The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, was published in 1954 by HarperCollins.
The Wheel on the School is a delightfully long story, which contains much more than I was anticipating. The best books, in my opinion, are ones that have multiple stories within the main plot. The main plot of this one is the children trying to get storks to nest in their village again, but there are other stories that are told along the way, with great messages of friendship, teamwork, and community.
The best story in the book, maybe even better than the main stork one, was of the communal acceptance of Janus. DeJong simply and beautifully sketches a tale of a man who self-isolates himself after an accident leaves him without his legs, who is then drawn back into and accepted by the community with the help of children. So the heartwarming story of community getting together to help each other and to help storks is made even more uplifting.
I really wasn’t expecting so much out of The Wheel on the School, and while there were parts that seemed a bit too long, I appreciate that DeJong took the time to really build up the village and the community rather than just tell a simple tale of children putting a wheel on a school. There’s even a bit of danger and adventure included. There’s not enough there to make it a particularly memorable book—it’s lacking a little bit of “oomph” to make it stand out to me—but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.
The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2003 by Henry Holt.
At first, The Hollow Kingdom seemed like a “Beauty and the Beast” type tale, and it does share a few similarities, but the more I read the more there was to the book than just some sort of retelling. I thought the book had a fascinating premise, and though I could tell from a mile away what the end result would be, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
I definitely think this is a book that may lead to a lot of similar complaints that stories like “Beauty and the Beast” get, since it deals with a woman being imprisoned by, in this case, a goblin king, with a romance subplot. But I do think Dunkle frames this much more like an arranged marriage. In addition, Kate isn’t technically forced into marriage—you could argue about Marak’s actions and merits, but she does willingly choose to marry him. So while the idea of a woman being coerced into marriage because there’s no other option for her—and then falling in love with the person responsible—may be dissatisfying to some (if not something stronger), I actually thought it rang true to both the setting Dunkle has established and to real life. Arranged marriages still happen, and people who reluctantly marry (or who are forced to marry) can end up falling in love with each other later on. I’m not saying this happens all the time; it’s just a plausible scenario that I thought fit in the book.
Kate was a great protagonist, exactly the sort of female character I like. While the book does involve a goblin king, he really takes second stage. The entire story revolves around Kate. And, though this may be a little spoiler-y if you’re really picky about spoilers, it’s Kate who saves the day. In fact, we get a reverse Snow White moment at the end (minus a few things) that cements the idea that Kate is the star of the book, even when she’s in a different land.
This book reminded me a little of The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, a book that I wasn’t expecting to like and then was hooked by it the more I read. I loved this book. I can’t say it was fantastically written, but there was some sort of quality to it that grabbed me from the beginning. And that’s one of the most important qualities a book can have.
Disclaimer: Lady of a Thousand Treasures, by Sandra Byrd, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Lady of a Thousand Treasures takes us to the world of art-collection fiends in Victorian England, starring the female curator/evaluator Eleanor and the intrigue, drama, and danger she faces after unearthing the seedy underbelly of the art world. There’s also romance because of course there is.
I did really like seeing into the art collection side of Victorian England. There was a lot of depth and explanation in every aspect of Eleanor’s job. There was also some subtle looks into females trying to establish their own careers and their own footing—the real-life Lady Charlotte Schreiber (first female accepted into a previously all-male curators club) and Elizabeth Garrett (first female physician in England) make appearances. Dante Rossetti shows up, too—you know, the brother of Christina Rossetti, of “Goblin Market” fame.
So, basically, I really loved the setting. The plot paled in comparison. There’s intrigue, and suspicion, and forgeries, and scandal, and debts, which sounds very exciting and tense, but to be honest, I spent most of my time wondering why Eleanor made the decisions she did. She is too quick to trust in one scenario, and too quick to doubt in another. She does really stupid things, then follows those up with some swift, quick-thinking decisions that are smartly thought-out. As a character, she is all over the place. I liked the mystery aspect of the plot, but the characters didn’t hold up on their end.
The romance was okay—nothing special. It ends as inevitably as you might suspect, with as much drama and progression as you might expect. I didn’t really like that Harry was used as a device to fuel Eleanor’s doubt, and then swoop in and get her out of trouble, and the parts involving him, his father’s collection, and the secret rooms in his house were some of the most confusing in the novel.
I loved the setting, mostly enjoyed the plot, and tolerated the characters in Lady of a Thousand Treasures. It didn’t blow me away, but I didn’t have strong feelings in the negatives towards it, either. It was an average book for me. I liked it better than many other Christian fiction I have read.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2012 by Hyperion.
