Good Books for Middle Schoolers
Lunch Money, by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster, $15.95; ages 8-12). Eleven-year-old Greg is one of those kids with an apparently congenital "talent for money." He "had never taken money lessons. He hadn't had a money tutor or gone to money camp." His gift was natural. "He knew how to save [money], how to keep track of it, how to grow it, and most of all, how to make it." Right before sixth grade, Greg has a brain wave. Every kid at school usually has an extra quarter or two over and above lunch money, he notices. All he has to do is come up with a product they'd be willing to spend them on. His ventures as a comic-book entrepreneur succeed -- and go awry -- in ways that surprise him. How does he feel, for instance, about Maura Shaw, his "plenty smart" rival? And what about his growing awareness that he's just one tiny cog in a machine that separates elementary school-age American kids from "thirteen billion dollars" worth of their own money every year? Clements deals frankly and (mostly) unsanctimoniously with issues not often broached even in YA novels, from saving and banking to advertising and marketing ethics -- as well as the volatile role of money in human relationships. Droll, grade-school-style drawings by Brian Selznick are a delight.
Pay the Piper, by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple (Starscape, $16.95; ages 9-12). Mixing and matching genres is starting to look like a trend in juvenile fiction. Neal Shusterman recently launched a series blending myths and fairy tales (see his Dread Locks, reviewed here July 7, which fuses the Gorgon myth and "Goldilocks"). Now Jane Yolen, a mistress of fantasy, has teamed up with her rock-and-roll musician son to develop a series crossing classic tales with contemporary music. This debut effort is a thriller, bringing the Pied Piper of Hamelin to Northampton, Mass., in the form of a touring folk-rock musician who literally enchants the town's children after being stiffed by his promoter. But 14-year-old Callie, a school-paper reporter, knows her poetry and her ballads and uses them to figure out what has happened. It's hard to resist the image of Callie at the faerie court in her soccer shirt and Old Navy jeans, coming upon a horde of stolen children: "dozens of them, like little forlorn ghosts, white-faced, the sun shining right through them."
The Game of Silence, by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 8-12). In this sequel to The Birchbark House, Erdrich continues the engrossing story of a little Ojibwe girl, orphaned by smallpox, who lives with her adoptive family on an island in Lake Superior. Three years have passed. It's 1850, and Omakayas is 10. Smallpox has receded, but an even greater threat to the tribe's existence -- the chimookomanag, or white people -- looms. "The president of all the chimookomanag had sent a message to the leaders of the Ojibwe. That message was simple. They must leave their homes. . . . The government now owned the ground they lived on. It was needed for white settlers. He had issued a removal order." Erdrich's accomplishment is to have painted so rich a portrait of the lost world of the Ojibwe that the bland sentences ring like ax blows of destruction. A way of life springs into focus -- families cooking, eating, crafting canoes, building winter cabins, weaving rabbit-skin blankets, having snowball fights -- as the seasons of that pivotal year roll by under the shadow of the decree. For kids steeped in the perspectives of, say, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, Erdrich's Ojibwe saga is an eye-opener. Happily, it doesn't end here: Seven more titles are planned.
Raven's Gate: The Gatekeepers, Book 1, by Anthony Horowitz (Scholastic, $17.95; ages 9-12). In the ranks of British authors with a known thing for unnamable evil, Tolkien may be statelier than Anthony Horowitz, Alan Garner more attuned to local lore and J.K. Rowling funnier. But, on the showing of Raven's Gate, the first of five books featuring five different kids facing off against "the impossible," none of them outdoes Horowitz in torquing a plot. Matt is 14, but he looks older. Caught on the fringes of a crime, he's given a choice: jail or a special foster-care arrangement in a remote Yorkshire village, as creepy a place as any Maine hamlet dreamed up by Stephen King. Matt picks Yorkshire. Big mistake. "They drove for an hour, first on a dual carriageway, then on a B-road, then on a twisting country lane. The farther they went, the bleaker the landscape became." As that snippet suggests, Horowitz gets you to the heart of darkness -- or, more precisely, the corpse-strewn portal of terror -- so fast and so smoothly you don't even notice you're reading.
-- Elizabeth Ward