Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
Today we are delighted to bring you something a little bit different on this special edition of Old School Wednesdays: a middle grade blogger roundtable! We’ve invited five of our very favorite bloggers – authorities on middle grade fiction, naturally – to come up with a list of their five favorite old school middle grade books. Actually, we’re much meaner than that – we asked these folks to come up with their single definitive favorite middle grade novel of ALL TIME which we used in our August newsletter (if you haven’t signed up yet, you can do so HERE). We also asked them to give us their top 5 recommended old school MG books, which we are happy to share today.
Heidi’s Picks (Bunbury in the Stacks)
For me, the greatest challenge in appreciating Old School Middle Grade arises from the attempt to find not only books I loved with I was in the intended age group, but books that really stand the test of time and still impress and work for me as an adult. Let’s face it, some books should never be reread as an adult (*cough* A Wrinkle in Time) while others you can pick up at any age and fall as utterly in love as if you were ten again (say, anything by Lois Lowry). So here are my Top 5 favorite Old School Middle Grade books that I’ve read or reread long past my Middle Grade days:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Hatchet is one of those books that balances on the precipice between Middle Grade and YA, but since I was certainly a Middle Grade reader when I first experienced it I’m counting it. As a child I was obsessed with survival. I read every book I could get my hands on about Native Americans–Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, anything by Kenneth Thomasma, etc.–and while Paulsen’s offering has nothing to do with Native Americans, the process of living off the land married the historical books I loved with the world I knew to create what remains to this day one of my favorite stories. Hatchet tells the story of Brian, a young man who survives a small plane crash into a mountainous wilderness and must then work with what resources he can find to live until rescue. It couples bravery and despair, showing how one can grow so attached to one’s surroundings when they are in fact your means of survival.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I’m a bit mad at the world for it’s failure to inform me of Diana Wynne Jones when I was of Middle Grade-age. Clearly I now have a purpose for inventing time travel. Diana Wynne Jones writes with a whimsy and joy that tells me she loved writing these books every bit as much as I enjoy reading them. Howl’s Moving Castle remains one of the most imaginative and ridiculous books of our time. I challenge anyone not to enjoy it. Putting a brilliantly fun twist on the phrase “act your age”, Diana Wynne Jones creates one of the oddest romances one can encounter between a narcissistic wizard and an only-slightly-mad hatter. But Diana Wynne Jones doesn’t just hand her story over to Sophie and Howl, she gives all of her characters a story. Sophie’s sisters, Howl’s assistant, the fire demon and even a scarecrow take such a hand in the adventure that no reader could be bored or completely unattached to any of the crew. Diana Wynne Jones writes intelligently for an intellectual audience, an aspect I prize most in my chosen Middle Grade authors.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
One of the most influential teachers of my life was my 6th grade English teacher. She encouraged me in reading and writing, and handed me (among many others) the Sally Lockhart series off of her shelf. And while I certainly recommend that series, it was his shiny new (at the time) publication, The Golden Compass that would capture my thoughts and imagination for years to come. This series works as such an interesting philosophical counter to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (which I also adore/d as child and adult alike) on levels that go largely unnoticed by the youth who consume it for its amazing storyline. It is a story of friendship that cuts more deeply than nearly any other I’ve encountered, and one of my first experiences with the selfish and cruel nature parents can at times invoke. I think it’s exactly this–Pullman’s willingness to be so straightforward with his young readers about the harsher aspects of the world, while at the same time showing us that we do not have to adhere to these principles or let them pass–that made this such a powerful tale. Of course, the imagination doesn’t hurt either, I’ve spent even more hours of my life contemplating what shape my dæmon would settle in than what form my patronus would take.
The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle
I suppose there are plenty of troubling relationship dynamics one could point out in any Beauty and the Beast tale, but I can’t help myself, I love it, and The Hollow Kingdom is my favorite retelling of that tale that I’ve read to date. Partly it’s the very subtle humor and graceful prose with which it is told, partly it’s the fact that our beast never becomes beautiful himself, and partly it’s the distinction between innocence and stupidity, all so neatly crafted by Clare B. Dunkle. The Hollow Kingdom could easily be taken as cruel, but for me it was its cruelty that worked to highlight our heroine’s bravery in the face of evils both outright and subtle. It is a book that acknowledges the acute sting of grief and homesickness despite a life of happiness, and conveys to readers that they have the ability to take their own fate into their hands, even when it seems everything is being controlled by those around you.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
Barely squeaking by to count as Old School (published in 2007), The Wednesdays Wars is the book I’ve personally pushed on the largest number of middle grade readers for this year’s summer reading. And I like to think that they’ll thank me for it, even if I never hear from them. Set on Long Island during the turbulent 1960’s, Gary D. Schmidt creates a powerful story that becomes so much more than the conflicting minds of a 7th grader and his teacher. This book held the power to make me display a gamut of emotions from laughing out loud to crying–a tough feat. Schmidt has such a profound recollection of what it is to be a kid; how proportions get confused, what it’s like when your hero dies in your eyes, how we never even notice when someone is becoming a huge part of our lives, whether it be a teacher, a sibling, a friend, or a long-dead playwright. Multi-layered and stunningly poignant, The Wednesday Wars is well deserving of its Newbery Honor and a story to which every reader will in some way relate.
Of course, there are many more I could put on any extended list (and um, you may have noticed I snuck a few other names in there), but thankfully our lovely hosts set some numbers to rein us in. There are quite a few I’d love to reread to see how they hold up (Bridge to Terabithia for one), and of course so many I have yet to read. Still, these are the Old School Middle Grade books I most recommend. Not a one of them writes down to their audience making them so easy to consume at any age, and every one is multifaceted and deep in the way that uncovers new shapes and meanings with each reread as you age.
Charlotte’s Picks (Charlotte’s Library)
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels have made a small comeback recently, but I don’t think many people are aware that she also wrote some brilliant books for children. I had to think hard about whether to pick this one, or her book about a boy travelling with his horse through the realms of the zodiac (Ludo and the Star Horse), but in the end The Little Broomstick won, in part because it might be the earliest book to play with the concept of a school for witches.
Mary is sent to her Great Aunt’s house deep in the English countryside; there are no children her own age, and the only two creatures at all friendly are the gardener and a black cat, Tib. Mary finds a little broomstick, Tib leads her to the rare Fly-by-night flower, and next thing you know, the flower has made the broomstick fly…and Mary finds herself being taken by it to the stable yard (for brooms) of a school for witches.
Although Mary is welcomed to the school as a prospective pupil (she did, after all, arrive by broom), it is not a friendly place. Horrible magical experiments are being performed on animals, including Tib’s brother Gib. Gib’s own owner, a boy named Peter, is desperately searching for him, and has found his own way to the magical school, and the two children, with Tib’s help, end up rescuing the animals from their cages, and escaping the evil witches and warlocks in an utterly brilliant chase sequence that is one of my favorite bits of fantasy ever.
This plot outline is just a sketch. Anyone familiar with Mary Stewart (and this is also true of her grown-up romance books, which I have read and re-read myself) knows what a truly describer she is. The pictures this book makes in the reader’s mind will stay there forever. The plot, after its somewhat slow start, becomes utterly gripping, the school is deliciously scary, and the two kids are believable, relatable characters. Tib and Gib are a nice bonus for cat lovers, too!
A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond (1976–it won the Newbery in 1977)
15 year old Jen Morgan wants to enjoy visiting her her family for Christmas in a small village on the coast of Wales. They had moved there after Jen’s mother was killed in a car accident, leaving her in her American high school. When she arrives, she finds that her family is breaking apart. Her father is withdrawn, her brother Peter angry and sullen, and her sister Becky is lonely. And the cold house where they live, sandwiched between the edge of the sea and the great, ancient expanse of Borth Bog, is not a home. Jen decides to stay in Wales, to make a home for her family and bring them together. In this she is helped by the old magic of this lonely place.
This is the part of Wales where the Lost Land was drowned, and where the great bard Taliesin lived. On one of his many lonely walks, Peter finds a harp key that takes him back in time to view Taliesin’s life– a past both beautiful and terrible.
Outside, the wind had begun in earnest. It came in hard gusts up the coast from the southwest, flinging its self at the houses on the top of Borth cliff, hurtling over miles of churning sea. Waves drove across the wide beach to the very foot of the sea wall, making the thin string of houses look terribly vulnerable.
