Book Review | Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by

Title: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh
Author: Robert C. O’Brien
Publication Date: 1971
Length: 249 pages
Genres: Animal story, science-fiction, children’s literature, fantasy
Awards: John Newbery Medal 1972
TW: Animal experimentation, captivity, serious illness- child, death, poisoning

So, I’m kind of dating myself here, but I remember a time before the Disney Renaissance. Not well, I mean I’m not that old, however that means that when I think of great animated films at the forefront of my mind, alongside Disney and Pixar and Dreamworks and Miyazaki, is Don Bluth.

Many of his creations stood out in the animated landscape of the 1980s and 1990s, but none possibly like The Secret of Nimh.

This, of course, isn’t a review of that film. The book predated it by about eleven years. It’s just that, considering the popularity of the movie, I find it strange and a little sad, that the book isn’t more well-known. Even being a bookwork, I wasn’t actually aware of the fact that the movie was based on a Newberry winner until I ran into this copy at a local thrift store. Now, this could be partially down to my childhood distaste for Newberry books (that’s a post for another day), however even in those times that I found myself perusing the Newberry devoted shelves at the bookstore I don’t recall seeing the book, and I think that’s something I would have noticed.

For those who aren’t aware, those who’ve never had the pleasure of being exposed to either the book or the movie, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh is the story of a mother mouse who’s confronted with the threat of losing her home, and possibly child, to the farmer’s plow come spring. Her only hope comes in the form of her connections to a mysterious society of rats whose abilities set them apart from the rest of the animal world.

It’s an unusual story in many ways, and not without its flaws. The good definitely, in my opinion, outweighs the bad however. The story itself is interesting – definitely unusual in some ways, as one doesn’t often get the mixture of animal story and science fiction. The premise of an advanced society of rats was fun, and the odd bits and pieces of (child-friendly) philosophy was a surprising addition.

One of the best things about the story is the flow, I think. It’s very well paced, and put together, with the various elements of the story all syncing up nicely. There were only a few places, I felt, where the story dragged, and even fewer where it felt rushed. In addition, the story lacks the sort of moralizing that sometimes plagues children’s books, the outside voice-of-god narrator that stands over the reader to give commentary. There are effectively two narrative voices within the book, one first person and one third person limited, and both work well, neither drawing our attention out of the story.

There are, of course some issues. At times, the dialogue can feel a little stilted, with an over use of ‘oh, so-and-so’ phrases- the sort that I’ve found at times in older children’s literature. This seemed to have improved a ways into the book, but I’m not certain if that’s because it smoothed out that much, or because I just get used to the speech patterns. Either way, it wasn’t something that felt a hinderance to the story overall, though it was a little annoying when I was trying to read it out-loud.

Additionally, I will admit that the story, eventually, starts to lean a bit much on the story of the rats of Nimh. Their story ends up being around seventy pages out of two hundred and forty nine all said, and while it’s interesting enough- and Nicodemus works as a good narrator for this section- it did start to feel a little stretched eventually, and it made Mrs. Frisby’s part of the whole ordeal feel a little scant through the latter portion of the story, at least compared to the earlier parts of the book. The balance, through that section, felt a little off.

As a whole though the book was entertaining and kept me reading for a good day or so, even knowing the story beforehand.

Book Review | Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

Title: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Author: Jeff Kinney
Publication Date: 2008
Length: 217 pages
Genre: graphic novel, humor, diary fiction

TW: bullying (largely from the protagonist, though you could say he receives a fair bit from his older brother)

So, there are a lot of things that frustrate me as a teacher: grading papers, paperwork, staying late for meetings. The worst however, is the fact that the annoying kids in any sort of media, whether it’s movies, books, whatever, are no longer just annoying, but downright infuriating at times. Okay, so infuriating may seem a little strong, but deal with thrown pencils, cruel comments, and distraught students (a lot of times from said comments/behavior) for long enough and you’ll see what I mean.

A lot of people along the line forget or choose to ignore the fact that kids are jerks. I unfortunately do not have that luxury. Thus I have very mixed feelings about Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.

