Just Catching Up…

by | Oct 20, 2023

I try to post book reviews after they’ve run in the newspaper but I really fell down on the job and am trying to slowly catch up. This post is something of a milestone as it is the last book review I published in 2020…On to 2021 next week!

As I’ve said here before, one of the things I love about middle grade literature is that it has such a broad span of ages and interests. This week I’m going to talk about a book on the younger end of the spectrum, since I’ve been writing more and more about books for the older end lately.

I discovered “Happy Birthday Sophie Hartley,” by Stephanie Greene, at the library a few weeks ago. Sophie is about to turn 10. She has two best friends and four siblings — she is the middle child. But Sophie has no pets and she would like a pet, “… something warm and soft that she could hold and take care of, that would love her more than anyone else … something she could call her own.”

Every year she asks for a dog or a cat and every year her mother responds with, “and who’s going to feed the dog (or newt or guinea pig or cat)? … Me,” as moms everywhere have been known to do.

The story opens with Sophie anticipating a big birthday. Turning 10, double digits, is a big deal. This year, in recognition of her double-digit birthday, Sophie ups her game. Instead of asking for a puppy or a kitten, she asks instead for a baby gorilla.

She knows it will be a tough sell. With their large family, money is tight. Plus, her oldest brother, Thad, is turning 16 shortly after Sophie’s birthday. Thad thinks that’s an even more important birthday and has been begging for a car to replace the beat-up family van.

Sophie is not going to give up. First she asks her dad for a baby gorilla. He says “wonderful,” and Sophie takes that as a “yes,” even though her dad was watching football. Everyone in the family knows when Dad watches football he is very distracted.

Much of the story hinges on Sophie’s getting the chance and the nerve to ask her mom. All kinds of things happen before she can do this, but the worst is that she blurts out her news to her best friends, Alice and Jenna. Then Jenna mentions it to Destiny, who spreads it around their grade. Pretty soon the entire grade knows Sophie thinks she’s getting a gorilla for her birthday. What will happen if Sophie’s plans don’t pan out?

It’s been a long time since I’ve read the Beverly Cleary books, but Sophie Hartley feels like a close cousin to Ramona Quimby and is, like Ramona, equal parts lovable and confounding.

Greene does a great job sharing all the mixed up feelings of a 10-year-old: wanting to be mature and not badger her family about her birthday, but still young enough to be really excited and anxious about her big day; having friends who are thinking about boys and bras and she has no interest in either; being told to “grow up,” and not being sure she wants to.

This is a perfect book for the young reader in your life, because Sophie is a likable character that readers can relate to and, if they really bond with her, there are three other books starring Sophie Hartley.

Alexandra the Great book cover

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