The Quirks – Welcome to Normal

16059382by Erin Soderberg

for intermediate readers who are interested in celebrating their quirks and finding the magic in differences big and small

A while ago I went to hear Kim John Paine speak about children and learning.  He is a psychologist who works with children and families with a wide variety of needs.  One of his points that stuck with me had to do with how we think about differences.  He asked us to think of all the people we worked with – our students and our colleagues – and he asked us to consider their quirks.   After a bit of time, he pointed out that we all have quirks.  They are the things about us that drive people crazy; and they are the things that make us special and endearing.  We smiled and nodded knowingly.  Next he reminded us that we could think of these quirks in in different ways.  We could take those quirks, acknowledge them, polish and highlight them so that over time were seen as gifts. A person with them becomes gifted.  Or we could take those quirks, worry them, flog and reshape them until they became raw so that over time they were seen as a disability. A person with them becomes disabled.

He created this continuum:  D    ………………..     Q   ……………….    G

Reading The Quirks- Welcome to Normal made me think of this presentation.  The Quirks are a family of six.  Grandpa has the ability to rewind time.  Grandma is a fairy grandmother (literally) living in a small house in the willow tree.  Mom has the ability to make you think what she wants you to think.  Penelope’s imagination runs wild and comes true in real life. Finn is invisible to everyone but Molly, Penelope’s twin. And Molly’s quirk?  She doesn’t have one.

Because of their quirks, the family has moved around a lot.  They’ve lived in twelve states and twenty-six towns in nine years (and three quarters.)  Things get out of hand and the Quirks move on.  Just recently they have moved into Normal, Michigan.  Fourth grade will begin in a day or two for the twins.   It’s an anxious time.  Molly longs to fit in and stay in one place.  Penelope wants that too.  She is working very hard to keep her mind calm and empty, her imagination under control.   It is a lot of work to fit in and hide your family’s quirks.  It’s scary and frustrating and hard!

The most exciting day in Normal is the fall festival.  Every year the town does something extraordinarily abnormal to try to break a record.  They’ve made more pancakes at one time than any other town, and they’ve built the longest graham cracker staircase in the world.  So far, the town has never failed to meet the goal.  Each year they collect suggestions from the townspeople, one is selected at random and then they all come together to celebrate the wild and wacky on Normal Night and break a new record.

At least that’s how it normally works.  They’ve never yet, but they’ve never had the Quirks in their town before either – five people who are able to do real magic, and it’s Finn’s suggestion that has been chosen.  “This year, the town of Normal will by trying to build the world’s largest ball of A.B.C. on record.”   This all has to happen in one night – before 10 pm.  Read The Quirks- Welcome to Normal to see if the Quirks can manage their quirks so they will be able to stay.  Will they polish their quirks or the quirks or hide them away?

Beholding Bee

 Beholding BeeBy Kimberly Newton Fusco

historical fiction with an infusion of wishes for intermediate readers

Beholding Bee is a book that keeps coming back into my thoughts.  I keep wondering about her and the events in her life, as I try to figure out how things were in the 1930’s and 40’s.  What would happen to a little girl if she were suddenly orphaned by parents who worked at a traveling carnival?  Would she have been called a “freak” and put on display with the fat man and the bearded lady because of a birthmark?

Bee lives with Pauline in the back of the moving truck that is used to haul the carnival hotdog stand from place to place.  Bee slices the onions for the hotdogs – nice and thin – when they awake in the morning. Once the stand is open she works with Pauline to fill the orders.  She does this carefully keeping her hair over her “diamond” and turning a certain way so that people don’t see and stare or taunt.  Pauline has taken care of Bee for seven years, but the snaky carnival owner is figuring different ways to make even more money and sends Pauline away.  Bee is in charge of the hotdog cart on her own.  She is comforted when a caramel brown stray shows up and she decides to keep the dog against the owners wishes.  She has help from Bobby for a while.  He’s runs the pig races, another carnival event, but when he leaves the carnival too, Bee knows she must find a place where she belongs.

