Sunday, November 25, 2012

Book Review: Eleven Kids, One Summer by Ann M. Martin (1991)

Eleven Kids, One Summer is the sequel to one of my favorite books from childhood, Ten Kids No Pets. Looking back, I remember the first book as the better of the two, but reading them both again as an adult, this sequel is the story that won me over. Keegan, the youngest in the Rosso family, is now six months old, and the family is taking a vacation to Fire Island, where they will stay in a beach house. As the summer passes, each of the kids has an adventure involving everything from fishermen and haunted houses to movie sets and romances.

Here’s what made me love this book:
  • While each of the kids has his or her own adventure, some of the adventures overlap. For example, Candy’s chapter early in the book introduces a haunted house plot that reappears in Hannah’s chapter and Hardy’s chapter in the middle and end of the book. Woody also becomes an entrepreneur in his chapter, which influences things that happen to Bainbridge later on. This interconnectedness made me feel like I was living amongst the Rossos during their vacation, and even when some of the kids were not heavily featured in a chapter, the ongoing plot threads gave me an idea of where they were and what they were doing.
  • Justin Hart, the romantic hero in Ann M. Martin’s romance novel, Just a Summer Romance, as well as the heroine from that story, Melanie, reappear in this book. I read Just a Summer Romance when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and by then I’d forgotten the details of Eleven Kids, One Summer, so I never made the connection until now. I remember really liking those characters, though, and it was nice to check in with them. 
  • Eleven Kids, One Summer has everything in it that I loved about the various plots of the Baby-sitters Club books- a big family, a ghost story, lots of kids of all different ages, movie stars, twins, a hospital visit and a summer vacation. The Publishers Weekly blurb on the back cover of the book says that Ann M. Martin “knows well what pleases young readers” and I would so agree with that statement. She knows how to keep the pages turning and how to create adventures out of seemingly everyday experiences.
  • This book reminds me of The Penderwicks series, and especially of The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Abbie Rosso and Rosalind Penderwick are both wonderful big sisters, and the younger Rosso siblings all reminded me of Skye, Jane, and Batty at different points. Both books evoke a timeless sense of childhood innocence and the they celebrate the joys of imagination and independent play. Eleven Kids, One Summer was published 14 years ahead of the first Penderwicks book, but they both feel equally contemporary in style and content.
Eleven Kids, One Summer is a perfect example of Ann M. Martin’s talent for creating unique kids and making each different personality relatable for her readers. Reviews from when the book was published were not particularly kind - especially one from School Library Journal that said “signs of formulaic contemporary sit-com fiction are in abundance” in the book, and that “sometimes the pace and content strain credibility.” I think this book is actually heads above many of those poorly written sit-com books, and maybe not everything that happens is likely to happen in real life, but it worked well in the fiction.

Eleven Kids, One Summer is out of print, which makes me sad, but there is obviously still some love for the Rossos, since copies of their books are quite expensive (over 140 dollars!) on Amazon. I think this book brings about heavily nostalgic feelings for a lot of kids of the 90s. I know it does for me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review: Angie's First Case by Donald Sobol

Donald Sobol is known to most people as the author of the popular Encyclopedia Brown series, of which there are more than 25 titles. What I didn’t realize is that Sobol actually wrote 65 books in all, and that some of them are about girls. Angie’s First Case, which was published in 1981, is the story of a 12-year-old girl who lost her parents at a young age. She and her older sister, Kit, live with their aunt, who doesn’t have much money, so Kit has given up the idea of college to become a police officer. Kit loves her work, but Angie is convinced that her sister could get promoted and be even happier if Angie helps her crack a major case. Every day, Angie goes out jogging in the hopes of catching a band of teen thieves known as the Wolfpack. One day, while she is out with Jess, a chubby boy she likes, Angie sees a series of suspicious events. By witnessing these strange occurrences, Angie sets herself up to become a kidnapping victim as well as a hero.

This book is unlike any other middle grade mystery novel I have ever read. It is mainly plot-driven, like the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, but the characters are strongly developed in the first couple of chapters so that the reader roots for their success as much as for the downfall of the bad guys. There is a hint of romance between Angie and Jess, but it is restricted to holding hands, which is very sweet and keeps the love angle from taking over the action and adventure that is the true focus of the story. The absence of all the technologies we use today requires Angie to rely on her wits to solve the mystery, which always makes a tale like this more exciting. There were a couple of points where I found myself thinking how much easier things would be if the kids did have phones, but I liked the added challenges and the ingenious plans the kids enact to overcome them.

