Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: Jolly Old Santa Claus by Alice Leedy Mason (1984)

Though it has probably been twenty years, I still think of Jolly Old Santa Claus as a "new" addition to my family's Christmas Eve repertoire. We always read Twas the Night Before Christmas after church on Christmas Eve from the time I was about two years old, but we didn't discover Jolly Old Santa Claus until I was in mid-to-late elementary school, so though it became a tradition, it wasn't part of our original tradition.

I think we took to it so strongly, though, for two reasons - George Hinke's oil paintings, and the story's exploration of the inner workings of the North Pole.

The story is attributed to two different people on the editions in print today - Sparkie is listed as the author on the 1996 hardcover, and Maryjane Hooper Tonn is the author of the 2010 version being sold by Ideals Books. Neither of these is the edition I read, however. My copy was a paperback that looked like the picture above, and it was written by Alice Leedy Mason and published in 1984. I don't think this book contains the original text, but because it's the story I know, I tend to think of it as superior.

In the story I remember, Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves are busy preparing for Santa's Christmas Eve delivery. The elves - called "brownies" in this book - have personalities similar to those of Snow White's seven dwarves, including a Doc-like Grandpa and a lazy brownie who refuses to do any work. Also featured in the book are the naughty and nice list, complete with tons of names written on it, Santa's sleigh, and all his reindeer (minus Rudolph). The tone of the story is that of someone giving a curious child a tour of Santa's workshop, and Santa himself seems to be lurking outside of every page, giving the reader the anticipatory sense that he or she might run into him at any moment. The illustrations are so vivid and life-like, that they make the legend of Santa Claus seem completely real and plausible, and would make any child think she heard sleigh bells as she drifted off to sleep. Reading the story is only half the fun - we used to spend most of our time with the book trying to decide which brownie was which and creating our own theories about what was going on in the workshop that wasn't written on the page.

The great thing about Santa Claus stories is that they never really go out of date. This story was first published in its original version in 1961, and still exists in some form today. I haven't read it in a number of years now, but it remains one of my fondest holiday memories.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer (1995)

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman was published in 1995, and not long after that, I borrowed it from the Wallkill Public Library. Within two years, I owned a copy, and within ten more years, I had to replace that copy because the binding was broken and the pages were falling out. I LOVE this book.

The premise of the story is that Kate, who is very tall and wears very thick glasses, is writing a romance novel based on a real-life romance that happened to her at Christmas. Referring to the standard structure for a romance novel, as well as The Romance Writers' Phrase Book, she relates the events leading up to her falling in love with Richard Bradshaw, her older brother's best friend from childhood, who has come home to Minnesota for the holidays. But despite the fact that this is a romance novel, with all the sugary sweetness and cheesiness associated with that genre, it's also a well-written book with a strong female protagonist and lots of wonderful cultural references that taught me about everything from linguistics to classical music to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

Also involved in the story are Kate's parents, Nels and Becca Bjorkman, and her brother Bjorn, as well as Bjorn's wife, Trish, his friend Fleur, and Kate's selfish, backstabbing best friend, Ashley. There is also Midgely, Kate's former English teacher, who is dying of cancer. The cast of characters really serves to flesh out the novel and make it a really strong contemporary YA novel, with or without the romance angle.

These are just some of the ways in which this book has influenced and connected with my life:
  1. Because Kate's father is a linguistics professor and could detect Fleur's city of origin just by her accent, I made sure to take a linguistics class in college. I don't use it for anything now, but I loved the class and did well in it, and it was partly because I wanted to understand this book better.
  2. I had a pretty crappy best friend when I was 14 and 15, but I don't think I realized it until I saw the way Ashley treated Kate in this book. The school year after I read this book was the year I ditched said terrible friend - I don't think that was entirely a coincidence.
  3. Fleur's feminist critique of Hamlet in this book has come to my mind every single time I've been assigned to read the play. I was never smart enough to actually borrow her argument and use it for an assignment, but I think I understand the play better because I've read this book.
  4. I can quote Dylan Thomas. I don't have the need to do so very often, but I know it this book that first introduced me to "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." 
  5. Kate's family is Swedish. My fiance's family is also Swedish. This really has nothing to do with the book per se, but it makes me happy to continue finding connections even 15 years later.
  6. This book taught me a lot about writing. Midgely, Kate's teacher, gave me my favorite writing mantra, "Write it and see how it feels," and he also taught me that what happens in real life might not always work in fiction, without some changes.
  7. I bought and still have The Romance Writers Phrase Book. I deem anything associated with this book worth exploring.
Like I said, I LOVE this book. And though there is one reference to living in the 90's that might date it for some teen readers, it is still in print! I really recommend it to teen girls in high school who are skeptical of romance - and Christmas magic - but still want a little bit for themselves.

Louise Plummer blogs at The Chattering Crow.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia M. Scarry (1970)

This scratch and sniff book was originally published in 1970, and is still in print. Each page shows a warm and homey Christmas scene of a little bear boy at home with his family. Colored circles on certain objects - pine tree, candy cane, orange, pie, etc. -  can be scratched and then sniffed to discover a holiday smell. I was young enough when this book was first read to me that I can't actually remember a time before it, and even without the book in my hand, I can still imagine exactly what those little scented circles smelled like. I also remember the colors of the illustrations with a strong sense of nostalgia. I really think this book helped form my love for Christmas, and all the coziness and warm feelings I still associate with the holiday to this day.

I was thrilled to stumble upon this book in A.C. Moore back in November. I hadn't thought of it in years, but the moment I saw it, all of those wonderful memories came flooding back. It's a great book for toddlers and preschoolers, and I have to say that my copy held its smell well through my childhood. I don't know where it is now, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of those strong scents were still lingering between the pages!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The True Story of Christmas by Anne Fine (2005)

The True Story of Christmas is a middle grade novel which was originally published in the UK in 2003 with the title The More the Merrier. It’s the story of Ralph and his dysfunctional family, all of whom come to stay with him and his parents for the Christmas holiday. Told in a sarcastic tone that demonstrates Fine’s keen understanding of family dynamics, this book gives not the warm and fuzzy Christmas scene we might normally associate with the holiday season, but rather paints an almost painfully funny picture of a strained family holiday. It also involves a Christmas Quiz, which sounds like a good idea until it gets Ralph into trouble.

