Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

To Night Owl From Dogfish

Title: To Night Owl From Dogfish

Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780525553236

I have always liked books told through correspondence. Once of my favorite books of all time is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Yes, the movie is good but the book is much, much better). I tried incorporating letters into my historic middle grade novel Twisted Fate, staring  Rosalind Franklin, but it was a struggle – that book is either “in the drawer” or a “work in progress” depending on my current mood. There aren’t many middle grade books I can think of that do this well, until… now.

To Night Owl From Dogfish starts off as email correspondence between two wildly different 12-year-olds that live on opposite sides of the United States. Avery and Bett’s dads have started dating and want them to go to the same summer camp. The girls are strongly against this but as they get to know each other, things change. And once they do go to camp together (spoiler alert!) the correspondence changes too. This is why it works – bestselling authors Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer never waver from the correspondence-style but as things progress they add letters, texts, emails between different characters, and even some formal written reports to move the plot along.

The book covers two summers and more than a year in the life of Avery (Night Owl) and Bett (Dogfish). A lot changes and there are more than a few twists a long the way. Every character in the book is nuanced and unique and since we get to read correspondence from them in their own words (even the camp counsellor and the bully), the reader really feels like they know each one. (Gaga – Bett’s grandma – was my favorite.) The fact that To Night Owl From Dogfish is written by two different authors likely helped ensure that the main characters, in particular, are different and completely fleshed out.

One of my 13-year-old sons (13 – how did that happen?) tried reading this book but found it difficult to follow the emails back and forth. I was surprised – I thought the format was ingenious and engaging. His twin brother didn’t even crack the cover. He’s more interested in non-fiction and doesn’t like anything to do with camping. Still, I was surprised (my kids never fail to surprise me) – I thought the front cover (and subject matter) would attract a variety of readers. In a way, our different opinions on To Night Owl From Dogfish support the book’s theme, which I’ll sum up with two quotes from the wedding speech at the end of the book:

No one’s supposed to tell anyone, “You two shouldn’t love each other.” But maybe, also, no one’s suppose to tell anyone, “You two should love each other.”

&

Families can look different from how they used to. And sisters can look different, too.

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Everlasting Nora

Title: Everlasting Nora

 

Author: Marie Miranda Cruz

Publisher: Starscape

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780765394590

12-year-old Nora and her mom live in a grave house in Manila’s largest cemetery. That’s right – a grave house. They sleep and eat next to the tomb of her father, who died in a house fire.

They are poor but they survive by doing laundry and selling Nora’s dried flower wreaths. That is until Nora’s mom goes missing – a victim of debt associated with her gambling addiction.

It sounds depressing. And it is. But Nora’s determination and resourcefulness  keep them both alive – and keep readers of Everlasting Nora turning the pages of the book to find out what happens.

Although the story contains many heart-thumping, action scenes, Cruz does not skip on the details necessary to bring the setting to life. I learned a lot about Filipino culture, especially the food (I can’t wait to try banana-que).

Life is unrelentingly hard for Nora. But her courage fills the story with promise and hope. Everlasting Nora is a heart-filled glimpse into a piece of the Philippines, filled with characters that are easy to root for (especially Jojo). I hope Nora makes it back to school!

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Fadeaway

Title: Fadeaway

Author: Maura Ellen Stokes

Publisher: Yellow Jacket

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781499806748

Since this review is not really a review at all but more of a personal reflection, I’m going to start with a quick description so I can get into listing the things I love about Fadeaway.

Publisher’s blurb:

When Sam’s best friend Reagan dies after her heart suddenly gives out, Sam must learn to deal with her grief and ultimately discover who she is without her best friend by her side.

