Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“The Twits”

The Twits
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
Publisher: Alfred A. Knope (imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
Publication Date: 1980
ISBN: 0-375-92242-3
Lexile Level: 750

I decided to revisit another classic from my childhood—one of Roald Dahl’s less famous works, The Twits. I think my sister had a copy and I remember reading it several times as a child. A couple of details had stuck in my brain over the years, namely Mr. Twit with food in his beard and the bird pie. Since it’s not a Dahl work that gets talked about as much, I thought I’d take another look at it.

Mr and Mrs. Twit are truly disgusting people. They are ugly and mean and hateful, even (or perhaps especially) to each other. The first part of the story is about them pranking each other…which while mean-spirited, is pretty funny. We know that these two are in their 60s. So imagine your grandparents hiding worms in spaghetti and frogs in the bed. Or one tricking the other into thinking they’re shrinking. It’s just hilarious. I kept thinking of the grandparents from The Waltons (though at least they actually loved each other). That same curmudgeon attitude that hides some amount of affection. Granted, with the Twits, I wonder how much they still love each other and how much of it is just passive aggressive.

As the story moves along, we learn how the Twits capture birds for their weekly bird pie and keep a family of monkeys in a cage. Eventually the monkeys team up with a Roly-Poly bird and shenanigans ensue. The Twits get what they deserve, and the monkeys go free.

Like many of Dahl’s works, the message is one of karmic payback. Mean, ugly people are punished, and the innocent are rewarded. My favorite part is how Dahl talks about true beauty—that no matter what your physical features, if you think good thoughts, you will “always look lovely.” Whereas if you think ugly thoughts, they will twist your appearance and the ugliness will grow upon you (as in the case of Mrs. Twit). It’s a short section but one of the best lessons I’ve ever read in a children’s book. It doesn’t beat the child over the head with it, but it also tells them that ultimately, physical features don’t matter as much as what’s on the inside.

This is a short novel that would be great as a bedtime or classroom read-aloud. It could be gotten through in a few days, and the wordplay (another Dahl trademark) makes it a lot of fun to read out loud. It can also serve as a great conversation starter as to why we should try being nicer to people.

My edition also has a short interview with Roald Dahl in the back. He talks about his writing process, and I would encourage aspiring writers to look it up. It can be found here, which also has it in audio format. His advice is solid, and some that I’m trying to implement into my own writing process.

All in all, this is a highly recommended novel. It’s a quick read, even for kids, with a great message. Any kid who likes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda is sure to enjoy it.

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Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Author: Ian Fleming
Illustrator: John Burningham
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: 1964
ISBN: 978-0763666781
Lexile Level: 710

One of my favorite Dick Van Dyke movies of all time is the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But I didn’t realize it was based on a book until I was working in a library. And not only is this a book, it was written by the creator of James Bond himself: Ian Fleming. Yes, Ian Fleming, whose work in World War II was the inspiration of many of Bond’s adventures, wrote a children’s book about a magical car. Actually, given the stuff Q came up with…a children’s book about an adventurous inventor makes sense. Maybe the first Q was actually Caractacus Potts.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of the Potts family: Commander Caractacus Potts, inventor and explorer; his wife Mimsie, and twins Jeremy and Jemima. After making money off of his latest invention (sweets that whistle) Commander Potts buys a wreck of a motorcar, and fixes it up. But the titular Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (so named for the noises she makes) is far more strange than the family anticipates. She proves to be quite intelligent (and a little bit magical) as she looks after her family. A trip to the beach turns into an epic adventure, complete with sea travel, gangsters, and explosions.

This book is amazing. It is clearly written to be read aloud—as a storyteller, it was actually hard to read this quietly to myself. Ian Fleming actually wrote it for his son, and it shows. This feels like a story to be read aloud at bedtime. Bonus points if you can pull off the accents (even badly). The book is never boring, even in sections where Fleming rambles a bit on the technical points of what’s happening. Throughout the story, Commander Potts encourages his family to think and come up with ideas of their own. At several points I was reminded of the Doctor from Doctor Who (and I have to wonder if this book didn’t inspire at least a few of the writers of the show). For example, he teaches his family to “Never say no to adventures. Always say yes. Otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

Mimsie is the character who has the least amount of characterization, but even when she expresses concern, she is not made to look like a fuddy-duddy. Instead, she is painted as a typical mother—Fleming makes it clear that she’s only worried about her children’s safety, and that her feeling as perfectly natural. Jeremy and Jemima aren’t much better off, though we do see a few moments of cleverness and bravery from them. When kidnapped, they put their heads together and stay calm, coming up with a plan to save the day. Fleming balances them well—Jemima has clever ideas, and is not a helpless female as one might have expected from a story of this era. Jeremy is brave in the face of danger, but doesn’t become rash. They are very believable children.