The colorful personalities that make this story enjoyable include a senile and ill-tempered grandmother who keeps insisting that she sees the vicar floating by outside the window, a spoiled little princess of a cousin, who is constantly performing songs and dances for the family whether they want them or not, Uncle Tristram, a 30-year-old arrested adolescent who exacts revenge when he isn’t properly thanked for his holiday gifts, and Albert, who’s not one of the family but keeps turning up in the bathtub nonetheless. They’re not the sort of people most of us would strive to be related to, but they do represent the truth for many kids in less-than-normal families, and they do so in a very humorous way.

The one-liners and other biting comments between and about family members are one of the greatest features of the book. Here are just three of my many favorite moments:

On page 37, when annoyed with one of her grandkids, Great-granny makes a pronouncement:

"If I had my own teeth, I'd bite you," said Great-granny.

Ralph, observing the family’s Christmas preparations comes up with an extremely apt metaphor on page 46:

What I was thinking was that, up to a point, Christmas is like a blown-up but not yet knotted balloon that's been let go by mistake. It goes bla-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-are! and then shrivels into not much.

On page 90, Mum gets involved in the snarky back-and-forth:

"You don't have a way with children," Mum said. "It's just that they know that, if they sit by you, sooner or later they'll hear something they shouldn't."

The drawings that illustrate the book are a great addition to the story as well. I loved seeing the scowling faces of the various relatives which appear at the start of many chapters, and I think the cover illustration is great as well. I chose to read this book based on the cover, and though I like the original UK cover, the American version suits the story perfectly.

This book doesn’t paint the sunniest picture of family life, which will definitely turn off some readers - especially adults. But as Anne Fine points out on her website, “the Mountfields are a very strong and happy family, nothing truly dreadful happens, and everyone will probably be invited again the year after next (if not next year). It is a comedy, after all.” This story never suggests that Ralph’s family isn’t a good family - it just recognizes the truth that the holidays don’t always bring out the best in everyone, and not every family is the Brady Bunch. It perfectly captures the ways in which the people we’re closest to can be the ones who drive us the craziest.

The True Story of Christmas is one of my new favorites, and I really recommend it as a comic respite from the stresses of the holiday season, as well as a refreshing and realistic take on the joys and woes of families. Recommend it to fans of the Casson family series by Hilary McKay as well as the works of Roald Dahl.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1930)

Swallows and Amazons was originally published in 1930 in the UK, but the version I read is the 1958 US edition. I never read this book as a child, or even heard of it, honestly, until Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels Poll in early 2010. I'm not even sure I would have been interested in the book as a child, as it was old by my standards and involved adventure, which I was staunchly against as a kid. My childhood prejudices didn't stop me from falling in love with this book as an adult, however, and I think I will be thinking about Swallows and Amazons for a long, long time to come.

The story is set in the English Lake District, where the Walker family - John, Susan, Titty, and Roger - are spending a summer holiday at a farm called Holly Howe. After receiving permission from their father, who is in the Royal Navy and away at sea, the four kids set off in their boat, Swallow, to camp on an Island in the middle of the lake. Aside from very occasional visits from their mother, and a once-daily row across the lake to fetch milk from a neighboring farm, the Walker children are completely on their own for the duration of their stay on the island. John, as captain, is in charge. Susan, the mate, takes care of the meals, and Titty and Roger, though subject to the authority of the oldest two siblings, serve as able-seaman and ship's boy. From the start of their adventure, the Walkers allow their imaginations to rule their every move, considering the adults all around them to be "natives", and the man living in the nearby houseboat to be a retired pirate. Also in on the game are the Blackett girls, Nancy and Peggy, who call themselves pirates and challenge the Swallows to a war.

What truly sets a children's book apart, in my mind, is how deeply it is able to immerse itself into the mind of a child. I have often cited Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg as one of the best children's books of all time, because it never breaks character, so to speak. There is never an all-knowing narrative voice, or an authoritative adult voice stepping in to tell the reader what's real, and what's imagined. As in real-life make-believe, the children make all the rules, and everything in the story is told from the child's point of view and nothing more. Swallows and Amazons is brilliant in exactly that way. Though the reader is in on the game from the beginning, and knows that the Walkers aren't really sea explorers anymore than the Blacketts are pirates, he or she is taken along on the adventure, and completely buys into every aspect of the Walkers' imagined lives as members of a ship's crew. Because the reader buys into the make-believe, he or she is able to experience all the excitement of an adventure on the unknown seas with the warmth and comfort of the known and the familiar.

There is something for everyone in Swallows and Amazons - adventure, camping, sailing (complete with all the jargon and sailing instruction a child could want), late-night sneak attacks, battles, enemies, and mystery. The characters, especially Roger, Titty, Nancy, and Mrs. Walker, become so real as the story continues that it becomes difficult to say goodbye to them when the book ends. It's a lucky thing there are eleven more books following this one, because once hooked, an addiction to this series would be hard for any reader to shake.

I think this book is an absolute must-read for children and adults alike. Kids as young as six or seven could probably appreciate it, if it were read aloud to them, and certainly kids in grades four to nine can read and enjoy it on their own. Arthur Ransome wrote like no other author I've ever read, but the subject matter of his books compares well to that of The Boxcar Children, The Penderwicks, Ballet Shoes, and The Saturdays.

This is without a doubt my favorite of all the books I read this year, and one of the few in my reading history that I already know I will one day read again.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb (2010)

What Happened on Fox Street is a realistic fiction middle grade novel about Mo Wren, a young girl whose single dad has sort of given up in the aftermath of his wife's death, leaving Mo to do the thinking and worrying for the entire family, as well as look out for her "Wild Child" younger sister, Dottie. When developers begin sending letters to the Wrens and their neighbors, Mo realizes she might lose her home on Fox Street that contains memories of her mother, and strives to prevent this from happening. She also must deal with changes in her newly-rich best friend, Mercedes, who is slowly coming to important realizations about her own family.

