Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part Four:
Two First-Timers Make Their Mark

h1 April 28th, 2007 by jules

Here’s the continuing middle-grade novel round-up, the first book here being for the younger set and the other being for your slightly older middle-grader (I’ve mentioned before that I hate the category game, but I feel like I need to point that out).

And both titles feature some unforgettable heroines, so let’s get right to it then. Without further ado, meet Moxy. Meet Cadence . . .

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little
by Peggy Gifford with photographs by Valorie Fisher
Schwartz & Wade Books
On the shelves: May 8, 2007
(review copy)

Nine-year-old Moxy Maxwell may not have actually started her required summer reading — Stuart Little, of course — but she’s at least had it on her person practically all summer. It’s “spent a considerable amount of the summer soaking up sun and water,” as she has carried it with her everywhere: in her backpack, on her lap, and in the car on the way to rehearse her water-ballet daisy petal routine, where it then promptly fell into the pool. “It was also true that Moxy’s mother had found Stuart Little on the porch under the broken leg of the wicker coffee table more than once.” When the book opens, it’s late August — specifically, it’s the day before school begins — and Moxy’s mother warns her: If she does not stay in her room and read all of the book, “there were going to be ‘consequences.'”

This is Peggy Gifford’s first children’s book. Told with much tongue-in-cheek drama and hyperbole (it opens with . . . “because I am the first to write {this story} down, you will have to accept my version of the astonishing and tragic events that befell Moxy Maxwell last August 23”), she’s nailed the dread that some students face with the ‘ol required summer reading assignments. And it’s a fun ride, thanks to Moxy’s unique and memorable voice: She’s clever and quick and, well, a nine-year-old version of Cadence (see review below). She has a list of “211 Career Paths” she’s considering, which includes shepherding (thanks to the suggestion of her friend, Sam), writing an advice column for senior citizens, dentistry, award-winning synchronized swimming, and selling peaches off her peach orchard. In fact, it’s the peach orchard idea that leads to the book’s climax, in which her mother confronts her and grills her about Moxy’s brilliant procrastination techniques:

“Well,” said Moxy, “if I make enough money selling peaches — of course, they would have to grow first — to send myself to college and dental school, if that’s the Career Path I choose . . .”

Moxy stopped for a moment to look at her mother looking at her. Her mother’s face had a curious expression on it, as if what Moxy was about to say next might be the most interesting thing in the world.

“Well,” Moxy began again, “if I did all that, I sort of thought you would think I was so smart I wouldn’t need to read a book about a mouse. Or anything else, for that matter. Unless of course I wanted to.”

There’s a lot of this type of understated humor here. Just moments after this conversation with her mother, she admits a truth to her (“even though this struck Moxy as a somewhat unnatural thing to do”), and “was so startled to hear herself say this that she lurched a little to the left to get out of the way of herself.” But, best of all — just moments later when Moxy makes an unfortunately infuriating and amusing (though completely earnest in her mind) misstep in the conversation in all her efforts to evade her mother and win her Stuart Little battle — there is this moment:

Reader, can I describe the expression on Mrs. Maxwell’s face? It traveled from Stunned to Puzzled and back. It moved on from there to places Moxy had never visited before, places like Self-Doubt and Despair. It crossed into territories like Hopeless and Surrender, and on the way it passed very near Laughter.

This is light, summer-reading fare. David at The Excelsior File had a good point when he wrote the following:

The book is a much faster read that it appears, given that some chapters have titles longer than their accompanying text (Chapter 7, In Which Moxy’s Mother Says No is followed simply with the dialog “No.”), and it certainly is much lighter in subject matter than most books that appear on summer reading lists. Were it not for the artificial chapter breaks and rambling distractions the book could be condensed into a very good, humorous short story. A beach read for the third grade set, perhaps?

But, as he goes on to say, “this is more like one of those confections a child gobbles while they are killing time in the library.” So, yes, it’s a quick, easy read, and Moxy is such the spirited, rebellious protagonist that it also brings to my mind so-called reluctant readers. I think they’d like this one. And we can add this to the reluctant-reader appeal: Valorie Fisher’s photographs in the style of what Kirkus Reviews aptly called “Moxy’s twin brother Mark’s cinéma vérité documentary.” He’s snapped photos of the soaked Stuart Little; Moxy’s messy room (which she decides to clean before reading, ’cause, you see, “{a} book of this magnitude — 144 pages — required a great deal of space”) as well as the “after” photo of the room; a photograph of her pissed-off mom from Moxy’s point-of-view, which — according to Fuse #8 — is Anne Schwartz herself (co-director of Schwartz & Wade books); and many more.

According to Kirkus, Gifford is working on Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes. Moxy’s an endearing character; I’ll be eager to find out what she’s up to next.

