realist fiction

Readaloud of the Week: When Mischief Came to Town

When Mischief Came to Town
By Katrina Nannestad

In brief: After her mother’s death, Inge Maria goes to live with her grandmother on a tiny Danish island where the grown-ups and her new school are stricter than she’s accustomed to. But Inge Maria’s curiosity, intelligence, and tendency to making mischief may be just what the little island community needs—and Inge Maria discovers that she has more in common with her grandmother than she expected.

 

What makes it a great readaloud: Perfectly balancing tenderness and humor, this is pretty much a textbook example of a heartwarming story. Inge Maria is utterly lovable, and the island town is peopled by funny, interesting residents. Bonus: This book is full of yummy food.

 

But be aware: Inge Maria’s mother’s death is a sad undercurrent that runs throughout the book.

 

Quotable: “Tears and laughter. Grief and joy. Loss and love. It's all right to have both. I know that now.”


New Books: Crenshaw

Crenshaw
By Katherine Applegate
 

Reading level: Middle grades

It’s OK for little kids to have imaginary friends, but now that Jackson is about to start fifth grade, the reappearance of his old imaginary friend is just one more thing to worry about it.

And Jackson’s life is already full of enough worries. Since his music teacher mom’s job was eliminated and his construction worker dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, money has been tight. Like never-getting-enough-to-eat tight. Like selling-all-the-furniture tight. Like we-might-have-to-live-in-the-van-again tight. His little sister Robin is too young to remember what it was like during the month they lived in their minivan before, but Jackson remembers. He remembers how hard it was to sleep in the van with Robin kicking him all night. He remembers how police would sometimes ask them to move on when they parked somewhere for the night. He remembers how bad the van smelled after a few weeks. He remembers it all — and he doesn’t want to live that way again, especially since being homeless means leaving his best friend Marisol and switching schools, too.

So seeing his old smart-talking giant cat best friend in the shower is pretty much the last thing he needs. Jackson hasn’t seen Crenshaw in years, not since his family’s minivan life days, and he’s convinced that the cat’s reappearance means that he’s going crazy. But Crenshaw may be just what Jackson needs to get through his family’s financial crisis without losing his mind.

Homelessness isn’t a fluffy-happy topic to tackle, but Applegate does a good job of making it both believable (so many families are one crisis away from financial disaster) and not-too-scary (the scariest parts of the story take place in the past, so you know already that Jackson’s family gets through them). Kids can empathize with Jason’s worries and his frustration when his parents try to keep the extent of their situation from him and Robin. While Crenshaw doesn’t actually play a big role in the book — most of the time, Jackson’s just trying to get rid of him — he adds some much needed humor to the story. And while the book’s happy ending feels maybe a little contrived to grown-up readers, I think it’s the right note to end the story on for kids — and it’s a nice illustration of how the kindness of strangers can make a big impact.

Katherine Applegate’s first post-Newbery award book is a worthy follow-up to The One and Only Ivan and definitely worth adding to your middle grades reading list. I might veer toward reading this one as a readaloud, especially to younger kids, just because kids might have questions or concerns that you can address as you go.


Summer Reading: A Solitary Blue

He felt, turning off the road onto the shelled driveway that ran up to his house, as if he’d just gotten a letter, out of the blue, from somebody wise enough to know the truth, from everybody, or at least everybody who mattered.

’Hello,’ the letter said. ‘Hello, Jeff Greene, I’ve been watching you and I like you and I want to know you better. This is just to say I’m glad you’re alive in the world.” The list of signatures, he thought, would include his own.

This quiet little book may be one of the best I've ever read. Certainly, it's one that's stuck with me. Jeff Greene is just seven when his mother Melody leaves him and his professor father to save the world. Jeff spends the next five years trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, afraid that his introverted, work-focused father will abandon him, too, if he makes a fuss about anything. When Melody invites him to spend a summer with her at her family's home in Charleston, Jeff falls in love with his capricious and charming mother all over again. But Melody isn't really interested in her son, and her second abandonment rips him up. Heartbroken and betrayed, Jeff falls apart completely — he can't keep track of the days, so he skips school and ends up failing eighth grade. But to Jeff's surprise, his father is there to help him pick up the pieces, and together, they build a life together in a new town and a new school. Jeff makes friends for the first time in his life (including Dicey Tillerman from Voigt's Homecoming) and slowly realizes that the possibility of happiness has always been inside him. By the time he meets Melody again, he understands her enough to love her without losing himself and to let her go again without regret.

What makes this book so resonant is its simple, vivid descriptions of Jeff’s emotional life. His isolation is so absolute that he lives most of his life inside his head, and Voigt brings both his depression and his hard-won happiness to life without melodrama or romance. The book's inhabitants are complicated people: do-gooder Melody wants to make a difference in the world but completely ignores her own son; the Professor and Jeff assume so many things about each other that it takes a crisis for them to realize how much they really like each other; Melody's grandmother is so caught up in her family's patriarchal traditions that she leaves her wealth to Jeff rather than Melody, whom she adores. Ultimately, it's the deliberate, nuanced development of Jeff as an individual that makes this book sing—and creates a boy who I'd argue is one of the most memorable characters in young adult fiction.

 

We’re reprinting some of Amy’s summer reading series favorites from Atlanta Homeschool magazine on the home/school/life blog.