Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - When Life Gives You O.J.

Author: Erica Perl
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (June 14, 2011)
Audience: Ages 8 to 11 years old
Source:  Personal Copy
Realistic Fiction * Family Realtionships * Middle Grade

Description from GoodReads:

For years, 10-year-old Zelly Fried has tried to convince her parents to let her have a dog. After all, practically everyone in Vermont owns a dog, and it sure could go a long way helping Zelly fit in since moving there from Brooklyn. But when her eccentric grandfather Ace hatches a ridiculous plan involving a "practice dog" named OJ, Zelly's not so sure how far she's willing to go to win a dog of her own. Is Ace's plan so crazy it just might work . . . or is it just plain crazy?

Erica S. Perl weaves an affectionate and hilarious tale that captures the enduring bond between grandparents and grandchildren.  Even when they're driving each other nuts.

If anyone tells you that middle grade fiction is just silly or filled with a lot of fluff, hand them a copy of When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica Perl.  Prior to reading this book, I was most familiar with Perl's picture books, especially her Chicken Butt series.  It doesn't take much to know that if you put chicken & butt in the same title you will likely get something hysterical.  So, though I didn't know much about When Life Gives You OJ, one look at the title and cover gave me the idea that maybe I was in for more of Perl's humor.  And humor, I did get.  But I got much, much more than humor.   

Zelly is a 10 year old transplant to Vermont.  Due to life circumstances, Zelly and her family have moved from Brooklyn to Vermont to share a home with her grandfather, Ace.  Right from the beginning, you get to meet Zelly's eccentric grandfather who prefers to be called Ace and who chooses to call Zelly - Kid.  From a crazy note secured to an empty OJ container with a rubber band, you discover something about Ace and Zelly.  Ace knows that Zelly wants a dog more than anything.  His plan - have Zelly show that she is ready for the responsibility of taking care of a dog by practicing on a "practice dog" which just happens to be in the shape of a plastic orange juice jug.  Will the plan work or will Zelly just die of utter embarrassment?  

Just this part of the story alone, would have made for a hilarious read.  However, this really isn't a dog book.  Behind this quirky, fun cover, Perl has disguised this amazingly rich and insightful story about family dynamics and a relationship between a child and a grandparent.  There is definitely an aspect of humor to Perl's story, but if that is all you walk away with, then you haven't really read the book.

Right from the beginning, I appreciated that Perl worked to capture the awkwardness of leaving everything behind for a new and radically different place.  (Just to note - It is true - you could have lived your entire life in Vermont but if you weren't born there you aren't a native.)  This aspect of childhood (moving and fitting in) is one that many children can relate to and Perl connects with her readers with both humor and insight.  The struggle with making friends, dealing with the class bully, having a friend go away to camp while you stay behind, the arrival of another new-comer (this time a boy) are all significant milestones in the development of the majority of school-age children.  

On top of this, there are all kind of family dynamics at play that most children face at some point in their life.  What happens after the loss of one grandparent (who just happened to be your favorite)? Or what insight do you learn about your own parent when you learn about her own relationship with her father? 

In some ways, there are truly deep concepts going on in this small book which makes it powerful in its own way and one that should be shared with as many children as possible.  When I finished reading Perl's book, I immediately knew that this would be on my read-aloud list for the 2011-2012 school year and would be one of the book I recommend widely.  

If you haven't heard of When Life Gives You OJ, definitely check it out. It just may end up on one of your lists.  

Check out the official book trailer for When Life Gives You O.J.:

For more information about Erica Perl, check out her website: 

You can find her on twitter: @ericaperl 

Or on Facebook:

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - How They Croaked: The Awful Ends Of The Awfully Famous

Author:  Georgia Bragg
Illustrator: Kevin O'Malley
Publisher: Bloomsbury Walker (March 15, 2011)
Audience: Grades 5 to 8
Source: Copy for Review
Non-Fiction * Middle Grade * History

Description from GoodReads:
Over the course of history men and women have lived and died. In fact, getting sick and dying can be a big, ugly mess-especially before the modern medical care that we all enjoy today. How They Croaked relays all the gory details of how nineteen world figures gave up the ghost. For example:

It is believed that Henry VIII's remains exploded within his coffin while lying in state.
Doctors "treated" George Washington by draining almost 80 ounces of blood before he finally kicked the bucket.
Right before Beethoven wrote his last notes, doctors drilled a hole in his stomach without any pain medication.
Readers will be interested well past the final curtain, and feel lucky to live in a world with painkillers, X-rays, soap, and 911.

From the title of the book to the cover of the book to the actual content of the book, Bragg has a winner on her hands.  It is fun finding non-fiction that is written in an interesting, easily readable manner.  Each chapter centers on one of nineteen different famous people (many whom are related or connected in some manner) and is followed by two pages of historical facts related to that particular famous person or his/her manner of death. 

How They Croaked is fun in that gross sort of way.  The reader is treated to many of the gory details of how crude medical treatments of the time likely contributed more to the deaths of these famous individuals than possibly the actual diseases.  In a few cases, the causes of their deaths were related to the careers they were consumed by.  For example, I never really thought about how Marie Curie's research would contribute to her death which was caused basically by prolonged exposure to radiation.  

Bragg doesn't hold back with her descriptions but at the same time the tidbits about the lives, loves, relationships and quirky habits of each of these historical figures are woven into each chapter.  Never, in some ways, has history been so fun.  Catchy chapter titles, modern vernacular, and just the right amount of witty humor make each chapter a quick read.  The book can be read in order (which is also chronologically ordered) or can be read by picking and choosing your favorites.  I did a little of both.  However, I will say, the connections between some of the individuals are more evident when reading it in order.  Also, How They Croaked can be read in one sitting or a couple of chapters at a time, but once I got started I had trouble putting it down.

Parents, teachers, librarians looking to entice that elusive male reader may want to suggest that they give this one a read.  And though the book may be listed as being for 5th to 8th graders, I would suggest that this is one book that will be just as likely read by a 5th grader as an adult.  How They Croaked is definitely a book to add to a school library.  My guess is once it is book talked, it won't stay on the shelves for long. 

For more information about Georgia Bragg, check out her website:
Here is the link to an interview that NPR did on How , click here to check it out.

* Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays were started by Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe. You can check out her Marvelous Middle Grade Monday choice and Giveaway Post here.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Spellbinder

Author: Helen Stringer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (Hardcover: September 29, 2009; Paperback: April 12, 2011)
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Ages 9 to 12 years
Fiction * Middle Grades * Fantasy

Description from GoodReads:
Belladonna Johnson can see ghosts. It’s a trait she’s inherited from her mother’s side of the family, like blue eyes or straight hair. And it’s a trait she could do without, because what twelve-year-old wants to be caught talking to someone invisible?

It is convenient, though, after Belladonna’s parents are killed in a car accident. They can live with her the same as always, watching the same old TV shows in their same old house. Nothing has changed . . . until
everything changes.

One night, with no warning, they vanish into thin air—along with every other ghost in the world. It’s what some people think ghosts are supposed to do, but Belladonna knows it’s all wrong. They may not be living, but they’re not supposed to be gone.

With the help of her classmate Steve, a master of sneaking and spying, Belladonna is left to uncover what’s become of the spirits and to navigate a whole world her parents have kept well-hidden. If she can’t find her way, she’ll lose them again—this time for good.

"Some parts you don't want to put this book (Spellbinder) down and then in other parts you don't know if you should keep reading (because it is a bit scary)." - Jackie, age 10

Writing for children in what is considered the Middle Grades (Ages 9 to 12) can be a definite challenge.  Reading levels, life experiences, and maturation vary so much.  And just like the variety of children in this age group, books for this audience seem to also vary significantly.  However, I always love finding smart writing that holds the reader's attention, has a cast of solidly developed characters, and doesn't seem to be too old or too young for it's audience.

Helen Stringer's debut novel Spellbinder is really an amazing book.  Several times I stopped as I was reading just to admire, Stringer's use of language.  Maybe I am a little partial to British mysteries and fantasy stories, but when they are well done there is nothing better to read.

