The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady by Gerald Morris

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire’s Tale.

Rating: 4/5

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady is basically a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the established characters from The Squire’s Tale making appearances (or starring, in the case of Terence). It’s easy to tell, as an adult, how much Morris loves Arthurian legend and especially Gawain. I’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before, so reading this book was fun because I was able to piece what I remembered of that book with what was happening in this one.

There are more books in this series, but this book really seems like a last hurrah for Terence and Gawain—especially Terence, who accomplishes a lot in this book and ends up in a pretty triumphant place at the end. Though occasionally Terence seems more like an observer, there are plenty of times, especially towards the end, where he is able to step up and shine—and even outshine Gawain.

Morris’s humor is what really steps the book up. There’s an ever-present dry wit running throughout that makes the whole book fun to read. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, perhaps, but the humor keeps the book enjoyable and the characters interesting.

Though not, perhaps, a series I would return to, I enjoyed my foray into Morris’s loving retellings of Arthurian legend. I may continue on with the series, I may not—but I know if I do, I’m bound to have a pretty good time.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

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

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

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

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crowe

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, was published in 2017 by Little, Brown, and Company.

Rating: 4/5        

To my pleasant surprise, I found The Trials of Morrigan Crow to be a fun, witty fantasy with lots of charm and a decent plot. I’ve been so picky about the books I’ve been reading lately that I never can tell anymore what I’ll like or not—thankfully, I liked this.

That’s not to say I didn’t find flaws in it. There were plenty: the unclear nature of the magic of the world, and especially of Morrigan’s, the heavy-handed, distracting villainy of the police officer, whose every appearance ruined the atmosphere, and several worldbuilding elements, like why in the world Christmas is still called “Christmas” in a fantasy world devoid of religion.

However, annoying police officer and bratty bully girls aside, I really enjoyed the characters, and the book has that slight touch of wacky fun that I really like to see in fantasies if it’s done right. Jupiter North is great, and the cast of side characters are varied and interesting. The villain is all right—at least that character is not as distracting and jarring as the police officer, who is apparently there just to be some sort of strawman and say the word “filthy” a lot—though his plans for Morrigan are predictable, and overall the plot as a whole was twisty and tricky and surprising in good ways.

I hope my interest for this series doesn’t wane as it did for similar fantasies, like The Bronze Key. However, Townsend seems to have a knack for cleverness, which is always interesting to me, so I hope she continues that in the next books. 

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher as part of JustReadTours. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

No One Ever Asked, by Katie Ganshert, is inspired by a true story (described in the notes at the end). It revolves around 3 women and how their lives are affected by a poor school district losing accreditation and its students transferring to the richer, less diverse school district, and the backlash that comes with it. It’s a story about racism and segregation and adoption and marriage and, well, a lot of things.

Though there’s three female points of view, the one the story focuses on the most is Camille, whose cookie-cutter family is falling apart at the seams. It was interesting to get her perspective for the majority of the novel, since Ganshert writes in just such a way where you recognize all the things she’s doing wrong and yet still grow attached to her anyway (especially as she starts to realize what she’s doing). My favorite point of view was probably Anaya, though I’m not really sure I liked the things Ganshert decided to include in her arc. What I liked about the three characters was how different each perspective was: Camille, the affluent white woman; Jen, also affluent, but with an adopted daughter from Liberia; Anaya, the black woman who’s worked and clawed her way up to where she is now and dealt with more than the other two.

I do think Ganshert tried to tackle a little too much here; towards the end of the novel, it just feels like she’s piling on event after event, like an excited kid at a candy store: “Ooh! Some of this! And some of that! And let’s add this right at the end!” It starts to get a little exhausting, and the ending is maybe slightly more dramatic than I think it needed to be. I also think Ganshert’s subtlety leaves a little to be desired, especially with some of the ways she explores people’s preconceived notions.

However, No One Ever Asked is a great book that explores many difficult situations and forces the reader to think about their own actions and thoughts as they read about the actions and thoughts of others. Most powerful, I think, is the townhall scene, where Camille voices opinions that might be echoed by the reader—but then is forced to confront those opinions and determine if that’s how she really thinks and acts.

Warnings: Mentions of sexual assault, gun violence

Genre: Christian, Realistic

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff, was published in 2002 by Random House.

