Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.
The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.
It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.
The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairieare among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.
That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.
I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.
The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to read The Graveyard Book. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman and like him, though not as much as I like other fantasy writers. The book was delightful; I loved how each chapter told a different story in the life of Bod, and I loved the rich world of the graveyard, with its ghosts, ghouls, and the not-living, but not-dead Silas. Most of all I loved Bod, who went from a young boy struggling to understand and use his powers, to a quiet, confident young man who suffers from a lot of heartache, but still manages to move forward.
I’m perhaps most displeased with what happens to Scarlett, though I suppose what happens with her fit the story. A quiet part of me, probably the romantic part of me, wanted a different ending, but the ending with Bod striking out on his own to see the world is quite fitting.
The villain, Jack, starts out being mysterious and foreboding, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about his appearance at the end of the book. What happens to him is something I guessed almost from the beginning, but there were other revelations that had me scratching my head a little. In addition, the incentive for killing Bod’s family seemed thin, though I suppose, with the way Gaiman built the world, it made sense.
I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, with its lengthy, story-building chapters, rich ghost world, and likeable protagonist. I’m not sure if it compelled me enough to pick up some of Gaiman’s other works for children, but I know now where I can turn if I want a good fantasy.
Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.
This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.
Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.
I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.
Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.
I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.
After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.
The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, was published in 1954 by HarperCollins.
The Wheel on the School is a delightfully long story, which contains much more than I was anticipating. The best books, in my opinion, are ones that have multiple stories within the main plot. The main plot of this one is the children trying to get storks to nest in their village again, but there are other stories that are told along the way, with great messages of friendship, teamwork, and community.
The best story in the book, maybe even better than the main stork one, was of the communal acceptance of Janus. DeJong simply and beautifully sketches a tale of a man who self-isolates himself after an accident leaves him without his legs, who is then drawn back into and accepted by the community with the help of children. So the heartwarming story of community getting together to help each other and to help storks is made even more uplifting.
I really wasn’t expecting so much out of The Wheel on the School, and while there were parts that seemed a bit too long, I appreciate that DeJong took the time to really build up the village and the community rather than just tell a simple tale of children putting a wheel on a school. There’s even a bit of danger and adventure included. There’s not enough there to make it a particularly memorable book—it’s lacking a little bit of “oomph” to make it stand out to me—but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.
Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that you don’t ever really forget. I first read this book maybe 15 years ago (wow! It feels weird saying that!) and I’ve never forgotten the ending. The majority of the content I did forget, and it was surprising to me to read it again (more on that later), but the ending stuck with me.
There are many things to like about this novel: the depiction of a boy/girl friendship, a creative and imaginative boy protagonist, the focus on grief and how it is expressed in different ways and the subversion of the “men don’t cry” attitude. The emphasis on imagination and its power is especially well done, in my opinion.
What surprised me the most was some of the content, which to me made the novel seem a little inappropriate for children. However, it was written in the 70s, so maybe that explains the change, though today I don’t think some things are expressed that were expressed in this book. There are many exclamations of “Lord” throughout, which isn’t so problematic, I suppose (I didn’t even remember that being in the book), but the one thing that struck me was the inappropriate incest joke made by May Belle and then continued by Jess. My skin crawled when I read that part.
Bridge to Terabithia is pretty much the quintessential Newbery Medal: slice-of-life, centered story with tragic events. I loved a lot of the aspects of this book, especially the creative boy protagonist and the boy/girl friendship, but some of it I didn’t like so much. I also think Paterson is still a bit too strange of a writer for me (i.e., Jacob Have I Loved).
Down to the Bonny Glen has always been my favorite of the Martha books. It’s longer than the others and is mostly concerned with the character development and growth of Martha. Martha is more than just a spirited young girl in this book—she’s now finally starting to realize that she’s the daughter of a laird, and in that sense she’s quite different from other children around her.
This conflict is sown all throughout the book—Martha’s awkwardness around her friends, her brother and his friends’ hesitation at seeing one another after Duncan comes back from school, Martha’s realization that as a laird’s daughter she has different expectations. And yet we also see her determination to not let things like that bother her, to push past barriers and boundaries and do what she wants to do. We see that in her eagerness to cook and her parent’s appall at the thought of her cooking for a living, we see that in her desire to go to America, to have adventure, to play outside instead of sit in and sew. And we see that in the hints and subtle indication that connect Martha and the blacksmith’s son, Lewis Tucker.
Other than the character development, Martha also gets some personal growth in terms of her rashness and thoughtlessness. Her new governess helps by channeling Martha’s energy into suitable tasks and by the end of the book, Martha is much more careful without having lost any of her spiritedness.
The Martha Years will never be as memorable or long-lasting as the Little House books, but Down to the Bonny Glen is the highlight of the series, chock-full of thoughtless Martha, interesting events (my favorite is Martha and Grisie cooking for the house), and lots of character development.
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.
The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.
I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.
However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.
As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.
The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.
Lasky continuously finds new ways to amplify the threat of the Pure Ones in each successive book of the series. They start out as a mysterious rumor, to a dreadful shadow, to a fully realized evil. In The Siege, if the author’s note didn’t make it clear enough, the Pure Ones are basically the Nazis. As the title suggests, they lay siege to the Ga’Hoole tree and the Guardians have to fight them off.
The first half of the book, though, deals with the infiltration of St. Aggie’s to weed out the Pure One spies. That’s right—Soren and Co. become spies in order to catch other spies. It’s a great little callback to the first book, and also shows just how far the characters have come in terms of strength and courage. And there’s a great reveal in this book—let’s just say a character in the first book returns in a surprising, amazing way.
Lasky has simplistic views of morality and good and evil laced throughout the book, so while it’s perfect for children, I found it a trifle tedious and boring at times. The long bits of dialogue are especially hard to read. And in this book, Lasky herself stated she “modeled” Ezylryb’s speechs after Winston Churchill’s, and it shows. Ezylryb’s speeches have a ring of familiarity to them, and one strong enough that I had to wonder if Lasky was phoning it in, relying on someone else’s material to make her point rather than try and create speeches of her own. It fits the stark lines she has drawn, but I do prefer a little bit more nuance. Adult tastes opposing the target audience of the book, I know.
I found some confusion at the end in regards to Dewlap’s role, as it is never clearly explained, but overall the book is well balanced, with lots of setup at the beginning, a decent action-filled scene at the end, and lots of setup for the next two books in the series. I’m not a fan of certain aspects of the writing style, but I’m still drawn to this series and what it can teach its audience about good versus evil.