This post is about not so much a book as a person. Raina Telgemeier is the fabulous, fantastic author of Smile, Drama, and Sisters.
Smile takes the (true) story of dental insanity and turns it into a long-term coming-of-age tale (which helped inspire Cece Bell to write El Deafo as a graphic novel). Drama takes on the big world of middle school theater. And Sisters is, of course, about sibling rivalry (and baring your teeth at your sister, apparently).
Telgemeier’s books are just really, really good middle grade, period. Like, I’d be happy to read these stories in a text-only format, I’d be happy to watch them on TV (preferably Degrassi), I’d be happy to have my little cousin act them out for me using only her words and her twelve-year-old feelings.
But I’m happiest to read them as graphic novels because Telgemeier’s visual storytelling is so spot on. Who can take a ubiquitous image like a yellow smiley face and turn it into something so totally associated with her story that she can use it again as a self-reference on a second book cover? Raina Telgemeier can.
Also, apparently she wrote the graphic novel versions of The Babysitters Club. So I’m adding all of those to my library holds list immediately.
One day late, because I’m bad at days… here’s Sidekicks by Dan Santat.
Sidekicks is one of those brilliant books with a concept so simple, so original, but so based in something familiar that it practically sells itself. We’ve got ourselves a washed up superhero looking for a way to break back into the business.
This is concept art because Dan Santat and the internet are amazing.
And we’ve got ourselves his motley crew of household pets. They enjoy being lazy, as pets are wont to do.
When Captain Amazing decides to start searching for a new sidekick, the pets get understandably jealous. And self-righteous. Each of them wants the sidekick job. And silliness and adventure ensue.
This book is just pure fun. Go read it now. (And then go read The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Dan Santat’s 2015 Caldecott-Medal-winning picture book. He’s got the chops.)
Maybe it’s just vanity, but I think that, for the most part at least, we’ve been pretty creative this month with our selections. From picture book characters to real-life serial killers to fairy tale villains becoming fairy tale heroines (and vice versa), I feel like each of our subjects plays with the concept of villainy, examines it from a different angle, shakes its foundations a bit.
Pretty great, right? Yeah, I think so, too. But all that ends now, because for October’s final post, I’m here to tell you about a villain who upholds all the stereotypes, a bad guy who slots neatly and comfortably into his role. We all need some nice, refreshing evil every once in a while.
Most Redwall villains are thug types. Stupid brutes with a lot of brawn and a lot less brains. As a child, they bored and frustrated me. But Vilu Daskar, pirate stoat of The Legend of Luke, isn’t like that. He’s elegant and refined and intelligent. He strides the deck of his great red ship in a long crimson cloak, terrifying friend and foe alike with his unpredictability, his malevolence, and his bone-handled scimitar. He positively brims with class.
I’m not giving away much if I tell you that things don’t work out well for ol’ Vilu. He’s a classic villain and so must meet a classic end. But his presence in the story puts a much-needed kink in the chummy, jolly Redwall atmosphere, proving once and for all that there’s nothing like a good bad guy to spice things up.
If we’re going to talk about books about school, then we’re going to have to talk about middle-grade novels. (Middle-grade, for the non-kids-book people out there, are books for right around the eight- to twelve-year-old age bracket. Think Bridge to Terabithia or Walk Two Moons or whatever book you loved best in fifth grade.) And it’s, like, really really hard to pick just one middle-grade novel to represent all the wealth of awesome schoolish books out there. Ramona the Pest (or pretty much anything else) by Beverly Cleary. Frindle by Andrew Clements. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rod Buyea (not quite a classic, but oh, to have a teacher like Mr. Terupt!). And those are just a few of the realistic ones. There are a ton more that are about, I don’t know, wizards or something.
But the one school book that I really want to put in every single person’s hands is Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind.
Melody is a brilliant ten-year-old girl. She’s the most brilliant ten-year-old girl in her whole school—only nobody knows it but her. Because she has cerebral palsy, Melody can’t speak, write, or walk; she’s been in a wheelchair her whole life, and she spends every day at school in a special needs classroom, going over the alphabet over and over, unable to tell anyone what’s on her mind. But when she’s in fifth grade, everything changes at once. The school decides to integrate the special-needs kids into the mainstream classroom, so for the first time, Melody is surrounded by new ideas every day. And, best of all, she finally has a way to express those thoughts that have been bouncing around her head her whole life: she gets a MediTalker, a special computer that can speak for her. Now Melody has a voice—and, just like everyone else, she’s got to figure out how to make herself heard.
My favorite thing about this book is the fact that, ultimately, it’s just a story about a fifth-grade girl trying to find her place. Melody has a very serious physical disability, yes, but she also has a sharp mind and a desire to make friends and a competitive spirit and a talent for leadership. School is the central setting of her life, just like it is for so many fifth graders. But for Melody, her school’s choice to support her needs makes it possible for her to live outwardly as the person she’s always been on the inside.
So I hate to be the guy who quotes from someone else’s review in the middle of my own, especially when that someone is Publisher’s Weekly (not that I have anything against them), but this one is just too perfect, too apt, to resist:
“Few authors explore the theme of what defines a family with more compassion and sensitivity than Paterson.”
And that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what’s so wonderful about The Same Stuff as Stars. Katherine Paterson just gets it.
When we first meet Angel Morgan—our 12-year-old protagonist—nothing is perfect, or great, or even okay about her family. Her father is in jail and her mother is an alcoholic who has abandoned Angel and her little brother at a run down farmhouse with their decrepit great-grandmother. The day her mother drives away, Angel is forced even more completely into an already familiar role: matriarch and provider for herself and her brother. Her only escape is nightly lessons in the stars and planets from a mysterious stranger who brings food for the family and a telescope for stargazing.
This isn’t anywhere near as creepy as it sounds, I promise. It’s not creepy at all, in fact. But it is hard to explain without giving too much away. Suffice to say that Mystery Starman’s intentions are entirely pure, and that, with his help and the help of the stars, Angel finds what she’s looking for. It’s certainly not perfect. In fact, it’s pretty sad. But it’s also strong, and hopeful, and real.