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.”

I wish someone had recommended this book to me when I was a kid, but ah well, better late than never. I had high expectations going into Dealing with Dragons because I’d heard rave reviews from multiple people, and because I love the Sorcery and Cecelia books that Patricia C. Wrede co-wrote with Caroline Stevermer. I’m pleased to say this book did not disappoint: Wrede is clearly having a lot of fun playing with fairy tale tropes, and the protagonist is a princess who’s bored with etiquette and dancing and isn’t interested in an arranged marriage, and therefore runs away and ends up living with dragons/becoming domestic help for a dragon named Kazul. The princess, Cimorene, is great: before running away, she learns various fun and useful things on the sly until her parents find out and forbid her from her unprincess-like pursuits: she’s had lessons in fencing, magic, Latin, cooking, economics, and juggling, all of which are a lot more interesting to her than embroidery or drawing or anything else that princesses are supposed to do.

The setting of the book is great, too: there are dragon-caves, complete with hoards of treasure, and there’s an enchanted forest, and there’s a series of interconnected caves called the Caves of Fire and Night, which are described as containing “caverns full of blue and green fire, pools of black liquid that would cast a cloud of darkness for twenty miles around if you poured three drops on the ground, walls made of crystal that multiplied every sound a thousandfold, rocks that spurted fire when they were broken” (87). Someone has a sign over the door of her house that just says “NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE,” which made me laugh because it’s like a mysterious fairytale version of signs you see on Park Slope brownstones that say “No flyers/menus.” And the plot, with its trouble-causing wizards and a helpful witch and politics/intrigue/scheming, is lots of fun: it’s the kind of book where you see how things are going to fit together before the characters do, in a way that’s really satisfying. Now I’m looking forward to the rest of the books in the series!

Greenglass House is a really charming middle-grade mystery that I’m glad to have read in winter: there are so many mentions of snow and ice and wind, and also of hot chocolate and indoor coziness, and it was satisfying to read all that wintry prose while curled up on the couch with my own mug of hot chocolate. At the start of the book, it’s just before Christmas, and Milo, who’s twelve, is ready for his usual winter break from school. His parents run a “smugglers’ hotel” called Greenglass House that’s usually empty at Christmastime. But the year in which the story takes place turns out to be anything but usual, and while Milo is initially annoyed to have his winter routines interrupted, he ends up making friends and solving mysteries and enjoying himself more than he would have thought possible.

I like Milford’s writing a lot, and I like her world-building. The world of this story isn’t ours, not exactly, but the differences are revealed gradually, in a way that I think works. Greenglass House, which is described as “a huge, ramshackle manor house that looked as if it had been cobbled together from discarded pieces of a dozen mismatched mansions collected from a dozen different cities,” sits high above Nagspeake, which has evocatively-named neighborhoods like the “Printer’s Quarter” and the “Quayside Harbors”, and bodies of water like the “Skidwrack River” and “Magothy Bay.” Nagspeake also, apparently, has a mail-order company that “would practically have a monopoly on goods coming into the city,” if it weren’t for those smugglers. Greenglass House is described as having a historic connection to smuggling, as well as a current one: its previous owner was a famed smuggler known as Doc Holystone, who’s still something of a folk hero even three decades after his death.

I also like the way that Milford works stories and storytelling into her narrative. Partly this is done through stories within the story: Milo ends up reading a book of folklore where the framing device is that people trapped in an inn due to floods tell stories to pass the time, and when Greenglass House’s guests are similarly trapped by snow and ice, he suggests they do some story-telling of their own. So we get bits of the stories Milo is reading, and we get the stories told by the guests. And we also get some storytelling-adjacent stuff in the form of a role-playing game that one of Milo’s new friends suggests they try as a way to solve the various mysteries that pop up: Milo’s never played any RPGs before, but as his new friend explains how he can develop a character and make choices about that character, he gets into it and starts to see how seeing things through the lens of the game (and the character he’s created) can change what he notices/pays attention to. The book also features family stories and family histories, which take on a particularly poignant feeling for Milo, who’s adopted and doesn’t know anything about his birth parents.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this book, that’s because there is: I didn’t even mention the stained glass, or the pair of rival thieves, or the mystery of the word “Lansdegown”. But to me, all the things going on felt interesting and balanced, not like too much. And now I’m looking forward to reading Milford’s other books set in this world!

Lois Lowry’s “Anastasia” books are always solidly fun for me to read (or re-read): humorous realistic middle-grade fiction with some moments of nostalgia for late-twentieth-century New England. (In this one, Anastasia and her friends drink milkshakes at Friendly’s, and Anastasia gets her ears pierced at Jordan Marsh.) Anyway: this is also the one where Anastasia (who is 13) answers a personals ad in the New York Review of Books placed by a “SWM, 28” who has “boyish charm” and “inherited wealth” and is ” looking for tall young woman, nonsmoker, to share Caribbean vacations, reruns of Casablanca, and romance.” All of this sounds pretty good to Anastasia, though clearly she isn’t entirely thinking things through. As you can imagine, her (repeated) letters to this guy are quite funny, and have humorous/awkward consequences.

Meanwhile, Anastasia and her best friends have all decided to give up the “pursuit of boys” because surely there are better things they could be doing with their time. Anastasia feels guilty for not telling her friends that she is still pursuing a man, but she doesn’t have too long to feel bad: they’re all soon caught up in preparations for her friend Meredith’s sister’s wedding, at which Meredith, Anastasia, and their friends Daphne and Sonya are all going to be “junior bridesmaids”.

The two plot lines come together in a way that Anastasia definitely does not anticipate, and the whole thing is quite an entertaining romp. And it’s always fun to read about the interactions between Anastasia and her parents and her little brother Sam: at one point in this one Anastasia is dismayed at seeing her dad, an accomplished literature professor, “helping a three-year-old dig a tunnel through a potato as if it were the most important enterprise in the world.” (Another funny moment of dismay: Anastasia’s dad is appalled when her mom says this about War and Peace: “I only read the peace parts. I jumped from one peace part to the next. I never read the war parts.”)

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

December 27th, 2020

When King of Shadows opens, it’s 1999 and we’re introduced to Nat Field, who’s in a company of all-male actors, ages 11-18, who are preparing to travel from the US to the UK to perform two Shakespeare plays in the newly-rebuilt Globe theatre. “We were going into a kind of time warp,” Nat thinks (6). Since this is a time-slip book, that turns out to be 100% true, though Nat doesn’t know it yet. Nat, whose parents are both dead, is a good actor, and theater is an escape for him: the company is a family, and he thinks of backstage as “our space, my space, a kind of home” (12). I like Nat’s first glimpse of 20th-century London: “Looking down from the airplane, you saw a sprawling city of red roofs and grey stone, scattered with green trees, with the River Thames winding through the middle crisscrossed by bridge after bridge.” (14). But en route to the Globe, things start to get weird: Nat has a “giddy feeling,” like the buildings are “moving, circling”; he hears “a snatch of bright music” and smells “the sweet scent of lilies” and then something else, something “that was not sweet at all but awful, disgusting, like a sewer” (21).

Later that night, Nat feels sick and falls into a feverish sleep; when he wakes the next morning he finds himself on a straw mattress in “another London, a London hundreds of years ago” (34). As it turns out, Nat is in 1599 in the place of another Nat Field—a boy who, like him, is to play Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. (In this production, Nat soon learns, the part of Oberon will be played by Shakespeare himself!)

I found the scene-setting/Nat’s adjustments to his new situation to be alternately fun and clunky: it was fun to read about Nat getting a tumbling lesson and a fencing lesson in 1599, but some of the descriptions of Elizabethan London felt heavy-handed. Nat’s interactions with Shakespeare, though, are great: Nat is still reeling with grief from his father’s death, and Shakespeare comforts him, and it’s just the sweetest dynamic/I nearly cried several times. I also enjoyed the description of the 1599 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the costumes, the audience, and even the presence (unknown to most of the crowd) of the Queen herself.

Nat’s eventual return to the 20th century is hard for him, but I like that he’s consoled by poetry and by place—by reading a Shakespeare sonnet and by looking at “the River Thames, which flowed on fast and grey-green and unchanging, just as it had last week, just as it had four or forty centuries ago” (163).

24 Hours by Margaret Mahy

October 12th, 2020

24 Hours follows Ellis, who’s 17 and just back from boarding school, over the course of a day-long period that turns out to have a lot more adventure and drama in it than expected. When Ellis runs into a former classmate (Jackie, who’s a little older, but isn’t a university student and doesn’t have a steady job) he figures they’ll just have a beer and go their separate ways. But Jackie talks Ellis into driving him to a party, where conflict ensues, which leads to a much bigger and more dramatic conflict that Ellis finds himself involved in as well. Meanwhile, Ellis (who wants to be an actor) finds himself thinking about Shakespeare and mortality (his best friend, Simon, killed himself a few months before) as the book’s events unfold.

For a pretty short book, there’s a lot going on in this one, plot-wise. After going to the party with Jackie, Ellis also meets three sisters (Ursa, Leona, and Fox) who all live in a rundown former motel with their former guardian; Jackie hangs out at the motel (which is called the Land of Smiles) too, and Ellis ends up at another party there, moving in adult social circles that are very different from the ones he knows from his financially-comfortable family. At the same time, it feels like for a lot of the book, we don’t know any of the characters that well: we’re thrust with Ellis from one odd situation to another, and I found the book’s pacing slightly strange.

That said, by the final portion of the book, I was cheering Ellis and Jackie and Leona and Ursa on, and eager to see how the ending of the book would unfold. And there are some satisfying moments and passages earlier in the book, too. I like how at the first party, there are musicians playing Vivaldi, and Ellis recognizes the tune from a car commercial while Jackie knows the composer and moans about how the music is “so beautiful” but is so over-played that it’s “become its own sort of joke” (25). And I like various descriptions: I like how Ellis takes in the neighborhood around the Land of Smiles like this: “All around him lay a country of rust and graffitied fences” (90). Later, Ellis finds himself on top of a building, “looking down on an expanse of roofs, a geography of corrugated iron” (168). And I like how Jackie describes a large portrait painted on a wall as being by an art student who “thought art should be out and about—everyone living with it whenever they walked to the shop to buy bread” (96).

Also pleasing: I learned that Margaret Mahy got a tattoo when she was 62 because a character in this book gets a tattoo and she wanted to write about it convincingly.

At the start of this book, which is set in the summer of 1968, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern Gaither (who are eleven, nine, and seven) are on their first airplane ride: they’re en route to visit their mother in California. Their mom, Cecile, left them when Delphine was only four and Fern was only a baby; she lives in Oakland now and the kids are going to spend four weeks with her. They have visions of an exciting summer vacation: trips to the beach, or to Disneyland. The reality of their trip is different: Cecile (who now goes by Nzila) is no more interested in motherhood now than she was before; she’s prickly and private and hardly wants to see her daughters. She initially won’t even let them in her kitchen (where she has a printing press); they eat take-out food off paper plates until Delphine insists on cooking proper meals. The day after the kids arrive, Nzila sends them to the People’s Center for breakfast, after which they stick around for the Black Panthers summer camp so they won’t be in her way. “We didn’t come for the revolution. We came for breakfast,” Vonetta says, that first day, but the girls keep going back, and they learn about Huey Newton and Bobby Hutton, about their “rights as citizens and how to protect those rights when dealing with the police,” about the Delano grape strike and solidarity with farm workers, and more.

Though Delphine initially feels like there’s “nothing and no one in all of Oakland to like,” the girls do end up making friends at the People’s Center, and they end up liking Oakland, too. After a day trip to San Francisco involving fun stuff (dumplings in Chinatown! a fortune cookie factory! a cable car ride!) and less fun stuff (being stared at by European tourists and glared at by a wary shopkeeper), Delphine thinks about how it feels good to be back in Oakland, where “no one stared, unless they were staring because they didn’t like your shoes or your hairstyle. Not because you were black or they thought you were stealing.”

The book is narrated by Delphine, and her voice and perspective carry the story: she’s the oldest sister and is used to keeping her sisters in line and everything in order: she knows how to make a chicken dinner from scratch and when and how to break up Vonetta and Fern’s squabbles. “I anchored myself and my sisters as best as I could to brace us for whatever came next,” she says, about the bumpy plane ride at the book’s beginning, but that’s her general approach to life. She’s so busy watching out for her sisters that she doesn’t much think about her own wants and needs—and part of the arc of the book is her realizing she actually has wants of her own, her starting to notice her needs and pay attention to her feelings.