Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to Top

To Top

Kidlit

27

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

On 27, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LonghouseChildren of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: When Ohkwa’ri overhears a group of older boys planning a raid on a neighboring village, he immediately tells his Mohawk elders. He has done the right thing, but he has also made enemies. Grabber and his friends will do anything they can to hurt him, especially during the village-wide game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse). Ohkwa’ri believes in the path of peace, but can peaceful ways work against Grabber’s wrath?

Children of the Longhouse is a lovely, quiet story. While there is some drama most of the action and plot focus around everyday life in the Mohawk village. Ohkwa’ri is struggling with some older boys that he overheard plotting a raid, which is where the drama comes from, but he is also working on being more cautious and is building a lodge to stay in by himself as preparation for coming of age. The story also follow Ohkwa’ri’s twin sister, Otsi:stia, a bit as she worries and frets over her brother and thinks about her future.

The book is full of small details about everyday life, which would be a big draw for outdoorsy kids and kids interested in historical life. Bruchac also weaves in stories within stories, sharing some folklore of the tribe. If you read his picture book The Great Ball Game (or my review of it the other day) you might be, you’ll recognize one of the stories told by Ohkwa’ri’s uncle. The narrative meanders with the thoughts of Ohkwa’ri and Otsi:stia, but in a pleasant way, not in an unfocused or boring manner. The language is beautiful and Bruchac does a great job conjuring the picture of where they live as well as how they live.

There is plenty of excitement with the Tekwaarathon game, which is played on an enormous “field”. The goal posts are so far apart that to reach them you have to run through the forest and a couple meadows. Ohkwa’ri is honored to be asked to play for an older man, but he is also worried that Grabber and his cronies will try to harm him. This makes for some excellent tension during the game. Sports fans will like the small details about the strategy of the game and the actual plays.

This would make a fabulous bedtime read aloud. Certainly the right fifth or sixth grader could read it, it just has that feel of a book you could read at bedtime. It’s a quiet story with enough action that your kids will be disappointed that you have to put it down and will want to hear more the next night. The chapters vary in length so you might have do a little planning and make breaks where there aren’t chapters.

If I had one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There is a glossary with pronunciation guide that was incredibly helpful. However, it’s tucked at the back of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until about half way through the book when I came across a word and wondered if there was a pronunciation guide. It would have been better to put it up front so the reader knows it’s there and so you first see how to pronounce the names Ohkwar’ri (Oh-gwah’-li) and Otsi:stia (Oh-dzee-dzyah).

In terms of length and difficulty it straddles upper elementary and middle school, although Ohkwa’ri is on the young side which might turn middle schoolers off. It’s also a good place for fans of The Birchbark House to come when they are bit older.

Tags | , , ,

22

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard

On 22, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Fire-HunterThe Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard

Originally published 1951

From GoodReads: Fire-Hunter is the story of Hawk, a pre-historic man who is banished from his tribe for breaking the tribal law by inventing a spear-launching tool. He is left behind with Willow, an injured young woman abandoned by the tribe because of her inability to travel in the nomadic lifestyle they employ.

So, I read this book in either fifth or sixth grade and despite the fact that I can’t remember exactly when I read it, the story and enjoyment of it has stuck with me for all these years. I don’t know why it popped into my head a few weeks ago and I don’t know why this time around I decided I wanted to find a copy, but I thought it would be interesting to see if it held up after all these years. It took a bit of Googling around to find the title, but I knew if I saw a picture of the cover I would know it and sure enough I found it. I was more surprised to find that my library system still had a copy! I’m a big proponent of weeding, but I’m glad that despite it’s age this one hadn’t been pulled from the shelf (I can’t attest to how much it’s checked out, but the book is in great shape so maybe it should still be on the shelf).

I was even more surprised by the fact that I liked this book as much, if not more, now as I did all those years ago in elementary school. I still remember when the teacher handed out copies of the book. There were two options and it seemed everyone wanted this book over the other (whose title I cannot remember). There were not enough copies for everyone in the class to have one and I was lucky to get one of the last few. I must have devoured this book because I remember it only took a few days of in-class reading to finish it. I certainly read in elementary school, but I was not strong reader (I have talked about this in other blog posts) so to plow through a book like I did with this one was unusual.

The story itself is very well written. It’s got a surprisingly complex vocabulary and syntax, but it wasn’t hard to read. Again, I’m surprised I clicked with this in elementary school knowing that I was not a great reader. However, I think that attests to the fact that the story is incredibly compelling, even if it’s not plot driven. In fact, it does a great job blending plot and character development. There’s quite a bit of suspense both within the overarching plot (will Hawk and Willow survive on their own?) and within smaller incidences (will they be able to evade the hunters they run into? will they be able to kill the cave bear and use his cave? etc.). Hawk, though, is an inquisitive boy/man (he’s a man by his tribes standards and because people didn’t live long, but he’s only 16) and he spends a good deal of time coming up with new ideas that help them survive, such a stick that helps him throw his spear much further which puts him out of harm’s way. He also invents a bow and arrows.

He observes things very closely and learns from what he observes. So when, for example, they leave their original camp because of a lack of wildlife and return a few days later he notices there is game again. He thinks to begin hunting in one smaller area and rotate through smaller surrounding areas to allow wildlife to return. Willow too has ideas and has paid close attention to what others in the tribe do, so when they need to start a fire she knows how to do it. She also creates a number of baskets and containers that help them out and thinks to line a basket with tar so they can always have a large supply of fresh water in their cave. I was pleasantly surprised that the book was not particularly sexist. Considering the era it was written in and the depictions of “primitive man” I was expecting more overt sexism. There were a couple lines that I rolled my eyes at and, sure, they had defined roles as a man and a woman, but I imagine that’s pretty true to what life was like for early humans. I was also pleased that there didn’t seem to be anything that made it seem racist. I guess that may have been because it was about a hunter-gatherer not a Native American, but at its heart this is a survival story and it made all their skills and ideas seem really cool and essential, not primitive and silly.

I will note that there is a lot of hunting and while the story is never graphic there is violence. Don’t give this to your tender-hearted animal lovers. They will not like it. Do give it to your kids who wonder about life long ago. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it certainly gives you a sense of what life as a nomadic hunter-gatherer must have been like and it doesn’t flinch from showing that life would have been brutal, hard and often short. There is also a brief author’s note at the beginning that explains where an author (and anthropologist) look for information about what life was like.

The long and the short of this is, I bought my own copy to keep on my shelf so my own daughter might stumble on it when she’s older. And quite frankly, I will read this one again in the future too. If your library still has a copy hand sell it to kids who like adventure and survival stories and kids who like protagonists who are clever and curious and like to invent things.

Tags | , , ,

21

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

On 21, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Anna HibiscusAnna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Lexile: 670L*

From GoodReads: Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow.

What a great start to a chapter book series! The book begins with a hilarious story about Anna and her parents and baby brothers going on vacation. Anna’s mother is Canadian and grew up in a quiet house with only her parents and herself and it seems that she is longing to have some alone time. When they arrive at their vacation house it becomes apparent why it might be better to have all those aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents around (they help cook, clean and care for the babies), so each day Anna’s father returns with another set of family ultimately bringing everyone along on vacation.

The chapters are each stand-alone stories rather than continuations of a longer, over-arching plot, although there are nods to events that have happened in previous chapters. In terms of length of chapters and the book as a whole I would say this is an older chapter book suited for second graders (8 year olds). It’s easier than Clementine and a step or two up from many of the Magic Tree House books and the Cam Jansen series. If only for the diversity, but also the stress on the importance of family and the fact that Anna isn’t so sassy, I would give these to my own daughter to read.

Anna is a fun little girl and her family, all packed into their beautiful, sprawling white house, provides lots of learning and entertainment for her. Each story has her learning a little more about her family or the world around her. The story about selling oranges is particularly sweet as Anna comes to realize that her actions have very real consequences for people and also shows her how fortunate she is. The story never becomes overly preachy and didactic though, making it engaging for the intended audience instead of feeling like a lesson being crammed down the reader’s throat.

