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The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner. September 1, 2009. Walker Children's. 208 pages. ISBN: 9780802798428
Gianna is a procrastinator. She knows she has to collect 25 leaves for her science project to avoid being kicked off the cross-country team, but as the deadline approaches, she finds herself becoming more and more distracted and less and less prepared to complete the assignment. To make matters worse, her grandmother has started to become very forgetful, to the point that she gets lost in familiar places and forgets the names for household objects. Gianna’s mom doesn’t want to admit that anything is wrong, which makes Gianna even more anxious and even more distracted. There’s also a mean girl at school who seems determined to sabotage any progress Gianna makes. It’s a good thing Gianna has a great friend like Zig to help her get through the tough times - he might be her only hope for things to work out!
I enjoy Kate Messner’s Marty McGuire books, and her mystery-adventure books about the Jaguar Society, and I was curious to see what her early middle grade novels are like. Though I couldn’t get into Sugar and Ice
, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.
grabbed my attention from the very start. Gianna is a likeable girl whose flaws seem very real to me. It seems like I have read a lot of books about girls who are really bookish, responsible, and focused, but not as many about sports-minded athletes who struggle to finish homework assignments and whose lives are somewhat up in the air. I like that Gianna doesn’t have it all together, but that her heart is in the right place, and she never stops trying.
I also enjoyed the relationships Gianna has with the supporting characters. Gianna’s mom, grandma, and best friend, Zig, each came strongly to life, and I loved the gentle ways they supported Gianna even when she was driving them crazy with her disorganization. It was also very satisfying to see Gianna eventually forge her own path where she gets her assignment done in her way, with her own style, instead of in a traditional format that might work for more traditional thinkers.The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.
is a great middle grade novel about a very real girl. Readers will easily empathize with Gianna as she struggles to conquer her homework assignment, and they will fully understand her frustrations and triumphs on the road to success. I would recommend this book to girls who have enjoyed Ann M. Martin’s Ten Rules for Living with My Sister
and Tricia Rayburn’s Maggie Bean books. It’s a perfect choice for middle school girls, especially those who might not relate to more picture-perfect fictional heroines. I borrowed The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Pinballs. by Betsy Byars. 1977. Harper Collins. 144 pages. ISBN: 9780060209186
On the same day, three kids arrive at the same foster home: Thomas J. who has been raised by elderly twins after being abandoned by his birth mother, Harvey, whose own father ran over his legs with the family car, and Carlie, who has been removed from her home because of an abusive stepdad. Though they are supposedly just pinballs, existing together in one space without any particular regard for one another, these three kids form a bond that helps all three of them look hopefully toward the future.
I have known of this book for years because it was assigned reading in my own sixth grade language arts class, back in 1993, but the only thing that sounded at all familiar about it when I picked it up again was the name Thomas J. Otherwise, this may have been my first reading of the book. It was a much quicker and more engaging read than I remember. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t tolerate sadness very well as a kid, and knowing that kids were treated badly by their parents would have automatically kept me from investing myself too much in the story. As an adult, though, with lots more books under my belt, I can really appreciate the value of this book, and its continued relevance more than 35 years after its publication.
I think what makes this book stand the test of time more than anything else is its honesty about how the characters feel. As they settle into their new foster home, two of the characters cope by making lists about their lives. Harvey writes “Bad Things That Have Happened To Me” while Carlie starts one entitled “Big Events and How I Got Cheated Out of Them.” Carlie asks pointed questions of her foster mother, revealing her fears and confusion about why this woman wants her to live in her home. Harvey expresses real disappointment when he is promised Kentucky Fried Chicken and his foster father forgets to bring it home. Thomas J. worries about his inability to express love because the elderly twins who cared for him never really demonstrated their feelings. These anecdotes from the lives of the three foster kids are very real, and they help kids relate to the difficulties the characters face, even if they have never had the same experiences. There are some really dated pop culture expressions and references that might put off some contemporary readers, but beyond those are three well-developed characters with three-dimensional personalities and distinct identities.
This is the third book I have reviewed on this blog that depicts children in the foster care system. One for the Murphys
describes an almost sugary-sweet situation in which a young girl slowly acclimates to her completely loving and perfect foster family. The Story of Tracy Beaker
focuses on a more difficult little girl, who has been left at the children’s home for a long time, with little hope for a foster family to take her in. The Pinballs
strikes a balance between these two more extreme scenarios and focuses on the friendships formed among the kids rather than their relationships to the adults who try to improve their lives. Though there are positive things to be said for all three books, I think The Pinballs
is the one that is most likely to stick with me. For me, it’s the most real, and in some ways, the most hopeful, because it empowers the kids to take control of their own destiny and to focus on themselves instead of the adults who let them down.
I would recommend the The Pinballs
to readers in grades 4 to 8 who prefer realistic fiction and character-driven stories, and who are ready to grapple with heavier issues. I borrowed The Pinballs from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Star Wars: Jedi Academy. by Jeffrey Brown. August 27, 2013. Scholastic. 160 pages. ISBN: 9780545505178
Roan, a native of Tatooine has always expected to be accepted to the Pilot Academy, where he will learn to fly just like his grandfather, father, and older brother before him. When he is accepted to the Jedi Academy instead, he doesn’t understand why - and neither do his classmates, many of whom have been training as Jedi from birth. Nonetheless, Roan shows up at school for the most difficult year of his life, which will involve gym class taught by a Wookiee, cryptic advice from a short green guy called Yoda, and learning to use something called the force, without trying to learn how to use it.
While Tom Angleberger brings Star Wars characters and references into the middle school environment in his wildly popular Origami Yoda books, Jeffrey Brown does just the opposite - he brings middle school to the Star Wars universe. What a great idea! This book combines the two things male readers in grades 3 to 8 love more than anything else: the Star Wars franchise and stories told in drawings and diary entries. If I were a nine-year-old boy, I doubt I could imagine a more perfect book.
Roan’s story is pretty typical of most school stories, in that it follows him through an academic year as he becomes accustomed to new friends and a new environment. To be honest, not very much about that aspect of the story is all that memorable. What keeps the story moving is the reader’s curiosity about how Roan’s story fits into the Star Wars canon. Though I am by no means a die-hard fan, I think Brown does a great job of telling a new story set in this universe without deviating too much from George Lucas’s vision. Readers who know a lot about Star Wars will be pleased to find that the references Brown makes to places and characters created by Lucas make sense in this new context, and that the Jedi Academy does not exist in a vacuum. Readers who don’t know much about Star Wars won’t be lost, though, because Roan is as new to the way of the Jedi as any Star Wars novice. He can’t even understand Yoda when he first meets him!
Finding this book an audience won’t be difficult. Recommend it to fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Smile
, Dear Dumb Diary, and Clueless McGee. Libraries should plan to purchase multiple copies - I expect this book to be popular and for kids to “forget” to bring it back. I received a digital ARC of Star Wars: Jedi Academy from Scholastic via NetGalley.For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Blog: Secrets & Sharing Soda
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level: middle grade
, series: tracy beaker
, author: jacqueline wilson
, publisher: random house
, source: public library
, feature: old school sunday
, read 2013
, published 1991
, genre: realistic fiction
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The Story of Tracy Beaker. by Jacqueline Wilson. 1991; 2006. Yearling. 224 pages. ISBN: 9780440867579
Tracy Beaker lives in a children's home. She has had two failed attempts at making things work with a foster family, but because she is an older child and a bit unruly, she has had trouble making a long-term connection. When she begins writing her life story in a book given to her by the home, she discovers some writing talent, and even has the chance to meet a real-life author, but when it seems like she and the author might just hit it off, she finds that her behavior might keep her from truly enjoying this new friendship.
Tracy is the plucky kind of character kids love to read about, whether they have anything in common with her or not. She is smart-mouthed, funny, sarcastic, and authentic, and her difficult situation gives kids a lot of reasons to root for her right off the bat. She is not always a reliable narrator, but her lies and half-truths are always obvious to the reader, and I think the reader can easily understand that they arise from a desire to protect herself. Even her misbehavior – getting into fights, breaking others' belongings, having angry outbursts – is presented in a realistic way that presents things for what they are, without glorifying disobedience or immediately passing judgment on Tracy as a “bad” kid.
Though this book was originally published in the UK in 1991, it didn't make it to the United States until 2006. Though I suspect the publisher probably could have updated some things to bring the story up to date, there is no obvious evidence that this has been done in the US edition that I read. I recall no references to cell phones or other gadgets, and honestly, I'm not sure Tracy or her friends would realistically have those things even if this book were written today. Everything in the story felt very contemporary, and I think most middle grade readers would feel the same way.
Last year, when I reviewed One for the Murphys
, I criticized it for its overly happy ending, which to me, felt forced and unrealistic. The Story of Tracy Beaker
seems much more in tune with what a real-life foster care experience might be like, and I think anyone who reads One for the Murphys
should read this book as well to ensure a more balanced look inside the lives of kids who are in the foster care system.
There are several other titles about Tracy Beaker, and though they don't seem to be available in the US, I'd definitely like to read them. They include: The Dare Game
, Starring Tracy Beaker
, Tracy Beaker's Thumping Heart
, and Ask Tracy Beaker and Friends.I borrowed The Story of Tracy Beaker from my local public library.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt. September 10, 2013. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 400 pages. ISBN: 9780307976819
Max’s parents are actors with a flair for the dramatic, and his father has often insisted that a twelve-year-old boy is more than capable of taking care of himself. Still when both his parents go missing under mysterious circumstances, Max isn’t quite prepared to be left on his own with just his grandmother as an ally. It doesn’t take long for Max to realize how difficult it is to keep enough money in his pockets and enough food on his table. While looking for work, he accidentally gains a reputation as a young man who is able to find lost things. Realizing that people will pay him to locate lost items and solve difficult problems, Max begins to advertise himself as a “solutioner” under the name of Mister Max. While solving problems for others, he also tries to figure out the best way to bring his parents back home.
This historical fiction mystery novel is a huge departure from Voigt’s beloved Tillerman cycle, but it works very well and proves the author’s immense talent. The entire concept of the story is something I haven’t really seen before, and I really enjoyed immersing myself in this new world and getting to know Max, both as himself, and in character as Mister Max. Each of the supporting characters, from the schoolgirl who wants to be Max’s assistant, to the university student Max hires to tutor him, to Max’s librarian grandmother, are interesting people with deep backstories and well-realized roles in the story. I found myself becoming as invested in their problems as in Max’s, and I eagerly read through each chapter, wanting to know how everything would turn out.
Since this is the first book in a trilogy, I was wary from the beginning, because I was sure the book would end on an unresolved note. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, with the way Voigt wraps up this first installment in a way that keeps the reader interested in the overall story, but that doesn’t make it completely painful to wait for the next book. This book will not ultimately stand on its own, but it does have its own conclusion, where all mysteries except the major one about Max’s parents, are resolved.
Voigt has always been a talented writer, and I have enjoyed the relationships among her characters in her realistic fiction novels. There are some similarities between Max and Dicey Tillerman, considering both kids are left to fend for themselves by missing parents, but Max’s story is more colorful and in some ways more fanciful than anything else Voigt has written. The Book of Lost Things
is one of the best middle grade novels I have read this year, and I can’t wait to see where Max’s story will take us in the remaining volumes. Recommend this book to readers in grades 5 to 8 who like adventure, mystery, and history. I was invited by Random House to read Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things on NetGalley. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Runt. by Nora Raleigh Baskin. July 23, 2013. Simon & Schuster. 208 pages. ISBN: 9781442458079
Elizabeth, Stewart, Matthew, Maggie, and Freida are all students at the same middle school, and each one has had a different experience with bullying. In this novel, author Nora Raleigh Baskin shifts between each of these characters’ points of view to convey the complicated nature of bullying and victimization, and to compare it to the aggressions displayed in the animal kingdom.
As I was reading, I reacted to this book on two different levels. First, I noticed how much I liked the writing. I like the way Baskin identifies each speaker by a unique style of writing rather than simply labeling each chapter with a character’s name. I like that there is a chapter devoted to a teacher’s own childhood experience with bullying. I also like that much of the book is very subtle, so that the reader has to draw his or her own conclusions about the author’s message. From a literary standpoint, this is a beautifully written, rich novel, with lots of strong images related to the subject of bullying.
My other reaction to this book, though, was from the standpoint of someone who works with kids and regularly recommends books to them. When I look at the book from that perspective, I find it harder to appreciate. While subtlety is artistic and interesting, I think many young readers would find that the story lacks direction. Since the characters are not named at the start of each chapter, they are harder to keep track of, and I could see kids giving up on the book simply because they couldn’t remember who was who, or what each character’s overall story arc was about. I also thought the connections between tween bullying and aggression among dogs felt forced and contrived. Particularly cheesy is the last bit of the book, which shares a dog’s thoughts on how we all treat each other. There is definitely a lot of value in this book, especially for kids who have been victimized by bullies, but for most readers, I think the almost experimental writing style would be off-putting, or at the very least would somewhat obscure the message Baskin tries to get across.Runt
is well-written, but strange, and I think I would be more likely to suggest a more accessbile title, such as The Misfits
by James Howe or The Bully Book
by Eric Gale to kids looking for bullying books. Fetching
by Kiera Stewart and Boys Are Dogs
by Leslie Margolis are two more great titles that address the parallels between dogs and middle schoolers in a more straightforward and humorous way.I received a review copy of Runt from Simon & Schuster.For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Latasha and the Kidd on Keys. by Michael Scotto. March 19, 2013. Midlandia Press. 254 pages. ISBN: 9780983724391
Latasha Gandy is a happy and optimistic fourth grader. She loves her Momma, and her best friend Ricky, and even her neighbor, Mrs. Okocho. She has a great dog named Ella Fitzgerald Gandy, who can be wild, but is also full of love. Though her mom works odd hours and they don't have much money, they still get along pretty well, and Latasha wants for almost nothing. The only thing she doesn't have is a dad. After she attends Ricky's birthday party and sees him interacting with his dad, she becomes a little bit sad, not to mention curious, about the father she has never known. When Momma agrees to get in touch with him, Latasha is excited. Her dad, Patrick (aka "The Kidd") turns out to be a musician with a charming personality and a great sense of humor. Trouble starts, though, when Latasha begins to count on Patrick, and he doesn't live up to his promises.
Like the first book about Latasha, Latasha and the Little Red Tornado
, this book starts off slow, but once it picks up, it's hard to put it down. Many kids come from families where one parent is absent, and this book does a nice job of portraying a realistic version of that scenario. What impresses me the most is how the author manages to tell a story about a very difficult relationship without either vilifying Latasha's dad or turning Latasha herself into a victim. Even at her saddest moments in this story, Latasha doesn't blame herself for the way her dad behaves. She is angry, but also resilient, and she learns to express her anger in a healthy and constructive way and directs it at her father instead of internalizing it. It's refreshing to read a story about family problems where the characters are more than just a bunch of dysfunctional stereotypes. I especially appreciate the way Scotto fleshes out the personalities of both of Latasha's parents and even delves into the story of how they met and fell in love. This helps readers understand Patrick's good qualities and also builds up the overall world of the story.
