Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath (J Mystery)

Mr and Mrs Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire 

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Mystery)

The summer solstice has arrived and the residents of Hornby Island are preparing for the festival of Luminara.  While Madeline’s parents are busy making luminaries, she is getting ready for her school’s awards ceremony where Prince Charles himself will be handing out the awards (Madeline is getting three!).  All is pretty much as it should be until Madeline returns home that night to find a mysterious note on her door stating that her parents have been taken in for questioning.  It was signed by “The Enemy” and even included a “mwa-haha”, which is NEVER a good sign.  With her decoder uncle in a sudden and rather inconvenient coma, Madeline is alone and truly in over her head.  She seeks help from Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire and although these two don’t seem to know what they’re doing, they DO have rather smart-looking fedoras and that has to count for something.  So, with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny on the case, this mystery is officially afoot!

Although Polly Horvath merely translated this story from Mrs. Bunny’s personal account, she still delivers a funny, quirky, and lighthearted romp that will delight and entertain young readers who enjoy a good mystery.  Filled with fiendish foxes, garlic-bread-eating marmots, exploding chapeaus, and high-speed chases, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire is an action-packed thrill ride where faith is blind, reason is deaf, and hope springs eternal.

Despite its whimsy and charm, Horvath does give readers a few poignant lessons that hopefully won’t get lost amongst all the fur, fluff, and fun.  Through Madeline, we see a girl caught between two worlds: the happy hippies of Hornby and the more mainstream children at her school on Vancouver Island.  Her classmates have already formed an opinion of her based solely on where she lives and nothing Madeline does can alter that prejudice: “[Madeline] didn’t know how to make the other children like her, and she felt she constantly had to defend herself from unspoken accusations about a way of life she hadn’t chosen to begin with.”  Pretty weighty stuff, but this is why Polly Horvath is one of my favorite children’s authors.  She never writes down to her audience and presents real-life problems in a way that young readers can easily relate to and connect with.  She also shows us that family is what you make it for the Bunnys, not all that familiar with humans or children, manage to see and appreciate something in Madeline that her own parents have chosen to either overlook or ignore and end up loving her as their own.  Lastly, she shows us the absolute wonder of simply being noticed and appreciated (see previous comment about Madeline’s parents).  Madeline has the unique gift to understand and communicate with animals.  When she mentions this to Prince Charles, he replies, “I’ve often heard animals speak.  Plants too.  It’s all a matter of noticing, isn’t it?  The richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe.”  In this world of clatter and clutter and non-stop input, it’s hard to just stop and notice the beauty that surrounds us every day.  It’s quiet and subtle and often goes unnoticed.  But lucky for us, we have a ten-year-old girl, two clever bunnies (with rather smart-looking fedoras), and the heir apparent to the British throne to remind us that it’s there and it’s well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

How did it all start?  Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers.  It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother.  Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right.  She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom.  Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce.  She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group.  So hungry for companionship and inclusion.  That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.”  Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.

Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader.  It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong.  R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally.  She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store.  In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda.  An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked.  Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.

The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since.  There is a very good reason for this.  Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace.  This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages.  It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness.  Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right.  Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret.  In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944.  Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (J)

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road

Elizabeth Janet Gray (Juvenile Fiction)

Three things gave Adam Quartermayne comfort: his harp, his friend Perkin, and his dog Nick.  But for five months now, all Adam truly cared about was his father finally coming to take him out of school.  “Today he’s coming.  I know it!”, Adam would find himself saying over and over again.  But his father was Roger the Minstrel, and the open road was his home.  Roger will come for him and when he did, together with their harp and viol, they would travel the countryside—entertaining people with their songs and stories.  But life is unpredictable and just when Nick had settled into the life he had always dreamed of fate comes along and changes everything.

Elizabeth Janet Gray takes young readers to late thirteenth-century England—a time of Welsh revolt and a period when England’s population boomed and towns and trade expanded.  Best of all, it was a time for minstrels and what an important commodity they were.  As Gray writes, “When a book cost more than a horse and few could read, minstrels’ tales were almost the only entertainment.  Minstrels brought news, too; they told what was going on in the next town, and what was happening in London, and where the king was.”  Gray transports her readers to a time filled with wine (the hot spiced wine is particularly pleasant), women (Jill Ferryman was especially goodhearted and kind), and song.  Lots and lots of song! She gives us an adventure for the ages filled with robbers, thieves, narrow escapes, dastardly deeds, and daring-dos.

