The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin
This book reminds me a bit of A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, but for middle school readers. It is written by a British author and set in the U.K. The book is narrated by a girl named Daisy and opens with her death at the age of 12 in a car accident. Daisy’s soul is sent back to earth as a newborn puppy. But she still remembers her life as Daisy. She spends the beginning part of the book trying to get back to her parents. She has been born as a dog in the same town where she lived as a girl and sees a newspaper article about her accident. Her father survived, but is now paralyzed.
Daisy starts out her life as a dog with a mean boy and his mother, but she runs away from them and ends up with a homeless man named Jack who is kind to her and introduces her to 14-year-old Kip, new to the streets after running away from foster care following the death of his mother. Daisy ends up being named Ray by Kip and she becomes his dog for better or worse as they travel in search of Kip’s father, who doesn’t know he exists.
Daisy does actually meet her parents at one point in the book, when she is at an animal shelter, but the reader comes to realize as the book goes on the bittersweet truth of Daisy’s new existence: being with her parents again isn’t meant to be – this is a new life. Daisy slowly begins to lose the memory of who she was and becomes more dog-like in her thinking and actions. The reader sees her transform from human in a dog’s body to dog. A beautiful and poignant story of life, loss, and love, with serious issues handled gently. The story is also interspersed with humor from Daisy’s first-person narration, so it is not too heavy. It does also have a happy ending when Kip tracks down his father and he and Ray are happily taken in by him and his family. We also see Daisy’s parents again, who adopt a service dog, so their lives go on also.
The Borrowed House by Hilda Van Stockum
This book is set in Holland during the Nazi occupation of World War II. Janna is 12 and lives in Germany. She is a member of the Hitler Youth and believes in her country and her leader. She has been apart from her parents for two years. They are well-known actors and are traveling, entertaining the German troops. They are currently in Amsterdam and have procured a house to live in, so they send for Janna. The house they are living in belonged to the Van Arkel family, a well-to-do Dutch family who have been evicted from the house from the occupying Germans for their own use. Janna and her parents share the house with another German family, a couple and their young son. Janna’s mother is close with a Bavarian officer, whose connections got them the house. As Janna looks through the house and sees the possessions of the Van Arkel family, including a girl her age whose room she is occupying, she begins to wonder about the family. She also sees how the Nazis treat people out in the street. This, combined with discussions with her Dutch tutor and overhearing the Bavarian officer criticize the Nazis, leads to a slow realization that what she has been taught in the Hitler Youth is not the truth. She and her mother develop compassion for the victims of the Nazis, while their father remains loyal. When Janna discovers that a boy named Josef is hiding in a secret room in the house and then learns that he is Jewish, her moral integrity is tested verses the Nazi propaganda that has been indoctrinated in her. Janna chooses to protect Josef and keep his secret from her parents.
An exciting story that is not too graphic in its depiction of Nazi horror to be inappropriate for mature middle schoolers, though it does mention Nazi euthanasia of older people and the gas chambers in the death camps, so children should have already been introduced to the Holocaust before reading it. A criticism is that it really doesn’t show the true Nazi horror – Janna and her mother as well as the Bavarian officer are sympathetic to the victims and Janna’s father is ignorant of the true evil that is happening. The book may paint too flattering a portrait of German citizens, since many Germans hated Jews and informed on them and condoned or participated in the violence and horror, but as a coming-of-age story about Janna and her self-actualization, it a fine story, and as historical fiction, it teaches about the Dutch Resistance and the dangers of prejudice in a manner suitable for middle schoolers.
Marigold Bakes a Cake by Mike Malbrough
This picture book is a laugh-out-loud delight. Marigold the cat is a finicky perfectionist who loves to bake. Mondays are his days for baking and he can’t tolerate any interruptions while he is perfecting his culinary creations. But this Monday, he keeps getting interrupted by birds coming through the window – first a finch, then a pair of pigeons, then a trio of loons. With little patience, Marigold shoos the birds away, getting a bit more undone each time, until he loses his temper with the loons and a madcap chase around the kitchen ensues, resulting in a total mess and his cake in ruins. He decides to go for a walk to cool down. While he is out, the enthusiastic birds do their best to bake a cake. The results are less than stellar, but a calmed-down Marigold appreciates the effort and the chef in him is challenged to teach the birds how to bake. In the comic ending, his efforts are a total failure, but the birds sure had fun!
The text is filled with colorful language, including fun alliteration, rhymes at each new interruption, and clever use of adjectives and adverbs, and the action-packed watercolor illustrations full of humorous details add to the fun and zaniness of the text. I liked that there wasn’t a perfect ending with the birds learning how to bake from the master chef – sometimes in real life things don’t work out and this lesson is taught in a very funny way.
Bruce’s Big Move by Ryan T. Higgins
The third book in the delightful and hilarious Mother Bruce series. In the two previous titles, a grumpy bear named Bruce ends up the adoptive parent of a group of goslings who mistake him for their mother. They are now living together as a family, with a group of mice also making themselves at home in Bruce’s den, much to his annoyance. Try as he might, the mice will not leave. Bruce finally can’t take it anymore and packs up the geese and moves. But the geese miss their mice friends and are listless. In the end, the mice show up in a moving van and normalcy (with all its chaos and noise for Bruce) is restored. With bold, detailed illustrations that add to the hilarity. I love these books – they are so funny and also sweet and touching, as Bruce is a wonderful provider in spite of his curmudgeonly ways and they make a lovely if unconventional family.
I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld
This is a sweet picture book that consists of a collection of wishes for a child, rather than telling a story. Each two-page spread is one wish, with charming illustrations expressing the wish. The book opens with an illustration of two children flying a kite across a green field, with the wish: “I wish you more ups than downs.” Several more wishes follow, and the book closes with the lovely declaration: “I wish all of this for you, because you are everything I could wish for… and more.”
The wishes can be understood by children with the help of the illustrations, but also have deeper meaning for adults that children may not comprehend, which gives the book added depth and emotion for the adult reader. For example, a child may take the wish accompanied by the illustration of the kite as just a wish that the kite flies, but adults understand it also wishes for a life with more happiness than sorrow. A wish accompanied by an illustration of a girl watching a caterpillar on a sidewalk reads, “I wish you more pause than fast-forward.” A child may not understand this, but I take it to mean a life with time to savor all the wonderful moments, instead of being rushed. The child can still appreciate the wonder of the caterpillar and understand sometimes going slow rather than fast. A beautiful celebration of love between children and parents or other loving adults in their lives that adults can also appreciate.
Corso the Donkey by C. E Pothast-Gimberg and translated by Hilda van Stockum
This is a lovely book I came across when I was searching for titles by Hilda van Stockum, a Danish author who wrote some World War II chapter books about the Dutch experience under Nazi rule, as well as a few charming series about family life. This book was published in the early 1960s and was translated from the Dutch into English by van Stockum.
It tells the story of a girl named Toni, who lives in Corsica with her father and brothers on a farm. Her mother passed away two years ago. Her mother was originally from Holland and when her brother visits the family from Holland to buy some donkeys and transport them back to his country to sell, he suggests that Toni stay with him for a year. Toni wants to see where her mother came from, so she agrees, though she will miss her family. She has a special donkey named Corso who was born when her mother died that she is especially attached to. She doesn’t want her uncle to take Corso. They agree that he will not sell Corso, but Corso will make the journey with them to Holland and then return with Toni. In Corsica, Toni at first has a hard time relating to her aunt, who is quiet and doesn’t seem to approve of Toni’s ways, which are freer than what her aunt would prefer. But in time Toni realizes her aunt does care for her, just in her own way. It is hard for Toni to see the donkeys get sold one by one, but she makes sure they all go to good homes and raises a ruckus when she sees donkeys being mistreated. As an animal lover, I really liked how the book emphasized kindness and patience rather than harshness or beating as a way to get the animals to cooperate. I also have a fondness for donkeys, sweet and gentle creatures that they are. Jealousy arises when a blind girl Toni’s age grows fond of Corso and he seems to prefer her to Toni. In the end, Toni allows Corso to stay with the girl – she does this with a giving heart, knowing her mother would approve. She in turn has a young donkey whose mother was killed in a storm to take care of. This book held my interest throughout and taught important values about love, friendship, and kindness. Though it is old-fashioned, a good story stands the test of time and children do love books about animals.
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman
11-year old Gladys loves to cook, but her parents eat take-out and don’t have the first clue about cooking. Gladys does most of her cooking in secret after school before they come home from work. They would prefer she have more friends and do more typical kid activities. When she accidentally sets the kitchen on fire while making creme brulee, she is temporarily banned from cooking. Meanwhile, she gets an assignment at school to write about her passion. She hands in the essay as a cover letter applying for her dream job: restaurant critic for a big New York City newspaper. Through a series of mishaps, the essay ends up in the hands of the food editor and Gladys is hired via email to write a freelance review of a downtown bakery! Now she has to find a way to get downtown to visit the bakery without her parents finding out. In her quest to get to the bakery, Gladys ends up making new friends and enriching her solitary life. This is a charming read, with lots of humor. The characters and situations are mostly over-the-top (her parents start out like caricatures but are portrayed more realistically by the end of the book), but it is great fun and Gladys does grow as a person and develop real relationships as a result of her scheming. The book also introduces a number of foods from exotic locales, including Asia, and includes a recipe at the end. As someone who enjoys cooking and baking, I found it especially appealing. The book is followed by two more: The Stars of Summer and Stars So Sweet.