I discovered Liesl Shurtliff's books this year and shared Rump as a read aloud with my 3rd graders. It was one of our favorites and I was amazed at the conversations and the depth of thinking and understanding my kids had as we read. Needless to say, many of us put Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk, Liesl Shurtliff's newest book, on our summer TBR list. I had a chance to read it this week and I LOVE it.
I love when I discover new authors that so understand our middle grade readers. I think Liesl Shurtliff is a brilliant writer for middle grades. She understands this age perfectly--I knew that when I read Rump and I was reminded of it again when we Skyped with her and I heard her answers to the questions my students asked. I often write about how difficult it is to write with a depth that is both appropriate and accessible to middle grade readers. So many books for this age are a bit shallow or written in a way that kids miss many of the subtleties and can only understand at surface level. But what Shurtliff does with these two books is pretty brilliant. Here's why:
Both of these books are retold fairy tales--"true stories" as the subtitles state. Each take stories that we know (Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk) and give us a different perspective, they tell us what really happened. In Rumpelstiltskin, we learn Rump's side of the story--a new perspective that changes the way we understand the character of Rumpelstiltskin. In Jack, we learn the story of the giant village where Jack goes when he climbs the beanstalk. We learn how he gets the golden hen and we learn his perspective of all that happened. The premise of both of these stories make them instantly engaging to middle grade readers.
The action in these books is perfect. The fantasy land that Shurtliff creates is both believable and accessible. The giants' village in Jack make parts of this story read like The Littles or The Borrowers and middle grade readers love those worlds where miniature people are among giant people and things.
The reference to other fairy tales is subtle but easily picked up by middle grade readers. My students' eyes lit up when they recognized a reference to a poisoned apple or they recognized a fairy tale character from a brief description. Shurtliff ties in lots of this and kids in the middle grades are just starting to find joy in these little surprises as a reader.
Even though these are fairy tales that we know, Shurtliff gives readers important messages in her storytelling. They are perfect for middle grade readers because they are accessible in the way she writes but they are not so obvious that they take away from the story.
Seriously, these books are perfect for middle grade readers. As read aloud, for book clubs and for independent reading. If our kids are to grow to be lifelong readers, they need more books by authors like Liesl who totally understand this age and what they deserve in a story. I can't wait to read her next book!