Tag Archives: Middle grade novels

The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman

Kate’s life was boring. It was nice enough; she had nice-enough parents who both worked and a nice-enough younger brother, and they all lived in a nice-enough house. When her parents were home, though, they talked to each other about work things or stared at their phones, and Tom was, after all, a little brother. She never had the kinds of adventures that she read about in her beloved books. In an effort to shake up her world a bit, she wrote a letter to her infamous Uncle Herbert, whom she had never met. Apparently, he did nothing but was incredibly wealthy. She let him know that it was her birthday, and the least he could do would be to buy her present. So, he did.

Kate and her family awoke the next morning to the delivery of a steam engine, the Silver Arrow, placed on brand-new tracks in the backyard. Uncle Herbert himself, in a banana yellow suit, presented her with this full-sized train engine and coal car, and while her parents argued with him, Kate and Tom climbed aboard—still in their pajamas—and the train rolled onto the long-abandoned tracks in the woods behind their house. At the next stop, they added passenger cars, dining cars, a library car for Kate, and a candy car for Tom, and the kids were off on a magical adventure, picking up animals at each stop and dropping them off at destinations around the world and beyond.

The Silver Arrow is Lev Grossman’s first foray into middle-grade fiction. He is the author of the very popular grown-up series that begins with The Magicians, a Potteresque story of a group of recent graduates from magic school who drag their powers into a dissolute adulthood. The Silver Arrow is more of a Willy Wonka goes to Narnia story with a smidgen of preaching.

The fantastical elements of this novel are charming, hitting that lovely sweet spot between cozy and chilling. It’s all very well to pick up talking animals at each stop, but there are wild creatures curled up in the library car, and this could end very badly indeed. The animals introduce themselves with a quick, Wikipedia-like summary, such as the fishing cat: “I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of us. There aren’t many of us, and we don’t get as much attention as the big cats. We are related to the rusty-spotted cats and the flat-headed cats—unfortunate name that, although it’s true, they have very flat heads. And they eat fruit, if you can believe it. A cat that eats fruit! Also the leopard cats.” (pp. 89-90) Although informative and sometimes amusing, this device wears thin after a while. Grossman’s main objective seems to be to recruit children to save endangered species, fight climate change, and stop staring at their phones. All noble causes, to be sure, especially ending device slavery, but the didactic passages feel awkward and uncomfortable at times.

On the other hand, this is an exciting adventure story, written in an appealing, somewhat British style. Grossman builds a world where anything could happen, and his characters grow in knowledge and confidence as they handle dangerous situations, from flying a train into the sky to confronting freeloading warthogs. Quiet, studious children will relate to Kate, who loves to eat breakfast alone with a book, and everyone will approve of Tom’s fabulous candy car, which contains every confection a child could imagine. Young people who love animals will devour this title and may move on to effect change in the real world.

A fun fantasy with teeth, this novel would make a great family read-aloud.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Ware wants to be born again. This time, he wants to be a child that his parents could love, a normal child.

Ware’s mom had been president of her class, and his dad had been a sports star. They despaired of their introverted and dreamy eleven-year-old. Ware imagined being a knight, so that he could be brave and admired. He even kept a long list of the duties and goals of knighthood.

At the beginning of the summer, his parents decided to work double shifts so that they could buy the house they had been renting. Ware had to stay with his beloved grandmother, Big Deal, but when she broke her hips, he had to go to the Rec Center, a place he loathed. There was enforced Meaningful Social Interaction at the Rec Center, along with healthful exercise and constant supervision. When Ware looked over the fence one day and found Jolene planting papaya trees in the parking lot of the abandoned church next door, he slipped away and landed in Paradise—equipped with a smashed and rubble-filled baptistry where he could dive under the water and rise up a new boy.

Sara Pennypacker, author of the sparkling Clementine series and many others, fills this middle-grade novel with tender humor and such serious themes as religion, environmentalism, childhood poverty, and parental neglect. Ware and Jolene are tentative toward one another, both hesitating to trust because of their own secretive home lives. Completely unbeknownst to their caregivers, their days are invaded by the earnest young activist with a Very Important Father and healed by the hardworking, kind bartender. It is his uncle, though, who sees himself in Ware and sets him on the path to develop the gift that is already within him.

Readers will cheer for quiet Ware as he blossoms like Jolene’s gardens. Sweet and serious, this is a hopeful story for 9- to 12-year-olds. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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