Summer demands that you toss aside gravitas-lit in favor of lighter reads. Here are five of the best from my summer’s Middle Grade haul.
1. Joanne Levy’s Small Medium at Large (Bloomsbury, July 2012) gets my vote for Miss Congeniality; it’s impossible not to like this delightful book. After being struck by lightning, twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom discovers she can hear ghosts. Lilah, who is cheerful and nice and funny, must sort out her divorced father’s non-existent love life, fructify her crush on Andy (whose father’s ghost talks to her), co-ordinate her first ever bra purchase, and more. Perhaps ghostly intervention will make it all easier for her? Or not; ghosts come in different varieties, some nuttier than others.
Lilah’s world is satisfyingly idyllic– there are no bad guys, just the occasional misguided girl or spirit, and the adults are mostly obliging and understanding. (It’s unrealistic, yes, but hey, we’re talking about a girl communicating with spirits anyway.) Levy has a relaxed yet polished style, which, along with her warm sense of humour, makes for addictive reading. I have nothing but awe for such apparently effortless prose, the sort that makes the unwise believe writing is easy. I’m obsessively checking Levy’s website for tidings of a sequel, as you will on finishing this one.
2. I love Eva Ibbotson’s work, but I’d somehow missed one dog And His boy, which was published (by Scholastic) in 2011, the year after her death. Hal lives with his materialistic parents in a posh house in London, and has an Xbox and iPod and Roboquad, but all he’s ever wanted is a dog. His mother however can’t bear the thought of messing up her white carpet and artistically-raked gravel. When Hal gets a white terrier named Fleck for his birthday, he’s ecstatic, but learns his parents have secretly rented Fleck just for the weekend. He decides to run away with Fleck to his grandparents in Scotland, and joining his adventures are other dogs from the pet rental agency, and a friend Pippa.
Hals’s journey has more than a touch of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but this one is classic Ibbotson–her sympathy for those who aren’t focused on material success and her concomitant scorn for those who prize appearances above humanity, and her championship of animals and all small vulnerable beings will be familiar to those who’ve read Which Witch or Island of the Aunts or her romances (any of her books, really). Beautiful writing, with so much heart in it.
3. The Silver Bowl (HarperCollins, 2011) by Diane Stanley: The handsome young Prince Alaric lives in the palace of the King of Westria, where Molly is a scullery maid assigned to polishing the silver. Molly has visions, but they haven’t bothered her in the recent past, until one day, she handles a ceremonial silver bowl which sends her a vision of a curse leading to the death of the royal family. Molly along with her friend Tobias (“Donkey boy”) must save Alaric, find a way to break the curse and restore the throne to the rightful prince.
Two things made this book stand out for me. One, the intelligence and ease of the writing–for instance, Stanley has her characters makes mistakes not to further the plot, but because it is in keeping with their personas. Two, Stanley subverts many tropes commonly found in such fictions. Not everyone wants to be a prince(ss). Beauty isn’t always equated with worth. The heroine isn’t afraid to air her intelligence–and the prince doesn’t mind asking for and accepting advice. Great messages all, and the book isn’t message-y at all!
4. Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic, April 2012) has one of those colossal plot twists that demands you re-read past 200 pages so you can better appreciate the author’s gift for utterly hoodwinking the reader. Megan Whalen Turner has always been my champion for this sort of thing, but Nielsen comes close.
Three orphans are chosen by a nobleman as potential candidates to impersonate a missing, presumed-to-be-dead prince. What starts out as a weird competition escalates into war when the three realize that once a prince is chosen, the remaining two boys will be killed. The story is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the children, the rebellious Sage who constantly questions authority (need I say more about loving this character?) The pace is stupendous, the plotting artful, and all characters are richly drawn. This one is the first part of The Ascendance Trilogy, but fear not! The loose ends will keep you salivating, but the story is complete in itself.
5. Vanished by Sheela Chari : Do scroll down to the post below for more details about young Neela’s adventures involving a mysteriously vanishing veena!