A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

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“Home isn’t just a house or a city or a place; home is what happens when you’re brave enough to love people” (Lloyd 2015, p. 302).

This was such a fun and whimsical story to read! Friends and trusted former coworkers of mine recommended this book to me many times, but I never had the chance to read it for myself until recently! I chose to listen to the audio-book version of this story, and I loved the narrator’s quirky voice. It seemed to fit not only Felicity, but each of the other characters as well (the narrator performs distinct voices for almost all of them). I have many good things to say about this book, however, so I won’t bore you with my thoughts on the format!

The instant I started this book, I couldn’t help but feel that it was Natalie Lloyd’s response to a growing trend of magical realism in young adult literature. While I’ve read many wonderful titles like When the Moon Was Ours and The Strange anf Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I hadn’t really come across magical realism in the realm of children’s literature before this book. While I’m sure they exist, this was a first for me, and it was really refreshing to see some magical realism for younger audiences.

The story focuses on Felicity Juniper Pickle, who has just moved to the town of Midnight Gulch with her mother and sister. While Felicity’s mother explains that Midnight Gulch was once full of magic, it’s obvious to everyone that very little remains. Though Felicity and her family have wandered all over the country, she wants nothing more than to put down roots in a permanent home. In a tale full of blackberry sunrise ice cream, hot air balloons, and word collecting, Felicity learns that sometimes magic can be much easier to find when we know where and how to look for it.

I absolutely adored the character of Felicity. She’s just so spunky, quirky, and full of energy! And, though it’s clear she hates having to move constantly, Felicity rarely complains, wanting to find genuine happiness for her mother while looking out for her younger sister. Felicity struck me as being an incresibly selfless character, one who enjoys making others happy far more than pleasing herself.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Jonah and Felicity, which was (in my opinion) the best part of the book. In life, most of us can only hope to find a friendship as rare and beautiful as the one formed by these two characters throughout the novel, and I was incredibly moved by Felicity’s selfless act (without spoiling, the one involving the bird on her wrist) near the end of the book.

Part of me wonders how on earth Lloyd came up with such a wacky and inventive narrative, but I applaud her creativity. I certainly couldn’t have come up with ideas like memory-inducing ice cream and a literal moving tattoo of hope (in the shape of a bird, of course). At every turn, I was exposed to a new twist, and I really appreciate how neatly everything was tied together in the end. This definitely took some excellent planning!

I also really enjoyed the idea of the Beedle, a mysterious figure who does good deeds around the community while remaining completely anonymous. Without giving away too much about the Beedle’s identity, I loved this aspect of the novel, and I think it could do a lot to inspire children to do kind things for others without being prompted. I think the overall message of this book is that everyone has a little magic, magic that can be unleashed when we decide to value others more than ourselves.

This book was quirky, funny, and utterly charming, and I only wish I’d chosen to read it sooner! The characters were genuine in unique, with stories and personalities that make the reader instantly care about each and every one of them. Though magic features heavily in the plot, the world is so real that the entire story seems like it could really happen in our world. Nothing ever seems unrealistic or preachy, and the book teaches important lessons while never being afraid to take a leap of faith when it comes to humor and whimsy.

A Snicker of Magic, while being a genuinely witty and fun read, reminds us that it’s crucially important to remember the things that make life meaningful and worthwhile. Themes of friendship, family, and showing kindness to others come up frequently throughout the book, sending an incredibly positive and uplifting message to children about how we can find our own brand of magic in the real world. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to once again view the world from the eyes of an innocent child, as I truly believe that A Snicker of Magic has a lot to teach each and every one of us a new lesson, whether we are children or adults.

Reference:

Lloyd, Natalie. (2015). A Snicker of Magic. Turtleback Books.

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Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“Tonight, there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars… and connected by the same silken thread” (Ryan 2015, p. 578).

This book was absolutely incredible in every sense of the word. It was told incredibly creatively, with three realistic stories that intertwine with just a hint of magic thrown in. I listened to the audio-book version of this title, which added beautiful pieces of music and distinct narrators for each child’s story. As I read each section, I desperately wanted to know what would happen to each child. I got invested in each story, only for the narrative to move onto the next story. Fortunately, all three stories were equally captivating, with believable characters who each had very compelling conflicts to overcome. Just as I was itching to know what happened to Friedrich, I became equally invested in Mike’s story, and then in Ivy’s story after that. Ryan did a wonderful job leaving me in suspense, but making me care just as deeply about the third child as I did the first.

Echo begins with the story of Otto Messenger, a boy who is sold a mysterious harmonica by a gypsy woman in his small German town. With the harmonica is an unfinished story book about three princesses who are left to die by their cruel father the king when they are born. Thanks to the interference of a kind nursemaid, however, the three sisters – Eins, Zwei, and Drei – are given to a witch in the forest to be cared for in her cottage. After the death of their father, the three princesses are given the chance to return home to their brother and mother, but not before the witch curses them, confining them to a woodwind instrument until the day they are able to save a soul on the brink of death. Otto hears their tale and helps seal their souls into the harmonica, which is then passed on to three children many years later. The rest of the novel follows the stories of Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, each of whom is facing their own tribulations related to the conflicts of World War II. As the harmonica comes into each of their lives, the children’s stories become intertwined in a way that none of them could have ever expected, culminating in the moment the three sisters are finally able to save the life of a person on the brink of death.

Though I enjoyed all three stories, it was Friedrich’s story that affected me the most. I have read many fictional stories about World War II and the Holocaust, and they never fail to fill me with anxiety and leave me worrying about the fate of the characters involved. Friedrich’s story was unique in that he was not Jewish, but a pure-blooded German who happened to have a highly visible birthmark on his face, thus making him an “undesirable” in Hitler’s Germany. While his older sister finds herself sucked into Hitler’s regime, he and his father turn against it, putting themselves in extreme danger as political dissenters. It was interesting to see the perspective of an average German who did not agree with Hitler during this time, as many stories about this time period tend to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. As someone with German heritage, I found Friedrich’s story to be the most compelling of the three.