Michael Scotto's writing has a real sincerity. His characters are authentic people who make good role models, and his stories are hopeful, but realistic. Latasha and the Kidd on Keys
celebrates the strength and love of families, and gives kids a positive way to deal with sometimes tricky family dynamics. I think this sequel is even better than the first book, and I hope this won't be the last we see of Latasha!I received a digital ARC of Latasha and the Kidd on Keys from Midlandia Press via NetGalley.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Blog: Secrets & Sharing Soda
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source: personal collection
, published 1940
, author: arthur ransome
, series: swallows and amazons
, level: middle grade
, genre: mystery
, feature: old school sunday
, publisher: david r godine
, read 2013
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The Big Six. by Arthur Ransome. 1940. 367 pages. ISBN: 9781567921199
In the eight books of the Swallows and Amazons series published prior to The Big Six
, Arthur Ransome’s wonderful characters have imagined themselves in a whole host of situations. Sometimes they are sailors; at other times, they’re miners, at still other times, they’re explorers. This time around, the Death and Glories (Joe, Bill, and Pete) and Tom Dudgeon as well as Dick and Dorothea, fancy themselves detectives, and they’re not too far off from becoming the real thing. Someone has been casting off boats, and almost everyone believes it is the Death and Glories. They have been in the vicinity of each boat set adrift, and Mr. Tedder, the local policeman is sure he will be able to prove it was them and disband the Coot Club. Dorothea, with her wild imagination, and Dick, with his new interest in photography team up to help their friends prove their innocence and catch the real culprit.
While I will always love the Swallows the most of all of Ransome’s characters, I really grew to love the Death and Glories in this book. In their first appearance, back in Coot Club
, the three boys seemed very much like one entity, with very few obvious details to differentiate one from another. In this book, the three boys’ individual personalities are much more pronounced, and I enjoyed seeing the ways they related to one another. I also enjoyed seeing Dick and Dorothea in leadership roles in this story. In all the previous books they have been in, it seems like they have always taken their cues from someone else - namely Nancy, Tom, or Mrs. Barrable. To see them as heroes in this book was a nice change of pace. I also thought it was neat to introduce a mystery element into a sailing story, and I didn’t miss the technical sailing jargon that seems to permeate most of Ransome’s other writing.
I am now just three books away from completing this series, and The Big Six
is definitely among my favorites of all the books. At some points, the repetition of the evidence and the lack of action is a bit tedious, but for the most part, the fresh dialogue keeps things moving, and the slow revelations about the different clues help to build suspense so that the reader doesn’t know the outcome of the mystery until the absolute last second. Though the reader can easily guess early on who the true criminal is, it is still entertaining to see the kids solve the mystery and prove their case even when none of the adults around them could manage. Just like all the other Swallows and Amazons books, this one celebrates what kids can do on their own and proves that they should be taken just as seriously as adults.
I own a copy of The Big Six. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Blog: Secrets & Sharing Soda
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author: kate messner
, source: netgalley
, publisher: scholastic
, series: jaguar society
, read 2013
, published 2013
, genre: adventure
, genre: realistic fiction
, level: middle grade
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Hide and Seek. by Kate Messner. April 1, 2013. Scholastic. 256 pages. ISBN: 9780545419758
At a ceremony honoring them for their role in saving the original American flag from thieves, junior Silver Jaguar Society members Anna, Henry, and Jose learn that another valuable artifact is missing. The Jaguar Cup, an important piece of Jaguar Society history, has been replaced with a counterfeit. The senior members of the Society must head immediately to Costa Rica to investigate. Their parents want to keep them safe, so the three kids are left with a society member named Michael and his daughter, Sofia, but that doesn't stop them from gathering evidence. When the senior members of the society are stranded due to an earthquake, and suspicious people start appearing at Michael's lodge, the kids find themselves in serious danger, as the thieves do their best to get away with what they've done.
Though this book seems like a mystery at first, I think it's better to think of it as an adventure novel. The kids do spend some time gathering clues and analyzing evidence, but the truly exciting parts of the story have them running around the rainforest in the dark, accidentally petting giant spiders and wielding machetes at poisonous snakes. There is some character development, particularly involving Jose's role as the "smart kid" of the group, but the plot is the main focus. The story is action-packed, filled with moments of triumph and exhilaration, as well as frustration and defeat. Readers have the chance to learn about the culture and climate of Costa Rica while also watching with their hearts in their mouths as the cup slips out of the kids' reach again and again.
When I was a kid, I used to imagine all the heroic things I would attempt to do if I were ever kidnapped or chased by an evil criminal mastermind. I suspect these kind of ridiculous scenarios are common in the imaginations of a lot of kids, and this book taps into those thoughts. Jose, Anna, and Henry have unlikely experiences, but I can't imagine a child who wouldn't enjoy living vicariously through them. Everything that happens to them - even the scary things - seems like it would be very exciting!
The story has a fast pace and straightforward writing, making it a quick, enjoyable read for even the most reluctant of readers. Reading the first book is not required to follow the story, so Hide and Seek would even work as a classroom aloud for fourth or fifth graders. Hide and Seek
is a perfect choice for kids who like The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and for readers who enjoyed Madhattan Mystery
and Chasing Vermeer
. I received a digital ARC of Hide and Seek from Scholastic via NetGalley. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Anastasia Krupnik. by Lois Lowry. 1978. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 128 pages. ISBN: 9780395286296Anastasia Krupnik keeps an ever-changing list of things she likes and hates. Sometimes she hates her grandmother for losing her memory and not knowing who she is. Other times, she loves the opportunity to sit down and get to know her better. Sometimes she loves Washburn Cummings, an older boy in her neighborhood, and other times, he makes her so unhappy she adds him to the hate list. Her teacher, her parents, and even her soon-to-be-born baby brother all jump back and forth between the lists as Anastasia navigates life as a ten-year-old. I remember the Anastasia books from childhood, but I couldn't swear that I've ever read one. As a kid, I tended to be turned off by older books, and I think this series has always had an unfortunate set of covers that make the stories seem even older than they actually are. Reading it now, as an adult, this book was a surprise. I was surprised by the fresh writing and the main character's strong voice, and I was surprised by how quickly the story moves, and how easy it was to get lost in it. There isn't much of a plot, really, but what makes the book stand out are all the great details Lowry uses to paint the Krupniks as real people. I loved learning about Anastasia's father, Myron, through the dedication pages in each of the poetry books he has written. I loved Anastasia's brief flirtation with the idea of becoming Catholic, and her impression of what that would mean. Anastasia's family life reminds me of many other families from middle grade series, including the Clementine, Ramona Quimby, and Alice McKinley books. Somehow I've never thought of the Anastasia books as being in the same class with these "classics" - but I should have guessed that Lowry would write just as well in the realistic fiction genre as she does in science fiction.
Anastasia Krupnik will appeal to fans of the books I just mentioned, as well as to readers who like Johanna Hurwitz, Ann M. Martin, and Megan McDonald. It's tricky for me to promote books to kids when their covers look so old and strange, but it's worth giving them a great book talk - or even reading one aloud to a group in order to get kids excited about reading them once again. Very little stands between Anastasia and 21st century girls, and I'm not even sure anyone could tell just from the text that this book is older than I am! If you missed these in childhood, as I did, give them a try now - you won't be disappointed.
I borrowed Anastasia Krupnik from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
A Lemon and a Star. by E.C. Spykman. 1955. Harcourt Brace. 214 pages. ISBN: : 9780152447137
A few weeks ago, after reading Miracles on Maple Hill,
I realized that while I enjoy children's novels from the 1950s, I have read very few. This inspired a visit to my local library with the specific goal of choosing some Old School Sunday reading material published in the 50s. A Lemon and a Star
was a particularly exciting discovery both because I had never heard of it before, and because it ended up being such a great story. A Lemon and a Star
is about the four Cares children - Theodore (Ted), Hubert, Jane, and Edith (Edie), who live with their widower father and his household staff in Summerton, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. Because they have no mother, and because they are each mischievous little people, the Cares kids run rampant around the countryside, getting into fights, falling into the reservoir, capturing foxes, wallowing in mud and even occasionally sneaking into the city by train. Much of their time is spent bribing each other into keeping information from their dad, and in trying to keep Edie happy so she doesn't spoil all their plans before they even get off the ground. They have their own codes of loyalty and friendship, and their own ideas about how the world works, and they employ these rules as they look after themselves and each other.
Like Swallows and Amazons
and The Boxcar Children
, this book is appealing because it shows kids on their own doing things for themselves. The Cares children are not as responsible as John and Susan Walker, or as Henry and Jessie Alden, but that just adds to the fun of the reading experience. Most kids - whether they grow up in the early 1900s, the mid 1950s, or the early 2010s - will never have the freedom given to the Cares kids, and it's a lot of fun to live vicariously through them as their adventures unfold. I also think kids like to be shocked by the bad behavior of other kids, even if it the behaviors are not something they would do themselves. My husband and I read this book within a few days of each other, and as we discussed it, we just kept laughing and saying, "They're so bad!" Our enjoyment of their behavior reminded me a lot of reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
. Nobody wants to act like the Herdmans, but everyone wants to know what they'll do next. The same is true for Ted, Hubert, Jane, and Edie.
For a book about so much mischief, the writing is very beautiful. Images of the red house where the family lives, the reservoirs full of sparkling water, and Ted's black eye after a fight are just a few of the moments in this book that bring it fully to life and make it so easy to imagine really being in Summerton watching these kids playing. The personalities of the four kids come across very well. Ted is portrayed as the frustrated oldest child who is stubborn and annoyed by his younger siblings. Edie is the spoiled baby of the family who can be bought but not controlled. Hubert and Jane fall somewhere in the middle, trying to do the right thing and keep their father happy, but also endlessly fascinated by thir older brother and filled with concern for him when he is in danger. Every child reader can find a character to sympathize with in every scene.
Like many books for kids published in the 1950s, A Lemon and a Star
is a great celebration of the adventures kids can have in their own backyards. It makes a nice read-alike for The Moffats
, The Railway Children
, and Swallows and Amazons
, as well as for books by Carolyn Haywood and Beverly Cleary. Though I think they will be somewhat hard to find, I hope to track down and read the other three books in this series: The Wild Angel
, Terrible, Horrible Edie
and Edie on the Warpath
, all of which sound wonderful.I borrowed A Lemon and a Star from my local public library.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Gone-Away Lake. by Elizabeth Enright. 1957. Harcourt. 272 pages. ISBN: 9780152022723
Portia is excited to spend the summer with her cousin, Julian, but she never expects that they will discover an abandoned lakeside community, or that they will make friends with a pair of elderly siblings who still inhabit two of the rundown houses. At Gone-Away Lake, as their friends Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pindar call it, Portia and Julian discover life as it was 50 years ago, while having their own summer of modern-day adventures they will never forget.
In this book, as in The Saturdays
, Elizabeth Enright celebrates childhood independence. Whereas the Melendy kids explore New York City unsupervised, with just their allowance to pay their way, Portia and Julian are given free rein in the country, where they can enjoy the secret of a forgotten village, and make new friends without sharing them with their parents or with Portia's little brother, Foster. Especially interesting about this story are the connections Portia and Julian feel to Minnehaha and Pindar as children. They never tire of hearing about their friends' fights, friendships, and adventures, and they engage with those stories so fully that they are inspired to create a club of their own in the hopes of recapturing some of that fun and excitement.
Some things about this book bothered me. I couldn't quite buy into the notion that an entire group of fairly wealthy families would abandon not just their homes, but all the contents of those homes, and never return for them. I thought this might be explained at some point, but it never was, and I was distracted by the feeling that there should have been some big reveal of the "truth" about Gone-Away. I also couldn't help but feel that Minnehaha and Pindar were living like Miss Havisham - waiting for the return of a day that would never be again. Perhaps this was intentional, as I think Portia and Julian breathe some fresh air into the lives of the two older people. Still, I wanted the characters in the story to feel disturbed as I did, and instead they were almost too accepting of the whole strange scenario.
That said, this is a well-written book full of interesting situations, well-described characters and settings, and everything a child wants in a summer story. I am not surprised that it was a Newbery Honor book in 1958, and I think, of the Newberys I've read, it's one of the older ones that still holds up well enough for contemporary audiences. It is similar in some ways to Miracles on Maple Hill
- both books are even illustrated by the same artists, Joe and Beth Krush - and I think it also compares well to the Swallows and Amazons books
, A Lemon and a Star
, and The Railway Children
. There is also a sequel, Return to Gone-Away
, published in 1961. I borrowed Gone-Away Lake from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Where the Steps Were. by Andrea Cheng. 2008. Wordsong. 143 pages. ISBN: 9781932425888
In this novel in verse by Andrea Cheng, third graders at an underperforming elementary school move through their final year in the school before the building is torn down. The kids have a variety of family situations and personal problems, but they all love their teacher, who is a stable and loving presence in their lives.
Though the book refers frequently to the fact that the school will be torn down, this story is more of a portrait of an inner city school than a story about saying goodbye to a beloved school. The characters, though interesting, are not very three-dimensional. Rather, each one is defined according to the situation he or she lives in, making them all seem like stereotypical representations of the author's impressions of this type of school. The emotions do ring true. I felt terrible for the kids in the scene where they are thrown out of a theater on a field trip for spitting, when none of them actually spit. The things the kids worry about - their parents' health, their own futures, their weight, etc. - are also realistic, but the characters who have these worries do not have distinct personalities.Where the Steps Were
is definitely timely, but I question whether the intended audience is really children. To me, it felt like the story was trying to convince adults that keeping schools like this open is important because of kids' attachments to their teachers and because kids like these have a lot of disappointments in their lives already. I think that is a perfectly fine message to send, but I wished the story was more focused on the development of individual characters than on this almost clinical analysis of what is lost when a school closes. I think teachers might be able to use this book as a read-aloud to prompt discussions about school community and fairness, but overall, it doesn't strike me as especially kid-friendly.
Andrea Cheng is a talented writer, and I see hints in this book of the style that made me fall in love with last year's The Year of the Book
, which is written in prose, but with very lyrical and poetic language. This book is not my favorite of hers, but for kids who attend a school in danger of closing, this might be the story that will help them cope with their feelings of confusion and loss. I borrowed Where the Steps Were from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Toppling. by Sally Murphy. 2012. Candlewick. 128 pages. ISBN: 9780763659219John is in fifth grade, and he loves dominoes. He doesn't play games with them; instead, he likes to line them up in complicated patterns, then knock them over to watch how they topple. His hobby becomes a metaphor for a precarious situation in his best friend, Dom's life, when John and his classmates learn that Dom has cancer and may die.
This book is very nicely done. It looks at a serious situation from the masculine point of view, and portrays all the complex emotions associated with childhood cancer without becoming maudlin. Though John worries about his friend's future, he remains hopeful and positive in a way that I think shows the resilience of real kids. He and "the guys" show real compassion for Dom, and the ending, though uncertain, sounds a real chord of hope and happiness.
Kids are naturally curious about serious situations, and I think this book will appeal to that curiosity. Though the main focus is how John reacts to Dom's diagnosis, there are also plenty of great details about classrooms and childhood interactions that make the entire world of the story very vivid. I was reminded, at certain points, of the Calvin Coconut series, where Calvin's classmates and classroom also come to life in unique ways. I think kids will also appreciate the open-ended ending to the story, which allows them to decide for themselves whether Dom will beat his illness.
I enjoyed Toppling much more than Murphy's previous book, Pearl Verses the World. While Pearl's story left me feeling very sad, this book infused a sad situation with enough good humor to make me want to keep reading. This book was originally published in Australia in 2010 by Walker Books with a slightly different cover illustration. Readers who enjoy Toppling might also like Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie and Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Eileen Spinelli's The Dancing Pancake and Summerhouse Time. Though these books are not about cancer, they focus on kids dealing with difficult emotions and finding ways to cope. I borrowed Toppling from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Fourth Stall Part III. by Chris Rylander. February 5, 2013. Walden Pond Press. 320 pages. ISBN: 9780062120052
Mac and Vince have had a successful business since kindergarten, but after getting busted by the school principal last year, they are finished with organized crime. Retired. Out of the game. In fact, they have handed over their business to newcomer Jimmy Two-Tone, who takes care of all the business operations and gives the founders a mere cut of his profits. The only problem is, Staples is back and he needs help getting custody of his little sister, and there is a criminal mastermind at nearby Thief Valley Elementary School threatening to destroy Mac and Vince’s school. Mac knows they can’t get caught by the Suits again, or they’ll be expelled for sure, but he also knows if he doesn’t solve these last two problems, the destruction of his school will be his fault, and he won’t be the only one going down.
This conclusion to the Fourth Stall series is a strongly plot-driven story with lots of suspense and surprises. Though Mac and Vince remain the same lovable characters who root for the Cubs and crack up over the crazy things Vince’s senile grandmother says, it is what happens to them rather than the characters themselves that keep the pages turning this time around. Rylander builds suspense by raising more and more questions. Can Staples really be trusted? Who is this crime boss at the other elementary school? Is Jimmy Two-Tone treating Mac’s former clients fairly? At every moment, I was questioning the motives of one character or another and looking for the connections that would lead me to the truth. There isn’t a lot of flowery, descriptive prose in this book, but it’s well written in a different way. The story is so well plotted, I was caught by surprise every time a new twist unsurfaced.
I also loved the allusions to the movie Rookie of the Year
and to Mr. Belding from Saved the Bell
Mr. Belding is basically the prototype my imagination uses for any fictitious principal, so Mac’s suspicion that all principals get together to cast spells and sacrifice goats to him made me laugh out loud. I’m not sure the target audience is old enough to get these references, but I am roughly the same age as the author (it looks like he was born in 1983?
) and these little bits of 90s nostalgia made me smile.
This third book is not quite as strong as the first two, but fans of the series will definitely want to know how it all turns out. Sticklers for realism will be pleased that not all bad behavior goes unpunished, and I think most readers will be satisfied with the ending, even if they will probably wish, as I do, that there were going to be more Fourth Stall stories.
If you’re not familiar with this
series, check out my reviews of The Fourth Stall
and The Fourth Stall Part II
. The Fourth Stall Part III
will be on shelves tomorrow, February 5, 2013.I received an ARC of The Fourth Stall Part III from the publisher.For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
A Song for Bijou. by Josh Farrar. February 12, 2013. Bloomsbury. 304 pages. ISBN: 9780802733948
Bijou Doucet, a survivor of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, has just moved in with her aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, where she attends an all-girls school. Though Bijou is not permitted to date or even to socialize out of school, she manages to attract the attention of Alex Schrader, one of the students at the nearby all-boys school. Alex is pretty clueless about girls, but he is sweet, and before long, Bijou, too, wants to spend time with him, even if it is forbidden. Through their sweet and innocent first romance, Alex and Bijou overcome the pain of Bijou's past, the restrictive rules of her aunt and uncle, and the intolerance of their classmates.
I was drawn to this book on NetGalley for two superficial reasons: the poetic sounding title, and the cover illustration by Erin McGuire. I guessed instantly based on those two things that this would be a cute middle grade romance. What I didn't guess - and what truly makes this book special - is how many other story lines figure into that romance. This isn't just a love story, but a story about cultural differences, empathy, acceptance, and forgiveness. Because the narrative alternates between Bijou's voice and Alex's voice, the story is well-balanced and presents the challenges of both characters. Even when the characters misunderstand each other and fail to communicate, the reader remains sympathetic to both sides of the story and continues to root for the success of their relationship.
In addition to the well-realized main characters, this book is also populated by many wonderful supporting characters. Alex has two best friends, the actions of whom figure heavily into some of the mistakes he makes in trying to get to know Bijou. Bijou has an older brother who has moved out of his aunt and uncle's house and who teaches Alex to play Haitian rada music and conspires with Bijou to find ways for her to spend time with Alex. Alex and Bijou each also have a set of class bullies who tease them about their relationship and use cyber-bullying to intimidate them. The entire world of this story feels very contemporary, and I could imagine these same situations playing out in the schools in my neighborhood.
This is a great book for readers who enjoyed Same Sun Here
. Both books alternate between a boy's point of view and a girl's, and both deal with characters who expand their horizons by learning about each other's cultures. It is also a very boy-friendly romance. Though Bijou is a significant part of the story, most of the romance comes through in Alex's narration. I'm not 100% sure the cover will attract male readers, but Alex's voice is so authentic, middle school boys - especially those who are already fond of reading - would easily get hooked once they started reading. A Song for Bijou
is a beautifully written story of first love, and so much more. Issues of racism, bullying, and cultural differences make it a great read-aloud or book club choice for middle school students who love to discuss and debate serious issues. I look forward to reading more from Josh Farrar, and I plan to read his other middle grade novel, Rules to Rock By
, which was published in 2010. A Song for Bijou
will be on shelves tomorrow, February 12, 2013.
I received a digital ARC of A Song for Bijou from Bloomsbury via NetGalley.
Words of Stone. by Kevin Henkes. 1992. Greenwillow Books. 160 pages. ISBN: 9780688113568
Every summer since his mother died of cancer, Blaze Werla has created an imaginary friend and subsequently buried him in the backyard. This summer, after the yearly burial, someone begins leaving messages made of stones on the hill behind Blaze's house. First, he sees his mother's name. Later, the messages become more personal. He suspects his father's new girlfriend, in whom he has confided, might be the one leaving the words of stone, but while he decides what to do about it, he surprises himself by making friends with Joselle Stark. Joselle herself is troubled by her own absent mother, and as she and Blaze grow closer, she realizes she must tell Blaze an important truth if they are to be true friends.
Like Henkes's more recent novels such as Olive's Ocean
, Words of Stone
is a quiet, introspective story. Blaze and Joselle are both sensitive kids who have endured their share of pain and confusion, and because of this, much of the story takes place inside their heads. (Though the narration is all in the third person, the chapters alternate between the two characters so we know both of their thoughts.) Outside events do influence their internal struggles and triumphs, but there is very little physical action. This is definitely a literary novel, where the language and word choice are the most prominent features. It reads like a lot of the serious fiction (The Cay
, The Lottery Rose
) I was assigned in late elementary school. The writing is lyrical and at times, almost eerie, as Blaze reflects on his mother's death and on the accident he had on a ferris wheel. His toy Noah's Ark and the graves of his imaginary friends are powerful images that represent his pain and his loss, and it is Henkes's use of these symbolic objects that makes the book stand out.
I would be surprised if this book had ever become super popular, because it dwells so much on the emotions of its main characters. There are readers, though, who are not satisfied by fast-paced action novels, like the Percy Jackson series, or by cruelty thinly veiled in humor, like the Wimpy Kid books, and I think it is those more serious readers who appreciate Henkes's style. Kids who mourned the loss of a parent, or who have trouble making and trusting new friends will empathize strongly with Blaze's loneliness. Those who have grown up reading Henkes's picture books will be pleased to see that his writing for older children continues to provide validation and support for the myriad challenges of growing up. Words of Stone
was published in 1992, and it is still in print. The cover of the most recent edition is much better suited to the story than the cover of the edition I read (shown at the top of this post), and I think kids would be interested in picking it up. It is a great read-alike for As Simple As It Seems
by Sarah Weeks, Remembering Mrs. Rossi
by Amy Hest, and The Last Best Days of Summer
by Valerie Hobbs.I borrowed Words of Stone from my local public library.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Odd Squad: Bully Bait by Michael Fry. February 12, 2013. Disney-Hyperion. 224 pages. ISBN: 9781423169246
Cartoonist Michael Fry, who is best known for his comic strips, Committed
and Over the Hedge
, enters the world of middle grade fiction with the first book in his new Odd Squad series, entitled Bully Bait
. Nick, the shortest kid in his seventh grade class, has gotten pretty used to being thrown into lockers, but he doesn’t like it, and he is definitely not interested in making himself a bigger target by joining a school club. Unfortunately, Nick’s guidance counselor thinks he needs a place to belong, so she signs him up to work with two other misfits, Molly and Karl, on safety patrol. Though they all agree that membership in this club is lame, they do become friends in spite of themselves. Suddenly, when it’s not one, but three against the world, it becomes much easier to face the bullies and attempt to bring them down.Bully Bait
is a fast-paced, funny novel with short chapters and lots of illustrations. Though the subject matter isn’t especially cheerful, the sarcasm and deadpan humor provide a lot of laughs. The characters are quirky in interesting ways. The janitor, Mr. Dupree, who looks out for Nick and provides him with cryptic advice about taking on bullies, is among my favorite adults in the book. Even the villain of the story, a boy named Roy, is a well-rounded character with his own softer side. The illustrations break up the text and also provide diagrams and other visual information that connect with what is happening in the story. Nick provides doodles showing such important skills as how to shrug, and various lists, including the 5 reasons he doesn’t like other kids. The cartoons are just as much a part of the story as the text, and they provide further insight into Nick’s character in a very accessible way. Bully Bait
is a much-needed funnier alternative to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid
books. Unlike Greg Heffley, Nick is a true “wimpy kid” - a middle school underdog who can’t seem to find his place - and though he makes mistakes in the story and sometimes underestimates his new friends, he always has good intentions at heart. Nick and the rest of the Odd Squad also remind me a lot of the girls in the Nerd Girls
and Snob Squad
books. While girls are probably the most likely readers of those series, Odd Squad looks like it will appeal to either gender. It’s also worth noting that this series is similar in style and substance to the middle grade novels of another well-known cartoonist, Jim Benton
. If only Fry’s Nick went to school with Benton’s Jamie - that would be a match made in middle school heaven!
The plot of Bully Bait
isn’t a new story, but it’s still a good one. Promote it to Wimpy Kid fans and I have no doubt that copies will fly off the shelves of your library or bookstore! I received a digital ARC of Bully Bait from Disney-Hyperion via NetGalley. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Miracles on Maple Hill. by Virginia Sorenson. 1956. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 180 pages. ISBN: 9780152545581Miracles on Maple Hill
was published in 1956, and it was the winner of the 1957 Newbery Medal. As the book opens, Marly and her family are headed to Maple Hill, a rural area of Pennsylvania where Marly’s mother spent her childhood summers. Though at first it appears to be a happy family vacation, the truth is that Marly’s father is suffering the psychological effects of the time he spent as a prisoner of war. At home in the city, he is angry and irritable, jumping at every little thing and sometimes even mistreating his children. The family is coming to Maple Hill in the hopes that the country lifestyle will help Marly’s dad start to heal. Over the next year, Marly gets to know wonderful people - Mr. and Mrs. Chris, Harry the Hermit, and Margie - and she experiences all the miracles Maple Hill can offer, from maple syrup and wildflowers to the slow recovery of her father’s mental strength.
In contemporary children’s books, there is a tendency to dwell more heavily on the darker side of life. Nowadays, for better or for worse, we trust kids to deal with the harsh truths of life - abuse, poverty, divorce, death - and many books describe these situations in detail, evoking empathy from readers and encouraging them to feel all the associated emotions, good and bad. This book handles the pain of Marly’s dad’s experiences in a more detached way, which I think is an interesting and effective approach.
Marly is about ten years old, and what we know of her dad’s condition is filtered through her point of view. It seems likely, given the personality of her mother, that Marly would be protected as much as possible from the darkness of her father’s experiences. Because of this, the reader is really only shown those few frightening moments of anger that Marly has actually witnessed. Throughout the book, both Marly and her brother react to their father nervously, with lots of concern over how he will respond to them, but the reader isn’t subjected to the experiences that made them feel that way. I can only assume this was a conscious decision on the part of the author, and my guess is that it was a decision made to protect young readers. Though some kids do certainly like to read the gory details, or maybe even need to read them to feel validated, other kids are more sheltered, like I was, and this book strikes a great compromise between perfect happiness and interesting storytelling.
The other remarkable thing about this book is its descriptions of country living. I borrowed this book from my urban library system, where kids don’t often run into wildflowers, wild mushrooms, or sap from maple trees. If they read this book, though, they will feel as though they have spent a year on Maple Hill right alongside Marly. The descriptions of everything Marly sees, feels, and tastes during her year of visits to Maple Hill are beautiful, and the author uses just the right details to transport the reader through the beauty of the different seasons. She ties all of this wonderful information about the natural world in with Marly’s relationship with her brother, Joe, and both kids’ relationships to their Maple Hill neighbors, and it is the combination of character and setting that drives the story forward.
This is very much of a book of the 1950s. There are lots of references to very rigidly defined gender roles, where Joe is permitted many freedoms, but Marly must stick close to home, and where it is surprising when Marly’s father learns to cook, or when her mother drives the family car. At one point, Marly’s mother actually apologizes to Marly’s teacher because Marly is more of a tomboy than the other girls at her one-room schoolhouse. These references are among the few moments in the story that make it seem more historical than contemporary. There are also a lot of references to Marly’s father’s time in World War II, which could date the book, but given that our country is also at war today, it is possible that contemporary kids could have a parent in a similar situation to Marly’s father and find some hope and meaning in his recovery.
I really enjoyed this book, though it’s probably best enjoyed when we think of it as “old” realistic fiction rather than historical fiction. The story reflects the values of the time, but they have not been filtered through contemporary thinking. Two very recent novels about similar subjects that might draw interesting comparisons are The Second Life of Abigail Walker
by Frances O’Roark Dowell and The Bell Bandit
by Jacqueline Davies. I borrowed Miracles on Maple Hill from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Candy Smash. by Jacqueline Davies. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 240 pages. ISBN: 9780544022089The Candy Smash
is the fourth book in the Lemonade War
series about Jessie and Evan Treski, siblings who are in the same fourth grade class. It is February and Valentine’s Day approaches. Inspired by his teacher’s presentation of a poem of the day, Evan starts writing love poems, first about his grandmother and later about Megan Moriarty, on whom he has a crush. In the meantime, Jessie works on her extra credit project, a class newspaper. She hopes to find out not only who is delivering secret forbidden candy to the whole class, but also who in her class has a crush on someone else and how her classmates think crushes should be revealed. As in the other books of the series, Jessie fails to understand basic social cues, while Evan loses patience with his sister when she violates his privacy.
So far, in this series, Jacqueline Davies has taught readers about economics, law, and maps. In The Candy Smash
, she focuses on journalism and poetry. Each chapter opens with the definition of a term associated with either newspapers or creative writing, and through Jessie and Evan’s experiences, the reader learns the proper use of these terms. The educational aspect of the story is certainly subtle and does not overpower the plot, but there are lots of great opportunities for classroom teachers to connect this book to their curricula.
This is a largely character driven story, which provides a lot of insight into the personalities of both Jessie and Evan. Only Evan’s character truly seems to develop, though; I keep wondering with each new book when Jessie is going to begin to mature a little bit as well. True, she is a year younger than her classmates, but even so, there should be some changes happening in her worldview and relationships that I haven’t really seen yet. Davies does a great job of depicting Jessie’s innocence and lack of experience, but it’s becoming less believable as she gets older. I was also surprised by how little their grandmother appears in this story. After the events of The Bell Bandit
, she has moved in with the Treskis, but we don’t see much of her, even though her presence looms large in Evan’s poetic mind. Also notable is Jessie and Evan’s teacher, who is invested in her students and dedicated to helping them improve as students and as possible. I love the way she uses her cat, Langston, as her class mascot and displays pictures of him around her classroom. I’d put her in the same category as Clementine’s wonderful teacher, Mr. D’Matz.
My favorite thing about this book, overall, is how well it handles the romance theme. Many books for younger middle grade readers introduce dating into their fourth grade characters’ lives as though it is a perfectly natural thing for nine-year-olds to pair off into couples. In my experiences with kids, they are not into dating at that young an age, and this book reflects reality much more closely than a lot of others of this same reading level and genre. Sure, the characters have crushes, but they are still figuring out what that means and how it will impact their friendships. I especially like the way Evan’s crush on Megan is resolved - sweetly, but without tons of adult commitments and middle school-esque drama. The Candy Smash
doesn’t really stand on its own, so I’d recommend starting with The Lemonade War
and reading the books in order. Parents should feel comfortable giving this series to their second- and third-graders who are strong readers, and I think even fifth graders can still enjoy the stories. Budding journalists and poets will love the back matter showing the class newspaper and some of the poems the students have written. Though Valentine’s Day has passed for this year, there is lots in this book that’s worth reading any time! I borrowed The Candy Smash from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Center of Everything. by Linda Urban. March 5, 2013. Harcourt Children's Books. 208 pages. ISBN: 9780547763484
Ruby Pepperdine lives in the small town of Bunning, New Hampshire, where everyone is obsessed with donuts. On Bunning Day, at the town parade, Ruby will be reading her essay about the history of Bunning, which was selected as the winner from among many submissions. This is a great honor, of course, but Ruby has bigger things on her mind - mainly, the fact that her grandmother, Gigi, died, and Ruby didn’t listen when she tried to give her a final important message. Ruby has used her birthday wish to ask for a way to make things right, and she has been looking for signs ever since, but if nothing happens before Bunning Day ends, Ruby can’t imagine how she will move on.
Like Linda Urban’s last book, Hound Dog True
, this is a sensitive and introspective middle grade novel, this time about one girl’s struggle to find her place after losing someone close to her. The novel has an interesting structure, in that the entire story takes place on Bunning Day, but events taking place in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to the recent past that give context to Ruby’s actions on Bunning Day. It is in the flashback sequences that the reader gets to know Gigi, as well as Ruby’s best friend, Lucy and her new friend Nero Deniro. These flashbacks also reveal Ruby as a nervous girl who worries about appearances and the way things are “supposed to be.” She wants to mourn correctly, to do the right thing in all situations for all people, and when she doesn’t feel that she has lived up to these external expectations, she takes it very hard. She is a girl who believes that her world is infused with meaning, and that it’s up to her to decode the signs she is given and make sense of what her grandmother, or the universe might be trying to tell her.
I didn’t care very much for Hound Dog True
, but The Center of Everything
spoke to me much more clearly. I could relate to Ruby’s silent suffering at the loss of her grandmother, and to the burden of perfectionism that she places on her own shoulders. I became deeply engrossed in the small-town atmosphere, and the Bunning Day parade reminded me of so many parades I attended as a kid in my own small town. Ruby’s younger cousins’ interest in the candy being thrown from the parade floats brought back so many memories.
Though The Center of Everything
won’t appeal to every reader, it is a special book that will undoubtedly speak volumes of truth to certain readers. Kids who have connected with Linda Urban’s books in the past will find more of the same humor and sensitivity in The Center of Everything
. It is also a great read-alike for Criss-Cross
by Lynn Rae Perkins, The Boy on Cinnamon Street
by Phoebe Stone and One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street
by Joann Rocklin. Though it’s very early in the year to be considering next year’s potential Newbery contenders, this book looks like Newbery material to me - and several others on Goodreads have said the same. I highly recommend this slim, but powerful novel, to middle grade readers and their parents, librarians, and teachers.I received a digital ARC of The Center of Everything from Harcourt Children's Books via NetGalley. The book will be published tomorrow, March 5, 2013.For more about this book, visit Goodreads.
Homesick. by Kate Klise. 2012. Feiwel & Friends. 192 pages. ISBN: 9781250008428
It is 1983 in Dennis Acres, Missouri, and Beignet “Benny” Summer is 12 years old. His dad, Calvin, who hoards junk and goes on and on about a future worldwide computer network, keeps the house in a state of utter filth, which has driven Benny’s mom away. Various people - from Calvin’s best friend Myron to Benny’s own teacher - try to help Benny get things cleaned up, but the more help is offered, the more resistant Benny’s dad becomes. Then the worst happens - the U.S. Chamber of Commerce names Dennis Acres America’s Most Charming Small Town. Representatives of the government will be coming to town to install a computer in every household. Now everyone in town is looking to Calvin to clean up his act, and Benny feels torn between his love for his dad and his loyalty to his town.
The first book I ever read by Kate Klise was one of her collaborations with her sister, M. Sarah Klise, entitled Regarding the Fountain
. While I loved that one, future books of theirs, such as 43 Old Cemetery Road: Dying to Meet You
didn’t resonate with me as much. I do like their picture books, such as Why Do You Cry?
and Shall I Knit You a Hat?
, but until now, I had never read any of Kate Klise’s middle grade novels, because I wasn’t sure I would like her writing style on its own, without her sister’s illustrations. The fact is, I could not have been more wrong. Homesick
is the strongest book I have read by this author to date.
I wouldn’t say that Klise’s writing is especially flowery, but her words are very evocative. Dennis Acres is similar to a lot of other small towns I have read about, but her descriptions give it a very specific look and feel. As I read, I could picture each house and each business. I could imagine Benny’s dad’s leaning tower of moldy pizza boxes, and the rats living in the root cellar. I could picture Myron sitting behind the microphone at his radio station, and Benny blushing as the kids on his school bus teased him for sharing his seat with a teacher. Best of all, during the tornado that occurs at the book’s climax, I felt like I was there as Benny’s whole world fell apart. There are so many beautiful images throughout the story that just stuck with me and will stay with me for a long time.
I suppose some readers might complain that the resolution to Benny’s home situation is resolved too easily by an act of God. Other staunch realists might argue that the story isn’t believable because the events are so unlikely and contrived. I think the quality of Klise’s writing cancels out these concerns, however. The plot is important, and the characters are important, but what makes this book unique is the way the story is told. The emotions of what happens in this book are so vivid that the events of the story seem significant and possible, even if they might never happen in real life. I also think it’s neat that this book, set in the 1980s, foreshadows the Internet, and gives young readers a taste of what life was like when their parents were kids.
I recommend Homesick
to fans of The Higher Power of Lucky
and Susan Patron’s other books about Hard Pan, as well as to fans of the 2013 Newbery Honor book, Three Times Lucky.
