Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Understood Betsy

by Dorothy Canfield.

Someone I know - maybe Mad Hatter Mommy, another children's librarian? - mentioned in an offhand way the book Understood Betsy, and that it had been an old classic they'd read and loved as a child. I had never heard of it! So I ordered it from another library branch, and dug in.

To my surprise - it was funny. It takes gleeful little pokes at the modern science of childrearing and at applying psychology to raising young people, it makes fun in a sly, tongue-in-cheek way that is not mean, but is unmistakeable. and predictably, when Betsy escapes this dreary, fear-inducing, crippling environment by mere happenstance and is sent to live with her "most dreadful" cousins on a Vermont farm? She flourishes under their no-nonsense but quietly loving ways, blossoming into a sturdy, sensible, fun-loving girl with ideas and a fierce heart of her own.

And when, at the end, she is to go back to her original guardian aunt, she is terribly sad, but determined not to hurt the aunt's feelings, she puts on a brave face. In the end, though, the aunt will be traveling with her new husband, and it is agreed to the secret delight of everyone, that Betsy should stay right where she is.

There is nothing in this old gem from 1917 that will come as much of a surprise - it all happens just as it should for a book like this, but the tale is captivating, quickly moving, and wryly humourous enough to be a true delight. Thanks to whomever happened to mention this one and pique my curiosity!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008


Hello, Groin

by Beth Goobie.

Somehow, I had not read any of Goobie's other acclaimed teen novels, but this one had so much buzz, I couldn't miss it. And the buzz? Was not unwarranted. Goobie is one powerful writer, and she brings Dylan Kowolski's inner struggles to life so vividly, brings the reader into the story so deeply, that I found myself crying at Dylan's turning point, both for the pain it was causing her and for pride in her for facing it at last.

You see, Dylan is dating one of the school stars. A jock without the jock mentality, Cam is a great guy, and she loves him with her whole heart and her whole mind. The problem is, her body doesn't seem to agree. It keeps just turning off, and he's been waiting patiently for it to be right for her, long past the typical waiting period for couples in their school. It frustrates her, the fact that her groin and head can't match up, but slowly she lets herself realize in a deep, hidden place that it's because her body wants a girl, no matter how much she cares for Cam. and once that starts to bubble up, there's no stopping the secret for long. Within a couple of months, she finds herself unable to carry on the lie, facing suspicion at school, slight pressure from Cam, and the growing needs of her own body. So in one wrenching weekend, both awful and relieving, she faces the truth, and tells Cam, her parents, and the best friend she loves in every way - including the way she can't love Cam.

Cam, being the wonderful, thoughtful, mature guy her is, backs off, but ultimately deals and helps her, too. He may hang with jocks, but he's no meathead himself. Her best friend Joc, fortunately, has been read right, and the two move towards something deeper. The parents are okay, though Joc's brother is not so cool - her mother, though, lets him know that he'd better step up. The only problem left is a girl that has been semi-stalking Dylan since the single kiss they shared weeks ago. Feeling braver now, she calls her to talk, too, and wraps up the ends before she starts moving forward with what is now her new life.

The book is wonderfully written, and the struggle between what Dylan thinks she wants and what her body is telling her sounds like it could be written by someone who knows. Her confusion, her fear, her longing are palpable, and leap off the page. My only complaint is a minor one - there are parts of the language that feel repetitive, which I find slightly distracting. Still, I can see how it can happen that you have a turn of phrase that you feel works well for something, and it's hard to move past it, feels false to grope for something else. Overall, this is one hell of a stellar book, and one that I would recommend for anyone growing up. Because even if it's not the sexuality thing, most teens have something in themselves they are wrestling with that wants to come out, and should be able to identify with this on some level. And this story? Ends on the sort of lovely, hopeful note you hope these stories always could.

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Here Lies the Librarian

by Richard Peck.

I love Peck's books A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, both of which mine small towns of long ago for laughs. In fact, when he writes like this, Richard Peck reminds me of Robert Newton Peck, he also set his hilarious stories in rural countryside of the past. This is no exception, being set in 1914, in a town so small and backwards that a nearby small town referred to them as "Rubesburg." At this time, in this town, the automobile is just getting a firm foothold, and roads are just starting to come through. Two families compete for automotive repair business, though the Kirbys are far less than scrupulous.

