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!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: Throwing Shadows by E.L. Konigsburg (1979)

Throwing Shadows is a collection of short stories published by E.L. Konigsburg in 1979. Each story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young person who, during his or her story, has a significant encounter with another person which changes his or her life.

The stories are as follows:
  • On Shark's Tooth Beach. Ned Hixon, son of Hixon of Hixon's Landing gets into a competition of sorts with President Bob, an older man who claims to be a former university president. They search for fossils of shark teeth all along the beach, and try to outdo each other in size, number, and uniqueness.
  • The Catchee. Avery, an African-American boy, finds himself to always be the unlucky one who gets caught doing something wrong, or stuck in the middle of a misunderstanding. His older brother, who has noticed this special talent of Avery's, helps him to see its value.
  • In the Village of the Weavers. Ampara, who is a tour guide for visitors to her native Ecuador, tells the story of her friendship and rivalry with an enterprising boy named Anthony.
  • At the Home. Phillip tells of his experience listening to (and recording) Miss Ilona, a resident at a nursing home, as she tells the story of how being ugly saved her life.  He also becomes a popular fixture at the home, as other residents beg him to hear their stories as well.
  • With Bert & Ray. William pushes his mother toward a career selling antiques after dealers Bert and Ray teach her how to run house sales. This helps her to overcome the subservient attitude she developed before her alcoholic husband died.

What really struck me more than anything else about this book was the diversity of the different narrators. Some authors sound the same no matter whose point of view they are writing from. Konigsburg's characters are as different from one another as any real people, and though these stories are just quick peeks into the worlds of these characters, the  reader feels as if he/she gets to know each one in depth. Ampara and William have interesting accents, which help to differentiate their voices from the others', but even without those obvious markers, these characters are all so well developed there can be doubt that each one is a separate entity.

I also really loved  the way the stories fit together, not just thematically, but in certain details as well. The theme of a boy's voice changing appears in more than one story, as does business partnership between mother and son, and the notion of older generations passing on wisdom to the new. I especially appreciate how Konigsburg's stories aren't just about kids interacting with kids - rather, she spends a lot of time writing about kids interacting with the many adults who populate the world, outside of just relatives and teachers. These stories are very real because they focus on tiny slices of life that are both specific to an individual and universally applicable. I am in awe of this book, and I hope it remains in print so a new generation of kids can come to appreciate its brilliance.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

All About the Pony Scouts Series

The Pony Scouts books are part of the I Can Read series, and they are designated as level 2, "reading with help". The books are written by Catherine Hapka, who is also the author of many easy readers based on movies such as Kung Fu PandaThe Land Before Time, and Rio. They are illustrated by Anne Kennedy. Each story is about three girls - Meg, Annie, and Jill - who call themselves the Pony Scouts because of their mutual love for ponies. I read three titles from the series.

The first book, Pony Crazy (March 2010), sees Meg moving from the city to the country. At her new school, she meets Jill, whose mother has a pony named Sparkle. Jill invites Meg to hang out with her and Annie after school. After visiting with the ponies, the girls come up with the idea for the Pony Scouts.

In the second book, Really Riding (July 2010), Jill's mother gives Annie and Meg their first riding lessons. No one is allowed to ride Rosy, who is new to the farm, and very fat. Later that night, the girls sneak out to the barn, only to discover that Rosy has given birth to a foal!

Back in the Saddle (March 2011), the third book, also focuses on riding lessons, but this time, Annie falls off her pony! She is reluctant to get back on and ride again, but Jill reminds her that the best way to recover from a mistake is to put it behind her. After taking a moment to visit with Surprise, Rosy's foal, Annie decides it's worth another shot, and  this time, she successfully completes the maneuver that knocked her over the first time.

Ponies and riding are topics of definite interest to this age group, so the subject matter alone makes them a sure hit. I also really like the way vocabulary is incorporated into each story. Words that might be new or unfamiliar are defined on the last page in a short glossary. The illustrations are warm and inviting, but they also really supplement some of the new information introduced by the text. The girls are shown wearing helmets, mounting ponies, and windmilling their arms in what I assume is the correct way to do such things in real life. The books also provide lessons on friendship, perseverance, and animal care, and throws in occasional snacks and sleepovers to supplement all the pony stuff. I am not a pony person, but these books are new favorites for me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Journey to an 800 Number by E.L. Konigsburg (1982)

E.L. Konigsburg is one strange lady. I've read enough of her books by now to know to expect some weirdness, but I think Journey to an 800 Number is by far her most unusual book. And also possibly one of the best.
Rainbow Maximillian Stubbs (sometimes called Bo, and sometimes called Max) normally lives with his mother, but she has just married a rich man named F. Hugo Malatesta the First and is on her honeymoon. Bo is therefore sent to travel with his dad, who roams the country selling rides on his camel Ahmed at fairs and conventions. While on the road, Bo clings to his jacket, which bears the crest of the fancy school he will attend in the Fall on his new stepfather's dime, using it as a testament to his brains and status in the world. As the days go by, however, his eyes are opened to the rest of the world, and he starts to make connections with people he previously would have seen as beneath him.