I also think libraries and bookstores should display Homesick
face-out whenever possible. It has a great cover that is sure to attract interested readers! I borrowed Homesick from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
The Railway Children. by E. Nesbit. 1906. 208 pages. ISBN: 9780486410227
Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis (Phil) have never been poor before, but when their father must go away unexpectedly, they and their mother move to a more modest home in the country. There isn’t much to do in their new, smaller house, and their mother is always busy writing stories to make ends meet, so the children often find themselves visiting the railway station. There they have many adventures: making friends with Perks the porter, waving to a particular old gentleman who rides the train past their station every day, and even saving a train from a very bad accident! All the while the three children are kept in the dark about where their father really is. When Bobbie finds out by mistake, she uses her railway connections to sort things out and, hopefully, bring her father home.
My husband has been nagging me to read this book for months, and I kept putting it off because I was one hundred percent sure it was an old, sad orphan story. I was completely wrong about this, as it turns out. There is some sadness in the book, but the kids are not orphans, and though the story is now over 100 years old, it reads more like a 1950s children’s novel, such as those written by Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright. It is certainly somewhat old-fashioned compared to contemporary middle grade novels - the children dress in early 1900s garb, they watch a “paper chase” in one chapter, and they lack the modern sources of news and communication that would have made it much easier for them to learn of their father’s whereabouts during his long absence. The narrator also sometimes addresses the reader directly, which is not very common in contemporary kids’ books (unless they’re written by Lemony Snicket.) Even so, the dialogue between the characters sounds very contemporary, and many of the children’s arguments and conversations could easily happen in any group of 21st century children I have met.
The story itself is well-written without being difficult to read. The characters come vividly to life mostly in the way they speak, and each chapter’s adventure moves swiftly by. It is extremely unlikely that any group of kids would have so many opportunities to save lives and cheer up those in need, and it did bother me toward the end of the book that a country town where nothing ever happens could suddenly be the center of so much excitement. Still, kids reading this book would no doubt enjoy seeing kids their own age becoming heroes, no matter how unlikely those events might actually be. They will also relate to the kids’ desire not to seem like pious goody-goodies, and to the mistakes they make along the way. The Railway Children
is to railroads what Swallows and Amazons
is to sailboats. Any child who has ever been fascinated by trains will fall in love with the railway station along with Bobbie, Peter, and Phil, and they will enjoy feeling like part of their family. Recommend The Railway Children
to realistic fiction readers who enjoy family stories, adventure, and emotional happy endings. I read The Railway Children free online at Project Gutenberg.For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
My Summer of Pink and Green. by Lisa Greenwald. March 2013. Amulet Books. 272 pages. ISBN: 9781419704130
In My Summer of Pink and Green
, the sequel to 2009’s My Life in Pink and Green
, Lucy Desberg’s family finally begins work on the eco-spa that will attract new business to their aging pharmacy. Lucy is excited, mostly because the eco-spa was her idea, and she is anxious to expand her business as a makeup artist. Unfortunately, what no one has told Lucy is that the family is bringing in a consultant to oversee the spa’s grand opening, and that Lucy’s main role in the entire process will be to hang out with Bevin, the annoying daughter of the business’s chief investor. Lucy also has other things to deal with - her sister came home from college with a new boyfriend, her best friend, Sunny, is all wrapped up in her new boyfriend to the point that she can’t talk about anything else, and Sunny’s brother, Yamir, on whom Lucy has a crush, seems to like Lucy one minute and forget she exists the next. It’s going to be a long summer!
My feelings about Lisa Greenwald’s books have run the gamut over the past few years. I loved Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes
, but felt lukewarm about Reel Life Starring Us
. My Life in Pink and Green
fell squarely in the middle of the spectrum, and now My Summer of Pink and Green is leaning more closely to the love I felt for Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes
. I read the first book about Lucy not long ago, right after I received the digital ARC of this book from NetGalley, so Lucy has been fresh in my mind, and I like where this second book takes her character.
Lucy is a go-getter and an optimist, and it is undoubtedly her determination that saves the family from financial ruin in the first book. I completely understood her indignation, therefore, when most of her responsibilities are taken away in this sequel. I think the entire story explores something interesting that we don’t get to see very often in children’s literature. What happens to kids like Lucy who take on a lot of adult responsibilities when the adults in their lives get it together and don’t need their help anymore? Of course, Lucy should be a child and hang out with Bevin and have fun. Any adult reading this book will easily see that the responsibilities placed on Lucy’s shoulders were perhaps not fair to her, but how does that same situation feel to a child who felt so needed and now feels left out? Lucy’s family is very much in a time of transition, and this book deals so realistically and authentically with the emotions a child might feel.
This book also deals with a lot of other common tween problems - boys, best friends, and cruelty. What I like about Greenwald’s handling of these subjects is that Lucy plays the role of both good guy and bad guy. She’s not blameless in the rift between herself and Sunny or herself and Yamir, nor is she completely kind and friendly to Bevin all the time. She’s a normal kid learning to navigate not just new family dynamics, but new developments in her friendships as well. My Summer of Pink and Green
will appeal first and foremost to readers who have read the first book and want to know how things turn out for Lucy and the eco-spa. It’s also a good read for fans of Leslie Margolis’s series of earnest middle school tales beginning with Boys Are Dogs
, and readers who have enjoyed Every Soul a Star
and other books by Wendy Mass.
I received a digital ARC of My Summer of Pink and Green from Amulet Books via NetGalley. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
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The All-Of-A-Kind Family. by Sydney Taylor. 1951. Follett Publishing Company. 189 pages. ISBN: 0929093089
Mama has five girls: Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie, and because there are no boys, they call themselves an “all-of-a-kind family.” The family doesn’t have very much money, but they still have lots to be happy about. The girls visit the library regularly, where they are always glad to see their friend, the library lady. They have a wonderful relationship with their father’s best friend, Charlie, who gives them treats when they are sick and often comes around for dinner on holidays. They even get a little bit of money now and then to spend on secret candy to eat in bed, and to buy gifts for their father’s birthday. Throughout the year, the girls keep busy and make the best of what they do have - wonderful friends, and each other.
This first book in the All-of-a-Kind-Family series was written in the 1950s, but it takes place during the year 1912. Despite the age of the story and the fact that it is historical fiction, it is a fresh and accessible book, even today. Though the girls in the story are poor and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, they have many experiences that can be universally appreciated by children from all backgrounds, living in urban and rural environments. Each chapter consists of a particularly memorable episode in the family’s life, including things like the loss of a library book, the discovery of old books in their father’s warehouse, and missing out on the Passover seder because of scarlet fever. Readers learn not only what life was like for immigrants living in early 20th century New York, but also all about Jewish tradition and celebrations throughout the year. Though the girls in the story lived 100 years ago, they have many qualities, interests, and worries that contemporary kids undoubtedly share. The All-of-a-Kind Family
is a great fictional representation of growing up in a Jewish family, as well as a sweet celebration of sisterhood. There are some surprise twists at the end of the book that bring together details and characters from earlier chapters, and I didn’t see any of those coming, so I was very pleased by that. I also like how quickly the story moves, and the upbeat tone that provides a sense of hope in difficult circumstances without becoming overly sentimental about city living or poverty. Readers who are anxiously awaiting another installment in the Penderwicks series might enjoy reading about the All-of-a-Kind Family - a series with six books in all - while they wait. It might also appeal to fans of Megan McDonald’s Sisters Club books, and to readers who enjoy The Boxcar Children, The Bobbsey Twins, and Betsy-Tacy
. I borrowed The All-of-a-Kind Family from my local public library. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.