Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Reviews: This is New York (1960) & This is Washington DC (1969) by M. Sasek

These two books are part of a classic series from the 1950s and 1960s. According to the books' forewords, Miroslav Sasek was inspired to write travel books for children after visiting Paris himself. In addition to the two books featured here, which have significance for me because I've lived in both places, he also wrote books for London, Rome, Venice, San Francisco, and at least a half dozen other locations.

This is New York is the shorter of the two volumes, but it manages to cover the entire New York experience nonetheless. From the purchase of the island of Manhattan by Peter Minuit in 1626, to the subway system, to the bridges, fire hydrants, museums, and neighborhoods, this book covers the history and excitement of New York in a simple, child-friendly style. Much of the information is outdated, especially with regards to the number of museums in the city, and the fact that the Giants no longer play at Yankee Stadium, but this new edition of the book resolves that problem by leaving the original text unaltered and providing footnotes at the back of the book. The illustrations, though dated, are still very appealing and eye-catching, and the use of white space and different sizes and shapes keeps the visual experience of the book moving right along with the text. I only wondered one thing - was the World Trade Center never in the original book, or was that edited out because of 9/11? The book doesn't say.

This is Washington, DC is a much more detailed book, but it has the same casual, conversational tone that made me love This is New York. The very first page sets the tone for the rest of the book when it reads, "Nearly one-third of the one million Washingtonians work for the government full time, and one half talk about it most of the time." Later, the text also jokes about children visiting art museums: "Older art lovers are offered a guide. Tiny art lovers are offered free transport." In the illustration, a baby sleeps in his stroller, while his parents admire a painting.

I read this book not long after visiting the many monuments in downtown Washington, and I was amazed at how little has changed in 40 years. The Washington Monument looks exactly the same in this book's illustration as it does in person! The Museum of American History, too, looks just the same, though the book makes no mention of the change in the display for the Star Spangled Banner. Other inaccuracies are corrected in the back of the book, however, and the original text is left as is. I think that actually makes the book richer, because it lets kids look back at how things used to be and understand how much about a place can change in just a few decades.

As a fairly new resident of DC, I learned a lot from this book, and I think children - DC residents and not - will get a lot out of this travel book, whether they come to the nation's capital, or just take an armchair trip.

The book jackets recommend these books "For children and the young of all ages - 8 to 80!" and I definitely agree. These books are delightful, and will be great fun for families to share together!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: Fifteen by Beverly Cleary (1956)

This is my last post in my series of reviews about Beverly Cleary's Young Adult novels. This book was actually the first one published out of all of them, and it even seems to be the most popular, but I had the hardest time getting a copy! Thankfully, a local used book shop had several copies, and I snatched one up for less than three dollars.

The heroine this time around is average fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy. Like Shelley in The Luckiest Girl, she is an only child, and like Jean in Jean and Johnny, she dreams of romance, but has yet to experience it herself. Jane plays silly games with herself, though, promising she'll meet a boy after skipping a certain number of cracks in the sidewalk, or if a new boy miraculously moves to town, but she doesn't really believe it will happen. She figures boys are only interested in popular girls like Marcy Stokes, who get rides in convertibles and wear fancy, expensive clothes. No one wants a plain old ordinary girl who babysits and only has one cashmere sweater. 

This is why it takes her by utter surprise when Stan Crandall arrives one afternoon at the home where she is babysitting, to deliver horse meat for the family dog. Not only does Stan help her out with a sticky sitting situation, he also calls her up and asks for a date! Nervous and inexperienced, Jane struggles with her confusion over Stan's behavior, and her own insecurities about whether or not she is attractive enough, or good enough to really be Stan's girlfriend.

I found this book absolutely excruciating to read, but not because it's not well-written. There is one thing Beverly Cleary knows, and that is the emotions of kids during the most difficult parts of growing up. Her portrayal of a fifteen year old with a crush, though written over 50 years ago, matches exactly what I went through at that age, and what so many girls put themselves through - sitting by the phone, analyzing a boy's every move, wanting, and waiting, and wishing. This portrait of being fifteen years old is so realistic, it reminded me exactly why I am glad not to be a teenager anymore. Jane's constant worrying over Stan's opinion made me cringe, and there were moments where I wanted to reach into the book and shake her a little! I had to laugh at the tag line on the cover of my copy of the book - "Having a boyfriend isn't the answer" - because the message of this book was mostly the complete opposite. 

Fear not, though, for Jane does eventually come into her own, and it is comfort in her own skin, and her willingness to be herself, even if not everyone understands her, that finally wins her the boy of her dreams. But oh, the heart-wrenching drama we have to endure before we get there. So much angst! I think girls experiencing their first crush will absolutely relate to this book, horse meat, dated clothing, and all. 

Conclusions about the First Love Series

All in all, reading these four books was an enjoyable exercise. It showed me a whole new side of Beverly Cleary, and provided me with some great titles to recommend for girls who like good, clean romance and aren't quite ready for the more serious YA novels.

I was interested in some of the recurring themes I noticed - mainly, fathers who don't approve of their daughters going on dates, and boys who think nothing of taking advantage of "nice" girls. I'm not sure if Beverly Cleary was trying to say something about men, but she definitely stamped some of them with warning labels! 

Another thing I really appreciated was that the girl doesn't always get the boy. These are not truly romance novels, where the ending is always happy, but they are stories about first love, in whatever form each girl happens to experience it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary (1963)

Barbara Maclane is sixteen years old, and has barely begun to have an interest in boys. She sometimes walks home with Tootie Bodger, a trombone player in the school band, but her kindness toward him is more sympathetic than romantic, and her thirteen-year-old brother's disgusting eating habits and poor manners don't exactly do anything to improve her opinion of the opposite sex. Still, when her older sister Rosemary, who is only 18, comes home from college to announce she is marrying a 24-year-old graduate student named Greg, Barbara is enamored of the prospect of this wedding. Suddenly, she's considering not just Tootie, but another boy, Bill Cunningham, who gives her rides on his Vespa and enjoys the cookies she bakes for him. But Barbara has a lot to learn about true love, and as the wedding plans unfold, she gains important knowledge from her sister, from her mother's social club, The Amys, and from her own life experiences doing favors for a boy who doesn't appreciate them.

There is a lot in this book that contemporary readers will find fault with. The idea of an eighteen year old college freshman marrying a much older graduate student and becoming the landlady of a dingy apartment building didn't really sit well with me, and though Barbara's parents were briefly upset by it in the story, I felt like they should have been more upset and gone to greater lengths to prevent it. But I think this book - and the others in this series - are not intended to be how-to books for growing up female. They do teach some lessons about interacting with boys, but they also take a very rose-colored view of the world and indulge the fantasies that young tween and teen girls sometimes have about what it will be like to grow up, fall in love, and get married. And no, life isn't really like what we imagine at fourteen, but I don't think there's anymore harm in reading these books than in adults reading Harlequin romances. It's all in good fun.

This book is less of a romance novel than The Luckiest Girl or Jean and Johnny and seemed to focus more on family relationships - which is what Cleary wrote so brilliantly in the Ramona books. I loved Gordy, the younger brother, and thought Barbara's annoyance with him was very reminiscent of Beezus's behavior toward Ramona. I also liked Tootie, despite his ridiculous name, and thought Bill's brazen disregard for Barbara's feelings was very reminiscent of so many teenage boys who just don't know how to act around girls. And while Barbara's obsession with her sister's wedding did seem a bit strange to me, it did remind me of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers as well as That Summer by Sarah Dessen. Barbara's behavior was more like that of a twelve-year-old than a sixteen-year-old, but I think changes in the world account for that, more than any fault in Beverly Cleary's writing.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and I liked that it was almost entirely about Barbara's thoughts and feelings, and not just about impressing some boy. For Barbara, impressing the boys will come later, when this story is over, and that was perfectly fine with me. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading Through History: Judy Scuppernong by Brenda Seabrooke (1990)

Judy Scuppernong is a short book of poetry about one summer in Fitzgerald, Georgia in the early 1950s. Judy Scupholm is the exciting, outgoing newcomer who entertains and enlightens Deanna, Lala, and Stacey. The poems are subtle, hinting at some secret sadness in Judy's life that isn't fully revealed until the very end of the story. The girls visit the greenhouse in Judy's backyard again and again (they never go in the house), but it takes the entire summer for them to realize the reason it's slowly filling up with shards of glass.

This is a really beautifully written book. The language is spare and concise, and really evokes the emotions experienced by all the girls. Here are two examples:

From "This and That" (pages 26-27):
Judy calls blue jeans
dungarees and rolls them
up to her knees.
We read the funny papers
and funny books but
Judy reads the comics.
She brings ice out
to the backyard and says
she got it out of the refrigerator,
which we know is a Frigidaire.
She volunteers that her mother
calls us youngsters. But
we know that we
are children.

From "Birthday Party" (page 44):
Pinafores and playsuits
in ice-cream colors,
party games on the lawn
under watchful mother eyes.
Judy came in shorts
bearing a large box
wrapped in red
creased Christmas paper
tied with a frayed red bow,
a big shiny apple
amidst the pale pinks
and blues of the other presents.

I love the way each word and image appeals to the five senses.

Unfortunately, this book is almost doubly dated. It was published as historical fiction in 1990, so the references to things like powder mitts are obviously used intentionally to evoke the time period. But on top of that, the pencil illustrations by Ted Lewin, which are really well done, seem old fashioned compared to the style of illustration used in books being published now, and the cover of my edition, which came from my library, looks like an ad in a woman's magazine rather than a children's book.

Judy Scuppernong is out of print at present, but I think it would still appeal to a contemporary audience if it was repackaged a little bit to suit current trends. I suspect mine is not the only library that has retained a copy on its shelves, and it's worth giving, as the 1990 School Library Journal review suggests, to "certain special readers."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: Mildred and Sam and Their Babies by Sharleen Collicott (2005)

Mildred and Sam and Their Babies is an easy reader designated as Level 2, "Reading with Help." It's the story of a mouse couple who have eight babies. Mildred worries constantly. What if the stroller moves too quickly? What if her babies fall out of their swings? What if the bathwater is too hot? "Our babies will be just fine," Sam assures her, but Mildred isn't so sure.

The babies have big dreams, however. Night after night, they imagine themselves in various exciting situations, only to have their dreams thwarted by their parents' interference. Thankfully, their inquisitive nature is rewarded in the second chapter of  the book. Their parents build  them some scooters, sew them some backpacks, and send them off to school.

The repetition in this book makes it a good one for new readers who are learning to recognize more and more words. The illustrations, which alternate between the mouse family's daily lives and the babies' wild imaginings are the perfect complement to the text, and they hint at what is happening in the story, which helps provide context for the reader. This book also takes on a unique perspective, that of the mom and dad instead of the child, which I really enjoyed.

Mildred and Sam's adventures began in a book called Mildred & Sam, and they continue in Mildred and Sam Go To School.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary (1959)

I read the 1991 edition of this book when I was around 12 or 13, but all I could remember before sitting down to read it this time was that I really enjoyed it. Now that I've refreshed my memory and familiarized myself with the events of the story once again, I can see why it would have been a favorite.

Jean Jarrett is fifteen years old, and though her family doesn't have much money, she has a pretty decent life. She has a good friend named Elaine, and the two girls share a fascination with a young TV heartthrob named Kip Laddish. She also has a good relationship with her sister Sue, and the two sisters often daydream of nice things that might happen. Sue, especially, really wants to meet a nice boy and go on dates. 

Surprisingly, though, it is Jean who has this opportunity. One night, she goes with Elaine and her mother to deliver some decorations to the local lodge, and while the girls sit on the sidelines watching a holiday dance, a handsome boy named Johnny Chessler asks her to dance. Jean is nervous, but when the dance ends, she finds that her mind is now constantly occupied with thoughts of this tall, good-looking boy.

Jean's crush does strange things to her, however. Kip Laddish suddenly isn't nearly as interesting, for one thing, and Jean begins to sense that her sister, Sue is jealous of her newfound romantic interest. She also stops spending as much time with Elaine and starts working really hard to pursue Johnny. But chasing a boy turns out to be much more tiring than Jean expects, and she slowly starts to realize that maybe Johnny isn't the boy she thought he was.

What I love about Beverly Cleary is how well her writing reflects the daily lives of everygirls. There's nothing particularly remarkable about Jean Jarrett, but that is precisely what is so great about her. The dated references to clothing styles, and other 1950's vocabulary date the book somewhat, but Jean's experiences trying to make sense of a crush and to win the attention of the object of her affection are universal across time. I felt exactly as Jean does during my first dance, and on my first dates, and I'm sure many other girls do as well. 

I also think this book teaches an important lesson. It's a book about first love, but it is not a romance novel, and that is probably what I liked most about it as a kid. This story is about Jean, from beginning to end, not Johnny, or any of the other people in Jean's life. And though one message of the book does seem to be that girls shouldn't go after the boys they like, I think the larger theme is that girls shouldn't waste their time on good-looking boys simply because they're good-looking, and that there's no need to wait around for a boy who isn't interested when maybe there's another  boy out there who is. 

If I had a teenage daughter, I'd absolutely want her to read this book, and I think girls like I was - shy, uncertain, and nerdy - will appreciate this portrayal of an average everyday girl experiencing what many girls go through at the age of fifteen. It's no wonder this book has been reprinted so many times - it's truly a gem. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary (1958)

Beverly Cleary, who just turned 95 on April 12th, has had a long and admirable career writing for children. She is the author of the famous Ramona Quimby series, as well as the recipient of the 1984 Newbery medal for Dear Mr. Henshaw, an epistolary novel about a boy's correspondence with his favorite author. But in addition to these well-known works, Beverly Cleary also wrote four young adult novels in the late 1950s and early 1960s that, though somewhat dated, are still in print. In order of publication, they are:  Fifteen (1956), The Luckiest Girl (1958), Jean and Johnny (1959), and Sister of the Bride (1963). Today I'm discussing The Luckiest Girl

Shelley Latham is sixteen years old, and bored with her life. She's been going steady with Jack too long - although he's nice, she finds him tedious. And her mother just doesn't understand a thing. Shelley wants a yellow rain slicker, for example, but her mother insists upon buying her a pink raincoat with fur trim. When Mavis Michie, Shelley's mother's college roommate, extends an invitation for Shelley to live with the Michies in San Sebastian, California, for her Junior year, Shelley decides that will be just the thing to cure her boredom.

And life with the Michies is definitely interesting. For one thing, they have two kids - fifteen-year-old Luke, who is into science fiction and spends all his free time trying to get an old motorcycle running, and thirteen-year-old Katie, who's going through a difficult stage where she argues with everyone and nothing is fair. They also have unconventional ways of doing things. They hang laundry by moonlight, their doorbell operates with an old-fashioned crank, and each of their bathroom towels bears the name of a different school team. As for Shelley's personal life, there are no more boring dates with Jack. Rather, she's caught the interest of Hartley, a school newspaper reporter, as well as Phil, the unattainable boy everyone wants, who shares her biology lab table. Which of these boys will turn out to be the one she's always wanted to meet? And how will she cope when it's time to say goodbye?

I absolutely loved this book. It's very gentle, with minimal physical contact between Shelley and either boy, and few real problems, but the emotions ring very true to a girl's first experience having a boyfriend. I was surprised, actually, by how much this book really does have in common with YA books currently being published. This was written before teen romance novels started to become really popular, but it adheres to many of the conventions I associate with that genre. And Shelley, especially, is a great YA heroine. Some of her interests and concerns - the yellow slicker, whether it's too forward to let a boy know she likes him, etc. - are decidedly dated now, but her voice has that same sympathetic quality that hooks me in to any good YA novel. I also appreciated that the writing in this book is simple, and straightforward, as Cleary's writing always tends to be, but also more sophisticated than her books for children. Compared with newer books, there isn't much drama, or much difficulty, but I actually found that refreshing - Shelley's trivial concerns reflect many of mine when I was that age, and her lack of earth-shattering disappointments and tragedies rang very true. Beverly Cleary has always had a talent for writing about day to day life in an interesting way, and this book lived up to my expectations a thousand times over.

I think The Luckiest Girl might not resonate very much with older teens anymore, but it's perfect for young teens who like a gentler read. The language is richer than many middle grade novels, but without the sexual content or foul language of a lot of YA books. I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to reading the other three titles in this First Love series.