Archive for the ‘MG books (ages 8-12)’ Category

bull runBull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.

It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.

Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.

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It’s the most wonderful time….to roll out our favorite reads of this year! Now we’re primarily a middle grade book blog–that’s our niche. But this year, we thought we’d flip the tables and try something different. Doll Bones and Hero on a Bicycle aside, we’re recommending our favorite YA titles of 2013, and we’re asking for your middle grade recommendations, instead.

easyOut of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys–As resourceful, intelligent Josie Moraine plots to leave her messy family situation (her mother’s an aging prostitute) and past behind, Sepetys brings New Orleans, in all its gaudy splendor, to life. We only wish the ending didn’t resolve so abruptly, because Sepetys definitely left us wanting more!

Cover_of_Rose_Under_Fire_by_Elizabeth_WeinRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein–In this companion novel, Wein wisely avoids writing another Code Name Verity, but the friendships Rose makes in Ravensbrück are just as heart-wrenching and root-worthy. She also shines a light on a part of WWII history we’ve never heard of: the Ravensbrück “rabbits.” Also, Maddie gets some closure, Rose gets a future, and we get some tissues.

ghost_hawkGhost Hawk by Susan Cooper–Cooper explores the events leading up to King Philip’s war through the fictional characters of Little Hawk, a member of the Pokanoket tribe, and John Wakely, a Pilgrim boy. Leaving aside the historical fiction/fantasy debate (and an epilogue we could have done without), we admired the writing, the rich characters and the narrative structure–there’s a surprise halfway through that will mess with your head.

Which books delighted you this past year? Let us know–we’re itching to read some satisfying children’s books over the holiday break. Bonus points if they’re middle grade titles or non-fiction!

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Review: Better to Wish

better_to_wishBetter to Wish is the first book of Ann M. Martin’s Family Tree series, which includes four books about four girls in successive generations of the same family. It’s an intriguing premise that falls short. For the first third of the book, I was hooked. The story starts in 1930 with Abby Nichols, a young girl living in rural Maine. It moves quickly, with each chapter taking place over a single day of Abby’s life. We first see eight-year old Abby and her sister Rose sneaking out to pick blueberries with a forbidden friend. The next chapter opens months later during Thanksgiving. Pretty soon Abby is ten, then twelve. She gets new siblings, the family moves to a new home, and Abby develops a crush on the boy next door.

While Abby is young, the slice-of-life approach works well. Each snapshot tells us more about the family: Abby, the quiet, budding writer; rebellious Rose; their sad, haunted mother; and Mr. Nichols, a hard worker who lifts the family fortunes while becoming increasingly controlling and abusive. Martin also adds a lot of historical details–including the prevailing attitudes towards women, immigrants and mental illness—without being preachy or judgmental.

But as Abby gets older, the vignettes lose their focus. There are too many threads in Abby’s life, and I wanted more from each day. We get tantalizing glimpses of Abby’s friendship with Orrin, a boy her father has forbidden her to see, but there’s no meaningful trajectory to their friendship since all we see are disjointed moments. There’s also a death that comes out of nowhere and little closure or reflection on Mr. Nichols’ behavior—not even when Abby graduates from high school and finally gains her independence. By the end, I felt like I’d read a book with missing pages. And that disappointing experience means I’ll probably miss out on the rest of the series.

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grimIt’s with a grimmace that I admit I didn’t enjoy Adam Gidwitz’s The Grimm Conclusion, the third installment of the Grimm books, as much as I had expected to. The fairy tales were as outrageous and un-Disneyfied as before. The narrator was even chattier than I’d remembered. And we the readers were frequently warned to put the book down, lest we encounter upcoming unpleasant gruesomeness. Nevertheless, The Grimm Conclusion read like a pale reflection of its predecessors, as if it were told through a glass grimmly.

See what I did there?

After being reminded by the chatty narrator that these ain’t your grandma’s fairy tales, but the “grimmest, Grimmest tale” of them all, we meet twins Jorinda and Joringel, whose mother may have been impregnated with the help of a juniper tree. When their parents prove inadequate (one dies of happiness the day they were born, the other locks herself away out of fear and illogical psychology), Jorinda and Joringel promise to cling to each other for ever and ever, until their step father decapitates Joringel with a trunk lid and tricks Jorinda into thinking his death was her fault.

Although Joringel is eventually restored to himself, their mother’s shoddy advice informs how they make sense of this and future traumas: bury the stone that represents pain under mattresses until you don’t feel it anymore, and stamp out the weed that is anger until it never comes back.


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IMAG0923When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.

As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.

Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well. (more…)

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9780374379940_p0_v1_s260x420I was a big fan of Dead End in Norvelt, and From Norvelt to Nowhere promised more adventure for young Jack Gantos and his off-kilter elderly neighbor, Miss Volker of the arthritic hands and former lover of a mass poisoner. The book even promised a road trip for this zany duo. What could go wrong?

Lots of things, as it turns out. From Norvelt to Nowhere reads like a sad echo of the prequel. The best part of the book actually takes place before the roadtrip. When a new original Norvelter moves back to town, she falls dead on the same night that Jack chooses to dress up as Mr. Spizz (the mass poisoner, now on the run from the law) for Halloween. But Jack thinks the real Mr. Spizz may be back in town, ready to sweep Miss Volker off her feet now that she really is the last original Norvelt resident. After some spooky Halloween antics, doses of Miss Volker’s acerbic wit and an unfortunate accident involving an air raid shelter, Jack is commissioned into accompanying Miss Volker to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral.

That’s where the novel fell apart. What should have been Jack and Miss Volker’s Excellent Adventure turns into a heavy-handed (and often confusing) series of monologues on love, hate, history, social justice and fighting our inner demons. There are numerous allusions to Jekyll and Hyde and way too many Moby Dick references (in case you’re curious, Miss Volker is Captain Ahab and she intends to spear Mr. Spizz—with a real spear). While the book is still entertaining, it simply lacked focus. Miss Volker monologues for pages on end while I lost track of where they were and the purpose of their trip (ok, there’s a mystery about who really killed the old Norvelt ladies, but it felt weak). Jack, supposedly the main character, starts to feel like the sidekick—one whose only purpose is to drive and protest feebly when Miss Volker starts to get too outlandish. It felt like a story without a point, like the roadtrip was an excuse for Miss Volker to say everything that she never had time to say in the prequel. And while I would happily read a book of Miss Volker’s speeches, I don’t want them to take over what was supposed to be a well-written and (multiple!) character-driven novel.

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I was going to review the 1937 and 1938 Newbery award winners separately, but I was so unenthusiastic about these books that I can’t be bothered to write them individual posts.

roll1938: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

When Lucinda’s well-to-do parents travel to Europe for a healthful vacation, Lucinda enjoys her newly “orphaned” status–and the freedom that comes with boarding at the Misses Peters’ house–by befriending the less rarefied folks of New York City she wouldn’t otherwise meet. Naturally, her transportation of choice–roller skates. While Lucinda is spirited and kind and bubbly and resourceful as she skates through the city, there’s no clear direction to her story. (Spoilers: instead, there’s an incredibly ill-handled murder resulting from domestic violence that Lucinda is witnessed to. The hotel manager’s advice: just pretend the victim went on a very long trip abroad and isn’t coming back. And that’s exactly what Lucinda does. At least the other death in this story is well handled.)

white stag1939: The White Stag by Kate Seredy

About the westward migration of a horde led by the forefathers of Attila the Hun, Seredy decided that a romanticized version of this people group’s history would be far more interesting than their actual story, so that’s exactly what she wrote. Like with The Story of Mankind, she was rewarded for her efforts. RUDE.

“Not so long ago I was leafing through a very modern book on Hungarian history. It was a typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them… Well, I closed the book and I closed my eyes….Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”   –Kate Seredy in the foreward

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Our friend Taylor guest blogs for us once again!

mioI love exploring new children’s literature, but I’ll admit I have a soft spot for classic lit as well.  In particular, I am a huge fan of Astrid Lindgren (author of the world-famous Pippi Longstocking series).

In Mio, My Son, Lindgren writes the tale of Mio, an orphaned boy living in foster care in Stockholm.  He has one friend and longs to know his father.  Eventually, through a series of supernatural events, he is whisked away to Farawayland, where his father is king.  There, he experiences unconditional love for the first time in his life.  However, like all fairy tales, there is adversity; Mio discovers that he is destined to fight the cruel Sir Kato in the Outer Kingdom.

What I love about this book is not its sophistication; it is a pretty simple and standard fairy tale.  What stands out about this book is the relationship between Mio and his father the king.  As I wrote about in my review of Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, Lindgren does a superb job of creating excellent unromantic relationships in which unconditional love is the central feature.  Even when Mio is in the hateful Outer Kingdom and doubts his father’s love, he hears a whisper of his father’s voice and gains the strength to continue his quest.

So, regardless of how you feel about fairy tales and genies, this book is worth giving a try if only to take in Lindgren’s excellent writing about the kind of relationships we all long for.

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Facebook of Three

90s cover!

90s cover!

Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three is another oldie I haven’t revisited since I was a child. Now that I’m a bit older, I can spot the host of fantasy tropes from a mile away, but Alexander blends high fantasy and humor with skilled storytelling. His characters are surprisingly sassy. Here’s the who’s who:

Dallben, the wise, bearded mentor

Appearing only at the beginning and the end of the story, he mostly goes “hmmm” and drops ominous hints, followed by “I can’t tell you because you wouldn’t understand,” but he’s also full of sage advice. He also sums up Taran’s entire quest in this sassy quote:

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense–which you sometimes make me doubt–you will very likely reach your own conclusions. They will probably be wrong. However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them

Taran, the eager, orphaned, wannabe hero who longs for adventure and accidentally finds himself on one

By turns impulsive, brave, determined, loyal, and prone to acts of stupidity, young Taran is Caer Dallben’s resident Assistant Pig-Keeper. He idolizes actual hero Gwydion, one of the Sons of Don, and gets put in his place by everyone he meets. Taran is too sincere to be sassy.

I accused you falsely. My shame is as deep as my sorrow.

Prince Gwydion, of the House of Don

A true and honest hero, Gwydion seeks information only Dallben’s oracular pig possesses. His noble white stead is named Melyngar. He can talk to animals.

Your promises reek of Annuvin! I scorn them. It is no secret what you are.”


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susan_cooperBeloved and best known for her The Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, legendary author Susan Cooper introduced her latest novel, Ghost Hawk, to audiences at Porter Square Books yesterday evening.

Growing up in England during WWII, Cooper studied English under professors J.R.R. Tolkien (who mumbled during lectures) and C.S. Lewis (who had a flair for Renaissance literature). Because the Oxford curriculum extended only to 1832, she “inhaled myths” at university and read lots of Beowulf, Malory, and Spenser. As one friend put it, “they taught us to believe in dragons!” This, combined with her childhood experiences of being read to in bomb shelters during air raids and walking to school with a schoolbag and a gas mask slung over her shoulders, imbued her writing with a strong sense of place and Good & Evil–no surprise to anyone who’s read The Dark is Rising.

The concept for her “most challenging book yet” hatched from Cooper’s interest in place–this time, the woods surrounding her house in Marshfield, Massachusetts. After a trip to the library, she discovered the land she lived on was once inhabited by the Pokanoket tribe before the English deeded it to a man who was, of all things, a cooper.

ghost_hawkFrom there, she started to wonder how local relations between English settlers and Native American deteriorated so rapidly between the first Thanksgiving dinner and King Philip’s War just sixty years later. “I became obsessed with knowing what went wrong,” Cooper said, but “I wasn’t going to write a history book. I’m a storyteller. I make things up.” So she invented the characters of Little Hawk and John Wakely, who, despite their circumstances, develop a genuine but dangerous friendship.

That’s not to say Cooper’s research wasn’t extensive. She read piles of books and archival materials and all of Roger Williams’ letters. The process of writing Ghost Hawk became as mucha voyage of discovery” for herself as Little Hawk and John Wakely’s story is for us. As for the shocking turn of events midway through the book, Cooper assures readers that despite her penchant for brooding myths and her wartime upbringing, because she writes for children, she always leaves the last line of everything not in despair but with hope.

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