Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A New Year's fairy tale - The Little Match Girl

Fairy tales are, despite their sometimes grim content and often alarming messages, always for children. They're distinctly unsatisfying for adults. Their brevity makes them unsettling. Their action makes them downright scary. They are written as if by children, with that brutal, direct and virtually amoral style that sends a sensible grown-up running away to the relative comforts of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.

First, a comparison. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is a seasonal staple at this time of year. The tale of an embittered miser who becomes the most generous of men through having his eyes opened to the need and potential of others, particularly the poor, is eternally popular in a world which likes to focus on redemption and positive change. The mid-19th century produced many stories of wealth and poverty, love and indifference, as it was a time when the ruthless attitude that poverty was a) inevitable and b) a judgement on the poor was starting to meet resistance.

Two years later, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen added to the criticism with a very short story about a loveless urchin who curls up on a wintry street corner on New Year's Eve. The Little Match Girl is one the darkest of Andersen's often sad stories. When I first read it as a child, it was my first experience of a fiction in which the hero is not saved, the world is not righted, and despite the warmth and love of the religious message, what lingers is the tragedy.

Despite my fondness for Scrooge, I'm fascinated by Andersen's darker story. Dickens, ever a bully with his paper pulpit, crams redemption down our throats so forcefully that the part of the story most remember with fondness isn't Scrooge the redeemed, but Scrooge the - well, Scrooge. Dickens' story fails on what had to have been the most basic level; he's a portrait of a very particular miser, not a representative of all the harsh, indifferent rich men who turn their backs on their fellow humans. Dickens adored making a point, but he loved writing zany, memorable characters more.

Andersen's story, on the other hand, is of a small child dying in the snow at the Christmas season, dreaming of a stove, food, holiday decorations. Nobody has bought her matches, another urchin has stolen her shoes, her own father will beat her for not bringing home money. It doesn't get more relentless than this. No time-travelling look at the influences of a rich man's poverty of soul, no change of the fate of a poor man's son, no warmth but the promise of fantasy and death. The mood in this short, short story is almost unbearable. And in an entirely different way than A Christmas Carol, it's also succeeded worldwide as a recurring, eternal tale.

It's available online at Online-Literature.com and at HCA.Gilead.org, which also contains a lot of information about Andersen.

Some truly alarming pop culture trivia from Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Moccasin Trail

Moccasin Trail
Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Tom stared at him, his eyes traveling from the braids to the coup feather, from the claw and bead necklace to the medicine bundle dangling below Jim's left ear.
"By golly, hoss," he said slowly, "I thought you was a half-breed. Didn't you grow up Crow?"

"Yeah, but I come from Missouri afore that. Long time ago."

"What happened, Injuns steal you?"

"No, I run away from home. It's nigh nine year back now."

19-year-old Jim Keath is living at the tail end of the wild west, 1844, in the great wilderness of Oregon Territory. As a restless 11-year-old farm boy, he'd run away to chase his Uncle Adam, a trapper, to adventure. He'd gotten more than he bargained for when, a year into his Western life, he was mauled by a bear. A tribe of Crow Indians came across the half-dead boy and saved his life, raising him as their own. But at 16, the boy now living as a Crow named Talks Alone has a disturbing reaction to seeing fellow warriors return home with white scalps. Troubled, he finally runs away from his tribe and takes up trapping with mountain man Tom Rivers. But a note from a nearby trading post shakes his life up once again. His parents are dead, and his three younger siblings need his help.

Jim, if you're still alive, come help us. Pa's been dead three year, and mother died on the trail two months ago. We buried her beside the Sweetwater. Now me and Sally and Dan'l is all that's left. We are just across the Snake bound for the Williamette Valley, and none of us are old enough to claim land after we get there, except you. If you ever cared anything for mother or any of us, then come. It's our only chance.

Jim is excited to reunite with his brother Jonnie; the two were very close back in Missouri. But when he finds his siblings, Jonnie and Sally are dismayed by his appearance and embarrassed by the challenge of incorporating their gone-native brother with their fellow pioneers. To Jim, the pioneers are the contemptible 'bourgeways' who he can already foresee are going to destroy the wilderness he loves. And beneath that culture clash, Jim is still torn between whether he's an adventurous white boy or a Crow native at heart.

Their family drama doesn't have much time to percolate, however, as the first order of business is finding a way through the mountains into the farm-friendly Williamette Valley. The wagons can raft - wildly - down the Columbia River through a gorge that is the only entrance through the Cascade Range to the valley, but the cattle must go over the mountains. Both parties suffer, Jonny and Sally with the wagons:

Since the first day, all of them had ceased to think of the river as a mere body of water, rushing through natural causes to the sea. It was a monster, intent on their destruction, roaring with fury at their presence in his black-walled gorge, calling the rain to drench them and the snow to blind them and the wind to madden them and the rapids to drown them.
and Jim with the cattle:

Only the dwindling food supply enabled Jim to distinguish one day from the next, as they struggled through a white and swirling world where they could see only a few feet at a time, where the gusty wind drove the snowflakes into their sleeves and down their necks, stung tears into their eyes, and then froze them on their lashes.

Jim's temporarily in the family good graces when he escorts the herd safely over and signs them the deed for 640 acres on the Tualatin River. But as Jonnie buckles down happily to the enormous task of creating a farm out of the forest, Jim is again beset by restlessness and resentment. And confusion. He doesn't understand why these pioneers want to tame the land, he doesn't understand why his brother is one of them, and he doesn't understand why his brother and sister hate his Crow years. And yet - he's not Crow. He remembers the good and bad years of that life, and can't find the words to defend them to his family. Or his own feckless indifference for the family he ran from, or his inability now to settle down and live happily as a farmer. When Tom drifts back into the picture, Jim's tempted to resume his old life.

A very thorough and fair portrait of a family divided, in which the two sides both get a sympathetic hearing. Jonnie's view of Indians - murdering savages - is balanced by Jim's memories of the tenderness and brutality of his Crow family. But Jim's incomprehension about the 'bourgeways' is balanced by scenes where Jonnie talks with others, notably the sympathetic Rutledge, about the frustrations of having this brother who won't help with the backbreaking labor of carving out a farm, and whose Indian ways creates unease with the neighbors.

The main characters - Jim and Jonnie - are rock solid, but most others are peripheral. Sally in particular seems to be a missed opportunity. The action is frequent, believable and memorable. The problems and their resolution are excellent.

Other edition

About the author
Eloise Jarvis Mcgraw
Born in Texas, she grew up in Oklahoma and attended Principia College in Illinois. She married William Corbin McGraw in 1940. Her first published article was accepted by Parent's Magazine in 1943. The young family lived in various places, including San Diego, before heading to Oregon in 1952. They bought a farm near Wilsonville and both Eloise and William concentrated on writing. Under the name William Corbin, he was also a successful author of books for children and teens (Smoke, High Road Home, Horse In The House).

The Oregon Book Awards named their honor for children's literature after her: the Eloise Jarvis Mcgraw Award for Children's Literature.

Sawdust In His Shoes
Moccasin Trail (1952) won Newberry Honor
The Golden Goblet (1962) won Newberry Honor
The Moorchild (1997) won Newberry Honor
A Really Weird Summer (1977) won Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery
The Seventeenth Swap
Mara, Daughter Of The Nile
Joel And The Great Merlini (1979)
The Trouble With Jacob
Tangled Web
Master Cornhill
The Money Room
The Striped Ships
Crown Fire (1951)

Oz books
Merry Go Round In Oz
The Forbidden Fountain Of Oz
The Rundelstone Of Oz

Pharoah (1958) (adult)
Techniques Of Fiction Writing (1959) (nonfiction)

Papers at the University of Oregon
NYT Obituary
Oregon Book Awards
Wilsonville, Oregon
Map of Oregon Territory in 1838
About the Tualatin River
About the Columbia River Gorge
Photo of the Columbia River Gorge

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving doesn't get much love in the world of fiction. Movies and books set on Turkey Day are few and far between, and largely unmemorable. Below is one lovely exception, complete with a cranberry recipe in the back.

One of a series of books starring Maggie, her grandmother and the grumpy sea captain Mr. Whiskers.

About the authors
Harry Devlin (1918-2001) & Wende Devlin (1917-2002)
They met at Syracuse University and married in 1941. His art career took him to Collier's magazine, where he became a leading cartoonist and illustrator. When the magazine folded, they began a long and productive collaboration. The NJ town of Mountainside, where they lived much of their lives, has a collection of their work.

Cranberry Thanksgiving (1971)
Cranberry Mystery (1978)
Cranberry Halloween (1982)
Cranberry Christmas (1984)
Cranberry Valentine (1986)
Cranberry Birthday (1988)
Cranberry Summer (1992)
Cranberry Autumn (1993)
Cranberry Easter (1993)
Tales From Cranberryport: Moving Day (1994)
Tales From Cranberryport: Trip To The Dentist (1994)
Tales From Cranberryport: Maggie Has A Nightmare (1994)
Tales From Cranberryport: New Baby In Cranberryport (1994)
Tales From Cranberryport: Lost At The Fair (1995)
Tales From Cranberryport: First Day Of School (1995)

Old Black Witch (1963)
Old Witch And The Polka Dot Ribbon (1970)
Old Witch Rescues Halloween (1972)

The Knobby Boys To The Rescue (1965)
To Grandfather's House We Go: A Roadside Tour Of American Homes (1967)
Aunt Agatha, There's A Lion Under The Couch (1968)
What Kind Of House Is That? (1969)
What's Under My Bed? (1970)
Tales Of Thunder And Lightning (1975)
Portraits Of American Architecture (1989)
The Trouble With Henriette (1995)

The Official Wende and Harry Devlin Website
Harry And Wende Devlin
Mountainside Library Devlin Collection
Wiki article

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Ginnie And The New Girl, Catherine Woolley (1954)

A new favorite holiday for adults, Halloween has lost some of its luster in recent years for children. Of course, modern children do get sweet snacks on occasions other than Halloween and Christmas, but it still seems unfair that myths about poisoned candy and parental vapors about kidnappers resulted in a mass retreat from the joys of Halloween.

Below are a few lists of children's books which fit the season.

The House With A Clock In The Walls by John Bellairs
Ginnie And The New Girl by Catherine Woolley (chapter Ghosts And Goblins)
The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom (chapter Butterflies Or Ballet Dancers?)
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
Mr. McFadden's Halloween by Rumer Godden

Ghosts Who Went To School by Judith Spearing

The Wednesday Witch
by Ruth Chew (pretty much Ruth Chew's entire bibliography)
Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett
The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry
The Littlest Witch by Jeanne Massey

Bunnicula by James Howe

The House With A Clock In The Walls by John Bellairs is, like most of Bellairs' books, warm and cozy and more than a little unnerving. The Halloween scene in which Lewis accidentally sets free a malevolent spirit is one of many that gives the book its strength as a genuine little horror novel for kids.
The Witches of Worm
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another. The story, which allows for a supernatural or psychological explanation, follows a girl's relationship with a stray kitten whose hideous appearance prompts the name Worm. Jessica becomes convinced that Worm is evil, a conduit for a coven of witches, and working against her.

