Dan Quixote, Boy of Nuevo Jersey

Daniel Tyler and Sandra Day Goldberg are opposite sides of the same coin. Dan is an artist and a dreamer who believes everything he reads in books, and Sandy is a practical girl with a strong sense of justice. Yet despite their differences, Dan and Sandy have been best friends since kindergarten. Now they are in eighth grade, and they must deal with pressure from both their teachers and their peers.

Their history teacher, Mrs. Fallon–also known as “The Dragon”–seems to enjoy belittling and failing her students. And Jade, the school bully and class queen bee, is trying to pressure Dan to do something he knows is wrong.

What’s more, Dan is in love with Gwen, and Sandy is beginning to wonder if she still has a place in her best friend’s life. Things go from bad to worse when Jade labels Dan the “Dork King of New Jersey” and spreads vicious gossip about him.

Can Dan and Sandy defeat the Dragon? Can they stop the bullying and gossip? Will Dan win Gwen’s heart? And how will Dan and Sandy’s friendship survive it all? 

I have to confess that I’ve never really read Middle Grade books, but I thought it was time to explore them a little, considering that my eldest child is heading towards that age bracket and it won’t be long before she starts having her own taste in books. I had no idea what to expect going in, but Dan Quixote pleasantly surprised me.

From the blurb I expected that Dan would be the narrator of the story, however, it’s actually Sandy whose point of view the story is told from. She is the long suffering best friend who loves Dan, as a mate of course, and while she might roll her eyes at his belief in fiction, she is willing to stand by his side as  he goes on his adventures.

The story line seemed really fitting for the age group and deals with the difficult subject of bullying from both a fellow student, as well as a teacher who likes to make life difficult for everyone in her class. I think it’s an important topic for kids of all ages, even adults, and one that I haven’t seen dealt with so well in awhile. I think Arnold brings a light touch to the topic, one that provides a great example for kids to follow.

The main characters were all really neat kids, unique and true to themselves, trying to find their place in the world. I felt like the author handled that angle well, by showing how important it is to be who you are and that following the crowd isn’t necessarily going to mean you are happy – being you is what will bring you happiness, once you’ve accepted who you are.

Jade, the bullying character, was the only one who seemed a little out of place. It felt to me like she was a little older than the others, or at least quite advanced in her bullying skills. She was a great villain, as was the Dragon, who had her own things going on – I liked that the story showed that sometimes there are reasons behind why a person acts the way they do, and that perhaps if you take the time to find those out, you can make a difference.

Another positive was the way a boy/girl friendship played such a central focus to the story, while not being a romantic relationship at all. I like seeing boys and girls being just friends.

So, I guess to sum it up there are a lot of great messages in this book, delivered in an amusing story without being preachy or too in your face. I think it would definitely appeal to the middle grade reader, and even as an adult I found things to like. I will probably read this with my eldest in the near future.

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three, which means she will be the first to fail on any quest to seek her fortune. So when her beautiful younger sisters are sent away, Sophie settles down to work in her father’s hat shop, expecting nothing more from life.

Then the Witch of the Waste comes to town. She curses Sophie and turns her into an old woman. Sophie flees into the hills, and runs into the famous wizard Howl and his magical moving castle. Howl is not all that he seems, and with his apprentice Michael and fire demon Calcifer, Howl and Sophie must both face the Witch of the Wastes – and their own fates.

The world of Ingary where the story is set, is a place where magical things like cloaks of disguise and seven-league boots are real. It’s a place of magic, of witches and wizards, of curses and of heroes. Sophie’s quest is a journey of discovery which leads the reader to discover wondrous people and far-away places, some not so far as others.

Sophie is a delightfully strong-willed and competent heroine. The story is fast-paced and entertaining, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. If you’ve seen the movie, never fear. While the movie had a lot of elements of the book, the two stories are different enough that you can read the book without knowing what’s going to happen next. A very entertaining read. While it’s aimed at middle grade, I certainly didn’t find it childish or dull.