Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review: Katie John by Mary Calhoun (1960)

Katie John Tucker's family has recently inherited Great Aunt Emily's large old Southern house, so they must spend the summer cleaning it up and getting it ready to sell before they move onto New York, where Katie's father can resume his writing career. Katie is not thrilled about spending the summer in such a small town, but that changes when she meets Sue, a girl in the neighborhood with whom she shares many adventures. The girls look for ghosts, discover a possible human bone, have a lemonade stand, and get into a big fight (and make up, of course.) When Fall rolls around, Katie finds that she doesn't want to leave - and that she might just have a plan that will help her family stay in the big house.

I owned this book as a child and never read it. Knowing what I was like, this was probably because the first chapter mentions the possibility of ghosts and I hated to be scared. Otherwise, this is exactly the kind of book I have always enjoyed, about real kids doing regular things and finding their own excitement. Katie John has much in common with contemporary characters like Ivy and Bean, Clementine, the Penderwick sisters, and Judy Moody, and her personality is just the right combination of sweetness and trouble. Though this book was published in 1960, there is no reason kids today - especially those living in small towns themselves - can't relate to Katie. Her concerns about moving, making friends, and figuring out what made Great Aunt Emily tick are things that will always interest kids, no matter the time period. Katie John also makes a nice read-alike for another vintage favorite from around the same time, Gone-Away Lake.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Czukas (2014)

Chloe loves to make lists. On Christmas Eve, when she heads to work at the grocery store, she has in mind her to do list, which includes resolutions to talk to at least three coworkers and learn something new about them, and to give Tyson, her crush, a ride home. Throughout her hectic shift, Chloe also worries about her blood sugar. As a "brittle" Type I diabetic, she can't afford to skip meals or miss out on checking her blood sugar levels at regular intervals. When it is discovered that a serious amount of money has been stolen from a charity donation box, Chloe is kept after hours along with her five other teen coworkers, all of whom are suspects in the theft. As the time before the cops arrive drags on, Chloe realizes that she will soon be in a real medical emergency if she does not enlist the help of her unlikely companions. In the meantime, she also tries to solve the mystery so that she and her new friends can make it home in time for Christmas.

This is the perfect YA read for the Christmas season. It includes a little bit of everything - the anticipation everyone feels on the night before a major holiday, the urgency of last-minute shopping, the promise of a new crush, a secret medical condition to build up suspense, a bit of mystery, with a surprising culprit, and a fun and quirky setting. Chloe's lists serve to keep the reader apprised of her innermost thoughts, and her awkwardness with her coworkers is something to which all teens can relate. Putting the teens on lock-down in the manager's office is reminiscent of movie favorites like The Breakfast Club and Empire Records, and though it might not be a wholly realistic occurrence, it's the perfect plot device for turning strangers into friends, and it is believable in context.

There are only two problems with this book. One is the cover, which provides absolutely no information about the story whatsoever. The cover seems very middle grade, even though the story is clearly YA, and aside from vague similarities to the cover for The Fault in Our Stars, it is basically unappealing. It's a Christmas book published just before Christmas - would it have been so terrible to give it a festive cover?

The other issue is the "brittle" diabetes. The last fictional character who had this condition was Stacey McGill in the Baby-sitters Club, and the severity of her condition is frequently mocked and questioned by fans of the series. Because diabetes is so much easier to manage nowadays than it used to be, it does make sense that Chloe's condition would have to be "brittle" for the medical events of the story to happen, but it also seems like the same end could have been achieved with a more common problem, like a food allergy or asthma.  By including this rare form of diabetes, the author simply reinforces stereotypes people have about Type 1 diabetes and misses an opportunity to educate the uninitiated about the truth of the condition for most people.

Top Ten Clues You're Clueless is a perfect read-alike for Love and Other Perishable Items as well as other YA workplace stories including How Zoe Made Her Dreams (Mostly) Come True, and Pilgrims Don't Wear Pink.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Following Flora by Natasha Farrant (2014)

Following Flora is the second book in the Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby series, following last year's After Iris. (In the UK, the title is Flora in Love.) A year has passed and  Zoran, the family's au pair, has moved out and taken one of his guitar students, Zachary Smith, under his wing in the aftermath of Zach's grandfather's stroke. Zach instantly hits it off with Flora, the oldest Gadsby sister, who is just one of three Gadsbys involved in a romance. Blue has started dating her best friend, much to her utter confusion, and Twig has a crush on a girl in school which has completely changed his behavior. Only Jas is not in love, and she feels so left out she turns to poetry as her solace. In the meantime, the Gadsby parents struggle to accept that they are expecting a new baby.

The characters in this series are so well-realized that the plots of the books are almost irrelevant. So many things are going on in Following Flora, to the point that there isn't really one main thread to follow, but it doesn't matter because the chaos is part of the fun of reading about this quirky family. Few family stories for kids are as honest as this one about the way parents and siblings really act with one another. While this book is by no means dark and dreary, it also doesn't pretend that life is an endless parade of sunshine and lollipops. Middle school readers in particular appreciate this type of honesty, and it is perfectly handled by Natasha Farrant.

Often books like this which include transcripts of video make those sections of the book feel like gimmicky filler, but in Following Flora, as in After Iris, they are used perfectly to further the action of the various subplots. The really nice thing about having a camera's eye view of the action is that each member of the Gadsby family is able to assert his or her personality in just a few lines instead of the author spending pages and pages on describing each one. Because the family is so dramatic and chaotic, it only makes sense for them to act out their shenanigans on film, and for Blue, the quietest of the bunch, to be the one behind the lens.

Following Flora reminds me a lot of Anne Fine's The True Story of Christmas, in that it brings family dysfunction to life in a way that is realistic and humorous at the same time. (Why are British authors always so good at that?) The interactions between the siblings also echoes the way the girls talk to each other in The Penderwicks, but the adult characters are much less stereotypically good in the Gadsby books. Readers who enjoy Hilary McKay's Casson family will be enamored of the Gadsbys in the same way, and everyone who reads this book will immediately start counting down to when the next book is out.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Adrienne Adams (1958)

The Story of Holly and Ivy is a short story, which has been published in both chapter book and picture book formats. This edition is the original from 1958 and includes charming red and green line drawings by Adrienne Adams. As the author states on the very first page, the story is about wishing. Holly, a Christmas doll on sale at the toy shop wishes a girl would take her home and play with her. Ivy, an orphan who has run away, wishes to find someone with a Christmas tree and no children to be her grandmother. Mrs. Jones and her police officer husband wish for a little girl with whom to spend the Christmas holiday. Through a series of unlikely events, all three wishes manage to come true, resulting in a very Merry Christmas for all.

Though the happy ending is an obvious given from the outset, Godden makes the wait for the resolution worthwhile. Her descriptions of the toys in the toy shop (especially the creepy and cruel owl, Abracadabra), the details of Ivy's experience at the orphanage, where she is the only child not taken into a family home for the holidays, and the conversation the Joneses have about whether to decorate for Christmas all paint vivid pictures of the needs of each character. The reader, therefore, does not root for just one character, but for the Christmas miracle that will fulfill each of their desires. Some books about such Christmas miracles seem insincere or maudlin, but this one resists becoming overly melodramatic, and is instead very matter-of-fact in its telling of unlikely events. The real reason to read this book is not to find out how it ends, but to see how skillfully Godden brings the reader to the only possible conclusion.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The Light at Tern Rock by Julia L. Sauer (1951)

The Light at Tern Rock is a very short novel by Julia L. Sauer which received the Newbery Honor in 1952. The story follows a young man and his aunt, who are asked to look after the lighthouse at Tern Rock while the lighthouse keeper takes a few days of leave. The keeper promises he will return by December 15, but when this date comes and goes, and more and more days pass, Ronnie realizes he will miss the Christmas festivities with his schoolmates and be stranded on the rock for the holiday instead.

I appreciate this book for its economy of language, its carefully presented moral, its unapologetic religious viewpoint, and its unexpectedly emotional ending. No one writes books like this anymore. For kids ages 8 and up, this is a much better lesson in the true meaning of the Christmas season than How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The story focuses not just on giving, but on forgiving, and on preparing oneself, wherever one happens to find himself, for the coming of Christ on his birthday. The story might seem slow to some kids, even with the low word count, but it would work nicely as a family read-aloud on Christmas Eve, or a component to a CCD or Sunday school lesson. Also see my review of The Birds' Christmas Carol for more inspirational Christmas reading. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: The Battle of Darcy Lane by Tara Altebrando (2014)

It seems like there is one book every year that feels like it was written just for me. For 2014, that book is The Battle of Darcy Lane. Main character Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her neighbor and best friend, Taylor. Taylor's plans change immediately, however, when a new girl named Alyssa moves to the neighborhood. Both Alyssa and Taylor are cruel to Julia in big and small ways, putting her down as they assert their own supposed maturity and coolness, prank calling her house, and challenging her to play a complicated ball game called Russia, at which Alyssa is an expert. Throughout the summer, Julia struggles with her conflicting desires to be accepted by the other girls and to seek revenge on them for how poorly they treat her. In the meantime, she defies her parents' rules regarding an inappropriate television show, reevaluates the worthiness of some of her other, immature friends, develops a crush on a boy in the neighborhood, and deals with the possibility that her parents might want another child.

This book does absolutely everything right. Therefore, in lieu of a review, here are several reasons to love this book:
  • Parental involvement. In this book, Julia is not left to deal with everything on her own. Rather, she has supportive, loving parents who are perceptive enough to know when something is wrong and involved enough to persist when Julia is not immediately forthcoming with the problem. Julia's mother, especially, is understanding of the situation, and empathetic at some moments to the point of tears. She represents that adult mindset that knows it will all eventually be okay, but she is not completely immune to the way the girls' cruel treatment affects her daughter. As the daughter of a woman who once volunteered to turn the garden hose on bullies marching up and down in front of my house, I was pleased to see a mom character who was present, involved, and invested. 
  • Normalized religion. I made a post on my Tumblr account months ago about #weneeddiversebooks as it relates to the treatment of religion. This book, while not at all about religion, mentions in passing a number of times that Julia has gone to Mass with her mom. It's wonderful to see a Catholic character portrayed as a normal person with normal problems, rather than as a plot device specifically focused on bigotry or acceptance. I would have loved seeing those references when I was in the target age range for this book. Being religious is a normal part of life for many kids, and it's great to see that represented in such a mainstream book.
  • Realistic cruelty. Sometimes books with "mean girls" in them go overboard with the specific ways those girls are cruel. This book does a great job with the subtlety girls use to hurt each other, and with the emotional rollercoaster Julia experiences as Taylor and Alyssa seem to change their minds about her on a daily basis. The prank calls were an especially good choice, as they represent the secret, underhanded way girls sometimes behave in these situations, and they show the caller's complete disregard for not just Julia but her family as well. 
  • Cicadas. This story is set during a summer where cicadas are expected to hatch. Kids are fascinated by the idea of cicadas, so from the standpoint of attracting readers alone, this is a strength of this book. Beyond that, though, the anticipation of the cicadas, the excitement of their arrival, and their slow dissipation give the novel a natural rise and fall that matches the rise and fall of the plot. Though the cicadas are expected from early in the book, their involvement in the story does not feel forced, and any metaphorical connections to Julia's situation are very subtle. 
  • Russia. The game of Russia provides perfect tension throughout this book. It's the kind of thing that everyone wants to be able to do when they see someone else doing it, and Julia's desire to beat Alyssa at the game builds the rivalry between those two characters. Tween friendship can be a competitive sport unto itself, and Russia just gives that sense of wanting to be the best a physical manifestation for the sake of the story. The author also provides the thirteen steps of the game at the back of the book, which is sure to encourage every girl who reads the story to at least give it a try. 
  • End of Daze. This is the television show that Taylor and Alyssa watch, and which Julia is forbidden to watch, but sees anyway with a neighbor boy. Every kid has a story about sneak-watching a show against their parents' wishes, and even though the show was invented for this story, the plot lines Julia describes are very realistic and reminiscent of shows real kids are not likely to be allowed to watch if their parents are particularly protective regarding media consumption. 
  • Cell phones. Julia, at age twelve, does not have a cell phone! So many middle grade novels assume that all kids have them, and need them, and this book sends the opposite message. Julia's lack of a phone also serves as yet another barrier which separates her from coolness in Alyssa's eyes, and the fact that Julia's mother doesn't just go out and buy her one to help her fit in sends a wonderful message to readers who might be a lot like Julia. 
The book that helped me through my own traumatic friendship experiences in the 1990s was Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume, which I read and read  until the cover nearly fell off. The Battle of Darcy Lane is that book for the 2010s. Girls will see themselves, their lives, and their feelings in this book and they will relish the knowledge that though they may feel isolated, they are by no means alone. I also loved Roomies, which is co-authored by Tara Altebrando, so now I'm really looking forward to her future books!


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: Debutante Hill by Lois Duncan (1957)

Debutante Hill was the first book to be reissued by Lizzie Skurnick Books. Though Lois Duncan is best known to people of my generation and younger as a writer of teen thrillers, this book does not fall into that genre. Published in 1957, it is the story of high school senior Lynn Chambers who is at the center of the popular crowd of kids who live on the Hill. When it is announced that the mother of one of the less-popular girls has decided to organize a debutante program in order to help her daughter improve her social life, it is just assumed that Lynn will participate along with her friends. To her great surprise, though, her father, Dr. Chambers, does not approve of his daughter making her debut. Suddenly, Lynn finds herself left out of everything. While at first it seems like a major disappointment, over time, Lynn's exclusion from the debutante events leads her to make a series of important discoveries about herself, her boyfriend, her friends, and some of her classmates who don't live on the Hill.

I really love this book. I like its old-fashioned sensibility, which reminds me of Beverly Cleary's First Love books and the later books in the Betsy-Tacy series. I like that it takes a superficial experience - girls wearing gowns and attending parties in order to mark their entry in society - and turns it into a commentary on class distinctions, stereotypes, and popularity. The main character is not perfect, but she is open to change and willing to compromise, which makes her a worthy and believable role model. Even the romance storylines are handled with a heavy dose of realism - Lynn briefly dates a "bad boy" but the story resists the "good girl reforms bad boy" trope, and ultimately, Lynn is able to resolve her issues with her boyfriend in a calm and rational way, without the hysterics or drama so common in more contemporary YA novels.

High school students would probably find the writing and plot of this book too simplistic, but for grades 6 to 8, it might be just right. It's also a must-read for adults who grew up reading books by Lois Duncan - there's nothing more interesting than looking back on the early works of a favorite author. As a bonus, also read Publisher's Weekly's Q & A with Lois Duncan.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book Review: Little Green Peas by Keith Baker (2014)

In this picture book, scenes populated by dozens of little green peas teach young readers about colors. Keith Baker's pictures are fabulously detailed, and kids could spend hours poring over each page and studying the activities of the busy little green peas. There is just so much to see, including a little green pea version of Rapunzel, peas taking ants and caterpillars for walks on leashes, and baby green peas sliding out of their pods into the arms of waiting parents. The book is formatted so that a given color appears on one two-page spread, featuring a few objects of that color as well as the word itself in big block letters. Then the reader turns the page to see the little green peas interacting in some way with the objects just introduced. 

This is definitely the most engaging of the peas books, which also include LMNO Peas and 123 Peas. My own daughter is just one, and she can't get enough of pointing at every pea on each page to ask me who it is and what it is doing. This is also one of those rare concept books that actually teaches the concept, but without becoming too boring and instructive.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng (2014)

As she did in the The Year of the Book and The Year of the Baby, Andrea Cheng writes beautifully in The Year of the Fortune Cookie about Anna’s family life and friendships, as well as her experiences in school and her internal struggles and emotions. Refreshingly, even though Anna is now in middle school, the author does not introduce a sudden onslaught of superficial dramas. Instead, Anna expands her circle of friends to include other like-minded kids, takes on a service project to benefit the orphanage where her baby sister lived, and calmly and maturely works to convince a strict teacher that she deserves the opportunity to miss several weeks of school to make her trip.

As in the previous books, parts of the story are spent reflecting on Anna’s cultural identity as compared with that of her American classmates, but the focus is less on a feeling of ostracization and more on a feeling of comfort in learning about her Chinese roots. In fact, this book is an overall comfort to girls entering middle school, as it provides a saner and less scary alternative to the picture of the middle school experience often provided by books at this level.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: The Far-Distant Oxus by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock (1937)

The Far-Distant Oxus was written by two teenage girls, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, as an homage to their favorite author, Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame. Ransome enjoyed their book so much that he recommended it to his publisher, who did in fact put it into print with an introduction by Ransome. As do the Swallows and Amazons books, the plot follows a group of British schoolchildren on holiday. Bridget, Frances, and Anthony come to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Fradd at Exmoor, where they meet Peter and Jennifer, as well as the mysterious older boy, Maurice. These children form a team of explorers who christen the places they discover with titles from literature and have a variety of adventures right in their own backyard.

The writing in this book is very inconsistent, as one would expect from the work of teenagers. Still, despite the overuse of certain phrases (these characters are forever “relapsing into silence”), the ridiculous over-romanticization of Maurice, and lack of much of an overarching plot, this book has much to offer young readers. There are some truly imaginative descriptions, including this one from the very first chapter: “From their high position they could look across the valley to a ridge of moor, and beyond that to another and another, stretching like a great purple eiderdown strewed with grey books.” There are real problems with plausible solutions and lively, realistic conversations amongst the characters. The book has flaws, but the reader becomes so wrapped up in its adventures that the problems become part of its charm.

For kids who have read the dozen Swallows and Amazons titles and aren’t quite ready to let go, this book might fulfill their longing for just a few more similar adventures. For kids who themselves aspire to write, the book also makes for wonderful inspiration and motivation. (If only today’s fan fiction were as wholesome, sweet, and earnest as The Far-Distant Oxus.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett (2014)

A young girl spies the perfect bicycle in a shop window, then works hard for months to earn the money for it, only to be surprised by the generosity of a kind neighbor.
Because there are no words, the illustrations must carry this story entirely on their own. They do so flawlessly. There is so much personality in the movements of the little girl and the younger brother who tags along with her through much of the book that no words are necessary to know them well. The same is true of the neighbor for whom the little girl works. We learn many things about her - including the fact that she is lonely - from watching her interact with the girl and from the details of her home (such as a photo of a man who must be her husband sitting in the box in her garage.) The sincerity of this story would never come across half as well if the author had tried to put it into words. The fact that the bicycle is the only part of the book that appears in color (aside from a brief appearance by the red airplane from the author's other wordless book) is also a nice touch.

Adults who have trouble with more complicated and surreal wordless books (like those by David Wiesner, for example) might find this one easier to understand and therefore easier to share with kids. The story is completely linear, and the setting is very familiar. A great read-alike might be The Boys by Jeff Newman, another wordless book which also celebrates inter-generational friendships. Also consider pairing it with other picture books about bicycles, including Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschka and Duck on a Bike by David Shannon.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review: Zooman Sam by Lois Lowry (1999)

At long last, we come to the end of the Anastasia and Sam Krupnik series with Zooman Sam. When Sam's nursery school teacher invites each member of the class to dress up for  the career they might like to have someday, Sam decides he wants to be a zooman. His mother makes him a zookeeper's jumpsuit, and Anastasia's boyfriend lends Sam a collection of baseball caps bearing the names of mascots of animal-themed teams. Quickly Sam realizes that he can't possibly talk about how a zooman cares for every single animal on one day, so he and his teacher devise a plan  to present a few each day until he runs out of hats. Unfortunately, while some of the animals are easy to talk about, others are scary, and Sam isn't sure he'll be able to see his commitment through to the end.

As I read this last book, I couldn't help but think about my intense dislike for the Gooney Bird Greene books. If Lois Lowry can write Sam so well, how is it that she misses the mark so completely with Gooney Bird? I intend to revisit those books now that I've finished this series, in the hopes that my trained eye is sharper now than it was in library school and I might discover that they aren't terrible after all. (As nice as it is to complete a series, I will miss Sam and would love another young character to read about!)

In any case, Zooman Sam is especially impressive because it makes such a great, compelling story out of a small classroom event. Lowry has taken on big things (dystopian societies, the Holocaust, death), but her talent for writing effectively about little things is what has elevated her to a favorite author for me.

There isn't much more to say about this book that I haven't already mentioned in a previous review; children's literature enthusiasts who haven't read the Sam books just need to see for themselves how sweet, charming, and timeless they are.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reading Through History: The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (1967)

In the first book of a classic children's series, narrator J.D. tells the story of the year his older brother Tom (T.D.) - the self-proclaimed "great brain" and known prankster and con artist - reforms himself.  Through the eyes of his younger brother, Tom is revealed to be charming, mischievous, and conniving, but deep down a caring and devoted friend.

This semi-autobiographical novel of the author's Utah childhood features one of the best narrators in children's literature. J.D.'s is the perfect deadpan voice to report matter-of-factly on his brother's exploits. At times, the author brilliantly uses J.D.'s naivete as an opportunity to reveal information to the reader that the narrator himself does not understand. (J.D. often does not realize when he is about to be hoodwinked, while the reader chuckles along with Tom, marveling at his audacity and wit.)

Historical details of the time period - the end of the nineteenth century - really enrich the story, and at times, add to the humor. Discussion of the family's new water closet opens the action, and its construction provides the story's first great swindle. This book also gives contemporary kids a great opportunity to think about ways to amuse themselves without many of the bells, whistles, and gadgets now heavily relied upon as sources of entertainment.

Like the Henry Reed series, this is another great book about boys being boys and brothers being brothers. Additional read-alikes include Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka, Cheaper by the Dozen, and the Alvin Ho series. The Great Brain would also be a great book to recommend to upper elementary readers who liked Horrible Harry as first and second graders.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills (2014)

In this second chapter book in the Franklin School Friends series, Annika struggles with her best friends' misunderstanding of her interest in math. It is not until she enters a sudoku contest and helps her friends solve a major baking problem that she realizes how special her talent really is.

Whereas the previous book, Kelsey Green, Reading Queen focused on the need for a gifted student to be charitable toward struggling classmates, this follow-up focuses on an internal struggle on the part of a gifted child to accept her own unique abilities and to share them with others. Annika's turmoil over being teased or misunderstood for liking math highlights the fact that Claudia Mills is deeply in touch with the concerns of schoolchildren and has empathy for even their smallest struggles. Even kids who do not like math themselves will feel for Annika and relate to her desire to be accepted and rewarded for doing the things she loves. Kids will also really enjoy the disastrous baking exploits the three girls share as they prepare for a school carnival.

Annika Riz, Math Whiz is not quite as strong as Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, but those who have already begun the series will undoubtedly pick it up. If nothing else, the story presents math in a positive light and as a viable interest for young girls. This book is most appropriate for grades 2 to 4.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Through History: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis (2014)

In 1901 Ontario, Canada, Benji Alston and Red Stockard lead very different -and separate - lives. They are connected only by a mysterious figure who inhabits the forest. For Red and his friends, this presence is known as the South Woods Lion Man. To Benji and everyone he knows, his name is the Madman of Piney Woods. Through a series of encounters with this strange and elusive man, the boys grow ever-closer to meeting each other, saving a life, and becoming good friends.

One of the many wonderful things about this book is that it does not just relate known historical events through the eyes of children. Rather, Curtis tells a compelling story that immerses the reader in day-to-day life in Ontario at the turn of the 20th century, bringing the time period to life in a very real and relatable way. The pranks, fights, games, and conversations the two main characters have with their friends and family members are lively, funny, interesting, and exciting, giving readers lots of reasons to enjoy the book and to see it through to the end. Kids will love the hints of mystery and adventure that accompany the historical details, and they will find it easy to love both Benji and Red. 
 
This book is a companion to Elijah of Buxton, but it takes place 40 years later, and its connections to the first book are slow to reveal themselves, but well worth the wait. Though it is possible to enjoy The Madman of Piney Woods without reading Elijah of Buxton first, the emotional impact of the final quarter of Madman can never be as strong as the author obviously intends without knowledge of the events of Elijah. The NetGalley blurb for this book states that it "will break your heart -- and expand it, too," and this is absolutely true. The story is beautifully told and beautifully written.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin (1975)



The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is one of the odd mystery novels Ellen Raskin wrote prior to The Westing Game. The main character is 17-year-old art student Dickory Dock, who lives in Greenwich Village with her brother and sister-in-law. At the start of the story, she takes a job as a painter's assistant to an artist named Garson, who works from his home at 12 Cobble Lane. Other residents of the building include such odd characters as Manny Mallomar, Shrimps Marinara, and a deaf, mentally disabled man known as Isaac Bickerstaff. The chief of detectives, Joseph Quinn, is a regular visitor as well, calling upon Garson's talent as a sketch artist to solve various cases, each of which is represented by a chapter in the book. As Dickory helps solve each case, she also learns more and more about the strange histories of and connections between all the people connected with Garson.

This book was not as enjoyable for me as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), mostly because I had a hard time figuring out where it was going. I was constantly distracted by the ridiculous names and by the running gag of characters misremembering the nursery rhyme from which Dickory's name is taken. The individual cases were fun to read and reminiscent of Encyclopedia Brown, but the larger overarching mystery was slow to develop and didn't really grab my interest until the book's climax. 

It was hard to imagine an audience for such an out there story. Kids with a strong interest in art should be drawn to it, especially if it is presented as a read-alike for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Chasing Vermeer. Honestly, though, aside from subject matter it doesn't really even have much in common with those titles. It's definitely in a class by itself.

For me, the most interesting part of reading this book was seeing all the echoes of ideas that appear again in The Westing Game, especially when it comes to setting (primarily one building), disguises,  and a diverse, weird cast of characters of varying ages. The Westing Game is decidedly the stronger of the two books, but I enjoyed seeing how those same ideas first work themselves out in this earlier work. Keep The Tattooed Potato on hand for readers looking for a challenge and for die-hard fans of the author. If your copy needs to be replaced, there is, thankfully, an updated cover.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: See You Around, Sam! by Lois Lowry (1996)

When Sam comes home from nursery school wearing plastic fangs given to him by a classmate, his mother confesses her "fang-phobia" and insists that he not wear them in her sight. Astounded by this injustice, Sam decides to run away from home, but not before stopping in to see all his favorite neighbors.

Running away is a pretty common theme in children's books, and it is a threat most kids make at some point. What is so clever about this book, though, is the way it can be read on two levels. Readers who are Sam's age may fully believe he plans to run away, while those as old as Anastasia or older will recognize the ploys the adults use to keep him close to home while encouraging him to stay. (Lotta on Troublemaker Street does a similar thing, but See You Around, Sam really perfects it.) Sam's growing realization that fangs are actually not that comfortable and his slow change of heart about his desire to leave home are so true to life, and parent readers will undoubtedly recognize some of Sam's traits and behaviors as similar to those exhibited by their own kids.

This book is really the ideal chapter book to read as a family, especially when a child is four or five years old. Lowry really understands how the preschool mind works, but she makes sure to also provide a few knowing nods toward the parents as well, which makes the reading experience a true pleasure for all ages. 

This is definitely the best of the Sam books.  I hope this series will also be given new covers so these wonderful books will catch the eyes of a new audience.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain by Hilary McKay (2014)

In her latest animal adventure, Lulu rescues a hedgehog during a terrible rainstorm, then feels personally responsible for his well-being thereafter. By enlisting the help of all of her neighbors - even the grouchy ones - she finds a way to keep him safe while giving him the proper habitat.

What makes this such a great series is that it does not rely on a set formula, and it focuses on character development and problem solving in addition to the enjoyment of animals. Though Lulu has met many animals throughout the volumes of the series, she has never had the same experience twice. This new story not only introduces an animal not often represented in fiction, but it also provides an opportunity to learn more about Lulu's community and her role within it. An animal may be at its center, but this is undoubtedly a story about people.

Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain shares similar themes with Violet Mackerel's Natural Habitat, and fans of one would easily enjoy the other. Even kids who do not traditionally enjoy animal stories will find themselves drawn to Lulu's unusual plan and the quirky people she must win over to make it a success.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (2014)

Rose Howard, who has OCD and Asperger's Syndrome, lives with her single dad, who has little patience for Rose's quirks, her obsession with homonyms, or her problems at school. Rose's dad often tries to cope by getting drunk, and time and again, he refuses help from his brother, Rose's kind and loving Uncle Weldon. Rose's dad does allow her to have a dog, however: Rain, whom he finds one night wandering the streets without a collar. Rose and Rain are completely inseparable - until Rose's father lets the dog out during a hurricane. When Rain doesn't immediately reappear, Rose realizes she may have lost her forever.

The most remarkable feature of this excellent novel is Ann M. Martin's sensitive treatment of a main character with autism. Martin perfectly captures Rose's character starting from the very first page, where Rose reveals her sweetness, innocence, and annoying quirks in the way she introduces herself to the reader. "Do you have a diagnosis?" she asks, showing just how much her own life has been shaped by labels. Martin recognizes Rose's frustrations as well as those of people around her, and creates a balanced portrait of her life and circumstances.

What happens to Rain and Rose's anger at her father are also handled very well in this story. Martin does a lovely job of filtering the loss of Rain through Rose's unique perspective and she conveys the sadness, hurt, and anger Rose feels in ways that are appropriate to her personality and to her point of view as someone with autism and OCD. Rose's diagnoses are not the defining aspects of her character, but Martin incorporates them into her character in a way that works nicely.

This is an emotional story, and dog lovers in particular will require tissues. (I am not a dog lover, and even I wanted to sniffle a little bit, especially when a twist about Rain's origins complicates the plot.) As a story about a girl who loves her dog, Rain Reign is the perfect read-alike for the Julia Gillian books and Because of Winn-Dixie. As a story about a character with a different outlook on life navigating difficult situations, it also compares nicely to Wonder (though Rain Reign is less transparently about "being different") and Rules (though Rules is a story about autism, instead of an ordinary story starring someone with autism.)

Kudos to Ann M. Martin for one  of the best-written middle grade novels of 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: Henry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson (1963)

In the second book about Henry Reed, a full year has passed since the summer when Henry and  his friend Midge Glass founded Henry Reed, Inc. This summer, Henry is back in the states and headed for Grover's Corner, but this time on a road trip with the Glass family which begins in California. As Henry and the Glasses travel together through several states, they visit famous landmarks like Disneyland, The Grand  Canyon and Yosemite, and become involved in such escapades as panning for gold and joining an American Indian tribe.

This book is every bit as funny as the first Henry Reed story, and perhaps even more entertaining because of the constantly changing setting. Author Keith Robertson uses running jokes - Henry's inability to find fireworks, Mrs. Glass's growing collection of souvenirs, and Midge's insistence on bringing home bags of pinecones for a museum back home - to build up the humor of the story and provide the book with some structure to tie each episodic chapter together. Henry's wry tone as he observes the chaos that often surrounds him and Midge continues to be an effective device and it makes the reader laugh even harder than she might otherwise. The book also does a decent job of providing the reader with a vicarious travel experience. It would be fun to follow the journey Henry takes in real life and read the book as you go.

Robert McCloskey's illustrations are also such a treat. They do clearly date the books to their time period, but I can't resist the vintage eyeglasses, clothing, cars, and drawing style. McCloskey also had such a talent for conveying personality in his artwork, and the facial expressions he draws in this book remind me so much of one of his best picture books, Lentil, where pictures truly do speak a thousand words.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin (1971)

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is a bizarre 1971 middle grade mystery by The Westing Game author Ellen Raskin. Main character Mrs. Carillon is married off to a young man named Leon Carillon when she is just a child. When the couple are finally of age to live as husband and wife, they are out in a boat together when a storm hits. As he struggles to keep his head above water, Leon makes just one parting remark, before he mysteriously disappears. Mrs. Carillon only hears part of what he has to say; the rest is lost to the "glub blub" of the sea. Years and years pass by, but Mrs. Carillon - with the help of an old friend and an adopted set of twins - persists in her pursuit of Leon and the meaning of the "glub blubs."

I distinctly remember buying this book in paperback at Barnes and Noble on a family shopping trip to New Jersey sometime in the early 1990s. I was drawn to the cover, but perplexed by the content, and even after I purchased the book and brought it home, I could never get into it enough to sit down and finish it. I believe my problem was probably related to the fact that this book invites its audience to help solve the mystery. I found this intimidating as a kid, and too gimmicky. I just wanted to be told a story. (This is why I also hadn't read The Westing Game until last year.)

As an adult, though, I found this book to be charmingly quirky, clever, and funny. I still didn't have any interest in solving the puzzle, but I no longer felt pressured to do so, and I appreciated the details that are included for the kids who do like complicated word games. I also loved the cast of characters, which is smaller than in The Westing Game, but still every bit as interesting and carefully crafted.

Another nice thing about Raskin's books is that they are so strange, they  manage to transcend time. There is nothing in this book that I would consider "dated" because nothing in this book is really normal enough to recognize as part of real life at any time. For the right reader, this book will be as great a fit now as it would have been 40 years ago, which is probably part of the reason it was reprinted in 2011.

Highly recommended for Roald Dahl fans and middle school readers (and another great alternative to the very disappointing Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.)  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Tell Me by Joan Bauer (2014)

In Joan Bauer's latest novel, Anna's parents are going through a rough patch in their marriage. While they take some time apart, Anna stays with her grandmother, Mim, in the small town of Rosemont. When out in the community one day, Anna sees something troubling: a young girl being held against her will. Unable to shake her gut instinct that something is very wrong, she rallies local residents to help locate the girl and bring her back home.

This carefully constructed middle grade novel features a sympathetic and realistic protagonist whose storyline is both plausible and uplifting. The story touches vaguely on the concept of human trafficking, but steers clear of providing any age-inappropriate detail, and at every turn, competent (but duly flawed) adults are available to provide support, attention, and assistance to Anna's crusade to help the missing girl. Side plots involving Anna's budding friendship with a horse, her aspirations as an actor and her own parents' marital difficulties contribute to the development of Anna's character and to the story as a whole. Joan Bauer's purposeful writing makes her message come across as sincere and honest, giving readers every reason to believe in the strength of community and the importance of even one small voice.

Tell Me is a perfect middle school novel, and is likely to appeal readers (especially girls) who have enjoyed books by Lisa Greenwald, Linda Urban, and Jacqueline Wilson.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia Absolutely by Lois Lowry (1995)

Though there are still two books about the Krupnik family left after this one, Anastasia Absolutely is the last book of the series to star Anastasia as its main character. Anastasia now has a new dog for whom she is primarily responsible. One day, while walking the dog, she is meant to mail a package for her mother, but instead accidentally mails a small bag of dog waste. When she realizes what she has done, Anastasia becomes convinced that she has committed a felony and spends days agonizing over whether to turn herself in, and how she will avoid severe punishment.

Though many of Anastasia’s experiences have been a bit on the silly side, this one is probably the least believable. I just had trouble buying that an intelligent middle schooler could mail a bag of poop without instantly realizing it, or that she would truly believe an accident like that could result in her going to jail. For me, this all made the plot seem rather thin as compared with other books.

What does work nicely is Lowry’s inclusion of Anastasia’s essays for her values class at the end of each chapter. These “what would you do” scenarios give insight into Anastasia’s character, but also provide opportunities for the reader to reflect on his or her own opinions. Lowry has included a document component like this in every Anastasia book, and it has worked successfully each and every time, right up to the end.

Sixteen years passed between the publication of Anastasia Krupnik (1979) and Anastasia Absolutely (1995), and this last book really feels like a relic of the past when compared with other 90s middle grade novels. By the time of this final story’s publication, it seems as though Anastasia would be out of step with the technology, interests, and worldview of the readers in her target audience. For this reason, it is probably wise that Lowry concluded her series here. Also strange is the way Anastasia’s teacher talks to her. He keeps talking about how pretty she is in a way that raises definite red flags in light of contemporary concerns over child sexual abuse, even though no such incident occurs in the story.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the story of two girls - Bonnie and Sylvia - who live in a fictitious time period which most closely resembles the Georgian period of British history. Sylvia, who is an orphan, comes by train to stay with her cousin Bonnie at Willoughby Chase, just before Bonnie's parents set sail on a voyage, leaving a distant cousin named Miss Slighcarp in charge of their possessions and affairs. The girls immediately realize that Miss Slighcarp is evil, a fact which she proves herself by firing all the servants, wearing Bonnie's mother's clothing without permission, and sending both girls to a workhouse disguised as a boarding school. Together with their friend, Simon, Bonnie and Sylvia must hatch a plan to escape from Miss Slighcarp and save Willoughby Chase from her evil clutches.

This book is wonderfully well-written. Using rich vocabulary, and specific, memorable details Aiken's descriptions bring to life the myriad settings and characters which make up her fictional world. From the girls' boarding school uniforms, to the wolves which roam the countryside, to Willoughby Chase itself - everything is vivid, unique, and completely real. Though there are fewer wolves in the story than I was expecting, the threat of their encroachment upon the girls' safety makes a wonderful metaphor for the problems and enemies they face as the story progresses. Also perfect are the names given to the many minor characters, especially Abednego Gripe, the lawyer and Mrs. Brisket, the director of the horrible school where the girls are sent.

The author's daughter Lizza Aiken is the narrator for the audiobook edition of this title, and no one could be more perfect. She has just the right voice to evoke the story's intended tone and mood, and her dramatization of different characters' voices is spot-on as well as just plain entertaining. She ranks (along with Elizabeth Sastre of the Shoes books) as one of my favorite audiobook readers of all time.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is truly an adventure story, and it will appeal to readers who enjoy quests and tales of escape. Though the story is dark and even scary at times, sensitive readers need not fret, as there are a variety of surprises in the latter parts of the story that brighten things up considerably. This is also a great story for highlighting and celebrating the courage, resourcefulness, and heroism of young girls. There are 11 other titles set in this same universe, including a prequel, which are listed on the author's website.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy's Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace (1955)

Betsy's Wedding is the final book in the Betsy-Tacy series, and at long last, Betsy and Joe have their happy ending. The story follows the couple through their short engagement, whirlwind wedding and the early months of marriage, right up until the United States enters World War I.

The early books of the series set me up to expect warmth and comfort from every story about Betsy. Oddly enough, it is this final book, which should wrap things up nicely, that has left me feeling the most uncertain and least satisfied. While I could relate to Betsy's concerns about learning to cook and keep house, I had a hard time buying into the speed with which the wedding itself was planned. I also didn't really believe the ease with which Joe is able to find a job. There is also something very wistful about the ending, where the men are preparing to join the armed forces. Though Lovelace's biography suggests what probably happened to each of the characters, it is still unsettling to end the series without knowing definitively that Joe comes home from war and that Betsy has a child of her own. For me, this is one of the few books for which a neatly tied up ending would have been acceptable, and I was surprised and disappointed not to get one.

It was a pleasure to see Tacy, Tib, and the others as adults, and to see how their friendship matured with age. Especially delightful is the sequence during which Tacy and Betsy try to get Tib married off, for fear that she will be an old maid. It is reminiscent of many of the capers they involved themselves in as children, which is a nice touch. I just wish there had been more of these cozy, carefree storylines and less heavy adult themes. Perhaps I just don't want fictional kids to ever grow up!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace (1952)

Three years have passed since Betsy's high school graduation,and a case of appendicitis has put her a full year of college behind her Deep Valley friends. Realizing their daughter is not getting what she wants from her education, the Rays decide to give Betsy  the opportunity to travel abroad and gain some life experience to help with her writing. While in Europe, Betsy's small-town naivete is shaken as she meets a variety of new people and witnesses the first stirrings of World War I.

Of the entire series, I like this book the least, if only because it is so utterly different. Almost none of the story takes place in the familiar Ray family home, so the supporting characters who make the the series so warm and special only appear in occasional memories and letters from home. New characters abound as Betsy travels through Europe, but though they are charming - and even memorable - it's hard to love them as much as her long-time friends.

This book also concerns itself much more with specific historical events than earlier books, which gives it a bit of a different flavor. Though this is probably due to the fact that the story is semi-autobiographical, the references to events which the reader knows will lead to World War I contribute to the sense of Betsy's maturity as she becomes an adult. Only Betsy's abiding affection for Joe seems to remain from her younger days, but even her feelings for him are more mature as she travels than they are in any of the prior books.

