Category Archives: Book Lists

Make Soup, Not War

The holidays are almost upon us, and no matter what you celebrate this season, you can bet there will be food involved. Beyond simple sustenance, what and how we eat play an important role in our relationships with others. This month’s National Geographic, which focuses on food, emphasizes “the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” Likewise, when presented in literature, food is often a symbol of communion between characters, communities, and even cultures. As Thomas C. Foster writes in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “…breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.”

Several middle-grade books feature food and meals in ways that create bonds between characters and cultures. Some even include recipes for parents, teachers, and librarians, who may want to join with their own children or students by reading, cooking, and eating together during this holiday season—or any time of year.

53494In Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, twelve-year-old Rosie has had a falling out with her best friend, Bailey, who is sight impaired. The story begins in the kitchen as Granny and Rosie slice carrots, onions, mushrooms, and celery and simultaneously swap stories about their lives. Granny tells about the best friend she left in Italy. And Rosie explains how Bailey is angry with her for learning Braille. By the end of Part One, Rosie realizes Bailey’s anger stemmed from the fact that reading Braille was his special talent. Rosie then brings soup over to Bailey’s house as a peace offering. In Part Two, the recipe for friendship and bonding includes homemade cavatelli, tomato sauce, and meatballs. As Granny, Rosie, and Bailey mix the ingredients, jealousies are revealed and life lessons are learned. Exact measurements aren’t listed in the book, but it’s clear that Granny Torrelli’s instructions for making soup and pasta are surefire recipes for reconciliation between Rosie and Bailey.

imagesIn Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, eleven-year-old David Greenberg is having a rough time. When the story opens, his mother has already moved to another state. After that, his best friend abandons him, a bully targets him, and his pet hamster dies. Still, the one constant in his life is his grandmother. She’s always there to comfort him, not only with words, but also with her kugel, blintzes, and famous apple cake. And, although there are awkward family dinners in David’s house and in his friend Sophie’s house, as well, the close connection between food and friendship is apparent when David eats two pieces of Sophie’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and slips the third piece in his pocket. At the end of the book, Gephart includes the recipe for Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake—sure to comfort the characters at your table.

imagesRose Kent’s Kimchi and Calamari demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture when Joseph Calderaro, who was adopted from Korea by an Italian family, begins researching his background for a school essay assignment. But how can a calamari-eating, cannoli-loving fourteen-year-old find his Korean identity when there’s no information about his personal heritage anywhere? One way is to lie about it, which he does. But another way is to embrace his ancestral culture over dinner with a neighboring Korean family. Joseph bonds with them over sticky rice, bulgogi, and kimchi. As he comes to accept the fusion of his Korean origin and his Italian upbringing, he proudly describes himself as, “One hunk of Joseph slapped between a slice of Italian bread and a mound of Korean sticky rice.” Finally, he has the topic for his essay: “Joseph the Ethnic Sandwich.” While the book doesn’t contain the directions for cooking kimchi or calamari, plenty of mouth-watering Korean and Italian recipes are available on the Internet for hungry readers.

images-1Dumpling Days is Grace Lin’s third novel about Pacy Lin. In this one, Pacy travels to Taiwan for a month for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. And while it’s sometimes difficult for Pacy to navigate her new surroundings, peach buns, soup dumplings, and other delicacies definitely have the power to bridge the gap between cultures. A recipe for Chinese Dumplings can be found at the end of the book.

Other middle-grade novels about food:

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaeffer—recipes for tea, sandwiches, and scones are included in the book.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman—recipes can be found on the author’s webpage under Extras.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath—recipes are included at the end of chapters.

If you have a favorite middle-grade novel with food and/or recipes, feel free to serve it up in the comments section. In the meantime, happy reading and eating!

Dorian Cirrone is the author of several books and short stories for children. She blogs about reading and writing (and sometimes eating) at doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/. Hop on over  for writing tips and occasional give-aways.

On Discovering a Passion for Middle Grade

I’ve always been a reader. And I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t always know I wanted to write for children.

I signed up for a creative writing class the first quarter it was offered when I was in college. And I took that class very seriously. I wasn’t there to fulfill a gen. ed. requirement. I was there because I wanted to be a writer.

But I had a problem with that first short story assignment. I couldn’t come up with a good story idea.

All my life I’d been writing stories about characters who were around my age. They grew as I grew. Now that I was in college, it was time to write something bigger and deeper than I’d ever written before. Something that would catch my professor’s attention and show him how serious I was.

But what could I write about?

Days went by…and I had no story. I started dozens of stories, but each one fell apart after a page or two. None were good enough. Big enough. Deep enough.

My classmates started turning in their stories. They read them out loud in class and that just made me feel worse because all of their stories were beautifully written. They were full of imagery. They were deep and meaningful. So deep that I couldn’t even follow most of them as I listened them.

I still had nothing.

Not only could I not come up with a story of my own, I felt like I was too stupid to even understand everyone else’s story. I was never going to be an author.

Then another classmate stood up to read her story. Before she started she said, “I have to tell you my story isn’t like the rest of yours. I’m an elementary education major, so I decided to write a story about fifth graders.”

I didn’t expect much when she said that. But then she started reading.

I LOVED her story!

I laughed. I squirmed. I was right there, reliving my own fifth grade experiences as I listened.

It had never occurred to me to write a story for kids!

I went back to my dorm and started my own story for kids. Just to see what happened. I was amazed how the story just poured out of me. And I’d had FUN writing it! More fun that I’d had trying to write something “deep and meaningful.”

Next I started on a longer story. A novel. For 4th-5th graders. I discovered that our university library actually had a section of middle grade novels. For the elementary education majors. I explained to the librarian that I needed access to those books, too. For “research.” It wasn’t that I was going to read those books for pleasure or anything. It was for my creative writing class.

I rediscovered a lot of my old favorites down there in the basement of the university library. I checked them out and read them with more pleasure than I was willing to admit to. Then I started going to the city library…because I needed to see NEW books that were being published for kids. Again, “just for research.”

I was hooked! I’m not sure when I admitted to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t just reading middle grade for research. I LIKED middle grade novels. Today I read far more middle grade novels in a year than I do adult novels.

I don’t even remember the name of the elementary education major in my creative writing class. I never saw her again after that class, but I’ve thought about her often over the years. I’ve wondered if she ever published books for kids. Listening to her read her story out loud was such a turning point for me. It was when I discovered my passion for middle grade. And this girl, whoever she was, will never know she changed my life. I read kids books and write kids books because she “gave me permission” to when we were in a creative writing class together.

I’ve wondered whether others had a clear, defining moment when they discovered a passion for middle grade. So I asked several of my writer friends:

Dia Calhoun, author of After the River the Sun (Atheneum, 2013), said, “Late on evening in the Mills College library, I took a break from studying for my America Lit exam and wandered through the stacks. I found a little room, hidden away, its waist-high shelves filled with children’s books. All my old favorite books called out to greet me–The Little Lame Prince, A Little Princess, Heidi, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I spent the next two hours perched on a little stool, reading, reading, reading, full of joy. I knew I had come home.”

Peg Kehret, author of the recently released Dangerous Deception (Dutton, 2014) said, “I had been writing for adults and had published two nonfiction books, several plays and many short stories. I had written an adult mystery and sent it to an agent who returned it with a note saying, “Your heroine seems awfully young. Have you thought of writing books for kids?” Sadly, I did not take her advice and several more years went by. Then an editor who had published some of my plays asked me to write a book of monologues for student actors, so I began writing from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old kid. I was hooked immediately. When I finished that book I tried my first middle grade novel, Deadly Stranger. I was fifty years old when Deadly Stranger was published.”

Kirby Larson, author of the recently released Dash (Scholastic, 2014), told me, “The middle grade novels that I discovered as an adult and that completely turned me on to writing in this genre were those written by Betsy Byars. But please don’t make me select only one title! How could I possibly choose between the Bingo Brown books with their humor and Bingo’s first painful experiences with “mixed sex conversations,” or the offbeat but lovable Blossom family stories or the poignant, bittersweet and uplifting stories told in The Pinballs, or Summer of the Swans, or even the historical Trouble River? No matter the story, Betsy Byars turned it into a seven-layer cake of characters I wanted for my own friends; story premises that were fresh and original; snappy, realistic dialogue; settings brought to life with concrete and specific details (drinking lemonade from a sugar bowl; packing a paper bag suitcase); plot points triggered by previous plot points like tipping dominoes; situations that made me stop and think about what it means to be a decent human being; and, always, resolutions that grew organically from the story itself. I read and re-read her novels many times as I tried to teach myself how to write for kids and young adults. She’s a treasure!”

By the way, that first story I wrote for my creative writing class? It eventually became my first published short story.

Series Gift Guide For Your Fantasy Fanatic

Both of my children (ages 8 and 10) recently suffered the devastation of coming to the end of a beloved series. This fall brought the end of Rick Riordan’s hugely popular Heroes of Olympus series. When my son got to the end of the last book about a day after it released, he went right back to The Lightning Thief and re-read his favorite books from both of Riordan’s series. The exact same thing happened when my daughter finished Harry Potter.

Middle grade readers have a hard time saying goodbye to their favorite characters at the end of a series. That’s part of the reason I like to have a new series queued up for my kids when they get to the end of one—to avoid that post-series let down. And besides, it’s almost Christmas break, so I needed some new series to keep them out of my hair entertained during the school holidays.

