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The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifford

We’re three for one
and one for three.
The Roquefort Gang
is who we are!
Though danger’s near
we think not twice
What’s there to fear?
ARE WE NOT MICE?

What is it about mice? They make excellent book characters. Illustrators can dress them up in all sorts of costumes, and authors can give them human personalities and have them walk around on their hind legs while brandishing swords or canes or other tools and weapons with their tiny front paws. They’re just cute little animals—at least as anthropomorphized in books. Favorite mouse characters include Reepicheep (Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis), Stuart Little (E.B. White), Bernard and Bianca (The Rescuers by Margery Sharp), Ralph S. Mouse (Beverly Cleary), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo, Mouse Minor (The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck), Ben Franklin’s mouse friend Amos (Ben and Me by Robert Lawson), Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman, Mary Mouse (The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman).

Of course, there are many, many more. And now Giovanni, Sid, and Marlowe, the three mice of the Roquefort Gang, join the crowd of my favorite mouse characters. In this short book, 79 pages, the French immigrant mouse, Nicole, meets the Roquefort Gang in the dangerous Wild-berry Lot, and the four mice go on a rescue mission, similar to the one in the book/movie 101 Dalmatians or in Mrs. Frisby.

For any reader who might enjoy the books in the list above and others like them, The Roquefort Gang would be an easy read in this same category. I thought it was lots of fun, and I was sorry to see that Ms. Clifton only wrote this one book about the gang. It was interesting to me to see, however, that CBS had a Saturday morning animated series called Storybreak back in the 1985, and one of the episodes was based on The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifton.

Just Like David by Marguerite de Angeli

Jan Bloom writes in her authors’ guide, Who Should We Then Read?:

“From her earliest days, Marguerite had a desire to draw and paint. When not yet two years old she experimented with some pastels she found next to a portrait her father was sketching. She knew she must not touch the face so she did a border around it, using every color in the box of pastels. Her parents were stern, but loving. She was scolded but not punished for her artistic expression.”

Marguerite was a professional singer before she married, but after her first three children were born, she began drawing, hoping to become an illustrator. The first drawing she sold was to a Sunday School publication. Her first book, fourteen years later, was Henner’s Lydia, about an Amish girl. Marguerite de Angeli won the Newbery Award for her story of a boy handicapped by polio during the Middle Ages, A Door in the Wall.

I found Just Like David on the shelf in one of the local thrift stores that I frequent, looking for bargain book treasures. I had never heard of this particular de Angeli title, but I knew from looking at the illustrations and sampling the story that it would be good. The book is 122 pages long with nice large print, hardcover and lots of pictures; it’s we would nowadays call a “beginning chapter book”. Just Like David tells the story of a five year old boy, Jeffrey, who wants to go to school like his older brother, David. But Jeffrey is not old enough to attend school in Pennsylvania where his family lives. However, when the family decides to move to Ohio for Father to take a new job, there’s a chance, just a little “if”, that Jeffrey might be able to go to school, too, just like David.

Most of the story is about the car trip from Pennsylvania to Ohio. It’s quite an adventure for Mother and Father and three small boys (baby Henry is two years old). That the journey takes place in another era (the book was published in 1951) is obvious from the details: no seatbelt, no carseat for Henry, tollgate tickets, and thermos bottles. Some of these details would need to be explained to present day readers or listeners, but it would be fun to read along until you came to an unfamiliar word or phrase and then discuss. Father explains many unfamiliar concepts to David and Jeffrey as they go on their long car trip and then later as they explore their new home and it environs: things like courthouses and county seats and turnpikes and Indian arrow heads and fossils and many other discoveries that the boys make along the way.

Similar to Ms. de Angeli’s other books, Just Like David is a gentle story about a child growing up in a loving family. It might be a little slow for today’s media-fed children, but if Mister Rogers and Carolyn Haywood and Laura Ingalls Wilder are about your speed, Just Like David might be just right, too.

I thought it was a delight, and I learned a new expression: “put your mouth!” I tried to look up this idiom, used several times in the book by Jeffrey, David and their family, on the internet, but I got some rather nasty results and nothing that defined the term as they used it. From context, I think it means something like “unbelievable” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Maybe it was something the de Angeli family said or an expression people in the midwest used back in the 1950’s. I rather like it and think I’ll try to revive the saying.

“I have eight of Mrs. de Angeli’s lovely books in my library now, and I’d be pleased as punch to have the rest of them!”
“Put your mouth!”

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

Kamran Smith, football star, West Point applicant, and homecoming king, has spent his entire life admiring, following, and emulating his older brother, Darius. But now Darius is accused of a heinous crime: Darius’s face is all over the news, and he’s acting like a terrorist. Can an Army Ranger, West Point graduate, and all-around good guy like Darius really be brainwashed or persuaded into joining al-Qaeda or some shadowy group of radical Muslim terrorists?

Code of Honor is a timely and opportune look at honor and treachery and the psychology of the family member of an accused terrorist. The action in the book is pretty much non-stop, and yet Kamran has time to think a lot about trust and and loyalty and commitment and whether or not people are good or bad or some mixture of the two. Karan’s unrelenting faith in his brother is a little hard to swallow since by all appearances Darius has changed and become an adherent of jihadism. And Kamran’s escape from a secure government facility (CIA prison) was really difficult to read without a large dose of suspension of disbelief. However, I went along for the ride and enjoyed it for the most part.

The book could have taken a deeper look at what makes someone decide to become a jihadist or terrorist, but that’s not the direction the author chose to take. Instead, it’s an action thriller for young adults with an understated moral lesson about not judging by appearances and keeping faith with friends and family. I can deal with that.

Other YA books about Afghanistan, terrorism, American military in Muslim countries, etc.:

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. The fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan.

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams. When Cam’s brother, Ben, returns from Iraq with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and confined to a wheelchair, Cam sees only one way to impress Ben and get him to work at his own recovery: a bull-riding challenge.

The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan (and sequels). A thriller series that celebrates faith, karate, self-defense, and American values without being didactic or cheesy.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan. Teenager Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney. Eleven year old American Billy is handed a mysterious package in a London Underground station, and his family’s lives are changed forever.

Giraffe Meets Bird by Rebecca Bender

An indeterminate but colorful species of bird meets a a large, mostly peaceful giraffe. Bird and Giraffe learn to share, live and let live, and eventually they face and conquer danger together.

This Canadian picture book opens with Bird flying, or perhaps dancing, off the edge of the front endpaper into the beginning of his growing friendship with Giraffe. However, the title page shows Bird’s egg beginning to crack open, and the real story begins at hatching. Giraffe and Bird are in turns surprised, amazed, fascinated, tickled, cross, angry, pleasant and polite as their unusual friendship moves through its successive phases. Then, danger unites the two friends, and they share in their escape together. On the final endpaper illustration, Giraffe gets his own picture, upside down and munching on a leaf.

I looked for “giraffe books” a few months ago when a teacher I know was doing a giraffe day in her ongoing series of animal mini-units. The only good giraffe-themed picture books I found in my library were Jaffa by Hugh Lewin, about an African boy who pretends to be different animals, and Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andrede, about courage to fail and self-expression. I may never be asked again for a set of books featuring giraffe characters, but if I am, Giraffe Meets Bird would be a nice addition to the other two.

It’s cute and light-hearted, and the illustrations, also by Rebecca Bender, are adorable, especially the expressive eyes, faces, and bodies of the two main characters. The story is a little illogical in a couple of places: at the end Bird and Giraffe say a tearful goodbye (to each other?) and then set off together. And they hide from danger together in a rather peculiar position. Nevertheless, I can overlook and suspend disbelief since the pictures and the story are just cute and engaging.

As it turns out, when I look on Amazon I see that Giraffe and Bird have been featured in two previous picture books written and illustrated by Ms. Bender, Giraffe and Bird and Don’t Laugh at Giraffe. Those two look delightful, too.

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

1944. Not all World War 2 stories, even those about prisoners, are about concentration camps and horror and death. Even those stories that exist in the shadow of death and destruction can be human and hopeful. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such hopeful war story about kindness and friendship.

Seven yer old Gerda’s father and brother have been “borrowed” by the German military to fight in the war. But the farm where Gerda and her mother and her four brothers and sisters live is necessary to the war effort, too. So the Nazi government sends three French prisoners of war to Gerda’s farm to help with the farm work.

The German families who were hosting the French prisoners were under strict orders not to treat them as family members or even as valued workers, but rather the prisoners were to be used as slave labor to support the German war effort and the feed the populace. However, Gerda’s mother tells her that the French men are only borrowed, that someday they will return to France, and in the meantime they are to be respected and well-treated. The growing friendship between little Gerda and the French prisoners demonstrates the possibility that even in a time of oppression, humanity can bloom.

The illustrations in this Canadian import are beautifully evocative of a rural island of peace in the midst of war. Renne Benoit, the illustrator, lives in Ontario, Canada, and the pictures remind me a little of photographs I have seen of the Canadian prairies, although the book is set in Germany. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are also quite similar in style to Renee Graef’s illustrations for the Little House picture books. If you like those pictures of cozy farm life, you’ll probably appreciate those found in The Year of Borrowed Men.

The story is based on the World War 2 experiences of the author’s mother. An afterword at the end of the book informs the reader that little Gerda, Ms. Barker’s mother, never saw her father and brother return from the war. She also never again saw the three Frenchmen who worked the farm after war was over, but she did remember the French “borrowed men” with fondness as “fruende” or “amis”.

I am pleased to add this picture book to the World War 2 section of my library as it gives a different perspective on the war and its many stories.

The Bomber’s Moon by Betty Vander Els

This fictional treatment of missionary children escaping World War II China reads almost like a memoir. In a brief search on the internet, I couldn’t find any information about the author, Betty Vander Els, but I would almost bet that this story is a fictionalized version of her own experiences or those of a very close friend. In the book in 1942 “Ruth”, about eleven years old, and her younger brother, Simeon, are sent away to an emergency boarding school for missionary kids so that they won’t end up in the concentration camp of Weihsien, captured by the approaching Japanese. However, their emergency school site is no safer from Japanese bombing raids than their homes were, and so the children are evacuated over the Himalayas to Calcutta.

The contrast between the children’s petty day-to-day concerns and the enormous events that are happening around them is one focus of this book. Ruth considers herself to be a naughty girl. She gets spanked (or strapped as the book calls it) a lot. But her infractions seem petty and inconsequential, too, for the most part: wandering away from the group, forgetting responsibilities, being disrespectful to teachers. Ruth’s concerns are to survive school and her nemesis, Miss Elson, and to take care of Simeon as her parents have charged her to do. The book paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like to see the war and its effects from a child’s point of view.

Ruth is a bit of an annoying child. She calls Simeon “dope” and “dummy” and “cowardly custard” and other such epithets frequently. She does forget to do her work, and she and her friend Anne play tricks on the teachers and band together to outwit the other children and get their own way. However, at the same time Ruth is quite concerned about taking care of Simeon, and she tries to teach him to be tough and to stand up to hardship. Simeon and his friend, Paul, are both daydreamers and and imaginers who run away, get lost, and find themselves in trouble with alarming frequency. And ever in the background and on the periphery of the children’s lives, there are Japanese bombers, American flyers, Chinese children, and Indian amahs. The setting is both exotic and dangerous, and Ruth and Simeon sashay through all the danger and foreign cultures with style and childlike confidence. In short, they act like children.

There’s a sequel (that I haven’t read) with the same characters called Leaving Point: “Home from boarding school to spend Christmas with their missionary parents, fourteen-year-old Ruth and her brothers find that the Communist Revolution has brought about many changes and new restrictions that complicate Ruth’s growing friendship with a young Chinese girl who may not be what she seems.” (Goodreads)

Web of Traitors by Geoffrey Trease

A mysterious plot to overthrow the democracy of Athens is foiled by young Alexis and his friend Corinna. The story includes appearances by Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, competition at the annual Athenian drama festival, and an exciting torch race through the countryside near Athens. Alexis, the Athenian second son of an Athenian nobleman, and Corinna, alien daughter of a cook and innkeeper, form an unlikely friendship when they meet out in the country near Alexis’s father’s farm. And the two of them discover that that the Spartans are in league with an exiled Athenian traitor to overthrow the Council and install themselves as dictators.

Subtitled “An Adventure Story of Ancient Athens” and originally published in England as The Crown of Violet in 1952, Web of Traitors is a good accompaniment to the study of ancient Greece in history. The student who reads this “adventure story” will be introduced to Athenian theater and sport, to the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, and to the culture and customs of Athens. However, this novel is not just a history book in disguise. The characters are fun and fresh and believable, and the story itself is intriguing enough to hold the interest of middle school readers, even of those who go into the novel with very little knowledge of interest in ancient Athens.

According to Jan Bloom’s author guide, Who Then Should We Read?, Geoffrey Trease, a British children’s author with a background in the classics and in theater, “once commented that he could write about any period if he could figure out what made those people laugh.” He wrote more than fifty historical novels for middle grade and young adult readers, set in all different time periods from the Athens of Socrates and Plato to the time of Shakespeare (Cue for Treason) to the French revolution (Victory at Valmy). His novels are said to combine historical accuracy, adventure, and a love of drama to make great reads.

Here are a few of Trease’s novels, along with the setting of each, that I would like to read and to own for my library:

Message to Hadrian: Roman Britain.
Escape to King Alfred: Ninth century during the reign of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.
Cue for Treason: Shakespeare’s England. I already own this one and plan to read it next.
The Silken Secret: Eighteenth century London and the beginnings of silk manufacture in England.
Victory at Valmy: French Revolution.
The Iron Tsar: St. Petersburg during the reign of Czar Nicholas I.
The White Nights of St. Petersburg: 1916, the Russian Revolution.
No Boats on Bannermere: contemporary with publication in the 1940’s.

In fact, I’m excited about reading as many of the books of Geoffrey Trease as I can get my hands on. I like this first book of his that I’ve read far better than I enjoyed the few books by G.A. Henty that I’ve read. Henty is popular among homeschoolers, but I think for exciting and informative historical fiction, I may decide that Trease is better.

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

“In the spell-powered city of Tarreton, the wealthy have all the magic they desire, while the working class can hardly afford a simple spell to heat their homes. Twelve year old Isaveth is poor, but she’s also brave, loyal, and zealous in the pursuit of justice–which is lucky, because her father has just been wrongfully arrested for murder.” (From the blurb on the front inside cover)

I enjoyed A Pocket Full of Murder for several reasons. First, the book combines two of my favorite genres: magical fantasy and murder mystery. The fantasy world in A Pocket Full of Murder is well-imagined, with lots of rich detail. There are fun, made-up, Lewis Carroll-esque words like “neevils” and “Duesday” and “gobblewit” that are novel, but pretty much self-explanatory in context, and not so plenteous that they become annoying. The society and culture are described through the words and actions of the characters, Isaveth and her family and Isaveth’s mysterious friend with an eyepatch, Quiz. Isaveth belongs to a religious minority called the Moshites (think Jewish or other religious minority), and Quiz is a street urchin turned detective, also jack-of-all-trades, who volunteers to help Isaveth as she works to clear her father’s name and find the real murderer. The story includes trade unions and nobility and a partly democratic government and a manufacturing base and merchants and class divisions—all sorts of interesting elements to explore in a fully envisaged society.

As far as the murder mystery part of the book is concerned, I’m not really very good at guessing the murderer, even though I’ve read lots of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers, and sure enough, I didn’t guess the villain in this one until near the end. That said, it was fairly obvious when the solution presented itself, and you may be better at solving mysteries than I am. I would guess that middle grade readers are more like me and won’t see the twist and turns until just before they read about them. R.J. Anderson says in her author blurb that she’s a fan of the Golden Age detective novels of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, and the influence shows in the book, but in a children’s bookish sort of way. The similarity of Isaveth and Quiz to Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey was just a hint, but enough to add a whimsical air to the mystery.

I also liked the themes embedded in the books. Again, the themes are subtle, no preachiness at all. But Isaveth learns to value her heritage and her religious beliefs, even though the Moshites are shunned and sometimes persecuted by the larger society of Tarreton. Politicians are shown to be sometimes corrupt, even those who seem to be promising to work on behalf of the poor and the working class. (Any application to current U.S. politics is purely a function of the universal truth that politicians don’t always follow through on their promises–and sometimes have purely selfish motives for their seeming altruism.) And truth and justice are the primary values of the minority in a city that is filled with corruption and injustice. I like the idea of teaching , through story, that truth will out in the end and that even though evil may not be completely defeated in this world at this time, it can be battled and foiled for a particular time in a particular place.

The ending is sufficiently satisfying to call it a happy ending, but also leaves an opening for a sequel. I would certainly like to revisit Isaveth and Quiz, and I think you might be in the same camp after reading A Pocket Full of Murder. And sure enough, the second book in the “Uncommon Magic” series, A Little Taste of Poison, is due out in September, 2016. I recommend the first volume to mystery and fantasy lovers everywhere.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

Wow! I was warned that this 2015 novel by one of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt, packs an emotional punch, but I still wasn’t prepared for the almost overwhelming sadness and poignancy of Schmidt’s characters and his prose. The narrator of the story is a twelve year old boy, Jackson, and his voice is one of innocence and yet a growing wisdom, all at the same time.

I’m not sure the book is going to be very popular. It’s a middle grade novel, but the subject matter, a thirteen year old foster child who wants to see his baby daughter, is mature and emotionally devastating (no explicit sexual content, and hardly any language, but mature). Older teens don’t want to read about a thirteen year old and his twelve year old foster brother. Adults will see it as a children’s book, or as a book about subjects they don’t want their own children to have to deal with. Nevertheless, I would recommend it for mature teens and for adults. It’s sad, yes, and frustrating and emotional and . . . excellent.

Jack Hurd is included in the meeting his parents have with the social worker who wants to send a foster child to the Hurds’ dairy farm in central Maine. The foster child is Joseph, a boy with a history. Joseph is said to have tried to kill a teacher. He has been to juvenile detention. And he has a daughter, a baby girl named Jupiter whom he has never seen. Jack and his parents are sure that they can provide a home for Joseph, and Joseph and Jack immediately bond, with Jack becoming Joseph’s follower and his defender and caretaker all at the same time.

Suffice it to say that Joseph’s life and history and future are complicated, and tragedy ensues. Jack is caught up in Joseph’s drama, and he becomes the “Guy Who Has Jupiter’s Father’s Back.” But Joseph also has Jack’s back, and that’s partly where the tragedy comes in.

I would almost recommend anything written by Gary Schmidt, sight unseen. But I’ve read this book, and I recommend it even more highly than I would if I hadn’t. If you don’t think your middle grader or YA read is ready for the book, you should read it because stories like Joseph’s and Jupiter’s exist. And we’re better off for exploring them, in a book, before we encounter them in real life. I think I’ll loan this one to my friend who works at a crisis pregnancy center. She might very well find it even more relevant and relatable than I did.

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

Jane Kitson Haverard, “Kit”, is the youngest child in a Quaker family in England in the late 1940’s, perhaps. Her mother has died before the opening of the novel, and her older cousin Laura Haverard is the mother-figure in her family, helping Jane’s professor father to raise and care for his family. The Lark in the Morn is a coming of age novel, a school story, and a book about finding your own identity and using your own talents.

This book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family novels or or other good family/boarding school novels published in the fifties or sixties. Kit doesn’t attend a boarding school, but her school life, family relationships, and vacation life are central to the novel and are chronicled in a lively and engaging manner. Kit is a likable protagonist, although confused about her own identity and giftedness. She struggles with peer pressure and with her guardian’s misunderstanding of Kit’s personality and gifts. She doesn’t know for most of the novel what she really wants to do with her life, nor does she realize her own interests and abilities until she is helped along the way by a number of mentors and adult friends. The real theme of the novel is this journey of self-discovery that Kit travels and her becoming her own person as she grows up and understands herself and her relation to the world and its many choices and possibilities.

So, it’s not a new theme for a middle grade novel, and it wasn’t fresh or novel even in 1948 when Vipont’s story was first published. Nevertheless, Kit is a fresh and vibrant young lady with a healthy outlook upon the world she lives in and a desire to be independent and self-actualizing without giving offense or hurting those who have raised her and given her nurture and a foundation, if not always understanding or encouragement in developing her talents. Kit finds the encouragement and the musical education she needs with other extended family members and from teachers at school.

Elfrida Vipont was a British author, schoolteacher, and member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). She began writing children’s books in the late 1930’s, specifically books with Quaker characters and some published for boys under the pseudonym of Charles Vipont. She won the Carnegie Medal in 1950 for Lark on the Wing, a sequel to Lark in the Morn. I hope to borrow or purchase a copy of the further adventures of Kit Haverard soon. There are supposed to be five books in the Lark series, but I can’t find a definitive list of the exact titles that make up the series. Goodreads lists the following books:

The Lark in the Morn (The Haverard Family, #1)
The Lark on the Wing (The Haverard Family, #2)
The Spring of the Year (The Haverard Family, #3)
Flowering Spring (The Haverard Family, #4)
The Pavilion (The Haverard Family, #5)

Ms. Vipont was a prolific author, publishing historical books about Quakerism, adventure stories for boys, the series of Lark books, other novel for girls, a well-known picture book called The Elephant and the Bad Baby, and biographies of several women authors such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. I look forward to enjoying more of her books, although they are somewhat difficult to find in the U.S.