Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Review: Eddie and Gardenia by Carolyn Haywood (1951)

Eddie loves his goat, Gardenia, but when she chews the roof off of Father's new car, there's no way she can keep living with the family in their suburban neighborhood. Eddie writes to his uncle Ed to ask him to take Gardenia to live on his Texas ranch. Uncle Ed happily agrees- and he invites Eddie to the ranch for a few weeks to learn how to be a cowboy.  In Texas, Eddie receives lessons from his aunt, pals around with his cousin, learns some Spanish from a Mexican ranch hand, and even proves himself to be a true cowboy worthy of his very own spurs.

I have always loved Carolyn Haywood, but the characters I knew best as a child were Betsy and her sister, Star. In my continuing efforts to explore more books published in the 1950s, I decided to give this one a try, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Eddie and his ranch adventure. Eddie is an upbeat, well-behaved character, whose heart is always in the right place, and whose attitude is one of hopeful excitement. He is just daring enough to capture the attention of small boys who long for adventure, but he is never mischievous or disrespectful, which is something many parents who visit my library specifically look for in children's book protagonists. His adventures are exciting, especially to kids who have never visited a ranch, but they are also totally plausible. Nothing happens to Eddie that couldn't conceivably happen to any child in his same situation.

Carolyn Haywood's writing style also does not disappoint. The details she uses to describe Eddie's train trip to Texas, the ranch itself, and Eddie's experiences driving, feeding "dogies" and riding ponies are extremely vivid. Even without the book in front of me, I can envision much of what happened to Eddie, almost as though I were there.

Kids who love gentle realistic stories with adventures that are exciting but stick close to home, will adore Eddie. This book is reminiscent of other contemporary chapter books with male protagonists, including the Martin Bridge, Alvin Ho, and  Justin Case series. Eddie also reminds me quite a bit of Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins, and Johanna Hurwitz's Russell.  Eddie and Gardenia is the third of sixteen titles about Eddie. The others include Little Eddie, Eddie and the Fire Engine, Eddie's Menagerie, and Eddie's Friend Boodles. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: McBroom Tells the Truth by Sid Fleischman (1966)

In the tradition of American tall tales comes the story of Josh McBroom, his wife, Melissa, and their family of eleven red-headed children. Swindled by Hector "Heck" Jones, McBroom hands over his last ten dollars in exchange for a marshy pond eight acres deep. He figures he's completely doomed, but his luck changes when the pond suddenly dries up  and everything he plants on the farm grows at record speed. Heck Jones would do anything to go back on the deal he made with McBroom, but the McBroom family is too smart for that!

This story is a fun tale of good triumphing over evil against all odds. Kids as young as four can appreciate the silliness of McBroom's good fortune, and they will love cheering him on against mischievous Heck. The repetition of the kids' names as one continuous word - "Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda - is a fun aspect of  the story and one that would make it an instant read-aloud hit with any group of early elementary schoolers. I also like that each of the kids has a signature move that he or she does each time the family gets excited about something. Nose twitching, arm flapping, and teeth whistling are great actions that kids listening to the story could even try to imitate. 

Kids love to be silly, and they love to feel like they are in on a great joke. This book understands that natural inclination and plays with it, giving kids a great story that will inevitably give them the giggles. Recommend McBroom to  readers who have loved stories about Pecos Bill and Library Lil, and to readers with wild imaginations who enjoyed The Stories Julian Tells and love to spin yarns of their own. Other McBroom stories are also available, including McBroom and the Big Wind, McBroom's Ear, and McBroom's Ghost.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright (1957)

Portia is excited to spend the summer with her cousin, Julian, but she never expects that they will discover an abandoned lakeside community, or that they will make friends with a pair of elderly siblings who still inhabit two of the rundown houses. At Gone-Away Lake, as their friends Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pindar call it, Portia and Julian discover life as it was 50 years ago, while having their own summer of modern-day adventures they will never forget.

In this book, as in The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright celebrates childhood independence. Whereas the Melendy kids explore New York City unsupervised, with just their allowance to pay their way, Portia and Julian are given free rein in the country, where they can enjoy the secret of a forgotten village, and make new friends without sharing them with their parents or with Portia's little brother, Foster. Especially interesting about this story are the connections Portia and Julian feel to Minnehaha and Pindar as children. They never tire of hearing about their friends' fights, friendships, and adventures, and they engage with those stories so fully that they are inspired to create a club of their own in the hopes of recapturing some of that fun and excitement.

Some things about this book bothered me. I couldn't quite buy into the notion that an entire group of fairly wealthy families would abandon not just their homes, but all the contents of those homes, and never return for them. I thought this might be explained at some point, but it never was, and I was distracted by the feeling that there should have been some big reveal of the "truth" about Gone-Away. I also couldn't help but feel that Minnehaha and Pindar  were living like Miss Havisham - waiting for the return of a day that would never be again. Perhaps this was intentional, as I think Portia and Julian breathe some fresh air into the lives of the two older people. Still, I wanted the characters in the story to feel disturbed as I did, and instead they were almost too accepting of the whole strange scenario.

That said, this is a well-written book full of interesting situations, well-described characters and settings, and everything a child wants in a summer story. I am not surprised that it was a Newbery Honor book in 1958, and I think, of the Newberys I've read, it's one of the older ones that still holds up well enough for contemporary audiences. It is similar in some ways to Miracles on Maple Hill - both books are even illustrated by the same artists, Joe and Beth Krush - and I think it also compares well to the Swallows and Amazons books, A Lemon and a Star, and The Railway Children. There is also a sequel, Return to Gone-Away, published in 1961.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reading Through History: A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman (1955)

A few weeks ago, after reading Miracles on Maple Hill, I realized that while I enjoy children's novels from the 1950s, I have read very few. This inspired a visit to my local library with the specific goal of choosing some Old School Sunday reading material published in the 50s. A Lemon and a Star was a particularly exciting discovery both because I had never heard of it before, and because it ended up being such a great story.

A Lemon and a Star is about the four Cares children - Theodore (Ted), Hubert, Jane, and Edith (Edie), who live with their widower father and his household staff in Summerton, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. Because they have no mother, and because they are each mischievous little people, the Cares kids run rampant around the countryside, getting into fights, falling into the reservoir, capturing foxes, wallowing in mud and even occasionally sneaking into the city by train. Much of their time is spent bribing each other into keeping information from their dad, and in trying to keep Edie happy so she doesn't spoil all their plans before they even get off the ground. They have their own codes of loyalty and friendship, and their own ideas about how the world works, and they employ these rules as they look after themselves and each other.

Like Swallows and Amazons and The Boxcar Children, this book is appealing because it shows kids on their own doing things for themselves. The Cares children are not as responsible as John and Susan Walker, or as Henry and Jessie Alden, but that just adds to the fun of the reading experience. Most kids - whether they grow up in the early 1900s, the mid 1950s, or the early 2010s - will never have the freedom given to the Cares kids, and it's a lot of fun to live vicariously through them as their adventures unfold. I also think kids like to be shocked by the bad behavior of other kids, even if it the behaviors are not something they would do themselves. My husband and I read this book within a few days of each other, and as we discussed it, we just kept laughing and saying, "They're so bad!" Our enjoyment of their behavior reminded me a lot of reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Nobody wants to act like the Herdmans, but everyone wants to know what they'll do next. The same is true for Ted, Hubert, Jane, and Edie.

For a book about so much mischief, the writing is very beautiful. Images of the red house where the family lives, the reservoirs full of sparkling water, and Ted's black eye after a fight are just a few of the moments in this book that bring it fully to life and make it so easy to imagine really being in Summerton watching these kids playing. The personalities of the four kids come across very well. Ted is portrayed as the frustrated oldest child who is stubborn and annoyed by his younger siblings. Edie is the spoiled baby of the family who can be bought but not controlled. Hubert and Jane fall somewhere in the middle, trying to do the right thing and keep their father happy, but also endlessly fascinated by thir older brother and filled with concern for him when he is in danger. Every child reader can find a character to sympathize with in every scene.

Like many books for kids published in the 1950s, A Lemon and a Star is a great celebration of the adventures kids can have in their own backyards. It makes a nice read-alike for The Moffats, The Railway Children, and Swallows and Amazons, as well as for books by Carolyn Haywood and Beverly Cleary. Though I think they will be somewhat hard to find, I hope to track down and read the other three books in this series: The Wild Angel, Terrible, Horrible Edie and Edie on the Warpath, all of which sound wonderful.