The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle

The Secret Starling

Judith Eagle, Author

Jo Rioux, Illustrator

Walker Books US, Fiction, Jun. 8, 2021

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Orphans, English Manor, Adventure, Family, Mystery, Secrets, Murder

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Clara Starling lives at Braithwaite Manor with her cold Uncle Edward Starling. Her life is full of dull rules, deadly routines, boring lessons with a governess and flavorless meals under her mean-spirited uncle’s strict regime. Clara’s mother died in childbirth. Clara knows she has a father somewhere, but Uncle tells her “he doesn’t know she exists.” End of question.  Clara’s only salvation is Cook, who she chats with her on the rare occasions Uncle leaves the manor. And she has her mother’s books to comfort her. 

Clara begins to notice things disappearing — portraits, china, and silver bowls.  Uncle fires staff, including Cook. One day Uncle informs Clara they are leaving the manor and orders her to pack a suitcase. He drops her off in the village, while he runs some errands. He hands her a thick wad of 10-pound notes and disappears. Clara spends the afternoon in a café and soon realizes that she’s been abandoned. Not wanting to end up in an orphanage, she trudges back to the old manor. She’s on her own now and no one is going to order her around anymore.  The manor is hers, even if there is a “For Sale” sign in the yard.  

When she arrives home, she finds a streetwise orphan, Peter Trimble and his rescue cat, waiting for her outside. He’s been sent to stay at the manor by his granny while she recuperates. The children seize the  chance to live by their own rules. But when the pair’s wild romps through the halls of Braithwaite Manor reveal a single, worn ballet slipper, they are hurled into a mystery that will lead to London’s glittering Royal Opera House, Russian dancers  and the unraveling of twisted Starling family secrets of poison, a villainous ex-ballet dancer, passion, and murder.

What to like about this story

Readers are in for a treat with Judith Eagle’s fast-paced adventure that is full of plot twists and surprises. The story is original and an exciting read. Even the cheerless opening will intrigue readers. And the run-down manor with feel like they’ve stepped into the late 19th century.

The relationship between Clara and Peter is intriguing. They both have pasts that are kind of a dead end. Peter was abandoned in a train station and adopted by a cleaning woman he calls Granny.  Peter loves the ballet and dances all over the manor. And Clara never knew her mother or has seen a picture of her. Uncle won’t tell her anything. But together they compliment one another. It’s fun to watch Clara’s growth, determination and bravery.

There are other lively characters in the story, Cook’s three grandchildren, who come to play at the manor when Uncle disappears. The manor now feels like a real home and that makes Clara feel happy and hopeful. It’s uplifting to see the children in charge and having a ball exploring, hiding and eating what ever they want. They also are clever and outsmart the grown-ups by destroying the yard sign and tricking realtors. They are the rulers of the manor…for now.

There is so much more to the story once Clara and Peter identify the owner of the ballet slipper. Sorry, no spoilers. The story speeds up and readers will be caught up in a mystery that takes them on a thrilling journey. 

Readers will also enjoy Jo Rioux’s eight full-page, pen and ink illustrations, which contribute significantly to the storytelling.

Judith Eagle’s career thus far has included stints as a stylist, fashion editor, and features writer. She currently works in a secondary school library and lives in South London with her family and Stockwell the cat. The Secret Starling is her first novel.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Walker Books US in exchange for a review.  

 

Double Dutch by Sharon Draper

Double Dutch

Sharon Draper, Author

Atheneum Books, YA Fiction, 2003

Suitable for: Grades 5 to 9

Themes:  Dyslexia, Bullies, Friendship, Secrets, Sportsmanship

Synopsis:  Three eighth-grade friends prepare for the International Double Dutch Championship jump rope competition  to be held in their hometown, Cincinnati.  Delia, who is the main character, loves Double Dutch.  She is the fastest and best jumper on her team, and  has a shot at the championship.  But, Delia, has a secret she has kept from everyone, including her mother.   She can’t read.  In order to compete, she must pass the state proficiency tests.  This could jeopardize her chance to participate in the competition.  Even her best friend and team member, Yolanda, “Yo Yo” doesn’t know for a while.  Yo Yo, specializes in telling very tall tales, and no one can believes a word she says — she’s the comic relief in the story.

Delia isn’t the only person with a secret.  Randy, whose father is a truck driver, has been missing for weeks.  Randy is close to his Dad and can’t understand why he can’t reach him.  Randy assists the Double Dutch coach, Bomani, and helps with practices — a great distraction for Randy.  He also has a crush on Delia.  Randy is running out of money to pay the rent and electricity.   He doesn’t have enough to buy food.  He’s afraid to tell anyone because he’s doesn’t want to be put into a foster home.  He always makes excuses to Delia about his dad, but deep inside he’s scared and worried.

One thing is for sure, all three friends share a fear of the new Tolliver Twins, the school  bullies.  Especially Yo Yo, who is shoved into a locker when the Tolliver’s pass her in the hall.  They dress in black, wear skull caps, only interact with each other and angrily storm the halls.  They seem to follow Yo Yo around at Double Dutch meets and practices.  Out of fear, she spreads a rumor that the Tolliver twins are going to blow up the school.  Even the teacher’s are intimidated when the twin’s mother goes onto a television program and asks for help for her sons.   This causes a stir at the middle school.  Will there be violence?

What I like about this book This is a good novel for 6th graders, and not too young for eighth graders.  There are no inappropriate scenes and the language is clean.  Author Sharon Draper has skillfully woven together the lives of three middle grade students and all the angst that accompanies their drama-filled teenage years.  She has created a diverse group of characters, a great theme about friendships, and a strong plot with a few twists and turns.  I enjoyed reading Double Dutch, because I used to jump it as a girl.  But not at the competitive level of the characters in the book.  I was amazed at what athletic skill, talent and focus is required of its jumpers.  This book was a great read and will certainly appeal to middle grade girls.

Sharon Draper has also won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for Fears of a Tiger.  She won the Coretta Scott King Literary Award for her novels Copper Sun, and  Forged by Fire, and the Coretta Scott King Author Honor for The Battle of Jericho.  For more information about all the books she’s published, resources, activities, interviews and information on school visits, click here to visit Draper’s website.  I reviewed Draper’s latest novel, Out of My Mind,  Jan. 23, 2012, and Copper Sun on Mar. 12, 2012.