Picture Books
Old Black Witch by Wende Devlin
The Witch Kitten by Ruth Carroll
How Spider Saved Halloween by Robert Kraus

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Little Toot

Little Toot

Hardie Gramatky, author and illustrator

1939, G.P. Putnam's Sons

Little Toot hated work. He saw no sense in pulling ships fifty times bigger than himself all the way down to the ocean. And he was scared of the wild seas that lay in wait outside the channel, beyond where the harbor empties into the ocean.

A small tugboat who prefers play over work is shamed by the other boats and must prove himself during a storm.

The writing is fine but it's the illustrations that make this a classic. I grew up on a river and the chubby little tugs are the most appealing of boats. Dwarfed by the great tankers and cargo ships, they're chunky workhorses beside the sleek sailboats and yachts. But they look like they'll be here forever, long after the last speedboat has sunk. And Gramatky captures that sturdy, powerful look to perfection, and gives each boat a personality.


A new edition was issued in 2007 by Putnam, which used first editions and original paintings to restore the original's rich color. It is an amazing difference (see here); the copy I was using to write this review was a 1963 edition, and the cover is worlds away from the original or the 2007; the little boat's hat is orange, the background a faded blue-grey.




About the author


A watercolorist with a clear affinity for the water, Gramatky based his famous tugboat on boats he'd watched in New York City's East River. He had been at the Walt Disney Studio in its early days before coming to New York with his wife Dorothea, also an artist.

Much more information is available at the website (check out Yacht Race under Paintings - gorgeous)

Other books

Little Toot series

Little Toot

Little Toot on the Thames

Little Toot on the Grand Canal

Little Toot on the Mississippi

Little Toot through the Golden Gate

Little Toot and the Loch Ness Monster




Homer And The Circus Train


Nikos And The Sea God

Happy's Christmas

Creeper's Jeep

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Paddy Pork series (John S. Goodall)

The Paddy Pork series

John S. Goodall

Browsing through the Easy Fiction section of the library, I stumbled across this series of small books for small children and was instantly added to what appears to be a faithful following of Goodall's illustrations. The delicate artwork and sheer charm of the little pig's adventures remind me strongly of the Little Bear series, but the darkness of some illustrations is all British. Goodall was an artist who used sympathetic flair and painstaking detail to create small books without text but filled with story. Here is the first one.

The Adventures Of Paddy Pork

1968, Harcourt, Brace & World

In the first of the Paddy Pork series, a little pig runs off to join the circus and falls afoul of a treacherous (and quite scary) fox. When at last he finds the circus folk, he discovers that home's best.

About the Author

John Strickland Goodall


Obituary in The Independent



Other books

The Adventures of Paddy Pork

The Ballooning Adventures of Paddy Pork

Paddy's Evening Out

Paddy Pork's Holiday

Paddy's New Hat

Paddy Finds a Job: A Pop-Up Story

Paddy Pork--Odd Jobs

Paddy Under Water

Paddy to the Rescue

The Story Of An English Village

An Edwardian Summer

An Edwardian Christmas

An Edwardian Season

An Edwardian Holiday

Edwardian Entertainment

Victorians Abroad

Naughty Nancy

Naughty Nancy Goes To School

Naughty Nancy: The Bad Bridesmaid

Shrewbettina's Birthday

Shrewbettina Goes To Work: A Pop Up Story

The Story Of An English Village

The Story Of A Main Street

The Story Of A Farm

The Story Of A Castle

Creepy Castle

Before The War 1908-1939

Lavina's Cottage

Great Days Of A Country House

The Surprise Picnic

The Midnight Adventures Of Kelly, Dot And Esmeralda

Above And Below Stairs

Little Red Riding Hood

Whitby Abbey


John S. Goodall's Theatre: The Sleeping Beauty

Kelly Dot and Esmerelda

Paddy Pork: Odd Jobs


Field-Mouse House


Many of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books published under the pseudonym Miss Read (Dora Saint) were illustrated by Goodall.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Horatio (1968)


Eleanor Clymer, il. Robert Quackenbush

1968, Atheneum

Mrs. Casey was very kind. Too kind. She was kind to everybody, even strangers. One rainy day she took in a stray puppy. He was cold and hungry, and she gave him some bread and milk and rubbed him with a towel.

But what did she do then? Did she open the door and send him on his way? No, indeed. She let him stay.

"We'll call him Sam," she said. "He'll be company for you, Horatio."

Horatio didn't want company.

The little story in this early reader book is very good, but the illustrations are superlative. A cranky orange cat, annoyed at his kind-hearted owner for taking in other pets, becomes lost and finds himself playing nurse to a pair of alley kittens.

About the Author


Born in New York City, she attended Barnard and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1928. She wrote nearly 60 books.

