Middle Grade Monday: Nest (2014) by Esther Ehrlich

Happy Christmas Week! Things have been a bit slow on the blog due to travel by yours truly, but I’m settled in for the holidays now, so glad to be back! You may have noticed: my blog announcement hasn’t been made yet. That will change soon, so stay tuned.

Welcome to another Middle Grade Monday!

Nest by Esther Ehrlich (2014)

Suggested age range: 12 and up (Wendy Lamb Books, 336 pages)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars [I will definitely recommend it to readers who would be drawn to this type of story; The book was pretty good but not sure it’s for everyone and there may be a few things about the book that didn’t work for me.]

Source: e-ARC from Netgalley

Genre: Historical Fiction

I received an e-ARC via NetGalley from Wendy Lamb Books. This in no way influenced my review! Thank you, Wendy Lamb Books!

nestThe Book: Set in 1972, on Cape Cod, this middle grade realistic story charts the ups and downs in the life of a young girl whose mother becomes ill with multiple sclerosis. Along with her sister and father, eleven year-old Chirp wants to see her mother get better, and attempts to cheer her up in the midst of a very difficult season of life. Even though Chirp’s friend, Joey, has his own challenges at home, the antics of the two friends keep the story filled with humor. At times heart-wrenching, the story reflects the work of an author who doesn’t shy away from engaging with serious topics in this heartfelt and beautifully written story.

Spirituality in Nest: How does the heart heal after tragedy? Is the love between family members strong enough in the face of losing a loved one? Both of these questions are raised in the story, suggesting a deep and moving aspect of the book. This one definitely raises some thought-provoking moments, though it took me awhile to get into the story.  Chirp’s aesthetic appreciation for the natural world and her awareness and observation of that world is yet another aspect of spirit in the narrative. Her keen observation of birds and wildlife reminded me a little of the way Anne Shirley is in tune with the natural world.

Who Should Read This Book: Though booksellers might consider this book for readers younger than twelve, because of the subject matter and the way it’s represented, I’m going to suggest the book for readers twelve and up. Of course, parents may decide for themselves whether this book would work for a young reader or not. That’s just my two cents. There are some very serious and intense topics and moments in the story, but realistically, some young people have to face situations such as the ones the story brings up. In that case, the book would be extremely relevant.

The Final Word: It took me awhile to get into this story as I felt the pace was a bit slow, but once I reached a certain point—about halfway through—it seemed to pick up. I enjoyed the patterns and echoes Ehrlich employed in the story, and the motifs she used, such as the nest and the birds. I especially appreciated learning more about Cape Cod and the different types of birds living in that environment. The story reflects multiple moments of beauty and celebrates an aesthetic appreciation of the nature world. The story, though tragic at times, ends on a note of hope.

Have you read this new Middle Grade release? What did you think?

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Farmer Boy: The Midnight Garden Classic Middle Grade Read-along (November)

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Illustrated by Garth Williams

First Published 1933, Harper & Row, 373 pages

#3 in the Little House Series

Recommended for All!

farmer boy

I LOVE the Little House books! I grew up with the yellow paperback boxed set, and it’s still one of my prized bookish possessions. I also watched the Little House on the Prairie television series with my family, so I had a hearty dose of Little House goodness throughout my childhood.

How excited I was to discover that the November book for The Midnight Garden’s Classic Middle Grade Readalong was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder!

So here I am to share some thoughts about the story I haven’t read in years, before heading over to The Midnight Garden to join in on the discussion there. I hope you’ll stop by as well! (Next month the book is Little Women!!)

I still remember those gorgeous, thick descriptions of food in the Little House books. Menus, maple sugar making tips, pie and pancake eating—Farmer Boy especially is chock full of such wonderful things.

Here are a few examples:

“Big yellow cheeses were stacked there, and large brown cakes of maple sugar, and there were crusty loaves of fresh-baked bread, and four large cakes, and one whole shelf full of pies” (25). YUM!

Or how about this:

“Mother was frying pancakes and the big blue platter, keeping hot on the stove’s hearth, was full of plump brown sausage cakes in their brown grave…There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo like the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie” (38).

If I could get invited over for one of the meals from Farmer Boy, that would be a treat!

farmer boy meal uaAlmanzo’s story is a delight—this stand alone novel gives us more times with the boy who would become Laura’s husband—and what memorable times they are.

I had forgotten the perils of being a schoolteacher that are discussed in that first bit of the book, when Almanzo treks to school as a nine year old. That’s right—Almanzo’s school teacher actually faces the possibility of getting “thrashed” by the big boys at school who are disrespectful and just general HOOLIGANS!

Then the teacher breaks out a whip that Almanzo’s father supplied him with, and puts those boys in their place. This sounds a bit intense, doesn’t it? A teacher with a whip?? What’s going on with that?? I was shocked to read that the previous schoolteacher DIED after he was beat up by the bigger students. Did you know that school could be so dangerous back in rural New York state in the late 19th century? I hadn’t remembered any of this from my childhood reading, so it’s been fascinating revisiting FARMER BOY. This definitely also makes me want to do some research and find out more.

As I read, I actually used stickies to mark all the foodie passages. There’s a lot of apple pie being eaten, that’s for sure! And stacks of pancakes with maple syrup. Who wouldn’t want to visit Alamanzo’s house? Taking part in one of those meals would be fantastic.

Speaking of spirituality in children’s literature—I think there’s something to say about that here. To me, sharing a meal with people can be a spiritual activity. Not every meal, but there is something significant and intimate that can happen among family and friends when you eat together. The descriptive passages of the meals eaten in the Little House books highlights (at least to me) the importance that families in this culture placed on sharing a meal. After all, they had worked so hard to grow and prepare that food. I think there is a significant aspect of the book in those passages—there’s something to be said about how sharing and partaking of food encourages community. Go check out the descriptions of Almanzo eating at meal times and let me know what you think…

And–Almanzo and his siblings learn how to run the farm! I was amazed at the way Laura Ingalls Wilder describes so many of the activities a boy of Almanzo’s age living on a farm in the late 19th century would learn. Planting corn, keeping corn from freezing, protecting the potato crop, sheep shearing, getting ice for the ice house, breaking calves—the list goes on! All that hard work as a family would surely play a role in its strength—and I think this is apparent in the story.

Can you believe the way Eliza Jane saved Almanzo from getting whipped for ruining the wall in the parlor?

How about that exploding potato?

And the half dollar Almanzo’s father gives him after he asks for a nickel?

The story is filled with these episodes that paint a colorful picture of Almanzo Wilder’s life—the story delighted me as a young reader and it fascinates me today.

What about you? Did you grow up with the Little House books? Did you read Farmer Boy as part of The Midnight Garden read-along??

Do you have a favorite foodie passage from the book?

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust (2014) by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, & Greg Salsedo

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, illustr., Marc Lizano, Color by Greg Salsedo, Trans., Alexi Siegel (2014, English translation)

Suggested age range: 10 and up (First Second, 80 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Library

Genre: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

hidden

“It was hard…but we were together.”

The Book:  When her granddaughter finds Dounia crying late one night, Dounia takes Elsa on her lap and begins to share her story. Hidden tells the story of Dounia, who was forced to hide from the Germans in France in 1942.What ensues is a touching, and at times saddening tale of one child’s experience during the Holocaust. Her parents do all they can to keep Dounia safe, even at the expense of their own lives. Originally translated from the French, Hidden underscores the bravery and courage of those who helped Jews during the Holocaugreek hiddenst, but also highlights the resilience of the very young during a terrible time in world history.

Spirituality in Hidden: Needless to say, there are several ways this story revealed a spiritual landscape. First, in the area of relational connectedness: I love the stronger connection that develops between Dounia and her granddaughter as she shares her past—including its joys and tragedies. Because Dounia is opening up about her history, she also develops a deeper bond with her son, and this is revealed visually at the very end of the story. That alone is a strong spiritual aspect of the story and could be a meaningful point for readers. Another spiritual aspect to highlight with any group discussion of the book is the bravery and sacrifice of those who risked their lives and gave of their resources to help hide children during the Holocaust.

A question for you to think about: What’s so spiritual about people helping others they don’t even know? And risking their lives for them? Both the textual and visual geography of this graphic novel further reinforce the potential spirituality of children’s literature.

Who Should Read This Book: Recommended for age 10 and up. This would be an excellent book for the classroom, and I think it’s a graphic novel that would be equally as meaningful shared between parent(s) and child reader. Just as the story opens with Elsa on her grandmother’s lap, hearing about her grandmother’s past and heritage, children and parents could talk about their own family background after the reading of this story. There’s a plethora of other types of discussions that groups of readers could dive into with this story, and I’m sure educators would see a lot of potential for curriculum development with this book related to both language arts and social studies curriculum.

The Final Word: The teamwork revealed through this book among author, illustrators, and translator is brilliant. I especially would look closely at the relationship between the words and the pictures. There are rich gaps within the story—pictures that extend the text, and text that fills in gaps in the pictures. This isn’t a simplistic graphic novel, but a rich and rewarding experience. This is another one that might require the tissue box, but it’s worth it.

Strongly recommended! I waited too long to read this one, and I read it all in one sitting. A fantastic addition to the already rich field of middle grade graphic novels for 2014.

Have you read it? What did you think? Are there other graphic novels set in this time period that you would recommend?

Check out the French cover below:

french hidden

Parisian Rooftops: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (20130)

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (2013)

Suggested age range: 9 and up (Faber & Faber, 278 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Personal Copy

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

rooftoppers-cover

“Perhaps, she thought, that’s what love does. It’s not there to make you feel special. It’s to make you brave. It was like a ration pack in the desert, she thought, like a box of matches in a dark wood. Love and courage, thought Sophie—two words for the same thing.”

The Book: Found as a baby in a cello case floating in the English channel, Sophie grows up with the eccentric and wonderful Charles, a loving guardian who only wants the best for this extraordinary girl. When authorities begin to question whether Charles is the best parent for a girl like Sophie, though, the two leave for Paris, in search of Sophie’s mother. What follows is an adventurous romp over the rooftops of Paris, as Sophie meets Matteo, an orphan who is an expert in living on the rooftops. Matteo will prove invaluable in helping Sophie navigate the city in the midst of her quest to find the mother she has longed for her entire life. Danger and mystery hover over the narrative, and once you begin this delightful award-winning British novel, you won’t want to stop the race with Sophie for her cello-playing mother.

Spirituality in Rooftoppers: The story celebrates several spiritual aspects—the first obvious one is the way that Charles intentionally loves and cares for Sophie—an orphaned girl with no one else in the world. When Charles is asked what he can possibly offer a child, he replies, “ ‘I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I’ve read is anything to go by’” (p. 6). Then there’s the aspect of hope—a hope that defies what the world is telling her. Sophie is continually told that there is little chance of being reunited with her mother. There were not survivors in the shipwreck; she can’t possibly be alive. However, Charles has taught her to take note of a “possible” and if it’s possible, it’s worth pursuing. This is a spiritual idea in the narrative that offers a lot of room for discussion and reflection. The way Rundell brings it up throughout the story, in my opinion, strengthened the book.

Who Should Read This Book: If you enjoy mystery or adventure or classic children’s literature, there’s something here for you. The book contains all the characteristics of a good story—fantastic characterization, a fabulous setting, a mystery, and thought-provoking themes. The spiritual concept of hope—of not ignoring “a possible” is especially strong in the story, and that alone gives it a high rating in my book. It also received the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in England. Rundell has another book published called Girl Savage (British title: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms).

The Final Word: I had been waiting to read Rooftoppers because when I knew I was traveling to London, I decided I would pick up a copy there. After all, it was a British book, and I usually gravitate towards British covers more than the American covers of children’s books. When I bought the book, I immediately sat down with a cup of tea and a brownie and started reading. I was hooked from the start. I loved Sophie and her “father,” Charles, and I was on the edge of my seat as they fled London and traveled to Paris in search of Sophie’s mother. This is a delightful and heartwarming story for all ages—strongly recommended.

Books as Connection in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2008)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shakker and Annie Barrows (2008)

(The Dial Press, 278 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Personal Copy

Genre: Historical Fiction

guernsey

The Book: It’s 1946, World War II has ended, and Juliet Ashton is seeking ideas for her next book project. When she receives a letter from a man who lives on the British Island, Guernsey, everything changes. Dawsey is simply looking for a book recommendation from Juliet, but when he begins to write about the book club formed during the Nazi occupation of his island, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Juliet realizes this may just be the topic of her next book! She is drawn into the world of Guernsey and the heroic actions its inhabitants took during the war. Told through a series of letters between Juliet, her friends, and the members of society, this novel is a true gem. Illuminating the power of art, compassion, and the ways in which literature brings people together, this book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is one to be savored again and again!

Spirituality in The Guernsey Literature and Potato Peel Pie Society: This story is rich in spiritual themes and says a lot about the human condition and how we as people reach out to others in the darkest of times. I was especially interested in the character of Elizabeth, one of the women living on Guernsey, who does what is right, even in the face of great sacrifice. The way the people of Guernsey connect with one another and even their German occupiers highlights their spirituality—and this is certainly an aspect of the book that would make for rich and satisfying discussions.

Who Should Read This Book: If you enjoy historical fiction, you should read this book. If you want a story that will make you laugh and transport you to Britain during a significant point in its history, you should read this book.

The Final Word: This is my first review of a book for adults (and what does that really mean, anyways?) on the blog, and I am absolutely ecstatic that it’s this one. I bought a used copy of this at a library book sale and had been planning to read it for ages. During a recent holiday, I took the book along with me, and there were times when I just couldn’t put it down. Told through a series of letter, and some telegrams, I appreciated the different voices of the characters that came through their messages. Yes, there are incredibly happy parts and there are also sad parts. One can expect this with a novel that takes place just after World War II. But this book is worth it, in every way. Strongly recommended for reading groups!