Rating: 4/5        

I think there’s something to say about the state of children’s/middle grade literature recently when you go into a book expecting something much worse to happen than what actually happens. I suppose I could blame it on myself, but I’ve read far too many books (and seen too many shows) where absolute awfulness happens, sometimes only for the sake of drama. So when I was about halfway through Pictures of Hollis Woods, which has Hollis narrating in the present with flashbacks to the past, I was convinced that something terrible had happened, something heartbreakingly sad and crafted to pile on the tears and the angst. That’s what the majority of the books I read in high school and college did, after all.

However, while what happened was sad, it wasn’t dramatically, unrealistically, angstily so. In fact, I found Pictures of Hollis Woods to be quite a tender reflection of family and the things that bring them together. Giff conveys so well all the doubts, hopes, and dreams a girl stuck in foster care might have, and Hollis’s interactions with people, her desperate wish for a family, and her determination to make something work no matter what are so well crafted and described. For once, someone wrote a young girl who, while feisty, wasn’t bratty, whose hopes and dreams made her actions more believable, and who was able to graciously accept when she was wrong and make changes accordingly.

Besides the ultimate theme of family, we also have the delightful interaction between Hollis and Josie, which also communicates family, but also brings up a whole host of other things, like caring for the sick and respecting the wishes of those older than you (it’s not revealed how old Josie is, but she’s retired and quite clearly has some form of Alzheimer’s). To be honest, I felt this book dealt with Alzheimer’s in a much better way, and was written much more lyrically and beautifully than Newberry-winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

Pictures of Hollis Woods was sad, but not devastatingly so. It was deliciously free of drama and had a wonderful theme of family. I also thought how great it was that Giff revealed the love the Old Man had for Steven despite their arguments. The presence of a critical father in a novel, which also shows the love that exists between him and his family, is a great picture of what families, realistically, are–flawed.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

Color Me Dark by Patricia C. McKissack

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Patricia C. McKissack tackles so much in Color Me Dark: Jim Crow laws, the KKK, the Great Migration, race riots, class disputes, and Chicago’s infamous “Red Summer.” There’s also a fair amount of city vs. country and North vs. South tension, as well.

McKissack gives a great job of showing all different types of people in this book. We have, of course, the protagonist, Nellie Lee, who is determined to show the world that her skin color doesn’t matter. There’s her sister, Erma Jean, who has her own obstacles to overcome when she hears the story of how her Uncle Pace died tragically after returning home from WWI. There’s the parents, who have to navigate the business world of Chicago where the only way to succeed seems to be to pay other people to give you what you want. My favorite part was that all of these people were truly different types of people. The rich people weren’t all greedy, the white people weren’t all racist (okay, well, only a couple that are named, but the rest were all historical characters). There were black people with differing social classes and racial opinions. This was one of the most well-developed, nuanced cast of characters that I’ve seen in a while.

McKissack also shows how, even though people like Uncle Meese and, in the end, the Love family, were prosperous and succeeded, they still were seen as inferior by other people. Unfortunately, most of that information comes in the epilogue and in the historical notes. Honestly, I think she could have made the point even stronger in the story as a whole, but what she does have is still great even so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Little House of Their Own by Celia Wilkins

A Little House of Their Own, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2005 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little City by the Lake.

Rating: 4/5        

The last Caroline book is also the most heartwarming, describing the (possibly fictional) events leading up to Caroline and Charles getting married, prefacing the events of Little House in the Big Woods. The sweet, sedate romance that unfolds is appropriate for a children’s book, and Wilkins manages to convey both the wildness and wanderlust of Charles Ingalls and the groundedness of Caroline. Charles’s voice sounds, at times, straight out of the original Little House series, as does Caroline’s.

When not describing the budding romance between the two, the book concerns itself with Caroline’s school teaching days. It’s not overly exciting, but Wilkins does a good job of staying true to the picture of Caroline that we receive in Little House, as well as provides for some explanation of her ways in those books. The Caroline of this series seems slightly spunkier than the one in Little House, but this last book does show her gentleness that is so prominent in her daughter’s books.

This has always been my favorite book simply because of the sweet romance, but it’s not the most interesting. I think On Top of Concord Hill wins that award, as the romance featured in that book is of a much more interesting kind (plus a few more exciting things happen). However, A Little House of Their Own is the perfect finale for the series, as well as a perfect setup for the Little House books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction