The obvious question to start out with here is, How on earth is everything Gary D. Schmidt writes so good? I realize I’m basically a Schmidt fan girl at this point, and will jump to read anything he writes with an alacrity lacking in most areas of my life. You could either take that as a warning: maybe I’m a little biased here—or as an endorsement: you, too, should become obsessed with any writing that is this good. Let’s go with the latter.
Hercules Beal is starting out a new school year, at a new school, with a new teacher (Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer, who is just as strict as that sounds). His parents recently died in a car crash, and he and his adult brother are trying to manage to keep up the old family business of the Beal Brothers Nursery and Garden Center in Truro, Massachusetts, the most beautiful place on earth, according to Hercules. As you can imagine, that’s plenty difficult—so when Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer assigns him a project to study and re-enact the labors of Hercules in his actual life, it’s, well, a Herculean task that will require all his ingenuity, friendship, and heart to achieve.
If you’re thinking that the structure of this story is gimmicky—eh, it is. But I DON’T CARE. Because it WORKS. I’ve come to think that the magic element to the really great writing in the world is that its authors know when to follow rules and when to break them. Gary D. Schmidt breaks a few with abandon in his newest book, but does so with confidence and aplomb. The result is a book that is a pleasure to fall into, because you know you are in the hands of a master.
Like most of Schmidt’s books, this is chock full of interesting characters, particularly Hercules’s teachers and neighbors in Truro, and his brother’s girlfriend, Viola, who “is obviously a vampire.” Again, like much of this author’s work, The Labors of Hercules Beal could be given out as a handbook for how to become a good human being. It’s going right to the top of my “Books My Son Must Read Before Becoming a Man” shelf (next to Pay Attention, Carter Jones, incidentally).
This gem comes out May 23, so go ahead and pre-order it now.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All gushing opinions are my own.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit Always in the Middle!
What are your favorite friendships in stories? I love Anne and Diana, Emily and Ilse, Ramona and Howie (and so many others). Making and keeping friends is so obviously the biggest drama of a child's life—yet somehow so many of our MG books brush over this element in favor of "bigger" or more "mature" issues. So when I find a good friendship story, one that can really pinpoint those real-life dramas, I am inclined to sing about it from the rooftops.
Today's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday feature is Honey and Me, by Meira Drazin, a contemporary friendship and just-beginning-to-come-of-age story about two Orthodox Jewish girls and their families. I was completely sucked in by the excellent character development and the heart-warming and heart-wrenching situations Milla and Honey got themselves into.
Here's the publisher's description:
Everything seems easy for eleven-year-old Honey Wine. Her best friend, Milla Bloom, envies Honey’s confidence, her beauty, and her big, chaotic, loving family—especially when they provide a welcome escape from Milla’s own silent house. The girls do everything and go everywhere together. But how long can Milla live in Honey’s shadow?
Set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in an American suburb, Honey and Mefollows Milla and Honey through the course of the school year (and the holidays of the Jewish calendar) as they encounter dramas large and small: delivering meals to their crazy-old-lady neighbor, accidentally choosing the same topic for their school’s public speaking contest, the death of a beloved teacher, and more. Threaded throughout is Milla’s complicated relationship with her mother, and her longing to feel as adored and special as Honey seems.
It would be obvious to call this the modern All-of-a-kind Family, but I did love the similar way the story is structured around the feasts of the Jewish year—as a Catholic, my life is often structured around feasts and liturgical seasons, so it felt familiar, and I loved it. (I also could relate to many of Milla's experiences growing up in a very traditional family—her comment, "I know it's a sundress, but I can wear a t-shirt under it," made me nod in recognition.) I am more inclined to compare Honey and Me to Ramona Quimby… the spot-on character development and little conflicts within school, home, and friendships, reminded me of Beverly Cleary's subtle storytelling.
As you can see in the photo, I read a library copy, but this is a definite must-purchase for my home library. I can't wait to share it with my kids!
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit Always in the Middle.
Vintage stories and family research; a chat with Anna Rose Johnson, author of The Star That Always Stays
Today, for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, I'm so happy to welcome one of my favorite new authors for an interview! Please give a hearty welcome to Anna Rose Johnson, author of The Star that Always Stays.
FEH: The Star That Always Stays is such a beautiful, believable immersion into a time and family. How did you go about your research? Did you read through family stories first, or research the time and place separately? Or a little of both?
ARJ: Thank you so much! The writing and research were very interwoven. Between every draft, I would research and learn more and come back with more background and insight each time. I already knew a good deal about Norvia when I wrote draft one, but my further research deepened my knowledge of her family and details about her life. It was fascinating to dig deeper and come to know her better as a person while looking through her photo albums and finding newspaper articles about her. It was delightful to learn that tidbits I invented about Norvia, Dicta, and Vernon were actually surprisingly accurate. ☺
FEH: Was it hard (emotionally) to put yourself into your great-grandmother’s shoes as you wrote, knowing the difficulties she had to go through?
ARJ: I’ve definitely thought a lot about how hard this time must have been for my great-grandmother and her family. I can only imagine the difficulties that must have gone along with adjusting to a new life. That’s why it’s lovely to know how much she came to care about her stepfamily, and how they cared about her—that element was very real.
FEH: Was there anything you learned in your research that you wished you could have included but didn’t?
ARJ: I would have loved to include more about Norvia’s extended family and the stories of her ancestors—which are so fascinating—but there just wasn’t enough space in the story to explore them further. I did the best I could to include interesting research where I could!
FEH: One of my favorite things about TSTAS was how you included so many of my favorite old, vintage books. Do you know if Norvia may really have read any of them?
ARJ: Unfortunately I don’t know, but from reading Norvia’s writing, I would say she had a way with words—which might indicate that she was a reader!
FEH: If you were to recommend a book or series to a reader who wanted to dip their toes into vintage book reading, what would it be?
ARJ: I would start with one that’s light and fun and not incredibly long, like Two Little Women and Treasure House by Carolyn Wells, which I first read when I was eleven and loved so much! I really wanted to include it in TSTAS, but it wasn’t published until 1916! I’ve read several vintage mysteries by Augusta Huiell Seaman, which could be a good place to start as well--Mystery on Heron Shoals Island was especially a favorite.
FEH: What’s some of the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
ARJ: Be willing to rewrite and revise your story and make significant changes. Nothing has been more instrumental to my writing than being able to look at a project to see how it could be improved, and finding editors and mentors to help me along the way.
FEH: Thank you so much for joining me for this interview, Anna Rose. I can’t wait to read all your future stories, and I hope more and more readers find their way to this one!
ARJ: I am so grateful! Thank you!
For more Middle Grade recommendations, visit Always in the Middle!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!