The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden

The first book in my February project of reading the books you all recommended to me from my own TBR list, The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden is, according to the New York Times pull quote on the back of the book, “for little girls who love dolls, women who remember dollhouse days, and literary critics who can recognize a masterpiece.” I must say that having read a lot of more recent fantasy with its emphasis on non-stop action and sometimes crude humor, Ms. Godden’s “masterpiece” was indeed a breath of fresh air and if not a classic, at least a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Tottie Plantaganet is a wise old wooden doll who, even though her “doll age’ is only about seven years old, carries the wisdom of over a hundred years of belonging to little girls and playing with them.

“‘I am as I am,’ said wise little Tottie. ‘I couldn’t be all those things. In all these years, these hundred years, I can still only be me.’ It is very important for dolls that children guess their right ages; some thoughtless children make their dolls vary between six and six months. Mr. Plantaganet for instance was born twenty-eight years old. Tottie was about seven.”

Tottie and her family, Mr. and Mrs. Plantaganet, baby Apple, and Darner the dog, live with sisters Emily and Charlotte Dane. The dolls live a happy life with two girls who love and care for them, and their only wish is for a house that they can call their own instead of the drafty shoebox where they now reside. However, when they do get their own dollhouse, it comes with a new doll, Marchpane, that Tottie knew long ago when she was the property of Emily’s and Charlotte’s great-grandmother. And Marchpane is a home wrecker! What will the Plantaganet family do to counter the selfishness and spite of the conceited Marchpane?

I just thought the writing and the characterization in this 1947 story were so good. Be aware that one of the dolls does come to a tragic, but loving and self-sacrificing, end in the course of the story. Some children might find that aspect of the tale sad or even depressing, but I thought the theme and tone of the story was ultimately uplifting and redemptive.

Did you like doll stories when you were a child? Do boys ever read doll stories? (Maybe if they are disguised as toy stories, like the movie?) What are your favorites?

Here’s a list of some of my favorites in this fantasy sub-genre:

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. Hitty is a wooden doll whose first owner is a girl named Phoebe Preble. Hitty’s adventures over the course of the next hundred years are chronicled in this Newbery award winning book.

Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey. Miss Hickory is a country doll made of an apple-wood twig, with a hickory nut for a head, so when her owner leaves New Hampshire to go to school in Boston, Miss Hickory is worried about surviving the winter on her own. Another Newbery award winner.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, also by Rumer Godden. This one is on my list for reading this month.

Big Susan by Elizabeth Orton Jones. A family of dolls comes to life on Christmas Eve wondering if they will have a tree or gifts this year from the girl who normally takes such good care of them.

The Doll People by Ann Martin and Laura Godwin. “The Doll People series is about a family of antique living dolls that are made of porcelain and cloth. Each member of the Doll family has the ability to talk, walk, play, and, most importantly, go on adventures.” Books in the series are The Doll People, The Meanest Doll in the World, The Runaway Dolls, The Doll People Set Sail. I’ve read the last one, and on the basis of that reading I would recommend the series for doll lovers. A Guide to the Doll People series.

Mennyms Under Siege by Sylvia Waugh. Greenwillow, 1996. This doll story, the third in a series of five Mennyms books, is not a new book, and it won’t appeal to all readers, even those who like stories of dolls and the creatures living hidden lives alongside human beings. Mennyms Under Siege is much darker and more philosophical than most doll books (but not like the creepy, horror doll books I found in abundance when I looked up this subject), and its concern with the themes of death and thwarted love and over-protection feels almost young adult rather than middle grade.

In the Dollhouse: Doll Books Old and New at Book Aunt.

The Fairy Doll & Other Tales from the Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden at Charlotte’s Library.

And here are two series from the past that I would love to take a look at:

Josephine and Her Dolls by Mrs. H.C. Cradock, published in 1915 in England. Josephine’s “sixteen dolls keep her company, and she makes up story events for them. They include Sunny Jim who goes off to fight the war, two Korean girls and Quacky Jack, a yellow duck in a sailor suit.” More about Mrs. Cradock’s doll books.

The Lonely Doll is the first book in a series by photographer and author Dare Wright, published in 1957. Other books in the series are The Lonely Doll, Edith and Mr. Bear, A Gift from the Lonely Doll, Holiday for Edith and the Bears, The Doll and the Kitten, Edith and the Duckling, Edith and Little Bear Lend a Hand, Edith and Midnight and The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson.