This book explores similar themes to a 2011 title I really love, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street. Because I loved Orange Street so much, at times, this book didn't feel like it measured up. Fox Street is a really strong novel in its own right, however, and I found myself becoming more interested and more invested in the characters as the book went on. The strongest character in the book, in my opinion, is actually Dottie, the eccentric, neglected, wandering younger sister. Her behavior and her need for attention from each of the neighbors was really heartbreaking, and drove home the dysnfunction of the Wren family, even when Mo wasn't sophisticated enough to put the family's problems into words. I was also really pleased with the way the author handled the death of Mo's mother. Though this event was clearly a traumatic one in Mo's life, the narrative didn't dwell completely on the mourning process - rather, this is a book about finding ways to move on after a major loss.

What I enjoyed most about this book, I think, was the way the neighborhood came to life. The different buildings and people on Fox Street were so vivid in my mind, and though the street map at the start of the book wasn't labeled, the author's descriptions made it easy to pick out each family's home without hesitation. Additionally, though I won't spoil the ending, I think this book has one of the strongest ending lines in any children's book I've ever read. Not only does it wrap up the threads of  the story, it also hints at the changes brought about between Mo and her sister, and what their relationship might be like in the future.

I think this story will work best for readers who are already hooked on realistic fiction. I'm looking forward to reading Mo Wren, Lost and Found, which was published this past September, to find out what happens next for the Wrens.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: Pierre by Maurice Sendak (1962)

Though I was always disturbed as a kid by the idea that a lion could come along and eat a disagreeable child, I still have fond memories of this book from first grade. The book - and Carole King's sung version, of course - made such an impression on me, that I actually ordered my own copy from the school book order way back when, and somewhere, I still have it.

The premise of the story is that a boy named Pierre doesn't care about anything. When his parents get ready to go out, he refuses to get ready and go with them, so they leave him behind and go to town on their own. while they're gone, a lion comes along, and when Pierre expresses his indifference to being eaten, the lion gobbles him up. It is only after a harrowing rescue by his parents and a doctor that Pierre finally learns to say, "I care."

As a kid, what spoke to me the most, I think, was the fact that Pierre finally learned his lesson. I always prided myself on being a "good kid" and bad behavior of any kind intrigued and troubled me. I liked it when other kids - even fictional ones - discovered the error of their ways and started to behave. I think it gave me a sense of moral superiority, but also made me feel safe. I liked knowing that other kids weren't going to get in trouble, and that nothing bad would befall them.

As an adult, though, I find myself looking at Pierre on a somewhat deeper level. I'm no longer focused on trying to reform Pierre's behavior. Instead, the storyline makes me think about apathy, and what that can do to someone's life. Pierre's indifference to everything isn't just obnoxious rudeness - it's also the reason he misses out on opportunities. His lack of interest in anything happening around him - from what he eats for breakfast, to whether or not a lion swallows him whole - causes him to become the victim of others' choices. When he learns to care in the end, it's not necessarily a lesson in being good, like I thought when I was six, but a lesson in being the master of one's own destiny.

The fact that two readings of this book by the same person taking place 23 years apart can be so different is exactly the reason I think Maurice Sendak is so brilliant. There is always something more to uncover beneath the surface of his writing, and always something adults can appreciate along with their children.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak (1962)

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Bird posed a question on her blog: Which Maurice Sendak book are you?  Though I never had the chance to reply to her post, I knew my answer almost immediately. One Was Johnny, about a little boy who lives by himself and likes it like that, perfectly describes my introverted personality, and much of my behavior during childhood.

Johnny becomes overwhelmed as more and more creatures invade his house, coming in uninvited and making themselves at home. A rat and a cat are bad enough, but things reach fever pitch when a blackbird pecks Johnny's nose, a tiger comes in selling clothes, and a robber steals his shoe. "What should Johnny do?" the text questions. His solution? He threatens to eat every last one of his guests if they don't leave before he finishes counting backwards from ten.

This book represents everything I love about Maurice Sendak's work. He understands that somewhat darker side of childhood, filled with frustrations, annoyances, and worst of all, other, more obnoxious kids. So many children's books promote sharing, togetherness, and community. I can think of very few that sing the praises of solitude, and which demonstrate an understanding that sometimes other people are pushy and annoying, and we just want them to go away. This book rings so true because it doesn't force Johnny to share with his pushy houseguests, or to make room for them, or to apologize for wanting to be left alone. Rather, Johnny is  the master of his domain and he throws all of those obnoxious creatures right out on the street! In my experience, well-meaning adults panic when kids show signs of wanting to be alone. They assume it means the child is dysfunctional in some way, or not a team player, but for the introverted child, and even introverted adults like me, the notion of all of those people in your space can be extremely overwhelming, and I think it's important to teach kids how to protect that personal space, and that it's okay to like being alone.

As a counting book, this book doesn't work so well, since there aren't necessarily the correct number of countable objects on each page. It does work as a lesson in counting to ten, but I don't know that it really strongly illustrates the meaning of each number. Still, though, the illustrations, which are all drawn against the same background of Johnny's kitchen table, are greatly entertaining as the chaos of the scene increases, and the changes in Johnny's expressions could almost tell the entire story on their own.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak (1962)

My fondest memory of Chicken Soup with Rice comes from my first grade classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Decker, would copy the poem for each month onto big easel paper and we would all read it together as a class. We also listened to the Carole King recording of the song so many times, that even today, I have it memorized.

The book takes us through the entire year using various references and analogies to chicken soup. In January, the boy in the story eats his soup on ice skates. In February, he celebrates his "snowman's anniversary" (maybe the greatest concept for a holiday ever) by eating soup while the snowman eats cake. In July, he looks into the "cool and fishy deep" to find that "chicken soup is selling cheap" and in August, he becomes a cooking pot, and heats up chicken soup himself. Finally, the year ends with a "baubled bangled Christmas tree" decorated with soup bowls.

Like In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are, this book really demonstrates Sendak's unique and surreal outlook on childhood imagination. Chicken soup is a food almost everyone has eaten at one time or another, so the theme of the books feels very familiar and universal, but each monthly chicken soup experience could only come from the mind of someone like Sendak.

Though I love the entire book - for nostalgia's sake as much as anything else - I do have two favorite pages. The first is March, when the wind spills the soup, then "laps it up and roars for more." I can remember being obsessed with that page in the classroom big book of this story, and enjoying the way the wind looked like it was alive. My other favorite is that August page, where the little boy transforms into a pot on the stove, and yet still manages to maintain the same facial features as his human self. As I mentioned last week in my post about Alligators All Around, I am most impressed by Sendak's ability to make his figures look like two things at once - alligators and lions, a boy and a cooking pot.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak (1962)

This alliterative alphabet book is one of four titles in Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library. A family of expressively drawn alligators introduces us to each letter of the alphabet with simple two-word phrases that describe what one or more of the alligators is doing in the illustrations.

Some pages are pretty mundane and serious, such as "M making macaroni," where the little boy alligator watches his mother stirring noodles in a pot, and D doing dishes, where mom washes and the little boy begrudgingly dries. Other pages reach the height of silliness, with activities like "entertaining elephants," "keeping kangaroos" and "wearing wigs." Some pages are even a little bit disturbing, such as the one for P pushing people, when the young alligator shoves a little boy and then stands there looking smug. My favorite page of all is L looking like lions, where each of the alligator family members wears a hairy mane around his or her neck and creeps in a menacing way off to the left-hand side of the page. I can't imagine how he pulls it off, but only Maurice Sendak could make alligators look like lions and alligators at the same time.

For the most part, I think this book is brilliant and maybe even the best alphabet book I've ever read. There is only one problem, and that is the one flaw that truly dates this book. For the letter I, Sendak shows the alligators "imitating Indians." Because I know this is considered offensive nowadays, due to the inaccurate and degrading way it portrays American Indians, that one page does prevent me from sharing the book with kids in a public forum. It also keeps from including the book in my list whenever a parent asks for recommended alphabet books. Still, though, it's impossible to deny Sendak's brilliance, even with this flaw.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: Lucky for Good by Susan Patron (2011)

Lucky for Good is the third and final book in Susan Patron's Hard Pan series. As the book begins, Lucky and her adoptive mom, Brigitte, learn that the cafe Brigitte runs is illegal because it's inside their residence. The people of Hard Pan come together, therefore, to find Brigitte a new location and to settle her into her new building. In the meantime, Miles's mother returns from prison with a new religious outlook that she tries to force upon her son, Lucky fights with the nephew of the health inspector who oversees the move of Brigitte's Cafe, and Lincoln prepares to say goodbye before his big trip to England.

I'm sad to see this wonderful trilogy come to an end, but for the most part, I think it's been given a nice send-off. At times, I felt like it tried to wrap up too much in too small a space, particularly regarding Lucky's father and his relatives, and I was somewhat put off by the romantic overtones starting to appear in Lucky and Lincoln's friendship. That said, though, the exploration of the relationship between religion and science was an interesting one, which made references back to Lucky's scientific interests in the first two books. I also liked seeing Lucky's journey come full circle, with her knowledge of twelve-step programs and higher powers coming back into the story at its conclusion.

My one disappointment was that Matt Phelan did not illustrate this volume. While Erin Mcguire's illustrations are lovely - especially the one of Miles and his mother hugging during their reunion - I got used to Matt Phelan's style, and it was quite jarring to see another illustrator's interpretations of  these characters I feel like I know so well. This is a small quibble, however, and shouldn't detract from the overall success of the novel. This third book is not my favorite of the series, or the best one, but it made a satisfying and fitting ending to Lucky's story, and left me feeling optimistic about Lucky's future success.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Fractions = Trouble! by Claudia Mills (2011)

Fractions = Trouble! is a sequel to 7 x 9 = Trouble! Main character Wilson Williams struggles with understanding fractions, so his parents hire a tutor, Mrs. Tucker, to help him. Wilson is convinced he is the only student in the history of his elementary school who has ever needed a tutor, and he keeps the tutoring sessions secret from his best friend, Josh, and from everyone else at school. In the meantime, he and his younger brother, Kipper, make plans for the science fair. Wilson decides to study his hamster while Kipper studies the effect of wind on different sized tents. After a few unexpected turns of events, Wilson comes to accept his need for a tutor and things end on a positive note.

This short book reminded me a lot of Muggie Maggie, a chapter book by Beverly Cleary about learning to write in cursive. I recognized the same introspective and insular point of view, and the same frustration and need for secrecy in both characters.Wilson also shares some characteristics with Richard "Beast" Best from the Polk Street School series by Patricia Reilly Giff, who worries that other kids will judge his difficulties with school. Fractions = Trouble also includes one of the best younger siblings I've read in a chapter book. Kipper is a unique character, with strange quirks, including a strong attachment to two stuffed animals. I thought Wilson's interactions with him were some of the strongest moments in the book.

All in all, a great story to share with kids who struggle in math, or with any subject. Recommended to boys in grades 2 and 3 who are just starting to read chapter books on their own.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Blackout by John Rocco (2011)

This picture book opens with a full-page illustration of a little girl looking bored, staring out the window. This nameless little girl, who is the youngest in her family, is lonely because everyone is too busy to play with her. Her sister chats on the phone, her mother taps away on the computer, and her father is busy in the kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove. She decides to keep herself company with a video game, but just as she settles in, all the lights go out! From that moment, things change in the little girl's household. In the silence, she and her family huddle together and by the light of candles and flashlights, climb to the roof. The neighbors join in, and soon there is "A block party in the sky" and another one in the street below, where a local business gives away free ice cream, a firefighter allows children to use the fire hydrant as a sprinkler, and a couple plays and sings music.

