Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella by Megan Morrison

disenchantedINFORMATION

Goodreads: Disenchanted
Series: Tyme #2
Source: Library
Published: Oct. 2016

SUMMARY

Ella Coach’s mother died while working in a factory and now she wants reform for the labor class.  Unfortunately, her father has remarried and their family is trying to climb the social ladder.  But Ella doesn’t want to be a quint and moon over Prince Dash like every other girl at her new fancy prep school.  Dash is a bit strange, anyway, since the Witch’s curse was removed from him.  He is no longer sure what he wants, now that he is no longer cursed to break hearts.  But it’s probably not social revolution.  Meanwhile, Serge,  a jaded Blue fairy godfather, wonders what it would be like to be able to help the kids who need him, not just the ones who can pay.  And his new apprentice Jasper just might show him the way.

Review

Disenchanted is the modern fairy tale retelling I am pretty sure everyone wants, and it’s strange I have not seen anyone else talking about it.  From it’s protagonist of color to its focus on working conditions and a living wage, it encourages its readers to empathize with others and to think critically about their own world.  And let’s not forget it’s also an engrossing story.

Megan Morrison immediately sets the tone of the story by alluding to Cinderella’s dark skin and bronze curls, but otherwise not making a big deal out of it.  Cinderella is not looked down upon in this world because of her skin color, but rather because her family is “new money.”  Similarly, it’s well-known that a few of the guys are crushing on Prince Dash Charming and hope to marry him.  No one sees this as a problem (except for the fact that Dash is straight) and instead they talk with each other about other romantic prospects that might be more realistic for the boys to attain.  Acceptance is the norm in this world, if you’re not talking about class.

The bulk of the story then focuses on Ella’s desire to reform the working conditions for those who labor in the factories that keep the owners of the Garment District prosperous.  She explains the concept of sick leave to another character, explores the exploitation of cheap child labor, and advocates for doing business only with ethical companies.  She explains in simple terms why poor people remain poor, even when there are two working adults in the home, and the devastating consequences when one member of the household becomes ill–lower income but more bills.

Intertwined with these heavy concerns are the stories of Ella, Dash, and Serge.  Ella is struggling to accept that her money  now has money and she is part of a new social class.  She wants to be with her old friends, but may find that she has new power with which to do good.  Dash, meanwhile, might be falling in love with Ella, but the crown is at risk if he does not placate political forces by courting a more suitable match.  And Serge remembers the days when he thought fairies could make a difference.  Now they work only for clients with money and they often do things that trouble his conscience.  Is reform possible for the Blue Fairies?

In some ways, the book seems inspired by the early 20th century and the Triangle Factory in particular, but it’s impossible not to notice that the story also comments on relevant issues today, such as a living wage.  If you’re looking for a bit of social commentary mixed in with your fairy tale romance, look no farther than Disenchanted.

5 starsKrysta 64

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

secret-keepersINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Secret Keepers
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

When Reuben discovers an old watch hidden in the most unlikely of places, he dares to dream that his life could change.   With the money he could gain from selling it, he could help his mother return to school and find a better-paying job.  But soon Reuben learns that the watch hides a terrible secret and that the shadowy figure who rules the city of New Umbra is actively seeking it. Can Reuben and his friends outwit a man who has never been seen?  Or is lights out for Reuben?

Review

Writing a book that would stand up next to The Mysterious Benedict Society was always going to be difficult for Trenton Lee Stewart, but he manages it here with apparent ease.  Immediately he welcomes readers into the story in much to the same way he welcomed them into Reynie’s story long ago.  We have a boy who is a little unusual, but certainly loving, and definitely about to have the adventure of a lifetime.  All he needs now is a team.

Reuben, however, is not a second Reynie.  He is a loner, stealthy, keeping to the shadows.  And he has a mother whom he loves very much and who works very hard to support him–Stewart does not shy away from addressing poverty and how it can affect a family.  His story is different because his main motivations are always how to help and protect his mother.  He’s a good kid.  And readers are encouraged to root for him.

Reuben’s team will be assembled a little haphazardly.  He’s used to working alone and comfortable walking in the shadows.  Still, he meets a watchmaker who comes from another country and somehow worked her way from poverty to a modest little shop.  He meets a young, redheaded girl who believes in daring and honesty.  And he finds himself protected by a man who likes a good fight, but for the right cause.  They are a strange crew, but they work.  And their diversity of experiences is what makes them strong.

Notably, the team’s experiences really are valuable here.  The team has to anticipate and work out problems if they are to succeed in saving the city of New Umbra from a power-hungry man.  Have you ever read a book and wondered, “Why didn’t the characters think of this very obvious hole in their plan?” or “Why didn’t the character just do X, Y, and Z?” or even “Why is the author suggesting that this character is smart when he doesn’t have to do all that much?”  Well, the characters here are really smart, they really figure stuff out, and they always go for the most obvious solution when they find themselves in trouble.  There’s no running forever in a straight line from a boulder they could have escaped by simply turning to the right.  Do you know how engaging a story can be when there are real problems and real answers?  It’s incredible!

Once again Stewart has presented readers with a fun and complex read, one full of sympathetic characters, high-stakes missions, and just the right dash of humor.  Is it too soon to ask him to release another book?  What will we all do until he does?

5 starsKrysta 64

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

the-inquisitors-taleInformation

Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Tale
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 27, 2016

Official Summary

1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Review

As some of you who follow the blog know, I study medieval literature, so I really, really wanted to like The Inquisitor’s Tale.  The world simply needed a middle grade novel inspired by Saint Guinefort (a greyhound who really did acquire his own cult during the Middle Ages).  Touches of Joan of Arc and other historical figures make this book right up my alley. So I’m sad to say I was bored through most of the book, and I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it as a child.

Most of my pleasure in the book came from playing “spot the medieval reference.” And medieval references are something Gidwitz is great at.  The book draws on a lot of medieval tales but mostly uses them as inspiration, rather  than using them in their entirety. So Jeanne has elements of Joan of Arc, but she isn’t Joan. She has visions, for instance, but she is not called to lead France through a war.  Jacob isn’t any historical figure in particular, but represents the Jews who lived in France in the Middle Ages.

And Gidwitz portrays the attitudes of the Middle Ages pretty faithfully.  Though there are violent parts of the book, one could argue that the darkest parts of the story are the various prejudices the children protagonists encounter: against Jews, Muslims, women, peasants, etc. Gidwitz explores these issues thoughtfully, while asking some tough questions like “How can someone say they hate Jews while befriending a Jewish boy?” Gidwitz shows the nuances in medieval thought, which is great, since the Middle Ages often get dismissed as a boring period of complete ignorance in pop culture.

The format of the book is also clever, if you’re into Chaucer.  Gidwitz alludes to The Canterbury Tales by having different characters tell each chapter and titling them such things as “The Jongleur’s Tale.”  There are also asides, as the storytellers interact with each other, in between telling their tales.  This structure, however, is also one of the sticking points for me.   It means that the protagonists’ story is told by a conglomeration of people who, for the post part, were not really in the story.  It creates some distance between the protagonists and the readers. It also means the story is constantly interrupted by the frame tale, which is something I just personally dislike in books.

The other reservation I have is about the plot and pacing. As I mentioned, I was simply bored thought a lot of the book. Stuff was constantly happening, but it took a while for it to all come together into any discernible overarching story.  I felt as if I were just watching characters run around inanely for half the book. The only reason I didn’t DNF is because, seriously, I’m really into the Middle Ages.

The Inquisitor’s Tale has really high ratings in general on Goodreads, and I can respect that since the book is clearly well-researched and rather creative.  However, this is one instance where I would love to get some children’s opinions on the book.  I do not think I would have liked or finished this novel if I had read it when I was in middle school. It’s slow and complex and altogether simply unusual for a children’s book. I didn’t relate to the characters or even understand for half the book what it was they were trying to accomplish.  I wonder if this will be a hit with adults more so than with the target audience.

3 stars Briana

If You Like This Classic, Try This Middle Grade

classic-and-middle-grade-book-match-up-1

If You Like A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Try Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by  Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in ThunderstormsWilhelmina Silver loves living on a farm in Zimbabwe. But then she receives the news that little girls must not grow up half-wild, but instead go to boarding school in London.  The girls in London do not understand Will, however, and they do not like what they do not understand.  Alone and tormented, Will must learn how to turn the bravery that allows her to face down wild animals into the kind of bravery that can overcome spiteful classmates.

If You Like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Try The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Scandalous SisterhoodWhen the headmistress of St. Ethedreda’s School for Girls and her younger brother are poisoned at Sunday dinner, the seven boarders know just what to do.  Hide the bodies; convince the town that Headmistress Plackett is alive and well; and continue to live at the school as independent women.  But can the girls identify the murderer before he or she attempts to strike a second time?