Though Friedrich’s story personally affected me the most, I appreciated the portrayal of injustices in each child’s story. In Mike’s story, he and his brother are mistreated by both the owner of the orphanage and by others (such as the shop owner) who see them as lesser and unworthy simply because they are poor. Even though both Mike and Frankie are highly educated and well-behaved children, they are treated differently because they were not born into the upper class. In Ivy’s story, she directly observes the injustices done to Japanese citizens in America during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She also experiences injustice herself, when she realizes that Mexican children in her town are forced to attend a different school than the white children because they are seen as dirty and uneducated. Ivy, like Mike, is treated differently than others even though she is well-educated and speaks fluent English. Each child’s story portrays injustice in different ways, but helps to teach readers about darker parts of American and German history, during times when certain individuals were treated as being lesser because of their race or social status.

My favorite thing about this book, however, was how Ryan skillfully tied each child’s story together with the magical harmonica. The fairy tale at the beginning, as well as Otto’s story of finding the book, helped to set a mystical tone before the novel jumped into reality with the story of the three children. Ryan uses this story as a bookend at the very end of the novel, when the three sisters are finally able to save a life and return to their castle. The most powerful words in the opening are, “Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed” (Ryan 2015, p. 6). Though this isn’t mentioned again until the very end, each child’s story seems to (no pun intended) echo these words, as each one is able to pull themselves out of a terrible situation through the hope and power provided by the harmonica’s music.

Even when I had a clear idea of where the story was going, Ryan still managed to surprise me with the sheer amount of detail she worked into the narrative to tie the five stories together. The most magical part of the book, in my opinion, is the concert at the end, when the three characters (as well as the magical harmonica in Kenny’s coat pocket) come together, and we are finally able to see how the harmonica affected each of them in positive ways. We also get to see how the harmonica ended up in Friedrich’s possession after being given away by Otto, and what eventually happens to the three sisters who first enchanted the harmonica. I had a feeling that Kenny would be the one the harmonica ultimately saved, as Ivy transfers it to him to keep him safe during the war. That being said, the harmonica saved all three of the children in a way, as it gave them hope during a time when hope seemed entirely lost. Each of them ended up being world-renowned musicians due to their experience and talent with the harmonica, fostered by their passion for music.

I found the ending of this book to be incredibly clever, and while it was already wonderful, it was the epilogue that really sealed the deal for me and pushed this book into the “spectacular” category. I’ve come to love historical fiction in recent years, and the element of magic only helped to further my enjoyment of this novel (as fantasy is my favorite genre). The novel discusses themes such as intolerance and injustice without talking down to children, showing them parts of history that some people would rather forget. I could easily see this novel appealing to children who don’t normally enjoy historical fiction, as the fantasy element and narrative quality of each of the stories makes it feel much more like a fairy tale than traditional historical fiction.

I would also highly recommend listening to the audio-book version of this story, as the music is integral to the emotions behind each character’s journey. I found myself getting chills and goosebumps when the orchestra played “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of the novel, as it seemed like a perfect way to tie all of the stories together through music. I also enjoyed the melodic quality of each narrator’s voice, and the fact that each character was given a distinctive voice for their part of the story. Intricate touches like this made the audio-book a wonderful performance, and I likely enjoyed this more than I would have if I[‘d simply been reading silently to myself. Regardless of how you enjoy it, however, I highly recommend giving Echo a try, even if you don’t generally enjoy historical fiction. It’s an incredibly engaging and beautiful story that speaks to the power of music to improve lives and fill people with hope for the future. It was a truly magical tale, and one I’m glad I was finally able to read for myself.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M., Bramhall, M., De, V. D., Andrews, M., & Soler, R. (2015). Echo: A novel. New York, N.Y: Scholastic Audiobooks.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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I do not know if these hands will become

Malcolm’s – raised and fisted

or Martin’s – open and asking

or James’s – curled around a pen.

I do not know if these hands will be

Rosa’s

or Ruby’s

gently gloved

and fiercely folder

calmly in a lap,

on a desk,

around a book,

ready

to change the world…” (Woodson 2014, p. 5).

I absolutely adored the flow of Woodson’s poetry, which left me feeling inspired and ready to conquer my own world. Much like Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this book is written in free verse poetry, playing with words in a way that makes the story being told come to life. The difference with Brown Girl Dreaming, however, is the fact that this book is a memoir rather than a work of fiction, detailing Woodson’s childhood growing up in both North Carolina and Brooklyn. I loved getting a glimpse into the mind of a talented writer; her personal poetry was a creative and unique way for her audience to see what growing up during the Civil Rights Movement was like, and her stories will leave every reader relating to her very human struggles.

In this personal, poetic account, Woodson begins by describing the moment of her birth, the details of which have been lost to memory over time. She then goes on to talk about what it was like to grow up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, learning about peaceful protests, sit-ins, Malcom X, the Black Panthers, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders. Though we all know this part of history existed, it becomes all the more real when someone writes what it was like to live through it in her own words, making this memoir an incredibly unique look at both history and the early life of an individual who was once searching for her place in life.

What struck me most about this book was just how relatable Woodson’s stories are. Not all of us have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, of course, but many of us have dealt with things like drifting friendships, the death of a grandparent, and having to move to a new, unfamiliar city. Many children, and even adults, can relate to these scenarios, as they are incredibly human experiences that resonate with readers of every age. Woodson’s words were inspiring, especially when you realize she lived in her sister’s shadow for most of her young life, feeling inadequate while harboring her own desire to write and tell stories. This memoir proves that you do not have to be at the top of your class to do great things, and that following your passion is important. Woodson wanted to be a writer more than anything else, so that is what she pursued, ignoring those who told her it was impractical. This was a small portion of the book, but crucial nonetheless, as kids need to see positive role models in their literature. Woodson’s poetry inspires children to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be, and reminds them that no dream is unattainable with enough faith and hard work.

As I mentioned above, this book also impressed me because of the way it plays with poetry. Woodson often quotes Langston Hughes in the work, introducing children to a famous poet while also sharing poetry of her own, poetry oozing with personality and character. I’ve come to realize that, while I appreciate traditional poetry, free verse leaves a lot more room for the author to play with language. I wouldn’t know the first thing about writing it, but Woodson’s free verse poetry was a joy to read from start to finish. When I started the book, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow Woodson’s story due to the poetry (as I sometimes have a hard time following poetry), but she made it abundantly clear (at least in my opinion) what was going on in each section. To me, this was an incredibly unique way to write an autobiographical work, as it mixes a simple story about the author’s past with her actual poetry, adding heart and substance to what would have otherwise been very straightforward. It was almost like reading the personal diary of a friend, getting a glimpse into the very heart and soul of another person; Woodson does not hold back her thoughts and feelings, even if those thoughts aren’t so nice. This made for an incredibly raw and real experience, and one that I think children will appreciate.

