Even though I was a kid who loved books, horses, and books about horses, I somehow never read Black Beauty when I was a child. I’m pretty sure I started it and didn’t finish, and I can’t remember why: maybe I tried it when I was a little too young, or maybe I was put off by how didactic it is, or by the fact that there isn’t a central child character/narrator—it’s narrated by Black Beauty, the horse, himself. Whatever the reason I abandoned it when I first picked it up, I’m glad I got around to reading it now. It is very didactic, with lessons about being kind to animals, and giving horses enough light and exercise and not overworking them, and doing your best, and treating others as you would wish to be treated, and intervening when you see someone doing something cruel, but it’s also a sweet story: I cried four times over the course of the novel, so I clearly found it moving.

The book starts with Black Beauty talking about being a colt in the countryside, and having a near-idyllic existence there, though the tranquility of life is intruded on slightly by the violence of foxhunting. When Beauty is broken in and sold, things are good at first: he’s in a well-run stable with another horse and a pony, and though he misses his early freedom, his master takes good care of him and he enjoys being useful to his master, and appreciated for his usefulness. Things go downhill, though, when that master’s family has to leave England for his wife’s health: Beauty is sold again, and there are more difficulties at the next place he goes. As the book goes on, Beauty keeps suffering due to human carelessness or bad behavior, though there are always good people as well. We see Beauty’s life as a cab-horse and then a cart-horse, dealing with crowded London streets, and his eventual move back to the countryside. I loved the moments of high adventure in the book, like when Beauty is out on a very stormy night, or when there’s a fire, but I also liked the everyday moments of connection between horses and people, all the moments when someone feeds Beauty well, or pats him and talks kindly to him.

In this third and final installment of Nesbit’s “psammead” books, the siblings from the first two are reunited, in very different circumstances, with the sand fairy they met in the countryside. The psammead tells the kids about a magic amulet, which they end up buying from a shop described like this: “It had all sorts and kinds of things in the window—concertinas and silk handkerchiefs, china vases and teacups, blue Japanese jars, pipes, swords, pistols, lace collars, silver spoons tied up in half-dozens, and wedding rings in a red lacquered basin” (32). But what they buy turns out to only be half the charm, so it can’t give them their “heart’s desire” like the full charm could. It can, however, take them back in time to any place where it’s been, and as you might guess, adventures ensue.

As with the other two books, this one is problematic in ways characteristic of its time (casual anti-Semitism, ugh) but the kids’ travels to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Britain, and even Atlantis are pretty delightful. There is also a great chapter in which an ancient Babylonian queen finds herself in London in 1905, and I love the kids’ friendship with an upstairs lodger, a poor “learned gentleman” who studies history (Egypt in particular) and is very smart and sweet and kind. And as usual, I love the humor of these books: at one point, the psammead is telling the kids how it bit someone, and then asks what they’ve been up to, and we get this: “‘There’s not quite so much biting in our story,’ said Cyril regretfully” (29). At another point, Cyril launches into a speech that begins with “We are the great Anglo-Saxon or conquering race,” then quickly follows with “Not that we want to conquer you” (64). And I can’t help cracking up when Anthea tells someone they can “sing in parts” and that person replies by asking, “How many parts are you each cut into before you do it?” (103)

Some months after the summer adventures of Five Children and It, the siblings from that book find themselves back home in London in gloomy November weather, wishing for something exciting to happen. And excitement arrives, in the form of a mysterious egg that turns out to hatch the Phoenix, and a magic carpet that will take them anywhere they wish (though they only get three wishes a day). I wish these books didn’t have so much of the racism of their time (this one has dark-skinned “savages” who make a white woman their queen and wait on her hand and foot), but I do like the humor and sweetness of some of the kids’ adventures, and the farcical comedy of others. My favorite chapters are still the one with the fire insurance office (whose events start with the Phoenix saying, “Can’t you take me out and explain your ugly city to me?”) and the ones with the cats, though the one where two of the kids end up on a roof in a random part of London is also pretty great. I also love the dynamic between the Phoenix and Robert, including when the Phoenix says it’s too bad Robert doesn’t know French, and Robert saying he does, “but it’s all about the pencil of the gardener’s son and the penknife of the baker’s niece—nothing that anyone ever wants to say.”

Though the chapters about the “gipsies” and the “Red Indians” are a bit squirm-inducing, I find this book really delightful overall and am always happy when I re-read it. Four children and their baby brother head to a country house in the summer; their parents are both called away suddenly, leaving the kids on their own with the servants. One day while exploring the nearby sand-pit the kids find a “Psammead or “sand-fairy” that grants a wish per day. Of course, their wishes never turn out quite as they expect, and each day brings some new tricky situation for them to get out of. I love all the bits of humor in the story, including some I definitely would not have gotten when I was a child. Like: the kids are arguing about whether it’s OK for them to take food and water when no one will give it to them, and one of them brings up Sir Philip Sidney, saying he took someone’s water and said “My necessity is greater than his.” The story of Sidney is the other way around, though, with him giving someone else water even as he was dying, saying “Thy necessity is greater than mine.” There are other funny moments, like when one of the girls doesn’t understand a French phrase the Psammead uses, though she takes French at school, or when one of the boys talks about “Emu Brand birds,” and of course the results of the kids’ wishes are often funny too.

Terrible, Horrible Edie is the third in E.C. Spykman’s quartet of children’s books about the Cares family, but it works as a standalone—which is good, because the other three books are out of print. This was a delightful read though: I love it in the same way I love Elizabeth Enright’s “Melendy” books or Jeanne Birdsall’s “Penderwicks” series.

At the start of the book (which was published in 1960 but is set in the 1910s), the Cares family is packing up to go to the beach for the summer. There are six kids, ranging in age from three to eighteen, plus household staff, plus a bunch of animals (a bird, a goat, a monkey, and two dogs), so it’s quite a production. Ten-year-old Edie is traveling in one of the family’s two cars with her sixteen-year-old brother, Hubert, at the wheel, and their trip from inland Massachusetts to the coast is a wild ride in more ways than one.

This sets the tone for a summer full of adventure: Edie’s father and stepmom are off to Europe, while the kids will be staying at their aunt’s beach house with a cook, a maid, another kitchen helper, and a caretaker to look after them. Edie, who’s six years younger than her youngest older sibling, and five years older than her oldest half-sibling, is often too young for whatever the older kids want to do, but too old to be bothered spending time with the younger ones. So she often has to amuse herself, which she does by getting into various adventures and more than a few scrapes. She’s a plucky kid, and a good sailor, though she’s also impulsive and sometimes lacking in manners, and reading about her summer is always entertaining.

I like how this book manages to be full of action and humor and also manages to capture the feeling of a summer vacation by the water. There are so many great descriptive passages about Edie’s aunt’s house, like this: “On a good day all the big open high-ceilinged rooms were filled with a kind of sunny air that smelled of tea and pine needles and, on bad days, when everything was shut up, you were shut in with fog and the smell of a ship” (52). Or this:

Waking up at Aunt Louise’s was almost always a good sensation, no matter what kind of day it might be, because of the sounds that the wind, light or strong, brought in before your eyes were even open. There was particularly the clock chunk of boats and the chuck, chuck, chuck of Captain Grannet’s lobster launch setting out steadily and firmly to visit the pots. These made you part of everything to do with salt water, so that you saw the wet piles of the wharfs at low tide, barnacles, mud flats or the brimming harbor, quahogs under boulders, scurrying fiddler crabs, and screaming gulls. (148)

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

December 15th, 2019

It’s summertime, and fifteen-year-old Maggie Thrash is at the same Appalachian all-girls camp she’s been attending for years, which her mom and grandmother also attended when they were young. She thinks it’ll be a summer like any other, full of practice at the rifle range and rainy-day talent-show performances and hanging out with friends. And it is full of those things, at least in part. But it’s also the summer in which Thrash first realizes she likes girls, when she falls for a counselor named Erin who’s four years older, who also turns out not to be straight. In addition to grappling with her own feelings, Maggie is worried about others realizing she’s queer and ostracizing her for it; she’s in her head a whole lot, except when she’s at the rifle range, where she goes from OK shooting to amazing shooting when a counselor advises her to just pretend to be someone else. She realizes that she can empty her mind when she’s at the range, but even that isn’t a perfect escape: there’s another girl working toward the same rifle certification as Maggie who gets really jealous of Maggie’s sudden improvement.

There’s so much longing and wistfulness in this book, and my favorite parts, in terms of the art, are the big quiet panels that capture some of that sense of the vastness of feelings: tents and trees and a dark blue sky speckled with stars, or two girls silhouetted against a sky tinged purple and lighter blue and darker blue. But it’s not all seriousness: one of my favorite sections is when Maggie and other campers are stranded away from camp (they went to see a play in town; there was a huge storm; they couldn’t get across the river to go back) and we get to see all their cabin fever, hours and hours of watching movies and eating Skittles and wondering when they’ll be able to get back to their normal camp lives.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

