Archive for Middle Readers

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede: Not your standard princess story.

Dealing with DragonsDealingWithDragons

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Book One

Middle reader

Ages 8 to 14

By Patrica C. Wrede

212 pages

Harcourt Brace

1990

 

Patricia Wrede (pronounced REE-dee) is a fantasy writer, and a fantastic storyteller. Her writing is fast paced and wry; her characters are interesting and witty and the worlds she creates are fully formed and ever so appealing. Fans of Tamora Pierce, Diana Winn Jones, Bruce Coville, or Terry Pratchet should thoroughly enjoy Patrica Wrede as well.

Dealing with Dragons is one of my favorite middle readers in any genre. Chronologically it takes place first in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which consists of four books. Talking to Dragons (1985) was published first and had three subsequent prequels, with Searching for Dragons (1991) and Calling on Dragons (1993) completing the series. I cannot recommend this excellent and highly entertaining series enough. Lovers of humor, fantasy or books with a strong female lead will not be disappointed.

 

Princess Cimorene found the whole princess thing completely unbearable. Her six older sisters were typical princesses, but not Cimorene. She wanted to learn magic, take fencing lessons and cook. She did not want to waste time with embroidery, dancing and etiquette. When she was told that her actions were not proper and certain things were “just not done” by a princess, she had perfectly valid argument; she was a princess and she was doing those things, therefore those things were done by at least one princess.

Her parents, the king and queen, were well aware of Cimorene’s stubbornness and decided something needed to be done about her, and quickly. They introduced her to Prince Therandil, the man they intended her to marry, and Cimorene decided she must do whatever possible to avoid the nuptials. So, at the advice of a frog and with the help of his detailed directions, she surrendered herself to a dragon.

Kazul was one of five dragons present when Cimorene entered the vast cave. Any one of them could have easily eaten her—after all, dragons are very fond of princesses. The sight of the dragons initially frightened Cimorene, but she’d gained her composure quickly and stated her case thoughtfully. She willingly offered to be a captive princess and cook and clean for one of them. Woraug suggested they eat her despite this but Kazul claimed Cimorene for herself. She was already obviously more competent than any of the other princesses Kazul had encountered, and she was eager to learn magic—something “not done” by princesses.

It wasn’t long before knights started arriving to rescue her. If a knight should defeat a dragon, he’d win the hand of the captive princess; Cimorene, however, does not want or need rescuing. She swiftly grew tired of explaining the situation to each well-meaning knight and, being an extremely unusual arrangement, it always took a lot of explaining. So in an effort to reroute and delay more potential rescuers—and to get a bit of peace—Cimorene went to post a sign, “Road washed out,” along the trail to Kazul’s cave.

She was carefully walking along a narrow ledge near a cliff when the earth in front of her just simply disappeared. She looked up to find a tall man cloaked in robes standing over her and she knew instantly that he was a wizard. In fact, it was Zeminar, the newly elected head of the Society of Wizards. Though he offered to assist her, she knew better than to accept help without knowing what it might cost her.  Her refusal greatly irritated him; to her, a clear indication that his offer was malevolent.

That evening, Kazul and her guests were discussing this unwelcome and highly unusual event of a wizard entering their territory when—during the course of the conversation—it was revealed that a very important book of magic had recently been stolen from a dragon’s library. Most of the dragons present were alarmed and had quite a lot to say about this but Woraug only tried to convince the others that Cimorene was mistaken and just trying to make trouble.

Some time later, Cimorene noticed a wizard in a field collecting an herb she did not recognize; she clipped a piece to bring back to Kazul for identification. It turned out to be dragonsbane, a plant deadly to dragons. Though she’d only brought a small sample, it still made Kazul very ill. This new information, combined with the other events, spelled clear danger. Kazul dispatched Cimorene to share the events of the day with the dragon, Roxim.

On her way to Roxim’s cave Cimorene encountered an imprisoned prince made of stone, but upon rescuing him she became stuck with him. She could not be waylaid any longer, so she left him in one of the caves—a service room—along her route.  When she arrived at Roxim’s she learned there was news even more dire than hers; Tokoz, the king of the dragons, was dead—poisoned. Trials to choose a new king would begin the following day. 

