The Dollhouse Murders


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


Humans of New York: Stories

Humans of NY

Humans of New York: Stories
Brandon Stanton
St. Martin’s Press
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

What started out as a jobless guy wandering the streets of New York City with a camera became an Internet sensation – Humans of New York. You’ve read the blog, followed the Facebook posts, and now you can own the book. The stories and photos in the book are taken directly from the blog, so there’s no special content that you couldn’t find online. It is curated and loosely organized by theme. There are no headings or chapter distinctions, but if you read it from cover to cover, you’ll notice that similar stories are grouped together. The layout is clean with only one or two stories per page. Bottom line, it’s a great coffee table book, but if you follow HONY closely online, you’ll probably have read most of these stories.

What I find more interesting about HONY is the similar online communities, websites, and Facebook accounts it has spawned in other cities around the world. I occasionally check out Humans of Jerusalem and have actually recognized people on the street who were profiled on it. There’s also some good parody accounts, my favorite being Pigeons of Boston, which sadly appears to have stopped being updated last fall.

Brandon Stanton has had a huge impact on online story-sharing landscape by compassionately promoting others’ humanity, celebrating diversity, and interacting face-to-face on behalf of an Internet community, all of which I think is awesome and is the recipe of his success. Here’s a short NPR interview where he explains the beginnings of HONY and what it takes to walk up to strangers in New York City.

Counting by 7s


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



Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-El Padilla Peralta
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

When Dan-El was a small child, he traveled with his mother and father from the Dominican Republic to New York City where his mother gave birth to his little brother. While dad went back to the D.R., mom decided to stay with her two sons past the time of their tourist visa, making them illegal immigrants. Staying first at a homeless shelter and then living on welfare in the projects in New York City, Dan-El and his family had a tough life in the states. Through a natural intelligence and love of reading, some caring adults, and, as he himself admits, quite a bit of luck, Dan-El went from a run-down public elementary school to a prestigious private middle school and high school on scholarship. From there he got into the Ivy League – Princeton – also on scholarship. All the while, and particularly when he headed to college and beyond, his immigration status was a hurdle to his education and employment, one that seemed almost insurmountable many times. Again, with help, luck, and perseverance, things end up alright for Dan-El, but several times there was a good chance he and his family (except his little brother who is a U.S. citizen by birth) would be deported back to the D.R. without the bat of an eyelash by the U.S. government.

Dan-El went to college back in the early 2000s when the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship through education and accomplishment, was first being introduced to Congress. It is still, more than a decade later, wallowing in the legislative process, but in 2012 President Obama enacted DACA to give many of the benefits of DREAM to undocumented children. Dan-El is basically the poster boy for why the country needs the DREAM Act, and this memoir really puts into perspective the kind of people we would be turning out of the country when they have so much to contribute.

Initially I thought this would be the kind of book I would take on my outreach visits to places like the juvenile detention center where some of the teens are affected by their or their family’s illegal immigration status. However, after reading it, I am having second thoughts. While Dan-El’s story is inspiring, it is highly uncommon, almost to the point of being completely relatable for the average person. He was exceptionally smart and had many caring adults and support programs to help him. Because of these things, not only was he able to work his way up to college, but he came to equate success exclusively with getting into the Ivy League, a narrative that just isn’t realistic for many teenagers these days, even ones of relative privilege. I hesitate to hand this book to someone for whom reading at grade level, graduating high school, or simply getting out of juvenile detention is the definition of success. I’m not saying they shouldn’t aspire to something more, but I wish I had an inspiring story of someone who gets into trade school or even state college against the odds and is held up as a success. Someone needs to write that book.

Read alikes

The Circuit series by Francisco Jimenez



Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On YALSA’s 2016 list Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Malcolm X is a historical icon of the civil rights movement, but how much does your average person know about his young life that led him there? In X, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, with co-writer Kekla Magoon, presents a fictionalized telling of her father’s young, fast life and illegal escapades starting in Lansing, Michigan when he is 15, and ending in a Massachusetts prison complex by way of Boston and Harlem. It’s not all jazz bars and zoot suits, though there is a lot of those. Malcolm Little, as he was known then, is also in a lot of emotional pain over his father’s death, his mother’s institutionalization, the killing and oppression of black people in America, and the disappointments and betrayals that seem to meet him at every turn. The story is told first-person by Malcolm, who despite some of the illegal and immoral things he does, comes across as a very sympathetic character, someone to root for in spite of his choices. The Harlem and Roxbury settings come alive with music and dance halls and dodgy characters. The back matter is extensive with several notes about the time period, Malcolm X’s life after the book ends, a timeline, a family tree, and further reading.


Multicultural Children’s Book Day Review: Joelito’s Big Decision

Joelito Cover Two Boys Lo Rez

Joelito’s Big Decision
Ann Berlak, ill. Daniel Camacho
Hard Ball Press
August 2015
Copy of the book was provided free by the author for Multicultural Children’s Book Day

Joelito’s family has a tradition of going out for hamburgers at Sam MacMann’s every Friday, but this week their plans fall apart when the fast food workers are on strike, demanding a raise in their wages as part of the Fight for 15 movement. Joelito recognizes his best friend, Brandon, and Brandon’s family among the picketers. Brandon’s parents work at the restaurant and don’t make enough money to support their family. At first Joelito is torn between supporting his friend and carrying on his family’s weekly burger tradition. Ultimately Joelito learns a lesson about the economics of big business and the importance of supporting your friends and community in challenging times, leading him to make his “big decision.”

While Joelito’s Big Decision is a story about friendship and community, it is also a story about the economy and its effect on families. Brandon’s family’s story is one that became all too common after the Great Recession in 2008 – parents lose good factory jobs and are forced to take minimum-wage, low skill jobs; the family has to leave their house and move into an apartment; they don’t have money to take care of the family, all culminating in their participation in the strike. Many kids will be able to relate to Brandon’s family as the effects of the recession continue to be felt today across the country.

The book also includes what we can assume is an immigrant story. Joelito’s mother talks about her family’s humble beginnings picking fruit in horrible conditions, but today, because of demonstrations by the farm workers, they have worked their way up to have a fairly comfortable life. Joelito’s family honors that family history by joining in the demonstration against Sam MacMann’s and eating at a locally owned restaurant instead.

While the book could use one more proofreading and some illustrations’ relationship to the text isn’t always immediately clear, Joelito’s Big Decision addresses important issues and the bilingual English and Spanish text will make the book more accessible for Spanish-speaking children and families.

For teachers and parents, Joelito’s Big Decision provides a good jumping off point for discussion about issues of workers’ rights, the right to assemble, wealth distribution, and the power of the consumer to choose what businesses they support. As always, more information can be found at your local library on all of these topics.

Suggested reading

Side by Side/Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (bilingual English-Spanish) by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Martel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Companion activity

In the illustrations of the Sam MacMann’s strike, many people hold up signs with slogans or demands or the reason they are striking. Look at these illustration and think about a cause you are passionate about – for example, animal rights, a better environment, a safer neighborhood, to keep a school or library or park open, etc. If you had a sign at a strike or rally for your cause, what would you write on it? Would it be one word or many? In English or another language? Would it rhyme? Maybe you would include pictures or use a lot of different colors. Practice making your sign on a small sheet of paper. Use crayons or colored pencils or markers. Think about the sign you’ve made. Does your sign get your message across? Does is represent you and your cause?

About Multicultural Children’s Book Day

Multicultural Children’s Book Day is on January 27, 2016.

The MCCBD team’s mission to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, a multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.

Multicultural Children’s Book day 2016 Medallion Level Sponsors

Platinum: Wisdom Tales Press * StoryQuest Books*Lil Libros
Gold: Author Tori Nighthawk*Candlewick Press
Silver: Lee and Low Books*Chronicle Books*Capstone Young Readers
Bronze: Pomelo Books* Author Jacqueline Woodson*Papa Lemon Books* Goosebottom Books*Author Gleeson Rebello*ShoutMouse Press*Author Mahvash Shahegh* China*

Multicultural Children’s Book Day has 12 amazing Co-Host and you can view them here.