Otto: A Palindrama by Jon Agee

January 15th, 2023

Although Otto is published by Dial Books for Young Readers, I think this “palindromic graphic novel” would be fun for readers of all ages who like wordplay. As others have mentioned, most of the book is a kind of daydream/reverie/fantasy journey, which means the plot doesn’t have to make a ton of sense, but that didn’t bother me: I’m here for the text, which is totally made up of palindromes. At the start of the book we see Otto’s parents in the kitchen; his dad is making soup. When Otto is called to the table his dad tells him to eat (“Nosh, son”) but Otto is entranced by the steam rising from his bowl. We’re transported to a beach scene, where Otto’s dog, Pip, gets lost while chasing another beachgoer. The beach leads to a desert, which leads to a road, which leads to a city, which leads to a cemetery, which leads back to the ocean, which leads back to the dining table—none of which is the point, really. I like Agee’s art, but the palindromes are really the draw. When Otto catches a ride to the city of Grubsburg, all the license plates and signs on trucks and billboards are palindromes—from “Walsh’s Irish Slaw” to “Regal Lager” and “Octet Co” and more. There’s a bookstore where all the covers on display are palindromic, and Otto finds himself at one point in a “Mueseum” (yes, that is a bit of a cheat) that has a “Moore Room” and a “Koons Nook”, all of which I find totally charming.

I found out about this book thanks to Neil Pasricha’s post about the best books he read in 2022, and I’m really delighted to have read it!

I’d been meaning to read The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street since it came out in 2017, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to it, despite the fact that this style of middle-grade novel is totally my jam. If you like Elizabeth Enright’s books about the Melendy family, or Jeanne Birdsall’s books about the Penderwicks, you will probably like this book too—and this book is a great pre-Christmas read, if that’s something you’re currently looking for.

When the book opens, it’s December 20th and the Vanderbeekers are all “gathered in the living room for a family meeting”: their parents have some bad news to deliver, which is that their landlord, Mr. Beiderman (who lives on the top floor of the building where the Vanderbeekers have been living for the past several years) has declined to renew their lease, which means they need to move by the end of the month. The five kids (four girls and a boy, ranging in age from four-and-three-quarters to twelve years old) are dismayed: they love their home, and their Harlem neighborhood (which is where their dad grew up, too) and they definitely do not want to move. And so the plot is set in motion: Isa, who’s twelve, says it plainly: “I figure we have until Christmas to convince the Beiderman to let us stay.” But how can they convince a man who seems to dislike kids and noise (and who hasn’t left his apartment in six years) to keep their big (and sometimes raucous) family (complete with a Basset Hound, a cat, and a house rabbit) on as tenants?

Without saying much more about the plot, I will say this book is totally charming. It made me grin a lot, and also made me teary-eyed more than once. I love all the kids and their personalities. The oldest kids are twin sisters Isa and Jessie—one of whom loves playing the violin, the other of whom loves science. Then there’s Oliver, who’s nine: he likes basketball and reading. Hyacinth, who is six, loves animals and making things (whether that’s sewing or knitting or making things out of cardboard or paper or making peanut butter dog treats, with her mom’s help). And then there’s Laney, who loves people and also loves her pet rabbit. (I was not surprised to read a bio that described the author of this book as living “in Harlem with her husband, two daughters, dog, cat, and house rabbit”: from the way she describes Laney’s rabbit as “hopping in bizarre patterns around the living room carpet, periodically flinging himself into the air and spinning as if auditioning for a Broadway show” and then describes watching the rabbit “nibble on a stack of books,” I strongly suspected she was writing from personal experience of living with a bunny.)

I borrowed this book from my mother-in-law, who recently bought (and read) the whole series—I borrowed the rest of the books, too, and I’m excited to read them all.

The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken

August 12th, 2022

I went into The Stolen Lake expecting something like Nightbirds on Nantucket: an alternate-history romp with some peril for our heroine Dido Twite, but with humor and an expectation of a happy ending. The Stolen Lake felt much darker, with Dido as resourceful as ever but also sadder and in what felt like greater danger. (I mean: there are some *moments* in Nightbirds on Nantucket, but in that book I never doubted that the villains would see their plot foiled or that everything would be OK for Dido and her companions.)

In this one: Dido’s on her way back to England, finally, but the ship she’s on is diverted to South America, which is Roman America in this world, because in Aiken’s alternate history some of the ancient Britons and Romans migrated there when the Saxons invaded Britain. The captain has received a message by carrier pigeon telling him to go to New Cumbria and assist its monarch. The message is vague but there’s been “some attack, some invasion”: “Something has been taken from the queen.” As you might guess from the title, that something turns out to be a lake, and Dido and her companions are enlisted to get it back. But there are frightening things going on in New Cumbria, and they’re not all related to the country’s dangerous wild animals (though there are things called aurochs, which are described as “huge hairy tusked birds, larger than horses, which can snatch up a grown man in their talons).

After some early humor (the captain says to Dido that she seems “to know nothing about anything except navigation and how to cut up whales”; we learn that the ship’s steward “had attended butlers’ school in London; part of the course consisted of half an hour’s poker-face work every morning) the book turns more serious. It’s not just the lake that has been stolen: a princess from a neighboring kingdom is missing, presumed kidnapped by the queen of New Cumbria. Who, by the way, says she’s waiting for her husband, King Arthur (yes, that one) to return. (Maybe I would have had more fun with this if I were more familiar with/into Arthurian legend.)

While this one isn’t my favorite book in this series, I do look forward to reading the rest, and there were some things I liked about this one—like the descriptions of the landscapes that Dido and her companions travel through, which feature volcanoes and an abandoned city and “fantastic snow-covered peaks, and pinnacles like spectral cities of ice.”

I recently acquired a copy of The Stolen Lake, which is the fourth book in Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles”, and it prompted me to check out this book, which is the third in the series, from the library. Nightbirds on Nantucket is totally bonkers, and totally excellent. It opens on a ship at sea in the Arctic; a girl is asleep on deck and we learn she’s “been asleep for more than ten months”. She wakes, and turns out to be Dido Twite from Blackhearts in Battersea: this ship, a whaling vessel out of Nantucket, picked her up from the water where she’d been clinging to the mast of a wrecked ship and she’s been along for the ride with them ever since. The ship Dido’s on belongs to Captain Casket, a Quaker whaler who is “funny in one way, awful peculiar”: he says he’s seen a pink whale, and, moreover, he “forever had this notion that one day he would see one—on account of summat as happened when he was a boy.”

Dido just wants to go home to London, but that’s not in the cards, at least not immediately: the boat isn’t heading to port anytime soon, and when it does go ashore it’ll be in America, not England. She has a project, at least: she learns that the captain’s wife died on board, and his young daughter, Dutiful Penitence, has shut herself up in her cabin: the captain wonders whether Dido might be able to persuade her to come out. Meanwhile, the first mate seems to be up to something shady, and the ship is still in pursuit of that elusive pink whale.

Dido’s approach to getting Dutiful Penitence (or Pen, as she comes to be known) to emerge from her self-imposed isolation is excellent, and I love the way Dido also tries to teach Pen to be more independent and resourceful and less of a scaredy-cat. (To wit: “By innumerable tales about her own life Dido was managing to suggest that all dogs do not bite, that occupations such as skating and swimming can be enjoyable, that people tend to be friendlier when you talk to them boldly and cheerfully than when you cower away as if you expect them to murder you.”) But plotwise, there’s a whole lot more going on: the world of this book is a world in which the House of Hanover has not taken the British monarchy, though Hanoverians are constantly scheming to overthrow the Stuart king James III. And some of those Hanoverians might have a plan that involves the island of Nantucket. When Dido and Pen are sent ashore to live with Pen’s Aunt Tribulation (whom Pen remembers being terrified of as a a child) they find themselves with more to worry about than the endless list of farm chores and house chores they’re told to do.

Dido is a whole lot of fun and it’s great to watch Pen learn to do things on her own; the supporting characters are also excellent: among other’s there’s a Nantucket boy named Nate (who likes to sing songs of his own devising: “I allus used to make up verses at home, about sheep and funerals, you know, and pickled tamarinds and so forth,” he explains), a bird that spouts pro-Stuart sayings, and a professor working on a project he thinks will produce a “magnifibang.”

At one point in this middle-grade novel one of the characters remarks on how it’s weird to be living in a “crazy maybe haunted, maybe spy-filled castle in Scotland,” and yeah, this book is quite the mix of things. It’s 1940 and Kat Bateson and her two siblings are sent to a castle somewhere north of Edinburgh so they won’t be in London in the midst of the Blitz: a relative of her great-aunt’s has a wife who’s started a school in their castle, for evacuee children. But it’s clear to Kat from the start that something is “off” about Lady Eleanor and the rest of the castle’s inhabitants. And it’s not particularly reassuring to be told things upon arrival like “The Lady insists we lock you in at night” and “If you hear any odd noises, it’s nothing. Castles as old as this are filled with odd noises.” The reader, meanwhile, is given the whole backstory, from 1746 onwards, which involves a magical chatelaine and the stealing of children’s souls. Meanwhile, the kids find “a secret hiding place” with “something—or someone—locked inside that makes terrible shrieky noises”: a prisoner? a ghost? or something more rational but maybe more dangerous … like the short-wave radio of a Nazi spy? I like how Kat, who likes to spend “time with facts and figures and puzzles” (and who’s initially convinced there’s a rational explanation for everything) ultimately finds herself having not only to believe in magic, but to use it. I probably would have been freaked out by this book as a kid—I found it pretty creepy even as an adult, while also finding the plot totally engrossing.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club was the 1950s sapphic coming of age story I didn’t know I needed, and was such an engrossing read for me. In the prologue we meet Lily, who’s 13 and with her family at a 4th of July celebration/Miss Chinatown pageant in San Francisco; Lily feels “as if she shouldn’t be caught looking at those girls in their swimsuits,” though she can’t articulate why. The narrative then jumps forward four years to a scene of Lily and her friend Shirley: Shirley is showing Lily an ad for her family’s restaurant in the newspaper, but what catches Lily’s eye is a different ad entirely, for “TOMMY ANDREWS, MALE IMPERSONATOR,” who does shows at a place called the Telegraph Club. Later, at school, Lily is mortified when that ad, which she’d torn out of the paper, falls out of her bookbag in the bathroom. But when another girl, Kath, picks it up, what she says isn’t what Lily expects: she says she’s been to the Telegraph Club, and has seen Tommy Andrews perform there. And so Lily and Kath, who have been in classes together but have never really been friends, start walking home together and talking. They become friends, then more than friends, and their relationship is definitely one of my favorite things about the book, though there is also lots of other good stuff. Lily is Chinese American, and her family is concerned (with good reason) about the Red Scare and the effects it might have on them; we also see the casual racism of various white people Lily interacts with and how that affects her. And we see Lily figuring out her sexuality, and dealing with how to come out or not to her family, and dealing with gender expectations too (her aunt works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so there is some familial acceptance of women in science, but at the same time, when Lily asked for a chemistry set for Christmas when she was a kid, her mom’s reply was “Don’t you want a doll instead?”). There are also flashback scenes that give more background about Lily’s family and their stories, and about their different experiences as Chinese Americans of a previous generation.

I love the San Francisco setting of this novel and the way the city feels like such a perfect backdrop to the story. I like the way Lo uses the city as a way to talk about Lily’s growing awareness of possibilities beyond the world she’s always known, like this, from right after Lily sees the Tommy Andrews ad in the paper: “she stood at the window over the sink, gazing at the city lights, each a glowing ember marking someone else’s life: bedroom and living room windows, headlights crawling up the steep streets.” Or this: “She’d always thought there was something magical about the city, with its steep stairways and sudden glimpses of the bay between tall, narrow buildings. It felt expansive and full of promise, each half-hidden opening a reminder that the city she had been born in still held mysteries to discover.” I love that Kath and Lily go to a gelato and sorbetto place in North Beach at one point, and then have ginger ice cream in Chinatown; I love that Lily’s aunt takes her to Musée Mécanique; I love that Lily and Shirley go to Sutro’s and Ocean Beach.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

February 27th, 2022

Heidi felt to me like one of those books I should have read in childhood but never did, and I was a little hesitant to read it as an adult because I was worried I would find it too sappy. In fact, I found it totally charming, despite its many references to God and despite the problematic/ableist ending.

At the start of the book we meet Heidi, an orphan who’s being taken to live with her grandfather, who we’re told “drank and gambled away” his big farm and supposedly “killed somebody in a quarrel” in Italy. Heidi’s grandfather has a pair of goats and lives in a mountain hut; he regularly sees Peter, the kid who’s the village goatherd, but is otherwise cut off from society, and people imagine he won’t be thrilled to be taking care of Heidi. But Heidi, who is five, is all sweetness, and quickly wins her grandfather over: she’s excited to be in the mountains, and happy to see him, and delighted by his hut and his goats. Heidi’s idyllic mountain existence is interrupted, though, when her aunt arrives to take her to Frankfurt, where she’s to be a companion to a young girl who can’t walk/uses a wheelchair. The girl, Klara, turns out to be smart and kind, and Heidi has some adventures in the city, but she misses her grandfather and the countryside terribly. She starts sleepwalking, and when Klara’s dad has her talk to his friend the doctor, the doctor says Heidi needs to go home. So back to the mountain she goes. Eventually the city folks come to visit—first the doctor, then Klara and her grandmother—and the mountains help cure everyone of their ills and sorrows.

Heidi’s caring and kindness and generosity could be grating, but somehow weren’t: she’s just so happy to be running around with the goats and listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, and she’s equally happy reading hymns to Peter the goatherd’s blind grandmother, or watching her grandfather make things out of wood, or talking with Klara or the doctor. She’s not particularly well-developed as a character, but her sweetness is winning enough that I didn’t mind.

I also love the descriptions of places in this book—Heidi’s grandfather’s mountain hut with its table and cupboard and the hayloft where Heidi sleeps; the pasture where the goats graze, with all its herbs and wildflowers; the snow in winter piling up to the windows; the half-ruined house in the village where Heidi and her grandfather start spending the winters. I like the descriptions of summer, like this: “The sky was a deep blue, and the sun shone on the green mountain. Everywhere there were flowers: delicate primroses and great patches of blue gentians and golden rock-roses nodding in the sunshine.” And I like the descriptions of winter, like this: “In the evening, the moon shone over the vast snow fields, and the next day the whole mountain glittered like a crystal.”

One night recently I was looking at New York Public Library’s ebook app and noticed a section for books in French. I read a Tintin book in French years ago but had been intimidated to try anything without pictures, despite my 1000-day Duolingo streak … until I saw that one of the French ebooks available to borrow was a French translation of the first Baby-Sitters Club book, Kristy’s Great Idea (or, en français, L’idée géniale de Kristy). This seemed like the perfect thing for me to read in French: since it’s a middle-grade novel, the language/sentence structure wouldn’t be too complicated, and also, hi, I definitely read a lot of BSC books in English in my childhood, so maybe I’d remember some of the plot and characters. (I did.) I had a lot of fun revisiting the adventures of Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey (who is Lucy in the French version, but anyway), a quartet of seventh-graders in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

As you may know/remember, Kristy’s great idea is to start the Baby-Sitters Club with her best friend Mary Anne, their other friend Claudia, and a new girl at school named Stacey/Lucy. As you may also know/remember, Kristy’s other great idea is that they should keep a shared journal about their baby-sitting jobs, so that they can pool their knowledge and share the high points and misadventures. So, yeah: one mom fails to tell Claudia that she’ll be watching not just her son but also his three cousins, Mary Anne has to deal with a disobedient cat and a grumpy neighbor as well as the two kids she’s watching, and another woman fails to make it clear to Kristy that her two darling three-year-olds are, in fact, ginormous dogs. I remembered some plot elements but not all of them: I remembered the dog thing, for example, but didn’t remember much about Kristy’s mom’s boyfriend and his two kids, and how Kristy’s having a really hard time with the idea of her mom maybe getting remarried. I didn’t remember the drama of the postponed pizza party, but I sure remembered Claudia’s outfits—which are changed/updated quite a bit in the French version, though she does still have skeleton earrings. (If you want the full glory of the 1986 original version, go see this blog post that includes visual representations of several of Claudia’s outfits from this book.)

As for the experience of reading this in French, it was excellent. A lot of the prose was straightforward enough for me to understand easily, like when Kristy describes herself thus: “J’ai envie de dire quelque chose, je le dis. J’ai envie de faire quelque chose, je le fais. Maman dit que je suis impulsive.” There was definitely a lot of vocabulary I needed to look up (words I didn’t learn from Duolingo include: barking, hairy, suspicious) … I probably should have written down all the words I looked up in a notebook as I went along, but I guess I’ll have to save that for my next French read. I also had to look up a bunch of cultural references—most of the candy, books, and board games mentioned are Frenchified, so I learned about things like petits-chevaux. I think I may see how many of these books the library has in French, because yeah, this is such a good combo for me of nostalgia and language practice!

Did I read this one as a kid? I can’t remember but I suspect not: I’m sure I read Little House in the Big Woods but I think I was pretty young at the time and I don’t know if I got this far in the series; I think I would have been bored by the courtship aspects but I would have liked the horses. Though the beginning, when Laura is staying with the Brewsters, does seem somewhat familiar to me, so maybe I started it and abandoned it. Anyway: when the book opens Laura is fifteen and leaving home to teach school for a bit; we see her at that first school (which is a bit challenging, both in terms of the pupils and her living situation, in a household where the wife is possibly depressed and certainly doesn’t want to be living where she’s living) and then at home again and at other schools, after, both as student and as teacher. As the book progresses, one of the main things we see is Laura’s relationship with Almanzo Wilder, which progresses from courtship to engagement to marriage, and is pretty sweet. I like how Almanzo lets Laura drive his horses, including Barnum, who has a tendency to rear and bolt, and how Laura handles whatever comes her way.

As a modern city-dweller, it’s quite something to picture the big cold prairie landscapes that are described in this book. Where I live, it snows and it gets cold, but not negative forty degrees Fahrenheit cold. And because I live in NYC and walk a lot, I have a decent sense of distance on foot: like, it’s a mile from home to the climbing gym, and I walk there and back. But to think of a space in which that distance is the distance between a house and its nearest neighbor, like when Laura talks about living out on the McKees’ claim in the summer, is pretty trippy for me. I like the way Wilder writes about the prairie in all the seasons, how she describes the stars overhead and the wild roses and the snow and the trees. I like this, from early in the book: “A faint trace of sled runners stretched onward before them. There was nothing else to see but the endless, low white land and the huge pale sky, and the horses’ blue shadows blotting the sparkle from the snow.” And this, from later on: “The prairie was empty of all but birds and cloud shadows.”

I was a kid who took riding lessons, went to horse-centric summer camps, and spent recess in 5th and 6th grades pretending to be a horse with my similarly horse-obsessed friends. Not surprisingly, I read a bunch of horse books, including some by Marguerite Henry—but I don’t think I ever read King of the Wind, though I definitely remember seeing it on the shelf at the library. I’m not sure if I picked it up but wasn’t into it (historical fiction was not particularly my thing, with the exception of All-of-a-Kind Family) or if I never actually tried to read it.

Anyway: it’s the (fictionalized) story of the (real) Godolphin Arabian, whose famous racehorse descendants include Man o’ War and Seabiscuit. The book actually begins with the story of Man o’ War’s last race, which I didn’t know about, and then jumps back in time to Morocco in the 1700s, where a mute stableboy named Agba is caring for a pregnant mare, who has a foal who Agba calls Sham (who grows up to be the Godolphin Arabian). Sham and Agba endure various trials (and are separated and reunited more than once) as they go from Morocco to France (where Sham is a gift to Louis XV) to England; the connection between the horse and the boy is at the center of the story (and made me teary-eyed a few times as I read).

Marguerite Henry’s prose in this book isn’t always lyrical, but I like it when it is, like when she describes the scents Sham notices around him in Morocco: “The delicious fragrance of clover, the biting smell of smoke from the burning stubble of cornfields, the perfume from orange and lime groves, the spicy aroma of pine woods from beyond the city wall, the musky smell of the wild boar, the cool, moisture-laden scent of the clouds that blew over the snow-topped mountains.”