Meanwhile, while quietly hiding where Cimorene had left him, the stone prince overheard Woraug and two wizards discussing plans to rig the trials for king. In exchange for guaranteeing his place as king of the dragons, Woraug had promised to surrender the King’s Crystal to the wizards which would allow them to locate every piece of magic in the world. The other dragons needed to be notified; Woraug and the wizards had to be stopped!

Cimorene formed a plan with some allies and they set off for the trials. But they were detained, and taken prisoner, by Woraug and his dragon guards before they could reach the location. Upon hearing the loud cheers in the distance, they knew a new king had been chosen. They soon arrived at the site of the trials to learn that Kazul had been crowned King of the Dragons! Cimorene, now the proud princess of a worthy king, couldn’t be happier.

Dealing with Dragons—a smart twist on that pervasive cultural juggernaut: the fairy princess—breezes along from scene to scene, with humor provided by knowing jabs at the standard fairy princess clichés.

 

Here is the full wrap-around cover so beautifully rendered by Caldecott Award winning artist Trina Schart Hyman.

DealingWithDragons 1

 

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I think every person should read this book.

WonderWonder

Middle reader

Ages 10 and Up

R. J. Palacio

320 pages

Random House

2012

Book trailer

 

 

Wonder is R.J. Palacio’s first book. Raquel Jaramillo, the woman behind the pseudonym, has spent twenty-nine years in the book world as an art director and book jacket designer. I can honestly say that I don’t recall ever loving a book as much as I love Wonder. Full disclosure: I read the majority of this book through tears, some of sadness, others of joy.

It’s a perfectly crafted story and an emotional roller coaster, as well as a reminder of the human condition and the importance of kindness. After I finished reading it I began handing it off to friends insisting they read it as well.

The story is told in eight parts with six different people sharing the first person narration: Auggie (the main character), his sister Via (short for Olivia), Via’s boyfriend, Justin, Via’s ex-best friend, Miranda, and two of Auggie’s classmates, Summer and Jack Will. Although the characters range in ages from ten through sixteen, Palacio adeptly switches between narrators. Each character possesses such a distinct and separate voice that readers will have no trouble believing they’re reading the experiences of different people. Her skilled storytelling and compact chapters may easily lull readers into finishing the book in one sitting, as I did.

August Pullman (aka Auggie) seems like a totally ordinary ten-year-old boy; he loves Star Wars, video games and his dog. He’s starting 5th grade in the fall. But Auggie is anything but ordinary; he was born with severe facial deformities and multiple health problems. Until now, he’s been home-schooled by his mother because he was never well enough to attend school. He’s had 27 surgeries—the first at four months of age, the last about ten months ago.

Auggie is reluctant to start school—he knows how people see him, and there is no avoiding seeing him.

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

Though he soon comes to like the idea of attending school, it’s obvious that there will be challenges. Auggie just wants to fit in, make friends and be a “normal” kid but his presence is distracting. And, as in real life, the true character of a person becomes apparent, for better or worse, when their world is challenged. The mother of a classmate attempts to have Auggie removed from the school; though she is unsuccessful, her actions are damaging nonetheless. She decides to move her son to another school instead; these events are all too realistic and terribly sad for everyone involved.

As each person’s story unfolds, readers begin to understand what it feels like to be this young boy whose only wish is to blend into the crowd, to never be noticed.

“You can’t exactly blend in when you were born to stand out.”

Via allows us to step into the life of a sibling to a kid with extremely present and endless needs. And though uncomfortable, Jack Will’s reason for pretending not to be Auggie’s friend in front of their classmates is understandable. These people are just trying to survive in their own skin.

Though Auggie is the one who must face the world every day without a mask, real or imagined, the other characters are all hiding struggles of their own. But Auggie has something many of the other characters do not: a supportive and loving family. That’s what helps to make Auggie the extraordinary boy that he is. Getting a glimpse into the lives of the separate characters, it’s undeniable how very crucial that love and support is.

Wonder takes readers on an amazing journey, from fear and ignorance to education and empathy and finally love and understanding. No person can know what it’s like to be another person; the closest we can come is to read about other’s experiences. This book provides that opportunity—to step into someone else’s life, however briefly, and see the world from someone else’s eyes, feel another’s feelings. Wonder is a profound reminder that every person you see is facing struggles of their own, whether visible or not, and that a bit of kindness and empathy can make a world of difference.

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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a cautionary tale about the value of community.

I originally posted this review on September 20, 2012. George Saunders’s latest book, Tenth of December, has been getting quite a lot of well deserved attention so I wanted to take this opportunity to remind readers of this lovely gem he wrote for children.

 

Fripcover

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip 

 

Middle Reader

Ages 5-12

By George Saunders

Illustrated by Lane Smith

84 pages

Villard Books

2000

 

Persistent: continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition

Gappers: baseball sized, bright orange creatures with multiple eyes

gapper

Frip: a small, seaside town consisting of three leaning shacks

Frip

George Saunders received a MacArthur Fellowship (aka, a genius grant) in 2006 and is generally an adult writer by trade. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Harper’s and McSweeney’s, to name a few. I’ve not acquainted myself with his other works, but I adore this book. Saunders has a gift for weaving a tale while dropping in bits and pieces that all come together to form a delightful story. And an ideal story for the illustration style of Lane Smith.

If you know children’s books, you know Lane Smith. He is the illustrator of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The Time Warp Trio Series, Grandpa Green, It’s a Book, and many, many others. His style is unmistakable, even with all the copycats out there; no one comes close to Lane. He combines a variety of media to create the most engaging, enticing, quirky, interesting and utterly perfect art. I adore his books. All of them.

If you don’t know Lane Smith’s books, a whole new world is about to open up for you.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a cautionary tale; one which demonstrates that you should not take joy in another’s misfortune, for you may someday find yourself in a similar position.

Frip’s entire population is made up of three families—Capable, and her recently widowed father, the Romos and the Ronsens—and though they all live by the sea, their livelihood is reliant on their goats, since goats make milk that the families can sell.

Gappers, those meddlesome creatures, love goats more than anything else. They attach themselves to the goats, and then proceed to emit a high-pitched squeal of pleasure. This is troublesome to the goats; it causes them lose sleep, lose weight, and eventually, stop giving milk.

goats

It is the job of the children to brush the gappers off their family’s goats, gather the gappers in sacks, and empty the sacks into the sea. It takes the gappers three hours to crawl out of the ocean, up the cliff and back onto the goats. Therefore, the children must perform this task eight times a day. Every day.

dumping

Capable’s house is closest to the sea so the gappers always reach her goats first. When one marginally smarter gapper realizes that they can get all the goats they need from this one family, things become unbalanced.

The Romos and Ronsens couldn’t be more pleased to be relieved of their brushing duties and are all too vocal about it. Now Capable is doing the work of three families all by herself and she cannot keep up. Despite her father’s wishes, Capable asks the neighbors for help. Not only are they not willing to help, but they also blame Capable for bringing this plague upon herself! In fact, they’ve moved their houses farther away from hers so as not to “catch” whatever it is she has that brought all the gappers to her yard, instead of spreading out over all three yards.

Capable can take no more. Though her neighbors tell her she should work harder, smarter and more efficiently than physically possible, she rounds up all her goats and sells them in a nearby town. Capable knows she tried her best and her best hadn’t worked. She decides to take up fishing; something that no one in Frip has done for quite a long time.

The gappers are forced to move onto the next family’s goats, those that belong to the Romos. Evidently, it had not occurred to the other families that the gappers would be back to taunt their goats once Capable’s goats were gone. With the tables turned, the Romos now look to the Ronsens for help. The Ronsens, clearly not anticipating what is to come, refuse to help. After a series of ridiculous (yet true to life) strategies to rid themselves of gappers, the Romos and the Ronsens find themselves in dire circumstances. Capable, initially pleased to see the families get their comeuppance, takes pity and invites them for dinner. 

dinner

Finally seeing the wisdom of Capable’s ways, the Romos and the Ronsens decide to sell their goats and take up fishing. And things in this small seaside town get a little better.

fishing

But what of the gappers? With the all the goats gone they need to find a new object of devotion to which they can attach themselves and emit their loving shrieks. They soon find something perfectly suitable to their needs, creating the scene of one of my favorite book endings ever.

 

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