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Top Ten Tuesdays – Canadian Reads for Middle Schoolers

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because they are particularly fond of lists  at The Broke and the Bookish. They love to share their lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

Each week they will post a new Top Ten list  that one of the bloggers there at The Broke and the Bookish will answer. Everyone is welcome to join. Are you a blogger as well? All that’s asked is that you link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out other bloggers lists! If you don’t have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Have fun with it!

Today’s Top Ten:

Top Ten Canadian Books for Middle School Kids

I read for a lot of reasons – because I love it, for review, for my students, and also for a Canadian reading award selection committee. While I will never identify or comment on the books currently in contention for this prize on this blog, I can confidently state that I am a proud Canadian book supporter! I have even developed bookmarks for my students that outline Canadian authors and a selection of the books that we carry in the Library to help students find those elusive Canadian literary greats.

As a result, I’m going to play a little fast and loose with this week’s topic from the lovely people at the Broke and the Bookish. It is supposed to be “Top Ten Genre”, but I’m modifying it a bit to be my top ten favourite Canadian books to recommend to Middle School students. I have a number of teachers who are including “Canadian” in their lists of genres (and yes, that is a point of discussion for another time), so I’m going to run with it. These are all fantastic and I would highly recommended them all as great reads!

10. Anne of Green Gables to Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Before I give the summary, I should explain … I adore the Anne of Green Gable series, and make it a point to re-read them every year. However, much as I love the first book in the series – and I do – I find that each book in the Anne Chronicles up to the last that deals with Anne & Gilbert’s children (oh hush, it’s a classic, so it can’t be a spoiler) is equally special. Since everyone knows the story of how Anne came to Green Gables, I’m going to pick the third book instead  – Anne of the Island it is!

New adventures lie ahead as Anne Shirley packs  her bags, waves good-bye to childhood, and heads for  Redmond College. With old friend Prissy Grant  waiting in the bustling city of Kingsport and  frivolous new pal Philippa Gordon at her side, Anne tucks  her memories of rural Avonlea away and discovers  life on her own terms, filled with  surprises…including a marriage proposal from the worst fellow  imaginable, the sale of her very first story, and a  tragedy that teaches her a painful lesson. But  tears turn to laughter when Anne and her friends move  into an old cottage and an ornery black cat steals  her heart. Little does Anne know that handsome  Gilbert Blythe wants to win her heart, too. Suddenly  Anne must decide if she’s ready for love…

The thing that no one ever tells you about the Anne series is that they are not only classic pieces of Canadian literature, but they are also the first true romance novels you may ever read. The ongoing saga of Anne and her true love Gilbert Blythe, coupled with the strong and feisty role model of Anne as a teacher, friend, defacto daughter and eventually wife and mother make these compelling reads no matter the age. Having said that, they do need some introduction. For many of my students who are not originally from Canada there’s some book talking that needs to be done to sell the books (what’s that? Period pieces? rural PEI? orphans working on a farm?) before students are really comfortable taking them out.

9. Life on the Refrigerator Door: Notes Between a Mother and Daughter by Alice Kuipers

Kuipers’s first work unfolds like a flip book of half-drawn images too swiftly ended, a compilation of tantalizing notes posted on a refrigerator by a single working mom and Claire-bear, her wistful teen daughter. Bittersweet, funny and achingly real, the nameless mother (an overworked obstetrician) and bubbly Claire communicate through these notes instead of talking, e-mailing or text messaging. Missives range from the daughter’s plainly impassioned (Hi MOM! (Who I never see anymore EVER!)) to her mother’s soothing, tough-upper-lip responses written during her breast cancer treatment. Kuipers captures the anxiety surrounding tragedy and conveys the importance of fully experiencing life.

This isn’t classified as a middle school read, but it certainly has been a huge hit with the students who have read this short but hauntingly poignant debut. Told in a series of post-it notes, it traces the everyday – and not so everyday – life of Claire and her mother as they live their lives parallel to each other as busy people tend to do. However, Kuipers manages to convey a lot of information in a tiny yellow post-it note, and the conversations are heart-wrenching and all-too-familiar. This is a short but extremely worthwhile read, but be prepared: you will need tissues and a hot cup of tea to get you through it.

