Middle Grade Mystery

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Book Mail from SourceBooks Kids

I recently won 3 mysteries written for kids in a Twitter chat with middle grade mystery writer, Lindsay Currie. Currie’s latest book Scritch, Scratch releases in September from Sourcebooks. In addition to Scritch, Scratch, I also received The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel and Coop Knows the Scoop by Taryn Sounders.

I enjoyed each of these titles immensely. They might have even motivated me to attempt a MG mystery novel of my own, but I really should revise all of the drafted manuscripts I have hanging around in my computer files first! If you’re a teacher, librarian or parent and know kids who would enjoy a mystery, I recommend these titles. Each book is quite different from the other two, so I’ll break them down a bit for you.

Scritch, Scratch is a mystery for sure, but it’s also a straight up ghost story! The main character Claire begins the story with familiar enough middle school angst–an annoying sibling, embarrassing parents, the new kid at school usurping her bestie, etc. However, things take a drastic turn when a ghost follows her home from assisting her father with one of his humiliating (to her, anyway) ghost tours. No spoilers, but this ghost is scary! Claire realizes that the only way to stop him from keeping her awake at night and terrified during the day is to figure out what he wants from her–and then do it. Even if she’s not sure she can. At heart, the story is about friendships and families, but has the added bonus of highlighting little known tragedies in Chicago history. I’ve visited Chicago a couple of times, but didn’t know any of these stories.

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane is set in a boarding school in England, which piqued my interest immediately. I vividly remember reading the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time (as an adult) and discovering the whole world of houses, headmasters, common rooms, dormitories, detentions, and “skiving off” assignments. Those regular mundane parts of British school life were new to me, and I found them almost as magical as the actual magic at Hogwarts. Wellsworth isn’t a magical school, but it has plenty to hold a reader’s interest. The main character Emmy, gets sent to this school after the fall term has already started. For someone who was “the new kid” at school a few times myself, I really felt for her. Emmy makes a couple of loyal friends who help her unravel cryptic clues about her father–who disappeared when she was 3. This book is the first in a series, but I was happy to see it wrapped up and didn’t leave readers hanging.

Coop Knows the Scoop doesn’t have ghosts or boarding schools. What it does have is a small Georgia town called Windy Bottom, which becomes a character of its own. Coop and his friends are as surprised as anyone when a long-buried body is excavated on the town’s playground. But Coop never imagines his own family will get caught up in the drama and small town gossip surrounding the mysterious discovery. The town’s quirky cast of characters all become potential suspects in the investigation, but Coop and his friends are out to prove the police’s main suspect wouldn’t hurt a fly.  They walk a fine line “helping” with the investigation, even after they’re forbidden to interfere again. Saunders drops enough clues to the killer’s identity for astute kids to figure it out before the end, but doesn’t make it too easy.

Kids have always enjoyed mysteries. As a kid, I loved Encyclopedia Brown, Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and other mysteries. It’s great to see new MG mysteries being published for a new generation of readers. Kudos to these authors! Happy reading.

What I Love about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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Penguin Random House Books

I finished reading Wonder in March, but I can’t stop thinking about this book. I’ve recommended it to more people than I can keep track of. The ones who’ve read it get back to me and thank me for recommending it. The book is just that good. This book resonated with me for several reasons. First, I grew up in a family with a sister who had special needs. I also have a son with special needs. I’m a pediatric nurse who’s cared for children with the same kind of anomalies that the main character was born with. Finally, I taught elementary school for 4 years and high school for 1, and Ms. Palacio nails school dynamics beautifully.

If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, here is a brief introduction: August Pullman has never been able to attend school due to his extensive medical needs. He was born with severe craniofacial anomalies, and has had many surgeries. At the opening of the story, his parents have decided to enroll him in a private school. Auggie is nervous about how the other kids are going to respond to him. The principal picks three kids that he thinks will help ease the transition for Auggie, but it doesn’t work out so well. (It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to give spoilers!) However, there is another student named Summer who befriends Auggie without prompting from anyone. Through the narrative, the reader becomes a part of the Pullman family as well as their extended family and friends.

  1. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives. Even though Auggie is an extremely observant kid, there is no way he could know the motivations and back story for every other character in the book. Palacio beautifully puts us inside the head of each character, and this is one of the reasons this book has such a huge heart. No one is a cliché, but a fully developed character with motivations guiding their behaviors.
  2. The book is written with humor. Even though I cried in many places, this book is not in the least bit depressing. The Pullman family relies on humor to get them through the tough times. I came to love this family so much. They made mistakes and they didn’t always agree. But they loved each other and it comes across so beautifully in the writing.
  3. The beautiful writing itself makes the book a pleasure to read. In the very beginning of the book, Auggie tells us, “the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” He is perceptive and notices the way others react to him. He also shares at one point that if he had a magic lamp, he’d wish for an ordinary face. Being inside of Auggie’s head doesn’t feel like a pity party. But the frustration he feels that even his own family doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to be “normal” comes across beautifully. It’s gut wrenching, but at the same time it’s hopeful.
  4. Via’s experiences were the ones that resonated the strongest for me because this teenage character is able to put her family’s existence into words better than I’ve ever been able to. When it’s Via’s turn to tell the story, she compares her family to a solar system. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” Wow.
  5. Another beautiful part of Wonder that was especially meaningful for me was the relationship between Via and her grandmother. In her early years, having her grandmother’s unconditional love and adoration helped to offset the dynamics of her nuclear family. My grandmother was exactly this for me. And just like Via, she died unexpectedly when I needed her support the most. Via’s grandmother shares a secret with her about why she feels the way she does. “I love Auggie very, very much,…but he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you.”
  6. This book is “real” in every since. Palacio doesn’t sugar coat anything. She allows Auggie to be resentful of “normal” kids at times. Via feels betrayed by her mom at times when she focuses so much attention on Auggie and his needs. The parents have arguments. Some kids are just plain mean, because let’s be honest, some kids just are. Perhaps the best part of the authenticity of Wonder is that is shows how acts of kindness that might seem small at the time, can have an enormous impact on someone who needed the kindness. In fact, this book started the Choose Kind movement through American schools.

To say that I recommend this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read it, you can go here for more information from the book’s publisher. If you have read it, please share your comments. I’d love to hear from you.