Category Archives: Middle Grade

A Canine Charmer: The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

moscowdogsI’ve been reading a whole lotta dog books lately, mostly about how to train a terrier who is smart enough to open his crate from the inside using only his lips. We are all learning in our house (admittedly, some of us faster than others). So when Rachelle Delaney’s new middle grade novel, The Metro Dogs of Moscow, snuck to the top of my TBR pile, I was powerless to resist. A mystery… starring a dog… a terrier type dog? Of course I jumped at it (a little bit like a certain naughty hound I wrangle on a daily basis).

This quick read is chipper and charming, just right for young readers who are beginning to get their feet wet with longer chapter books. Here’s the premise. JR (short for Jack Russell) travels the world with his person, George, who works as a diplomat. Sounds exciting, right? JR doesn’t see it that way. Now that they’ve landed in Moscow, JR is beginning to get tired of the roving life. He wants to stay in one place, and more than anything, he wants to go off leash for a while and really have a chance to live a little. Then one night, all it takes is an open window and just like that, JR runs off into the city, leaving his drab days in the dust. He meets The Coolest Dogs Ever, aka the Metro Dogs of Moscow. These amazing, street-smart strays show JR the sites and they also fill him in on a mystery that is affecting their crew: strays are disappearing all over the city. JR doesn’t turn back, and soon enough, he is wrapped up in an adventure he will never forget.

It’s hard to resist a book with such a motley collection of canine stars. Before you can say Kroshka Kartoshka (delish stuffed hot potatoes), JR will skip his way straight into your heart, circle around a couple of times, and lie down there to stay for a while. The opening bit, when JR experiences some inner turmoil over having done A Very Bad Thing, completely cracked me up. Any dog owner knows how it goes. Dog does A Very Bad Thing. Dog feels Really Awful. You are Very Mad at Dog. Then, before you know it, somehow, said Bad Dog is curled up with you on the couch and you are holding his rawhide chew for him so that he can enjoy more fully. How? Why? Now that is a doggy mystery.

Joking aside, Delaney must be a dog person. Her dog characters are not just cute, they are nicely differentiated and memorable. The Russian setting comes to life as the hounds tear all over the city, racing to solve the mystery before more of their friends disappear. There’s a classic feel to this story. I don’t know if it’s the shape of the story that makes it seem like a timeless adventure for children, the warm atmosphere, or the lightness Delaney imbues throughout. Whatever the magic, it really works. You could put this in the hands of just about any young reader and chances are, they’d gobble it up. It is the kind of book I would have adored when I was nine or so. I will be finding many nine year olds to read it very soon.

FYI, JR made me think of two Jack Russell’s on film. Cosmo, from the most wonderful movie, Beginners, and Uggie from The Artist. Check out their cuteness:

Also, here’s a lovely interview with Rachelle by Vikki, over at Pipdreaming.

The Metro Dogs of Moscow is published by Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Canada.


Light as a feather: Destiny, Rewritten by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

destinySometimes the second you lay eyes a book, you cannot wait to read it. That’s how I felt when I first saw Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s new middle grade novel, Destiny, Rewritten. Everything about that cover (by Erwin Madrid) speaks to my inner 11-year-old, and I’ll bet it will speak to a whole lot of actual 11-year-olds too. I mean, what’s not to love, from the point of view of a starry-eyed, fashionably cute, bookstore-loving, cat obsessed girl? Even the title font is pretty much spot on, promising a little whimsy and romance and some artsy flair. Add the soft, magic-is-about-to-happen lighting from above, and I’m sold. Bam. Done. My only complaint, post-read, is that the cute kitty does not feature in the story, which seems misleading, since he features so prominently on the front. (And clearly he has a story. I mean, look at that face!)

