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Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo cover shows a small mouse with large ears and a red thread tied around his neck carrying a needle at his side like a sword as he runs.

The Tale of Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
Published September 9, 2008

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About The Tale of Despereaux

A brave mouse, a covetous rat, a wishful serving girl, and a princess named Pea come together in Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal–winning tale.

Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish.

These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other’s lives. What happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out.

My Review

This one is a hard one for me to review. Let me start by saying that I’ve read several other books by Kate DiCamillo, and I loved all of them so far. I think FLORA & ULYSSES is my favorite. So I went into this book expecting to absolutely love it.

Which is maybe part of my problem.

I think there are a lot of really cool elements to this story. There are some interesting themes about light versus darkness, and what happens to people who are forced to live in darkness, separated from any light. I liked the whimsical elements, like the king with his bizarre proclamations, such as making soup illegal. I liked that Despereaux and his love for the princess drove the story forward, too. And I liked the way all the individual stories of the characters, including Miggery Sow and Roscuro came together.

But. The story was a lot darker than I was expecting. The dungeon was so creepy. And the fact that Despereaux’s own family essentially sentences him to death. Miggery Sow endures some pretty awful abuse, and those experiences are related to us in a pretty frank way. I think that can sometimes be an effective way to tell the reader something shocking, and it works here. I couldn’t help feeling shocked and horrified for this girl (who has a terrible name on top of everything else).

But then I felt like there was no sympathy from the author later when Mig finally does get free and begins living at the castle as a servant. I guess that was supposed to set up how we feel about her going into the main conflict in the story, but I had a hard time with that.

On the whole, though, I did like some of the characters and the way the pieces of the story fit together. I did find myself wishing it wasn’t such a dark story. If I were to opt for a read-aloud from the books I’ve read by DiCamillo, I think I would still choose FLORA & ULYSSES.

Content Notes for The Tale of Despereaux

Recommended for Ages 10 to 12.

Human characters are white. Miggery Sow has some deafness as the result of abuse.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content
When Despereaux meets Princess Pea, he falls hopelessly in love with her and vows to serve her as her knight.

Spiritual Content
A couple characters experience moments of decision where they may choose to forgive someone who harmed them or continue on the path toward revenge. They recognize that forgiveness will give them one kind of result internally and revenge a different one.

Violent Content
A mouse gives birth, but only one of her babies survive. A mouse is sentenced to death and thrown into the dungeon, where the rats who live there are predicted to eat him. A man wallows in guilt after having sold his daughter to another man. A man beats a girl so terribly that her ears become deformed and she can barely hear. She’s later described as having become fat and lazy, which seems like a pretty harsh thing to say about someone who’s endured the trauma this girl has. Additionally, I didn’t even notice her being lazy.

Some scenes reference prisoners in the dungeon being lost and teased or tortured by the rats who live there.

Drug Content

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Review: Every Time You Go Away by

Every Time You Go Away
Abigail Johnson
Inkyard Press
Published December 5, 2023

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Every Time You Go Away

Perfect for fans of Jennifer Niven, Abigail Johnson draws a searing and lyrical portrait of grief, forgiveness, and the kind of love that blooms in the aftermath.

Eight years ago, Ethan and Rebecca met, two trouble-making kids sharing secrets and first kisses in a treehouse, until Ethan’s mom returned to take him away. Each and every visit, his only goodbye was a flower on Rebecca’s windowsill.

Three years ago, Ethan left for the last time to take care of his mother, who’s struggled with addiction his whole life.

Two years ago, Rebecca was in a car accident that killed her father. She’s been learning to navigate life as a wheelchair user ever since.

Now, they discover if their hardships have torn them apart…or will bring them closer than ever.

My Review

The story alternates points of view between Ethan and Rebecca, with some chapters taking place in the present (labeled now) and some in the past (labeled before). While the timeline is never as clearly laid out in the narrative as it is in the book’s cover copy, I didn’t have any trouble putting things in some kind of order. I’m not sure I was always completely right about how I assembled the events together, but I think it was close enough that everything still made sense.

I loved the scenes in which Rebecca describes making jewelry. It was easy to feel her love for her craft and to picture some of the pieces she worked on. I thought it was cool the way her work played into the story with the different pieces creating or representing connections to other people.

Ethan’s interest in plants was cool, too. It didn’t really ever become as central a thing as Rebecca’s jewelry-making did, but it was still a cool, not often explored area of interest.

Rebecca is a wheelchair user and has been since the car accident that killed her dad. Because of the straightforwardness of the narrative, I found it easy to picture moments like transferring to a car or what it was like when someone touched her leg, and she couldn’t feel it. Her paralysis was present in the story, but it isn’t a story about paralysis, if that makes sense. I felt like the author did a perfect job crafting the balance between helping readers picture Rebecca and her environment and the impact it would have on her experience without making it seem intrusive or artificial.

I also really appreciated that there was more than one wheelchair user in the story. Amelia, Rebecca’s friend, mentor, and employer, also uses a wheelchair. This created moments in which two people could talk about their lives and experiences and offer two different perspectives. I loved that.

All of that is kind of background to the central story here, which is the romance between Rebecca and Ethan. While they both came to the relationship with barriers of trauma, it was cool watching them figure out how to navigate those things. I loved watching their feelings blossom and rooting for them to find their way to each other through the miasma of hurt and grief around them.


All in all, this is absolutely the kind of book I would have loved myself in high school. It’s sweet but pretty real about the fact that life deals hardships to teens just as much as anyone else. I really enjoyed this one, and I think fans of THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by Jennifer E. Smith or LOVE AND OLIVES by Jenna Evans Welch will want to check it out.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

I think the main characters are white. Rebecca and another character are wheelchair users. Ethan’s mom has alcohol/drug use disorder. Ethan is a neglect and abuse survivor.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between a boy and girl.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
Brief references to neglect and abuse of a child. Two boys get into a fight and fall into the mud.

Drug Content
A teenager drinks alcohol in a couple of scenes. An adult gives alcohol to a child in one scene, and that behavior is also referenced in other scenes. References to a boy witnessing drug use and even being given drugs himself by an adult (doesn’t happen on scene). An adult smokes cigarettes.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of EVERY TIME YOU GO AWAY in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Arden Grey by Ray Stoeve

Arden Grey
Ray Stoeve
Amulet Books
Published April 26, 2022

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Arden Grey

Sixteen-year-old Arden Grey is struggling. Her mother has left their family, her father and her younger brother won’t talk about it, and a classmate, Tanner, keeps harassing her about her sexuality—which isn’t even public. (She knows she likes girls romantically, but she thinks she might be asexual.) At least she’s got her love of film photography and her best and only friend, Jamie, to help her cope.

Then Jamie, who is trans, starts dating Caroline, and suddenly he isn’t so reliable. Arden’s insecurity about their friendship grows. She starts to wonder if she’s jealous or if Jamie’s relationship with Caroline is somehow unhealthy—and it makes her reconsider how much of her relationship with her absent mom wasn’t okay, too.

My Review

This was kind of a last-minute pick for me, but ARDEN GREY seemed like a book that I didn’t want to miss. I’ve read a few other books with photographer narrators– TELL ME EVERYTHING by Sarah Enni and BREATHING UNDERWATER by Sarah Allen are the two I remember off the top of my head– and I’ve enjoyed all of them. And complex family relationships are another pretty sure-fire win for me in a book.

I guess all that to say that I had pretty high expectations when I went into Arden Grey, and the author absolutely delivered on them. Arden’s shyness and small social circle, her struggle to connect with others, definitely resonated with me. I felt like she was on a clear emotional journey, and I wanted to be there for every minute of it.

As she finds new friends and the confidence to share her photography with others, she’s also grieving a lot of changes in her family and personal life. Her relationship with Jamie really struck me. Knowing someone you love is in a bad situation, but won’t leave it is truly heartbreaking, and the pages of ARDEN GREY really capture both the grief over the loss of friendship, the fears and worries that something is deeply wrong, and the helplessness that comes from being a bystander that’s shut out for trying to speak the truth.

Arden also faces huge changes in her family. Her parents have separated, and her brother isn’t doing well. She can’t figure out how to reconnect with him or her dad. Then Arden’s brother opens up to her, breaking open a family secret and asking Arden to accept it. Arden reels. She struggles. She grieves even more. But she also learns. Listens. Tries new things. Tries to find ways to heal. She’s a hero. I love her.

Most of the abusive relationships or situations happen off-scene or are briefly recounted in memory. I think this helps keep the story from centering on an abuser. It also means we must trust Arden, her brother, and Jamie for their descriptions of what happened and how it made them feel. This resonated with me, too, because that’s very often the position friends or family members are in, where we’re trying to understand what happened and what it means.

On the whole, yeah, I loved this book for its deep, wrenching emotional journey through difficult relationships and facing abuse. The author shares some great resources in a note at the back of the book, which I will post here, too.

Power and Control Wheel

I’d never heard of this, but when Arden’s brother brings it up as something he learned about in health class, I searched online to see if it was a real thing– and it is! I wish I’d known about this a lot sooner than now, but I will definitely be sharing it with others. Basically, it’s a graphic that describes different behaviors and how they fit into a cycle of abuse.

National Domestic Violence Hotline

What is a Healthy Relationship? – from the Domestic Violence Hotline website

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Arden is asexual and a lesbian. Jamie is a trans boy. Vanessa, a minor character, is Latina. Marc, another minor character, is also asexual and Black.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between a boy and girl. Reference to sex between Jamie and his girlfriend. Arden holds hands with someone.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content – Content warning for abuse and mentions of self-harm.
Arden hears her mother slap her brother.

Arden begins to recognize signs of abuse in her relationship with her (now absent) mom and in Jamie’s relationship with his girlfriend. Most of the abusive behavior happens off-scene and is either summarized or reported on later. One person uses self-harm and threats of self-harm to try to control another’s behavior.

Drug Content
Arden’s younger brother comes home late and drunk several times. Arden drinks a beer with her friends at a party.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley

Tonight We Rule the World
Zack Smedley
Page Street Kids
Published October 12, 2021

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Tonight We Rule the World

In the beginning, Owen’s story was blank . . . then he was befriended by Lily, the aspiring author who helped him find his voice. Together, the two have spent years navigating first love and amassing an inseparable friend group. But all of it is upended one day when his school’s administration learns Owen’s secret: that he was sexually assaulted by a classmate.

In the ensuing investigation, everyone scrambles to hold their worlds together.

Owen, still wrestling with his self-destructive thoughts and choices.

His father, a mission-driven military vet ready to start a war to find his son’s attacker.

The school bureaucrats, who seem most concerned with kowtowing to the local media attention.

And Lily, who can’t learn that Owen is the mystery victim everyone is talking about . . . because once she does, it will set off a chain of events that will change their lives forever.

Heartbreaking and hopeful, this is a coming-of-age story that explores how we rebuild after the world comes crumbling down.

My Review

First, there are a lot of things about this book that I really liked. I felt like Owen’s character was really real and gripping. I loved the way the friendships with his group developed and especially the scene on the beach with them. So many of those moments felt exactly the way I remember my high school friendships feeling, so reading them was super nostalgic for me.

I also thought it was interesting that on one side, Owen had his dad and his family’s struggles with his dad’s PTSD and how to respond to it. Then on the other side, there’s Owen with a relationship that spirals into abuse. It highlighted how complex relationships can be– how there can be good elements tangled in with toxic or abusive ones and how difficult that can be to sort out.

It was also really weird for me as a reader because as I read some of the conversations between Owen and his abuser and Owen’s thoughts as he scrambled to stay ahead of the gaslighting and manipulation, I realized I’d been in those same conversations before, in Owen’s shoes. So that was both validating but also kind of ripping open a past wound I wasn’t prepared for? I think it was good, but I just didn’t expect to experience that.

I guess all of that together makes this book one of those to approach with attention to triggers. The story raised some really good points about toxic and abusive relationships and consent. It also explores some gender stereotypes in a way that may expose some prejudices or expectations we may not realize we have. I know it did that for me.

I think readers who like dark, issue-driven stories with memorable characters will want to check out TONIGHT WE RULE THE WORLD. I’d recommend it to fans of Courtney Summers or Lauren Oliver.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

Owen is diagnosed with ASD and is bisexual. His dad is a Marines veteran with PTSD.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content – Trigger warning for rape.
Several references to masturbation. Kissing between boy and girl, making out. One scene showing rape.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
One scene showing rape. Several scenes show some gaslighting and manipulation. This escalates to physical violence on multiple occasions. Owen recalls a memory in which he woke his dad up in the middle of the night and his dad hit him due to his PTSD.

Drug Content
Some references to teens smoking pot and drinking alcohol.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of TONIGHT WE RULE THE WORLD in exchange for my honest review.

