Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin

Daughter of the Mountains, by Louise Rankin, was published in 1948 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

Daughter of the Mountains lost the Newbery Medal to King of the Wind, and now that I’ve typed that out, I realize just how similar the books are in terms of style. Perhaps a sign of the times. Daughter of the Mountains is about Momo, who, after her dog is stolen from her, sets out to find him again, a journey which takes her across the mountains of Tibet down into India. As far as accuracy of representation goes, I honestly have no idea (though at the beginning Rankin seems to describe them as ignorant and superstitious, by the end that image has completely vanished for a more favorable one), but Rankin at least seemed to know what she was talking about in describing dress, manner, and customs of the people. Momo constantly prays to Tara, a Buddhist goddess/bodhisittva (there’s also a Hindu goddess of the same name), and there is even, perhaps, a mention of the arrival of Christianity into India, though I could be mistaken.

The reason I rated the book so low is because by the end, I was more than a little tired of the extravagant, flowery way Rankin wrote, to the point where even her characters spoke embellishingly, even the eight-to-ten-year-old girl who is the main character. In addition, Momo’s journey is almost too perfect—though there are several points where she is in some danger, and many where she is lost, everything always ends up aligning perfectly for her, down to the British military leader/governor (or something) who stumbles upon her crying and for some reason decides to address the poor little mountain girl and buy her a train ticket. And the fulsome acceptance and praise heaped upon her at the end by the British couple was far, far too much. In fact, if I must criticize Rankin for her description of India at the time, it’s the complete lack of tension and antagonism that existed in that time, right before British rule ended in India. A children’s book, yes, but a very, very romanticized one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It, by E(dith). Nesbit, was first published in 1902. I read the 1999 version with full color illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Rating: 3/5

C. S. Lewis was a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s, and I can tell from reading this book just how much she inspired him in his own writings. Now, I’ve read a Nesbit book before—two actually, The Enchanted Castle and The Railway Children. However, this book was published five years before the other two, which might explain the slight difference in narrator voice. I don’t remember the narrator in either of the latter two books being quite so pronounced as in Five Children and It.

Anyway, the book is about five children (four, really—the fifth is a baby and doesn’t feature quite as much), who discover “it” in a sandpit. “It” is a Psammead, a Sand-Fairy, who grants them wishes. This book clearly influenced Edward Eager’s Half Magic, which is very similar. The children purposefully, and occasionally accidentally, wish for things that of course never turn out quite the way they want. Pounds and pounds of money? Too bad, you can’t spend any of it because no one will accept it. Wings? Well, better hope you make it back before the wish wears off and you’re stuck at the top of a tower with no way down. Baby brother is annoying, so you wish people wanted him around so you could go off and play? Now you have to worry about people kidnapping him right from your arms.

While the premise of the book is easily translatable across years and cultures (Nesbit was British), much of the language and slang is not. The children all have nicknames and the names are used interchangeably, which could be very confusing; there’s tons of British terms scattered throughout the book; and in one excruciatingly did-not-age-well chapter, the children dress up like “Red Indians” to try to prevent some Indians they had wished into existence from scalping them to death.

It’s a good book, and there are many relevant themes and messages that the children learn. However, unless the reader was particularly interested in such a story and could get past the British terminology (fans of Lewis would probably like this book a lot), I can’t see it appealing much to those who would simply casually pick it up. It is, I think, just a little too odd.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Anastasia by Carolyn Meyer

Anastasia, the Last Grand Duchess, by Carolyn Meyer, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Most people are likely aware of Anastasia and the Romanov family from the animated movie Anastasia (not a Disney film, as many people think, but 20th Century Fox [which, ironically, is now owned by Disney]), which runs with the legend that Anastasia somehow survived the execution of the Romanovs (with significant changes, of course) and eventually came back to Moscow to face the zombie/undead/spirit Rasputin.

It’s a much more exciting movie than this book is.

