A few weeks ago I wrote my thoughts on three Middle Grade novels in one post (Ana’s Classic Middle Grade Horror Novel Marathon) and I thought the format worked really well. Since there are so many short MG books I really want to read, I thought I should make this into a regular Thing. (AND I would love recommendations please, on what to read next.)

Abandoned by their ill-humored parents to the care of an odious nanny, Tim, the twins, Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and their sister, Jane, attempt to fulfill their roles as good old-fashioned children. Following the models set in lauded tales from A Christmas Carol to Mary Poppins, the four Willoughbys hope to attain their proscribed happy ending too, or at least a satisfyingly maudlin one. However, it is an unquestionably ruthless act that sets in motion the transformations that lead to their salvation and to happy endings for not only the four children, but their nanny, an abandoned baby, a candy magnate, and his long-lost son too. Replete with a tongue-in-cheek glossary and bibliography, this hilarious and decidedly old-fashioned parody pays playful homage to classic works of children’s literature.

I bought The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (HMH/ Boxer Books; 2008) very recently when I saw its tagline (in the UK edition) “A tale of villains, benefactors, abandoned infants, winsome orphans and diabolical plans” because it sounded extremely promising. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly live up to my expectations and I feel it missed the mark with what it tried to do as a parody of old-fashioned children’s stories.

It is a concoction of several tropes of children’s fiction: horrid families, orphans, left-at-the-door babies, over- the-top plot twists and a cosy happy ending. Those tropes are used and abused in an extremely self-aware story that knows it is parodying old-fashioned literature (the words “old-fashioned” appear every other page). My problem is with the way those elements were parodied here coming across to me through this overwhelming sense of mockery without recognising the richness and the heart of those stories. Granted, there are things about old-fashioned books that do deserve to be scrutinised for their shortcomings and Lois Lowry actually does this really well when examining the sexism present in the siblings’ dynamics (the older brother constantly tells the younger sister that as a girl she is not supposed to be doing anything useful). But beyond that one highlight, the rest of the story lacks any sense of internal logic, and its irreverence is extremely forced. I guess I could say that this had all of the cleverness, none of the heart? That said, parodies are very hard to get right and often work differently for different readers.


“Dear Your Majesty the Queen,

I need to speak to you urgently about my brother Luke. He’s got cancer and the doctors in Australia are being really slack. If I could borrow your top doctor for a few days I know he/she would fix things in no time. Of course Mum and Dad would pay his/her fares even if it meant selling the car or getting a loan. Please contact me at the above address urgently.

Yours sincerely,
Colin Mudford.

P.S.
This is not a hoax.
Ring the above number and Aunty Iris will tell you.
Hang up if a man answers.

Now, Two Weeks With the Queen by Morris Gleitzman (Puffin Books; first published in 1991) has ALL THE HEART (as well as all the cleverness). Things Mean a Lot’s Ana recommend it (and even gave me a copy of the book) which in other words means: I simply had to read it. And it is probably one of the most surprising Middle Grade books I’ve ever read, one that deals with Death, Grief, Cancer and LGBT issues with subtlety, depth, sense of humour and emotional resonance.

And it’s a beautiful story that hides behind the veneer of the main character’s – a young boy whose younger brother has being diagnosed with terminal cancer – almost outrageous optimism and child-logic as he tries to come up with a plan to contact the Queen of England in order to get the Best Cancer Doctor in the World to see his brother because of course The Queen’s doctor would be able to cure him. And while he is at it, he becomes friends with Ted, a young man whose boyfriend has Aids and is also dying of cancer. It is through this friendship – and by seeing what they are going through – that Colin comes to realise certain truths about compassion and companionship that also apply to his own situation. In the end I was a sobbing mess (MY EMOTIONS) and it was so worth it.

I seriously cannot praise this book enough. It is a cancer book without being a cancer book (if you know what I mean) and it reminded me both of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls for the real, raw, honest way it deals with grief. Highly recommended.

The four Casson children, whose mother, Eve, is a fine-arts painter, have all been given the names of paint colors. Cadmium (Caddy), is the eldest; then Saffron (Saffy); Indigo, the only boy; and Rose, the youngest. When Saffy discovers quite by accident that she has been adopted, she is deeply upset, though the others assure her that it makes no difference at all. Saffy is the daughter of Eve’s twin sister, who lived in Siena, Italy, and died in a car crash. Grandad brought Saffy, as a very small child, back from Siena. At Grandad’s death he leaves something to each of the children. To Saffy, it is “her angel,” although no one knows its identity. How Saffy discovers what her angel is, with the help of an energetic new friend, lies at the heart of this enchanting story. Unforgettable characters come alive in often deeply humorous and always absorbing events to be treasured for a long, long time.

The last of today’s round-up is another winner (also recommended by Ana, by the way) and a new addition to my keeper shelf: Saffy’s Angel by Hilary Mckay (Margaret K. McElderry Books /Hodder; 2001), the first in the Casson Family series. Out-loud funny, engaging, featuring an extremely charming family, Saffy’s Angel also – successfully – attempts to address serious issues in a low-key and yet extremely smart way. Although this first book in particular focus on Saffy’s journey to learn her place in the family (after she finds out she is adopted), the highlight often shifts toward the other members of the family as well. In the end, the reader comes to know each member of the family as well as their shortcomings and their strengths really, really well. The siblings’ interactions are awesome. And I swear that this one scene when they are driving together to Wales is one of the funniest scenes I have read in a long, long time:

“I can only drive slowly.”
“That’s all right.”
“And I can only do left turns.”
Rose ran downstairs, grabbed a road atlas, and ran triumphantly back up again. “Wales is left! Look! It’s left all the way!”

As much as I love the siblings though, I was fascinated by the parents’ fraught relationship and the way that the narrative observed their interaction in a critical way. Their father Bill would be a benign – if- absent parental unit if it weren’t for the ways that his outlook – the way he sees his wife’s work in relation to his own, for example –corrupts the life of his family. We are definitely not supposed to love Bill the way we are supposed to fall for this family and the narrative never lets us forget that:

“He had a charm about him sometimes, a warmth that was irresistible, like sunshine. He planted Saffy triumphantly on the pavement, opened the taxi door, slung in his bag, gave a huge film-star wave, called, “All right, Peter? Good weekend?” to the taxi driver, who knew him well and considered him a lovely man, and was free.

“Back to the hard life,” he said to Peter, and stretched out his legs.

Back to the real life, he meant. The real world where there were no children lurking under tables, no wives wiping their noses on the ironing, no guinea pigs on the lawn, nor hamsters in the bedrooms, and no paper bags full of leaking tomato sandwiches.”

Saffy’s Angel actually made me think of the way that literature can engage meaningfully with issues like this one little book tackles: gender roles, ableism, unhealthy expectations, difficulty in learning (and taking exams) in ingenious ways. I also realised how I have been finding comfort when reading Middle Grade books because they have been fulfilling my need for thoughtful-as-well-as-fun literature more than any other category of books at the moment.

Buy the Books:

(click on the links to purchase)
The Willoughbys


Ebook available for kindle US, nook, sony

Two Weeks with the Queen


Ebook available for kindle UK

Saffy’s Angel


Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK

Share →

27 Responses to Ana’s Middle Grade review bonanza: The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, and Two Weeks With the Queen by Morris Gleitzman

  1. Linda W says:

    Yay! I’m glad you will regularly feature MG books! Have you read A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness? I haven’t checked back through the blog, but OKAY FOR NOW by Gary Schmidt is another one I would recommend or THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Schmidt.

  2. Ana says:

    Hi Linda. YES, I loved A Monster Calls (it was one of my top 10 last year): HERE.

    I also loved Okay For Now. As soon as I read that I got The Wednesday Wars so I have that lined up as well. :D

  3. AnimeJune says:

    Fascinating set of reviews.

    I took a Children’s Lit course back in University and read a book called “The Trolls” by Polly Horvath and it just blew me away. Three children (two older sisters and their put-upon younger brother) are to be babysat by their estranged aunt, a last-minute choice since she and their father never speak.

    She entertains them for hours with funny stories and anecdotes of her childhood but then you realize halfway through how much tragedy and sadness can erupt when a family is broken by distrust and selfishness. It started out as a bright and colourful story that got increasingly profound and startling as it went on.

    Thank you for calling to attention how awesome and layered Middle Grade books can be. I think people just assume it’s dumbed-down treacle because, Oh Yeah, Kids are Stupid and Can’t Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Writing. But the reason books like The Giver and the Narnia Books and The Secret Garden and all those books are still classics are because people can still read and enjoy them as adults.

  4. Kailana says:

    Thanks for reminding me about TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN. I have heard good things and went to buy it at one point, but it was sold out and I forgot to go back!

  5. The subtle but pointed commentary on the gendered dynamics is one of my favourite things about Hilary McKay’s books. So so glad you enjoyed these, Ana. And of course my recommendation for your next MG bonanza is ALL THE CASSON FAMILY BOOKS ;)

  6. Charlotte says:

    I loved The Wednesday Wars, and hope you do to!

    And now, being a mg fan myself, I’m trying to think of what to recommend that might not be on your radar… Have you ever tried Elizabeth Enright? The Four Story Mistake is a classic. And what about Joan Aiken? The Wolves of Willoughby Chase would be right up your alley…

  7. Eliza says:

    I’m so excited you’re going to review MG books regularly. They’re some great ones out there that cover a variety of subjects and issues. I’m finding that MG books really deal with experiences that kids are facing but don’t become issue books – at least not the good ones.

    So many books to recommend. I’m breaking them up into categories for you.

    Speculative Fiction

    The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by MaryRose Wood – series, currently 3 books out. – The Incorrigible children were raised by wolves. Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is not ordinary governess. Only 15 and a graduate of Swanburne Academy of Poor Bright Females, she embraces the challenge. Where The Willoughbys failed to lack of heart, this series succeeds with tons of heart, humor and great word play.

    The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
    The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
    Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin (I know you had reservations about her previous book but this one brilliantly weaves the stories together)
    Breadcrumbs by Anna Ursu
    Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
    The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin
    Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier
    Liesel & Po by Lauren Oliver
    The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver
    Enchanted Forest series by Patricia C. Wrede
    Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce

    Realistic
    The Canning Season by Polly Horvath – Loved this one. Eccentric elderly aunts, suicide by decapitation, bears. What more could you want?
    Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. I loved this book and have to admit teared up several times. Even the premise will cause your heart to clench for these kids. I view Dicey as a true hero. Not one with superpowers or magic who has to save the world but one who is in an impossible situation but who doesn’t give up and takes care of not only herself but her brothers and sisters. How can you expect a 13-year-old to hold all that responsibility? But she does. It’s a longer book (400 pages)but so worth it.
    A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck
    A Year Down Yonder (sequel to Long Way) by Richard Peck
    Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
    A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
    Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswant
    Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri
    The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

  8. Eliza says:

    Historical Novels
    May B by Caroline Starr
    One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
    Listening for Lions by Gloria Whalen
    Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

    I know these are long lists, but I hope you find something you’ll enjoy on them. I’ve tried to include some diversity in the lists.

  9. I really like this idea! It’s a great way to feature several books at once in a simple and digestible manner! Loved it! :)))

    On a side note, I think I’m adding “Two Weeks with the Queen” to my list! :)))

    Lucky for me, I work at Barnes & Noble, so I get a good discount! :D

  10. Eliza says:

    I forgot to add the Regency magic books by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer that are as fun as the Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson series. They’re epistolary novels. Plus, the Kindle books are now on sale for only $1.54 each. I liked the first one the best.
    Sorcery & Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot
    The Grand Tour or the Purloined Coronation
    The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After

  11. Rebecca says:

    I LOVE the Casson family books. Any stories that can make you laugh and cry in equal measure are winners in my book! My favourite would have to be Permanent Rose. There’s a bit towards the end that always makes me smile, can’t give away too much, but Rose says to her father:
    ‘They know the facts of life. And they believe them, too. So.’
    ‘And I suppose you know them as well,Rosy Pose?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Rose, cheerfully. ‘But don’t worry. I don’t believe them.’

  12. I loved Two Weeks With the Queen, it’s an extremely good book and I think this book shows a lot of good description on the children. It’s a really touching, I was hooked from start to finished. :-)

  13. de Pizan says:

    Some of my favorite MG:
    13 Clocks by James Thurber
    Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli
    The Edge on the Sword and sequel Far Traveler by Rebecca Tingle
    Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
    Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
    Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan
    Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett
    Dusssie by Nancy Springer
    just about anything by Karen Cushman, Gail Carson Levine and Margaret Peterson Haddix
    Young Wizards series by Diane Duane
    Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnodi Okorafor
    Squire’s Tale series by Gerald Morris (especially Lioness and her Knight; Savage Damsel and the Dwarf; and the Princess, the Crone and the Dung-Cart Knight)
    Cat Royal adventure series by Julia Golding
    Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Crown Duel/Court Duel by Sherwood Smith

  14. Rhapsody says:

    It’s so interesting to hear about what you had to say on Two Weeks with The Queen. I read it when I was about eleven and I can’t believe I missed so much the first time round – I’ll have to read it again. On the note of heartfelt Morris Gleitzman novels, Doubting Thomas really touched my heart when I read it. Give it a shot! ;)

  15. Ana says:

    OMG thank you so much for all of these recommendations!! I am adding tons to my wish list! :mrgreen:

  16. Darlynne says:

    I had to let you know how much I enjoyed Saffy’s Angel. Initially, I wasn’t really sure what I’d gotten into in the first few pages, but it is brilliant: Michael and his use of Droopy Di to motivate Caddy; Rose’s clear-eyed and calculated manipulation of her father, as well as her extraordinary talent as an artist. I love the Casson family and cannot wait to read more. Thank you so much!

  17. sarah says:

    YES! Please read The True Meaning of Smekday – it is one of my all-time favorite books! It is hilarious and full of heart. J. Lo and Tip – best comedic duo in MG sci-fi. I am a complete Adam Rex fangirl thanks to this book!

  18. Jenny says:

    Yes! Yes! Saffy’s Angel hooray! Saffy’s Angel is wonderful and I want everybody to love it, and I am happy you appreciate the “Wales is left” line, which is one of my very favorites. I also like the sign they make about the fox, poor fox. Oh, I hope you like the other Casson family books! The second one is truly my favorite, but I love them all so much.

  19. Eliza says:

    I had to pop back in here to thank you for recommending Saffy’s Angel. Like Darylnne, I was skeptical in the beginning but the Casson family soon won me over. The whole trip to Wales from the “Wales is left” line, to the signs, the teamwork, all was hilarious. I enjoyed how Rose is on to her dad and lets him know it. I’ve ordered all the other books from the library. Can’t wait for their further adventures.

    Also, wanted to mention a book I finished prior to reading Saffy’s Angel and then two series that I can’t believe I forgot in my (extensive) lists above.

    Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey (vol 1 in The Chronicles of Egg)

    Now, for two series that are great. They also are fabulous as audiobooks. The narrators for these series are some of the best.

    Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs. I think the UK has another narrator who isn’t very good. I heard a sample of his work and his interpretation of the Nac Mac Feegle is horrible. So, if you go the audio route, make sure Stephen Briggs is the narrator. These can be read separately but are better read in order as you can appreciate Tiffany’s growth as a witch.

    1. Wee Free Men – From Amazon: “Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland. Luckily she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle—aka the Wee Free Men—a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men.”
    2. A Hatful of Sky
    3. The Wintersmith
    4. I Shall Wear Midnight

    Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. For some reason this series hasn’t caught on here in the US but is quite popular in the UK. This one is best on audio because Rupert Degas is a master and really brings the story to life – both the characters and the humor. I haven’t read the last two yet, though I want to see if my predictions come true or if I’m totally off base.

    1. Skulldugger Pleasant: The Scepter of the Ancients From Booklist: “Twelve-year-old Stephanie Edgley inherits her uncle Gordon’s estate and is promptly attacked on her first solo visit to the property. A mysterious skeleton-detective, Skulduggery Pleasant, comes to her rescue, explaining that he thinks Gordon was murdered and that she may be next. The two join forces and set off to solve the crime in a series of magical adventures . . .”
    2. Playing with Fire
    3. The Faceless Ones
    4. Dark Days
    5. Mortal Coil
    6. Death Bringer

    One more, Mare’s War by Tanita Davis. My library has it as YA but I think it’s more middle reader. On a cross-country road trip, Mere tells her granddaughters about her life in the African-American regiment of the Women’s Army Corps both on assignment in the U.S. and in the European Theater during 1944 and 1945. This cover is beautiful.

  20. Darlynne says:

    @Eliza: YES! The Tiffany Aching books as read by Stephen Briggs are whatever comes after brilliant. I have the audiobooks on my iPod and go back to them frequently. And Skullduggery Pleasant is such an unexpected and clever treat. Honestly, I think YA narrators such as these (and Xanthe Elbrick who read Kristin Cashore’s Fire or Tim Curry in the Sabriel series) beat all the competition.

  21. Ana says:

    Darlynne and Eliza, I am SO pleased you both enjoyed the book. HOORAY.

    And thanks for the extra recommendations. I bought loads of your recommendations already (haha, I bought Wee Free Man just this saturday!) and will be reading them in 2013. I loved Mare’s War, reviewed it a couple of years ago.

  22. Eliza says:

    Yay, Ana! So glad that some of our recommendations intrigued you enough to pick them up. I can’t wait to hear what you think about it. I find Terry Pratchett’s writing very humorous but I love puns and satire so he’s right in my wheelhouse.

    Darlynne – Oh man, Tim Curry narrating the Sabriel series is brilliant times 2! I have those books, the Tiffany Aching books, along with The Thief of Time (the first Terry Pratchett book I read, and #1 in my heart), and His Dark Materials trilogy permanently on my iPod.

    Other narrators who rule: Daniel Philpott (Vampirates series – another fun series. I mean, vampires + pirates + pirates who are vampires = awesome. And it’s set in the future), Bahni Tupin (True Meaning of Smekday, The Mighty Miss Malone (which I haven’t read yet), The Help), Jenna Lamia (Moon Over Manifest, The Help, Saving Ceecee Honeycutt, Icefall, View from Saturday, etc.).

    I just checked and didn’t see any reviews listed for E.L. Konigsburg. So, I’ll list my 3 top books by her:
    1. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler;
    2. The View From Saturday; and
    3. The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place

    In case you don’t have enough recommendations, here are some other MG books I’ve enjoyed:

    The Theodosia series by R.L LaFevers (aka Robin LaFevers) (mentioned earlier this week by Sarah Beth Durst)
    The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly – lovely story of a girl becoming close to her grandfather through their mutual love of natural studies. Also nice to have a story of a family who loves and are involved with each other.

    The Foundling’s Tale by D. M. Cornish (Book 1 in the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy) – For fans of a complete world building and love of appendices that add to that world. This trilogy has amazing world building and a near perfect ending. Set in the world of the Half-Continent, the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy is a world of predatory monsters, chemical potions and surgically altered people. (Book 2 is Lamplighter and Book 3 is Factotum).

    Technically YA, but these are so fun I had to include them. We can all use a laugh.

    Fly on the Wall by – E. Lockhart. Okay, tecWhen Gretchen Yee, a student at the Manhattan School for Art and Music, wishes she were a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room, she never expects her wish to come true in such a dramatic way.

    Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley – This one may cure your poor superhero book streak. Okay, I’ll admit this book is silly but it’s a quick, fun, amusing read and isn’t that enough sometimes? Cat (Natalie) lives in an ordinary world like ours except that some people have special powers. Cat’s gift of talking to cats is so pointless she hides it from everyone except her best friends.

    My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park by Steven Kluger – This one surprised me – on how much I enjoyed both the story and, more importantly, the characters. The many characters are well-drawn and believable, and you will care about them. Also, this book is super funny and is an epistolary novel told in letters, instant messages, school assignments and e-mails. How many novels have such a cast of characters: A Red Sox addict who writes letters to his dead mother; his gay American-born Chinese “brother”; a love interest whose role model is Jacqueline Kennedy and who’s the daughter of the ambassador to Mexico; a young boy who thinks Mary Poppins is real; and a father romancing his son’s school adviser?

    Another superhero YA book:

    Hero by Perry Moore – Thom Creed, the gay son of a disowned superhero, finds that he, too, has special powers and is asked to join the very League that rejected his father, and it is there that Thom finds other misfits whom he can finally trust.

    That’s it. Someone stop me!!

  23. Ana says:

    This latest comment just make me trust your recommendations all the more. I have already read – and LOVED – Hero, My Most Excellent Year, Fly on the Wall and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate so I am getting all the others you recommended.

  24. Eliza says:

    Ana – so glad you liked those books. There’s something about the slow unwinding pace of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate that perfectly matches the hot summer days in which it the story takes place and where a day sometimes seemed to last forever.

    I’m, anxiously, looking forward to finding out how you liked the books and reading your insightful reviews. Fingers crossed that my recommendations don’t disappoint.

  25. [...] Indigo’s Star by Hilary McKay, second in the Casson Family series. Will it be as good as Saffy’s Angel? (spoiler: [...]

  26. [...] Why did I read this book: Because I absolutely adored the first book in the series: my review of Saffy’s Angel HERE. [...]

  27. Eliza says:

    Just popped back in to say that I finally got my hands on a copy of Two Weeks With the Queen and enjoyed it. I liked his growing friendship with Ted but more than that I like how he and his cousin became friends (and their plans to explore the Amazon and the cousin’s homemade grappling hook). Great mix of humor and pain without tipping over to sentimentality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current month ye@r day *

:D :-) :( :o 8O :? 8) :lol: :x :P :oops: :cry: :evil: :twisted: :roll: :wink: :!: :?: :idea: :arrow: :| :mrgreen: