Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

If I gave stars with my book reviews, Jo Watson Hackl’s Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe would get a whole constellation.  It’s the best middle grade mystery I’ve read since I discovered Sheila Turnage’s Newbery Honor Book, Three Times Lucky.

Hackl’s character, Cricket, drags you along from the first paragraph:

“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketfuls of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store.”

And there’s the humor:

“Even at a time like this, it’s important to keep moisturized.”

Head out the door of that Mississippi store with Cricket (the human) and Charlene (the cricket).  On the journey your traveling companions will enlighten you about the nature of art, self-reliance, and loyalty, and how to live with and love someone who has a mental illness.

The setting is real. The characters are believable.  And there’s a little history thrown in, to boot, about this neck of the Mississippi woods.

Love this book!!!

Laugh Out Loud Mayhem and Murder

Ransom Game, Howard Engel’s 1981 Benny Cooperman mystery from St. Martin’s Press, has too many descriptions for my taste.  The women are complicated, but they all look good.  Cooperman…or Engel…must be lonely.  But excellent plots and passages like this keeps me coming back for more:

“Did he come to the club alone?”

“Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  It depended on whether there were other people with him.

“I see what you mean.” At last, a careful witness.

The plot is delicious, even if Cooperman’s diet is lacking.  When things get thick, you get a belly-laugh moment to break the tension.

I appreciate Elmore Leonard’s advice,  to leave out the parts that people skip.  And if you wax on and on about a character’s looks, I scan through and get back to the action. For all that, I still recommend you find used copies of, or download to your e-reader, Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman mysteries.  They’ve aged well, like his women.

You might like rambling descriptions.  And even if you don’t, the laughter and the carefully placed clues more than make up for them.

Great American Read

I am delighted to see book talks on PBS, so please, public television people, take what I’m about to say as what it is, a gentle suggestion.  I’m glad that the Hundred Best Books in America includes titles for kids and young adults.  There were even a few that were published by authors who are still alive.  But I have to ask, how old does a book have to be before it’s considered one of the best books in America?

I love Where the Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web.  I do, really! And I’m good with hearing adults gush about reading their childhood favorites to their children and grandchildren.  But if you want to get young people involved in literacy, you need to pick books that young people would choose for themselves.  The books on your list seem to have been chosen by adults.

I will vote for Harry Potter and The Outsiders and Hatchet.  I won’t argue with you about your choice of  Hunger Games over Collins’ Gregor, the Overlander.  But can we have more recent titles?  I want to see more of the books I couldn’t keep on the shelf in my Reading Lab.  How about Newbery winners like The One and Only Ivan or the picture book, Last Stop on Market Street? How about a graphic novel or two, maybe something by Ursula Vernon or Dan Santat or the Holm siblings?  Have you read Going Bovine by Libba Bray?  Did you even consider including books of poetry?  Kids love good, accessible poetry.

I hope the Great American Read isn’t a one of.  I hope you come back again next year with even more books.  But, please, can we let librarians, teachers, and young readers help decide what goes on the list?  You might be amazed.

A Little Bit

If you know Oklahoma, you know that summer can be brutal.  Even if you get out in the early morning to do your gardening, you come in buggy and wet and thirsty.

For me, gardening starts with a good coat of bug spray because I’ve chosen carcinogens over chigger bites and tick-born diseases.  I start early and work in short sprints. Fifteen minutes of weed pulling is enough before I need to dry off my glasses and rehydrate.

If I can get a full hour of real work in, I’m happy.  Sometimes the chickens get the lion’s share of my time, and they always get the weeds. You should see how excited a closed-in flock gets when the weeds show up! I try to do my little bit in the garden as close to daily as I can, so that weeds and squash bugs and perennials I planted years ago and shouldn’t have can’t take over.

Once I get started, I don’t want to stop.  I go in and out at intervals and keep going back out.  While I’m engaged in happy physical labor, I’m plotting stories and perfecting lines.

To get those lines on paper, I have to do with my writing as I do with my weeding, commit to that daily little bit and get started.  That little bit usually becomes a good stretch, but even if it is just a little bit of time, it keeps my writing project rolling.

Commitments, like diets, have to be reasonable.  For me, a little bit every day is a commitment I can honor.

Bob

“All the things I choose to put in my head are what make me, me.  I plan to choose wisely.” –Bob

This excellent advice comes from a middle grade novel, Bob, written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead.

Here is my version of Bob’s advice:

Turn off the television except to watch carefully chosen content.  Stay informed, not hoodwinked.

Choose to read–the dictionary, the encyclopedia, good stories, sublime poetry, how-to books.  Choose wisely.

Now for the review part:

If you like a little mystery and a little magic carefully crafted by two master storytellers, choose this book.

Another Gem from the Hale Duo

2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious is the second volume in the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.  Shannon is the Newbery-winning author of The Princess Academy.  Her husband, Dean, quite keeps up with her.

This middle grade series from the Marvel universe gives you  philosophy, literary writing, word play, and action/adventure in one lovely piece.  Is it unseemly for a grandmother to be fangirling? I may not squeal when someone mentions the series, but I do intend to read every volume of it as it is written.

The characters are not caricatures.  The Hale’s wonderfully capture teenage angst. The superheroes are beautifully flawed. The relationships are sometimes rocky, but not mean.

Don’t take my word for it. Here are a couple of quotes from the book.  The first is from an Ana Sofia chapter.  She is SQ’s best human friend.

“After a few hours online, Ana Sofia was a hop, skip, and a jump from giving up on humanity entirely and locking herself in the attic Emily Dickenson-style—but with the internet. She could totally do Dickinson as long as she had a laptop with a high-speed connection.

“But even offline, the tension kept building.”

My favorite philosophical conversation takes place between SQ (aka Doreen) and her parents, Maureen and Dor.  She’s telling them that she’ll be out late because she  has to confront Hydra. (The Avengers are busy battling Thanos in outer space.) She doesn’t tell them the whole story, however, because we all know that parents of teenagers can’t take the whole story.  What she does tell her parents is that she just doesn’t know if she knows what she’s doing.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Maureen said. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.”

“Well, yeah,” said Doreen.

“They laughed, and Dor cut into the butter pecan cake he’d baked earlier without knowing how much they’d need it now.

“You know you’re doing great, right?” said her father, his mouth full of cake.  “You know nobody knows what they’re doing and we’re all just figuring out how to be us as we go along.”

This book is highly recommended, whether you’re a young reader or an old one.

 

Paired Picture Books

It is never too soon to discuss books with your kids.

I’m not advocating turning family reading time into a lesson. In fact, I don’t really advocate for classroom reading time to become a lesson. There’s plenty of time for lessons but not nearly enough time for just enjoying a good book.

Book discussion should come naturally. If you read to your kids regularly, you know how this works.

“How come he did that?”

“Where did the bear go?”

I love when kids make connections between two books or stories. If you read to them enough, it is bound to happen. In fact, pairing texts might help it happen.

I thought of paired picture books when I read two very different counting books—Kathi Appelt’s Counting Crows and Kelly Milner Halls I Bought a Baby Chicken—to a two-year-old.

Then, Hannah Harrison’s Friends Stick Together and Tammi Sauer’s But the Bear Came Back showed up at my house within days of each other. I sat down to read them both on the same evening. I was immediately struck by how they were alike and how they were different.

Both are books of unlikely friendships and both contain wry humor.

In the Sauer book, illustrator Dan Taylor’s touches, especially the book titles, are a hoot! And Harrison’s illustrations always deliver.

The youngest kids will enjoy the books read straight through without the asides and the parent footnotes. With repeated readings, though, they will begin to notice the sophisticated (and Levi’s sometimes unsophisticated) humor. Let them make discoveries.

I recommend both books heartily. So does the two-year-old. I recommend them as a pair. And I dare you to find the long-legged bird that makes an appearance in both books.