Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann: a review and a GIVEAWAY!

Quick: how many books have you read where the main character has autism or autism spectrum disorder?

Now: how many of those books were written by an author who openly speaks about their own autism spectrum disorder?

For me, I realized that while I could come up with a few titles answering the former question, I couldn’t think of one answering the latter.  Then I was lucky enough to read the essay Lyn Miller-Lachmann wrote for Young Adult Review Network (YARN) talking about the origins of her book Rogue and her own experiences having Asperger’s Syndrome.  This is an amazing piece that helps really personalize what it feels like to have Asperger’s and looks at Miller-Lachmann’s decision to write a book featuring a character that also has this disorder.

rogueThat character is the unforgettable Kiara Thorton-Delgado, an eighth grader with Asperger’s who yearns for people to understand her and genuinely tries to connect with them. Rogue opens with Kiara determined that her new next door neighbor Chad, unlike all the other new kids who quickly reject her, will become and remain her friend.  But Chad is from a seriously troubled home, so her focus on becoming part of his world leads to more complicated situations that she originally bet on.  But Kiara is convinced this is her chance to have a friend and to belong.  Now, however, she’ll have to figure out what “being a friend” actually means and if she really is prepared for it.

This sounds like a trite premise, I know, but Miller-Lachmann takes the story to a thousand interesting and new places because of her deep understanding of Kiara.  Here’s the thing: I have just described to you a universal premise, a familiar story.  But when the character in this familiar story has Asperger’s, suddenly we are hearing a voice we have never heard before and seeing things we have not seen before.  It does not make this story less universal; instead, it turns Kiara’s struggles, complete with her Asperger’s, into something universal.  There’s something both epic and accessible about this, something that can’t be discounted.  This is why good writing about disability matters, this is why diversity in our characters counts – when the writing is as good as Miller-Lachmann’s is here it reminds us (and helps younger readers see) that characters with disability are part of universal stories too.

Kiara’s universal story is the heart and soul of Rogue.  Rogue wasn’t just a book I genuinely loved and enthusiastically recommend for advanced middle grade readers it was also a book I felt like (and this part is really important to me) I’d never read before.  It felt new, fresh, and challenging.

I adore the way Kiara learns to shine using her own set of strengths and abilities.  Kiara is often toting around a camera and filming things: she uses this as a way to cope with her Asperger’s but also discovers it can be a way to share her vision with people.  Rogue is the story of how Kiara tries to fit in and, more than that, it’s the story of how she figures out what “fitting in” really means and is really worth.  I love this.  I love that this is a story about finding “your people” by finding yourself and I love that this is also a story about accepting that “fitting in” might not be possible for everyone, not just because of disability, but because of their own personalities and beliefs.  This is BIG THOUGHT stuff for middle grade, which as most of you know, is the exact thing I think middle grade should be tackling.

Now for a bit about the title: Rogue, of course, has multiple meanings.  One of the main ones, however, is Kiara’s love for the superhero Rogue, a member of the X-Men.  Rogue, of course, is the mutant who cannot touch people because she saps their powers with contact.  Kiara finds real resonance in Rogue’s literal inability to connect and another thing I love about this book is that Miller-Lachmann takes this seriously.  I LOVE books that treat fandom as an important and maybe even life-saving element of people’s existence.  Yes – that’s what it can be like.  Not nerds, not haha how socially inept, but the joy of finding connection and recognition in a fictional world … Miller-Lachmann completely nails how that’s special, how that can mean so much.  Kiara knows it, knows the way she feels about Rogue, knows what it means to see herself in her.

Though Kiara is an eighth grader, Rogue is definitely on the higher end of middle-grade and actually acts as a good bridge read to young adult fiction.  I highly recommend it for grades 6-9  and particularly for readers who are drawn to stories of outsiders.  There are some really intense topics covered in the book (Kiara’s fractured family and, especially, Chad’s familial situation) and Miller-Lachmann is honest and frank about Kiara’s anger and her struggles, complete with setbacks and outbursts.  Kiara isn’t always the most likable character and yet you, as a reader, are still drawn to her.  You want to know more about her story and, well, you’re rooting for her.  You feel the universality in Kiara’s story and yet you know her personally.  That’s what makes her story fly and that’s what makes her story stick.

Thanks to Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s awesome kindness, you have a chance to win an autographed copy of Rogue! All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by Tuesday, July 2 and I’ll choose a random winner.  If you don’t win, Rogue is on sale now. If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they add it to their collection.

(NOTE: I reviewed this title from an ARC Lyn sent me and I volunteered to host this giveaway on my site because I loved it so much.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Lyn at ALA at a super-cool YALSA event for small publishers.  She was there promoting her amazing book Gringolandia, which is STILL on my Best Books for High School Readers list.  Talk about an original, daring, and insightful young adult titles – Gringolandia is all that and more. If you haven’t read it, go get it right now!)


