My middle-grade fiction reading list

To better my own writing and to get a real lesson in crafting a middle grade novel, a friend of mine sent me a reading list:

  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Anything by Roald Dahl (I’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling (but stop there in terms of the craft, ie before the series was written to be filmed. But yes, of course I read them all).

Other middle grade novels that I’ve read and enjoyed include:

  • Between Two Ends by David Ward
  • The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Dust by Arthur Slade
  • Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier
  • Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders by Kevin Sylvester.

Do you have any great middle grade novels to recommend? Please let me know!

Top 10 books for kids and teens 2011

As the year winds down and the holidays approach, I thought it time to offer a list of 2011’s best books for young readers. The selections range from child to teen and include books that I fell in love with and books my kids fell in love with.  Some made major Top 10 lists and some didn’t. What’s most important is how they make you feel. Give them a try  (you’d be surprised how easy it is for an adult to dive into a middle-school book) or pass them along as gifts.


Press Here by Herve TulletPress Here by Hervé Tullet. Tullet’s book is a gem.  It starts with a simple painted yellow dot on a white page. The author asks the child to “press here and turn the page.” Two yellow dots appear. So continues Press Here, where each time a child fulfills the action required – from rubbing to tapping to shaking –  a reaction occurs on the next page. Brilliant in its simplicity and interactivity. I’ve recommended it to everyone and anyone (even to a complete stranger perusing the kids’ section at City Lights Books in San Francisco – he then bought it).

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. The beautiful images and lilting rhymes capture the construction trucks as they each wrap up their day’s jobs and head off to sleep. I passed this book along to my four-year-old truck-crazed neighbour and I was told by his parents that he demands that it be read to him every night. I think there is no higher praise that can be said than that.

Along a Long Road by Frank Viva. The cyclist follows a long yellow road as it continues from one page to a next, around town, over bridges,  into tunnels, fast and slow. While the story is simple, the illustrations are absolutely stunning.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith. Speaking of gorgeous books, Grandpa Green takes readers through the story of one boy’s great grandfather – from birth to war to family to old age – while wandering through a garden with each memory documented in a shaped topiary so as never to be forgotten.

Middle graders:

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan AuxierPeter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier. Peter Nimble is a 10-year-old blind orphan and the greatest thief to ever live. One day, after stealing a box of magical eyes, he gets the chance to leave his terrible life and start anew, if he completes a dangerous mission of saving a lost people in a vanished kingdom. Peter Nimble is a classic adventure story full of close calls, strange beasts and surprises at every turn. I adored it and think it a great choice for thrill-seekers, including reluctant readers.

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. I admit, I first picked up this book because the author was once a writer for The Gilmore Girls and The O.C. The book is completely different of course – here, three children are out to uncover what happened to their family and are transported to a fantastical  land where they’re forced to confront wolves, giants and undead warriors and pretty much save the world. Not exactly your typical day in Stars Hollow or Orange County. But what does seep into the book from the television world is Stephens’ gift for storytelling, humour, pacing and intriguing characters.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt When 14-year-old Doug moves to a new, small town,  he figures he’s destined to continue with his pathetic life – abusive father, bullying brother, designation of skinny thug. But a trip to the library and the viewing of a John James Audubon print triggers something in Doug that leads him to believe there can be more to life than what people expect it – and him – to be.  A wonderful coming-of-age book full of darkness, loss, love and survival. I aspire to write like Schmidt.


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by  Ransom Riggs.  When 16-year-old Jacob’s grandfather dies from mysterious circumstances, he goes in search of the real story. That story – based on a set of old photos – takes him to a Welsh island that houses the now-abandoned orphanage his grandfather grew up in during World War 2. What he uncovers is beyond the norm: a motley group of children with extraordinary powers and a realization that he too may not be just another ordinary boy. Having the photos in the book makes the story and our imaginations that much richer.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. When I started this book I thought it was a humourous tale of beauty queens stranded on a deserted island. While that certainly is the jumping off point, Beauty Queens is far more than Gilligan’s Island with bikinis: it’s a stark look at how young girls are seen, what’s expected of them,  and how the way they’re treated forms they way they see themselves. What the girls learn while away from society is a lesson that women young and old should take away for themselves, too.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. I have to state upfront that I’m not a big fan of dystopian novels. I find them kind of depressing. But it’s hard to ignore Divergent, which has climbed to the top of its genre and made Roth a debut novelist to be reckoned with. In Divergent, 16-year-old Tris has to decide, like all others her age, whom she wants to be for the rest of her life, but she has to make that decision by selecting  one faction to move on to based on virtue: Candor, Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity and Erudite. Her choice  means leaving her family, building a new identity, and struggling to survive with a secret that could mean her death but life for others.

What was your favourite book for young readers this year?

Not-For-Parents Travel Series

Back in August, I was over-consumed with planning a trip to San Francisco for my family. I had traveled to San Fran a few times before, but never with kids.

I went online and searched for anything and everything kid-friendly: hotels, attractions, restaurants, etc. I read reviews, compared Top 10 lists, checked what parents had to say and planned our visit accordingly. It was a lot of work, but for the most part everything went well.The Not-For-Parents Travel Book from Lonely Planet

Then, a month later, I received press copies of Lonely Planet‘s new Not-For-Parents travel series,   The Travel Book: Cool Stuff to Know About Every Country in the World and London: Everything You Wanted to Know.

The Travel Book offers kids one-page synopses of every country in a colorful, image-packed layout featuring brief factoids about history, food, culture, landmarks and more. The entry for Canada includes information about totem polls, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Hockey and igloos. For the United States, it talks about tornadoes, the Statue of Liberty, baseball and Mount Rushmore. It’s a great snapshot of the world and may even get children itching to travel more.

Not-For-Parents London by Lonely PlanetWhich leads me to London. Although fewer than 100-pages, this travel guide highlights all the fascinated features of the city, again in an intriguing, easy-to-read layout that captures a child’s (and parent’s) imagination. Stories dedicated to Harry Potter, punks, ghost trains, murdered royalty and common folk, London Bridge and on and on are accompanied by photos, thought bubbles, sketches, maps and cartoons. If you’ve been to London as an adult without the kids, a trip with children and this guide will offer a new perspective of the city and lead you to places you’ve likely never been to before and to details you’ve never heard of before.

The City Series of books also includes New York, Paris and Rome. No San Francisco yet. But I’m sure there will be one by the time we go again. At least I’m hoping so.

The Not-For-Parents Travel Book and Not-For-Parents London, published by Lonely Planet Publications, 2011. Available at The Travel Book, $15.87 and London, $12.26.

DIY Delight

Book Review: DIY Furniture by Christopher Stewart I just received a copy of DIY Furniture: A step-by-step guide by Christopher Stuart from Raincoast Books.  I remain in awe of people who see potential and beauty in the oddest things, like black plastic water pipe (newspaper table), rubber doormats (poltrona armchair) and styrofoam (sedia e sgabello chair).

While all the projects are worth a mention for their creativity, three really stand out: the oddstock floored wardrobe is quite lovely with its zigzagged-pattern doors made from clearance flooring; the split box shelves (see image below), which marries art and functionality by assembling logs and strips of plywood into an array of boxes; and the simply perfect writing desk, inspired by furniture of the 1950s and 1960s but suitable for any corner in need of a table, especially in a child’s room.

The 30 projects are divided into 7 sections, namely tables and desks, storage, lighting, seating, bedroom, outdoor and miscellaneous. Along with the step-by-step instructions, each is also accompanied by hand-drawn plans  and a list of materials and tools that you can pick up at your local hardware store.

Follow along or be inspired…a one-of-a-kind, made-by-you piece is  easier than you think.

DIY Furniture: a step-by-step guide, by Christopher Stuart. Published by Laurence King Publishing, 2011.