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Book Review: Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Cyd’s here with our first fall book review of the much-anticipated new middle grade novel by Newbery honor-winning author Lauren Wolk!

“Surely there has never been a better time to read about healing, of both the body and the heart.” –The New York Times Book Review

Depression-era Maine – 1934

After Ellie’s family loses almost everything they own, including their home in town, they are forced to start over in the untamed forests of nearby Echo Mountain. Unlike her sister, Ellie finds comfort in her new home. She welcomes the freedom and discovers a natural connection and love for the mountain and the creatures that share it. But the joy she has discovered is short lived when an accident leaves her father in a coma. An accident that she has accepted the unearned blame for. 

Ellie is determined to bring her father back. Listening to her heart and following her instincts, Ellie will make her way to the top of the mountain, in search of the healing secrets that a woman known only as “the hag” is known to possess. Her journey to find a cure for her father leads her to discover that help can come from surprising places.

Newbery honoree Lauren Wolk is a master at painting vivid pictures of people and places. Her young heroine, Ellie, is a remarkable character. Ellie’s kindness and innate understanding and empathy for the people and creatures of Echo Mountain, her trust in herself, her willingness to do whatever needs to be done – make her a great role model. I think young readers will find themselves engrossed in (and uplifted by) her character. This book is filled with positive messages that transfer to our current times.  Messages about community, openness to learning, how people respond differently in hard times. One of Ellie’s strongest character traits is her acceptance of people as they are – without judgement.    

I highly recommend this book. Echo Mountain is a page turner that I had a hard time putting down and couldn’t wait to come back to!  There are a few scares along the way, but the overall tone of the book is positive and thought-provoking for a young reader.

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Seventh grade is not turning out to be such a great year for Sweet Pea DiMarco (her real name is Patricia, but nobody calls her that except her eccentric advice columnist neighbor, Miss Flora Mae).  Her parents are recently divorced – but decided that the best way to keep things normal for Sweet Pea was for her dad to rent the house on other side of Miss Flora Mae’s and make everything look identical to her mom’s house, which, to be honest, kind of creeps Sweet Pea out.  Her cat, Cheese, must think so too, because he refuses to spend the night at her dad’s new house.  Her ex-best-friend, Kiera, now sits in front of her in class, which is definitely not awesome.  And Miss Flora Mae just cornered Sweet Pea on the sidewalk and announced that she’s going out of town and needs Sweet Pea to collect her column letters and water her plants – and then swore her to secrecy.  The last thing Sweet Pea needs is more secrets.

At least she has her forever best friend, Oscar.  They share a love of America’s Most Haunted, which they’re burning through on Netflix, and Oscar always has Sweet Pea’s back, no matter what.  Even when there is an unfortunate, um, incident, involving too much pizza, cake, and a trampoline at Kiera’s birthday party, which Sweet Pea sorta kinda crashes.  And even if she’s keeping secrets from Oscar – secrets she doesn’t want to keep, but Miss Flora Mae made her promise.  And secrets seem to lead to more secrets.

When Sweet Pea accidentally discovers a Dear Miss Flora Mae letter with very, very familiar handwriting while gathering up Flora’s mail, she makes a decision that will change her family and her friendships even more than they already have – she decides to answer it.  Sometimes, change is good, and sometimes, it’s not-so-good.  It turns out you always have to deal with it, though – and it’s how you decide to deal with it that defines who you are.

Author Julie Murphy has already proved her awesomeness with her young adult knockout novels Dumplin’, Puddin’, and Ramona Blue, and Dear Sweet Pea rocks the middle grade scene just as fabulously as her older sister novels (there’s a even a great nod to the world of Dumplin’ and Puddin’!).  Sweet Pea is funny, full of heart, and a great little human, even when she’s muddling through trying to figure out what the best way is to be a friend, a daughter, and an almost-eighth grader.  Oscar is a staunch and stalwart friend, and who doesn’t love a cat named Cheese?  Brimming with family, friendship, life advice, and a whole lot of love, middle grade readers, no matter how old, won’t want to miss Julie Murphy’s latest.  Check it out at the library!

Book Spotlight: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

Being a sixth grader isn’t generally the easiest thing in the world, but, for Carter Jones, this year is really shaping up to be a pain in the glutes.  And it’s only the first day of school.  His dad is deployed in Germany, his mom is super sad but trying really hard to keep it together, and his three little sisters, are, well, three little sisters.  Ned the dachshund won’t stop throwing up, the Jeep is on its last legs, it’s raining really hard, and the milk has turned.  Which is when the Butler shows up.

If you’re a kid living in Marysville, New York, you certainly don’t expect to inherit a butler.  Certainly not a Bentley-driving, tea-drinking, cricket-loving, real live British butler in a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella the size of a satellite disk.  But sometimes, that’s what you get.  Even if you’d rather have your dad back instead.

Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, it seems, has come to stay for the duration.  And despite Carter’s initial vow to resist the British invasion, he finds that, even though he now finds it his responsibility to walk Ned more times a day than seems strictly necessary, even in the rain, and having to attend the ballet and weird art exhibits with his sisters, the Butler just might have the right idea about a few things.  Like how to write school essays.  And figuring complicated family stuff out.  And cricket.  The glorious, marvelous, sportsmanly game of civilized countries.  Which, it turns out, might just be the thing to pull him back together again.

Laugh-out-loud funny and so, so full of heart, this story of how Carter figures out how to put himself back together after life throws him a googly (or twelve), keep the bails on, and introduce the Butler to pizza is another winner from one of my favorite authors, Newbery honor winning Gary D. Schmidt.  If you love a good story of family, friendship, sports, and don’t mind getting odd looks from your friends because you’re cracking up on your lunch break, Pay Attention, Carter Jones is a must-read!