So it was with a heart full of expectation that I began to read about the life and adventures of eleven-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis, who is destined to become a poet, just like Emily Dickinson, because that is who she was named after. Emily’s mother, herself a poet, and a rather flaky, destiny-loving lady, named her daughter after ED in the hopes that her daughter would grow up to be a remarkable poet as well. Too bad Emily has no talent for poetry, or any interest in it really. She would rather read romance novels, and imagine her future as a famous writer in the tradition of Danielle Steel, to whom she writes frequent letters. She hasn’t told her mom about all this… yet. Things get complicated when Emily finds out that her mother, who has kept the identity of Emily’s dad secret, reveals that she wrote his name into the special volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that Emily has treasured for as long as she can remember. But before Emily can find this life-changing information, the book is lost. So begins her search to find the book, find out the truth about her father, and hopefully, discover her true destiny along the way.

There’s a lot to love in this gentle story. Fitzmaurice creates a wonderfully realistic relationship between Emily and her best friend Wavey. I particularly appreciated the dialogue between the two of them. I like the way it bounces back and forth, with each one of the kids adding on to what the other one says, finishing up the other’s thoughts in that way that real friends sometimes do. You really believe in their friendship. The setting, Berkeley, California, comes across as quirky and warm. Emily writes to her author-hero, Danielle Steel, and the letters are delightful little funny and heartwarming treats scattered throughout the narrative. In fact, heartwarming is pretty much the perfect word for this whole book. I also like it when an author is successful in bringing together different narrative threads in a way that doesn’t feel contrived, but rather captures how life can surprise us with circumstances that might be destiny, or perhaps only strange coincidences.

Just two complaints. First, sometimes Emily’s language did not ring true for an eleven-year-old. It came off as too adult in places. I’ve listened to many an eleven-year-old, and there were moments when Emily’s way of speaking / thinking seemed far too adult to be convincing. This was occasionally distracting. Also, while I get that Emily’s mom was meant to be flaky, she came off a little one-dimensional and hard to believe a lot of the time. I found her unsympathetic overall, almost like she was toying with her daughter’s emotions by being such a slave to the notion of everything being destined. I found it hard to think that a mother would treat her daughter’s desire to know her father with such a lack of seriousness and respect, almost as if it was a kind of game.

Destiny, Rewritten is an Indiebound Kid’s Pick for Spring, and I can see why. Pick it up and you’ll be delighted you did.

Destiny, Rewritten is published by Katherine Tegen Books.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home

Amy Timberlake photo_credit MJ Alexander

One Came Home coverThere’s Amy! Doesn’t that picture make you want to go do some snow angels? I’m so happy to be welcoming Amy Timberlake to Shelf Elf to talk about the writing life, and her latest book, One Came Home. 

Amy grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin. She has an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she’s also taught writing. She’s worked as a book reviewer, a book event coordinator, and as a children’s bookseller. Her previous books include That Girl Lucy Moon and The Dirty Cowboy. The Dirty Cowboy was illustrated by Adam Rex and won SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award. That Girl Lucy Moon was chosen as a Book Sense Pick, a NYPL’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing,” a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2007, an Amelia Bloomer Book, and the winner of the Friends of American Writers Literary Award. Amy Timberlake lives with her husband in Chicago.

If you haven’t read One Came Home, you really must. Everyone who is anyone is giving it stars all over the place. Like Kirkus, and School Library Journal, and The Horn Book. Wow, right? It’s the kind of story that will grab you and not let go, with strong, lean writing, plus a main character with enough sass, gumption, and heart to make you want to harness up something and go searching for an adventure of your own. I loved it.

Welcome Amy!

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

First thing that popped in my mind? Oprah. Isn’t that hilarious? It’s a cliché, but Oprah inspired me, like she’s inspired millions of others. Anyway, back in the 90s, Oprah authored a book with Bob Greene, the exercise guy. (Was it Make the Connection? I’m not sure of the title.) I probably read it to get myself exercising, but what stuck was this: In her introduction, Oprah wrote: “Just do it.” Right then, something clicked—not about exercising (I wish) but about writing. At that moment I knew I was never going to have enough time or inspiration for writing. I realized that if I wanted to be a writer—and I would have told you I desperately wanted to be a writer—I was going to have to “just do it.” That’s when I started scheduling my writing time and being disciplined about it. I learned then that you can make time for anything—you just have to decide that what you’re doing is worth being a priority. Yes, it means making hard choices (and possibly being your parents’ worst nightmare). In my case it meant taking jobs that didn’t require work after hours, and turning down promotions so I’d have more time to write.

