Just Sayin’ by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Just Sayin’, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Nick and Cassie almost had their perfect family: their parents were getting married, and that meant a best-friend brother and a sweet little sister for Cassie, and Nick would have Cassie as his partner in crime. When their parents mysteriously call off their wedding and Cassie is left in her Gram’s care, Cassie and Nick become “almost-step” pen pals. Through letters, they scheme about how to get on their favorite game show, The Last Insult Standing, and just maybe figure out how to get their parents back together.

My rating: 3/5 

I really enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara by Mackall, so seeing another children’s/MG book pop up by her on the Tyndale website was exciting to me. And, while I didn’t enjoy Just Sayin’ quite as much as I did Lara, it was still an engaging read.

I like the whole concept of the “novel of letters”—the entire book consists of letters, texts, e-mails, and what-have-you between the characters, complete with different handwritings and paper backgrounds. It’s a nice touch, though perhaps a little distracting. Mackall does a great job of giving each character a distinct voice and communicating character development through a medium that’s rather restricting in what can be described or expanded.

The plot is a bit simple and resolves simply, too, and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. The important part of the book, to me, was Cassie’s development, not Travis and Jen’s relationship, so perhaps the simplicity of that particular aspect of the book doesn’t matter. And, speaking of Cassie’s development, I think the lessons she learned were communicated clearly and effectively, though perhaps her actions at the end during the insult contest were not quite realistic (though the actions themselves don’t contradict her character, so perhaps the realism of it is fine, after all).

Perhaps my biggest problem with Just Sayin’ is that, after the wonderful subtlety of Larger-Than-Life Lara, the straightforwardness of it falls a little flat. I mean, I think it’s great that Cassie was so profoundly affected by what she read about words and by her letter writing to Jesus, but that also could have been communicated effectively without also alienating a large portion of readers who perhaps most need to hear the message. It wasn’t preachy—perhaps cheesy, but not preachy—but I do prefer subtlety in a lot of cases. However, with or without that, Just Sayin’ still has a good message about the power of words, as well as some good things to say about friendship and family.

Warnings: Insults.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2vXs53q

Larger-Than-Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Larger-Than-Life Lara, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

‘This isn’t about me. The story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least htat’s what Mrs. Smith, my teachers, says.’ But the story is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class—Lara Phelps—whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies—until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

My rating: 4/5

Dandi Daley Mackall wrote some of my favorite book series growing up: Winnie the Horse Gentler and Horsefeathers, back in the day when stories about horses composed 80% of my reading. Seeing another book of hers pop up on the Tyndale Blog Network intrigued me, even if this book is technically a republication (Larger-Than-Life Lara was originally published 10 years ago, in 2006).

Larger-Than-Life Lara is a short, but wholesome, book. Laney is a wonderful protagonist, and the hints at her home life never reveal too much or hide too little. Her voice is funny and the crafting of the story is smart—as a teacher, I found myself reading and thinking, “This is a perfect book to read to help explain story elements.”

It’s also a perfect book to discuss with a younger audience. Lara’s actions, Laney’s feelings, and the entire attitudes and behaviors of the class, are rich for discussion. The story is poignant, sweet, and heartbreaking in turns, and it’s just as much about Laney as it is about Lara and her effect on the fourth-grade class.

My favorite aspect of the book, though, is that Larger-Than-Life Lara communicates so much of the Christian message without even mentioning God once. Lara’s actions are beautifully Christ-like, with her capacity to forgive, her willingness to take fault when she herself did nothing, and the transforming effect her actions have on her classmates. There’s so much there for young readers to think and talk about. Larger-Than-Life Lara was a joy to read, and it’s nice to see that even if the works I read by Mackall as a child have worn old over the years, there are still some of her works that delight me.

Warnings: Alcohol abuse, hints at a bad home life, bullying.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2ebJ2i6