I have such an exciting announcement today, about three of my favorite things: books, community, and good, old-fashioned life. My friend Anna Rose Johnson and I are co-hosting a Vintage Kidlit Summer! We each plan to read twelve vintage books over the course of the summer (from May 27 through August 12), and to share about them each week on our blogs and Instagram. Want to join us?
Each week has its own category—I'm pretty excited about "Moody and Mysterious" and "Big Family Stories," personally. We even threw in a week for picture books, in case the idea of reading twelve novels this summer seemed unattainable for those with busy lives. All you have to do to take part is to choose a book from the week's category to read, then share it with the rest of us—anything from full blog posts to comments on our blogs to Instagram posts or stories (you can use the hashtag #vintagekidlitsummer over there) is perfect. One of my favorite parts of reading is the way it can bring people together, and I'm hoping this summer challenge can build up a community here—as Anne Shirley would say: "the race that knows Joseph."
You're free to choose your own favorites, of course, but in the next couple weeks, Anna Rose and I will be rolling out a fun list of our recommendations for each category, so maybe you'll discover something new to you. We're also planning giveaways for participants throughout the summer, so this could be a great chance to build up your vintage book collections!
And reading challenge or no, be sure to check out Anna Rose's blog—I absolutely love her dives into vintage literature and her family history/background posts about her lovely middle grade novel, The Star that Always Stays (which would make a great choice for that last category!).
Are you in? Let me know some of your favorite vintage books in the comments!
Happy Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, everyone! I had planned to write a review of the first book in The Wingfeather Saga, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, for you all today. But it seemed a bit redundant for me to review it when the series' biggest fan lives in the next bedroom over from mine. So please welcome back my fifteen-year-old daughter, Lucy, to introduce you to her newest obsession.
When people ask me about The Wingfeather Saga, I usually say something along the lines of ‘The Wingfeather Saga is a four book series by singer and songwriter Andrew Peterson. It focuses on Janner Igiby, a bookish twelve-year-old boy who lives in the world of Aerwiar. Nine years before, the vicious Fangs of Dang, a race of snakey, lizardy beings, took over most of Aerwiar, from the beautiful Shining Isle of Anneira, to the entire continent of Scree, which is where the Igiby family lives, in the town of Glipwood. But, despite living under the scaly thumb of the Fangs (and through them, a darker, nameless evil, named Gnag the Nameless), Janner, along with his brother, Tink, and his sister, Leeli, live fairly happy lives… as long as they don’t have any weapons (including garden tools), or stay out after dark, or complain too loudly about the smelly Fangs.’ At that point, I pant heavily.
Assuming that you are one of those listeners who is begging me to continue, I will take a deep breath, and go on. 'As revealed secrets and increasing danger take the Igibys across Scree and beyond, they each must learn to trust each other— and themselves. With delightfully funny companions, such as Peet the Sock Man and the bookseller Oskar N. Reteep, and with the love and support of their mother, Nia, and their grandfather, Podo (a retired pirate!), can the Igibys resist the Fangs' attempts to steal the mysterious lost Jewels of Anneira and avoid the many dangerous creatures in Aerwiar?'*
*such as Quill Diggles (spiky!), Horned Hounds (sharp teeth!), and Toothy Cows (also have sharp teeth! Beware!)
The Wingfeather Saga has rocketed to one of the top five spots in my ‘favorite book series list,’ and I’m fairly certain it’s going to stay there for a while, if not for life. It’s a wonderful series for children (and adults) who love The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. I love the humor, and I love the world building. I’d recommend this series to anyone who has started to read novels (or listen to them! There are audiobooks!). All my younger siblings, down to my seven-year-old brother, have been going through the series, and loving it! We also have been loving the new animated series of Wingfeather from Angel studios. Oh, and the soundtrack! And the poems! And the companion books!
‘Beware the Toothy Cow!’
Feel free to leave a comment with any questions, and I'll tell you more! It was hard to narrow it down to just this much. :)
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, check out Always in the Middle!
Happy [it's still] Easter! I have a lovely product to recommend to you all today: The You Are Loved gift set from Warner Press. I was sent a copy to review, but am more than happy to spread the word about this lovely set, which includes a reflection journal and a stack of cards comprised of an affirmation on one side and a corresponding scripture passage on the reverse.
Look how beautiful these cards are! Honestly, they came at just the right time—not that there's a bad time to be reminded of God's love!—because the last week of Lent was full of challenges and necessitated continual reminders of truth.
I often tell my kids (taking a hint from Gary D. Schmidt's Pay Attention, Carter Jones), "Remember who you are…and remember whose you are." Scripture is full, of course, of God's words of love to us: that we are beautiful in his sight, that we are never alone, that we are loved, that we are His. These cards are perfect for moments when we need to remind ourselves or those in our lives of these ever-new truths.
I tucked a card into each of my children's Easter baskets this year, hand-selected for whichever reminder I thought they most needed right now. They'd be perfect to slip into a birthday card or package or lunch box, one at a time, but with the journal they make a lovely gift set that would be ideal for Mother's Day or even a Bridal or Baby shower gift.
For me, the cards are the heart of this gift set, and the journal is a cherry on top. My only complaint, if you will, is that I'd have preferred a smaller journal size (I'm pretty picky about this, though). It was a standard 8.5 x 11, but a half size journal always feels less intimidating to me.
For the months of April and May, you can purchase this collection for 30% off using the code BLOG30; check it out at this link:
By popular demand! Mainly the demand of my own children. :) Today I'm reviewing the new graphic novel by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle See Nutter, Squished. Because it's about a large family (not a blended family, but several siblings with the same parents), of course I had to read this as soon as I could! I read with some trepidation, as the description (below) sounded somewhat negative about big family life, but overall I loved this!
From the publisher:
Eleven-year-old Avery Lee loves living in Hickory Valley, Maryland. She loves her neighborhood, school, and the end-of-summer fair she always goes to with her two best friends. But she's tired of feeling squished by her six siblings! They're noisy and chaotic and the younger kids love her a little too much. All Avery wants is her own room -- her own space to be alone and make art. So she's furious when Theo, her grumpy older brother, gets his own room instead, and her wild baby brother, Max, moves into the room she already shares with her clinging sister Pearl! Avery hatches a plan to finally get her own room, all while trying to get Max to sleep at night, navigating changes in her friendships, and working on an art entry for the fair. And when Avery finds out that her family might move across the country, things get even more complicated.
Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter have once again teamed up to tell a funny, heartfelt, and charming story of family, friendship, and growing up.
While Squished didn't shy away from some of the hard parts of big family life, it did an excellent job of showing how much joy and love and growth and companionship can be squished into life right alongside the squabbling and jealousy and bedroom sharing.
My three oldest kids all read this as well, and I was surprised that they didn't like it as much as I did. My 11-year-old wondered why Avery cared so much about having her own room (she, perhaps, related more to Avery's younger sister who always wanted someone else around). My teens thought it strange that Avery's friends would tease her about her family size. I realized that my children, with their support system comprised of so many other big families, don't think of us as anything strange. Their homeschooled peers don't fall into teasing about family the way school children can be more likely to. This is all a bit different from my own childhood, where my family of five children was often looked at askance. The themes of moving away and starting a new life in a new state also felt (sometimes painfully!) familiar. So I suppose it makes sense that we'd feel differently about this story, with so many different parallels to our own lives. And even where we disagreed, we absolutely loved talking about it!
Bottom line: we all recommend this graphic novel, whether for large families looking to see themselves in a story, or those curious what big family life might look like. My favorite part was seeing the way all the children worked as a team to take care of the most important thing in their life: their family. The Lees were loving, supportive, creative, and just very normal, and I really appreciated seeing that!
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
I'm not sure what happened from 2020-2023 (is anyone?), but clearly my head wasn't screwed on straight, because I missed that my favorite living British author had not one, but two new books released. The advantage of this was that suddenly, just when I needed a pick-me-up, I had an amazing book to read, all at the ready! If you've been following the saga of The Hough Children Get Sick Once Again, you'll know just how valuable that pick-me-up was... After all, there's nothing like a new book to help you feel better about cancelling all plans for two weeks while your children catch and recover from a stomach bug.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce is my favorite living British author for good reason. His books are all laugh out loud funny, true. And they're paced to perfection, yes. But what really stands out is the juxtaposition of humor and gut-wrenching pathos. The pathos is all the more effective because of the humor it's sandwiched between...which means I can rarely get through a Cottrell-Boyce novel with a dry eye. Certain ones (Millions and Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth) leave me absolutely bawling. And it's no mere writer's trick. It's the deep truths about human nature that he tucks into rollicking adventures like treasures for you to find.
Speaking of treasures... Noah's Gold. :) Here's the publisher's description:
Being the smallest doesn't stop you having the biggest ideas.
Eleven-year old Noah sneaks along on his big sister's geography field trip. Everything goes wrong! Six kids are marooned on an uninhabited island. Their teacher has vanished. They're hungry. Their phones don't work and Noah has broken the internet. There's no way of contacting home . . . Disaster!
Until Noah discovers a treasure map and the gang goes in search of gold.
I love a good kids-on-an-island story. What made this stand apart (besides the aforementioned humor and pathos), is the recurring question of what role our phones and technology should play in our lives. It's never answered for you, and even the characters likely have mixed feelings. But the question is there for you to ponder and consider on your own.
Have any of you read this one yet? I'd love to hear your thoughts...and then I need to go get my hands on Cottrell-Boyce's other book (Runaway Robot) that I missed...!
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
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!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!