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First, full disclosure – I knew Keir Graff in college and got this book for my kid when I found out it was being published, who is at the time of this review 5 ½ years old. So… since he must wait awhile, I read it myself. In three days. Could not put it down…
Second full disclosure- the best book I read when I was in 5th grade was Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’. I did not understand everything at the time, but I liked the first-person narrator and how he explained aspects of difficult people, beavers, and insanity.
I would have loved The Matchstick Castle in 5th grade- I love it now, but it especially would have made an impression on me then. I loved Brian’s first-person narration; it has an immediacy that brings us right into each scene, paints pictures with all the details and emotional textures.
Every boy wants to be Cosmo, every girl wants to be near Cosmo, and the truth is usually those boys and girls are either Brian and Nora, or you and me, stuck in a dull summer vacation, looking for thrills, romance, and wanting to break away, which is what makes this story tick. You can remember that one summer vacation where everything started out just fine – really boring, ok, but fine; then something strange and wonderful happened…and you were different by summer’s end. This is that story.
Myself, I would have totally signed up for a summer like this one, even with all the nail-biting terrifying parts. (Another disclosure – I am not fond of precarious heights or workmen with large machinery near my house).
Matchstick Castle is an adventurous fantastical romp that is totally believable, from the overgrown property next door with the wild boars and odd inhabitants to the straight-laced uncle and aunt and their moody, unpredictable hero daughter who totally transforms during the story (and frankly, saves everything- I am a big fan of Nora).
I liked the open ending; seems like there may be another adventure as a follow-up! Let’s hope so!
As his fifth-grade year ends, Brian is looking forward to a summer of soccer and fun with his friends in New England. Then his widowed father tells him he has been called to replace an injured astronomer at the South Pole. Brian will spend the summer at his uncle's rural home in Illinois.. Soon he is in his Uncle Gary's experimental "school" while Gary tries to design an on-line summer school course. His only classmate is his cousin Nora, one year his senior, who makes it clear she would rather Brian was not there. His aunt, in the meantime, makes crafts for sale. Brian is thoroughly bored.
As the result of an argument, Nora chases Brian into the bordering woods where they are both forbidden to go. They get lost and stumble upon a six or seven story house made of wood with many unusual features and a cobbled together appearance. They can't resist going inside the house where they meet the irrepressible Cosmo, the youngest of the extended van Dash family of brilliant eccentrics. Soon Brian and Nora are sneaking off to spend time with the van Dashes and eventually join forces with them when a local bureaucracy threatens the house.
Graff has developed characters and narrative that add up to a witty, funny, fast-paced adventure story. At the same time, there are poignant elements: Brian's loneliness for his father and his older brothers; the growing friendship between Nora and Brian; Nora's increasing willingness to act on her own; and the mutual acceptance among Brian, Nora and the van Dash family. This combination of imaginative story-telling and development of emotional themes results in a particularly enjoyable reading experience
Here is a review written by my 11 year old who read this book. He could not put it down once he started. "The Matchstick Castle is a beautifully written book. The characters in this book will become your close friends, thanks to Cosmo's adventurous and slightly dangerous actions, Brian's irrational decisions, and Nora's, well, boringness but a surprising willingness to disobey her parents. Once you read this book, you yourself will find yourself looking for a honorary Van Dash."
This book was devoured by my eight year old daughter because of its lively language, adventurous characters, and cliffhanger chapter endings. She's a reluctant reader, but this book captured her from the beginning and she begged to continue reading it every night before bed.
I bought this for my middle schooler. He enjoyed it and included it in his Reading reports, so that's good. Sorry, I didn't read it though, but I like that my middle schooler read it. Any book my child reads cover to cover, I like :-)