Have you read any of these doll stories, or do you have other favorite doll stories? Not scary horror story dolls!

Trends and Themes in Middle Grade Speculative Fiction 2016

Settings where (fantasy) stories come true
The town of Fortune Falls, where superstitions are the laws of nature.
An alternate universe/earth where mythological creature are real.
A congenital condition in which the words that people use to describe you appear in print on your arms and legs.
A Dream Shop in which dreams are bought and sold and made alive.
A summer camp where paranormal talents are the norm.
A wrinkled mountain village where “stories have a way of coming true.”
A world of paintings lives “behind the canvas”.
A library where books involving supernatural elements are “finished” as they are lived out in the real world.

Kids with father issues
Not as many mother issues in 2016, although they do show up in one or two books.
The Luck Uglies: Rise of the Ragged Clover by Paul Durham. Rye must decide whether to follow in her outlaw father’s footsteps or not.
My Diary From the Edge of the World. A hapless and neglectful father leads his family to the edge of the world.
Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson. Benjamin Hogan Putter talks to his dead father and tries to carry out his dad’s dying wishes.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones. Jamie’s father is an evil troll, and Annie doesn’t have a father.
The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari. Charlie’s father has “checked out” since his mother died.
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed by Holly Grant. Anastasia’s father is missing, and only she can find him.
Furthermore by Teherah Mafi. Alice feels rejected by her mother and abandoned by her father.
Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler. Bee starts with no parents and ends up with two fathers, or at least two father figures.
Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan by Laura Martin. Sky’s father fled the North Compound five years ago when she was only seven years old, but Sky is determined to find out why and what happened to him.
This Is Not A Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans. Raul feels deserted by his father, who is grieving over the loss of Raul’s mother.
Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart. Rueben is fatherless.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman.
Time-Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. Al can’t accept his father’s death.
Red Moon Rising by K.A. Holt. Rae can’t relate to her father and becomes bonded instead to her captors, an alien race called The Cheese.

Death and Dying
My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson. The Dark Cloud of Death is coming to get someone in Gracie’s family.
Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson. Ben’s dad is dead, but dad’s ashes are speaking to Ben from beyond the grave.
The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet. Linny’s best friend, Sayra, is dying, and Linny must find a medicine that will cure her.
The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari. Charlie and his little sister Imogen find a parallel world where their deceased and much-missed mom is still alive.
The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby. Ship’s cat Jacob Tibbs loses his mother in a storm, and other lives hang in the balance when mutineers try to take over the ship.
Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd. Emma lives next to a graveyard and gives guided tours of said cemetery. She also talks to ghosts and misses her recently deceased mother with a feeling she calls The Big Empty.
Time-Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. Al can’t accept his father’s death.
The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone. Haleigh wants to keep her friend Kevin’s grandmother from dying by going back in time.
Red by Liesl Shurtliff. Red will do almost anything to find the secret of eternal life for her granny.
School of the Dead by Avi.

Science and logic versus stories and magic
Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.
The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet. People on the wrinkled, magic side of the river are in an ongoing conflict with those who live on the plain, scientific side.
Curse of the Boggin: The Library, Book 1 by D.J. MacHale. Marcus and his nerdy friend Theo argue over whether supernatural events are real or can be be explained scientifically.

Ethnic Diversity
Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung. Chloe Cho is tired of being the only Asian kid in town, but things are about to get a lot worse when she finds out the secret that her parents have been keeping about her family’s true heritage.
Curse of the Boggin: The Library, Book 1 by D.J. MacHale. Marcus and his two best friends, Annabella Lu, Chinese American, and Theo McLean, African American, work together to solve supernatural mysteries and lay ghosts to rest.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimee Carter. I think the different animal kingdoms in this one are supposed to mirror human diversity, with “mixed heritage” characters.
The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow. A group of ethnically diverse middle schoolers gain individual and oddly specific superpowers.
Time-Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. An ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting and characters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.
The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz. Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions, William, an oblate who is half-Saracen (African) and half French, and Jacob, a Jewish boy with a gift for healing travel across France in the thirteenth century on a quest.
Rebellion of Thieves by Kekla Magoon.

Magical Child with Hidden Talents, Destined to Save the World
The Harry Potter theme.
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed by Holly Grant. Anastasia, recently freed from captivity in St. Agony’s Asylum, is half-morph and all-princess. Can she find the Silver Hammer which will help to free her grandfather Nicodemus who can in turn find her father, Fred McCrumpet Merrymoon?
Little D by A. ML. “In a world where magic has been all but extinguished, nine year old Donatella Lou Regent, the last of the famous Regent line, has no idea who she is or the power she holds.”
Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier. Sophie and her friend Peter Nimble 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!).
The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet. Linny may be the prophesied Girl With the Lourka who will save the people of the divided city of Bend from ongoing warfare.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones. Little Annie Nobody is the child who is destined to be a Time Stopper, find the magical garden gnome, bring it back to Aurora, and defeat the evil Each Uisge and the Raiff.
Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart. Poor, lonely Reuben 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 and save New Umbra before The Smoke finds him and takes his discovery away?
Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance. Seventh grader Claudia Miravista finds that she is a magically talented Artisti who can save her friend Pim from a life trapped behind the canvas of the paintings of the world.
The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal. Jack Buckles, finds out, by accident, that he is a Tracker, as was his father before him, and he is the only one who can save his father and the world from the evil Clockmaker.
The Lost Compass by Joel Ross. Chess, the foggy-eyed tether boy, may have a gift that will defeat the evil Lord Kodoc and save the world.
Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson. Sam is the one sent to save the world from the evil Vulture, El Buitre.

Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimee Carter. Simon and his family are all Animalgams, people born with the ability to change into a certain animal at will.
The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano. Borderline shapeshifting.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.
This Is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans. Maybe Raul is not a werewolf, but he does shift into a wolf on the weekends.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence:
Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger.
Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince by Jean Claude Bemis. A Pinocchio-like automaton.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown.
Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer.

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The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal

The Lost Property Office, Baker Street Branch, in London is just a front for the secret Ministry of Trackers. And our hero, thirteen year old American boy Jack Buckles, finds out, by accident, that he is a Tracker, as was his father before him. Can Jack use his newfound tracking skills to find his father, who disappeared in London a few weeks ago without leaving a trace behind?

This fantasy adventure was exciting, but sometimes hard to follow. I almost wished for the movie version so that I could see the action, instead of trying to picture it myself from the descriptions in the book. If you’ve read this book I’d be curious to know whether you had the same problem. Maybe I just wasn’t a very good reader.

Jack teams up with a junior apprentice clerk named Gwen, and the two of them go off to save the world —and find Jack’s dad. The Macguffin is something called the Ember that may or may not have started the Great Fire of London back in 1666. So Gwen and Jack end up investigating the fire as well as looking for the Ember as well as attempting to rescue Jack’s dad. It’s all a little frustrating since Gwen is evasive and withholding of information. And Jack has just discovered his tracker abilities, which include being able to “spark” or see visions of the past by touching an object and channeling his thoughts into the history of that object. Jack is just learning to use his tracker talents, and Gwen is supposed to be helping him, but there’s a lot of stuff she’s not telling him.

I found Gwen’s “we’ll talk about that later” and “change the subject” when asked a direct question just as annoying as Jack did in the book. I wanted her to sit down and explain all about underground ministries and trackers and the number 13 and sparking all in one clear, concise speech, but I suppose that would have shortened the story considerably. At 387 pages, it could have afforded some cutting. I did like the historical aspects about the Great Fire and how it started.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book for fans of Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society or Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble. It’s a good romp, and as I said, some of my issues may have been due to inattentive reading.

Magical Fantastical Animals 2016

Not imaginary creatures like mandrakes (Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard) or jinn (The Eye of Midnight) or chamelons (The Secrets of Solace), but rather animals that talk or communicate with humans or take on anthropomorphic characteristics:

Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park.
Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan.

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt.
Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi.
The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker.

Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon.
Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel by Radhika Dhariwal.
The Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King and a Pickpocket Squirrel by Susan Hill Long.
Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines by Charlotte Bennardo.

Rats and Mice
Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon by Torben Kuhlman.
Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein.
Brightwood by Tania Unsworth.
The Rat Prince by Bridget Hodder.
A Tail of Camelot (Mice of the Round Table #1) by Julie Leung.

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan.
Foxheart by Claire LeGrand.
Making Mistakes on Purpose (Ms. Rapscott’s Girls) by Elise Primavera.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz.
Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance.
The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Gale.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel.
The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Colin Busby.

Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman.
This Is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans.
The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimee Carter.
The Wolf’s Boy by Susan Beckhorn.

Ember Falls by S.D. Smith.

Stingray City by Ellen Prager.

Liberty by Darcy Pattison.

The Growly Books: Haven by Philip Ulrich.

The Bolds by Julian Clary.

The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez by Robin Yardi.

Snakes and Other Reptiles
Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson.
Dragonbreath: the Frozen Menace by Ursula Vernon.

Dogs win, with wolves, and rats and mice coming in a tied second. If you or your child have your own animal avatar or interest, you just might be able to pick a recent book related to the animal of your choice.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Barnhill on writing The Girl Who Drank the Moon: “I started writing this book, finally, in a small purple notebook at four in the morning in an un-air-conditioned motel room in Costa Rica during my honeymoon.”

The Girl Who Drank the Moon may be much too witchy for some readers. It was a little too witchy for me. There’s a mostly good witch, and a bad witch, and a fellowship of Sisters who are really deluded and autocratic, or blind follower, witches, and a young girl who grows up to be a good witch under the tutelage of the first witch in this list. From all of that witchiness it may seem that the book is about witches, but it’s really about magic, and growing up, and child sacrifice, and adoptive families, and birth families, and extended families. In all of those “abouts” or themes, I thought the book was so good that I didn’t mind the witchiness too much, although I’d rather the word “magician” or something else were used.

The characters are Xan, the Witch in the Forest; and Glerk, the Swamp Monster; and Fyrian, the Perfectly Tiny Dragon; and Luna, the baby who is enmagicked by feeding on too much magical moonlight. The story tells of Luna’s childhood with her adoptive mother, Xan, deep in the forest, and of the harsh life of the villagers who live in the Protectorate on the edge of the forest. The villagers are governed by the dictatorial Council of Elders and by the Sisters of the Star, and they live lives of deprivation and poverty while the Elders and the Sisterhood benefit from the villagers’ fear of the forest witch and their sorrow over the many infants that have been sacrificed to appease the witch.

I could not help thinking of the many, many infants that have been sacrificed to Fear and to autocratic Old Men in our own country over the years since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973. How much sorrow has fed how many demons since that edict was handed down?

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is not an anti-abortion book, or any kind of Book With a Message. I’m not sure the author ever intended the analogy to be drawn between the babies sacrificed to the witch and the babies sacrificed to abortion. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only one who saw the underlying similarity. This book is a lovely story with beautiful writing and memorable characters.

Examples of the beautiful sentences that will draw and hold word-lovers:

“This is what allows her to wander the world, spreading her malevolence and sorrow. This is what allows her to elude capture. We have no power. Our grief is without remedy.”

“Her mother gathered the flowers of particular climbing vines and sapped them of their essences and combined them with honey that she pulled from the wild hives in the tallest trees. She would climb to the tops, as nimble as a spider, and then send the honeycombs down in baskets on ropes for Xan to catch. Xan was not allowed to taste. In theory. She would anyway. And her mother would climb down and kiss the honey from her little-girl lips.”

Lots more lovely writing is available in this book if you like that sort of thing (I do).

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

“It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.” ~opening sentence of The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd.

Key to Extraordinary is a lovely, luminescent, literary lodestone of a novel. Okay, so my attempt to write in the style of Natalie Lloyd isn’t exactly great, but this story is beautiful. It’s got heart, and a vivid setting, the Boneyard Cafe in Blackbird Hollow, Tennessee, and a compelling plot, all about buried treasure and finding one’s destiny and saving the cafe.

“Fear is just a flashlight that helps you find your courage.”

The narrator of the story, Emma, is the youngest in a long line of Wildflower Women who fulfilled their destinies by doing something extraordinary to make the world better. Emma is waiting to have her own Destiny Dream and find out how she fits into the heritage of her ancestors.

“You don’t have to go looking for stories across the world. You only have to look out your window.”