Something was coming. Peter knew it, and he was pretty sure he was going to be involved in it. Against his skin the Key felt hot. There was no vibration as yet, but…Peter was afraid and yet he couldn’t take it off, he couldn’t get rid of it. He was drawn to the Key even as it frightened him. He wished someone else knew. Jen was the only person he could imagine telling, but he had sense enough to see she was in no mood to believe such an outrageous story. he heard the girls talking in the kitchen and felt very much alone, but he’d refused them.
When Peter does tell Jen, at first she can’t believe in the magic of the key, but gradually she and Becky are drawn in too, to help Peter return the key to its owner-a journey that will take him back in time…
I have been re-reading this book for decades. It is not simply a magical timeslip story, a must read for anyone (like me when I was younger) enchanted by the history and mythology of Wales. It is also one of my favorite family stories, with great characterization and its appealing (well, to me) plot of older sister trying to help her family–having to learn to cook, and that sort of thing…These two elements–the magic and the familial–are both treated seriously, and it is the seamless meeting of the two, I think, that made this book such a favorite of mine. Also I thought the life of Taliesin (who I met for the first time in this book), and Wales in general, were really really neat. I guess I still do–this is one, I think, that only gets better as the reader gets older.
Tom Ass, or The Second Gift by Ann Lawrence
Tom is the third brother of a family of farmers, but unlike his brothers, he can’t be bothered to work hard in the fields. Tom is Clever, and he knows that someday he’ll go off to London and find his fortune…but an encounter with a fairy lady changes everything.
“Thomas,” she said coldly, “I had a mind to work some gift for your father’s youngest son, seeing that I have known good faith and square dealing from him and his family these dozen generations. Now I’m not the one to change my mind, so you shall have your gift, but neither am I one to encourage wasters. My word is this: whatever work you being at sunrise, shall be sufficient to the day –and the sooner you take your road the better.”
– (page 10)
A few mornings later, Tom begins to gather the stones from his mother’s garden…and is there all day. But it’s not until he spends an entire day mopping up the water he spilt just before dawn that he realizes that the fairy’s gift is, perhaps, not as kindly as it might have been. So he sets off for London, and when he meets the fairy again on the road, he loses no time in telling her just what he thinks about his gift.
“You are a Great Fool, Thomas,” she cried, “and nothing I can give you will change that, but I’ll wish you one thing more: since you will plainly never make anything of yourself, you shall be whatever your future wife chooses to make of you.”
– (page 21)
(Before I go on, can anyone see why Tom is a fool?)
It happens that the next person he meets is a girl named Jennifer, and when she hears the story of Gift #1, she’s quick to see all the implications that he’s missed. And when she calls him a donkey….that’s what he suddenly becomes! Jennifer knows that somehow she’s turned Tom into an ass (but not why or how), and Tom knows that Jennifer is his future wife….yoikes on both counts! But what’s done is done, so the two travel off together to make their fortune, until such time as Tom is himself again. And after some wanderings, the two of them go into the textile business, with Jennifer finding work with an old weaver in one of my favorite fictional English cathedral towns. After a happy sojourn there (in which Tom does the marketing and spends happy hours with old Father Cuthbert at the Cathedral) Jennifer decides it’s time to move on to London. So she puts the fairy gift to work….and Tom is woken up at the crack of dawn to roll up all the unwanted scraps of cloth she has gathered from the weaver’s work.
The roll after roll of lovely fabric that results is the kernel of their fortune, and soon they are established in a little London cottage of their own (with lots of lovely home-making detail of the furniture scrounging sort), and Jennifer begins to do her own weaving, and Tom some more rolling, until their fame and fortune is so emphatically made that one day the King himself wishes to meet the great Tom Ass, notoriously reclusive and the wealthiest man in England. Faced with the anger of the King when she refuses to bring Tom to meet him, the words Jennifer uses to defend him bring everything to a happy ending.
Gosh, I am so very fond of this book. It has just about everything my child self wanted–the historical setting (with detailed black and white illustrations), the magic, the lovely little details about home making, the smart, brave girl to serve as role-model, the romance at the end, the bits of humor…and re-reading it again just a few months ago was lovely too!
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Marianne, confined to bed rest after a severe illness, is bored out of her mind, despite visits from a friendly tutor. But then she finds an old pencil in her grandmother’s workbasket, one that simply begs to be drawn with…and Marianne does. She draws a house, standing lonely in sea of grass and boulders. That night she dreams she is there. Gradually she adds more details to her drawing, including an inhabitant– boy named Mark, stricken by polio (I assume), who shares her tutor. And she dreams, and dreams, visiting her strange house. But then Marianne and Mark, in her dreams, have a falling out, and Marianne, in a fit of anger, makes the house a prison, adding Cyclopian eyes to the boulders to make sure Peter cannot leave. What she has drawn comes true that night, and the horror of the sinister rocks is great. Mark, in the real world, grows sicker, and Marianne realizes that she must somehow draw their two dream selves free…before the rocks, always watching, and slowly moving closer, win. But Mark, in the dream, and in real life, still cannot walk…so how can they escape?
It is atmospherically gripping as all get out, and the fascination of seeing what Marianne draws coming to life is incredibly fascinating. Small humorous touches (Marianne can only draw hardboiled eggs in egg cups, and roast chicken, so these keep appearing magically on the house–Marianne ran out of room on the table she drew) and the juxtaposition of life in the real world with life in the dream house keep it from being too terribly claustrophobic. And when Marianne and Mark finally escape from the house, their desperate flight to the sea (which Marianne always knew lay past the page of her drawing) is utterly thrilling.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
This is the story of Maria Merryweather, sent to live with her cousin, the lord of Moonacre Manor back in the early 19th century. The welcome is warm, the house is lovely (Maria’s tower room is my favorite fictional bedroom of all time! But the valley of Moonacre is troubled by an ancient feud between the rapscallion poachers known as the Black Men and Maria’s family. It’s up to Maria to use her powers of deduction and her forthrightness to set the old wrong to rights. It is a gripping story, in which Maria must be brave as all get out (she also gets to subvert the opinion of her male relations that women are the weaker sex).
The Valley of Moonacre is a fantastical setting where the magical overlaps with the mundane, peopled by warm and glowing characters. Elizabeth Goudge lavishes descriptive detail on anything that has color, and anything that is beautiful–seagulls flying inland in the morning, pink geraniums, primroses wet with dew…Maria’s boots.
“And the boots she had on today were calculated to raise the lowest spirits, for they were made of the softest grey leather, sewn with crystal beads round the tops, and were lined with snow-white lamb’s wool. The crystal beads, as it happened, could not be seen, because Maria’s grey silk dress and warm grey wool pelisse, also trimmed with white lamb’s wool, reached to her ankles, but she herself knew they were there, and the thought of them gave her a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated.”
There is also lots of lovely food–J.K. Rowling loves this book too, and I feel that the great feasts at Hogwarts were inspired at some level by Goudge’s banquet here! And on top of that, there is a smidge of age-appropriate romance, and a unicorn half-dreamed of, half-real, who only makes a brief appearance right at the end, but enough so that I was gladdened. In any event, this one Ieft me stunned when I read it for the first time when I was eight, and I went on to read that copy to pieces.
Elizabeth’s Picks (A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy)
Memory is a tricky thing.
Middle Grade Old School is about old favorites – for me, those are favorites I read as a middle grade reader.
But, looking back all the years – and especially with books I’ve read and reread – I found myself thinking, well, that is actually young adult. Or wondering, wait, when did I read this or that? Getting jumbled up in definitions, as I sometimes do.
I even took time to flip through my copy of The Best of Children’s Books: The University of Chicago to Children’s Literature, 1973 – 1978, edited by Zena Sutherland (University of Chicago Press, 1980) to stir the memories and make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. I always feel a weird friendship towards Sutherland, because as a kid I adored two of her books. No, really; my mother was a teacher and two books that were in my house growing up were the Arbuthnot Anthology of Children’s Literature (one of the editions where Sutherland was listed as an editor) as well as the 1972 version of Children and Books. I used to read both, and yes, use them as ways to find books to read. At ten. No, these two books are not part of my five.
So, my top five, in the order that I thought of them:
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, E. L. Konigsburg (Atheneum, 1973), was the first book I thought of when thinking about middle grade favorites. A bit of an odd choice, because other titles are usually mentioned when talking about Konigsburg. For years, actually, I had forgotten the exact title – I think many readers have. It’s the book about Eleanor of Aquitaine in Heaven, waiting for Henry II to join her. Along the way, she and others reminisce about their lives. A Proud Taste is the reason I have always loved historical fiction and just don’t get why people would ever not love it. It started a love affair with Eleanor and Henry, creating quite a bias towards them so no matter what I may read in actual history books. You can take your upstart Tudors: give me the swashbuckling Plantagents. Plus, I found this version of the afterlife oddly reassuring: Hell wasn’t permanent.
The only weird thing about A Proud Taste is I cannot remember the circumstances of reading it. I know it wasn’t something we owned, so it had to be a library book.
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
On the other hand, I can distinctly remember finding and reading The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (Atheneum, 1973). It was a library book and I stumbled into this series in the entire wrong way. I was in a bit of a witch phase, found Greenwitch in the local public library, and took it out thinking it would be about witches. Which, really – it isn’t what I’d give to a kid wanting to read about witches. What I found was better: this odd other world, that appeared to be ours but had magic, and secretly powerful children, and battling the dark. I then read The Dark is Rising, the book right before Greenwitch, and wow – wow – wow. Will Stanton became my first book boyfriend. His discovery of his true identity, the way in which time overlapped and happened at the same time, the inclusion of mythology as real – many of the things I adored about this book, and the whole series, are things that to this day I look for in books. And, sadly, few can live up to this series. I can still recite the rhymes from this book from memory; and I still hate the ending with a passion. (I have tried to remember which cover was the one I read; this may have been it. I’m not sure.)
Master Skylark by John Bennett
My next choice is a rather odd one. Master Skylark by John Bennett. Our copy was old, but I know it wasn’t the original, published in 1897. Nicholas is a young boy who lives in Stratford during the time of Shakespeare. He ends up joining a group of actors and moving to London. I forget all the details (I have no idea where my copy of this book is, and I don’t want to risk my love with a reread), but in addition to the details about Shakespearean England, it was also a bit of an emotional story because Nicholas desperately wanted to return home to his mother but for reasons I don’t quite remember, he could not. I just remember crying. Often. Any book that has that sense of emotional impact, that lingers – that’s a favorite. Plus, in my overall reading life, it taught me two things. One, when bored, go to your family’s bookshelves and start reading. Two, old books can be amazing discoveries. (This wasn’t the cover for what I read, but it’s the closest I could find.)
It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume
Next up Judy Blume. But not the one you think. It’s Not the End of the World (Bradbury, 1972). While divorce is never not a big deal, back when I was growing up it was. A big deal. And other kids can be cruel. I would bet that the things said were things that I, over 30 years later, remember clearly, but those saying it don’t – because it wasn’t important to them. It didn’t hurt them. It’s Not the End of the World is about the year Karen’s parents got divorced and it spoke to me: let me know that I wasn’t alone, and my family wasn’t wrong, and that it was going to be OK. (I know this isn’t the best copy of the cover, but do you know how long it took to find “my” cover of this book? Forever.)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
Finally, A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962). I got this as part of a boxed set of Newbery books, and it was a present from a relative I wasn’t particularly fond of, which means that I didn’t read the books in the box until one day I was bored. (Based on my childhood reading experiences, how to create a reader? Let them bored with in-house access to a lot of books.) Meg Murray: I just adored her. Loved, loved, loved. She was so real. And the book made me feel smart because it expected me to be smart. It expected me to understand the references and science and quotes and theology. I guess it was one of the first book that really respected me as a reader, expected me to keep up. It started a life long love of L’Engle and her book. Such passion for an author is a rare thing. I don’t feel that way about just any author. I half-thought about using Meet the Austins (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960) as my L’Engle title because I read this at about the same time and also love Vicky. But A Wrinkle in Time had a certain amount of realness in its family that, to me, the Austins lacked. The Austins seemed to perfect at times – the type of family that created a certain type of unrealistic dissatisfaction with my own, before I realized that no one’s family was like the Austins.
So, there you have it! My Middle Grade Old School books.
