It’s always tricky, judging elementary and middle grade books against each other as we do in this Cybils category. After being immersed in a complex, nuanced fantasy intended for 12-14 year olds, reading something pitched at the 8-10 year old set can feel very lightweight. I think this was probably the case for me with Nuts to You, which had few of the layers of, say, The Castle Behind Thorns, and my opinion of it suffered consequently. However, in re-visiting it several weeks later, I found it to be a sprightly and very enjoyable read.
Jed the squirrel is snatched up by a hawk, and manages to escape – but lands up some distance from his home. Two friends, TsTs and Chai set off in search of him and, though they find each other, they now face a new danger – one that is robbing the woodland animals of their homes.
The great strength of the book is its language. It turns out that squirrels are great storytellers and listeners, and the novel is told from their perspective, with a voice that is as chipper and bouncy as you would expect. It also uses their vernacular: powerlines, for example, are called buzzpaths and a church steeple is a “great beak that sometimes sings but never opens.” There is a human authorial voice too, that directly addresses the reader, both in the text and in footnotes. Sometimes it just comments: “What would you do, if it were you?”; and sometimes it explains expressions – a bit like Lemony Snicket without the snark: “Maybe you’ve heard the expression “between a rock and a hard place.” Now you know what it means. The “hard place,” in this situation, was the bobcat.”
The adventure is perfectly pitched for an elementary grade reader: The squirrels get into some tight situations, but these are resolved quickly, without too much threat. I didn’t find the environmental message too didactic either– it was pretty low key in the sense that the humans were just clearing trees away from the powerlines, they weren’t cutting down the whole wood. And there is some Learning for the reader too, but it is fairly low key and subtle: “Live for the moment, … But bury a lot of nuts.”
A few grumbles: I thought the book rather dribbled to an end, rather than finishing decisively; and though the author’s illustrations are sweet, some of them are confusing or too small to be helpful. Finally, I don’t think it’s a great idea to encourage kids to feed wild animals and Nuts to You definitely suggests it is.
Overall, I thought this was a light and breezy tale of squirrel heroism, infused with an understated environmental message, that will be greatly enjoyed by fans of animal books.