Bee runs away with her dog and one of the sweet little pigs from the race.  She runs until she finds a perfect house where she is welcomed by Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Swift.  Sometimes there, sometimes not, they support Bee and help her discover the things that matter in the world.  Surprisingly, happily,  she is one of them.  This book has wonderful characters, wonderful writing and a wonderful message.

“Everyone is always going to notice your birthmark, Bee. It’s like Ellen’s brace. You can’t help but notice. But it’s what people do after they notice that’s important. Do they treat you like a person with dignity? Or do they baby you and coddle you or make fun of you or worse?”

I think this books stays with you and makes you think and question, wonder and care.  I hope you’ll read it and let us know what you think.


In Search of Goliathus Hercules

In Search of Goliathus Herculesby Jennifer Angus

a surreal, Victorian adventure full of mysterious surprises in unusual places

Henri’s dad has been gone for three years and missing for two.  Sent to British Malaya as the superintendent of a rubber plantation, he had, so the story went, one day just walked into the jungle and vanished.  Unable to believe that possible, Henri’s mom decided to travel there to see for herself and that is how Henri came to be at Woodland Farm in America living with Great Aunt Georgie and her button collection.

It was rather boring being 10 and alone in middle of nowhere.  Of course the farm had lots of places to explore, but that only went so far when there is no one to explore it with.  And talking? Well, the only person to converse with as 90-year old, Great Aunt Georgie and she only talked about buttons.  She shared interesting tidbits like the oldest button was five thousand years old or buttons were first used to fasten clothing in Germany in the thirteenth century.  Interesting, but rather dull and right now it was raining.  As he looked out the window, Henri was aware of a fly bumping into it over and over.  He thought it was annoying so he asked the fly to stop.  It did.  Then he noticed another fly moving across the newspaper line by line as if it were reading.  He watched for a bit until it said, “It’s rude to read over someone’s shoulder you know.”  Before Henri could fully believe it, he’d had complete conversation with the fly, which could in fact read.  Henri wasn’t sure he believed it, but suddenly the world was no longer full of chirps and creaks – each one had meaning.  It was true.  Henri could communicate with insects.

When the circus came to town Henri was drawn to Maestro Antonio’s Amazing Flying Flea Circus.  Although a small sideshow, Henri was sure he could help it become the “greatest show on earth.”  Antonio agreed to let him try and so Henri ran away to join the circus.   But not before meeting Great Aunt Georgie’s neighbor, Agatha Black.  Her coldhearted cruelty filled Henri with dread that didn’t seem to fully go away even when he thought he had left her behind.

Joining the circus is just the beginning of Henri’s transformation from lonely boy to ambassador to the insect world.   Henri is thoughtful and creative.  He appreciates the gifts of every creature whether a flea or a queen.  They appreciate this kindness and because of it support his quest to discover the truth behind the story of the largest beetle in the world. Reading In Search of Goliathus Hercules will keep you turning the pages to the very end.  There are some remaining questions and some places where the plot is stretched a little thin, but for insect-loving readers (and even those who feel a little squeamish at the thought) this is totally entertaining adventure from start to finish.  I also love the kaleidoscope of insects that begins each chapter and the connecting information that begins each part of the book.

Fly Away

Flyawayby Lucy Christopher

a great middle grade read – you won’t be sorry you read it!

The special thing between Isla and her dad is birds.  Isla feels free in the wind and the wild.  She feels unsettled and shy at school – especially now that her only friend has moved away.  Seeing the birds soar free is like a balm to her.

Isla and her dad rise early in the morning to watch the swans return to the nearby wetlands preserve, marking the start of winter. Her dad began this tradition with him mom when the swans landed at their farm.  Too many people and houses have changed where the swans winter.  But their awesome beauty and strength is a wonder to see.  As far back as she can remember Isla and her dad have looked for the swans every year.  This one is different though.  Tragedy.  As they watch, the newly constructed power lines injure the front swans.  The lines haven’t been marked properly and the birds can’t see them.   Some plummet to the ground, others are driven away flying in chaos and confusion.  Isla and her dad try to follow them to see where the flock goes.  Isla notices that one young female seems disoriented.  Does she get left behind by those swans able to change direction and avoid the wires?  Isla and her dad lose the birds before their questions can be answered.

The next weekend, they go out again and try to find the swans.  Running across the fields to the preserve Isla’s dad has a heart attack. Instantly the swans are forgotten.  Isla, frightened beyond belief, manages to call for help and get her dad to the hospital. His heart is weak and it is touch-and-go for him as he waits for an operation.

While at the hospital, Isla meets Harry.  About her age, Harry has leukemia, and is waiting for a bone marrow transplant. From his window they can see a small lake and it looks like there’s a swan on it.  Swans don’t fly alone and Isla thinks she might be the one that got separated from the flock the day the whoopers arrived at the preserve. She goes out to see.  Amazingly the swan is not afraid of Isla. While Harry watches, the swan imitate Isla’s behavior, running as she runs, wings outstretched as Isla reaches out with her arms.  The swan doesn’t seem to know how to fly back to her flock.

Here’s where it all comes together – saving a swan, saving a dad, saving a friend – each in dire circumstances.  Because of an art project, Isla works with her grandfather to construct a set of swan wings large enough to wear.  They intricately simulate the movement of wing and feather.  Isla determines to use them to guide her swan back to her flock.  She believes that if she can help the swan then her much adored father will live and Harry, her friend – perhaps even more – will finally beat cancer.  So much rests on her wings – and Isla’s ability to make it all happen fast enough, before the unthinkable happens.

Fly Away is a complex, beautifully written story full of the questions and anxieties of life.  The way each piece of the story is woven together creates a respectful view of life, while offering a glimmer of magic and hope.  Isla’s interests, dedication, family and friends soar through the pages of this book.  When you finish it you’ll feel light and full at the same time.


The House of Secrets

House of Secrets (House of Secrets, #1)by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini

496 pages of suspenseful action that will have you questioning what is real

Sometimes when things look to good to be true, it is wise to be cautious.  The Walker family is looking for a new house.  Ever since the “incident” they have been crammed into an apartment and questioning how they will move forward. They discover an ad describing a Victorian mansion for sale overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and  San Francisco Bay.   Designed and built by an obscure, occult author in the late 1800’s, it has been completely renovated and furnished with period pieces.  The house is stunning.  On top of that it is priced perfectly for the Walkers.  And yet Cordelia, Brendan and Eleanor find themselves wondering.  The house is exciting and creepy at the same time.  First there is the statue – there and then gone.  Then there is the neighbor claiming to be the elderly daughter of the original owner of the home, Denver Kristoff.  Something feels wrong, but by the time they understand what, they are caught in a sinister plan fueled by greed and the desire for ultimate power.  The children are far away from any certain help.  Their parents are gone – perhaps dead.  They are  attacked by bandits in a primeval forest, forcing them to team up with a World War I Flying Ace who helps them escape only to be thrown onto a ship captained by an sadistic pirate.

Just as the Walker siblings have found a way to defeat one life threatening event, another arises.  They realize they have actually been transported into Denver Kristoff’s stories.  They search through the books in the library, reading and learning all they can  fighting for survival and looking for a way back into their own time.  The book of Doom and Desire has set the powerful magic in motion – when you have the book you are able to have everything you wish, but at a price.  Will the Walkers be able to resist?  What if they die trying?  Is it worth it?

This is a fast paced, convoluted tale that is sure to surprise.  I loved the juxtapostion of real life with story life – which is real and how do you survive in a world you know only exists in a book.  Can you use what you’ve read to change the story in your favor?  What happens when your actions join the plots of two or more books?  Are the stories changed forever?  Do the characters die?  Can you get out of a story once you live there?

The Walkers are characters you’ll come to admire.  Their determination and loyalty is honest and true – they are honestly annoyed by each other’s quirks and failings, but they know they are all each other have.  They pull through with the help of unusual friends and the opportunity to make the unexpected possible.  It’s a book you’ll be glad you read.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you read it again right away.  There’s a lot to think about and question.  I was glad to see “book 1” by the title.  I am eager to spend more time with the Walkers to see how they deal with obvious occult magic surrounding their new home and family.


A Tangle of Knots

A Tangle of Knotsby Lisa Graff

an intermediate, middle grade delight

Which cake is your perfect match? – let us know.

