Sunday, July 10, 2022

Next Door to Happy and The Hike to Home

Strout, Allison Weiser. Next Door to Happy
July 12th 2022 by Margaret Ferguson Books
E ARC provided  by the publisher

Violet is at loose ends the summer before 7th grade. She's done being a counselor in training at a summer camp, her best friend is still away, her father has taken a job out of town, and her mother does not often leave the house and doesn't interact with her very much, unless it's to ask Violet to make them dinner. When new neighbors move in next door, Violet is intrigued by the five active children and their at home mother (the father works a lot and isn't shown). TJ Walker, who is a high school baseball player, invites her over, and soon she is hanging out with quiet Reggie, slightly younger soccer playing twins Rose and Daisy, and second grader Chloe. Violet's presence evens out teams, and the twins in particular like having her over. Best of all, they don't ask to come over to her house, which is difficult because of her mother. When school starts, Mrs. Walker asks Violet to look out for Reggie. Even though his family encourages him to play baseball, he's not a fan, and is okay with sitting alone at lunch and spending quiet time observing the world around him. Violet is determined to watch out for him, and feels bad when he ends up not sitting with her and her friends at lunch. The two decide to build a treehouse in the woods near their homes, and tell Chloe that they are building one in the front yard so she doesn't ask questions. When Violet overhears Mrs. Walker telling Reggie not to go to her house because her mother is a bit odd, she tries to avoid the family, but it's hard. Her relationship with Reggie is complicated when she agrees to play soccer with her friends when a teammate quits, but she realizes that she would rather hang out with him than with them. When an emergency occurs, Violet's mother is able to step outside her comfort zone to help, which seems to open up the lines of communication between the two families. 
Strengths: Raise your hand if you wanted to be in a larger family when you were growing up. I call this the Brady Bunch Effect, because there is just something appealing about having a larger number of people who are supposed to understand you and be there for you. An added bonus with the Walkers is that the idea of having a twin is also appealing, and Violet fits right in with Daisy and Rose. This was an interesting look at a barely capable mother, although Violet's mother works from home, seems to go out to buy groceries, and is able to leave the house if necessary. There is never any official diagnosis of agoraphobia or depression, although the signs are there. Seeing how Violet navigates her relationship with her father, who sees her once a week, will speak to students who are in a similar situation, or are trying to understand how that works with their friends. Reggie, who is not diagnosed but seems like he might be on the autism spectrum, is at odds with this family that Violet so esteems, so it is interesting that she connects with him the most. This story moved along quickly for one that was built mainly on relationships, and was an intriguing read. 
Weaknesses: Given the zeitgeist of the times and the growing number of middle grade books that deal with mental health issues, I would have liked to see direct discussion of the problems that Violet's mother and Reggie were facing, and having therapy, coping skills, and maybe even medication mentioned would have been helpful. This ended a bit abruptly, and they inclusion of assistance for Violet's mother would have brought a feeling of closure to the book. 
What I really think:  Add this to a list of parental mental health books like Jones' Silhouetted by the Blue, Keller's The Science of Unbreakable Things, Pixley's Trowbridege Road, and Hiranandani's The Whole Story of Half a Girl

Rinker, Jess. The Hike to Home
July 5th 2022 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

When Lin comes to a Newbridge, New Jersey with her father to renovate a house, she thinks the summer will be boring, especially when her father enrolls her in a summer camp full of mean girls. She's used to traveling around with her parents, who have a YouTube presence, Moseying with the Mosers, but her mother has gotten a great opportunity to work on her film making and is spending the summer away from the family. Lin tries to film on her own to be closer to her mother, but is very angry and feels abandoned. Luckily, she meets Tinsley when she is hiding in the bathroom during camp, and the two hit it off. Tinsley's father also works on houses, but has been recently injured in an accident while working for the Sanders corporation, and now needs constant care. Joining the two is Leo, a quiet neighbor boy who is always reading, and whom Lin's father has agreed to watch in the afternoons so that hopefull he and Lin will become friends. Lin tries to be open to adventures in Newbridge, but is unused to talking to kids her own age, and ends up insulting Leo and the town. When she finds out abou tthe local legend of "The Castle in the Clouds", a long ago mansion built somewhere in the woods on a mountain, she gets Leo and Tinsley to try to find it with her. They find a surprising number of clues, but their progress is slowed by local bullies who have been targeting Leo, and who are, of course, related to the head of the Sanders corporation. When the camping trip goes badly wrong, will it even matter if they find the castle?
Strengths: I was absolutely enthralled by the idea of the family traveling around and renovating houses, although I was half expecting there to be a ghost. (The cover is too sunny for that!) The father is properly dad-like, and very open and friendly to Lin's friends and their activities. While she is given a good bit of freedom, there is realistic concern when the three are gone for too long while camping. Tinsley is an interesting character that we are seeing more and more; she wears costumes instead of drab clothing, and has a lot of artistic flair. Theo is shy, but rather helpful and definitely long suffering, with the way Lin treats him! The castle is a very cool idea, and the clues are laid out in a fairly reasonable way; meeting someone on the Appalachian Trail who helps them is intertwined well. For some reason, this reminded me of McCullough's A Field Guide to Getting Lost or Beasley's Tumble & Blue. The house renovation did not take the creepy turn like The Secrets of Goldenrod did. 
Weaknesses: There were a lot of coincidences involved in looking for the castle that were a bit of a stretch, and it was hard to believe that the kids would make so much progress when so many others had searched for the castle for years. I know, I know. I would have believed it if dragons had shown up, but realistic fiction has a different set of circumstances for credibility! The Sanders seemed a bit over the top. Are there still places where families "own" a town?
What I really think: While the cover art is a good style for middle school readers, and the adventure had its moments, there was something about this that struck me as more elementary. It might have been Lin's closeness with her mother. This is completely believable, since Lin has been homeschooled and traveled around without seeing many kids, but most middle school students want to put more distance between themselves and their parents, not less. If I have money left in February, I may purchase a copy. 
 Ms. Yingling

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