If You Like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Try Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor the OverlanderGregor’s father disappeared years ago and thus has to spend the summer caring for his baby sister Boots.  The two find adventure, however, when they fall through a grate in the laundry room into the Underland, where humans live uneasily alongside giant roaches, rats, bats, and spiders.  The humans believe Gregor to be the warrior named in an ancient prophecy, but Gregor wants nothing more than to return his sister safely home.

If You Like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Try The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

Girl Who Circumvented FairylandOne day the Green Wind catches up September and takes her to Fairyland—but all is not how it should be.  Fairies are scarce, winged beasts are forbidden to fly, and the Marquess has stolen the spoon the witches use to see the future.  September agrees to travel to the capital and retrieve the spoon, but somewhere along the way she realizes that her quest has grown bigger than she anticipated.

If You Like The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Try 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

100 CupboardsWhen Henry moves to live with his aunt and uncle in Kansas, he doesn’t expect to do much exciting besides perhaps learn to play baseball.  But then he sees a short man in the house, who disappears into a room that has been locked for years.  Can it be that the cupboards in the attic really lead to different worlds and that his grandfather knew the secret?

If You Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Try Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

Leepike RidgeEleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

If You Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Try Floors by Patrick Carman

Leo Fillmore lives in the greatest place on earth—the Whippet Hotel, consisting of nine (known) floors each full of rooms that boggle the imagination.  The Cake Room.  The Pinball Room.  The Flying Farm Room.  As the son of the maintenance man, Leo knows these rooms better than most, but even he is unprepared for the day the owner goes missing and the hotel starts to fall apart.  With a mysterious box to guide him and a duck at his side, Leo sets forth to save the hotel before there’s nothing left at all.

Don’t Be Afraid to Read Middle Grade

Discussion Post Stars

I’ve written before about the reasons we all should all be reading more middle-grade novels, noting they tend to be less formulaic and more inventive than YA; that they are more joyful; and that they avoid the dreaded love triangle.  However, the book blogging community tends to look down on MG, disparaging it the same way outsiders often seem to disparage YA.  Routinely my reviews on MG books receive comments such as, “I thought this looked cool, but then I realized it was MG.”  A subtle dig if ever there was one.

Of course, we all know that “middle grade” and “young adult” are somewhat arbitrary designations used to market books, and do not often reflect on the sophistication of the content within.  Bloggers point this out all the time when someone dares to attack adults for enjoying YA novels.  Indeed, a simple look at your library shelves or at the community’s Goodreads shelves can reveal the perils of trying to label books.  Works such as Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co., and Rick Riordan’s books are routinely listed as both MG and YA because they have crossover appeal.  Another little secret?  Books are often labelled based on the age of the protagonist.  You can be reading the exact same book, but if the author notes the character is fourteen, suddenly it’s YA!  This can make shelving series such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books tricky for stores and libraries.  If a character ages from twelve to thirteen and older, are the books MG or YA?

It’s quite obvious that MG and YA can both offer sophisticated, nuanced, and entertaining selections, but readers sometimes seem to distance themselves from MG as a response to the backlash to YA.  That is, since we’re so used to being mocked for reading “books for children,” the instinct seems to point out that, no, the real books for children are those MG ones–the ones we are too old, sophisticated, and intellectual to read.  We try to save ourselves from stigma by casting the stigma onto someone else.

Of course, many readers and bloggers simply do not enjoy or are not interested in MG, and that response is acceptable.  Read what you enjoy!  However, it can sometimes be worthwhile to question our reading choices and why we make them.  I don’t like to avoid books because I worry about what others will think, or because I worry they will place me outside my normal reading comfort zone.  Reading is very often meant to stretch us, to make us uncomfortable, to show us a different perspective.

Perhaps I am fortunate in feeling secure in reading whatever I want because I routinely read a wide variety of books including drama, poetry, nonfiction, literary theory, picture books, graphic novels, classics, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, etc.  Maybe it’s because I actually read and love Shakepeare and Dante (for fun) that I am able to not care what others think of me when they see me reading MG.  If someone wants to suggest that I am juvenile or incapable of understanding “adult” books, I simply chuckle softly to myself.  I  cannot take someone seriously if they want to judge me based on a book or two they see me reading.

However, I firmly believe that a good story is a good story, no matter what age it was written for (or  maybe just marketed towards).  I do not believe I need to feel ashamed of my reading choices if someone else thinks them “juvenile”, nor do I feel that I need to distinguish myself as more sophisticated than other readers.  If reading has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more to learn.  Maybe I can’t understand what someone sees in the books they read, but that does not mean the books have nothing valuable to offer, but rather that I  might need to attempt to broaden my perspective and learn to see what they see.