I mean, Meyer is much, much more historically accurate than the film. No undead Rasputin (in fact, Meyer doesn’t even go into the strangeness of his death at all, probably since the fact (or legend) that he was poisoned, shot a few times, and then dropped into a river probably wouldn’t go over well for a children’s book), no lost child Anastasia at the train station, no survival of firing squad. But the problem is that though she’s more historically accurate, there’s barely any context for anything that happens in the book. The historical note mentions that Anastasia and the Romanovs pretty much lived in a bubble, and Meyer demonstrates that excellently well—too well, actually, because Anastasia seems oblivious to why anything is happening—but seems to forget that an important part of telling a character’s story is also making sure readers understand history.

About the only thing Meyer describes decently well is Father Grigori/Rasputin. Other than that, even with being familiar with that time period in Russia, I struggled to connect the dots between offhand comments of discontent, Nicholas II’s takeover of the military, his abdication, the Provisional Government, and the Bolshevik revolution.

I think perhaps what caused some of the issues was that this book covers a four-year-period, which means that there are huge jumps in time and lots of short entries where Anastasia just talks about gardening or something like that. Those interspersed with more historical entries just makes everything confused and hard to follow. Anastasia barely gives a cursory look at the history, politics, and views that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin, so in that respect it really doesn’t do a particularly good job. It’s slightly better if you think of it as Meyer simply telling the story from a sheltered royal’s point of view, who wouldn’t know much of anything going on, but I think that’s missing the point of historical fiction.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

2020 Newbery Medal: New Kid by Jerry Craft

New Kid, by Jerry Craft, was published in 2019 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5                                          

I’m not really a huge fan of graphic novels. The art is beautiful, sure, but it doesn’t feel quite the same as reading just text. I feel similarly about ebooks—it’s not the same as reading a hardcopy, and I enjoy it much less. To me, something seems missing when I read something like a graphic novel.

That being said, New Kid is a good graphic novel (though admittedly I’ve read approximately three others before this one, so I’m not really that great of a judge) with many important messages in it (perhaps too many). Jordan starts at a new school in an upscale area of town, worlds away from his neighborhood, and has to overcome racial and social boundaries as he navigates this new world. I think younger audiences will love the many, many pop culture references of each chapter, and Craft’s drawings are really good at conveying Jordan’s thoughts and feelings (such as when pre-teen Jordan is replaced with baby Jordan when he feels like his parents are just talking over him), as well as other characters (I particularly enjoyed Alexandra’s “flying” when she got super excited that Jordan talked to her).

There’s a lot of stuff packed into this novel: friendship, racism, bullying, misunderstandings, social classes…there’s almost too much, honestly; by the time the fifth or sixth theme pops in, things start getting a little tired. However, Craft does his best to give some nuance to what could have been an incredibly heavy-handed book, and it helps that all of the characters in the book are incredibly realistic. I loved the part at the end where Jordan does his best to extend an olive branch to the irritating classmate he spent the entire novel clashing with.

I can definitely see why New Kid won the Newbery Medal; especially considering the more recent wins, this book practically screams “Pick me! Pick me!” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have enjoyed a novel, but I have a hard time sinking into different media for stories.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee, by Alan Gratz, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Refugee tells the story of three children in three different time periods who are forced to leave their home and become, as the title states, refugees. Each chapter switches between the three and often situations and words are linked together to help with the flow. There’s also several surprising connections between the three despite there being a 70-year time range covered.

The children are Josef, a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 on the ship St. Louis; Isabel, a Cuban fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian fleeing the civil war in 2015. Each are based on true stories, and Gratz has an extensive historical note in the back detailing what was real and what was fictional in each child’s story.

Though I’m not a fan of switching viewpoints every chapter, once I got used to it in this book, I thought it was a good way to tell the story. It helped that Gratz linked the viewpoints together by having the characters think similar things, or have similar situations appear to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next. Though I got a bit aggravated by the cliffhanger endings eventually, Gratz does a great job of keeping the book suspenseful. Though Isabel’s and Mahmoud’s stories were fairly predictable, Josef’s, at least, had a surprising twist at the end that makes his story, at least, far more stark and grim than the other two. And for the most part, Gratz limits preachiness, though at times he delivers his point a little too forcefully.

