Renee Mihulka – Children's Book Reviews & Writer

Courage for Beginners


Brilliant, thoughtful story of a girl trying to find the courage to deal with change. courage-for-beginners

‘Here is a reader that would recommend this book to any middle-grade child. Actually, she would recommend it to anyone’.

OVERALL: 5 Stars

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Concept:4.5 Stars
Characters:5 Stars
Plot:5 Stars
Writing:4.5 Stars


Karen Harrington
Little, Brown Books


Description: Having just read ‘Sure signs of Crazy’ by the same author and not really liking it, I was a bit hesitant to read this book. But I am so glad I did! All the things that I didn’t like about ‘Crazy’ were not a feature of Courage for Beginners. This story rang true in a way ‘Crazy’ never did. I actually believed Mysti was twelve for starters.

Twelve-year-old Mysti has a very lively imagination. She likes to think that it stems from the fact that her bed is held up by a stack of books and so when she sleeps they ooze their stories into her mind. Mysti’s family life has always been a bit unusual, her Mum never leaves the house, is anxious about ‘nefarious’ people and worried about most everything. Unlike her Dad who does all the driving, shopping, new shoe buying and is always happy. He even thinks that change is a good thing which Mysti certainly does not. Their family set up might be different but seems to work; right up until her father lands in hospital. How are they supposed to go and get food and new shoes now?  But it seems that change isn’t finished with Mysti’s when on the first day of Seventh Grade her best friend Anibal Gomez informs her that he can no longer hang around with her at school as he has decided to become a ‘hipster’. Can Mysti find the courage to cope with all this change and inevitably change herself?

Concept: The concept of this book is not a new one: twelve-year-old girl has to cope with changes in her life and find the courage to change herself. What makes this book fabulous is that it takes this concept, which will always be solid and sprinkles it with quirkiness, humour and heart. The way it deals with changing middle-grade friendships in particular (think frenemies), was deftly done as was Mysti’s Mum’s agoraphobia and how that impacted on Mysti and her family.  Another strength is that this book feels authentic and so I wasn’t surprised when Karen Harrington explained in her Author’s Note that growing up her own Mum was agoraphobic.

courage-for-beginners quoteCharacters: Pretty much every character is captivating and believable and you can’t help but adore Mysti. We get such a window into her mind and really feel the confusion and sometimes anger she goes through as her life shifts unexpectedly. Her new friends Rama Khan and Wayne add much-needed humour and then there is her Mum. The relationship between Mysti and her Mum feels so real. There are moments of tenderness and connection interspersed with moments of contempt. This is then all wrapped up with a sense of acceptance from Mysti about her Mum and her limitations.

Plot: The plot is well thought out and flows. It has three main arcs. The first is the situation with Mysti’s home life. How she copes with her Dad in hospital and being unable to rely on her Mum. The second is her changing relationships with Anibal and her budding friendship with Rama and the third, is the mystery surrounding a strange woman who walks past Mysti’s house each day. I love how the story moves through these three arcs, drawing you in and encouraging you to become more and more invested in Mysti and the choices she makes.

Writing: Harrington’s writing style and little quirks throughout give this book a lovely feel. She manages to capture the fickleness of youth as well as the small dramas and confusion. I love the inclusion of Mysti’s third person observations: ‘Here is a girl with long red hair, age twelve and two minutes, who wonders why the house is so quiet’. Not only do they often create a perfect segway or set the scene, they give you a quirky insight into Mysti’s state of mind.

PARENTS: The themes in this book are friendship, change, becoming aware of your parents limitations and courage. I  think the friendship theme is the strongest and most relatable. This book specifically tackles the hurt and confusion you feel when someone you thought was your friend decides they’re not as well as the courage it takes to decide not to stay friends with someone who isn’t treating you very well.  This is something every child goes through and so reading about how Mysti copes might help some kids who are struggling with friendship issues. There is one instance in particular where Mysti shows her inner strength and courage that made me want to shout ‘Yes! You go girl! Way to stand up for yourself’. It’s the bit about the Alamo project – I won’t say more, but let’s just say she comes up with a unique way to deal with Anibal’s bullying.

Things to ask and discuss:

(If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry. Ask these questions anyway and coax the answers and details out. Or just let your child mull it over alone. Don’t worry if they don’t want to talk about some of the things listed here, it’s ok to just let them talk about the bits they want to. Bottom line is, they will love that you are showing an interest and asking for their opinion, even if they don’t always show it!)

1) When did you first start to suspect that Anibal wasn’t being a true friend? Was it before or after Mysti realised?

2) Do you think Mysti should have tried harder to help ‘fix’ her Mum who is suffering from the mental illness agoraphobia? Do you think it would have made a difference?

3) Why do you think Rama Khan was reluctant to be friends with Mysti at the start?

4) Why do you think it was so hard for Mysti to get up the courage to go to the store? How hard would it be for you to go and get food if your parents suddenly couldn’t? Where would you go? How would you get there?

5)  ‘Out of tragedy comes some good.’ What was the tragedy? What was the good?


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Book Reviews and Writer