Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy's Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace (1955)

Betsy's Wedding is the final book in the Betsy-Tacy series, and at long last, Betsy and Joe have their happy ending. The story follows the couple through their short engagement, whirlwind wedding and the early months of marriage, right up until the United States enters World War I.

The early books of the series set me up to expect warmth and comfort from every story about Betsy. Oddly enough, it is this final book, which should wrap things up nicely, that has left me feeling the most uncertain and least satisfied. While I could relate to Betsy's concerns about learning to cook and keep house, I had a hard time buying into the speed with which the wedding itself was planned. I also didn't really believe the ease with which Joe is able to find a job. There is also something very wistful about the ending, where the men are preparing to join the armed forces. Though Lovelace's biography suggests what probably happened to each of the characters, it is still unsettling to end the series without knowing definitively that Joe comes home from war and that Betsy has a child of her own. For me, this is one of the few books for which a neatly tied up ending would have been acceptable, and I was surprised and disappointed not to get one.

It was a pleasure to see Tacy, Tib, and the others as adults, and to see how their friendship matured with age. Especially delightful is the sequence during which Tacy and Betsy try to get Tib married off, for fear that she will be an old maid. It is reminiscent of many of the capers they involved themselves in as children, which is a nice touch. I just wish there had been more of these cozy, carefree storylines and less heavy adult themes. Perhaps I just don't want fictional kids to ever grow up!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace (1952)

Three years have passed since Betsy's high school graduation,and a case of appendicitis has put her a full year of college behind her Deep Valley friends. Realizing their daughter is not getting what she wants from her education, the Rays decide to give Betsy  the opportunity to travel abroad and gain some life experience to help with her writing. While in Europe, Betsy's small-town naivete is shaken as she meets a variety of new people and witnesses the first stirrings of World War I.

Of the entire series, I like this book the least, if only because it is so utterly different. Almost none of the story takes place in the familiar Ray family home, so the supporting characters who make the the series so warm and special only appear in occasional memories and letters from home. New characters abound as Betsy travels through Europe, but though they are charming - and even memorable - it's hard to love them as much as her long-time friends.

This book also concerns itself much more with specific historical events than earlier books, which gives it a bit of a different flavor. Though this is probably due to the fact that the story is semi-autobiographical, the references to events which the reader knows will lead to World War I contribute to the sense of Betsy's maturity as she becomes an adult. Only Betsy's abiding affection for Joe seems to remain from her younger days, but even her feelings for him are more mature as she travels than they are in any of the prior books.

Interestingly, Betsy and The Great World reminds me of Alice on Board, the second to last book of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series. Both books take young adult characters beyond the high school years, on cruise ships, giving them new experiences beyond the home environment with which the readers are most familiar. Though Lovelace's treatment of Betsy's story is better written, it still feels as though both series should have just ended with high school graduation. Perhaps if Betsy and the Great World weren't a part of such an established series about which I already had specific expectations, I would have enjoyed it more, but as part of the series, it was a bit of a let-down.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Review: Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson (1958)

Henry Reed, the son of diplomats, is an American citizen, but he hasn't spent much time in the United States. This summer, however, he will be staying with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Though Aunt Mabel and Uncle Al expect their nephew to be bored in their quiet neighborhood, Henry immediately starts to liven things up when he launches Henry Reed, Inc., his own research company. Together with Midge, a girl in the neighborhood, he begins gathering animals to sell, offering services to the locals, and in every spare moment trying to catch Midge's runaway rabbit, all while staying away from the grumpy man next door who would prefer never to see or hear from Henry.

This is a series I completely missed as a kid, and I think, had I read them, I would not have been a fan. While my adult sensibilities love to read about clever pranks told in Henry's facetious tone, my younger self would have preferred more traditionally "girly" stories. This is why I think this book is a perfect choice for a reader who wants a real "boy story." Henry's voice as he writes his adventures in his journal is strongly masculine, and his summer adventures involve dirt, animals, tinkering, and goofing around in ways that are very boyish. As Beverly Cleary does in Strider, Keith Robertson really gets inside the mind of a young teenage boy and creates a believable and likable character.

Some things - particularly Robert McCloskey's illustrations and the utter lack of modern technology - date the book to the 1950s, but there is a Penderwicksian feeling of timelessness that transcends the time period and keeps the story feeling fresh and relevant even today. If you want to encourage skeptical young readers to pick up this book despite its age, emphasize the format (a diary just like Greg Heffley's!) and the sense of humor (think Gary Paulsen's Kevin Spencer.) Once readers are hooked, be prepared to also share the sequels to Henry Reed, Inc.: Henry Reed's Journey (1963), Henry Reed's Babysitting Service (1966), Henry Reed's Big Show (1970), and Henry Reed's Think Tank (1986).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Attaboy, Sam! by Lois Lowry (1992)

In his second book, Sam Krupnik wants to give his mother a birthday gift so wonderful that she won't be able to help but say, "Attaboy, Sam!" He decides to concoct a perfume consisting of all of Mrs. Krupnik's favorite smells, but does not count on the chemical reaction this will cause in the toy box where he mixes the potion.

Like Anastasia Ask Your Analyst (the book where Anastasia and Sam hide a family of gerbils from their mother) this story is laugh-out-loud funny. Sam's earnest tone and good intentions will make the readers sympathize with his desire to please his mom, but also make them nervous, as they will be able to guess at the inevitably messy outcome of his project. There is also much to be learned about smells - and about Mrs. Krupnik's character - from reading this book.

I think Attaboy Sam would be a perfect first chapter book to read aloud to a kindergartener or first grader and also a good family read-aloud for kids of varying ages. Even parents can appreciate Sam's antics, even if only because they are grateful not to have such a "creative" child themselves! Unlike many other series, whose quality tapers off with each successive volume, this one soldiers on through volume after volume without faltering. There are only three books left about the Krupniks, and I think I'll be sad to be finished.