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The great thing about Santa Claus stories is that they never really go out of date.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.