Other books - Horatio series

Leave Horatio Alone

Horatio's Birthday

Horatio Goes To The Country

Horatio Solves A Mystery

Other books

The Trolley Car Family

Sociable Toby

My Brother Stevie

The Tiny Little House

Hamburgers And Ice Cream For Dessert

Harry The Wild West Horse


de Grummond collection

About the Illustrator


Friday, May 22, 2009

Baby Island (Carol Ryrie Brink, 1937)

Baby Island
Carol Ryrie Brink, il. Moneta Barnett
1937 (pictured: 1971, Scholastic)

"Now, Jean," said Mary firmly, "we've just got to be brave. I planned everything out last night while you were asleep and the boat was drifting along. Mr. Snodgrass was telling me only the other day that there are hundreds of little islands in this part of the sea, and I'm hoping to reach one before night."

12-year-old Mary Wallace and her 10-year-old sister Jean are making the long sea voyage from San Francisco to Australia to rejoin their father when the SS Orminta founders in a tropical storm. Both girls adore babies, and in the confusion of the sinking ship they end up alone on a lifeboat with all four of the babies on board, including the Reverend Snodgrass's toddler twins Elijah and Elisha, and the two infants Jonah Snodgrasss and Ann Elizabeth Arlington. Both girls are amusingly and staunchly self-reliant, and when their nerves begin to shake they brace themselves with tales of their Scottish heritage. They do soon reach a tropical island, and set up housekeeping with all the zest of two little housewives cleaning a dusty room.

They laid a circle of stones beside the stream, and that evening had their first campfire. It was pleasant to have warm food again, even if it was only heated in cans and cups, but more pleasant still, it was, to have a friendly flame to hold back the dark mystery of the tropical night.

On the island, they also find Mr. Peterkin, a Cockney sailor who fled a threatening marriage to live alone on the island. He's dismayed to have domesticity and small children thrust upon him after all that effort to avoid them, but he is slowly won over by baby Ann Elizabeth, who admires his whiskers.

Throughout their adventures, the Wallace girls are, more than anything else, sensible. While not technically orphans, their mother died when they were small and their father had left them to the care of housekeepers, basically meaning Mary ran the household. So neither is too sad to be parted from family for months, although they do get lonely. They both adore babies and spent much of the sea voyage babysitting, and to a great extent their shipwrecked state is blissful. Jean, younger and more harum-scarum, adopts a baby monkey, and both girls revel in providing food and shelter for their little charges.

The Boxcar Children

About the Author
Brink was born in 1895 and died in 1981. She won the Newberry Prize for her 1935 book Caddie Woodlawn. Born in Idaho, she got her B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and married a mathematician.

Other Books
Anything Can Happen On The River
Caddie Woodlawn
Magical Melons aka Caddie Woodlawn's Family (sequel to Caddie Woodlawn)
Family Grandstand
The Highly Trained Dogs Of Professor Petit
Family Sabbatical (sequel to Family Grandstand)
The Pink Motel
Andy Buckram's Tin Men
Two Are Better Than One
Winter Cottage
The Bad Times Of Irma Baumlein (aka Irma's Big Lie)
Lad With A Whistle

Children's - Picture/Easy
Goody O'Grumpity

Buffalo Coat
Strangers In The Forest
Snow In the River

Adult - Nonfiction
A Chain Of Hands
Four Girls On A Homestead

All Over Town
Mademoiselle Misfortune
Narcissa Whitman
Minty Et Compagnie
Harps In The Wind
The Headland
The Twin Cities
Chateau Saint Barnabe
The Bellini Look

Other editions:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thursday's Child

Thursday's Child
Noel Streatfeild, il. Peggy Fortnum
1970, Random House

When young Margaret is sent to an orphanage in 1900 England, the cruel Matron instantly divines that here is a child whose spirit must be broken.

"One of those independent children," she agreed. "It will take some time before she is molded to our shape. Send her to me when she comes in from school tomorrow. She shall have ten strokes on each hand. That will teach her who is the ruler in this establishment."

Good luck, cruel Matron. Margaret is a sturdy, outspoken child whose remorseless imagination and strong sense of her own story - she was left on a doorstep as a baby, with fine baby clothes and a secret benefactor who sent gold to her caretakers every year for ten years - makes her impervious. She also has an ally in Lavinia Beresford, a fellow orphan who has gained employment in a big house as a scullery maid, and her two little brothers, Peter and Horatio, who are fellow inmates at St. Luke's.

Matron is a standard big, evil woman. Lavinia and her brothers are the standard upper-class children fallen upon hard times and Margaret is a standard chutzpah-laden upstart. Yet despite the cliches, it's a good, satisfying read. Perhaps because of kid-lit gems like this:

In the kitchen there was a cupboard called "The Housemaid's Cupboard." This was always bulging with snacks: game, cold chicken, cold meats, as well as fruit puddings and cakes. Any of the staff could help themselves from that cupboard whenever they felt hungry. Lavinia took a plate and piled on it a rich assortment of food. Then, fetching a knife and fork, she sat down at the table and ate the lot.

The book pays subtle honor to the classic orphan stories; there's more than a hint of Mary, of Anne, of Sarah Crewe. But Margaret is a 20th century heroine, albeit early; at the end, when she's offered the standard dream outcome for an orphan - a rich ready-made family - she reacts:

Her chin shot into the air. "Thank you very much but I don't want to be anyone's daughter. I was not found like an ordinary baby. I had three of everything all marked with crowns and each year lots of money was paid to keep me. I have friends, Hannah and the rector, and I've got a stamp so I am writing to ask them to come and see me act Little Lord Fauntleroy."