Middle Grade Fiction – my plots and schemes

Welcome to anyone reading this who attended the New Mexico Library Association’s pre-conference on middle grade literature and library services this past Wednesday as presented by me and Ellie Simons!  I hope you enjoyed yourself and learned at least a few new things to try in your library. Let me apologize for the technical difficulties during my presentation.  Thanks for sticking it out with me through that bump!

If you’re looking for the entire Powerpoint presentation I did (I had to skip a few slides!) You can find it on my Programs/Presentation page or use this direct link.  Ellie will be uploading her presentation to Slideshare when she returns to work on Monday and I’ll add it to the  entry on the Programs/Presentation page, so please check back.  Or, of course, you can email either of us to have us send you something directly!

I realize the technical glitches might have hindered note-taking, boo, so if you have any immediate questions about any titles I talked about (i.e. you remember the description but didn’t get to write the title/author down) please leave a comment on this post or send me and email and I’ll give you the title/author you had in mind.

Now here’s the exciting update for those of you that DIDN’T make it to the pre-conference but just happen to be reading my blog!

In my time preparing for this pre-conference (I did the literature review) I read or reviewed close to 100 middle grade titles.  Most importantly, at least to me, I categorized them as well.  From “Scary Stuff” to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid Readalikes” to “Magic Realism” (and many others!) I worked hard to make these reader’s advisory lists sorted by genre and theme because, in my experience, that’s the most reliable and common kind of reader’s advisory. (do you have funny books…do you have mysteries…do you have sad books?)

And I loved sharing this work with the pre-conference attendees!  But I want to do MORE with it.  So …

Starting this Monday (4/22) I am going to turn these reader’s advisory lists into entries on my blog as part of my Middle Grade Mondays.

I know there’s already an awesome round-up called Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays and I definitely plan to link up with them most times, but this is also just something I want to do for my own sake. Every Monday (well, OK, I’m going to shoot for every Monday!) I’ll post a new themed list of middle grade titles.  There won’t be full reviews of every book, but I’ll post a blurb and short review of every one, including a note about why I’ve made it part of  this particular list.  And, like I did at the pre-conference, I’ll also occasionally include some reflections about trends and themes in middle grade as a whole.  Now, the lists won’t be every single thing I presented at the pre-conference – there might be more and there might be a few less – but I want to use that work as a launching point for this project.

I fell in love with middle grade over the course of researching this pre-conference – I think it has amazing diversity, a wide breath of genre and talent, and so many new and exciting voices.  I want to celebrate, promote, and share that here.  I’m excited to get the fun started.  I hope you’ll read along, make suggestions and share your own middle grade favorites, and maybe even start posting on your blogs about middle grade!


See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

What, exactly, is the ever-elusive “middle-grade” novel?

Oh sure, that seems like an easy question, doesn’t it?  It’s a novel written for middle-school audiences.  But middle-school isn’t even the same everywhere.  In my community, middle-school is seventh and eighth grade only.  This is a great example of the larger question: where does “middle grade” fiction begin anyhow?  Where’s the bright-line?

Is it a book where the main characters are 12?  If they’re 13 is it automatically a young adult book?  Is it a book where the main characters are in middle school?  If they are still in fifth grade is automatically children’s fiction?

This, of course, ends us back up at the most basic question, the one that’s really at the heart of it all.  Why are we using “middle grade” anyhow?  Isn’t it basically either a young adult novel or children’s fiction?

Yes, these are the questions we librarians and teachers struggle with all the time, as we attempt to hold on to our readers crossing out of children’s fiction but not quite ready for the young adult world.

“We have something for you,” we want to shout to them as they drift away, “don’t go!   We have a whole genre of books not quite this one thing and not quite the other but they’re exactly perfect for you – just for you!”

To me, that’s what middle-grade should be, what middle-grade can be.  Middle-grade, the best middle-grade, should be a story that takes just the right parts of children’s fiction and young adult fiction and creates from them something that spans that gap – that reaches out to hungry readers looking for a story that is about the complications and challenges of their life as it changes.

To me, that’s why we keep promoting middle-grade, why we keep talking about it, why we keep asking for more and more of it.  Because when we find the right one, when we find a truly special one, that’s what it does.

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles is that unicorn, that rarest of creatures: truly great middle-grade fiction.

What I Love About This Book 

See You At Harry’s is one of my favorite books of 2012.  It’s well-written, tightly constructed, and doesn’t waste a single word.  It sneaks up on you and hits you with an emotional wallop that you won’t soon forget.  It’s enormously moving without being maudlin and it’s deep while also still being accessible.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this book come up in Newbery discussion, in fact, it will be a shame if it doesn’t.

Knowles’s command of craft is superb: she mixes the mundane and profound with grace and clarity.  This is a book where the way you feel about going to your first middle school dance and dealing with the embarrasment of your parents is treated with the same gravity and insight as the biggest tragedies and losses life can throw at you.  There’s something brave about that and, moreover, there’s something honest about it too.  That’s what life is actually like when you’re in middle school, when you’re figuring out the middle ground of who you were as a kid and who you are going to be as an adolescent and, even farther than that, who you’re going to be as an actual grown-up and how both those experiences (childhood, adolesence) shaped you.

 See You At Harry’s is a book unafraid to throw big concepts and big thoughts at middle-grade readers. If there is one thing I know about that elusive middle-grade novel it is THAT’S the most important element of all: middle-grade, maybe even more than young adult fiction, should contain the challenge, and the promise, of more.  It’s THE time, after all, for these readers to start wrestling with those concepts and for fiction to start tackling it in an honest way.  See You At Harry’s not only does that, it does that with an amazing amount of heart.  This is a book you feel in the deepest and truest sense: it’s a book that wrings out the reader’s own sorrows and losses while also reminding the reader of the deepest and truest loves in their lives.

See You At Harry’s is a story about Fern.  It’s a story about her family and her family’s business.  It’s a story about how embarrassing her father can be, how awkward it can be to be the daughter of someone who owns a well-known business in a smaller town.  It’s a story about Fran starting middle school, sorting out her new feelings for her close friend Ran and what that will mean for all her friendships.  It’s a story about all the aches and pains of being 12 and everything that goes along with that.

But, most of all, I think See You At Harry’s is a story about siblings.  It’s the story of how Fern aches along with her older brother Holden, who is bullied at school and trying to figure out his own changing life.  It’s the story of how Fern resents and is puzzled by how her older sister Sarah seems to be drifting away from the family as she gets older.  And it’s the story of Charlie, the youngest sibling, the surprise, a two year old who sticks his fingers up his nose, clings, whines, pesters, and is frequently dirty and sticky in that way only two year olds can be.  Charlie is a realistic child, a realistic toddler, in the way that so rarely exists in fiction written for older readers: he’s that  little kid readers will recognize as their younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, the toddler that 9-12 year old readers find themselves wanting to shout at as patience wears thin.  Knowles’ perfectly captures that believable frustration: the way Charlie wears Fern down simply by being Charlie, by being her younger brother who loves her so.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot because one of the pleasures of See You At Harry’s   is Knowles’ pacing.  Just like in real life things happen in See You At Harry’s that you can’t be prepared for.  I won’t ruin those surprises, because part of Knowles’ real gift in this work is the plotting.  It’s hard to stop reading See You At Harry’s because it feels to readers like real life, immediate and unpredictable.

See You At Harry’s is a work of astonishing grace, a heartbreaker and tear-jerker that’s also full of hope.  It’s a story about the resilience of love and the gifts of family and memory.  This book is highly recommended as a first purchase for public and school libraries.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, a novel that bridges that gap, reminds us as librarians why fiction for this age group exists and what it can do better than any other.  Thoughtful readers, middle grade readers, will be immediately drawn to the realism, the emotional wallop, and the strong writing in See You At Harry’s.  It’s a story that will stay with you a long, long time.  And you’ll be grateful for the visit.

(reviewed from an ARC generously provided by the publisher.)

Oh, Canada! Great Canadian Reads

As most of you know, I LOVE CANADA.  Oh, how I love Canada.  (Canadian publishers and libraries looking for employees: hit me up.)   The past two years I have spent my annual long vacation in Toronto, attending the Toronto International Film Festival and wishing I lived there.  I spend a lot of time waiting in line, which is great reading time, and lots of time in-between movie screenings (I saw 34 movies in 9 days last year…hoping I can get to 40 in 10 days this year!) hanging around Canadian bookstores.  In this way, I’ve found some real treasures.

So, in this first YAY, CANADA! blog, I wanted to share some of the amazing middle grade titles I’ve found and really enjoyed, titles that I think will circulate like crazy with American patrons.  Upcoming YAY, CANADA blogs will look at young adult titles and take a look at one of the coolest initiatives I’ve ever seen: Indigo Books’ Teen Read Awards. (there are lessons, MANY LESSONS, I think YALSA’s Teen’s Top Ten could learn from Indigo’s initiative, though it’s been sadly suspended this year …)

I hope to regularly review and spotlight Canadian titles and authors (for all ages) and I eagerly solicit suggestions from my Canadian librarian friends and readers!  (two blogs and resources worth checking out: the fantastic librarians at CLASY: Canadian Libraries Are Serving Youth and Erin Walker, a Canadian YA librarian who blogs at Erin Explores YA)

I want to start with Prinny.  OH, PRINNY.  Where to begin with this almost perfect middle grade novel?  OK, I’ll just go with the part I liked the best.  It’s a novel where a character discovers strength and kinship in literature and, better still, that literature is a contemporary YA novel.  Yes, really.  I know there’s been some discussion about why don’t more characters in YA books read YA books?  It bothers me too.  That’s why this story, wherein a YA book helps Prinny find her voice and see herself, felt so true to me.  I’ve seen teenagers find themselves in books, the way Prinny does here, cling to them like lifelines, and I know that so has author Jill MacLean.  BETTER STILL is the novel that Prinny, a girl from a rural area in Newfoundland, connects to is Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, a book that is about teenagers struggling with poverty in an urban inner-city.  But MacLean knows that when you see yourself in a work of  literature the way Prinny sees herself in Wolff’s text, you go beyond things as basic as setting and look and feel deeper.  This is great, great stuff!  In the course of the narrative, Prinny finds her voice through many avenues, but hearing LaVaughn’s voice is key.  This book covers several underrepresented in MG experiences: Prinny and her family are very much part of the working class poor.  Prinny is surprised by the existence of (you can buy books and have them mailed to you?) not because she’s stupid but because the concept of buying books for pleasure is completely foreign to her.  There’s also the believable friendship between Prinny and Travis (Travis is the main character in MacLean’s fine novel The Nine Lives of Travis Keating) which is a totally platonic friendship, based on the things they have in common (a love of nature and an interest in animals) and the way they are outsiders at their school.  AND there’s Prinny’s strained relationship with her mother, who is well-known in their small town as the town drunk.  Yet another outstanding (and utterly believable) element of the story is the way Prinny deals with this, painfully and awkwardly, filled with love and frustration.  The way Prinny and her father deal with the situation with her mother, the way their whole family learns to be honest with each other and try – it’s all very true.  I think by now it might sound like there’s too much happening in the narrative and it’s busy – but the opposite happens.  Everything ties together, everything works together to tell the story of a very real character coming into her own.  This is truly splendid book and, along with The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, it’s highly recommended for public and school libraries.  Give your patrons a chance to hear Prinny’s voice – I think that she’ll speak to them the way LaVaughn spoke to her.

Next are the two titles I think are probably best known in the USA, Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom.  These are two of the best middle-grade/tween novels I have EVER read.  If you were looking for an example of what a middle grade/tween novel should read like, as a genre example, you couldn’t do better than these two books.   If you’re looking for more MG books?  Get these.  Right now!

Word Nerd is the story of a bullied 12 year old named Ambrose Bukowski.  Ambrose’s mother has begun to homeschool him after one incident of bullying too many.  Ambrose, in all his awkward glory, befriends the 25 year old son of his landlords, Cosmo.  Cosmo, like Ambrose, loves words and loves Scrabble.  The two form a Scrabble Club and a friendship … except Cosmo is an ex-con and Ambrose’s mother doesn’t approve.  I know, this sounds simplistic.  But Cosmo and Ambrose have such a great friendship.  Cosmo is a rarity in MG/teen fiction – a young-adult who has made mistakes but is trying to change his life.  Ambrose sees that and so do we.  It’s a funny, original book with a great protagonist.  (in my dreams, this is adapted into a movie with Jesse Eisenberg as Cosmo.  I need you to make this happen, Hollywood.) George Clooney is about Violet, whose father has left her, her little sister, and her mother in Vancouver while he heads off to LA with a new wife and kids.  Violet is tired of the losers her mom is dating and decides, obviously, the answer is to get George Clooney to marry her mother, so she no longer has to date guys like Dudley Weiner.  Like Word Nerd what works here is the mix of very specific humor (both these books are very funny and about kids who are, well, quirky) and an achingly accurate depiction of the struggles of being 12.

Nielsen is also particularly good at writing believable parental figures.  This is not to say they are beyond compare or perfect, but they are parents that are trying and sometimes, well, failing.  They keep trying though!  Ambrose and Violet’s mothers want what’s best for them, but Nielsen understands that figuring out what that is isn’t always easy.  I think the parent/kid relationship is even more important in middle grade than YA fic.  That’s not to say parents don’t need to be present in the YA narrative, but they take a different role in the middle grade novel.  I think the best middle grade novels are the ones that reflect this and manage to write believable parents who are believable adults too.  Nielsen does that not just with the parents but with the other adults, like Cosmo in Word Nerd. That adds to the authenticity of tween life, which is the overall hallmark of both of Nielsen’s books.  These are great, funny, special middle grade novels.  I can’t recommend them enough.

There you have it: four great middle grade novels from Canada … go out and get them, or request your library buy copies, today.  More Canadian goodness soon!