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

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 4/5

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is continuing the streak of YA books that I’m pleasantly surprised with. It’s a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” involving parallel universes, curses, and a fairly decently developed world. Harper, a girl with cerebral palsy, is taken into another world in order to break the curse of the prince of that realm. The curse, of course, can only be broken by true love, but since Harper was kidnapped, she’s really not at all interested.

The thing that I was most impressed with was how Kemmerer resolved the curse. Honestly, overall, I thought she did a fantastic job with building the relationship between Harper and Rhen, and then to make it even better, she doesn’t rush the ending or force the characters into something that doesn’t make sense—instead, there’s a question raised, and a resolution to just try and figure things out. It was done really well, in my opinion, and it was a great way to “modernize” the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.

My biggest criticism is probably the parallel universe aspect of it. Harper being a character in the fantasy world makes no sense and would not have worked in the book at all, so I understand the idea behind having Harper be from Washington, D.C., but the parts involving her family back in D.C. were the weakest in the book. Kemmerer’s decision to give Harper’s family a loan shark background really didn’t work very well and seemed only to be used to generate drama, especially since nothing came of that side story, anyway. Scrap Jacob’s role as loan shark muscle and you still have all the incentive Harper needs to miss home and to want to return home later (i.e., her sick mother). So, that part fell a little flat because it didn’t really seem to contribute anything besides more drama that wasn’t needed.

Despite that, however, I really enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was not a traditional “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and I thought Kemmerer did a great job of making things new and original, and especially in changing certain things about the fairy tale that are more problematic and making them more realistic. There’s a sequel coming out eventually, so I might pick that up when it does!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Whittington by Alan Armstrong

Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, was published in 2005 by Random House.

Rating: 2/5

I thought at first that Whittington would be some sort of retelling of “Dick Whittington and His Cat.” The cover art of the version I had strongly suggested that, as does, of course, the title. And it is—kind of. But it’s really about the descendant of Whittington’s cat going to a farm and interacting with the farm animals there while telling the story of Whittington to the animals and to the grandchildren of the owner of the farm, one of whom is struggling in school.

It’s a little bit of a weird book. Or perhaps the fact that I wasn’t expecting it to be mostly about farm animals threw me off. The story of Whittington is woven into the story of the everyday life of the animals pretty neatly, but there’s still really odd chapters every now and then that don’t seem to fit, whether it’s a random story about a horse, a dog, or even the humans. Even Ben’s struggle with reading seems a bit out of place at times. And I didn’t remember enough of “Dick Whittington and His Cat” to know if this book was a retelling, an alternate version, or something else entirely.

I think maybe if I hadn’t been so thrown by the content, and if I hadn’t been reading other books that were more interesting to me, I might have enjoyed Whittington a little bit more. Unfortunately, I found it a little boring, random and sporadic in pacing and story, and not appealing enough to hold my interest for long.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic, Fantasy

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2018 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.

Rating: 4/5        

I described the first Vanderbeeker book as akin to the vibe I get from Elizabeth Enright or Jean Birdsall’s books. The second Vanderbeeker book is almost as good as the first one. It actually does something very similar to The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which is sidelining one of the characters and spending more time on the others, but I felt as if both were done for very different reasons. Birdsall’s, I feel, was more specifically for character development, whereas Yan Glaser seems to have done it purely for realism (that doesn’t mean there wasn’t character development).

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read the first book in a while, but I didn’t find this book quite as charming as the first one. Maybe it’s because I spent the first third of the book trying to remember if Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet were in the first book. Maybe it’s because Yan Glaser pulls some awfully clumsy characterization halfway through. In any case, though it’s not as charming as the first, I still enjoyed it.

Yan Glaser continues to strike a good balance between sadness, closure, and growth. The kids are hit with the reality of life several times through the novel, but they never let it dim their spirits for too long. The variety of characters means that all sorts of different personalities are represented, as well as different family situations and choices. It’s also great that Glaser chose to not go with a shallow, stereotypical bully, and instead gave a more nuanced approach that showed how people can be mean in response to meanness.

The book is maybe a little too bright and sparkling in places, especially concerning the years-old seeds that spontaneously bloom at the end of the novel, but it does capture the sort of joy and charm that I feel Glaser is trying to go for.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

Magical Mischief by Anna Dale

Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale, was published in 2010 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 3/5

If I had a favorite realistic fantasy trope, it would have to be something of the sort found in Magical Mischief: rogue magic inhabiting some place and the people who live/work there having to find a way to deal with it. In this book, the magic is in a bookshop, and the events that happen as Mr. Hardbattle (the owner) and his friends try and relocate the magic before he goes out of business are as wild as the magic itself.

The one major flaw in this otherwise charming book is that it was simply too long, and after a time the characters and the plot started to grate on me, especially Miss Quint and the sideplot (but then actually the main plot?) of characters from books being wished into existence and the wreaking havoc in the real world. That plot went on forever, and Miss Quint, who is an adult, refusing to come clean and telling lie after lie to cover up her tracks got more and more annoying. There was also some pretty inconceivable events that happened and altogether I thought that plotline really dampened my enjoyment of the book.

I did like Susan’s plotline, though, and that was tied up with the annoying plotline, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the book had maybe been about fifty pages shorter, and hadn’t had that wild burglary angle complete with kidnapping and car chase because that’s when things really started getting unbelievable.