Other Information
This book has a sequel, Far To Go, and was made into a television miniseries by the BBC in 1973. This is available on TV.com

The White Gauntlet

Other Books
Ballet Shoes
Circus Shoes
Dancing Shoes
Family Shoes
Movie Shoes
New Shoes
Skating Shoes
Theater Shoes
Traveling Shoes
The Children On The Top Floor
The Family At Caldicott Place
The Magic Summer
Queen Victoria

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The House Of Thirty Cats
Mary Calhoun, il. Mary Chalmers
1965, Harper & Row

Sarah Rutledge is lonely since her only friend moved away, so her mother says she can have a kitten. In the small town where she lives, this means visiting Miss Tabitha Henshaw's little cottage at the edge of town, but Sarah is reluctant to risk breaking the enchantment she instinctively feels hangs around what she privately calls The House of Thirty Cats. What if it turns out to just be another ordinary house? But Sarah wants a kitten, so she shyly starts for the house. But just as she reaches the gate, a prowling black cat attacks another cat without provocation, and as Sarah tries to force the invader off his victim, Miss Tabitha intervenes, mistaking Sarah for the aggressor.

Miss Tabitha realizes her mistake, but although she welcomes the little girl, she also welcomes the black cat, soon dubbed Tarnish. Sarah senses that Tarnish is not the sad wayfarer Miss Tabitha claims, but an evil cat. And Tarnish is soon leading the other cats in midnight forays around town, causing trouble that culminates in a decree that Miss Tabitha must get rid of all but a few of her cats. Which is when shy, dreamy Sarah comes reluctantly out of her introspective world to study her neighbors, searching to fit cats to people. At the same time, she tries to keep Tarnish from hurting her kitten, Lilybug, whose sweetness seems to attract the maurader.

While Miss Tabitha toes the party line on redemption and second chances, it's ultimately Sarah's instant, instinctive judgement of Tarnish that carries the day. Which is so unusual in children's books that it's like a lightning bolt. At the end, she wonders if Tarnish was drawn despite himself to the goodness of the other cats, but her final comment on the cat is Tarnish's possibilities were ended. And though it contains some sadness, it also contains the relief and rightness that Tarnish's evil possibilities are ended.

But apart from this, the book contains various magical scenes, among them the feline birthday party for Horace. And while most of the book is from Sarah's point of view, there is one passage that briefly shows a cat's-eye view of the proceedings in a style that evokes pure cat:

Mine, thought Horace. All for me. Horace sat up proudly in the grass and surveyed his party with satisfaction. Of course all this excitement was just for him. The nose-tickly smells of hot fish and sweet cookies, the woman making a fuss over him, cats dashing around like sillies. All because Horace was wonderful. Of course.

Other Books by the Author
Katie John
Honestly, Katie John!
Depend On Katie John
Katie John And Heathcliff
Magic In The Alley
White Witch Of Kynance
The Horse Comes First

Easy Reader
Cross Country Cat
Henry The Sailor Cat
Henry The Christmas Cat
High-Wire Henry
Blue Ribbon Henry
Audubon Cat
Wobble The Witch Cat
Tonio's Cat

About the Illustrator
Mary Chalmers was born March 16, 1927 in Camden, N.J. She studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the College of Art and Design within the University of the Arts) and the Barnes Foundation. A cat owner (obviously) who lived in Maryland. The illustrations in the original book were wonderful. Other books illustrated by Mary Chalmers include my beloved The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom, and many popular beginner books including Three To Get Ready by Betty Boeghehold and The Happy Birthday Present by Joan Heilbroner.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Girl Who Ran Away (1969) (aka Charley)

also published as The Girl Who Ran Away
Joan G. Robinson, il. Prudence Seward
1969, Coward-McCann

"I'll run away," said Charley, "that's what I'll do."

Charley, whose real and unused name is Rowan, is a prickly, rambunctious and imaginative girl who likes to draw and hear the story of Lizzie Scrotten.

The story of Lizzie Scrotten was a story of the bad old days, when poor people starved, and people without homes went tramping from workhouse to workhouse.

This beloved story is told and retold, patiently, by the family cook. Charley's favorite part is when Lizzie is alone at night, homeless, and walking along looking longingly into the lighted windows of the cozy homes she's passing. A middle child trapped between a clever older brother and a sickly little brother, Charley dreams of being alone and outcast, set apart.

When she's sent to stay with a favorite aunt, Charley's thrilled - until she reads a note not meant for her eyes, and realizes that aunt Louie hadn't wanted her to come. Betrayed, Charley gets off the train early and sneaks into town instead of going to Louie's house. Finding an old chicken house, Charley seizes on her chance to become Lizzie Scrotten. And for a season, the protected middle-class child becomes a free-spirited child of poverty - albeit a somewhat romantic, Boxcar Childrenesque poverty.

It was dawn when she woke properly. The sky was lightening and the air was full of the twitter of birds. She sprang up and scrambled through the hedge, which was hung with great glistening spiders' webs.

Sleeping in her chicken house and drinking from a garden hose in a nearby yard, Charley keeps a watchful eye on her aunt's house and plays different roles with different people she encounters - a gypsy with a local child, a mute with a shopkeeper, a cripple with a minister - for a variety of reasons both practical and playful. Her most meaningful encounter, though, is with a young man who is also running away, and the conversation they have about it. When a crisis comes, though, Charley discovers that she can't be Lizzie any longer.

A cheerful, interesting read that draws its power from the mundane-turned-fascinating details of Charley's hobo life, and her quick, deep store of tales to spin for the strangers in her aunt's village.

About the author
Most famous for her picture books about Teddy Robinson.