I’m not sure if younger children will truly understand what Gratz is trying to do with this book (especially since they’re less likely to read all the notes at the end that also detail how to help refugees today), but older children certainly will, and the multiple viewpoints, male and female protagonists, and suspense will appeal to every reader.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

Rating: 3/5                                          

There are very few book series that I love more and more with each book. Usually it goes the opposite way: I love the first book, and then each successive book pales just a little bit more in comparison to the first. Some series with sequel books that I enjoyed more than the first are The Penderwicks, The Queen’s Thief, and The Squire’s Tales.

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue falls into the former rather than the latter, unfortunately. I loved the first book and thought the second one was good, but not great. This one, I feel, is maybe on par with the second, but I suppose I came into this one expecting just a little bit more than what I got.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t very satisfied with this book was that there was very little character development. The characters act exactly the same as they have done in the previous books. There are small, small moments, but none of those moments seem momentous enough to carry over into any of the next books. Each character is stuck in their established personality. This is much more of a “stuck forever in time” series than a “slowly grows with each book” series. And it was great to have these characters in the first book, but when they’re acting the same way in the third book, it starts wearing a bit thin.

Part of the reason I didn’t quite like the second book was because there were too many neatly-wrapped-up-in-a-bow moments. The same goes for this book, too, with a remarkably cheesy ending and a bit too many perfectly convenient things happening. I like lovable, fun, chaotic books, but I also like books with realism in them, and this book completely started throwing realism out the window in favor for a feel-good atmosphere.

I’ve got nothing against feel-good atmospheres, and honestly, it’s sorely needed in children’s literature. But as an adult reader, I like nuance and complexity thrown in as well, which is what’s lacking in this book. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to throw in the Vanderbeeker towel, but the next book will have to do a lot to keep me interested.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, was published in 2013 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 5/5                                          

The Year of Billy Miller is a charming book about 2nd grader Billy Miller, who starts off the school year with a lump on his head and worries on his mind, but develops better relationships with four people (his teacher, his father, his sister, and his mother) along the way. The book is split up into four sections, each focusing on a particular relationship.

Kevin Henkes has written one of the most realistic second-grader voices I’ve read in recent memory, capturing the perfect mix of courage, trepidation, and growing up and delivering it authentically. Billy is strong in all the right ways, yet has perfectly normal fears and needs, as well. He’s flustered when a classmate mocks his use of “Mama” and “Papa,” he gets annoyed at his little sister (yet will do anything to make her happy), he works to make things right when he gets things wrong. It’s hard to describe how well Henkes writes a seven-year-old; it’s something that needs to be experienced itself.

The book is a fast read, but it doesn’t seem too short. I found it delightful, funny, and charming. I loved the way Henkes navigated through a second-grader’s school year and I loved the focus on relationships. And, since Billy is so young, the book exudes the same air of innocence and lightheartedness that he does. It was a refreshing read after some heavier books, and it put a smile on my face.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, was published in 2015 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Echo tells the story of three children across a ten-year period: Friedrich, in the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany; Mike, in the Great Depression of the 1930s in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, in the time after Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 2033 in California. All three children are tied together by a love for music and by a mysterious harmonica that holds the spirits of three lost princesses searching for a soul to save.

Okay, so that last part is a little strange and mystical, but the whole thing together makes for a beautiful story. I’m not sure whose story I loved more, but I think Mike’s story, with his longing for a family and for someone to love him, is the most heartwrenching. Ryan touches on a lot of things besides music: Hitler, Nazis, Jews, foster homes, the segregation of Mexican children in schools in California, the attitude towards the Japanese…there’s a lot packed into the book, and though it is quite long, the story flies by quickly.

The last part of the book takes place years after all three children’s stories stop, and tells how they are united through music. Because each children’s story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, the epilogue also backtracks and details what happens afterwards—though that, I think, was my least favorite part because it made everything anticlimactic and the ending felt rushed as a result.