By the way, there’s good news too! Through the discipline I did find the time, and experienced all sorts of inspiration. So all the stuff I fantasized about “a writing life” came about, but through established writing habit.

Other things? Every writing residency I’ve done has been helpful in teaching me how to live without the distractions of daily life (extremely helpful). I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. (My anxieties are a lot like hers, but don’t tell anyone.) And when I’m writing, I like to have a door to shut out the world.

Is that five? I hope that’s five. I should have warned you that I’m extremely long-winded…

What are some things – other than imagining great stories and writing them down – that would make it onto your list of favourite things to do?

I’ve got lots of favorite things I like to do! I love reading novels. I’m way into cooking and farmer’s markets. I’m also a big walker and am exploring living without a car (we have one, but I try to use it as little as possible). And I’m re-discovering photography, which was something I loved as a kid. I just got my first DSLR and I gotta say that learning all these buttons, dials, knobs, menus and terms is rough, but I’m committed. Plus, photography goes well with long walks, so it’s a total win-win.

What did ONE CAME HOME teach you about writing?

I learned that there’s a way to do historical fiction that’s like writing science fiction. The birds in ONE CAME HOME are unbelievable—just crazy. There were days I was certain I was describing some alternative universe, but this world happened in 1871 in Wisconsin. You have got to be kidding me! Still, it did. Wow. Continue reading

The Spindlers

Gosh it’s nice to read such a good yarn, because that’s how I’d describe Lauren Oliver‘s new middle grade novel, The Spindlers. It’s the kind of book you want to escape into, curled up under a blanket on a chilly day. 

When the spindlers steal Liza’s brother’s soul, only Liza knows what must be done. She descends Below to rescue Patrick’s soul, to an otherworldly place filled with strange creatures. Some are helpful, like the lumer-lumpen, who light the woodland paths, and the nocturni, the caretakers of human souls. Others are terrifying, like the scrags, the shape-shifting lizard-like minions of the spindler queen. Oliver’s book has all of the trademarks of a fine quest story, and as Liza makes her way, relying on her wits and the help of those she meets, the narrative will call to mind some of the best-loved books about venturing to other worlds, such as Coraline, Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland.

There’s something comfortable about recognizing the conventions of a particular type of story, don’t you think? It’s a mixture of feeling reassured and delighted, like when it’s getting close to Christmas and you start taking out all of your most loved decorations and setting them up around the house. “Oh yes, there you are!” you think when you unwrap your favourite ornaments after months of forgetting about them. So in The Spindlers, when you first meet the eccentric talking rat Mirabella, you soon see that she will be Liza’s guide on her adventure and it starts feeling like the story is falling into place in a way that is familiar and magical at once. By the time I reached the last part of the story and it became clear that it was going to end with a “test of wills” where Liza would have to outsmart the spindler queen in order to win her brother’s soul, I was a very satisfied reader. I love that plot element of many quest stories.  

What I think is special about The Spindlers is that Oliver manages to offer readers a conventional quest structure, but with more than enough creativity in the world and characters she has imagined to make the book feel different and memorable in its own right. I’d say it’s less frightening than Coraline, but just as captivating. I think it could be quite something in a graphic novel format too. Iacopo Bruno’s striking cover certainly gets me wishing that there were some illustrations scattered throughout the book. A gorgeous new adventure that belongs right next to some of the great classics, The Spindlers will be winning over readers for a long time to come.

The Spindlers is published by Harper.

We interrupt this picture book challenge for a Wookiee Break: The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee

Um, before I get started here, I just realized that Wookiee has two “ee”s in it, not one, like cookie. But don’t worry folks, you’re in good hands, I swear. While it may be true that I am no Star Wars aficionado, I know a thing or two about what kids like when it comes to books. For instance, I can tell you that every single copy of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda in my library, and my one copy of Darth Paper Strikes Back, were checked out on the first day of book exchange. Gone. One of the borrowers had already read all three books in Tom Angleberger’s series and now he was starting over again. When I told another kid that there was a new third book, The Secret of the Fortune Wookie, our conversation went something like this:

Me: So I see you’re taking out Darth Paper Strikes Back. Have you read the first one in the series, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda?

Kid: Yeah. (*Expression says, “Of course I have. Hasn’t everyone?”*)

Me: Great! Did you know there’s a third book out now? The Secret of the Fortune Wookie? It’s really good. I’m sure you’re going to love it, in fact -”

Kid: Do we have it in the library? (*Tone says, “Cut the chit chat lady and just gimme the book already.”)

So as you can see, Angleberger’s series has a devoted following. Every one of the aforementioned borrowers was male, and I’m cool with that, but I really think that if girls gave this series a shot, they’d find these books as fun and funny as the boys do, and really true in their portrayal of middle school culture.

McQuarrie Middle School is not the same. Since Dwight is at Tippett Academy for a semester, it means no Origami Yoda to advise and entertain the McQuarrie crew. But then Sara shows up with a freshly folded origami oracle: The Fortune Wookiee. She says it’s a gift from Dwight. It gives advice, just like Yoda. So the gang decides to determine whether the Wookiee’s advice (as interpreted by Han Foldo) is any good. A new case file is opened and things get weird. But what’s really weird is the way that Dwight is adjusting to his new school. As reports of Dwight come in, it seems that he has become… normal? How can this be? Normal Dwight is not normal. This is more mysterious – and even harder to understand – than the Fortune Wookiee himself.

To get the most of Book 3, you want to start from the beginning of the series. I like the way Angleberger is developing the characters and their relationships. There is such realism in the way that they relate to each other. They aren’t precious. If a character thinks another character is acting stupid, he just says so. Kids are usually honest like that. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about each other, it’s just how they work. The whole series so far has really focused on Dwight’s strangeness and his creativity, and I think that in this installment the theme of difference gets explored most fully, in a non-cheesy way. Hopefully kids will see how you can look at “weirdness” differently, as something to be appreciated and even admired. Someone who is “weird” sees things differently, and sometimes that means that this person gives us things that nobody else does.

You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to delight in these books. I’m proof of that, and I plan to work on getting some of the girls reading Dork Diaries and Raina Telgemeier’s books to try a little Origami Yoda for something different.

Now go make a Wookiee:

The One and Only Ivan

Often, the longer a book sits in my TBR pile, the less likely I am to read it. It gets forgotten, or it loses its initial appeal. Then there are the books in the pile that you look at and you think, “Oh, yeah! I still really want to read that one. I’ve got to get to it.” And months pass. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, somehow ended up stuck for ages in TBR status, and reading it has made me wonder what other miracle books might be in that pile, because I think this book is one miraculous book.

The One and Only Ivan is the story of a gorilla who lives in a cement and metal “domain” in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He’s been there for 27 years. There’s a jungle scene painted on one wall of his cage and people pay to see him, though not as many as when he was young. Ivan is alone in his domain, but he has friends: Stella the elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who forages for scraps in the Mall trash. There’s also Julia, the daughter of the man who cleans the mall at night. She likes to draw the animals, and talk to them. Ivan is an artist too. He paints what he sees in his cage, mostly apple cores and banana peels. He wishes he could draw something that doesn’t yet exist, that he only imagines, but he’s not unhappy with his ordinary pictures. As the mall starts losing money, the owner, Mack, brings a baby elephant to be part of the show and hopefully to drum up business. Ruby’s arrival signals a change in Ivan. He promises Stella that he will protect Ruby no matter what and find a way to get Ruby to a safe place. It will take all of his courage, creativity, and hope, to make good on that promise.

And FYI, you will be needing tissues.

Applegate’s prose has a pared down quality that brings it close to poetry. The directness and simplicity of the language fits with how you might imagine a gorilla to think and perceive the world. Each short chapter is perfectly shaped for great emotional impact. It’s not often you find a book that will not intimidate a less confident reader but that still has such rich themes and gorgeous writing. I’d feel confident putting this one in the hands of a child who is more reluctant as well as an avid reader. It will prompt thinking and discussion about the issues connected to humans’ use of animals for profit, but also inter-species understanding, and compassion. The gentle sweetness of Patricia Castelao’s spot illustrations enhance the reading experience. Can you say perfect read aloud? Teachers everywhere, take note. You want this one.

Here’s a Q&A with Katherine Applegate, and you should take a look at the website for the book where there’s some extra information for curious readers and for teachers to bring into the classroom.

The One and Only Ivan is published by Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.


Kevin Henkes’ Junonia has been on my list for ages, and when my eye chanced upon it at the bookstore last week it felt like fate. Right now, at the end of a turning point summer in our house, might be the perfect moment to read it. Before I get to the story, I have to mention that as an object, this is such a pretty book. You just want to hold it and gaze at it. It has weight, the right paper, a striking cover, simple and evocative illustrations to open each chapter. It’s just an elegant package. It begs to be adorned with a shimmery ribbon and placed in the hands of a turning-ten birthday girl.

Junonia opens as only child, Alice Rice, returns to the beach cottage where she and her parents have always spent her birthday. This is an important year because she will be turning double digits: 10. She wants everything – the beach, her party, the whole summer – to be perfect. But when special friends don’t return, and her Aunt Kate brings along a new boyfriend and his difficult daughter Mallory, it seems that nothing is going to be right, let alone perfect. Woven into this is Alice’s wish to find a rare junonia shell for her collection. For the first time, she feels disappointment creeping into her beloved beach vacation.

This is a quintessential “summer that everything changed” middle grade novel, but it is graceful and remarkable because it is so understated. Henkes conveys Alice’s emotions with beautiful subtlety and truth. There are lovely poetic details throughout, particularly in his descriptions of the natural world. Kids will certainly appreciate and connect with Alice’s devotion to tradition and her disappointment and difficulty when what she loves and expects becomes something new. This is a book about simple pleasures and feeling safe and loved in your family, no matter how small it might be.

Junonia is a delicate work of art, and, like its namesake, it leaves you feeling lucky to have found it.

Junonia is published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

I’d say that The Penderwicks might be the perfect fictional family to spend a little time with when the real world feels crappy and overwhelming. There’s something about Birdsall’s blend of sweet sisterly affection, family melodrama, gentle humour, and happy endings, that can make a girl feel hopeful again. Sure, some might say that these books stretch belief because they seem too good to be true, perhaps a little precious in places, but you know what, sometimes everyone needs a little too good to be true. Sign me up.

This third book in the series follows most of the Penderwick family as they head to Point Mouette for a summer vacation. Rosalind is visiting a friend in New Jersey, and Mr. Penderwick is off on his honeymoon, so Skye must take on the role of the Oldest Available Penderwick, much to her distress. In preparation, she makes a huge list of things to remember in order to take the best possible care of her littlest sister, Batty. Of course, this list gets destroyed, leaving Skye to struggle along and figure out how to be responsible by herself. All three of the sisters come into their own through their new experiences. Growing up is bumpy, but it’s all so much nicer when you have sisters you can depend on.

As with the past Penderwick stories, the adventures here are the kinds of adventures that real kids have, not very big, but seeming to be big to those involved. I like that aspect of Birdsall’s writing very much. She is incredibly successful at making what is important and exciting and challenging for kids come across as important and exciting enough to propel her plot forward and keep the reader invested. It’s also wonderful how this author succeeds in crafting each of the sisters as fully their own person, three-dimensional, with unique traits and voice without making any of them seem forced or hard to believe or over-written.