Basically, I really liked the first half of Magical Mischief, but the second half was a bit of a chore to read, so I finished the book with more of a negative feeling than a positive.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic  

Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Full Ride, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 2/5

I devoured Haddix’s works as a middle-schooler; she and Caroline B. Cooney defined my reading as a 12-year-old. However, now that I’ve read a couple of books by her as an adult, I find her novels very underwhelming.

Full Ride is okay—much better than either The Always War or Under Their Skin, but not as nostalgic as Just Ella—though the book is probably about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. There is just so much of Becca having inner monologues all the time about her feelings. And crying. And running. And internally yelling at her criminal father.

The plot was decent, though it seemed highly farfetched in several areas. Not even the author’s note where Haddix talks about how carefully she researched helped. I guess it’s because the whole plot revolves around con artists, so it’s harder to swallow because some areas are just so ridiculous that you can’t help thinking that something is fishy. And, unfortunately, sometimes things seem so ridiculous because the characters do ridiculous things or react in strange ways or interact in scenarios that seem unrealistic.

The best part of this book is probably the friendship between Becca and the group of high-achieving budding scholars. That was the most realistic aspect, and the interactions seemed natural. Everything was a lot less stilted and dramatic when those characters were together, so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that part the most.

There are a lot of authors that I read in my childhood that I adore, but Haddix is not one of them anymore. I’ve so far thought of her books as no more than mediocre. I’m tempted to read Cooney to see if I feel the same about her. Sometimes there are just certain authors that you grow out of, I suppose!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher as part of JustReadTours. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

No One Ever Asked, by Katie Ganshert, is inspired by a true story (described in the notes at the end). It revolves around 3 women and how their lives are affected by a poor school district losing accreditation and its students transferring to the richer, less diverse school district, and the backlash that comes with it. It’s a story about racism and segregation and adoption and marriage and, well, a lot of things.

Though there’s three female points of view, the one the story focuses on the most is Camille, whose cookie-cutter family is falling apart at the seams. It was interesting to get her perspective for the majority of the novel, since Ganshert writes in just such a way where you recognize all the things she’s doing wrong and yet still grow attached to her anyway (especially as she starts to realize what she’s doing). My favorite point of view was probably Anaya, though I’m not really sure I liked the things Ganshert decided to include in her arc. What I liked about the three characters was how different each perspective was: Camille, the affluent white woman; Jen, also affluent, but with an adopted daughter from Liberia; Anaya, the black woman who’s worked and clawed her way up to where she is now and dealt with more than the other two.

I do think Ganshert tried to tackle a little too much here; towards the end of the novel, it just feels like she’s piling on event after event, like an excited kid at a candy store: “Ooh! Some of this! And some of that! And let’s add this right at the end!” It starts to get a little exhausting, and the ending is maybe slightly more dramatic than I think it needed to be. I also think Ganshert’s subtlety leaves a little to be desired, especially with some of the ways she explores people’s preconceived notions.

However, No One Ever Asked is a great book that explores many difficult situations and forces the reader to think about their own actions and thoughts as they read about the actions and thoughts of others. Most powerful, I think, is the townhall scene, where Camille voices opinions that might be echoed by the reader—but then is forced to confront those opinions and determine if that’s how she really thinks and acts.

Warnings: Mentions of sexual assault, gun violence

Genre: Christian, Realistic

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff, was published in 2002 by Random House.

Rating: 4/5        

I think there’s something to say about the state of children’s/middle grade literature recently when you go into a book expecting something much worse to happen than what actually happens. I suppose I could blame it on myself, but I’ve read far too many books (and seen too many shows) where absolute awfulness happens, sometimes only for the sake of drama. So when I was about halfway through Pictures of Hollis Woods, which has Hollis narrating in the present with flashbacks to the past, I was convinced that something terrible had happened, something heartbreakingly sad and crafted to pile on the tears and the angst. That’s what the majority of the books I read in high school and college did, after all.

However, while what happened was sad, it wasn’t dramatically, unrealistically, angstily so. In fact, I found Pictures of Hollis Woods to be quite a tender reflection of family and the things that bring them together. Giff conveys so well all the doubts, hopes, and dreams a girl stuck in foster care might have, and Hollis’s interactions with people, her desperate wish for a family, and her determination to make something work no matter what are so well crafted and described. For once, someone wrote a young girl who, while feisty, wasn’t bratty, whose hopes and dreams made her actions more believable, and who was able to graciously accept when she was wrong and make changes accordingly.

Besides the ultimate theme of family, we also have the delightful interaction between Hollis and Josie, which also communicates family, but also brings up a whole host of other things, like caring for the sick and respecting the wishes of those older than you (it’s not revealed how old Josie is, but she’s retired and quite clearly has some form of Alzheimer’s). To be honest, I felt this book dealt with Alzheimer’s in a much better way, and was written much more lyrically and beautifully than Newberry-winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

Pictures of Hollis Woods was sad, but not devastatingly so. It was deliciously free of drama and had a wonderful theme of family. I also thought how great it was that Giff revealed the love the Old Man had for Steven despite their arguments. The presence of a critical father in a novel, which also shows the love that exists between him and his family, is a great picture of what families, realistically, are–flawed.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic