When Mischief Came to Town

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
When Mischief Came to Town Book Poster Image
Girl shakes up Danish island in heartfelt outsider tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

References to Hans Christian Andersen's tales. Readers will learn quite a lot of detail about country life and the culture of 1911 Denmark, in particular the island of Bornholm, now a popular tourist destination. Some things may seem strange to today's kids -- for example, a girl sharing a bed with her grandmother, which may lead to some discussions of how things have changed and why. Also, conversation and writing are much more formal than they would be today -- which leads to Inge Maria hilariously expressing unconventional, sometimes rude views in very, very polite language.

Positive Messages

Strong, old-fashioned community values, from politeness and churchgoing to kindness, forgiveness, and helping those in need. And, balanced with the hilarious hijinks, there's a lot about how grief is real -- and how you come out on the other side.

Violence

Inge's mom has recently died, and there's a sad flashback to her funeral. Shortly after Inge arrives on the farm, her grandmother kills a chicken for dinner, and Inge comments on the blood -- and shortly learns how to pluck and prepare the bird. Her grandmother also warns Inge about not getting attached to the piglets who are destined to be eaten. In brief scenes Inge's grandmother slaps her, the first two times for reasons Inge doesn't understand, but Inge feels she deserves the last one.

Sex
Language

As Inge soon learns, animal "poo" is a big part of life on the farm, and there's quite a bit of humor about related misadventures. A kitten pees on the carpet.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When Mischief Came to Town, by Australian author Katrina Nannestad, received Australia's Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature in 2014 and is now out in a U.S. edition. It's about a 10-year-old girl in 1911 Denmark whose wild imagination and constant scrapes recall a classic heroine in the vein of Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna and has a similar vibe, with a strong emphasis on old-fashioned values, from churchgoing and obedience to kindness to those in need. Along the way it deals with some heavy subjects: Two kids in the story have been left orphans by the recent deaths of their respective parents, and one of them is also homeless as a result and must steal food to survive. Also, there's a lot of the unglamorous aspects of country life, from killing and plucking chickens to dealing with lots of manure. The story offers a window on a time of straitlaced culture when children were expected to be silent and obedient and girls faced many restrictions that didn't apply to boys -- and shows how spirit and kindness can make things better. Note: This is also a good pick for reading aloud, as the author includes lots of sound effects, especially gobbling like a turkey, which add much to the fun.

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What's the story?

It's 1911, and 10-year-old Inge Maria leaves Copenhagen, where she's lived all her life with her mother, for the small Danish island of Bornholm, where she'll live on the farm of her grandmother, a complete stranger. To make things even worse, when she falls asleep on the boat, a goat eats one of her pigtails. Country life is very different from her old, happy days of school, friends, books, and pretty clothes, but Inge is determined to be good and make the best of things. For some reason, though, trouble seems to follow her, and she's quickly involved in one scrape after another -- which may not be entirely a bad thing.

Is it any good?

Inge Maria isn't the first independent-minded tween orphan to brighten up a cheerless town, but fans of young outsider tales will love sharing this trip to 1911 Denmark with her. Think Heidi, Pollyanna, or Anne of Green Gables. Some things about the story may be jarring to today's kids, from adults slapping kids to orphaned kids being homeless and reduced to stealing food, but along with many other details, they lead to some interesting discussion about how things are -- and aren't -- different today.

Consistent with the times, some of the heartfelt sentiments and discussions, especially those dealing with loss and grief, may strike some readers as old-fashioned and preachy, but they are considerably lightened by Inge's antics and her connection with kindred spirits.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories where the main character has to make a new life in a completely strange place. Why do you think this is such a popular theme? Do you have any favorite stories that use this plot line?

  • Have you ever been to Denmark? Does this story make you want to visit? What do you think is most interesting about the country? What do you think might be different now from the way things are in the story?

  • Would you rather live in the city or the country? Why? What would be the best thing, and what would be the hardest to deal with?

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For kids who love strong girls and historical fiction

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