I really enjoyed Wein’s Black Dove White Raven, and I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity, so I was hoping for a good story. And the book delivered by giving me a twisty, complex plot all wrapped into a World War II setting (one of my favorites).
I was expecting a straightforward novel, but straightforward is not the word to describe this book. It starts out simple enough, but by the last half of the book Wein has completely turned the tables on the reader, upending everything he thought he knew. There’s spy intrigue, acute danger, friendship, and, of course, lots of piloting, something that shows up again in the other Wein book I’ve read. It completely upended my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And it has plenty of girl power, but not in that obvious, in-your-face sort of way that annoys me so much in other novels. This is girl power solidly set in history, which makes it great.
I was rooting for a happy ending the entire novel, but Wein follows through on the historical accuracy and delivers a gutwrenching finale, displaying how sometimes there are no easy choices to make and that the best decision doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. It’s a solid reminder that moral decisions can be hard to make and that in wartime, sometimes the best thing to do is the last thing you ever wished would happen.
Code Name Verity navigates friendship in wartime, how bonds are made and broken, and courage in the face of danger and death. I could have done without some of the swearing, but it did authenticate the voices of the characters. And the complexity of the plot will always stand out in my mind as an extremely pleasant surprise and a stand-out of the book.
Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that you don’t ever really forget. I first read this book maybe 15 years ago (wow! It feels weird saying that!) and I’ve never forgotten the ending. The majority of the content I did forget, and it was surprising to me to read it again (more on that later), but the ending stuck with me.
There are many things to like about this novel: the depiction of a boy/girl friendship, a creative and imaginative boy protagonist, the focus on grief and how it is expressed in different ways and the subversion of the “men don’t cry” attitude. The emphasis on imagination and its power is especially well done, in my opinion.
What surprised me the most was some of the content, which to me made the novel seem a little inappropriate for children. However, it was written in the 70s, so maybe that explains the change, though today I don’t think some things are expressed that were expressed in this book. There are many exclamations of “Lord” throughout, which isn’t so problematic, I suppose (I didn’t even remember that being in the book), but the one thing that struck me was the inappropriate incest joke made by May Belle and then continued by Jess. My skin crawled when I read that part.
Bridge to Terabithia is pretty much the quintessential Newbery Medal: slice-of-life, centered story with tragic events. I loved a lot of the aspects of this book, especially the creative boy protagonist and the boy/girl friendship, but some of it I didn’t like so much. I also think Paterson is still a bit too strange of a writer for me (i.e., Jacob Have I Loved).
Down to the Bonny Glen has always been my favorite of the Martha books. It’s longer than the others and is mostly concerned with the character development and growth of Martha. Martha is more than just a spirited young girl in this book—she’s now finally starting to realize that she’s the daughter of a laird, and in that sense she’s quite different from other children around her.
This conflict is sown all throughout the book—Martha’s awkwardness around her friends, her brother and his friends’ hesitation at seeing one another after Duncan comes back from school, Martha’s realization that as a laird’s daughter she has different expectations. And yet we also see her determination to not let things like that bother her, to push past barriers and boundaries and do what she wants to do. We see that in her eagerness to cook and her parent’s appall at the thought of her cooking for a living, we see that in her desire to go to America, to have adventure, to play outside instead of sit in and sew. And we see that in the hints and subtle indication that connect Martha and the blacksmith’s son, Lewis Tucker.
Other than the character development, Martha also gets some personal growth in terms of her rashness and thoughtlessness. Her new governess helps by channeling Martha’s energy into suitable tasks and by the end of the book, Martha is much more careful without having lost any of her spiritedness.
The Martha Years will never be as memorable or long-lasting as the Little House books, but Down to the Bonny Glen is the highlight of the series, chock-full of thoughtless Martha, interesting events (my favorite is Martha and Grisie cooking for the house), and lots of character development.
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.
The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.
I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.
However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.
As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.
The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.
Robin McKinley is an author who I like to think writes “specialized” fantasies—fantasies revolving around a particular element or thing. For example, Rose Daughter revolves around the growing and cultivating of roses. Chalice is about bees.
Robin McKinley is also an author who really enjoys lengthy, detailed descriptions of that particular element or thing. I mentioned that in Spindle’s End, she got so loquacious it was hard to bear at times. I noticed the same thing when rereading The Blue Sword. Chalice is like that as well, which isn’t a bad thing if you like her style of writing. I’m on the fence about it, but I actually ended up really enjoying Chalice.
