The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society brings to middle grade readers (at least to those who like LONG books) a standalone story of secrets, lies and hiding places.

Reuben is a loner, a poor boy and an only child who lives with his single mother in a small apartment on the wrong side of the city. He spends his days in solitary exploring, finding hidden nooks and crannies in the crumbling city of New Umbra. He spends his evenings watching TV or designing dream mansions with his mom. Then, one day he finds a hidden object, an object that bestows great power on its owner, but also an object that is sought for by a lot of very, very bad people, including the arch-villain of New Umbra who is known only as The Smoke. Can Reuben unlock the secrets of his newfound magical powers before The Smoke finds him and takes his discovery away?

Reuben comes to realize that he must destroy the Ring of Power, but in order to do he must enter into The Smoke’s lair. And he must give up the only thing that has ever made him feel special and protected and powerful. Whoops, not a ring, but you get the idea; there are definitely echoes of Lord of the Rings here, at least plot-wise, although the setting is completely different. No hobbits, no elves, no dwarfs, no wizards. Instead, the setting is darker and grittier than Middle Earth, in a fear-ridden city ruled by a crime lord whose influence stretches into the most hidden and secret sectors of New Umbra.

Borrowed plot notwithstanding, The Secret Keepers was a fun ride. It will appeal to the kind of kid who likes finding secret hiding places, concealing buried treasures, and designing dream mansions with trap doors and secret passageways. The book is 500 pages long, so if you can’t take 500 pages of secrets and pursuits and getaways and traps and puzzles, this book isn’t for you. But if that sort of thing appeals to you, as it does to me, The Secret Keepers is just as much fun as The Mysterious Benedict Society was.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson

The first question you must ask yourself before you decide to read this book: can you accept the premise of the cremated ashes of his deceased father speaking aloud from the funeral urn to a twelve year old boy? Second question: do you like golf? If you answer both of these questions in the affirmative, this book is for you. If you can deal with the talking ashes, but you’re not much of a golf fan, you might still want to go along fro the ride. (I did.)

Ben Hogan Putter (get the pun, “putter”, as in golf?) just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world. That’s where Ben’s daddy, Bo Putter, wants his ashes to rest: Augusta National Golf Club.

On the journey from his home in Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, Georgia, Ben Putter acquires a traveling companion, a girl named Noni. The two of them beg, borrow, and steal their way across country to get to Augusta in time for the Masters Tournament. Both children have secrets, and both have daddy issues. The suspense in the story is tied up in whether or not they will be able to get to Augusta in time for the Masters, but also in how the two will resolve their respective relationships with their fathers. It’s a tearjerker, very emotional.

Almost too emotional. Ben Putter works out years of grief, anger, estrangement and misunderstanding over the course of a few days. And Noni has a deep-seated trauma of her own to work though. There are several very sentimental and pathos-filled scenes in which Ben Putter talks to his dad, in which the two children take a stand against the segregationists of the early 1970’s, in which Noni forgives and reconciles with her father, in which Ben says good-bye to the father who never really understood him. Much Sturm-und-Drang. Father issues. Tears and trials.

But it’s not a bad little Mississippi, golfing, and dealing with death story.

Moo by Sharon Creech

Author Sharon Creech and her husband now live in Maine, “lured there by our grandchildren.” She writes, “Moo was inspired by our mutual love of Maine and by our granddaughter’s involvement in a local 4H program. We have all been enchanted by the charms of cows.”

So Moo is a book centered on the charms of both Maine and cows. Although it took me a while to be charmed, by the end of the book, I was. I don’t think this one is great literature or great poetry, but it is a nice little nugget of endearment. Twelve year old Reena and her family move from the city, probably New York City, to rural Maine. Reena and her seven year old brother Luke go to “help out” their elderly neighbor Mrs. Falala (Fa-LA-la) at her house which hosts a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake called , and most notably, cow, Zora. It’s a typical set up: a crochety, unapproachable, eccentric old person becomes the best friend and mentor to a child or children; in this case Reena and Luke are the children. It’s rather predictable, but sweet, too. The cow, Zora, is “ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to anybody, and was selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust.” (punctuation added)

The book is written in part poetry, part prose, part prose poem. It could have used some more punctuation and fewer visual effects and typological devices and line breaks. The story was funny, the language and imagery were effective and vivid, but I was distracted by the entrances and exits into poetry and non-poetry and sort of poetic. I have a daughter who loves verse novels, partly, I think, because of all the space on the pages and because of the rich language. She is not much of a reader, but she has a rich vocabulary and enjoys words and language. However, I’m not sure if she would like this novel or not. It’s neither fish nor fowl, neither all prose nor all poetry. Maybe a good transition?

Read it if you want to gain a deeper appreciation for the charms of cows.

My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, epigraph to My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson,

“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” ~Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers, quoted in My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Twelve year old Gracie didn’t know that when her mother gave her a diary for her birthday, the coming year would be the most exciting and momentous of her life. Garcie lives in the prosaic town of Cliffden, Maine where “nothing terrible or exciting ever happens.” Baseball games, science lectures, school, watching Extreme Witches on TV, playing in puddles after a rain, collecting fallen dragon scales—these are the rather mundane things that make up Gracie’s life with her mother, a professional violinist turned homemaker, her father, an abstracted and absent-minded meteorologist, her older sister Millie, the beautiful, graceful one, and her little brother Sam, nicknamed the Mouse.

Gracie lives in an alternate universe version of Planet Earth. Gracie’s Earth is flat, and it is home to lots of creatures that are only mythological on our Planet Earth. Witches, dragons, (destructive) mermaids, pegasi, sasquatches, ghosts, and other myths are all real in Gracie’s world. And Dark Clouds come for people when they die.

When it looks as if a Dark Cloud has come for Sam the Mouse, Gracie’s family decides to outrun fate (or death) and try to escape to the Extraordinary World where dragons and ghosts and Dark Clouds don’t exist. Gracie’s dad is the only one she knows of who actually believes that the Extraordinary World really exists and that it might be possible to to get there from the edge of their world, but anything is worth trying to save Sam.

Okay. So “quirky” and “weird” are appropriate descriptors for this middle grade fantasy that is more of a family in crisis story than an adventure story. Gracie’s family crosses the continent in an old Winnebago, and they encounter monsters and wonders beyond imagination. They also learn to trust one another and to forgive each other. I thought the book was poignant and emotional at times, and the story was intriguing. However, the use of (fallen) angels as just another mythological-but-real-in-this-world set of characters marred the book to some extent. I wish the author had chosen some creatures other than angels to be her guardian protectors in this otherworld, since “one of these things is not like the others.” Angels may be mysterious, but they’re not mythological in the same way that witches and ghosts are.

Gracie’s world is also beholden to or ruled over by “the gods”, like Zeus(?), but they are barely mentioned in the story. At one point in the diary when Gracie and her family have been saved from certain doom by the quick thinking and action of a good friend and by fortuitous circumstance, Gracie writes, “‘Thank you,’ I whispered to no one in particular. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”

It reminds me of this song by Andrew Peterson:

Anyway, Gracie and her family are looking for a savior, a place of refuge, and maybe even for Someone to thank. You’ll be intrigued, if you read the book, to see whether or not they find what they’re looking for.

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

Vanguard One Middle School has a new student: Fuzzy, a state-of-the-art, highly intelligent robot with speech recognition language processing, facial recognition software, and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy is nearly human, but not quite. And Vanguard One Middle School is nearly under the complete control of other, more specifically tasked robots, in particular Vice-Principal Barbara who practically runs the entire school from her secret control center in Room 43.

