Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1944)

The Hundred Dresses is a short realistic fiction novella by Eleanor Estes that received a Newbery Honor in 1945. It is a story, based in part on the author’s childhood, about the impact of bullies. Wanda Petronski is a poor Polish-American immigrant, who comes to school each day in the same clean but shabby blue dress. One day, when her classmates tease her for her unusual last name and style of dress, Wanda claims to have one hundred dresses all hanging in her closet From then on, Peggy and her best friend, Maddie, ask Wanda every day how many dresses she has, punishing with their taunting her for what they know must be a lie. It is only when Wanda’s family leaves town to escape the cruelty of their neighbors that Maddie - who is the story’s main character - feels a sense of remorse for what she has done.

Though some things make it clear that this story is not set in the present day, for the most part, I was amazed at how well this book holds up 67 years after it was first published. Entire lifetimes have come and gone since the book was first written, and yet kids still need to learn the same hard lessons. The relationship between Maddie and her best friend, Peggy, who leads most of the teasing, reminds me of so many friendships I have read about in children’s fiction. Peggy can be likened to Wendy, who makes whale jokes about Linda in Judy Blume’s Blubber, or even to Jennifer in E.L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, who makes demands upon Elizabeth to prove their friendship. Today’s “mean girls,” who appear in practically every middle grade novel about female friendship, all seem to follow in the footsteps of Estes’s Peggy. I tend to think of bullying as a new phenomenon, because we talk about it more nowadays than ever before, but this book reminds everyone - kids and adults - that cruelty has been around for a long, long time.

Just after I finished reading The Hundred Dresses, I read on School Library Journal that the Open Circle Program at the Wellesley Centers for Women has named it the number one best book for Kids’ Social and Emotional Learning. I instantly understood why. Reading books helps kids become more empathetic - reading books about bullying helps kids step into the shoes of both bully and victim and hopefully gets them thinking about why they would not want to be cruel to a classmate. I certainly don’t think books alone will combat the problem of bullying, or provide a complete emotional and social education, but this book is a perfect choice for getting the conversation started and for getting kids to think critically about their behavior. By taking a kid’s eye view of a real-life bullying situation, it gets away from the preachy tone of well-meaning adults and instead give kids the power to make the right choices, and to make amends when they do the wrong thing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Book Review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle (1978)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Based on comments here and on Goodreads, I expected to like this book, but I can’t believe how disappointing it was.

It is Thanksgiving, and a pregnant Meg Murry is celebrating the holiday at her parents’ house with all of her brothers and her mother-in-law, Mrs. O’Keefe, while Calvin is away at a conference. The phone rings and Meg’s father receives the news that Mad Dog Branzillo is about to wage nuclear war on the world. Mrs O’Keefe, who is typically not very social, suddenly turns to Charles Wallace, recites an Irish rune, and informs him that he must be the one to save the world from nuclear destruction. Charles Wallace wanders out to the star-watching rock, and meets Gaudior, a flying unicorn who will help Charles Wallace travel through time and go “within” various members of Mad Dog Branzillo’s family. If he can find out where one of them went wrong, he should be able to keep Mad Dog Branzillo from blowing things up. In the meantime, so as not to be left completely out of the action, Meg lies in bed with a newly found dog and kythes with Charles Wallace.

There are so many problems with this book that I find it hard to even summarize it without making fun of it. Some of them are minor - such as the fact that the government would call Mr. Murry to tell him the world’s about to blow up, and he would react so calmly and matter-of-factly, and carry on with Thanksgiving dinner, or the fact that Meg, formerly our heroine, is such a passive part of the plot, lying in bed and watching from a distance. I probably could have ignored just these small issues, but there is a whole host of major flaws that make it impossible for me to enjoy the story on any level.

Time travel, for example, is suddenly the easiest thing in the world. Just jump into the wind and let it take you where it wants you to go! A Wrinkle in Time spent time building Meg’s world and explaining how tesseracts operate. To suddenly describe time travel like it’s no big deal cheapens its significance in the first book of the series. I will admit that I’m not naturally a fantasy or science fiction reader and that I don’t like being asked to suspend my disbelief, but this just seems like lazy writing.

Names are also an issue. Every character in Mad Dog Branzillo’s family line has a name that is a variation on someone else’s name from the past. This is obviously meant to highlight the connections between generations, which is interesting, but it takes Charles Wallace, a child genius, nearly the entire novel to figure out that these names are all connected, while I had it figured out very early on. It’s fine to throw in all these connections; it’s silly to assume that the reader won’t notice them, or that Meg and Charles Wallace would need a long time to decode them. The story should not hinge so heavily on a revelation that is right in front of us the whole time.

Even Mrs. O’Keefe’s rune poem started grating on my nerves. Phrases like “the snow with its whiteness” and “the rocks with their steepness” sound very childish, and I had a hard time buying into the idea that reciting these words could have any impact on anything. I understand L’Engle’s desire to connect the natural world to the events and people of the world, but there isn’t enough in the story to explain how steepness, whiteness, deepness, or starkness actually help Charles Wallace. This rune is apparently based on an Irish prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which makes me wonder why L’Engle didn’t just use the original instead of writing her own.

I am so glad to have this book behind me. Thank goodness this isn’t the first L’Engle book I ever picked up, and or it most assuredly would have been my last. A Wrinkle in Time is a wonderful book, but so far none of the others in the quintet have been able to live up to it. I’m very glad that the next book on my list is A Ring of Endless Light. After all this time being irritated by the Murry O-Keefes, I’ll be thankful to be back amongst the Austins.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: The Birds' Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1886)

Born on Christmas Day, Carol is the youngest member of the Bird family and the only girl. At age ten, she is gravely ill and confined to her bed, expected not to live much longer. Rather than pitying herself, however, Carol is ever mindful of the needs of others, particularly her next door neighbors, the Ruggles family. On the day that turns out to be her last Christmas, Carol hosts a Christmas party for the Ruggles children, complete with dinner and gifts, which the Ruggleses could not have afforded to get for themselves.

This is a saccharine holiday story that would make a perfect Hallmark movie. Only two things prevent it from being unbearable - the language, which is beautiful, especially to read aloud, and the characterization of the Ruggles brood, which is both humorous and sweet.  The story's message of love and giving is very transparent, and only a reader who has never read a book before would be able to read the first couple of chapters without guessing at the ending. Carol has absolutely no flaws outside of her health problems, and her acts of constant charity with no regard for personal gain are admirable, but not very believable. There is something irritating about a perfect fictional child, even one who is very sick, and I think most kids would find Carol pretty dull, even if they might like to attend her party. 

The Ruggleses, though, are more down to earth. Like the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, they lack many of the social graces and luxuries Carol has been given, and their reaction to a formal dinner is one of nervousness and confusion. Their mother warns them to use their best manners, but as most children do from time to time, they manage to forget much of what she told them when they're in the moment. Of everything in the story, kids will relate to these characters most closely, which might make them feel irritated, as I did, that Carol looks upon the Ruggleses with such pity. Their is a definite sense of condescension toward the "less fortunate" in this book that somewhat cheapens the holiday spirit of the story. I'm all for promoting selfless giving, but this book takes it to an extreme.

Christmas books are, by definition, somewhat hokey, and the strength of the author's writing abilities really makes this a story worth reading, even if the drama of it all is somewhat over the top. Keep tissues on hand, as even the most stoic reader is likely to be moved to tears, but also expect to groan in certain places at Carol's purely perfect behavior and personality.  (And please note that for all my complaining, I did give this book five stars on Goodreads. It reads like a classic, and I can forgive it for a lot of its flaws because it's truly a story from another time period, and because it's just so well written.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Review: Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L'Engle (1976)

Dragons in the Waters was published in 1976, three years after A Wind in the Door. Though Poly O’Keefe, her brother Charles, and their father, Dr. O’Keefe, all have a role in the story, the protagonist is a young man named Simon Renier. Simon lives with his aging Aunt Leonis, who took him in after the death of his parents, but at the start of the story, he embarks upon a journey with Forsyth Phair, an apparent long lost cousin. Phair has purchased a valuable portrait of Simon Bolivar from Aunt Leonis, and in order to donate it to a museum, he and Simon must travel to Venezuela aboard a ship called the Orion. Though the other passengers on the Orion - including the O’Keefes - are nice people, Simon begins to feel uneasy as the journey begins. Cousin Forsyth is very cold toward him, and Poly and Charles both caution him against trusting the man. By the time the ship reaches port, someone will have tried to kill Simon, and Cousin Forsyth himself will be dead.

In some ways, this book reads like a Nancy Drew Mystery. A bunch of interesting characters are thrown together in an exotic location and the reader, along with the amateur sleuth, must solve the case. But this book takes on so much more than the average murder mystery, after a while it becomes almost impossible to keep track of each thread of the story. Issues at play include Simon’s lineage and his connection to the Quiztano Indians of Dragonlake, a passenger’s gambling addiction, and another’s past as a smuggler, Charles’s ability to explore places in his dreams, Poly’s obsession with St. George and her hope that he will always be there to defeat dragons real and imaginary, Dr. O’Keefe’s desire to clean Dragonlake of poison, Aunt Leonis’s mortality, and on top of all those, the murder mystery itself. Some might argue that these many threads make the story more layered and more sophisticated, but instead they are just distracting. Characters like the O’Keefes, and Mr. Theo, and Canon Tallis seem randomly thrown into the story simply because they exist, and I’m not sure why this story couldn’t have been told from Simon’s point of view without any of them. Yes, fans like making connections between the books, but it’s not enough to just throw in a familiar character for the sake of name recognition. I felt like they needed stronger connections to the main plot.

I continue to dislike Poly, who is so full of light and happiness she doesn’t seem real. What made her mother, Meg, so appealing in A Wrinkle in Time is her ordinariness, and her concerns about being ordinary. Her flaws become her strengths and make it possible for her to be a hero. Poly seems to have no flaws, and on top of that, she shows off and even brags about her specialness sometimes! And Charles is so much like Charles Wallace, but not as well-developed and therefore not as other-worldly or interesting. I keep waiting for her to do something that makes her feel more real, and more like a heroine, but she’s too good to be true. It also annoys me how little Meg and Calvin as adults resemble themselves as teens. Meg’s mother, Meg herself, and Mrs. Austin all seem interchangeable with one another, and Dr. O’Keefe and Mr. Austin may as well be the same character, as all they do is worry and talk about science.

I think L’Engle’s strengths really lie in the science fiction arena. The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Waters play at being suspenseful mystery novels, but they try to be too many other things as well. I liked many of the characters in this book - especially Simon and Aunt Leonis - but the story goes in so many directions, we never end up at a destination. Those reading the Murry/O’Keefe/Austin books in publication order, as I am, might not want to miss it, but on its own, I think Dragons in the Waters is kind of a disappointment for mystery readers and science fiction readers because it never fully becomes either one.