Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Strong Wings by Mabel Louise Robinson (1951)

Connie Sayres, her brother, Cricks, and their sister, Merry, have often spent the summer in Maine, in a house owned by their parents. This year, though, with their parents away selling plays and the funds running lower every day, they realize they will need to stay beyond the summer, until they can afford the trip home to New York. Connie, who is the eldest, and has some college courses under her belt, decides to take a job as a substitute teacher at the local one-room schoolhouse to keep food on the table. Her siblings dutifully attend the school and do their best to get along with their classmates, all of whom are Maine natives. As Connie struggles to get a handle on her job and on her finances, she also leads the family through a number of struggles and adventures including refurbishing a boat, fighting a fire, befriending various locals, and even causing friction in the relationship of a long-established local couple.

This book is similar in some ways to last week’s Old School Sunday title, The Worry Week, but whereas The Worry Week is mostly fun and lighthearted, Strong Wings explores true life and death situations. While I didn’t think the descriptions in this book were quite as strong as those in Mabel Robinson’s Newbery Honor book, Bright Island, I still thought the writing overall was wonderful. Each character, however minor, springs fully to life, and the reader is invested in the well-being of the Sayres kids, as well as in the future of the Maine community where they are living.

Robinson does a lovely job of revealing truths about her characters and setting in subtle ways, rather than writing out pages of direct exposition. The reader learns about life in this part of Maine as Connie does, piece by piece, as events unfold. The reader also comes to really admire Connie’s strength and perseverance. So many young adult novels published today have an angsty tone to them, where teens are resentful of the parents who do not care for them in the way they would like. Connie recognizes her role as someone who can keep her family together while her parents work on improving their lives, and she rarely becomes angry at them for interrupting her college education with their inability to pay. Some might argue that Connie takes on too much responsibility on behalf of her parents, and that the parents in this story are somewhat irresponsible and neglectful. I didn’t really see that as the focus of the novel. Rather, this is Connie’s coming of age story, and she is able to grow up by challenging herself and learning her true capabilities.

Strong Wings was published in 1951, and it reminds me a little bit of other 1950s children’s titles I have read, including Miracles on Maple Hill and A Lemon and a Star. Like those books, this one focuses mostly on family relationships and on the impact one family has on its surrounding community. Strong Wings has a decidedly more mature tone, however, and I think it compares better to Beverly Cleary’s First Love books, especially the least romantic one, Sister of the Bride. Strong Wings is a good choice for girls seeking a strong female heroine who is not obsessed with boys and fashion, but who makes true differences in her family and community, and who comes into her own as she struggles to make sense of who she is in the absence of her parents and college friends.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Book Review: The Worry Week by Anne Lindbergh (1985)

Allegra is the middle sister between dewy-eyed Alice and wild child Edith (called Minnow). Allegra’s favorite place in the entire world is North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine where she and her family rent a cottage every summer. With 17 days of vacation left, Allegra’s parents find themselves called away from the island for a funeral, and they plan to send the three girls to stay with their aunt. Allegra, who just can’t bear being away from the island for a week, decides to tell a couple of lies in order to make it possible for her and her sisters to remain at North Haven alone. The plan goes off without a hitch - until the girls get home to find there is no food. What is supposed to be a relaxing time of freedom from parents and rules turns out to be a week of worries as Allegra struggles to keep her sisters well-fed, happy, and free from injury until their parents get home.

This quick middle grade read by Anne Lindbergh (daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh) is a great choice for upper elementary beach reading. Any child who has ever had a vacation cut short, or who has lamented the end of a long visit to the beach will understand Allegra’s desire to deceive her parents and make the most of her time on her beloved island. The three girls’ extremely different personalities are a major source of conflict and excitement as the story progresses, and the plot really appeals to kids’ sense of adventure. Kids often imagine what their lives would be like if they were left unattended for even a short time, and this book explores the practical side of such an adventure, but also indulges kids’ curiosity about what that situation would really be like.

Allegra is a wonderful narrator, whose voice is intelligent, funny, vaguely sarcastic, and brutally honest. Her views of her stranger sisters - Alice, who speaks almost exclusively in Shakespearean dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, and Minnow, who loses six pairs of underpants in just one week - say a lot about the relationships that exist between sisters and the reader is aware of how much the girls love each other, even when they don’t get along. As in Swallows and Amazons, there is danger in this book, but it’s never insurmountable, and even the worst emergency of the story doesn’t scare the reader. Rather, the reader is amused by these brave three girls who are able to live off the land for a full week without ever asking for assistance from adults.

