Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.
Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.
The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.
There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).
I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Young Adult, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, was published in 1994 by HarperCollins.
Walk Two Moons is an interesting coming-of-age (coming-to-terms?) story about Salamanca Hiddle, her cross-country trip with her grandparents, and a flashback story about her friend Phoebe. The premise revolves around the trip to Idaho because Salamanca is desperate to bring her mother (who left and never came back) home, but a central part of the story is also Phoebe’s experience with her own mother. In fact, the two stories serve as foils/mirrors of each other.
I say “interesting” for several reasons. One is because of the voice. There’s a distinctive tone to the whole novel, helped by words like “jing bang,” “wing-dinging,” “thumpingly,” and the like. Phoebe’s voice is the perfect melodramatic pre-teen’s, complete with italics and mood swings. The voice is really what got me to start really enjoying the novel because it help me get past a few other things that I found puzzling.
Another reason the novel is interesting (and this one is used in more of the “in-teresting…” way, like people say when they either don’t care about what the person is saying or find the whole thing very suspicious) is the Indian slant Creech gives it. She includes multiple references to Salamanca’s Indian heritage and commentary on Indian folklore and culture. Yet most of it smacks of Creech’s ideas, and what Creech wants to communicate, rather than of the real thing. Really, it just seems like Creech was in love with Indian culture and so added it to her book. It’s completely useless and adds nothing at all.
I did really enjoy the book, but one thing that puzzled me was if Creech really wanted the mystery of Salamanca’s mother to remain so for the whole book, or if the reader was supposed to figure it out very quickly. To support the latter theory, it states very early on, incredibly specifically, what happened to Salamanca’s mother. Yet Creech spends the whole rest of the book using vague terms and mystery language until the moment Salamanca reaches Idaho, and then everything is explained. Perhaps Creech wanted the reader to know the result, but not the why? I don’t know. I just thought it was confusing that she kept dancing around the issue as if she hadn’t revealed it in the second chapter.
Walk Two Moons falters a bit because of its random and useless inclusion of Native American culture, as well as the baffling “Wait, don’t we already know about Salamanca’s mother?” question. However, the story itself is great, especially Phoebe’s, and the way Creech deals with themes like death and change is well done.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YLa3zg
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The String, by Caleb Breakey, from Revell. All opinions are my own.
My rating: 2/5
The String is like Criminal Minds mixed with a cop or spy movie. There’s a psychopathic killer who has blackmailed/coerced several people to become members of his “string” and who are forced to do his bidding. Enter plucky university cop Markus Haas, who is determined to stop him, and things start going crazy.
Look, if you like this sort of suspense novel, which is heavy on violence, psychological horror, and the like, then this book is definitely for you. It’s a bit long for what is a relatively simple plot, but Breakey manages to pull a few surprising twists and turns along the way. He also manages to accomplish the difficult task of making the villain understandable, but not sympathetic.
There’s a couple of reasons why I rated this book so low. One is that I simply couldn’t enjoy it. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds for a reason, and it’s that I can’t handle large doses of darkness. And the way this book is written, we’re meant to indulge in that darkness a bit; it’s supposed to drive our enjoyment of a novel, and that really doesn’t sit well with me. There’s only so much manipulation, violence, and caught-between-rock-and-hard-place moral dilemmas I can deal with.
Another reason is that I was disappointed that this book is only superficially Christian. Okay, so Stephanie is a Christian in this book, and Haas is sort of thinking about it. Yet Stephanie barely does anything beyond a quick prayer once or twice. This book could have truly delved into the Christian response to this sort of psychopathic evil, and what people do, and all those sorts of interesting moral dilemmas, and I would have loved to see way more prayer, way more Bible reading, and way more appeals to God. Instead we get some occasional mentions and that’s it.
I don’t know, perhaps Breakey didn’t want to be preachy or something. Or maybe his goal was simply to write a suspense book, never mind the religion of the characters. But I felt that there was so much opportunity lost by not having the characters react more in ways that really demonstrated their Christian beliefs.
Warnings: Lots of violence, psychopathy, hints of child abuse
Genre: Realistic, Suspense/Thriller
You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2Mt0v5I
Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, was published in 1992 by Scholastic.
Missing May is yet another Newbery Medal winner that baffles me. It’s a book about grief, and learning to move past grief, but there’s nothing overwhelming special about it and the book is so short that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the characters or even their development. The entire book hinges on a trip to some Spiritualist Church so that Summer, Cletus, and Ob can summon the ghost of Ob’s wife May (or something). And then everything is resolved in the space of a single paragraph.
Okay, so there’s a little bit more going on than that. There’s the relationship between Cletus and Summer, Cletus and Ob, and Cletus, Summer, and Ob. There’s Summer realizing that Cletus isn’t the person he appears, and that other people don’t view him the way she does. And there’s a bit of a peek into Summer and Ob’s relationship, though most of the book is focused on May and Summer. But, again, the book is so short that there’s not enough time for all of these dimensions to be fully explored. Rylant does a fairly good job, but it mostly relies on cramming development into single sentences (like with the resolution of the novel).
Plus, the whole premise is strange. Ob “sense” the “ghost” of May, then is determined to go call up her ghost because he misses her so much, so they plan a trip to make a séance. The exploration of grief is interesting and needed, but the ghost stuff skews the focus, in my opinion. And, again, the book is too short to achieve any sense of fulfillment or development!
Missing May will go on the “How did this win?” list, as well as the “I won’t remember this in two days” list. The theme of the story—grief and overcoming grief—is important, but the spiritualism makes the whole book strange, and the character development, like the plot, is rushed and poorly resolved.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Yswm93
Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.
Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andes beating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boone winning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Hello, Universe is a book that I question.
For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet, the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home life.
For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?
This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.
Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JqynwR
Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, was published in 2018 by Candlewick.
I loved Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn, a YA book that dealt with a tough (and rarely discussed) topic. So I was interested to see how her foray into MG would be like, especially since it won the Newbery Medal. My verdict? Merci Suárez Changes Gears is disappointingly average.
It lacks some oomph, some sparkle, some sort of thing that would make it so much better than it is. Maybe the writing needed to be jazzed up. Maybe the platitudes and the cheesy way the book ended helped to keep it weighed down in “mediocre” territory. It’s not that the topic wasn’t relevant, or that the book was boring. It was simply missing…something.
I did appreciate the more nuanced sort of look at school troubles that Medina gave, though. I do have to give her credit for creating a realistic school atmosphere, and a more realistic look at bullying. I myself had way more experience with bullies who were friendly one day and mean the next, rather than the “I have a personal vendetta against you” bully that is so often portrayed, so I felt Medina’s take was much more reflective of what actually occurs, showing how navigating friendships and other people is complicated, especially in the tumultuous preteen and teen years.
However, that does leave me wondering as to why no one ever writes a story from the bully’s point of view. Where are all the books about the Ednas? Why does no author bother to tackle that sort of challenge?
Anyway, Merci Suárez Changes Gears doesn’t break out of any boxes or push any boundaries in terms of writing conventions or tropes. It’s a disappointing book, one that could have been much better with just a little something extra added to it to truly make it shine.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Iz69AP
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.
My rating: 3/5
All Manner of Things takes place during the Vietnam War, and while the main character has a brother who joins the army, and certain details of the culture of the time and the negative attitude towards the war is shown, there’s so much more to the book than just that. There’s also the theme of war in general, and how it affects people—Annie, the main character, has a father who was left with PTSD or similar after the Korean War, and abandoned the family while she was young. After the brother leaves to go to Vietnam, he gives her information about where her father is, starting a chain of events that leads to the father coming back into their lives, but not particularly nicely or neatly. The way Finkbeiner handles the way the family navigates the reappareance of a long-absence father is very well done.
Finkbeiner also includes aspects of the Civil Rights movement as well, though not too much. Annie starts up a friendship with a black man, David, and while everyone seems okay with it, it’s very clear that David is considered an outsider. Overall, I enjoyed the fact that Finkbeiner didn’t make the novel as dark and angsty as it could have been. It was a very light, wholesome novel, despite the sad parts.
All Manner of Things is very carefully and cleverly constructed. The characters have great voices, especially the three children (well, technically two are young adults): Mike, Annie, and Joel. The mother is perhaps the flattest of all the characters, but everyone’s interactions are all very well done. The letters in between each chapter are also really good at communicating tone and atmosphere.
I really enjoyed All Manner of Things, so I debated for a while whether to give a 4 rating or not. However, in the end I felt the book was missing something. It was just one step away from being entirely engrossing. As it was, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel absorbed by it. I was able to put it down easily and walk away. It was just missing some sort of connection for me. I’d probably recommend it to other people, but it didn’t have the sort of pull that would make me come back to it again.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian, Realistic
You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2KrYdDB
Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, was published in 1991 by Atheneum.
I don’t know why, but I’ve really been enjoying the dog books I’ve been reading lately. There’s been a few misses (Sounder and Old Yeller are at the bottom of the pack), but Where the Red Fern Grows, Ginger Pye, and now Shiloh are great.
I think what I like the most about a dog book like Shiloh is that it doesn’t hinge on the dog dying. That’s probably also why I really enjoyed Ginger Pye. To be honest, the two books are a little bit similar in that they deal with “unsavory” characters and animal abuse.
I think what I liked most about Shiloh, though, is Naylor’s portrayal of Judd Travers. Children’s books can stray into strictly black-and-white territory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Travers is portrayed in a surprisingly nuanced way. Nothing that is revealed about him excuses his poor behavior towards animals, but it does help to explain how he became that way—and that sort of nuance is important in a children’s book. Nowadays I feel like we’ve gone even more strictly black-and-white in our portrayals of characters, as authors seem to be scared that any positive or empathetic view on a bad character, or any negative or critical view on a good character (or a character that society has deemed should only be portrayed positively), will result in backlash. As a frequenter of Goodreads, I’ve seen how much readers expect characters to think and act in certain ways. So Naylor’s characters, written thirty (!) years ago, and the human ways they are portrayed are a breath of fresh air.
The book is also great in its discussion of ethics, as well as in how Marty’s determination shines through despite the unfair way Travers treats him (and how that wins over Travers, in the end). Overall, for such a short book, there’s quite a lot to unpack and think about in Shiloh.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IE5T27
About the Book
Series: Pine Haven
Genre: Christian, Contemporary
Publisher: Chanson Books
Publication date: March 7, 2019
Robin Lancaster, a twenty-six-year-old former kindergarten teacher, has her summer and her life all figured out. She’s ready to be on her own, writing and illustrating her children’s stories at her family’s beloved lake house. Once there, she intends to rekindle a romance with Caleb Jackson, the area’s top hunting and fishing guide, and bag him for herself. Complications arise from the start when Robin finds out her mother has rented the lake house to a man they know nothing about. Matthew McLaughlin, forty-year-old widowed university professor and author from California, shows up at Pine Lake in crisis. A sabbatical might be his only hope to save much more than his career. He needs a place of refuge. Sharing the lake house with a lighthearted young woman and her dog is the last thing on his mind. Caleb Jackson has his own plans. He’s used to things going his way, but a man staying in Robin’s house presents unforeseen challenges. When paths unavoidably entangle for these three, hearts are on the line.
About the Author
Rose Chandler Johnson is known for her heartwarming, inspirational writing. In addition to works of sweet contemporary fiction, her devotional journal, won the Georgia Author of the Year Finalist Award in 2014.
In her novels, Rose brings to life fascinating characters with compelling relationships embracing family, community, and faith. In distinctive southern settings, Rose creates memorable stories that will stir your heart. Readers often say her writing warms the soul as it reaffirms belief in love and wholesome goodness. Don’t be surprised if you sigh with pleasure as you savor the final pages of her stories. Rose has lived in a suburb of Augusta, GA for thirty plus years. Before retiring from Georgia’s school system, she taught English, French, and ESOL. Currently, she is an English instructor at a community college. In addition to reading and writing, Rose enjoys cooking, sewing, gardening, and spending time with her six children and her beautiful grandchildren.
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