Category Archives: Childrens

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

Our November Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I had never read it when I was my girls’ age, so this one was new to me.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens when Kit Tyler, a 16 year-old who has grown up in Barbados, arrives in Connecticut after taking a five-week boat trip from her home. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, has passed away, and her only remaining family is an aunt living in the American colonies.

From the moment she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is aware of how different she is from her Puritan family. Her rich, colorful dresses are a stark contrast to the grey, simple muslins worn by her cousins. Kit grew up swimming and reading secular books, both of which are unheard of in her uncle’s strict household, and her lack of interest in the church sermons and readings to which she is subjected provide a constant source of tension with those around her.

After her arrival, Kit is terribly homesick until she discovers the Meadows on the outskirts of town, and an old woman named Hannah who lives in a modest house there. Hannah is wise, patient and kind, but she has been run out of town because she is a Quaker and people believe she is a witch. Kit comes to care deeply for Hannah, but she has to keep their friendship a secret because she has been prohibited by her uncle from visiting the Meadows and seeing her. When their friendship is exposed, Kit must decide how much she will risk to protect Hannah, and she has to face the consequences of her actions when the town turns on her too.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about leadership, fundamentalism, standing up for one’s beliefs, adherence to social norms, and religious freedom. (There are also some love stories threaded through the book). It kept my daughters’ attention and provided lots of fodder for discussion. The girls found several characters to admire (and a few to hate), and everyone agreed that Kit was more brave than they would have been in her shoes. I liked that most of the characters were multi-dimensional, even if they seemed closed-minded and rigid at first. There is also a lot of detail about life in Colonial America and some exploration of how the colonists broke free of England and the Royalists.

I highly recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond for middle grade readers. It is a palatable dose of history and ethics that goes down very smoothly and provides a great springboard for conversation.


AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko

The October Mother -Daughter book club was Al Capone Does My Shirts, the first in a series of three by Gennifer Choldenko.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set on Alcatraz in the 30s. Moose is a 12 year-old boy who has moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work as a prison guard and his older sister Natalie, who has autism (which wasn’t yet recognized as a disorder) can attend a special school in San Francisco. Moose has left behind good friends and a regular baseball game in Santa Monica, and he’s missing them both dearly. On Alcatraz, his friends are limited to the five children of other prison employees, and he has to take the ferry to San Francisco to attend school. Worse, his sister’s admission to the special school is revoked after two days because her condition is more severe than the school had expected. So Moose is forced to take care of his sister in the afternoons, instead of making friends and playing baseball.

My daughter read all three of the Choldenko books last year and loved them, so I included Al Capone Does My Shirts on the Mother-Daughter Book Club list for this year. I had assumed that the book would be focused on the inner workings of the prison and its famous convicts, told from a kid’s perspective. Instead, the book explored Moose’s relationship with his parents and sister, and how Natalie’s autism impacted the family. Moose was forced to take responsibility for his sister at an early age, and his mother, who was so focused on her daughter and trying to “cure” her, barely noticed the sacrifices she asked her son to make.  His father was sympathetic to Moose’s situation, but was helpless to change it because of the double shifts he took on to help the family make ends meet.

I liked Al Capone Does My Shirts. I thought it presented a realistic depiction of autism and how families are forced to adapt to accommodate children with special needs. It was depressing at times, for sure, but realistic. I also liked Moose’s friendships with other kids, particularly the warden’s daughter Piper, a great schemer and manipulator whose heart was ultimately in the right place.

The girls (age 10) and moms had a mixed reaction to the book. Most liked it a lot, while others thought it lagged in the middle and some found it too depressing. But it inspired a good dialogue about Moose and whether it was fair that he had to take so much responsibility for his sister. The girls were also intrigued by Al Capone and how he could exert so much influence even beyond the prison’s walls. There were also questions about whether it is fair to bend the rules to achieve a good end, or if obedience to rules should transcend everything else.

A few of the girls had read the other books in the trilogy (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework), and the verdict is that they are even better than Al Capone Does My Shirts.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.

I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.


TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce

Our last mother-daughter book club pick for 2013-2014 was Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. The combination of the end of the year’s competing activities and projects and a book that had some difficult words and a confusing plotline meant that not too many of the girls read the book (including mine). But I read it, so I should get a blog post out of it, right?

Add Tom’s Midnight Garden to the list of grade school fiction that involves time travel, along with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (reviewed here). It takes place in the late 1800s. Tom, the main character, has been banished from his home due to his younger brother’s measles. He is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in their apartment in a large house a few hours away by train. The apartment is small and confining, with a small parking lot in the back, but Tom goes exploring in the middle of the night and discovers a huge, beautiful garden at the back of the house that only appears at night.

During his nocturnal escapades in the garden, Tom meets a young girl named Hattie, and they become friends and playmates. Hattie lives in Victorian England and is an orphan who has been adopted by her aunt’s family. Tom visits the garden every night, but Hattie quickly grows older, surpassing Tom in age. She tells Tom that he only visits her once every few months, while from his perspective,  he goes to see Hattie every night that he is staying at his aunt and uncle’s house.

