Category Archives: Middle-Grade Lit Review

“Middle-Grade” books are aimed at audiences between approximately the 4th & 8th grade.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict SocietyThe Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Plot: Four child prodigies are recruited to help save the world.

Who needs more than that?

I love puzzles, precocious children with immense responsibility, and good, fun writing, so The Mysterious Benedict Society was definitely for me. How about you?

Trenton Lee Stewart says on the jacket that the idea for the book came from a chess riddle he thought up on the way to a restaurant. By the time he got there, he knew he had to write this book. (And I’m so glad he did!)

The characters are smart in different ways. Each one on his or her own would not have the power to save the world, but – together – they just might. I appreciated Stewart’s depiction of different kinds of brilliance.

This is ever so slightly a spoiler, but you’d know who the four heroes are by the end of the second chapter anyway and I want to demonstrate how marvelous and varied they are. I love that (and the fact that Stewart managed to surprise me a time or two in the ending!) about this book.

*Kate is capable of feats of physical prowess and spatial reasoning
*Sticky remembers everything he’s ever read and reads rapidly.
*Constance is incredibly precocious and outrageously stubborn.
*Reynie – our main character – is a puzzle solver, who sees how things fit together.

They are all geniuses, all different, all sad, and they form a deep bond.

If it is right for you, I hope you enjoy this silly, serious story.

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The Princess and The Goblin: Retro Review for the Nerdy Book Club!!!

Welcome, any Nerdy Book Club visitors! To any friends visiting, I am proud to be able to link to this post on my favorite blog, The Nerdy Book Club. This is the same post, except for this note. If you want to read this book, you can read it online for free – it is in the public domain. There’s a “Read It” button below the cover on the Goodreads page, if you want to check it out.

Once upon a time, deep in Amish country, a little girl fell in love with the fantastical adventures found in her books, especially the children’s stories by C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. The little girl grew older, moved three thousand miles across the country, and discovered countless other books. Still, once or twice a year, she would open an old book and sink into the story, pulling it all around her like the warmest, softest down comforter in the world.

Of course, I am who that little girl grew into. When I was invited to write a Retro Review, I jumped up and down a few times and then chose to write a Retro Review about one of my beloved “time machines.” Miraculously, instantaneously, this time machine can transport me back to my converted attic bedroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania or to a deliciously elicit 12am-on-a-school-night reading fest in our tiny house in Oregon City.

Here is a photo of the time machine in question:
The Princess and Curdie, 1964 Paperback

I am a Nerdy Book Club nerd; I read the blog religiously each morning. So, I knew I couldn’t do right by my task if I re-read my “time machine” copy of the book, because my memories lie interleaved in its pages, coloring my perceptions. So, I picked up a library copy for a fresh perspective. Here it is with my darling old one:
Something Old, Something Borrowed

And – I’ll be honest – it took me a few pages to get over the different edition. You know when you walk into your old high school and it’s been renovated but still has the same layout, and the posters are different yet familiar? The first two chapters were like that: uncanny. Unsettling.

Here’s the Princess and her King-Papa. The colored print is from the newer edition I picked up at the library; the black and white die cuts are much older.
New King-Papa
Old King-Papa

However, that feeling quickly faded. It doesn’t matter what window-dressing illustrations come with it, or whether or not the edition includes awkward introductory asides. The Princess and the Goblin is wonderful. It stands the test of time.

Yes, the language and the pacing are not contemporary – after all, it was published in 1872. Young readers still love monsters, princesses, and adventures. (Don’t we all? I know I do.) Especially when they are presented in a fresh, inventive, and honest way.

Sometimes, older texts feel staid because of the way they reflect the mores of their time. For instance, implicit sexism – negative or weak roles for women – can make a story less appealing to me. I did not have that problem with George MacDonald, because he did not write about weak, silly women. From my experience, he writes strong women better and more consistently than C.S. Lewis, who did pretty well, himself.

One of his strong female characters is the eponymous eight year old princess, Irene. She is and is written to be young, but she is courageous and good-hearted, and does as much rescuing as she gets rescued. She does receive help from a magical and omnipotent source, but if that discounts heroic efforts, you’ll find literature is a little scarce on “real” heroes. 🙂 In any case, she isn’t afraid to injure and dirty her hands digging at rocks for hours for the cause, which is impressive for any 8-year old, let alone a pampered princess!

Strong female number two is Princess Irene’s great-great grandmother, the ancient and striking woman who guides the heroes from her tower in a way that Gandalf will imitate in future literature, providing tools and opportunities throughout the story.

The third strong female is the mother of Curdie, the little miner boy who is the secondary protagonist to Princess Irene (SPOILER: Curdie is who the Princess rescues! He does get to rescue her one time, too, but you’ll have to read it and see who you think has the more impressive rescue…)

I love Curdie’s parents. They remind me of Linda Urban’s incredibly subtle, supportive and inspirational role models, the parents in A Crooked Kind of Perfect and the uncle in Hound Dog True. Curdie’s parents are more lightly drawn and less poetic, of course, but they have a similar energy. In her way, Curdie’s mother is just as impressive as the royal Irenes, and she plays a quiet yet crucial role in the story.

Not to lose sight of the action in the midst of my historical gender considerations, this book, of course, features exciting, goblin-related adventures. In fact, Curdie uncovers and tries to stop not one but TWO fiendish plots that the goblins have hatched!

When the book opens, the Princess has been kept in the dark about the very existence of goblins, let alone their dangerous grudge against the royal family… Meanwhile, Curdie is the most adept, among the miners, at inventing songs to rout out the foul creatures. Thus, it is obvious they must cross paths with each other (and with the goblins!) They do, and – as the book continues and schemes are revealed and enacted – the stakes are raised. Deaths are defied. Curdie’s faith in Princess Irene’s honesty and her own patience with those who do not believe her are solely tested.

In addition to the plot, MacDonald’s story is suffused with his belief in the possibilities of people. His message of seeking to be your best self is one that continues to ring true today, and in his gender-balanced and plot-driven novel, there is nothing to tarnish it. Humans today still need to work hard, to be forgiving, and to trust each other.

In summation, The Princess and the Goblin is a wonderful story I would recommend as a read aloud with an older or bolder young child or for curious readers of any age. Personally, I’d recommend a copy with the original black and white die cut illustrations, but you take your pick! Here are two final examples, featuring Curdie, the Princess, and an irritated Lootie:

Color Version: the Princess and Curdie
B&W Version: the Princess and Curdie

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Mini-Reviews: Books of the Week

This week, I read three new books and re-read one.

A longer post is in the works about the re-read (Ender’s Game, which I gave away 20 copies of on Tuesday), but I thought I’d do mini-reviews for the other three.

What I Read this Week

1) Slam! by Walter Dean Myers
Slam by Walter Dean Myers
(Read a library copy.)

Greg Harris – better known as Slam – is most at home on the basketball court, but not very comfortable anywhere else. Not in his mostly-white, mostly-not-from-Harlem magnet school. Not with his childhood friend, Ice, who he is sure isn’t in the drug scene (he knows better!), even if he is driving an awfully nice loaned car. Not with his mother, who is dealing with her mother’s illness. Not even with his girlfriend, Mitisha, who seems like she is always expecting something from him.

This is a great book for basketball lovers – I enjoyed it because Slam is a compelling character and is beautifully written and plotted like all Myers’ work that I’ve read, but it was sometimes hard for me to follow the detailed on-the-court action, since it used basketball jargon. It definitely brought back memories I’d forgotten I had of my own middle school, B-team basketball experiences! Slam’s love for basketball is magnetic and catching, and you definitely root for him as he struggles to gain the same confidence in the rest of his life. No easy answers, but a positive and hopeful ending. It felt real.

2) Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
(Read a library copy.)

What if a girl who is fully, oddly herself showed up in the middle of your school and started serenading people with her ukelele on their birthdays? AND, she’s named Stargirl! What would you do?

If you are protagonist Leo, the answer is: awkwardly, slowly, and then fully fall in love. And then, as the initial haze wears off, wonder if you can handle being fully yourself, too.

This book is beautiful. It’s a love letter to everything in it: the desert, high schools, young love, making mistakes. It is readable and lively. Highly recommended.

3)Loser by Jerry Spinelli
Loser by Jerry Spinelli
(Read a well-loved copy loaned to me by the youth who had recommended Stargirl, after I gushed about it to her. :))

Zinkoff is not a cool kid, but by golly he is enthusiastic and earnest! This book, told in a semi-omniscient narrator viewpoint, chronicles Zinkoff’s life from his first, free steps outside through 6th grade. In its pages, you see the world through Zinkoff’s eyes and marvel at his simplicity, innocence, and beauty.

Not as plot driven (although there is a plot), I can’t help but compare Loser to Stargirl, which I read first and Spinelli wrote AFTER Loser. I liked Stargirl more, personally, but I see the ways in which the two books are similar and different and find them fascinating. Stargirl is much more talented and aware than Zinkoff, but both reveal Spinelli’s fascination with the nonconformists and those who don’t note or care what others think about them.

Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in the Near Future:

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