If there was one thing that worried me it’s that Anna lives in “Africa”. I worry that kids, especially American children, already think Africa is a country and this isn’t helping them figure out that it’s not. According to the author’s note this is set in Nigeria where Atinuke grew up and since Anna’s city is a lagoon it’s probably Lagos, but I would be surprised if most kids (and their parents) sat down to puzzle that out. I’m guessing, though, that Atinuke did this with some purpose in mind. However it’s incredibly refreshing to see a book about Africa that doesn’t carry on the narrative of poor unfortunate souls wasting away from disease and hunger. There is poverty in Africa, but there are plenty of normal people who go about their lives just like us and I think it’s so important for young readers to see that as much as(or more than!)other narratives.

As a side note, I am always hungry when I read books about Nigeria. There is a feast in the chapter where Anna’s auntie who is living in America comes home to visit. I just want to have some pepper soup and pounded yam!

*I think I’ll start including the Lexile measure on the chapter books I review simply because these are books where having a just-right reading level is really important. I take issue with book levels, but I do think they can provide some context for comparison and help parents and teachers who need a good, quick way to put the right book in the right hands. But don’t underestimate a kid with high interest in a character or topic!

Tags | , , ,

14

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Allison Levy

On 14, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Family FletcherThe Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Allison Levy

From GoodReads: Meet the Fletchers. Their year will be filled with new schools, old friends, a grouchy neighbor, hungry skunks, leaking ice rinks, school plays, wet cats, and scary tales told in the dark!

There’s Sam, age twelve, who’s mostly interested in soccer, food, and his phone; Jax, age ten, who’s psyched for fourth grade and thinks the new neighbor stinks, and not just because of the skunk; Eli, age ten (but younger than Jax), who’s thrilled to be starting this year at the Pinnacle School, where everyone’s the smart kid; and Frog (not his real name), age six, who wants everyone in kindergarten to save a seat for his invisible cheetah. Also Dad and Papa.

WARNING: This book contains cat barf, turtle pee, and some really annoying homework assignments.

Oh no! This was a DNF (did not finish) for me. I wanted to like the book and I can’t say I didn’t, I just wasn’t clicking with it right now for some reason. (I suspect it’s the time of year as I read this just before Christmas and had a to-do list a mile long.)

Even though I put it down I think it’s got great appeal. The story follows the four boys in the Family Fletcher. Four very different boys, in appearance and personality, who are all adopted by two dads. The book really captures a loving, functional family which is so refreshing. The family is also very  much the picture of suburban families- they play sports, attend private school (and public school), they camp, they have traditions, they have a cat and a dog, the list goes on. If anything this book goes overboard in making the family both diverse and normal. But can you really go overboard with that?

Each chapter switches perspective and is narrated not by, but from the perspective of, one of the boys. They each have something going on such as a new school or changing friendship. The Fletcher’s live next door to a crotchety old man who is always yelling at them about too much noise and various pieces of sports equipment, but even he isn’t painted with a broad villain brush. He slowly evolves in the eyes of the boys as they have a variety of interactions with him where he becomes a lot more human.  The best part of the book is how quirky the whole family is when taken as a whole. And I think this is so relatable for kids at that upper elementary level. They’re just starting to become aware of how they look as a family to people outside looking in and it can be so embarrassing!

This would make a fantastic read aloud to a third or fourth grade class (or kid), but the youngest brother has just started kindergarten so there is certainly something there for younger readers to connect with and make this book good read aloud for a mixed-age group. The langauge and length definitely make it more suitable to older readers who want to tackle it alone. Although not quite as sweet and pastoral as The Penderwicks I think this is a good place to go for kids who liked sibling relationships and friendship elements of that book.

Tags | , , ,

13

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-fiction Review: The Noisy Paint Box & The Right Word

On 13, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Biographies

I have really mixed feelings about the picture book format used as a biography. On the one hand I think they can breath life into a genre that can be incredibly dry. They are also great a piquing interest. On the other hand they can be rather sparse and if the life of the person isn’t handled properly (giving it a plot of sorts and telling a story) it can fall very, very flat. I also think a lot of kids tend to get into biographies when they are out of the picture book stage. While picture books often have more difficult text than chapter books they get a stigma of being for little kids and upper elementary kids, who many picture book biographies are aimed at, don’t want to be seen with them.

Noisy Paint BoxThe Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kadinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre

From Goodreads: In this exuberant celebration of creativity, Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre tell the fascinating story of Vasily Kandinsky, one of the very first painters of abstract art. Throughout his life, Kandinsky experienced colors as sounds, and sounds as colors–and bold, groundbreaking works burst forth from his noisy paint box.

While I really enjoyed how this book brought Kadinsky to life and made him very relatable to kids I came away wanting to know more. Kadinsky apparently had a condition (is that what it is?) called synesthesia where your brain crosses your senses and you might taste words or hear colors as Kadinsky did. Since it’s a book for younger audiences I think the amount of information is appropriate, but don’t be surprised if you are asked to help them seek out more information.

Rosenstock does a wonderful job describing sounds and colors together as they blend in Kadinsky’s mind. Children reading the book will have no problem hearing the colors along side the artist. The illustrations are also a wonderful blend of realistic pictures of people and places, but as soon as the colors start swirling tiny details, like instruments, appear as mixed media or collage in picture.

The book is very interesting and gets points for talking about Kadinsky and his different way of sensing the world (a diversity of sorts). I also really like when these types of books show artists as children. Kadinsky really didn’t paint until he was much older despite having been given a paint box as a child. No one believed that he could hear the colors and it certainly wasn’t proper. When he actually painted pictures they came out as abstracts, representing the music he was hearing, making them difficult for his family to appreciate. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of kids have artistic aspirations and will find comfort in the long path it took for Kadinsky to finally become recognized and appreciated.

RogetThe Right Word: Roget and His Thesuarus by Jennifer Bryant , illustrated by Melissa Sweet

From GoodReads: For shy young Peter Mark Roget, books were the best companions — and it wasn’t long before Peter began writing his own book. But he didn’t write stories; he wrote lists. Peter took his love for words and turned it to organizing ideas and finding exactly the right word to express just what he thought. His lists grew and grew, eventually turning into one of the most important reference books of all time.

The book for kids who love to make lists. There’s a lot here: the illustrations are busy and charming; the story of Roget’s life is interesting; the author’s note and timeline at the end provide a bit more information for those who are curious.

As interesting as Roget’s biography is, it’s the illustrations that make this book. Sweet draws charming people, but adds tons of collaged details that will have readers poring over the pages. In keeping with Roget’s lists, words cover many of the pages charmingly grouped together with hand-drawing fonts and brackets.

I’m not sure I can add much more to the discussion of this book. It seems to be very popular with librarians, and considering their love of order and words (not stereotyping at all!) I can’t say I’m surprised. I wonder if kids will connect with it, but I certainly think the right kid will. Give this to kids who like lists, who love words and writing, and to kids who are interested in biographies. Especially that last group. The format of the book is so engaging you might even be able to convince kids who don’t normally go for biographies to pick this one up.

Tags | , , ,

08

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Ashley Bryan’s Puppets

On 08, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PuppetsAshley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something From Everything by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: Daily, for decades, Ashley has walked up and down the beach, stopping to pick up sea glass, weathered bones, a tangle of fishing net, an empty bottle, a doorknob. Treasure.

And then, with glue and thread and paint and a sprinkling of African folklore, Ashley breathes new life into these materials. Others might consider it beach junk, but Ashley sees worlds of possibilities.

Ashley Bryan’s two-foot-tall hand puppets swell with personality and beauty, and in this majestic collection they make their literary debut, each with a poem that tells of their creation and further enlivens their spirit.

What an incredible book!

I could see that some of these puppets might look a little creepy to kids and I was fully prepared to do damage control with my daughter, but she was totally enthralled with them. Just reading the introduction where Bryan talks about finding bits and bobs on the beach that he uses to make puppets had her asking to make her own puppets from recycled materials around the house. She was really captivated by the poems that accompany each puppet and the close-up pictures of each puppet only made her more interested in making her own. They are incredibly charming from the frog to the elephant, they have amazing clothing and are composed of all sorts of objects.

The book is laid out with a series of two page spreads that show a line up of several puppets. Each spread is followed by pages featuring a portrait of each puppet and a poem about them. The poem titles are the names of each puppet and are a variety of African gods, goddesses, and words. A few of the puppets shown do not have their own poems which Bryan had done deliberately. He encourages readers to write their own poems for the characters. These puppets are amazing and paired with the lovely little poems that bring them to life and highlight some of the objects used to make them (e.g. a glass for a hat or bird bones) really makes for a striking composition. I am not normally one to enjoy poetry, but children’s poetry is usually pretty good. This is even better because of how it works with the puppets.

This is definitely a book for savoring and poring over again and again. The puppets really invite many closer looks. Every time it seems you notice something new about their construction. While I think kids will really enjoy the short poem format with the gorgeous pictures, I think this will make a great classroom resource. It’s easy to see how this can provide inspiration for using recycled materials, for looking at materials in a new way, for writing poems, and for making puppets.

Tags | , , , ,

07

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada

On 07, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dancing HomeDancing Home by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

From GoodReads: Mexico may be her parents’ home, but it’s certainly not Margie’s. She has finally convinced the other kids at school she is one-hundred percent American- just like them. But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she’s created for herself crumbles.

Things aren’t easy for Lupe, either. Mexico hadn’t felt like home since her father went North to find work. Lupe’s hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough. Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.

Little by little, the girls’ individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what “home” really means.

Dancing Home was such a sweet, gentle story about family, identity, and embracing your culture. Margie is struggling because the kids at school pick on her for being Mexican. Except she’s as American as they are having been born in Texas. She’s finally gotten to a point where she has some friends, has her hair right, and goes by Margie instead of Margarita, when her cousin shows up from Mexico. This seems to remind the kids that Margie is still different and they start picking on her again.

Despite this theme I wouldn’t call the book a bullying book. The kids poke fun at her, but the real focus is on Margie learning to accept her cousin (who has a difficult backstory of her own) and accept her heritage. Lupe’s presence in her home brings a lot of their culture back that Margie has asked her parents to give up. Her mother begins cooking more Mexican food again, they speak in Spanish, and they put out a nativity scene instead of a Christmas tree. Margie begins to realize she wishes she was more a part of this culture. She also realizes she likes a lot of it despite wanting so desperately to feel “normal”.

Margie also is lucky to have a new girl arrive in class who sits next to her and strikes up a friendship. Camille is one of those totally confident kids who is also a little bit nerdy and she manages to bring Margie along showing her that it’s okay to be different. Margie is surprised to discover that Camille, despite being pale and blonde, is actually part Cuban and Panamanian and she totally embraces it. This adds another chink in the armor Margie has built around herself.

One aspect I really appreciated about the story was the piece about Lupe’s father. He illegally came to the US years before and stopped sending money or letters home. Lupe’s mother finally moved on, got a job, remarried, and had twins. Life wasn’t easy. They were sad and then her mother had to work long hours to support them and letting go hasn’t been as easy for Lupe who never wanted accept that she would never see her father again. While she didn’t have a plan for how to contact her father she hopes that he may track her down. He does eventually turn up with a broken leg much to the surprise of everyone. He confirms the rumor that he has a new family and is living in Texas. A lot of kidlit books make these plot lines happy and syrupy sweet: Lupe would have been joyously reunited with her father who just wasn’t able to return home but still loves the family dearly. While the book skips anything lurid, it isn’t the happy, fantasy ending you might expect and is probably a lot closer to the reality of what might happen in that situation. And Lupe and Margie handle the situation well.

My only complaint was that the book could feel a little didactic. The girls were more introspective than fifth graders usually are and sometimes sounded more like they were thirty year olds visiting their therapists in how they talked through their issues and came to conclusions about their feelings. Because of this I think it might make a better book for classes to read together. There are plenty of themes about teasing, culture, being new, and straddling cultures, but I would also give it to kids who like gentle stories. When I added it to my TBR pile I thought it was middle grade (meaning for middle school) and while a middle schooler, especially a sixth grader, might enjoy this, its length and language make it better suited to upper elementary.

Tags | , ,

17

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Little Elliot Big City by Mike Curato

On 17, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Little ElliotLittle Elliot, Big City written and illustrated by Mike Curato

From GoodReads: Amid the hustle and bustle of the big city, the big crowds and bigger buildings, Little Elliot leads a quiet life. In spite of the challenges he faces, Elliot finds many wonderful things to enjoy—like cupcakes! And when his problems seem insurmountable, Elliot discovers something even sweeter—a friend.

We just got this book out of the library yesterday and I loved it so much I felt I had to write a review of it. As the description says it’s a sweet little friendship story. A story about how there is always someone who needs more help than you and how friends can help each other. Two heads are better than one, or, in this case, two friends are tall enough to order a cupcake at the bakery counter.

Elliot 3However, I think there is a huge subtext here that will really resonate with kids. Elliot is a little elephant who struggles to fit in in an adult, human-sized world. He has to stack books up to sit at the table. He’s so much shorter than the people who rush around the city and gets a bit lost in the crowds. But he’s happy for the most part. Until one day he struggles to be seen at the bakery counter where he really wants a cupcake. When the woman at the counter doesn’t notice him he leaves feeling frustrated and discouraged. On his way home he notices a small mouse who is even more disadvantaged than Elliot and the two pair up to get the cupcake and share it.

Does this sound like the life of a child to anyone? Too small for an adult-sized world. They are expected to fit in with giant, towering cabinets, mile-high chairs, and mile-high people. I know my own daughter often becomes anxious in large crowds and asks to be picked up. In my arms, or her father’s, she is at the right height to see out and not feel smothered. We do a lot to help her feel capable around the house (mini fridge with snacks and drinks, step stools everywhere, toys on low shelves). But as soon as we step outside she is so small compared to everything. More often than not people will ask me questions about her that they could (and should) direct to her. Elliot is a child in a grown-up world and his frustration is that of a child who is tired of being ignored, pushed aside, and made to feel incapable.

I think the art in the book, which is absolutely beautiful, does an incredible job emphasizing this theme. Elliot looks oddly like he was inserted into some other piece of art. While the city he lives in, New York in the 1940s or 50s I presume, and the people around him look like something out of an Edward Hopper painting,Elliot 2 Elliot looks a little cartoonish and his polka-dots are reminiscent of outfits I have seen kids pick out for themselves. His out-of-place quality makes it more obvious that he doesn’t exactly fit in with this world. But like most kids it doesn’t seem to bother him most of the time. He’s resilient and with a new friend the two can work together to find their way.

I don’t know if there will be more books with the charming Little Elliot and his rodent friend, but the little badge on the top right of the cover makes me think there will be. I certainly hope there will be.

Tags | , ,

26

Nov
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Greenglass House by Kate Milford

On 26, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

GreenglassThe Greenglass House by Kate Milford

From GoodReads: A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series.

It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.

This book totally knocked my socks off. I love a good solid mystery, but this had so much more.

One of the great things about the mystery was kids got sh*t done. Milo takes on this role in a role playing game that he and his new friend Meddy connect to real life and it turns out he’s pretty good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. But he isn’t a super genius and he doesn’t have super powers. He just thinks through things logically and notices little details. Since they’re in his house and he doesn’t like change, he notices when things have moved or been tampered with. Nothing magical here. Even better, the grown ups aren’t treated as imbeciles who need some genius kid to come in and set them straight. Most of them have secrets and Milo’s parents have their hands full of caring for 5 (and eventually 8) unexpected guests during a severe snowstorm. They’re busy or are too involved with their own agendas and don’t have time to sneak around the house solving mysteries.

Being trapped in an inn this isn’t exactly a fast-paced, high suspense mystery. In fact the mystery is really a device that leads to soul searching for a lot of the people involved. Milo is adopted and, being Chinese, looks nothing like his white parents. Milo isn’t angst-y about being adopted, but he is curious, a little confused, and feels guilty for feeling those emotions since he does love his adoptive parents. There are a lot of layers here for Milo to work through and the role playing game Meddy introduces him to gives Milo an outlet for exploring having a parent that looks like him. It also gives him permission to imagine what his biological father could have been like. It’s interesting to see how Milo takes the folklore he reads, the role playing game, the stories the guests tell, and the information about the inn that comes to light and interprets it all through the lens of a confused, adopted kid.

The adults are all also fairly fleshed out and some of them are quite the characters. All of them are not at the inn by coincidence, but arrived looking for information about its history. None of them are forthcoming with this information and it forms the basis for the mystery. As it turns out, while the information all of them are seeking is interconnected, it is still separate.

There is also a thread of friendship as the guests come together to tell stories and are brought together by the information they are seeking. Most of them do not leave friends, but do leave with a greater sense of tolerance and understanding. Milo, who was looking forward to a Christmas vacation alone with his parents, comes to accept the guests and feel for them. He also builds a friendship with Meddy and learns to work with her as a team through the role playing game.

So I have to say there is a huge twist very near to the end. I’m not going to spoil it, but I wanted to talk around it a bit. I totally did not see it coming until the last possible second. It’s a device I’ve seen employed in other mysteries so maybe people who read mysteries more than I do will see it sooner. Maybe not. However, the times I have seen it used it often feels like a really cheap trick. That was not at all the case here. It was very masterfully done. Well played, Milford, well played.

Greenglass House would be a good one for kids who enjoyed The Westing Game or even Blue Balliet’s mysteries. While its length and slower pacing make it feel more like a middle grade novel (6th-8th grade) I could certainly see a strong 4th or 5th grader loving this too.

Tags | , , ,

25

Nov
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

On 25, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CabinetThe Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne, illustrations by Alexander Jansson

From GoodReads: A collection of thirty-six eerie, mysterious, intriguing, and very short short stories presented by the cabinet’s esteemed curators, otherwise known as acclaimed authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire LeGrand, and Emma Trevayne. Perfect for fans of Alvin Schwartz and anyone who relishes a good creepy read-alone or read-aloud story. Features an introduction and commentary by the curators, and illustrations and decorations throughout.

Ignore the discrepancy between the number of stories on the picture of the cover and the title and description here. The copy I have says 36 (although it felt like a lot more, in a good way), not sure what the deal with that is.

I had really mixed feelings about this book. At its heart, it’s a collection of deliciously creepy, wonderfully macabre stories. I love short stories, especially creepy ghost stories, and I think they are excellent choices for kids with little time or little inclination to read. These stories are really engaging and they are short (the longest I recall was 25 pages). The language isn’t dense so the pages fly by. But the book is almost 500 hundred pages. You’re going to need to do a lot of convincing to get those kind of kids to pick this up or you’ll need to hand it to a serious reader. Actually, I think most kids will need a lot of convincing to pick up a 500 page book.

I loved how they were grouped into stories around themes: luck, travel, flowers, tricks, etc. That makes the book feel cohesive even though it’s really a collection of unconnected short stories. But, the concept of it being a cabinet of curiosities that then included letters from the “curators”, really the authors, to each other was kind of odd and oddly executed. The stories themselves sounded very modern and often included references to cell phones, the Internet and pop culture (although nothing that will make this sound so dated in five years). Sometimes they had vaguely historical settings and fantastical kingdoms, but they never sounded old-fashioned.

The letters between the curators, though, I think are supposed to be modern but employed this stilted, vaguely Victorian sounding dialect and writing style. They call each other “my dear curators” and the like, and sprinkle in words like “alas” and phrases like “particularly fond” and employ an oddly formal syntax. Not only did that feel silly to me (and this could be me as an adult reader who reads and likes Victorian literature reading a kid’s book) it felt very jarring when paired with the stories. It was hard to understand exactly what they meant by the “cabinet of curiosities”. At times there are references to rooms, then drawers (not necessarily in rooms), a building, and a museum. I know what cabinets of curiosities were in the Victorian era, but this didn’t feel like that. I found myself skipping the letters and just reading the stories. Would a kid have trouble with this, I don’t know? Should they read this? Yes, especially if they love creepy stories.

Nothing struck me as particularly gory or inappropriate for upper elementary, but this could be enjoyed well into middle school maybe even lower high school depending on the tastes of the reader. Wish I had had this book as a kid and despite my complaints will be buying a copy to keep on my shelf.

Tags | , ,