Though Sobol is great at delivering clues and other case-related information in a straightforward manner, he also has some great descriptions that evoke Angie’s emotions and thoughts at certain points in the story. One of my favorites is this moment, where Angie watches Kit put her gun away at the end of the work day.

…[Kit] folded the ten-pound gun belt with its holster, gun, and two pouches of ammunition. The black patent leather gleamed in a ray of evening sunlight.

Angie sat stiffly. The handgun fascinated her. It was .38, fast-loading, six-shot pistol with a dark wood panel inlaid on each side of the handle.

Now it rested snugly in the holster. Yet its deadliness worked eerily on Angie’s mind. The gun seemed much larger than its actual size. She was amazed when it disappeared into the dresser drawer so easily.

This passage conveys the power of the gun, Kit’s carefulness with it, and Angie’s sense of awe surrounding the gun and her sister’s important job.

Also charming is the accompanying illustration for this same chapter:

I love Aunt Velma peeking out at the girls from the living room, and Angie’s completely 80s hair and outfit. I also think it’s sweet that Kit is leaning down to kiss her sister.

This illustration is by Gail Owens, who also illustrated some of the the Encyclopedia Brown books and other books by well-known 80s children’s authors like Johanna Hurwitz, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Caroline Cooney. Owens was also the illustrator of The Cybil War by Betsy Byars.

I was really impressed by this book and I wonder why Sobol never returned to Angie’s life to tell us of her future cases. It seems like he focused almost exclusively on Encyclopedia Brown in the later years of his career, which makes sense, since they were so popular, but I fell in love with Angie in this book, and I wish there were more mysteries featuring her!

Angie’s First Case is out of print, but copies abound on Amazon. Personally, I think it’s as relevant now as the Encyclopedia Brown books and would love to see it become widely available once again!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome (1937)

In We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, the Walker children and their mother are waiting at Pin Mill for Daddy to arrive home when they meet a young sailor named Jim Brading. Jim promises to sail the kids around to a few of the nearby ports, giving Mrs. Walker his word that he will not take John, Susan, Titty, and Roger to sea. He doesn’t anticipate the fact that he will run out of petrol, or that a heavy fog will descend over his boat, The Goblin. Nor does he guess that the tide will turn and the Walkers will drift out to sea in his boat, heading for Holland with no captain and no idea how they will get home.

My big frustration with the last book, Pigeon Post, was that I had trouble buying into the make-believe adventures of the Walkers and the Blacketts. For the first time, imagined adventure didn’t seem like enough. I’m so glad that this seventh book in the series finally allows these characters to experience something real. I was a bit disappointed, at first, that the Blacketts do not appear in this book, but even their absence was somewhat refreshing. Without Nancy to call the shots, the other characters are forced into leadership roles, which provides a lot of really nice character development for both John and Susan. Even Titty and Roger show signs of growing up as the story progresses.

What really impressed me the most about We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is that Ransome manages to keep things exciting for the duration of the book, despite the fact that 90% of it takes place on board the same boat. Weather, seasickness, and passing ships provide the required drama to propel the story forward even when all the characters are doing, essentially, is waiting to reach port and agonizing over what their mother will say when she learns they disobeyed. Ransome’s writing is never dull, and the ending of this story, when they finally find a way home, is one of the most satisfying endings of the entire series. It almost feels like a finale, and though I have started the next book and I’m enjoying it, I still think We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea could have served as the perfect conclusion to the Walkers’ stories. It is the perfect culmination of all their training as sailors and in some ways, the full realization of the fantasy constructed in Peter Duck.

I can’t name many authors whose writing is consistently wonderful over the course many books, but Ransome is such an author. I like the way his stories continue to expand upon the vast universe he has created, and I enjoy the way he tempers every moment of high stress and danger in his stories with a warm moment of comfort among family and friends. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea ranks high on my list of favorites in this series, right beside Swallowdale and Winter Holiday.