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.

Gone-Away Lake is such a great summer read, with the same kind of vacation-delight feeling as books like Jeanne Birdsall’s “Penderwicks” series, though Gone-Away Lake predates those by several decades. Portia and her younger brother Foster always go to visit their cousin Julian and their Aunt Hilda and Uncle Jake in the summertime, but the summer in which this book takes place is different: Hilda and Jake and Julian have moved from a rented house in a small town to their own place that’s deeper in the countryside. This is exciting for everyone, especially for Julian, who loves catching caterpillars and butterflies and exploring in the woods. One day while Portia and Julian are exploring together, they find a swamp that used to be a lake, lined with falling-down houses that used to be vacation homes. But not all of the houses are totally in disrepair, and two of them, it turns out, actually have people living in them: Portia and Julian meet Minnehaha (Min) and Pindar (Pin), a pair of elderly siblings whose family used to summer there back when it was a lake called Tarrigo, before the building of a dam in 1903 started turning it into a swamp. The book is about the everyday summer experiences of the kids and their new friends, with some stories of summers past (from when Min and Pin were children) thrown in for good measure; there isn’t a ton of conflict or excitement, though there are a few moments of adventure/danger, but it’s all beautifully described. I love how Elizabeth Enright describes the natural world—flowers and birds and summer light, and also how she describes the details of the houses and their contents (old rugs and old dolls, a moth-eaten stuffed moose head, and more): I love sentences and phrases like this:

The hedges are tree-high by now and all bound up with honeysuckle and poison ivy and wild grape. (46)

Or this:

So the month moved slowly in all its gold toward September. (213)

Or this:

The trees and thickets whistled with starlings, and swallows arranged themselves on telegraph wires like the notes in a stave of difficult music. (222)

I also love Beth and Joe Krush’s illustrations, whether they’re of an overstuffed living room or the lush plant-life of the swamp.

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.”