North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler

North of NowhereReading level: 5-6th grade
Genre: Magical realism, mystery
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

The sleepy seaside village of Porthaven hides a mystery: Mia’s grandad has vanished, and nobody knows why. When Mia and her mom rush to Porthaven to help her grandmother, Mia imagines long dreary days with no one to talk to except for the old-time fisherman at her grandparents’ pub. But that’s before Mia finds a diary on an empty, docked fishing boat and starts exchanging notes with a local girl named Dee, a girl who seems much like her. Mia is excited about having a new friend, but why do their plans to meet each other never materialize? And why does Dee claim to be stuck at home due to violent storms when Mia sees only sunny skies? Will Mia be able to solve the mystery of where — and when — her grandfather and friend might be before time and tide forever wash away their futures?

This book, my friends, knocked my socks off.

North of Nowhere is an astoundingly clever little book. We have Mia’s thirteen-year-old narration voice combined with other mysterious voices written in italics throughout the story, and we don’t really know who those people are until the end (unless you’ve made some educated guesses earlier on). One mystery starts immediately with an odd compass. The next mystery is that Mia’s grandfather disappears. Then Mia’s new friend disappears as well, there’s an island ravaged by a storm that happened fifty years ago but that Mia witnesses…

Wow.

At first, there’s not much to suggest that the story has any sort of magical components, and it seems perfectly realistic except for clues here and there. Some of those clues that there is something going on between past and present include that compass from the beginning, a sailor who doesn’t recognize anyone at a place he frequents, men saying that the island Mia’s friend lives on does not exist… It just builds and builds until it pretty much blows your mind as Mia and her friend take a boat to that island on a rescue mission only to return for help, get back to the island, and find a whole new scene. When this genre is done right, it sure is great.

The one complaint I have is that the ending was sort of like the ending of every Scooby-Doo show: the gang stands around and asks “But how did you know who the monster really was?” and someone explains the whole mystery step by step.  But it is a middle level book, after all, written for middle schoolers, so the clear explanation wasn’t out of context.

North of Nowhere is also written to that middle school age group. I felt that Mia’s voice was really speaking to the reader and could connect with younger kiddos. Even though, to me, she was just another teenage girl wanting to make friends and have fun, Mia’s voice was incredibly realistic.

Aside from some sentence fragments and marine-specific vocabulary, it’s ELL friendly. I mean, the traveling in time bit gets confusing, but as long as students can understand relationships between characters and going backwards and forwards in time, ELLs should have no more trouble than native English speakers.

I made an educated guess about the reading level since the book is too new to be listed with Scholastic.

North of Nowhere is my sixteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder

hannah's gardenReading level: 6.5(ish)
Genre: Magical realism, fantasy
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Cassie Brittman is looking forward to her violin recital and the prom– until the hospital calls and she learns that her grandfather, noted mystical painter Daniel Brittman, is dying.

Cassie, her mother, Anne, and Anne’s new boyfriend travel to the family farm and immediately see that things are far from normal. The farm, including Great-Grandmother Hannah’s spiral garden, is almost destroyed, and someone (or something) seems to be stalking them. Cassie soon finds herself at the center of an age-old battle between two supernatural clans-the sinister, dark Red Clan and her own family, the Green Clan. For it turns out that Cassie’s grandfather is half nature spirit, half human…

Hannah’s Garden is an interesting blend of the every-day struggles of Cassie and her mother alongside the magic of the family farm. It’s one of the most beautifully-written stories I’ve read in a while, but some of the content left me underwhelmed.

Cassie faces a difficult decision that many of us have probably dealt with (or will in the future) in that she drops everything to help her mom care for her grandfather. She gives up the prom and her recital for a sick man who doesn’t recognize her anymore. Heartbreaking, right?

Things get interesting when we learn that Anne, Cassie’s mom, is more like a child herself, leaving Cassie as the mother figure at times, much like the family in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle (which is a fantastic memoir that I highly recommend). The relationship between mother and daughter and also between them and the new boyfriend is frustrating, sweet, heart-wrenching, and so real. The boyfriend may have been my favorite character, actually, despite the reader not knowing much about him. He never gets upset, he doesn’t run away, and we don’t know why he sticks by Cassie and Anne other than because he’s a legitimately good person.

