Some Kind of Happiness

somekindofhappiness

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

The Dollhouse Murders

DollhouseMurders

The Dollhouse Murders
Betty Ren Wright
Re-published by Holiday House, 2012 (the edition I read)
Originally published by Scholastic, 1985

There’s always a certain amount of danger when reading a book that you are nostalgic about. Is it worth that risk that it might not live up your memories? And if it doesn’t, can you in good conscience continue to promote it as a personal favorite, one that others should read? The Dollhouse Murders is one of those books that I have very distinct memories of reading and being terrified and thrilled by it. It and Babysitters Club book #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls pretty much made me the horror/suspense fan I am today. So when I was asked to give the name of my favorite children’s or YA horror book and this choice would be made very public, I decided to reread The Dollhouse Murders to see if it held up to my memories and if I were willing to declare it my favorite, as I definitely would have at age 8 or so.

In The Dollhouse Murders, after her developmentally delayed sister ruins an afternoon at the mall, Amy runs away to her aunt’s house and ends up striking a deal to stay with Aunt Clare in the house where Amy’s great grandparents lived and raised Aunt Clare and Amy’s father. Amy discovers a dollhouse in the attic that is an exact replica of the house, complete with two adult dolls and a boy and a girl doll to represent the family. Amy is delighted at first but when she notices that the dolls are moving by themselves, the lights in the dollhouse are turning themselves on and off, she becomes scared, naturally. It becomes even more terrifying when she learns that her great grandparents were murdered in the house and the dolls seem to be recreating the crime scene. The murderer was never caught. Could the dollhouse be trying to tell Amy something? Sharing some information to solve the mystery of the murder? Yep, pretty much.

This book is a perfect example of how middle-grade horror should be. It has a few suspenseful scenes, a high creep factor with the old house, the attic, and the dolls, but the characters are never in any real danger. While it talks about murder, there is no gore or violence; that all happens in the past and is only hinted at. And while the murders seem like the main story, The Dollhouse Murders is much more about family relationships, the secrets we keep, and the uncertainties of making and keeping friends as a tween. I was surprised by how much I still liked it, despite a pretty safe, anti-climactic ending.

One last thing about Amy’s sister LouAnn. She is developmentally delayed, and aside from the use of the word “retarded” one time in the book (it was written in the ’80s after all, though they should have fixed it in the 2012 edition), LouAnn is written with great respect by the author, I felt. She is key in solving the mystery and her relationship with Amy, while strained, grows throughout the story. A fully abled little sister would have sufficed but Wright chose to write her as disabled but not helpless. While diverse writing has come a long way since 1985, I really appreciated the inclusiveness of LouAnn’s character.

I didn’t end up naming The Dollhouse Murders as my favorite children’s horror book. Instead I opted for The Witches by Roald Dahl, which is pretty much my all-time favorite children’s book that also just happens to be horror.

Fun fact: there was a made-for-TV movie based on The Dollhouse Murders in 1992.

Read alikes/some other middle grade horror-mystery-suspense I read as a ’90s kid

The Face on the Milk Carton by Lois Duncan
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
All the old Nancy Drew books with the yellow covers by Carolyn Keene
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine

Counting by 7s

countingby7s

Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Dial Books
August 2013

Unexpected tragedy hits Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius with a passion for gardening and medical diagnoses, when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is nearly put into foster care, but through some quick talking, she is allowed to live temporarily with her only friend, Mai, and Mai’s mother, Patty, and brother, Quang-Ha. The only other caring adults in Willow’s life are sad sack school counselor Dell Duke and a cab driver named Jairo who thinks Willow is a miracle sent to save him from cancer. They go to great lengths to help Willow and she, unintentionally, helps each of them to have a new outlook on life, a new home, or a new relationship. A court appearance that will determine Willow’s fate hangs over everyone’s head throughout the book and comes to a touching climax in the end.

The characters in Counting by 7s are really what make the book, and Dell Duke was my favorite. From Miss Honey in Matilda to Mr. Terupt in the series by Rob Buyea, teachers in children’s books are almost always too good to be true; they are savior, angel, substitute parent, or sage. Dell Duke is the opposite of all of these things by nature, making him the most subversively written teacher (ok, technically he is a school counselor) I’ve ever read in a children’s book. He’s a slovenly slacker who faked his resume to get his job. His filing system categorizes the kids he “helps” into judgmental categories. He’s antisocial and terrified of responsibility. Willow naively sees the best in him and after a while he begins to see potential in himself through her care for him. However, he is still himself in the end, just a slightly improved adult for having met Willow Chance.

In 2014 Counting by 7s was optioned for a movie staring Quvenzhane Wallace as Willow, but no more news has come out since then.

Read Alikes

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Wonder by R.J. Pallacio

Roller Girl

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Roller Girl
Victoria Jamieson
Dial Books
March 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Great Graphic Novels & Top Ten Popular Paperbacks

Being a tween is tough, especially when, like Astrid, you start to grow apart from your life-long best friend. The rift between Astrid and her BFF Nicole reaches a breaking point when Nicole decides to go do ballet summer camp with Astrid’s archenemy instead of signing up for roller derby camp. To make matters worse, Astrid can’t even stay upright on her skates, let alone speed around and hip check the older girls, required skills if she is going to make a name for herself (literally, she needs to come up with a catchy, punny roller derby name) among the Rosebuds, the junior roller derby girls in Portland, Oregon. As Astrid tries to make her big break into roller derby, she simultaneously navigates making new friends, maintaining her relationship with her mom (who is apparently single and a also an academic librarian), and exploring her identity, which may or may not include blue hair but definitely doesn’t include pink clothing. In a pitch-perfect display of what it is like to be a totally irrational, emotional, awkward, insecure middle-school girl, Victoria Jamieson creates a character in Astrid that simultaneously makes you want to cheer her on and cringe at her decisions and embarrassments. It will also make you want to strap on some skates over rainbow socks and get out in the rink.

After reading Roller Girl and, of course watching Whip It – that movie with Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore – I’m ready for more roller derby. Portlandia hasn’t parodied it yet, a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of the Rose City Rollers, the roller derby team that Victoria Jamieson is on IRL!

I think Candace and Toni would put on great war faces.

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Read Alikes

El Deafo by Cece Bell
Smile by Raina Telgemeier

The Inn Between

InnBetween

The Inn Between
Marina Cohen
Roaring Brook Press
March 2016
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of NetGalley

Quinn and Kara are best friends who have been through a lot together but now Kara’s family is moving a thousand miles away. Quinn is making the drive with Kara and Kara’s parents and brother from Colorado to California as a kind of extended goodbye when they stop for the night in an off-the-beaten-path hotel, the Inn Between. The hotel is a beautiful old Victorian mansion that seems bigger on the inside and has an overly cheerful staff and no phone line to the outside. After their first night at the Inn Between strange things start to happen – Kara’s parents disappear, Quinn thinks she hears and sees her little sister, Quinn nearly drowns in the hotel swimming pool, and on and on. Things get downright scary when Quinn and Kara accidentally take the elevator to the basement. What is really going on at the Inn Between? This young middle grade book has just enough creeps and suspense to satisfy young mystery fans but at its heart is a story about friendship and knowing when to let go. Pitch-perfect pacing, tight storytelling, and a few twists and turns make The Inn Between an addicting, cover-to-cover-in-one-afternoon kind of read.

Read Alikes

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand

Ungifted

ungifted

Ungifted
Gordon Korman
Balzer + Bray
August 2012

When impulsive middle schooler and underachiever Donovan Curtis accidentally causes thousands of dollars in damage to his school’s gym, he needs a place to hide from the superintendent bent on bringing him to justice. Donovan’s wish comes true when an acceptance letter from the Academy for Scholastic Distinction lands in his mailbox, a clerical error having sent him to a school full of geniuses. It’s clear from the beginning that he is not particularly gifted or even smart, but he brings some much needed levity to the Academy. He names the robotics team’s robot Tin Man Metallica Squarepants, joins the robotics team as Tin Man’s driver thanks to years of video game experience, and saves the geniuses from mandatory summer school when yet another oversight by the school district threatens to bring them up short on their Health and Human Development (basically sex ed) credit. Donovan can’t hide forever, but as the “normal” savior of his Academy class, he has the help of his new friends to stretch his time at the Academy out as long as possible. The story is told from many points of view – students, teachers, Donovan’s sister Katie – in alternating chapters, but the voices are not very distinct from one another, relying mostly on gimmicky chapter titles to differentiate which character is narrating. Narration issues aside, the story has a lot of heart and an imperfect ending that is just right for these characters.

While the book was so-so for me, I can see it really resonating with kids like Donovan – reluctant readers, underachievers, pranksters. Korman lays on the normal-kid worship pretty thick with Academy students and teachers claiming that Donovan “brought us to life” and “without him nothing worked” and even that they “don’t deserve Donovan” at the Academy. On the other hand, how often do you see an underdog kid getting so much praise and appreciation from teachers and the gifted students? Normally they are getting in trouble, being told no, or being didactically presented as someone who needs to change or who is not worthy of praise. Instead the reader is told that all kids have value, even the troublemakers, and that is a message I can get behind.

I also have to commend Korman for the way he wrote Katie, Donovan’s sister. She is in her 20s, pregnant, and living with her parents while her husband is fighting in Afghanistan. Some books have addressed the effects of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but not nearly enough compared to the number of real life families actually affected. Katie was not the focus of the book obviously, but her presence and the story behind her character are an important inclusion that I really enjoyed and appreciated and that I think military families will appreciate too.

Read alikes

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Chomp
 by Carl Hiaasen
Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler (for a slightly younger audience than Ungifted)

The Thing About Jellyfish

thethingaboutjellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
September 2015

Science-minded Suzy knows that everything happens for a reason, even her estranged best friend Franny’s untimely death by drowning. On a class trip to the aquarium Suzy convinces herself that Franny’s death wasn’t an accident. Her hypothesis (the book is divided into sections by the scientific method) is that it was caused by a sting from from a minuscule but deadly species of jellyfish. Upon learning about Franny’s drowning, Suzy goes practically mute, giving her a lot of time to figure out how to prove her hypothesis. She eventually decides that she needs to travel to Australia, in secret because her family would think she is “cray cray,” to talk to an expert on this species of jellyfish, causing her to steal her dad’s credit card information and cash from her mom and brother. Interspersed chapters are flashbacks written, somewhat awkwardly in the second-person present, by Suzy to Franny about their growing up together, growing apart as middle school approached, and finally an act – a grand gesture? revenge? – that Suzy never had the chance to own up to or apologize for, causing her immense guilt now that Franny is gone.

This past summer one of my best friends from college passed away suddenly, and it was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life. I found myself relating in a lot of ways to Suzy’s reaction to Franny’s death – the initial disbelief, then imagining your friend’s last moments, searching for an explanation or meaning, and being nearly consumed with thoughts of this person you realize you totally took for granted. It’s powerful, heavy stuff and Ali Benjamin gave it the serious treatment it deserved, particularly when it is a pre-teen experiencing this level of loss.

The depictions of middle school in this book are so painfully accurate – being awkward, not knowing where you fit in, growing apart from your best friend, making a friend you don’t expect. However the grand-gesture/revenge flashback scene took on a level of ridiculousness that I just didn’t know what to do with. It was totally original, I’ll give Ali Benjamin that. I do, however, have some questions about the logistics described to pull off something so over the top and borderline psychopathic. I’m going to leave it at that.

The Thing About Jellyfish was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. You can read the NBA interview with Ali Benjamin here.

Read-alikes

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes