13 Gifts (11 Birthdays #3)Featured
When Tara, a self-proclaimed shrinking violet, steals the school mascot, a goat, in order to make some friends with the popular crowd and gets caught, she gets herself in a heap of trouble. In addition, her parents decide that instead of taking her on their summer trip to Madagascar to study the courtship rituals of the Bamboo Lemur, she must go stay with her aunt, uncle, and bratty cousin Emily St. Claire in Willow Falls. Tara thinks it's a good time to start over; she'll be turning 13 after all, so she might as well make the best of it and perhaps even attempt to break out of her shell (in a non-criminal manner). What Tara doesn't know is that this charmed town has something big in store for her on her 13th birthday. It's not a typical birthday. But then again, nothing is Willow Falls is exactly typical!
Tara’s time in Willow Falls is full of weirdness, fun, friendship, and life lessons as she is tasked by a mysterious woman, Angelina, with finding thirteen items before her thirteenth birthday. Tara accepts the challenge for a variety of reasons, and she’s fortunate to have made some good friends in her short time in Willow Falls, so she has plenty of help along the way.
13 GIFTS is the third book in Wendy Mass’s 11 Birthdays series, and the series features likeable and quirky middle school students who have to navigate some difficulties surrounding a milestone birthday. I’ve read the second book in the series, FINALLY, and really enjoyed Rory, that book’s protagonist. I was happy to see her appear again in 13 GIFTS, and characters from the first book also have roles in Tara’s misadventures. Central to all three books is the town of Willow Falls and the wise/stern/kind/magical Angelina.
Tara’s relationships with friends and family are believable and make her relatable to readers. David, a boy who is also nearing his thirteenth birthday, is a great character too, and his role as Tara’s love interest is innocent, age appropriate, and perfectly drawn. In some respects, the kids in the book are almost too nice to be believable, but perhaps that’s part of the magic of Willow Falls.
The book is recommended for ages 8 to 12, and Mass writes wonderfully for that age range. I suggest the books be read in order—I haven’t read the first one in the series, and I wish I had before picking this one up. Younger readers in particular might struggle to put everything together if they attempt this book as a standalone novel.
Likeable and quirky characters
13 GIFTS is the third novel in Wendy Mass’ series about Willow Falls. Having not read 11 BIRTHDAYS or FINALLY, I was initially overwhelmed by the eccentric cast of characters. Everyone has a quirk, from Rory (of FINALLY fame) who is dating a movie star, to Leo and Amanda (of 11 BIRTHDAYS) who can only communicate with each other via chalkboards that they wear around their necks. The temptation is to put 13 GIFTS aside in favor a book that is easier to follow. Don’t give up-- this sweet story is satisfying and will make readers want to catch up on the rest of the series.
Willow Falls is a special place, similar to Stars Hollow of The Gilmore Girls. All of the community members are connected and open, which is the perfect setting for Tara to gradually come out of her shell. Mass never hammers the theme of friendship; she shows how being included and accepting the help of others makes a huge difference in the life of a lonely girl. Tara’s insecurities will be instantly relatable to middle grade readers who will enjoy the innocence of a first crush and the satisfaction of pulling off a big project.
Wendy Mass’ books are extremely popular with my sixth grade students, who trade and recommend the titles to each other. I highly recommend reading the first two Willow Falls novels before starting 13 GIFTS so you can fully appreciate Tara’s adventures in this strange but wonderful town.