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

The Hidden Side by Heidi Chiavaroli

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Having read a book by Chiavaroli before (The Edge of Mercy), I went into The Hidden Side familiar with her style and curious to see if some of the things that fell a little flat for me in the previous book I read would do the same thing here.

The Hidden Side (and Chiavaroli’s style in general) is really two stories running concurrently—a contemporary one and a historical one. The contemporary one tells the story of the Abbott family and their struggles to hold on to their family and their faith after a devastating and terrible act is committed by the son. The historical one is about Mercy Howard, who becomes a Patriot spy (one of the Culper Ring, I believe) to ferret out British secrets during the Revolutionary War and discovers lots of things about love and faith along the way.

If you’re wondering how in the world Chiavaroli connects the two stories together, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Both stories would be fine on their own, but together, the relation between the two, the reason why Natalie Abbott is reading the journal of Mercy Howard and why the reader should care, is a little thin. It’s explained, and probably makes a lot of sense, but I never really thought about it because my interest was never in Mercy Howard’s story at all—in fact, I only skimmed her chapters. To me, it made no sense to have that story in this book because all it did was distract from the real shining star, which was the gut-wrenching, difficult story of a family struggling to make sense of why evil things happen. This was also my problem with The Edge of Mercy—the historical entry in that book also, I felt, took away from the much more powerful contemporary one.

I won’t go into the struggle the Abbott family faces in this novel, as I think it’s best to experience it as it’s presented in the novel, but it’s an issue that strikes terrifyingly close to society today. Chiavaroli pulls no punches, but also shows deep sympathy for the complicated tangle of knots that causes evil and that evil causes. It’s comprehensive and nuanced, and I applaud Chiavaroli for taking such a difficult subject head-on and showing the effects and consequences of evil, and how people can move past it without losing love, mercy, or justice.

Warnings: Violence, bullying, mentions of rape.

Genre: Realistic, Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2n0byIX

The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted Dekker and Rachelle Dekker

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted and Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I’ve never read anything by Ted Dekker before; all I know about him is that he’s a fairly popular Christian author. He teamed up with his daughter, also an author, for The Girl Behind the Red Rope, a book that initially seems to simply be about a cult that separates itself from the world, but then delves into Frank Peretti territory with ghosts/beings called the Fury and a Jesus-like child named Eli.

Honestly, I think I would have preferred this book simply to be an exploration of a cult—I probably would have been far more interested. That’s not to say the book was bad, but I’m simply not a fan of angels and demons materializing and talking to people (or attacking them). And the fact that I wasn’t prepared for the supernatural aspect of this book meant that I was really confused by a lot of things that happened at the beginning until I realized the true genre of the book. Perhaps that’s something I would have expected going in if I knew more about Ted Dekker’s works, though.

The Girl Behind the Red Rope is hugely allegorical, to the point of repetitiveness at times. There’s the demon creatures “the Fury,” whom the cult at Haven Valley have cut themselves off from the world to avoid. There’s the mysterious being Sylous, who appears to Rose, the leader, and gives ominous advice. Then there’sEli, who I think isn’t supposed to be Jesus, but is also supposed to be Jesus…it’s a bit confusing. All the allegory/metaphors are compounded at the end by everyone talking about love, light, darkness, and fear for pages on end—that’s where the repetitiveness comes in. Actually, the whole thing reminded me just a little bit of John Bibee’s Spirit Flyer series, which used similar ideas of demons, chains, and captivity to illustrate biblical concepts. Just like in this book, though, Bibee also went a bit overboard in capturing his image.

I suppose I can see why Ted Dekker is popular, but for me, I’d prefer a book that tones down the symbolism explanation and is a bit less on-the-nose in regards to theme. The Girl Behind the Red Rope is far from terrible, but my expectation of it was “cult novel” and I got “cult novel but with demons and angels,” which isn’t really my favorite thing to read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2LGmULP

1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5        

Dicey’s Song is the second in a series, and while reading the first book, Homecoming, will certainly help with knowing the characters and the backstory, enough is explained that it’s not necessary. The story is about Dicey and her younger brothers and sister as they navigate a new home, a new school, and all the troubles and pain that their situation (absent father, sick mother) warrants. While the main focus is on Dicey’s internal conflict as well as her relationship with her grandmother, there is also focus on her relationship with her classmates, her teachers, and her siblings. Oh, and there’s a bit of mother-daughter relationship/conflict as well.

Voigt does a good job of dealing with all the various emotions and conflicts present in the book. There’s a lot of characters, but most of them are complex and interesting. The relationship between Dicey and Gram, with its give-and-take, learning aspect, is great. She’s a bit heavy-handed with her theme, but for a children’s book it’s appropriate, especially one dealing with such heavy topics as this one does (depression, dyslexia, death, and grief). My only raised eyebrow was when James was so adamant that he knew the right way to teach Maybelle. I don’t think Voigt was intending it as a “this is what you should do,” but it came across that way a bit.

This is the penultimate Newbery Medal book I read. It’s a little bittersweet, but also immensely satisfying. I don’t think Dicey’s Song will reach my list of top favorites, but I think it was more emotionally satisfying than many other Newbery Medals, as well as more interesting and memorable.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LV78f9

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

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+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i