Winning middle fiction

By popular demand, here’s a list of fiction suitable for keen upper primary and lower secondary school readers.

My caveat is that no list caters to all tastes or abilities. I’m also a firm believer that the right book finds its perfect reader; please explore libraries and bookstores (slowly) and see what catches the eye.

This list is skewed so that it starts with titles suitable for younger readers and progresses to more mature books – YA fiction suitable for younger readers.

I know of numerous other middle fiction novels that come highly recommended – John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series is a good example. That said, I’m confining this catalogue to books/series I’ve read all or part of. Feedback is welcome. I hope the young reader in your life finds hours of escapism here.

Film tie-in Coraline cover
Film tie-in Coraline cover

Novels:

Star Wars Academy (series) – Jeffrey Brown
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series) – Jeff Kinney
Staying Alive in Year 5 – John Marsden
The Samurai Kids (series) – Sandy Fussell
The Greatest Blogger in the World – Andrew McDonald
Nicholas (series) – Rene Goscinny
Chess Nuts – Julia Lawrinson
The Detachable Boy – Scot Gardner
The OK Team (series) – Nick Place
Odd & the Frost Giants – Neil Gaiman
Wildwood – Colin Meloy
Sadako & the Thousand Paper Cranes – Eleanor Coerr
Matilda – Roald Dahl (and James & the Giant Peach, etc.)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick
The Billionaire’s Curse (series) – Richard Newsome
Percy Jackson (series) – Rick Riordan
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
The Lab – Jack Heath
A Series of Unfortunate Events (series) – Lemony Snicket
The Spiderwick Chronicles (series) – Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
Wonder – RJ Palacio
Tomorrow When the War Began (series) – John Marsden
Coraline – Neil Gaiman
Harry Potter (series) – JK Rowling
The Lord of the Rings trilogy – JRR Tolkien
Skulduggery Pleasant (series) – Derek Landy
Two Wolves – Tristan Bancks
Counting by 7s – Holly Goldberg Sloan
Taronga – Victor Kelleher
Blaze of Glory (series) – Michael Pryor
Zeroes (new series) – Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan & Deborah Biancotti
Skellig – David Almond
I am Number Four (series) – Pittacus Lore
Vulture’s Gate – Kirsty Murray
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
The Spook’s Apprentice (series) – Joseph Delaney
Contest – Matthew Reilly
The Rider – Tim Krabbe
Alex Rider (series) – Anthony Horowitz
The Hunger Games (series) – Suzanne Collins
So Much to Tell You – John Marsden
Blood Ninja – Nick Lake
The Underdog (series) – Markus Zusak
Cherub (series) – Robert Muchamore
Every Breathe (series) – Ellie Marney
Illuminae (new series) – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Graphic novels and comics:

Tintin (series) – Herge
Rapunzel’s Revenge – Shannon Hale
Calamity Jack – Shannon Hale
Asterix (series) – Goscinny & Uderzo
Calvin & Hobbes (series) – Bill Watterson
Drama – Raina Telgemeier
Sisters – Raina Telgemeier
Artemis Fowl (series) – Eoin Colfer (also available as novels)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (manga) – Hayao Miyazaki
Joe the Barbarian – Grant Morrison
Yowamushi Pedal (manga series) – Watanabe Wataru
Guardians of the Galaxy (series) – Brian Michael Bendis
Marvel Civil War (series) – Mark Millar

Wrestling

Inertia (noun) ii-ner-sha
Definition: Lack of movement or activity, particularly when movement or activity is desired or required
Reference: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inertia

Keen-eyed observers will quite rightly point out there’s been little movement on Thunder Road. Less progress than along the South Eastern Freeway during peak hour. Fewer words shared than during a silent meditation retreat.

I don’t want this blog too become a moan. Far too many past posts already focus on my frustrations with work-life imbalance or my inability of late to quarantine enough hours for clear-headed creativity.

But it’s something I wrestle with. Often. As a father/husband/allegedly mature adult, can I really allow myself an author life when the financial rewards are generally paltry?

I know other writer friends face the same dilemma. Some are reluctantly choosing to walk away from their vocation. To pay bills rather than pay attention to the stories shimmering in their consciousness. Tales that require countless hours to chart.

Adding to the angst, trade law changes proposed for the book industry by the Federal Government may sound the death knell for many literary careers. (See also: http://bookscreateaustralia.com.au/)

For my part, I am massively relieved mooted changes to the terms of copyright have apparently been abandoned. As a journalist and author I’m not the most practical or handy bloke. I’ve never built a house or factory that I can leave to my children. The novels I’ve had published may be the only things I’ve constructed that I can pass to my family – so the threat I’d lose ownership of my work, possibly after a fleeting 15 years, was devastating.

So where am I at? I’m working full-time, carefully choosing words that may appear in an app inside a mobile device, somewhere beside you, some time soon.

I’ve been learning about Viking culture, via a Danish exchange student staying at our home and now hosting my son.

And I’m following the fortunes of the North Melbourne Football Club, filing occasional match reports for The Footy Almanac.

Meanwhile the manuscript leading the pack of several pieces I have in progress is languishing but, hopefully, mentally marinading until the time is right to heat and serve.

I was lucky enough to visit Japan again recently and my research there will bolster the speculative fiction story I’m so keen to complete. We spent an afternoon at a sumo tournament and, as I type this, my epiphany has taken the shape of a mighty wrestler.

When a rikishi (contestant) enters the ring, there’s much tradition to be honored (and posturing to be enjoyed) before a bout begins. Salt is tossed liberally to purify the arena. The brow is mopped. Sake is slurped. Chests, bellies, buttocks or thighs are slapped, thunderously. The wrestlers may drop into their pre-attack crouch and give their opponent a death-stare, only to rise and lope back to their corner. Then begin the rituals again.

The build-up lasts longer than the battle. The rikishi only wrestle when they’re good and ready or their opponent is utterly psyched out. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. I need to throw salt. Purify my arena. Get my mind clear. Lower myself into writing position. Charge forward like an enraged bull. And wrestle my manuscript into submission.

Sumo wrestlers watched by officials

Work in progress

  
One of the writing exercises I sometimes ask of students is for them to pen me a six-word novel. This is harder many people think. It’s an exercise in synthesis, in communicating an idea or emotion without wasting a word.  Keeping it raw and visceral.

Over the years I’ve been speaking in schools, I’ve read six-word novels that tore at my heart, tickled my funny bone and silenced classrooms. One standout, to paraphrase, read something like, ‘Mum in psych ward. Social stigma.’ Tell me you couldn’t find an entire YA novel in that effort.

I’m reminded of this exercise today because the book that gave me the idea for the six-word novel activity features another powerful story. I don’t have it with me today but it is similar to: ‘Not quite what I had expected.’ And that’s sort of my story of 2015.

Or, ‘Took full time job. Manuscript stalled.’

Perhaps that’s doing myself an injustice. While working two jobs this year, and speaking in schools now and again, I did manage another draft of my long-term project.

A friend recently read the manuscript and had good things to say. But the clincher was that I could do specific parts of the story better. The friend even named an author (way out of my league) and challenged me to aim higher. That’s the task for me for 2016; take the best parts of my manuscript and make every other part reach just as high.

I’m already on a third or fourth draft but I’m going to define, delete and cull big time on on the next one. That’s writing. A story can always be improved.

Speaking of which, every year brings stories of pain, hope and resilience but 2015 delivered several that still echo inside me. My Christmas prayers go to families dealing with mental illness, addiction, chronic illness, grief and disharmony. Good news stories are out there, people. We do overcome all sorts of challenges. Racism, hate and sickness can be defeated.

Enough sermonising. I usually throw in a list or two to my end of year post, partly to remind myself of highlights from page, stage & screen. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Listening: Meet the Eels – Essential Eels (1996-2006);  The Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Coldplay – A Head Full of Dreams; Oz by Missy Higgins; Tame Impala – Currents; the Blade Runner soundtrack; Gon’ Boogaloo by CW Stoneking.

Reading (highlights): American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Summers of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell; Born to Run by Christopher McDougall; The Walking Dead graphic novels.*

Watching: The Walking Dead; X-Files reruns! (Very excited Scully and Mulder are coming back!)

Lastly, I was very chuffed to have a football story included in The Footy Almanac 2015 and *I’m loving reading the work of other authors within. The Almanac would make a great Christmas present – perfect for beach reading. You can whack in an order here: http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/

To all the readers who have stuck with me, thank you. I hope your 2016 brings good health and good times.

Where I’m at

Author versus self-confidence
Author versus self-confidence

Thunder Road readers are overdue an explanation. For the purposes of this exercise I’m seeing you guys as the parent while I play the recalcitrant teen:

You: “Where have you been?”
Me: “Out.”
You: “What have you been doing?”
Me: “Nothing.” (Checking phone.) “Stuff.”
You: “Don’t look at your phone while I’m speaking to you! I’ve been worried sick about you. You drop off the radar, you don’t call to say where you are or when you’ll be back. And when I ask what you’ve been up to, I get, ‘Nothing’… It’s not good enough!”
Me: (Shuffling feet.) “Got it.”
You: “I’m going to need to see some changes. If you want to be treated as a responsible adult, you need to show me you can behave like one.”
Me: “Yep.”
Pause
Me: “What’s for dinner?”

Apologies for casting blog readers as parents. You don’t need that sort of pressure. The real heat is on yours truly because it’s almost a year since I posted that I’d finished a manuscript. What the heck has happened since then?

Before I answer that, I probably need to fill in some gaps. Provide some context.

The years that I spent writing Game as Ned and Five Parts Dead I worked part time for a website run by an author-tolerant employer. When I had a publisher deadline, I worked less paid hours than usual or stacked my hours differently so I could clear my head for writing/rewriting/editing/rewriting.

When the website got taken over by a big company I had to change my approach and behave, like, all grown-up and professional to keep my job. When the big company was consumed by a monster company, my workload and responsibilities grew proportionately more intense.

About this time, I discovered I was unwell. I had one operation and learned I needed another, plus some clever treatment, to get things back to where my family and I could sleep easier. After much deliberation, I quit my job to concentrate on rest and recovery.

Best laid plans
The vision was to get healthy while working part-time on several freelance gigs and writing my next novel. I did a heap of writing, including belting out a concept and three chapters of an ill-fated side project. But I was naive about a) how much I’d be affected by the surgery and treatment and, b) how ambitious a project this story is. As I posted here, the manuscript is the longest thing I’ve ever written. It may be Book 1 of several or a third of a long book. I don’t know. Smarter brains than mine may make that decision.

Anyway, I was getting close to finishing a draft when I got a job offer out of the blue. At that stage I hadn’t had a regular income for 1.5 years. It didn’t feel like I could say no to any form of legal employment.

Before I fronted up for day one back in Corporate Land I took the terrifying* step of sending my story to three people. (*Sending a whittled chunk of your imagination out from the shade and safety of your workshop into the sunlight is daunting. Really sleep-wrecking scary. Because if it’s crap, you’re about to find out.)

Person 1 read the manuscript and felt it needed more work. Person 1 was correct. And then I panicked. I was freaking out that a) my story was rubbish, b) I’d lost any ability to write and c)I’d wasted all that time. I asked persons 2 and 3 to stop reading and clutched my manuscript back to my chest.

Detour
Then I put a collared shirt back on and fronted up to an office.

It’s been almost a year back in a job-land. Authoring has had to take a back seat to parenting, partnering, staying healthy and earning a grown-up wage.

All that time, the story has been growing inside me. The characters have been maturing, making decisions and altering their futures. The universe has been evolving. I’ve been increasingly antsy and eager to dive back in.

Last week I took unplanned leave and ploughed through another draft. Then sent it to Person 3 again, plus Person 4. Still scary. I’m clueless as to whether it’s any good or how much panel-beating is required.

But I’m closer than I was a week ago.

Tim Pegler's author odyssey