Category Archives: Juvenile Fiction

Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright

It was with a happy and satisfied, though wistful, sigh that we finished Spiderweb for Two:  A Melendy Maze by Elizabeth Enright as our bedtime read-aloud last week.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I don’t know when we’ve enjoyed a series as much as this one.  The saying is trite but true:  all good things must come to an end; after all, it’s much better to end a series a bit too soon than too late (because we can all think of a series or two that went on a tad bit longer than it should’ve, right?) I guess you could say that Enright pushed this one a bit past that point by taking the older kids–Mona, Rush, and newcomer Mark–out of their home, the Four-Story Mistake, for their schooling.  However, while absent in body, they were somewhat present in spirit thanks to the “maze” that some anonymous person has left the younger Melendys, Randy and Oliver, to complete in the other kids’ absence.  It’s a long-running scavenger hunt, and the clues take Randy and Oliver to various locales, from a cemetery to their father’s home office to a neighbor’s home.  Randy and Oliver puzzle over the maze’s author(s), naturally assuming it to be Mona, Rush, Mark, or all three.  Beyond the fun of reading the clues and trying to deciper them along with the younger Melendys, there are the entertaining and engrossing vignettes that the Melendy’s meanderings bring them to.  For example, Father relates a story from his childhood as it relates to one of the clues.  There is an interlude in the middle of the book in which all of the Melendys are at home under the Four-Story Mistake’s sheltering roof at Christmas time, and it is the high point in the story as far as I’m concerned.  (Not that the story is bad at all, mind you, but it just reminded me of how much I love all the other books because the children are all together.  I’m so glad Enright brought them all back together for Christmas!) The story ends happily, with the mystery solved and all the Melendys once again together for the summer.

So, we’re officially through with the Melendys. . .except. . . my girls have made off with the books for their own private enjoyment!  In fact, I had some quotes (of course!) from this book that I really, really want to share, but I cannot find the book to save my life.  (I already shared one quote here.)  Ah, well.  It will turn up eventually.

We give The Melendy Quartet a Highly, Highly Recommended.  If you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for?

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WWW: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Today I’m sharing an excerpt from the 1991 Newbery Medal winning Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.  In this portion, Maniac is teaching an old, washed-up baseball player how to read.  I love the extended metaphors Spinelli uses.  This is my favorite part of the book.

The old man showed an early knack for consonants.  Sometimes he got m and n mixed up, but the only one that gave him trouble day in and day out was c.  It reminded him of a bronc some cowboy dared him to ride in Texas League days.  He would saddle up that c, climb aboard and grip the pommel for dear life, and ol’ c, more often than not, it would throw him.  Whenever that happened, he’d just climb right back on and ride ‘er some more.  Pretty soon c saw who was boss and gave up the fight.  But even at their orneriest, consonants were fun.

Vowels were something else.  He didn’t like them, and they didn’t like him.  There were only five of them, but they seemed to be everywhere.  Why, you could go through twenty words without bumping into some of the shyer consonants, but it seemed as if you couldn’t tiptoe past a syllable without waking up a vowel.  Consonants, you knew pretty much where they stood, but you could never trust a vowel.  To the old pitcher, they were like his own best knuckleball come back to haunt him.  In, out, up, down–not even the pitcher, much less the batter, knew which way it would break.  He kept swinging and missing.

But the kid was a good manager, and tough.  He would never let him slink back to the showers, but kept sending him back up to the plate.  The kid used different words, but in his ears the old Minor Leaguer heard:  “Keep your eye on it. . . Hold you swing. . . Watch it all the day in. . .Don’t be anxious. . . Just make contact.”

And soon enough, that’s what he was doing, nailing those vowels on the button, riding them from consonant to consonant, syllable to syllable, word to word.

One day the kid wrote on the blackboard:

I see the ball.

And the old man studied awhile and said, slowly, gingerly:  “I. . .see. . .the. . .ball.”

Maniac whooped, “You’re reading!”