MG does not have to become the new YA, the group of “juvenile” books we’re afraid to be seen with and eager to move on from.  MG has so much to offer, from a higher level of diversity than YA to more inventive formats and more original premises.  We can celebrate all that without feeling self-conscious about it.

Krysta 64

If the Magic Fits: 100 Dresses by Susan Maupin Schmid

If the Magic FitsInformation

Goodreads: If the Magic Fits
Series: 100 Dresses #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Inside an enchanted castle, there’s a closet—a closet with one hundred dresses that nobody ever wears. Dresses like those need a good trying-on, and Darling Dimple is just the girl to do it. When she tries on Dress Number Eleven, something unbelievable happens. She transforms into the castle’s Head Scrubber! It turns out that each dress can disguise her as someone else. And Darling is about to have an adventure that calls for a disguise or two…or a hundred.

Review

If the Magic Fits is a charming, feel-good adventure that takes readers through a magical castle with a bevy of secrets.  It’s just the type of middle grade novel I enjoy, featuring an imaginative protagonist who’s always up for a challenge and some undercover exploration.

Parts of the novel didn’t entirely make sense to me on a practical level. (There’s a servant in the castle who only irons the princess’s clothes?  And a wardrobe attendant who is also the princesses’s greatest confidante and political advisor? ) However, I was willing to ignore these oddities because they help streamline the plot and make the story fun.  Also, I don’t think these would have been sticking points for me if I had read the book as a child.

However, I do still wish the magical system were a little more sophisticated.  There’s so much room for this to be more fully explored and fleshed out, and it would have strengthened the novel.  I think even as a child I would have been dissatisfied to learn that there’s essentially ONE magic word that controls all the magic in the castle.

The book is also a bit odd in that it’s both character-driven and not. Darling has a lot of grand plans about trying to save her beloved Princess from dastardly schemes, but so much of it seems to come to naught. She runs here and there about the castle, going on mini adventures, and yet she doesn’t accomplish much relating to her main objective. I guess this is realistic, in that an eleven-year-old child (and a servant) may have limited effects on the grand workings of the kingdom, but the beauty of middle grade books is often that they present children as powerful and important. Darling occasionally comes across as impotent, as weeks pass without her achieving anything.

Despite these minor gripes, however, I did find the book entertaining and charming in its simplicity.  There are magic dresses and magic animals.  There are princes and princesses and people with secrets.  There are mysteries and romances and dares.  This strikes me as a bit younger middle grade novel, I think children will love it. A lot of adults will enjoy it too.

4 stars Briana

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

sistersINFORMATION

Goodreads: Sisters
Series:  Smile #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

SUMMARY

Raina always wanted a little sister, but when Amara came, she wasn’t what Raina expected.  She typically wants to play alone and she and Raina are always having fights.  But then they take a road trip with their mother.  Can they find a way to get along and survive the trip?  A companion novel to Smile.

REVIEW

I admit I found this book even less engaging than Smile, even though I recognize that Telgemeier has an excellent sense of humor and that she depicts the relationship between the sisters excellently.  For reasons I find difficult to articulate to myself, I just did not find myself invested in the story.  It doesn’t help that the official summary promises more drama than the book actually contains.  I kept waiting for something major to happen, but it never did.

Sisters is a companion novel to Smile, taking place the summer before Raina enters high school.  The story of  the Telgemeiers’ road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of Raina and Amara’s relationship.  We get to see how Raina longed for a sister, only to have the grumpy and isolated Amara come along.  Worse, Amara ends up being an artist just like Raina.  And Raina feels like her sister is stealing what makes her special.

Sisterhood can be complicated and Telgemeier expertly captures the nuances of such a relationship as the girls argue, tease, storm, and support each other.  But the ending feels all too easy and takes something away from the previous story.  Perhaps it’s because Amara has seemed to be reaching out in various ways all along and it’s not clear why Raina suddenly notices.  Perhaps because it suggests that sisterhood from here on out is smooth sailing, even though readers know it is not.  Perhaps it’s because the cover blurb suggests for reasons unknown that they are banding together to save their parents’ marriage, imparting the final pages with far more significance than the pages themselves seem to suggest.  For some reason, it does not work for me.

Still, I recognize that many readers find this book special and that the depiction of sisterhood is sure to appeal to many.  Fans of Smile will certainly enjoy it.

3 starsKrysta 64