At the heart of this book is eleven-year old Adam, whose solid moral center, resilience, loyalty, bravery, and kindness make him the ideal protagonist.  He understands that stealing food—regardless of the degree of hunger—is wrong and that showing genuine appreciation for an otherwise undesirable gift is an admirable trait.  More importantly, he shows us the value of faith and family.  Time and time again, the reader is reminded that a minstrel’s home is the open road.  As Roger once said to Adam, “A road’s a kind of holy thing.  It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together.  And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”  But I think in the end, Adam may have been more in agreement with the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (or just Pliny if you were a close chum).  For it was Pliny who gave us the beloved saying, “Home is where the heart is” and Adam’s heart was firmly placed within a master minstrel and a red spaniel with long silky ears.  Perhaps Pliny would have made for a rather good minstrel?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.christianbook.com

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The Black Stallion by Walter Farley (J)

The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion

Walter Farley (Juvenile Fiction)

The tramp steamer Drake—loaded with coffee, rice, tea, oil seeds, and jute—was pushing its way from India and heading to New York City.  Aboard was young Alexander (Alec) Ramsay, who had just spent two months in India with his uncle.  Also on board was a wild black stallion picked up in an Arabian port.  Alec knew enough about horses to be intrigued by the magnificent beast, but also wary.  This was not an animal to be underestimated.  But one night, the Drake encountered a fierce storm which would ultimately spare only two passengers:  Alec and the stallion whom he called “the Black”.  Can these two possibly form an alliance in order to survive their harsh and uninhabited island home?

The Black Stallion, published in 1941, is the first of twenty books in The Black Stallion series written by Walter Farley.  The twenty-first book, The Young Black Stallion, was co-authored with Farley’s son, Steven, and published shortly after the author’s death.  At the time of the book’s publication, the news was dominated by the war in Europe and so this book not only served as a respite from the ensuing turmoil, but was also a reminder of the good still inherent in humans.  The Black Stallion is a wonderful story about the importance of trust, loyalty, and devotion to each other during the most trying of circumstances.  Today’s young readers may find this story’s text to be a bit hokey given its multiple uses of the words “gee” and “swell”, but this book is an excellent example of how far someone can go when they not only have faith in themselves, but they have the unified support of those closest to them.  Alec is surrounded by loving and encouraging adults who do not treat him as an idealistic child, but rather as a competent and trustworthy peer.  Modern juvenile fiction often pits the young protagonist against skeptical parents, jealous schoolmates, or crotchety neighbors—anything that presents an obstacle that our young hero or heroine must overcome.  The Black Stallion instead focuses on positive relationships and the rewards that come with perseverance and good old-fashioned hard work.

The unlikely relationship between Alec and the Black garnered much awe and attention from all who witnessed it.  One such observation came from a ship’s captain and his first-mate, Pat.  After the captain marveled at how gentle the Black was in the presence of Alec, Pat replied, “Yes, sir,” he said, “one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.  I wonder where it’ll take them?”  Lucky for us, it took them on many, many unforgettable adventures that would span twenty-one books and an incredible forty-eight years.  Enjoy.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly (J)

Return to the Willows

Return to the Willows     

Jacqueline Kelly (Juvenile Fiction)

The Mole and Water Rat drifted along the River in a tiny blue-and-white rowboat.  The current gurgled and chuckled, delighted with its comrades for the day.  The sun smiled down upon our heroes and gladdened their hearts; the lightest of zephyrs ruffled their fur.  There was not a hawk in the sky, and even the dark fringe of the Wild Wood glowering in the distance could not cast a pall upon the shining hour.

This first paragraph sets the stage for a wonderful and, dare I say, epic tale that awaits our wonderful friends Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger.  If you are a lover of our friends’ original exploits in The Wind in the Willows, then rest assured this tale contains just as much mayhem, mishaps, and mischief to keep your heart quite full and content.  Although we have to once again contend with those dreaded weasels and stoats, we are treated to several new friends including a nephew, a best friend, and a wonderfully clever and brave love interest for one of our deserving heroes.  As Rat well knows, the current is a fickle friend and you never know where you might be led, but with our loyal four friends by our side, we know that we are in for quite a wild ride.

When I first spotted this book on the library shelf, I must admit that my first reaction was, “How DARE she!  I mean the GALL!”  Honestly, you simply don’t go fussing with Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale all willy-nilly and higgledy-piggledy.  Well, do you?  But after reading the opening, I knew our friends were in very safe and capable hands.  Kelly stays remarkably faithful to Grahame’s writing style, use of words and phrases, and our beloved characters and their stories.  The added footnotes and chapter introductions were clever and amusing and will help young readers understand the many English references found throughout the story.  For example, Footnote #60 reads, “In England, the wedding reception is called the wedding breakfast, even if it’s held in the afternoon.  Yes, I know that’s odd.”

Return to the Willows can be read as a standalone, but it’s best read after the first has been properly savored and enjoyed.  There are many references to the original that Kelly tries to provide as much background as possible for newcomers, but having a familiarity with our heroes and their past exploits will provide a wholly more satisfying adventure.  Forgive me, Ms. Kelly, for doubting you and please accept my humblest apologies and sincere gratitude for breathing new life into Rat, Toad, Mole, and Badger.  You have treated them with the care, dignity, and grace they all deserve.  Now off we go for the River awaits!

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse (J)

The Music of Dolphins

The Music of Dolphins     

Karen Hesse (Juvenile Fiction)

I swim out to them on the murmuring sea.  As I reach them, their circle opens to let me in, then re-forms.  The dolphins rise and blow, floating, one eye open, the other shut in half sleep.

They discovered her during a routine surveillance flight.  At first, they thought she was a mermaid with hair down to her feet and a body blanketed in seaweed.  But as the flight crew on the Coast Guard Jay Hawk flew closer, they realized that what they spotted was not a mermaid, but a young girl.  The crew named her Mila meaning “miracle” for how else can one explain how a young girl could survive for so many years with only dolphins for mentors and companions?  As researchers teach Mila language and music, she slowly begins to understand what it means to be human and the more she understands, the more she longs to return to her beloved sea and the security of her dolphin family.

Hesse gives us a beautifully captivating story that is filled with love, loss, and a longing for home.  Mila narrates her journey from the sea to captivity and Hesse adeptly allows young readers to experience Mila’s learning curve and metamorphosis from “dolphin girl” to human through the use of font size.  A large font size is used initially to show Mila’s unfamiliarity with newly introduced customs and language.  As her proficiency and comfort increases, the font size decreases.  When Mila slowly begins to feel trapped within her human confines and her hope of being returned to the sea fades, the font begins to increase and the reader immediately understands that she is reverting to her former self.  This visual successfully creates a sense of suspense and anxiety for the reader.  By simply altering font sizes, the reader knows that the situation is turning dire for our young heroine and allows Hesse to avoid spelling it out for them.  It’s a clever use of fonts and highly effective.

Although Mila is enjoying her time on land and all the new discoveries she encounters on a daily basis, nothing ever quite matches the pull she feels for home.  Just as the cliff swallows make their 6,000-mile flight every March to San Juan Capistrano, California or you hear of a family pet traveling months and hundreds of miles to find its way back to its owner, nothing quite matches the lure of home.  Like another literary heroine who found herself picked up and then dropped into a foreign land, Mila reminds us that there really is no place like home.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (J Historical Fiction)

King of the Wind

King of the Wind    

Marguerite Henry (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

The foal was to be born under a favorable sign—a new moon in a new month—and thus assured strength and speed.  While the horseboy, Agba, was asleep, the foal was born and it appeared that indeed Agba’s master was correct for on the foal’s hind heel was a white spot, an emblem of swiftness.  Unfortunately, the foal also bore the wheat ear and this foretold of evil.  Agba knew this foal was special and he named it Sham, the Arabic word for sun, because its coat was a flaming red-gold.  Although orphaned and shunned by the other spring colts, Sham thrived under Agba’s watchful care until one day, one ill-placed foot and one well-placed hoof would forever change their destinies.

Marguerite Henry gives young readers a story detailing the origin of the Godolphin Arabian, one of three stallions that founded the modern Thoroughbred (Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk being the other two).  Part fact and part fiction, this book follows Sham from Morocco to Paris and then finally to London.  His life passes through the hands of a sultan, king, carter, Quaker, innkeeper, and earl all the while keeping company with a loyal and mute horseboy and a tomcat named Grimalkin.  As King of the Wind is based on historical fact, our story takes place in the early 18th century and Henry stays true to the time period by portraying a harsh but realistic view of how life was for little Agba and Sham.  Younger readers, especially those fond of horses, may be uncomfortable reading of Sham’s harsh and unfair treatment, but Henry chooses realism over sentimentality so readers can glean an accurate understanding of Agba and Sham’s daily struggle for survival.

Early in Sham’s life, Agba makes him a promise: “My name is Agba.  Ba means “father”.  I will be a father to you, Sham, and when I am grown I will ride you before the multitudes.  And they will bow before you, and you will be King of the Wind.  I promise it.”  Henry gives us a beautiful adventure story that brims with friendship, honor, and loyalty and reminds us that any promise worth making is a promise certainly worth keeping.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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