The Middle Grade Review Bonanza is a new feature of 2-3 mini-reviews for short (typically 250 pages or less) MG books we both really wanted to read. It’s a new Regular Thing (and we’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations for future entries).
Wicked wolves and a grim governess threaten Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia when Bonnie’s parents leave Willoughby Chase for a sea voyage. Left in the care of the cruel Miss Slighcarp, the girls can hardly believe what is happening to their once happy home. The servants are dismissed, the furniture is sold, and Bonnie and Sylvia are sent to a prison-like orphan school. It seems as if the endless hours of drudgery will never cease.
With the help of Simon the gooseboy and his flock, they escape. But how will they ever get Willoughby Chase free from the clutches of the evil Miss Slighcarp?
Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Vintage Children’s Classics UK; first published 1962) has been on my radar for years now after being recommended to me several times by different friends/readers. Bonus points: it’s an alternate history setting – England, circa 1832 – where packs of wild wolves have migrated to.
When Bonnie’s parents go on a long sea voyage, cousins Sylvia and Bonnie are left in the care of evil governess Miss Slighcarp who soon takes over Willoughby Chase. Armed with their resourcefulness and a few loyal friends, the two girls must deal with unspeakable cruelty. This is a beloved children’s classic, an adventure story featuring Orphans, a Cruel Governess, Despicable Villainy, Outrageous Acts of Wickedness and the Ultimate Triumphant Payback.
The reading of this book for me was a complicated mix of expectations, the fact that the plot felt so familiar and predictable and the ultimately disappointing realisation that the alternate history setting and the wolves have no bearing on the plot apart from functioning as very incidental atmosphere at the very beginning. I am the first to admit that both the expectations I had and the familiarity I felt are perhaps unfair to the work itself – especially considering that this is probably one of the first books to actually feature those very familiar plot points (as disclosed above). If I remove my feelings from the equation and attempt to be more objective (is that even possible?), I can see its merits and its importance as a precursor of children’s literature. Apart from that: I did love its melodramatic gothic-ness and above all Bonnie and Sylvia and how they worked well as a team and how they were capable (Bonnie had a GUN) and smart and resourceful.
Read this if you love melodrama, despicable villains amd awesome girls. If you like this one, please do try: Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms and A Drowned Maiden’s Hair as well as The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand.
Feisty Rose takes center stage as the highly original Casson family faces a long, hot summer. As usual, things are a bit chaotic. Eldest daughter Caddy is now engaged to darling Michael, and she’s not altogether sure she likes it. Saffy and Sarah are on a mission to find Saffy’s biological father (while cultivating hearts of stone). Indigo is cautiosly beginning a friendship with a reformed bully, who desperately wants to feel like part of the Casson family. Rose, while missing Tom (who none of them have heard from) dreadfully, enters into a life of petty crime, shoplifting small items until her misadventures nearly bring disaster. An accidental trip to London and a visit with Rose’s father lead to a startling revelation, but through it all Rose’s single-minded determination to find Tom remains as fierce as it is hopeless. Or is it?
Hilary McKay has painted the fond mayhem of this delightful family with such humor, warmth, and authenticity that readers will fall in love with them all over again. Once you’ve visited the Casson household, you may never want to leave.
Permanent Rose by Hilary Mckay (Margaret K. McElderry Books /Hodder; 2005) is book three in the excellent Casson Family series. It picks up soon after the ending of Indigo’s Star and the return of their friend Tom to the US. Although the focus of this one is mostly on Rose (how she is missing Tom terribly, how she is now shoplifting), the entire family and its aggregates share the point of view narrative. There is a lot of head-hoping in the series but it is amazing how this works here by paralleling in-narrative the chaos and mayhem of the Cassons in-story. It never ceases to amaze me how subtly emotional these books are despite their outward eccentricity, and how things affect these people so deeply. As such for example: Saffy might say she has a heart of stone, but it is very important for her to know who her real father is. Rose might appear incredibly self-sufficient but inwardly she is missing her friend and her father; Caddy might appear heartless and forgetful but she is anything but and her struggle to understand her feelings about her fiancée Michael and about getting married so young are thoughtful and earnest.
I also love how in all the books so far, there is at least one outsider who just wants to be part of this chaos. Because why wouldn’t you, right? This time around is reformed bully David who just wants to be accepted and I loved the care and compassion given to his arc, considering his past actions.
I love this series (I still detest Bill though).
Also: the series has been rebranded in the UK with the most AMAZING covers. Now it’s the time to invest, folks. *nudges*
When Claudia decided to run away, she planned very carefully. She would be gone just long enough to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia appreciation. And she would go in comfort-she would live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She saved her money, and she invited her brother Jamie to go, mostly because he was a miser and would have money.
Claudia was a good organizer and Jamie bad some ideas, too; so the two took up residence at the museum right on schedule. But once the fun of settling in was over, Claudia had two unexpected problems: She felt just the same, and she wanted to feel different; and she found a statue at the Museum so beautiful she could not go home until she bad discovered its maker, a question that baffled the experts, too.
The former owner of the statue was Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Without her-well, without her, Claudia might never have found a way to go home.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum Books for Young Readers; first published 1967) is another beloved children’s classic and a multiple award-winner, including the Newbery Medal in 1968. Interestingly I had exactly zero expectations about this one and ended loving it so much – this is my favourite of the bunch today .
I knew I’d love it as soon as I read its opening paragraph:
“Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her pack. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.”
And that’s what the story is about: Claudia wants to run away from home, she plans for it, engages Jamie, one of her younger brothers as an accomplice (because she needs his money-saving expertise) and the two spend a few days hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And that would already be enough fun in itself but as it turns out this book is amazingly well-written, funny, portraying a lovely relationship between siblings and also extremely thoughtful in terms of how it presents its main character.
Claudia is an incredible protagonist and I loved the examination of her motivations. As the only girl in a family, she feels extremely prejudiced against on principle: she is the only one for example that has to do any cleaning around the house. But that is not the only reason she wants to run away and the story examines what makes her tick, her need to be different and appreciated and her attempt to have something important accomplished. It is really interesting the way her needs are presented sympathetically and positively.
It also helps that the book is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – whose late entrance in the story itself and the way that it happens, is part of an ongoing mystery to the reader – with ridiculously funny asides.
Plus awesome quotes:
“Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”
“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”
“What happened was: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time– especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.”
“A nasty letter or a sarcastic one can make you righteously angry, but what can you do about a polite letter of rejection? Nothing, really, except cry.”
Highly, highly recommended.
Buy the Books:
(click on the links to purchase)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Ebook available for kindle UK
Ebook available for kindle UK
From the Mixed-up Files
Ebook available for Nook