For this cluster review, I chose two middle grade books to review together because my thoughts and feelings about both of them were very similar! I’ve broken down the book details separately below, but I did my review all at once for both books since my opinions on them were so similar.
“Lucky Broken Girl” by Ruth Behar
Year of Publication: 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction (Middle Grade)
Format (How I Read It): Hardcover
Based on the author’s childhood in the 1960s, a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed.
Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen, a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger. She comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.
“Penny from Heaven” by Jennifer L. Holm
Year of Publication: 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction (Middle Grade)
Format (How I Read It): Hardcover
It’s 1953 and 11-year-old Penny dreams of a summer of butter pecan ice cream, swimming, and baseball. But nothing’s that easy in Penny’s family. For starters, she can’t go swimming because her mother’s afraid she’ll catch polio at the pool. To make matters worse, her favorite uncle is living in a car. Her Nonny cries every time her father’s name is mentioned. And the two sides of her family aren’t speaking to each other!
Inspired by Newbery Honor winner Jennifer Holm’s own Italian American family, Penny from Heaven is a shining story about the everyday and the extraordinary, about a time in America’s history, not all that long ago, when being Italian meant that you were the enemy. But most of all, it’s a story about families—about the things that tear them apart and bring them together. And Holm tells it with all the richness and the layers, the love and the laughter of a Sunday dinner at Nonny’s. So pull up a chair and enjoy the feast! Buon appetito!
Themes: Family is everything. Perseverance. Racism. Don’t let fear stop you from living your life.
Character Development: The character development in both novels was fine, but there weren’t really any characters that I cared about all that deeply. I really enjoyed Penny’s relationships and interactions with her dad’s side of the family in Penny from Heaven. The family dynamics were complex and interesting. And I enjoyed Ruthie’s friendship with Ramu in Lucky Broken Girl. There were also many references to Frida Kahlo in Lucky Broken Girl, which I loved! I’m a huge fan of Frida Kahlo. (She wasn’t actually a character, but her presence in the later parts of the story was so strong that it felt like she was!)
Plot/Pacing: I found the pacing in both novels to be a little slow. Penny from Heaven, for example, didn’t really pick up until about 130 pages in. I also found the plot to be a little repetitive. For example, in Lucky Broken Girl, we get many repetitions of scenes involving specific aspects of Ruthie’s recovery (such as how she goes to the bathroom). Through reading the Author’s Note in both books, I discovered that the books are based on the authors’ real lives and family histories! I love this, and it did help with the character development since they all seemed like they could be real people. However, real life (unlike fiction) doesn’t follow a predictable plot structure. Therefore, at times I felt that the plot was meandering and I found it difficult to stay engaged.
Writing Style: I thought that both books were well-written, and they both included many historical and pop culture references from the time periods in which they’re set. While I enjoyed this, I felt that these references weren’t adequately explained or supported by other details that could be used as clues by young readers. Young readers aren’t going to understand most of the historical references (many of them even went over my head!), so it would have been nice for there to have been a little more support for the historical aspects of these novels.
“Bingeability”: Low. They both pick up at the end, but the pacing is a little too slow for it to be very “bingeable.” And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! They just weren’t books that I wanted to read all in one sitting – books that I just couldn’t put down.
Emotional Investment: Moderate. I liked all of the characters in these books! But I didn’t feel incredibly attached to any of them.
Windows and Mirrors: Immigration. Injuries. Racism. Paralysis. Absent father (Penny from Heaven).
Overall Thoughts: Lucky Broken Girl and Penny from Heaven are both ambitious historical fiction novels. As much as I love historical fiction, I was a little disappointed at the lack of emphasis on the historical aspects of these novels. Yes, there were many pop culture references to the respective decades of these stories (go-go boots, Bing Crosby, etc.), but I didn’t feel like I learned enough about either time period to be truly immersed in the historical context. Lucky Broken Girl in particular could have been set in any decade and it wouldn’t really have affected the story too much.
Similarly, Lucky Broken Girl is an incredibly multicultural story featuring characters from all over the world (Cuba, Mexico, Belgium, India, etc.). I absolutely adored this, but again, I felt that there weren’t enough details provided for young readers to really understand each character and their different backgrounds. It just felt a little overwhelming at times. In order for young readers to fall in love with historical fiction, they can’t feel intimidated or confused by the setting. I would reserve these two books for more advanced, self-motivated readers who already have some interest and background knowledge in the genre and topics of these books.
Something else these books had in common is that the Author’s Notes were fascinating and almost as interesting as the stories themselves! I enjoyed reading about the authors’ backgrounds and their families and how they were inspired to write these stories. The author’s note for Penny from Heaven in particular was really interesting. I learned a lot about the Italian American experience during and after World War II, which isn’t something I had learned much about during school. I wish this had been incorporated more into the story itself (as it’s only mentioned briefly)!
Recommendation: I think these would be great to have in a classroom library as an option for independent reading for students. However, I’m finding it difficult to imagine using them for much else. Due to the slow pace, I don’t think they’d make an engaging read-aloud or novel study. Also, specifically regarding Lucky Broken Girl, there are way too many descriptions of her bodily functions and bathroom habits while she’s in her full-body cast. This is definitely not something I would want to read aloud to students. I would recommend these books for self-motivated readers in grades 4 and up.
Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!