Because wow. Yes, this story about a 7th grader dealing with everything, from parents trying to force sibling togetherness time to asshole big brothers who lock you in the basement during their (totally not allowed) party, is very true to life in a lot of ways- and with a certain frame of mind, is kind of amusing. But at the same time, Greg Heffley, the protagonist of the series, is an absolute jerk. Beyond standard kid jerkiness. And I mean, I don’t expect some saint. I’ve seen that before and that’s just boring, but I would expect something to let me know this kid isn’t just an asshole. That never happened.

Which is frustrating, because the book does have a lot of things that I like. I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels and I’m always up for books that combine visual elements with writing. This series does that in a really interesting way, since the writing is set up to look like Greg’s journal, notebook lines and all. The illustrations, inserted into the text, almost feel like they could have been drawn by Greg himself. If it weren’t for a few more-detailed drawings, plus the addition of some of Greg’s own comics, I would have assumed they were meant to be. It’s that style of storytelling I think that drew me to the book to begin with. I love slice of life types of stories- letters and diaries and such- and despite its flaws, this series is a really good example of that. Also, I’ve heard it’s done great things for reluctant readers and that always a plus in my book.

I just wish that I could connect more with the main character. It’s not that he’s unrealistic, but rather that he’s the sort of person I would have steered clear of as a kid because he just doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. I’ve had to deal with that enough in my life without reading about it. Which is also the reason this one probably won’t find its way into my classroom library- because I’m not about to make my life more difficult than it already is, and I have a feeling this book, while some of my kids would enjoy it, would only ramp up a bad situation.

Book Review | Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Title: Spindle’s End
Author: Robin McKinley
Publication date: 2000
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling, YA

When met with stress people react in a variety of ways. Me- I delve into the fantastical.

Sometimes that means horror, sometimes science fiction.

This time it meant a fairy tale. Specifically, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a less-than-princessy princess named Rosie- who’s more at home re-shoeing a horse than doing any number of standard girly activities. Like the Disney version, Rosie is taken in by a fairy (along with the very young fairy’s aunt) who was present at her name-day ceremony, sheltered by the magical atmosphere as, in this world, the royal family is so incredibly mundane. She is, herself, fairly average- aside from the whole speaking with animals thing (a gift from the fairy), as well as her brash nature. She grows up, a little strange but safe, surrounded by her adoptive family; her best friend, Peony; Gorse- the local blacksmith, Rosie’s eventual teacher and companion; and a whole host of animals. All goes well, until her twenty-first birthday (and the curse’s deadline) approaches and the life she’s known begins to crumble around her.

I was so very excited when I saw this on the bookshelves- because Robin McKinley’s Beauty is one of my fave retellings ever.

I seriously need to quite getting over-excited about these things, cause I keep getting let down.

Not that this wasn’t a good book- not what I’m saying at all.

The world that this story inhabits is full of life and depth, governed by its own peculiar set of magic rules and idiosyncrasies. McKinley here takes a standard fairy tale and transforms it, creating a rich, imaginative landscape that lays heavy with magic- where even everyday people deal with accidental ‘baby-magic’ as toddlers due to how thick it is in the air, where care is taken to clean the grim off of day-to-day objects lest they take on magical attributes.

The story starts so strongly due to this, sucking you in as the world and the cast of characters (the mundane royals, the wise royal fairy, and the ever-uncertain but more-capable-than-she-realizes Katriona) are unveiled.

I saw some of the issues fairly early on, however. You see, the story has multiple narrators- this in and of itself isn’t an issue- it could have worked wonderfully. The problem, however, lies in how one narrrator transitions to the other. You see, the story begins when Rosie is just a baby, and in this story our original protagonist, I would argue, isn’t Rosie at all, but Katriona.  One spends the first quarter of the book with her as our main viewpoint into the world. Then things begin to shift, with Rosie getting a few scenes as viewpoint character- followed shortly afterwards (about 150 pages in) by Katriona taking a side-character role- right as Katriona gets married and has children.

There’s something that rankles about that- about the fact that as soon as Katriona becomes a wife and mother that becomes her central role. The young woman wrestling with her own fairy powers- so often uncertain of her own skills and place in the world- is shoved off with a couple of labels, and it leaves a gap, it seems, in the story, because while I love Rosie, she is also very much not in-the-know as far as what’s going on around her.

