Looking for a new “fight fun with fun” book for your middle grade daughter (or son….)? Honey, have I got two for you. Kepler’s Dream, the debut YA novel by Juliet Bell, is about 11-year-old Ella, a clever, compassionate girl whose mother’s cancer treatment and father’s disengagement exile her to “Broken Family Camp” for the summer: staying with her severe-natured grandmother in her peacock-ridden hacienda in Albuquerque. Neither of them is happy about the arrangement. Ella is afraid her mother may die, but all her grandmother seems to care about is her crazy library full of books When a rare and much-loved volume, Kepler’s Dream of the Moon, is stolen, however, Ella decides it’s up to her to find it. The result could be the key to healing her broken family.
This is the kind of book I used to love as a girl, back in the days before the vampires and zombies and murder-tainment (nothing against Hunger Games) struck. Ella feels utterly real, her voice just the right amount of snarky, her struggles relevant and relatable. I loved that nearly all of the central relationships were among women (though plenty of complex men are in there, too), especially the initially-hostile one between Ella and her friend-to-be Rosie. Just because they’re the same age doesn’t mean they have to like each other, right? There’s a mystery at the heart of Kepler’s Dream, which I won’t spoil, but really, this a family issue story in the tradition of Paul Zindel or Judy Bloom. As Kirkus said when describing this “utterly satisfying” book:
Ella learns how blame can tear a family apart and how forgiveness and the things of which dreams are made can heal. The credibly realistic resolution leaves Ella firmly grounded with deepened family ties, a new friend and some hard-won horseback-riding skills.
Meanwhile, back in the land of fantasy and fairy tales, Daisy and I have been riveted by the audiobook of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl. It is performed by our beloved Full Cast Audio and, as usual, they do not disappoint. Amazon says this book is for 6th-9th graders and they may well enjoy it, but as a read-aloud, Daisy and I were riveted (and she’s 8 ½ these days). She has friends in second grade who are enjoying it as well.
You may be familiar with the Grimm’s story that inspired this tale, but Shannon Hale has taken what amounts to a (very bloody) sketch and turned it into a (less bloody) masterpiece. At 16, Anidori–Kiladra Talianna Isillee, Crown Princess of Kildenree is sweet, if naïve and cosseted. She possesses the gift of “animal speak, ” something little valued by her imperial—and imperious—mother, the queen. When she’s shipped off to a neighboring kingdom to marry its prince (and keep the peace) she is easily overthrown by a mutinous entourage headed by her lady-in-waiting. Ani barely escapes with her life. Eventually she disguises herself as a goose girl. Before the story is over, she learns lessons in courage, justice, perseverance and coming in to your own as a woman and a person. In the end, birthright doesn’t make Ani a princess—her character, forged by experience, and her brave actions do. I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough.
Both Kepler’s Dream and Goose Girl are about girls who face enormous obstacles they have to work hard to overcome–that only they can overcome. And through making hard choices, facing unforeseen challenges, they make not only their lives but the lives of those around them–friends, family, strangers–better. They come into power, and that is a beautiful thing.