Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers
Coming June 2016!
middle grade fantasy
Grayling’s mother is a local wise woman that folks come to for ailments and problems. One day a mysterious magic roots her mother, and all of the other wise folk, to the ground, slowly turning them into a tree. And her grimorie, her book of spells and potions, has been taken. She sends Grayling to find it. But Grayling has no skills, powers, or real knowledge of her own. Or does she? She meets up with a band of powerful folk who haven’t been changed yet and they figure out how to save her mother, and all of the other wise folk. Grayling learns that perhaps she has some power after all… the most important of which is courage.
Though I wasn’t immediately grabbed by this one like some of her other titles, Cushman has done it again. It had a slow start and had some used themes, but in the end I really loved Grayling’s Song. This title set in an alternative medieval England, I always feel confident that the historical aspects of Cushman’s books are grounded in research . The mother-daughter relationship can be a difficult one and this does a great job of exploring it. Though Grayling doesn’t have a lot of confidence because her mother has called her feeble minded for many years, she ends up shining under pressure but not without much self-reflection and frustration. I also appreciate that, in the end, her mother treats her success as a matter of fact, saying that she knew we could handle herself, else why would she have sent her?
I think many mothers and daughters will be able to relate to this relationship. I would love to see this as part of a middle-grade Mother-Daughter book club reading. I think much discussion and personal growth would come from it.
Thanks to Edelweiss for this advanced readers copy!
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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
YA, historical fiction
A female spy (code name: Verity) during World War II is captured in France and held, interrogated, and tortured in a hotel-turned-prison. The first part of the book is her written confession of how she came to be falling out of a British spy plane in Nazi-occupied France. She says she is a turn-coat coward, giving codes her Nazi interrogators. I guess I just had a hard time liking her at first. The second part of the book is told from the point-of-view of Verity’s best friend, Maddie (code name: Kittyhawk). We pick up from the point where their plane crashed and Verity had to jump. Maddie spends weeks looking for her and we slowly begin to see overlaps in their story and several truths are revealed. We are then reminded that the first part was Verity’s written “confession” and not actually her POV at all. They were simply words she was writing. A whole other level of her story, and more importantly, her rebellion and determination are revealed which dramatically changed how I felt about Verity.
What started out to be what I thought was a slow read, I had a mind-blown moment when everything came together. I thought I had made the mistake of listening to it on audio. There were several names and abbreviations that didn’t make sense to me that I thought might have been better to physically read. It turns out that all of those get explained during Maddie’s POV. There is also a brief part where we bounce back-and-forth from Verity to Maddie POV that was well done on audio.
I don’t usually put too much stock into people saying it is a book you will need to read twice (I think my threshold for that is pretty high), but this one definitely is. I want to go back and find the clues I didn’t even realize I was missing.
I fear that the slow beginning might have lost some readers. I remember reading some reviews saying as much, thinking it was just a book about friendship. While it is a rare YA book without romantic entanglement that really focuses on the friendship and love between two women, sticking with it until the end gives it a much deeper, more important meaning.
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The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
middle grade, historical fiction
Brother Jamie and sister Ada are brought up in poverty by their abusive mother in London. Ada was born with a club foot and their mother keeps her hidden away in their small flat, sometimes locking her cruelly in a small cupboard. When World War II begins, the children in her neighborhood are evacuated due to bomb scares. Ada, who wasn’t going to be allowed to go, sneaks off with her brother and they are the last children to be selected to live with a reluctant woman named Susan. She is wrestling with her own demons, but she quickly grows to be fond of and even love the children. They blossom under her care with lots of freedom, hygiene, good food, and love, none of which they have ever really had before. They end up saving each other as they deal with their own crippling pasts.
This is a great coming-of-age story as Ada goes from whimpering dependent to a strong, brave leading character. She endures quite a bit in a small amount of time and she comes through it shining. At first I thought the plot was coming along a little slowly and then I realized that Ada’s reaction to the big changes she has faced was delayed. The more she thought about her time with Susan coming to an end, the harder it became for her to cope with her past. She would revert back to her former self having panic attacks, but Susan was calm, patient, and understanding as she helped her make it through them. Similarly, Susan would turn inward when she missed her friend (partner?) Becky who passed away prior to the events of the story. Eventually, Ada helps coax her out of her funk in the same way.
I listened to the audiobook and it is clear why it won ALA’s Odyssey Award for excellence in audiobook production for children/young adults. Narrator Jayne Entwistle does a wonderful job giving voice to all of these characters. I could see the story playing in my head as I listened. If this is adapted to film, I fully expect to see Judi Dench as Susan. A close second would be Imelda Staunton.
The Secret Garden is mentioned as a book that Susan reads to the children and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Ada and Mary. Sickly and suddenly without parents, they are sent to live in foreign environments that end up saving them. And immediately after listening to The War that Saved My Life, I watched Tangled with my daughter. I was struck to the number of parallels to the story of Rapunzel.
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