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.”

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)