On Snowden Mountain by Jeri Watts

On Snowden Mountain

Jeri Watts, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Sep. 10, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 208

Themes: Mental illness, Separation, WW ll, Abuse, Mountain community, Friendship

Book Synopsis:

Ellen’s mother has struggled with depression before, but not like this. With her father away fighting in World War II and her mother unable to care for them, Ellen’s only option is to reach out to her cold, distant Aunt Pearl. Soon enough, city-dwelling Ellen and her mother are shepherded off to the countryside to Aunt Pearl’s home, a tidy white cottage at the base of Snowden Mountain.

Adjusting to life in a small town is no easy thing: the school has one room, one of her classmates smells of skunks, and members of the community seem to whisper about Ellen’s family. She worries that depression is a family curse to which she’ll inevitably succumb, Ellen slowly begins to carve out a space for herself and her mother on Snowden Mountain in this thoughtful, heartfelt middle-grade novel.

Why I like this book:

Jeri Watts has written a richly textured story with a heartwarming narrative about the bond of family, community and their connection to each other. I meandered my way through this story which culminated in a satisfying ending that left me feeling hopeful for Ellen, her family and friends.

The characters are colorful. Ellen is resilient even though her mother is lost to a spell of deep sadness within and her father overseas serving his country. This Baltimore city girl has a lot to get used to living with lively Aunt Pearl — no indoor plumbing, no electricity and outhouses.  Aunt Pearl is a strong woman who speaks her mind. She is stern on the outside and creates a safe space (with structure and hard work) for Ellen, but on the inside she is a generous soul. Ellen develops a friendship with a creative and sensitive boy, Russell Armentrout (Skunk Boy) can’t read or write because he is forced to trap skunks by his drunk and abusive father. Russell teaches Ellen about the nature around her and the special traits of animals. Ellen teaches him to read and count. She also meets other memorable characters who impact her life like Moselle Toms, the town gossip and troublemaker and Miss Spencer, the school teacher.

Watts introduces the reader to some heavy topics: parental separation, mental illness (depression and bipolar disorders), alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse (both child and spousal).  Both Ellen and Russell form a bond as they confront the issues of their parents. These are timely and important issues that many readers will easily identify with. This is an excellent discussion book for students.

Favorite Quotes:

She was right. It was “very different” from Baltimore. There were no streetlights, so velvet darkness wrapped around us that night — a dark of such depth I felt it cloaking me so tightly that I was strangling in it.  So soft, so smooth — and yet so deep as to swallow you.”

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

Speechless by Adam P. Schmitt

Speechless

Adam P. Schmitt, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Nov. 6, 2018

Pages: 304

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Death, Grief, Mental Illness, Family Relationships, Speech, Humor

Synopsis:

How do you give a eulogy when you can’t think of one good thing to say? A poignant, funny, and candid look at grief, family secrets, difficult people, and learning to look behind the facade.

As if it weren’t uncomfortable enough being stuffed into last year’s dress pants at his cousin’s wake, thirteen-year-old Jimmy has just learned from his mother that he has to say a few words at the funeral the next day. Why him? What could he possibly say about his cousin, who ruined everything they did? He can’t recall one birthday party, family gathering, or school event with Patrick that didn’t result in injury or destruction.

As Jimmy attempts to navigate the odd social norms of the wake, he draws on humor, heartfelt concern, and a good deal of angst while racking his brain and his memory for a decent and meaningful memory to share. But it’s not until faced with a microphone that the realization finally hits him: it’s not the words that are spoken that matter the most, but those that are truly heard.

What I like about this book:

Adam Schmitt’s complex story deals with bullying, death, grief, suicide and dysfunctional family relationships. These heavy topics are all introduced through the lighthearted perspective of a 13-year-old Jimmy, who narrates the story. Jimmy is one of the best characters I’ve read in a while.  He has a strong voice. Even though he can’t remember one positive memory of his cousin, he delivers a eulogy at the end that readers won’t forget.

It is important to see mental illness addressed in stories. I remember knowing kids like Patrick when I was in school, so this story intrigued me from the start. I appreciate how carefully Schmitt develops his characters. He even makes me care about Patrick by the end of the story.

Patrick is off-the-charts disturbed. He has no friends except his cousin, Jimmy — and that is pushing the envelope. Jimmy can’t recall a single positive memory of his cousin. When he got a toy, Patrick broke it. If he got ice cream, Patrick would find a way to make him drop his cone.  At a Fourth of July party, Patrick injures Jimmy with firecrackers. Patrick’s family doesn’t know what to do about Patrick’s behavior, and their reactions are unpredictable.

Each chapter begins with a small truth that Jimmy learns about funerals: people who show up, people who enjoy the drama of attending a wake, family members who show their true colors, things you may hear that you don’t expect, everyone has a story, and listen more than you speak. Jimmy’s observations offer a lot of comic relief. And he constantly worries that the button on his tight-fitting pants, which is too loose, will finally pop at the wrong moment.

The author took some risks with this story, but the ending makes it worth the read. Even though I would  like to know why Patrick did what he did, it lends itself to some good discussions with middle grade readers. Speechless is an intriguing story.

Adam P. Schmitt has been a middle-school educator for more than fifteen years. Speechless is his debut middle-grade novel. “This story came to me in a single moment while at the funeral of a former student…The characters here don’t represent any one person, but several people in my life who had stories to tell and didn’t know how to find someone to listen.” Schmitt lives in Oswego, Illinois, with his wife and two sons. Visit Schmitt’s website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rules for Stealing Stars

Rules for Stealing Stars 51lZ0dDU84L__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_,jpgRules for Stealing Stars

Corey Ann Haydu, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Sep. 29, 2015

Pages: 336

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Sisters, Magic, Mother and daughters, Family problems, Family secrets, Mental Illness, Hope

Book Jacket Synopsis: Silly is used to feeling left out. Her three older sisters think she’s too little for most things — especially when it comes to dealing with their mother’s unpredictable moods and outbursts. But for Silly, that’s normal. She hardly remembers a time when Mom wasn’t drinking.

This summer, Silly is more alone than ever, and it feels like everyone around her is keeping secrets. Mom is sick all the time. Dad acts like everything is fine when clearly it is isn’t. Silly’s sisters keep whispering and sneaking away to their rooms together, returning with signs that something mysterious is afoot and giggling about jokes that Silly doesn’t understand.

When Silly is brought into her sisters’ world, the truth is more exciting than she ever imagined. The sisters have discovered a magical place that gives them what they truly need: an escape from the complications of their home life. But there are dark truths there, too. Silly hopes the magic will be the secret to saving their family, but she’s soon forced to wonder if it might tear them apart.

What I like about this book:

  • A bold and skillfully written novel that touches on magic and realism. Teens will find this a thrilling read. The magic is exciting, but also borders on a dark side, with a little paranormal thrown in the mix.
  • The sisters live in a dysfunctional family, which is the very heart of the story. There is tension in the family and themes of  mental instability, abuse, and loss. Their journey is sad as family secrets unravel and they have to depend upon one another in order to cope with their mother’s illness.
  • The sisters’ characters are richly developed and believable. Eleanor and Astrid are 14-year-old twins who share a bond that make 13-year-old Marla and 11-year-old Silly, feel like they live in another universe. Eleanor is smart, bold, bossy and the protector. Astrid is creative and spacey. Marla is sensitive, sad and whiney. Silly (Priscilla) is the baby that everyone protects. She narrates the story in first person and turns out to be the strongest and wisest of the sisters.
  • The magic Eleanor and Astrid discover in the bedroom closets offer the sisters a way to escape into a fantasy world that is free of pain. The magic is different for each sister. It can be calming, exhilarating, or scary. It can hold memories. But it also offers the sisters a way to bring healing to a broken family. The ending is satisfying and hopeful. This story lends itself to important discussions among readers.

Corey Ann Haydu is the author of YA novels, OCD Love Story, Life by Committee, Making Pretty, the middle grade novel Rules for Stealing Stars, and the upcoming novel Falling Girls and Missing Boys.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.