Yes, there is a pretty big coincidence at the heart of this story, but you know what, I’m okay with that, and I think that old and new Penderwick fans will be too. Ms. Birdsall writes with such grace, creating a wonderfully classic world in these books, that somehow I think I could believe in just about anything she put on the page.

Perfect for wrapping you up in warmth when life gets tough, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette will make you feel good about life, the universe, and everything.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is published by Knopf.


The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook

Joanne Rocklin’s The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is pretty special. It’s about cats and family and sibling relationships and home and loss and community. It packs a lot of depth into a short, poetic, and often funny narrative. It made me cry. It made me think. It made me want to hug my cat and never, ever let him go. (He’s good with that, by the way).

Wait a sec, now we must pause for picture of said remarkable kitty:

That’s my Yoyo. He’s beautiful, right?

So the book introduces us to Oona and her little brother Fred and at the beginning they are coping with the tough experience of leaving their beloved cat Zook at the vet. Zook is really sick and the vet is doing what he can, but from the kids’ perspective, it’s not enough. The siblings are sure that Zook needs to come home to get better and they come up with a plan to break Zook out of the vet. Alongside this, Oona does her best to reassure / distract her brother from worrying about Zook by telling him “whoppers,” or stories, about Zook’s imaginary past lives. There are connections between the stories and what is going on in the kids’ lives and what has happened in the past, including their father’s death two years ago. I think the book trailer really captures the whimsical and kind of homespun feeling of this book. Take a look:

One of the many impressive things about Joanne Rocklin’s work is how she manages to explore difficult topics head on like the death of a family member or a dear pet, but she does it in such a thoughtful and gentle way that you feel the complexity and sadness without being overwhelmed by it. This is not a depressing book. It’s not an issue book, best shelved alongside other books for kids that “deal with death.” It’s much more layered than that and so I think it will appeal to a wide audience. It’s for a kid who loves stories about animals, or who wants to become a writer, or who is experiencing changes in his or her family and doesn’t know how it will all turn out. It’s hopeful and honest and it will make readers want to reach out to the people in their lives and appreciate what they have. You might need kleenex in a few places, but by the end, you’ll be smiling. This is a good one folks. Don’t miss it.

The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is published by Amulet Books.

Dumpling Days

Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days is a book that is so easy to like. It has believable and sweet family dynamics, gentle humour, a wonderful sense of place, and a lot of talk about dumplings. It’s always great to discover a book that is perfectly written for the age group, that you feel you can place in a child’s hands and know that it is exactly right in terms of reading level, characterization, and thematic development. Grace Lin really understands her audience. As I was reading, I could bring to mind several children who come to the library who would be just right readers for Dumpling Days.

Here’s a lovely video intro to the book:

This is a smiley-face kind of book, meaning that pretty much the whole time you’re reading, you’re also smiling. The interactions between the siblings are spot on, and the extended family members and people they meet on the trip come to life memorably as well. It’s refreshing to read about a family that isn’t messed up, or on the flip side, comes off as too good to be true. The Lins are just real. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they don’t get each other, sometimes they feel misunderstood, but through it all they are glad to be a family.

Perhaps the best part of the book (though it’s hard to name the best because the whole is so well done) is the way that Lin evokes Taiwan and a child’s experience of the country – mostly urban experiences. You learn a lot about the country through this book, with an appealing focus on the food. So much so that a) I now want to eat a lot of dumplings, and b) I would recommend this book to an adult who was thinking of a trip to Taiwan as a way of selling them on the idea. I’d never thought about going to Taiwan and Dumpling Days made me see why I might really enjoy a visit.

If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, you should. As for Dumpling Days, I think kids will find it cozy and friendly and they’ll close the book with smiles on their faces and grumbly tummies. Five dumplings out of five.

Dumpling Days is published by Little, Brown. Thanks for the review copy!