This is an excellent recommendation for fans of Roald Dahl (especially with John Burningham’s illustrations). The illustrations are quite reminiscent of Dahl’s work. I would also recommend it to parents looking for a chapter book to read aloud or with their child. For fans of the movie, the first part of the book will be familiar enough that they should be comfortable once the gangster plot kicks in. Try to get the 50th anniversary edition if possible—it came out a few years ago, and it quite gorgeous—a fantastic addition to any collection.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Where I Belong”

Where I Belong
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: September 2014
ISBN: 9780544230200
Lexile Level: 640

Mary Downing Hahn was a favorite in my childhood, and I’m glad to see that she’s still publishing. Where I Belong is a slight deviation from her usual fare—at least of the works that I’m familiar with. Many of her stories are ghost stories or have an otherwise gothic feel. My favorite when I was young was Wait til Helen Comes (which I should really revisit at some point).

Where I Belong is about rising seventh-grader Brendan, a foster child who is struggling with finding his place in the world. He’s an artist, a self-professed dreamer, who is failing sixth-grade. He has no friends, is at odds with his foster mother, the world is against him, yada yada yada. Okay, so the way Brendan is set up is relatively believable (I have issues with the portrayal of his foster mother, but we’ll get to that). I’m not sure if kids would still be so cruel towards a kid because of something like his long hair in this day and time, but I do remember the jeers against the band Hanson was that they “looked like girls” back in the 90s, so maybe it’s still a thing. Kids can be cruel for any number of reasons. We never really see the bullies in Brendan’s school though, except for a mention at the beginning at the book.

It seems like a lot of the problems against Brendan and his state in the world is due to the fact that he’s a foster child. I talked about this a bit in my review of One for the Murphys, so I won’t take too much time on it here. But this is one of those negative portrayals of foster kids and the system that I dislike. Granted, this isn’t a major point in the story, and is tastefully done. While I’m not sure why a baby abandoned at birth wouldn’t have had a better shot at adoption (since infants are the big demand), Hahn does lay out his past, and I don’t have a huge problem with it. I can buy that this situation could exist, and yes, it would be pretty damaging to a kid’s self esteem. But the idea that a kid is “bad” just because they’re a foster kid? Does anyone actually think that? Maybe I’m naive, or sheltered, or just think better of the world in general…but Brendan mentions at one point that he heard an adult say that foster kids had “bad blood.” That’s just stupid, and in my mind, lazy writing. Again, I could be wrong, and this could be a thing. But I’ve never seen it, and I like to think most people would be better than to blame a child for their circumstances.

Related to this is Brendan’s foster mother, Mrs. Clancy. The first half of the book show her as being distant and not particularly interested in Brendan. Granted, most of her perceptions that we see are actually Brendan’s interpretation—things he thinks she thinks—so she very well may not be as cold as she’s painted. And to Hahn’s credit, she addresses this later in the book—Mrs. Clancy talks about how she’s raised so many foster kids, and she just doesn’t have the energy that she used to. Truthfully, this is a minor issue, but it still bugs me (see “negative portrayal of foster parents” as mentioned before).

Okay, so the actual story. Brendan is a big reader, and is particularly obsessed with the legend of the Green Man—a mythical figure who is the protector of the forest. He goes into the woods, finding a tree where he decides to build a tree house. He is very respectful of the spirit of the forest, and often feels he’s being watched. He meets an old man, who seems to possibly be the Green Man itself. This, combined with the meeting of a girl who shares his interests, helps set Brendan on a more positive course.

There are a handful of mentions that set this story in modern times (such as cell phones and Facebook) but overall, the story is pretty timeless. One of the strengths is the descriptions—Hahn sets us up early on that this is not a particularly wealthy area of town. It makes a lot of what happens later on more believable. For all my ranting, I did genuinely like this story. I’m a sucker for anything fey or Puck related, and the Green Man falls in that category. The twist, while predicable, was still well done, and I’ll confess, I teared up at the end.

Final verdict: a good recommendation for kids who like realistic fiction. Maybe not an essential addition to most collections, but a solid choice. However, I doubt kids will be quick to pick this one up on their own—it might take some marketing.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Hardy Boys: Deprivation House”

Hardy Boys: Deprivation House
Author: Franklin W. Dixon
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication Date: May 2008
ISBN: 978-1435299160
Lexile Level: 700-750

Did you know that they are still making Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books? I didn’t, until I was working in children’s. Yes, these teenage detectives have been brought into the 21st century, complete with cell phones and reality TV.

Deprivation House is actually the first book of the “Murder House” trilogy. I wrongly assumed that by trilogy, they meant three connected but self-contained stories. Instead, it is one story spread over three books. The last page offers a cliffhanger for the second book. This is a little disappointing, if only because there’s no reason this couldn’t be published as one book. It’s not unusual to see a 300-400 page children’s book. With a little editing, this could be a single story.

Technically, this is part of the Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers series, which is not considered part of the mainstream Hardy Boys series. It’s all the same characters, the premise is just slightly different, with the boys being part of an agency.

But we do see the Hardy Boys solve the first leg of this case. Frank and Joe go undercover on a reality TV show, to investigate death threats that have been issued to contestants. Why them? Well, after their father retired, he started American Teens Against Crime (ATAC for short). Basically a spy network for teens, for situations where teens would be more appropriate for undercover missions.

The idea seems to be to give the boys more of a spy feel. They have handy gadgets and a tech guy and the typical crap science that you see in that genre. I can understand that. With technology improving so dramatically since the 50s, it’s harder to handwave away gadgets as “they built it in their garage.”

What I can’t get behind is the fact that their mom and aunt (who lives with them) DON’T KNOW THEY’RE AGENTS. As in, their father started this agency, knows they’re a part of it…and then keeps his wife, their mother, in the dark. And the implication made by the boys is that all agents operate without the knowledge of their parents. Not only does it feel terribly misogynistic, there’s absolutely no reason for it. The boys even say that they think their mom would be okay with it. So why the secrecy? What are they going to tell these parents when their teenager dies on a mission? It just raises too many questions.

Overall, this very much feels like a Hardy Boys story of old. Aside of the technology updates, nothing else really feels updated. It’s not a bad story at all—I suspected who the criminal was, but it wasn’t glaringly obvious. It’s not a story that talks down to kids, which is nice. I may even take the time to finish the trilogy, just for a proper conclusion to the story (or I might just look it up on the Hardy Boys wiki, which is totally a thing).

If you have mystery lovers who need a solid series, don’t be afraid to fall back on this classic.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction, Middle Grade Graphic Novel

“Star Wars: Jedi Academy”

Star Wars: Jedi Academy
Author/Illustrator: Jeffrey Brown
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: August 2013
ISBN: 978-0545505178
Lexile Level: 650

The first volume of the Jedi Academy graphic novels introduces us to Roan, a boy on Tatooine who ends up going to the Jedi Academy after he is rejected from Pilot School. We follow him through his first year through a collection of journal entries, traditional comic panels, and other inserts.

Jeffrey Brown does a fantastic job introducing us to Roan and his struggle as he enters middle school. Roan’s primary problem is that he’s behind most of the Jedi students, who have been training for years. We’re not clued in to why Roan has been selected only now for training, but maybe that will come out in the later volumes.

The cast of students is just big enough to be comfortable and still feel like an entire class. Of course, there are the stereotypical bullies (one has to wonder why such children would be permitted to train as Jedi) but their behavior seems to be mostly to provide some conflict. One thing that stands out is Roan’s comments on how busy he is and how there’s so much to do for class. I like this inclusion—it seems like a little thing, but that is a legitimate adjustment problem that readers may have as they transition from elementary to middle school themselves.

The books are great for anyone with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars universe. Different creatures are explained and it may help children who are 1) interested in seeing the movies for the first time, or 2) have seen the movies, but struggled with the different terms being thrown out.

Though I use the term graphic novel, this is really more of a chapter book, with the comic book panels being used sparingly. Fans of Captain Underpants and other hybrid books will enjoy Jedi Academy.

