Genre: Siblings

The Half Life of Molly Pierce (2014) by Katrina Leo

The Half Life of Molly Pierce (2014) by Katrina LeoThe Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno
Published by HarperCollins on July 8th 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Emotions & Feelings, Family, Friendship, Siblings, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 240

Suggested age range: 15 and up

The Book: It’s mystery, it’s contemporary, it’s young adult. It’s The Half Life of Molly Pierce. Seventeen year-old Molly feels like she’s missing part of her life. There’s the boy who claims he knows her, but she doesn’t recognize him or know where (or when) she met him. Then there’s his brother who also knows her name, and with whom she senses a significant connection. Was (is?) there something between them? Love? Friendship? Slowly, memories start to come back, and Molly begins to put the pieces together. What is her secret life everyone else seems to know about but her? Will she ever have a whole life instead of just half of one?

Spirituality in The Half Life of Molly Pierce: So, you’ve probably heard me talk about the idea that the relationship to the self is one area of spirituality we can think about out of the four major connections (self, others, natural world, Divine [God]). Looking at this novel through a spiritual lens highlights that idea of our connectedness to the self, and it definitely made me think about how this idea of being “whole” is tied to our spirituality. Mental illness is something a lot of people deal with in today’s world, and it shouldn’t be ignored. The more we can understand it and support people who deal with it, the better. When we see brokenness, we want to fix it. I want to see un-whole people become whole, and Molly’s story reminded me of that even more.

Hope and expectation for the good to come were two other dimensions of the story that engaged my own spirituality.

I wasn’t expecting this because I honestly wasn’t sure what the book was going to be about! So I’m immensely glad I picked it up.

Who Should Read This Book: If you enjoy psychological reads that have a bit of mystery, like We Were Liars, you’ll probably enjoy this. Readers interested in issues surrounding mental illness, or writers interested in ways they can represent mental illness in a story would definitely find this book relevant. It will make you think, and is ideal for reading and discussing with others. I found myself telling my friends about it, even though they weren’t reading it at the time. Oh, and it’s pretty addictive. You might even drop friends off to shop and wait in the car so you can finish the book. (Note: There is some strong language and mature content in the book.)

The Final Word: I wasn’t sure what to think of Molly Pierce at first. I hadn’t read many of the reviews of the book before I plunged in, which I found out afterwards, was a good thing. There is a bit of a twist, and I’m certainly not going to give any hints what that twist entails, but readers who like puzzles and uncertainty—this might be a good choice for you.

I was wondering how Leo was going to wrap the story ends up and resolve the plot, and I was surprised at how satisfying the ending was to me.

The beginning of the book was very jarring (and I think it’s supposed to be) but its conclusion left you with a far different feeling.

Have you read The Half Life of Molly Pierce? What did you think? What other books did it remind you of?

What Katie Read

An enchanted world, a powerful book, and three children of destiny: “E” is for The Emerald Atlas: The Book of Beginnings (2011) by John Stephens #AtoZchallenge

An enchanted world, a powerful book, and three children of destiny: “E” is for The Emerald Atlas: The Book of Beginnings (2011) by John Stephens #AtoZchallengeThe Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Published by Random House Children's Books on April 5th 2011
Genres: Action & Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Siblings
Pages: 432

Called “A new Narnia for the tween set” by the New York Times and perfect for fans of the His Dark Materials series, The Emerald Atlas brims with humor and action as it charts Kate, Michael, and Emma's extraordinary adventures through an unforgettable, enchanted world. These three siblings have been in one orphanage after another for the last ten years, passed along like lost baggage. Yet these unwanted children are more remarkable than they could possibly imagine. Ripped from their parents as babies, they are being protected from a horrible evil of devastating power, an evil they know nothing about. Until now. Before long, Kate, Michael, and Emma are on a journey through time to dangerous and secret corners of the world...a journey of allies and enemies, of magic and mayhem.  And—if an ancient prophesy is correct—what they do can change history, and it is up to them to set things right.From the Hardcover edition.

The Book: An enchanted world filled with monsters, dwarves, and evil countesses. A book of power called The Emerald Atlas. Time travel. All these elements make up this story featuring three orphans, Kate, Michael, and Emma. Three special children who have moved from one orphanage to the next since they were very young, the trio are convinced their parents are alive somewhere and will eventually return for them. However, upon the discovery of an enchanted book, the three find themselves transported back in time, and race to save an entire town from the evils of a countess who will stop at nothing to find one of the “books of beginning.” During their journey, Kate, the eldest of the children slowly begins to realize that she and her siblings may have a far greater purpose and destiny than she had ever imagined.

Spirituality in The Emerald Atlas: The relationships among the siblings represents one spiritual aspect of the story that I appreciated. I think that Stephens portrayed the significance of the bond between brother and sisters very well, and I don’t always read stories where I am especially moved by the strength of the family connection. Kate’s strong sense of justice and wanting to make things right was another dimension of the story that resonated with me, as well as the way she has a glimpse of her mother at one point in the book. The interaction between the two is an amazing moment, and I appreciated the way Stephens portrayed Kate as working through issues of abandonment that she surely must have felt.

Who Should Read This Book: If you enjoy fantasy stories like Narnia or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, you must read this book. I enjoy both C.S. Lewis & Philip Pullman’s work, and I was sucked into the world Stephens created. The story is filled with twists and turns and some recognizable aspects of a fantasy story, but the novel retains a uniqueness that kept it refreshing and exciting. There are moments to laugh and to cry. I haven’t read the second book yet, but I have hopes that it will be as interesting as the first.

The Final Word: I had been planning to read this book for over a year and I am so glad I picked up the audio book first, and then checked out the book from the library. It’s a delightful read and a fantasy you can really get lost in. I will definitely be recommending this book to young readers who love an exciting fantasy with an ending that leaves you wanting more. The characters are memorable—especially the dwarf, Hamish. Enjoy The Emerald Atlas!

What Katie Read

“The Impossible is About to Happen Again”: The Magician’s Elephant

“The Impossible is About to Happen Again”: The Magician’s ElephantThe Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
Published by Candlewick Press on 2011
Genres: Animals, Elephants, Family, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Orphans & Foster Homes, Siblings
Pages: 201

I’m ringing in the New Year with an extended review of one of my favorite novels from 2009.

Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 book, The Magician’s Elephant, opens with ten year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene who is desperate to know whether his younger sister is alive.  He stumbles upon a fortuneteller at a circus, and spends his one florit to ask the woman about his sister; she explains that an elephant will lead the way. And what would you do if the answer to your most important question was “You must follow the elephant…She will lead you there”?

The book opens with a major event—the asking of a question whose answer will surely change the life of Peter, the orphaned protagonist. There is a point at which Peter shrinks back from his decision, and reflects, “What if, after all this time, he could not bear the truth? What if he did not really want to know?” Surely some readers understand how Peter agonizes over the possibility of knowing a truth that might be too much for him to bear. Knowing the truth is not always as simple as it seems; with the truth comes responsibility, and sometimes pain. For certainly, there are times when knowing the truth is necessary, and yet the space between not knowing and knowing involves a fear one must press through.

For Peter, the revelation about his sister catapults him into a reality in which he must find her. And so the story truly begins and we, the reader, gladly follow Peter throughout the narrative as he searches for the elephant, who in fact, has crashed through the roof of the concert hall, and is very much alive and well. DiCamillo has situated the reader in a multi-layered and complex landscape—to find his sister, Peter has to follow the elephant, but how and when will this happen?

The fortuneteller also states that “the truth is forever changing.” And what does this mean? The truth, it seems, is that if Peter finds the elephant, he will find his sister. But when he finally sees the elephant, the truth does change. Peter recognizes that the elephant is heartbroken, imprisoned far away from the familiarity of her home. Rather than insist on discovering the truth of his sister’s whereabouts, Peter responds to “the terrible truth of what he saw, what he understood in the elephant’s eyes. She was heartbroken. She must go home.” Peter now devotes all of his energy to connecting and orchestrating the necessary people so that the elephant can be transported back. For him, it appears, the truth of what he must do has changed.

And yet it hasn’t. For in his decision to help the elephant, Peter inadvertently sets into motion the journey that will deliver his sister to him through a unique and surprising chain of events and people.  Essentially, the people and the animals in the book are the ones we love—and it is the miracle of the elephant that brings these flawed and lovely characters together. It is Peter and Adele and Sister Marie and Bartok Whynn and Hans Ickmann and Madam LaVaughn and Leo & Gloria Matienne and the magician and Vilna Lutz and Tomas and Iddo. They are the ones we cherish by the end of the book—they are the ones who give readers a little more insight into this journey we call life, and the importance of keeping our eyes open so that we see those that are perhaps rarely seen. The Magician’s Elephant suggests that our senses can be sharpened as we read children’s literature. Our sensitivity towards people can grow.

What Peter’s predicament illustrates is that the answer to the major questions we ask may not always be as neat and straightforward as we would hope. We may have to follow an elephant, an impossible scenario. And, though we feel blind and absolutely incapable of finishing the journey, following the elephant does, in fact, lead to the treasure. And perhaps, like Peter’s quest, the journey works to reveal the treasure along the way, for people are the treasure. In DiCamillo’s text and through Yoko Tanaka’s atmospheric acrylic illustrations, we meet the beggar Tomas with the beautiful voice, and his dog, Iddo, who longs “to deliver, just once more, a message of great importance.” We want Iddo to make that significant announcement. And he certainly does on page 175: “Something incredible was approaching. He knew it, absolutely, to be true. Something wonderful was going to happen, and he would be the one to announce it. He worked with the whole of his heart to deliver the message.”

Our hearts long for reconciliation between the magician and Madam LaVaughn who is crippled because of a magic trick. These characters deliver the message that forgiveness is the key to freedom—as soon as Madam LaVaughn releases the magician from prison, explaining that she won’t press charges anymore, she “felt some great weight suddenly flap its wings and break free of her. She laughed aloud.” Often we do not realize the power of forgiving those who hurt us—who even cripple us. This is yet one of the amazing truths DiCamillo unfolds on the landscape of this fantastic story.

Readers wish for Hans Ickmann to be happy again, as he was when young, with his brothers and their little white dog, Rose—“a dog who was famous for being able to leap across the river that ran through the woods beyond the town.” It is Hans, in fact, who helps Peter and his entourage gain access to Madam LaVaughn during a pivotal point in the story. Though at first he hesitates as they stand at the door, requesting to see the woman, in the next moment, he recalls the name of the little white dog he had loved so much as a child. And then, “He felt a wonderful certainty. The impossible, he thought, the impossible is about to happen again.

The impossible is what we need to happen. And happen it does within the pages of DiCamillo’s text—but the deep truth of the novel is that the impossible can happen in our own world, in the reader’s world. Like Leo Matienne, we must ask the three questions: “What if? Why not? Could it be?” And we must ask them regularly.

The Magician’s Elephant beautifully illuminates the power of relationships and connections with other people and suggests that such links are necessary and vital within people’s lives, especially in the context of finding what is lost. DiCamillo’s text highlights several spiritual dimensions, and strongly speaks to readers’ spirits so that by the end, we may feel a little more hope, a little more wonder, and a little more awe at the fact that an elephant can appear when we need her, and then disappear even as our hearts are blanketed with astonishment.

What Katie Read
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