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.
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!
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!
Welcome to the Blog Tour for The Secret Garden Devotional by Rachel Dodge, hosted by JustRead Publicity Tours!
ABOUT THE BOOKTitle: The Secret Garden Devotional
Author: Rachel Dodge
Release Date: December 6, 2022
Devotional Inspiration from Mary Lennox's Beautifully Mysterious Secret GardenThe Secret Garden Devotional offers lovely inspiration that explores the themes of faith, family, contentment, wisdom, and joy in the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, cherished by generations of readers.
Each reading corresponds with a chapter from the book and invites you to embrace God’s guiding hand in your life as you are becoming His new creation. With themes of growth, spiritual nourishment, God's love and care, and His transforming power, this beautiful chapter-by-chapter devotional includes original artwork throughout. Each reading includes examples from the novel, scripture, life application, and prayers perfect for groups, book clubs, or personal reflection.
PURCHASE LINKS: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachel Dodge is the bestselling author of the award-winning Anne of Green Gables Devotional, The Little Women Devotional, and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Rachel's newest book is The Secret Garden Devotional! Rachel teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and is a writer for the popular Jane Austen's World blog. She is passionate about encouraging and equipping women to grow closer to Jesus through prayer and the study of God's Word. A true kindred spirit at heart, Rachel enjoys books, bonnets, and ball gowns.
Connect with Rachel by visiting racheldodge.com to follow her on social media or subscribe to email newsletter updates.
(2) winners will receive a signed copy of The Secret Garden Devotional and a hardcover illustrated copy of The Secret Garden along with a bookmark and stickers.
Full tour schedule linked below. The giveaway begins at midnight November 30, 2022 and will last through 11:59 PM EST on December 7, 2022. Winner will be notified within 2 weeks of close of the giveaway and given 48 hours to respond or risk forfeiture of prize. US only. Void where prohibited by law or logistics.
Giveaway is subject to the policies found here.
Follow along at JustRead Tours for a full list of stops!
Thanks for following along with the blog tour for this book! Rachel kindly agreed to join us for an interview to discuss The Secret Garden Devotional. Welcome, Rachel!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!