8.   Over the Edge by Norah McClintock 

The death of a boy at Chloe’s high school looks like an accident… until Chloe discovers that he was blackmailing several other students. Was it accident – or murder? Chloe’s job as a newshound for her highschool paper helps her uncover some startling truths. First, it looks like Daria, the school’s high-profile poet, might have plagiarized some of her award-winning poems.And then it appears that Peter, the writer of the paper’s astronomy column – a boy recently found dead from an accidental fall over a cliff – was blackmailing Daria. And she wasn’t the only one.

This isn’t the first book in the Chloe & Levesque series, but it’s probably my favourite. Norah McClintock has a wonderful way with writing a mystery novel, and she has several different series with many different teenage detectives as the protagonists. What I enjoy about her books is that the adults are not always idiots, and the teens are allowed to be everyday human beings. People have flaws and they react in a normal manner to different situations. McClintock also has the ability to keep the mystery going; she doesn’t let the cat out of the bag too soon, and the clues laid out in the stories are logical without being too blatant. In this series, Chloe Yan is a young woman who is transplanted from her beloved Montreal to the fictional town of East Hastings; Lesveque is her step-father and the Chief of Police. The big difference in this book is in the developing relationship between Chloe and her new stepfather; in previous books, she is a bit of a rebel (some might say a brat <ahem>), but it is in this book that she begins to mature and you begin to buy her as a teenage detective – but with a lot more sass than Nancy Drew ever had.

7.   War Brothers by Sharon E. Mckay

Jacob is the son of a wealthy landowner and Oteka lost his parents to AIDS and is alone in the world. Hannah, beaten but not cowered, holds the secrets of all the vanished children. 

Their destinies become entwined as they find themselves in the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), forced march endlessly through rough terrain with little food or water. The boys form a plan to make their escape, but will friendship, courage, and resilience be enough to save them? 

The concept of child soldiers is often a difficult one to explain to students; what this book does, and does well, is gently but thoroughly provide some of the background for why young children their own age are working as soldiers, killing others almost daily. What I really liked about this book was that it didn’t flinch away from describing what life is like for these young people who have been forced into a life they could never have imagined. Mckay’s research is sound, which makes it all the more disturbing to read at times. Having said all that, it is not all doom and gloom; this is ultimately a story of friendship and survival and inner strength. The subject matter will most definitely spark discussion, so be prepared to do a bit of research after the fact, especially considering the recent viral video for “Kony 2012“. An interesting fact: fifty percent of all book profits have been designated to go to support abandoned children in Uganda

6.    Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen

Meet Ambrose – a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. When bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich, Ambrose is philosophical. Irene, however, is not, and decides that Ambrose will take correspondence classes from home.

Home is the basement apartment in a house owned by a kindly Greek couple. Surely Ambrose will be safe here. But unbeknownst to his mother, Ambrose strikes up an unlikely one-way friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, based on the only thing they have in common: a love of Scrabble. Ambrose learned to play with his mother at the kitchen table. Cosmo learned to play in prison. When Ambrose convinces the reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club, a small deception mushrooms and they both find much more than they bargained for,  from run-ins with lowlifes to high romance. 

Any book that can make you laugh out loud from the first chapter onwards is one worth reading, and this book had both my students and me in stitches the entire time. Ambrose is a classic ‘nerd'; he often says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he just can’t seem to manage the usual relationships of his peers. He breaks your heart a little, but his determination and self-possessed nature lead him to success and triumphs throughout the story. There’s a lovely supporting cast  of characters in here too, and while Ambrose’s mother is definitely different, her love for her son underlies all her crazy decisions. I also loved that Ambrose was obsessed with Scrabble, and that his talent for word building was an essential part of his character. The companion book, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom is also not to be missed.

5.    Megido’s Shadow by Arthur Slade 

Fueled by anger at the death of his brother in World War I, sixteen year old Edward enlists and abandons his father and their farm in Canada for England. After proving that he can tame any wild horse, he’s sent to 
Palestine to battle the Turks. 
A trooper’s horse is the key to life and death in a cavalry charge: luckily, Edward has the extraordinary Buke, his true companion. He also has tender letters from Emily, a nurse, and the camaraderie of his tent mates. As he closes in on the enemy, Edward finds that the noble vengeance he seeks is replaced by the horror of battle and the realization that he must fight not only to survive, but also to kill.

This isn’t an easy read. The descriptions in this book are historically accurate, which means that they are often brutal, violent and horribly sad. The protagonist Edward is written in a very matter-of-fact manner, with little to sugarcoat the difficulties that he encounters or the bitterness he feels. Sounds charming, yes? Surprisingly, this is a completely absorbing and compelling read; the events of the war are as told in bald detail, but without over-exaggeration or trivializing anything. The pacing of the book is swift and well-disciplined, and you very quickly connect to Edward as he begins his journey from the rural farm in Saskatchewan to the desert of Megiddo – or the Armageddon – in Palestine.  The journey made by Edward is not only geographical but emotional and it is a tough one; he has to learn about the cost of war and what truly matters most to him as he struggles to survive some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

4. Frost by Nicole Luiken

Johnny Van Der Zee is a talented hockey player and seems to have everything going for him in the town of Iqaluit, Nunavut. But his friend Kathy knows something is very wrong. Why did Johnny deliberately crash his snowmobile? Why do mysterious accidents befall anyone Johnny gets close to? What is the secret Johnny is so desperate to tell, if only someone would listen? And who is the stranger with the cold eyes and the silver hair, the one Johnny knows only as Frost … In this supernatural thriller, Johnny’s friends and brother must piece together the reason for his strange behaviour to save him – and all of mankind – from Frost’s plan for a new ice age.

I’ll admit that I went into this book with some trepidation….a hockey book? With supernatural elements? Set up north? And I was supposed to like this? I didn’t – I loved it. Luiken has written a compelling paranormal sports read – an unlikely combination, but it works. Johnny struggles with a ‘deal with the devil’ situation. In order to become a successful hockey player, Johnny has made a mysterious pact with the strange Frost. As with any deal, however, it comes with strings, and Johnny and his friends must pay the price.

This book grabs hold of kids and doesn’t let go, and adults will be held tightly in its grasp as well. The characters are strong and determined, and deal with situations that are unknown to the standard ‘southern’ reader. Their lives are difficult, and opportunities for success are limited. You quickly learn that the desire to get away and make something of yourself is an overriding ambition for a lot of Northern youth. Overall, there is a sense of urgency within this novel that leaves you on the edge of your seat; be sure to have a good block of time available when you begin to read it, as you will want to devour it in one sitting.

3. The Summoning (book #1 in the Darkest Powers series) by Kelley Armstrong 

Chloe Saunders sees dead people. Yes, like in the films. The problem is, in real life saying you see ghosts gets you a one-way ticket to the psych ward. And at 15, all Chloe wants to do is fit in at school and maybe get a boy to notice her. But when a particularly violent ghost haunts her, she gets noticed for all the wrong reasons. Her seemingly crazed behaviour earns her a trip to Lyle House, a centre for disturbed teens.

At first Chloe is determined to keep her head down. But then her room mate disappears after confessing she has a poltergeist, and some of the other patients also seem to be manifesting paranormal behaviour. Could that be a coincidence? Or is Lyle House not quite what it seems…? Chloe realizes that if she doesn’t uncover the truth, she could be destined for a lifetime in a psychiatric hospital. Or could her fate be even worse…? Can she trust her fellow students, and does she dare reveal her dark secret?

Kelley Armstrong is a fabulous writer of adult paranormal fiction books, and when I heard that she was turning her hand to the YA genre, I’ll admit to jumping up and down in glee. I wasn’t disappointed; the Darkest Powers series (and the subsequent Darkness Rising series that is ongoing) is smart, funny and realistic in the fear and reactions Chloe has upon finding out that she has supernatural powers she could never have imagined. Chloe reacts just the way any teenage girl her age would – with fear, disbelief, anguish and, ultimately, determination. The other teen characters are also equally well drawn, and I appreciate that they don’t all get along – just as in real life. Adults are the enigma here, and you are never entirely convinced of their loyalties. Be warned … the opening chapter is suitably creepy; when I read it, I actually had to put it away until I was nicely settled in a brightly lit coffee shop with lots of people around before I could continue.