Additionally, how the story treats friendship is peculiar at times. Throughout most of the narrative I would have counted this as one of the strongest elements- I love reading a story with strong platonic bonds, especially between girls, because so many of the stories I was exposed to as a teenager absolutely lacked that. It’s the reason I avoided YA fiction for years- the treatment of friendships as characters grow and mature, especially when those relationships are deemed as character defining for both parties. I can’t say much, for fear of spoiling things, but ended up feeling let down by this story as well, in that respect.

It was still a wonderful story in so many ways; it just has a lot of issues as well- ones that happen to be some of my pet peeves. If you can look around these specific things, I definitely recommend trying the story out.

Book Review – Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Title: Just Ella
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 218 pages
Genre: Retelling, Fantasy, YA

I think most everyone has a particular fairy tale they gravitate to- characters that just attach themselves to a part of your heart as a child and refuse to let go. Now, I grew up in the Disney renaissance, watching Ariel and Belle and Jasmine on the big screen, but none of them were my first Disney princess- no, that title belongs to Cinderella, and maybe that’s the reason I have such a soft spot for that story.

Ever After, the version with Drew Barrymore (one of the only movies I could literally watch on repeat), just made me love it all the more. But perhaps there’s something in that movie that’s spoiled me, because reading Just Ella, a retelling of Cinderella, I felt a little… let down.

Maybe that’s just what happens though, when one starts looking beyond the happily ever after- which is exactly what Just Ella does. The story takes place after the ball, after the glass slipper, with Ella (as she’s known here) now taking residence in the castle awaiting her marriage to the prince. All is not well, however, with the soon-to-be princess, as she finds herself in many ways, more trapped by her new surroundings than she was by her stepmother and stepsisters. It isn’t until she tries to do something about the situation, however, that she realizes just how dire things are.

I don’t think that’s the reason though, since ultimately, I love twisted fairy tales. The plot, upon reading the blurb sounded great, and I really was interested in seeing how this take on Cinderella would work out. I happen to have a weakness for Cinderella taking as much agency as she can get. And I can say that the plot remained one that I enjoyed- complete with a small war subplot that, while not so important early on, becomes vital later in the story. Additionally, Ella is indeed a strong character, both in terms of how developed she is, as well as her own willpower, which was fun to see playing out in the situation she finds herself in.

So why did I find myself wishing for more?

The problem lies in the fact that it’s just as trapped by stereotypes and tropes as the original story was. For instance, a main theme of the story is that beauty isn’t everything- that there has to be depth below the surface. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the book constantly undermines that by many of the character descriptions- the shear fact that unpleasant people are so often described in physically unpleasant ways. For instance, a jailer who is morally loathsome and described physically in many of the same ways, or the constant fat-shaming going on with the evil stepsisters (at least this version doesn’t call them ‘ugly’ point-blank). I think the author tried to save herself by making one of Ella’s friends ugly as well, but the attempt falls short.

Additionally, while Ella is interesting- a character that insists on taking charge of her own story- the characters in the castle (save for two) are so two-dimensional. Flatter than the pages they were written on. Was it really not possible to have a story in which Ella is unhappy- and thoroughly trapped wherever she goes- while also surrounded by round characters? Or at least ones with a slight curvature? It was almost as if the author felt that in order for Ella to appear strong enough, she had to be the only character in that place capable of being so.

All in all, I still found the book enjoyable, but it’s definitely not one of my favorite fairytale retellings, and certainly doesn’t rank as high as other versions of Cinderella I’ve seen throughout the years.

Book Review | The Road From Home by David Kherdian

Title: The Road From Home
Author: David Kherdian
Publication Date: 1995 (originally published in 1979)
Length: 242 pages
Genre: Memoir/biography, YA

Perhaps it’s morbid of me, but I’ve always had a fascination with the awful side of human nature- what we do to each other in the name of who-knows-what.

As much as it hurts to delve into it, I can’t help but do so.

Considering the large amount of books on the subject it’s probably not surprising that the awful thing I’ve read about the most is the holocaust.

Of course, this isn’t a journal entry about a holocaust themed book.

The thing is, I’ve always wondered why so many other incidences don’t receive the same treatment as those awful years during the 30s and 40s. Perhaps it’s the scope of what happened in WWII, or the more recent quality of it, but nevertheless it’s still a noticeable difference. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be such a focus of attention or study, but rather the fact that I’ve always wondered… where are the other books.

Thus, when I found this book sitting amongst all the James Patterson paperbacks I had to pick it up.

Long Road from Home is the story of a girl living in Turkey in the 1910s- Veron, the author’s mother and a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

The story spans roughly from 1913 – 1924, from the time that Veron is about six, until she’s a teenager. The world the reader is introduced to is that of a young child’s, with the focus on the close-knit extended family- nights giggling with a cousin while everyone else tried to sleep, complaints about going to the baths and enduring scrub-downs – until that world crumples around her and her family is torn apart when part of them (including Veron) are forced from their homes and onto a grueling and uncertain journey across the country.

Kherdian does a wonderful job at capturing this changing world and making it as familiar to the reader as he can. So many elements of Veron’s culture are integrated throughout the story, pieces of the puzzle that makes up Veron’s life. Additionally, he doesn’t shy away from the hardships that Veron and her family endure, although they are at times obscured by Veron’s age and lack of experience, at least initially. That world, as said previously, is that of a younger child, even as the horrific events begin to unfold. It isn’t until later in the story, and subsequent events, that the reader begins to get a full open-eyed perspective- which matures as Veron does.

At times, however, the story struggles. There is a heavy reliance on telling, rather than showing, and while the events are harrowing, and tragic, there is sometimes an emotional disconnect. I think part of this stems from the author trying to tell so large of a story in so short a period of time. It feels as if certain emotional beats are underdeveloped- some sections not given quite the gravity that they should have, in order for the whole story to be told. This is, perhaps, the problem at times with stories about one’s family, as this story is. One knows the entire story already, all the elements having already taken place, the question then becomes not where the story should go, but where to begin and where to end and which parts to prune off in the middle.  I feel as if this story could have done with a bit more pruning, or perhaps the opposite- some extended details- especially at the end, which seems to drop off rather sharply.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read the book, as I walked away from it having learned about something, but I hate that I struggled to connect with the protagonist. While I’m keeping it for my classroom library, this one’s probably not a reread for me.

Book Review | The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin, Link Neal, and Lance Rubin

Title: The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek
Author(s): Rhett McLaughlin, Link Neal, Lance Rubin
Publication Date: 2019
Length: 326 pages
Genres: horror, mystery, humor, ya (it’s not branded as such, but it’s pretty much there)

Ah, family reunions… well, forced togetherness at holidays at least… I both look forward to it and dread it every single year. Thanksgiving, in the past, has tended to be a calmer affair at least, but still, sitting at my parent’s table this past November I knew at any time I could run into a landmine of some sort. Thankfully, I had this book to push my nose into when things got a little too uncomfortable.

Considering some of the themes of the story, it fit pretty well for the family disconnect that shows up that time of year, and I kept dipping in even amidst the relatively calm moments.

In short, I devoured the thing, just as easily as I did the pumpkin pie.

Admittedly, I’m not certain if the quick work I made of the book was because of it being a page-turner, or because I was stuck at a family get-together and had to have some means to distance myself from the chaos.

I have a feeling it’s a little bit of a and a bit of b.

Now, going into the story, I honestly had no clue what to expect from it. I knew, from the preview, that it was set in the 1990s and in the south- and it probably had some weird shit going on. Still, I didn’t foresee many of its twists. It was certainly a strange ride.

Take three teenage friends, add southern small town eccentricities, tack on a reform school outside of town and a few mysterious deaths, and then dump in a bunch of paranormal weirdness and there you go. The book isn’t YA, though throughout I wondered why not- because there’s nothing incredibly offensive in the book and there are so many elements in it that remind me of the sort of stuff I absolutely loved as a kid. I suppose, though, I can’t blame Rhett and Link for not wanting to fence themselves in as YA authors, especially in their first fictional work.

I’ll be honest, their inexperience, the fact that they are not first and foremost authors, shows (though evidently they have a more experienced co-writer in Lance Rubin). The story, is in many ways, rough. The tone veers into melodrama when the emotions are high, the writing is at times on the clunky side, and there was one chapter in particular that just felt tacked on.

But the other thing about Rhett and Link is they are entertainers. And boy was I entertained. As many problems as the story has- as weird as it got, I also found myself being sucked in by both the plot and the characters (well, most of them). There’s this weird verisimilitude that comes from so much of the characters and setting being… well… them, and their home. Rex and Leif are Rhett and Link in as many ways as they are not- and those voices come through loud and clear.

My favorite character though, is neither Rex nor Leif, though they’re both weirdly endearing. No, my favorite character is the third member of the protagonist trio, Alicia. Her place in this trio is an interesting one, as she’s both the ringleader of the group as well as an outsider regarding the Rex and Leif brotp- which she’s very aware of. Alicia is strong, and curious, and stuck in a place that punishes her for being the awesome person that she is. And, finding herself in the center of the stories events, she’s probably the character who’s affected the most. Ultimately though, there are very few characters, or relationships, that remain untouched in some way.

So, to wrap this up, is the story perfect?

No.

But it was also fun as heck, and I was so thrilled when I saw that it left itself open for future works.

If you want a dip into something a little weird, and a little retro, with a heavy dose of best-friend dynamics, try this sucker out for size.

Book Review|The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden

Title: The Story of Holly and Ivy
Author: Rumer Godden
Illustrator: Barbara Cooney
Publication Date: 1985 (originally published in 1957)
Length: 32 pages
Genre: Picture book, Christmas

Something I’ve learned this school year is that, working as a teacher- constantly surrounded by kids and literature made for kids- I’m gaining a greater appreciation for the complexities of adult fiction. Sometimes it’s just so nice being able to sit down with something controversial, or difficult, or just not geared towards people with less than a decade and a half of life experience.

And then sometimes my inner kid rears its head and screams, demanding a bedtime story.

And after way too many meetings and too many graded and yet-to grade papers my inner kid was absolutely bawling, so I finally yielded and pulled out The Story of Holly and Ivy.

Not a very surprising decision, all in all, since I’ve read the book every Christmas season since second grade- all beginning with an accident. One of those ‘sorry, the book you ordered from scholastic isn’t available so we just sent you something random’ accidents.

It’s probably one of happiest accidents I’ve ever ran into- both in terms of my love for this story, as well as the story itself. And all in all, rather fitting.

You see, The Story of Holly and Ivy is all about possibilities and chances. About the stars aligning to put everything in the right place.

And, above all else, about wishes.

Holly is a doll- a Christmas doll- wishing for a girl.

And Ivy is a small girl wishing for a home, and a grandmother… and a doll.

And one Christmas night their worlds begin to intertwine.

Of course, there’s a whole host of things to make that difficult- like window panes, a mean-spirited stuffed owl, and being lost and alone in the cold.

This is one of those picture books that is geared for read-aloud, full of vivid descriptions and details. As an adult, it takes me well over a half-hour to read the story- that’s if I don’t pause at the illustrations, a feat I find absolutely impossible.

The writing, alone, is wonderful, and enough to pull you into a bit of a Christmas spell, but the illustrations by Barbara Cooney- all soft, with gentle colors and lines- add a whole other level to the story. There’s an age there in her illustrations, something even beyond the old-fashioned clothes and details, that evokes nostalgia for a time long before my own. Of the many illustrators who’ve had a hand in bringing this story to life since 1957, Cooney is in my opinion the best.

For those curious, in the early 90s, CBS made a for-tv animated version of the story titled “The Wish that Changed Christmas”. They tried to replicate elements of Cooney’s style but, like the script of the special, there’s something just a little too bright despite their attempts. If you’d like to see what the story is about, it’s easily found on youtube (or at least it was when I published this review). It’s a cute tv special, and not badly done, but it never quite manages the gentleness of the original book; for that, I recommend hunting the book down. It’s out of print, but not difficult to find- either online or at a library. It’s definitely worth the search.