Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – A kid, a farm animal and a blue ribbon.

Late addition: Just so you all understand me a bit better  THIS is what I mean when I talk about teens, dystopias and YA fiction.

For this week’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday I’m going to talk about a book about a young kid on a farm who saves a baby animal from being slaughtered. The kid and the animal become best friends while the animal grows to be big and strong and ready to compete in the county fair. But will the kid be able to figure out a way to save the animal from slaughter once and for all?

Did you guess it? Did I hear someone say Charlotte’s Web?  In fact I will talk about Charlotte’s Web a bit later, but before I do I want to tell you the book I’m actually reviewing, a 2011 publication called Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace.  In fact Little Joe is the book I synopsized above. Are you asking yourself the same thing I asked myself as I read it?  “How is this book not Charlotte’s Web?”

Well the human protagonist is a boy instead of a girl, and the animal is a calf instead of a pig, and there’s no taking spider, but about there is where the plot dissimilarities end. Don’t get me wrong, Little Joe is a fine book, very nicely written, and much more modern in its story telling than Charlotte’s Web; parts of it are even quite dark. But after read it, I couldn’t quite help asking myself another question: ‘How on earth did a debut author manage to sell this hardly original premise?’

I did a little research. Sandra Neil Wallace is a journalist, so she’s not coming to novel writing from out of the blue, and she happens to be married to the award winning novelist Rich Wallace, who also worked for Highlights for Children. So I can’t help but think that Little Joe, derivative premise and all, had a little help along the way to publication by Alfred A. Knopf.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. I’m not. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Wallace’s achievement. I just think this is an interesting lesson to those who think that original ideas are what gets published these days. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a skilled writer being in the right place and right time with the right idea, whether it’s a new idea or not. Just so Ms. Wallace knows there’s no hard feelings, I’m going to do a giveaway on my ARC of Little Joe. Post a comment and follow my blog to enter. International entries welcome.

Little Joe is another quite short book with 37,000 words and a reading level of around grade 4. I would recommend this book to kids who loved Charlotte’s Web so that they want to read it again. Fans of the Little House books might also enjoy it, although it is contemporary.

Charlotte Web is a bit shorter (32,000 words) and the same grade level. I’m sorry, but it’s also better. I know talking animals are a bit passé now (apparently) but this book is just so precious that I think every child should read it.

Now, on to I Can’t Wait to Read: The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman has one of the most awesomely awful book covers I have ever seen.  The cover makes it look like a cross between early Nancy Drew and a “learning-to-read” book from about 1933. I don’t know what the publisher was thinking. It boggles the mind. Click on the above to get a closer look.  That said, if you can get past the cover this book has some of the best blurbs I ever read including this one from Cory Doctorow: “Exposes a wide sweep through a narrow aperture, where the arbitrary nature of race and ownership, kindred and love, are illuminated in the harsh seeking glare of an adolescent’s coming of age.” Uh, sure Cory, I’ll read it. After I read it, can we talk about it, over coffee, or lunch, or breakfast in bed?

YA Highway gave me a baby sloth for entering their giveaway

Other Marvelous Middle Grade Mondayers can be found here:

14 thoughts on “Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – A kid, a farm animal and a blue ribbon.

  1. I’ve never heard of Little Joe, but I think Charlotte’s Web is the most perfect MG novel ever written! And I believe it’s Charlotte the spider who saves Wilbur in the end with her marvelous woven words, not Fern. Although Fern won’t let her father slaughter Wilbur in the beginning.

    So Little Joe sounds very different to me. As you say, there’s no talking spider! The friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte is what makes Charlotte’s Web so special.

    I’ve heard many editors say at SCBWI conferences that there are only so many ideas in the world. It’s your own unique take on the idea that counts.

    Oh, and The Freedom Maze sounds fascinating!

  2. Well, compared to E.B. White, could any of us stand up?

    I have no problem with talking animals, and I’m sure kids don’t either, but I, too, have heard from editors that it’s a tough sell these days. I wonder why?

    Your not-so-secret is out! You have a mad crush on Cory Doctorow! Hahahaha. I met him backstage once on a local talk-show and I didn’t know who he was at the time. Oop!

  3. I’m on to reading “Little Joe” I’d like to see for myself how alike and dissimilar to ‘Charlotte’s Web” it is. I’d love to win a copy. What do I need to do?

  4. I’m fascinated by this post for so many reasons. I don’t think talking animals will ever go out of style and I am pretty sure that re-hashed ideas (when they copy a good one like Charlotte’s Web) will also never die. Just look at all the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs. Books like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques prove that talking animals are always a win.

    BTW, I see what you mean about the cover of The Freedom Maze. It reminds me of books I read as a kid.

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