Max, short for Maxine, is tired of Vice-Prinicpal Barbara and her constantly issued discipline tags (which are sent automatically and immediately to parents), but Max is also fascinated by the new student, Fuzzy, and the possibilities inherent in a robot student who re-programs himself in response to new data. While Vice-Principal Barbara is doing everything she can to execute the Constant UpGrade program (#CUG) and achieve the goal of a perfect school—ever higher test scores, ever fewer discipline problems, ever cheaper and more efficient to run—Max and Fuzzy are getting to know one another and become friends, as much as a human being can become friends with a fuzzy logic robot.

What a great story! While it lampoons the current educational culture of constant testing and computer idolization, the book also shows readers the possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge robotic technology. It just might be coming any day now to a school or workplace near you. Many years ago, Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey asked the question, “with artificially intelligent computers (or robots), will we continue to control the technology, or will the technology take over and control us?” This story is a variation on that theme, with humor, for middle grade readers. It’s not deep or prophetic or philosophical, but it does introduce the thought that technology may be both a blessing and a curse.

And it’s just a fun story. Enjoy the story. Then, if you want, spend some time thinking about the questions: What separates humans from artificially intelligent computers or robots? Could robots have feelings? Could they make you have an emotional response? Have you ever felt sorry for or angry with Siri? What happens if a computer is programmed to override its own programming?

Two Magical Sixth Grade Reads with Dating Issues

Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel.
Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper.

These books were similar in many ways. Our female protagonist in each book is a bit of a misfit, even an outcast, with a poor self-image and an innate limitation that exacerbates that problem. In the book Fortune Falls, Sadie is an Unlucky who lives in a town, Fortune Falls, where superstitions such as breaking your mother’s back when you step on a crack, are true laws of nature. In Sticks and Stones, Elyse suffers with CAV, a condition that causes the words that people use to describe her, good and bad, to appear in bold print on her arms and legs. The bad words, like “loser” or “klutz” or worse, itch ferociously; the good words, like “adorable” or “cool” or “sweet”, feel warm and comforting.

So Sadie is looking for a way to transcend her bad luck or even change it into good luck, while Elyse is just trying to survive or avoid the bad words people throw at her and glean lots more compliments and good words. Both of these problems speak to fears that middle schoolers (and many adults) often have: What if I’m just a born loser? What if I never do get into the “cool kids crowd”? Do I really want to be cool? On the other hand, do I want to see myself, and have others see me, as a pathetic outcast for the rest of my life? It’s the basic “Who am I really?” question. (By the way, there’s a black cat that figures prominently in Fortune Falls, but said cat has a bobbed tail. Cover error!)

Sadie answers the questions both by finding a little luck along the way and by accepting her luckless self as she is. These two solutions conflict somewhat and really beg the question. Sadie says she’s OK because she managed to work within the rigged system and grab some luck or because she believes she’s OK, and that’s enough. Elyse answers the “who am I really?” question by accepting her words, both good and bad, and by deciding not to apply bad words to herself. I’m not sure the resolution in either story is adequate. Bad words can hurt, even if you’re determined to not internalize them. And bad luck, in a town like Fortune Falls where luck is a real thing, could really damage or even kill.

Both Sadie and Elyse have friend issues, issues with “mean girls”, and boyfriend issues—all in the sixth grade. Sticks and Stones, in particular, has a heavy, heavy emphasis on sixth graders dating, even though it’s pretty tame dating, holding hands, kissing, breaking up, going steady, not at all what I would like to see sixth graders worrying about. Stereotypical “mean girls” are in both books. In Sticks and Stones, Elyse’s best friend joins the mean girls clique for no discernible reason. Both books have lots of name-calling. A sort of/kind of therapeutically good ending doesn’t make up for all the angst (at 12!) in the middle. I think sixth grade is way too young for the boyfriend/dating thing to figure so prominently in the stories, but it’s more and more of a theme in middle grade fiction. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but eleven and twelve year olds are too young to have boyfriends and dates and jealousy over boys and breaking up and going steady. If it’s happening anyway in sixth grade, we need to discourage, not encourage, it.