2.   Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Spyglass to my eye, I slowly swept the heavens….Matt Cruse is the 15-year-old cabin boy aboard the Aurora, the 900-foot luxury airship he has called home for the past two years. While crossing the Pacificus, Matt fearlessly rescues the unconscious pilot of a crippled hot air balloon. Before he dies, the balloonist tells him about the fantastic, impossible creatures he has seen flying through the clouds. Matt dismisses the story as the ravings of a dying man, but when Kate de Vries arrives on the Aurora a year later, determined to prove the story is true, Matt finds himself caught up in her quest. Then one night, over the middle of the ocean, deadly air pirates board the Aurora. Far from any hope of rescue, Kate and Matt are flung into adventures beyond all imagining. . .

Really, I could have picked any of Oppel’s books for this list as Half Brother, Silverwing and This Dark Endeavour are all wonderful books and perfect for Middle School kids. Oppel has an incredible knack for telling a rich and detailed story that keeps you fully entranced. I love the steampunk aspects of the Airborn trilogy (yes, my darlings, before their was dystopia there was steampunk – and it’s coming back around!), and the adventure and thrills within the series. Both Matt and Kate are strong, intelligent characters with their own hopes and dreams. They are highly likeable but also completely normal for their age in some of their responses (a refreshing change), and you will cheer them on through all three of the books as they discover secrets and battle evil in their own ways.

1.   This Can’t Be Happening At MacDonald Hall! (Bruno & Boots, book #1) by Gordon Korman 

Macdonald Hall’s ivy-covered buildings have housed and educated many fine young Canadians. 
But this year there are two students who want to shake things up a little: Bruno Walton and Boots O’Neal. They’re roommates and best friends, and they know how to have fun. To Headmaster Sturgeon — a.k.a. The Fish — they’re nothing but trouble. 
Soon they have to face their worst nightmares. Boots is moved in with George Wexford-Smyth III, a rich hypochondriac, and Bruno has to bunk with science geek Elmer Drimsdale. 
But they won’t let that spoil their school year, oh no. 
Whatever it takes — even skunk stunts and an ant stampede — they’ll be together again by the end of the semester. 
And this is only the beginning.

I remember reading my first Gordon Korman book. I know where I was sitting, I remember what I was munching on (it was after school) and how I felt when I finished it. I wanted MORE. More Bruno, more Boots, more of The Fish and all the escapades that these two boys managed to concoct together. I never looked back either; I moved onto Korman’s Bugs Potter series, and a myriad of independent novels that have followed this fateful writing assignment for his middle school English class. Korman has a knack of knowing what kids find funny without taking it too far; the situations may become extreme, but the humour never gets too over the top. Kids connect to the characters and want to find out what happens, and when the book is over, they want to read more. Korman is the master of the series, and I appreciate that he knows when to finish it as well – the Kidnapped, Titanic, Island and Dive series are all a finite number of books, and kids feel a great sense of accomplishment when they finish all the books.

Honourable Mention:

Big Bear Hug by Nicholas Oldland

This lighthearted modern-day fable tells of a bear who loves hugging trees and other living things bears are known to eat. When he spies a man chopping down a tree, he resists his angry urge to eat him and hugs him 
instead. The startled man drops his axe and runs away in fright, leaving the bear to give the tree a much-needed hug.

Who says that picture books are only for little kids? This book is the first in a series that uses the same characters, each with their own story, and it is hysterical. Honestly, I had Grade Eight kids rolling off their chairs when I read this aloud – and I’ve caught a few of them pulling it off the shelves again for a quick read and a smile. The illustrations make this book, from the expression on the long-suffering animals who are being hugged to the bear himself.

Upcoming lists:
March 20: Top Ten Books On My Spring To-Be-Read list
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