Other books
When Marnie Was There
The Adventures of Uncle Lubin
The Dark House of the Sea Witch
Dear Teddy Robinson
Teddy Robinson Himself
Mary-Mary Stories
Meg and Maxie
The Summer Surprise

Similar Stories
The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner 1924
Roller Skates Ruth Sawyer 1936

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Witches' Bridge (aka The Mystery Of The Witches' Bridge)
Barbee Oliver Carleton
1967, Holt, Rinehart And Winston

Out of the night, and the fog, and the marsh, these three, Doom shall come for thee.

Dan Pride is a 13-year-old orphan who's spent the three years since his parents' deaths as a lonely, largely unwanted resident of English boarding schools. Finally, his reclusive Uncle Julian has agreed to take him into the family house near Boston, a property set in salt marshes which has been in the family for generations. Dan is looking forward to being part of a real family again, but his hopes are crushed by Billy Ben, the jolly handyman who tells him of the family curse. Long ago, the town accused Samuel Pride and his wife of witchcraft; they were executed, but not before Samuel laid a curse on the town that even today lingers in the locals' minds. Now, Pride's Point is as isolated mentally as physically, subject to superstitions and suspicions that have embittered his uncle and explain why Dan's own father fled the place for Europe.

Dan, struggling with the loneliness and local hostility, learning who he can trust and what he will believe, finds that family history is both a burden and a link. Desperate to make his distant uncle like him, he determines he'll solve a long-festering mystery at Pride. Years earlier, the curse had struck again when Julian's father had died on a foggy night in the marshes, supposedly on his way back from making peace with their arch-enemies, the Bishop family. The Bishops said he'd never come; the money he'd been carrying was never found. The death had reinvigorated the legend, and turned Julian into an oddity.

He peered through the rain, eager for his first glimpse of the great salt marshes. "What's Pride's Point like?" he asked curiously.

"It's self-sufficient, like the old places, with its own orchard and gardens and such. And it stays the same while the world keeps changing.

The house and holdings of Pride's Point, usually simply called Pride, exert a powerful pull on the story, a sense of place reminiscent of Moorethwaite Manor or Green Knowe. Ancestral homes, the magic of long-standing occupation, the sense of a history shared through the roots of plants and set of stones. It's not a matter of who has the big ancestral house, though; Lamie, the hermit, expresses it most plainly:

My mother made such ointment as this, and her mother before her... They have not gone, you know, theose good people. You see them in the ditches dug in the marsh, and in the cellar holes below... and you see them in the white roses that grow wild now, on all our islands. They brought the roses with them when they came, three hundred years ago and half a world away... They are still here, our first people.

A very well-written book with interesting, believable characters and an engrossing plot.

Other Books
The Wonderful Cat Of Cobbie Bean (1957)
The Secret Of Saturday Cove (1961)
Chester Jones (1963)
Benny And The Bear

Friday, March 13, 2009

Enemy Brothers
Constance Savery, il. by Henry C. Pitz
1943, Longmans, Green & Co.

When R.A.F. officer George Ingleford visits his sailor brother Ginger, he happens upon a group of Norweigans who had been picked up while escaping to England. And among the Norweigans is a German prisoner, a 12-year-old Hitler Youth who angrily says his name is Max Eckermann. George, known to his large family as Dym, recognizes with a shock the little brother who was kidnapped 12 years ago. But when Dym lays claim to the boy and takes him home to an English house stuffed with cousins and refugees, the fun begins. Max flatly refuses to believe he's the long-lost Anthony Ingleford, and wages a private war of resistance to convince the family to send him home. He sings a German nationalist anthem in church, breaks the blackout by shining a huge beacon from the roof of the house, and runs away again and again. Dym, stationed at a nearby air base, patiently returns again and again to find him and soothe the ruffled family feathers. Dym realizes that Max is driving everyone to distraction, but he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would find his brother. Also, he has the strong sense of saving Max from the Nazi mentality, a sense he tries to explain to his younger cousins.

He was being slowly poisoned in Germany. He was getting the poisonous teaching that is given to all Germans under Nazi rule... They are being taught that Germany is a master nation with the right to rule the world, trampling down the smaller nations, robbing them, torturing them, turning them into mindless, soulles slaves. They are taught that lies and spying, treachery and cruelty and broken promises don't matter if they are done for the good of Germany. They are taught that they must be mercilessly hard because pity and mercy are only shown by weak fools. That's all poison. It poisons the soul. I couldn't leave Tony to drink it in.

Max, despite his resistance to being Tony - and British - has an unwilling fondness for Dym. And when he finally gets a chance to go back to Germany and the woman he knows as his mother, Dym and his values make it unexpectedly hard for Max to leave.

A well-written and engrossing novel whose characters are slightly quaint but strong and likeable. Some of the imagery is dated and the earnest tone can sound old-fashioned, but it's believable from people in the midst of wondering if the Nazi invasion is really going to suceed - in one chilling moment, a runaway Max contacts a child he knew back home, a child whose parents are double agents now living in England, and the boy responds to the surprise of seeing his little German classmate by asking coolly when did the invasion start? Also impressive is the lack of the smug bullying tone that is unfortunately very common in British children's books from the first half of the 20th century. A very good old book that makes a compelling dilemma out of what should seem like an automatic choice.

