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.