In particular, Bo connects with a girl named Sabrina, who goes to various conventions with her mother under assumed names. Sabrina collects information about freaks and is obsessed with the idea that every normal person pretends on a regular basis, while only freaks can be themselves all the time. The entire book is an exploration of identity and the various masks people wear to conceal who they truly are, or to blend in among those they would choose to befriend.

This is a really sophisticated children's book, and the only books  I can think to compare it to are adult books. (Flannery O'Connor is the main author who came to my mind. I also kept thinking about Fight Club.) I don't even know who I'd  recommend this book to. It's as old as I am, and thanks to references to parents who were hippies, parts of it are dated, and some of the slang didn't even really make sense to me. The main character also acts much older than his intended age, to the point of making very adult observations about the world around him.  I don't think kids would necessarily see themselves in this story, or even know how to approach it.

The writing is typical Konigsburg, though. It has this certain attitude about it, and it's filled with these little throwaway lines that are actually quite brilliant insights about life. I have no idea where she gets these strange ideas for characters and settings, but I'm glad she has them, and that she writes them down. I'm not sure who the audience would be for a book like this now, but despite all its strangeness, I really liked it, and I'd be really curious to hear other opinions.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Father's Arcane Daughter by E.L. Konigsburg (1976)

Father's Arcane Daughter was originally published in 1976. In 2008, it was re-released with a slightly altered title, My Father's Daughter.

The narrator of the story is Winston Carmichael, a privileged kid living in a household filled with hired help. His mother, Grace, babies his little sister,
Heidi, to hide the fact that she has some disabilities, and his father, who has been married before, has a daughter, Caroline who was kidnapped as a teenager and is now presumed dead. The main action of the story takes place in the late 1950s, as Winston reflects on the September Thursday on which a woman claiming to be Caroline arrived on his doorstep. Each chapter begins with a snippet of conversation from the present-day 1970's, where Winston reminisces with a female member of his family who is not identified until late in the book.  

For such a short book, a lot happens in Father's Arcane Daughter. The main themes seem to be family dysfunction and repression, money and entitlement, sibling relations, overcoming disability, and most importantly, the question of whether Caroline is an impostor or a true member of the Carmichael family. Though this is a children's book, it doesn't feel like one. Rather, it seems like Konigsburg almost disregards her audience while she is writing, and simply remains true to the story, whatever that truth turns out to be. I could  tell from this story that she really respects her readers - though she is writing about very adult issues, she doesn't dumb them down or over-explain them. She gives credit to children's intelligence, and assumes they are smart enough to follow along.

While, this isn't my favorite Konigsburg book, it's the only one I've read so far in this little exercise that gave me a little thrill of excitement when I reached the ending. It takes a strange turn in the last 30 pages or so, which I think keeps it from achieving the greatness of Konigsburg's more famous novels, but it was still quite good. I also think, even though the book is dated, kids might be more accepting of it, because it is intended to take place during a very specific year, which is named early on in the book. It might not have been written as historical fiction, but I think maybe it can be read as such.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay (2001)

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay is the first in a series of five books (soon to be six) about the Casson family. It was originally published in the UK in 2001, and became available in the US in 2003.

There are six Cassons. Eve and Bill, the parents, are artists. Bill is much more serious about his work than Eve is about hers, and he maintains a studio away from the family in London. Eve stays home in the Banana House, as the family home is called, with the four children - 17-year-old Cadmium (Caddy), 14-year-old Saffron (Saffy), 12-year-old Indigo, and 8-year-old Rose. Each of the kids has a storyline in this first book - Caddy flirts with her driving instructor, Indigo tries to cure himself of his phobias, and Rose runs interference between her parents - but the star of the show is definitely Saffy.

Early in the book, Saffy realizes that all of the kids in the family have names found on a color chart in the Casson kitchen, except for her. When she presses her mother for an explanation, she learns that she was not named by Eve and Bill, because she is not biologically their child. Rather, Saffy's mother is Eve's deceased sister, and she was adopted into the family after her mother's death. This information really isolates Saffy, and when her grandfather dies and leaves her a mysterious angel in his will, she becomes even more curious about her past.