Bethlehem Books

Other Books
The Reb And The Redcoats
The Royal Caravan
Joric And The Dragon (1964)
Scarlet Plume (1953)
Blue Fields (1947)
All Because Of Sixpence (1961)
Change With Me (Gateway)
Danny And The Alabaster Box (1949)
Young Elizabeth Green
Breton Holiday
Emeralds For The King (aka Green Emeralds For The King) (1938)
In Apple Alley (1966)
Magic In My Shoes
The Sea Queen
Gilly's Tower (Junior Gateway)
The Strawberry Feast
Welcome, Santza
To The City Of Gold
Dark House On The Moss
Lavender's Tree
Redhead At School
Meg Plays Fair
There Was A Key
Peter Of Yellow Gates
The White Kitling
Tabby Kitten
Thistledown Tony
Yellow Gates
Up A Winding Stair
The Drifting Sands (1971)
The Sapphire Ring
The Silver Angel
The Golden Cap (Gateway Series)
Five Wonders For Wyn (1960)
The City of Flowers
The Sea Urchins
The Good Ship Red Lily (1944)

About the Author
Savery wrote over sixty children's books, and lived to be 101. After taking an English degree at Oxford and a brief stint as a teacher, Savery went home to help her widower father, a clergyman, run his parish. She and her four sisters remained single throughout their lives; three of her sisters also became writers.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Leveller
Jacqueline Dembar Greene
1984, Walker & Company

In 1779 Massachusetts, a young man named Tom Cook lives alone, regarded uneasily by his neighbors. They can't deny he has helped the poorest among them by his 'levelling' activities of stealing from the rich to give to the needy, but there are rumors about Cook, rumors that won't die. It's said that when he was an infant, his mother sold his soul to the devil in order to save his life from a fever. The story has plagued him his whole life, forcing his family to abandon the community of Westborough and their devil-owned son, and leaving even the most kindly neighbors somewhat in fear of him. It's only when Jesse Baxter, a boy whose family is new to the village, comes to see him that Tom realizes how lonely he's been.

"You don't have to be so alone," Jesse offered. "You could make friends with the farmers you've helped. They trust you."

"No, Jess. I won't be accepted in this town unless I stand before the Meeting and confess that the devil's led me to steal and ask the forgiveness of the Meeting. I'll never do it. I'm serving God in my own way and don't need anyone's blessing."

Tom's stubborn, proud and resentful of the minister who bought his family's former home. He may be the perfect New Englander. But he also has a devilish sense of humor, one that bails him out of various human traps and may, in the end, bail him out of his hellish bargain. For the story is true; Beelzebub has bought Tom Cook's soul and is intent on collecting.

A quick, character-first story that blends the stoic blandness of the New England colonial period with the snappish color of a ghost story. Tom's a convincing character, and his enemies are given some depth. The robin hood aspect of the story is less believable, and rather glossed over, as is Jesse's character.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Girl Across The Way
(originally: The Cat Across The Way)
Ann Huston, il. John Fernie
1968, Scholastic Book Services

10-year-old Lacey is miserable in her new life in Cleveland. She misses her small-town home, she misses her best friend Pam, and she misses her pony. The city is ugly and unfamiliar, the school big and confusing, and her new friendship with fellow horse-nut Rosette is bumpy. But her father's old job in Three Corners is gone, and her family must stay in the city. Slowly, Lacey acclimates. And strangely, it is the big yellow cat she watches out her bedroom window who helps give her unhappy troubles a good resolution.

Nicely written and always in character as the point-of-view of a little girl. One of the last generation of those older children's books focused on what were once considered normal child concerns - friendships, family, neighborhood - before we entered the era of 'problem novels.'

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I think it's only fair to mention first that I love Noel Streatfeild's books. Their heroines combine the tough-as-nails mental attitude of boarding school inmates with the hard-working ethic of dancers, and each one was filled with that mesmerizing and uniquely British talent for making horrific food and brutal living conditions sound utterly desirable. For the ultimate in this, see The Little Princess.

Dancing Shoes (originally published as Wintle's Wonders)
Noel Streatfeild, il. Richard Floethe
1957, Collins (U.K.) - 1958, Random House (U.S.)
Edition shown - Dell Yearling, 1981

When Rachel and Hilary Lennox's mother dies, they are taken in by their uncle Tom and his wife, Cora, who runs a London stage school for children. The talented little ballerina Hilary instantly hits it off with Cora, but quiet Rachel seems to rub her aunt the wrong way from the very beginning. The struggle to fit in and adapt to their new circumstances is complicated by their tempermental and spoiled cousin Dulcie, who is the uncontested star of the school.

One of the 'shoe' books from Streatfeild and one of several books she wrote about children studying the performing arts in professional schools in London, Dancing Shoes stands out by virtue of its look at the low end of the scale. The School of Dancing and Mrs. Wintle's Little Wonders are not aiming at the prestigious theatre and ballet - they're strictly chorus lines, troupes of cute kids with talent. Early on, it's mentioned that the Wonders have appeared on TV and in film - two art forms Streatfeild clearly considers second-class in her other books. Rachel, feeling that her mother wanted Hilary to be a 'real' dancer, ie, a ballerina, is frustrated by this divide - she wants Hilary to become a student at The Royal Ballet School, not learn to do high kicks in a chorus line. Hilary, on the other hand, adores the Wonders' costumes and lifestyle and longs to be old enough to get a license to work.

"But suppose I don't want to be made something of?"

Rachel's unhappy question is an attack on her aunt's incessant attempt to make her over into an attractive Wonder, and even the sympathetic Pursey - co-owner of the school and cozy housemother to the entire place - scolds her for her resistance. It is a standard Streafeild answer to make her misfit child a star at some other art; you get the sense that if they hadn't discovered their niche so speedily, they'd have been obligated to force themselves awkwardly into the spot chosen by their guardian.

One oddity, placing the book in an earlier era and different place, is the recurring mention of Hilary's being adopted. Initially, she's not included in Tom and Cora's offer to take in Rachel, and it's mentioned several times that she's not a 'real' sister. The children are adamant that they are sisters, but the adults seem a bit hung up on the adoption thing.

About the Author
The White Gaunlet - website about Noel Streatfeild

About the illustrator
Born in Germany, came to the U.S. in 1928. His wife Louise Lee Floethe was a writer. He also illustrated Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Family Shoes, Tennis Shoes, and The Stranger In Primrose Lane.

In Print?
Available at Random House

Other books (shoe books)
Ballet Shoes
Tennis Shoes
Circus Shoes
Party Shoes
Movie Shoes
Skating Shoes
Dancing Shoes
New Shoes
Traveling Shoes

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Diddakoi (aka Gypsy Girl)
Rumer Godden
1972, The Viking Press

Kezia - Kizzy - Lovell is a half-gypsy orphan being raised by her grandmother in a horse-drawn wagon. But Gran is old and they've stopped travelling, camping permanently in an orchard owned by the reclusive Admiral Cunningham Twiss. When Gran dies and Kizzy's remaining relatives plan to sell her old horse, Joe, to the knacker, she appeals to the Admiral for help. With Joe taken care of, however, Kizzy is in need of a home. She reluctantly agrees to go live with Miss Brooke, but battles between them, and between Kizzy and her suspicious schoolmates, throw her future into question.

Kizzy did not have toys, except an old skipping rope that Gran had bought with some jumbler - travellers are forever buying and selling things. Kizzy did not need toys when she had Joe. She combed him with an old curry comb and brushed his mane and tail; she would sit beside him in the grass, giving him buttercups, of which he was fond; if she lay down beside him he would sometimes push her with his nose; the breath from his nostrils was warm and now and again he would gently lick her face. A horse's lick is clean to a traveller.

Rumer Godden had a unique writing style, one where sentences wend onward until you'd think it was impossible for them to sustain their own weight. But they do. Her simultaneously romantic and practical view of childhood is also unique; her children are both brutal and pragmatic, in a way I do not find completely believable or appealing, but which is a refreshing change from the "What's wrong with poor little Devon that he stuck a pencil through his classmate's head?" approach.

Current Re-Issue
The Diddakoi was re-issued in 2008 by Macmillan, which has also re-issued several other Godden books for children.

The Diddakoi was made into a TV-movie called Kizzi for the BBC.

About The Author
Raised in India, Godden spent much of her life living outside England. The autobiographical Two Under The Indian Sun is about her childhood, while Kingfisher Catch Fire is a novel which draws heavily on her experiences as a young woman living in the Himalayas. She also wrote the novels In This House Of Brede, Black Narcissus, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita and The River. Black Narcissus and The River were both made into films, as were several other works.

Other Children's Books by Godden
Godden wrote several books about dolls and doll houses.
The Doll's House
Four Dolls
The Fairy Doll
The Story of Holly and Ivy
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower


Home is a Sailor
Operation Sippacik

The Mousewife

Impunity Jane
The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle
Mr McFadden's Hallowe'en
Mouse House
The Rocking Horse Secret

The Kindle of Kittens
Candy Floss

The Dragon Og

St Jerome and the Lion
The Valiant Chatti-Maker


The Little Chair

Listen to the Nightingale

The Kitchen Madonna

Related Websites
Rumer Godden Literary Trust
IMDB page for Kizzy

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Searching For Shona
Margaret J. Anderson
1978, Alfred A. Knopf

Orphaned heiress Marjorie Malcolm-Scott is on her way to Canada to live with relatives when she spots sometime playmate and orphanage resident Shona McInnes awaiting evacuation to the countryside. Dreading the long ocean voyage, she suggests they swap identities. The bold Shona, who has a limited sense of consequences, jumps at the chance to swap clothing. So the real Shona goes off to Canda while the pretender goes to a quiet Scottish village to stay with the Campbell sisters. Marjorie is quite happy with the results, but one thing nags at her - the village where she was sent turned out to be the same place Shona's long-lost mother came from, and Marjorie feels terrible that her friend lost out on the chance to discover her family background.

This is a cozy family book, beneath the appearance of a mystery/adventure story. It has many of the classic ingredients of a thrilling mystery/adventure story - an identity swap, a poor little rich girl, orphans, wartime privitation and an abandoned house with a tower and a tragic background - but the real well it draws from is that of a neglected child who finds happiness with unlikely parents in a chaotic time.

When they reached home, they hung up their wet coats. Miss Agnes had socks and slippers warming by the fire for them because she was sure their feet would be cold and wet after walking all the way from the picture house in that awful rain.

Searching For Shona is unusual in several ways. It's set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the heroine is atypical, a unadventurous sort who never changes much - she's more confident at the end, but no more bold. I like that - enough with the introverted heroines who must magically transform into extroverted ones. Marjorie is old for her years, a practical and worried child for whom the magical house and the haunting mystery of its former owners are mildly diverting but not nearly as important as the reality of her life. Her adopted sister, Anna Ray, is more of a typical heroine, dreamy and childish and prone to running off on adventures. Anna drives the plot by forcing Marjorie to do things like break into the deserted house.