I realized something lately. I have a deep love for stories told from family history. Some of my favorite stories are ones mined from past generations of the authors’ families: The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg; The Star That Always Stays, by Anna Rose Johnson; and today’s featured story, The View from Pagoda Hill, by Michaela MacColl. It makes sense, as I love digging into family history. I also think there’s something very intrinsically human about desiring stories to be remembered. What did we invent the alphabet for, if not to record our stories to be remembered by those who came after us?
The View from Pagoda Hill is the story of Michaela Macoll’s great-great-grandmother, a half-Chinese, half-American girl growing up in Shanghai and later upstate New York in the late 1800’s. Ning, or Neenah, as she is later called, gets the worst of both worlds, in a sense. In China, she is too tall, too Western, with too big feet (compared to the bound feet of her peers). So her mother sends her to join her father’s family in New York—where she is too Chinese for her new neigbors and family. The story and style reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, or Anne of Green Gables (particularly the latter as regarded Neenah’s relationship with her grandfather and step-grandmother). It’s also a perfect book to pair with either of those stories, to tell a more full story of our world and country at that time. (I find the advice to read more rather than less to avoid accepting old cultural norms is sound and good.)
My favorite part about this story is that despite all the tragedy Ning/Neenah lives through (particularly the pervasive feeling of being unwanted), there is an abiding sense of hope. Perhaps because it’s based on a true story, I found that hope to be believable and real. Even two years after reading the story for the first time, it’s that hope that still has me recommending it to my daughters and friends, dipping into it for a re-read, and thinking about its characters and scenes. The mark of a truly excellent book!
With so many excellent new additions to the world of middle grade literature, it's sometimes hard to take a step back and look around my own shelves at the books that have been there for ages and ages. It's quite unfair, really--these neglected titles were the books that made me fall in love with middle grade fiction in the first place, back when I was actually the age of their target audience.
Last year I came across quote from C. S. Lewis: “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
I had to stop and think. When was the last time I had re-read a book for my own pleasure, and not to read it to or with my children? It had been a long time. And as much as I adore sharing books with my kids, a little something had been lost in my own reading life. So I started reading a lot more old books--classics and old favorites. Today's pick for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the latest: a very old favorite, from my beloved (and small) favorite category in the middle grade genre: big family stories.
Originally published in 1945, Hilda Van Stockum based The Mitchells: Five for Victory off her family's own experiences during the Second World War. In the book, Mr. Mitchell leaves to serve in the military, and the five Mitchell children left at home jump in to do their part by starting a "Five for Victory" club at home--helping their mother, primarily, but also collecting scrap metal, helping their neighbors, and tending a victory garden. The usual big family chaos and heart ensues, and I found myself smiling even more at all the antics as a mother of a large family than I did as a kid in one.
Having read a lot more modern books lately, however, meant I had a shock or two remembering how parents in the 40's were fine with giving their children a lot of freedom (oh, how convenient for authors wanting their characters to have adventures). I was also surprised to see how Hilda Van Stockum didn't shy away from showing that Mrs. Mitchell was often very stressed and worn out. No perpetually cheery and affectionate Mrs. Cleaver here. Mrs. Mitchell's husband is, after all, risking his life in an actual war, which is a pretty fair cause for lots of stress--so I was kind of relieved to see that her toddler's whining frustrates her, or that she's exasperated when the baby eats the fake cherries off her hat. She's not perfect, by any measure, but she's very loving and very real.
And the Mitchell children really are just delightful. They're a true to life, trouble-making, affectionate, crazy, quarreling, forgiving big family. They take care of each other, and it's beautiful to see.
Have you re-read any old favorites lately? How did your perception of the books change if you'd read them originally as a child and then as an adult?
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
Everyone, please welcome Haley Stewart to our corner of the internet today! Haley is the author of several books; most recently, her adult non-fiction Jane Austen's Genius Guide to Life and her early reader "Sister Seraphina Mysteries," The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese and The Curious Christmas Trail. All three were among my favorite books from 2022. I am so excited to host her today so you can all get to know her a little better.
FEH: Hello, Haley! Can you tell us a little bit about your recent books and any new projects you're excited about?
HS: Sure! In the spring, my new book from Ave Maria Press was released: Jane Austen's Genius Guide to Life: On Love, Friendship, and Becoming the Person God Created You to Be. It explores what we can learn from Jane Austen's wonderful novels about cultivating virtue: what virtue (and vice) look like, how we might develop the virtues (and what holds us back), and how the people God places in our lives can help us to become more holy. Austen is such a brilliant novelist but she's also a moral philosopher diving into the big questions of life and what it means to be a good person. And I tell plenty of personal anecdotes along the way about how much she has taught me! The other big project I'm excited about are my new series for young readers, The Sister Seraphina Mysteries.
They're about an order of mouse nuns (the Sisters of Our Lady Star of the Sea) who live in an abbey underneath G.K. Chesterton's house in England. They run a school for village mice and, inspired by Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries, start solving local crimes. In the first book, The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese, the sisters (and two eager students) ride their tiny bicycles to London to investigate the theft of the prize cheese meant for the school fundraiser. And in the second book (my favorite of the series), The Curious Christmas Trail, Sister Seraphina and her friends must find Sister Dymphna, one of the senior nuns, who has started wandering off and becoming disoriented. All the excitement takes on Christmas Eve on the night of the Nativity Play and the Christmas feast!
FEH: I loved all your insights in Jane Austen's Genius Guide to Life. Even though I'm a diehard Austenite and have read most of her books multiple times, your focus on virtue and vice made me think about aspects of the stories I'd completely missed. Was this something you naturally made the connection with while reading, or was there a moment that pointed you in that direction?
HS: I've been really interested in Austen as a moral philosopher since taking a wonderful class with Dr. Margaret Watkins my senior year at Baylor University. We read all of Austen's novels through a philosophical lens. Ever since, I've been really interested in what Austen can teach us about vice, virtue, and what it means to live a good life.
FEH: I read that you got the idea for your mouse nuns book in a dream. I think that's every author's, well, dream! What was your process like bringing that from the seed of an idea to a full fledged plot?
HS: I let the idea simmer for several months and then I just decided to try it out. I started out with one character in mind and then a second. Pretty soon I had a full cast of characters! I started writing without knowing how the mystery would unfold or who the villain might be. I just followed my little mice around from scene to scene. I love writing but it's usually a bit of a slog to get through a book project. For these books, the whole process was a joy!
FEH: How does your faith influence your creativity?
HS: This is a hard question to answer because it's hard to imagine any way it doesn't influence my creativity. Everything from the kind of art I want to create to what I think it means to be a creative are all connected to my faith!
FEH: I'm not mean enough to ask you to name your favorite book, but are there particular books that inspired you? If you could write a book that was *like* any book, what would it be?
HS: For fiction I'm always inspired by Madeleine L'Engle. I love the way her books explore complicated ideas of faith, science, and relationships without being preachy. I'm also hopelessly devoted to both Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jane Austen's characters. They are so life-like!
FEH: Okay, and a few super quick questions just for fun! Would you rather live in Narnia, Middle Earth (at peace), or Pemberley?
HS: Oh my, what a difficult choice! It's hard to pass up Middle Earth, but I'm afraid that I'm a Pemberley sort of person.
FEH: Favorite ice cream?
FEH: Favorite Doctor of the Church?
HS: St. Hildegard of Bingen
FEH: Last book you binge read?
HS: Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin
FEH: Pumpkin spice or apple cider?
HS:Very basic pumpkin spice.
FEH: Thank you so much for the interview, Haley! I loved learning a little bit more about you and your books.
Welcome to 2023! Usually, middle grade books make up the large bulk of my reading, but last year I read more non-fiction and adult fiction than usual. What my list lacked in quantity, however, it made up in quality. Some incredible middle grade literature is being published these days. Even though I re-read a lot of old favorites of classic children's literature, I'm deliberately only including new books on this list; the first three were published in 2022 and the final two are slated for 2023, so you can add them to your TBR list!
1. Miraculous, by Caroline Starr Rose. This one stood out for its incredible character development and old-fashioned style. I could have imagined writing L. M. Montgomery writing a story like this.
2. The Star that Always Stays, by Anna Rose Johnson. I'm happy to see that books with old-fashioned feel are making a comeback! This debut novel by Anna Rose Johnson is everything I love in historical fiction: funny, atmospheric, and unhurried. It reminded me so much of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series.
3. My Own Lightning, by Lauren Wolk. I have learned so much about writing from reading Lauren Wolk's middle grade books. This is the sequel to her Newbery-acclaimed Wolf Hollow, but I loved this about a hundred times more; Wolf Hollow impressed and moved me, but I found it very tense and stressful. This lacked none of the drama, but was a gentler, more enjoyable read for me.
4. What Happened to Rachel Riley? by Claire Swinarski. As I mentioned in my review of this book, I normally don't read a lot of books with modern, technology-driven vibes. This was the exception to the rule—it's told via podcast transcripts and texts and emails—and I loved it. It releases next week, so you still have time to pre-order!
5. The Labors of Hercules Beal, by Gary D. Schmidt. This doesn't come out until May, and the ARC is freshly closed for me. I wish you could read it now, because it's brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I rarely do this, but I'm re-reading it again right now—actually I'm reading it aloud to my husband. We're both writers, and Gary D. Schmidt's writing is worth studying. The stand-out element here is the way Schmidt's prose seems so simple and straightforward, yet you catch your breath once at the beginning and never let it go all the rest of the novel.
(Also, it's set on Cape Cod, which is one of my favorite places in the world.)
Finally, a shout out to two early readers—not quite fair to count them in the same category as MG novels, but I loved them just the same: The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese, and The Curious Christmas Trail, both by Haley Stewart. Good, sweet, and very fun mysteries for the earliest readers.
What were your favorite MG reads in 2022? What are you looking forward to in the new year?
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!