Many children find it hard to understand “classic” poetry, so I think introducing them to a book like Brown Girl Dreaming or The Crossover would be an excellent way to warm a reluctant reader up to the genre. Jumping headfirst into Robert Frost or Walt Whitman might be too difficult for someone who isn’t used to poetry, but showing them a narrative (fictional or otherwise) written in a modern style makes poetry much more accessible and far less scary. It might not teach proper poetic style (as both books are written in free verse), but it could show a child that poetry doesn’t have to be hard to understand. Poetry, much like prose, is very diverse, and telling a story in prose can show children that they don’t necessarily have to follow strict rules when writing from their heart; the most important thing is writing what you feel as it comes, making the words authentic. Woodson’s poetry comes from a very intimate place, and flows organically without being forced. A teacher could easily have a child read this book and then write his or her own free verse poem about a specific event or emotion, helping them to really connect with her words in a way that regular prose might not.

Though this book is simple, I think it has the power to resonate with a large audience, as it is accessible, short, and full of moments that many children (and adults) can relate to. The story blends a little bit of historical context with Woodson’s personal trials, making for a highly entertaining and thought-provoking read that will make you want to quickly binge the rest of Woodson’s work. I highly recommend it to any fan of either poetry or autobiographical works, as it’s a rare treat that is more than deserving of its National Book Award.

Reference:

Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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“I knew Susan wasn’t real. Or, if she was a tiny bit real, sometimes, at the very best she was only temporary. She’d be done with us once the war was over, or whenever Mam changed her mind” (Bradley 2015, p. 202).

“She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. ‘You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!’ My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful” (Bradley 2015, p. 214).

I’ve read many books in my day, but none have made me angrier than this one. I wasn’t angry with the book itself, of course; the book was beautifully written and full of wonderful, engaging characters. From the very first page, however, I developed an unrelenting hatred for “Mam,” wishing the novel would take pity on its readers and end her in a brutal way. I know; these are strong words for a fictional character in a children’s novel. I just absolutely cannot stand to see child abuse in any form, even if I know it’s only fiction. Sadly, there are many children out there who have faced (and are currently facing) the abuse Ada and Jamie must face in this book, a thought that made the abuse in this novel all the more real and infuriating. Mam simply serves as an easy target for the rage I have towards anyone who would harm a child. That being said, I absolutely loved this book, and found it to be another incredibly moving work of historical fiction.

The War That Saved My Life is set in London, England, during the very beginning of World War II. The story follows a little girl named Ada, who has been locked away her entire life due to her clubfoot, which her abusive mother finds shameful and humiliating. Ada’s “Mam” frequently beats her, locks her away, refuses to feed her properly, and forces her to spend the night in roach-infested cupboards for minor offenses. Though her “normal” brother Jamie receives slightly better treatment, the two are highly abused and living in complete filth and squalor. This changes when an order is sent out, requiring all of London’s children to be sent to the countryside for safe-keeping during the war. Though Ada’s mom refuses to let her go, Ada decides she’s finally had enough of her horrible circumstances and runs away with Jamie in tow. The two feel unwanted at first, but eventually end up in the home of a lady named Susan Smith, who treats them with the kindness and compassion they’ve never had from their mother. Though reluctant at first, Susan soon grows to love the children as her own, showing Ada that she might be worthy of love after all. The War That Saved My Life is a beautifully told story of love, courage, and how it’s always possible to find freedom and peace… even in the middle of a war.

Ada was such an easy character to root for. My heart broke for her, just as it has for many of the protagonists in the books I’ve read this semester. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so cruel to her own child, denying her necessary treatments and hiding her away like some sort of “freak.” Part of me wondered how a child like Wonder‘s Auggie would have fared in such conditions, without a supportive and loving family willing to help him through his medical conditions. This, of course, was even more heart-breaking, as I know there are parents out there who would abandon any child who wasn’t “perfect” from birth. What Mam does to Ada is, arguably, much worse than abandonment. She locks Ada in cupboards for trying to get food, beats her relentlessly even for looking out the window, and constantly belittles her because of her clubfoot, calling her a “freak” and a “lousy cripple.” There were times, while reading this book, that I got so angry I had to put it down. I honestly wouldn’t have minded if a bomb had dropped on Mam while the children were away, leaving them free to live with Susan forever. It was a horrible thought, of course, but would’ve been a fitting end for such a cruel, nasty character.

I also loved the theme of freedom throughout this novel, and the irony of a character gaining peace and freedom during one of the world’s most tumultuous times. Though World War II was raging around her, Ada could only focus on her own personal war, the war being waged against her by her own abusive mother. The title of this novel is extremely appropriate, as Ada is only able to see what a real, loving family looks like after fleeing bombs in London. Susan is eccentric and brash, but caring, teaching Ada to read, write, and sew. While in the country, Ada also learns how to ride a horse, making her feel alive and free as she never has on her own two feet. The novel incorporates elements of the real life war into the plot effortlessly, adding moments that make Ada reflect upon her own life with new eyes. For example, in one scene, Susan makes Ada a brand new dress, and Ada feels so guilty wearing it (still feeling like she’s nothing) that she has a complete breakdown on Christmas Eve. The next day, air force pilots from a nearby air base come to visit and play with her and her brother, pilots who later end up dead as the war intensifies. When Ada realizes this, she comes to a stunning realization:

“I understood why I’d been upset on Christmas. I’d felt overwhelmed; I really couldn’t help myself. But now, thinking back, it seemed a little silly to be unhappy about a dress when the pilots were dead. If I had it to do over, I would at least have learned their names” (p. 285).

