My kids have entered that nebulous no-mans-zone known as the middle grade (or tween) years: too old for simple chapter books (like The Magic Tree House series, for example), but too young to demolish YA books about vampires by the dozen. Most of what I know about children’s books I’ve learned with them, as I come with fresh eyes to each stage along the developing reading abilities. In the course of the past year, we’ve come across one wonderful author whose books are perfect for this in-between stage, Laurel Snyder.
I try to read books that I think my kids will be interested in before I pass them along (a goal that’s not always possible). Having heard good things about Laurel Snyder’s Any Which Wall on Twitter, I read it, thought it was good (but maybe a little “quiet” after the early Harry Potter books with flying broomsticks, three-headed dogs and evil wizards, which we’d recently finished) and settled down to read it with my eldest daughter over a few nights. I quickly learned that middle grade novels are deceptively simple. While there may not be a lot of car chases and explosions, there’s a ton of stuff going on below the surface (developing self-image, the politics of friendship, learning to navigate in the real world, peer pressure, changing relations with younger siblings) and my daughter picked up on these right away. What seemed a simple — although charming — story to me: four kids spend the summer together in a small Iowa town where they are perfectly safe to bike wherever they want and stay out exploring the woods all day, was an exciting adventure, with a large dose of the “wouldn’t it be great/scary if I could do that” and a clever lesson that magic, though fun, could never be as simple as it seems in books, to a 9-year-old.
The wall of the title is a wishing wall that the kids discover in a cornfield. There’s no manual, no instruction book, and no elderly, bearded wizard to hold their hands, so they have to discover what it is and how it works by accident, through trial and error, and most importantly by using their imaginations. They end up taking several trips in time through the wall, but each turns out to be different than they imagine (medieval castles were very dirty, smelly places to live in, even for princesses; the wild west was a dangerous place for kids and pets; and the worst pirate in the world is nothing like Jack Sparrow). My daughter really responded to the freedom the kids had to explore, to puzzle things out and reconcile the different needs, fears and interests of four kids of different ages. Since we finished Any Which Wall last year, my daughter has chosen to give it to many of her friends for their birthdays — which seems to be her ultimate seal of approval.
Laurel Snyder’s new book, Penny Dreadful, is another wonderful adventure for middle grade readers. “Almost-ten”-year-old Penelope Grey appears to have everything going for her: she lives in a huge brownstone, her parents attend charity balls, and Penelope is raised by a tutors and nannies. The problem with this picture is poor Penelope is colossally bored. One day, as if she’d just discovered a magic lantern with a genie inside, Penelope wishes that life were more like a book. The next day, her father quits his job to write a novel and the family quickly slide into, not poverty exactly, but they’re heading down that road pretty fast. When her mother inherits an old house with some eccentric tenants in rural Tennessee, Penny is happy as can be because she appears to be living inside an exciting adventure story at last. However, life stubbornly refuses to yield a tidy method of restoring the family fortunes: her father finds writing harder than he imagined, Penny’s hunt for Briscoe Blackrabbit’s fabled treasure isn’t as lucrative as she hoped, and the best job her mother can find in their small town is as the municipal garbage collector. Without spoiling things, suffice to say that the resolution to the story is much more realistic and practical than Penny’s romantic schemes. The book is a great read for any child whose family is dealing with financial strain or changed employment circumstances.
The quiet strength of Penny Dreadful is once again the way the characters interact, the relationships between the eccentric, often elderly tenants and the crowd of rambunctious children that have the run of the place all summer. Penny’s parents try to shield her from their financial worries, but Penny’s a perceptive kid, even if she lacks the experience to know that treasure hunting is an unlikely way to restore her family’s fortune. Also like in Any Which Wall, there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when kids could have the run of the forest, fields and rivers of a small community which will fascinate today’s over-scheduled and never-unsupervised children. (There’s also an hilarious subplot about a boy whose over-protective parents are protecting him from a host of imaginary food-allergies. Anyone who has ever read a parenting book — or been cautioned against sharing food at lunch time — will enjoy the children’s scheme to prove to his parents that he’s a perfectly healthy child.)
I’ll leave the last word on this wonderful novel to Down-Betty, a former wild-child now one of the eccentric, elderly tenants, who cautions Penny that “Life gets too busy for doing things once you grow up. We grown-ups often miss out on the very best things because we’re so busy being grown-ups.” Like Down-Betty’s observation, Penny Dreadful is at once a celebration of the unfettered joy of childhood, an acknowledgment that it isn’t always possible or necessarily advisable to hide the realities of life from your kids, and a reminder that we could all do with a little of the fearless sense of possibility and optimism of young children.
Laurel Snyder’s blog.
I’ve met Laurel Snyder once. She is as funny in person as you would expect from her novels.
I received a review copy of Penny Dreadful from the publisher.