Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Book Review: Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate

If trees could talk, what would they say? That’s one of the many questions asked by Wishtree, a 2017 Middle Grade novel by Katherine Applegate.

The narrator is a red oak tree, but the story follows many characters: the animals that make their home in the tree, the owner of the land the tree is on, and the children of the two families who rent the houses on that property. Every year, the people of the town come to the tree to make wishes, which they write on pieces of fabric and tie to the branches. The tree has no power to grant their wishes, but it becomes determined to grant a little girl’s wish for a friend.

This little girl has moved into one of the two houses on the property, and she immediately forms a close bond with the tree, sneaking out to sit beneath it every night. The tree begins to care for the girl, and it becomes increasingly frustrated at its inability to help her. Not only does she have trouble making friends, but one day, a stranger carves the word “LEAVE” into the tree’s bark. She and her parents are immigrants from the Middle East, and not everyone is happy to welcome them.

Meanwhile, the owner of the property is growing increasingly frustrated with the annual Wish Day festivities, as well as the damage the tree’s roots are doing to the houses’ plumbing systems. The vandalism pushes her over the edge, and she decides to chop the tree down. While the animals that live in the tree search for new homes, the tree itself, who had expected to live for hundreds of years longer, has to face its own impending death and becomes increasingly determined to grant the little girl’s wish as a final act of kindness.

An unconventional narrator, like a tree, is the sort of thing that seems like a recipe for disaster. How can a human reader sympathize with a tree? How can a human author understand what a tree might think and do if it had a humanlike mind and the ability to act? How can any of this be pulled off without seeming ridiculously cheesy? It seems like the sort of thing that could never work, and yet somehow it does.

The tree never seems fully human. It looks at humans from an outsider’s viewpoint and cares for them but does not understand them. At the same time, though, it’s characterized in a way that, while distinctly tree-like, is relatable enough to seem real. I found myself seeing the story through the tree’s eyes, understanding its perspective as well as the human characters’. Its intervention in the story is just subtle enough to allow suspension of disbelief without making it a passive observer, and the story touches on powerful themes and ideas that make it a story worth telling, as well as one with potential to appeal to readers far older than its target audience.

From Page to Screen · Middle-Grade

From Page to Screen: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time has never been one of my favorite books. I feel like it’s important to say that upfront. I liked it but didn’t love it as a kid, and I felt about the same when I re-read it recently in preparation for the movie. I’m a book person, and this is a book blog, but for once, I went into a movie adaptation of a book without any kind of set-in-stone feeling that the book would be better, no matter what they did. This is not one of those books for me.

Many movies based on books fall shortest in character development. While books have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to flesh out their characters, not to mention the ability to show readers what they’re thinking and feeling, movies have to rely on dialogue and acting choices within a much more limited time frame. However, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time were beautifully realized. Charles Wallace in particular comes across as brilliant and childlike at the same time, which is quite the accomplishment for a young child actor playing a five-year-old genius. Meg’s parents and Calvin all remain mostly true to how they were portrayed in the book, but in Meg’s story, the movie actually takes things further and does – dare I say? – a better job of exploring who she is. For instance, in both book and movie, Mrs. Whatsit gives her the “gift” of her flaws to help her on Camazotz, but in the book this just means that she has to tap into her stubbornness to resist IT’s power. In the movie, it’s by accepting herself, faults and all, that she’s able to resist and free her mind from IT’s control.

The characters’ relationships and interactions with each other ring true. Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s love for each other, their love for their children, the growing friendship and attraction between Meg and Calvin, and the mentorship provided by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit all play out believably on screen. But where the movie really shines is in showing the deep, powerful love between Meg and Charles Wallace. The moment where she realizes that her love for her brother is stronger than IT’s hold over him is already by far the most powerful moment of the book, and would have been one of the worst places to fall short on. Thankfully, the two young actors really do an exceptional job, not only on that scene but on building up a convincing brother/sister relationship throughout the movie that gives the scene a strong foundation to stand on.

My biggest problem with the book is the stilted dialogue, and in that area, I’d say the movie is better. It’s still sometimes a bit cheesy – for instance, Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes gets old pretty fast – but at least the kids do talk to each other pretty much like normal kids, and the three Mrs. W’s aren’t really human anyway.

It’s not until they get to Camazotz that things begin to go wrong. In the book, Camazotz is both far more mundane and far more disturbing. It’s not the origin of the darkness, and it’s not some kind of nightmare illusion planet. It’s just a planet – a surprisingly earth-like planet at that – which has completely given in to the darkness. To me, the idea that a whole planet full of people – humans, because the people of Camazotz are human, or at least close enough that no one can tell the difference – would collectively decide to choose evil over good, to give themselves up to complete conformity and choose to let themselves be mind-controlled pawns of a pure evil entity – is far more terrifying than the more intense action sequences of the movie. The people of Camazotz were explicitly real and alive in the book, and some were even capable of resisting, like the little boy who throws away his ball. In the movie, they’re all just illusions.

By extension, one of the novel’s main themes is lost. Or, at least, it loses some of its power. Camazotz was a place of complete conformity, and a greatly exaggerated reflection of the peer pressure Meg and Calvin experience at school. On a different level, the society shown on Camazotz suggests that evil succeeds when people stop thinking and acting as individuals. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace actually speak to several of Camazotz’ people, some of whom are too afraid to help and some of whom are simply indifferent. Nowhere do we see a human inhabitant of Camazotz, aside from the red-eyed man, actually doing something evil – but we do see them going about their daily business as if the world that they live in isn’t consumed by evil. Camazotz in the book is sort of a cautionary tale for those of us on Earth, but in the movie it’s not much more than a pop-up book of nightmares.

So, was the book better? Yes … and no. Everything from the moment they arrive on Camazotz to the end of the movie – with the exception of Meg’s love saving Charles Wallace – was completely off the mark. As an adaptation, it can hardly compare when it completely overlooks one of the book’s main themes in favor of pointless action sequences. But from a character point of view, it was excellent, and perhaps even better than the book. I did like it, and I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, but I still wish someone involved had understood what the point was to all those identical houses and balls bouncing in rhythm.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Percy Jackson

This is another series I loved as a kid, but haven’t thought much about in years. This past week, I re-read The Lightning Thief, the first book of the original series. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, because first of all, I’m about twice the age I was when I first fell in love with the series, and secondly, I know a lot more about mythology than I did back then. And I can’t say I got quite as caught up in it this time around. But I can see what I liked about it, and maybe even appreciate it in new ways.

One thing in particular that I appreciate is how real the kids in the book are. Kids’ books where the kid characters are too grown-up or too perfect are a pet peeve of mine. These kids have flaws. They have insecurities. They sometimes get into trouble, and they’re definitely twelve-year-olds dealing with things bigger than anything twelve-year-olds should have to. But they’re good kids, and they rise to the challenge and mature as the series goes on.

The mythology is pretty decent, too. It’s all adapted for modern times, so for example, the entrance to the Underworld is in Los Angeles, Medusa runs a statue shop, and future heroes train with Chiron at a summer camp in New York. I remember finding all that very fun and not too difficult to separate from the “real” myths I learned about in school, although I do wonder if that’s still the case for kids who read the Percy Jackson books before they learn about mythology from other sources.

There’s a lot in mythology that’s really not appropriate for kids, and it’s a delicate balance telling the stories in a child-friendly way without warping them too much. The Percy Jackson books do a much better job of this than, say, Disney’s Hercules. I’m sure it helped that Rick Riordan was a teacher before he became an author, and already had some experience with adapting myths for children. It probably also helped that the Percy Jackson books are new stories, rather than strict retellings of existing myths.

The biggest difference, I think, between reading these books as a pre-teen and reading them now is … well, I’m a lot older now. I’m not dealing with the same things as my twelve-year-old self, I don’t find the same things funny or scary, and there’s something very over-the-top about the Percy Jackson books that was okay then but seemed cheesy this time around. I kind of expected that. I tried reading the Heroes of Olympus series when it came out and didn’t make it very far. It wasn’t that the books weren’t any good, but I was just too old for them by that point and couldn’t get invested in the new characters.

That doesn’t mean I disliked The Lightning Thief this time around. On the contrary, I found it to be fun and exciting. I’m thrilled that there are now so many of these books – not just the original Greek mythology series, but others that focus on Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology as well. Anything that kids enjoy and can learn something from is definitely worth reading, even if it’s something that most of them will outgrow as they mature.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Warrior Cats

The kids in my class love these books. I did, too, when I was their age. Of course, there were way fewer of them then than there are now, which makes me feel a lot older than I really am.

Anyway, as part of my summer reading project, I decided to re-read the Warriors books. Not all of them, of course – there are now 6 book series, plus various “super-editions” and graphic novels, – but just enough to get a feel for them again.

The books are about a group of feral cats living in the woods, but the characters don’t really behave like cats. They have a complex society, familial bonds, friendships, and leaders. They understand abstract concepts like loyalty and honor, they have culture and traditions, and their society is based on a set of rules that they’re all expected to follow. The adult cats train the younger ones, a few specialize in healing rather than becoming warriors, and everyone in the clan helps to care for the elderly. They’ve even learned to use basic tools, such as moss to carry water or cobwebs to bandage an open wound. In other words, they are imagined and characterized like a human society, despite not being human at all.

And yet, there’s a sort of realism that is often not present in talking animal stories. No one wears human clothes. No one can read or write. The cats sleep in the forest, hunt for their food, get into fights over territory, and face threats such as disease, wild animals, and of course, humans. Their society is human-like, but their concerns are those of cats. And this, I think, is part of why the books appeal to an older age group than most other talking animal stories. They still require a lot of suspension of disbelief, but a lot less than something like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.

The other big thing I noticed is that they’re coming-of-age stories. The main character of the first series starts out as a sheltered house cat, wanders off into the forest, joins one of the four Clans, and spends several books trying to prove himself before eventually becoming the Clan’s leader and uniting the forest cats against a common enemy. Future series choose to focus on new characters – always young cats trying to prove themselves – rather than continue to follow the original protagonist. This, I think, is another reason older kids seem to enjoy these books. Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, kids’ lives become a lot more complicated very quickly: they’re going through puberty, they’re given more responsibility and freedom than before, they’re realizing that Mom and Dad can’t always fix everything, and when they go on to middle school, they have to adjust to a whole new kind of school environment and peer group. There’s a reason so many books for kids around that age are coming-of-age stories. Everything is changing for them very quickly, and they see something of their own struggles in the fictional characters’ much-more-extreme ones.

They’re also violent books, and I’d forgotten just how violent. Or maybe never noticed in the first place. In the same way that big fantasy battles featuring swords or magic wands are comfortably removed from reality, cats fighting each other doesn’t seem nearly as bad as when it’s humans doing it. And then there are forest fires, floods, diseases, winters when prey is scarce, other wild predators, cars on the highway, and dozens of other ways to get hurt. If these were books about humans instead of cats, they really wouldn’t be appropriate for ten-year-olds – and yet, I know I read them at about that age, and they didn’t bother me.

To answer the question I asked myself when I started reading, no, they’re not as good now as they seemed when I was a kid. They require a lot of suspension of disbelief, not just for the talking animals but for the supernatural aspects of the story as well, and as much as I love the fantasy genre, it was a little bit too much. The cats’ naming system (two-part names, ie. Fireheart, the first part given by the cat’s mother and the second part earned when the cat becomes a warrior) seemed awesome at the time, but now it’s just a little too complex and I’m not into it enough to keep track of all the changing names. And the basic premise just doesn’t appeal to me as much as it did then. I’ve outgrown them.

And yet, they are certainly not bad books. There’s some nostalgia there for me, but there are also worthwhile questions and themes that run through the series. What does it mean to be loyal and honorable? What does it mean to be a leader? How do we treat those who are perceived as outsiders? Is breaking the rules ever just? When should we fight, and when should we look for a peaceful solution? The series isn’t written as a moral lesson, but it explores these ideas via its feline characters.

It’s not (at least for me) the kind of series you keep coming back to your whole life, and it’s probably never going to be a children’s classic or be studied in schools. But not every book needs to be. I can understand why I liked them, despite not being a big fan of cats in real life, and I can understand why the kids at school continue to read them as more and more are released.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Verse Novels

At the beginning of the summer, I discovered verse novels, which are novels written as a long series of free-verse poems. There aren’t a lot of these books out there, but I’ve eagerly explored the genre this summer. I’ve already written about Inside Out and Back Again, by Thannha Lai, and Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech. Here are four more that I’ve read this summer:

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Unlike Heartbeat, Love That Dog is not necessarily intended to be good poetry. It’s supposed to read like a kid wrote it, and a kid who hasn’t figured out yet that breaking a sentence up over several lines does not make a free-verse poem. In this way, it’s almost more of an epistolary novel (a novel written in diary entries, letters, blog posts, etc.) than a true verse novel. We’re supposed to believe this is work a student did for English class. It’s a very sweet story, though, and the pieces come together very well, so that details that seemed random early on mean something by the end.

Blue Birds, by Caroline Starr Rose. Set in the lost Roanoak colony, this is the story of a friendship between an English girl and a Native American girl. The poetic form works very well for this story. At the beginning, the two do not even speak each other’s languages, but since it’s written in poems, the reader is able to understand what both of them are thinking and feeling.

May B., by Caroline Starr Rose. This is another one where free verse poems work better than prose possibly could. It’s a survival story, but unlike, say, The Black Stallion, it focuses on May’s emotions more than her physical struggle to survive. The poems linger on her loneliness, fear, hope, and determination in a way would seem odd in prose but flows naturally in verse.

Eva of the Farm, by Dia Calhoun. Possibly my favorite verse novel that I’ve read so far. The main character, Eva, is an imaginative and adventurous pre-teen whose family’s farm is about to be foreclosed on, and she’s determined to save it. Eva herself is a poet, and her own poems are interspersed throughout the story. As seems to be a trend in this genre, the plot matters less than the character development and emotional depth – but that’s okay, because Eva’s emotional journey is 100% worth reading.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Everything on a Waffle

There’s this funny thing that happens with books you read as a kid. Some of them stick with you. You somehow never outgrow them, and just keep coming back again and again to savor the familiar stories. Others fade from memory almost entirely, until years later, you find yourself face-to-face with a vaguely familiar title and think you might have an idea how it ends. You open it up, turn the first few pages, and the story feels almost new, but every now and then there’s something that triggers a memory.

That’s what Everything on a Waffle was like for me. I know I read it when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I know I enjoyed it. And I remembered the strangest things about it: the main character’s hair “the color of glazed apricots (recipe to follow)”; her insistence that sometimes you just know something, deep down, without any proof; and the unexpected flashes of wisdom amid a chaotic storyline.

  • “At heart, we’re all a pack of violent, raging wolves, but in our actions, we can be pacifists”.
  • “The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart”.
  • “Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better, but in doing so, you lose what was so wonderful to begin with”.

These are quotes I halfway-remembered, although I’d never have been able to tell you where they came from. And they kind of sum up why I like this book.

When I say it’s chaotic, it is. It’s got a huge cast of supporting characters, unexpected events, odd coincidences, and so many difficulties for the protagonist that it would almost have a Series of Unfortunate Events feel to it if she didn’t react with such a positive attitude. It really shouldn’t have worked – and yet, somehow, it does. And every so often, from out of the chaos – maybe even as a product of the chaos – there’s a moment that’s just so thoughtful and profound it makes you stop and think. Like a flash of lightning in a thuderstorm, lighting up the world for just a moment.

Primrose is a delightful narrator, and she tells her own story in a funny, upbeat way. She’s full of joy for life and has a unique voice that could only belong to a precocious pre-teen. The glass is always half-full in her eyes, and the narrative rewards her optimism with a happy ending. Rather than orphaned and alone, she ends up surrounded by people who care for her, from Uncle Jack to her foster parents to the owner of a restaurant who serves everything on a waffle – and, at the very end, an even happier twist that I probably shouldn’t spoil.

The book is quirky and fun, with plenty of humor and a few distinctive features, such as ending each chapter with a recipe for a food that featured in that chapter. If there’s a moral, I’d say it’s that life is what you make of it, and you can choose to dwell in self-pity or you can choose to make the most of what you’ve been given. I loved this book, and I’d definitely recommend it.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

This week, I’m reviewing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I first noticed this book at Barnes and Noble about a month ago, on the same trip where I picked up Inside Out and Back Again. I didn’t buy it at the time, but I decided to come back to it later, because a Newbery Honor fantasy-adventure story set in ancient China isn’t something you get to read every day.

This is cliché, I know, but the book really is a breath of fresh air. A lot of the basic elements are familiar. Minli, the protagonist, is the quintessential young hero on a quest. The plot borrows a lot from The Wizard of Oz and reminds me a bit of the first Harry Potter book as well. But it’s built up around Chinese folklore, which provides an unusual setting and a completely different tone than any other comparable stories. The world is beautifully constructed and endlessly creative, and every part of the story is woven together by the end.

Talking goldfish, dragons that emerge out of paintings, and red strings that tie people’s destinies together are not always easy to believe in. I often found myself as skeptical as Minli’s parents. But even they learn to have faith by the end, and likewise, I found it easier and easier to suspend my disbelief as I continued reading. It’s fantasy. It’s not meant to make sense, and yet, in a weird way, it does. I’ve always been able to appreciate books about magic spells and fantastic creatures, and the book did well at drawing on the conventions of fantasy while still coming up with something unique and original.

There are some beautiful themes in the story. Like Dorothy, Minli learns in the end that she already has what she needs. It’s her selfless decision to help a friend rather than herself that gives her a way to help both of them, and it was only through the things she encountered on her journey that she was able to arrive at that decision. It’s a book about faith, selflessness, family, coming-of-age, and many other things, but if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say it’s about gratitude. It’s only once Minli learns to be thankful for what she has that she’s able to improve her own life and her village’s welfare.

I especially loved the emphasis on storytelling. This is not the first book to ask meta-fictional questions, such as, “What is the value of telling fantasy stories?” However, it answers that question beautifully by weaving storytelling throughout the main narrative. Almost every chapter has a shorter story in it that – sooner or later – turns out to be true. Lin sends her protagonist on a journey through a world of stories, which come to life all around her. It gives the impression that we only have to look to see the magic in the everyday world.

The book is beautifully illustrated, the world vividly constructed, and the characters human and relatable. The story is like a mosaic, made up of bits and pieces of something recognizable, but put together in unexpected ways, resulting in something utterly unique – and yet the themes it explores are universal and relevant. Not only did I find it enjoyable and refreshing, I also felt that it had a great deal of value as a piece of literature. It’s not hard to see why it won a Newbery Honor.