Sunday, January 20, 2019

MMGM (1/21/2019) Classic Critique: Matilda by Roald Dahl

I find it fascinating that there are books that, for some people, are an essential part of their childhoods but, for others, are unheard of. My mother, a teacher, has recently been teaching some of her students a book that I adored as a child, Matilda by Roald Dahl. I don't think Matilda was as popular as some of Dahl's earlier books (such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so, for MMGM, I have a Classic Critique of the novel that I hope will convince you to read it!

Matilda's main character is the eponymous Matilda, a five-year-old girl with incredible intelligence (she is smarter than most adults) and curiosity. Matilda is held back, though, by her mean, unloving, and unintelligent parents, who she plays pranks on at the beginning of the book. When Matilda starts school, she meets both her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey, and her evil, abusive headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. With Miss Honey, Matilda gets to learn beyond her grade level and have someone who cares about her, but with Miss Trunchbull, Matilda and her fellow students are harmed and terrorized. When Matilda discovers something about herself and something about Miss Honey, she devises a plan to save both Miss Honey and the other students from Miss Trunchbull.

  • Matilda is an excellent main character. Whether you are a young child or an adult, you will love Matilda and even want to be her. The trials and tribulations that Matilda endures can be infuriating, but her smarts and wisdom always help her through as she takes charge of any situation. Although Matilda is only five, the knowledge she has acquired from reading numerous books and observing others makes her mature enough to be liked by older readers.
  • The book is not too serious. Author Roald Dahl's books are usually filled with zany, wonderful exploits, and Matilda is no different. Watching Matilda get revenge on her parents through such methods as switching her father's hair products with her mother's silver hair dye filled me with a sort of giddy delight. The terrors that Matilda and her classmates face at school at the hands of Miss Trunchbull are unnerving and despicable, to say the least, but Dahl does a good job of making them just ridiculous enough not to traumatize young kids (such as when Trunchbull throws a student by her pigtails).
  • The book is extremely deep. Although it never takes itself too seriously, Matilda is quite profound about children, parents, and education. Matilda is a child with an innate capacity for learning and discovery, but her parents could care less. They are too wrapped up in appearances and money to recognize how special their daughter is, and they actively discourage her from reading or demonstrating her intelligence (due somewhat to fear of her being much smarter than them). At school, Miss Trunchbull refuses Miss Honey's request that Matilda be moved up several grades, leaving her stuck in a grade where she knows everything being taught and more (although Miss Honey is nice enough to let her read higher-level textbooks in class). The struggles that Matilda faces mirror those of other children who have potential but are limited by those around them. I also felt that Miss Honey, who, Matilda discovers, had an abusive and emotionally toxic childhood, was realistically depicted as someone who struggled to leave her abuser behind before eventually breaking free (an idea surprisingly current for a book from 1988).

Minor con:
  • The book is random and unrealistic at one small point. There is one place where Matilda goes off the rails, and that is when Matilda discovers that she has a supernatural power. If that sounds random, well, it is. In contrast to the beginning of the book, when Matilda uses her intelligence to get back at others, Matilda uses her newfound power to help others toward the end. Because supernatural powers are obviously not real, this development limits how relatable Matilda is and damages her characterization as someone who can get by with just her brain. Dahl tries to tie this power back to Matilda's bottled-up brainpower at the end of the book, but it feels contrived. Although the last time Matilda uses this power is tremendously satisfying, and although it will most likely not bother younger children, I feel like it was a bit of a waste of Matilda and her more realistic capabilities.

Despite Matilda's power not working for me as an older reader, I still adore Matilda. It is a book that is often wacky and hilarious but also deep, with complex lessons about parenting and schooling. Readers of all ages will appreciate different parts of the novel, making it a great book for a family to read together. Even if you read it by yourself, though, Matilda is a book that will make its way into your heart and make you wonder why you didn't read it years ago!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

MMGM (1/14/2019): Sheets by Brenna Thummler

I've been reading a lot of graphic novels lately, so, for MMGM, I am recommending another one: Sheets by Brenna Thummler.

Sheets switches points of view between two characters: Marjorie and Wendell. Marjorie is a 13-year-old girl who deals with regular middle-school problems, such as avoiding bullies and having crushes. However, she also has to run her family's laundromat, formerly run by her late mother. Taking orders from constantly disgruntled customers takes a toll on her, and it doesn't help that one (delusional) customer wants to buy the laundromat and turn it into a grand resort. Wendell, meanwhile, is a young ghost. He lives in the monotonous, gray (literally) Land of Ghosts, where he doesn't fit in with the other ghosts and suffers through an unpleasant support group for those who died young. Wendell runs away and finds Marjorie's laundromat, which, being a floating sheet, is extremely fun for him to stay in. However, as he inadvertently wreaks havoc in the laundromat and upsets its already-impatient customers, Marjorie has to keep her customers happy and keep her life together. One of my favorite parts of Sheets is how likable and realistic Marjorie and Wendell are. Marjorie's father has fallen apart from grief, leaving Marjorie as the de facto parent in the family. Her motivation to keep going, plowing through hardship after hardship as well as her own anxieties and feelings, makes her a great main character. Wendell, meanwhile, shows how a child might feel after dying so early. His feelings of loss of the life he could have lives, as well as worries stemming from his actual death, make an impossible character (a ghost) seem lifelike. Sheets is very melancholy, especially for its first half, but it is sprinkled with enough humor to keep it enjoyable. I also love how author Brenna Thummler has built an entire world through her illustrations. Houses have quirky interiors and many rooms, small businesses abound on every street, cars seem so realistic that I'm pretty sure I've seen them in real life, and the beautiful blues, greens, and pinks of Marjorie's world contrast with the dull grayish-blues of Wendell's. (Side note: why can't my neighborhood be filled with pink trees and their leaves?) Thummler's attention to detail makes Sheets seem like just an extension of the real world. If you enjoy books with realistic worlds, excellent characters, and great balances of humor and sadness, then Sheets is the perfect book for you (and everyone else)!

MMGM (1/7/2019): Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

I'm back for the new year! I've had an incredibly hectic two months, so I've barely had time to sit down and read much less write a review. However, now that it's winter break, I finally have a review! This week, I am recommending Crush by Svetlana Chmakova.

You may remember that, back in July, I read the first two graphic novels in this series, Awkward and Brave, and wholeheartedly recommended them. I just finished reading Crush over the course of one day, and I think it may be even better than the first two! Crush follows Jorge, a side character from Brave. Jorge happens to be quite large for a middle-schooler, and he uses his size as a superpower, scaring bullies out of hurting their targets. Despite being somewhat terrifying, Jorge has two good friends from the athletic club at his school, Garrett and Olivia (or Liv). Most years, his life would be perfectly pleasant, but this year is odd. Jorge develops his first crush on a girl named Jazmine, and he finds himself unable to even speak to her due to sheer nerves. To make matters worse, Jazmine already has a boyfriend, Zeke, who hates Jorge and the other athletes. Garrett and Olivia are always fighting, and Garrett desperately wants to be part of a group of "cool" (mean) kids, led by another athlete named James. As the drama starts to spill over (and explodes in Chapter 9), it is up to Jorge to make the best of the endless trials of middle school. As with Awkward and Brave, the characters and story of Crush are incredibly lifelike. Even though I never knew what might come next in the plot, when it did happen, I always knew how the characters would react (even minor ones that we had barely seen). Jorge is an incredibly likable narrator, always trying to do the right thing and sometimes surprising himself with how much he is actually capable of. I also loved Jazmine, whose shyness belies her caring-but-not-a-pushover demeanor (as a shy person, I always love seeing a well-written one!). The story is built on many current topics that readers will recognize. Cyberbullying plays a major part in the later parts of the story, which shows just how many people cyberbullying can truly hurt. Coach Rashad also lectures her students in the athletics club before an upcoming dance about "body autonomy," or respecting other people's bodies and asking consent before touching, kissing, etc., an idea which comes into play several times later in the book. Finally, Crush still has author Svetlana Chmakova's expressive, adorable, beautiful art style, which just makes it even harder to put down! Crush is a book that any reader, in middle school or not, will love and remember for a long time!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

MMGM (10/22/2018): The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea by Eileen Beha

For MMGM, I am recommending The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea by Eileen Beha.

The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea is told from the point of view of a sock monkey named Throckmorton. Ten years earlier, a wealthy woman named Ethel Constance Easterling sewed Throckmorton, her 49th sock money, and gave him to her new great-granddaughter, Annaliese, continuing a long-held tradition. Annaliese loved Throckmorton as a young child, but, all of a sudden, she stopped paying attention to him. But when Throckmorton's original maker sends out invitations to her 90th birthday celebration, which require that attendees bring their sock monkeys, Annaliese and Throckmorton happily reunite. Problems at Annaliese's home, Eastcliff-by-the-Sea, remain, however: she is still a lonely girl with a sad/angry father, a mother who left for reasons unknown to Annaliese, a nanny who doesn't fit in well at the home, and two siblings who are soon to be sent to boarding school, leaving Annaliese alone. In the days leading up to the big birthday celebration, Annaliese and Throckmorton learn more about what exactly is going on in the Easterling family, persevere through hardships, and prepare for the party, where several shocking events change both Annaliese and Throckmorton's lives forever. One of the best parts of The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea is its characters. Throckmorton's third-person narration of the story does a great job of showing readers what it would be like to be a sock monkey, while Annaliese's remarkable personality allows her to keep going in her hard life, caring about others and bringing a spark of life to the world of the story. The story is rich with long-hidden family drama (which everyone loves when it isn't related to their families!), tales and traditions, and mystery. Other characters are wonderful as well, such as Annaliese's great-grandmother, whose remarkable eccentricities and wisdom make her a compelling addition to the story. Finally, the ending of the novel makes the 300-page read absolutely worth it, tying up story threads realistically and happily! The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea is a novel unlike any other, and readers young and old will adore the novel's fabulous characters, developed world, and hopeful and uplifting themes!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

MMGM (10/8/2018): Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson

Sorry about my erratic posting schedule lately—life has become nothing short of insane! I have another graphic novel this week to recommend (they are helpful when I have almost no time to read): Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson. I hope to get back to posting more often—that may or may not be this month, but I'll try!

A few months ago, I read Greg Pattridge's review of Libenson's newer book, Positively Izzy, but I decided to read her debut graphic novel first. Invisible Emmie switches viewpoints between Emmie, an extremely quiet girl who loves to draw but hates to be around others, and Katie, an extremely popular girl who seems just about perfect. Emmie's part of the story looks like a book filled to the brim with illustrations (usually one or two per page), while Katie's storyline is drawn in traditional comic panels. The novel chronicles one day of school in which Emmie loses a silly but mortifying love note that she wrote with her friend, Brianna, and a mean student finds it and tells virtually the entire school. Katie (who shares Emmie's crush) attempts to help her, but it is ultimately up to Emmie to make the best of her situation, even if she is no longer as "invisible" as she used to be. Emmie is an excellent narrator for the majority of the story that she tells, interspersing silly doodles and visual gags with descriptions of her own anxiety and experiences. Katie may seem unrealistically perfect to the reader, but her qualities exist for a good reason (which will shock you when you learn it at the book's end!). Other characters in the book are great, too, such as Brianna, Emmie's super-smart and somewhat-bossy best friend (the same one who is a character in Positively Izzy), and some of the other students in the school, who gradually become more than just nameless faces. Finally, the art style of the novel is fun and cartoonish, and the use of dimmer, sadder colors in Emmie's portion and brighter, more vivid ones in Katie's portion helps to emphasize the two characters' different temperaments. All in all, Invisible Emmie is a fun-yet-poignant graphic novel that all readers, whether shy or not, will relate to and enjoy!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

MMGM (9/17/2018): Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

I'm back! For MMGM, I am recommending Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol.

I absolutely loved Brosgol's previous graphic novel, Anya's Ghost (see my review here), so I was extremely excited to see that she had a new one out! Be Prepared is a semi-memoir that chronicles 10-year-old Vera's experience at a Russian summer camp called ORRA. Initially, Vera is excited to find a place where she will not be the odd one because of her race and traditions, but the camp is not what she expected. Vera struggles with problems from being resented by fellow campers (whether by losing competitions or accidentally getting them in trouble) to being in a place without running water but with plenty of bitter, wild animals. However, Vera's determination (and some positives of camp, such as a friendly counselor named Natasha) help her make the best of her weeks at camp and maybe even have a little fun. I adored everything about this book, but one of my favorite parts about it was how compelling Vera herself is. Her misery makes you sympathetic toward her, but, despite making a couple of poor choices, she never dwells too much on her sadness and makes for a character you'll root for throughout the book. Another great part of the book is the art. Like Anya's Ghost, Be Prepared is drawn in a three-color style (this time green, black, and white) which gives the book as a whole a unique personality. Each drawing still manages to convey immense emotion, however, helping to draw readers in. Finally, I loved how the novel depicts what it is like to feel out of place due to factors such as race, money, age, and more. Almost every reader will relate to at least one of these themes. All in all, Be Prepared is an enormously enjoyable graphic novel that will elicit laughter, pain, joy, and awe from readers of all ages and personalities!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

MMGM (8/27/2018): The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson

For MMGM, I am recommending The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson.

This extremely short (about 130 pages) Newbery Honor book, which was first published all the way back in 1958, tells the story of a homeless man named Armand who is perfectly content with his life, in which he has given up responsibility and is free to do what he wants. However, Armand then finds a homeless single mother and her three children living under the bridge in Paris that he also lives under. He initially dislikes this family but later begins to bond with the children and take care of them while their mother works. Armand ends up trying to help the children and their mother find a home after realizing that having some responsibility in life can be worth it. This novel is fun to read, with Armand and the children's adventures helping to maintain an upbeat tone. The book's short length also works to make the book a breeze to move through! However, The Family Under the Bridge also tells an important story that can teach young children to have empathy for the homeless and not blame them for their plight, making it a valuable book that I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to read!