What I love about it:

1 – The main character is 14-years-old

Fourteen was a very formative age for me: my family moved cities, I experienced by first true heartbreak, resisted peer pressure and remained vegetarian (pressure that came less from peers and more from family and cattle country in general), and discovered a passion for sport that would get me through several more life-altering changes. I don’t really remember being twelve and by sixteen, I had already figured a lot of stuff out. This is why I find it frustrating that authors are generally told not to write 14-year-old characters because they’re too old for middle grade and too young for young adult. (Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote a great post this week about the subcategories of MG and YA). Readers need characters of all ages, including fourteen. And Sam’s a great one.

2 – Sam’s grief is shown in a raw but totally realistic way

My dad died when my twin sons were 2-years-old. It was a very difficult time for me and my grieving process was very complicated. I love that Sam’s grief is not shown as a linear progression where each day is better than the day before. There are days that Sam misses Reagan so much she can’t get out of bed. There are moments that she laughs out loud at a memory of Reagan. More often than not, these moments are followed by a wave of sadness. I love the coping mechanisms she develops as she figures out how to be Sam instead of Reagan&Sam. I have not lost a best friend but I’ve left many friends behind when I’ve moved between cities. Every time, it felt like I was reinventing myself as I learned to navigate a different world without the support network I’d come to rely on.

3 – The story is sad and sweet and even a bit slow – without being boring

For so many reasons, our society is becoming more and more about instant gratification. I see this everywhere, including in the books we give to children. I worry about how this will affect my own kids. I worry about how it has affected me. So I appreciated being reminded that books do not have to be action packed. Or set in a fantastic fantasy world. Or heavily illustrated. Or a mash up between one best seller and another. I refuse to call Fadeaway quiet but I love that it takes time to unravel. And I love that there are some good basketball scenes along the way.

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Inkling

Title: Inkling

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Illustrator: Sydney Smith

Publisher: HarperCollins

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781443450287

I’ve seen this middle grade novel on a lot of book lists (Quill & Quire Best Book, CYBILS Awards, CBC Best Book of the Year, New York Times Notable…) but the premise of an ink blot coming to life didn’t really appeal to me. Then my kids picked it up at the library and started raving about it too. So I cracked the cover and at the risk of sounding cliché – couldn’t put it down.

Inkling comes to life out of Ethan’s dad’s sketch book but Ethan finds him first (unless you count the confrontation with the cat that opens the story). Soon Inkling’s helping Ethan with a graphic novel project for school. He becomes the dog Ethan’s sister (who has  Down syndrome) always wanted and eventually starts working for Ethan’s dad (who’s a comic artist).

As Inkling becomes a member of the family, Ethan reconsiders everything from the definition of cheating to the real reason his dad’s stuck. But the moral dilemma at the heart of the story is Inkling’s well being. Ethan’s dad thinks Ethan gives Inkling too many human qualities. Ethan’s horrified when other characters in the story treat Inkling like a caged animal. What’s the difference between letting Inkling help and taking advantage of him?

When Inkling goes missing, I felt as horrified as Ethan and his family. That’s when I saw the true brilliance of this character. Inkling starts out as an extension of Ethan’s dad’s imagination but learns from the diverse books Ethan feeds him, changes from experience and grows through his relationship with others. All the characters in this story are strong – and all develop in their own way – but Inkling’s the star.

I got distracted by a few typos and didn’t pay much attention to the black and white illustrations. But the cover art is brilliant and as a package this book definitely checks boxes for publishers wanting middle grade novels with more artwork and magic realism. For me, though, it was all about the heart of the story and the quick paced action that brings Inkling and his family to a tear-worthy conclusion.

 

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No Fixed Address

Title: No Fixed Address

Author: Susin Nielsen

Publisher: Tundra Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0735262751

This is the second book by Susan Nielsen that I’ve reviewed on this site. I usually like to share the love but her latest title is too good to be overlooked. Unlike We Are All Made Of Molecules, this book does not cross the line into young adult content – it’s definitely upper middle grade.

Twelve-year-old Felix and his mom (who he calls Astrid) live in Vancouver. For many reasons – some associated with Astrid’s unnamed mental illness (she has “slumps” and takes medication) and some associated with her poor decision making (particularly with respect to relationships) – they lose their home and end up living in a van that may or may not have been stolen.

At first, life in the Westfalia is fine. But as Felix settles into school and the temperature starts to drop, he becomes desperate for access to things most of us take for granted: a private toilet, regular access to a shower, an address, a meal that does not come from a can, and perhaps most of all – a sense of security.

Since Astrid seems incapable of finding (and keeping) a job, Felix searches for other ways to get the money they need for an apartment including asking for a loan from his “DNA Donor Dad” and winning a trivia game show. The one thing he refuses to do is ask for help. Or let his new friends know that he’s homeless.

The relationship between Felix and Astrid is complicated and realistic. As is the resolution to their story. The back matter includes resources and a discussion guide that both provide further information on hidden homelessness and poverty. While there are many important issues addressed in the novel- and a diverse cast of interesting characters – there’s also enough plot twists to keep young readers turning the page.

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The Dollar Kids

Title: The Dollar Kids

Author: Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780763694746

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Richard Jacobson both as a writer and a person. She was my mentor at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop and I have so much respect for her knowledge and talent. I have previously reviewed Paper Things but I’ve read everything she’s written and I love it all. I had no doubt The Dollar Kids would take me on the same emotional journey I’ve come to expect from her middle grade titles.

I was not wrong.

The Dollar Kids opens with the tragic death of 12-year-old Lowen Grover’s neighbour and younger friend, Abe. The responsibility Lowen feels for Abe’s death drives the rest of the narrative from the Grover’s family decision to buy a dollar house in a small, rundown old mill town to Lowen’s interactions with the new people he meets in Millville. Lowen’s guilt drips off the pages, making it hard for him to live next to a funeral home, make new friends, and continue to draw comics – formerly his most favourite past time.

What I love most about this book is the nuanced characters. Jennifer Richard Jacobson does a great job of showing how the entire Grover family reacts and adjusts to Abe’s death. She also examines the concept of dollar houses as a way of revitalizing dying towns. At the climax, a town divided has become a community and Millville is saved through sheer determination and co-operation. I especially love what Mr. Avery – a former Mill worker and one of the most verbally opposed to the dollar houses – learns from his grandson:

“At one time or another, everyone needs help – and everyone, at one time or another, can find a way to be helpful.”

Highly recommended.

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Missing Mike

Title: Missing Mike

Author: Shari Green

Publisher: Pajama Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781772780451

Having just spent the summer breathing in the smoke blanketing the entire province of BC, with fires burning close enough to my home that I packed up photos and essentials in preparation for evacuation, this story really resonated. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down and I’m pretty sure I didn’t take a full, deep breath until I finished. Luckily as a novel in verse, it’s a pretty quick read.

When ten-year-old Cara and her family are evacuated from their home in the fictional Western Canadian town of Pine Grove, they have ten minutes to pack and leave. But when they pile into the car with their just-in-case backpacks and other possessions, Cara’s dog, Mike, has disappeared. As the family drives along the packed highway away from their home – rescuing a stray cat and helping a stranded young father who ran out of gas – I felt like I was on the jorney with them, sharing Cara’s devastation about having left Mike behind.

Along with her parents and older sister, Cara is billeted by a lovely volunteer family. They only stay with them for two and a half weeks but their life transforms during that time. Cara turns eleven, contemplates the potential loss of her home, worries about changing schools for the start of grade six, finds out her best friend is moving to Vancouver, and struggles through a changing relationship with her sister… all while helping out at the evaluation centre and trying to locate Mike.

Missing Mike is filled with the kindness of strangers which gives the book hope. The conclusion is a satisfying mix of reality and happy ending. Interestingly, neither of my 12-year-old boys would even crack the cover. Perhaps because the possibility of fire evacuation was too close to home. One of my sons was clear that he he did not want to read a book about a missing dog. I loved this book because it placed my fears into a story of survival and resilience where the main character discovers what home really means. But for some, the journey to get there may be too much.

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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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Mine!

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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