The following list is appropriate for a strong middle grade reader and contains both male and female main characters:

  1. The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
    From IndieBound: When Gregor falls through a grate in the laundry room of his apartment building, he hurtles into the dark Underland, where spiders, rats, cockroaches coexist uneasily with humans. This world is on the brink of war, and Gregor’s arrival is no accident. A prophecy foretells that Gregor has a role to play in the Underland’s uncertain future. Gregor wants no part of it — until he realizes it’s the only way to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance. Reluctantly, Gregor embarks on a dangerous adventure that will change both him and the Underland forever.
  2. Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan
    From IndieBound: They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers, with their dark cloaksand shadowy ways. The villagers believe the Rangers practice magic that makes them invisible to ordinary people. And now 15-year-old Will, always small for his age, has been chosen as a Ranger’s apprentice. What he doesn’t yet realize is that the Rangers are the protectors of the kingdom. Highly trained in the skills of battle and surveillance, they fight the battles before the battles reach the people. And as Will is about to learn, there is a large battle brewing. The exiled Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, is gathering his forces for an attack on the kingdom. This time, he will not be denied. . . .
  3. Magic Thief & Winterling series by Sarah Prineas
    From IndieBound: In a city that runs on a dwindling supply of magic, a young boy is drawn into a life of wizardry and adventure. Conn should have dropped dead the day he picked Nevery’s pocket and touched the wizard’s locus magicalicus, a stone used to focus magic and work spells. But for some reason he did not. Nevery finds that interesting, and he takes Conn as his apprentice on the provision that the boy find a locus stone of his own. But Conn has little time to search for his stone between wizard lessons and helping Nevery discover who—or what—is stealing the city of Wellmet’s magic.
  4. Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine
    From IndieBound: How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse?At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head!But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.
  5. Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
    From IndieBound:At last, one of the most talked-about novels of last year is now available in an accessible mass-market edition. Twelve-year-old Artemis is a millionaire, a genius-and above all, a criminal mastermind. But Artemis doesn’t know what he’s taken on when he kidnaps a fairy, Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit. These aren’t the fairies of the bedtime stories-they’re dangerous!
  6. Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke
    From IndieBound: Meggie lives a quiet life alone with her father, a book-binder. But her father has a deep secret– he posseses an extraordinary magical power. One day a mysterious stranger arrives who seems linked to her father’s past. Who is this sinister character and what does he want? Suddenly Meggie is involved in a breathless game of escape and intrigue as her father’s life is put in danger. Will she be able to save him in time?
  7. Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy (third book comes out in April 2015!)
    From IndieBound: Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. At least until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows. And then things get really weird.
    You see, on every map of Portland, Oregon, there is a big splotch of green on the edge of the city labeled “I.W.” This stands for “Impassable Wilderness.” No one’s ever gone in—or at least returned to tell of it.And this is where the crows take her brother.
  8. The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
    From IndieBound: It all started with a mysterious letter left at a tiny bookstore for authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Its closing lines: “We just want people to know about this. The stuff that has happened to us could happen to anyone.” Little could they imagine the remarkable adventure that awaited them as they followed Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace and a strange old book into a world filled with elves, goblins, dwarves, trolls, and a fantastical menagerie of other creatures. The oddest part is in entering that world, they didn’t leave this one!
  9. The Book of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau
    From IndieBound: The city of Ember was built as a last refuge for the human race. Two hundred years later, the great lamps that light the city are beginning to flicker. When Lina finds part of an ancient message, she’s sure it holds a secret that will save the city. She and her friend Doon must decipher the message before the lights go out on Ember forever! This stunning debut novel offers refreshingly clear writing and fascinating, original characters.
  10. Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland (sixth book released 30 December, 2014!)
    From IndieBound: The seven dragon tribes have been at war for generations, locked in an endless battle over an ancient, lost treasure. A secret movement called the Talons of Peace is determined to bring an end to the fighting, with the help of a prophecy — a foretelling that calls for great sacrifice.
    Five dragonets are collected to fulfill the prophecy, raised in a hidden cave and enlisted, against their will, to end the terrible war.
  11. Chronicles of the Red King by Jenny Nimmo
    From IndieBound: Timoken is a prince born in a secret kingdom. At his birth, a forest jinni bestows magical gifts upon him: a cloak made by the last moon spider and a potion called Alixir. When the peaceful land is attacked, Timoken and his sister, Zobayda, must find a new kingdom to call home. Together, with only the magical gifts and a talking camel, the siblings set off.
  12. The Ever Afters series by Shelby Bach
    From IndieBound: When Rory realizes fairy tales are the real deal at Ever After School, she embarks on a classic quest to fulfill her destiny.
  13. Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer
    From IndieBound: Conner Bailey thinks his fairy-tale adventures are behind him–until he discovers a mysterious clue left by the famous Brothers Grimm. With help from his classmate Bree and the outlandish Mother Goose, Conner sets off on a mission across Europe to crack a two-hundred-year-old code.
  14. Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud
    From IndieBound: Nathaniel is a young magician’s apprentice, taking his first lessons in the arts of magic. But when a devious hotshot wizard named Simon Lovelace ruthlessly humiliates Nathaniel in front of everyone he knows, Nathaniel decides to kick up his education a few notches and show Lovelace who’s boss. With revenge on his mind, he masters one of the toughest spells of all: summoning the all-powerful djinni, Bartimaeus. But summoning Bartimaeus and controlling him are two different things entirely…
  15. Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix
    From IndieBound: Seven days. Seven keys. Seven virtues. Seven sins. One mysterious house is the doorway to a very mysterious world — where one boy is about to venture and unlock a number of fantastical secrets. This is another thrilling, triumphantly imaginative series from Garth Nix, the best-selling author of THE SEVENTH TOWER, SABRIEL, and LIRAEL.

Even if you don’t have a middle-grade reader on your shopping list, you can still give the gift of reading.