Jennifer Pickrell

YA Writer

#MiddleGradeMay: Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn


mmg-may-reading-challenge   (Cover source, blurb source)Stepping on the Cracks cover

In 1944, when her brother is overseas fighting in World War II, eleven-year-old Margaret changes her mind about the school bully, Gordy, after she discovers he is hiding his own brother, a deserter.

I was pulled into this small Maryland town by Margaret (or Magpie, as Gordy calls her) who was a fantastic narrator – she was a sweet, smart kid, but she let her friend, Elizabeth, talk her into almost anything.

The girls play games of “Step on a crack, break Hitler’s back!” because they know there’s a war going on, but as Margaret points out, other than stars hanging in windows*, newspaper stories, and letters home which are filled with reassurances that things are great, it doesn’t feel like anything is different. They don’t see the fighting, so it doesn’t feel real. And they believe what their parents believe, that it’s a man’s duty to his country to fight.

Then insert Gordy’s older brother, Stuart, who is hiding in a shack in the woods after deserting. He’s unapologetic about not fighting and while the girls’ initial reaction is anger and confusion, their feelings begin to change – about him, the war, Gordy, and a lot of other things.

Speaking of Gordy…

He appalled me when he did something like pushing Elizabeth down, then he broke my heart at the way he tried to protect his siblings from their abusive father. Unlike in YA, where he would be pegged as the misunderstood bad boy with a heart of gold, there was no sugarcoating in this book. He was a messed up kid with a horrible home life. There was no easy fix for him. Or for anyone.

There’s a passage near the end of the book (page 206), after Margaret’s mom finds out she helped hide Stuart and they argue back and forth about right and wrong:

I sighed. We’d gone in a circle and now we were right back where we’d started from. There was no answer, no firm ground to stand on. Leaning against Mother, I felt her arms close round me, as if she wanted to protect me from the cracks I saw opening everywhere.

That pretty much sums up the entire book, how over the span of six or seven months, Margaret dealt with so much change and heartbreak. This is a meaty, coming-of-age story that I highly recommend.

*On page 3, the stars are explained:

I saw Mother glance at the blue star hanging in our living room window, and I knew what she was thinking. That star meant Jimmy was overseas fighting a war Hitler started. There was a star in Elizabeth’s window, too, because her brother Joe was in the Navy. That summer, there were stars in a lot of windows in College Hill, and not all of them were blue. Some, like the one across the street in the Bedfords’ window, were gold. The Bedfords’ son Harold had been killed in Italy last summer. That was what gold meant.


Author: Jennifer Pickrell

I write YA contemporary filled w/ romance, angst & family drama. Things I like: cats, snacks, baseball, green tea, taking pictures of trees & movies so bad, they’re good.

13 thoughts on “#MiddleGradeMay: Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn

  1. I think I remember reading this one as a kid, and feeling so conflicted about Gordy. I love how so many great MG books don’t shy away from the complexities of kids/characters.

  2. That last quote about the stars is kind of heartbreaking. I knew what the stars in windows were all about, but I didn’t realize that they were gold if a loved one had been killed overseas. That’s so sad. I think this is an interesting take on WWII, especially given that it’s about kids living in the U.S. during the war. I can’t begin to imagine how strange that would have been, to be so far removed from all of it and yet completely affected by it all the same. Such a strange limbo to be in. This definitely sounds like a good MG read. 🙂

    • There were so many heartbreaking passages and sentences in this book – I read that the author based some of it on her own memories so there were tons of little details that made everything feel so real.

  3. I want to read this one all over again. This author has some serious writing chops and this is one of her books that shows just that. Thanks for sharing it as a part of #middlegrademay!

  4. I have some Hahn books, but haven’t read them yet. I don’t think I have this one.

  5. Ooh… This book sounds fantastic. I can’t believe I’ve not heard of it before! Definitely one to look for next time I’m at the library. Thanks for the rec, Jennifer!

  6. What an interesting idea for a book. I’ll have to check that one out.

  7. Oh my!!!
    I added this book to my list after I was done reading May B. Now I’m burning to read it thanks to your review. 🙂

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