One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping by Barry Denenberg

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was nervous going into this book thinking that I would hate it, since I’ve strongly disliked Denenberg’s other Dear America books. I was especially nervous because this was my favorite DA book growing up. I’m not fond of having childhood favorites dissolve into mediocrity as an adult, though I’ve accepted it (and even welcomed it) for some. And I knew going on that I likely wouldn’t enjoy the book as much I remember.

The main flaw with this book is really that it’s dreadfully unbalanced. There’s the powerful, gut-punch of the first part, detailing the German invasion of Austria and the subsequent degrading treatment of the Jews. Denenberg implies very strongly that something terrible happened to Julie’s mother, though whether he’s suggesting rape or something else is up in the air. He does a fantastic job of describing exactly how terrifying and horrifying a time it must have been; every page is filled with panic and desperation.

Then, once Julie gets to New York, everything sort of falls apart a little. Suddenly, everything is theater, theater, theater. The tonal dissonance is jarring. And, okay, I suppose Denenberg was trying to tame the book down from the first part, and trying to suit the book for its audience with a bit less focus on terrible things, but I would have liked a little more remembrance of Austria and everything that happened there than what we got. It’s like Denenberg forgot he was writing a WWII book and instead was writing about theater in NYC. (Although, to be fair, the book is set in 1938, before America entered the war.)

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping is no longer my favorite DA book. I think it’s the best one Denenberg has written so far, though, and certainly miles better than many of them. But the jarring change of tone between the first and second halves of the book and the lack of any good closure or discussion of what Julie went through in Austria are the biggest letdowns of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, anti-Semitism, death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime, by Franny Billingsley, was published in 2011 by Dial.

Rating: 3/5        

This is one of those books where the cover art really doesn’t do the book any justice. In fact, the cover art is downright misleading, in my opinion. The cover suggests some sort of dark, brooding novel with Gothic undertones and maybe some paranormal activity mixed in. And, okay, the book is somewhat like that, but I don’t know…I felt a bit betrayed by the cover.

Chime is a book that certainly isn’t for everyone. It kind of isn’t really for me. The reason is that Billingsley’s prose is so lyrical and descriptive that it either draws people in or alienates them. I’m not a huge fan of prose like this, but I’m not against it, either, so I was really okay with it except in some parts where it got a little too nonsensical and poetic for my tastes.

The biggest selling point of Chime is the plot, really. Briony, convinced she’s a witch and destined to doom everyone around her, angsts and frets her way through most of the book, while falling in love with the town’s newest arrival, Eldric, and having to deal with the Old Ones (i.e., supernatural beings a la animism) in the swamp. Yet Billingsley draws a really nice balance between Briony’s angst and her strength, and the plot itself is really interesting, though perhaps a little too focused on Briony’s past rather than the present. Not everything is really made clear, such as the nature of Rose’s injury and its effect on her, and it gets a little too courtroom-drama-esque at the end, but the majority of it is woven beautifully together.

I’ve actually read this book before, while I was in college (I think), and I remembered it fairly well (though not the prose, strangely). It was not a surprisingly fantastic reread, but neither did it make me change my mind about the book. I enjoyed it when I read it then, and I enjoyed it now. Billingsley’s way of writing is really not my favorite, but the story itself—Briony’s struggles, her realizations about her past, and her relationship with Eldric—is beautifully done. 

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy/Supernatural

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2018 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.

Rating: 4/5        

I described the first Vanderbeeker book as akin to the vibe I get from Elizabeth Enright or Jean Birdsall’s books. The second Vanderbeeker book is almost as good as the first one. It actually does something very similar to The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which is sidelining one of the characters and spending more time on the others, but I felt as if both were done for very different reasons. Birdsall’s, I feel, was more specifically for character development, whereas Yan Glaser seems to have done it purely for realism (that doesn’t mean there wasn’t character development).

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read the first book in a while, but I didn’t find this book quite as charming as the first one. Maybe it’s because I spent the first third of the book trying to remember if Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet were in the first book. Maybe it’s because Yan Glaser pulls some awfully clumsy characterization halfway through. In any case, though it’s not as charming as the first, I still enjoyed it.

Yan Glaser continues to strike a good balance between sadness, closure, and growth. The kids are hit with the reality of life several times through the novel, but they never let it dim their spirits for too long. The variety of characters means that all sorts of different personalities are represented, as well as different family situations and choices. It’s also great that Glaser chose to not go with a shallow, stereotypical bully, and instead gave a more nuanced approach that showed how people can be mean in response to meanness.

The book is maybe a little too bright and sparkling in places, especially concerning the years-old seeds that spontaneously bloom at the end of the novel, but it does capture the sort of joy and charm that I feel Glaser is trying to go for.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, was published in 2018 by Little, Brown, and Company. It is the sequel to Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crowe.

Rating: 4/5        

Wundersmith continues the story of Morrigan Crow as she heads to Nevermoor Hogwarts, the Wundrous Society, and deals with the revelation that she is a Wundersmith, a word synonymous with “evil” in Nevermoor society. Along the way, she learns a little bit about her magic and a lot about friendship and loyalty as people start mysteriously disappearing.

Wundersmith improves on Nevermoor by smoothing out its cartoony, extreme villains (and by “smoothing out,” I mean “got rid of entirely”) and by establishing more of the world. The shining star is, of course, the tone of the whole book, which is witty and charming and enjoyable to read. The plot also gives Morrigan much more to do and learn than in the first book, and expands her circle of friends as well.

One major complaint I have is that I still have no clear idea about what Wunder really is, or how it differs from other people’s knacks and magic. So far, all I know about Wunder is that it’s magical golden threads that float around Morrigan and do…something. Create things? It’s not particularly clear. So all I know is that Morrigan is supposed to be powerful and unique and cool, but I’m not sure why or how.

That being said, I still really enjoyed the book. It’s a fun, lighthearted fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a good plot, good characters, and an interesting world. I’ll be looking out for the next (last?) book in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve picked up a few baking magic books before and liked them well enough to try another one, this one with a Mexican cultural background. A Dash of Trouble has Leo discover that her mother and sisters are witches (“brujas”) and that the bakery her family owns is used for baking up magic spells, like bread that can help you communicate with the dead or cookies that can fly.

I’m not overly fond of middle grade protagonists who think they have all the answers, but Meriano does a really good job of balancing Leo’s determination to do magic and her desire for success with her failures. I liked that Leo wasn’t perfect, that all the spells she did were just slightly off enough to reflect her inexperience, and that ultimately the book wasn’t about Leo being a Fabulous Witch, but about her relationship with her sisters, her mother, and her magic.

As far as the writing goes, everything was pretty basic and the plot was straightforward and simple. I’m not a fan of poetic or flowery language, but I’ve read so many books lately that have some form of descriptive language that this book felt a bit dry and bare-bones in lots of places. It made for a pretty quick read, though, and I didn’t notice any obvious signs of telling rather than showing, though there was lots of melodrama.

I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Dash of Trouble enough to pick up any more in the series, but I did find it pleasantly well-crafted and balanced. There also wasn’t any obvious agenda that the author was trying to push, so that’s a plus. You never can tell with MG these days.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was published in 1917.

Rating: 4/5

Understood Betsy is a little bit Anne of Green Gables, a little bit Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but with lots more charm and humor than the latter and less drama and poetic language than the former. It probably reminds me the most of a book like Thimble Summer or The Moffats. It’s the story of Elizabeth Ann and her journey from timid wallflower child to the Betsy of the title—brave, clever, and with lots of personality.

Apparently Fisher was a huge proponent of the Montessori style of teaching, and apparently that style of teaching is prevalent throughout the book, perhaps most significantly in the school scenes. The afterword points out many of the parts of the book that were inspired by Fisher’s time with Maria Montessori. However, none of that is important in understanding and enjoying the content.

The book is cute and there’s a lot that it has to say about how much influence adults have on children, in addition to the environment the child is in. Betsy is timid and scared when she arrives at the “dreaded” Putney cousins because her aunt is a timid and scared woman. After spending some time with the more easygoing, vibrant Putneys, she becomes more vibrant herself. And while there are some shenanigans, they are there purely to describe how Elizabeth Ann is becoming more “Betsy”—and more of a healthy child—because of her decisions.

If I had read this book a little earlier in my life, I can definitely see it being as memorable and beloved in my mind as Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. It’s a little dated and I raised my eyebrows a few times, but overall Understood Betsy is a charming children’s story with a good message and some pretty decent character development (and not just for Betsy).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Magical Mischief by Anna Dale

Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale, was published in 2010 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 3/5

If I had a favorite realistic fantasy trope, it would have to be something of the sort found in Magical Mischief: rogue magic inhabiting some place and the people who live/work there having to find a way to deal with it. In this book, the magic is in a bookshop, and the events that happen as Mr. Hardbattle (the owner) and his friends try and relocate the magic before he goes out of business are as wild as the magic itself.

The one major flaw in this otherwise charming book is that it was simply too long, and after a time the characters and the plot started to grate on me, especially Miss Quint and the sideplot (but then actually the main plot?) of characters from books being wished into existence and the wreaking havoc in the real world. That plot went on forever, and Miss Quint, who is an adult, refusing to come clean and telling lie after lie to cover up her tracks got more and more annoying. There was also some pretty inconceivable events that happened and altogether I thought that plotline really dampened my enjoyment of the book.

I did like Susan’s plotline, though, and that was tied up with the annoying plotline, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the book had maybe been about fifty pages shorter, and hadn’t had that wild burglary angle complete with kidnapping and car chase because that’s when things really started getting unbelievable.

Basically, I really liked the first half of Magical Mischief, but the second half was a bit of a chore to read, so I finished the book with more of a negative feeling than a positive.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic  

The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris

The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

I’ve never really enjoyed books about Arthurian legend—I think the only exception was a trilogy I read when I was younger that I still remember today—but The Squire’s Tale was surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, or even really witty, but there is an amusing side to it that I really enjoyed. Perhaps that why I enjoyed it—Morris didn’t try to take himself or the legends too seriously, but related them in a way that was both fun and respectful to the origin.

He also managed to weave together some of the more ridiculous things that happen in Arthurian tales, and medieval literature in general, into something that was actually believable, fairies and enchanters aside. The plot is fairly basic, but so much is crammed into it that the reader tends to forget that. Plus, there is a sort of overarching character arc in both Gawain and Terence that weaves all their adventure together.

One criticism is that Morris didn’t do a really good job of explaining the villain, and when that character is revealed, everything happens very quickly so it’s a little bit anticlimactic. However, there are four or five books in this series, and when a book is as short as this one, some things fall through the cracks to be (hopefully) caught up by the next book.

The Squire’s Tale made me actually enjoy medieval literature, so that’s a huge point in its favor, and overall the book is charming, fun, and decently plotted. The character interaction, especially between Gawain and Terence, is great, and Terence is a good protagonist, though perhaps a little too much of a passive observer in the beginning (though it makes for good development to have him become more and more active throughout the book). I’d read the next books in the series, that’s for sure.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Full Ride, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 2/5

I devoured Haddix’s works as a middle-schooler; she and Caroline B. Cooney defined my reading as a 12-year-old. However, now that I’ve read a couple of books by her as an adult, I find her novels very underwhelming.

Full Ride is okay—much better than either The Always War or Under Their Skin, but not as nostalgic as Just Ella—though the book is probably about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. There is just so much of Becca having inner monologues all the time about her feelings. And crying. And running. And internally yelling at her criminal father.

The plot was decent, though it seemed highly farfetched in several areas. Not even the author’s note where Haddix talks about how carefully she researched helped. I guess it’s because the whole plot revolves around con artists, so it’s harder to swallow because some areas are just so ridiculous that you can’t help thinking that something is fishy. And, unfortunately, sometimes things seem so ridiculous because the characters do ridiculous things or react in strange ways or interact in scenarios that seem unrealistic.

The best part of this book is probably the friendship between Becca and the group of high-achieving budding scholars. That was the most realistic aspect, and the interactions seemed natural. Everything was a lot less stilted and dramatic when those characters were together, so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that part the most.

There are a lot of authors that I read in my childhood that I adore, but Haddix is not one of them anymore. I’ve so far thought of her books as no more than mediocre. I’m tempted to read Cooney to see if I feel the same about her. Sometimes there are just certain authors that you grow out of, I suppose!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, by Katelan Janke, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was going to start out this review completely differently, but then I flipped to the back of the book to find the author’s name and found something out completely stunning: Katelan Janke was in some sort of Dear America writing contest and won, so she got to turn her contest submission into a manuscript.

She was fifteen years old.

Like S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, Janke is proof that you can actually have novel-worthy writing at a young age. I did notice throughout the book that everything felt a bit too stale and that the writing didn’t seem as good as some of the other DA books. Well, now I know why, and I can’t really hold it against Janke.

Janke does an admirable job of showing both the Dust Bowl and the situation for the migrant workers in California, who were treated terribly and were all called “Okies” despite only some of them being from Oklahoma. She doesn’t do as good of a job explaining the reasons for the Dust Bowl, with only some vague references to plowing and farming, though it was described more in-depth in the Historical Notes in the back.

There is a little too much show and not enough tell, and everything is just a little too pat and ends a little too nicely, and overall there’s some really boring parts, but towards the end of the novel the book gets more interesting. Props to Janke—she’s the most inexperienced DA writer, and I thought this book was better than some of the other DA books written by more experienced writers. Once a lot of the rough patches are over, and you get more used to the style of writing, Survival in the Storm was far from the worst DA book I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction