Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Bungalow Mystery by Carolyn Keene (1930)

I am quite sure that The Secret at Solaire, is not the only Nancy Drew book I read in childhood, but it was the only one I could remember, so I thought I owed it to myself to also read one of the original titles. I wanted to see how the 1993 Nancy compared to 1930 Nancy, and to get a sense of what the series was really all about. Because my fiance owns a 1930 edition of The Bungalow Mystery that I could easily get my hands on, that is the one I chose to read.

The story begins with a sudden rainstorm, which overturns a motorboat containing Nancy and her friend Helen Corning. The girls are rescued by a stranger, Laura Pendleton, whose mother has recently died. Laura has been entrusted to a guardian named Jacob Aborn, but as she soon realizes, he does not have her best interests at heart. Nancy, determined to repay Laura for saving her life, hides the girl at her house in River Heights, and heads out to spy on Jacob Aborn's bungalow to find out what he's really up to.

Because the book was written in 1930, some of the language - especially slang - obviously sounds dated to contemporary ears. In the first chapter or two, the author uses the word chum many times, to describe Helen Corning's relationship to Nancy, and each and every time, it made me giggle a little bit, because it sounded so silly. (I also think the author could have used another word at least a few times. I counted four uses of chum on just one page at one point.) I also thought the conversations Nancy has with some of the characters were very stiff. They lacked contractions and seemed overly polite, as though each character was a perfect robot with perfect manners.

Indeed, Nancy Drew is completely perfect in every way. She's a great swimmer. She can put chains on the wheels of her roadster. (Heck, she has a roadster.) She isn't afraid of intimidating men, she finds ways to get out of danger again and again, and she never hesitates to take someone under her wing and into her home for protection. I don't think she has a single flaw, and I think the only reason readers don't totally hate her is that she does so many cool things. Before the mystery even starts, Nancy has already survived two near-death storm-related experiences, and by the end of the story, she's been locked in a closet, knocked out, tied up, and left for dead in a dark basement. And every single time she comes out of the danger unscathed. What girl - in 1930 or now - doesn't want that kind of awesome, exciting life?

I enjoyed The Bungalow Mystery much more than The Secret at Solaire, mainly because the mystery was more suspenseful, and better-crafted, and because the older title had a lot of charm and history behind it that kept me interested and immersed me in a world quite unlike my own. Though I doubt I'll review them, I definitely want to read more of the books from the original Nancy Drew series.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reading Through History: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace (1940)

Betsy-Tacy is a 1940 children's novel written by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski. The main characters are two little girls who grow up across the street from one another in 1890s Minnesota. The first time they meet, the girls have a misunderstanding that nearly jeopardizes their chances of being friends, but after Betsy invites Tacy to her birthday party, they become inseparable. Betsy and Tacy, who are often called by one name, Betsy-Tacy, have wonderful adventures eating supper on the hill at the end of their street, trying to outsmart their big sisters Katie and Julia, and selling sand to the neighbors. They also band together in the face of a tragedy in Tacy's family, and toward the end of the book, make a new friend, named Tib.

Like the works of Carolyn Haywood and Beverly Cleary, Betsy-Tacy portrays a world of childhood innocence and imagination that doesn't really seem to be typical of contemporary children's books. Not only is the story old-fashioned and clearly set in the past, it's also filled with the possibilities of an idealized world where children don't need constant supervision and can feel free to wander the neighborhood without fearing for their safety. There is no question that the story is dated. The mothers have calling cards which they deliver to friends' houses, the main mode of transportation is a horse-drawn carriage, and all the children attend school in a schoolhouse. But it is this historical context that makes the book so charming.

The writing itself also transcends time. The text is clearly written at a child's level. I was able to get inside the minds of Betsy and Tacy as well as I could Ramona's mind or Carolyn Haywood's Betsy's mind. They might live in another time and place, but the thought processes of these girls are universal, as are many of their experiences, from the first day of school, to playing with paper dolls to anticipating a new baby in the family. Lovelace tapped into the way children think and behave, and even if kids growing up in the 21st century don't understand every historical reference, they will see themselves in Betsy and Tacy nonetheless.

Finally, I love the illustrations by Lois Lenski, which depict the style of dress, home decorating schemes, and schoolhouse furniture of the time period. The drawings perfectly match the tone and style of the story and further immerse the reader in the nostalgic atmosphere of this fictional world.

Betsy-Tacy is the first book in a series that follows Betsy through to adulthood. Learn more about Betsy and Tacy and their creator on the website for the Betsy-Tacy Society.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Basketball Disasters by Claudia Mills (2012)

This chapter book series by Claudia Mills has as its central character a fourth grader named Mason Dixon. Besides having a name that is also a line of demarcation outlining four states, Mason’s main “gimmick” as a character is that he often sees new experiences as disasters. In the first book, Pet Disasters, Mason tries to adjust to having a pet he doesn’t really want, and in Fourth Grade Disasters, he is surprised when he learns he is required to participate in the school choir. Judging from the way the events of these past books are summarized in this third volume, Basketball Disasters, each new situation ultimately has a positive resolution, and as you might expect, the same is true of Mason’s experience with basketball.

Mason’s best friend, Brody, is a sporty kind of kid, while Mason is not. Still, the boys like to do things together, and Brody somehow convinces Mason that joining a basketball team is a good idea. Mason is skeptical to begin with, and becomes more so when his father volunteers to be their coach. Not only is Mason worried that the team will shun him if he stinks, he’s also got a competitive streak and wants the team - which has few players, and not many with experience - to win a game now and then. Things seem dire, though, especially when Brody proves to be the star player, and Mason suffers an injury that threatens to keep him out of the final game of the season.

Though this book deals with a lot of cliches - an underdog team, a parent coach, a last-minute injury, a well-timed shot by the team’s worst player, etc. - there is something about the writing style that really stands out. Especially unique is the well-developed friendship between Mason and Brody. It reminded me a lot of the close friendship between Suze Kline’s Horrible Harry and his best friend, Doug. Both pairings deftly walk the line between boyish mischief and heartwarming brotherly love in a way that I think boys and girls can both relate to. Many children’s books provide comfort in anxiety-provoking situations by inserting a wise adult or older child who has navigated the unfamiliar territory before. What’s nice about this story is that Mason often comes around to appreciate new experiences because of his best friend’s gentle encouragement.

Though this is probably not true of all the books in the series, this particular story was pretty action-packed, and the exciting basketball scenes won’t disappoint those kids who look for sports-related books. The story also includes a secondary plot involving a bully’s dog and an elderly lady, which will appeal to animal lovers. The overarching pessimism of Mason also prompts an easy comparison to the Alvin Ho books, as well as to Daphne’s Diary of Daily Disasters series.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Characteristics of Great Chapter Books

The most important component of a chapter book is a strong voice. Characters who sound like kids, or who speak to kids in their language, will undoubtedly be the best-received. Whether the character has a deadpan sense of humor like J.J. Tully in the Trouble with Chickens, a spirited and bouncy nature, like Grace from Just Grace and the Double Surprise, or a sweet and sassy temperament like Clementine, kids relate to characters who come alive on the page and begin to feel just like real people.

The plot of a chapter book should also come alive through a series of memorable events. The most wonderfully written chapter books are the ones that stick with the reader long after the book is finished. Images like Clementine wearing her father's tool belt, Vince the inside dog wearing his cone, and Eleanor's description of her beloved babysitter in Like Pickle Juice on A Cookie are all examples of moments that are so salient, they begin to feel like a part of the real world. Moments like these cause children to fall in love with books and also teach them, in a subtle way, the art of storytelling.

Though chapter book readers are getting more savvy and will soon move on to middle grade books, they still need some cues to help them understand story structure. Just Grace's illustrations and comics help bring her problems and questions to life. In mysteries like The Case of the Library Monster, it helps to have the characters occasionally recap the information uncovered so far. The Trouble with Chickens even goes so far as to cue the reader to changes in point of view by changing the way the chapter number is displayed. Kids who are still learning to navigate different types of stories really benefit from the subtle guideposts pointing them on their way.

Concise and powerful text is another major feature of great chapter books. Chapter books can include more vocabulary than easy readers, but they are still short books, with short chapters, so authors have to find ways to be economical with their language while still conveying all the information needed to tell a story. Toys Come Home does this very well, managing to paint these lovely pictures with words while maintaining a reading level low enough for kids who are not quite ready for novels.

Finally, as with easy readers, chapter books should speak to readers on their level. Kids reading independently want to read about kids like them, or people with concerns similar to their concerns. By keeping the language fresh and current, focusing on the child's mind instead of adult reasoning and being careful to insert lessons subtly instead of preaching, authors can really win kids over and get them excited about reading. Grace learns how to deal with disappointment, Clementine learns how to accept unexpected news, JJ learns never to trust a chicken, and Eleanor learns to let go and move forward, but they all do so on a child's terms, and it is only through immersion in these stories that the lessons even begin to come to light.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Characteristics of Great Easy Readers

The first key aspect of a successful easy reader is well-written text. The writing must be both easy enough for its audience to read, and artistic enough to make the book interesting. This means that not only is an author limited in the vocabulary he or she can use, but he or she is also presented with the additional challenge of stringing few words together in a way that is not cliched, boring, or awkward.

An example of perfect easy reader text comes from the first page of Aggie Gets Lost by Lori Ries, wherein Ben walks his dog and the action is described as follows:

Left foot, right foot, two feet, four feet.
We walk to the park.
Aggie pulls hard.
She wants to play fetch.

Making an emotional connection to the reader is a second sign of easy reader excellence. Whether the mood of a story is silly, as in the Elephant & Piggie books or the Fly Guy series, sad, as in Aggie Gets Lost when Aggie is missing, or even scary, as in parts of Gus Gets Scared, the reader should feel that emotion along with the characters. Children can more easily relate to new characters and settings if they can recognize feelings and concepts they have experienced themselves.

Easy readers should also be told from a child's point of view. This means that the characters speak to the reader at his level, rather than at him in an adult tone. Even adult characters, like Mr. Putter, and adult-like animals like Dodsworth from Dodsworth in Rome, should embody child-like characteristics to which kids can relate. Revealing adult characters' anxieties and imperfections makes them interesting to read about, and giving them dilemmas similar to those found in childhood creates stories that really speak to their audience and keep the reader invested in their outcomes. Embodying a child's point of view also eliminates the urge to preach at kids, and makes the story, rather than the message, the central focus. Most kids aren't interested in morals, but they become quickly invested in the fate of a favorite character. 

It's also important for easy readers to focus on familiar themes. New readers like to read stories that reflect their real lives, and by keeping things close to home, authors can help kids find comfortable ways of learning new vocabulary and story structure. By beginning with those simple themes of family, friendship, school, and home, kids begin to build a strong foundation that will later help them tackle new genres and settings.

Finally, a truly great easy reader includes illustrations that are not only beautiful to look at, but also complement the text and assist the reader with understanding new vocabulary and new concepts. Illustrations in children's picture books and easy readers are an integral part of the story, not just the icing on the cake. Not only should the illustrations clearly depict what's happening in the text to provide context, they should, like those in Flip Flop and Dodsworth in Rome, also include other visual content that expands the story beyond the words and gives the reader a greater understanding of the setting, plot, and characters.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Book Review: Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (1948)

Cheaper by the Dozen is the 1948 memoir of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who, along with their 10 other siblings, were the children of time and motion study and efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. The book relates a series of charmingly funny anecdotes from the Gilbreth kids’ childhood in Montclair, New Jersey, focusing chiefly on the love shared between their parents and their father’s wonderfully larger-than-life personality. From the car rides in the family automobile, Foolish Carriage, to Mrs. Gilbreth’s amusing encounter with proponents of birth control, to the older girls’ ingenious capture of a peeping Tom, this book makes the reader feel as though he or she is one of the family, and in on all of the family jokes.

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, which was released in 1994 and narrated by Dana Ivey. Ivey’s voice is perfectly suited to the story, and the various voices she provides for each of the distinct characters really helped me to get a fuller picture of their personalities and senses of humor. The only criticism I have of the audiobook is that it incorporates a lot of background music at the beginning of each chapter, which overpowers and distracts the listener from the words being spoken.

The text itself is interesting in that there is no clear narrator. The narrative voice often speaks in the first person plural, as though representing the children as a unit, but both Ernestine and Frank are called by their first names, as are all the others, so we never know for sure who is speaking. This may have bothered me in the beginning when I was still trying to sort out the cast of characters, but by the middle of the book, I stopped trying to figure it out and really started to enjoy that constant feeling of being immersed in a crowd of wild and lively Gilbreths.

Mr. Gilbreth definitely stands out as the star of the book, and his stubbornness combined with his desire to have his children perform efficiently create some of the greatest comic moments of the book and many of the book’s most quotable lines. I suspect that not every detail about his character is 100% true, and maybe not every statement is quoted with 100% accuracy, but it doesn’t matter because what comes across to the reader is the love he felt for his kids, and vice versa, and the way in which his ideas about child-rearing affected everyone in the family.

I can remember trying to read this book as a kid and becoming lost because I didn’t understand the time period, or even some of the language. Because of this experience, I do wonder if kids today would have the same problem. The audio version of the story is wonderful, though, and could easily help reluctant readers of this book get invested and involved in the story. I think it’s also one of those rare books that can be equally enjoyed by children, teens, and adults.

This book might be old, but the language is far from stodgy, and the childhood memories the authors describe are so vivid, kids will find it very easy to imagine life as a Gilbreth. I’m disappointed in myself for not reading this book sooner, and I recommend it very highly.