Monday, May 18, 2015

MMGM: The Orphan and the Mouse

I have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of books with anthropomorphic animals, but I have a few exceptions: THE TALE OF DESPERAUX, THE POPPY SERIES (by Avi), and STUART LITTLE, of course.

So, while I might not have picked up THE ORPHAN AND THE MOUSE normally, when I saw it compared to Stuart Little and that it “reads like a classic,” I knew I had to try this one.

With a plot that is not only reminiscent of STUART LITTLE, but ANNIE as well, THE ORPHAN AND THE MOUSE is a gem I’m glad I took a chance on.

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

Can a mouse and an eleven-year-old girl be friends? When Mary, a mouse whose job it is to steal useful human items, and Caro, a lonely orphan, meet, it isn't under the best of circumstances. Mary has been attacked by a cat, and Caro must not be caught nursing a pest. Yet the two bond immediately. However, as a result of the incident, an exterminator is called, and Mary is blamed. She is left behind when her community, including her children, evacuates to a safer home. 

Caro also finds herself in trouble when she asks too many questions about a baby who appears at the orphanage. With the help of a loner mouse named Andrew, who models himself on the great hero mouse Stuart Little and has learned to read, Mary, Caro, and a group of orphans embark on a page-turning adventure. They must expose baby-napping criminals, save Caro from being sent to a workhouse, help reunite baby Charlie with his mother, and make the orphanage a safe haven for mice for generations to come. Could it be that the key to all this is knowing how to read? 

Set in 1949 and taking inspiration from E. B. White's Stuart Little, this heartwarming and exciting novel reads like a classic.

What I loved:

1.       The 1940s setting. I am a huge fan of this time period, from the music to the movies to the fashion. Some of my favorite concerts I've attended are from this era, and I still can't believe my good fortune that I got to see the incredible Rosemary Clooney sing several years ago. So 40s fangirl that I am, I loved the slang and the feel of the time period.

2.       A non-spunky main character. I found Caro, the human main protagonist, so relatable and endearing, from the backstory of losing her mother in a fire (and the scars, both physical and emotional it left), to her desire to be “good.” She’s unlike most typical plucky MG heroines, as she says about herself: “Too good…too studious, too obedient, too nice, even; entirely lacking in spunk.” I think ordinary kids will relate to her.

3.       Stuart Little references and well-developed animal characters. I loved how Stuart Little was treated like a real mouse and a hero to the mice protagonists, Mary and Andrew. Even though their story didn’t follow the same lines as Stuart (that’s what I expected at first), Stuart was always at the forefront of their minds. And these animal characters were just as well-drawn and interesting as the human ones.

4.       Multiple points of view. As I’ve said before on the blog, I’m not usually a fan of multiple points of view. But this one really worked for a number of reasons. One being that the author employed a more omniscient point of view, so dropping into different people’s (and animal’s) heads made sense. It also added to the old-fashioned feel of the book. Second, it allowed the reader to fear for Caro and Mary as we  knew what the antagonists were planning.

5.       Excellent antagonists.  I’m of the opinion, although it is something I struggle with in my own writing, that the best, most compelling stories are the ones with the most interesting antagonists. Mrs. George, the head of the orphanage, is no Mrs. Hannigan. She has her own hopes and fears and is strangely sympathetic in her own way. Randolph, the mouse antagonist, while not so well drawn as Mrs. George (partly because he is off stage for most of the book), also has strong, believable motives.

I’m limiting myself at five, but there were so many more things I loved about this book: the wonderful ending, the lyrical language, the incredible kid sidekicks, and the friendships, both mouse and human. I could go on and on.  THE ORPHAN AND THE MOUSE would appeal to fans of Desperaux and Stuart Little, and other classics about animals. Although I have to say, I think I like Orphan and the Mouse even better. It is a compelling and interesting story simply and well told.

 By the way, I won’t be doing a post next Monday due to the Memorial Weekend. See you in June!
 And I'm sorry I missed last week--I've been sick, but thankfully, am finally on the mend.

Have you enjoyed any books outside your normal genre lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

ISWG: Balance

I find it hard to socialize and get writing done. Does anyone else have this experience? April was a month when I did a lot of socializing, a lot of nonwriting things, but I hardly worked on my book at all.

So, I should feel bad, but actually it's made me question the way I’ve always looked at writing.

See, I’ve somehow felt that the more time I put into my writing—-and if I’m a serious writer that should be every day or nearly every day—the better I’ll be. After all, it seems like a lot of writers are always talking about their daily word counts or how much sleep they’ve missed to write or how early or late they stay up.

I know it takes sacrifice. Believe me, I’ve sacrificed quite a bit already to learn and grow as a writer.

But my question is, what about life? A few years ago, I came across a blogpost where a writer was urging other writers to cut out all extraneous things out of your life in order to write more. Don’t volunteer at your kid’s school. Don’t bring a meal to your sick neighbor. Don’t go on that vacation.

I didn’t like that post and I still don’t. If I do nothing but write (and believe me, this has been my de facto many times), I find I have nothing to say. My dialogue is stilted. My characters are lifeless.

I didn’t actually work much on my book this month, but I heard stories from friends that might make their way into a book. I had moments with my niece that I’ll never forget. I got to see several wonderful films and laughed much. I even (gasp) read books outside my genre.

So, April has been a month of living life. I'd forgotten how much I've missed that. It’s also been a month where I’ve given myself a bit of grace. I was greatly inspired this month when I did research for a post on Jeanne Birdsall (author of the National Book Award book, THE PENDERWICKS). She writes for a couple hours a day late at night. This is after she’s spent the whole day puttering, walking her dogs and working in her garden.

I have to think that her dogs and her garden have something to do with how she writes later.

So, in honor of giving myself grace and trying to achieve a better balance with my life, I am revising my January goals.

1.      Instead of trying to work on three novels (revise 2, start a third), I am aiming to finish revisions on one (my MG set in Scotland).

2.      Instead of aiming to write almost every day, I’m going to aim for once or twice a week until the summer comes and I’m no longer working as many hours or teaching my kids.

How about you? How do you balance writing and life?

Monday, May 4, 2015

MMGM: Winter Cottage

MMGM: Winter Cottage

This is an oldie, but goodie. It was first published in 1939, and I heard it about it recently on a “best books for kids” list. It wasn’t just the time period—although I love the 30s—but it was the premise--about a family living in an abandoned summer cottage—that stole my heart.

It is a classic, but one I had never heard of.

The synopsis (from Goodreads):

A family that is down on its luck during the Depression appropriates a summer cottage in the Wisconsin woods, where they spend the winter and welcome all visitors, including a runaway youth and two strangers. How Pops and his two daughters cope with their misfortunes without losing heart is a very entertaining story.

That doesn’t do it justice, so here is the book flap:

It is the fall of 1930, the beginning of the great depression. Thirteen-year-old Minty Sparkes is already aware that she has a large responsibility for her family’s well being, for although she loves her poetry-quoting father, both he and she realize that his verses and charm will not feed or house them and Eggs, Minty’s younger sister.

How the Sparkes family manage during this penniless winter—and the unusual experiences they have—make a story that young girls will read with understanding, sympathy, and delight. A double-surprise ending adds to the reader’s pleasure, and the handsome drawings by Fermin Rocker capture the feeling of the characters and local.

Ignore “young girls.” I think this is a book that would appeal to all.

What I loved:

A flawed parent who endearing. I supposed it’s because I am a parent myself, but I have a hard time reading MGs where the parent is despicable. Pop is shiftless and not very practical, but he loves his kids. And what’s not to love about a guy who makes prize-winning pancakes and quotes poetry?

A simpler time. Like reading Little House on the Prairie, this book reminds you of a simpler time, when kids made their own fun and when in dire straits, people made do. This was refreshing to read and a good reminder that although economic times have been hard for our country in recently, they are nothing to the Great Depression.

A platonic friendship. I really enjoyed Joe Boyles, a runaway, who joins them at the cottage. He and responsible Minty immediately hit it off, but throughout the book, it never goes beyond a good friendship. This was a refreshing change from most of the middle grades I read.

Premise. I loved the inherent conflict in Dad wanting to stay at someone else’s cottage and promising to pay “when his ship came in” along with Minty’s feelings of responsibility. You can’t help but feel for Minty and her dad. I also thought the book dealt with the ethical question of this in a very relatable way for kids.

Interesting twist ending. The author did a great job of giving of false leads so that I was pleasantly surprised at the ending—though I had guessed one of them. 

If you have a craving for a trip back to yesteryear or the 30s, check this out. Kids who like gentle reads with description and sweet endings would love it.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of the modern equivalent, THE PENDERWICKS, which I featured last week. I had read Jeanne Birdsall say that she wrote the PENDERWICKS, because she wanted to write a book like the ones she loved as a child. I wonder if WINTER COTTAGE was one of her favorites.

Have you enjoyed any children’s classics lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.