry Potter, this would have gotten five spangles. It's just that dab of Potterishness, that speck of not quite being unique whether on purpose or by chance, that brings it down. The cover looks like Harry in drag. The Big Bad is a smoky magic user who wants to come back to immortal life, and his granddaughter is... Well, I don't want to give it away, but she reminded me of Bellatrix Lestrange, especially when we last see her.
But other than that, the book is a refreshing if often frightening adventure. 11 (and three-quarters) year-old Olive and her mathematician parents move into a spooky old house. Olive's parents are busy being mathematicians. They live and breathe math. Their endearments to each other are math-oriented. "My love for you is a monotonic increasing function of time." But they do love Olive; it's just that their professional lives take up so much.
Olive doesn't mind being alone at all. She has her teddy bear and odd paintings and bric-a-brac left from the previous owner to think about. She discovers that when she wears some spectacles she found, she can actually climb into the dark landscapes and meet the people within them, most of whom are frightened because of the potential presence of an evil man.
The house also comes with three talking cats, and a boy named Morton who inhabits one of the paintings, but who remembers being alive. The mystery deepens, Olive is betrayed, and things come to a head when her parents take off for a math convention. (Leaving an 11-YO by herself???)
Details are rich and riveting, and Olive is a wonderful character who discovers just how brave and resourceful she can be. Take that, Harry P!
Harris and Me
by Gary Paulsen
4 1/2 spangles out of five
Contemporary (well, 1950s contemporary)
It is shortly after WWII, and our 11-year-old narrator is shuttled from cousins to cousins, because his own parents are drunks of the worst sort. Our story takes place one summer somewhere, I guess, in northern Minnesota, because at one point they talk about North Dakota being just off to the west.
The farm is about as remote as it gets, and the characters that inhabit it are about fifty times stranger than any folks you'd read about in Twain or see in Ma & Pa Kettle movies. Strangest of them all is the narrator's cousin, Harris, who's about his age, (schoolbook) dumber than dirt, but with an imagination that plays havok with the farm animals, mice, frogs... you name it. The images are coarse, and some may be put off by such name-calling as "commie jap gooner," but these are conceivably what such kids would come up with at the time.
I felt sorry for the farm animals. I also wondered why these parents weren't making sure their kids got a better education, but these folks are just scraping by, up in the middle of nowhere, USA.
This is definitely a boy's book, as boys will best like the no-holds-barred action and warped logic that comes out of Harris' head. Again, this is a book of intensely-painted description, though the description here is of a harsh and ignorant world. Girls will find that if they can get beyond their squeamishness (that poor frog! I'm not even going to say anything about the mouse fur clothes.) it all begins to grow on them. Certainly they'll think about it long after they finish the book.
Best Friends and Drama Queens (Allie Finkle's Rules For Girls #3)
by Meg Cabot
4 spangles out of five
Now let's go to something that's definitely for girls, but a little younger, say, 8 years old or so. I'd been wondering how Meg Cabot's kids' books read, and here's a great little example. The focus is on a fourth grader, Allie Finkle, and her world of BFFs and school and younger brothers and such.
We pick up the story right after Christmas break, when everyone is curious about the New Girl, who comes not from another town down the road, or another state, but an entirely different country! How exotic! How cosmopolitan it is to have a real Canadian in their midst!
But this Canadian girl brings new ideas with her in which she labels the classmates who don't kowtow to her as babies. Allie is the first to feel her wrath.
Allie sees the girls in her class start to cave in to the wishes of the new girl, afraid to be thought of as childish. Then one by one, Allie's friends have to act like they're years older than they are. They have to learn which parties are the acceptable ones to attend, what's the fashionable thing to wear even if it's not sensible; they have to get boyfriends.
Through it all, Allie puzzles over life and spells out the rules as she sees them. These rules are sweet ones, never OTT but still entirely girly: "It's impolite not to bump someone's fist when they are fist-bumping you."
I particularly liked the bits about Allie's college-age uncle who goes into utter depths of depression upon being dumped by a girlfriend who has very good reasons for doing that. I also liked the completely innocent and accepting hints that one of Allie's BFFs might turn out to be lesbian. Or not. Allie's heart is only interested in who is or can be her friend.
The action is small-scale and there are no dark magicians or crazed roosters in sight, but Allie's mind is sweet, intelligent, and focused on the Things That Matter to kids. I think any young girl would get a kick out of this.