Angie’s Picks (Angieville)
I spend so much of my time talking about YA and adult scifi, fantasy, and contemporaries that I fear some of the best old school Middle Grade stuff gets short shrift in my neck of the woods. Which is a crying shame, because so many of those gems are the reason I became a real reader. And when I look back, the real gateway Middle Grade novels (for me) were rarely big name titles. I try to feature as many of these as I can on my Retro Friday posts (selfishly in order to find others who read and loved them and will fangirl old school with me), so I was delighted when Ana & Thea extended the invitation to join this roundtable so I could highlight a few particular good ‘uns. As you know, I never have trouble rustling through the stacks for old favorites. And I absolutely adore pushing them on new readers. As you know. So today, I’ve selected two historicals, two contemporaries, and one high fantasy. Hopefully, that will give us a nice crop to choose from. The oldest was originally published in 1957, the most recent in 2005. I love each one tremendously but rarely hear them talked about as much as I’d like. So. If you’ve read one, do share. And if by chance you find the one you were looking for? Be sure to let me know.
Blood Red Horse by K.M. Grant
This middle grade tale of the crusades had me at the blood red warhorse named Hosanna and the four children (on both sides of the conflict) who love him. Told in alternating viewpoints from the brothers who are sent to war, to the fierce girl they leave behind, to the solitary young boy tangled in Saladin’s web, each chapter builds to the inevitable thrilling, wrenching climax. This is the first in the deGranville Trilogy and it is well written, well researched, and equally appealing to boys and girls as it features such a strong quartet of main characters and not a little fighting on the grand scale. I love easygoing Will, prickly Gavin, and strong Ellie–the girl who learns to write in order to send letters across oceans and deserts to the boys on crusade. Will and Ellie are only twelve when it begins, and Gavin just a couple of years older. But by the end the three have grown into adulthood and faced the kind of challenges and grief many people twice their age haven’t handled. This is just a wonderful start to a beguiling trilogy set against a a fascinating and harrowing period of history. It deserves far more attention than it’s gotten.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare
Calico Captive is the classic case of a overlooked younger sibling. In the wake of the wonderful Witch of Blackbird Pond, I immediately set about searching out everything else Elizabeth George Speare had written. This was the first one I came across. Calico Captive is based on a true story and was actually Speare’s first novel. Ms. Speare excels at presenting both sides of every story, at showing every group from the Indians to the French nobility, to the stiff Puritan stock of New Hampshire, in both light and shadow so that the reader gets a feel for just why these wildly diverse groups were fighting. Through Miriam’s eyes we are allowed to experience the world at that wild and significant point in time and I have never forgotten what I saw the first time I read it. The harsh reality of her place in the world and the grim and often unbearable truth of those around her haunt Miriam throughout the novel. She does not forget easily, yet she is also one of the only characters to push back against the dizzying tide. By the end, I believed she could do what she said she would because I had watched her adapt time and time again. A truly fascinating read and definitely recommended for Speare fans, as well as those interested in captivity narratives or the early days of North American settlement.
Seaward by Susan Cooper
In some ways Seaward resembles Cooper’s much more famous Dark is Rising sequence, with the feeling of an almost alien world existing side by side with our own. A world almost drenched in magic and characters who come to form the unshakable conviction that the tiniest of actions can have massive and far-reaching consequences, stretching across both time and space. Certain prophecies come into play as well. But Seaward is a much shorter, much sweeter story, filled with the themes of love and loss, what happens once one has lost everything, and how or whether it is possible to go on in the face of the vastness of the universe and the seemingly inconsequential place one person occupies in it. Main protagonists Callie and Westerly have been my friends for a long time now. I find myself thinking about them when I’m not with them and I know, despite the book ending every time I read it, we will always be finding each other again throughout the years to come.
A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt
Voigt’s Tillerman Cycle is most well-known for the Newbery Award-winning second novel Dicey’s Song – a book I love without reservation. But when I launch into my love for the rest of the books in the series, I’m often dismayed at how few have read the third novel A Solitary Blue. This is Dicey’s friend Jeff’s story. It won a Newbery Honor in its own right, and it is absolutely breathtaking. As far as male protag Middle Grades go, this one is my very favorite. In many ways it reminds me of Potok’s The Chosen for its delicately explored themes of silence, music, and youth. Left by his mother at the tender age of seven, Jeff is raised by his silent and undemonstrative father, a man he refers to solely as The Professor. The reader is privileged to see the evolution of a broken family through the eyes of a young boy who is learning the hard way how to navigate the deep waters of wholly incompatible parents and the truth behind lovely faces and hidden hearts.