"No one was busy at all," observes the girl. Everyone has time for her because they are disconnected from their other duties and distractions. Without technology and  electricity to keep them occupied, everyone must turn to one another for entertainment, support, comfort, and enjoyment, a habit one family may just not want to lose even after the blackout is over.

There is very little text in this book, sometimes not even a full sentence on a page. The illustration style really lends itself to comparisons with graphic novels, as it uses a mix of large and small panels, as well as different font faces, sizes, and colors to convey not just narration, but dialogue and sounds as well. The panels show the slow movement of time from moment to moment, and also zoom in and out appropriately to highlight intimate family moments as well as larger community-oriented happenings.

As with many of my favorite illustrators (Marla Frazee and Sophie Blackall, namely), Rocco's pictures give us lots to look at and discover that isn't expressly stated on the page. One of my favorite moments early on in the book occurs when we see the family's apartment building at considerable distance on one page, and then zoom in on their windows more closely on the next. Flipping back and forth between the two pages shows that the same scenes are depicted on each page, just with different levels of focus. I love that the illustrations tell most of the family's story, while the text focuses more on the universality of the blackout experience.

I love the way this story isn't just about what happens during a blackout, but about the way disconnecting technology and electricity for one evening brought a family close together. The illustrations are beautiful - they show how many colors make up the dark - blues, blacks, grays, greens - and how bright even the stars can seem when nothing else is lit up. This would be a great story to have on hand to read to kids during a power outage, and it's also a neat way to share the experience with kids who haven't yet experienced a blackout, especially city kids whose entire lives are lit by streetlamps and store signs. I think this is also a great, positive title for combating fear of the dark, and for empowering younger siblings who often feel left out or inferior. 

Make sure to check out the book, but in the meantime, enjoy this wonderful trailer, which interviews New Yorkers about the major blackout in New York City back in 2003.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading Through History: Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt (2011)

Doug Swieteck has recently moved to Marysville, New York, with one of his brothers (the other, Lucas, is serving in Vietnam), his mother, whom he loves, and his abusive dad. Desperate to be out of the house and dissociated from his brother's criminal behavior, Doug starts visiting the public library, where John Audubon's drawings of birds are on display, one at a time, inside a glass case. The librarian, Mr. Powell, notices that Doug has an interest in and aptitude for drawing and helps him slowly learn to draw each of the birds. Doug enjoys these drawing sessions, and also sees stories and messages in the paintings that are dictated and sometimes even changed by happenings in his own life.
Throughout these first months in Marysville, Doug also gets a job as a delivery boy, which gives him the chance to meet many different people in the community, including an eccentric author, and he learns to read, after a teacher discovers that he secretly can't. He also meets Lil, who proves to be a friend as well as a bit of a know-it-all, and he does his best to hide the jacket he received from baseball player Joe Pepitone, so that his brother or father doesn't steal it away from him.

This book contains some of the most beautiful writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. There's some grim stuff, too, mostly having to do with Doug's father's abusive behaviors, but even those haunting passages are written to a higher standard. I think the only things that prevent this book from acheiving true greatness are the plot points near the end of the book. Doug's brother returns from Vietnam, a major illness befalls someone important to Doug, and suddenly his father seems to clean up his act in a very contrived and completely unbelievable way. I thought these moments cheapened the story quite a bit, and condescended to the readers in a way that isn't necessary in a sophisticated book like this.

Read-alikes for this story include Tales of the Madman Underground, which is all about trying to survive a world where adults continually screw up, The Catcher in the Rye, whose Holden has a tone of sarcasm just like Doug's, and The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin, which also focuses on escape from an abusive parent. Don't miss this book. Its brilliance far outweighs even its most glaring flaws.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: The Greedy Sparrow by Lucine Kasbarian, illustrated by Maria Zaikina (2011)

The Greedy Sparrow is a retelling of a folk tale from Armenia which the author, Lucine Kasbarian, learned from her father. The story begins with a sparrow who has a thorn stuck in his foot. A woman baking bread removes the thorn for him, and the bird goes on his way. Later, though, he returns, demanding the thorn, and when he learns that the woman disposed of it, he demands something else in exchange. As the story progresses, the sparrow makes more and more demands on more and more strangers, always demanding something in exchange for an item that isn't really his to begin with. In the end, his greed gets the better of him and he ends the story no better off than when he began.

I really loved this book. The story, whose moral is, essentially, "what goes around comes around" or perhaps "you reap what you sow" has a unique flair, and there aren't many other folk tales or fables that it reminded me of. I loved that the story mentioned specific locations, such as Mount Ararat, because it grounds the tale in the culture from which it came, and provides opportunities for children to learn about a new country as they read. The illustrations, which absolutely consume every inch of white space, are beautiful, and I loved seeing the Armenian style of dress represented on each page. The sheep in this book also have wonderful facial expressions, which gave them unexpected personality.

According to a note on the copyright page inside the book, the art for this book was created with wax and oil paint, and layers were literally cut away to reveal the colors underneath the wax. Knowing this gave me a new appreciation for the illustrations, where you can actually see the strokes the artist made as she worked on each page. It's just so appealing to look at, and even the smallest details, which must have been the most difficult, appear flawless.

This book is simple enough, certainly, to be shared with preschoolers, but would also work well for an elementary school unit about folk tales or Armenian culture. I really hope my library system will purchase a copy so that I can share it at story time and beyond.

Visit Lucine Kasbarian online at

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Help! I'm a Prisoner in the Library by Eth Clifford (1979)

My most vivid memory of this book actually has nothing to do with the story itself. Rather, what I remember is that my first grade teacher was reading the book to us in school, and she got upset with me when I located a copy at the public library and finished reading it on my own. I guess that was my first understanding of what a spoiler is! In any case, the last time I read this book, it was 1989 and I was six. I remembered very little, and honestly, very little came back to me as I read. That said, though, I enjoyed visiting this quirky little story about two girls who spend the night, quite accidentally, in the public library.