Aside from the boyfriend/girlfriend nonsense, these are readable and serviceable, not for my library, but you may get better mileage than I did.

The Luck Uglies: Rise of the Ragged Clover by Paul Durham

Rise of the Ragged Clover is the third, and I assume final, book in the Luck Uglies series. It’s been a good story from the beginning. Riley (Rye) O’Chanter and her family and friends fight against unnumbered foes, including the corrupt Earl Morningwig Longchance and his family, a multitude of Bog Noblins, the treacherous Fork-Tongue Charmers, and in this new book, Shriek Reavers and a River Wyvern. In an uneasy coalition with the Luck Uglies, outlaws who protect the town of Drowning, sometimes, Rye and her friends try to protect the weak and the innocent, but end up in dangerous and morally ambiguous situations over and over again until the final climax of the story has Rye face an impossible choice: let the Bog Noblins destroy Drowning or drown the town in a flood that might kill everyone anyway.

I really did like the story, but the moral ambiguity and ends-justify-the-means reasoning was too much for my sensibilities, which have admittedly been scarred by this election season. However, these are some of the nuggets of “wisdom” that Rye’s father drops, and I just couldn’t help applying them to our own national leadership crisis. This kind of advice (moral relativism) has led us to where we are now.

“Sometimes only the bad guys can save you. Sometimes it takes a villain to save you from the monsters.”

I can’t help it. I’m reading: “Sometimes we have to vote for the lesser of two evils. Sometimes only a strong, bad, guy is strong enough to shake things up and save us from a really evil and worse fate.” Consequentialism, blech.

” . . . a leader’s choices are sometimes impossible ones. The right decision may not be the best, and the best decision can be both right and wrong. So a real hero can only follow her heart.”

And what if “her heart” leads her to justify the killing of unwanted babies or what if “his heart” says he must kiss every girl he is attracted to? What if the hero’s heart is desperately wicked and deceptive?

“That magic, your unique abilities, they’re already within each of you. All you needed was something to believe in. And sometimes it’s easier to believe in a charm or a totem than it is to believe in ourselves.”

Again with the believe in yourself/follow your heart Disney-esque advice. And if you find it difficult to believe that you are a god and your heart is always right, make yourself a harmless little idol to convince you of your own omnipotence.

Finally in the end, Rye makes the right decision about her future, but again it’s just based on her feelings. She doesn’t feel like becoming a tough outlaw chieftain in order to bring about good for the town, the Luck Uglies, and her friends:

“I don’t want to use fear as a weapon and struggle for power. I don’t want to be the one to lead the Luck Uglies out of the dark if it means I must first step into the shadows myself.”

But the contorted, murky, and turgid moral reasoning that comes before that fine declaration is not what I needed to read in this contorted, murky, and turgid swamp of a political season. And the story itself is morally ambiguous, wth the bad guys sometimes seemingly not so bad, or least there’s always something badd-er for the villains to fight against and thereby become somewhat redeemable. I needed clear, bright lines between good and evil, lucid and rational ethical thought, and a real hero who trusts in some standard besides her own heart. I tend to believe that we all need those things, especially kids, especially now.

Maybe the timing was wrong for me to read this book. Maybe (probably) I’m loading way too much baggage onto a middle grade fantasy novel. If you enjoyed the first two books in the series, you’ll probably like this one, too. I would suggest that you read the three books in the trilogy in order. There are a lot of characters and creatures to keep straight, and I don’t think jumping into the middle (or the last third) of the story will work well for this one.

My review of the first two book in the Luck Uglies series (in which I was bothered by the moral ambiguity of the novels).

What’s New in the Library, Mid-October 2016

Here are some new books added to my private subscription library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library:

Adventures of Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman. An I Can Read book. This book includes three Morris the Moose books: Morris the Moose, Morris Goes to School, and Morris and Boris at the Circus. For some reason, maybe because Morris’s friend is named Boris or because the illustrations are kind of goofy and cartoonish, this series always reminds me of the old cartoon of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I’m going to have to get those out and watch sometime. In the meantime early readers should enjoy the antics of Morris the Moose and Boris the Bear.

Veronica on Petunia’s Farm by Roger Duvoisin. More of my favorite animal picture book characters. Veronica the Hippopotamus visits Mr. Pumpkin’s farm where Petunia the Goose and her friends give her a not-so-warm welcome.

Geraldine Belinda by Marguerite Henry. This picture book/easy reader by Ms. Henry, the author of all those horse book including King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague, is not about horses, but rather about a little with twenty-five whole pennies to spend. Published in 1942, the adventures of Geraldine Belinda Marybel Scott include a trip to the store all on her own, an adventure in acquisition and loss, and a resolution that teaches a lesson. One of Geraldine’s purchases is a little “colored doll”, cute as can be, but if the appellation “colored” bothers you, you should discuss with your young reader or listener.

Dan Frontier Goes Exploring by William Hurley. Dan Frontier stars in a series of books for young readers. This one is about second grade reading level. In it, our hero fights with the Indians and rescues a kidnapped girl, White Dove, from them. If that’s problematic, find another series, but this one is well-loved, especially with boys.

The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis. Michael’s great-great aunt Dew is a hundred years old, and she has a penny in her box for every single year of her life. Michael’s mother wants to throw away the old broken box and buy a new container for the pennies, but Michael and Aunt Dew are horrified by the idea. Newbery Honor book.

If You Lived in Colonial Times by Ann McGovern. Answers to a series of questions about colonial America, such as: Where did people buy their clothes? What did people eat? What did people do on Sunday? How did people get the news? Where did people take baths? What games did boys like? What did girls like to do?

If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island by Ellen Levine. Another question and answer history book, this time about immigrants through Ellis Island in 1892 and following. “Why did people come to America? How long would the ocean trip take? How did people learn English? What was the Staircase of Separation?”

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Clarissa Hutton. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. I had to get this one because I love Brett Helquist’s pictures. And I think middle grade readers could enjoy an abridged version of The Three Musketeers. It’s one of my favorite adventure stories. Did you know that this book opens in the year 1625? It’s contemporary with the Pilgrims!

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. My copy of this wonder-filled Newbery classic disappeared somehow, so I was happy to find another one.

The Willow Whistle by Cornelia Meigs. About Mary Anne, a girl growing up on a frontier trading post, her friend Eric, a Norwegian immigrant who teaches her make a willow whistle, and their friend Gray Eagle, who becomes their mentor and rescuer. Some people won’t like the portrayal of Native Americans in this book, superstitious and quick to take offense, but I thought it was good story by a talented author.

For more information on Meriadoc Homeschool Library hours, days, and policies, see the MHSL webpage.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier

“The most priceless possession of the human race is the wonder of the world. Yet, latterly, the utmost endeavors of mankind have been directed towards the dissipation of that wonder . . . Nobody, any longer, may hope to entertain an angel unawares, or to meet Sir Lancelot in shining armor on a moonlit road. But what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?” ~Kenneth Grahame, epigraph at the beginning of Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

What indeed? Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, a sort of companion novel to Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is full of wonderment and adventure and storytelling and friendship and bravery and magic. The antagonists in the book either want squash nonsense (stories, magic, wonder) or to use the magic for nefarious and selfish purposes. Sophie, a twelve year old book mender and reader of all sorts of stories, wants to preserve and guard the stories, which brings me to my only quibble with this book itself. Sophie finds out fairly early in the story that she is the Last Storyguard, so I’m not sure why the book is called Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard. I guess the symmetry with Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes was too much to resist.

Peter Nimble does return to play a major role in this novel. He is Sophie’s rescuer, even when she doesn’t want to be rescued, her helper, especially when the skills of a Master Thief are called for, and her admirer, although the admiration is abashed and from afar. Peter Nimble is accompanied by the intrepid Sir Tode, part cat, part horse, part human, and Sophie picks up her own sidekick along the way, an enormous silver tigress named Akrasia. Together these friends adventure across the Grimmwald and through the city of Bustleburgh to stop the villains who are planning to stop, destroy and immolate all nonsense (stories, magic, wonder, books!).

I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking. The themes, implied in the Grahame epigraph, and demonstrated throughout the story, have to do with the power of stories and the need for magic, good and bad, and wonder, in a life that is worth the living. The book never comes out and says so, but one of the ideas that I gleaned was that it is necessary to have choices and villains to fight and goodness to aspire to for our stories to make sense. For reasons we do not, perhaps cannot, fully understand, it is God’s plan for the wheat and the tares to grow together until the judgment day (see Matthew 13:24-30). Maybe I’m getting too philosophical in response to a children’s fantasy book, but that’s the way my mind works.

Enjoy the story. Guard the stories. After all, what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?


Sherry Early, Bookmender, Preservationist, Librarian, Storyguard.

The Eye of Midnight by Andrew Brumbach

I read this book for my Cybils speculative fiction panel, but it’s really fairly straightforward, if unbelievable, adventure fiction set in 1929 New York City. There is a jinni and a magic mirror, but it’s never clear in the story whether these things are actually magical or whether the mirror in particular is just a Macguffin that some of the characters believe contains magical power while others use it to deceive the superstitious masses.

They peered at the package in the sickly light of the corner streetlamp. Nura lifted the lid with trembling fingers, and the cousins gazed at last upon the strange object for which they had risked their lives.
“What is it?” William asked.
“The Eye of Midnight,” replied Nura. “The Key to Paradise.”

On a stormy May day William and Maxine, cousins who hardly know each other, meet at the home of their mutual grandfather, Colonel Battersea. Soon after their arrival, Grandpa receives a telegram which takes the three of them to New York City to meet up with a courier who is bringing a special, secret package to Colonel Battersea. From there, the story rapidly becomes more and more frenzied, dangerous, and desperate as the children try to rescue Grandpa, find the lost package, decide whether or not to trust the courier, a girl named Nura, and work out their own new-found friendship. Along the way they encounter a gang of assassins, murderous gangsters, a helpful motorcyclist, and a cemetery full of secrets.

There were things I liked about this story, and things I didn’t. I liked the Indiana Jones feel to the story and the references to Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia. I liked the three cousins working together to defeat the bad guys and rescue Grandpa. And I especially liked this scene toward the end of the novel:

On this evening, however, four pairs of eyes watched, transfixed, as the spider went about her work.
She moved with grace and dexterity, never hesitating, never perplexed by any riddle of engineering or architecture, as she crossed and recrossed her handiwork, tracing a memory.
“Who taught you how, little one?” murmured Grandpa as he watched. “When did God whisper the steps in your ear?”
Beside him Maxine stirred. Balling her fists, she snatched a napkin from the table and swept the web away.
“Hey, what’d you do that for?” said William.

The discussion of the spider and about God goes on from there. It’s a good vignette.

The parts I didn’t like involve the writing itself and the choice of villains. I’m not sure it’s the right time in history to present a story about evil, murderous Arabic Hashashin (assassins) who are tying to destroy New York City and take over the world. I know that the Old Man of the Mountain and his servants were a staple of European bogey-man tales of medieval Islamic enemies, but just now when there are actual murderous jihadist terrorists who are trying to infiltrate the United States, perhaps through New York City, and when prejudices and fears are high, it might not be best to present it all in story form for middle grade readers. Also Mr. Brumbach’s writing is sometimes good, but sometimes clunky and awkward, often cliched. (Like mine, but I’m not writing a book.) Example: “Maxine shrank back inexplicably. The thing was not pleasant to her sight.”

You get the idea. Read it for a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type adventure story, ignore the modern day parallels between the Hashashin and ISIS, and skip over the occasional lack of elegance. Not bad for a debut.