Final thoughts: Great for kids who love Star Wars, as well as fans of hybrid novels. It’s a good bridge for those who are transitioning into chapter books, but may need work on their stamina. Also good for those who get bored with traditional novel formats.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“One for the Murphys”

One for the Murphys
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Publisher: Puffin Books
Published: May 2012
ISBN: 9780399256158
Lexile Level: 520L

One for the Murphys tells the story of a girl named Carly, as she is put into foster care after being beaten by her stepfather. She is placed with the Murphy family, a first-time foster family with three boys of their own. The change catches Carly off-guard, as she struggles to understand this normal, happy family dynamic. The book follows Carly trying to adjust to her new life, while dealing with the aftermath of her abuse.

The majority of this book is amazing. It seems to accurately capture what the foster care experience would be like from the child’s perspective. One early line that is particularly haunting is how Carly starts out expecting her foster care experience to be horrible–that she’s “seen the movies and TV shows” and therefore knows that foster parents are greedy and mean. It really made me realize just how few positive portrayals of foster care there are in the media–and the impact that has on children in foster care.

Carly is a fantastic and heart-wrenching narrator. She is incredibly witty, and I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good child protagonist. The characters are interesting, and you feel for those involved in the struggle. Mrs. Murphy genuinely wants to help Carly, and Carly is dealing with very real feelings of not knowing what she wants–and the guilt that comes along with wanting to be with someone who is not her mother.

However, there is a big problem with this book–and here, I’ll have to get into spoiler territory. I usually try to avoid them, but I feel this is too big an issue to ignore.

First, it’s important to remember who this book is written for. My library classifies it as a Juvenile book. I would say it is for late elementary through middle school ages. Second, who is likely to pick this book up? A lot of kids, sure, but I imagine those in foster care or abusive situations themselves would be drawn to it.

So let’s look at the ultimate message of this book: It doesn’t matter if someone hurts you–if they do something nice, that makes up for it.

This is an incredibly dangerous message, and it plays on one of the major tactics that abusers use, and the mindset that keeps many victims from seeking help. That because life is good sometimes, the abuse doesn’t matter.

Throughout the entire book, we see hints that Carly’s mother was always, at the very least, neglectful and emotionally abusive. In the first two meetings when Carly is allowed to see her, she says hurtful and emotionally abusive things, even going so far as to say that she doesn’t want Carly anymore. She helped hold Carly down so that her stepfather could beat her. But at the end of the book, all of this is magically hand-waved away. Why?

Because her mother “changed her mind” and tried to stop Dennis when he started to go too far in his punishment. She risked her life to stop him–and that PROVES that she loves Carly. The book also implies that this means Carly should love and want her.

Bad enough that the mother is getting out of this scott-free, with no criminal charges (supposedly in exchange for her testimony against the stepfather, and he has said that she wasn’t involved) but no one is taking any of the previous history into account. No one talks to Carly about what she wants–we see her social worker all of two times in the entire book. But worse is the message that Mrs. Murphy and the other adults are giving Carly–that because her mother supposedly risked her life for her, that this means that her mother loves her unconditionally, and that Carly should appreciate that.

Think about the message this sends to children in potentially dangerous situations. This tells them that “it’s okay mom/dad hit me, because they were nice this other time.” It tells them that an act of kindness balances out an act of abuse. That one can mark out the other. And that is incredibly dangerous.

I can forgive this book for a lot. Some of the characters are underdeveloped–but it’s a kid’s book, and there isn’t room for every side character to get a lot of development. Several of the characters are good, so I can overlook that. I can forgive that we don’t get into the legal side of Carly’s case–again, it’s a kid’s book. 90% of this book was great. It was a positive portrayal of foster families, and we don’t get enough of that.

Maybe the author thought it would be too cliche for Carly to get adopted by the Murphys. But her ending just makes me sad. Because with everything that we’ve been shown of her mother, what are the odds that this woman will change? Carly is going back to a life of stealing from Salvation Army boxes and being told that crying makes you a sucker. And in a year when her mother has forgotten what a horrible man Dennis was, she’ll find some other worthless abusive asshole, and the cycle starts over.

I have other issues with this book, but they are discussed far more eloquently and with more authority than I can give them by Goodreads reviewer Shelley. I highly recommend that you check out her review here. She is a social worker, which gives her review a bit of extra weight (in my opinion).

Final thoughts: this is a good book on the surface, but the final implications are terrifying. Don’t give this to a kid who has dealt with abusive situations if you don’t want to confuse them and send them the wrong message. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to potential foster parents, just to give them some perspective. But even then, it’s problematic.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse