What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-StarsSchmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)



The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

origamiyodaAngleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books LLC, 2010. MP3.

Genre: middle grade novel

Summary: Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami Yoda finger puppet. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Tommy wants to believe Yoda’s powers are real because he wants to ask the biggest most important question of all: Does Sara like him (and, thus, should he ask her to the dance)? But there are lots of reasons to be skeptical.

This is the first in a really fun series. Star Wars fans and crafty kids will enjoy many of the newly released supplemental books packed with lessons in origami and journal doodling.

Critique: The story is told like a Rashomon, pitting multiple points of view against each other. Lots of characters contribute their testimonies to Tommy’s casebook. Some submit text messages. Others record audio. Other’s just doodle (an effect that doesn’t come across in MP3 very well). The yae’s battle the nay’s until the reader is as unsure as Tommy. Angleberger excels at capturing the middle grade voice and attitude. The tone is light and fun. Everyone has a happy ending. Like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Angleberger assigns to Dwight the classic symptoms of autism, however, he never names the condition outright. As a result, Angleberger misses a prime opportunity to discuss a developmental difference that impacts many kids and families in his target audience.