Ten Beautiful Things

Ten Beautiful Things
By Molly Beth Griffin
Illustrated by Maribel Lechuga
January 2021

Moving from her home in the city to her Gram’s house in rural Iowa, Lily’s life changes in the span of a day-long car trip in Ten Beautiful Things. In the grand tradition of an adult struggling to keep a child occupied in the car, Gram challenges Lily to a game – find ten beautiful things before they reach their destination. Lily is convinced that nothing could be beautiful on this difficult day of transition in her life. That is until the wonders of nature – the glow of a sunrise, the smell of mud, the babble of a creek – and industry – windmills, a decaying barn – and Gram’s quiet patience slowly fill the empty space in Lily’s heart.

In a year full of unexpected loss, changes, and moves, Ten Beautiful Things speaks to the ambiguity and uncertainty that has plagued the last year for so many children and their families. We never find out what Lily’s past life was or what lead to her moving in with Gram. There’s no mention of parents, friends, school, activities, all the trappings of a “normal” life. There is only looking ahead to an uncertain future and looking outward toward nature and wide open spaces in an effort to find some measure of calm. 

It’s not all fresh air and sunshine, however, as a Midwestern thunderstorm suddenly descends on Lily and Gram’s car, causing them to have to stop and wait it out. This climactic (and climatic) turn of events never actually seems to present a danger; rather it bonds the two characters as they endure the storm, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, together. The book ends with a heartwarming homecoming that, while a bit tidy, acknowledges in the final lines – “None of this was easy. Maybe it would never be easy.” – that a difficult change can’t be overcome in a day.

Lechuga’s illustrations faithfully depict the colors and textures of the Midwest – the muted, dappled pastels of the plains, the bright blue expansive sky, and the dark, draping thunderclouds. The perspective shifts from outside the car to inside the car to a bird’s eye view and on, keeping the car ride interesting but always centered on Lily’s emotions and experience. 

Ten Beautiful Things is a story that meets our current moment but will also provide comfort for challenges big and small in years to come. 


The Belles


The Belles
Dhonielle Clayton
Freeform Publishing
February 2018

In the kingdom of Orléans, beauty is power, and with enough money and access, you can change your look with the help of the Belles. The Belles are born with special powers to sculpt the people of Orléans, who are born “gris” – grey and shriveled – into normal-looking people, at the least, or with enough money, extraordinarily beautiful people. The book follows an ambitious Belle named Camellia as she outgrows her training and competes against the other Belles to be the Favorite, top beauty augmenter to the royal family and their court. When Camellia gets what she wants, she learns just how naïve she was. She’s required to keep the cruel, blood-thirsty Princess Sophia happy and is made to do dangerous, immoral things with her powers. Camellia struggles to balance her ambition with her conscience while fulfilling her duties. Mysteries around the retired Belles, illegitimate Belles, the disappearance of one of her “sister” Belles, and whether her powers can help the ever-sleeping Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, occupy Camellia’s mind, as does her romance with one of the princess’s suitors. Palace intrigue deepens to a dramatic ending that will have you longing for sequel.

Two things stand out about this book: the world building and the social commentary. Orléans, made up of a collection of islands illustrated in a map on the end papers, has obvious French and at times Cajun influences. Each island is unique with its own industries, customs, and reputation in the kingdom. A seemingly omnipresent system of balloons does everything from delivering mail to taking photos and notes for journalists and the “tattler” gossip rags. As you can imagine, the world has a booming fashion and beauty industry with its own ever-changing trends and products that are described in lavish detail. There’s also some dark customs – leeches to clean the Belles’ blood, the abject pain of getting beauty work done, the use of blood in various contraptions to spy on others.

Though it takes place in a fictional dystopian society, The Belles has a lot to say about our own society – the premium put on beauty; the value of women and the work they do; economic stratification and classism; even animal cruelty. Gender fluidity and same-sex relationships are treated as a matter of course in Orléans. The queen has a female mistress, and a royal cousin trysts with her female servant, which is hidden for class, not gender, reasons. The race of characters is a funny thing when people have the ability to choose and change their skin color. Race is meaningless as skin color is based on personal preference and seems to carry no stigma. Kudos to the publisher for putting a woman of color on the cover.

The Belles mixes modern sensibilities with old fashioned imperial systems, magic with technology into a fresh and original book that stands out in the seemingly unending teen dystopian fantasy landscape.

More YA beauty books

Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

YA palace intrigue read alikes

His Fair Assassins series by Robin LaFevers
Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Orphan Island


Orphan Island
Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond Press
May 2017
2017 National Book Award long list

Nine kids, each a year apart in age from roughly 3 to 12, live alone on an island. Each year a green boat emerges from the mist to bring a new inhabitant and take away the oldest into the unknown. For time unknown, the children have accepted that this is the way of things and gone when their time came. The book opens with Jinny’s best friend Deen hopping in the boat even as she begs him to stay on the island with her. What’s the worst that could happen if they broke the mysterious rules none of them understand but everyone follows anyway? Deen sails away, leaving Jinny as the oldest, the Elder, leader of the other kids and caregiver to the newest islander, Ess. Wracked by feelings of inadequacy in raising Ess and fear of what awaits her off the island, Jinny breaks tradition and challenges the sky to fall on her, as their island’s nursery rhyme claims will happen if the rules aren’t followed. The island slowly starts to change, but it’s unclear if Jinny’s defiance is the cause and whether sending her away will solve their problems or make them worse.

The whole beautiful story is an obvious allegory for growing up, complete with a first period scene. Adolescence is the green boat that eventually comes for us all, to take us away from our wild childhoods and into the unknown. There’s no resolution to why the children are on the island or what happens to them when they leave, which could drive some readers crazy. The ambiguity has only forced me to keep thinking about it more, even days after I finished the book.

Genuine Fraud


Genuine Fraud
E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press
September 2017

Starting from chapter 18, the first chapter in the book, it’s clear that Jules is a young woman with a particular set of skills. We quickly find out that, like Liam Neeson, one of those skills is kicking people’s asses. But what else is Jules capable of? Impersonation? Theft? Fraud? Murder? Her intense friendship with wealthy college drop-out Imogene takes Jules on an International journey to the playgrounds of the rich – New York, London, Mexico, the Caribbean, San Francisco, Martha’s Vineyard – to cover her tracks and claim what chance handed her a shot at – a life among the rich and careless. Similarly to her last YA novel We Were Liars, with Genuine Fraud E. Lockhart plays with time and tests your assumptions about young adult books are and can be.

The Wonderling


The Wonderling
Mira Bartók
September 2017
Reviewed from advanced readers edition; art not seen

Human-animal hybrids called “groundlings” are second-class citizens in this Dickensian tale of a one-eared, humanoid fox named 13, growing up in misery and forced slavery at Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. With only a scrap of blanket and a key to hint at his past, 13 dreams of finding his roots, if only he could escape the orphanage. Escape he does and he takes off to the big city where his escapades with a gang of jolly groundling thieves alerts him to a plot to steal all the music from the world, a plot that takes him through an underground world and leads him right back to Miss Carbunkle and her henchmen in the orphanage. The Wonderling offers plenty of substance for talking about classism, bigotry, and resistance of power. The world is well constructed and the Victorian steampunk atmosphere charms. While not everything is resolved happily in the end, the final chapters are peppered with eye-roll-worthy platitudes.

Animal fantasy read-alike

Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy

Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future


Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance
Harper Collins
January 2017

You may know Elon Musk as the boundary-pushing leader of tech companies SpaceX and Tesla, but how did he get there? The young reader’s edition of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk takes middle grade readers from his childhood in South Africa to his immigration to Canada and later the U.S. to his success as an Internet millionaire to his quest to save humanity through technology. In a world where adults are increasingly concerned about children’s ability to take risks and tolerate failure, there’s no better role model than Musk. His companies and his personal life have swung from the brink of ruin and nearly miraculous accomplishment, but even in the lowest points, he remained undeterred from his lofty goals. The advances his teams of engineers make for inspiring STEM-related reading. Beware the first chapter, which focuses on a dinner the author had with Musk, an episode that may have held some interest in the adult version of the book but that makes a dull opening for kids. Please push through – or even just skip – the first chapter and be rewarded with a story that is sure to inspire.

The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid


The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid
Colin Meloy, illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins
October 2017
Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Edition; all art not seen

When his divorcee mother decides to chase her dreams, Charlie is sent to Marseille in southern France to live with his father who serves as the American consul general there. Largely left to his own devices and bored of the high society parties his father drags him to, Charlie takes up with a group of young pickpockets known as the Whiz Mob. These aren’t any pickpockets though; they are highly trained career criminals working under the guidance of someone they call the Headmaster. Charlie is fascinated with the mob’s jargon (there’s a glossary in the back matter), their sketchy cafe hideout, and impeccable costumes that let them pull off elaborate grifts. Despite his lack of training, they take Charlie under their wing, but when Charlie’s best friend in the mob goes AWOL, it sets off events that leave Charlie choosing between his family and his friends. The story is set in the 1960’s but has a timeless feel. Challenging vocabulary and the Lemony-Snicket-esque narrator’s asides, seemingly addressed to adults, left me questioning what audience this book is meant for (publisher suggests grades 3-7). Nonetheless, more sophisticated middle-grade readers may be sucked in by the suspense, humor, and novelty of a gang of international children of mystery and will appreciate the mid-book plot twist, if they make it that far.

Child criminal read alikes

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Loot by Jude Watson

Some Kind of Happiness


Some Kind of Happiness
Claire Legrand
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
May 2016

When Finley’s parents need some time alone to work things out – i.e., decide if they are getting a divorce – they send her to Hart House, meticulously kept and ruled over by her paternal grandparents and host to aunts, uncles, and cousins constantly dropping in. The catch is Finley has never met her dad’s side of the family, from whom he has been estranged since he was young for reasons unknown to Finley. Finley hides a secret of her own; she suffers from some sort of mental illness, most likely anxiety and depression though it is never diagnosed in the course of the book. The only thing that keeps her afloat is a notebook in which she writes lists and stories about the Everwood, an imaginary place that becomes much more real when Finley steps into the woods behind Hart House. She and some of her cousins start to assume roles – queen, knight, squires – from Finley’s stories, but there’s another family in those woods. The Bailey boys become the Harts’ playmates, the pirates to their royalty, but they are soon forbidden by the Hart grandparents from seeing each other due to some mysterious family feud. Finley’s mental condition worsens – the family sends her to a therapist – as she rebels against her grandparents while also growing quite close to them. Secrets continue to swirl around an arson, an illness, a divorce, a midnight party, and it all comes to a head on a rainy night in the woods. Can the Hart family and their reputation survive a summer in the Everwood?

I liked the book and it was particularly remarkable for its treatment of Finley’s mental illness. This isn’t a problem novel. Her mental illness is not the plot. It’s a complication to her relationship with her family and herself. Her depression and anxiety is not cured or even truly managed in the end, but in the final chapter she acknowledges it to her therapist and family, mercifully avoiding preachiness or an overly dramatic or didactic ending.

Claire Legrand wrote one of my favorite children’s horror books, and this was nothing like it, which is great! While I would love for her to recreate the creeps from her first novel, it’s nice to read a favorite author who stretches their talent to a variety of genres.

Family drama read-alikes

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
As Brave As You
 by Jason Reynolds

Towers Falling


Towers Falling
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
July 2016

When Deja starts 5th grade at a new school near her destitute family’s one-room apartment in Brooklyn, her guard is up so firmly that it seems no one can reach her. Then some friendly classmates and a string of school assignments that hint at a great tragedy – September 11 – start to break down her defenses. As she digs for more information on 9/11, the reach of the effects of the tragedy, now 15 years in the past, become ever more apparent. It all culminates in the realization that her father was working at the World Trade Center on that day. Addressing issues of homelessness, racism, acceptance, and friendship, this book should be a home run for middle grade fiction, but the delivery falls flat. Unlike her bold handling of Hurricane Katrina in Ninth Ward, Rhodes approaches September 11 with a timidity that shows a lack of trust in her middle-grade audience. Confusing phrasing, unrealistic dialogue, and Deja’s inexplicable cluelessness about 9/11 prevent deep investment in the story. If you can make it to the final pages, Deja’s father’s description of escaping the burning tower is a welcome reward. Otherwise this book seems to be written for adults who are afraid to approach the topic of 9/11 with children, making it potentially useful for teachers but a disappointingly lackluster read.

More books about 9/11 and the World Trade Center

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (I once unintentionally talked to 1st graders about 9/11 using this book)
 by Maira Kalman
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

My friend is dead. I have no tapes.

13 reasons why

Exactly a year ago one of my best college friends, Andrew, killed himself. I was devastated by the news. It was another suicide in a long line of suicides of people close to me and my family. That’s what you get when your parent is a psychiatrist in a state with a high rate of mental illness and low access to care and all manner of mental illness runs in your family. While all of them have been painful, I think this one was the hardest. Whenever these tragedies strike, I’m reminded of the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and why I dislike that book’s portrayal of suicide so very very much.

13 Reasons Why is about a high-school girl named Hannah who dies of suicide but leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, one for each of the people who she blames for driving her to suicide – classmates and former friends who bullied her, a student who raped a friend and assaulted Hannah, and the school counselor who ignored her cries for help – explaining to them why they are responsible for her death. The tapes are delivered to Clay who had a crush on Hannah and shared what seemed to be an innocent make-out session with her, and he is entrusted to make sure the tapes make it to their intended recipients.

Over the years that I have read and reread the book, it was hard to put my finger on the reason why I hated it. It seemed to change with every reading. First I hated that it romanticized suicide. Then I found it distasteful and disappointing that it turns suicide into the tool of a revenge fantasy. It bothered me that it gives Hannah a voice but hands all the glory to Clay on her behalf. I found it hard to believe that Hannah would premeditate her suicide to such a degree as to have time and drive to record all these tapes with such eloquence and clarity, plan how they would be delivered, and then actually go through with it. Sometimes I just wasn’t a big fan of the writing. But Andrew’s death revealed a whole new reason to me – I’m jealous of the closure.

Even a year later, I find myself wondering about the time between him leaving the last person he saw that night, the thoughts that went through his mind, and the decision he ultimately made. Was he lonely? Was he afraid? Did he consider calling someone? Did he call someone? If he thought back on the last 10 years, did he think of our years of college partying that undoubtedly contributed to his addiction with joy or remorse? Could I have done something different? Could we all have done something to help? What had happened to my friend?

I’ll never know. My friend is dead. I have no tapes. All I have is a group of grieving friends and unanswered questions. I have a screenshot saved on my computer of our last Facebook conversation. I have questions that are still nagging me a year later. Every once in a while I have dreams about him. What I wouldn’t do for a recording of his voice offering some kind of explanation, even if it would be hard to listen to. I don’t need 13 reasons. One would be plenty.