Monday, March 15, 2021

MMGM: The Dreaded Cliff


The Dreaded Cliff was sent to me by Terry Nichols for review. She’d seen my previous review of Green Ember and asked if I’d like to read another book about talking animals!

This is no ordinary talking animal book. Terry has given each animal unique traits, which reflect their characteristics in the natural world. You can tell she did her research. Plus, these characters are just so much fun! I adored Flora the Packrat, who likes to use big words (though most often incorrectly!) and is a foodie of sorts.

If you like books about talking animals, where the characters are grounded in the real world, you will love this book!

Of course, it was much enjoyed by my younger son, fan of Green Ember.

Synopsis from

Flora is an ordinary packrat. She’s never flown through the air. She avoids strangers, especially singing porcupines and rude rabbits. She’s never met a king of the kangaroo rats, and she would never talk with an owl—because everyone knows owls can’t talk. Besides, they eat packrats.

Flora’s predictable life is all about snuggling in her treasure-packed nest and “snibbling” snacks with her packrat pal.

Life is perfect—except for the dreaded cliff. “Beware!” warn other packrats, and Flora’s stomach twists into knots.

All this is about to change when Flora learns about the ancestral packrat home, stuffed in a dark crack in the cliff, where countless packrats have raised their young. But a killer lurks there, driving packrats away.

The story haunts Flora, even as she tumbles into a faraway canyon where her life turns topsy-turvy.

Quirky critters, scary predators, and daring adventures impact her search for home, leading to surprising discoveries. And she learns she’s not such an ordinary packrat after all.

Instead of my usual 5 things I liked, Terry agreed to share about how she developed her amazing characters.

My question: 

One of the things I liked best about The Dreaded Cliff is how the animals had animal traits, like in Charlotte's Web.

Can you tell us about the research you did for these animals and how you used that to create their very unique personalities?


Terry's answer: 


I researched written articles, field guides, professional papers, video clips, anecdotal stories, and drew on my personal experiences to create the animal characters in The Dreaded Cliff.
Paco’s singing talent was inspired by online videos of Teddy Bear, a porcupine in a wildlife refuge who gnashes corn with gusto and clucks, yelps, squeaks, and argues with a range of inflections and slobbery yum-yummy sounds. I figured if a real porcupine has that kind of voice, then surely Paco sings opera. And of course, loves to eat. But Paco is also shy and doesn’t quite know what the fuss is about regarding his quills. I imagine a lot of young porcupines have a similar experience—they don’t know the power of what they’ve got until they actually use it. 

A kangaroo rat is a small package of spunk, adaptability, and resourcefulness. With his oversized rear feet he’ll pound the ground, kick sand in an attacking snake’s eyes, or bound away in amazing leaps. I see a lot of bluster and exaggeration in these solitary creatures. My armchair psychologist stepped in when I created King Cyrus. He’s perhaps compensating for his diminutive size, deep-seated fears (justified, when it comes to owls and badgers), and isolated lifestyle. Yet he has a caring, generous heart and yearns to connect with others—enough to welcome a lost packrat to his burrow.

Great horned owls are superb night hunters, with acute hearing, keen vision, and the ability to swivel their necks 270 degrees. Their silent flight and aerial perspective contributed to the story’s owl character. In its injured state, the owl appeals to my hero’s deeper sense of shared connection with the animal world, demonstrating qualities of a broader vision, wisdom, foresight, and mercy.
I’ve enjoyed the curiosity and intelligence of packrats for years and have had lovely face-to-face encounters with them. Hefty Grandma Mimi was inspired by the blubbery-looking packrat I caught in a livetrap once, who I imagined yearned for the protection and comfort of her ancestral home while she waited for me to release her. 

Flora is the packrat who “snibbled” my eggplants all summer long, scattered the compost pile across the landscape, and built her den in the ’79 Volkswagen van. Since that packrat was so fond of the compost buffet, I’m quite sure she was a food critic. Flora’s world of word play, treasure collecting, and food exploration is enough until the story of the ancestral packrat home stimulates her yearning for something bigger. And with her journey afar, she’s nudged to listen to her deeper self and is challenged to stay true to the essence of a packrat—who doesn’t just collect stuff—but collects stuff for a purpose, building on and joining in the bigger story of her packrat ancestors.

Thank you for sharing about the background of your characters! I love how Flora was inspired by your real experiences with packrats. 

To learn more about Terry and to download the great resources she has for teachers, parents, and book clubs, go to her website, Terry Nichols.

What books have you enjoyed lately?


If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.


  1. Great hearing all the research and personal experience Terry drew on to create her characters. This sounds like a fun book for kids who love animals.

  2. I think this sounds like a neat book. Love the cover and I love watching animals and observing their unique characteristics. Thanks for telling us about it.

  3. I've never dealt with packrats. I'm amazed the author has had so much experience with them.

  4. This sounds like such an awesome book! I loved hearing about Nichols's process creating her characters. Thanks for the great review!

  5. Such an enjoyable book that would make a great addition to anyone's bookshelf. I thought the tale was unique and fast moving. Thanks for featuring on MMGM.

  6. This is new to me and it sounds delightful! Thanks for the extra information from the author interview, too.

  7. Good to know about -- thank you for extra information and the author interview.

  8. Thanks so much Jenni, for the review, and thanks for all the comments, too. I really enjoyed thinking about how my characters came to life in The Dreaded Cliff. And, by the way, I looked at my wheelbarrow parked under my little shed today, and contemplated what to do with the packrat den inside of it, stashed beneath a box and hose I had stored on top. There was a sweet little nest made of my cat's hair, surrounded by sticks, juniper berries, cactus pieces, stones, and cat poop. I love those little guys. This just might be an abandoned den that I won't feel guilty about removing.

  9. Thanks for this detailed review. I enjoyed reading how the author created her characters. If I wasn't retired, I'd order it for our school library. I've added it to my Goodreads list, and can only hope my local library brings it in.

  10. I'm glad to learn of The Dreaded Cliff and I thoroughly enjoyed Terry's interview and learning about her character development process. I'm adding this to my TBR list. Thanks for sharing and have a fantastic reading/writing week, Jenni!

  11. I'm always fascinated by a behind-the-scenes glimpse into writing. I also happen to love research, so reading about other people who research is like living vicariously through them!

  12. I have been seeing this book around this week and it sounds so good. I love the sound of Flora and I can see her being a great character. Thanks for sharing. :)