Embedded in the story are lots of what I call “nuggets of middle grade wisdom” —proverbs, maxims, and bits of truth that don’t sound too preachy when they’re part of the story. I love that middle grade authors are “allowed” to include these little tidbits of advice and admonition in their stories, and when it’s done well, it makes the story so much more rich and meaningful for me to read.

“Believe your words have power. And use them.”

As Emma goes on a crusade to save her family cafe from the evil, rich developer, Warren Steele, she learns more about the meaning of friendship and family and courage. Yes, the mean developer who is about to take the family business is a trite and over-used plot device, but go with it anyway. I just had so much fun spending time with Emma and her ex-boxer grandmother and her chef-brother and her friends, Cody Belle Chitwood and Earl Chance. The story felt authentically Tennessean and country and as one reviewer wrote (negatively), sort of like a Hallmark special. But I like Hallmark movie specials.

“Sometimes even doing the right thing will leave you with scars. But beauty comes from ashes, too.”

There are so many good quotes from this book that I’ll just leave you with a few more. I’m including these here because there are so many, but look for a second installment of Middle Grade Book Wisdom soon with more quotations from this book and other 2016 middle grade fiction books. Collecting these wisdom quotes is a sort of hobby of mine.

“Everything wonderful is possible.”

“Some books are so special that you never forget where you were the first time you read them.”

“Every lifetime, no matter how long it lasts, is a gift. And to love, and be loved, even by one person during your lifetime . . . that is a treasure no one can take from you.”

Middle Grade Book Wisdom 2016, Mostly Fantasy

“Doesn’t a little part of you want to be involved in a secret, high-risk plan that’ll have disastrous consequences if it fails? Everyone needs to do that at least once in his life.” ~The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson.

“You must step inside a world to see it honestly. A passing glance won’t do.” ~Furthermore by Taheri Mafi.

“The first step in the path to knowledge is very simple: open a book.” ~The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed by Holly Grant.

“If you don’t forgive yourself for making a mistake, then you get so that you never want to admit that you made one.” ~This Is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans.

“Lots of things are impossible, right up until they’re not.” ~Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson.

“It’s always better to be in rooms you can get out of easily, if you need to.” ~The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.

“You should be polite to people on general principle, of course. But if you happen to be wandering through a magical land, and a little old lady asks you for help, you should be extremely polite to her, just in case. Otherwise you may well wake up with earthworms falling out of your mouth whenever you talk, or various other suitably awful fairy punishments.” ~Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon.

“When thoughts wiggle their way in, sometimes it can be very difficult for them to wiggle out again.” ~A Clatter of Jars by Lisa Graff.

“Sometimes things work out differently than you expect, and sometimes that’s when the best things happen. And sometimes a jumble straightens everything out in the end.” ~The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels.

“To have power without the proper vision of how to use it makes one blind. Greed makes one blind. Fear makes one blind. It is difficult to see when you walk in darkness.” ~Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance.

“. . . if you only try the things you believe you can do, you’ll only accomplish the things you already knew you could do. But if you give yourself permission to fail, you’re free to try the things that seem completely beyond your reach. And that’s when magic happens.” ~Gears of Revolution by J. Scott Savage.

“Hope is an excellent and necessary thing to have in this world. Hope and bread and good friends.” ~Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman.

“Some mistakes need to be made. Sometimes we have to fall down before we can stand up.” ~Red by Liesl Shurtliff.

” . . . you should never give up. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wrong, in which case you should give up entirely.” ~Red by Liesl Shurtliff.

“Magic is not the answer. Magic may be convenient, brilliant, even dazzling, but it is not the answer.” ~Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman.

“It is hard for a goblin and a human to be friends. Goblin honor and human honor are so very different.” ~The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton.

Fiction. . . That’s another word for lies. Like stories about jellyfish and the Olympics.” ~The Lost Compass by Joel Ross.

“Remembering is a powerful thing.” ~Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce.

“You have to be careful of men who love danger.” ~The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence.

“Being a writer is not easy, you know. It is, now that I think of it, either full of sorrow or full of joy.” ~The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan.

“Sometimes the burdens we lay on others’ shoulders remain long after they are free to drop them.” ~The Eye of Midnight by Andrew Brumbach.

