Until recently I’d never heard of Johnny Gruelle (who created Raggedy Ann) or The Magical Land of Noom, but this kids’ book from 1922 was a cute/fun read. At the start, we meet Johnny and his sister Janey, who decide to use the boards left over from the chicken coop their grandfather just built to make themselves a Flying Machine so they can pretend to fly to the Moon. Except the machine somehow actually takes flight, and they somehow actually land on the Moon, which turns out to be a magical place with lemonade springs and giant mushrooms that taste like cake. The kids soon cross paths with a magician, though, and find themselves in a (literal) bind. Luckily their grandparents, having seen them fly off, decide to make a Flying Machine of their own to come after them, so they’re able to help the kids out. Except now they’re all on the Moon and the magician’s threatening to turn them all into animals. They proceed from one adventure/scrape to the next, meeting various characters as they try to make their way to the city of Nite, where they’ve heard there’s someone who can help them get home.

While the characters feel more slight to me than those in other kids’ books I like more, I did have fun reading this: the episodic nature of the story kept me interested in what was coming next. There are pleasing little details, like when the characters are attacked by flying boxing gloves, or when they catch fish that end up tasting like other foods entirely when they’re cooked, or when a storm turns out to be a rain of ink. And I like Gruelle’s illustrations a whole lot. (Here are four of my favorites: 1, 2, 3, 4)

I definitely read The Secret Garden when I was a kid, but I’m not sure if I read A Little Princess or not: reading it now, for what may or may not have been the first time, the very beginning seemed very familiar to me, so I wonder if I started it but didn’t finish, or if I read the whole thing but I just don’t remember the experience vividly. In any case, apparently kid-lit from the 1800s onward is my go-to comfort-reading genre at the moment, and as such, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I like the descriptions of the main character’s surroundings and her rich inner life enough that I’m willing to overlook the unlikely coincidences of the plot. I mean, when the first sentence of a book is this, I’m into it:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

The little girl is Sara Crewe, who’s seven; her mother died giving birth to her and she and her father have lived in India her whole life, but now she’s going to be educated in London. Sara is imaginative, someone who “was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to,” and while she’s not so sure about this whole going-away-to-school thing, she’s sure that “if she had plenty of books she could console herself,” since she “liked books more than anything else.”

So this is partly a school story, but once Sara’s been at school for four years, things change, and Sara has to deal with circumstances that are suddenly very different. Her imagination, kindness, and nobility of spirit turn out to serve her very well, and she manages to see beauty even where there isn’t much. I love this, where Sara is talking about what you can see from an attic:

Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to.

In a different mood, I might find this book sappy, but right now, it felt just right: once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down. If I never read this before, I’m glad I finally did, or if I read it but didn’t really remember it, I’m glad to have revisited it.

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.