The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re wondering where all the regency books for kids are at

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Balter of Ashton Harper

By Millie Florence

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A message of courage for kids who are too scared to reach for their dreams

What an incredible accomplishment for a teen author! This sweet story explores what it means to have hope when hope feels unrealistic and risky. The plot did not take the turns I expected, and what started as historical middle-grade took a turn into fantasyland.

Ashton Harper loves to dance. He secretly harbors hopes of attending a prestigious school of dance. But there’s no way he’ll get in, so why try? Why care?

Ashton and his two sisters DO get a shot at auditioning for the school…will they take it? The story follows Ashton as he figures out what he really wants from life, what’s truly important, and how to let go of his fears and insecurities.

This book is perfect for young readers who love the Regency era but want to read middle-grade (not adult romance, which tends to dominate).

Here’s where I interviewed Millie on Library Binding. She is a pure drop of sunshine!

4.3
Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re charmed by the little-big dramas of childhood

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Mari in the Margins

By Rebecca J. Gomez

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How can you stand out when you’re lost in a sea of siblings?

I adored this novel in verse. Mari reminds me a lot of myself—introverted, creative, wondering how she fits in. Mari is the middle child in a family of nine kids. Her busy family, chaotic home life, and her clingy little sister, whom Mari is always stuck babysitting, often push her to her limit, requiring her to hide in the closet or lock herself in the bathroom for some peace and quiet.

Mari feels like she’s a side note in her family, often forgotten while louder voices get the most attention. But she’s not defined by resentment—she loves her family and is devoted to them, even though she finds them exhausting. She’s just wondering how she fits in as an individual in her own right (beyond her perpetual role as babysitter to her younger siblings). What in this world is JUST Mari’s? Who is she?

This a sweet, understated story that explores universal emotions that all kids can relate to. Do my parents really love me? What am I good at? Is she still my friend? Why am I so upset? I love books that are content to portray the ordinary highs and lows of everyday life.

I love Mari’s mixed cultural experience, which adds richness to her life. I love how the book throws all kinds of poetry into the mix, as Mari’s teacher assigns certain forms, we see Mari’s attempts at haiku, limerick, acrostic, and free verse. This book would make a fantastic addition to a homeschool poetry unit, because, as Mari learns to master some of these forms, she remains supremely focused on expressing herself and pouring her heart into her writing. The tension between self-expression and artistic constraint is where the magic happens for her.

Also, the doodles are such a fun addition! The book is beautifully laid out visually.

Overall, I loved this! I’d recommend it to any middle-grader, and I loved it as an adult, too.

4.8
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a Willy Wonka-type adventure (but with less candy and more books)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

By Chris Grabenstein

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A group of kids must escape a game-maker’s library in order to win the grand prize

This was our last read-aloud for the school year. I selected it because I hoped it would be a fun, exciting story to start the summer. My boys did enjoy it, but I was a tad underwhelmed.

I must say, though, that the ending made up for what I thought was a snoozy middle.

When I finished reading the last couple of chapters, my boys (7 and 8 years old) were literally jumping and rolling off the couch and around the carpet. All the tension and excitement they were feeling was manifesting in these funny physical gyrations, and it was hilarious to watch.

The story premise is great. An eccentric game-maker, Luigi Lemoncello, has built a state-of-the-art library in his childhood hometown, and he invites twelve 12-year-olds to a lock-in at the library. The next morning, they opt into an epic game to “escape” the library and win fame and fortune as Lemoncello spokes-kids.

The clues and puzzles were excellent. I felt like they were difficult enough to warrant the fanfare surrounding the game event. The only thing, though, was that SO much went over my boys’ heads. As the adult, I caught all the allusions and Easter eggs, and I wanted to explain them to my boys, but I refrained, haha.

I felt like the writing and the characters were on the weaker side. Granted, this is a plot-driven adventure story, but I was expecting a bit more in the character department. That would’ve helped support the middle of the novel, which dragged for me.

There wasn’t much “there” there, even for our hero, Kyle. The most interesting character is Charles because he’s a worthy villain, who tries to weasel and fake his way to the top. It’s good to see him taken down a notch—my boys loved it—but he’s also something of a caricature.

