The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
This book is wonderfully written with vivid details that bring 13th century England to life. It begins with our orphan hero clinging to a dung heap for warmth. The plot was fairly simple--a nameless waif gains an identity by helping others--but it didn't shy away from the brutalities of Medieval life. I also learned a lot of great archaic superstitions, like smearing crane's blood on a pregnant woman will ease contractions.
Addie and the King of Hearts by Gail Rock
The story, told in 86 pages, is pretty simple. 13-year old Addie has a crush on her teacher, preferring his sophisticated conversations on art to the teasing of her classmate Billy. Her widowed father also has just begun dating again. But during the Valentine's Day dance, Addie learns that love can often be unexpected, and your dreams don't always go according to plan. I enjoyed seeing Addie grow up in the course of the book. The prologue and epilogue, narrated by the adult Addie looking back at her childhood in the 1940s, helped to create this perspective of growth and change.
Three Days by Donna Jo Napoli
When 11-year old Jackie's father collapses while they are driving down a highway in Italy, she doesn't know what to do. She attempts to wave cars down, but everyone in this foreign country seems cruelly indifferent. At last, a car stops and picks up Jackie, but they don't take her to the police or to anyone who can speak English. Instead, the drive her to a remote farmhouse where she is forced to wear the clothes of a girl who is nowhere to be seen.
The writing style of this book is a bit more plain than some of the other middle-grade books I've read recently, like the Midwife's Apprentice, but it still had a very sweet story. It's written in present tense, and I feel like present tense is good at pushing the story forward but makes it hard to find space for rich descriptions. The Italian country side where the bulk of the story took place was still vivid enough to serve it's purpose. The plot twist was pretty obvious to me, but probably wouldn't be to a young child.
The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell
Ramon is the scrawny 16-year old son of the richest pearl dealer in their small Mexican town. He wants to become a pearl diver so he can claim his manhood by finding the Pearl of Heaven, but his father delegates Ramon to bookkeeping. Instead, Ramon disobeys his father and goes diving in a forbidden cave guarded by Manta Diablo, the monstrous manta ray said to have the ability to shape shift and cover the lagoon in blinding red fog. He finds what is his looking for--a perfect black pearl bigger than anyone has ever seen, but it brings a curse down on Ramon and his family. This book was written like a fable: simple, but very rich in symbolism.
Of all the middle-grade books that I've read recently, this was the only one that I went out of my way to get. The rest were all things I stumbled on randomly at thrift stores or little libraries. That is because the book I'm writing also has to do with a young person discovering a pearl, and I wanted to be sure that the similarities ended there. I'm pleased to say they do.