There is a snowstorm starting, and Jo-Beth and Mary Rose are on their way to their aunt's house, so their father can join their mother at the hospital where a new brother or sister will be born. When their dad, known as Last Minute Harry, refuses to stop for gasoline, and then runs out of gas on the road, he instructs the girls to wait in the car with the doors locked while he looks for a gas station. They obey at first, but when Jo-Beth realizes she urgently has to use the bathroom, they wander out into the snow and head for the public library. Though they don't mean to, they wind up staying past closing time, and when they try to leave, they find themselves locked in! The rest of their night is filled with spooky noises, strange shadows, and lots of unexpected turns of events.

This book is a great first introduction to suspense. Almost every chapter ends with some sort of cliffhanger, which is then resolved in the following chapter. The explanations for many of the scary things the girls encounter are disappointing, and maybe even cheesy from an adult perspective, but for early chapter book readers, they are exciting without being terrifying, which is something I would have appreciated (and presumably did appreciate, given my need to finish the book ahead of the class) as a kid.

This book also teaches the important lesson that not everything that's old is useless. The librarian in the book worries that all of her memorabilia related to children's books will be lost when the library closes, but the girls convince her to make old things new again by opening a museum devoted to children's literature.

The story didn't feel completely dated, especially since there weren't many mentions of library practices themselves. I think the biggest thing I noticed was just the lack of technology. The girls weren't able to contact their father during the snowstorm because the phones were down. These days, though cell phones might go down in a severe storm, there would have been that extra option. The internet, too, is absent, but that didn't bother me much at all. The story still felt contemporary, and the girls' reactions to things rang very true for me.

This was a nice walk down memory lane, even if I didn't have many memories to go on. I love the cover of this book (the original, on the far left at the top of this post), and I've always sort of thought of it as more cozy than creepy. The sibling dynamics in the story also amused me - I have a younger sister, and the squabbles these girls got into were similar to ones I had with my own sister growing up. I wonder if that was another appealing aspect of it for me back when I was six.

This book is still very much in print, and my library received a new copy just this year before we opened our new branch. If you haven't read it, give it a shot. It's short, strange, and, for adults, maybe somewhat predictable, but worth reading, especially if you're a fan of kids' books.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin (2011)

The focal point of this beautifully written novel is the Valencia orange tree that grows on the empty lot on Orange Street. Everyone in the neighborhood has some relationship to the tree. Ali, Bunny, and Leandra hold meetings of the Girls With Long Hair club beneath the tree. Ali's little brother, Edgar swings on the tree, with the help of his babysitter, Manny. Robert, who is not allowed to join the girls' club, conducts missions behind the vines. Long ago, it was also the place where Ms. Snoops, an elderly neighbor, played with her best friend, Gertrude. Each of these characters becomes troubled when, one morning, an orange cone appears at the edge of the lot, later accompanied by a mysterious stranger. They speculate as to what this means for the future of the tree, and the future of Orange Street itself.

It's hard to properly describe this book, because its true merits are in the artistic telling of the story. Though not much happens for most of the book, the innermost secrets, wishes, desires, fears, and hopes of these characters are expressed in beautiful language, with very carefully selected words. Robert's desire to perform magic, Bunny's constant worries over her mother's safety on plane trips, and Ali's hopes for her brother, whose brain tumor left him unable to speak, are all described in fresh, new language, with true understanding of what it's like to be caught in between childhood and adolescence. 

It is the way the story is told, not the story itself, that make it remarkable, and made me want to turn every page. I was taken back to my own summers spent out in the neighborhood, hanging out with the neighbor kids, creating clubs on various themes, and investigating my own share of suspicious changes on the street. This book captures and distills exactly what it means to be a kid, and what it means to value community, tradition, and history, even as kids grow up and move beyond childish games and ideas.

Because I really don't think I can do this book the justice it deserves, I'll let it speak for itself. Here are just a couple of passages I enjoyed:

That morning Ms. Snoops noticed the orange cone, too, she went outdoors to deadhead her marigolds. She didn't like to disturb those hard-working 9-1-1 operators unless it was serious (especially so early in the day), but she knew that ominous orange cone could only mean one thing.

"Murder!" cried Ms. Snoops. She glanced around to make sure no one had heard her, then hurried inside to make that early morning phone call.

I am so impressed by the way Rocklin depicts Ms. Snoops's failing memory. Her thought process is amusing, but it's clear the author isn't making fun of her, and that the reader is meant to have sympathy for the elderly woman who is so often confused by simple daily occurrences.

And Ruff didn't know he was keeping the orange tree healthy, when he did his business under the tree.

But Ruff knew so many other things, that morning:
He knew he was sleepy.
He knew the earth smelled of stinky fertilizer and worms.
It was warm under his nose, but cooler where his belly touched the ground.
Something tiny, maybe a ladybug, was tickling his left ear.
A small rat raced through the weeds.
Mitzi the cat was watching somewhere.
Robert, eating a PB & J sandwich behind the vine, was watching too.
Ants scurried over and under the hollowed-out orange skins.
A wasp buzzed above Ruff's head, but not close enough to sting.
A squirrel held her breath on the branch above the wasp.
Hummingbirds whirred and hovered, like tiny helicopters among the blossoms, feeding their babies again and again.
And above them all sat Bunny/Bonita, lost in her book, her wristwatch ticking.
And also Ruff was thirsty.
And he had to pee again.
And he was much too deliciously sleepy to get up.
All that, Ruff knew. 

I love the poetic style of these one-sentence paragraphs, and the way the dog's observations appeal so perfectly to all five senses.