With the help of a new friend, Sarah, who uses a wheelchair and is  therefore somewhat spoiled by her parents, Saffy hatches a plan to travel back to her birthplace, Siena, Italy, to try and locate the angel.

While some plot points in this story were weak and implausible, overall, I really enjoyed it. I especially like the fact that none of the characters in this book are perfect. The parents are absent, either physically or mentally. Caddy is fairly clueless, and a terrible driver. The house is a mess, and Indigo routinely throws himself out of windows to try and stop being afraid of heights. Saffy manages to stow away to Italy without being caught, and the rest of the kids all drive to Wales together, after tricking their mother into giving her permission. Rose also lies to their father and manipulates everyone to suit her own purposes. The Cassons are not the Penderwicks, or the Melendys, or the Moffats. They're not even the Boxcar Children, who spent a lot of time on their own. They're more like the Tillermans from Cynthia Voigt's books, who struggle with family problems, or, for lack of a better comparison, Jane's artsy parents on the MTV animated TV series, Daria.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Review: The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (1941)

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright was originally published in 1941, and is the first book in The Melendy Quartet. The Melendy children - Mona, age 13, Rush, age 12, Miranda (Randy), age 10, and Oliver, age 6, live with their widower father, and a housekeeper named Cuffy, who serves as their surrogate mother.

In this book, the kids, led by Randy, decide to pool their allowances each week, to allow one member of the family to spend Saturday doing something he or she loves outside of the house, and without any supervision. They form a club dedicated to this purpose, and name it the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club, or I.S.A.A.C. Each chapter of the book covers a different Saturday, as the reader follows each child to his or her chosen activity.

The concept of this book is wonderful, and it's what grabbed my attention in the first place. But a good portion of it was spoiled for me because adults kept stealing the spotlight! At least two of the chapters digress into long-winded stories told by secondary characters the kids meet on their adventures, thus robbing me of the enjoyment of seeing kids on their own in the streets of New York City, something that would be just plain unsafe nowadays. I wished so much that the kids had actually been more independent.

For the most part, I enjoyed the old-fashioned feeling of this book, and the writing style really appealed to me. The only thing that bothered me was that Elizabeth Enright was very fond of similes and metaphors, and after a  while, I felt like I was tripping over them. I also thought they reminded me of the author's presence too often. Figures of speech cropped up no matter whose point of view we were supposed to be in, and they all sounded like they came from the same voice.

The tail-end of the book is really great, though. Oliver gets a chance to have his own Saturday, and being in his six-year-old mind is a definite treat. I thought his story was the only one that fully lived up to the spirit of I.S.A.A.C.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Altogether, One at a Time by E.L. Konigsburg (1971)

Altogether, One at a Time, a slim book containing four short stories, was originally published in 1971. Each story tells of a particular incident that changes the life of the main character in a profound way.

In "Inviting Jason," the main character's mother forces him to invite a kid he hates to his birthday party. "The Night of the Leonids" is about a boy and his grandmother whose opportunity to see a star formation that only occurs every thirty-three and a third years is thwarted by cloudy weather. "Camp Fat" is the story of a girl who goes to camp to lose weight and encounters a mysterious counselor who comes to her bedside each night with encouragement and advice. In "Momma at the Pearly Gates," a young girl relates the story of how her mother overcame racism in her public elementary school.

Though each story is thematically different, they do share some stylistic similarities. Each story begins in the midst of the action, with not much build-up, and no wasted words. I felt like I got to know the characters instantly, which really paid off when each story reached its pivotal moment. I was also really impressed at the subtle differences between the four main characters' voices. Some authors' characters all sound the same, but these truly sounded like four different people, with four distinct personalities.  

Short stories are not very popular among children, but the "Camp Fat" story, especially, has a creepiness to it that will be appealing to Goosebumps fans, and kids who like scary stuff. I actually think any of the stories with the possible exception of the last one, still felt fairly contemporary and could still appeal to a contemporary audience. I also think this book would have come in really handy when I was taking creative writing classes. These are very well-written short stories, and when I do start writing again, I might revisit this book for a refresher.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

All About the Rainbow Magic Series

The Rainbow Magic books by Daisy Meadows are a popular series of chapter books about fairies. Parents have been asking me about them in the library recently, so I thought I'd read a few random titles to get a better sense of what they're about.

The books I chose were Thea the Thursday FairyChloe the Topaz FairyDanielle the Daisy Fairy, and Poppy the Piano Fairy. After reading all four titles, here's what I learned:

  • The Rainbow Magic series actually consists of many smaller series, each focusing on a different type of fairies. Thea the Thursday Fairy is the fourth volume in the Fun Day Fairies series; Chloe the Topaz Fairy is volume 4 in the Jewel Fairies series; Danielle the Daisy Fairy is volume 6 in the Petal Fairies series; and Poppy the Piano Fairy is volume 1 in the Music Fairies series. The other series are Pet Fairies, Rainbow Fairies, Weather Fairies, Sports Fairies, Dance Fairies, Magical Animal Fairies, Ocean Fairies, Twilight Fairies, Showtime Fairies, and Princess Fairies. There is also a collection of books about Special Fairies for holidays like Christmas, and events like sleepovers. Some of the series are currently only available in the UK, but most are available in the US as well.
  • Daisy Meadows is obviously a pseudonym, but not just for one person. There are five authors who write the Rainbow Magic books: Narinder Dhami, Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, Marilyn Kaye and Sue Mongredien. The author of a particular volume is always thanked in the dedication at the start of the book.
  • The books are illustrated by a British woman named Georgie Ripper. According to, she has also illustrated two picture books of her own - The Little Brown Bushrat and My Best Friend Bob, as well as A Dog Called Whatnot written by Linda Newbery .
  • The books follow a very specific formula, so if you've read one, you have a general idea of what will happen in all the others. In volume 1 of a particular series, Kirsty and Rachel, the human main characters of all of the series, are informed of a crisis in Fairyland. They travel to Fairyland to investigate, and learn that Jack Frost and his goblins have stolen something of value from the fairies (jewels, flower petals, musical instruments, etc.) The girls spend the second half of book one recovering the first of 7 items. In the other 6 volumes of that series,  they continue finding the magical items while doing ordinary, everyday things such as picnicking with their parents, buying a Halloween costume, or visiting the aquarium.
  • The books don't have to be read in order. Each volume in each series recaps the events of the books preceding it so the reader always knows where she is in the action, what Kirsty and Rachel are searching for, and why. The story isn't complete, however, at the end of just one volume. The resolution of the various plots only comes from reading an entire set of 7. Books in the middle of each series don't really come to satisfying endings.
  • There is no backstory on why Kirsty and Rachel have been chosen as the fairies' friends. That drove me nuts, but it's just kind of an accepted fact among the fairies and the girls.
  • There is something for every girl in this series. The fairies are diverse in terms of looks, style of dress, and interests, and while the formula felt very forced and obvious to me, the many, many circumstances in which Kirsty and Rachel find themselves are bound to appeal to girls who wish for a little fairy magic in their own lives.
I really think only a child can appreciate books like these. I sped through them with the sole intention of getting through the book quickly so I could move onto something else, but I know many 6- and 7-year-old girls who read with urgency, dying to know how this adventure will end, and anxious to find whichever book comes next. These books are not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but these authors - and Scholastic - definitely know how to give kids what they want.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy (1974)

The Worst Witch is a children's chapter book originally published in the UK in 1974. I first learned of it from the BBC television mini-series called Picture Book, which spotlighted various children's books that have built the foundation for present-day children's literature. The show pointed out that this book was unique because it put a fantastical twist on the typical school story.
The main character is Mildred Hubbell, and she is the worst student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. Nothing she does ever seems to turn out right:

You could rely on Mildred to have her hat on back-to-front or her bootlaces trailing along the floor. She couldn't walk from one end of a corridor to the other without someone yelling at her, and nearly every night she was writing lines or being kept in (not that there was anywhere to go if you were allowed out.)

Throughout the book, Mildred has a variety of mishaps, including turning a classmate into a pig, accidentally creating an invisibility potion, and ruining the class's broomstick formation performance. After realizing that this third accident was actually orchestrated by her rival, Ethel, Mildred decides to run away.

While out in the forest, however, she stumbles upon a secret threat to Miss Cackle's Academy and must decide what to do with that secret information.

This book has many, many parallels to the Harry Potter series, to the point that if it was published today, we might label it a copycat. It's hard to say, in a post-Harry Potter world, whether this book would have been considered especially creative when it was published, or not. I certainly think kids who have read Harry Potter, and are accustomed to a lot of action in their fantasy books would probably not be as thrilled by this one. But I also think the change in setting from typical elementary and middle schools does make this a unique read. There are a lot of books about tween girls dealing with awkwardness and striving to fit in with their peers, but few of them written for this age level take place in other worlds, where magic is also a part of that struggle.

I would recommend this book especially to fans of the Araminta Spookie books, and other books about otherworldly girls. It also made me think of Deborah Hautzig's Little Witch books from back in the 1980's, (which were apparently illustrated by Marc Brown!) though it doesn't seem like many of the titles I loved are in print anymore. It would also make a really good interim read for kids who want in on the wizard craze, but just aren't ready for Harry Potter yet. Parents often ask me for HP read-alikes that are short and easier to read, and The Worst Witch definitely fits the bill.