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!
"Holy Alchemy:" a Chat with Claire Swinarski, author of What Happened to Rachel Riley?, on writing, motherhood, and sauerkraut pierogi.
Today I'm thrilled to welcome Claire Swinarski, author of the middle grade novel What Happened to Rachel Riley?, as well as other books for children and adults. Rachel Riley was one of my favorite middle grade reads of 2022, so I'm thrilled that she agreed to join us to answer a few questions about herself and her writing. Welcome, Claire!
FEH: I have read and loved your adult non-fiction, and I see you have an adult novel coming out soon (congratulations!), but most of your books are middle grade. What draws you to middle grade books? What do you find most challenging about writing for this age group?
CS: Thank you so much! I love middle grade books because of how much they meant to me as a kid. At the point in our lives where we're focusing on middle grade novels--ages 8-14ish--we're going through so many questions about who we are, what we believe, who we can trust, etc. So those books that can help you articulate and answer those questions just tend to stick with you your entire life. Ask someone which books have changed their lives and given them really profound reading experiences: often you get answers like Maniac Magee or Anne of Green Gables or Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. All middle grade books.
(FEH: Anne of Green Gables is my answer for sure; I definitely agree here.)
CS: That being said, there are definitely challenges of writing middle grade. For me, the main thing is just keeping the voice realistic. Things like slang and technology practices are always shifting and changing. I didn't mention TikTok at all in my first middle grade; the one I'm currently working on mentions it constantly because that's what 12-year-olds are doing on their phones. You have to stay really up to date in order to sound realistic, if that's what your going for, and since my books are contemporary, realistic fiction, it's essential for me. It's also tricky to not come across as "preachy"--I can't stand preachy books, and it's so easy to fall into the idea that I have some kind of message I need to get across when really, I just want to focus on telling a good story.
FH: One of my favorite parts of What Happened to Rachel Riley? was the family dynamic. You created such a loving and believable part-Polish family—and as a member of one myself, I found so much of it relatable! So, two questions springing from that:
a) What is your favorite Polish food?
CS:My favorite Polish food is definitely sauerkraut pierogi--SO good.
and, b) Who is your favorite fictional family?
CS: As for my favorite fictional family, I think I'd fit in pretty well with the Weasleys!
(FEH: Cool--I've been told my family is basically the non-magical version of the Weasleys, except we have lots of girls and only one boy. So if you're ever in New England, you can come hang out with us and eat sauerkraut pierogi. ;) )
FEH: Your books seem to be unashamedly “issue books,” in that the characters deal with some heavy circumstances (eating disorders, bullying, harrasment). But unlike some heavy-handed issue books, yours always seemed to let the story and characters shine while the issues remained the circumstances that sometimes moved the plot forward. Was this hard to balance? I imagine that those difficult issues must be on your heart a great deal, so how did you keep them from taking over?
CS: Like I said earlier, it's so important to me to not have my books become one big PSA. Beverly Cleary, one of the all-time greats, once said something along the lines of authors shouldn't start a book with a message in mind. They should tell a story, and not be trying to teach anything since kids learn enough stuff in school. I love that. So I really try to focus on realistic worlds and find that that allows for messiness and surprises. I started writing about sexual harassment in Rachel Riley because when I remembered my middle school days, that's what I remembered--not because I wanted to lay out a roadmap for what kids should do. If they read the book and feel inspired and implement action in their own schools, great. But I'm not out here trying to tell kids what to do.
FEH: Speaking of balance, you have quite a balancing task going with your writing and mothering. Any advice or words of encouragement for other mamas trying to be the best mothers and makers they can be?
CS: The balance of writing and motherhood isn't really a balance at all, but more of a holy alchemy. My kids make my writing so much better. They force me to write quickly, and to learn not to let perfection be the enemy of the good, because I simply don't have 8 hours a day to perfect my word choices or sentence structure. My interactions with them also constantly lead to big, deep emotions--gratitude, frustration, joy, delight, anger. By tapping into these emotions on a regular basis, it becomes much easier to pull from them when it's time to write!
(FEH: This is amazing! I love the term "Holy Alchemy" for this interplay. I'm always going to think of it that way now.)
CS: If you feel like you can't make time in your schedule to write, try and get creative. Remember that literally nobody will notice if your baseboards haven't been cleaned or the socks have started living in the laundry hamper. It's so good for kids to see their moms embrace passions and create art. Jesus was the master storyteller, after all, and when we participate in the act of storytelling, it's another way of emulating Christ.
FEH: Finally, the question I love asking everyone: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
CS: The best writing advice I've ever received is from a book called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I don't read many writing-craft books because I've found they get in my head and slow down my process, but I do always recommend Bird by Bird to people because it's that genius. Anne Lamott writes about--and I'm cleaning up the language a bit here--crappy first drafts. She reminds us that you can't edit nothing, but you can absolutely edit a terrible first draft. So let your first draft be awful! You're just trying to get the words down on the paper. You can always, always, always go back and clean them up. If someone read my first drafts, I'd be completely mortified. They are honestly so horrible. But with no crappy first draft, I'd never get to the writing that I'm most proud of, like the final product of What Happened to Rachel Riley.
FEH: Thank you so much for joining me, Claire! Congratulations on all the success Rachel has had, and on all your new projects in the works!
Today's review is really special to me, as The Cocker Spaniel Mystery was written by my husband's great grandmother, Hazel Raybold Langdale (she used different variations of her name on her books, so sometimes she's just Hazel Langdale, as on this book, and sometimes even H. R. Langdale). Her books have recently been reprinted by a small press, so I was able to purchase two copies of this book--one to keep and one to share with one of you! Just leave a comment below, and I'll randomly choose a winner next Monday. (I can only ship within the U.S.) For extra entries, sign up for my newsletter and/or follow me on Instagram (@faithough42) and let me know in your comment!
The Cocker Spaniel Mystery is a good, old-fashioned mystery in the vein of Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, with a small amount of suspense and nothing too scary--making it perfect for sensitive or precocious readers. Polly Freeman--known as Polly Trailer because she lives and travels with her writer mother and artist father in their trailer--is visiting a friend in Vermont whose family breeds prize-winning cocker spaniels. When several of the pups go missing, Polly and her friends form a club to discover the thief and hopefully bring the pups back home in time for the local dog show.
The story was well paced and fun, and the club interactions were spot on ("kids forming clubs" stories should be a genre unto itself!). The fact that it was published in 1956 made it a perfect window into the past—and a lovely reminder that things aren't so different today. And unlike some older books, this one is even free of any concerning stereotypes, so you can hand it to your young reader with no worries. In fact, Polly's parents defied the stereotypes of the time by supporting each other in their creative work and taking a hand in Polly's education (she's sort of half homeschooled, which was fun to see!).
I can't wait to share this with one of you, so don't forget to enter the giveaway in the comments!
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
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?
Book to Share: The Enchanted Sonata, by Heather Dixon Wallwork (Guest post by Lucy Hough)
Hello, friends, and happy second week of Advent! Things have been pretty crazy around here (pretty much all the appliances in my house decided to break in the same week), so my teenage daughter Lucy came to the rescue with a guest post. I asked her to talk about her very favorite Christmas book, and one of her favorite books of all time: The Enchanted Sonata, by Heather Dixon Wallwork. Without further ado… Here's Lucy's review!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!