Karen Harrington’s Courage for Beginners: a middle-grade book for all ages

If you think that children’s realistic fiction isn’t relatable, I suggest giving Karen Harrington’s work a try. In Courage for Beginners, readers are dropped into the very believable but also very difficult world of Mysti Murphy. Mysti is 12, and learning to navigate the shark-infested waters of seventh grade. Unfortunately, her former best friend Anibal has decided to “become a hipster” in order to win the heart of a cheerleader. According to Anibal, this  means that he can no longer associate with Mysti at all. Worse, he makes a point of publicly teasing her. Mysti has bigger problems, unfortunately. Her mother is severely agoraphobic, and is unable to leave the house. Her father, who takes care of the family’s daily needs, is in an accident and falls into a coma. Mysti is forced to be provide for her family at home (which includes her mother, her dog, and her little sister) while being bullied in school.

Mysti has a wild imagination, and is such a witty and creative character that it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Although she remains upbeat in the face of immense difficulty, she is still only twelve years old. As the family’s toilet paper and food supply dwindle, Mysti must face the long, scary walk to the grocery store which is an insurmountable obstacle for her mother. Mysti triumphantly champions an absorbing a story about inner strength, but this book doesn’t let other people off the hook, despite Mysti’s resourcefulness. It also doesn’t attempt to gloss over mental illness.  In addition to learning how to be brave (although we suspect that she had it in her all along), Mysti also learns the value of being–and having–true friends.

Ms. Harrington has written two books so far, and I have loved both of them. Her debut novel, Sure Signs of Crazy was a poignant and absorbing read. Ms. Harrington’s sensitive treatment of mental illness and its effect on family life makes both of her middle-grade novels worth reading, discussing, and thinking about. This one is great for ages 8 and up, and stands out with other middle-grade winners like Genie Wishes, Pack of Dorks, and authors like the great Rebecca Stead and Susin Nielsen.





Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Thing About JellyfishI love a middle grade novel that tugs at your heartstrings, but if it can also make me laugh and impart some fun facts, all the better. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin did just that; after such a pleasant reading experience, I absolutely had to write about it, so if you are looking for a realistic book about friendship, look no further.

Suzy and Franny had been friends for years, since they were both slightly odd little girls playing at the local pool. They didn’t really fit in anywhere, but that was okay because they had each other. As Franny gets older, however, she starts to become more like the other girls in their grade, talking about crushes on boys and trying to be popular. Suzy doesn’t understand why they now spend so much time talking about things that don’t mean anything, and she doesn’t understand how to stop Franny  from pulling away. She once had a friend she could rely on, but by the end of grade 6, Franny is telling Suzy she’s weird and making fun of her with the other students. When Suzy learns that Franny died over the summer in an accidental drowning, Suzy retreats into herself, barely speaking unless absolutely necessary. When the new school year begins, Suzy is isolated and lonely, completely unmoored by the tragic death of her ex-best friend.

On a school trip to an aquarium, Suzy wanders away from the class toward the jellies tank, where she learns that jellyfish are spreading through the oceans because of over-fishing. She also learns that jellyfish stings are very dangerous and have resulted in many drownings; suddenly, it becomes clear to her. Franny was a good swimmer; she couldn’t have just drowned. It must have been a jellyfish sting. Convinced that she has discovered something important, she begins researching jellies. 

Ali Benjamin’s novels unfolds in a graceful and lovely way. Suzy offers us flashes of her friendship over the years with Franny, which ultimately culminate in the final encounter the two girls have. I found myself feeling such sympathy for Suzy, whose friend is pulling away from her, but also for Franny, who just wanted to fit in and couldn’t think of a way to reconcile her friendship with Suzy and that desire. Suzy is an adorably odd but winning young girl, whose quirks make her a more interesting person, although middle school isn’t always the best time for people who don’t quite fit the mold. The reader also learns about Suzy’s family, and we get to watch her slowly find a new circle of people who are also different in their own unique ways.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a great story with well-developed and appealing characters. It’s realistic and heart-felt, and will surely stick with the reader long after the cover has been closed and the book returned to the library.

Give it a try the next time you are looking for a middle-grade novel you won’t soon forget.

Happy reading!

-Valerie (Manager of Children’s Services)