When Back-to-School means Middle School

I grew up in the woods. Our house wasn’t isolated in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains or anything, but it was at the end of a court on a five acre wooded property. I spent my summers in those woods, hunting crawdads and tadpoles and anything else that moved. My sister and I operated out of our clubhouse, which we decorated with paints we made from different colors of clay in the creek bed. We “cooked” all kinds of “food” for our poor old labrador, most of it from grass and acorns. Children are the ultimate foragers, and in the woods, we were content.

But summers end, and by about mid-August it was time to go back to school. I loved school. Learning from my teachers was heaven and homework was my jam. Elementary school was fun overall. I had friends and sleepovers and spats, but nothing too serious. Then it was time for middle school.

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I remember showing up at the building that first morning and feeling so intimidated by the school’s three stories. My primary and elementary schools had been single story buildings that were pretty easy to navigate, thanks to being quite small. Both have since been significantly expanded, and when I drive by the buildings I always think about how much more those children have to be prepared for these days.

Middle school turned out to be impossible to prepare for.

First of all, there was the gigantic, open common area where kids gathered in the morning as they arrived on the school buses. The commons was just a foyer, really, but having the freedom to wander wherever I wanted was uncomfortable for me. I craved rules and directions and teachers who told you exactly where to stand and what to do. Middle school had a whole lot less of that, which left me unsettled.

Without the rules, I didn’t really know where I belonged. All the other kids seemed to have it figured out. They rushed around, smiling and giggling, shouting with each other in clusters around the commons, grouped around benches or sitting boldly in the middle of the floor. I wasn’t without friends, but even standing with them I felt unmoored. All of that freedom was overwhelming.

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I remember the way it felt, walking in each morning from the bus with my friends. Would we sit on the same bench again that day? Would they think my story about my little sister cutting off her doll’s hair was funny? Or would this be the day that my friends stopped talking to me? That kind of thing happened all the time in middle school. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, in between battles to force my hair into place with ridiculous amounts of hairspray.

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Looking back, I don’t see what I was so worried about, with my friends or my hair. Both were fine, really! It was just so easy to obsess over something new every day, from how tight to roll my jeans to whether or not to wear a bra. There were so many new things to learn about and tough decisions to make. Sometimes, being eleven is just so much.

For all the kids facing their first day of middle school: your feelings are valid. Middle school really is a big deal. Adults can be quick to dismiss middle school “drama,” but the truth is that you are growing up, and that is no small achievement.

You will find your place. I promise.

What to Read Next?

Over the summer I had a conversation with some of my favorite educators on Twitter about contemporary middle grade stories that pair well with Counting Thyme. I’m a huge fan of many of the books they suggested, so I’m sharing them here today. If you or your students loved THYME, your next favorite read could be one of these great books!

Rules by Cynthia Lord

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The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

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Out of my Mind by Sharon M. Draper

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So B It by Sarah Weeks

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Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

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The Distance to Home by Jenn Bishop

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The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

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A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

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The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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Thanks to my wonderful Twitter peeps for helping me put this list together (shout-out to the #bookjourney crew)! I love read-alikes, which give us such a great opportunity to make connections across characters and stories. Feel free to share your faves and recommendations in the comments below. And if you’ve read THYME, don’t miss the reader participation campaign that launched this week!

Read on!

:)

Mel

What is it about Middle Grade?

Whenever I get into a discussion with fellow fans of middle grade books, talk quickly turns into a love fest. We can barely breathe for scrambling to say all of the things we love about reading this special category of books.

It’s so genuine!
There’s honesty and sadness and hope and humor!
Middle grade hits the sweet spot in growing up!
It’s so . . . SPECIAL.

I couldn’t agree more with that last one. Middle grade IS special. I think for us grownup readers,  middle grade harkens back to a particularly resonant time in our childhoods. It is during the middle grade years (8-12 years old) that we get our first glimpse of the real world. Our first big heartbreaks. Our first brush with mortality. Our first considerations and worries about the future.

It’s not that younger readers or kids don’t share these same moments, but there’s something about that age–6th grade in particular–where the training wheels come off and you are facing the world less as a child of your parents and more as an individual. It takes many years for that transformation to be fully complete, but the rush of hormones and middle school ushers it in with a bang.

That’s why there will always be a special place in my heart for middle grade stories. They are some of my all time favorites: The Secret Garden, The BFG, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, When You Reach Me, One for the Murphys, and SO many more.

As part of a 2016 debut author group called the Sweet Sixteens, I’ve had the privilege of reading many 2016 middle grade titles ahead of time, and honestly, I’m impressed. The middle grade fiction coming in 2016 offers such a range of story content and such a high level of writing craft that I’m beyond proud to share the debut shelf with these authors. I am grateful.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming 2016 middle grade debuts, we have a series of flyers that will introduce you to the titles. Here’s the first one! Happy reading, everyone!

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Books for Boys

I can’t tell you how often I hear friends looking for book recommendations for their middle grade aged boys on the Facebook, or on the blacktop after school. It’s hard to find books for this age set if you’re not tuned in to reading blogs and Newbery lists.

To be clear, by middle grade I mean grades 3 through 7, age 8 to 12 (roughly). Anyone can enjoy a middle grade read, but in terms of content as appropriate to age of reader, this is the rough guideline for the designation. For example, if you’re not ready for your child to read THE HUNGER GAMES because of the overall concept of kids fighting kids to the death, then middle grade is where you want to go for some great books.

Now, as far as the gender thing goes, I firmly believe that anyone can enjoy any book, if it’s the right book for them. Middle grade is a great source for books that appeal to both genders, with the acknowledgement that individual readers will have their own tastes, and that’s okay!

With no further blabbery from me, here’s a list of some FABULOUS middle grade reads, ones that offer plenty of action, humor, and heart:

The Riverman (The Riverman Trilogy, #1)
THE RIVERMAN by Aaron Starmer
The Dragonet Prophecy (Wings of Fire, #1)
THE DRAGONET PROPHECY by Tui T. Sutherland
The Great Greene Heist
THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson
The Fourteenth Goldfish
THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH by Jennifer L. Holm
Steering Toward Normal
STEERING TOWARD NORMAL by Rebecca Petruck
By the Grace of Todd
BY THE GRACE OF TODD by Louise Galveston
The Wednesday Wars
THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary Schmidt
Frindle
FRINDLE by Andrew Clements

 

A Few Great Reads

Here are my latest five star YA reads! Plus, a great MG author to discover and a captivating adult noir read from my book club. I also read quite a few other strong books in the last month or two, so you can always find me on GoodReads for more recommendations.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A captivating story with a unique world and compelling characters that will steal your heart and keep you turning pages through the night!

All Our Yesterdays (All Our Yesterdays #1)All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a unique concept, and so very well executed. From the lovely, clear prose to the quiet, wrenching moments, All Our Yesterday’s has everything you could ever want in a YA read. Highly recommended.

Two Boys KissingTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not just a story, but all of our stories–such a close examination of what it is to live and love, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It took me a few pages to relax into the narrative style, but once I did I could not read quickly enough nor slowly enough, and often found myself stopping to read again, and again, as the meaning and phrases built momentum, propelling the story forward, and taking me with it. I loved following the many different characters, as they took their separate yet entwined journeys. I loved the effortless sense of place and self Levithan develops with his beautiful yet understated imagery. And I loved the bare honesty he put upon the page, something I aspire to in my own writing. While this is not a light everyday read, it is a worthy read, and one that will take up a place in your heart.

Thanks to a recommendation from my lovely agent, I’ve recently discovered Cynthia Kadohata’s work, and I recommend it to anyone who loves deep, character-driven middle grade!

The Thing About LuckThe Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell in love with the writing and characters here, and am eager to read Kira-Kira now.

I don’t fit in a ton of adult fiction these days, but this book was well worth my time:

The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book with my book club in November, and it was unlike much I’d read before. Fans of Gone Girl will surely enjoy this story.

View all my reviews

For the Love of Contemporary

I’ve read some great YA contemporaries of late. Aristotle & Dante was my favorite–perhaps my favorite book of the year. As I enter into revisions on my MG novel, I’m on to MG contemporaries for a while (and a little YA fantasy for fun), but if you’re looking for a great read, check these titles out!

The Tragedy PaperThe Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very skillful exploration of tragedy as a theme, with an interesting cast of characters and a hook that draws you in right at the beginning. Our present day MC is Duncan, who arrives at his boarding school to discover that the boy who had the room before him left him a pile of CDs. On the CDs are hours of recordings, recordings that hold the secret to what happened to that boy, Tim, the year before–a mystery that plays out in a heartfelt way that kept me turning pages.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book contains some of the loveliest writing I have encountered in a novel of late. I think that speaks to the author’s background in poetry–absolutely gorgeous, uncluttered prose. And paired with such a wonderful and touching story. I loved every single page. Ten out of five stars!

OCD Love StoryOCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful YA voice and a fascinating topic.

View all my reviews

A Newbery First!

This was the first year I waited with true excitement to find out who won the Newbery Medal. Sure, I’ve read a TON of Newbery and Caldecott books over the years, but this was the first year I felt a personal connection to the awards. Because I’m writing these kind of books now (MG, not Newbery winners. Puh-leaze.).

And I can imagine everything it took for these books to make it onto the page, into print, onto the shelves, and into readers’ hands. Wow. What an astounding accomplishment. I offer my sincere congratulations to all of the winners today, and to every writer out there walking the path, putting words to paper every day.

2013 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature:
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

 

2013 Newbery Honors go to:

 

  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
  • Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

 

2013 Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children:

This Is Not My Hat illustrated and written by Jon Klassen
2013 Caldecott Honors go to:

 

  • Creepy Carrots! illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds
  • Extra Yarn illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett
  • Green illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
  • One Cool Friend illustrated by David Small, written by Toni Buzzeo
  • Sleep Like a Tiger illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue

2013 Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults:

 

In Darkness by Nick Lake

 

2013 Printz Honors go to:

 

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett
  • The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna

 

2013 Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences:

 

  • Caring is Creepy by David Zimmerman
  • Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
  • Juvenile in Justice by Richard Ross
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
  • One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard
  • Pure by Julianna Baggott
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

 

2013 Odyssey Award for best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States:

The Fault in Our Stars produced by Brilliance Audio.  The book is written by John Green and narrated by Kate Rudd.

2013 Odyssey Honors go to:

 

  • Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian produced by Listening Library, written by Eoin Colfer and narrated by Nathaniel Parker;
  • Ghost Knight produced by Listening Library, written by Cornelia Funke and narrated by Elliot Hill; and
  • Monstrous Beauty produced by Macmillian Audio, written by Elizabeth Fama and narrated by Katherine Kellgren.
 
2013 Pura Belpré (Author) Award:

 


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
2013 Pura Belpre’ Honors go to:

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
2013 Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Award:

Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert  illustrated by David Diaz, written by Gary D. Schmidt

 

2013 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children:
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
2013  Sibert Honors go to:

 

  • Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin written and illustrated by Robert Byrd
  • Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip M. Hoose
  • Titanic: Voices from the Disaster written by Deborah Hopkinson

2013 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book:
Up, Tall and High! written and illustrated by Ethan Long
2013 Geisel Honors go to:

 

  • Let’s Go for a Drive! written and illustrated by Mo Willems
  • Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin, created and illustrated by James Dean
  • Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover written and illustrated by Cece Bell

 

2013 William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens:
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

 

In with the New

It’s the first day of 2013, and I’ve already written the wrong date on four different things. I wonder how long it’ll take me to adjust this year. Usually, I’m good by May. Although every once in a while I’ll spit out a random date from the ’90’s, and wonder how exactly my brain manages to function at all. Usually, these random retro dates make their appearance on something completely unimportant, like a water bill (note: water companies do not like ten-year-old checks).

2012 was a quick year for me–my first full year of writing stuff. To celebrate the completion of my latest MS, I spent much of December reading great YA and writing very little. In fact, the only thing I wrote the entire month were notes, in my journals, on the beach, in Jamaica (go ahead and hate me, I can take it).

I just dug the sandy, wrinkled notebooks out of my beach bag, which I sadly have little use for now in the frozen, snowy tundra of New Jersey. I’m looking at these notes and feeling that feeling–you know, the one where you feel pukey and impatient and shy all at once? Yeah. That’s right. Pre-REVISION nerves.

This week, I’m diving back in to the middle grade project that my wonderful betas read during December. I filled up my notebooks armed with their notes. Now I just have to translate all of this mess into a revised novel. No biggie.

And in two weeks, I’m meeting some of these uh-maaaaazing CPs for the very first time in the flesh. I’m super excited. I hope we click as well in person as we do over the wires. I hope my freakishly loud laugh doesn’t scare them away. And I hope we all keep moving forward, creating new things, putting them into the world, and making the most of our time in it. Happy New Year, everyone!

Look What Came in the Mail this Week!

Last week I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of Middleworld during #MGLitChat, and this week the book arrived, thoughtfully inscribed to my two little boys :) They felt like celebrities–what a wonderful thing for the authors to do! Thank you J&P Voelkel, we are really looking forward to reading your book.