“I’m reading!”  yipped the old man.  His smile was so wide he’d have had to break it into sections to fit it through a doorway.  (101-102)

One of the greatest joys in my life has been teaching my girls to read, and I look forward to completing that same joyous journey with the DLM in the next year or so.  I can’t imagine the excitement and satisfaction I would experience from teaching an adult to read!  I sometimes imagine what my “retirement” from homeschooling will look like, and one of the things I envision doing some day is working with a local literacy agency in teaching adult reading classes.  Maybe one day I’ll get to experience this.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

West of the Moon by Margi Preus was among the first batch of books I ordered in anticipation of the Armchair Cybils.  It has been nominated for a Cybils in the middle grade fiction category.  I actually first got wind of this new book on the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery blog, and because I’ve enjoyed everything by Preus I’ve ever read, I naturally wanted to read this one. This one, like her others, is historical fiction, but it’s also full of references to Norwegian folktales and fairytales, to the point that the lines almost blur between reality and fantasy.  It’s the story of Astri and her little sister Greta who live in mid-nineteenth-century Norway.  As the story opens, they live in poverty with their aunt and uncle.  Their mother is dead and their father has left them behind to make his fortune in America.  This situation changes in the first chapter, though, as Astri is sold to be the hired girl of a cruel and lecherous man she calls the goatman.  The first part of the book is Astri’s life with the goatman and how she plots and plans to escape.  While she lives with him, he locks her in an outbuilding for punishment, and inside this building she discovers a mysterious and unusual girl who doesn’t talk but does marvelous work with a spinning wheel.  With the help of Spinning Girl, Astri manages to escape the goatman’s clutches and rescue her sister.  Part two details the difficulties they face as they attempt their own trip to America.  Part three follows their voyage to their new home.  Every bit of their journey is thanks to Astri’s moxie and determination, yet she is fraught with guilt and self-doubt:

I feel as if my insides are made of hard knots and pebbles, balls of sticky tallow, tangles of yarn, and lumps of ash.  If we go back, then we go backward in time, and Greta and I will be milkmaids and serving girls forever, or married to smelly goat men, with no say in what we do or where we do it.  In America, goat girls can become princesses or parsons, or whoever they want to be.  I don’t know if that is generally so, but that’s the way it’s going to be for Greta and me.  And anyway, there’s another problem.  We’re thieves, or at least I am, and could be considered a murderer besides, and there are laws against such things and prisons, too, and I suppose a prison wouldn’t be much of an improvement over the goatman’s farm.  (122-23)

Obviously, Preus is a master at getting into Astri’s head and showing the feelings and thoughts of this very strong heroine.

One of several themes in this story is the prevalence of superstition in the lives of these Norwegians, especially as it is all mixed up in their religion, Christianity.  Preus treats it with a deft touch, especially as a surprising character helps Astri understand a little bit of truth when they’re on board the ship bound for America.  Another theme of the story is one of sickness and disease and how much of what these people believed superstitiously had to do with simple things like good nutrition and healthcare.  In fact, the Author’s Note provides information about things like rickets, cholera, and lockjaw, as well as the many folktales and spells, charms, and curses in the book.  We also learn in the backmatter of the book that Preus based the story in part on her great-great-great-grandmother’s diary.  There are a few excerpts from the diary, as well as a glossary and selected bibliography for the story.  This is a well-researched piece of historical fiction.

Overall I enjoyed this story.  I found it suspenseful and well-written, as I expect of anything by Margi Preus.  However, the book ends before the girls actually arrive in America, and there are questions left unanswered.  I really, really want to know about the Spinning Girl, for example.  I assumed that some of these things would be cleared up once Astri and Greta are reunited with their father, but alas, that doesn’t happen in this volume.  I actually prefer a self-contained story, though, so I consider this a weakness.  I should also note that there is an attempted rape at the beginning of the story.  While it is not explicit (and nothing actually happens), there is no doubt as to the intention of the villain.  I would consider that part emotionally intense.  This would be a good story for upper-elementary to junior high students who are interested in immigration, Scandinavia, or those who enjoy fairy tales or adventure stories.  I’ll be interested to see how this one fares in all the award garnering.  Highly Recommended.  (Amulet, 2014)

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WWW: Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright


Our nighttime read-aloud is the last of The Melendy Quartet, Spiderweb for Two, which is essentially the story of one long scavenger hunt put on by some anonymous person for Randy and Oliver Melendy after their older siblings have gone away to school.  The catch is that they must keep it a secret.  It is so good.  One reason I read aloud to my children at night is in hopes that it will help our little resident insomniac relax into sleep.  Spiderweb for Two has provided more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, so I’m not sure it always works.  ;-)  At any rate, at least she (eventually) goes to sleep with something funny on her mind.  Here’s one such Melendy moment:

Willy came slopping along in his slicker.

“Hi, Willy, how big are your feet?” was Oliver’s greeting.

“Size twelve,” replied Willy amiably.  “My feet expected to support a larger man.  They outdistanced me.  Why?”

“We’re taking a sort of a–sort of a foot census,” said Randy.

“Well, anything to kill time on a bad day,” said Willy.

There are so many things from this story that are too good not to share, so say tuned for more!  :-)

 

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

I brought home Gary D. Schmidt‘s Newbery honor winning book The Wednesday Wars on a whim last week from the library.  I really needed to turn my attention to Jane Eyre, but I was in the mood for something short and easy, and after a while I really miss reading middle grade or YA fiction.  I LOVED Okay for Now when I read it this time a couple of years ago, so The Wednesday Wars has been on my radar since then.  I loved this one every bit as much as Okay for Now, which makes sense since the books are very similar in theme and tone and voice, and have a few characters in common.  (This also makes me wonder if these similarities are the reason that Schmidt was “robbed,” as Sherry puts it, of the Newbery back when Okay for Now was published.)

The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that right) and his seventh grade year.  The year is 1967, and Holling is simply trying to survive seventh grade.  The only son of a prominent but neglectful architect, Holling’s main distinguishing characteristic is that he’s the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Catholic and Jewish kids who depart school each Wednesday afternoon for religious classes at their respective places of worship.  What follows then is primarily the story of Holling’s relationship with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, under whose care Holling is left each Wednesday afternoon.  Mrs. Baker’s exasperation at having the one seventh grader who hasn’t any place to be each Wednesday is almost palpable at the beginning of the story–she gives him inane tasks, like taking the blackboard erasers outside and clapping them.  She finally settles on a more appealing activity (at least for her initially):  she and Holling will study Shakespeare together.  The unfolding of the plot is then driven by Shakespearean themes.  This former English teacher absolutely loved being privy to the conversations between Holling and Mrs. Baker.  I love the relationship that develops–reading this caused me to look back at my own teaching years with fondness on a few students with whom I developed a similar relationship.

If the story sounds high-brow, it certainly isn’t.  Holling’s voice is that of a fourteen year old boy.  I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion.

The next afternoon, after everyone had left for Temple Beth-El or Saint Adelbert’s, and after Doug Swieteck and Danny had waited around until the last minute in case Mrs. Baker had arranged for Whitey Ford to show up, Mrs. Baker handed me back my Macbeth test.

“Macbeth and Malcolm are not the same person, though their names share an initial consonant,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“Nor are Duncan and Donalbain, who also share an initial and, for that matter, concluding, consonant, the same person.”

“I guess not,” I said.

“Malcolm and Donalbain are the king’s sons, not. . .”

“You know,” I said, “it’s not so easy to read Shakespeare–especially when he can’t come up with names that you can tell apart.”
Mrs. Baker rolled her eyes.  This time I was sure.

“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.

No kidding, I thought.  (108-109)

Despite Holling’s adolescent attitude and bravado, though, this is a very poignant tale.  It brings together very tough, very real issues–the Vietnam War, immigration, family difficulties, first love–and measures out the problems and sometimes even the solutions through the beautiful sieve of a teacher/student relationship and Shakespearean genius.  This book will definitely make my best picks of 2014 list.  Highly, Highly Recommended.  (Clarion, 2007)