Two (Older) Mysteries

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective
by Donald J. Sobol
First sentence: Mr. and Mrs. Brown had one child.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s got short chapters, and simple text. It’s in the beginning chapter book section (grades 1-2) of the bookstore.

The girls reminded me, when I picked this one up, that on a vacation we listened to one of the later books in this series. They enjoyed it, or at least they have memories of enjoying it. I remember this, vaguely, but had never actually read these. There’s not much to them: Encyclopedia Brown is presented a mystery — everything from a tent that the resident bully claims is his to missing roller skates — and then the reader is encouraged to solve it. I’ll be honest: I didn’t get a single one. I came close a few times, but never actually guessed the right answer. I went back and looked, and the clues were there. I’m just not a careful enough reader to catch them. Even so, it was a fun little read.

The Secret of the Old Clock
by Carolyn Keene
First sentence: “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some scary moments, but nothing too intense. It’s in the Middle Grade Classics section of the bookstore.

I adored Nancy Drew when I was a kid. (Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie and Wrinkle in Time: those were the books I read and re-read.) I don’t know what it was about these books that drew me to them, whether it was Nancy as a character or just the mysteries and adventure I liked immersing myself in, but I have fond memories of reading these.

So I was a bit wary as I dipped back into the world of Nancy Drew as an adult (after nearly 40 years!). Would it hold up? Well… yes and no. The no is easier to handle: the writing is not only formulaic (which is to be expected, as it is written by committee, something I didn’t know as a kid) but also quite mundane. The thing that really stood out was how expressive Nancy’s eyes were: they sparkled and flashed and twinkled…. how many adjectives can they use to express her eyes and what purpose does it really serve? It wasn’t a mystery that a reader could get involved in; it wasn’t meant to be a puzzle that the reader could solve, but rather we were along for the ride, watching as Nancy got into scrapes and met people and was determined enough to find the solution. In this case, she accidentally stumbled upon a family dispute: Joseph Crowley died and was supposed to have left money to his relatives and friends, all of whom were less well off than he was, but it turned out that he left the money to this snobbish, well-off family in town instead. Everyone, Nancy found, was convinced that there was a newer will. But no one knew where it was.

The thing I did like about this was Nancy. Sure, she was a proper 1930s young lady: polite, kind to her elders, friendly and helpful. But, she was also smart, determined, and  unafraid to take chances. In this one, at least, she’s out there taking on bad guys and solving cases, and doing it by herself. (I know she picks up a boyfriend and a couple of friends later, but in this one, it’s just all Nancy.) Maybe that’s what I loved about these books as a kid: I wished I could be that determined and risk-taking, and I admired that about Nancy. I still do.

I don’t think I’ll revisit any of the others in the series, but I’m glad I reread this one.

Advertisements

Lions & Liars

by Kate Beasley, illustrated by Dan Santat
First sentence: “Frederick Frederickson was thinking about strawberry daiquiris when the dodgeball slammed into his face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence and some mis-adventures, and a few intense moments. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Frederick Frederickson (whose mother wanted a name everyone would remember, bless her heart) is not high up on the totem pole of popularity. And this bothers him. Even though he has a couple of friends, he wants more: people who laugh at what he says (and not because they’re being mean), to be respected, to be Liked. To not be the bottom of the totem pole. So, when the one thing he looks forward to every year — a cruise with his family — is taken away (poor pity Frederick) he gets into a fight with his friends and ends up adrift on a river… and lands at a weekend camp to Reform boys.

Pausing here for a minute:  I’m sure his parents were frantic when he goes missing (though there’s hardly a word about that), and I know middle grade books can only happen with bad or absent parents, but the fact that Frederick so casually integrates himself into the camp and COMPLETELY FORGETS ABOUT HIS FAMILY kind of doesn’t make me like him. At all. In fact, I kind of just wanted to smack his spoiled, privileged face. (REALLY? You’re pitching a fit because your cruise got canceled because a HURRICANE is coming? I know you’re ten but give it up already.)

Frederick ends up impersonating a kid called Dash, and discovers that maybe the kids in cabin 13 — who go by Ant Bite, Nosebleed, Specs, and The Professor — aren’t so bad, after all.

I know this was supposed to be a heartwarming story about a kid who learns how to be a decent friend (because he’s pretty dang awful to his friends, and they’re pretty dang awful back) and I’m sure there are kids who will like this a lot (because who doesn’t want to run away from home and go to a weekend camp?) but this was just not for me.

The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle

by Christina Uss
First sentence: “The front door to the Mostly Silent Monastery was missing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 5, 2018
Content: It’s got a few fantasy elements, but is more realistic fiction. It’s probably longer than emerging readers can mange, but I think it’d make a great read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

This book, for a myriad of reasons, is highly implausible. A 12 year old girl biking alone across the country? Making friends with  a ghost? Ending up with a super high-tech bicycle? Attending the Kentucky Derby for free? All probably not going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean this first book by Uss, an avid biker herself (she biked across the U. S.!) any less enjoyable. Bicycle is a delightful character to spend a book with as she branches out (maybe in an overly extreme way) and tries to make friends and experience things for herself. Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t want to be sent to the Friendship Farm, either. It’s incredibly charming and ultimately heart-warming and inspiring as Bicycle (and Uss) finds the best parts of this vast country.

(One small quibble: if Bicycle was going through Kansas in late May/early June, she wouldn’t pass fields of sunflowers… that’s more an August/September thing. At least it wasn’t corn fields, though.)

Hand this to anyone who wishes they had the time and freedom to see the country the slow way.

 

Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.

The Penderwicks at Last

penderwicksatlastby Jeanne Birdsall
First sentence: “Lydia believed in dancing wherever she could — on sidewalks, in supermarket aisles, libraries, swimming pools, parking lots.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, The Penderwicks at Point Moutte, The Penderwicks in Spring
Release date: May 15, 2018
Content: There’s some romance (all tasteful, of course), and it has a bit of an old fashioned feel. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we last left the Penderwicks, Batty was in 5th grade and Lydia was two. But since a two year old would make a horrible narrator of a middle grade novel, Birdsall has fast-forwarded time again: Lydia is eleven now, and everyone else is duly older. In fact, Rosalind, the oldest, is about to get married. Which she wants to do at the place where everything started: Arundel. Lydia, Batty (who is 19 now), and the dogs (Sonata and Feldspar, who is the BEST) are the advance guard: heading to the mansion to clean and get ready and hopefully ward off (the awful) Mrs. Tifton. It’s delightful to be back at Arundel, and Birdsall weaves in all the stories from the first Penderwicks book — Lydia has grown up hearing the stories but not seeing the places — which gives the book a sense of nostalgia without just rehashing the same stories. We get to see Cagney again — he’s married with a daughter Lydia’s age — and it’s just absolutely delightful. But then, the Penderwicks usually are. And I loved getting to know Lydia who is simultaneously so very Penderwick but also different because she wasn’t surrounded by sisters the way the others were.

There are, of course, Penderwicks things: an out of control soccer game; lots of music and wandering around outside (no one EVER watches TV!); friendships and family. It’s absolutely delightful and I want to be a Penderwick. I thought it would make me cry to have to say goodbye to this lovely family, but I  didn’t. It was all so perfect, so right, so very comparable to Little Women (but no one dies!), that it just made me happy all over.

This series is such a wonderful modern classic. I’m so glad Birdsall had this story to tell.

Bob

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “I feel bad that I can’t remember anything about Gran Nicholas’s house.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s written perfectly for the younger age group. It is in the middle grade  section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Livy hasn’t been to her grandmother’s house in Australia in five years, when she was five years old. She doesn’t remember much from the last time she was there: not the room or the toys or the landscape, and especially not the green creature in the closet. Bob (the green creature in the closet) remembers Livy though. She told him to stay put, which he did. For five years. In the closet. But now that Livy’s here, he’s sure she can help him find his way home again.

Bob (the book not the character) is a charming little story about friendship and growing up, but also home and family. And it’s a delightful twist on fairy tales. In Mass’ and Stead’s hands, it’s not saccharine, but simple and sweet and tender.  Livy was more complex than I expected, pulled between her childhood self and a desire to be “older” and the responsibility of being a big sister. And Bob was charming and delightfully innocent. I liked that the fairy tale had rules: even though they were never spelled out in the book, Mass and Stead were consistent with who could and could not see Bob. It was incredibly well done, and a delightful read. .

 

Module 15: Flashcards of My Life

Harper, C. M. (2006). Flashcards of my life. New York, N. Y.: Little, Brown, and Company.

Genre: Realistic fiction.

Book Summary: Through a series of flashcards and “diary” entries, Emily tells the story of a couple weeks in a middle school (she’s in 7th grade? I’m not entirely sure). She navigates friendships — her two sets of friends don’t quite get along with each other — and first crushes — does Andrew like her? Does she like Andrew or someone else? — as well as dealing with her parents’ up and down relationship

Impressions: I’ve often said that the reason there are so many bad parents in middle grade is because conflict makes for a good story. This book lacked that in a major way. The stakes — will her friends talk to her? Will the boy like her back? — are really low, and while they are important in many middle school girls’ lives (I do remember 7/8th grade, and yes, those were important questions), they just don’t make for compelling reading. This book lacked any compelling conflict, and any character arc. It really is a slice of life story, and while I don’t want to insinuate that middle school girls lives aren’t worth putting into book form, this just didn’t work for me. Plus, the font drove me nuts. It was meant to reflect handwriting because of the diary-like feel of the book, but it kept pulling me out of the story.

Review: I was able to find a Kirkus review of the book, which was kinder to the book than my reaction. The reviewer wrote “With humor and insight, she focuses on such topics as kissing, embarrassing moments, regrets, talent and dreams. ” However, the final sentence was dismissive: “Emily’s search for the truth about friendship, romance and identity will appeal to ’tween fans of conversational chick-lit.” I dislike the term “chick-lit” because the designation is dismissive, insinuating that a book isn’t “real” literature, but rather something that girls like, which makes it less, somehow. However, it really does fit this book.

Staff. (2006, Jan 1). Flashcards of my life.  Kirkus Reviews, (1). Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/charise-mericle-harper/flashcards-of-my-life/.

Uses: My first reaction was “Please don’t”. If you must, it would work on a display of diary-type books or other middle school relationship books.

Readalikes:

  • Dork Diaries by Renee Russell – The most obvious read-alike, if only because it’s also told in diary format, and details the every-day life of a middle school girl. I’ve never read these, but they seem to be more compelling because there’s 12 (I think?) of them now, and people keep buying them. (Which kind of proves the point that it’s not that middle school girls’ lives are uninteresting, but rather the book.)
  • Invisible Emmie by Terrie Liebensen – This tells a similar story to Flashcards: Emmie is a quiet, unassuming girl who drops a note she had written to her crush, and finds herself less invisible. It’s told in graphic novel form, which helps the story, as does the secondary plotline as Emmie imagines what it must be like to be popular, like Katie.
  • The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez – Another book about a 7th grader trying to figure out how to fit in, but add Mexican culture and punk rock, and you have a much more compelling book.