ReadWaves Reviews

If you are looking for reflective middle-grade reads with themes that touch on values, coming-of-age, self-discovery and emotional journeys, you are in the right place. These are some of Fragile’s favorites.

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

Rereading this book as an adult, I kept looking for the ghosts of my childhood memories of this book.

The language is very light — with all the endearing back-and-forth meanderings of a ten-year-old boy’s imagination — and contrasts sharply with the deaths that open and close the book. And yet, all my memories about this book are exhilarating and mystical. I don’t draw or paint, but I tried to capture these memories in the included drawing before my adult mind “corrected” them to match the plot perfectly.

The narrative is in first person from the point of view of the little brother, Karl. His story, though, is about his older brother Jonathan, a classic hero, a kind, strong, and beautiful character. Karl admires Jonathan and blindly follows in his footsteps for good and heartwarming reasons: Jonathan nurtures Karl (or Crusty, as Jonathan nicknames him), and always makes him feel safe and beloved.

The novel is Crusty’s account of his adventures with Jonathan in Nangiyala, an afterlife land where the brothers reunite after their tragic deaths in the real world. Crusty sometimes sounds a little naïve, but it is helpful to remember that he was once terminally ill and homebound and didn’t learn many life lessons. Although he wished to live big like his brother, Crusty had to live vicariously through Jonathan until Crusty’s departure to Nangiyala. In Nangiyala, you root for Crusty to learn quickly. He has no time to enjoy the peace of the afterlife and must venture into Nangiyala’s dark side filled with terror. The brothers get separated again and Crusty’s fear of losing Jonathan once more fuels Crusty to embark on his adventures and reunite with Jonathan once and for all.

Life Experience Afterlife Death Love Bravery Kindness Peace Memory

The book opens with a sickly and broken little brother. By the end of the book, he has become a clever and wise observer, less focused on himself and open to the surprises of the outside world. Crusty learns to be brave, kind, strong, and beautiful, like Jonathan. In a way — and this is what I remember most about him from my childhood — he impersonates his older brother little by little. But I also remember Crusty’s dangerous encounters with mystical creatures. I remember this so vividly, but in rereading this book as an adult, I realized Crusty doesn’t come close to these scenes until almost the very end.

The reward comes when the brothers are reunited in the last quarter of the book. By this point, Crusty has grown as a person — not in age, but in the maturity he gained from his extraordinary experiences.

As an adult, I couldn’t ignore the feeling of inevitability throughout the book. You feel it might not matter whether the brothers live or die since they are already dead. And, since they are always so close to death, the readers are primed for death at all times. But as a child, The Brothers Lionheart was the most magical story I had ever read. Over time I forgot the name of the book and only rediscovered it last year.

I found the book through web images, and when one of the illustrations by Ilon Wikland came up — where Crusty notices a white pigeon outside his window — it felt like I had been reunited with an old friend. When I reread this novel last month, I found passages that read differently to me as an adult. Astrid Lindgren didn’t hope for this; she knew it would happen. She deeply understood a child’s mind and what it feels like to be lonely or afraid. As a child, this book opened up new conversations with myself that I came back to for decades.This is a book that might take a lifetime to grasp, because grasping it fully actually means having assessed what and who is important in your life, and that comes with life experiences, especially extraordinary and unexpected ones.

Some of the early reviews of this book, including the original 1976 New York Times review, were unfavorable: “Alas, let no one encountering this new book by the creator of Pippi Longstocking expect more of the same.” Critics of Lindgren’s creative interpretation of the afterlife were harsh. I read it in the early 90s when we couldn’t easily access the internet for reviews, so I am confident this book ended up in my hands because my caregivers knew Lindgren’s other books, because they trusted the author, and because they trusted me.

Crazy, deathly, and controversial are not unfamiliar words when describing Lindgren’s books, but for a child, everything outside the home can feel that way, so it’s not crazy to imagine that Nangiyala is just a skip and hop away. From interviews, it is evident that Lindgren’s books were just one way for her to draw attention to her movement to protect children’s minds and keep them open to imagination rather than indoctrination, even when it comes to tough topics. The Junibacken (Children’s Museum) in Stockholm is where Astrid Lindgrens’s books and vision for raising children are celebrated, and where everything inside is accessible for children to touch, feel, and imagine. “Our tools are theater, song, music, and a large dollop of imagination and invention — our aim: to awaken children’s desire to read,” the museum proudly announces on its website. It also houses Sweden’s largest bookstore, and the two are really extensions of one another, like siblings.

Finally, we come to the big question: to read or not to read The Brother’s Lionheart (considering that death, suicide, and the afterlife are included in the subject matter)? This is a personal decision, but I trust my childhood memories that, to this day, render a pure image of fantasy. I hope my review will help you with your decision, and if you are still hesitating, perhaps exploring this novel as a read-aloud could be a solution.

When Lindgren received a flood of letters from young readers asking her what happens to Crusty and Jonathan next, she responded with a letter to all children. You can enjoy it here if you decide to read the book.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

The author Lauren Wolk lives on the coast somewhere in Cape Cod and wrote this novel from the depth of her heart and soul and in tune with the music of the sea, her coastal lifestyle, and her detailed observations. I have already mentioned this book in a previous post, where I briefly touched on the themes and the plot. I am happily returning to it to relive Crow’s sunsets.

I have been looking for the soundtrack for this book and these songs came to mind:

* Traveler by The Weather Station

* Not Alone by Patti Griffin

* Diamond Girl by Abigail Lapell

* Mad World, Outlive Me by Amelia Curran

* Re by Nils Frahm

* Night Song by Peter Phippen

I dream that this book comes on the big screen and I can see Crow’s face reflecting her innocent restlessness and indulge in the stoic resolve of Osh, who has lived through so much – all of it unsaid – and does not need more than gestures to communicate. And then there is Miss Maggie who is such a necessary bother to Crow and Osh’s perfect tandem.

This novel is considered historical fiction for its 1920s setting in the Elizabeth Islands with their complicated history. It is less critical to me that the novel reveal the not-so-good history of Elizabeth’s Islands, than that it touch on the larger themes of prejudice, healing, sacrifice, the pursuit of the truth and its cost, self discovery, family, and unconditional love.

I believe that people who live on the coast can read waves. Surfers definitely can (more on that another day), but Lauren Wolk did it for us her own way in this character-driven, atmospheric, and lyrical novel for anyone who wants to try reading waves, too.


Yesterday was not the first time I tried “selling” sunset to my kids, but it was the first time they eagerly indulged me. We missed it, but we caught something else in its leftovers and I fell asleep to Jorjeana Marie‘s melodic narration of this book.

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Celebrate this week’s Read Aloud Day with poetry – basically, a diminutive of a song, right? Music can be read, but hearing it can bring meaning to a random point in time. The curtains open and The Dreamer enters the stage… The Dreamer combines elements of magical realism with the biography of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), a Chilean Nobel Prize winning poet whose struggle as a young boy to become a poet is captured so devotedly by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Pablo Neruda is the pseudonym assumed by Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto as a teenager so as not to “embarrass” his family with his artistic pursuit which he could never contain. Thank god!

Not everyone can dream, let alone act on their creativity. Some children face humiliation by exercising their basic right to dream. The book rides this emotional rollercoaster, making you feel young, frail and dreamy Neftali’s pain as he lives in the shadow of his domineering father, whom Pam Muñoz Ryan gently refers to as a “product of his time” (the time of Pinochet regime). I liked that she didn’t condemn him completely despite his abusive nature. Instead, the focus rests with Neftali and his siblings, who had each other for support.

The text is musical, lyrical, simple, and filled with Pam Munoz Ryan’s poetry. The book is perfect for any artist. It touches on themes of perseverance, inner voice, love and compassion, and the complexities of politics that turn some people into monsters and some into poets. Pam Muñoz Ryan acknowledges that not everyone can relate to the difficulties Neruda (or his writer uncle) endured, but many will relate to having to forgo their dreams.