If each character could’ve displayed more internal conflict, our interest would’ve skyrocketed. There’s one point at which Kyle is tempted to play video games instead of help his team look for clues, and after a quick pause, he resists the temptation. Had the characters had grown and changed to a greater degree, the book would’ve had more to offer.

Also, the grand prize (being a Lemoncello spokesperson) seemed a little strange. I would not wish fame on these poor kids!

3.3
The Master of Tides (Book Review)

The Master of Tides (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a hidden gem by an author with a Christian worldview

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Master of Tides

By Jamin Still

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unlikely crew of young people must save the land from an evil sorcerer

The setting for this story is really refreshing. I haven’t read anything with quite this mix. Here, in the first book in the series, we start in a seaside industrial town. Then, we’re on the road with a circus. Then, we’re in a dark, fantastical wood. Then the open sea. It’s not typical medieval times in Hibaria.

I enjoyed Cora as a heroine, but I think I liked Will more. He was much spunkier, and Victoria was a tortured soul. But Cora makes sense as the protagonist because she has the most growing to do.

I know that authors sometimes fear dumping too much worldbuilding on the reader, but, because Hibaria has such a unique mythos, I kept forgetting certain aspects that popped up later, such as the role of the constellations and Augrind’s backstory.

Even though this is the first book in the series, and it ends with setup for the next book, there was good closure here. No cliffhangers, just a few twists.

I think that kids around 12 and up would enjoy this, and the morals are sterling.

3.8
Room One (Book Review)

Room One (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re looking for a gentle kids’ mystery with a discussable ending

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Room One

By Andrew Clements

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Who is hiding out in the ol’ farmhouse?

I love Andrew Clements, but this was not a favorite for me or my boys. The book came with our homeschool curriculum, and it sounded intriguing—”two mysteries in one,” says the cover. I think that skewed my expectations. I was anticipating something heavy on clues, puzzles, twists, and gasps.

But this book was very quiet and unassuming. The drama is small, just like the town of Plattsford, Nebraska, where the story is set. The main character, Ted, is a sixth-grader who stumbles upon a family squatting in an abandoned farmhouse, and he does what he can to help them.

The book has gold-standard values, I will give it that. But, everyone in the book seemed to be on his/her best behavior. It would’ve been interesting to have a mischief-maker or a bad guy in the mix to liven things up. There wasn’t enough conflict for me.

The climax of the story is a huge bust—and it’s supposed to be. This made for some interesting discussion. My boys and I were rooting for a magical ending where everyone cheers and the kids hug and the parents cry while the soundtrack swells to a crescendo. The book deliberately bursts your bubble. Asking “WHY?” is a good exercise for kids.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is looking for a page-turner to keep the interest of a reluctant reader. Good but not great.

3.3
Jane of Lantern Hill (Book Review)

Jane of Lantern Hill (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got a soft spot for wholesome growing-up stories (and wicked adults who get their comeuppance)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Jane of Lantern Hill

By L. M. Montgomery

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A stifled young girl finds freedom and purpose on P.E.I.

I love children’s stories where the little protagonist starts out as an underdog (like Mary Lennox or Anne Shirley) and then has a chance to blossom into who they truly want to be. Jane is just like that.

Jane lives in Toronto under the thumb of her impossible-to-please grandmother. She also lives with her mother, who is a total pushover and won’t stand up to her mother. Grandmother makes life miserable, and Jane is afraid, friendless, and talentless. Who is Jane’s dad and where is he? That’s a mystery, until one day, a letter arrives. From him. Requesting that Jane spend the summer with him on (you guessed it) P.E.I.

Like so many Montgomery books, this one is an ode to the wonders of nature and a free-range childhood. Many passages linger on dewdrops and whitecaps and fenceposts. Montgomery is never too busy to slow down and look at nature.

Jane expects to hate the island and her father, but she instantly falls in love with both. Instead of being told to act like a little lady, Jane gets to decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do. She decides to work, work, work. She delights in all the housework that most modern women can’t stand. Laundry, cooking, gardening. Haha! She finds purpose in caring for her father, her pets, and her plants. Instead of living to please her grandmother, she finds joy in living to serve her family and friends. What a difference!

But will her father and mother ever reconcile? What drove them apart? These are big questions for little Jane, but she must face them.

This isn’t my favorite Montogmery novel, but it’s a charming one. It’s beautiful to see a picture of what a healthy childhood could look like in an idyllic, intimate community.

Content warnings: Jane’s parents are separated. Good to know if you’re reading it with kids.

4
The Big Wave (Book Review)

The Big Wave (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you like morality tales or anything set in Japan

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Big Wave

By Pearl S. Buck

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Lots of potential for discussion here. But not a favorite of mine.

Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth was a formative reading experience for me in my 20s, so anything with her name on it gets my attention.

This story, however, was…hmm…

I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. What was Buck, a Christian missionary, trying to capture here? I get the sense that she’s not necessarily portraying her own view as a Christian but perhaps giving a snapshot of an alternate cultural viewpoint…

The story (which is very short) takes place in a Japanese seaside village. The fishermen and their families have a deep fear of the ocean, even though it’s what sustains life for them. They know that, at any moment, a storm or tsunami can devesate them and take their lives. They build homes with no ocean-facing windows because they don’t want to…face the fear, I guess? Inland, there’s an active volcano that causes earthquakes. The people know that, between the ocean and the volcano, it’s just a matter of time before disaster strikes. This is true of life, no matter where you live or how safe you may feel.

The characters conclude that living in a dangerous place makes them brave and helps them better appreciate times of peace and happiness. I guess this is true in a general sense. We can see the light because of the darkness kinda thing. I just wish there was a clearer, firmer foundation to build on than what Buck offers here. The ending of the book sees one of the main characters literally building a house on sand. What are we supposed to make of that?

The best element of the story, for me, is when Jiya must decide whether to live with the poor farmers or the rich old gentleman. On the one hand, he can claim a life of safety, plenty, and opportunity. On the other, he can live humbly but also in the midst of uncertainty and possible privation. Most people don’t get to make this choice, but if they did, what would they choose?

3.5
The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a high fantasy rescue story filled with dramatic dilemmas

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Black Cauldron

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Everyone’s favorite assistant pig-keeper is off on another adventure, but this one will test him to the core.

Dilemmas. That’s why this book is so good. The characters are faced with one impossible choice after another until the very last chapter. My boys and I really enjoyed this second installment in the Prydain Chronicles.

The evil Arwan is gaining power. To stop him, Gwydion gathers a crew of loyal Prydainians to sneak into his fortress and steal the black cauldron—the wicked pot he uses to create undead warriors for his army. Naturally, everything goes wrong, and Taran must learn what it means to make hard choices—all by himself.

This book was better than the first one, and I think it’s worth reading the first book in order to experience this sequel more richly.

This is HIGH fantasy in the same vein as Tolkien. It’s hard to miss the parallels between LOTR and these books. But, these books are much shorter and accessible to a younger audience. My 7- and 8-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read them solo, but they can understand them perfectly well when I read aloud (and clarify some of the high-brow vocab). The books are written in a lofty, grand tone.

Again, this book was great because of the series of difficult choices that the characters faced. I felt like the plot was tight and economical. Overall, YES.

Content warnings: Nothing overly concerning. Several characters die, and one must sacrifice him/herself in one scenario.

4.9
What the Moon Said (Book Review)

What the Moon Said (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you loved Sweet Home Alaska or any of the Little House books.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

What the Moon Said

By Gayle Rosengren

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How will 10-year-old Esther survive now that her family must move from the city to a farm due to the Great Depression?

What a sweet, heartfelt book! I read it in just over a day, and it’s perfect for kids who love pioneer or homesteading books.
It’s the Great Depression, and we see one year in the life of 10-year-old Esther. All she wants is to earn her mother’s love. Her Russian immigrant mom is exacting and superstitious. She scolds easily, worries constantly, and hugs not at all. What can Esther do to make Ma love her?

When Esther’s dad loses his job in Chicago, the family moves to a Wisconsin farm to try country life. How will Esther adjust?

This story has two strong journeys: the outer journey: Will the family make it on the farm? And the inner journey: Will Esther at long last receive her mother’s love? This makes it a simple yet layered growing-up tale.

It is a sweet story, with lots of emotion. I got teary-eyed a few times. I appreciate how the book doesn’t villainize the city or the country. I also love how there is a faith element. The family prays and goes to church. Ma and Pa also carry a lot of superstitions from the Old Country, and it’s interesting to see how that’s handled.

The reading level is low, so younger kids should be able to tackle it. The plot touches on many universal “kid dilemmas” that anyone can relate to, and it also opens a window to a distinct time in history and how people lived back then.

I got this book recommendation from this list of page-turners.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic or overly scary. However, one character has a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. One character chokes on food.

4.6
The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry (Book Review)

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a short middle-grade book that feels like L. M. Montgomery

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry

By Anna Rose Johnson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An awkward orphan girl is adopted by a big family who lives on a tiny lighthouse island

What a delightful story. Like Anna Rose Johnson’s debut, this book has that classic, vintage feel. What’s more, Lucy Landry is Anne Shirley reincarnated. She’s dreamy and inattentive, but it’s obvious that her behavior is a coping mechanism, and so, even though she makes us cringe, we FEEL for her.

This is one of those stories where the young protagonist is plopped into a completely new life. Think Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and, of course, Anne. Lucy Landry has lived primarily alone with an elderly caretaker. When she’s adopted by a couple with six children who live on a tiny lighthouse island, she’s utterly unprepared for the chaos and conflict. I’m glad that the author didn’t shy away from this conflict. It was HARD for Lucy to fit in, and this constant tension made the story interesting.

I loved the mystery of the long-lost necklace that’s woven through the story. While this is a subplot and not the point of the book, it adds a layer of interest to liven up the main plot, which is Lucy’s transformation. Plus, finding the lost necklace gives Lucy a goal and deepens her connection to her past.

This book is short and easy to read. It’ll appeal to kids (and adults) who want a quick win.

Also, Lucy deals with some debilitating fear. Since so many kids struggle with fears, this is another touchpoint that will appeal to anxious kids without triggering them (I think).

And a huge WOO-HOO to the depiction of a homeschooling family. This is rare! (But spilling stuff all over our school supplies is, sadly, not. Haha.)

Thank you to NetGalley and Holiday House for a digital ARC of this novel.

Content warnings: Lucy is afraid of sailing on the water. The book shows her getting anxious about the prospect of (and the reality of) getting on a boat. She and one other character freeze up in panic, but it’s not depicted as a detailed panic attack. Mentioning this just in case it’s relevant for your youngster.

4.5
The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams (Book Review)

The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
only the most creative of children’s books will do

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams

By Daniel Nayeri

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

It started slow.

Reading this at night as a fabulous yet decidedly middle-aged mommy who is worn-out tired by the end of the day…I will admit that I found myself nodding off during the first half of this book.

But the second half is worth it!

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a kids’ book with such a grand payoff at the end. I almost don’t want to write anything more so that you can enter this book as blindly as I did.

Now, I will say that the first line of this book is a knockout, but after that, I was a little disoriented and unsure where it was all going. It took me a few chapters to get my bearings and figure out which characters were important. This book isn’t nearly as disjointed as Everything Sad Is Untrue, Nayeri’s debut. It’s much more cohesive with a linear plot and all that. It just took me a bit to sink in.

The plot picks up greatly after we learn that Samir, who is not the protagonist, is being pursued by several colorful bounty hunters. What could be a tense chase is rendered by Nayeri into a thumping frolic along the Silk Road.

I’m a sucker for a solid theme, and this book has one. Friendship and family—what are they, and is life worth living if you have none? What are friendship and family worth, and what would you trade them for? The worldview is not overtly Christian, but there is good moral soil here.

HOWEVER, this book does not shy away from the truth that people are complex. For example, Samir is kind and loyal, but he’s the folkloric version of a used car salesman, exaggerating and outright lying on the regular. Most characters are a mix of good and bad, which makes them interesting, but some young readers will need guidance here.

Content warnings: Samir is almost assassinated six times, but these encounters are not overly gruesome or graphic. As long as your kids are mature enough to understand what a bounty hunter is, then they’ll be fine. Some parents will want to know that a mix of faiths are shown here, and none with great reverence. Samir often lies that he belongs to a certain religion so he can butter up a customer. I find this good material for age-appropriate discussion with kids.

4.5