Tag Archives: middle grade

Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker

It’s always fun to come across a book that makes you wonder if the author took a look in one of your old diaries. Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker is one of those books. I picked it up from our new book shelf at work, attracted by the cover, and was hooked by the first page. It seems that there’s a first book, Becca at Sea, which I haven’t read.

At any rate, this book takes place over one summer on an island in Canada (I believe near Vancouver? I was a bit muzzy as to geography), where Becca and her cousins have come to stay with their grandmother. Her friend Jane is there too, and she and Jane decide to put on a Shakespeare play (with the unwilling help of cousins) to raise money to buy a better sailboat than the one they currently have access to.

As a kid, this would have been absolutely catnip to me. I loved sailing and boats, and my siblings and I often spent part of the summer at our grandparents’ house by the sea, with our cousin. (Not, alas, on an island.) I read just about every nautical-themed book I could get my hands on and, though my exposure to Shakespeare was probably limited to Lamb’s Tales From, I would have sympathized deeply with the desire to put on a play.

As an adult reader, all the old nostalgic love for those things is there. But I also admire the way that Baker takes what on the surface is a rather adventurey story and makes it a vehicle for exploring Becca’s very late elementary/early middle school experience of life. This is the summer when she notices and is hurt by the death of the animals around her, even though it’s a natural part of life. The summer when her aunts are hurting and there’s nothing anyone can do to truly fix it. It’s not a morbid or a sad book, but it does go a lot deeper than the initial premise suggests, allowing the lovely descriptions of the island and funny moments with the other inhabitants to exist alongside Aunt Meg’s pain over her stillbirth and the burial of the bear.

While I do admire the depth that the story reaches, and the handling of the various sadder moments in a way that felt just right for a sensitive tween reader, I do want to mention that the story at the same time feels limited. Everyone is white, and one of Becca’s aunts is a doctor with an AIDs center in Africa. Ultimately, Jane and Becca decide to give the proceeds of their play to this aunt, for her research and to help save the grandmothers and children there. In that sense it feels like a very old-fashioned book, and not in a good way. I really wished that this storyline had at least been counterbalanced with the presence of some people of color on the island or in the main story itself, or with someone more mature than the kids providing some pushback to the white saviorism there.

So, ultimately this is one that I personally really enjoyed both on a nostalgic level and  as an adult reader–there are some really funny scenes, some really heartbreaking ones, and a keen description of both the nature world and Becca’s growing awareness of life. But I also had some reservations about it, so I’m not entirely sure who I’d recommend this book to. All the same, if you also love anything set by the sea, or quiet books about growing up, this might be a great fit.

Other reviews of Becca Fair and Foul:
Kirkus 
Kristin Butcher
A Year in Books

Previously on By Singing Light:
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (2017)
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle (2015)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (2014)

 

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May 2018 books

This was a light reading month for me, mostly because we were moving! (Therefore, also a light posting month here.) 

Ms. Marvel: Damage Per Second G. Willow Wilson 5.25

Goldie Vance vol. 3 Hope Larson 5.25

Becca Fair and Foul Deirdre Baker 5.25

The Only Harmless Great Thing B. Bolander 5.13

Sunny Jason Reynolds 5.13

Artificial Condition (Murderbot 2) Martha Wells 5.12

Mighty Jack Ben Hatke 5.6

A Traveller in Time Alison Uttley 5.5

The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner (reread) 5.4

 

Total books read: 9
Total rereads: 1 (The Boxcar Children, which was for work)

Favorites:

  • Sunny
  • Becca Fair and Foul
  • Artificial Condition
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing
  • Goldie Vance
  • Ms. Marvel

(Okay, yes that’s basically all of them; I REGRET NOTHING.)

 

 

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Chapter books about art heists and mysteries

Recently I noticed something intriguing–the number of chapter books that feature mysteries about arts. Heists, thefts, and other strange situations apparently attract kids who are the only ones who can solve them! Of course, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is perhaps the classic, but there are lots more! Here is a selection if, like me, you find this kind of storyline catnip.

The Art of the Swap by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Masterpiece by Elise Broach
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne
The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
London Art Chase by Natalie Grant
The Mystery of the Mona Lisa, France by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
Hannah West, Sleuth in Training by Linda Johns
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Mystery of the Martello Tower by Jennifer Lanthier
Manhunt by Kate Messner
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt
The Sweetest Heist in History by Octavia Spencer
Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells

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April 2018 reading

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Seanan McGuire 4.28
Blood Road Amanda McCrina 4.28
Aru Shah and the End of Time Roshani Chokshi 4.28
New Shoes Sara Varon 4.28
Be Prepared Vera Brosgol 4.26
Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy 4.21
Binti: Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor 4.20
Hamster Princess: Whiskerella by Ursula Vernon 4.19
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 4.19 (reread)
White Road of the Moon Rachel Neumeier 4.16
Shadowhouse Fall Daniel J Older 4.15
Step Aside Pops Kate Beacon 4.9
Hark a Vagrant Kate Beaton 4.9
Emperor of Mars Patrick Samphire 4.7
Acquiring the Mind of Christ Arch. Sergius Bowyer 4.6
Rise of the Jumbies Tracey Baptiste 4.6
Bird Angela Johnson 4.2
Cobalt Squadron Elizabeth Wein 4.1

Total books read: 18
Total rereads: 3 (The Goblin Emperor, Step Aside Pops, Hark a Vagrant)

Favorites:

  • Cobalt Squadron
  • Rise of the Jumbies
  • Whiskerella
  • The Night Masquerade
  • Becoming Madeleine
  • Be Prepared

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Three recently read graphic novels

I’ve been dipping back into the world of graphic novels! Here are quick reactions for a few of the ones I’ve read in March.

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

I loved Jamieson’s Roller Girl, which felt like a perfect middle grade graphic novel–and a great readalike for the insatiable Telgemeier readers. Like Roller GirlAll’s Faire features a tween girl with a specific interest (in this case, a Ren Faire) and some complicated friendships. It’s hard to read in some places because middle school feelings are A LOT. I appreciated that Imogen is a character who doesn’t intend to be unkind but is anyway, and then has to deal with the fallout from that. It’s at times a messy story, but it should be. Middle school is a messy time. If I have a complaint, it’s that things get tidied up a little bit too much at the end considering the rest of the story. However, I think this book hits its target audience really well.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

A fantasy graphic novel about Priyanka, a young Indian-American girl, who struggles to connect with her single mother. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly fascinated with India and wanting to experience life there. This only increases when she discovers a mysterious pashmina that seems to transport her there. I’m not quite sure what age to recommend this one to, but it’s a strong story and I like some of the art choices. It’s also pretty explicitly feminist, which is neat! While I’m not familiar with the particular struggles of women in India, Chanani’s inclusion of different kinds of relationships between women and a complicated family and social background gave the story a lot of depth.

Spinning by Tillie Walden

A graphic novel memoir of ice skating, falling in love, and being queer in Texas. I was attracted to this one by the cover–one of the stronger graphic novel covers I can remember, actually! I absolutely loved the style of the artwork and the way each section began with a description of a figure skating move. Each one had a kind of poetic significance with the chapter that came after it; the relationship between the two was not always obvious but was very real. The ending felt frustratingly sad, but also true. And I think the frustration was meant to be there, that Walden was very consciously leaning into the way life doesn’t hand always hand us a satisfying ending. While this deals with some heavy subjects, I also found that it contains moments of warmth and even joy. I’d especially recommend this one for fans of This One Summer.

Other reviews:

Marjorie Ingall on All’s Faire (NYT)

Ibi Zoboi on Pashmina (NYT)

Rachel Cooke on Spinning (The Guardian)

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Previously:

Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)

Three of a Kind: Young women coming into power (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)

In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliantl Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (2017)

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Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall

I actually can’t remember exactly how I ended up with Iris and the Tiger on my to-read bookshelf. I’m not sure, in fact, that I know anyone else who’s read it. And that’s a pity, because it’s a delightful book: a marvelous little surreal fantasy that I enjoyed very much and highly recommend.

Iris Chen-Taylor has been sent by her parents from her home in Australia to her great-aunt’s house in Spain. Sadly, their motives are not pure: they are hoping to convince her aunt to leave Iris her house once and for all. So Iris is supposed to be agreeable and charm Aunt Urusla. But when she arrives at Bosque de Nubes, all her expectations are turned upside down and things take several dramatic turns.

Despite her parents’ machinations, Iris is a sympathetic character, who quickly becomes attached to the house, her aunt, and her new friend Jordi. She’s certainly conflicted, but Hall does a nice job of making her struggle believable while also reassuring young readers that things will probably turn out okay.

I also absolutely loved the descriptions of the house and its environs–Hall really has a gift for showing the magical and conveying Iris’s wonder and the enchanting and terrifying aspects of Basque de Nubes. Although I saw a comp to Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse–and that does make sense–I also thought of Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series, which I think is slightly closer in the real sense of danger pervading the book.

Finally, I’ll mention that Iris’s dad is from Hong Kong and that Iris deals with some casual racism in very realistic ways (I believe Hall is herself Asian-Australian). It’s nice to see a book with both a wonderful sense of magic and adventure, and a more diverse cast. All in all, this is just a lovely middle grade fantasy/mystery. And now I want to check out Hall’s backlist, as she’s apparently written a couple of YA in Australia!

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016; middle grade fantasy

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Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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