The print edition is a work of art, with large green font, illustrated by Peter Sís. Some of Neruda’s poems are in the book, but let poetry at large be your destination with this book. Consider Amanda Holmes’ romantic delivery of his “If You Forgive Me” and other poems on the Read Me a Poem podcast. Consider also Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions (aimed for ages 5-12).

The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin

This book is a glimpse of Soviet Russia through a boy’s eyes, ears, and pencil, which he makes thorough use of under the table while his grandma endlessly prophesizes. The grandmother is a lot like my grandma used to be… This review is unapologetically infused with my own memories.

Yelchin remembers Soviet St. Petersburg vividly and honestly. As if it is not enough for a boy to be young, confused about himself, about his parents and about the world around him, his own country is confusing, too, because Yevgeny is being raised culturally Jewish in an atheist regime with a track record of “mistakes” towards minorities of all kinds. Treatment of “the other” in this book is a big theme to discover with young readers.

Like Yevgeny, I also experienced blue jeans, long lineups, exchangeable coupons. I remember how much children’s lives revolved around parents’ lives revolving around these ridiculous but vital things. Yevgeny is sometimes adorably naïve, but curious and secretly talented. You root for him like you do for Friedrich in ECHO by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

This book is also quite funny, although I can see how some funny parts may be considered “too soon” for some readers. And yet, the messages in the book are right on time given where we all are now. People are people, and the evil characters in this book are eventually exposed as vulnerable beings who dispassionately submitted to the viciousness of the regime, leaving them unable to hold on to their integrity and with no chance at redemption. I loved the subtle exploration of human nature in the secondary characters in this book that is otherwise light, youthful and very hopeful.

The book ends with Yevgeny recognizing that he can see people’s emotions in their eyes. So much was unsaid during the Soviet Regime and even children, or especially children, learned to read the untold human stories all around them. Maybe if we all appreciated the untold stories in our hearts, we would find it easier to see connections between our differences.

On Instagram, I didn’t mention the role classical ballet and the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov played in the Soviet Union.

The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer

Over the winter holidays we watched a friend’s rescue dog, Rosie. Rosie has a way about her. Loud games, sudden moves and chaos get to her and she barks sometimes. Sometimes for too long and sometimes preemptively. My husband and I had to explain to the kids what to do and to not do around Rosie, but the kids found a rhythm with her.


This book is short and sweet (9 chapters) recommended for 8-12 year olds. My kids are younger and so I was watching carefully for mature subject matter, which was practically imperceptible to my kids, but would be obvious to any adult.

The boy, Patrick, gets a dog, Oz, so unexpectedly that he suspects he is being “sold” it by his own mom. It takes him two thirds of the book to learn what he loses in exchange for Oz. The topic of separation can be a complex one, but I took a chance knowing that my children have seen diverse family structures. Another big reason was my trust in the author, which Eoin Colfer gradually earned as the book progressed. I have never read Eoin Colfer before and I didn’t know how Patrick would take the news about his parents separating, but somewhere along the way, I became convinced that Colfer would treat hard topics with humility and grace.

Colfer managed to describe Oz’s disturbing abuse of Oz at the hands of his previous owners very gently. He fully appreciated his young readers’ level of readiness for both mature subject matter AND the manner of its coverage. I thought his depictions of Oz’s mistreatment and of parental separation were very honest and delicate. And the illustrations by P.J. Lynch are fabulous.

Finally, I want to note the secondary character, Patrick’s mom. Her voice was constant, fragile at times, but determined to persevere a tough family chapter.

Inspired discussion points:

* Respect for animals

* Endangered species

* Implications of having pets (allergies, space, timing)

* Responsibilities

Follow up reads:

* Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech

* Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

* For picture books, consider Lundi the Lost Puffin: The Child Heroes of Iceland by Eric Newman

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