McKinley does go on and on about bees and honey, but she manages to meld it nicely into her world. One thing about McKinley is that she does tend to fling you right into her world; it actually took me a few dozen pages before I really got a feel for the world and what Mirasol’s role as Chalice was. Plus, she has a tendency to go forward and backward in time without much warning, which makes details a little harder to fit.
Pacing and other stylistic elements aside, I really liked the characters and the story. Once I understood how the world works, I got very involved in the whole idea of the Chalice—someone who is responsible for keeping things together, basically, merely with a cup and some mixture. The romance sneaks up at the end almost unnecessarily, but at least there’s some background for it. There’s not that much action in the book, at least in terms of fighting, but there are some tense scenes that help disguise the fact that not much actually happens in the book until the very end.
Robin McKinley’s writing is an acquired taste, I think, and though I like the devotion and the time she takes to craft and develop the particular element of her fantasy (like bees or roses), it does lead to uneven pacing. However, once the action of Chalice got started, and I understood the world more, and I grew more attached to the characters, I really enjoyed it. I just wish there had been a little more “oomph” to the story as a whole.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, was published in 1984 by Vintage.
I like the vignette style of writing better than the poetry style of writing, and The House on Mango Street weaves the vignettes together into a (mostly) cohesive story of Esperanza and her neighbors. The stories are mainly about Esperanza and the people around her, though a few of them are more about her feelings or observations.
I say mostly cohesive because the jump from topic to topic, and the seemingly random stories about clouds or trees, break up the overarching story of Esperanza. “But those stories are important to her life and character,” you might say. And you’re probably right. If I were studying this book, exploring it for its literary quality and experience, I might agree. But reading it as I did, to experience it for the first time without really delving into it, some of it seems disjointed.
The vignettes are beautifully written, even some of the more random ones, and Cisnero’s description of a Latina girl growing up in a poor neighborhood and her experiences with her family, her neighbors, the people she meets, are striking and vivid. Many of the vignettes end in a tantalizing way, hinting but never showing, while others reveal a darker side of things that are never further addressed or resolved. This is “slices of life” at its most realistic: the things people notice, day to day, the interesting stories they hear, are highlighted. Perhaps that’s why The House on Mango Street also feels disjointed at times: people’s observations and thoughts aren’t always smoothly connected together.
I can see why this book is put on high school reading lists. It was one of my high school’s picks for summer reading, though I read The Joy Luck Clubinstead. Though I can’t say I really liked the book, I can complement its beautiful writing, its portrayal of Latino culture, and its insight. The House on Mango Street is a book that should be savored, and while I didn’t have the time to savor it, I can at least see the potential in returning to it and taking the time to soak it all in.
Lasky continuously finds new ways to amplify the threat of the Pure Ones in each successive book of the series. They start out as a mysterious rumor, to a dreadful shadow, to a fully realized evil. In The Siege, if the author’s note didn’t make it clear enough, the Pure Ones are basically the Nazis. As the title suggests, they lay siege to the Ga’Hoole tree and the Guardians have to fight them off.
The first half of the book, though, deals with the infiltration of St. Aggie’s to weed out the Pure One spies. That’s right—Soren and Co. become spies in order to catch other spies. It’s a great little callback to the first book, and also shows just how far the characters have come in terms of strength and courage. And there’s a great reveal in this book—let’s just say a character in the first book returns in a surprising, amazing way.
Lasky has simplistic views of morality and good and evil laced throughout the book, so while it’s perfect for children, I found it a trifle tedious and boring at times. The long bits of dialogue are especially hard to read. And in this book, Lasky herself stated she “modeled” Ezylryb’s speechs after Winston Churchill’s, and it shows. Ezylryb’s speeches have a ring of familiarity to them, and one strong enough that I had to wonder if Lasky was phoning it in, relying on someone else’s material to make her point rather than try and create speeches of her own. It fits the stark lines she has drawn, but I do prefer a little bit more nuance. Adult tastes opposing the target audience of the book, I know.
I found some confusion at the end in regards to Dewlap’s role, as it is never clearly explained, but overall the book is well balanced, with lots of setup at the beginning, a decent action-filled scene at the end, and lots of setup for the next two books in the series. I’m not a fan of certain aspects of the writing style, but I’m still drawn to this series and what it can teach its audience about good versus evil.