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.”
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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.

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Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Don’t nobody believe nothing these days which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you.”
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Content: While there isn’t any swearing or on-screen violence, the themes are quite intense. I go back and forth as to where this should go. One of my co-workers insists that 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be reading it, so doesn’t like it when I stick it with the Newbery Books (even though it got an honor). I’m not sure it needs to be in the Teen (grades 9+) section, though, so I may compromise by putting it in the YA (grades 6-8).

Will’s older brother, Shawn, has been shot dead. And so, Will believes, it’s his duty to hunt down the person who shot Shawn (and he’s sure he knows who it is) and kill them. After all, that’s part of the rules: Don’t cry, don’t snitch, and always get revenge. But, on the elevator with a gun tucked in his pants, Will encounters ghosts of his past, every single one of whom has been killed by gunshot.

The ending is left open: will Will follow through, or won’t he? But, it’s these conversations with the ghosts — all told in verse — that left me shook. The toxic masculinity is rampant and obvious (at least to me, an outsider): if someone shoots someone who then shoots someone, then (of course) someone else will have to shoot that someone. It’s a vicious cycle that just leaves everyone dead. (What is that adage? An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind?) It’s awful. And culture, tradition, racism, oppression, expectations… they don’t let these boys grieve the way they need to grieve. (And don’t get me started on gun culture.) I’m not entirely sure that’s what Reynolds was trying to get across, but that’s what I (again, as an outsider) got out of it.

Hopefully, books like these will help bring awareness to this. And maybe we can all stop killing each other just because of the color of our skin.

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.

 

Just like Jackie

by Lindsey Stoddard
First sentence: “Before I know it I have Alex Carter’s nose blood on me.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.