Molly: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp

Rating: 4/5

I think the Molly books are my favorite of the 6 collections I have (though I also really enjoyed Josefina’s books), due in part to the setting (WWII, my favorite historical fiction setting), the focus of each book (book 5 has the best glorification of summer camp and team games ever, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), and my childhood nostalgia. The Molly books were New and Updated and Cool when I got them, so I really treasured them as a child, and that stuck with me even now.

While exact details about World War II are scarce in the novel (there’s a couple of casual mentions of Hitler and the Blitz, with the most of those details being in book 4), there’s a great deal about the patriotic attitude in America at the time, with its rationing, victory gardens, war bonds & stamps, etc. Molly struggles to reconcile the Old Times (pre-war, pre-dad leaving to care for wounded soldiers in England) with the New Times (war, dad gone) and learns a few things about change along the way. While the books focus a little on family, there’s a great deal more about friendship. Each book reads much more like a “school story,” with some small amount of jealousy, cattiness, etc. and book 5 takes place entirely at a summer camp. Molly’s book seem different than the other girls simply because of how much of them take place outside her home with her friends, as opposed to the other books where a great deal of the time the characters were with their families. Also, the illustrations really pay tribute to 1940s’ fashion, so if you love that time period in fashion, the illustrations are great in that regard.

I don’t have much criticism against the series except for the overall concession that they’re tiny, simple books—they’re really great for a fast read, but they leave a lot to be desired for contemplation. They would be great read-aloud books for younger children. The historical notes in the back of the books are interesting, too, though sometimes they don’t match what happens in the book (the birthday book mentions the Blitz a fair bit, so you would expect the historical notes to mention it. Nope, they mention babies and growing up instead). In any case, Molly’s books, like the other American Girl books, are perfect for the times when you want a fast, short historical fiction book, or if you want a book to read aloud to small children (though boys likely wouldn’t be fans).

Info: Valerie Tripp; published 1986-1988 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

The Edge of Belonging by Amanda Cox

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Edge of Belonging, by Amanda Cox, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 2/5

I hovered between giving this book a 2 or a 3-star rating while thinking about what I liked and didn’t like. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the 1994 story of a lonely young man starving for love and generosity who stumbles upon a baby abandoned by the side of the road, which in turn leads him to understand the meaning of family. It was a great little story about love and how it can transform people’s lives.

On the other hand, I didn’t at all enjoy the present-day story of Ivy (the little baby all grown up) who is on a mission to find out who her birth mother is. It seemed amazingly pointless, since we were getting Ivy’s backstory through the 1994 chapters, and even what little is revealed in the present-day doesn’t really contribute anything except more of the same theme Cox emphasizes over and over throughout the book. In addition, the annoying, cliché romance between Ivy and Reese, created seemingly solely to fill out Ivy’s chapters and, again, to emphasize the same theme developed much better with Harvey’s story in 1994, is unoriginal and stale, filled with the same tired old tropes that have littered these sorts of books for years.

In addition, I wasn’t overly fond of Cox’s writing style. Too much telling, not enough showing, and occasionally her descriptions verged on the weird side of detailed.

So, even though I enjoyed Harvey’s story, it became weighted down simply by being attached to Ivy’s story, which was just echoes of the same message but done in a more cliché and weaker fashion. Hence, the lower rating in the end. If Ivy’s story had had more purpose, more originality, and more interesting characters, I think this book could have been something completely different—and better.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lại

Rating: 4/5

I really didn’t expect Butterfly Yellow to be full of Texas and cowboys and farming and horses, but it has all that in spades. Hằng, a refugee from Vietnam who has a harrowing, traumatic backstory revealed slowly throughout the book, travels to Texas to find her brother Linh, who was taken to America six years ago at the onset of the Communist takeover at the end of the Vietnam War. She forges an unlikely friendship (and future potential romance) with wannabe cowboy LeeRoy, and struggles to reforge her connection to her brother, who has forgotten Vietnam entirely.

This book was really sweet and heartwarming. I loved Hằng, her unwavering commitment to her brother, her quiet strength as she deals with past trauma, and her love of rhyme and diagramming sentences. Her relationship with LeeRoy, the “true connection [that] sprouts between two most unlikely people” as the author puts it, is also really cute, though I found LeeRoy himself a little annoying, and some of his points of view towards the end a little crass. Hằng’s relationship with her uncle, cousin, and especially brother, were also really well done, and the end of the book is undoubtedly hopeful even though Hằng and her brother still are having trouble connecting again.

The writing style was really poetic and beautiful, and I liked the way each character had their own “style” and how different Hằng’s memories and thoughts were from the rest of her narration. However, the difference in style does mean that I struggled to understand a lot of what was being described in her memories. There was a lot of description and not a whole lot of explanation, and I was having trouble envisioning what happened. It took me far too long to realize that the “monks” being described were actually Hằng and her mother. I do vividly remember the part with the worms, though I don’t really understand how that happened. That is, I think, my main problem with poetic writing like this—it sounds beautiful, but I find it really hard to picture and it ends up just making things confusing.

However, despite my confusion in parts and some of LeeRoy’s teenage boy thoughts, I really enjoyed Butterfly Yellow. The title and cover really threw me off as to the content of the book, but I think towards the end it becomes more clear as to how they relate. And the story as a whole is a very heartwarming one about finding family and building relationships and overcoming trauma, a fantastic message.

Info: Thanhhà Lại, published 2019 by HarperCollins

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Rating: 4/5

Paper Wishes takes place in 1942 and tells the story of a Japanese family who are taken from Bainbridge Island to Manzanar relocation camp due to Executive Order 9066. Manami, the daughter, tries to smuggle her dog along with her, but she is caught and forced to leave the dog behind. Because of that, and the trauma of leaving her home, she becomes withdrawn and silent. The story is about her life in Manzanar, how she expresses herself without her voice, and how she slowly overcomes her fears and sadness.

I wish I had stumbled across this book back when I read 3 or 4 Japanese internment books. This is my favorite of all of them, due in part to the sweet, simplistic nature of the story as a whole, and the overall gently optimistic, yet still realistic, tone of the book. The writing is interesting—not particularly sophisticated and a little repetitive, but in a lyrical way. Perfect for young readers, and enjoyable enough that older readers won’t find it too childish. Besides that, the story might be a little bit angsty (at one point Manami literally thinks everything that happened is her fault), but it’s not overblown or overdramatic. It’s a good capturing of childhood grief and trauma, and the ways families weather through—a beautiful story with a beautiful message.

Sepahban also does a good job with the historical aspect, detailing quite clearly what relocation/internment/detention camps were like. Not quite so clear was the explanation of the EO, and there’s no explanation given as to why Manami and her parents have to move, but not her brother and sister in Indiana (though her brother elects to come to them in the camp). It’s sort of mentioned in the historical note, but with language that younger children may not understand. Other than that, the historical material is very well-balanced for the audience and gives a lot of information, exactly what I love in historical fiction.

Paper Wishes is sweet, heartwarming, and ultimately hopeful despite the topic. There are parts that might be a little bit confusing, but overall Sepahban does a wonderful job using the story to show not just the historical context, but also overcoming grief.

Info: Lois Sepahban, published 2016 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Nine by Rachelle Dekker

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of Nine, by Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

Nine is a science fiction suspense story that, while never really making much sense in the realism department, still manages to be interesting and compelling. It’s a companion, or perhaps a sequel, to The Girl Behind the Red Rope, though reading the latter is unnecessary to understanding Nine, though if you have, Zoe’s backstory will make much more sense.

The science fiction part of the story isn’t anything memorable or unique (in fact, I was greatly reminded of Stranger Things or similar shows that have delved into child experimentation and superhuman development), and Dekker’s action scenes sound like a play-by-play, but Dekker does start this story out right: hook the reader with a mysterious past and lots of secrets, then gradually reveal the whole story over time. By the time the whole story is revealed, a lot of the flaws no longer matter as much because the reader is too invested.

My favorite part of the book was actually something I started out really hating, which was the romance/redemption arc. I hate “good girl brings bad boy out of the darkness,” but at the same time, I also love that trope because I think it’s a good example of how love truly can change people for the better, and how forgiveness can dramatically affect someone’s life. I just wish its presence in this book wasn’t also so trope-y and cliché in so many ways (though if there’s one thing I can forgive a little cliché, it’s a sappy romance that sneaks its way in between Gruff Man and Any-Personality Woman).

I just wish that there had been more resolution with the backstories, practically Zoe’s. Maybe I just didn’t understand everything, but I felt as if there was still a large part missing that we never found out. I felt like it was never revealed what actually happened to her brother, and there were a lot of odd undercurrents with her memories about her past post-cult that seemed to never be explained.

Despite the bad action scenes that I ended up skimming over because they were so robotic, and some of the flaws regarding character backstory, realism, and overall writing mechanics, I enjoyed Nine, particularly the emphasis on love and forgiveness, and the slight romance that was both the best and worst thing about the book. The book was good enough that I’d be willing to read another Rachelle Dekker work, though science fiction/supernatural-leaning isn’t really my favorite genre. 

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

You can buy this here:

Samantha: An American Girl

Rating: 3/5

Samantha was the American Girl doll I had, so I am the most familiar with her books. Every American Girl collection has seemed familiar to me, but this one was even more so. As a kid I remember really enjoying the pictures of Samantha and her friends with the humongous hair ribbons and neat dresses.

Each American Girl doll is centered around a particular time period in American history, and Samantha’s is centered around the Progressive Age and the time before World War I. The first, second, and last books deal with child factory workers, orphanages, and in general the difference between the upper and lower social classes. The fourth book mentions women’s suffrage and one of the main characters, Cornelia, is a suffragette. There’s also lots of little details about the etiquette and education of the time, as well as the life of an upper class child. Tripp even (perhaps unintentionally) directly compares Samantha’s life with Nellie’s in the last book.

The ending of the collection is, perhaps, a bit too rosy and happy, but I didn’t mind it as a child (in fact, I loved it). Samantha is one of the more headstrong characters, which I don’t normally like, but the only book that got a little annoying was the 5th book. And, even though the series had 3 different authors, it wasn’t particularly noticeable in terms of Samantha’s characterization (though she does go from a bit of a tomboy in the first book to more of a headstrong, rash personality). Overall, though I didn’t enjoy the series as much as Josefina’s, and it’s not as impactful as Addy’s, it was still pretty informative and interesting (plus, the illustrations always make things better!).

Info: Susan Adler (books 1 &2), Maxine Schur (book 3), Valerie Tripp (books 4-6); published 1986-1988 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed this adorable book about a scrawny little runt of a kitten named Jacob Tibbs and his adventures on board a merchant ship. From storms to a mutiny to a deserted island, Jacob learns what it means to be a good seacat and, more importantly, what it means to have a family.

This book is pretty simplistic, but it’s also suspenseful in parts as well as heartwarming overall. While the main character is a cat, it doesn’t read at all like other animal books might (like The Tale of Despereaux), and Jacob fits right in even with the other human characters. And while there are other animals in this book, this is not a book where the animals talk to each other as if they were human. It is one of the more realistic animal books I’ve read, in that Jacob thinks and acts like as much of a cat as an anthropomorphized main character can.

Besides the adventures Jacob has, the book also does a good job of explaining a little bit about merchant ships and the like. This is a book where the context really shines, explaining everything without reading like a textbook or like there’s too much information being given. There are a lot of little details, and I think even younger readers could grasp a lot of the context because Busby does such a good job with it.

All in all, I really enjoyed this simple little book about a cat. It was heartwarming, endearing, and tense in some places, and though the plot was obvious if I think about it, I didn’t really notice while I was reading it. The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs was a beautiful, pleasurable book to read, one of the little stand-outs I’ve read recently.

Info: Cylin Busby; published 2016 by Knopf.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

The Outcasts by John Flanagan

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoy Flanagan’s Ranger Apprentice series, but I think I enjoy his Brotherband series even more. They’re entertaining and funny, and the whole premise is about a band of misfits who learn to work together and overcome challenging obstacles by utilizing what makes each of them stand out. It’s a similar format to, say, the very popular Six of Crows (except not a heist novel), except the characters in that book are already talented from the beginning—in this book, all of the characters have to learn and grow as individuals and as a team.

I think one reason why I enjoy this series more than Ranger’s Apprentice is that there are more characters. RA had Will, Halt, and Horace, and that’s about it, with 2 other main characters occasionally showing up. But in this book, there’s 9 characters and somehow Flanagan manages to make them stand out from each other in little ways. Hal, Stig, and Thorn are obviously the main ones, but even the other 6 are fairly well established, with the exception of one, Edvin, who gets more development in later books. Plus, there’s something tremendously heartwarming about the story, about how a group of kids who nobody wanted to pick for their “team” banded together and figured out how they best worked together, and along the way started becoming fast friends. And the best thing is that it takes them a while to get it. It takes them a while to learn to work together and to best utilize people’s strengths. And even at the end of this book there’s still more for them to learn.

I remember this series having a few flaws and things that grated over time, just like with Ranger’s Apprentice, but I also remember how much I enjoyed each book and especially the first three. I absolutely love books about underdogs winning the day through ingenuity, and this series is a celebration of that trope. In addition, this series also is different enough from Ranger’s Apprentice that it could attract totally different readers, as well as those that enjoyed RA. I don’t read a whole lot of books that I think boys would really enjoy, but this is definitely one of those.

Info: John Flanagan; published in 2011 by Philomel

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Addy: An American Girl by Connie Rose Porter

Rating: 4/5

Addy’s books are usually the ones that come to my mind when I think of tough topics dealt with in American Girl (Samantha’s are usually the second due to child labor in factories). In the first book alone, Addy witnesses whippings and is whipped, is forced to eat worms, and experiences a harrowing escape at night where she and her mother almost drown (oh, and her father and brother are taken away, and she and her mother have to leave her baby sister behind). And, even when she gets to Philadelphia, there are multiple conversations that she, her mother, and her friends have about how even though they are free, they aren’t free and people still hate them. In fact, the latter is one of the unifying themes throughout the entire collection.

However, because it’s a children’s book, Porter does pour on the good feelings and happy endings. Addy is a resourceful, cheerful, and persevering girl who never gives up hope, even as she wonders why the drug store clerk is mean to her, or why she can’t ride on certain streetcars. There are lots of great messages about friendship, family, and self-sacrifice, as Addy gives up multiple things she loves in order to help other slaves escape to freedom, and learns that the mean girl in school isn’t really all that different from herself. Porter does a good job of balancing the good, the bad, and the still-to-improve. The historical notes at the end are also quite good. Of all the American Girl books, I think Addy’s is probably the most powerful and the most relevant for today.

Info: Connie Rose Porter; published 1993-1994 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: Racism, segregation

Recommended Age Range: 7+

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Rating: 4/5

When I read this book, and some of its sequels, as a child, I didn’t really have any idea what exactly Aiken had done in terms of worldbuilding. And while this first book is much more involved with two little girls, and it’s not until the sequels that other bits about the England of these books is revealed, there’s still one vitally important thing in this book that clearly indicates that this isn’t a work of historical fiction, but of alternative history (which I’m deeming, for the simple genre labels of this blog, as fantasy).

The wolves.

Wolves in England died out a long time ago. According to Wikipedia, they became extinct (or at least very rare) during the reign of Henry VII (which was late AD 1400 to early AD 1500). So to have a book that’s clearly dated to the turn of the 20th century in England have wolves in it is immediately strange and reveals the fact that this book is an alternative history. Of course, when I read this as a kid, I had no idea, so the effect was lost on me.

It’s not revealed until later books why wolves are present in England again, but as I mentioned, Aiken isn’t super concerned with developing her alternative history until the later books. This book is about Bonnie Green and her cousin, Sylvia, who become victims of a terrible plot set in motion by Miss Slighcarp, Bonnie’s governess hired by her father while he and her mother go on a sea voyage. Basically, Miss Slighcarp hatches a plan to take control of Bonnie’s father’s wealth and power, and bundles Bonnie and Sylvia off to an orphanage, where they have to escape with a combination of plucky determination and the help of Simon, the goose boy.

There are lots of things about this book that are really hard to swallow, like the believability of Miss Slighcarp getting sole command over an estate (usually the realm of the owner’s steward, not the governess), and it’s clear that Aiken is exaggerating lots of things in order to make her story entertaining. But it works because the reader will be swept up in Bonnie and Sylvia’s attempts to foil the evil Miss Slighcarp’s plan. This book is like Dickens-lite, with courageous heroes who overcome cruel adults, no food, and wicked plots. And the voice of each character shines out immediately—stubborn Bonnie, gentle Sylvia, and wise Simon.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase doesn’t do a lot to show the full extent of the alternative history Aiken has created, and compared to the other books in the series it seems like an outlier, but it has lots of charm and is very unique despite its familiar plot tropes. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Aiken’s England in the next books.

Info: Joan Aiken; published 1962 by Delacorte

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 8+