December 1st, 2019

In her foreword, Nicola Yoon says this book is “a small, glittering world of beauty and emotion and truth,” which I think sums it up pretty nicely. I read this book over the course of two days and loved being immersed in Marin’s world, raw as it felt. (I cried near the end of the book. Twice.) The dual-timeline narration goes back and forth between Marin’s present (a winter break that she’s spending in her freshman dorm) and recent past (the end of her senior year of high school in San Francisco, and the summer before college started). That kind of narration can sometimes feel gimmicky to me (like the author doesn’t trust the story to be engaging enough on its own), but here it worked: Marin is dealing with grief and coming back to herself, and the dual narration lets us see how Marin got to where she is when the book opens.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I’ll be vague, but one thing I love is the way that Marin and her best friend Mabel talk about art and literature—the way that Marin spins out interpretations of a painting or a novel, the way that the ambiguity or complications of a narrative are exciting to her or stressful to her, the way that coming to terms with her grief involves thinking about how things could have been different but accepting how they are, while also realizing that there isn’t actually a single interpretation for or explanation of that.

I read and liked the first three books in this kids’ series in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and also read and liked the prequel in 2012, so I was delighted to learn, this year, that there was now another Mysterious Benedict Society novel. Like the others, it’s about super-smart kids (well, they’re a bit older now) solving puzzles and fighting bad guys; also like the others, I found it to be a quick and fun read. At the start of the book, we learn that the Ten Men (the muscle of the evil genius Mr. Curtain, so called because they have ten ways to hurt you) have escaped from a supposedly escape-proof prison, and are no doubt planning to spring Mr. Curtain (who is imprisoned in a separate facility) loose as well. This means that Constance, Kate, Reynie, and Sticky have to act fast to prevent that from happening. Everyone’s a bit older than they were in the other books: Constance has better control over both her temper and her telepathy, and the other three are all figuring out what they want to do next. That’s a big element of the book—the story of childhood best friends growing apart/not knowing how their old selves and old friends fit with the people they’re becoming. But there’s also a lot of straight-up adventure, and a sweet new addition to the crew, a five-year-old boy named Tai who gets to the town where the others are by hiding amongst sheep on a freight car: “I petted every single one of them,” he says, and I was totally charmed.

As I was reading The Wind in the Willows (which I somehow never read as a kid), I found myself wondering whether I should picture the anthropomorphized animals as human-sized, animal-sized, or somewhere in between. Like, if a toad has a horse, and his friend who is a mole can walk down the road having a conversation with the horse, is the horse a tiny creature, or are the toad and mole as big as people? As the book progressed, I decided to imagine them as people-sized, for plot-based reasons, but I think this book really might be a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat situation where the protagonists are both human-sized and animal-sized, all at once. Leaving that oddity aside, I found myself glad to have finally read this. Its chapters tell the story of impulsive Toad, his poetic but still more sensible friend Rat (who is actually a water-vole), their loyal pal Mole, and a no-nonsense Badger, all of whose paths intersect in the English countryside, by a riverbank, not far from the Wild Wood. The book is as much about a sense of home and place and safety as anything, and it’s also about the seasonal rhythms of the natural world, all of which serve as a counterpoint to Rat’s dreams of elsewhere or Toad’s madcap adventures. There are excellent humorous passages throughout the book, and lovely descriptive ones. The river is described as being all “glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”; a character walking through a winter landscape that’s all bare earth and barren trees thinks that “he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things” (3,42). And there’s a great scene where Toad, when he’s cold while he’s asleep, dreams that “his bedclothes had got up, grumbling and protesting they couldn’t stand the cold any longer, and had run down to the kitchen fire to warm themselves,” obligating him to chase after them (176).

It’s been fourteen years since I last read this book, the first in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, so I figured I was due for a re-read. It’s set in Cornwall on the Drew family’s August summer holiday, so it’s a summery book in that sense—there’s a seaside carnival and beach excursions and sunburns—but it’s also a quest narrative, and a page-turning adventure story about good versus evil, with an Arthurian element too.

At the start of the book, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew arrive in the village of Trewissick with their parents: they’re spending four weeks in a rented house with a family friend they call their Great-Uncle Merry, and they’re delighted to learn that the house comes with a sweet dog named Rufus. They’re expecting a normal fun seaside holiday, though they know that Great-Uncle Merry is maybe a little eccentric, and that strange or interesting things somehow always seem to happen when he’s around. On a rainy day, the kids explore the house and find something very old and very interesting, which leads them on a quest for something even older: but they’re not the only ones trying to find it, and the other people who are looking for it are somehow allied with forces of evil, as their Great-Uncle Merry is somehow allied with forces of good. Danger and adventure ensue, and the second half of the book was pretty unputdownable for me, even having read it before and knowing how it would all end.

I love this description of the day the kids explore the house:

The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed. (16)

And I love Merry’s description of fairy tales:

Once upon a time … a long time ago … things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing—the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil. (72)