Must-reads for middle-schoolers

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2011 - 4:17 PM

A new crop of books by Minnesota writers will have your kids turning the pages throughout the fall.

Jacqueline West.

When Jacqueline West was growing up in River Falls, Wis., she used to stare out the window as her school bus rumbled past a certain crumbling Victorian house. It was a creepy place, in its way, with a sagging porch and peeling green paint. The owner was a doctor who was also an amateur inventor, and all kinds of gadgets and thingamajigs whirred and spun in the overgrown yard.

"I started imagining what kind of family lived in a house that looked like that," West said recently. "I knew that the setting had this sort of haunted, Gothic history to it, but the family was really scientific and logical. And so I wanted to play with that contrast."

Years later, that house became the setting for "The Shadows," the first in a planned series of five books for young adults called "The Books of Elsewhere." "The Shadows" came out last summer and rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list its very first week.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said the book's "suspenseful plot and insight into childhood loneliness" would have readers anxiously awaiting the next in the series. Wait no longer; West's second book, "Spellbound," came out this month, and it picks up right where the first one left off.

Both books feature Olive, an 11-year-old girl who lives in a mysterious Victorian house with her so-intellectual-they're- almost-clueless mathematician parents. Olive is a shy loner. Through prowling the many rooms -- all stuffed with the antique belongings of the previous owners -- she discovers that the house is abundantly haunted. The cats can talk. The paintings on the walls can be entered (if she wears the correct pair of magical spectacles) and, once inside a painting, she can walk around and talk with the people in the picture.

West is a poet and singer; writing for children had not been part of any plan. "When I started working on this, I was trying to do everything at once," she said. "I was doing arts writing, short fiction, poetry, and then I started to write 'The Shadows,' just because that was a story I had been waiting to tell."

She toyed with the manuscript off and on for eight years before it became a book.

"Olive, in a way, is a reaction to a lot of the kid-hero literary characters, the really spunky, sassy, self-reliant kid that has kind of become common in kids' fiction," she said. "A lot more of the kids who I know are more the shy, polite, not quite so self-confident kids, and I really wanted to write a character who those kids would find relatable. So that's Olive. She doesn't believe she has the kinds of talents or resources that she actually does."

The third book in the series is written and should be out next summer. ("I've kind of gotten exponentially faster," West said. "The first book took me about eight years, and the second book was two years, and the third book was one. So maybe I'll get my last book done in about two days.")

When West got her book contract, she and her husband, a freelance Web designer, realized they could now live anywhere they wanted. They chose Red Wing, along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. "It's perfect distance from family and the Cities," she said. "It's a great little town."

West will read from "Spellbound" at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Reading Frenzy Bookstore in Zimmerman, Minn.

Hers is among many books for middle-school readers coming out the second half of the summer and into the fall by local writers. Here are four more:

"Emmy and the Rats in the Belfry," by Lynne Jonell (Henry Holt, $17.95)

If you've read the first two Emmy books by Plymouth author Lynne Jonell, then you already understand the complicated magic of Emmy's existence. She's friends with some rats (yes, rats -- but rats who seem earnest and sweet and not at all disgusting). If one of them, a rat named Ratty, bites her, Emmy shrinks to their size, and if he bites her again, she turns into a rat. And if another rat, named Cecelia, kisses her, she returns to her normal little-girl state. In the latest in the series, the plot is nearly as complicated as the back story: Two evil rats (formerly evil humans) are plotting revenge and kidnapping, while Ratty and Cecelia are on a search for their mother. Both threads come together in a satisfying, page-turning tale.

"The Tanglewood Terror," by Kurtis Scaletta (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99, September publication)

The central conflict of Minneapolis writer Kurtis Scaletta's adventure novels is always some deep struggle with the natural world. Not man vs. nature, exactly; more like boy trying to cope with nature. And so you had the baseball-loving hero of "Mudville" living in a town where it was always, always raining; and in "Mamba Point" you had an American boy in Africa, forging a complicated friendship with a deadly snake. In "The Tanglewood Terror," the problem is mushrooms -- fast-multiplying mushrooms that apparently leveled a town 300 years ago and are about to do so again, unless 12-year-old Eric and his little brother Brian can stop them. This book is nonstop action. Scaletta is great at making the bizarre and possibly supernatural seem, if not ordinary, completely plausible.

The launch party for "The Tanglewood Terror" will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 16 at Red Balloon, 891 Grand Av., St. Paul.

"Down the Mysterly River," by Bill Willingham. (Starscape/Tor, $15.99, September publication)

The book opens quietly enough, with a lost Boy Scout wandering in the woods. He is a practical boy named Max, who methodically pats down his pockets for his Lost Kit (which he has) and checks himself for injuries (which he does not have) as he tries to figure out where he is and why he can't remember getting there. But, whoa -- from there the action never stops, as a talking badger (who suggests, helpfully, that perhaps they are dead), a yellow cat "too evil to die," a black bear and a whole group of malevolent hunters called the Blue Cutters converge on the forest -- some friend, some foe, some intent on murder. Willingham, who lives near Rochester in Mantorville, Minn., is probably best known for his graphic novel series "Fables." "Down the Mysterly River" is a thrilling, gasp-inducing fantasy of friendship and courage.

"Barn Boot Blues," by Catherine Friend (Marshall Cavendish, $16.99, October publication)

Minnesota memoirist Catherine Friend's foray into the world of children's fiction is a sweet story of a 12-year-old Minneapolis girl named Taylor McNamara. Taylor's parents uproot her rather suddenly from her Mall of America/city-girl existence and transplant her to a hobby farm 100 miles away. Taylor is a bright, likable girl, and she seems far too levelheaded for Friend's plot device (deliberately failing at school, so as to make her parents move back to the city). But the book is a charming read anyway, and the farm scenes (birthing lambs, the smell of goats, and the importance of umbrellas in the chicken coop) ring with authenticity.

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