Interestingly, Betsy and The Great World reminds me of Alice on Board, the second to last book of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series. Both books take young adult characters beyond the high school years, on cruise ships, giving them new experiences beyond the home environment with which the readers are most familiar. Though Lovelace's treatment of Betsy's story is better written, it still feels as though both series should have just ended with high school graduation. Perhaps if Betsy and the Great World weren't a part of such an established series about which I already had specific expectations, I would have enjoyed it more, but as part of the series, it was a bit of a let-down.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Review: Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson (1958)

Henry Reed, the son of diplomats, is an American citizen, but he hasn't spent much time in the United States. This summer, however, he will be staying with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Though Aunt Mabel and Uncle Al expect their nephew to be bored in their quiet neighborhood, Henry immediately starts to liven things up when he launches Henry Reed, Inc., his own research company. Together with Midge, a girl in the neighborhood, he begins gathering animals to sell, offering services to the locals, and in every spare moment trying to catch Midge's runaway rabbit, all while staying away from the grumpy man next door who would prefer never to see or hear from Henry.

This is a series I completely missed as a kid, and I think, had I read them, I would not have been a fan. While my adult sensibilities love to read about clever pranks told in Henry's facetious tone, my younger self would have preferred more traditionally "girly" stories. This is why I think this book is a perfect choice for a reader who wants a real "boy story." Henry's voice as he writes his adventures in his journal is strongly masculine, and his summer adventures involve dirt, animals, tinkering, and goofing around in ways that are very boyish. As Beverly Cleary does in Strider, Keith Robertson really gets inside the mind of a young teenage boy and creates a believable and likable character.

Some things - particularly Robert McCloskey's illustrations and the utter lack of modern technology - date the book to the 1950s, but there is a Penderwicksian feeling of timelessness that transcends the time period and keeps the story feeling fresh and relevant even today. If you want to encourage skeptical young readers to pick up this book despite its age, emphasize the format (a diary just like Greg Heffley's!) and the sense of humor (think Gary Paulsen's Kevin Spencer.) Once readers are hooked, be prepared to also share the sequels to Henry Reed, Inc.: Henry Reed's Journey (1963), Henry Reed's Babysitting Service (1966), Henry Reed's Big Show (1970), and Henry Reed's Think Tank (1986).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Attaboy, Sam! by Lois Lowry (1992)

In his second book, Sam Krupnik wants to give his mother a birthday gift so wonderful that she won't be able to help but say, "Attaboy, Sam!" He decides to concoct a perfume consisting of all of Mrs. Krupnik's favorite smells, but does not count on the chemical reaction this will cause in the toy box where he mixes the potion.

Like Anastasia Ask Your Analyst (the book where Anastasia and Sam hide a family of gerbils from their mother) this story is laugh-out-loud funny. Sam's earnest tone and good intentions will make the readers sympathize with his desire to please his mom, but also make them nervous, as they will be able to guess at the inevitably messy outcome of his project. There is also much to be learned about smells - and about Mrs. Krupnik's character - from reading this book.

I think Attaboy Sam would be a perfect first chapter book to read aloud to a kindergartener or first grader and also a good family read-aloud for kids of varying ages. Even parents can appreciate Sam's antics, even if only because they are grateful not to have such a "creative" child themselves! Unlike many other series, whose quality tapers off with each successive volume, this one soldiers on through volume after volume without faltering. There are only three books left about the Krupniks, and I think I'll be sad to be finished.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Review: The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle by Natalie Savage Carlson (1964)

The Orphelines are thrilled to be moving to their new orphanage. The building looks like a castle, and the girls are convinced that the boys joining them there will be just like knights. Unfortunately, the boys are not as thrilled about sharing space with girls, and they welcome the orphelines with a series of mean pranks.

Each book of this series is completely charming, and this one is no exception. The personalities of the girls - especially Brigitte and Josine  - clash perfectly with the boys' rougher, street-wise attitudes, making for a series of truly humorous episodes at the castle. Kids as young as five will understand the girls' indignation over the boys' mean jokes, as well as the impish boys' desire to rebel against their imposed knighthood. Readers will also appreciate the clever "magic" by which the adults ultimately reform the boys' behavior while still allowing them to feel in control of their fate.

Of the three books in this series that I have read, this is the only one not illustrated by Garth Williams, and though Adrianna Savozzi's pictures are fine, I did miss Williams's characteristic style. Pictures aside, however, this book is a cheerful tale with a happy ending from which readers can walk away feeling utterly satisfied. I can't wait to share this series with my daughter in a few years!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review: Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948)

In Betsy and Joe, Betsy is now a high school senior, and at long last, she and Joe overcome the various obstacles that have kept them apart and begin to pursue a relationship. Of course, this only happens after they surmount several large bumps in the road, not the least of which is Betsy’s concern for her friend, Tony, who has been known to make bad decisions, and who seems to have feelings for Betsy that go beyond friendship. Other complications in Betsy’s life include missing Julia, who has gone to Germany to study opera, worrying about Tacy, who might become an old maid if she doesn’t begin to show an interest in finding a husband, and an overwhelming sense of sentmentality over doing many high school things for the final time.

Like most of the other titles of the series, this book makes me nostalgic for a time period I have never lived in. I love the old fashionedness of the girls’ concerns about marriage, and the very polite and courtly way the boys and girls interact with one another. I love what a huge deal it is for Julia to visit from Germany, and the way Betsy tries so hard to fill her shoes because of how heavily Julia’s absence weighs on her close-knit family. While no time in history is truly idyllic, Lovelace makes it seem like nothing could be more pleasant than living in Betsy’s time, a fact about these books which undoubtedly contributes to their popularity.

Another great thing about this book is the involvement of Betsy’s younger sister, Margaret, who is so markedly different from either of her sisters. She has always been too young to have much impact on the plot, but now that she is a bit older, it is interesting to read Betsy’s reflections on her relationship with Margaret as compared to her relationship with Julia. I actually found myself even worrying a bit over how empty the house will seem to Margaret if Betsy also goes away from home (which I imagine she does, given the title of the next book, Betsy and the Great World.)

Betsy and Joe would make such a great graduation present, as it really causes the reader to stop and think about the end of high school and what is to come next. Betsy and Joe are also great role models when it comes to dating. They show a great deal of respect for themselves and each other, and a kiss is a major, serious event in their relationship, rather than something taken for granted. I just can’t help but be drawn to the innocence of these books overall, and I wish there were more contemporary reading choices out there with similar values.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace (1947)



It is Betsy’s Junior year and she has decided to get serious - about her schoolwork, about Joe Willard, and about being there for her family now that Julia has gone to study at the U. When she learns of her older sister’s interest in joining a sorority, however, Betsy is distracted from all her plans by a desire to start a high school sorority of her own for the girls in the Crowd, and to encourage the boys to start a fraternity. Thus the Okto Deltas are born. While Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, who has recently returned to Deep Valley from Milwaukee, are initially thrilled by their exclusive organization, as time passes by, they realize their cliqueishness is driving away many other potential friends and ruining their reputations within their class.

The wonderful thing about this entire series is that Betsy is always good-hearted, but never perfect. She makes the kind of mistakes in both academic and social situations that plague the lives of real girls, regardless of when and where they live. There is a chapter in this book called “Agleyer and Agleyer” referring to the fact that “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men. Gang aft agley.” This phrase more than any other really captures what this book is about. It’s a story that teaches girls how to recover from their mistakes, and to make amends with the people they have hurt. No one forces Betsy to make good choices; rather she learns her lessons and makes things right simply because she knows it is the right thing to do.

Also refreshing is the fact that Betsy is portrayed as a smart girl, but not a great student. She leaves projects - such as her herbarium - to the last minute, fails to win a spot in the essay contest, and generally seems to prefer socializing above all academic endeavors. I think many girls can relate to her desire to spend time with her peers, as well as to the end-of-year panic that sets in when a major assignment is not completed. Readers with older sisters might also understand her sense of inferiority in the face of her sister’s many natural talents, and they will relate to her daunting task of trying to fill her sister’s footsteps.

Finally, I love the way Lovelace slowly develops Betsy’s romance with Joe, and that she pairs Joe with someone else for the duration of this book. This approach not only keeps the reader interested as the books progress, but it also emphasizes Betsy’s own reserved approach to love, and the fact that romance, in her day, means serious commitment. I have grown weary of YA novels with mature sexual content, and this book is the refreshing polar opposite of books of that nature.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia at This Address by Lois Lowry (1991)

Though Anastasia has sworn off boys, she can’t help but reply to a personal ad placed in the newspaper by a 28-year-old man. In attempting to conceal her true age, Anastasia writes a series of letters filled with lies, pretending to the older man that she owns a sloop and knows about managing stock portfolios, and trying to pass of her own mother’s photograph as her own. When unforeseen circumstances bring Anastasia and the unsuspecting gentleman face to face, Anastasia realizes she has made a fool of herself and brings the whole imagined affair to an apologetic conclusion.

What I like most about this book is its innocence. In today’s world, most adults are horrified at the thought of young girls corresponding with older men because of all the stories we hear in the news about abductions and sexual abuse. In this story, though, Anastasia is always aware that she is out of her league, and the man in question is never presented as anything more than a normal, everyday guy who is briefly duped by the writing skills of a 13-year-old. While I suppose there is a place for the cautionary tale in the world of children’s and YA literature, I was glad to find that this was not one, and that the story was just another funny scenario in Anastasia’s never-ending series of fiascos.

I also really like the way Lowry handles coincidence in this book. Of course it is unlikely that Anastasia and a random man she reads about in the newspaper would ever meet, but Lowry sets up the man’s backstory in such a way that it makes perfect sense for them to run into each other at a wedding. I also love the awkwardness Anastasia creates for her mother, who never does find out why that strange man kept looking at her all through the wedding.

It’s amazing how consistently good these books are. Though Lowry has won the Newbery twice for more serious books, the writing in these funny episodes is every bit as good and certainly more appealing to a wider audience.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reading Through History: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (2011)


Jack Gantos, the hero of this semi-autobiographical novel set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, has the whole summer ahead of him when he makes two stupid choices. First, he shoots off his father’s Japanese rifle in the backyard and scares the whole neighborhood half to death. Then he angers his mother by mowing down her corn crop, a transgression she does not forgive despite the fact that Jack’s own father told him to do it. Grounded for the entire summer, Jack’s only opportunities to leave the house come about when Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor, calls for him to help her write obituaries for the original Norvelt residents who seem to be dying one right after the other.

Jack Gantos is an interesting guy, and only he could have written this strange, meandering tale of life in a dying town. Since I listened to this story as an audiobook, which Gantos himself narrates, there was no escaping Gantos’s voice, or mistaking his tone, which is mainly sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. The main character’s entire outlook on life, and his ways of expressing himself, reminded me of many twelve-year-old boys I know, even though their lives are totally different from Jack’s. The many references to blood, guts, weapons, historical battles, and dead bodies also encouraged me to think of this book as one that will mainly appeal to middle school boys who enjoy being grossed out, rather than to girls, or even to very many adults.

I wanted to read this book because it won the Newbery, and I had certain expectations about the writing based on that shiny sticker on the front cover. I was surprised, therefore, when the writing was not that impressive. Gantos uses lots and lots of adverbs, to the point of distraction from what he is trying to convey. He also likes to substitute certain words for the word “said,” especially “ordered” and “revealed,” each of which appears many times more often in this book than any other I have ever read. Once I noticed these quirks in the writing, I couldn’t stop noticing them, and they took over much of the reading experience for me. Also somewhat painful were the similes Gantos uses that seemed either unnecessary or irrelevant. Here’s just one example, from page 216: “A cloud of smoke hung over his head like a cartoon thought bubble full of swirling, unformed thoughts.” It seems like Gantos uses figurative language because he feels like he should, and not for any particular purpose that serves his story.

This book is undoubtedly interesting. It takes place in a real town established by the National Industrial Recovery Act, which is something I didn’t really know about, and it explores the role of history in the lives of its residents, and in Jack’s own life. A murder mystery, a dead Hell’s Angel, baseball, and parental conflict all figure heavily into the plot, and the story itself comes together nicely, with some surprise twists and turns along the way. I can see why the Newbery committee believed it was distinctive; I just think it’s too bad that the writing seems so disjointed and unpolished compared with other Newbery winners. I think I would have enjoyed the book much more had the Newbery hype not raised my expectations so high.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Book Review: A Brother for the Orphelines by Natalie Savage Carlson (1959)

In A Brother for the Orphelines, the second book of the series, Brigitte and the 19 other girls who live in the orphanage are thrilled when a baby is left on their doorstep. Unfortunately, though, the child, whom they name Coucky, is a boy. According to Monsieur de Goupil, who owns the orphanage, the baby will have to go live in the boys' orphanage, as it is inappropriate for boys and girls to share close quarters. Madame Flattot and her charges do everything they can to delay this inevitable move, fearing the sadness that will follow when the girls lose their beloved brother.

Like The Happy Orpheline, this book deserves many kudos for originality. The unusual setting combined with the unique conflict makes this a story unlike any other, either of  the 1950s, or of  today. In keeping with the cheerful mood of  the series, even the most dire problem - potentially losing the baby to the boys' orphanage - is handled with warmth and humor, and the situation is ultimately resolved with an unexpected and fitting ending. Despite the potential for sadness, this winds up being a feel-good read, just perfect for kids who are easily upset and wary of tearjerkers.

Garth Williams reprises his role as illustrator, and his drawings once again capture all the action and emotion of  the story. Especially sweet are his images of baby Coucky sitting in a basket, having his diaper changed,  and being dressed as a girl to hide his true gender. He also does a lovely job of capturing a scary moment where Josine, the smallest of the orphelines, takes a spill down the staircase.

A Brother for the Orphelines is a great twist on the typical "new sibling" books that are perennially popular in middle grade series. It will appeal most to girls in third and fourth grade, as this is an age when kids tend to be especially enamored of babies. It's also a great read-alike for the plethora of baby-themed middle grade novels out there, including The Year of the Baby, Ramona Forever, and Superfudge.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: The Happy Orpheline by Natalie Savage Carlson (1957)

In an orphanage in a French village live the orphelines, a cheerful group of little girls who prefer to live with each other and their caretakers Madame Flattot and Genevieve than to be adopted by families. Brigitte, the happiest of all the orphelines is the one for whom the book is named, as most of the story occurs in her point of view. One day, while out on a group trip, Brigitte becomes separated from the  rest of the orphelines and finds herself in the company of a self-proclaimed queen. Brigitte just wants to go home, but the woman, who insists that her husband will one day assume the French throne, wants to adopt Brigitte and employ her as a servant. 

This delightful book is a true gem. It introduces readers to two settings that are not often represented in American juvenile fiction - an orphanage and France - and it portrays a surprisingly sunny view of life as an orphan. The large group of girls living together calls to mind the Madeline series (though Madeline is not an orphan), and I think this book would be a perfect first chapter book for girls who have loved Madeline during their preschool years. (The cover image shown here- which is not the cover on my edition - suggests the same thing!) The tone and quality of this book also shares much in common with short novels by Johanna Hurwitz, Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, and Maud Hart Lovelace, and the story feels timeless rather than outdated. 

Also noteworthy are the illustrations, which are done by Garth Williams of Charlotte's Web and Little House fame. His drawings give faces to the characters which perfectly match their personalities and they also provide much of the details of the streets of Paris that provide the backdrop for Brigitte's adventure. Among the best images in the book is the scene on page 63 where Brigitte rides on the back of the Queen's bicycle, her braid and limbs scattered every which way as she hangs on for dear life, while the old woman's face remains serene and slightly unbalanced-looking.  This illustration almost tells a story unto itself.

Girls with adventurous spirits will be pleased to follow Brigitte in her struggle to return home, and they will wish hard for a happy ending for her. Because of its almost exclusively female cast, this book would also make a possible good choice for a mother/daughter book club. There are a total of five books about the orphelines, but I only own three of them right now. Coming soon are my reviews of A Brother for the Orphelines and The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace (1946)


In Betsy in Spite of Herself, sophomore Betsy Ray undergoes a bit of an identity crisis. Desiring to reinvent herself, she goes to Milwaukee to visit Tib for Christmas and returns home with a new set of rules for her personal behavior. She will spell her name "Betsye," stop smiling so frequently, and begin spending time with unlikely and unsuitable suitors. Unfortunately, Betsy's new attitude drives away most of "The Crowd," invites warnings from Julia about being "spoony" and interferes with her second attempt at the school essay contest.