Though Ada has suffered a number of cruelties in her own life, she holds a great deal of compassion for those fighting in the war. It gets to the point where she has to step out of the theater during the newsreels before the movie, unable to stomach the horrific images of men losing their lives to the war. At one point, Ada volunteers to help bring water to refugee soldiers, and can hardly believe her eyes when one man asks her to write a letter one minute and is dead the next. Though many people know the terrible tragedies of the Holocaust during this time, few stop to think about the horrors taking place in other countries. As the novel progresses, the war becomes worse and worse, the death toll rises, bombs are dropped nightly, and food must be rationed off to citizens. What had once been a distant concept for Ada becomes very real, leading her to fear for her safety and the safety of those around her. This novel does an excellent job of focusing on an individual’s story while relaying the horrors of the time period, including details and specific historical events (such as the Battle of Dunkirk) to add to the realism of the story.

Though it might seem terrible for a child to witness the horrors of war, this was sadly the reality of the time period. This novel does not shy away from the fact that WWII was a nasty, bloody war, but it chooses to focus on a very different kind of injustice, one that might’ve taken place anywhere and during any time period. Framing the story of an abused girl with a clubfoot with the events of World War II add historical detail to an incredibly human story, helping the reader to see this time period in an entirely new light. For Ada, the war might be horrifying, but it is also a blessing, as it allows her to escape her own personal nightmare in order to find a better life. In the end, she’s able to see her own worth and value, and realizes the beauty and warmth of having friends and family, people who support and love you. Though many parts of this novel (especially the abuse) had me fuming, I was so happy to see Ada get her happy ending, and I’d love to see what happened next. I imagine the townspeople helped Susan to rebuild her house, Ada got her foot surgically repaired, and her and her brother were officially adopted. This is certainly a book I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to, however.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or if you simply enjoy stories of bravery, courage, and hope, you will absolutely love this book. It shows the events of World War II from the incredibly unique perspective of a crippled little girl in England, a perspective I’ve certainly never seen before in literature, much less children’s literature. It has moments that will make you laugh, cry, and rage at the book, and will ultimately take you on a miraculous journey through the life of one very special little girl.

Reference:

Bradley, K. B. (2015). The war that saved my life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

George by Alex Gino

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“As the principal spoke, George’s eyes scanned the wall behind her… A sign in the far corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SAFE SPACES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH. Reading the word transgender sent a shiver down George’s spine. She wondered where she could find a safe space like that, and if there would be other girls like her there. Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on” (Gino 2015, p. 125).

I had no idea this book existed before I found it on my reading list for my children’s literature class, but I’m so glad that I was able to read it. This book was surprisingly hard to find at my local public library. Whether that’s because of the sensitive subject matter within or the fact that it’s so new, however, I’ll never know. Regardless, I was able to snag a copy from the university library I work in, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to talk about it here on my blog.

George, as the title implies, follows the story of a young boy named George. Though she was born a boy, George knows in her heart that she’s a girl, but is terrified to tell anyone around her for fear of being teased or called a “freak.” At the beginning of the story, George’s class has just finished reading Charlotte’s Web, and will be putting on a play for the rest of the school. George wants nothing more than to play the role of Charlotte, the wise spider with whom she most identifies. George’s teacher, however, refuses to let a boy play Charlotte when there are so many girls eager for the part. Throughout the story, George struggles with the fact that she is secretly a girl, even afraid to share the information with her own mother and brother. George is ultimately the story of a little boy who knows she’s a girl, and must find the courage to show the rest of the world who she really is.

Surprisingly, this is one of the few stories (this and If You Could Be Mine) to feature transgender issues. Though books with gay and lesbian characters have existed for a while, transgender issues have only recently come to light in the world of literature. When I learned that this book would be about a little boy struggling with the possibility of being transgender and transitioning, I was ecstatic; it’s wonderful to see diversity in children’s literature, as children often need to see characters like them. Though I’ve seen young adult books deal with transgender issues in the past, I have yet to see a children’s book tackle them. George, though a simple story, is ground-breaking in that it shows a young child struggling with her self identity and dealing with problems (such as bullying and self-doubt) that plague many real children who might benefit from reading this book.

Though it might not always be realistic, it was nice to see George’s family support her once they found out that she wanted to transition. There are so many parents out there who would kick their child out of the house for even thinking about being gay or transgender, so I think showing a child with a supportive (though worried) mom and brother was very positive representation. George’s mom seems upset at first, but we later learn that it’s because she’s worried about what the rest of society will do to him. She does her best to be supportive at the end of the novel, however, simply asking George to take things “one step at a time” as she adjusts to the new information. It was also wonderful to see that George had an incredibly supportive best friend, one who was willing to let him play the part of Charlotte and defend him against the school bullies.

Speaking of bullies, I was surprisingly okay with the one-note bullies in this story. Usually, I’d take issue with characters who exist solely to be awful, but I think this story needed them in order to convey the severity of George’s decision to transition. While many of his classmates are supportive when he plays Charlotte, the bullies (Jeff and Rick) torment him simply for crying over the spider’s death in the book. Though I obviously cannot climb into the author’s head, I feel that these characters were added to foreshadow how some members of society will treat George later on in his life. The sad reality for many LGBT children is that they are often bullied to extremes, pushed until they see suicide as the only way out. Just as I’m glad Gino gave George supportive friends and family members, I’m glad he chose to show a glimpse of the cruelty of others, as this is important for children to realize. The author was able to convey a sense of hope for children in similar situations (one of George’s teachers even promises to be there for her), while also warning them that not everyone will be so accepting.

Along with providing a “safe book” for children struggling with their sexuality or identity, George also has the power to evoke sympathy in those who have traditionally held anti-LGBT beliefs. Though George is a fictional character, she is impossible to dislike. I can’t think of a single person who would read her story and not feel sympathy for what she’s going through, and this sympathy could help them to see the LGBT community in a new light. Sadly, not everyone who holds anti-LGBT sentiments will give a book with such “controversial” subject material the time of day, but I believe it has the power to change the minds of those willing to give it a chance.

Though George is by no means high art (it’s written very simply and is incredibly short), it’s a wonderful little story that helps to shed light on a marginalized community that could really use more exposure and awareness right now. For that, I applaud Gino. As I mentioned above, all children need to recognize themselves in literature, especially children from marginalized groups. Seeing a character like George presented in such a respectful way could go a long way in helping a child who is struggling with the same problems feel less alone, so I think this book is immensely important. If it helps just one child to feel that he or she is normal and accepted, I think it’s more than worth any expenses required to put the book in that child’s hands.