There’s something special about A Tangle of Knots.  It’s not just the bit of magic that surrounds the people in the story or the questions they seek to answer.  It has to do with the connections that bind them – even though they don’t know each other yet.

The story begins 53 years before the main action of the book when Mason gets on a bus north.  He carries with him a small blue suitcase – a light blue, boxy, three-dimpled St. Anthony’s suitcase.  It contains a single piece of paper defining his future and his fortune.  While waiting for the bus Mason meets a tall man – a man with a talent for knot tying.  In fact, it is this man’s Talent.  You see, most everyone in this place has a special Talent.  Here’s some of what the man says about his:

Could have been blessed with a Talent for finance or medicine.  Even a log-splitting Talent might have done me some good.  But no, I find myself with knot tying.

Well, the only knot I’ve mastered is the one to tie my shoelaces,” Mason admitted.  He couldn’t help it; he liked the odd fellow.  “Every other knot just looks like a tangled mess to me.”

The man in the gray suit thought about that.  “Well, that’s the thing about knots, isn’t it?” he replied after a moment.  “If you don’t know the trick, it’s a muddled predicament.  But in fact each loop of every knot is carefully placed, one end twisting right into the other in a way you might not have expected.  I find them rather beautiful, really.”

His description of a well-done knot is just exactly how Lisa Graff writes her story weaving the lives of Cady, Toby, Marigold, Will, V, Zane, Mrs. Archer and Miss Mallory together with each surprising and satisfying twist.  Will Cady find a way to make another perfect cake?  Will Will be found in time?  What is the secret ingredient that makes each family a uniquely satisfying combination?  Is it fate?  Is it destiny?  It is the unexpected twist in an unnamed knot?

A Tangle of Knots is a satisfying puzzle that will keep you wondering right through to the end.  You may discover your perfect cake along the way, but even if none of Cady’s recipes appeal to you, her story and the writing you’re about discover certainly will.  Like all of this author’s books, A Tangle of Knots is sure to please.

The Word Eater

The Word Eaterby Mary Amato

The answer seems simple enough until you begin thinking your way through the 151 pages.  I wonder what you’d do.

What does the birth of a worm and the initiation of a sixth grader have in common?  Well in The Word Eater they begin in the same moment, neither go well and both set in motion actions that will change the world.

Reba – president of MPOOE (Most Powerful Ones on Earth) seems to rule sixth grade at Cleveland Park Middle School along with Randy.  They have divided the class into MPOOE members or SLUGs.  Lerner has just moved to this school, this town, this state and she is not too impressed with what she finds.  She doesn’t want to be a MPOOE, but she doesn’t want to be a SLUG either – she just wants to be left alone.  With Reba around that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Meanwhile in a mud circle at the edge of the playground a worm emerges from its casing.  The other worms of the clan sense its arrival and circle up for the naming waiting eagerly to feel the vibration.  The worm is teeny – almost nothing at all, but it is able to move on little skinch to earn the name Fip. Once named, Fip is carried on to the eating ceremony, but Fip doesn’t seem to be able to stomach the taste of dirt.  Fip’s clan always eats dirt and because he doesn’t he is left on his own.  He discovers he has a taste for sweet and crunchy, crisp and crinkly words.    And what he eats disappears.

No one understands this at first, but soon Lerner catches on.  She realizes that this worm, no bigger than a grain of rice has amazing power.  She is the one who can use that power.  Perhaps she will be able to undo all her recent moving misery.  But while as Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power, “ he also said, “Appetite for too much power caused the angels to fall.”  Lerner is faced with a dilemma – how can she best use this power?  Should she?  Can she changes things and make them better?  Everything, she discovers, is connected.  What would he do with the power to change the world?

The Girl Who Could Fly

The Girl Who Could Flyby Victoria Forester

328 pagesof unpredictable action that will leave you smiling in the end – though you won’t be certain until the very end

There’s a hawk calling outside my window. It’s soaring above the field.  That is something I have always admired.  If I could fly I would!  And that is what Piper McCloud can do, in fact must do   She is a natural born floater.  She can fly but has learned that “raw talent only gets you so far in the world and the rest is a whole lot of practice, persistence and perspiration.”  Piper loves to fly.  She loves the feeling and the freedom but she has been forbidden  because it is different.  Ma likes things to be predictable and the same.  Because Piper is anything but predictable and the same, Ma keeps her at home all the time and watches very closely.  That’s fine, but Piper is lonely.  She longs for a friend, someone to share with.   When they opportunity of the ice cream social comes along, Piper promises to be good but then the taunting and the frustration of the baseball routing get the best of her.  Piper flies to catch a ball and then everyone knows for sure – there is something totally unique about Piper McCloud.  In Lowland County that is not good.  News of the flying girl spreads around the globe and that is how Piper meets Dr. Hellion.

Dr Hellion assures Piper that there are others like her.  She explains that she has created an institute where children like Piper can develop their skills and fulfill their dreams. Piper wants to fly around the world and meet other fliers and make the world a better place.  That is what she is promised once she’s been to school and learned what she needs to know.   And so Piper leaves home and goes to the institute.  There is a classroom and it is full of children but it is not anything like she had hoped.  It is harsh and cold, but still Piper is determined to make the best of it.  She is determined to be friendly and kind.  She is determined to find the best in others and when she discovers the secrets happening on the different levels Piper is determined to address the cruelty, no matter what the dangers are.  They may be insurmountable, but is there anything that can keep Piper McCloud down?  You’ll have to read to find out.  I love the twists and turns of this story – nothing is ever really what it seems and I think that’s a good thing!


Fresh hot pizza. Ice Cold Gelato. A classic Italian meal. But this picture perfect image is shattered for Max when his parents, archaeologists obsessed with the Maya, decide to cancel the family vacation in Italy and go on a ‘dig’. He is furious that he isn’t going to Italy and he has to stay with the family’s strange housekeeper, Zia. With his parents gone, Max has nothing to do… until Zia tells him that his parents need him and she gives him a ticket to San Xavier, where the dig is located. In San Xavier, Max has a spectacular adventure with a smart, pretty Maya girl (“out of his league” he thinks secretly), a quirky archaeologist and professor, talking monkeys battling against the evil schemes of Count Antonio de Landa. Read Middleworld by J&P (Jon and Pamela) Voelkel and you will not regret it.

AWESOME website for the Jaguar Stones series accessed here.

Click here for the publisher’s (EgmontUSA) review of the book.

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Don’t forget to read Book Two of the series, The End of the World Club… it’s just as good.

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The Humming Room

The Humming RoomThe Humming Room

by  Ellen Potter

magical realism

Hearing my mother read The Secret Garden was magical.  I lived in rural New Hampshire and I thought she had too, but when she read aloud to me she used a Yorkshire accent.  She brought the book to life and from then on I knew that other people’s lives were very different from mine.  She seemed to know what it was like to run through the heather.  She even knew how Mary would sound differently – my mother?!?!  That’s the first time I knew at 7 that books could open the world to you and take you places you never knew were there.  I’ve loved that The the Secret Garden forever  because of that.  I have cherished the wick branches and the bramblely garden that comes to life and beauty.

When I read “inspired by The Secret Garden” on the cover of The Humming Room  I knew it was a book I should explore.  (Besides I had come to like Ellen Potter from the quirky Kneebone Boy and I wondered how those two things might come together.)

Roo Fanshaw’s secret skill is hiding.  Her life has been a hard one and becoming invisible is a skill she has needed to perfect.  It is what saves her when her parents are murdered and it is what allows her to notice what others do not see once she moves to Cough Rock Island to stay at her eccentric uncle’s home.

This home is full of ghosts and secrets.  Roo does not believe in either and uncovers them all with the help of Jack, a gentle island boy who helps her learn island ways and life.  Roo finds the sadness hidden in the house and carefully brings it light and life and care.  With this help the sadness blossoms into life and that’s what all things need if you are going be part of the world.

I liked how the extras, the postman and the tutor added interesting twist to the story.  I liked  how the history of the setting – a tuberculosus sanitorium – added to the mystery and the magic.  I appreciated how determination and observation, care and commitment bring life back to those who are fragile.  I think you will too.  After you’ve discovered  The Humming Room  pass it on.  It is a story to share.