Letters From Rapunzel
by Sara Lewis Holmes
February 2007
(library copy)

This is Sara Lewis Holmes’ debut novel, winner of the first annual Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest. An epistolary novel (that quickly becomes tantamount to reading a young girl’s diary), it centers around twelve-year-old Cadence who calls herself Rapunzel. Cadence is extremely close to her father, a poet, who is suddenly hospital-bound with clinical depression. Soon after his hospitalization, Cadence finds an intimate and cryptic (but incomplete) letter he had written to someone nameless, addressed to a post office box. In the hopes that the recipient of the letters will help her save her father, she composes letters and sends them to this particular post office box, #5667. However, she finds herself writing so much more — re-writings of fairy tales with her own plucky spin (one of her protagonist princesses decides not to marry the prince after all and not to sleep on any more piles of mattresses: She will no longer “take teeny-tiny steps. Instead, I opened my own detective agency, and lived happily ever after, asking lots and lots of questions. THE END”); creative responses to homework assignments and math problems; and letters to the editor when she hears about the imminent destruction of one of the last authentic swing bridges in her area, a place holding special significance for her father and a place, she learns the hard way, that was the backdrop for a devastating turning point in her father’s illness. All the while, no one, including her mother, is talking to her honestly about his depression. She imagines herself a modern fairy tale heroine, mostly “just a victim in a tower,” she writes to the nameless letter recipient: Her particular prison tower being the afterschool Homework Club, and the evil spell that has afflicted her father, his depression.

The book has a steady, vigorous pace; Holmes’ Cadence is fully-realized (she’s entrancing when she really gets going) and will especially draw young pre-teen girls who feel a bit left of center or a bit out of place, especially if its due to their brain power in and out of the classroom (“Everyone thinks that smart people are happy, but it’s not true. What’s so happy about being able to see what’s wrong all the time, and not having the power to fix it? What’s so happy about feeling weird and different every day of your life?” she writes in one letter); as The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books put it well, the novel possesses a “{d}elicately layered grace and springiness”; and there’s a lot of poignancy in the novel, yet Holmes knows how to put on the brakes and keep it from getting too schmaltzy or overdone. Her relationship with her father is especially moving; here she is writing to the nameless post office box recipient (though it quickly becomes clear, especially after getting no letters in response, that she’s writing for her own self-preservation):

Did you know he writes me a letter, with a poem in it, every year, for my birthday? Half the time I don’t understand the poem – not completely anyway – but it doesn’t matter. Understanding isn’t the point. It’s how those poems make me feel. I read them to myself at night, sitting cross-legged on the bed, catching the words on the paper like they were fantastical beasts in the round, pale moonbeam of his silver flashlight. In the daylight, the words seem to run away when I try to read them, but at night, safely circled by my mighty beam, they slow down and turn toward me, and I whisper them to myself, memorizing their tracks on the page.

That’s what I love about my dad – he doesn’t give me cute or fancy verses for my birthday. He gives me strange and beautiful and mysterious pools of words, way over my head, but right at eye level with my heart. Those poems make me feel I’m truly growing older, that it isn’t just a cake-and-icing-induced hallucination.

And there are also several beautifully-rendered moments as Cadence works through her confusion and her sadness over her father’s sudden absence, all through her letter-writing. In thinking about her father’s love of poetry (“One time he said poetry happened whenever he felt ‘the weight of reality’s shadow.’ I didn’t get that exactly, but then he said it was like the world tilted, or shifted a little, so that he could see its hidden side”), she comes to understand her own writing abilities, albeit accidentally: “Then something weird happened. I wrote a poem about it. I didn’t mean to, but all of a sudden, it was like there was another SOMETHING in the room, like a ghost. You know how you feel like there’s breath on your neck? I didn’t know how long it would last, so I grabbed a pen and I wrote down everything I could about that moment. What I wrote didn’t make sense at first, but then I remembered what my dad told me once about his work – that he tried to make his poems like spells (good ones, not evil) so that when someone heard one, the listener would be haunted by the spirit of the poem, as he was when he wrote it . . .” Ah, loveliness.

Best of all, though, is Holmes’ perceptive commentary on modern education (or, at the very least, the tendency of some teachers to adhere a bit too rigidly to pedagogical orthodoxy). Cadence is brilliant and very determined to avoid trying the new gifted program that her mother and some teachers want her to join. Compounding her dislike for school, a handful of her teachers refuse her rather imaginative (“frivolous” in the eyes of some teachers) efforts at answering homework questions. “Why do teachers encourage you to be creative when they don’t mean it?” she writes. Indeed, her letters to the editor about the imminent destruction of the bridge are smart and incisive.

And, in the end, thoughtful readers will appreciate Holmes’ further commentary on some readers’ insistence for happy endings in stories and Cadence’s acceptance that “{y}ou must be willing to have your heart broken in order to live. There’s no other choice, scramble as we may to look for it, to find a way out of our dilemma. It is hope, crack your heart open and breathe, or close it up and die.” That’s not to say that something dreadfully tragic happens either; this is not the case at all. It’s simply that Cadence — and her father, for that matter — comes to realize that she must make herself vulnerable, despite the pain, that the light can come through, even when things seem topsy-turvy and beyond repair.

In the words of Cadence, “It’s very hard, rescuing yourself.”

4 comments to “Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part Four:
Two First-Timers Make Their Mark”

  1. Rescuing yourself is hard, but I preferred that to being saved by someone else.

    Remind me to track down Moxy.

  2. Can I be sufficiently freaked out upon discovering that, now having read the book, my favorite quote from it is scarily similar to what I wrote above?!

  3. That quote would be:

    P.S. It’s very hard, rescuing yourself. – Page 148

  4. I feel a little better about not winning this contest now. 🙂 The story I entered apparently wasn’t the kind they were lookign for.

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