“Perhaps you have heard the famous bit of wisdom about how the breaking of an omelet requires the breaking of eggs? This philosophy, while technically true, does not account for the fact that omelets are universally disappointing to all who eat them—equal parts water and rubber and slime. Who among us would not prefer a good cobbler or spiced pudding?” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“It is lamentably common among chivalrous sorts that they are more intent on defending a woman’s honor than listening to the wishes of said woman.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“A world without stories is a world without magic.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“There are ways forward, and then when those ways are closed, there other ways around, and when the trail breaks off or fades out, there are still other secret ways, always.” ~The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.

“Stories [are] much more than words on a page. Stories [live] inside those who read them.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“Should you ever be so lucky as to encounter an author in your life, you should shower her or him with gifts and praise.” ~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.

“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.

“[I]t is our actions that determine who we are. Not our genes. Not who our parents may or may not be, but our own choices.” ~Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.

“Follow your own heart! People always say that. They mean well, I’m sure. But sometimes, we need to overrule our hearts. We need to be brave. We need to be kind because we should, not because it’s easy.” ~Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb.

Stay tuned for the second installment of “Middle Grade Book Wisdom, 2016”. It wouldn’t all fit into one post.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz.

I hate books that seem to say, “Oh, kids like gross, nasty, slimy stuff. Let’s take the really loathsome parts of this tale and make them the centerpiece of the narrative because that will draw the kids in.” That’s what I wrote about Mr. Gidwitz’s book, In a Glass Grimmly, and it applies to this story, too. It’s a shame that this author has such a penchant for poops and farts and crude humor because otherwise he’s a good writer. The scatological attempts at humor aren’t usually very funny, and they just don’t add to the story at all.

The story: On a dark night in the year 1242, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions, William, an oblate who is half-Saracen and half French, and Jacob, a Jewish boy with a gift for healing. These children may be saints, or they may be using evil magic to do wonders that will deceive the faithful. And the dog, Gwenforte, who once saved a child from a deadly serpent, may be resurrected, but can a dog really be a saint? The children’s adventures take them from a farting dragon to a meeting with the king to a plot to save the illicit, mostly Jewish, books that are scheduled for burning by Good King Louis and his mother, Blanche of Castile.

So, Louis IX and his mother were real people, and so were several of the other characters in the novel. The three children are composite character, partly taken from the hagiographic stories of medieval saints and partly from Mr. Gidwitz’s fertile imagination. Other real medieval characters in the book include: Chretien de Troyes, a late 12th century poet and trouvère, Francis Bacon, the late medieval (1561-1626) scientist and philosopher, Rabbi Rashi of Troyes, an 11th century Jewish scholar, and various other minor characters imported from the pages of medieval French stories and poems. In addition, the girl, Jeanne, bears an affinity to Joan of Arc, the storytelling reminds one of Chaucer, and the burning in Paris of some 12,000 manuscript copies of the Talmud and other Jewish books actually took place in 1243.

So, as he did in his other series of books based on Grimm’s fairy tales, Mr. Gidwitz took the elements from several French, and even British, lives and tales of the middle ages and stirred them into a stew which turned out to be something completely different. And it could have been a delight. Instead, it’s sort of a mish-mosh of good scenes and bad, crude and insightful, funny and flat. If I could extract the bad parts and leave in the good, I would recommend it.

The illustrations, or illuminations, that adorn the pages of this medieval tale are a delight.

Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce

Cutting-edge and in touch with contemporary concerns (Creepy Clown Craze), this book needs its own trigger warning. Zozo, the villain of this piece, is a Creepy Clown, and his trashy flunkies, made of random toy parts, are rather sinister, too. Coulrophobics, this book is NOT for you.

Zozo, the clown king, and his toy henchmen, the Creeps, have sworn to steal and imprison “Faves” (favorite toys) in their subterranean lair beneath a defunct carnival. When Billy’s favorite toy, Ollie, is stolen, Billy sets out to rescue Ollie. Will they ever be able to find each other again? Or will the hatred of the heartless Zozo triumph?

Ollie’s Odyssey is precious, very, very precious, Velveteen Rabbit precious. Toy Story precious. In fact, if either of those stories is your favorite, then Ollie’s Odyssey is a sure bet. Otherwise, you may overdose on the sweetness—or get scared silly by the evil clown. There are a few internal inconsistencies, mainly having to do with how or why or by what logic things come to life or don’t. A lot of normally inanimate objects—junk from the junkyard, old toys, carnival paraphernalia, tin cans–come to life in this odyssey, but it was never clear how or why some things could move and communicate while others couldn’t. Or some things could move around by themselves sometimes, but not at other times.

Otherwise, the story is well told, like a movie, complete with memorable characters and movie-ready accents and speech patterns. I could imagine this story with computer animated or claymation characters, and I would guess that the author was imagining it that way as he wrote. From the creator of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, one would expect no less, and the beautiful illustrations add to the movie-effect. (Fantastic Flying Books “was created using computer animation, miniatures and traditional hand-drawn techniques.” And according to Wikipedia, “Joyce created conceptual characters for Disney/Pixar’s feature films Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998).”) I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about the movie version of Ollie’s Odyssey sometime in the future.

In the meantime, since it’s written about a six year old, but the almost 300 pages will be a little too much for most six, or even seven and eight, year olds to handle on their own, I would suggest Ollie’s Odyssey as a read-aloud book. Or just wait for the movie.

Magic in the Village

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.

The “wrinkled” or magical mountain village of Lourka where “stories have a way of coming true.”

A twelve year old girl named Linny who breaks the law and makes her own musical instrument, also called a lourka.

Linny’s best friend and almost twin, Sayra, who pays the price for Linny’s rule-breaking.

Add in the apprentice, Elias, a wrinkled half-cat, and the city of Bend at the foot of the mountains where the people are divided between wrinkled and plain, magical and logical, tradition and progress. Linny must find the medicine in Bend that will cure Sayra, but she also runs into numerous other obstacles and diversions that take her into danger, conflict, and finally, a very hard decision. Will she be able to take the medicine back to Lourka to cure Sayra, or is she the prophesied Girl With the Lourka who must stay in Bend and save everyone?

I found this story slow going, and by the time the action picked up in the middle, I still didn’t really care about the characters. And the ending was . . . weird, probably a set-up for a sequel. Which I probably won’t read. However, if the synopsis of the first part of the novel sounds like something you would enjoy, you might get more out of it than I did.

Time Stoppers features another magical village in the mountains where magical creatures like elves and dwarfs and hags and witches go to be safe. They are protected by a garden gnome. Yes, a magical garden gnome statue protects the village of Aurora until it is stolen by trolls. And little Annie Nobody is the child who is destined to be a Time Stopper, find the gnome, bring it back to Aurora, and defeat the evil Each Uisge and the Raiff. With her friend Jamie, the dwarf fighter Eva, and the elf Bloom, Annie does manage to complete some, but not all, of those tasks, leaving plenty of room for Time Stoppers, Book Two.

The action in this one was non-stop, but the whole thing was an outlandish caricature from the beginning. The bad guys, trolls, are horribly, outrageously bad. They eat children, but also before they chow down, they abuse them, refuse to feed them, send them out to sleep with the dogs/wolves, make them smell underwear(?), cackle at them, insult them, etc. The trolls are ridiculously bad, almost laughable, but then they’re not really funny because they are abusive in ugly, bad-parent ways. And the good magical beings of Aurora also behave in outsized, but stereotypical ways. Eva is a loudmouthed, battle-hungry, boastful, warrior maiden. Bloom is quietly strong and spends most of his time annoyed with Eva, which is understandable. Annie and Jamie are bewildered and timid, just happy to find themselves in Aurora where the trolls can’t get them, until the trolls, and other creatures even worse, invade. Then, Annie and Jamie are told that they must be brave.

The Wrinkled Crown felt dream-like (Alice in Wonderland) and over-wrought, with too many directions for Linny to follow and too many tasks to complete. Time Stoppers felt grotesque and buffoonish, slapstick but not very funny. Kirkus says about The Wrinkled Crown: “With hints of a sequel to come, this agreeable adventure introduces an appealing, spunky heroine and sets the stage for more conflict and compromise to come.” And SLJ called Time Stoppers: “”An imaginative blend of fantasy, whimsy, and suspense, with a charming cast of underdog characters.”

I just don’t think either of these is the best middle grade fantasy has to offer.