The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf by Gerald Morris

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady.

Rating: 4/5

I am enjoying this series more and more with each book that I read. At first I wasn’t sure if Morris was trying to play Arthurian legend straight or be cheeky and humorous. Now, I think I’ve finally got a grasp of his tone, which is…both, really. It’s clear he loves Arthur, but it’s also clear he’s trying to make things enjoyable for his audience, especially those who may not be as familiar with Arthurian legend. The best thing is that all of these books are based off of real stories (usually Malory), explained by Morris in an author’s note at the end.

I don’t know the exact tale that Morris based this story off of, but the novel itself was delightful. There’s a fierce, yet still ladylike protagonist, a witty dwarf, a bumbling knight, and lots and lots of adventure. Plus, Terence makes a few appearances (and is responsible for maneuvering the characters into the places they’re supposed to be).

I figured out a majority of the plot twists before they were revealed, but I think Morris wasn’t as concerned with keeping things secret as he was with making sure his story was enjoyable. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t recognize the source material meant that I was able to simply enjoy this book as a story, not as an adaptation. Arthurian legend has never been my favorite, so I love that Morris has managed to make it palatable for me.

Romance played a central role in this book, much more so than the others, Perhaps because it’s the focal point of many medieval stories. Lynet is torn between the noble knight Beaumains and the sarcastic, gruff dwarf Roger, but it’s not nearly as love-triangle-y as I’m making it sound. It’s actually a very sweet, if predictable, romance.

The more I read these books, the more I want to read. That’s great praise for a series centered around one of my least favorite topics to read about, but Morris has a great way of making everything fun and interesting—and for filling in the gaps of Arthurian legend in a reasonable and sensible way.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, was published in 1964 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child. I’m not really sure why; I just remember reading it over (and over) again. It’s interesting for me now to think about how many times I read favorite books over and over again when I was young. I don’t really consider myself a “rereader” as such, though I do have a few favorites that I love to return to. Anyway, for whatever reason, I read it quite frequently as a child.

Reading it now, I can see just how strange of a book Harriet the Spy is. It starts with Harriet and her friend Scout randomly going with her nurse Ole Golly to her mother’s house, who is described in unflattering terms as fat and dumb, and then continues with Harriet’s mean-spirited notes about friends and strangers. Harriet sneaks into people’s houses and peers through windows, all for the pleasure of spying. The entire book has a sort of jaunty, cavalier attitude throughout the entire thing that makes it incredibly difficult to transfer across times and cultures. Fitzhugh seems to be playing around quite a bit with perception and attitude and truth, perhaps even attempting to be satirical throughout, but Harriet’s fake apologies towards the end make a cohesive theme difficult to pull from the book. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that Harriet was really mean, or that her apology wasn’t sincere, so at least in that circumstance I don’t think the book is necessarily giving a bad message, but I think Fitzhugh is doing something more complex than her audience would ever be able to grasp.

That being said, I do appreciate Fitzhugh’s unapologetic, solid approach to showing what parents might do for a child who is having problems with change. I rarely read a children’s book with counseling in it, so to have that in this book was actually pretty bold and refreshing, I thought.

Harriet the Spy is a strange book, and one I think kids today might struggle to connect with due to its complex layers, aged language, and the really weird way the book starts. I don’t know if I enjoyed reading it again, but I certainly found it interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Harriet is bluntly honest, which is to say she’s mean; lots of “finks” thrown around; tons of off-hand references to alcoholism, absent parents, and other things that may go over a child’s head due to the 60s slang

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck by Emily Fairlie

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck, by Emily Fairlie, was published in 2012 by Katherine Tegen.

Rating: 3/5

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck is one of those obscure, random books you pick off the shelf at the library because it sounds kind of interesting, while inwardly you prepare yourself for it to be really cheesy, but then you’re kind of pleasantly surprised by the end.

The book is about two students of Tuckernuck, a school with an interesting background and a looming shut-down date, who start looking for the treasure that the founder of the school hid eighty years ago. Laurie and Bud aren’t really friends when they team up, but, of course, along the way they learn a thing or two about friendship, as well as school spirit and loyalty.

It’s a fast read, and the treasure hunt is fairly interesting. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the inclusion of memos and post-it notes from various side characters that make things more interesting and fun. It also helps these side characters to stand out more and make the reader actually interested in them. The illustrations were another plus, adding good visual charm.

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck is a pretty straightforward treasure hunt book, but it was surprisingly more interesting and less cheesy than I thought it would be. The treasure hunt was pretty intricate, the lessons the characters learned were woven into the story well, and there was a great deal of charm throughout with some good writing decisions and format. Overall, it was much more enjoyable than I originally thought it would be!

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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

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

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve picked up a few baking magic books before and liked them well enough to try another one, this one with a Mexican cultural background. A Dash of Trouble has Leo discover that her mother and sisters are witches (“brujas”) and that the bakery her family owns is used for baking up magic spells, like bread that can help you communicate with the dead or cookies that can fly.

I’m not overly fond of middle grade protagonists who think they have all the answers, but Meriano does a really good job of balancing Leo’s determination to do magic and her desire for success with her failures. I liked that Leo wasn’t perfect, that all the spells she did were just slightly off enough to reflect her inexperience, and that ultimately the book wasn’t about Leo being a Fabulous Witch, but about her relationship with her sisters, her mother, and her magic.

As far as the writing goes, everything was pretty basic and the plot was straightforward and simple. I’m not a fan of poetic or flowery language, but I’ve read so many books lately that have some form of descriptive language that this book felt a bit dry and bare-bones in lots of places. It made for a pretty quick read, though, and I didn’t notice any obvious signs of telling rather than showing, though there was lots of melodrama.

I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Dash of Trouble enough to pick up any more in the series, but I did find it pleasantly well-crafted and balanced. There also wasn’t any obvious agenda that the author was trying to push, so that’s a plus. You never can tell with MG these days.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

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

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5        

One Crazy Summer is an interesting novel. It’s set in Oakland in 1968 and the Black Panthers play a central role as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to one of their summer camps and experience a completely different life than what they’re used to. I liked that there was a bit of a role-reversal in that it is their mother they are visiting. Usually in books where children visit an estranged parent, the parent is the father. It was interesting to have it be the mother this time, though I suppose Williams-Garcia did that not for the role-reversal, but for some sort of statement about women, strength, and independence.

I enjoyed the voices of the characters, especially Delphine, and all of the sisters’ interactions were very well done. I liked that Williams-Garcia sort of showed both sides of the Black Panthers and multiple views of their actions—she didn’t glorify them, but strove to portray them as realistically as possible for a children’s book. It was still a bit weird for me because I’ve really only heard negative things about the violence they caused, but this book did teach me about their summer camps and all the ways they helped to improve the lives of the children in the neighborhoods.

The part that was the hardest to swallow wasn’t any of the Black Panther stuff; it was the actions of Cecile, the mother. Early on, Delphine remembers something that Big Ma told her, which is that Cecile left because she wanted to name Fern something else (“Afua,” we learn later) and wasn’t allowed—or something. Cecile kind of confirms this by refusing to call Fern “Fern” and instead calling her “Little Girl” (and later, by accident, Afua). She then tells Delphine that “she’d have to be grown before [Cecile] could explain why she left [because of a name].” Okay, but…did she leave because of the name or not? Was Garcia-Williams trying to imply there was more to the story, or was this supposed to be some sort of statement about Cecile?

Anyway, while I liked the voice and the characters, and I learned a bit about the setting, overall the entire novel just felt like I was missing something–which I probably was, to be honest. I simply felt as if I didn’t “get it,” like I was supposed to feel like Cecile was this amazing person when all I could think was that she seemed a bit self-centered (at first—she gets a little better, but I still don’t understand why you would leave your family because of a name). I might read at least the sequel to this book to see if we learn more about Cecile, since I did really like the characters. It was just some of the circumstances I couldn’t relate to, I suppose.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2017 by Dial. It is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

Rating: 3/5        

I didn’t get quite as swept up in The War I Finally Won as I did in The War That Saved My Life. While this book continues the healing process that Ada started in the latter book, I simply didn’t find it as immediately gripping. Bradley leaves nothing to subtlety and every emotional hurdle that Ada overcomes is plainly spoken so that the reader understands exactly what has happened. This isn’t a bad thing for a children’s book, I guess, but it leaves a lot to be desired for any older reader.

I suppose that’s my biggest complaint about this book: there’s far too much tell and not enough show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an interesting book, and Ada’s slowly defrosting heart and widening understanding of relationships, love, and family is heartwarming (no pun intended). Yet the delivery is too pat for me to be enthralled with the process.

However, if you left The War That Saved My Life wanting more Lady Thornton, Margaret, Jonathan, and, of course, Ada, Jamie, and Susan, then this book does do a whole lot in furthering each character’s relationship with each other. There’s dual mother-daughter relationships, with Lady Thornton and Margaret, and Susan and Ada, and then there’s Ada dealing with Lady Thornton in her life, who is an authority but not her mother. There’s the inclusion of a German girl, Ruth, who brings a whole new dynamic to the family dynamic. Of course, the book mostly focuses on Ada and Susan, but Ada learns a whole lot about relationships and getting along with other people, as well as the many facets of love.

The War I Finally Won is a good sequel to The War That Saved My Life, with lots of discussion about love, mothers, enemies, and courage. I had problems with the delivery of the ideas and the overall lack of showing what’s happening rather than merely telling, but overall the book showed lots of promise and had strong, relevant themes.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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