Reference:

Gino, A. (2015). George. New York: Scholastic Press.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“‘The fact remains, Esperanza, that you, for instance, have a better education than most people’s children in this country. But no one is likely to recognize that or take the time to learn it. Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor'” (Ryan 2000, p. 187).

“Something seemed very wrong about sending people away from their own ‘free country’ because they had spoken their minds” (Ryan 2000, p. 208).

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review of this book, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of the others I’ve read for this blog. Don’t get me wrong; I really love historical fiction, and I see this as an important part of America’s history to reflect on. This particular story, however, did not pack nearly as much of an emotional punch as some of the other historical fiction I’ve read. That being said, I really enjoyed the historical elements that were present, as well as the themes of family and perseverance that permeated the novel. It’s a decent read, but certainly not one of my favorites so far.

Esperanza Rising follows the story of twelve-year-old Esperanza, a young girl living an almost fairy-tale life on her ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico. At the beginning of the story, Esperanza lives a charmed life, with a house full of servants who wait on her hand and foot. Most important in her life are her father, mother, and Abuelita, who dote on her and fulfill every request she might possibly have. The night before her thirteenth birthday, Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits, leaving her and her family at the mercy of her two powerful and money-hungry uncles. When her mother refuses to marry one of them for money, the uncles arrange to have the ranch burned to the ground, leaving Esperanza and her mother to flee the country in search of work in America. Now living as penniless laborers, Esperanza and her mother must build an entirely new life in America while they wait to be reunited with Abuelita, who remains in Mexico due to failing health. Esperanza Rising is the story of courage, perseverance, and the importance of family in times of hardship and uncertainty.

Though I remember reading Esperanza Rising in school as a child, I remembered nothing about the plot before choosing to re-read it as an adult. After experiencing it for a second time, however, I realize this is simply because the book was not memorable enough for me  to really have any recollection of it. While it was a nice read, it holds none of the weight that books like Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver do, books I read for class that I will never forget. Part of this might be due to the main character (I found her intolerable for the first half of the book), but I also think it’s because it lacks the overwhelming depth and historical detail of some of the other historical fiction I’ve read.

While it might be unfair to criticize Esperanza (she is, after all, a product of her privileged upbringing), she says and does some incredibly rude things at the beginning of the book that make it heard to root for her later on. For example, even though she and her mother are penniless and in the same circumstances as many other peasants, Esperanza turns her nose up at them on the train, going as far as pulling away from a little girl and refusing to let her “dirty hands” touch her doll. She changes completely by the end of the book, of course, but it was hard to like her at first. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, I immediately rooted for Isabel, as she was an instantly likable character. Esperanza’s arrogance at the beginning of this novel might have been purposeful (she eventually learns her lesson and begins to understand that nobody should be placed above anyone else), but I still didn’t appreciate her attitude towards those she deemed to be “lesser” than her. It makes it all the more ironic later on in the novel, as she’s complaining about how others look down on her because of her race. While this obviously isn’t right, it would’ve been nice to see Esperanza reflect for a moment on how she once treated others exactly the same way she hated being treated later on. To me, this would have made that message come across even more clearly, and provided a powerful moment of self-realization that the novel seemed to lack.

I also wish there had been more detail regarding the labor camps and strikes. While Chains gives us a heavily researched, in-depth look at America during the Revolutionary War, Esperanza Rising feels more like fiction than something that might have actually happened. As I mentioned above, this story reads a lot more like a reverse Cinderella story (riches to rags) than it does historical fiction. While we get an idea of the injustices facing laborers and strikers during this time period (we learn that they were forcefully deported even though many of them were U.S. citizens, which was entirely unjust and wrong), these plot threads sometimes take a backseat to Esperanza’s personal story. While I understand that this story is ultimately about her, not the events taking place around her, it would’ve been nice to see more of the “history” behind this novel’s historical fiction categorization.

Despite my nitpicks, however, I did enjoy the theme of family in this book, and thought it was touching to see Esperanza make a personal change in order to help her mother. I might not have liked her much at first, but she grew to be an incredibly strong, level-headed character, one I was able to forgive for her arrogance at the beginning of the novel. I was also impressed with the way Ryan is able to write incredibly three-dimensional characters, characters I wasn’t sure how to feel about at times. For example, Marta starts off as a stereotypical jerk, but we later grow to feel sympathy towards her when we realize that she’s also just trying her best to provide for her family. Like Esperanza, she grew on me throughout the novel, and I found it hard to hate her despite her abrasiveness.

In fact, I felt conflicted about the strikers in general throughout the story, which tells me that this plot thread was done incredibly well. Part of me understood why they were doing what they were doing (after all, America was built on the idea of protesting peacefully against things you fee to be unfair or problematic), but I found myself worrying about Esperanza and her friends. I kept saying to myself, “Why would they sabotage their fellow immigrants? They all want the same thing.” It then dawned on me that this is one of many examples of how two groups can want the same thing, but disagree about how best to achieve that goal. The strikers felt it in their rights to demand better living conditions and pay, and I found myself agreeing with them from time to time (especially after learning about the new Oklahoma camp near the end of the novel). As can be seen when Esperanza helps Marta hide from the U.S. officials, the immigrants were more than happy to come together and help each other out when it counted, likely making them much stronger in the long run.

While this book wasn’t one of my favorites, I’m glad I gave it another shot as an adult. I appreciated seeing a small glimpse of a lesser known part of American history (I had no idea immigrant labor camps existed, but it makes complete sense now that I think about it), and I really was invested in Esperanza’s story. I would have liked to see more of the history, but I respect that this novel was meant to focus on the story of a fictionalized young girl instead of the history. If I was judging solely on the story itself, I’d give this book five stars. Because it is labeled as historical fiction, however, I had to bump it down a bit, as I’ve read much more engaging historical fiction in the last year alone.

