Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Willow Falls Series: Middle Grade Mastery

Many years ago, I picked up one of Wendy Mass' first middle grade novels entitled A Mango Shaped Space. I was hugely impressed with her writing and have since made a point of reading every single one of her books as it comes out. Her newest series of books all take place in a town called Willow Falls where interesting and unusual things tend to happen.

The series launches with 11 Birthdays, which is a kind of Groundhog Day story for kids. Amanda and Leo, born on the same day and best friends since birth have always celebrated their birthdays together. But on their tenth birthday, the friends have a falling out and stop speaking. Now they are about to celebrate their eleventh birthdays alone, and little do they know that that it's a day that they will repeat over and over again until they learn to work together to break the cycle.

One of the wonderful things about this book is the way the author so realistically captures the changing nature of boy/girl friendships at a particular age. Crushes develop, interests change, and it's hard to just hang out. It's a difficult and painful transition, and Amanda, who was used to doing everything with Leo just couldn't understand why he would make fun of her to his male friends. Leo of course didn't mean it. He was simply trying to look cool in front of the guys, but Amanda didn't know that, and he didn't tell her. So what do they do? They stop being friends and live with hurt feelings instead of talking it out and trying to fix their friendship.

The day of their eleventh birthday is awful. Nothing seems to go right for Amanda, and the week leading up to the party doesn't get any better. When the kids ditch her to go to Leo's more extravagant party, Amanda is devastated, and she can't wait to get to bed and end the day. But it's not over- not by a long shot. When she wakes up the next morning it's her eleventh birthday all over again. The first time around, Amanda does everything exactly the same, but then she realizes the opportunity she's been given, and starts to make changes. At first the changes are small, but then she gets bolder and takes more chances, and each day teaches her a little bit more about who she is.

Eventually, Amanda realizes that Leo is also repeating the day and convinces him to work with her to try and figure out why it's happening and how to end it. The shared experience also gives them a chance to work things out and to realize how much they've missed each other's friendship, and only then do they move onto the next day, with everybody else in the town none-the-wiser.

The second book, Finally returns to Willow Falls and readers meet Rory, a girl who is about to turn 12, and has a mile-long list of all the things she's going to be allowed to do as soon as she turns twelve. As soon as her birthday is over, Rory can't wait to start checking off all of the things on her list. But as she'll discover, being old enough isn't the same as being ready, and sometimes being grown up means knowing when to wait.

I loved this book. I remember being twelve and like Rory, wanting to seize the world and feeling so grown up.
I didn't try all of the things that Rory did quite as quickly as she did, but so many things change at twelve, and it's hard not to feel like you have to keep up. I won't spoil the book by revealing too much, but let's just say that a killer bunny and an embarrassing allergy are just a couple of the disasters that Rory faces. Amanda and Leo from the previous book also make an appearance, and the three end up forming a solid friendship.

The third, and most recent book in the series is 13 Gifts, and you guessed it- the main character is about to turn 13. Tara, a shrinking violet, lands herself in hot water when she tries to steal the school mascot- a goat, in order to fit in with the popular girls. As kids like that tend to do, they completely set her up, and Tara ended up taking the fall, while they fled. As punishment, her parents decide to send her to stay with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin Emily in Willow Falls instead of taking her to Madagascar on her mother's research trip.

When Tara finds out that she's being shipped off to Willow Falls, she can't think of worse torture. It's been years since she's seen her aunt, uncle and cousin, and her parents haven't gone back there since graduation. When she arrives, she discovers that she's lost both her mother's iPod, her cell phone and her money, and now she has to figure out a way to replace them without her mother knowing. Her solution leads her to a mysterious old shop run by an equally mysterious lady, who contracts her to find a list of 13 items before her 13th birthday. Tara has no idea what the items are or where she'll find them, but nothing happens in Willow Falls without a purpose, and that purpose will only reveal itself when everything falls into place.

As in the previous two books, Wendy Mass explores a number of relevant issues to tweens. Tara isn't a bad kid. But making friends is difficult when you move around so much and have an oddly overprotective mother, and her part in the unfortunate prank was an attempt to please her by fitting in with the popular kids. She also examines issues of friendship, and of faith, and about understanding whether or not the things you do are because you believe in them, or because you think you should.

The thing I love most about these books is that as realistic as they are, they also contain whimsy and a hint of magic, and I think that the possibilityof magic is something you should never be to old to believe in.