Middle-grade musts

Published in the Chapel Hill Herald
Aug. 28, 2014

Active middle-graders want action-packed reading. Here are two book/audio titles that will grab them and hold them:

Kenneth Oppel’s The Boundless (Book from Simon and Schuster; Audio from Brilliance, 7CDs, approx. 8 hours) begins as William waits for his father to return from working for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Everything changes when he meets two extraordinary characters. Maren, a young tightrope walker/escape expert, impresses him, steals from him and disappears almost before his eyes. William can’t forget her. Moments later, he meets the railway baron Cornelius Van Horne (modeled on the real historical figure). Van Horne takes William aboard the train to meet his father. In rapid succession, William narrowly avoids an avalanche and a sasquatch, then sees his father promoted by Van Horne.

The story jumps ahead into William’s young adulthood. Van Horne has died and William’s father runs the company. William’s family once struggled to survive and now they have entered a world of wealth. William’s father has designed a 947-car train called The Boundless. On the not so positive side, Williams’ father is no longer the supporter of his son’s desire to make art, instead wanting William to become a company man. Their conflict comes to a head aboard The Boundless, but Oppel doesn’t linger on psychological issues. Action and adventure barrel forward like the speeding train. William re-finds Maren, who is traveling on The Boundless with the circus folk and soon the two are thrust into intrigue with murdering thieves, multiple mysteries and exciting chase scenes. William finds a family feeling with the close-knit circus community, where his artistic and courageous gifts emerge more fully.

Nick Poedehl’s narration is inviting. He keeps time and place clear and changes accents frequently to differentiate the large cast of characters and the many emotions. Best of all, his pacing increases to advance the excitement when action ensues.

The Crossover (Kwame Alexander, Corey Allen; book from HMH; audio Recorded Books, 2.5 hours) is told from the viewpoint of character Josh Bell, who loves words as much as basketball. He defines a crossover as: “A simple basketball move in which a player dribbles the ball quickly from one hand to another.” It’s also the play that brought professional fame to Josh’s father, Chuck “Da Man” Bell. Most importantly it’s a term that characterizes a book that blends sports and poetry into a fast-paced novel.
There are many sudden and dramatic shifts in the lives of 13-year-old twins, Josh and Jordan Bell, and their loving parents. Josh, or “Filthy McNasty” as he’s called on the court, both admires and envies his ball -handler brother, JB. They have a long-term friendly rivalry over Duke and UNC teams.

Everything changes, however, according to Josh, when “Miss Sweet Tea,” a “pulchritudinous” female, enters their sphere and captures the attention and heart of JB. That conflict is relegated to a lower order worry when the boys grow more concerned about their adored father’s health.

Balanced love comes from their enthusiastic encouragement of their father and their mother, a middle school principal who takes care of the study end and tries to rein in her exhuberant husband, who is at one point is sentenced to the “…top row/of the bleachers/during the game. You’re too confrontational, she says.”
It’s clear that basketball and family rule their lives. One of Alexander’s Rule of Life poems scattered through the book encapsulates this: “In this game of life/, your family is the court/ and the ball is your heart.”
Alexander’s writing blends hip hop, concrete and haiku poems with trash talk, jazz tones and well-chosen words that explode off the page. The tones of his poems change constantly. Within one poem both the words and their form are vivid—capitalization counts and italics intrigue. In the first, “MOVING & GOOVING,/POPping and ROCKING…CrissCROSSING” end as SLIPPING slides down the page to the final word, “Swoooooooooooosh”.

Corey Allen narrates the audio and his tones switch like a fast-changing crossover. Allen maintains edge-of-your seat tension throughout sibling and game competition and the heart-jolting ending.

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