(C) Ages 8-10, (D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Family Read Alouds, Middle Grades, Realistic Fiction, Starred Reviews
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*The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina van Glaser

The five Vanderbeeker children are back, with irrepressible high spirits, good intentions and miscalculations intact.

*The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina van Glaser.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 322 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 8-14

It’s mid-summer, six months after their introductory adventure, and the five Vanderbeeker kids are temporarily reduced to four because Isa is away at music camp.  Her twin sister Jessie tries to keep busy by catching up with her reading, and besides, she got a cell phone so she can text Isa any time she feels like it.  Hyacinth has her arts and crafts and Laney, the youngest, can annoy three sibs as efficiently as four.  But Oliver is not enjoying his most boring summer ever.  Picking on his sisters isn’t fun, bur he can’t seem to help it–until the family’s beloved upstairs neighbor suffers a serious  stroke, right in the middle of a gripe fest.  That puts nit-picky complaints into perspective, and leads the kids to a constructive project intended to cheer up Mr. Jeet and his wife Miss Josie: Why not plant a garden in the vacant lot next to the church?  And better yet, make it a surprise for the grownups.  No one knows anything about gardening, but when did ignorance stop a Vanderbeeker?

Of course it won’t be that easy.  Some of the difficulties are tough, like hauling off years of accumulated trash and finding enough soil in the concrete maze of Harlem to set all their plants.  But others seem insurmountable–how can four kids, plus a few allies, stop a developer from selling that priceless lot?  How to convince him that a haven of growing things might matter more than another glass-and-steel highrise?

As with the Vanderbeeker’s first adventure, the kids tackle a challenging situation with determination, fortified by family loyalty and adult support (even though most of the adults don’t know what they’re up to).   The obstacles are real, their decisions are not always wise, and the love they have for each other isn’t always evident, but all their efforts pay off in the end.  Even if things didn’t work out so well, each of the kids, especially Oliver, are pushed out of their own narrow perspective to make genuine sacrifices for others and find the effort worth making.  The ending is a triumph, which every reader can share.

Note: This reviewer received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.  The novel will be officially released early in September, but reserve your library copy (or pre-order from Amazon) now!

Cautions: None

Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 5
  • Artistic value: 5

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3 Comments

  1. Taryn says

    I love the Vanderbeekers but I didn’t like how they kept lying and hiding big things from their parents for most of the book. Am I being too nit-picking? Or perhaps I could talk that over with my daughters while I read it. Does that bother you when child characters lie to or hide things from their parents?

    • Janie says

      Taryn,
      You raise a good point, and this is a recurring “problem” in children’s books. I put the word in quotes because one cardinal rule of children’s fiction is that the parents can’t be too involved in the central conflict or problem of the story, unless they ARE the conflict or problem. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbeeker are just the opposite of that–supporting, loving parents who would help their kids in any way they could. If they were to participate in clearing and planting the garden, or nix the project altogether, there would be no story. That doesn’t make the kids’ deception okay, but it does allow an opportunity to talk it over with your readers: What might have happened if the kids had included their parents in their garden project? Would there have even been a garden project? Is it ever okay to deceive your parents? Do the Venderbeeker kids pay any price for it?

      The purpose of fiction is not just to prove examples of virtue for readers, though it can certainly do that. It’s also a way to allow the reader to experience other lives and circumstances second-hand and make moral judgments about them. Also to consider: “How would I behave in a situation like this?” The Vanderbeeker books offer positive examples as well as examples of all-too-human behavior in a way that’s ultimately affirming, which is why we highly recommend them. But the “little” lies and deceptions are well worth talking over.

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