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
Linda WMarch 11, 2013 at 8:38 am
I haven’t read any of the Casson family books, so now I need to read them. I recommend Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, a recent Newbery honor winner.
KatrinaMarch 11, 2013 at 9:48 am
I loved E.L. Konigsburg when I was younger! My favourite was always From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Every time I go into a museum, I consider how nice it would be to live there), but I also loved The View from Saturday and A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.
The View from Saturday is about four smart kids who become a team in an academic competition. The story shows how they know the answers to the questions asked through their shared life experiences and relationships.
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver is an historical tale, essentially a conversation between Eleanor of Aquitaine and some of her old friends, sitting on a cloud, waiting to know if her second husband (King Henry II) has been in Hell long enough and can be admitted to Heaven. She was a pretty amazing lady!
ElizaMarch 11, 2013 at 11:44 am
I was so excited on Sunday when I found out you were going to review these books.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Ana, you’re one step ahead of me. I still haven’t read this book, though I do have the audio version loaded on my iPod. This is the first book in a series, so maybe the wolves and alternative history figure in more in the later books. I’m sure one of the myriad of fans will enlighten us.
Permanent Rose – You are the one who hooked me on the Casson family. I loved the absolute fierceness of Saffy and Sarah displayed in Indigo’s Star when defending Indigo against the bullies but how they’re willing to let that go and begin to accept David because Indigo is. It also makes sense that Indigo is able to forgive David before his sisters, especially Rose, do. (1) It’s harder to forgive someone who has hurt someone you love and (2) Indigo, as the middle child, is a peace keeper and, I think, has the tenderest heart, plus, it probably helps he was able to get back at the bullies.
I agree with you about everyone wanting to be a part of the Casson chaos. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of such a loving, loyal and creative family? I would be knocking on their kitchen door with homemade dinners in hand if I could be invited in. I’d love to see Rose’s murals and would consider it a high honor if I made it in one (not that I would ever be cool enough but one can aspire).
Once you’ve completed this books, maybe you can have a poll for everyone to vote on their favorite Casson family book? You haven’t read/reviewed mine yet. (p.s. Bill still has an arc to go.)
If the thought of finishing the Casson books has you sad, don’t despair. I found out from Liz Burns that Hilary has written about another compelling family, The Conroys. The first book is The Exiles at Home. We have to read these.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – I’m so happy you loved this book as much as I did and most people I know (except my oldest sister who for some very odd reason is not a fan). There is so much to love about this book, from all the characters, the realistically portrayed sibling relationship between Claudia and Jamie, watching them become a team, Mrs. Frankweiler, how the stories come together. Ms. Konigsburg’s intelligent humor shines in this book, like it does in her other ones, and I think that is what elevates this book and keeps it fresh for modern readers almost 50 years later.
Anita Silvey’s always awesome Book-A-Day blog recently featured From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and she tells about Ms. Konigsburg’s inspiration for the book.
I second the recommendation for Three Times Lucky, a modern Southern tall tale and The View from Saturday. Another one of my favorite Konigsburg books is The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place – Upon leaving an oppressive summer camp, twelve-year-old Margaret Rose Kane spearheads a campaign to preserve three unique towers her uncles have been building in their back yard for over forty years. Guaranteed that you’ll fall in love with the uncles.
I’m limiting myself to one other recommendation. It’s on the younger end of the middle grade scale but so delightful. The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami – Eleven-year-old Dini loves Bollywood movies, and so when she learns that her family is moving to India for two years, her devastation over leaving her best friend in Maryland is tempered by the possibility of meeting her favorite Bollywood actress, Dolly Singh. I mean Bollywood, can you resist after hearing that? How often do Bollywood movies figure into middle grade books?
AnaMarch 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm
Linda W – Thank you, I actually already have that on my TBR!
Katrina : “A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver is an historical tale, essentially a conversation between Eleanor of Aquitaine and some of her old friends, sitting on a cloud, waiting to know if her second husband (King Henry II) has been in Hell long enough and can be admitted to Heaven. She was a pretty amazing lady!” <<<<<< O.O whaaaaa. *runs to google book* Eliza - Which one is your favourite? Does this mean then we come to sympathise and understand Bill? BUT I DON'T WANT TO. I will check the other books too, thank you!
MorganMarch 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm
I remember my grandma bought me From the Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenwiler when I was around 8 or 9, and I loved it! She took me to the Met fairly often and I loved museums; reading about them was even better. I don’t remember much about the book to be honest, I should reread it sometime soon especially since you gave it such a charming review 🙂
LizMarch 11, 2013 at 2:49 pm
You just reminded me how much I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid! I don’t think there was a kid in my entire elementary school who didn’t like this one. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Ana @ things mean a lotMarch 11, 2013 at 3:05 pm
Does this mean then we come to sympathise and understand Bill? BUT I DON’T WANT TO.
Hahaha. The thing is, McKay eventually makes you want to 😛 Bill IS humanised, but not in a way that gives him a free pass or draws attention away from the gender power imbalance behind his life choices, and it’s all just so brilliantly done. Having said that, your e-mail as you were reading made me laugh out loud, because I remember reacting the exact same way 😛
Also, I must read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
AnaMarch 11, 2013 at 3:08 pm
@ ANA – I know, right? I was like *RAAAAAAGE* and also *sad* I can’t wait to have my emotions messed with. I say that with no irony whatsoever
and YES ANA YOU MUST READ FROM THE MIXEDUP FILES. I only have it as a Kobo book though, so can’t lend. BOO.
AnonymousMarch 11, 2013 at 3:12 pm
I always recommend readers skip “Wolves” because I find it saccharine, and Dido isn’t even in it. It’s useful background, but that’s a series which really hits its stride once Dido is fully established.
PaigeMarch 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm
Oh, Wolves is so tricky! In hindsight, I can see why it would seem stale/already done. I suspect that you’d like the next several books in the series (listed here) – especially Black Hearts in Battersea; Nightbirds on Nantucket; and Dido and Pa — all of whom feature Dido Twite, who is…more unique than Bonnie is. If you’re thinking of Aiken as one of the originators of that sort of plotline, think of Dido as a direct ancestor of Frances Hardinge’s Mosca Mye.
AnaMarch 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm
” If you’re thinking of Aiken as one of the originators of that sort of plotline, think of Dido as a direct ancestor of Frances Hardinge’s Mosca Mye.”
GASP. Do I need to read them in order??? HOW DO I GET TO THIS DIDO person both Paige and anon have mentioned?
Ana @ things mean a lotMarch 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm
Never fear, my copy of Black Hearts in Battersea will be with you on Wednesday :mrgeeen: That’s the first Dido appearance and the second in the series. I can definitely see the Mosca connection now that I think about it.
AnaMarch 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm
PaigeMarch 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm
Ah, the other Ana has things well in hand. I don’t think I read the books in order, which is alright, because the series kind of seemed to peter out (though I think that was partly that the final books weren’t being published in the US, or weren’t being bought by my libraries, or …? I really need to go and collect the end volumes in the series, and reread the whole thing.
I still find Wolves wonderfully atmospheric, but we probably should have told you to skip it, and start with Black Hearts, and then save Wolves for the next snowy December night, which is when it’s really best.
Megan no hMarch 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm
Love this new feature! I read both Wolves and Mrs. Basil only as an adult and I felt pretty similar. ADORED Mrs. Basil, etc. Was really underwhelmed by Wolves though. Still feel like I am totally missing something there.
As far as recs go, have you ever seen Fuse 8’s best chapter books list? I think they re-do it yearly, but it’s mostly the same list. Lots of good stuff (esp. old school ones) that could more or less be considered middle-grade. (Some skew children’s, other YA. Most came out before the MG category, so it’s hard to say what is what.)
And as far as personal recs go (sorry if you’ve read most/any of these, but you never know!), I would say The Westing Game, Tuck Everlasting, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of Blue Dolphins, and Harriet the Spy.
LaurenMarch 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm
Yay, I’m so glad you liked From the Mixed-Up Files! I haven’t read Permanent Rose yet, but I found Saffy’s Angel on your blog and loved it, so I’ll be getting on that.
One more rec for MG: Bloomability by Sharon Creech. It’s about an American girl named Dinnie who is sent to an international school in Switzerland (her aunt and uncle are administrators). I’m not sure how to explain quite how special this book is, because it’s all the little things I love best. The kids at her school come from all over the world (literally) and she meets people with very different worldviews, experiences culture shock, learns Italian, and slowly becomes open to many new possibilities – “bloomabilities.” I think you’d love how all of the everyday, commonplace school things like class discussions become complex and exciting because of all the different cultural backgrounds, the alternative way that the school teaches the students to think about the world, and the wonderful characters! (It’s a much more fun book than I’m making it sound, really!)
CharlotteMarch 11, 2013 at 8:04 pm
I liked Wolves just fine as a child, but Black Hearts was the one I re-read to pieces. It’s my favorite of her books!
EmmaMarch 11, 2013 at 9:16 pm
Awesome list! From The Mixed-Up Files will always have a special place in my heart. Do you have to read the Casson Family series in order? My library doesn’t have book one.
AndreaMarch 12, 2013 at 3:31 am
That was me anon-ing before – forgot to fill out the form!
Dido Twite is one of my all-time favourite literary characters. All the guts and indominability anyone could want – and a nice line of lip to go with it. I do see a little resemblance to Mosca Mye (though I’ve read only “Fly By Night”) but Dido is…inimitable. Read all of the Dido Twite books, Ana – you won’t regret it.
ElizaMarch 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm
I love how this thread has exploded since yesterday morning!
Ana – my favorite Casson family book is Forever Rose even though it may be the end to the series. McKay has written one book after, Caddie Ever After, that is a prequel to Saffy’s Angel. I don’t feel it’s as strong as the others but it does contribute to the Bill redemption.
As the other Ana said, Bill does become more of a person. Not sure we’ll ever truly like him because he is a selfish *&^#$%, but there is a lot of growth. I like that he isn’t completely changed (’cause who does that?) but you see him not putting himself first all the time and realizing other’s value.
Emma – I think you’ll be okay starting the Casson family stories with the second book Indigo’s Star. You get a better sense of the characters’ growth reading them in order but they are pretty much stand alone books.
Dido resembles Mosca Mye?!! WHAT? Must get my hand on Black Hearts in Battersea immediately. Just checked and my local branch has a copy on the shelf. I’m off to claim it.
Lauren – your description of Bloomability reminded me of another Creech book The Unfinished Angel. In a tiny village in the Swiss Alps, an angel meets an American girl named Zola who has come with her father to open a school, and together Zola and the angel rescue a group of homeless orphans, who gradually change everything. Sounds saccharine but, believe me, Zola and the angel are anything but sweet. Cranky and bossy may be better descriptions.
I second Megan no h’s recommendations for The Westing Game, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Harriet the Spy. All excellent. I still haven’t read Island of the Blue Dolphins.
MBMarch 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm
Wolves of Willoughby Chase is good, but the series gets better. Please don’t stop at the first book. I agree Black Hearts in Battersea is stronger.
Ana and Thea, have you ever read any of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe series? The first one is Absolutely Zero. The mention of eccentric families brings them to mind. They are absolutely hilarious, and might be worth adding to your Middle Grade Review list.
TamiMarch 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm
I haven’t read any of these, but whilst reading your review of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler I realized the story sounded familiar.
They’ve apparently made quite a few film adaptations of it, and I must’ve caught one when I was younger. I remember loving it and promptly forgetting the name of it.
I’ll have to seek out a copy of it. Pragmatic heroines are near and dear to my heart.
(probably not spoilers, but avoid just in case)
I always felt a kinship with the girl and her love of organization. Particularly the ending bits, with all the files? This story began a visualization of the way I store memories that was finished by the (much less child-appropriate) Dreamcatcher by Stephen King.
AnaMarch 13, 2013 at 9:19 am
I haven’t read ANY of these latest recommendations. I have so much (delicious) work to do!!! TO THE WISH LIST!
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ElizaApril 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm
Okay, based on all the love for Dido Twite I checked out Black Hearts in Battersea and just finished it. You got me to love Dido and then . . .this?!! All I have to say is this had better be a fake out! If not, I may be plotting some revenge* scenarios for those that recommended this book. Yes, Paige and The Other Ana, I’m looking at you.
*Okay, not Emily Thorne Revenge level, but some sort of literary equivalent. Maybe I can talk you into reading that nice book Code Name Verity which is about two women who become friends during WWII while training to be pilots. Just a simple story of friendship, nothing to worry about.