Then there’s the magical folk – the dancing figures in the background of the cover. We see glimpses of them straight from the beginning. But they’re no more than glimpses. Near the end, we finally get immersed in this magical world that apparently lives alongside humanity..? And here’s where I ran into problems. Because the magical part of this story came at the end, I was left with too many questions, and the world was not only unrealistic but not developed to my taste. It felt rushed. Personally, I would have liked the story more if it had forsaken the magic and focused on the familial aspect.

Again, part of the beauty of this story comes from the flowing prose. It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because the vocabulary is complex, especially when describing Cassie’s music (I’m a musician and I didn’t recognize all the words) and plants.

6.5 is my best guess of a reading level; none was listed on Scholastic’s website. Although it’s at a middle school reading level, it’s best suited for 8th grade and above because of some content. Let’s just say there are some moments featuring breasts, but those instances are brief. There are some curse words, too, but nothing in this book is enough keep it off the classroom shelves.

Hannah’s Garden is my thirteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

Listening for LuccaReading level: 6.4
Genre: Magical realism
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

“I’m obsessed with abandoned things.” Siena’s obsession began a year and a half ago, around the time her two-year-old brother Lucca stopped talking. Now Mom and Dad are moving the family from Brooklyn to Maine hoping that it will mean a  whole new start for Lucca and Siena. She soon realizes that their wonderful old house on the beach holds secrets. When Siena writes in her diary with an old pen she found in her closet, the pen writes its own story, of Sarah and Joshua, a brother and sister who lived in the same house during World War II. As the two stories unfold, amazing parallels begin to appear, and Siena senses that Sarah and Joshua’s story might contain the key to unlocking Lucca’s voice.

What book are you reading at the moment? If the answer is not Listening for Lucca, go find a copy right now! This is probably my favorite book I have read in a long time. I mean, I really, really loved it.

I struggled for a while to come up with the genre. Almost everything about the book is completely realistic. The unrealistic part is that the narrator Siena can see into the past as if it’s the present and can see through the eyes of a girl living in the WWII era. She tries to make sense of this oddity knowing that it’s not normal to see into the past. In that way, it’s magical realism, even supernatural (thanks Husband for helping me find the right words.) But I suppose if a classroom library doesn’t have a magical realism or supernatural section, the book could fall into the realistic fiction section.

Why did I like it so much, you may ask? It’s hard to explain, and I’ve asked myself the same question. Part of the answer lies in the superb narration of the audiobook read by Ariadne Meyers. I fell in love with Siena, with kindness, her shyness, her weirdness, her tenderness towards her brother and her friends… I appreciated how she embraces her odd qualities, much like I do.

I thought that the whole mystery of Sarah/Lucca not talking was beautifully connected. (I’m also a sucker for history/WWII in general, so there’s that…) While we don’t understand exactly HOW Sarah loses or regains her voice or WHY Lucca stops talking, there’s a beauty in the past connecting with the present and vice versa. Some goodreads reviewers are annoyed that some of the mysteries are left unsolved. I’m okay with that – it’s part of the realistic part of this genre. If the mysteries were explained fully, it might become too magical. It’s sort of how I feel about my all time favorite book The Little Prince. I don’t care if parts are a little weird or don’t make sense. In fact, I’ll get kind of mad if you try to point those parts out as flaws. To me, those parts make up the complete and utter beauty of the book, of human imagination, and literature at its finest.

Now, I’ll understand if many students don’t fall in love with Listening for Lucca. It’s a book for those soft-hearted readers who are ready to let Siena and her gifts into one’s heart. I might suggest it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and/or history. It’s ELL friendly and geared towards middle readers due to the low reading level, but I think high schoolers might enjoy it too, since it seems to be directed at the reader who doesn’t need action or drama at every turn to stay interested.

Listening for Lucca is my fifth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.