The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L’Engle
While I love all of Madeleine L’Engle’s worlds, this little series, this family, holds a couple of my most beloved. The Young Unicorns is actually the third full-length novel in the series, and it’s something of a dark sheep, if you will. It’s the departure novel, for lack of a better term, the one in which dark things happen and you question whether or not these young characters whom you love will be able to rebound after the fallout. But the setting, the language, the new characters all wove their spell around me and I always return to it when I am in the mood for whistling in the dark. I love L’Engle’s New York City. I love the way she just plops her quiet family down in the middle of a boiling and boisterous city and allows them to explore and be worked upon and changed by its life and color and variety. The cathedral itself is essentially a character in its own right, serving as the perfect backdrop for the secret plots and underhanded machinations that take place within the pages of this story.
Ana’s Picks (Things Mean A Lot)
Two Weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman
I suspect that most readers will find it hard to get through this book without at least tearing up, though they’ll probably find themselves laughing at the same time. The story is about a thirteen-year-old boy, Collin, whose younger brother is diagnosed with cancer, and who forms an unlikely friendship with a young man whose boyfriend is dying of AIDS. And in addition to that, it’s a smart and moving story about the process of growing up; of losing faith in an omnipresent and benevolent They who will always make everything right. Gleitzman writes about this with neither cynicism nor nostalgia for an idealised childhood innocence: instead, he shows us how one little boy can learn that the world isn’t fair and that bad things do happen to good people without losing faith in the power of human kindness or in the strength of the bonds that tie us to one another.
Indigo’s Star by Hilary McKay
Or, you know, the whole Casson Family series. Is there anything Hilary McKay isn’t brilliant at? These books are funny, warm, charming and incredibly smart, and Indigo’s Star is probably my favourite of them all. It’s about how Indigo Casson, who is being bullied at school, makes a new friend, and also about his little sister Rose’s mounting anger at their absent father Bill; but more than that it’s a story about fierce tenderness and empathy and human connections and how their survive our fallibility. Hilary McKay mixes gentleness with quite biting social satire in astonishingly effective ways. The term “heart-warming” is perhaps overused, but this book absolutely merits it. If you want to discover a new author who makes you go “This! This is the whole point of reading!”, you should try Hilary McKay.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
This is a stand-alone Discworld novel, meaning you absolutely don’t need to have read anything by Pratchett before to fully enjoy it. It’s also a very loose retelling of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” that is surprisingly dark, and as intelligent as anything Pratchett has ever written (which as some of you might know is saying a lot). Using a talking cat and his entourage of rats as a point of departure, he tells a story about ethics, power dynamics, human nature and critical thinking. In short, Pratchett has a group of talking rats grappling with The Big Questions, and the result couldn’t be more gripping or thoughtful.
Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones
Truth be told, I could have populated this list with nothing but Diana Wynne Jones books. But since it’s more sensible to pick just one, I thought I’d go with Black Maria (Aunt Maria in the US edition), which I tend to think of as an underappreciated gem. This is Diana Wynne Jones at her satirical best: the story is about Mig and her Aunt Maria, and old lady who lives in a town called Cranbury-on-Sea and rules it with an iron fist. The thing that makes it the most interesting, though, is that Aunt Maria partially does this by manipulating people into conforming to very narrowly defined gender roles — the inhabitants of Cranbury-on-Sea believe that men and women are inherently so different that they might as well not even attempt to communicate. Sounds familiar? I thought so. As usual, Diana Wynne Jones deconstructs complex ideas with intelligence and grace, all while telling a spellbinding story involving ghosts, deceit and plenty of intrigue.
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
Last but not least, there’s The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin: I’m never quite sure how to classify the Earthsea series, but I’ll take the 1972 Newbery Honor medal as a clue that it does count as MG. This is the second book in the series, and although I generally prefer the post 1970s Earthsea books I find The Tombs of Atuan a work of genius. It has an absolutely incredible atmosphere, which has stayed with me very vividly in the long years since I last read it, the beginnings of a fascinating relationship, and it introduces one of my favourite ladies in fantasy, Tenar. I’m not sure if this is a comparison that will make sense to anyone other than me, but I’d recommend this book to fans of The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley — and vice-versa.
Phew! Thank you everybody, for your wonderful picks! Now, it’s over to you: what are your favorite Old School Middle Grade picks?