Despite its small flaws, Echo is a beautiful story about music and the connections it can cause between people with separate lives. It won a 2016 Newbery Honor, losing to Last Stop on Market Street, and it boggles my mind as to why (nothing against the latter book—just in my mind, there’s a clear winner, and it’s not the picture book).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, slight Fantasy

Marie Antoinette by Kathryn Lasky

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaille, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5                                          

Kathryn Lasky has the difficult job of creating the young adult journal of Marie Antoinette, one of the most infamous queens in history, on her way to the throne of France, starting from the beginning in Austria, with stirrings of interest from the French, all the way to her arrival and entrenchment at Versailles. One of the most interesting things about this Royal Diaries series is that a lot of the times authors have to think of the question, “How do I make controversial or unlikeable rulers likeable to a young audience?”

Lasky does an admirable job with this book, though of course every one of these books needs to be taken with the grain of salt that we have no idea what the “voice” of these characters, and in this case, the young Marie Antoinette, was like. Despite that, Lasky details the Austrian’s court obsession with getting then-Antonia married to the Dauphin of France. Antonia’s voice is authentic, sounding exactly like a young girl would who’s getting married to someone she doesn’t know, who hates some of the formalities being thrust upon her, and who doesn’t really want to leave her family behind. Absent from all of her preparations is actual education, one of the factors cited in the historical notes as the reason why Marie Antoinette and her husband were so terrible at ruling. Instead, Antonia plays cards, rides horses, and complains about elaborate hairstyles, but never learns much about economics, politics, or the like. This continues even when she gets to Versailles, where time is taking up with detailing the ridiculous customs of the French elite, as well as Marie Antoinette’s feud with the King’s mistress. Lasky even briefly throws in a mention of Marie’s desire to live on a farm, foreshadowing, though not mentioned in the book at all, the hamlet she builds in the gardens of Versailles (which I’ve seen, and wow, it really puts into perspective Marie Antoinette’s views and her extravagance).

Also well described is the whole court scene of both Austria and France, and the ridiculousness of the French elite comes across clearly. Marie Antoinette is horrified by the lack of privacy at Versailles, and the splendor and decadence and underlying decay is shown very well. Done less well is, in general, the whole idea of Marie Antoinette as a spend-thrift, reveling in pretty things and clothes. She doesn’t really do much of that in the book, and Lasky spends most of her time just describing the political scene.

Marie Antoinette is an interesting book, and though it’s a bit long and doesn’t really establish very well the real character of the Queen as we know it in history, I think Lasky did an admirable job of communicating may other things, like royal life in France with its elaborate etiquette and extravagant styles, and the feelings a young girl might have from being transported from one country to another.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Long-Lost Home by Maryrose Wood

The Long-Lost Home, by Maryrose Wood, was published in 2018 by Balzer + Bray. It is the sequel to The Unmapped Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It has been a long time since I’ve read The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. The Unmapped Sea came out in 2015, which is when I read it. So, naturally, five years later, picking the final book, I remembered very little of the major plot points.

Luckily, Wood does a really good job of gently reminding the reader of what’s important. There was never a time in the book when I felt my lack of memory was preventing me from understanding what was happening. I was able to thoroughly enjoy the conclusion to the series and remember why I loved this series to begin with: the great humor, the narrative asides, and the fantastic art.

Every character gets a chance to shine: Penelope and the Incorrigibles, of course, and Simon, but Lady Constance and Lady Fredrick get their moments, as do Mrs. Clarke, Old Timothy, and the rest of the side characters. Even Edward Ashton/Judge Quinzy, the villain, gets some moments, and the way he is dispatched fits within the style of the series. We also get some new characters, whose appearance answer lots of questions that were raised throughout the series, and some old ones return.

All in all, I really enjoyed this series, and despite the gap, this last book did a lot to remind me why I loved the first four so much. Witty, unique, with a good plot that manages to last over 6 books because of Wood’s ability to unveil little things at a time while also including little sidestories that enhance rather than take away, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is a clever and fun series.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy