About Average, by Andrew Clements, 128 pp, RL 4

ABOUT AVERAGE is now in paperback!

Andrew Clements is a prolific author of the bestselling (as in, 2.5 million) story about a boy who makes up a new word, Frindle. Published in 1996, Frindle is often part of the fourth and/or fifth grade curriculum at many elementary schools. In fact, Clements, who began his career as a teacher, sets almost all of his books (excluding the "Things" trilogy, which are for slightly older readers) squarely in school. Even his new mystery-adventure series Keepers of the School series, while a change in genre, is set in a school. And, coincidentally, the only other Clements book I have read is his novel titled The School Story, which is about a girl who writes a school story titled, "The Cheater." I loved The School Story and have no idea why it has taken me this long to read more of Clements's books because he truly is a phenomenal writer, gifted at thinking like a kid and expressing those thoughts on the page, while also crafting layered, intriguing stories from premises that can sometimes seem simple and straightforward but are ultimately deeply rewarding.

I was drawn to Clements's newest book, About Average, because of this seemingly simple premise, as described in the blurb:

Jordan Johnston is average. Not short, not tall. Not plump, not slim. Not blond, not brunette. Not gifted, not flunking out. Even her shoe size is average. She’s ordinary for her school, for her town, for even the whole wide world, it seems.

But everyone else? They’re remarkable. She sees evidence everywhere—on TV, in magazines, and even in her classroom. Tremendously talented. Stunningly beautiful. Wildly gifted. And some of them are practically her age!

After reading so many books about seemingly average kids who find out they are wizards or descendants of Greek gods and seemingly average kids who get invited to detect their way out of a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art public library or find a hidden movie about a lake monster, I was really, really ready for a book about a real, truly average kid living a real, truly average life. And that's what I got - initially. While I remain just the tiniest bit disappointed that, in her averageness, Jordan turns out to be above average, Clements has woven such a wonderful, compelling story that takes place over the course of one school day that comes at the tail end of the school year, that there is no way that I cannot love About Average. But, I am still on the look out for a book about a truly average, from start to finish, ordinary kid...

Clements draws you into About Average and a day in the life of Jordan Johnston, sixth grader at Baird Elementary School in Salton, Illinois, immediately. Her day begins with Pomp and Circumstance, band practice for the upcoming sixth grade graduation. Jordan is very good at putting her violin way carefully and "polishing the rich brown wood and keeping the strings in tune, and keeping the bow in tip-top condition. It was playing the thing that gave her trouble." But, she refused to give up on it. She has given up on so many other things over the course of the school year. Her chances of winning a trophy or getting written up in the newspapers or being amazing like the kids she saw on television were dwindling. As Jordan's day unfolds, little by little, Clements reveals that this seemingly ordinary kid has a lot going on inside. Jordan is being bullied, but it's a subtle kind of mean. She's not being hit, she doesn't feel "threatened or in like she was in danger . . . mostly she felt stuck. And trapped. And puzzled." Who the mean girl is and why she is bullying Jordan is almost as compelling as how she is making her feel bad. A few months back, Jordan spent class time making three lists: Things I'm Great At; Things I'm Okay At; Things I Stink At. Her first list, Things I'm Great At, has only two items: babysitting and gardening. The "Okay" and "Stink" lists are pretty long, though. Somehow, Marlea Harkins has gotten her hands on these lists and is using them to tease and humiliate Jordan.

But, besides being good at gardening and babysitting, Jordan is good and being good natured and she tries her best to turn the situation with Marlea around. She spends quite a bit of her time thinking about how to respond to Marlea's taunts and how to turn the other cheek and be genuinely nice to her, when she realizes how much space she is taking up in her thoughts. Over the course of the day we get inside Jordan's head as she thinks about Jonathan Cardley, the cute boy who sits next to her in math, talks to her best friend Nikki about her lists, and writes haiku in English class. Intermittently, we get a third person narrative featuring Joe Streeter, the local weather guy and meteorologist as he becomes increasingly concerned about the intensifying weather conditions that can make summer on the plains hot, sticky and occasionally dangerous. Clements deftly and satisfyingly (although just a bit harrowingly from the perspective of a parent) brings together the two story lines for a dramatic ending to About Average. Even better, Clements manages to take Jordan's average qualities and talents, as well as one from the Things I'm Great At list, and show that she is anything but average!

Source: Purchased Audio Book

Andrew Clements's books - most of which have brilliant cover art by the amazing Brian Selznick.

Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School Series

The "Things" Books


Closed for the Season byMary Downing Hahn, 182 pp, RL: Middle Grade

Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn, best known for her ghost stories, is a fantastic (and rare) mystery for young readers. Winner of the Edgar Award for juvenile mystery in 2010, Hahn maps out a realistic mystery that could (for the most part) believably be solved by kids, making for an exciting read. The foundation of Hahn's mystery is the friendship that grows by fits and starts over the course of the story between main character Logan Forbes and his new neighbor, the odd, outcast verbivore, Arthur Jenkins.

Closed for the Season begins with the Forbes family driving to their new home in Bealesville, VA,  where his father has taken a job as an art teacher. After the long, sweaty ride, to say that thirteen-year-old Logan is disappointed by the run-down, overgrown house that will be his new home is a huge understatement. On top of that, his new neighbor is Arthur Jenkins, a boy who seems to be lacking in any and all social skills, walking right into the Forbes house and eating cereal by the handful straight out of the box. A year younger than Logan, Arthur is overly talkative, opinionated and hard to ignore. Worn down by the heat and the boredom as his father is busy fixing up the house and his mother sits on the porch reading, Logan takes Arthur up on his offer of a tour, on bicycles, of the very small town. It's during this outing that Logan learns why his house is so run down. Known as the "murder house," it is where the former owner, Myrtle Donaldson, was pushed (or fell) down the cellar stairs to her death a few years earlier. Everyone on town thinks she was murdered, especially since her house was ransacked, and there are rumors about a missing briefcase filled with embezzled money from the Magic Forest Amusement Park where she worked for decades. Unable to continue operating, the park closes down and the land is sold off. Abandoned, the park succumbs to kudzu, the cheesy nursery rhyme-themes attractions falling to vandalism and time. The residents of Bealesville spend almost as much time and energy speculating about the whereabouts of the missing briefcase of money as they do rallying to save the Magic Forest.

Arthur convinces Logan that Mrs. Donaldson was not the embezzler and that they should search his house for clues to the whereabouts of the briefcase, especially after a pretty, young reporter working on a story about cold cases, comes to town and interviews them and other people involved. A clue leads the boys to turn to Violet Phelps, Mrs. Donaldson's adult daughter. Violet who is the process of getting divorced from her abusive, bullying husband, Silas, who has just gotten out of jail for the third time. Silas Phelps is part of what earns Closed for the Season a "middle grade" reading level. Hahn paints her characters with a pretty broad brush, but there are enough details about Silas's life of crime and descriptions of his violent abuse of Violet and his son, Danny that it's worth mentioning. As Arthur and Logan uncover clues, Silas, Nina and other adults are often less than a step behind, upping the suspense and adding to the tension that mounts as the first day of school and Arhtur's outsider status jeopardizes Logan's prospects for making new friends and fitting in. But, living in the "murder house" and coming from a family that is not even close to being as wealthy as the bigwigs in town have sealed his social fate already. While the identity of the bad guys is not entirely surprising, the climax is satisfying, especially since Hahn throws in a few twists and turns.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

Readers who enjoyed Closed for the Season might also like:

Summer at Forgotten Lake

                The Fourth Stall      The London Eye Mystery 

                         Swindle      Running Out of Time



The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story, by Mary Downing Hahn, 128 pp, RL 3

The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn is a great book for a young reader who is looking for a good ghost story but needs a gentle start. The ghosts in this story are not malevolent, although there is a very cranky, mean old lady who hates cats. Approximately the same reading level as a Goosebumps book, Hahn's story offers a genuine ghost story without the creepy-quasi-horror plot line that Stine employs.

The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story is narrated by almost eleven-year-old Ashley Cummings. After the death of her father, Ashley, her cat Oscar and her mother move to Monkton Hills where they rent an apartment on the top floor of the house owned by Miss Cooper, the crotchety old lady. After harassing Ashley about her cat, telling her what part of the yard she is and isn't allowed to enter, and asking her age, she says, "I'm eighty-eight, and I know what girls your age are like. Don't think you can get away with anything just because I'm old." Ashley tries her best to stay out of Miss Cooper  - and her tiny dog Max's - way and follow her rules, but a glimpse of a white cat running through the overgrown wilderness that comprises most of the off-limits garden and the sound of a child crying in the night make her think. The next day, Ashley goes looking for the white cat and discovers a dried up pond and a statue of a cherub in the wilderness. She also meets Kristi, her new neighbor. Kristi tells Ashley that the garden is haunted and asks her if she's seen the white cat and heard the crying.

The girls become inseparable - until they find a a wooden box with an antique doll and a note inside that causes them to being bickering, each jealously coveting Anna Maria, the doll. Soon Ashley is sneaking out at midnight to follow the white cat and find out who Carrie and Louisa Perkins from the note with the doll are. She also discovers a house and a sick little girl playing with her dolls is a beautiful garden. As Ashley and Kristi's fighting gets worse, Anna Marie disappears and the child's crying at night gets worse. The climax of the story finds Ashley, Kristi and Miss Cooper making a midnight venture into the overgrown garden with the hopes of returning Anna Maria to her rightful owner. Hahn blends just the right level of tragedy, jealousy and friendship in her characters, past and present, creating a story that is fast paced and easy to follow. And, as I mentioned earlier, the levels of tension and suspense are low enough that younger readers can dive into this book without worry of nightmares.

Source: Paperback Swap


Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet

The picture books of Bill Peet were a big part of my childhood. To learn more about Peet and his long career (including working at Disney Studios as a story editor during the heyday of their animated films) read my review of Bill Peet: An Autobiography, his Caldecott winning, wonderfully illustrated memoir. Today, on the birthday of Rachel Carson, the marine biologist, founder of the contemporary environmental movement and author of the book that started it all in 1963, Silent Spring, it seemed like a good time to review Farewell to Shady Glade. Published in 1966, Peet dedicated this book to Rachel Carson, writing, "To Rachel Carson, with the hope that the new generation will carry on her all-important work toward preserving what is left of our natural world."

Farewell to Shady Glade begins, "Shady Glade was a towering sycamore and a cluster of willows and cottonwoods along the bakns of a winding creek." Shady Glade is also home to hundred of birds in the spring and "half a dozen rabbits, a pair of possums, a single skunk, five green frogs, one bullfrog, and an old raccoon" all year long. 

But one day when a deep, rumbling sound that scares off all the birds and mystifies the inhabitants of Shady Glade, it is the old raccoon who, after a bit of sleuthing, realizes that the monstrous machines making the noise can only mean bad news for the animals. After several attempts to describe the machines and what they do to his friends,  he takes them to see the machines. The bravest of the rabbits wants to attack, but the raccoon warns them off. A night awake worrying over their future, the raccoon is convinced that finding a new Shady Glad is their only option.

The raccoon and his crew climb a huge tree with a branch that hangs out over the train tracks and, in the dead of night, they launch themselves onto a passing train. After miles and miles of passing through places that just don't seem right, an act of nature lends the animals a hand and they finally find a new glade to call home. In a time when publishers limit most picture books to 1,500 words or less, Peet's book, almost 50 years old now, is practically a novel, but none the less readable for this difference in current trends. While Peet is a master at telling a story in rhyme, Farewell to Shady Glade is traditional prose and completely engaging. His animals have character and the suspense is palatable. Combined with Peet's detailed, intricate illustrations, Farewell to Shady Glade is a joy to read and a story that conveys complex ideas in a simple, straightforward way that young readers and listeners can grasp readily. 

Be sure not to miss Peet's other brilliant, slightly more hardhitting story of the effect we have on the environment, The Wump World.

Source: Purchased Copy


Wait til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn, 184 pp, RL 4

I have long known (from personal and professional experience) that somewhere around fourth grade, readers get a serious taste for spooky stories. Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories Trilogy, the first of which was published in 1981, is perennially popular with all readers and just received a cover update by the inimitable Brett Helquist, although I do miss Stephen Gammell's original, creepy covers. Schwartz's stories aside, it seems that mostly girls become very interested in ghost stories while boys tend to prefer R.L. Stine's tame horror stories. Recent work as a substitute librarian in elementary and middle schools has reminded me of Mary Downing Hahn. While not quite as prolific as R.L. Stine, Hahn has written a handful of ghost stories (as well as mysteries and historical fiction) that have serious staying power on the shelves and are still being devoured almost 30 years after being published. Interestingly enough, ghost stories seem to be a genre that not many kid's book writers want to tackle. Wait Til Helen Comes is probably Hahn's most widely read ghost story, although she also writes historical fiction, and it's easy to see why. Wait Til Helen Comes has all the elements of a great ghost story - a sour, mean little girl, a move to a new home, an old mysterious death and a hidden grave. To these elements, Hahn layers in family stories, both present and past, and secrets that are revealed almost too late. Hahn's writing is fast paced and her characters are sometimes described in a shorthand that makes them feel a bit like stereotypes, but not every reader wants a book with a complex storyline and a large cast of detailed characters. Hahn's writing style (and subject matter) as especially suited for reluctant and struggling readers well into middle school.

Wait Til Helen Comes begins with siblings Molly and Michael learning that, not only have their summer plans been ruined, their family is moving out of Baltimore and into a renovated church out in the country, a couple of miles from the nearest small town. Molly and Michael's mother is a painter and their stepfather Dave is a potter and they hope to make great use of their new studio space. They also hope that Molly and Michael will assume babysitting duties for Heather, Dave's seven-year-old daughter. While Michael, a budding naturalist, warms to the idea of miles of countryside to explore, Molly is apprehensive, especially since Heather does everything she can to make her life miserable. Molly makes her best effort to be nice to Heather, who lost her mother in a house fire that she survived, but Heather lies to their parents and ruins every toy, game and puzzle Molly tries to engage her in. On top of it all, Molly has to share a room with Heather in their new home. Exploring their new environs, the kids discover an ancient cemetery near their house and notice that many families seem to be buried together. They meet Mr. Simmons, the caretaker, and as they are talking about the history of the graves, Heather wanders off and finds a mysteriously hidden grave at the base of an old tree. The letters H.E.H and the dates "March 7, 1879 - August 8, 1886" are inscribed below. There are no apparent family members' graves nearby either. Mr. Simmons knows nothing about the child buried there, but Heather soon does. Sneaking out of the house at night, she tidies and tends to the grave and is soon wearing an old locket with the letters H.E.H (also Heather's exact initials) on it and threatening Molly and Michael with the promise that they will be very sorry when Helen comes.

While Helen proves to be a destructive ghost, trashing Molly's, Michael's and their mother's possessions but not Heather's or Dave's, it is Heather who is the truly malevolent one. Hahn creates a backstory for Helen that parallels Heather's in many ways, including setting the fire that (mostly) unintentionally killed their mothers (and Helen's stepfather, who she was jealous of). She adds to that a level of pathos as the ghost of Helen lures lonely girls into the depths of the pond behind her house, the pond where she drowned escaping the fire, to keep her company, with Heather her next intended playmate. But, Hahn also includes a strong sense of redemption in the character of Molly who, despite Heather's increasingly horrible behavior, never stops caring about her and never stops worrying that Helen is real and really trying to hurt or even kill Heather. There is a powerful scene at the climax of the novel that finds Molly rescuing Heather from drowning a moment that seems like it will be the end of both girls but in fact results in closure and relief for both Helen and Heather.

Wait Til Helen Comes is is a fantastic ghost story that I would recommend to any young readers looking for some chills and excitement, and also to any parents of readers interested in this topic but worried about their kids reading anything too scary and disturbing. Wait Til Helen Comes is a ghost story, not a horror story. There are none of the things you would expect from movies today, no real violence beyond the trashing that Michael and Molly's rooms get, no blood, and no murder. Just a great ghost story with unhappy children - both human and ghost.

Source: Paperback Swap

Other ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn:


Oddfellow's Orphanage written and illustrated by Emily WInfield Martin, 126 pp, RL 3

is now in paperback!

With her first book for children, Oddfellow's OrphanageEmily Winfield Martin combines her many talents and uncommon vision to create a book that I would have adored as a child. Martin's first book, The Black Apple's Paper Doll Primer, caught my eye one day last year while I was shelving in the craft section and I was entranced. Martin doesn't just draw and paint, she fabricates a complete world for her creations, be they human, animal or other. That a children's book should emerge from her teemingly creative imagination is no surprise at all. For those of you who are Etsy fans, you may already know Martin and her Official Black Apple Shoppe. In fact, as I learned in this article, editor Mallory Loehr, admitted Etsy enthusiast, was so taken by Martin's works and the descriptive blurbs that came with every piece of her art that she began communicating with Martin and as, as Loehr says, "Emily agreed to work with me on writing a young middle grade story, featuring the orphans, inspired by episodic classics like Winnie-the-Pooh. It would be filled to the gills with art." 

And Oddfellows Orphanage is filled to the gills with art, art that I could not resist including in my review here! As Loehr notes, Oddfellows Orphanage is an episodic book like Milne's classic, meaning that each chapter is a self-contained story but that all the stories are linked by a uniting thread that makes the sum of the parts read like a whole. In Oddfellows Orphanage, that uniting thread is the sense of acceptance and security that permeates the book, the orphanage and the adults who run it. Chapter 1, "A Beginning of Sorts," tells of the middle of the night arrival of Delia at the orphanage in a carriage pulled by two bears after being retrieved by Headmaster Oddfellow Bluebeard and Professor Stella. The thirteen chapters that follow each start with a portrait and brief description of one of the characters in the book.  All the illustrations and the text are in a dark brown ink, adding to the antique, old fashioned feel conveyed in the story.

While we have to wait until the final chapter of Oddfellows Orphanage to learn about Delia's background, we do learn right away that she does not speak. Once at the orphanage, she is given a small notebook that she wears around her neck and writes in when she needs to communicate with words. However, she speaks with her eyes whenever she can and in this way forms a special bond with a bear cub who lives at the orphanage. When the cub goes missing everyone searches for him all day and into the night. Despondent over his disappearance, Delia skips dinner to head right to bed and finds the cub tucked in her wardrobe happily eating the "welcome" jar of honey given to her by Headmaster Bluebeard, who keeps bees. As each chapter progresses, Delia settles into her new home and encounters curious traditions and happy practices at Oddfellows Orphanage. 

While the gentle pace and cozy tone of Martin's writing give Oddfellows Orphanage an old fashioned feel reminiscent of Elizabeth Orton Jones and her books Twig and Big Susan, she also quietly introduces carnivalesque oddities that call to mind Edward Gorey without the Gothic overtones. There is Hugo the hedgehog, Ollie, the onion headed boy and Imogen, one of a long line of illustrated men and women. Imogen, having lost most of her family to influenza, went to live with her sleepwalking grandmother when she was eight. One night, "as the grandmother slept more horizontally than usual" Imogen ran away in a rowboat and, as the "sun woke her, she found herself on the back of a big black bear, approaching the Oddfellows Orphanage." There are also curious creatures, from the Great Horned Rabbit to the creature in the Great Green Lake and the mermaids that Professor Silas, who studied at the preeminent College of Cryptozoology, possesses in fossilized form.

Nature and the seasons are also an important part of Oddfellows Orphanage, which ends with a surprise at the door on New Year's Eve. One intriguing tradition was started by Headmaster Oddfellow, who decreed that a person"really only needed two haircuts a year," more frequent trims being "just silly." In this spirit, he instituted Haircut Day at the orphanage. Falling twice a year, in Summer and Winter, it was a much anticipated day filled excitement. After all the haircuts have been given, the children take the hair into the forest for the birds to use as material for their nests. Another happy event occurs in summer when Headmaster Oddfellow looks out his window at the blooming garden and, finding that "the flowers reminded him of little cakes," calls for a picnic. The feast includes "jewel-colored cakes" that tower on cake stands, rides of the back of Boris the bear, tours of the beehives and a play put on by the children telling the story of the founding of the orphanage. The night ends with the glow of fireflies. There is also the annual trip to the circus, which is a going away party for the bears as they prepare to go into hibernation. And, of course, there are the glorious preparations for Christmas itself that include the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree, making presents for friends, building (and eating bits of) a gigantic gingerbread house, the Headmaster's recitation of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and a Christmas day pantomime, acted, written, costumed and designed by the children. The new year brings a new child to Oddfellows and the last chapter of the book which ends, 

On New Year's morning, the rest of the house stirred into motion, welcoming the tuny new comer into a family that was hardly ordinary, but rather . . . extraordinary. A family stitched together from the scraps of other families, living together in the enormous house made of brick that is called Oddfellow's Orphanage.
Be sure to visit the website for Oddfellows Orphanage where you can download paper dolls of Delia and Ollie by clicking diversions! Below are portraits that Martin painted of her cast of characters that can be viewed, along with their likes and dislikes, on the website for the book (or by clicking) as well! Martin is selling these original paintings, acrylic on canvas, at the Black Apple Shoppe. Only seven of the thirteen are left!

A Friend Is Someone Who Likes YouEmily Winfield Martin's work reminds me a bit of a childhood favorite of mine, Joan Walsh Anglund, although her text is not nearly as saccharine.