Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

Wolf Hollow

Title: Wolf Hollow

Author: Lauren Wolk

Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781101994825

I recently attended the SCBWI webinar “The Craft of Writing Historical Fiction” and received feedback from Kelsey Murphy, associate editor for Balzer and Bray, on the first ten pages of the only historic middle grade novel I’ve ever attempted to write, Twisted Fate. I’ve thought about this book a lot over the years it’s been hanging out in the cloud (my proverbial drawer), but whenever I contemplate going back to finish it I get overwhelmed by the task of getting all the historical details right. I love the story and the characters but since I’m not overly familiar with the setting (even though I’ve visited London several times) or the time period (even though I’ve read a lot about England post World War II) the research required is more than a little daunting.

Kelsey was encouraging and in the webinar Anna Myers made the process sound not only possible but fun! My favourite take home message from both Kelsey and Anna was that I should read more historical middle grade fiction. In addition to digging into Anna’s titles, I also followed her recommendation and read Wolf Hollow, a 2016 Newbery Honor Book. I’m glad I did! This is how historical fiction is supposed to be done. I became so immersed in Annabelle’s story and the setting that I completely forgot it was “historical”.

Set in small town Pennsylvania between the first and second world wars, the story follows 11-year-old Annabelle who lives on a farm with her family and attends a one room school house. Annabelle’s quiet, steady (but unexciting) life is disrupted when Betty, a new girl in town, starts bullying her and her brothers. From there, things escalate quickly. Annabelle ends up protecting and defending Toby, a reclusive World War I veteran, who Betty accuses of committing her own crimes.

This is one of those books that could be included in my post middle grade grows up. Although Annabelle is eleven, Wolf Hollow tackles some difficult issues and Betty’s bullying really does cross the line into criminal and life threatening behaviour. While Annabelle deals with challenging emotions and situations, she has very amazing, mature insights. My favourite quote: “If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

As much as I enjoyed Wolf Hollow, neither of my sons really got into it. This could be because the setting distanced them but I think it’s more likely because this is really a book that appeals more to adults. I tend to favour contemporary children’s fiction (although I love adult historical fiction) but I hope to find more titles like Wolf Hollow and The War That Saved My Life so I can learn more about historical children’s fiction as well.

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Title: Mine!

Author: Natalie Hyde

Publisher: Scholastic

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781443146609

The opening line of Natalie Hyde’s latest title – also a contender for the 2018/19 Red Cedar Book Prize – is sure to grab the attention of young readers: “Moose snot is a real thing, you know.” From there, Chris Dearing (who hates his name) takes us back in time to explain how he ended up in the middle of the Yukon trying to make a gold claim on land swindled from his grandfather decades before Chris was born.

The opening line is not the only clever use of words in Mine! There’s a play on “the muffin man” rhyme that comes late in the novel and made me wonder if I’d missed out on more along the way. The focus on Chris and his family’s BAD luck gets a little tedious at times but all in all, this is a wild ride filled with whacky characters.

For starters, there’s Chris’s dad who’s an alcoholic making bad choices in addition to his bad luck. With social services breathing down their necks, his dad ends up in jail and Chris is left seeking help from Fiona who owns the bar his dad most frequently visited. As luck would have it (and Chris actually has a lot of GOOD luck, regardless of what he thinks), Fiona is also from the Yukon and agrees to take Chris up there when she learns about his grandfather’s lost claim. When her motorcycle breaks down, Chris is lucky enough to get saved by his best friend and her uncle, who just happens to have a mobile muffin selling business. They accompany Chris and Fiona all the way to the Yukon where more unbelievable (but highly entertaining) events unfold.

As is often the case, one of my sons loved this book and one didn’t (proving just how subjective this book business is). The one who didn’t found it too unrealistic and convoluted. For me, it was a quick read and putting the rational side of my brain on pause, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the trip North with Chris and his friends.

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Be Prepared

Title: Be Prepared

Author: Vera Brosgol

Publisher: First Second

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1626724457

Joining the growing stack of graphic novel memoirs comes this great book by the author of Anya’s Ghost. As with all graphic novels, Be Prepared is a quick read but the story and images stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.

Nine-year-old Vera does not fit in. Her mom’s struggling to make ends meet while single parenting three kids and going to school. In the opening scene, Vera’s at a sleep over with her privledged friends who all have fancy historical dolls and spend every summer at camp – things Vera’s never had or done. To make matters worse, her Russian heritage sets her apart even further when she tries to have a sleep over birthday party of her own.

So when Vera finds out about a Russian Orthodox camp, ORRA, she becomes convinced it’s the answer to her problems. Unfortunately, Vera doesn’t fit in any better at ORRA – apart from her bad Russian teeth – and the rest of the book follows her as she struggles through four weeks of camp.

Readers are right there with her, feeling all the rejection and humiliation she feels as Vera tries to win over her tent-mates, brave the pit toilets – called Hollywood – and continually make mistakes. The author is unflinching in her portrayal of herself, showing all her faults and also her triumphs (which never seem to last long). Unfortunately, I think the book has turned my sons off wanting to go to camp. Having no camp experience myself, I can’t quite relate. But I definitely feel like I’ve been to ORRA – and shared in the wide range of experiences it offers (both good and bad) – after finishing Be Prepared.

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From Ant to Eagle

Title: From Ant to Eagle

Author: Alex Lyttle

Publisher: Central Avenue Publishing

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 177168111X

In From Ant to Eagle, debut author Alex Lyttle creates one of the most authentic sibling relationships I’ve seen in middle grade literature (or possibly any literature at all).

It starts with a premise many kids can relate to: 11-year-old Cal doesn’t want to spend the summer hanging out with his 6-year-old brother, Sammy. In addition to the age difference, they live in a rural part of Ontario without many neighbours and have already spent a lot of time together after moving to the country a year before the story starts.

Everything changes when Cal befriends a new girl at his church and Sammy starts having health problems. This allows Cal and Aleta to keep Sammy away from their secret spot. Sammy spends most of the summer in bed with what the family doctor believes is a case of mono while Cal and Aleta spend their days mud sliding, swimming and reading in their secret spot with a view of Lake Huron.

But at the start of the school year, what felt like a victory to Cal suddenly sours when Sammy’s health problems turn out to be a lot more than mono. From this point in the story, Cal starts spending lots of time in the hospital, meeting other children battling cancer and figuring things out with Aleta, who has her own history of losing family members.

It’s pretty clear from the beginning that this story will not have a happy ending. But readers can find resilience and hope through Cal’s acceptance of the situation and realization that Sammy’s death is not his fault. This story might be too sad for  some young readers (I cried through the last five chapters) but both my 12-year-old sons loved it as much as I did.

From Ant to Eagle is a contender for the Red Cedar Book Award along with Inside Hudson Pickle. It’s also the 2018 Silver Birch Award Fiction winner – more proof that young readers really identify with Cal and Sammy’s story. It’s easy to see why the book has gotten so much attention. Told with heart and tackling a subject not often portrayed in middle grade fiction, Alex Lyttle has really created something special.

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Title: Click’d

Author: Tamara Ireland Stone

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781484784976

A book about a 12-year-old coder as part of a new series called CodeGirls? It’s about time. And Stone pulls it off remarkably, balancing tech details with a middle school friendship drama that will appeal to more than just coders.

At the start of the novel, Allie Navarro shares the app she made at CodeGirls  summer camp in front of an audience that includes her parents and her computer science teacher, Ms. Slade. There’s a lot at stake because Allie wants Ms. Slade to mentor her in the upcoming Games for Good competition. Ms. Slade agrees based on Allie’s demo of Click’d with her 20 summer coding friends as users. But then a competition with her nemesis, Nathan, prompts her to share the app with the rest of her middle school in hopes of getting building a bigger, more impressive user base. Glitches occur and Allie makes some bad choices until it looks like her app is doing more bad than good.

By necessity, Click’d incorporates a lot of different characters. I wish Allie’s best friends weren’t named Zoe, Maddie, and Emma. They were hard enough to tell apart already. There’s also a girl on the bus named Penny and Allie’s best friend from coding camp named Courtney. By the end of the book, we have a pretty clear idea of who is who, with help from the Clickpics on the Click’d leaderboard and text messages that are incorporated into the narrative. Still, I think this book could have benefited from a slightly more diverse crowd. I know Allie’s wealthy but does everyone at her school really have a phone? At my sons’ school there are many 7th graders who do not have a phone – or are not allowed to bring it to school – regardless of socio-economic status, making it hard for me to imagine the scene where *everyone* is running around the halls before class trying to make a match.

This is a minor issue, however. Overall, Click’d is a quick read that moves along at a great pace. There are two coding activities at the back of the book and a teacher’s guide available on the author’s website, making it perfect for the classroom.

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Title: Checked

Author: Cynthia Kadohata

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781481446617

If you love hockey and dogs, you’ll love this book. I like both – but not enough to overlook Checked‘s lack of both plot and character arc.

11-year-old Conor (and his dad, who shares Conor’s dream of playing in the NHL) spend all their time and money on hockey. When his dog, Sinbad, is diagnosed with cancer, Conor must sacrifice his extra summer training to pay for chemotherapy. Woven into this framework, Conor explores prayer, his relationship with his late mother’s parents, his ethnicity, his father’s career as a cop, his elderly neighbour’s need for support, and more.

Even though my son does not play AAA hockey and my dog has never had cancer, I have no doubt that Kadohata got all the details of both these experiences completely right. And there are a lot of details. Despite the fast pace of some hockey scenes, the book itself is long and meandering. Conor’s hockey journey and Sinbad’s cancer treatments do not follow any real arc and nothing is really resolved at the end of the story, besides Conor deciding to meet with his maternal grandparents at thanksgiving. The relationship between characters, particularly Conor and his dad, and the depth of the characterization is very well done but no one changes that much during the book. We don’t get an explanation for why Conor’s dad’s crying all the time and Conor’s precocious insights into life are a constant throughout the book.

That said, the cover is fantastic as are the chapter heading illustrations by Maurizio Zorat, which help move the story along. I did finish the book and Conor’s story stayed with me after the last page. I liked that all the plot points weren’t tied up with a bow at the end. Animal lovers will be relieved that Sinbad does okay with his cancer treatments. And hockey players will relate to a book that so accurately portrays their love and passion for the sport.

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Ebb & Flow

Title: Ebb & Flow

Author: Heather Smith

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1-77138-838-2

A middle grade novel in verse? Yes, please. One written by a Canadian Author (publisher by my favourite Canadian publisher)? Yes, please (with a cherry on top)! Ebb & Flow packs a hard emotional punch – breaking your heart and putting it back together from one page to the next.

After a terrible year at a new school, 11-year-old Jett goes to Newfoundland to spend the summer with his grandma. While the relationship with his cotton candy grandma grows, the details of the terrible year is slowly revealed along with backstory about his friend Junior, Junior’s uncle (Alf) and Jett’s dad.

Because the story is told in verse with no dialogue tags and skips back and forth in time, I occasionally found it hard to follow who was who (especially the inanimate objects Jett names). But that didn’t stop me from connecting to the characters. Jett’s internal conflict is very realistic and relatable and his connections with Grandma, Alf and Nelly are especially endearing.

This is a quick read but it’s not easy. It tackles subjects like child abuse, domestic violence, and bullying. The author doesn’t sugar coating things but she does leave room for growth and hope.  Highly recommended.

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See You in the Cosmos

Title: See You in the Cosmos

Author: Jack Cheng

Publisher: Dial Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780399186370

Astronomy-obsessed Alex is making recordings on his golden iPod with the plan of rocketing it into space like his hero Carl Sagan did with the golden record. He travels to the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival – alone (apart from his dog, Carl Sagan) – in order to launch the rocket he’s built. Two of the adult friends he makes at the festival take him to Los Vegas to search for his dad. Although Alex believes his dad to be dead, his name and address have recently appeared in ancestry.com.

The road trip continues from there but I can’t tell you much more without spoiling the story. But I will tell you that I have many mixed feelings about this book!

On one hand, I find it ridiculous that 11-year-old Alex would be wandering around the country on his own, meeting adults that don’t seem overly concerned about his lack of supervision. I also found the narrative clunky at times because it’s told in the form of Alex’s recordings where he basically provides a stream of consciousness about what’s going on day to day. The recordings occasionally pick up conversation but they are mostly lines and lines of description.

On the other hand, I could not put the book down, particularly during the second half. I needed to know what the deal was with Alex’s mom and how everything would come together. The pace is fast and despite Alex’s inconsistencies (he describes himself as 13 in responsibility years but he rambles and takes things literally like someone much younger) he is an endearing main character.

One of my sons really liked this book and one of my sons did not. Ironically, it was my own astronomy-obsessed kid that wasn’t so keen. See You in the Cosmos would be a great read aloud for the classroom where you can discuss the issues that arise such as mental illness and messy relationships (and why it’s dangerous for kids to have that much freedom).

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Title: Runner: Harry Jerome, World’s Fastest Man

Author: Norma Charles

Publisher: Red Deer Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780889955530

When I was younger, I always wanted to know more about the person my school was named after (which required a lot of research since I went to a lot of schools). How did someone get a building or a street or an event named after them, anyway? At some point, I stopped wondering. Possibly because the stories behind them never seemed that interesting or inspiring. Enter Harry Jerome, who has a sports complex, a recreation centre and even an international track event named after him. Harry’s life is not only interesting and inspiring, his story is told in an engaging way in Norma Charles’ new book for middle grade readers.

Written as a novel but informed by extensive research, the author’s brief acquaintance with Harry, and interviews with his sister, coach and friend, Runner begins with a flood in Harry’s home of St. Boniface, Manitoba in 1950 when Harry was 9-years-old. From there, it follows the family to North Vancouver, BC where they faced racism as the only black family in a white neighbourhood. Harry’s love of sport – from baseball to soccer to basketball and volleyball – got him through these rough years as he cared for his younger sisters and made money through a paper route.

Near the end of high school, Harry found track and field and started training with Optimists Striders track club at the Brockton Oval in Stanley Park. As he began breaking records and winning races in relay, 100-yard, and 200-yard sprints, he found himself being admired rather than shunned for the first time in his life. Harry was on his way from being Canada’s fastest runner to a gold medal winner at the Olympics in Rome when he pulled his leg muscle in the 100-meter semi-final at the age of nineteen.

Following the Cub Scout motto “always try your best”, Harry went on to attend the University of Oregon on a full athletic scholarship. He continued breaking records until he became the first man to hold world records in both 100-meter and 100-yard sprint. Since I’ve already given away most of the story, you’ll have to read Runner to find out if he got a second chance to win gold or rectified his image with reporters.

Regardless of the ending, Harry Jerome is a person worth knowing about. This straightforward book puts the spotlight on a time and place in history, shows what it takes to be a high-level athlete, and explores how childhood influences the person you become. A quick read. Highly recommended.

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Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Title: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Author: Dusti Bowling

Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1-4549-2345-9

It’s hard not to instantly connect with the main character of this book, 13-year-old Aven Green, when she begins by sharing some of the stories she  makes up when she’s tired of “telling (people) the same boring story about being born without arms”. Right from the beginning, we know that Aven’s focused on what she can do, not what she can’t do. And thanks to her adoptive parents she’s learned to do a lot on her own. So much so, that there were times while I was reading that I forgot Aven”lacked Armagh”.

Because Aven has always gone to the same Kansas school, her friends and fellow students have stopped seeing her differently as well. But when Aven’s family moves to Arizona so her parents can manage Stagecoach Pass, a worn down, wild west theme park, everything changes. But even as befriends a boy with Tourette’s syndrome who’s really struggling with what he describes as a disability, her attitude remains almost too good to be true.

The story includes a mystery and a satisfying (if farfetched) ending, while providing various perspectives on ability and disability. There were times when I felt that Aven and her friends acted younger than their age but I really enjoyed seeing the world through their eyes. Recommended for aged 9 to 13.



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