This is such a well-written and interesting book - I really recommend it to everyone who loves kids' books, and especially to those kids - boys and girls - who seek out and appreciate realistic fiction.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: Walter, the Lazy Mouse by Marjorie Flack (1937)

Walter is a very lazy mouse. He is always late to school, and spends so much time in bed that when his family moves away, they leave him behind.  Alone and scared, Walter heads out into the world in search of his mother, father, and siblings. After getting lost in a dark forest, he makes friends with a turtle and becomes the sole inhabitant of his own island, which he names Mouse Island after himself. He also befriends three frogs, whom he names (Lulu, Leander, and Percy), clothes, and attempts to educate. Having his own island - and friends who depend on him - means Walter can't be lazy anymore. He must find ways to clothe, feed, and shelter himself,  and when things don't go right, he is the only one around to fix them. In the end, he overcomes his laziness, and reunites with his family, who realize just how much he has changed.
I don't generally like books about talking animals, but this book quickly became an exception. The illustrations, which show realistic-looking frogs, turtles, and mice in equally realistic natural surroundings, are completely charming, and the story itself, though somewhat unusual, kept me interested from beginning to end. I especially loved the strangeness of the frog characters. They needed constant contact with Walter to be able to remember him, and in times when Walter wasn't around, they forgot everything he taught them, including their own names! Turtle was a comforting character, and certainly one I would have latched onto as a child, since the circumstances of Walter's abandonment would have troubled me quite a bit. He seemed to be the voice of reason throughout the book, and a surrogate parent for Walter in the absence of his own mom and dad.

They don't write books like this anymore, and I think that's a shame. Walter's story is the kind of adventure kids love to read about, and the way Flack imagines the personalities of different woodland animals really impressed me. Despite the obvious lesson the story wants to teach - don't be lazy - there is a lot of clever creativity at play in this book, and it makes for a truly unique and wonderful reading experience.

Marjorie Flack is also the author of one of my childhood favorites, The Story About Ping, as well as Angus and the Ducks and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. She passed away in 1958, but her memory lives on through The Marjorie Flack Award for Fiction, an annual creative writing award at Anne Arundel Community College.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes (2011)

Alice Rice is turning ten, and she will spend this year's birthday in the usual way - by taking a Winter vacation to Sanibel, Florida, with her parents. She looks forward to this yearly trip, and depends on Sanibel, Scallop (the cottage), and her family's many Florida friends to remain unchanged from year to year.  This year, though, a snowstorm keeps Helen from joining the group, and the Wishmeiers' teenage grandchildren have other commitments that require their presence at home. Even Mr. Benton is different - he seems older, and is much less tactful than he used to be. The worst insult of all, however, is that Aunt Kate, Alice's mother's college best friend brings her new boyfriend, Ted and his six-year-old daughter, Mallory on the trip along with her. Mallory's mother has recently left the family and gone to France, and because this has caused Mallory to act out, the focus of Alice's birthday celebration keeps shifting from the birthday girl to the younger, troubled child instead. On top of that, Alice is also disappointed that she cannot find a rare junonia shell, a feat she has dreamed of accomplishing for years.

I really love the way Kevin Henkes writes. In both his picture books and his novels, the words come together so effortlessly, and create such simple, yet vivid images of normal, everyday life. Alice's story isn't filled with action and movement - it's very introspective, in fact, even in the third person, and most of the major events of the story are shifts in emotion and attitude rather than external occurrences. My personal experience reading this book was enjoyable, and I was continually impressed by the subtleties of the story, and the imagery and turns of phrase Henkes uses to portray the setting, the characters, and Alice's many conflicting feelings about her birthday, change, growing up, and moving on.

I am less sure how children will react to this book, though. I fear that in a world where the most popular books are funny (Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries), action-packed (The 39 Clues and Percy Jackson) and/or fantastical (Harry Potter and The Ranger's Apprentice), a serious, deep, and more "literary" book will go unnoticed. Realistic fiction isn't a popular genre in my library, outside of the book group that recently read The Penderwicks, and the die-hard fans of Fudge and Ramona, and I suspect that it's not at the top of the list at a lot of other places either. But that's not to say a child wouldn't enjoy this book. Henkes understands childhood disappointment in a way that really resonated with me, and I think Alice's perspective matches that of many real children whose lives are also changing as they move closer to adolescence.

I'll be really curious to see if the copy at my own library circulates well or not, and I'll be seeking out other reviews to see what other children's lit. readers think. The book is beautiful to look at - the cover is gorgeous, the pages are nice and thick and the artwork accompanying the story - beautiful sketches in blue ink - was done by Kevin Henkes as well, so it makes the perfect complement to the text.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (2011)

I only discovered the Penderwicks a short time ago, but I fell very deeply in love with them very quickly. Here on the blog, I listed ten things I love about the Penderwick family, which included my beloved favorite character, Batty, Hound, the lovable family dog, Mr. Penderwick's use of Latin phrases, and of course, the "Penderwick family honor." From the moment I finished The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, I started counting down to the third book, wondering how I would ever make it until publication day. When The Penderwicks at Point Mouette finally arrived at my library, one long week after its publication, I snatched it up before anyone could touch it and took it home right away! Then, over the next couple of weeks, my boyfriend and I read it aloud to each other.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is a summer vacation story, set one year after the first Penderwicks book. Rosalind heads to New Jersey with her friend, Anna, for two weeks, while Mr. Penderwick and Iantha take a honeymoon trip to Europe with Ben. This leaves Skye, Jane, and Batty to join Aunt Claire at Birches, a beach house in Maine, for their own vacation. While there, Skye steps up as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) , Batty discovers hidden musical talent, and Jane finds and loses her first love. There's also a new cast of supporting characters, and a fair amount of time spent with Jeffrey. 

Since finishing the book, I have seen a lot of really lovely reviews. Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 even included the book in her recent Newbery/Caldecott prediction post. But I have to confess that, for me, this book did not fully live up to the standards set by the first two, and I finished it feeling somewhat let down.

Before I explain why, though, let me first talk about what I loved, because there were many things.

