I reviewed four middle grade books for the latest special children’s book section of the New York Times Book Review: My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan; Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech; Squirm by Carl Hiassen; Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut. You can read the reviews HERE.
Who is this extraordinary book for, exactly? It’s hard to say.
Sy Montgomery is a renowned nature writer who’s authored more than ten adult nonfiction books, including The Soul of an Octopus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. Over her impressive career she’s swum with piranhas and electric eels in the Amazon, searched for tree kangaroos in New Guinea, and experienced near-death experiences studying gorillas in Zaire. Montgomery is also the author of 16 books for kids, including a fantastic biography of Temple Grandin aimed at middle graders.
Her latest, How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals is one of the rare non-fiction books that you could arguably call middle grade, YA or adult. The advance copy I was sent came to me via from The Houghton Mifflin young readers PR team. And the very sweet cover art by Rebecca Green and large-point type didn’t exactly fight the impression that this was a book intended for 10 and 12 year-olds. It’s a memoir organized by animal: Thirteen chapters covering thirteen animals (from dogs and pigs to tree kangaroos), each offering insight into the creatures and also Sy’s growth as an individual.
But as I read it, I started to wonder.
There was a lot of dark stuff in there about the author’s depression, career crises and parental discord. There was even one stomach-turning incident involving the author’s mother and a virginity check.* But mostly, the book was about the wonder of these incredible animals. As I plowed through the book I kept thinking to myself that I wanted to share these fascinating stories with my own kids.
Throughout the book Montgomery befriends the unlikeliest of creatures, including a tarantula in French Guiana and an octopus at the New England Aquarium (I know the word “befriend” sounds ridiculous, but it happens). And her passion for her calling is totally inspiring — at age 26, she’s sleeping in a tent in South Australia wilderness, mapping the burrows of wombats, digging through emu droppings and having the time of her life. For a young person dreaming about what they will be when they grow up, it may be totally eye opening.
So, who is this book for, really? As it turns out, it’s officially an adult non-fiction book. But I would hand it to any teenager with an appreciation for nature, animals or gorgeously written confessional personal essays.
*NB: For most 8-12 year-olds, there’s probably too much meditative midlife-crises stuff to keep them interested all the way through. But the chapters on the pig (“Christopher Hogwood,” chapter 3), the tarantula (“Clarabelle,” chapter 4), and the octopus (“Octavia,” chapter 9) will be totally captivating.
I loved working on this story for Architectural Digest. The concept was super simple: I asked a dozen top interior designers and architects to name a favorite book from childhood that somehow influenced them in their work today. Thank you to India Mahdavi, Ellie Cullman, Miles Redd, Sheila Bridges, Stephen Alesch, Mara Miller, Alex Papachristidis, David Alhadeff, Deborah Berke, Barbara Bestor, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Brian Sawyer, who took the time to give such thoughtful responses.
Some of these books I had never even heard of! Mara Miller of Carrier & Company said her favorite book growing up was something called The Fourteen Bears: Summer and Winter. This book, by Evelyn Scott, was originally published in 1973 and is now out of print.
I found it at the library and I could immediately see its appeal. Each bear has a home in a distinct decorating style. One bear has decorated her quarters in French Empire style, another has gone full Gustavian, another does American Colonial. It’s so good!
In case you’re curious, here’s one of Mara’s interiors. (In fact, it’s Jessica Chastain’s home, shot for Arch Digest.)
I also loved architect Deborah Berke’s book choice, Mistress Masham’s Repose. This 1946 middle-grade novel by T.H. White (The Sword in the Stone) describes the adventures of an English girl who discovers a group of Lilliputians living on her family’s derelict country estate. Berke, who is dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, is probably best known for her modernist architecture, but she has also done a lot of incredible work reimagining old buildings. Here’s one example below, her transformation of the Richardson Olmstead Complex in Buffalo, NY (a 140-year-old hospital with National Historic Landmark status), into a gorgeous hotel.
“I think my appreciation of a building’s patina and how materials change over time began with [Mistress Masham’s Repose],” she says.
More proof that the books you read as a kid stick with you for life.
You can read the full story at architecturaldigest.com HERE
This is exactly how James Comey felt when Donald Trump tried to hug him in front of all the other law enforcement officials in the Blue Room.
You know, that moment when Comey tried to hide in the drapes? And Donald pulled him close with all his might so they could be photographed in an embrace?
The Humbug is a liar, a name dropper, and a tacky dresser. “A very dislikable fellow,” as the Spelling Bee puts it.
You could tell from the trailer that Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was going to be painful. The colors were way too bright. The special effects —for a $100 million movie — were weirdly cheap looking. Storm Reid was much too pretty, with none of Meg’s awkwardness. And I felt frankly embarrassed for Mindy Kaling every time I had to see her totter across the field in that goofy dress.
Still, I dragged the family to see it because I had hope and because I was influenced by the grudgingly positive review from A.O. Scott (“Fans of the book … can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away.” Really?)
Of course it was much worse than we had feared. Where the tone should have been mysterious and tense, it was cute and sitcom-y. The camera lingered way too long on the kids’ open-mouthed expressions of awe. Reese Witherspoon’s transformation into a giant cabbage was mortifying. There were too many closeups of Oprah where you could practically see the dots of glue used to stick the rhinestones on her face. The actor playing Charles Wallace had zero charisma. The pacing was off (like, how did Meg free her dad so quickly?) I could go on and on.
So … here is some advice. If you’re a fan of Madeline L’Engle’s novel and want another taste of it, look for the fantastic graphic novel adaptation by Hope Larson, which came out in 2012. Unlike DuVernay’s film, Larson’s take is very close to Madeline L’Engle’s novel in both spirit and plot. Here’s a look at the opening spread:
I love that she starts with the opening words of the novel: “It was a dark and stormy night.” And the way Larson plays with layers, scale, and moody tones of black, white, and blue support the story beautifully.
Purists will be happy to know that she includes all the memorable scenes that DuVernay didn’t, like the snack of liverwurst sandwiches and hot cocoa, meeting Aunt Beast, and the episode with the little kid whose ball didn’t bounce in time with the others. Larson’s drawings also offer a welcome clarity when it comes to the conceptual discussions of space and time. My kids loved it — I suspect perhaps even more than the actual novel, but let’s not dwell on that. P.S. Larson has a new graphic novel coming out this May titled All Summer Long, about a thirteen-year-old girl facing a summer vacation of guitar playing, boredom, strained friendships and new friendships. Here’s the cover, which I already love:
This week I review four excellent new middle grade novels in the NYTBR: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani (who actually lives in my town, though I don’t know her); Checked by Cynthia Kadohata; The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis; and The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley by April Stevens. They are all very different from one another but all great in their own way. I am tempted to explain how, but that would be silly. You can read the reviews here.
In case you’re wondering (and people have asked me), I did read a bunch of other spring releases that I did NOT end up reviewing. The thinking at the NYTBR seems to be that they’d rather use the limited space they have for children’s books on recommendations (as opposed to lukewarm responses or take downs). Makes sense to me.
I’m not sure why I never read Blubber when I was a kid. But the other night I finally picked it up and yow. While I can’t say it’s an enjoyable 153 pages, it’s brilliant and fascinating on multiple levels, from the details of everyday suburban life in the 1970s to the jaw-dropping brutality of the fifth-graders at the center of the story. The novel is definitely worth a read, if only to remind yourself that while many aspects of childhood have changed (these kids have an unsupervised lunch period at school, for instance, giving them the perfect opportunity to torture Linda) other things remain the same: Nice fifth grade girls from nice families can seem totally normal while being secretly sadistic torturers. It is psychologically dead-on.
I don’t usually mark up my books, but I did it this time because 1) I knew I was never going to read Blubber again and 2) It’s the kind of book where you find yourself muttering out loud. Circling sentences and scribbling things like “Holy Shit!” on the newsprint-soft pages of an old paperback with an Uni-Ball pen can be oddly satisfying.
Tracy Wu, Jill’s best friend, is depicted as utterly unexotic. Daughter of local physician Dr. Wu (naturally), Tracy collects stamps, eats hot dogs and lives in fear of getting on bully Wendy’s bad side — just like Jill. For a book written in the 1970s, this is totally refreshing.
It’s only much later in the novel that Tracy gets called a “chink.” Because it seems to come out of the blue, it seems that much uglier. Very effective.
The ubiquitous bum costume
A lot of kids show up at school on Halloween dressed up like
the homeless “bums,” complete with smudgy faces and bundled-up bandanas tied onto sticks. In fact, the hobo costume is so common among her peers that Jill deems it “nothing original.”
I remember dressing as a bum too. It was a very easy costume to pull off. Sometimes I’d just dress up like a bum for fun, even when it wasn’t Halloween.**
Young kids, sharp knives
Jill and her little brother (I think he’s nine) carve their own pumpkins every year. The jack o’lanterns usually turn out somewhat lopsided but nobody loses a finger and it is NBD.In my own household, this was the first year I let my 13-year-old carve our pumpkin all by herself. For this, I felt like I deserved a “daredevil mom of the year” award.
Jill is no bookworm.
If you ask me, there are WAY too many middle-grade books featuring earnest, deeply bookish protagonists who serve as stand-ins for the authors’ younger selves. For most kids, It’s impossible to relate to these nerds.
Blubber‘s Jill, on the other hand, is an all-around mediocre student who gets Cs in social studies and struggles in math. It’s the mean girls, Wendy and Caroline, who are the star students.
Who’s afraid of fifth grade girls? Me.
Chapter 11 is when the torturing of Linda goes from nasty to horrific. The girls make Linda recite “I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206” before they allow her to get a sip of water, use the bathroom, eat lunch or get on the bus. Bullying becomes a group activity the girls look forward to because it makes school life less “boring” for everyone. Blume lays bare the ugly truth that for some kids, sadism can be fun.As a desperate survival tactic Linda even starts to volunteer these words before anyone makes her, in the hopes of appeasing her tormentors. This sounds like something straight out of a Maoist re-education camp.
And nobody gets expelled?!
Just when you think it can’t get worse, shit gets even more twisted. The girls hold Linda down and force her to show the boys her underpants.
Then the girls pinch Linda’s nose closed and force-feed her a piece of candy that they tell her is a chocolate-covered ant. Wendy keeps her hand over Linda’s mouth “so she couldn’t spit anything out.” Linda gags and vomits.
She is going to need years of therapy but these girls don’t even get detention.
Where are the adults? Ha!
Blume wrote Blubber years before Columbine, National Bullying Prevention Month, the movie Heathers or helicopter parenting. The adults in the book are absent, useless and blissfully oblivious to Wendy’s well-supported reign of terror. Although at one point it’s pretty clear that Linda has told her mother something about being picked on (she starts getting driven to school to avoid the bus) we never actually see her mom and the woman never raises a stink.
At one point halfway through the novel, Jill does bring up the situation with her mother in a roundabout way, telling her that there’s a girl who “lets everybody walk all over her.” Her mother says exactly what you’d expect: “You should try putting yourself in her place.” To which Jill responds exactly the way you’d expect: She ignores it.
These days schools spend a lot of effort cooking up anti-bullying programs and kindness curriculums. But I can’t help but think that preaching this stuff to kids can be a waste of time. The advice goes in one ear and out the other, and the next thing you know some poor kid is getting a chocolate-covered ant shoved in her mouth. I desperately want to believe in the recent studies suggesting that people gain empathy through reading fiction. As a book lover, I’m surely biased, but it makes sense to me. Reading Blubber, Wonder or The Hundred Dresses has got to be more effective than telling kids to “try putting themselves in other people’s shoes.” I think Judy Blume, at least, would agree.
What do you think?
**As a reward for those of you who actually read to the end of this post, please enjoy this 1979 photo of me in my “bum costume.”
If you look for the Japanese translation of Harriet the Spy you can find this treasure:
And if you put the title (スパイになりたいハリエットのいじめ解決法) through Google Translate, it results in some curious gobbledygook: HARRIET’S BULLYING SOLUTION METHOD WANTING TO BE A SPY. A crude, not to mention gramatically problematic translation, to be sure. But it does me wonder how it’s really translated and what it says about the Japanese publisher’s interpretation of the novel. Anyone out there able to shed some light?
It’s surely not as straightforward as the Italian translation:
Or the German translation:
Or the French translation:
There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).
But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.
Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:
Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:
Here, with Tomi Ungerer
A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:
I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:
Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):
“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”
And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):
She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”
She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:
“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”
In short, friends, she’s one of us.
Leo came home the other day with a new school project. The assignment was to pick a biography of a famous African-American figure, take notes, and put together a report.
This is the book he picked out:
“How did you choose this book?” I asked him.
“It looks like it has a lot of action!” he said. “The guy has a gun!”
I had to agree.
But I also had to overrule.
If Leo was going to learn about one person for Black History Month this year, it was going to be Frederick Douglass. No disrespect to Reeves (the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi who is said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger) but come on! Douglass was back in the news thanks to Trump’s strange remark implying that the abolitionist was still walking among us.
Also, the book Leo had chosen was a picture book. Nice try, Leo.
Our library had several biographies appropriate for a 4th grader. But as soon as I spotted Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (1968), it was no contest.
And not just because the cover illustration of young Douglass has a smoldering quality, like an African-American Mr. Darcy on the BBC. The author, Margaret Davidson, wrote some of my favorite non-fiction books of my elementary school days. I still have a few of the slim paperbacks (all Scholastic titles) that I read and re-read — including Nine True Dolphin Stories, Five True Dog Stories, Five True Horse Stories (ok, the titles weren’t that creative … but such terrific stories!), and her biographies of Louis Braille, Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.
Davidson had a brilliant way of telling a true story simply, but with intense human (or —as the case may be —dolphin or dog) drama. The book gets in all the important milestones of Douglass’s life, but it never feels tedious, jargony or or in any way like “a book for school.” Davidson knew how to play up the little moments that her readers would latch onto. Leo loved the part about how little Frederick persuaded some poor white kids to teach him how to read by trading “a piece of bread spread thick with butter.” And he loved knowing how much money Frederick had to slowly save up to buy his very first book (fifty cents).
Leo read the book happily, put together his poster (see below), and I daresay he now knows a lot more about Douglass than our own prez.
Amazingly, most of my favorite Margaret Davidson books still seem to be in print. You can find them on the Scholastic website and they’re all priced at, like, $3.99 — so there’s no excuse!