Tag Archives: book lists

Middle Grade Farm Stories

I recently read Rebecca Petruck’s excellent STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, the story of a boy raising a prize steer for the state fair. Not long afterward, I went to my local county fair, where I fell in love with these beauties:

chicken-4 chicken-3 chicken-2

It’s possible I became briefly chicken-obsessed.

All of this got me thinking about the way that farm stories are so perfect for kids—the combination of hard work, a beautiful setting, and animals (with all the comic opportunities they provide), as well as the chance to explore big issues like life and death, as in CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I decided to go looking for more middle grade farm stories. Here is what I found. (All descriptions and images are from IndieBound, which is also linked.)


MOO by Sharon Creech

Fans of Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog and Hate That Cat will love her newest tween novel, Moo. This uplifting tale reminds us that if we’re open to new experiences, life is full of surprises. Following one family’s momentous move from the city to rural Maine, an unexpected bond develops between twelve-year-old Reena and one very ornery cow.

When Reena, her little brother, Luke, and their parents first move to Maine, Reena doesn t know what to expect. She’s ready for beaches, blueberries, and all the lobster she can eat. Instead, her parents volunteer Reena and Luke to work for an eccentric neighbor named Mrs. Falala, who has a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake named Edna and that stubborn cow, Zora.

This heartwarming story, told in a blend of poetry and prose, reveals the bonds that emerge when we let others into our lives.



Fans of Polly Horvath or Roald Dahl will love this quirky story of a determined girl, and some extraordinary chickens.

Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown feels like a fish out of water when she and her parents move from Los Angeles to the farm they ve inherited from a great-uncle. But farm life gets more interesting when a cranky chicken appears and Sophie discovers the hen can move objects with the power of her little chicken brain: jam jars, the latch to her henhouse, the “entire” henhouse….

And then more of her great-uncle’s unusual chickens come home to roost. Determined, resourceful Sophie learns to care for her flock, earning money for chicken feed, collecting eggs. But when a respected local farmer tries to steal them, Sophie must find a way to keep them (and their superpowers) safe.
Told in letters to Sophie’s “abuela, ” quizzes, a chicken-care correspondence course, to-do lists, and more, “Unusual Chickens” is a quirky, clucky classic in the making.



Winner of the Newbery Medal, this remarkably moving novel has impressed the hearts and minds of millions of readers.

Set in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. And it is also Cassie’s story – Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to the Logan family, even as she learns to draw strength from her own sense of dignity and self-respect.


WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.


HATTIE BIG SKY by Kirby Larson

This Newbery Honor winning, “New York Times” bestseller celebrates the true spirit of independence on the American frontier.

For most of her life, sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has been shuttled from one distant relative to another. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she summons the courage to leave Iowa and move all by herself to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim.

Under the big sky, Hattie braves hard weather, hard times, a cantankerous cow, and her own hopeless hand at the cookstove. Her quest to make a home is championed by new neighbors Perilee Mueller, her German husband, and their children. For the first time in her life, Hattie feels part of a family, finding the strength to stand up against Traft Martin’s schemes to buy her out and against increasing pressure to be a loyal American at a time when anything or anyone German is suspect. Despite daily trials, Hattie continues to work her uncle’s claim until an unforeseen tragedy causes her to search her soul for the real meaning of home.

This young pioneer’s story is lovingly stitched together from Kirby Larson’s own family history and the sights, sounds, and scents of homesteading life.


A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE by Robert Newton Peck

Originally published in hardcover in 1972, “A Day No Pigs Would Die “was one of the first young adult books, along with titles like “The Outsiders “and “The Chocolate War.” In it, author Robert Newton Peck weaves a story of
a Vermont boyhood that is part fiction, part memoir. The result is a moving coming-of-age story that still resonates with teens today.



The two-time Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt delivers the shattering story of Joseph, a father at thirteen, who has never seen his daughter, Jupiter. After spending time in a juvenile facility, he’s placed with a foster family on a farm in rural Maine. Here Joseph, damaged and withdrawn, meets twelve-year-old Jack, who narrates the account of the troubled, passionate teen who wants to find his baby at any cost. In this riveting novel, two boys discover the true meaning of family and the sacrifices it requires.



Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.


CHICKEN BOY by Frances O. Dowell

Meet Tobin McCauley. He’s got a near-certifiable grandmother, a pack of juvenile-delinquent siblings, and a dad who’s not going to win father of the year any time soon. To top it off, Tobin’s only friend truly believes that the study of chickens will reveal…the meaning of life? Getting through seventh grade isn’t easy for anyone, but when the first day of school starts out with your granny’s arrest, you know you’ve got real problems. Throw on a five-day suspension, a chicken that lays green eggs, and a family feud that’s tearing everyone to pieces, and you’re in for one heck of a ride.

