Module 2: The Middle Moffat

Estes. E. (1942). The Middle Moffat. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Classic, realistic fiction. It is definitely a classic, not only because it was published more than 70 years ago, but also because it won a Newbery Honor, thereby bestowing upon it “classic” status. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but will discuss that more later. It is definitely realistic fiction, as there is no fantasy elements.

Book Summary:  Jane Moffat is the third of four Moffat children, but has decided that she’s the “middle one”, because she’s neither the oldest or the youngest or the oldest son (which describe her three siblings). Over the course of a year, Jane has a myriad of experiences as the Moffats get used to their new house after the death of their father: she makes, loses, and regains a best friend; she develops a good relationship with the town’s “oldest citizen” (he’s 99!); she plays  on a basketball team; and she better figures out her role in her family. 

Impressions: I desperately wanted to like this one. I generally do like stories like this: I adore All of a Kind Family and read the Betsy-Tacy books to all my daughters. I don’t mind the historical setting; I often find it fascinating to see how authors perceive their present and recent past (I’m thinking this was set in the 1930s, though I may be wrong). However, this one just didn’t click with me.  Perhaps it was because I just finished Beezus and Ramona before diving into this one, but Jane just fell flat. Even though I intellectually could see that Estes was trying to be humorous, like when the Moffats received a hand-me-down organ, and Jane was instant on having an organ recital, which ultimately failed due to overuse and because the organ was filled with moths. That, to be fair, should be funny. But, it just didn’t work for me. Intellectually, I could see that Jane was sweet and charming and tried hard, and  I wanted to like her and be interested in her experiences, but I just found I didn’t care. I can see value in the book; there are children who love this sort of story, and perhaps if I had read it when I was younger, I would have as well. 

Review: It was challenging finding a review of a book this old. I went with a blog post, from Into the Book, in which the reviewer gave The Middle Moffat a glowing review, stating “This book is a series of snapshots of these escapades, brilliantly portrayed in a way that draws readers in, and connects them to the lovable, clumsy ten-year old’s world.”  Additionally, she loved the serial nature of the book, and praised Estes’ writing, saying “What I love about Estes’s writing is that she grabs hold of those indescribable childlike emotions and impulses we all have experienced, masterfully putting them into words, capturing moments that allow us to re-live those happy Christmas mornings, those victories in an all-important sports competition, those moments when we make up with our best friend after a fight.”

Joyce, A. (2013, December 14). The Middle Moffat. Retrieved from: http://intothebook.net/the-middle-moffat-
eleanor-estes/.

Library Uses: It would be great in a display of classic books, Newbery books, or one one about stories featuring families. 

Readalikes:

  • The Penderwicks by Jane Birdsall: A more contemporary version of the Moffats, the Penderwicks are four sisters who have Mishaps and Adventures and are Absolutely Delightful. This one is similar in tone and subject, but has a more contemporary feel. 
  • All of  a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor:  Set in a slightly early time period than the Moffats, around World War I, this is the story of an immigrant Jewish family living in the Lower East Side of New York. They have a similar dynamic as the Moffat siblings, and the books are similarly about every day life.
  • The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy: Another contemporary family book, this one with all boys and LGBT themes, as the parents are a gay couple. It deals with the every day lives of the Fletcher family, but with a diverse twist.

 

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Just like Jackie

by Lindsey Stoddard
First sentence: “Before I know it I have Alex Carter’s nose blood on me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a few “damn” and “dammit” and they say “effing”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

For Robinson Hart’s entire eleven years, it’s just been her and her grandpa together. They’ve gotten along fine: her grandpa taught her how to tap the sugar maples and make syrup and how to fix cars. And even though they don’t match exactly — grandpa is black, and Robbie is lighter skinned — and even though grandpa doesn’t talk about Robbie’s mom, things are fine.

Until they aren’t.  Robbie has noticed that grandpa has started messing up words, forgetting things, putting things away wrong… and she’s sure that if she could just be a good kid, he would stop and things would go back to normal. Except Alex is a bully and Robbie can’t handle it, and she keeps fighting back (literally), which gets her into trouble.

This isn’t really a plot-heavy book. Robbie does learn some lessons about controlling anger, and that everyone has their own issues they’re dealing with. But what kept me coming back was the relationship between Robbie and her grandpa, and how worried and powerless she felt with her grandpa’s increasing Alzheimer’s. I also loved the friends that Robbie eventually realized were on her side. It was a slow process for her, and as a parent I was sometimes irritated at that. But, I realized that an 11-year-old might not see everything I could see, and I thought Stoddard captured that extremely well.

A very good book, overall.

The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

The Matchstick Castle

matchstickby Keif Graff
First sentence: “It was supposed to be the perfect summer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a whole lot of silly, and there are some big words, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd grader and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Brian has a good life in Boston. Friends, his family (consisting of Dad and two older brothers), soccer. Then this summer comes along and his dad gets an opportunity to go to Antarctica to look through this awesome telescope (which probably had something to do with his job, but I was never quite sure), and takes it. Brian’s older brothers can either stay with friends or are old enough to stay home alone, but Brian is farmed out to his Uncle and Aunt’s house… in Boring, Illinois. (At least it’s not Ohio or Kansas).

Brian and his cousin Nora are in for the most Boring of Boring summers: Uncle Gary is developing educational software and needs beta testers. He’s obsessively strict about it: “school” starts at 8:45 and goes until 4, and the kids aren’t allowed to leave the yard. (UGH.) But Brian breaks the rules and goes exploring in the woods and finds… this awesomely weird and crazy house with an awesomely weird and crazy kid, Cosmo, with his awesomely weird and crzy family He drags Nora into it (after there’s some grounding and a lot of lying on the part of the kids), and they end up having a couple of Adventures as they search for Cosmo’s missing uncle (turns out he was in the house) and fight against Boring’s Bureaucracy that wants to knock the house — the titular Matchstick Castle — down.

I liked that it was just weird and crazy and not Magical; everything unusual that happened had a rational, realistic explanation while still seeming fantastical.  It did have an old-fashioned feel (it’s interesting to see how authors get around the Modern Dilemma of hovering parents and technology; in fact, one of my favorite bits was the weird and crazy family interacting with computers, which they have avoided for lo these many years) to it, which was fun.

But, I wasn’t super wowed by it either. Uncle Gary was such a caricature of overbearing parents that it was silly. And, aside from Nora, there wasn’t any girls in it at all. (Well, Cosmo’s mom does make an appearance, and Nora does have a mom who kind of hovers in the background). And, honestly, Nora doesn’t do all that much, either. Which was disappointing.

It was fun enough, though, even if it wasn’t brilliant.

The Secret Keepers

secretkeepersby Trenton Lee Stewart
First sentence: “That summer morning in the Lower Downs began as usual for Reuben Pedley.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher. Full disclosure: I had dinner with the author at Children’s Institute, and think he’s delightful.
Release date: September 27th
Content: There’s a few scary moments, and it is long (500+ pages), so it might be intimidating for young/reluctant readers. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Reuben has perfected the art of being invisible. He can sneak in and out of places, and knows just how to go unnoticed in a crowd. And then, one summer day, he climbs up to a ledge (just because he can) and discovers something Wonderful: an antique pocket watch shaped like a globe in a wooden box engraven “Property of P. Wm Light”. It’s cool enough as it is; but once Reuben (accidentally) discovers that it can actually turn him invisible, he’s thrilled. Except the watch is wanted by the big mob boss in town, a man known as The Smoke. And suddenly Reuben isn’t quite so invisible anymore.

So Reuben sets off to solve the mystery of the watch: where it came from and why does The Smoke want it so badly. And in doing so, he not only makes several friends for life, he discovers that he is much more than he originally believed.

Even though this is a big book, and starts slowly (I’m not sure we needed Reuben’s entire backstory, as well as the backstory of the watch, but I’m not the editor here…) I was hooked by the middle and sold by the end. (The end, especially.) Stewart knows how to write a puzzle that readers want to solve, and how to keep them guessing along the way. I honestly didn’t know what would happen, at times, and I thoroughly enjoyed finding out. And the best part? It’s not a series (yet). Definitely a fun read.

The Piper’s Son

piperssonby Melina Marchetta
First sentence: “The string slices into the skin of his fingers and no matter how tough the calluses, it tears.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs and some talk of sex (nothing graphic). It has a more adult sensibility than I was expecting, and although the library has it in its Teen section, I’d be tempted to put it in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Two years after the death of his favorite uncle in a terrorist bombing in London, Tom’s dropped out of university, living with some crap flatmates, and basically a mess. Then, hitting rock bottom, he finds his way back to his Aunt Georgie (who’s been knocked up by her ex-boyfriend) and begins to piece his life back together.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven, and this one is the latter. There’s not much plot-wise — mostly it’s the ways in which Tom and Georgia (and the rest of the McKee family) are dealing (or not dealing) with the crap in their life — but the characters make this book worthwhile. Tom is brash and abrasive at first, but he grows so much that by the end, I was sobbing. And Georgia gives the book a heart that otherwise would be missing. This family is so messed up, but so fierce in their love for each other; it’s truly one of those books that show how families really do come in all shapes and sizes.

Technically, this is a sequel to Saving Francesca, but you can definitely read it as a stand-alone. And it’s so very worth it.

Nothing Up My Sleeve

nothingupmysleeveby Diana López
First sentence: “Z could always find a reason to feel cursed.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s bigger font on small pages, so even though it looks thick it goes fast. It reads very much like a Wendy Mass story, with short chapters, alternating viewpoints, and a lot going on. There’s a slight not-quite-romance (a couple of the boy main characters “like” the girl, but it goes nowhere). It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Z, Dominic, and Loop have been friends for a long, long time. Which means their friendship is one part they like each other and one part competitive. And so when, one hot Texas summer, they discover a magic shop and enter a competition, it becomes somewhat of a tension-creator. They spend the summer working on their magic tricks, but what starts out as just fun becomes more tension-filled. Will their new hobby ruin their friendship?

The good things first: this is full of diversity. Yay for making Texan kids Latin@! And giving them real-world problems: Dominic’s parents are divorced, Z is the youngest of a big family and is always getting ignored, and Loop just found out the man he thought was his biological father isn’t. Plus the way López writes about magic is really neat. She explains the tricks, so you can get a sense of what’s going on, but she doesn’t give away any (well, not many, anyway) of the secrets of the trade.

My big problem was that I felt sorry for Z, who was pathetic, and I felt Dominic was a bit annoying, but Loop and Ariel (she’s the daughter of the magic shop owners) were so annoying I wanted to smack them. Maybe I should give López props for making me care enough to want to smack the kids, but I found them annoying. Which means I really didn’t care too much about how it all resolved. I finished it — it wasn’t really bad — but I didn’t love it. (It really wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great either.)

Maybe I just wasn’t the right person for it.