Tag Archives: mysteries

Kirkus book picks for Middle School readers

Have you ever Googled yourself? Be honest.

I never have, and during a spell of boredom while watching Big Ten football last weekend, I did.

I’ve been blessed to wear many hats throughout my life, including children’s book festival founder, former city councilwoman and now, children’s book author. As I scrolled through various articles from over the years, a wonderful surprise popped up on my cell phone screen.

An article from Sacramento Parent shared a list of the Top 19 book picks for Middle School readers from Kirkus. It begged me to question why not the top 20 book picks, but I’m rolling with it.

What is most amazing is that my biography, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller is included in the list. Pinch me.

Since this list was buried in my search, I thought it might be news to you as well. As opposed to listing all of the books, I’ve opted to highlight those that received a Starred review from Kirkus.

Some are older releases, some newer. If you have not read them, make sure to add these to your must-read list!

Wonder

R.J. Palacio, Knopf Books for Young Readers

The movie comes out in November, and if have yet to read this modern classic, make sure to pick up a copy before then!

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The book that inspired the Choose Kind movement.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Ghost

Jason Reynolds, Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum
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A National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.

Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel in a new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Quicksand Pond

Janet Taylor Lisle, Atheneum

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Newbery Honor winner Janet Taylor Lisle’s gorgeous and profound new novel about a pivotal summer in two girls’ lives explores the convictions we form, the judgments we make, and the values we hold.

The pond is called Quicksand Pond.

It’s a shadowy, hidden place, full of chirping, shrieking, croaking life. It’s where, legend has it, people disappear. It’s where scrappy Terri Carr lives with her no-good family. And it’s where twelve-year-old Jessie Kettel is reluctantly spending her summer vacation.

Jessie meets Terri right away, on a raft out in the water, and the two become fast friends. On Quicksand Pond, Jessie and Terri can be lost to the outside world—lost until they want to be found. But a tragedy that occurred many decades ago has had lingering effects on this sleepy town, and especially on Terri Carr. And the more Jessie learns, the more she begins to question her new friendship—and herself.

The Unexpected Life of Cromwell Pitts

Avi, Algonquin

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High adventure from a master storyteller about one boy’s attempt to fend for himself among cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves.

In the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, 1724, Oliver Cromwell Pitts wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. He’s alone in his ruined home with no money and no food. Oliver’s father has left behind a barely legible waterlogged note: he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in trouble. Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him, and he can’t resist the temptation to take it. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following the trail of his father and sister. The journey is full of thieves, adventurers, and treachery–and London might be the most dangerous place of all.

York: The Shadow Cipher

Laura Ruby, Walden Pond 

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From National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby comes an epic alternate history series about three kids who try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.

It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo, and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

Joplin, Wishing

Diane Stanley, HarperCollins
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A heartfelt and magical middle grade novel in the tradition of Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia,about family, wishes, and the power of true friends to work magic.

While cleaning out her reclusive grandfather’s house, Joplin discovers pieces of a broken platter in a cookie tin. After having the platter repaired, Joplin wishes that she could both find a friend at school, and befriend the girl pictured in the platter. The next day, Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett, and also notices a girl outside her apartment. A girl who looks remarkably like the girl in the platter…

The girl introduces herself as Sofie, and she has a terrible secret. Cursed to grant wishes for the owner of the platter for all of time, she has been trapped for centuries. Joplin and Barrett vow to help her, but freeing Sofie is more complicated than they could have imagined, and the three friends end up against a sinister foe who could put them all in terrible danger.

The Quest for Z

Greg Pizzoli, Viking Books for Young Readers

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From an award-winning author comes a picture book biography that feels like Indiana Jones for kids!

British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller

Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University Press
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Long before she wrote The House of Dies Drear, M. C. Higgins, the Great, and many other children’s classics, Virginia Hamilton grew up among her extended family near Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her grandfather had been brought as a baby through the Underground Railroad. The family stories she heard as a child fueled her imagination, and the freedom to roam the farms and woods nearby trained her to be a great observer. In all, Hamilton wrote forty-one books, each driven by a focus on “the known, the remembered, and the imagined”—particularly within the lives of African Americans.

Over her thirty-five-year career, Hamilton received every major award for children’s literature. This new biography gives us the whole story of Virginia’s creative genius, her passion for nurturing young readers, and her clever way of crafting stories they’d love.

Summer Reads = Summer Fun!

Summer is a time when I feel energized and creative, basking in the longer daylight hours and a different kind of vibe, even though I work at home and the actual calendar doesn’t change that much around here.

If your kid is the kind who likes to make and do in summer, as mine was (she’s grown now, but this is how I remember her middle grade summers, and my own), here is a post to scratch your kiddos’ summer activity itch. Of course, you might like to join in the fun, too.

I have to say right up front that this was not my (fantastic!) idea – here’s a big shout out to our own Annabelle Fisher for the inspiration, and to many of our members for chiming in with great ideas to share with you.

Like to cook? These reads might also make you hungry to make food.

Lisa Schroeder’s cupcake books, including It’s Raining Cupcakes, might inspire you to make some…

The Truth About Twinkie Pie, by Kat Yeh, is full of recipes.

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff, is also filled with things I want to cook. 

Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter, by our own Annabelle Fisher (including a recipe for magical “reversing cake” and other fun things!).

How about writing to authors?

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary gave adult me the push to write a favorite author, actually.

Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech is another that inspires action in the form of writing.

Want to play with paper engineering?

Origami Yoda and Tom Angleberger’s other Origami books result in lots of paper play.

Richard Merrill’s Fantastic Press-Out Flying Birds  is a blast (I’m giving this one an extra shout-out – this fellow SCBWI member and Dover Publications author is also my big brother!).

Books about science and nature and those that get us out of doors can also spark inspiration for projects and action.

Mixed Up Files member Jacqueline Houtman pointed me to Elaine Vickers’ blog, which features a ton of great activities for middle graders. Jacqueline’s own book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas was featured there, and reading this book about a science geek might prompt a visit to find something to do, too.

Nature sketching and birdwatching are featured in The Someday Birds, by Sally Pia.

One Mixed Up Files member described Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island as being ”sort of about a group of kids camping on their very own island.”

The Phineas MacGuire books by Francis O’Roark Dowell feature science activities in the back matter, and a website to visit for more at: http://gophineas.com/. My students loved our read aloud of Phineas in the library.

Roseanne Parry, still another Mixed Up Files member, wrote Turn of the Tide, which features geocaching.

And Explore Forces and Motion, by Jen Swanson (still another Mixed Up Filer), includes 25 fun activities for kids to do with science.

Community service as summertime action?

Our own Michele Weber Hurwitz says, “My book, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, doesn’t exactly feature a craft project, but the main character, Nina, does a project involving 65 good things she does for her neighbors and family, one for each day of her summer vacation. It’s been a popular summer read for students who then do a community service project when they return to school.

Lisa Graff’s The Great Treehouse War Is about a bunch of kids who stage a sit-in, and then some…

Plus, there are always mysteries to solve and other fun things to do!

I’m intrigued by Annabelle Fisher’s recommendation of The Puzzler’s Mansion, by Eric Berlin, which she describes as having brainteasers and interactive puzzles in it.

Chasing Vermeer and the others in Blue Balliet’s architectural mystery series feature tangrams and puzzles to solve. I had several students who made their own tangrams after reading these books.

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, by Chris Grabenstein, is another that is jam-packed with stuff to do and try.

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd is filled with oodles of stuff to do, too…

What books inspire you to dive in and then get out to have some fun in summer?

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari

Summer is a great time to read a new mystery and FINDING MIGHTY is the epitome of a great summer read. Even better it’s written by Edgar Award nominee Sheela Chari. Sheela and I met several years ago when her first book VANISHED and my SECOND FIDDLE were out in the same year. Both books had a musical element and so we did some events together with a group of MG and YA authors on the Stages on Pages tour. One of the real delights of writing is the people you meet on the journey, and I’m thrilled that my path has crossed Sheela’s again.

 Let’s start with Parkour and why you chose it. Are you a practitioner of this sport?

I came to learn about parkour in a roundabout way. While writing FINDING MIGHTY, I envisioned that some of the graffiti tags that appear as clues in the story were up very high off the ground. I wondered how someone would reach such heights without being slowed down by equipment. So in my research, I came across parkour, and I thought of course! So that’s how some of my characters ended up being practitioners of both graffiti and parkour.

But then as I kept writing, I found myself being drawn to this art form more and more. And I specifically refer to parkour as art because even though it’s an urban movement sport, parkour runners use their bodies in efficient ways that emphasize the beauty of their form. I began to go past the stereotypes we normally associate with parkour – daredevils climbing bridges and jumping off buildings – and see how, like yoga, parkour is about controlling your movement and negotiating physical space. As someone who is fascinated by bridges and yet incredibly afraid of heights, it makes sense to me that I would find parkour beautiful and thrilling. For me, the ability to jump and fall gracefully, and land on your feet is the ultimate superpower. So a not-so secret admirer of parkour? Yes. A practitioner? No. Well, not yet.

If you are curious about what a parkour run looks like here’s a video of one of the more extreme practitioners of the sport James Kingston.

Tell us about the relationship between Myla and Peter and how the racial element of that friendship plays out. I think MG kids are both more relaxed about interracial friendships but also more aware of nuances. Is that your experience as well?

In thinking and writing about Myla and Peter, I came across their characters very differently. In the simplest way – Peter started off as plot and Myla as character. With Peter, his story began with an “Omar” tag I would see on the highway near my home. I would wonder who wrote it and why. Eventually I shortened the tag to “Om” and Peter’s story emerged, not as the person who wrote the tag, but the younger brother searching for his missing brother, Randall, and the tag’s mysterious role in Randall’s disappearance. Myla was more like me as a young person – a highly observant girl who feels largely unnoticed by the world. Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. With Peter, I wasn’t sure who he was yet – I had to write to find his character. As I did, he evolved into someone part Indian, but also a mixture of other communities (Peter’s mother is Indian and his father is half African-American and half white). And I liked the way that organically came to the story. Myla’s and Peter’s racial identities are not the basis for their friendship, but it was a nice meeting ground – the fact that they were sort of alike but not completely. It gave them each something to learn from the other. In the end, FINDING MIGHTY is really about what happens when these two different people meet and become friends, and how their qualities become so important to the other person, whether it is help in finding a lost sibling, or in finding your sense of self.

Tell us a little bit about this gorgeous cover. As a bookseller in a diverse community I love it that you can tell from the cover that the characters are not white. Did you have any input on the cover?

 

 

 

 

Thank you! I like this cover a lot. Myla is modeled after my close family friend’s daughter. The original drawing of Myla was good but she didn’t look Indian to me. So I sent in a photo of my friend’s daughter, and then the cover artist, R. Kikuo Johnson, used that to create the final Myla on the back cover. He did an amazing job, both with Myla, and the whole cover.

Can you share some tips for MG mystery writers. I, for one, think it’s hard to write a mystery when your detectives can’t drive.

  1. MG characters make great snoops. They can be present during conversations and overhear without giving themselves away, because adults don’t often realize just how smart or intuitive kids are. So don’t be afraid to put your characters where the action is.
  2. Lists are a great way to keep track of information. Some of my favorite mysteries, such as THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, use lists to describe theories or clues. Lists are also a very visual and quick way to remind readers what they already know.
  3. Know that as crime solvers, your MG detective will have to take risks. It’s what makes her different from the rest of the mold. At the same time, not every sleuth has to scale a building to prove herself. Although in my case, Myla does, because she’s scared of heights. Which is why climbing out of her bedroom window one night to find Peter’s brother becomes necessary for both the plot and her character. So have your main character take risks, but make sure that they’re risks that test her qualities the most.
  4. It’s true that middle grade kids can’t drive. But they can walk and take the train or bus. Keep those options available – make your characters savvy enough (or brave enough) to understand a train schedule or know which stop to get off on the bus. In both my MG mystery novels, VANISHED and FINDING MIGHTY, my characters have to rely on public transportation to get them where they need to be. And in FINDING MIGHTY, two characters walk 50 blocks in Manhattan to track down a clue!
  5. Even if you’re a “pantser,” try to have a sense of the end of your book before you start. It’s not always possible – I didn’t know the ending with VANISHED until I got to the end. But even if you don’t, it’s important to know what happens during the “Big Reveal.” If you divide your story into beginning, middle, and end, I like to call this point the end of the middle. It’s when your main character finally finds out what they’ve been searching for. The more you know about this moment of revelation, the easier it will be for you to write towards it – like moving to the light at the end of the tunnel. This tip holds true for writing any mystery, or for writing a book in general.

Terrific advice! I’m going to keep it in mind for my next project. Thank you Sheela for sharing your thoughts with our MUF readers. Sheela is giving away a copy of FINDING MIGHTY. Leave us a comment to enter the drawing. A winner will be chosen in three days.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and VANISHED, which was an APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book, an Edgar Award nominee, and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. She has an MFA in Fiction from New York University and teaches creative writing at Mercy College. Sheela lives in New York. Visit her online at sheelachari.com and @wordsbysheela.