Katharine Manning hasn’t eaten lamb since she saw one born at her parents’ farm in West Virginia. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and is thrilled to be a 2016 CYBILS judge for poetry. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katharinemanning.com.

Nonfiction Books with Diverse Characters–An Interview with Author Annette Bay Pimentel & Giveaway!

Children’s books with diverse characters are in high demand these days. They should be. Every child who reads likes to identify with the character in the book, which means that they need to represent every race, creed, color, and ethnic background. Authors are responding to this need by writing about some AMAZING people who have made great contributions to our world.



I’m happy to have one of those author with me here today. Annette Pimentel writes picture book- biographies for young middle grade readers. She loves to discover people in the corners of history and then find their stories. She writes nonfiction picture books in Moscow, Idaho.


Her book is Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans and Helped Cook up the National Park Service by Charlesbridge Publishing




The true story of a Chinese American mountain man who fed thirty people for ten days in the wilderness–and helped inspire the creation of the National Park Service.

When millionaire Stephen Mather began his quest to create a national park service in 1915, he invited a group of influential men—writers, tycoons, members of Congress, and even a movie star—to go camping in the Sierras. Tie Sing was hired to cook. Throughout the trip, Tie Sing fed not just the campers’ bodies, but also their minds, reminding them to remember and protect the mountains.


Overall, this pencil and watercolor illustrated and eloquently written account of a Chinese American will satisfy every taste. For any library wishing to enhance its diversity and inclusion collection.
– School Library Journal

A frontier adventure that spotlights one of the many significant roles ethnic Chinese played in American history.
Kirkus Reviews

Paragraphs of straightforward text are more advanced than typical picture books, but the soft, expressive watercolor illustrations, some of which are based on historical photos, are a pleasing accompaniment. Ideal for the classroom, particularly this year, when the NPS celebrates its centennial.
– Booklist



Annette, thanks for joining me today on the blog. I have a few questions for our readers about your writing process and books.


Why narrative nonfiction biographies?

Fictional novels describe how people could be. Nonfiction biographies describe how people really are. I love the shiver of excitement I feel when I read what remarkable real people really did.

How do you choose your subjects for your books?
When I discover something new and immediately want to tell someone about it, I know that I have a promising topic. I’m especially interested in stories that surprise me and suggest that the way I’ve been thinking about the world is askew.

What led you to Tie Sing’s story?
I stumbled on photos of the Mather Mountain Party of 1915 while I was researching something else. I was startled to see in the photos an Asian man posing next to famous government officials and tycoons. I had always assumed that national parks, like other American institutions, were created by powerful white men. The photos suggested I only knew part of the story.

You do not have a Chinese heritage, so how did you make sure to include Tie Sing’s true voice and experiences?
I wish Tie Sing had kept a diary, but he didn’t. To be sure the secondhand descriptions of him were in historical context, I researched race relations in 1915. I also relied on experts like the book’s artist, Rich Lo, who, like Tie Sing, grew up bilingual in Chinese and English. The book’s expert reviewer was Park Ranger Yenyen Chan, who brought to the project deep professional knowledge as well as broad personal knowledge of Chinese American culture.

Can you talk about how important it is to ensure that diverse characters are given a true representation?
It’s important that every character in a piece of nonfiction is represented truly! But it’s extra tricky to accurately represent characters, like Tie Sing, who didn’t leave much documentary trace and who come from a culture different from that of the people who wrote about them. Despite the difficulties—maybe because of the difficulties–those people deserve to have their stories told! Without their stories we are left with an inaccurate picture of our shared history.

You have another book in development which features a Puerto Rican character’s life. Why do you think diverse books like these are important?

Children are in many ways marginalized in our society. I think that every child feels, at times, like an outsider. Stories about unexpected people doing remarkable things reassure and encourage kids that their own lives matter. And, of course, books about women and ethnic and cultural minorities give all of us a more nuanced and true picture of our history.

Tell us a little about how you do your research. How much time do you spend? What type of sources do you look for?
I spend hours and weeks and months on research. I interview my subjects or people who knew them when I can, but usually I rely on archival research—letters, papers, photos, etc. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find an autobiography. I love the US Census for the quirky information it gives me about my subject. And of course I use academic articles to provide historical context and to answer specific questions that arise as I research.

Why is back matter useful for readers?
Back matter extends my conversation with the reader and allows my book to speak to multiple audiences. Some readers only want the story in the main text. That’s find. But others want more, and back matter provides it. Back matter feels to me like a cozy dialogue, where I as a writer, get to share the fascinating details that didn’t belong in the story.

Anything that you are working on that you would care to share? Other books that we can look for from you soon?
In 2018 Nancy Paulsen Books will publish Girl Running, the story of an amazing female marathoner and in 2019 they will publish Ann Brooks Goes West (with her piano) the story of a feisty pioneer. I also have another book in the works that I’m very excited about, but I have to wait to talk about it.

Can you think of a few other diverse nonfiction books that would be good for young middle grade readers?
I loved Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford for its lyrical language and its sensitive handling of the theme of slavery



Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood for its story of creativity beating back against poverty



and Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game by John Coy for the most inspiring basketball story I’d never heard.


For more great nonfiction picture books for young middle grade readers, including diverse titles, check out Annette’s blog at  annettebaypimentel.com

Annette has graciously offered a giveaway of her new book. To win a signed copy, please leave your name in the comments below.

******Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 nonfiction books for kids. Mostly about Science, Technology, and Engineering, because… well, STEM ROCKS!  www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

Hook your Reader with a TERRIFIC First Line

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a fat juicy wriggling worm on the end. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.

A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in and not let them go until they reach THE END. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.

So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?

Let’s go to our panel of experts:

Readers First!

Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”

Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”

Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”

Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)


“I’m a sucker for great first lines. I also spend a lot of time thinking about my own first lines when I begin a book. Sometimes it takes until the end of drafting before I know what works best. Here’s the first line from my novel, When the Butterflies Came: ‘The first butterfly comes the day after the funeral.’ I hope it raises questions like “the first butterfly?” or “who just died and why are butterflies showing up?

Keep reading for more thoughts about First Lines and great books from some wonderful MG authors!


“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.

And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.

The story where I think I accomplished this most successfully is GHOST OF A HANGED MAN, which starts: “Pa said we were too young to go to the hanging.”




“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.

In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”



“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.

My new favorite first line is from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester coming out the end of August: “Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.”



“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.

My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”

Favorite first line? Still my first-born, from The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed:

“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”




“Tell him, Muddle! Tell him we’re not mice!”

The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!

“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”


“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:

“I stared into Josiah Henshaw’s red brown eyes and vowed not to blink.”

“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”


“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”

“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”


“When the flying boat/returns to earth at last, /I open my eyes/ /and gaze out the round window./What is all the white? I whisper. /Where is all the world? ”

“This is from Katherine Applegate’s masterful novel-in-verse, HOME OF THE BRAVE. Civil war tears young Kek from his family and his cattle-herding village in the Sudan, and he is relocated in Minnesota in the middle of winter. He has never felt such cold, never seen or imagined snow or such a place as America. I love the way Applegate has this character express in such powerfully simple language experiences that he can barely comprehend, making the reader instantly curious and sympathetic.”


“He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.” – from THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Ramdall Wright.

“This is a feline twist on A Tale of Two Cities in this great MG animal story told within the world of the inn where Charles Dickens spent quite a bit of time. Need I say more?”


I’ve always liked the opening lines of SCHOOLED by Gordon Korman because it effectively introduces the 1st-person narrator’s voice while hinting at the plot enough to raise some questions that compel the reader (at least me!) to keep reading:

“I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.”

HILLARY HOMZIE, author of Queen of Likes:

“I love this first line because I just love Deborah Wiles writing: “I come from a family with a lot of dead people.”

It’s the first line of Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (MG Harcourt, 2005).

The next lines after that: “Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a stroke on a Saturday morning after breakfast last March. Six months later, Great-great-aunt Florentine died–just like that–in the vegetable garden. And of course there are all the dead people who rest temporarily downstairs, until they go off to the Snapfinger Cemetery.”

And on that funny “morbid” note, I want to give a huge thanks to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks! Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook  – and Fall In Love at First Line!

Since I adore first lines, please share your favorite First Lines below in the comments!

Kimberley Griffiths Little has been juggling book launch parties for her FORBIDDEN trilogy (Harpercollins) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while drafting new book proposals with her toes. Throw in too many cookies, a household that never sleeps . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline. See Kimberley’s beautiful new website here: www.KimberleyGriffithsLittle.com. Friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kimberleygriffithslittle