If you love historical fiction, The Book Thief and Chains would probably be better choices, but Esperanza Rising is still well worth a shot if you have the time. I wish I’d enjoyed it more than I did, but I suppose it’s impossible for us to love every single book that we read. This book, for me, simply fell a little short. The things it does well (such as the elements of family and gray moral areas) are done incredibly well, but the lack of historical detail made it fall flat. If you’re still curious, however, definitely give this book a shot; these are only my opinions, after all, and you might find yourself enjoying it much more than I did. It’s still an entertaining and easy read, and one that reminds us of the importance of family in times of crisis. Though simple, I think that’s an incredibly important and powerful lesson, and one that can help us through even our darkest struggles.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic Press.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

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“‘…But what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle-school experience,’ he continued, ‘is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God'” (Palacio 2014, p. 301).

This book, in my opinion, is a true gem, dealing with a number of real-world issues in a way that is both entertaining and profound. I’d heard wonderful things about this book when it first came out, and it was always a hit at the bookstore where I used to work. Despite this, I never had a chance to read it, and now that I have I can’t believe I waited so long to give it a try. I knew it dealt with themes of friendship and bullying, of course, but I didn’t understand quite how well it handled these subjects until I read it for myself. Wonder has come to be one of absolute my favorite children’s books, simply because it speaks to the humanity in all of us, reminding us that it’s important to be kind and compassionate to others no matter their circumstances.

Wonder follows the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a young boy with a big heart and a loving family. Lovingly nicknamed “Auggie” by those closest to him, August is anything but your average kid. Born with a rare genetic condition known as “Treacher Collins syndrome,” Auggie has been plagued with health issues his entire life. Even after a number of surgeries and medical treatments, Auggie still looks different from other children his age, something that has led him to a life of stares and ridicule. Auggie’s many health concerns have also kept him from attending public school… at least until now. At the beginning of his fifth grade year, Auggie’s parents convince him to attend Beecher Prep Middle School, a prestigious school for gifted children. Though he is apprehensive at first (he doesn’t want to be seen as the “freak” at his school), Auggie decides to give school a try, knowing that he will likely face a number of new challenges when mingling with children his own age. What follows is a heart-warming story about friendship, perseverance, and having the courage to be who you are in a sometimes scary and unsympathetic world.

As is often the case when I’ve just read a particularly profound book, I find it hard to process my thoughts when it comes to Wonder. I’d expected Auggie’s story to be touching, but I had no idea just how much the other characters in the story would affect me. There are so many wonderful characters in this book, characters whose thoughts and feelings we get to experience right alongside Auggie’s. I loved getting the different perspectives, as it helped to see how each character was feeling about particular moments in the novel. For example, Jack Will (Auggie’s best friend in school) upsets Auggie at one point in the book by saying some incredibly nasty and hurtful things. We later learn, however, that he comes from a relatively poor family, and is desperately trying to fit in with the “popular crowd” when he says these things, completely unaware that his friend can hear them. The story is never quite what we think it’s going to be initially; characters that at first seem selfish or uncaring turn out to be battling their own very real demons, adding an element of humanity to these characters that many children’s stories seem to lack.

Admittedly, there were parts of this book that had me tearing up, such as the scene in which Daisy (the family dog) dies. As an animal lover, witnessing the death of a beloved pet, even a fictional one, really got to me. Even worse was the following quote: “And I wondered how it would feel to be in heaven someday and not have my face matter anymore. Just like it never, ever mattered to Daisy” (p. 227). I couldn’t help it; I lost it when I read this quote. One of the major themes in this book is the importance of looking past someone’s appearance in  order to see the true heart within. As anyone who has a pet will understand, animals have already mastered this. Their love is unconditional, so it doesn’t matter to them what you look like. It broke my heart to see Auggie lose his pet, especially when she was one of the few comforts he had in life. To me, her death made the story all the more real, adding an element of loss to an already moving novel.

There were many times throughout the book that I found my heart breaking for Auggie, however, and I was reminded that life can be extremely cruel to the most vulnerable of us sometimes. As Justin says near the end of the novel, life is a lot like a lottery, where some of us are dealt better numbers than others. While Auggie was dealt a rough hand, however, Justin also notices that he has been granted many blessings in life:

“…If it really was random, the universe would abandon us completely. And the universe doesn’t. It takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. Like with parents who adore you blindly. And a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. And a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. And even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. Maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. The universe takes care of all its birds” (p. 204).

Even though Auggie faces many challenges that other children don’t, the novel shows us that his life can still be wonderful at times. This, to me, is there the humanity of this story shines through the most: in profound yet quiet realizations like the one above. This book, while written for children, has lessons that are useful to each of us, reminding us that the universe can be both a cruel and beautiful place at times.

Perhaps my favorite lesson in this story, however, was the lesson that not everything is black and white. There are no truly “evil” characters: even Julian, the designated “bully” of the novel, is more a product of his sheltered upper-class upbringing than a truly awful character. The characters are also real; Via, Auggie’s sister, is loving, patient, and understanding, but even she has moments where she wishes she could be the center of her parents’ affection. This book, to me, depicts real people rather than caricatures, showing us that nobody is perfect; everyone says things at times that they don’t mean, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has flaws. Even Auggie, the hero of the story, loses patience and lashes out at his parents at times. Children need to see themselves reflected in literature, and even if they don’t suffer from the same health issues as Auggie, children can easily relate to the struggles of trying to navigate a new school.

For many students, middle school is the worst transition, as everyone is trying to grow up too quickly. While Auggie’s unique situation makes it difficult for him to adapt, the novel proves that nobody is above dealing with the hardships of transitioning to a new school or growing up. Though Auggie’s appearance plays a large role in the book, many other characters face challenges as well. For example, Via must deal with a friend drifting away from her, and Via’s friend Miranda has to deal with her parents’ nasty divorce. As I said before, many of the characters who seem cold or rude at first are actually just dealing with their own private struggles, struggles that are revealed as the novel progresses. The novel is much like the proverbial “onion” in the movie Shrek; there are many layers to be dissected. Wonder is about bullying, but it’s also about family, friendship, healing after death, divorce, and a number of other heavy topics. We see more than one character face his or her demons, and each one has a unique perspective on life that adds depth to the story.

I also appreciated how many different types of families are showcased throughout the novel. Auggie’s family is more traditional, with two loving parents, a supportive sister, and a dog. As we see throughout the story, however, many children are dealing with unsupportive parents (such as Justin), absent parents (such as Miranda), or even overbearing parents (Julian). Auggie may have unique struggles, but he is lucky compared to some of his classmates, as he was blessed with a highly supportive and loving family. This novel flips the idea of “privilege” on its head, reminding us that the grass always seems greener on the other side. Auggie longs to look normal, while kids like Miranda and Justin long to have a family like his. Along with teaching us the importance of kindness and friendship, this book reminds us to count our blessings every day, as we may have something that others would give anything for.

Overall, I absolutely adored this book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a touching story with incredibly real characters. Auggie’s is the type of story that will stick with me forever, reminding me to be compassionate, patient, and kind to everyone I meet. After all, we never know what demons someone is battling; sometimes one has to walk the footsteps of another to discover the humanity that each of us shares.

Reference:

Palacio, R. J. (2014). Wonder. Random House USA.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

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Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life

your family is the court

and the ball is your heart.

No matter how good you are,

no matter how down you get,

always leave

your heart

on the court.

(Alexander 2014, p. 20)

I’m not usually a big fan of books written in verse, but I found myself really enjoying this book, to the point where I actually read a little bit of it out loud because I was enjoying the rhythm and flow so much. Each page is written almost like a rap song, with short bursts of text providing glimpses of the story through the main character’s head. While I’ve read similar books before (the works of Ellen Hopkins come to mind), this book felt unique in that it seemed to represent the character’s inner thoughts and feelings through the rhymes. I thought this was a really creative way to tell a story, and I loved every minute of it.

Much like Orbiting Jupiter, this is a short story that doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to tough issues. The novel focuses on a high school boy named Josh Bell. Because his dad was a famous ball player, Josh and his twin brother Jordan have grown up cultivating impressive skills on the basketball court. Though the two have always been close, things begin to change when Jordan gets a new girlfriend and starts to spend all of his time with her. Feeling left out, Josh says and does a few things he shouldn’t (including hitting his brother in the face with a basketball during a game), leading the two to have a falling out. When it becomes clear that their all-star dad is facing serious health problems, however, the two must learn to come together in order to discover what really matters in life.

Like I mentioned before, this book is the exact opposite of the type of book I usually enjoy. I’m all about sweeping fantasy novels written in prose, while this novel is a realistic story written in poetic rap verses. From the very first page, however, I was hooked; I found myself thinking that if all rap sounded like this book, I’d probably enjoy it a lot more as a musical genre than I do. Aside from being rhythmic and pleasing to the ear, the poetic style actually made the story itself more intriguing, as a lot of details must be inferred from the simple lines on the page. This isn’t the type of book to spoon-feed the plot to you; not all of the dialogue is obvious, and it’s very easy to miss details if you aren’t reading closely. That being said, I really enjoyed the suspense that built as I read further, prompting me to wonder what would happen to the father and how the brothers’ relationship would evolve or change.

The most heart-wrenching aspect of this book, in my opinion, is the bond between the brothers and their dad, and the way this bond shapes the narrative as the dad’s health begins to decline. The book is short, but I found myself immediately invested in these characters, wanting their father to be okay every bit as much as they did. As with many children’s novels, however, this novel’s aim seems to be teaching children (and young teens) how to deal with the concept of death. While we know from the beginning that Josh and Jordan’s dad is in poor health, his death at the end still comes as a shock. The novel pulls almost a twist at the end, luring the reader into a false sense of security before dropping the hammer on both the characters and the audience. This, in my opinion, was an excellent way to handle the death, as it shows the harsh reality of losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly. Children need to understand these lessons early on, and it’s best to teach them in a way that is safe and controlled (rather than waiting until tragedy strikes).

In the end, the ultimate lesson that I took from this book was that life is short; when tragedy strikes, you forget all of the petty little things keeping you from those you love, and you remember what’s most important. After their father’s death, the twins are able to reconcile, realizing that they will really only have one another in the end. Moving forward, I’d like to think that the two could mourn their father together, sharing in the great moments the three of them shared and carrying on their father’s legacy. As a whole, this book demonstrates the close bond between families, and how even the biggest tragedy can shed light in places where there had only been darkness before. While I came into this reading experience expecting “just another sports story,” I’m pleased to say that I found quite a lot more than I expected. I guess I really should know by now that you can never judge a book by its cover!

Reference:

Alexander, K. (2014). The crossover. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

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“I wanted him to stop telling me who I was when I knew better. He wanted me to be something I wasn’t, and I wanted him to be something he wasn’t. We were so far apart. And yet, even though I knew he was wrong, he was my dad, and I wanted him to be right. More than anything, I wanted him to have all the answers” (Gantos 2011, p. 94).

The more I read children’s literature, the more I find myself surprised at the depth and complexity of it. While it’s true that there are many books (including many of the books I read as a child) that amount to literary junk food, there are so many children’s books that tackle issues even adult stories can’t really handle properly. Joey Pigza Loses Control is one such book. While I’m usually more of a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I really appreciate a story that handles real-world issues in a realistic, humorous manner, and this book handled a number of serious issues very efficiently.

Joey Pigza is a young boy suffering from ADHD, who has just been given medicine (in the form of a daily patch on his arm) that allows him to feel “normal.” Joey is excited because, for the first time, he will be visiting with his dad for six weeks of the summer. Despite being told that it will likely never happen, Joey can’t help but hope that this trip will mend his family, bringing his parents back together again. At first, Joey’s dad seems just like him: “wired,” optimistic, and full of enthusiasm for the future. He quickly learns, however, that all is not as rosy as it seems, and that his dad has many problems of his own that need to be worked out before he’s ready to parent anyone.

The quote that struck me the most from this book can be found about halfway through the story, when Joey is pretending to be a mannequin in a shopping mall. As he’s having his fun, a nice, motherly woman catches him in the act, giving him a strange look when she finds out what he’s doing:

“She gave me a strange look when I said ‘normal,’ like the last thing in the world I was was ‘normal.’ Oh well, I thought, maybe it’s not a good idea to be too normal. It didn’t sound like much fun if it only made you afraid to do the stuff you really wanted to do” (Gantos 2011, p. 110).

Though this is only a work of fiction, I found myself really connecting to Joey’s desire to be “normal.” I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life, and even as an adult I find myself wishing that I was “normal,” and that “normal” things (like driving and dating) didn’t cause me to shut down with panic and fear. Like Joey, I also fear what might happen if I were to stop taking the medication that helps me feel more normal, and that I’ll quickly slip back into the “old me” if I’m not careful, too afraid to leave the house and get things done. If a 24 year old woman can connect to this fictional boy, I can’t imagine how his struggles relate to actual children who might be reading this book.

One thing I’ve never dealt with is divorce, though many children out there have had to go through the changes that accompany parents who have chosen to separate. I felt for Joey as he struggled to connect with his dad, wanting him to be proud of him and form a bond that they’d never shared before. This becomes even harder when Joey’s dad turns to alcohol, becoming a different person entirely when he’s intoxicated. These are very serious issues, but issues that children in the real world often have to face. Joey’s story shows children that, while you can’t always fix the messes in your life, there is always hope for a brighter future. Joey has a mother who loves him deeply, medication that helps him feel better, and a dog (Pablo) who serves as his best friend. Even without his dad, Joey lives a good life, and when things don’t quite work out the way we planned, his story shows children that there are always blessings to be had in life.

This book also shows, like the above quote implies, that adults don’t always have the answers. Sometimes, they’re every bit as lost as children, and this is important for children to understand. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we all have flaws and lapses in judgment that lead to sticky situations; I think it helps children to see that nobody is perfect, not even those we look up to most.

It has always been my belief that children’s stories shouldn’t shy away from tough issues, as they allow children going through these experiences to feel as if they have a friend (fictional or otherwise) coping with the same struggles. For children who aren’t facing the same issues, stories like this introduce them to some of the world’s injustice in a safe, controlled manner, one that allows them to wonder about these experiences and ask questions.

This is easily the type of book that could spark a classroom discussion about divorce, alcoholism, and ADHD, all tough topics that many children are having to deal with in reality. I’ve heard criticism that it treats these topics too lightly, but I think humor is sometimes the best medicine when it comes to the topics that are the most heart-breaking. Sometimes, it just helps to laugh about the dark parts of life, even when we don’t always feel like it. I also think that the addition of humor allows children to feel comfortable reading until the end; if it was dark and depressing all the way through, it wouldn’t give anyone much incentive to keep reading. The humor shows children that it’s okay to be happy and enjoy yourself sometimes, even when the things you’re going through don’t seem at all funny. Life isn’t just light or dark; it’s a messy combination of both, and I think this book captures both sides of the coin in a meaningful way.

When I have time, I’d love to read the rest of the series; I think Joey is a wonderful character, and his story is filled with a lot of heart and realism. This book proves that the right story can really warm me up to genres that I haven’t explored much previously!

Reference:

Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza loses control. New York: Square Fish.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

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“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 25).

“Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 183).

This book was incredibly sweet! As with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember seeing the movie for this book a long time ago. Unlike the C.S Lewis work, however, I did not remember anything about this story, making the book a fresh and exciting experience.

The Tale of Despereaux, as you might expect, follows the story of Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger dreams. Shunned by his fellow mice for being different (and for talking to humans), Despereaux is thrown into the dungeon to be eaten by rats, but not before meeting and falling in love with the beautiful princess Pea. Spurred forward by his love for the princess and his desire to be an adventurous knight, Despereaux is able to survive the dungeon and save princess Pea from a vengeful rat named Chiaroscuro and a simple, misguided servant girl named Miggery Sow. The Tale of Despereaux is a modern fairy tale at its finest, with suspense, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart.

Once again, I found this tale to be both simple and cute, inviting children into a world where anything is possible, and where even a mouse can be a hero. In my opinion, the overall messages of this story are that love and hope are wonderful, and those who are different are usually the ones who have the best adventures (as the above quote implies). From his birth, Despereaux is seen as an oddity, a mouse with big ears who doesn’t act like a mouse. Despite this, his optimism, bravery, and love for the princess are what make him successful, delivering a subtle but wonderful message to the reader.

Similarly, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are explored in a way children can understand, without ever pandering to or talking down to the audience. For example, Roscuro turns to revenge after seeing the princess’s hatred for accidentally killing her mother, but realizes the error of his ways when she forgives him. Forgiveness also makes Despereaux feel better when he chooses to forgive his father, letting go of any anger or resentment he might have held. This, too, is a very deep and crucial message, delivered in a way that makes it easier for children to understand.

Grief, too, is explored in the way the kind bans soup after the death of his wife. As the book says:

“This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him” (p. 119).

This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to explain love and loss. As the narrator points out, the king’s actions may have seemed extreme, but they were done in an act of grief, something that we all experience and handle differently. While a younger reader might not immediately pick up on this theme due to the subtlety in which it is presented, older children (and adults like me) can look back on stories like Despereaux and appreciate these very complex themes presented in simple ways.

Despite the simplicity of the story, The Tale of Despereaux also features quite a bit of darkness, much like the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. I was shocked at the abuse poor Miggery Sow had to endure, being beaten so badly that she became both “simple-minded” and nearly deaf. That is a concerning level of violence for a children’s book, though I agree that sometimes a little violence is necessary to convey a realistic story (even if the setting and characters behave in a way that’s fantastic). My problem, however, is that the violence is almost played for laughs rather than serious issues. Miggery is a sympathetic character, but also constantly mocked for being “dumb” and played as the comic relief.

The book’s treatment of Mig, to me, is the only real mixed message the book sends, and the positive messages outweigh it enough that I don’t see it being a huge problem. That being said, I would hope it doesn’t encourage kids that it’s okay to bully and make fun of those who are different, especially if they have disabilities or aren’t as smart as other children. Of course, Despereaux himself is different, and played as the hero, so perhaps this isn’t the message the author intended to convey at all.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, yet another that I missed out on during my own childhood. I remember readingBecause of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising as a child, but this is a Kate DiCamillo story that unfortunately slipped by me when I was younger. After reading it, however, I can honestly say that I’m very glad I gave it a try!

Reference:

DiCamillo, K., & Ering, T. B. (2006). The tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.