Even more than Heaven to Betsy, this book brings to life the turn-of-the-20th-century teen experience. What is most interesting are the intricacies of socializing both with long-distance friends and with local boys. Betsy's holiday visit with Tib is so special because they have no immediate way of seeing one another or talking in real time on a regular basis. When they part, they're not sure how long it will be until they see each other again. Living in a world with Facebook and texting makes it especially hard to imagine how hard this would be.

It's also interesting that both Betsy and Julia establish very specific limits on their dating relationships. They don't hold hands at all, and even though Julia is about to graduate and of marrying age, she turns down a proposal in order to pursue her opera career. They are excellent role models for young girls when it comes to setting limits - and how refreshing to read a teen novel where romance is not the main focus! 

My favorite part of the boy-girl interaction in this book,  though, is the dance programs! I love that each girl has her own program listing all the dances of the evening, and that the boys just come along and sign themselves up to dance with whomever they like. I was also amused by the various meanings attached to the number of dances requested by any given boy, and what was considered acceptable, and what was considered rude. I can't help but think that this old-fashioned method might have removed a lot of awkwardness from my own high school dance experiences.

Betsy in Spite of Herself has me completely hooked on these characters. Betsy's future beau, Joe, has started to become more involved in the storyline, and more of his backstory has come to light, so I look forward to seeing where their relationship might lead in the next book, Betsy Was a Junior.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading Through History: Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace (1945)

In this, the first of the "older" Betsy-Tacy books, great changes are afoot. Betsy has spent a part of her summer visiting family friends away from Deep Valley, and when she returns home, she learns that her house on Hill Street is for sale. The Rays will move to a new house with gas lights, a newly hired housekeeper, and other modern amenities, which will become a gathering place for Betsy's friends in "The Crowd." Tib has moved back to Milwaukee, but Betsy and Tacy remain close friends even as their circle widens to take in other girls - and boys. Also on Betsy's mind is religion as she and her sister Julia determine that they wish to be Episcopalians.

Though the appearance of this book, with its sophisticated-looking illustrations, suggests an abrupt change from childhood to adolescence, the transitions feels very natural and gradual in the story. Betsy is understandably overwhelmed by all that is happening in her life and makes a few missteps as her freshman year wears on. Particularly authentic are her concerns over interacting with boys and her disappointment in herself when she lets down her school society by failing to win an essay contest.

Also striking about this book is the way the characters speak to one another. With the exception of some slang phrases, Betsy and her friends speak like contemporary teens. In fact, their voices almost don't seem to match up with their physical appearances which involve "waists" and "pompadours." It's fun to think about being fourteen at the turn of the 20th century, and this books make it easy to imagine exactly what it would be like, and to see that some things about being fourteen will never change.

Based on this book, I now understand why NPR included Betsy-Tacy on its list of the 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels. While Betsy-Tacy  is decidedly not YA, this book is quintessentially YA, and equally reminiscent of Beverly Cleary's First Love series, and the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Everyday Objects for Babies to Play With (Instead of Screens)

The flashing screens of devices like iPads and Smartphones are attractive and mesmerizing to babies, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time before the age of two. Parents who want to keep their babies entertained while they make a phone call, wait in line, ride in the car, or simply take a shower may be tempted to hand over the nearest technological device, but there are actually a lot of really great alternatives. Here are ten simple items that have kept my daughter (7 months old) entertained for 30 minutes or more.
  • Egg Cartons
    We save all of our empty egg cartons in anticipation of future craft projects. One day, I handed one to Little Miss Muffet just to see what she would do. In the few weeks that it has been in her play area, she has gnawed on the corners, punched in the egg holders from the bottom, opened and closed the box, and even thrown it across the room to listen to the sound it makes when it lands. What I thought was going to be a ten minute diversion has turned into a favorite toy. (Note: It is possible for babies to bite pieces off of their egg cartons even before they have teeth. Use caution to avoid a choking incident.)
  • Cloths
    Little Miss Muffet is also fascinated by anything made of fabric. She likes washcloths (especially if they have tags), burp cloths, blankets, and our homemade wipes (sewn from scraps of old tee shirts.) I like to give her two cloths at a time so she can hold one in each hand, and she happily chews on them, drops them and picks them up, rubs them on her face, and otherwise cuddles them like loveys. Almost any small piece of fabric works; just be prepared to add it to your laundry pile!
  • Tissue Paper
    Tissue paper can be scary for very little babies. The sound of crumpling paper seems loud to their little ears, and when they’re very small, it kicks in their startle reflex. Starting from around 5 months, though, Miss Muffet became intrigued. First she liked me to hold the paper and shake it for her. Now she happily crumples, slaps, and kicks the paper all on her own. It’s not a great idea to leave a baby alone with a sheet of paper because eventually she will bite off a corner and try to swallow it, but if you can be nearby, it can give you a few minutes to get something done. (I filed my bills the other day!)
  • Loofah
    Knowing my daughter’s affinity for soft, cuddly things, I picked up a loofah at the dollar store. The fresh, bright color of it (green) combined with the interesting texture make this a very appealing sensory toy. To avoid having your baby get a mouth full of soap or mildew, it’s probably wise to buy this fresh rather than to share one that has been used, but it’s a dollar well spent.
  • Stuffed Animals
    Chances are, your child has an abundance of stuffed animals sent by friends and relatives in celebration of her birth, and perhaps even a favorite among them. Miss Muffet is fond of faces, so we often hand her a stuffed monkey or stuffed monster, both of which have smiling faces that she likes to bite, lick, and press on. Now that she has begun scooting, she often drags one of these friends around the living room floor as she checks out her other toys.
  • Board Books
    We take board books with us everywhere because they are portable and I never know when I might have a spare moment to read aloud. Our current favorite traveling companion is First 100 Animals by Roger Priddy, which features colorful boxes on every page filled with photos of animals from different habitats. We often have outdoor reading time, where I will read a chapter from my current read, and Miss Muffet will happily chew on the corners of her book in the shade of her stroller. Occasionally, she drops her book on the ground and fusses for me to pick it up, but I usually make it through a chapter before that happens.
  • Plastic Containers
    Miss Muffet is not crazy about teething rings, but boy will she bite down on some Tupperware! Though I will sometimes put something in her container for her to dump out, often it is just empty, and she bites the rim, rolls it across the floor, bangs it on the baby gate and shakes it in the air. The container we are using right now came from a Chinese restaurant when we ordered soup. She also really likes ricotta cheese containers.
  • Plastic Rings
    When my daughter was born, we were given two sets of Linkadoos. While their ostensible purpose is to attach other toys to strollers, car seats, and high chairs, we have always treated them as toys unto themselves. They come in a variety of textures and colors, and Miss Muffet likes to play with them individually and in chains. Her favorite thing to do is put them in her mouth, but she also shakes a string of them to hear them clack together, and occasionally flings them over her shoulder.
  • Pompoms
    I bought a pack of the largest pompoms available at A.C. Moore and gave a few of them to Little Miss Muffet. I have to watch her when she plays with them because she likes to chew on them, and I don’t want her to put them all the way in her mouth, but their bright colors and soft texture really appeal to her. One day, we even put them in the egg carton, which was a source of great excitement. (Note: A good rule of thumb for choosing baby toys is to look for objects that will not fit through a toilet paper tube. Make sure your pompoms are nice and large if baby is going to chew on them.)
  • String of Beads
    In the same dollar store trip where I bought the loofah, I also purchased some Mardi Gras beads. Interestingly, these are the only toy Miss Muffet does not put in her mouth, and she never seems to get tired of them. She drags them across the floor like snakes, holds them in her hand and tugs on them gently, and shakes them around. (She also has a set of wooden rosary beads with which she does many similar things.) I don’t recommend stringing beads yourself and handing them over to a baby because you never know if they might become detached and turn into a choking hazard. It’s best to find a strand without loose beads and to monitor your baby while she plays.
For more ideas for screen-free play for babies, check out this printable handout from screenfree.org.