Category Archives: Childrens

ELLA by Mallory Kasdan

When I was little, I loved the book Eloise by Kay Thompson. Six-year old Eloise was was spoiled and messy and totally self-absorbed, but she lived in the Plaza hotel and ordered room service! She had a nanny! She played on the elevators and had a pet turtle! What a life.

A Brooklyn writer named Mallory Kasdan has written an update of Eloise called Ella. In this version, our protagonist is still six, but she lives in a Brooklyn hotel called The Local Hotel. She’s just as precocious as her predecessor – she kicks off her day with yoga poses and “energizing breathwork”. She turns her American Girl dolls into “twin orphan sisters who live in Costa Rica and run their own zipline business in the rainforest”. She’s into “flossing, meditation, zumba, drum circles, and mani/pedis”. She is “hotel-schooled” by a tutor with a PhD from Harvard because her mother “summers with the Dean”.

Kasdan has perfectly captured the rhythm and style of the original. Ella is not really a parody of Eloise; it’s a modern tribute. It perfectly captures modern Brooklyn childhood: “I am artsy of course. I have a shop online where I sell my photographs.” (She’s 6!). “Altogether I have been to 62 events including that Hillary Clinton fund-raiser.” “Tomorrow I think I’ll drop an organic watermelon off the Roof Deck.”

If you were a fan of Eloise, give Ella a try. I liked it, and my 10 year-old did too. She said that it is “a more fun version of Eloise”.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

I am no stranger to depressing books. I read quite a few of them. I actually quite enjoy them. But I think I met my match in Out of My Mind, our December Mother-Daughter book club pick.

Out of My Mind is about Melody, a fifth-grader with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair. She can’t speak or move, and has spent most of her life unable to communicate with those around her. But she has a vibrant mind, and she has lived in the prison of her body, misunderstood by almost everyone else, who thinks that she is mentally challenged just as she is physically.

In sixth grade, Melody starts attending “inclusion classes’, where she joins normal fifth graders. She is given an aide and eventually obtains a computer device which speaks for her after she types words into it. Suddenly, people realize that Melody is smart – so smart that she makes it onto her school’s academic quiz team, handily beating everyone else. But she yearns for the acceptance and companionship of her peers, which sadly remains out of her reach.

Out of My Mind is such a sad book. It’s sad for many reasons – Melody’s inability to communicate with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents; the callousness of her fellow fifth graders and even her teachers; the fact that Melody’s situation isn’t going to change at all in the future. In an afterward, Draper said that she didn’t want her readers to feel sorry for Melody. It’s hard not to feel sad for her, though, given her situation, and for her parents, who love her desperately but can’t change her reality.

One scene in particular really got to me: Melody’s mother comes home from work after Melody has set up the device that can speak for her. Melody has the device tell her mother that she loves her, for the first time. Age eleven. It was such an emotional moment – I was very moved.

My daughters (age 10) liked Out of My Mind but found it to be pretty painful too. (So much so that they didn’t even want to skim through it to review for book club, because they had read it last year.) As a group, we had a good discussion about it, with most of us pretty outraged at how mean some of the kids were to her. We of course had access to Melody’s thoughts, which no one else did, and we got a much better sense of who she was as a result. That made her isolation even worse.

I would recommend this book to middle grade readers, but suggest that a parent read along to help the reader process some of the particularly sad parts.

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.