Review: If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

If You Find Me
Emily Murdoch
St. Martin’s Griffin
Published March 26, 2013

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About If You Find Me

A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey’s younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency. Until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and two strangers arrive. Suddenly, the girls are taken from the woods and thrust into a bright and perplexing new world of high school, clothes and boys.

Now, Carey must face the truth of why her mother abducted her ten years ago, while haunted by a past that won’t let her go… a dark past that hides many a secret, including the reason Jenessa hasn’t spoken a word in over a year. Carey knows she must keep her sister close, and her secrets even closer, or risk watching her new life come crashing down.

My Review

In retrospect, reading this book was probably not the best idea for me. I didn’t realize what it was about when I started reading it. I purchased the e-book years ago and saw the blurb on the front cover by Jennifer Brown saying it was basically impossible to put down, so I started reading it.

She’s not wrong. I definitely found this super dark story impossible to put down. Carey’s protectiveness and love for her sister made her a huge hero to me. Plus she just never gives up. There’s a LOT of stuff in this book that’s really difficult to read, but the heart of the story is about recovering from trauma, having a second chance, discovering that you’re still worthy of love.

Those are the things that made this book unputdownable for me. I also loved the music and the way music was such a refuge and place of healing for Carey and her sister. Fans of WHAT UNBREAKABLE LOOKS LIKE by Kate McLaughlin may want to add this one to their reading lists.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

Major characters are all white. Carey’s sister, Jenessa, is diagnosed with selective mutism.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content – Trigger Warning for sexual abuse and rape of a child.
Several references to and some brief descriptions of men molesting a girl at her mother’s direction (for payment to support her drug habit). One scene shows a man raping a girl and preparing to rape a girl.

In one scene, a girl places a boy’s hand on her. Another briefly shows a boy and girl having sex. One scene shows kissing between a boy and girl.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content – Trigger warning for physical abuse
References to and descriptions of Carey and Jenessa’s mom physically abusing them. She states that their father also abused them.

In one scene, a man is killed with a gun.

Drug Content
Graphic descriptions of Carey’s mom using crystal meth.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support the costs of running this blog.

Review: Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Being Toffee
Sarah Crossan
Bloomsbury YA
Published July 14, 2020

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

About Being Toffee

One is trying to forget. The other is trying to remember.

After running away from an abusive home, Allison finds herself taking shelter in a shed behind an abandoned house. But the house isn’t empty after all; an elderly woman named Marla, who suffers from dementia, lives there. And rather than turn her away, Marla welcomes her – she mistakes Allison for an old friend from her past named Toffee.

Allison is used to hiding who she really is, and trying to be what other people want her to be, so she decides to play along. But as their bond grows, and Allison discovers how much Marla needs a real companion, Allison begins to waver. They both deserve a home, a safe place, and a family – but at what cost?

My Review

Wow. It’s amazing to me that this novel in poetry hits so hard emotionally in far fewer words than a narrative novel. Like, a good writer always gets you hooked on their characters, right? But this… like, I’d read 100 words and feel my heart breaking, or my blood boiling with anger, or I’d be overwhelmed with the tenderness of the scene.

Like my whole review could be summarized to say: I felt things.

Honestly, this book is such an emotional ride. I loved Allie and Marla both in all their flaws and brokenness. I hated every time someone took advantage of or hurt them.

But I loved how they healed each other in these incremental ways, and how they found ways to be friends around and through the broken places in their lives. I loved that.

The story has some tough content in it, so please read with care. I’ve listed trigger warnings below under violent content. Allie also is befriended by someone who takes advantage of her– not physically or sexually, but emotionally, and that got kind of gross, too, so be aware if that’s something you’re sensitive to.

One the whole, I still feel blown away by this book. I’ve read others by Crossan before, but this one hit me hardest by far.

See my reviews for:

MOONRISE by Sarah Crossan

WE COME APART by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

ONE by Sarah Crossan

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

All characters are Irish. (Takes place in Ireland.)

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used fairly frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content

Spiritual Content

Violent Content – TRIGGER WARNING
Multiple graphic descriptions of domestic violence and abuse and emotional trauma.

Drug Content
Smoking pot. Drinking alcohol.

Note: I received a free copy of BEING TOFFEE in exchange for my honest review. This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support the costs of running this blog.