These were two middle grade books I read during my Clean Sweep Challenge in May, and they couldn’t be more different.
Up, Up, and Away: Advice and Adventures from the Future Authors and Astronauts of Farnsworth Aerospace
The lengthy title incorporates the actual authors of this anthology of writings of sixth grade pupils from the Farnsworth Aerospace school in Minneapolis-St.Paul. I think it’s actually in St.Paul, but international readers probably need the Minneapolis bit to place it. Consequently it confusingly get the listed author as Marlon James, the acclaimed writer, who simply does an introduction for it. Some listings credit the Mid-continent Oceanographic Institute as author, who were advisers to the children in the project, and probably should be listed as editors.
I got a copy from Net-Galley, because it looks interesting.
For students of middle grade books, it is. It may also be fun for middle graders to see what their counterparts in St.Paul made of assignments to write stories such as a Travel Guide to the planet of your choice, all done in the ‘Come to planet X’ style of promotional writing. Other assignments were advice to specific types of people, on an Up Up and Away theme, which stretched imaginations a little more, such as advice to a chihuahua piloting a hot air balloon. These were much more enjoyable.
The fault in the book is to start with the travel guides. Although at first charming, they rapidly become repetitive (mostly to Mars, and black hole showers appear in the majority), as if the institute guiding them has given one lesson and everyone is writing about the same material. Later stories (all very short) show extreme inventiveness and are inviting and intriguing. What is most informative is the author preference paragraph after each one – you learn a great deal about the demographics of this school and presumably St Paul in general. And I learnt a new cultural term, Hmong. So maybe it’s also good for diversity.
This is a good book for teachers who want to encourage their own 5th and 6th graders to write stories, and maybe also for reluctant readers.
Karmack by J C Whyte
Karmack is a completely different kettle of fish, a fast paced, well-written book with a light-handed moral. The leader of the school trouble-makers, Sully, finds himself bothered by a very small being who nobody else can see – and he’s getting a whole load of trouble from him. Too used to not listening to others, he fails to hear the full description his new ‘friend’ gives of his job, and calls him Karmack when he says his job is a ‘karmic balancer’. Basically, the imp, gnome or pixie has to offset all the bad things that people do by doing it back to them. As time goes on, Sully starts to realise he isn’t joking, and that leads to a whole range of disasters and near-disasters that he tries to prevent. Meanwhile, he’s developing his character, and beginning to grow up, and this is very well written.
I loved this book, from its premise to its writing and the unsoppy way relationships are dealt with. It’ll give a lot of boys (and girls) food for thought, and I hope it might persuade some of them that Sully’s choice is the one for them, too.
A thoroughly enjoyable, highly recommended read for 5th grade boys in particular. Bully boys can discover their better natures with a little help from a karmic balancer! Lots of action, and short enough to keep attention from wandering.
I got this when the author was promoting it in 2013, and I apologise sincerely for taking so long to read and review it. It’s a gem.
PS Do you wonder why I get confused about US grades when the first book is written by 6th graders, and Karmack contains 5th graders who seem much older?