The Worry Week was published in 1985, but the only thing that truly dates the story itself is the lack of cell phones. A cell phone would have made it much easier for their parents to figure out what the girls had done and probably would have put an end to their island adventure that much sooner. The edition I borrowed from my local library also has absolutely atrocious illustrations that do not match the story and don’t even really look professional. I was utterly surprised that the book jacket calls the illustrations “lively.” Each one was more out of place and awkward than the next!

The Worry Week compares well to The Sisters Club by Megan McDonald, Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, and the Penderwicks series. Girls who like adventure, family stories, and happy endings, will find all three in this fun and well-written novel for grades 3 to 7.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: I'm with Stupid by Geoff Herbach (2013)

I’m with Stupid is the conclusion to Geoff Herbach’s trilogy about nerd-turned-jock Felton Reinstein. (The first two books were Stupid Fast and Nothing Special.) In this last book, Felton is now a high school senior and a major football star. He’s being recruited by a number of schools, and ESPN will broadcast his college decision on television. Aleah, Felton’s girlfriend, is being uncharacteristically distant, while Andrew and Grandpa Stan fret about Felton’s well-being from their home in sunny Florida. As his senior year wears on, Felton must deal with his mother’s latest disgusting affair, his troubled freshman mentee, who desperately needs someone bigger and stronger to protect him, and his continued discovery of similarities between himself and his father, who committed suicide. Felton has learned to deal with being stupid fast, now he just has to learn how not to be stupid.

I have loved Felton’s voice from the beginning of the first book, and I was pleased to return to it one last time for this enjoyable final installment in his life story. Felton is troubled, but completely lovable as well, and the reader can both sympathize with his pain and wish the best for him, and also completely understand why he sometimes wants to be self-destructive. Dark themes figure heavily in this book. There is a lot of drinking, lots of discussion of death, a couple of abusive parents - and yet, the book itself is not a “dark YA novel.” Rather, it is a novel about overcoming the dark things in life to make room for the light. Felton is haunted by his dad’s death, but he also has a lot of people to love and support him if only he will let them in. This is not a book glorifying death and destruction. Rather, it’s a story about how one teenage boy who has been failed by adults and wounded by circumstances beyond his control gets his act together in time to join the real, adult world.

This book strikes a nice balance between the non-stop humor of the first book and the almost overly-emotional lovefest that makes up a lot of the second book. Felton’s journey has been anything but easy, and I appreciate that Herbach didn’t give him a neat and tidy resolution early on. Though each book is a story of its own, it is the series as a whole that gives a complete portrait of Felton’s transformation, not just physically, but on the inside, too. I’m with Stupid is the kind of book that will appeal to fans of sports-themed fiction by authors like Rich Wallace, Mike Lupica, and Chris Crutcher, but it also has the literary appeal of books by John Green, David Levithan, or Robert Lipsyte. This makes it a book that can appeal to a wide audience, and I think teens who choose to read it will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the depth of the story, as well as its entertainment value.

I’m with Stupid is best for high school readers who have read the other books in the series. I think readers could enjoy this book without reading the first two, but it wouldn’t have the same impact without all of the backstory of the first two books. For another great story about troubled teens overcoming the adversity of their lives, also try John Barnes’s 2010 Printz Honor book, Tales of the Madman Underground.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Book Review: A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle (1984)

Polyhymnia “Polly” O’Keefe has been given an unexpected opportunity. Maximiliana “Max” Horne, an older woman who lives near Polly’s home on Benne Seed Island, has taken a special interest in mentoring her. As part of this mentorship, Max has arranged for Polly to visit Greece, and to work as a go-fer at an international literary conference on Cyprus. While in Athens, Polly becomes acquainted with Zachary Grey, who is as charming and as undesirable as ever, and she does her best to work through her feelings about the terrible way Max betrayed her before she left home.

Throughout the time I have been reading each of L’Engle’s Austin/Murry/O’Keefe books, I have favored Vicky over Polly. Though both girls are portrayed as somehow special, Vicky has always seemed more believable and relatable, while Polly has always struck me as too perfect and too unrealistically good. This story is the first one where Polly has actually seemed like a human being. I was pleased by this for the sake of this particular story, because I enjoyed spending time with a main character who had some layers and some emotional depth. When considering the continuity of the overall series, however, the Polly of A House Like a Lotus is not the same Polly of the earlier books. Polly actually reminds me a lot of Vicky in this book - which is fine with me, because I like Vicky, but somewhat odd when one views the entire series as a unit. I read one interesting blog post where Mari Ness of speculates that L’Engle may have actually set out to tell this story about Vicky, not Polly, and then changed her mind when she realized it would be difficult to cause pain to a character she identifies with so closely. That argument makes a ton of sense to me, and as Ness points out, it would explain why we’re forced to put up with Zachary Grey again.

Ness’s post and many others that I read also share another common interpretation of this book that I have to admit I totally missed. We are told in the book that Max is a lesbian, a fact which causes varied reactions from Polly, her parents, her siblings and the kids at Polly’s school. At the critical moment where Polly feels so horribly betrayed by Max, it seems that everyone - Wikipedia, Goodreads reviewers, and authors of scholarly articles - believes Max has made a sexual pass at Polly. I did sort of expect something like that to happen, based on how upset Polly was and how long it took her in the narration to get around to describing the night of her betrayal, but I have read the passage where it happens at least ten times, and I still don’t see definite textual evidence that Max did anything to Polly other than drink too much and scare her. It makes sense to assume that more happened, but had I not read anything about this book before posting this review, I never would have realized that Max made any sort of overture toward Polly.

Despite its weirdness, though, I really loved this book. I enjoyed catching up with the O’Keefes, and learning of the latest additions to their family. I thought Polly’s relationship with Renny was sweet, though a bit strange given their age difference. The flashbacks to the growth of Polly’s friendship with Max were very effective, and I enjoyed moving back and forth in time as Polly reflects on what has happened and does her best to forgive. I also appreciated the obviously Christian message about forgiveness. Polly desperately wants to forgive Max, but she must first work very realistically through her layers of grief. I appreciated that there is never any doubt as to whether Max should be forgiven, but that it is still difficult for Polly to get in touch with her again. I also thought the second part of the book, where Polly attends the conference was a bit touchy-feely, but also moving in its own way. Most of the characters didn’t seem realistic, but there was still something interesting about the way these people from so many different places became like a family to Polly and to each other.

A House Like a Lotus has its problems and its critics, but I would place it in my top five of the L’Engle books I have read so far, and I would say it is my favorite of the O’Keefe series. I am actually looking forward to seeing Polly again in An Acceptable Time, and I’m eager to finish this reading exercise, hopefully by the end of this summer. Only three titles left - Many Waters, An Acceptable Time, and Troubling a Star.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Book Review: Lotta on Troublemaker Street by Astrid Lindgren (1962)

Lotta is five years old, and she lives on Troublemaker Street with her parents, older siblings,  Maria and Jonas, and her stuffed pig, Bamsie. One morning, after dreaming that her siblings hit Bamsie, she wakes up in a terrible mood, believing that the events in her dream actually happened. After that, though she would rather go naked than wear it, her mother tries to dress her in an itchy sweater. Fed up, she destroys the sweater then runs away to Mrs. Berg's house next door. Mrs. Berg helps her set up shop in the attic, and Lotta plans to stay forever... until she realizes how dark it gets at night.

I never cared for Pippi Longstocking as a kid, but I do wish I had known about Lotta! Like Ramona, Clementine, and Junie B., Lotta is a spirited little girl with a lot of personality, just trying to make sense of growing up. Like Alexander in Judith Viorst's famed picture book, Lotta is having a bad day, and all she wants to do is escape. Kids and adults of all ages can relate to this universal experience, and kids, especially, will be thrilled to live vicariously through Lotta's new life in the attic next door. I think they will also love Mrs. Berg, who acts as a grandmotherly figure in Lotta's life, and whose approach to Lotta's anger at her parents is reminiscent of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

This is a chapter book, but a very short one, and many of Lotta's other stories - at least the ones at my library - are longer picture books instead. The edition I read for this review actually came out in 2001, with illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser, who draws Fancy Nancy. Any Fancy Nancy fan who sees the cover of this book will be instantly drawn to it, if only to make sure it isn't about Fancy Nancy! Lotta on Troublemaker Street is also a great choice for preschoolers whose parents read them chapter books at bedtime. The story perfectly embodies the mind of a real five-year-old, and kids will enjoy the comfort that comes from seeing an end to Lotta's terrible day.

This book is charming and funny, and thankfully, still in print! Try it out with a parent/child book club for kindergarten or first graders, or as a bedtime read-aloud with your own five-year-old on his or her worst day.  For other old school read-alikes, try Two of a Kind by Beverly Cleary, Nora and Mrs. Mind-Your Own-Business by Johanna Hurwitz, or Betsy's Little Star by Carolyn Haywood.