Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (1943)

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is the last of the "younger" books of the series, and it very much represents Betsy's transition from girlhood to adolescence. Several plot points demonstrate the obvious maturity of the girls' interests, concerns, and interactions.

For the first time, in this book, Betsy's circle of friends expands beyond Tacy and Tib, and also takes in Winona. The three girls spend a significant portion of  the story trying to con Winona into using her comp theater tickets to take them to see a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though it has a happy resolution for everyone, this storyline shares much in common with the "mean girl" plotlines popular in middle grade fiction today, which often occur in stories about the middle school years.

Change is also represented by the advent of the "horseless carriage." Mr. and Mrs. Poppy, wealthy owners of  the local opera house, buy a car and Tib is lucky enough to be their first passenger. This new technology shows how the times are changing as Betsy approaches her teens, and it also introduces the influence of Mrs. Poppy, which will help Betsy's family locate a long-lost uncle and encourage Julia in her musical endeavors.

Another element of this book that really stands out is the change in Betsy's relationship to books. A Carnegie Library opens in Deep Valley, and for the first time, Betsy has access to great books and not just to dime novels. Her parents comment on the benefit of this, and Betsy immediately demonstrates a deepened commitment to her own writing. 

Though all of the series has been wonderful up to now, this book is more engaging than the earlier stories. As Betsy's life begins to take shape, her new challenges have higher stakes and more interesting outcomes. If one were trying to hook a late elementary school reader on this series, it would be wise to start with this book, as it most closely resembles contemporary middle grade fiction, and it is most likely to spark the investment in Betsy as a character that is necessary to enjoy the others of the series.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton (1962)

The Diamond in the Window is the first book in Jane Langton’s Hall Family Chronicles. Main characters Edward and Eleanor become intrigued when they learn that two children named Ned and Nora disappeared from their home’s attic bedroom years ago, and they decide to sleep there themselves and investigate. In a series of dreams, they follow Ned and Nora on a treasure hunt, occasionally spotting them, but finding it impossible to catch up. As the dreams become more intense, they realize that if they are not careful, they might meet the same end as the disappeared children, but that they also might be the only people who can save them.

The Fledgling, which is the fourth book of this series, and the first one I read, impressed me so greatly that I really expected this first book to be amazing. I was surprised, therefore, when I had trouble sticking with it. Though the mystery of the missing kids is intriguing, the way the story is told didn’t really build off of that interest. The characters seemed aware of the increasing high stakes as the story went on, but I never felt a sense of urgency, or of fear. The dreams are vivid and well-described, but somehow the structure of the story was too linear and predictable to keep me invested in the fate of the missing kids.

Another thing that surprised me in this book is the lack of explanations for themes that recur in later books. Reading the later books first led me to assume that the family’s transcendentalist ideals, and Prince Krishna’s magical abilities, would both be introduced and explained in this book. Interestingly, these two themes are treated matter-of-factly, with no more or less explanation than in any of the other books. This was perhaps another reason I had trouble connecting. I didn’t fully understand the rules of the author’s universe.

The Diamond in the Window is similar in many ways to Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle, in which a group of children have magical adventures in the world of their toys while they sleep at night. This series as a whole also shares common themes with the Willow Falls series by Wendy Mass.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace (1942)

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill is the third book of the Betsy-Tacy series, in which the three main characters, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib turn ten years old. Feeling quite grownup, the girls make their way over the big hill for the first time, exploring the interesting people and cultural experiences to be found there. In addition to making friends with a Syrian girl and defending her from racist bullies, they also fall in love with the King of Spain, perform in an Entertainment at school, and get into a huge quarrel with big sisters Julia and Katie.

It’s hard to remember as I read that these books are as old as they are. They read very much like contemporary middle grade historical fiction, and this story in particular addresses very contemporary issues. This book takes on topics like immigration, diversity, and racism and presents very progressive viewpoints on each one. There is a big emphasis on American nationalism, but there is also a deep appreciation for the roots of the girls’ Syrian neighbors, and for the customs that followed them from their home country. Though the three girls are fascinated with kings and queens, other characters in the story express different political opinions that subtly express some of the unrest that was driving immigrants from their homelands in the early 1900s.

Politics aside, this book is also notable for being the first Betsy-Tacy book with a true plot. While the first two books were more episodic, this one has several threads running through it that culminate in one satisfying conclusion. This book also introduces a bit more tension into the girls’ relationship with Julia and Katie, which adds some conflict and drama to the story without sacrificing the overall gentle wholesomeness of the series. It’s also so refreshing to read a story in which the only romance is an imagined courtship between young girls and a young king. This book assumes an innocence on the part of ten-year-old girls that is developmentally appropriate and hugely encouraging.

I love the way these books grow up along with their main characters. I believe this is part of why they are perennially popular - readers can follow Betsy to adulthood, and then pass the books on to their children to begin the cycle all over again. I’m looking forward to seeing what new and interesting things twelve-year-old Betsy, Tacy, and Tib will do in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia's Chosen Career by Lois Lowry (1987)

In school, Anastasia has been given an assignment to interview someone who works in her chosen career field, and to write an essay. Anastasia has decided to become a bookstore owner, so in addition to getting her father to set up an appointment for her with one of his bookseller friends, she also enrolls in a modeling class to learn poise and self-confidence. From these two experiences, Anastasia gains several things: a new (female) friend named Henry, a chance to see her old friend Robert Giannini, an appreciation for much of the thanklessness of running an independent bookstore, and an understanding that she will never be a real model (and that this is perfectly okay with her.)

Lois Lowry has created such a wonderfully three-dimensional character in Anastasia that at this point, I truly believe I would enjoy seeing her go through any experience. Anastasia’s thought processes about things like choosing a career are funny and honest, and they manage to be easily relatable and completely original at the same time. I also like that Anastasia’s parents are involved in her life but give her the freedom to travel by bus to Boston on her own.

Anastasia’s Chosen Career strikes me as one of the easier books in the series to promote to today’s readers. This is mainly because of its connections to TV shows about modeling and makeovers. Though Anastasia’s modeling experience is mostly for fun, there is another girl in her class who is very serious about it and whose experience reminds me a lot of what happens to girls on America’s Next Top Model, especially when it comes to some of their dramatic haircuts.

Another issue in the book that is even more significant today than it was when it was first published is the struggles of independent book stores. Lowry does a nice job of raising some of the problems faced by small book stores, and through Anastasia’s comments and questions, she provides a great opportunity for kids to reflect on the ways bookstores are being replaced by larger companies.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: The Fragile Flag by Jane Langton (1984)

The Fragile Flag is the fifth book in the Hall Family Chronicles series, following the 1981 Newbery Honor Book, The Fledgling. The President of the United States has decided to reinvent the American flag as a flashier, tackier emblem of his new vision for the United States, which involves, among other things, launching a peace missile into space to protect the country from nuclear destruction by other nations. He has challenged schoolchildren across the country to write letters describing what the American flag means to them; one winner from each state will then be invited to be the official White House flag bearer. Georgie Hall, whose entire family is disturbed by the peace missile, falls ill and misses the deadline for mailing her letter. Deciding its contents - her plea against the missile - are too important for the president not to read, she sets off for the White House on foot. At first, Georgie is accompanied only by a flag from the attic, which occasionally provides her with visions of the future, and just a few companions. As she marches from Massachusetts to Washington, however, more groups join in, and the march gains media attention. The president becomes increasingly alarmed by the size of the group and finds himself faced with the uncomfortable possibility of arguing about nuclear weapons with countless children.

This book is very much a story of the Cold War, but though it deals specifically with nuclear weapons, its message can appeal to a much broader audience. At its heart, this is a story about kids banding together to accomplish something none of them could do on their own. The most enjoyable part of the story, for me, is watching the way the kids organize themselves, each one taking on the role best suited to his or her skills and personality. The descriptions of the conditions as the kids walk through heat and rain, and sleep in fields and church halls, make the reader feel as though he or she is right there with them on the march. Especially wonderful are characters like Georgie’s best friend, Frieda, who leads the troops with a clipboard and megaphone and baby Carrington, who rides the length of the march in his little stroller. The story is farfetched, and even the author’s note suggests it might not be wise to try such a feat in real life, but the message that good people coming together can create change is no less powerful for the fact that such a thing might not actually happen.

The Fragile Flag is very different in tone from The Fledgling, and from the books that follow it, The Time Bike (2000) and The Mysterious Circus (2005). Though I have enjoyed the other Hall family books so far, this one was probably the most enjoyable to read, and the one I would be most likely to read a second time. Like most of the other books in the series, The Fragile Flag is out of print, and it’s becoming harder to find in libraries, but I think it’s a really interesting way to introduce young readers to some of the issues of the Cold War and a great read-alike for Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Definitely worth a thorough reading if you can find a copy.