Middle Grade Fiction Favorites

Dear Apples,

Remember when we used to read out loud to each other?  Wasn’t that just the best?  Now I still miss it so much that I’m always trying to replicate it, and I read out loud to Isla all the time, whether it’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? or a re-read of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  I read to C too, regardless of whether he’s paying attention or not.

I’ve started so many posts about all of the books that I loved growing up–and that I still remember and sometimes reread–and I’ve left them half-done because the volume is just too overwhelming.  There are children’s books that I loved when I was a kid and now there are a whole army of new ones that have grabbed my attention.  The same goes for every category and subcategory of literature.  But since I could talk about books forever and never get bored of it, I’ll try to start slow and see how far I get with listing at least some of the books that have shaped me and been my most constant solace through every stage of life.

Today I’ll start with some of my favorite Middle Grade fiction.  Some were written for that age group, and some I just happened to read when I was in 6th, 7th and 8th grade.  This is by far one of the best categories in literature, and I think it’s because it’s just such an awesome age.  I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but adolescents have all that incredible curiosity and enthusiasm and awkwardness and budding maturity that hasn’t yet turned cynical.  Although I love a lot of Young Adult fiction as well, I usually don’t find the same depth and variety and scope there that I can usually count on in Middle Grade fiction.   This is certainly not a comprehensive list, and some of them feel younger than middle grade while others feel slightly older, but I’m trying to pull out the heavy hitters of the adolescence-ish age that I can recall at the moment.

Harry Potter Series- J. K. Rowling 

I started reading these in high school, and they finished coming out when I was in college, but I would have loved starting them a little younger too.  It was great to have the experience of waiting desperately for her to complete the next one and the next one, and checking for your turn to come to borrow it at the library or waiting for a friend’s copy.  I’m so glad I had the chance to love those books as she was writing them.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh-Robert C. O’Brien

My 6th grade teacher read this book out loud to my class, and we weren’t supposed to skip ahead, but I couldn’t wait and definitely checked this one out at the library and read the whole thing while the class was in the first few chapters.  It didn’t stop me from loving it while the teacher read it.

The Wednesday Wars-Gary D. Schmidt

This one is a Newberry honor, and totally deserves it.  Holling Hoodhood is a hilarious boy who is forced to spend Wednesdays with a teacher he hates while everyone else is in religion class.  The story takes place during the Vietnam war, and the backstory of his family is woven in so well.  I really need to go back and re-read this one.

Up a Road Slowly-Irene Hunt

I’ve read this book many times.  The characters are fascinating and funny and compelling, and it’s a coming of age story in a reality very different from mine, but so relatable at the same time.  I learned a lot from this book.  I just looked at the Amazon page, and it has a pretty unappealing cover that shows a dreamy girl peering wistfully out into space, and that image does not do a great job at conveying the content of this book.

To Kill A Mockingbird-Harper Lee

I started this after I was riding home from school on the bus one day and saw a girl in high school finish it and say “What a book!”  I’ve re-read it many times since then, and it always makes me cry.

The Great Brain series

Ohmygosh these are the best.  Told through the voice of a young boy recounting the adventures of growing up with his older brother, they are perfectly hilarious and honest.

Dear Mr. Henshaw-Beverly Cleary

This is another Newberry Medal winner, but surprisingly, I doubt it’s Cleary’s best known book.  I absolutely loved all the Ramona books and the Henry Huggins books, and this one was quite different from her younger books but such a pleasant surprise.  It’s a poignant conversation in letters between a growing boy and his favorite author as the boy navigates everything happening around him through adolescence and his teenage years.

The Narnia Series- C.S. Lewis 

I didn’t read all of these, (probably because we owned those really weird but good movies that BBC did, and so I knew most of the stories very well) but I loved The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.

His Dark Materials series-Philip Pullman

I read these in grad school and finished all three in a few days.  Pullman is such an incredible storyteller, and I think I would have loved reading them when I was younger.

I don’t have time to give descriptions of all the books that are on this very incomplete list, but I absolutely loved all the following books as well and I promise that they deserve emphatic recommendations:

Homer Price books-Robert McCloskey

Lily’s Crossing- Patricia Reilly Giff

A Wrinkle in Time-Madeleine L’Engle

Emily of New Moon series

Peter Pan- J.M. Barrie

The Giver-Lois Lowry (Just found out now that this is a series!! I only ever knew about the first one)

What are some of your favorites?

For love of words IV

Below are small excerpts and clippings that I’ve extracted from things I’ve read or re-read recently.

(Posts one, two and three)

“I opened the tattered book.  Its onion-skin pages were stained with grease from his fingers.  On one page, I covered his thumbprint with my thumb and considered for the first time that Papa might have been more than just old pictures-0ld, repeated stories.” -Wally Lamb, I know this much is true

“Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed.” -Patti Smith, Just Kids

“He was whittled down now, either to banalities or to simple truths.  Either way, they would have to do.” -Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time

“Later I will look at video made close to that day of the children watching the rapacious hawk, and hear the light tinkling bells in Simon’s voice and think, he was so young that April.” -Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World

“When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.” –Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club

“So the challenge I face with children is the redemption of adulthood.  We must make it evident that maturity is the fulfillment of childhood and adolescence, not a diminishing; that it is an affirmation of life, not a denial; that it is entering fully into our essential selves.” -Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Happy Fall

Leaves on fire in the trees and crunchy underfoot, ghosts, pumpkins, mums, hot chocolate, a chill in the air, and all the best holidays right around the corner.  It’s good to be home in the fall.

Happy autumn from Frida Kahlo and me 🙂


September Stories

Dear Apples,

I was just doing a mental round-up of the month, and thought I’d tell you about it.

Here is September for you in snapshots.

-We take many Sunday morning walks, and we see a hoopoe land and skitter around in the dry grasses and then fly up into a pine tree.  We’d never seen a bird like him, so we had to look him up.

-I become entirely immersed in the world of Cormoran Strike for a full week, and barely think about or do anything else until I am done reading Robert Galbraith’s (gradually more grisly) mystery series.  I drink a lot of strong tea with milk during this time.

-The details of our rapidly approaching move to Antakya, Turkey are still foggy as the paperwork is processing, and the anticipation is bittersweet.  I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, because I’m so absorbed in what’s happening here that it’s still this distant vague reality that I can plan for, but can’t quite imagine yet.  My biggest concern is ensuring that Isla will be able to continue to learn Arabic, since there are so many Syrians in the region.

-We attempt a Star Wars marathon on our home projector screen, and I am surprised that I have most of the lines memorized.

-This is the first full month in our new home, but it feels like we’ve been here forever.  I’m already looking forward to coming back to it for our visits to Lebanon after we’re gone. I love it so much, with its constantly unhinging kitchen cabinet door and its lack of hot water.  Cold showers are an acquired taste (painfully shocking but incredibly refreshing)…and if you don’t reach that place of appreciation, there’s always the old-fashioned option of heating the water on the stovetop, which makes you feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

-I have the biggest case of writer’s block that I’ve ever experienced.  I think I’m sure it has to do with my expectations.  

-The Syrian civil war right across the border shows no signs of letting up.

-Lebanon’s garbage crisis continues, but we continue to be impressed by the management of our local municipality.

-I am so glad to be abroad during election season, but watching from a distance is worse.  The longer I live abroad the less I like US culture as a whole, and the more I love New Jersey and specific aspects of or places in the US.  Strange but true.

-Isla turns 9 months and loves crawling under and inside things (tables, chairs, her walker, cabinets), standing up, trying to walk while holding onto things, trying to stand without holding on, waving goodbye, finding the light in every room, talking to the cats, imitating things her great grandmother says, and riding in the cart when we’re grocery shopping, which they call a “chariot” in French here.

Happy October!

For love of words III

Below are small excerpts and clippings that I’ve extracted from things I’ve read or re-read recently.

(posts one and two)

“Experience taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive.  Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps.” -Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

“He looked as though he had been carved out of soft ebony by a master hand that had grown bored with its own expertise, and started to veer towards the grotesque.” -Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

“He could see a new set of muscles hardening in the right forearm of his wife, Teresa, from the constant twisting of oranges on the juicer while their children held up their cups and waited for more.” -Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

“If a man can’t build a violin, he may as well make pizzas in a former violin shop.” -Molly Wizenburg, Delancey

“Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.” -Marilynn Robinson, Home

“But unlike his brothers, Henry had a redeeming attribute.  Two of them, to be exact: he was intelligent, and he was interested in trees.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

“For here was the hole in Alma’s theory: she could not, for the life of her, understand the evolutionary advantages of altruism and self-sacrifice.  If the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be, and if outcompeting one’s rivals was the key to dominance, adaptation and endurance–then what was one supposed to make, for instance, of someone like her sister Prudence?”   -Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

“To see a thing in its proportion, whatever it was, to draw its outlines true and sure and simple–that was bottomless content, which lightened all the world.” -Pearl S. Buck, The Proud Heart

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On Ideas and Execution

Dear Apples,

Yesterday I was brooding for much of the day.  It was the last day of a long weekend (Lebanon was on holiday for Eid Al Adha), and the fourth day in a row that I hadn’t written, and the internal pressure had really revved up.  My story has been running all over the place like a capricious teenager, and I have been sitting and wondering how to pull it back on course, and asking it what it wants to be, and panicking over the self-inflicted deadline that will probably arrive before the plot reconfigures itself into a more promising shape.  It’s been a bit paralyzing, honestly.

C suggested we go out last night to break up the schedule, and so we went to catch dinner and a movie.  I reluctantly updated him on where the plot had veered off course, and it was hugely relieving to be able to think it through out loud and realize that there might just be a way forward.

