Monday, March 06, 2017

MMGM- Armstrong & Charlie

It's MMGM at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and #IMWAYR at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.

Frank, Steven. Armstrong & Charlie
March 7th 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ARC from publisher at ALA

It's 1975, and while some middle school problems are the same (weird teachers, school lunches, annoying parents), some are very different. Charlie lives in upscale Laurel Canyon, and right before 6th grade is to start, he finds out that many of his friends are going to other schools. The reason? Black children are going to be bused to Wonderland Avenue Elementary school. Charlie's mom doesn't have much of an opinion, because she is still reeling from Charlie's brother's allergy related death. Charlie's dad thinks the integration is a good thing-- he fought at the end of WWII and employs blacks at his medical supply business, and wants Charlie to be accepting, especially since there were times when he experienced prejudice because he is Jewish. Armstrong is to take the bus in and doesn't want to leave his old school. Things get off to a rocky start, partially because of racial issues, but more because there are a fair number of new students introduced to a longstanding population. Charlie and Armstrong have an odd bond-- Charlie overheads Armstrong tell a story about his neighbor, Mr. Khalil, dying. The story turns out to be false, but Charlie admires Armstrong's deviousness and creativity, and Armstrong feels bad that he made up the story when he finds out that Charlie's brother really did die. There's a humorous incident involving Ho Hos (the snack cake) that goes down the same way, and when students who are bused are supposed to spend the night closer to the school before a big class trip, Charlie's father invites Armstrong. The boys bond more during the class trip, and come to an easier alliance. Their relationship is imperiled when Charlie's father is held up at his business by two black men and becomes very afraid, but it is this incidence that sets the whole family on the road to healing.

First of all, I have to buy this because of the description of cleaning white wall tires! That was always my job, and I hated it as much as Charlie does. Small historical touches, like using land lines, biking around without supervision, and reading from SRA cards, make this a great choice. It is how the racial issues are addressed, however, that makes this brilliant. Things aren't easy, but they aren't horrible, either. The issue of busing was covered well from both sides, and the attitudes were very much in line with what I remember growing up. (I'm probably about 2 years younger than the author.) It's hard to get a good balance-- this book will make some readers uncomfortable, especially the scene where there is an interracial kiss and tensions fly. But it's brilliantly done. Is the boy really made that the boy who kissed the girl he likes is black, or that the girl he likes seems to have enjoyed the kissed? These issues are never simple, and middle grade readers are sophisticated enough to understand this.

The role of the fathers is interesting as well. Charlie's served at the end of WWII, and Armstrong's father lost a leg in Korea, and this shapes the way they treat their children. There were other interesting adult characters as well-- the lonely but helpful Mr. Khalil, and the poor beleaguered aide, Edwina Gaines, who writes hysterical incident reports when things go wrong at school.
The only thing that I disliked about this was the inclusion of the brother's death, and the mother's dysfunctional way of dealing with that, but that is a personal issue. It was addressed fairly lightly in the book, and the mother does finally get her act together. I will say that Charlie's reluctance to be older than his older brother is a verified emotional reaction. Points for authenticity, which I must then retract for sadness!

Armstrong and Charlie is a must read for middle grade students who are trying to figure out their own place in the world, since that's exactly what these characters are trying to do. They're just trying to do it in a world where there are banana seats on bicycles and peanut butter in every sandwich in the lunch room. 6th grade is still about learning to spread the Ho Hos around, and good historical fiction manages to show students that while things may change, they really stay very much the same.

McKay, Laurie. Realm Breaker (The Last Dragon Charmer #3)
March 7th 2017 by HarperCollins
Copy received from the author

After Villian Keeper and Quest Maker, the situation in Asheville, North Carolina is tenuous at best. Rath Dunn has taken over the school from Ms. Primrose, which isn't really an improvement, since the dragon still keeps eating people who are banished from the Greater Realm. Jasan's presence is helpful rather than alarming, as Caden and his friends try to figure out how to negotiate an uneasy peace with Ms. Primrose and keep Rath Dunn and his allies from completing their spell. They have gathered most of the items they need (Jane's tears, Brynne's hair!) and are very close to making the spell, which will allow them to take down the Greater Realm and Asheville as well! It's up to Caden to stop them, which is hard for him to do since he is still acclimating to Asheville's way of life, struggling with his family dynamics, and trying to get his foster mother Rosa and Officer Levine to believe all the crazy reasons he has for not obeying them! Can he manage to save both worlds... and get a passing grade in gym?

I love the world building in this one. I've never been to Asheville, but there are lots of details that bring the setting to life. It was very easy to imagine myself riding Sir Horace through the woods, and wandering the treacherous halls of the school. All of the descriptions are so vivid-- I love Rath Dunn's "redecorating" and his use of red walls to replace Ms. Primrose's ice blue ones.
Caden has become a competent negotiator, and it was fun to see his interactions with Ms. Primrose. Having her share Jasan's town house so that she could put her treasures on display was inspired, since
Caden doesn't quite trust his older brother yet. Of course, Caden is also still very good with fighting and keeping the forces of evil on the run.

This final book in the series leaves a few questions, which is a great way for readers to be able to imagine their own best ending when they are missing Caden, Tito, Brynne and Jane!

It's hard to hit just the right note with middle grade fantasy, but The Last Dragon Charmer series manages to blend the crucial Forces of Evil with a nice mix of friends, middle school problems, and magical action and adventure to produce a fresh and exciting series that middle grade readers will gobble down as gleefully as Ms. Primrose gobbles down banished citizens of the Greater Realm!


  1. "he only thing that I disliked about this was the inclusion of the brother's death, and the mother's dysfunctional way of dealing with that, but that is a personal issue."

    Ms. Yingling--I know your personal situation is different, but your remark reminded me of one of my former coworkers, who lost her husband very suddenly and far too young. They still had children in middle/high school. She would get exasperated at dysfunctional portrayals of family grief (parent dies and the other parent can't function, can't parent). While that does happen, of course, it seems to be a far more common depiction than the alternative. You are not the only one.

    1. It just doesn't seem to be particularly HELPFUL. More dramatic to think that people completely fall off the rails, but more helpful to show them coping in more functional ways! Thanks for the comment!

  2. I put Armstrong and Charlie on the top of my TBR list after reading your great review. Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. You've sold me on ARMSTRONG AND CHARLIE (as per your comment on my blog!) I was 12 in 1975, right in my own middle grade years. (But in England, so there was no such issue as busing.)

  4. I saw a book recently that was set during my high school era and marketed as "historical fiction"...I'm not ready!! ;-)

  5. Hi Karen, I've added Armstrong & Charlie to my list. Does The Last Dragon Charmer series need to be read in order?
    I've come to understand that once we've experienced real grief over the loss of someone, fictional death as a plot device pretty much never feels authentic, and almost always seems contrived and shallow.

    1. The Last Dragon Charmer series should be read in order. It would be confusing otherwise.

  6. Asheville is a beautiful place. Come on down and we'd love to show it to you. (it's only two hours from Charlotte) I really want to read Armstrong and Charlie now but first I must recover from the shock of hearing that my early life qualifies as "historical fiction." That used to cover only books like Johnny Tremain--now it includes a book set in the time when I was four years out of high school. I would say more but must go out and stock up on Geritol.

  7. I know! Do they even make Geritol? I don't want to know!

  8. I'm looking forward to Armstrong and Charlie. I've seen a few positive reviews now.

  9. Wow...Armstrong and Charlie sounds like a beautifully put together story of a very 'uncomfortable topic'. Thanks for the fabulous recomemndation! :D

  10. I always rely on your sharing of top middle grade reads.