First of all, I finally feel like I know Skye and Jane as characters. As much as I enjoy having the full Penderwick family together, I was pleased to have Rosalind in New Jersey for this book, because it gave the other three sisters more time to shine. The concept of the OAP appealed to me in the first two books, and I loved getting to see Skye in that position. I also really loved the continuation of Jane's writing, as she attempted to write a Sabrina Starr book about falling in love, but suffered from seemingly insurmountable writer's block. And Batty was as delightful as ever. Her newfound independence in the absence of Rosalind made me feel oddly proud of her, and the discovery of her unexpected musical talent added a new layer to her character. I also enjoyed her friendship with Mercedes.

But there were some definite weaknesses in this book. For one thing, I was really disappointed that Iantha, Mr. Penderwick and Ben did not appear at all in the entire story. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street left me wanting to know what life would be like in this new family, and that was the story I wanted to hear. I'd feel a little better if I thought we'd get that story in the next book, but Jeanne Birdsall has already said that the next book will skip ahead a few years, so our opportunity to see the new family come together is lost forever. I suppose it's a compliment to the series that I care so much about the characters, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel cheated.

My other big complaint has to do with Jeffrey. I like him as much as I like any character in these books, and his friendship to each of the Penderwick girls is wonderful. But in this book, it felt like Jeffrey really stole the show. There are minor dramas in each of the Penderwicks' lives, but it is ultimately Jeffrey who has the story's great revelation, and in the most contrived way. I can't say much more without including spoilers, which I always aim to avoid, but I felt as though the climax of this book required me to suspend my disbelief much more than it should have. I know it's a children's book, and maybe I am a little bit rigid when it comes to bending the rules of reality, but I just couldn't buy into what happens, even if it does make a heck of a twist.

In the end, when it came time for awarding stars on Goodreads, I gave this book four, rather than five. That is to say, I still really loved reading it, even if parts of it made me roll my eyes. Despite its flaws, the book still gets a strong  recommendation from me, as does the entire series.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

All About the Sleepover Squad Series

The Sleepover Squad series is a set of seven titles for new chapter book readers. It began publication in 2007 and finished in 2008. The same series was published in the UK as both The Pyjama Gang and The Sleepover Gang. (Though my understanding is that Americanisms were left in, causing some possible confusion.)

The books focus on four diverse second-grade girls:

  • Emily is smart, sensitive and shy. She is an only child, and her gardener mother and high school teacher father are somewhat overprotective parents.
  • Taylor comes from a wealthy family, and her household has hired help. She is a fearless, impatient, and outspoken kid.
  • Kara is African-American and comes from a family filled with rambunctious (and obnoxious) boys.
  • Jo speaks Spanish as well as English, and her calm, logical approach often helps the squad get through tough situations.

Though the books are told in the third person, each one sticks mainly with the point of view of one girl.

These are the three that I've read:
  • #1 Sleeping Over (2007), focuses on Emily's point of view as she tries to convince her parents that she is old enough for slumber parties.
  • #2 Camping Out (2007), deals with Taylor's insect phobia, which makes her hesitant about camping out in a tent.
  • #3 Trouble with Brothers (2007), sees Kara dealing with her four brothers'
    plans to sabotage the sleepover she plans to host at her house.
There are four others:
  • #4 Keeping Secrets (2008) is about Jo's spelling bee victory and her concerns that her friends are keeping things from her.
  • #5 Pony Party (2008) is about Emily's pony-themed sleepover featuring a real live pony.
  • #6 The New Girl (2008) introduces Jo's cousin Ceci into the group, and questions whether the Sleepover Squad has room for one more member.
  • #7 Girls vs. Boys (2009) seems to be unavailable at this time, and I wasn't able to locate the physical book or a summary. I'm honestly not sure whether it was even published.
These books are very gentle, tame reads that reflect day to day life for many average second grade girls. The girls' personalities are different enough from one another that any girl reading the books will find something to relate to, and though the parents are present in each story, it is the Squad itself that comes together to help one another with any problems that arise.

The series reminds me a little bit of the Baby-sitters Club Little Sister books from my own childhood, as well as the newer Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew series (minus the mystery elements.) The writing is probably on par with something like Rainbow Magic  - that is, formulaic, predictable, and at times, just plain boring - but the notion of a sleepover club has definite appeal to the target age group, and the black and white illustrations by Julia Denos really stand out in their depictions of each girl's exact appearance and personality. Each book also includes slumber party activity suggestions - most of them are pretty easy to come up with on your own, but it's still a nice added feature.

Overall, I think these books are okay, but not great. There are other chapter book series for this age group that I like better - A to Z MysteriesIvy & BeanClementineJudy MoodyHorrible Harry, even Magic Treehouse - but girls who have run out of things to read will probably enjoy these, even if the quality of writing is only so-so. I'm not saying little girls should skip them altogether, but I think it's safe to say your young chapter book reader's not missing anything important if she hasn't discovered them yet.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: Fifteen by Beverly Cleary (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions about the First Love Series

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow (1972)

William's Doll, written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois, was originally published in 1972. It is the story of a boy who, along with many typically boyish interests, also really wants a doll to play with. His brother and his brother's friend say that this makes William creepy and a sissy, and though his dad doesn't call names, he also tells William that he should really be playing basketball instead.

William practices basketball, and enjoys it, and becomes quite good at it, but it doesn't in any way deter him from wanting the doll. Finally, his grandmother, understanding exactly why a boy might want a doll, goes out and brings him just the one he wants. Then she explains to his father that playing with dolls is what turns little boys into good daddies when they grow up.

The illustrations look a tad on the dated side - the style of clothing, especially, is very 1970's, and the thin blue border around each page reminded of me an elementary school basal reader. But the message still stands strong - being who you are, whoever that is, and liking what you like, whatever that is, is a good thing. 

I think the world is a lot more progressive these days, so maybe there aren't as many dads worrying about their sons playing with dolls, but I have no doubt there are still some, and this book does a nice job of both educating parents and validating the feelings of a child in that situation.

Charlotte Zolotow has written over 70 picture books, and from what Google tells me, it looks like she's still alive and approaching her 96th birthday this June! I think her books are starting to become less popular as time goes on, but I love them and would encourage readers to keep reading them!