Category Archives: Middle Grade Book Reviews

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Published:  May 30, 2017

Format:  Hardcover Book

Intended Age of Reader:  9-13

Awards:  A National Book Award Longlist Title

Upon finishing this novel with my children, I visited the author’s webpage where she had the following quote from Madeleine L’Engle prominently displayed, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable.  But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”  I thought this was an interesting quote to ponder in light of this novel that is a coming of age story, about growing up and accepting the vulnerability that comes with it.

This novel has a fascinating premise.  Nine children live on an island, where no one comes or goes except for once a year when a green boat comes carrying one very small child, and at that time the eldest leaves the island.  No one knows where that boat comes from or where it goes, just that there is a nursery rhyme that says the sky will fall if they do not comply.  There are many rules in place to ensure that all goes smoothly, either handed down from the previous generations of children or via nursery rhymes.  As the novel begins, Jinny loses her best friend Deen, whose turn it is to leave the island.  Jinny becomes the eldest and Ess, who has just arrived, is her Care, meaning she will live with and learn from Jinny over the next year all that she needs to in order to survive.

After being brought to this magical world where children can play safely and set up with this mesmerizing, delicious premise, not much happens over the next year.  It seems there is a lot of waiting, of expectation, and in between time.  Is this what childhood feels like?  I would think probably so, in the island’s non-technology driven world.   During this year, unlike in Lord of the Flies, things go along just fine.  Overall, the children are quite well behaved and keep each other in check.

Anyway, things finally start to get interesting when Jinny refuses to leave the island when the boat returns the following year.  She takes the newly arrived youngest, Loo, as her Care and continues to keep Ess under her wing as well.  The weather changes, the island becomes more threatening, and Jinny begins to change and develop into a woman.  Finally, she realizes that she must leave as the reader is realizing that this whole novel is a metaphor for growing up.  It is a metaphor for leaving childhood and entering adulthood.  I will say I was mildly disappointed not to be able to find out the story behind Orphan Island, why the children ended up there, and where they went to after.  However, if we knew all that.. the metaphor would be lost.  This is a magical book that transports the reader to another realm.  It will leave you satisfied, but wanting more!  This is a book that the more I thought about it in hindsight, the more brilliant I felt it was.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you imagine Deen is saying to Jinny as he leaves the island that she can’t quite make out?
  2. Where do you suppose this island is?  Where do the children come from?  Do they have parents?  Why would the parents send them off to this island?
  3. Who do you suppose made up the rules?  Why do the rules work so well?
  4. What are some of the varying teaching methods that the children employ to teach Ess to swim and read?  Which ones work and which ones don’t?  Why?
  5. When Jinny decides to stay on the island when it is her turn to leave, why do you suppose the others do not make a bigger deal about it?  Does she owe it to them to leave?
  6. Why do you think Jinny wants to stay?  Is it that she wants to hold on to her life on the island (childhood) or is it that she is afraid of moving on (adulthood)?
  7. Jinny was wearing Ess’s bracelet, called ‘Mama’ that goes missing.  What is  the significance of the bracelet, it’s disappearance, and its recovery?
  8. Why does the island become more sinister after Jinny’s decision not to leave the island?  Do you think the island is really changing or is it just Jinny’s perception of it?
  9. Did you enjoy the metaphor that the novel was?  What other books can you think of that serve as metaphors for something?
  10. In this novel there are no other adults.  What other books have you read where there are no adults?  How do they compare to this book?
  11. What religious allegories are present in the novel?  What is their meaning and significance?



Laurel Snyder’s webpage

Review in the School Library Journal by Elizabeth Bird

Interview with Laurel Snyder in Writer’s Rumpus


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  337

Published:  August 28, 2014

Awards:  National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2014), Newbery Honor (2015), Sibert Honor (2015), Coretta Scott King Award for Author (2015), Claudia Lewis Award for Older Readers (2015) Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Middle Grade & Children’s (2014), YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2015), Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2015) .

Format:  E-book

This is a beautifully written memoir set in poetry by the much acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson.  Jacqueline’s aunt Ada, a genealogist and family historian, provided Jacqueline with tremendous family history with which this book begins that adds depth and history to the memoir.   There is always a contrast between the north an south running like a current through this book.  Jacqueline and her family begin in Ohio visiting South Carolina in the summer.   They ultimately begin alternating between Brooklyn and South Carolina.

Jacqueline Woodson is so eloquent in ascribing the haziness of memory and how feelings and emotions at the time become the more important element.  The poetic format for placing these snippets of memory seems so honest and heartfelt.

This is a small volume, yet contains so much.  There is so much history, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement, written into these pages.  There is the effect of teachers on a young girl’s self-confidence when they praise her writing.  There is the love of a family; the complete trust and vulnerability of young children knowing that they are safe with family they love.  There is the beauty of forever friendships, these early friendships that are so important and make life so much more enjoyable.  This is a book about race, about growing up as a Jehovah’s witness, about dreams in childhood that have so wonderfully come to fruition for Jacqueline Woodson.

This book has been marketed as middle grade, but I would recommend it to everyone.  It is a remarkably beautiful collection of poetry, rich in history.  I think it is so hard to write from a child’s perspective and honestly capture the thoughts and perspective from that time in life, but Jacqueline Woodson does so brilliantly.  I love how within this book, Jacqueline talks about how she does not read quickly like her sister.  She takes her time with books, reading, thinking, re-reading, enjoying.  This, I believe, is how one should read Brown Girl Dreaming,  There is so much to take away and enjoy from each chapter/poem.

I loved this book for being a beautiful heartfelt collection of poetry, for moving me in ways I did not expect to be moved, for giving young girls hope and reason to dream, for beautifully describing family, and so much more.  Beyond that, I also appreciate that this adds to the growing body of diverse literature, especially for young people.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the strongest influences on Jacqueline’s identity?  How do they help her find her voice in writing?
  2. Discuss the title of the book.  Why do you think the author chose this title?
  3. Discuss the importance of family within this book.   How important is family to Jacqueline Woodson and to this collection of poems?
  4. Discuss the effect of the poetic format and writing style on the overall content of this book.  Did you enjoy the format?  Why or why not?
  5. Discuss the racism experienced by the family members within this book.  How do the characters within this book respond to racism at different historical points?
  6. There seems to be a great contrast between the north (Ohio and Brooklyn) and the south (where her grandparents are in South Carolina).  Compare and contrast the feelings and attributes ascribed to these places from the book.
  7. Woodson talks about finding a book filled with brown people at the library.  How do you think this has affected her and her passion for increasing the number of diverse books in the world?
  8. “Maybe there is something, after all, to the way some people want to remain – each to its own kind,  But in time maybe everything will fade to gray.”  What do you think Woodson means by this?
  9. What effect do you see being a Jehovah’s Witness had on Woodson?

Review by Veronica Chambers in the New York Times

Jacqueline Woodson’s Website

Interview with Jacqueline Woodson conducted by Terry Gross on NPR

I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, AD 79 by Lauren Tarshis ~ Book Review


20578944Pages:  112

Published:  August 26, 2014






I read this with my 8 year old son and thought it was a great mix of interest and learning.  The story takes place in Pompeii leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D.  The reader learns about Roman times, a period of great learning and discovery.  It was also a period where slavery was commonplace and entertainment was via watching gladiator fights, in which slaves were pitted against each other.  The people believed in the Greek Gods which are also part of the story.  The book does an excellent job of incorporating many facets of history into this novel without it seeming too intrusive.

I, myself, thoroughly enjoyed this tale and felt like it was a great tool for educating children about history.  If I hadn’t been reading with my son, I’m sure he would have skipped the afterward which talks about Mount Vesuvius, the Roman times, and further history of the destruction of Pompeii and the eventual discovery of a buried city.  I thought this was a great addition and was glad it was there for additional talking points.  I would recommend this for 6-10 year olds.  This was the first “I Survived” book that we have read together, but we will definitely be reading more! images-2

Lauren Tarshis’ website with links to comprehension check, novel activities and novel quiz



The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman ~ Book Review

2213661Pages:  312

Published: September 30, 2008

Literary Awards:  Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Newbery Medal (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (2009), Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year (2009), Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Award Nominee (2009), Indies Choice Book Award for Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book (Fiction): (2009), Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award (ALAN/NCTE) Nominee (2009), British Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction (2008), Carnegie Medal (2010), Elizabeth Burr / Worzalla Award (2009)

Format: Audiobook

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

I picked this up to listen to on a car trip with my children.  I think my young children were scared or turned off by the no frills triple murder with which the novel begins.  I, however, was enthralled and could not wait to listen to it each time I got into my car.  When reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I fell in love with his brilliant writing style then.   I was hoping to share that experience with my children…  Maybe in a few years.   Having this book read by the author himself was pure delight.  His English accent and the manner in which he was able to do different voices for the various characters really brought the story to life.  I realized after the fact that there are actually two versions of this audible book.  I listened to the one with Neil Gaiman as the sole narrator, but there is another one with a full cast of narrators.

The storyline itself is enchanting.  I was mesmerized!  I felt my skin prickle in anticipation of what was coming next.  The characters were fabulous.  The plot is complex, yet everything came full circle throughout the novel.  It is a huge puzzle in which all the pieces had just the right fit.  Every bit of this novel is delicious perfection.  It is a brilliant, magical, dreamy, fantastical world and everyone should read or listen to this.  As you can see from all the awards this novel has won, I am not alone in feeling this way!  images


Lit lovers Discussion Guide

Harper Collins Reading Group Guide

Reproducible Study Guide for the book – meant for teaching purposes





Nightbird by Alice Hoffman ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide



Pages:  208

Published:  March 10, 2015

Format:  Audiobook





Lovely, delicious, mystical, tender, coming-of age story by an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  I listened to the audible version with my children on a road trip, and given it’s target audience, the plot is somewhat simplistic, so I still look forward to reading some of her more acclaimed adult novels.

Nightbird is the story of a 12 year old girl who lives with her mother and her winged brother, a product of the “Fowler family curse.”   It is a story of friendships developed, fears overcome, pasts and futures colliding.  It has beautiful fantastical, mystical and magical elements.  It is infused with the beauty and the tastes of the Berkshires.  The message of the book is kind and loving.  I would recommend this book especially to girls aged 8-14.  images-2


Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did Twig grow in this novel?
  2. Discuss the attire of Miss Larch and Julia.  Why do they dress this way and how does it relate to the story?
  3. Discuss the role of the ornithologist.  What clues does he give to Twig to help solve her mystery.
  4. Did you realize that Mr. Rose was the father right away?  What were the clues?
  5. Both Twig and her mother say they want to go back in time.  What do they each mean?
  6. In what ways to pasts, presents and futures collide in this novel?
  7. Discuss the two romances in the novel:  Agnes and the original Fowler who went off to war, Agate and James.  How are these romances similar?  How are they different?
  8. Discuss the role secrets play in the Nightbird.
  9. What role does fear play in the novel?  How is fear overcome?
  10. How is the play important to Sidwell?  What does it mean to Twig’s family?  How do you think Twig rewrites it?

Pink Apple Pie

Create a lovely pink apple pie with two different toppings, including a crumble-top variation. Best if shared with a friend. But isn’t everything?

Pastry Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 tablespoons cold water

You can also use two premade 9-inch crusts bought at the market. Or see below for crumble-top variation.*

Filling Ingredients

6 to 8 medium apples
1 cup seedless strawberry jam
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Making the Pastry

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter a nine-inch pie plate.

Sift flour into bowl. Mix in butter (with your fingers!), smooshing it into flour. Add sugar and mix. Add cold water a little at a time (you may not need it all). Mix until it forms a dough.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for 20 minutes.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for a few minutes if necessary until slightly softened.

Divide pastry into two balls and roll out with rolling pin. Put one crust into pie plate and form to the plate’s size. Save the second crust for the top of the pie.

Making the Filling

Peel, core, and slice apples. Mix in strawberry jam and place the apple/jam mixture in pastry in pie plate. Dollop with spoonfuls of raspberry jam.

Cover apple mixture with second pastry crust. Pinch crusts together with wet fingers around the sides.

Pierce top of pie with fork (you can make a design if you’d like) to release air as it bakes.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

*Variation: Crumble Topping

If using this topping, make half the pastry recipe above (3/4 cup flour, 6 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/4 tablespoons cold water). This will make one crust. Fill the crust as above, then add topping.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

Mix the flour with cut-up butter (with your fingers!) until it forms crumbs. Add sugar and mix. Sprinkle on top of pie.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

Alice Hoffman’s Website

New York Times Review of “Nightbird”

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis ~ Book Review




Pages: 221

Published:  1955

Format:  Soft covered book




I loved the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and was excited to read this with my 8 year old son.   As a child, I loved the magic and beauty contained in these other worlds.  As an adult, I now see the parallels to the bible, and the messages it is intending to teach.   The ending of the book is actually a retelling of sorts of the story of creation from the bible.    I must say my remembrance of the book was that of a 5 star read, but in re-reading it, I can only give images-2.  My son, although very interested and attuned to the storyline throughout, I think would agree.

I will keep this review short as there is so much already written about this novel and instead of providing discussion questions, I will simply provide links.

Discussion Questions from Charlevoix Library

Study Questions from Oxford Tutorials

Official website of C. S. Lewis