“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall

The Plot: Mr. Penderwick and his four daughters, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, have rented a cottage for a few weeks on a beautiful estate in the mountains. There they meet the owner of the estate Ms. Tifton and her son Jeffrey who immediately befriends the girls. As the weeks pass, Jeffrey becomes closer to the Penderwick girls but also learns that his mother intends to send him to military school in the fall. As his departure date approaches, the Penderwicks scramble to find a way to keep Ms. Tifton from sending Jeffrey away.

My Take: I found this to be a solid entry in the ‘large family’ juvenile fiction category along side titles such as The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and The All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sidney Taylor. Perhaps the most popular example would be Little Women by Alcott. Older readers will discern no major surprises in the plot of The Penderwicks, but may be drawn in, as I was, by the strong family bonds between the girls. It is encouraging to read a book in which the siblings support each other and do not tear each other down with pranks and sarcastic in-fighting. Those looking for a gentle story about a summer time family adventure will not go wrong with The Penderwicks.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Jeanne Birdsall believed from a young age that she was destined to become a writer but ‘went off track’ until her forties.

“Short” by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Short

The Plot: Julia is short in stature and when her mother pushes her to join a summer stock theater production of The Wizard of Oz, she is naturally cast as one of the Munchkins. Julia’s initial resistance to being in the play attenuates as she meets and becomes enamored by other members of the cast. She learns the details of how to put on a quality production and finds herself falling in love with theater. As the summer progresses, Julia finds that she has done an awful lot of growing on the inside, even if she is so short.

My Take: Wow, I loved this book! I really admired Holly Goldberg Sloan’s ability to craft interesting characters in her book Counting By 7’s and she has outdone herself in this novel. I loved the character of Julia, the director Shawn Barr, her professional acting friend Olivia, and everyone else in this story. Julia is an incredibly funny narrator, without intending to be, and I literally laughed out loud several times, something that I almost never do while reading.

This book is unique because there are no major conflicts but I really felt that the story moved right along. We watch Julia navigate growing up over a summer through her interesting point of view and this really is enough. A lesser writer would probably be tempted to up the stakes on Julia’s life–perhaps throw a dead parent in the plot or make Julia a foster child– but Holly Goldberg Sloan clearly knows what she’s doing.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a middle grade read about self-discovery.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan mentions in several interviews that she often writes about actors and acting because she has experience as a screenwriter and working with actors.

“Other Words For Home” by Jasmine Warga

The Plot: Jude is a girl living on the coast of Syria who life becomes increasingly tense as civil war slowly breaks out in her country. To escape the unrest, Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati, Ohio, leaving behind her father and older brother. Jude struggles to adapt to life in a new country all the while hoping to hear good news about the safety of friends and family back in Syria.

My Take: Author Jasmine Warga’s choice to write this story in verse allows her to use a broad brush on much of the plot and setting while honing in on the emotional landscape of Jude. This engages the reader in the anxiety, loneliness, and alienation that Jude feels in her new home. Warga’s verse focuses in on the core of the story which is one girl’s inner experience of dealing with the challenges of immigrating to a new country. As someone unfamiliar with Syrian society, I also appreciated the author’s deft incorporation of elements of Middle Eastern culture. I came away from this story with a much greater appreciation for the struggles of refugees fleeing unrest.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website bio, Warga grew up in Cincinnati and believes that Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream is the most delicious food in the world.

“Lalani Of The Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Plot: Twelve year old Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita, in a village that is suffering from drought and an oppressive patriarchal structure. The village elders have long warned of staying away from Mount Kahana, the dangerous mountain on the island, as well as the beauty of Mount Isa, the mythical mountain across the sea that supposedly holds magic that could bring prosperity to Sanlagita. When misfortune provokes Lalani to explore the sides of Mount Kahana, she begins an adventure that will place her in conflict with her village and compel her to set sail across the distant sea in search of Mount Isa.

My Take: This is a wonderful book because author Erin Entrada Kelly has a fine sense of pacing. She weaves in themes of oppression, sexism, and environmental degradation while also including elements of magic and mythology. There is also enough action and danger to satisfy adventure lovers. Kelly manages to pack all of this in while maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the story. She also daringly introduces new characters and settings in the 3rd act without slowing things down.

I also credit Kelly with an appropriate level of world building. She gives the reader just enough information about the fantasy setting without overburdening us. She will, for instance, give a broad description of a fantasy animal, but leaves most of it to our imagination. This trust in the reader is a welcome departure from many other fantasy writers.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her bio on her website, Erin Entrada Kelly’s favorite scary movie is Poltergeist (1982).

“Counting By 7’s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan

counting by 7s

The Plot: Willow is a 12 year old girl who is fascinated by botany, languages, and prone to indulging in mathematical quirks like counting by 7’s. While possessing a genius intellect, she finds herself awkward around other people and generally at a loss for friends. When Willow’s parents pass in a traumatic accident, Willow faces the challenges of building a new life for herself – a monumental task for someone who does not do well with change. Fortunately Willow finds herself surrounded by a strange community of people that, even with her social awkwardness, she manages to touch.

My Take: I loved this book. I admired how Goldberg Sloan moved from Willow’s first person narrative to other characters in 3rd person perspective. This allowed the reader to glimpse the story and Willow from other points of view. It also fleshed out all of the other interesting characters in the book. The school case manager Del Duke was a favorite of mine. A man of limited skills, stuck in a deep midlife rut, he finds his world changed by his encounter with Willow. We find him at the end of the book not necessarily more successful at being a human in the world, but at least more aware of his limitations.

There are problems with this book. The character of Willow is SO intelligent, that it’s strains credulity. And the genius child and dead parents are staple tropes of kid and teen lit. Still, I was won over by the quirkiness of the characters and the author’s never giving in to the temptation of loading the narrative up with sentimentalism. The reader picks up on the idea that this book isn’t really about grief or mourning or even childhood brilliance. It’s more about building a community out of quirky people that may not even really like each other. Somehow it all works.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Holly Goldberg Sloan has also worked as a writer for the entertainment industry including writing the screenplay for eight films!

“The List of Things That Will Not Change” by Stead

List Of Things That Will Not Change book cover

Title: The List of Things That Will Not Change

Author: Rebecca Stead

Publisher: Random House 2020

The Plot: Ten year old Bea’s parents have recently divorced amicably and are now living in separate residences. Her father has come out as gay and will soon be marrying his boyfriend Jesse. While adjusting to these changes, Bea mostly has positive feelings about the upcoming marriage and is especially excited about meeting Jesse’s daughter Sonia who is also 10. As Bea adapts to the changing relationships in her life, she makes several decisions that create discord among her family.

My Take: I found this book to be a strong middle grade realistic fiction read because Rebecca Stead captures the mix of feelings that many children of divorce experience. Instead of having Bea wallowing in hurt and grief over her parents split, Stead chooses the more interesting approach of allowing her to experience joy and excitement over the new lives that her parents are building. I also appreciated how Bea’s character changes in the reader’s mind over the arc of the story. We learn things about how her that make her more interesting. Stead should also be given credit for adeptly handling the issue of a gay parent without making it feel forced or contrived. The author nests the topic of gay marriage within the wider scope of the family and builds the book on believable characters. This credible presentation of a contemporary mixed family prevents “The List of Things That Will Not Change” from becoming simply an ‘issues’ book.

One Interesting Thing About The Author: According to her website, Rebecca Stead’s parents, much like Bea’s, were divorced when she was growing up and had separate residences. No doubt Stead drew on these experiences when writing this book.

“Because Of The Rabbit” by Cynthia Lord

Because of the Rabbit

Title: “Because of the Rabbit”

Author: Cynthia Lord

The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Emma is going into 5th grade and she has decided that she no longer wants to be homeschooled. On the night before her first day at public school, her father the game warden brings home a rabbit that was stuck in a neighbor’s fence. Over the following days, Emma learns how to care for the rabbit and also that making friends in 5th grade is a more difficult task than she imagined. When a school project requires teaming up with some classmates, Emma learns the meaning of true friendship.

My Take: This was a straightforward story about friendship and learning the many social pitfalls of 5th grade. In its tone and content, it really reminded me of The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. There are no bad guys in this story, so Lord sidesteps many of the bully and mean girl tropes that populate most younger and middle grade chapter books. I also appreciated the character of Jack who suffers from ADHD and is quirky and sweet natured. All told, readers looking for a realistic fiction book for 3rd and 4th graders will be well pleased with this choice.

One Interesting Note About The Author: One of Cynthia Lord’s inspirations for this story was her experience with rabbits. She has 3 pet bunnies and has also fostered twenty-six of them in the last few years!

“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle” by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle - Leslie Connor - Hardcover

The Plot: Mason Buttle is a large, sweaty 7th grader with a cognitive disability. His best friend died a year and a half ago under suspicious circumstances and Mason was the last person to see him. Since the incident, the police have been questioning Mason trying to piece together clues to understand how it occurred. Unfortunately Mason does not understand that they suspect that he murdered his friend.

My Take: I really enjoyed this book from the beginning because I found Mason’s voice to be authentic. The murder case propels the story forward, but the reader will also appreciate the warmth of Mason’s character and his decency in the face of his challenges. He endures social ostracism and rejection but still finds constructive activities and works on the few relationships that give back to him. A highly recommended book to middle grade readers.

One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Leslie Connor was born on the floor of her family’s home — no time to get to a hospital!

“The Lost Girl” by Anne Ursu

The Lost Girl

The Plot: Iris and Lark are 11 year old twin sisters who have been close all of their lives. As they enter 6th grade, they discover that, for the first time, they will have different teachers. Both girls struggle in the new school year to fit in and find their identity. Iris takes solace in an after school camp, the local library, and visiting the gentleman that runs the local antiques shop. As the sisters’ relationship comes under strain, Iris looks for ways, some of them fantastical, to heal the division between them.

My Take: This book was an enjoyable read with a few minor problems. I appreciated Ursu’s development of the closeness of the bond between the sisters, but I found that there was a little too much exposition. Some of the first third of the book could be removed and the storyline would not suffer. I also found that the fantastical elements seemed like an awkward fit with the realistic tone in the rest of the book. Still, I would recommend this to readers looking for a book on the bonds between sisters along with a hint of magic.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Anne Ursu’s profile handle on twitter describes her as an “obscure children’s book author with three cats and a murderous rage.”

“Orphan Island” by Laurel Snyder

Related imageThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time.  But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time.  In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny.  As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place.  Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.

My Take:  Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there.  Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal.  The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations  — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters.  Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies.  It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end.  It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever.  I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations.  At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless.  This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.