Like most books about time travel, this one hurt my head, in a good way. Is Tom or Hattie a ghost? Why can’t anyone else see Tom other than Hattie and the old gardener, who thinks Tom is the devil? Hattie leaves Tom a pair of ice skates in a secret spot in her room, which he finds in his present day – so was she real? What is Hattie’s connection to the house?

I like time travel books (Time and Again, The Time Traveler’s Wife), and I liked Tom’s Midnight Garden. I definitely liked it more than the other moms and girls who read it. Most thought that it was hard to get into, that it was confusing (true), and that the end wasn’t clear. I found the historical aspects interesting, and was very touched by the relationship between Tom and Hattie. It is apparently a beloved book in England, and was ranked the country’s second-favorite kids’ book of all time in 2007.

If you have a middle grade reader who loves time travel and won’t get turned off by some old-fashioned writing and unfamiliar words, give Tom’s Midnight Garden a try. Just be forewarned that it wasn’t popular with my crew.

Battle of the (Middle Grade) Books

Tomorrow is the Battle of the Books competition in my daughters’ fourth grade class. Battle of the Books is a 10-week reading and comprehension competition in which teams of fourth graders read the same five books and then have to answer questions from those books to see how much they understood and retained. I am the “team manager”, which means I have been in charge of making sure the team is prepared and has studied the right things. We’ve had several team meetings and I think the Fictionistas (our team is five girls, including two sets of twins) are ready for battle.

Being the type-A team manager that I am, I read all five of the books and prepared questions for them to answer. Since I read five books in the last week, and since it kept me from reading the usual fare I like to review here on EDIWTB, I figured I could at least write a blog post reviewing the books. I ended up liking them quite a bit. I think the teachers did a great job picking five books that would appeal to a range of interests and reading abilities, while still providing a challenge for the competition.

So here are my quick reviews of the books we read:

The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The World According to Humphrey is about a hamster who lives in a fourth (fifth?) grade classroom. He is used to being taken home at night by young, freewheeling substitute teacher Ms. Mac, but when permanent teacher Mrs. Brisbane returns to her job, she is horrified by the “rodent” in her classroom and leaves Humphrey alone overnight. Humphrey learns to fend for himself, but along the way he befriends the school janitor and wheedles his way into Mrs. Brisbane’s good graces. She decides to let him go home on weekends with students, and on these visits, Humphrey works his gentle magic. He helps parents parent better, he inspires kids to be more cooperative, and he lifts the spirits of hopeless, depressed adults. If I am making the book sound corny, it isn’t – it’s sweet and entertaining. Great book for fourth graders.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard S. Peck. A Year Down Yonder takes place in 1937 during the Great Recession, which occurred after the Depression. 15 year-old Mary Alice Dowdel has been sent by her parents to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois, because they have been forced to move into a Chicago boardinghouse that doesn’t have room for her. At first, she is very unhappy at the prospect of leaving Chicago and moving in with her abrasive, emotionally distant grandmother in her hick town. But Grandma turns out to be conniving and outrageous, as well as loyal and generous with a strong sense of justice. She puts people in their place and never apologizes for it. I really liked A Year Down Yonder. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book (usually at Grandma), and was touched by her relationship with Mary Alice and the people in her small town. Another good read for fourth graders, though there is some outdated language that they didn’t always grasp and some mature themes that thankfully sailed over their heads (a teenage pregnancy, a woman caught nude in a young man’s boarding room). This is a Newbery medal winner (2001) and, it turns out, a sequel – I think I may look into its predecessor as a possible Mother-Daughter Book Club book.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. More historical fiction from Speare, who also wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Sign of the Beaver is about thirteen year-old Matt, who has moved with his father to what is now Maine to build a house and settle land there in the late 1700s. When his father has to return to Massachusetts to retrieve Matt’s mother and younger sister, he leaves Matt in charge and promises to return in 7 weeks. While his father is gone, Matt has to learn to fend for himself. He ends up coming in contact with an Indian boy and his grandfather, and after a rocky start, Matt builds a relationship with them that becomes very deep and enduring. The boy, Attean, teaches Matt how to trap, fish, build a bow and arrow, and mark a trail. He also teaches Matt about his tribe’s culture, bringing Matt back to his village for some ceremonies and celebrations and integrating him into his family. In the end, Matt has to decide whether to wait for his family, who has not returned after five months away, or join the tribe as it moves further north. There are also good questions raised about the white man’s ways vs those of the Indians, and how those cultures clashed as settlers moved into lands long held by Indians. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Sign of the Beaver (a Newbery honor winner in 1984) and strongly recommend it for fourth graders.

The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John Erickson. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog is the first in a popular series about Hank, a cowdog in Texas who isn’t quite up to the job of protecting the chicken coop. In this first book, Hank and his even more inept sidekick Drover fail to prevent the murder of some hens on a neighboring farm, and Hank gets unjustly accused of doing the killing himself. He takes great offense at the accusation and runs away, eventually finding his way to a nearby community of coyotes. He manages not to get himself killed, but forms an uneasy peace with Scraunch, the meanest and nastiest of the coyotes, while slowly becoming part of the coyote community. Hank’s loyalty is tested when Scraunch plans a raid on Hank’s owner’s farm, and Hank has to decide whether he’s a bad guy or a good guy. Hank the Cowdog was my least favorite of the five books, but it wasn’t bad. There were some funny moments when Erickson poked fun at Hank’s ineptitude, and the portrait of the coyotes, while unsavory, was illuminating. My daughters liked this book least of the five too. Maybe’s it’s a boy book.

Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley, Jr. Who Was Milton Hershey? is part of a series of books for kids about famous people. This one focuses on the enterprising chocolatier, who lived in Pennsylvania from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. I learned a lot about Hershey in this book, but what stood out to me was what a decent guy he was. He provided services and amenities for his factory workers at a time when such benefits were rare, such as bank accounts where they could save their money, bonuses, running water and electricity. He built a whole town for his factory, and included things like parks, bowling alleys and theaters to improve his workers’ quality of life. Hershey was quite generous as well, founding a school for orphan boys and eventually donating all of his stock in the Hershey company to that school (which is now worth an astounding 9 billion dollars). Hershey didn’t raise the price on his Hershey bar for over 65 years, and he even installed electricity in the homes of his sugarcane factory workers in Cuba. Who Was Milton Hershey? was an easy and informative read for my fourth graders, and I think they will remember a fair amount about this creative, interesting, and socially progressive businessman.

So those are the books! I will report back on how the Fictionistas fared in tomorrow’s competition.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

This month’s mother-daughter book club pick was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, one of those books that’s billed as YA but which I saw all over the place when it came out in 2009, suggesting that its appeal goes well beyond kids’ fiction. (It won the Newbery in 2010.)

When You Reach Me takes place on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and is about Miranda, the daughter of a single mother, who has become estranged from her best friend Sal, a boy who lives upstairs from her. The two were walking home from school one day when out of the blue, he was punched by another kid. From that day on, their friendship was over, despite Miranda’s attempts to engage Sal and recover what they had. In the meantime, a cast of odd characters is filled out, including Marcus, the boy who punched Sal; a homeless man who lives on the corner and sleeps with his head under a mailbox; and Annemarie, a girl Miranda befriends who partially fills the void left by Sal. And some mysterious notes start appearing in Miranda’s apartment, each one making reference to events that hadn’t happened yet. Who could know these personal things about Miranda, and how did he or she know things that even Miranda didn’t know yet?

Books about time travel always make my head hurt – in a good way – and this one was no exception. References to A Wrinkle in Time abound (Miranda is reading it when When You Reach Me takes place), and there is a suggestion of the possibility of time travel throughout the book, as Miranda discusses it with her friends.

But it wasn’t the time travel that drew me into this book. It was the depiction of a lonely, 1970s latchkey childhood – a far cry from the overprotective, overscheduled lives middle-graders live now. Miranda spent a lot of time alone, with few people to talk to about her disappointments, sadness, and anxiety. I liked that the characters were not one-dimensional; even the rich girl/bully turns out to be smart and redeeming in the end. And the explanation at the end of where the notes came from and who wrote them was satisfying, if a bit headache-inducing. Miranda’s relationship with Sal is explained, if not rehabilitated, and she finds other flawed but rewarding friends to spend time with.

Here’s a great interview with Rebecca Stead on Amazon.

I think this is a great book for kids. It is a story about relationships and friendship wrapped up in science fiction and mystery. Miranda is a formidable heroine – she is self-sufficient and independent, but not infallible.

Our book club meets this Sunday – I expect that this one will be well-received by the group.

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach

Our Mother-Daughter book club met over the weekend to discuss Masterpiece by Elise Broach. I think this may have been the most enthusiastically received book we’ve read this year other than Wonder. (When asked to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10, one girl gave it a 70.)

Masterpiece is a book about art forgery, interspecies friendship, loyalty, and taking risks. James is an 11 year-old boy living in New York City with his distracted, materialistic mother and stepfather. His father, an artist, appears to see him only erratically. But James doesn’t know that there is a family of beetles living in his apartment, and that the youngest beetle, Marvin, is actually a very talented artist. One day, Marvin goes into James’ room and makes a drawing for James’s birthday of the view looking out the window. (He creates the lines by dragging his legs through ink and then transferring the ink to the page). Marvin’s drawing gets mistaken for James’ by his proud father, the three go off to the museum to see more art, and before they know it, James and Marvin find themselves dragged into a complicated scheme to recover a series of Albrecht Durer drawings that were stolen from the Met.

The premise may sound silly or juvenile, but Masterpiece is actually a substantive book that tackles some abstract concepts. If people steal art because they love it so much, should they be forgiven? Is it OK to lie in order to protect people (or creatures) that you love? Is it OK to risk your life to be a good friend? And then the art itself (which is fictional) is based on philosophical topics like Fortitude, Justice and Prudenc, and a good portion of the book focuses on why the artist chose those topics and what he was trying to say.

Masterpiece was a fun read, and even had some suspense in it, as James and Marvin try to recover the stolen works without being caught by the perpetrator. Both the moms and the girls (9 and 10 year-olds) in the book club found a lot to discuss in the book.

Highly recommended for middle grade fiction readers.