In Spellbinder, readers are introduced to Belladonna Johnson.  A 12 year old girl who can see ghosts, including her parents.  Of course, seeing ghosts isn't the unusual thing about Belladonna, at least not in her family.  However, what is unusual is when the ghosts start disappearing.  Belladonna sets out to find out what has happened to all the ghosts.  With her parents' disappearance, and her aunt and grandmother's unwillingness to include her in discovering what is happening, she must rely on the support of a classmate, Steve, and a 100 hundred year old ghost named Elsie, who died as a student and haunts the school.

Stringer works to tie in the present with a bit of Greek Mythology, and some bits and pieces of various ghost stories to provide just the right mix of creepy scary with action adventure.  As Belladonna searches for her parents and what is happening to the world, she must find the Spellbinder for the answers.  Some say she is the Spellbinder and that her friend Steve - her Paladin.  But if she is the Spellbinder, how come she doesn't feel like she has any answers?  Steve adds a bit of humor with his quick comebacks and ability to sneak into places he technically shouldn't be in, but he certainly proves himself a faithful friend.  Elsie, despite being annoying at times, proves to be quite the guide and mentor when adults don't seem willing to answer any questions.

Though the story ties up nicely, there were enough questions left unanswered for readers to yearn for future books.  At this point, if you are just discovering this series, you don't have to wait to pick up book 2 -
The Midnight Gate - which was released in the middle of May.  More action and adventure await Belladonna and Steve.  To find out a little more about the book, stop by the blog on June 1st, for a guest interview with author Helen Stringer.

When Feiwel & Friends released
Spellbinder, the original cover was of Belladonna having a meal with her ghostly parents (see cover above).  I guess they must have felt the cover wasn't exciting enough.  With the release of the paperback version, Spellbinder received an exciting update that matches the cover for The Midnight Gate.

I can see where the new covers may be much more attractive to middle grade readers.  What do you think?

If you haven't discovered Helen's website, she has quite a few things on it for children interested in her books.  You can click on the link to check out the information and games about her books:

You can follow Helen Stringer on Twitter: @hcstringer
She can be found on Facebook by clicking

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Juniper Berry

Author: M.P. Kozlowsky
Illustrator: Erwin Madrid
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (April 26, 2011)
Source: ARC for Review
Audience: Ages 9 to 12 years
Fiction * Modern Fairy Tale * Elementary

Description from GoodReads:
Juniper's parents have not been themselves lately. In fact, they have been cold, disinterested and cruel. And lonely Juniper Berry, and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to figure out why.

On a cold and rainy night Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world's secrets in a simple red balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn't.

M.P. Kozlowsky's debut novel is a modern-day fairy tale of terror, temptation, and ways in which it is our choices that make us who we are.

Sometimes the key to writing something scary is to simply write the truth. M. P. Kozlowsky in his debut middle grade novel Juniper Berry combines just the right aspects of the truth with powerful storytelling for a novel that grabs you from beginning to end.  Juniper Berry has everything in some ways except for the attention and affection of her famous parents.  She wishes for friends, for a life outside of her family's home, and most importantly for her parents to see her again.  While exploring the woods around her home, she meets a boy named Giles.  It seems that Juniper's parents aren't the only one who have been changing.  Giles has been noticing a change in his parents as well. Together the two discover a secret that is both alluring and terrifying.  And how does a woodcutter, a raven, and a red balloon fit into this puzzle?

Kozlowsky plays with common themes of desire and hope and the consequences of getting what you asked for.  Juniper and Giles are likeable protagonists that you want to root for as they must address what is happening to their parents, the struggles in their own lives, and some attractive choices.  As I read through the story, I could feel tension that these two children are facing.  Layered with a secret underworld and a really creepy adversary, the two children must fight for their lives and the lives of those they care for.

Juniper Berry will appeal to both female and male readers.  The story maintains a steady pace culminating in a battle which will determine the winner.  Though I wondered at times if children would fully grasp the extent of the author's underlying message about temptation, I never doubted that it would be a story they would enjoy and one that would be easy to book talk.

Kozlowsky's debut novel is a winner and I look forward to future books from him.  If this is on your "to be read" pile, I would encourage you to bump it up or at least add it to a summer reading list for students.  Thanks to Kellie and Walden Pond Press, I have a hardcover copy of JUNIPER BERRY by M.P. Kozlowsky to giveaway. This contest is open to readers in the U.S. or Canada only. To enter to win, please complete the form below.   

To check out Juniper Berry Blog Tour Week 2, head on over to the Walden Pond Press blog here.
To read M.P. Kozlowsky's guest post The World Outside A Book's Cover, click here.
For more information on M.P. Kozlowsky, check out his website here.

Here is the Official Book Trailer for Juniper Berry:

* Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays were started by Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe. You can check out her Marvelous Middle Grade Monday choice and Giveaway Post here.

Rules for the Contest:

1. Please do not enter any personal information in the comments section, you must complete the Entry Form to officially enter the contest. Comments with personal information will be deleted.
2. The Contest runs from 12:00 a.m. PDT on May 16, 2011 to 11:59 p.m. PDT on May 21.
3. You DO NOT need to be a follower of this blog to enter.
4. You must be 13 or older to participate in this contest.
5. If you are selected as a winner, I will notify you by e-mail. If you do not respond within 48 hours, I will select a new winner.
6. Only US and Canadian participants may enter the contest.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets

Author: Eric Luper
Publisher: Balzer & Bray (May 1, 2011)
Pages: 240
Audience: Grades 3 to 7
Source: ARC from Mid-Winter ALA
Fiction * Humor

Product Description
When eleven-year-old Jeremy Bender does major damage to his father's prized boat, he figures he has one way to avoid being grounded for life: Fix it before Dad finds out. But even if Jeremy and his best friend, Slater, combined their allowances for a year, they still wouldn't have enough money for the cost of repairs. 

Inspiration strikes when the boys see an ad for the Windjammer Whirl. Sponsored by the Cupcake Cadets, the model sailboat race pays five hundred dollars to the winner. There's just one problem: You must be a Cadet—and a girl—to compete. 

Confident that it will be the easiest money they've ever made, Jeremy convinces Slater they should dress up like girls and infiltrate the troop. But as the boys proceed to botch everything from camping to field hockey, they realize that being a Cadet is no piece of cupcake.

Can Jeremy and Slater earn their badges and win the money? Or will their Cupcake careers be over faster than you can say "vanilla frosting"? 

With the release of Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets, young adult author Eric Luper successfully transitions into the world of Middle Grade novels.  Even without reading the description of the book, and only looking at the cover and title, I was already expecting a book that would provide some laughs.  I didn't take that many pages before I was already chuckling.  The description of Jeremy's options of what he might do to avoid eating a fistful of grass and dirt being served up by the school bully had me completely hooked and then came...the megawedgie.    

As I read Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets, I occasionally had images of I LOVE LUCY or BOSOM BUDDIES. When an accident involving Jeremy, his best friend Slater, some grape soda and green spray paint damages his father's boat, Jeremy has to come up with an idea to raise some money and fast. He talks his friend Slater into dressing up as a girl and joining the Cupcake Cadets and entering their annual Windjammer Whirl for a chance to win $500.  (Doesn't this just sound like something Lucy would talk Ethel into?) Jeremy's plans of course never turn out exactly as he expects which makes for quite a few mistakes and lots of laughs. 

The nice thing about Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets is that you can easily book talk this to both girls and boys.  Luper's use of humor and short chapters will also draw in fans of some of the more popular graphic novels who have been reluctant to crossover to regular length Middle Grade chapter books.  Additionally, it would make a great classroom read aloud with wonderful opportunities to discuss things like gender, responsibility, sportsmanship, and more.  I am excited to share Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets with students that I know and anticipate this being a book that is frequently checked out of a classroom or school library.    

Check out author, Eric Luper's website:
To follow Eric on Twitter: @ericluper
On Facebook:

Below is the official book trailer for Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets

* Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays were started by Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe. You can check out her Marvelous Middle Grade Monday choice and Giveaway Post here.