Today I have to begin gutting much of what I’ve worked on and finding out what the essence of the story is and working from there, which feels both terrifying and exciting.  Heavy on the terrifying.  I am trying to force myself to take it slowly and sit in the ideation phase for as much time as I need without scurrying right into execution and finding that I have to scratch half of what I’ve written and redirect.  What is the balance between the time spent mapping out the book and the time spent writing it?  For me, the ideas are sluggish but the writing is quick.  It’s probably different for everyone, but I’d love a good formula.  So far, this story has taken me by surprise at almost every turn.  It’s been fun, but I am exhausted from chasing it around, and I’d really like to return to the driver’s seat and decide where we’re going before we set out.

With that in mind, I am giving myself a week to let the story percolate.  It feels extravagant and wasteful, but I have never tried it before and I am simply not ready to move forward until I have something stolid and dependable that will not run away from me the minute I let it out onto the page.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here’s what Walt Whitman has to say about it:

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”
Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations

And Amy Poehler:

“You just lean over the computer and stretch and pace.  You write and cook something and write some more.  You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true.  You do it because the doing of it is the thing.  The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.  This is what I know.”  –Yes Please

And Steve Jobs:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
Steve Jobs

My Writing Manifesto

For the past several months, I’ve been working on drafting a young adult novel.  Since it’s a solitary activity as well as a first attempt at novel writing, it can be hard to take myself seriously and keep pushing forward.  This podcast spurred me to come up with my own Writing Manifesto as a mission statement of sorts to keep me going when the going gets tough.

  1. You are only the conduit.

Similar to the old concept of writers receiving visits from the Muses, I like to think of myself as simply the instrument for the ideas working through me. If the creative energy is what’s doing the real work, it takes a lot of pressure off of me, and also gives me the impetus to try and channel that energy in the best way possible and to keep working at it so as to be a better conduit. On the mornings when my motivation is lacking, the thing that gets me going is the realization that I just have to play my part in allowing the ideas to get to the page.  Elizabeth Gilbert talks quite eloquently about the value of taking this perspective in her book Big Magic.

  1. You love this.

Writing–or the fear of writing–can be draining and feel immensely daunting at times.  Often I’ll get stuck or find some holes in the plot line or realize that the writing is flat, and I’ll reach a point where I’m driving C crazy and complaining about how hopeless the process feels.  In these moments it’s critical for me to remember that I am doing exactly the thing I love to do and there is really no other work I’d rather commit my time to.  I don’t think there has ever been a time when writing has not provided me with a deep satisfaction, and I am lucky to at least be trying at it.

  1. Write what scares you.

There are a lot of topics that are uncomfortable to dive in to, and it’s easy to second guess myself and chop out or gloss over the gritty bits.  But the fact is, the authors of all of my favorite novels are brave enough to go to challenging places, and that very willingness is often what makes the writing memorable and visceral.

  1. Keep going.

I am very prone to reviewing something I’ve written and cringing and wanting to give up altogether.  But I’m well aware that the only way to improve is through practice and practice and practice.  The feeling that comes after I’ve refined a patchy part over and over and turned it around in my mind for days and then finally happened upon something that holds its own is one of the very best feelings in the world.

Another thing to remember in this same vein, is that publication is not the purpose.  I’m sure it is a very gratifying outcome, but the process itself is the greatest reward.  The path to publication is paved with rejection, and if that is my end goal, it robs from the purity of the pursuit.

  1. Stay close to your people.

I really need to work on this one, but it is endlessly helpful to be surrounded (online or otherwise) by peers.  Writing can be a lonely thing.  The most bolstering solution when I’m in a pit is to talk with other people who are trying to do the same thing.  For me, this currently means reading books and articles and listening to podcasts about writing.  I know I need to build a peer network and find support in the writing community.  It is not just the critiquing and feedback that is necessary; it’s also the motivation and shared energy that’s really essential.

I’m sure I’ll have new points to add to this list as I go, but for now this is the essence of what I want to keep in mind as I work.

This is it

Dear Apples,

Yesterday I was on my hands and knees scrubbing our new floors, and the line from Wild Geese kept running through my head and making me laugh; “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.”  No, I thought, you do not. And yet there I was scrubbing and sweating and on my knees.  Surely Mary Oliver knew that sometimes bending to good hard labor is just another surprising way to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Like I was telling you before, I also think a lot about the line from Marie Howe’s poem The Gate that says “This is what you have been waiting for.”  It’s sort of a mantra for me at this point.  I’m working on a novel and want it to be done; I’m living in our new home in Lebanon and thinking forward to our upcoming move to Turkey; Isla is blabbering away in squeals and gurgles and I’m waiting for words to form, and it dawned on me that I’ve also waited for everything in my life that is occurring at this very moment.  I mean, some of it I definitely have not waited for, like the mental fray of trying to balance writing with making sure Isla doesn’t chew on the computer plug, or the hassle of trying to control the water heater so that the shower isn’t scalding or icy, but for the most part, this is what I’ve been waiting for.  I have anticipated almost all of it, and even the parts that have been hard are so valuable in hindsight, and how sad it would be not to recognize that here I am, living a life that’s all I hoped for and more.