At the same time, the locals are goaded into reopening their library and looking for a new librarian. When they end up with three big-city heiresses sharing the job and funding their own major improvements, the town hardly knows what hit them. And then they take on PeeWee - never known as Eleanor - as a project, too. Both teaching her what it means to be a lady and encouraging her to retain her spunk, they make her into quite the girl, big enough to stand on her own when her brother moves to Indianapolis with one of the librarians. Turns out she and he are both car-mad, and after he shows his stuff at a car race, her auto-maker father is impressed, even if Eleanor did finish the race for him in the end.

It might sound a touch confusing - well, that's because there are small plots aplenty. They keep the book hopping and funny right from the start, but they all tie in together nicely, making it a good read for a reluctant reader or a keen one, and fun for either gender, to boot. Peck's comic touch shows no sign of waning, and this is a fun read, even for the non-librarian.

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Monday, February 11, 2008


No Talking

by Andrew Clements.

Let me say up front, Clements is one of my favourite authors for middle grades. I like that his characters are well-fleshed out, both children and adult, and they are thinkers, smart people, by and large. People who, even when they make mistakes or act in haste, think about it afterwards, and figure out some way to make it right. They are, I suppose, what we would hope for people to be.

His books follow a fairly predictable pattern - they are school stories, some kid has an idea, something he wants to do differently, or an experiment, and he meets with some resistance, but the adults around him respect his thinking, and either decide to support and help, or to at least not truly stand in his way. The experiment goes forth, and both children and adults watch with interest. In the end, people learn something worthwhile.

This book is no exception. But still, it's a formula that I enjoy, the ideas are always kind of interesting, and the books are such that kids both get to see adults being real, 3-dimensional people, and get to mull over a new idea. I think it's a winning combination so even though I think the formula is pretty obvious, I still like it. The man is the king of the school story, after all.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008


The Real Thief

by William Steig.

I have drivelled on ad nauseum in various places about how dearly I love William Steig, so I am slowly tucking in everything of his I haven't read before, reading them between other, more current fiction I'm reading. This latest is the slimmest of chapter books, an Easy Reader size and format, with a handful of his illustrations, though I would not necessarily place it there because of the reading level Steig writes at. Steig loves rich vocabulary and tends to use words that would leave the average ER reader in the dust, so I would still place this in fiction for middle grades, despite its slender size.

In the book, Gawain, a most honourable goose who has been appointed Chief Guard of the king's treasury, finds himself in a terrible bind when he brings some small discrepancies in the treasury's inventory to the attention of the king. The thefts continue, and he is accused, being the only one besides the king who has keys. The king doesn't want to believe this, but faced with the evidence, he brings Gawain to trial, and the goose is cooked, so to speak. He escapes, flying away, and then we meet the real thief, who had not really faced that he was stealing, exactly, only redecorating with the help of the treasure he had found his way to. When he sees his friend Gawain accused, he decides he must steal more so as to make the goose's innocence obvious. Accomplishing this, he then returns all that he has stolen, and sets out to find his friend, bring him home, and restore his honour.

The story is lovely, of course, sweet and simple, and the language beautiful. It would be a great early read-aloud, but do be prepared to answer lots of "what does that word mean?" questions along the way.

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A Friendship for Today

by Patricia C. McKissack

McKissack has written a book set in the 1954/5 school year, the year Kirkwood, MO, decided to integrate their schools. Rosemary is the only black girl from her school to go to the new integrated school, because her best friend contracts polio right before school starts, and is away all year receivng treatment. So she faces it alone, at times angry, at times, lonely, and she finds her way. She earns the respect of her classmates little by little, a few at a time, and even finds a most unlikely friend in another girl looked down on by many others - a former enemy, no less! along the way, she both teaches and learns.

As usual, I love a good story of friendship, and the notes of hope and determination in Rosemary's voice make it all the better as she vows to stick it out adn show everyone, as she promises to have belief in her friend's recovery, and as she takes care of a nearly-dead cat until she is quite fine again. The book is based on many of McKissack's own memories, and it rings very true. It doesn't exaggerate the difficulties of being the outsider, and may even skip over or downplay some iof the potential meanness, but it's a great read, a wonderful story, and all the richer for the endnote that tells the reader that the author is someone who lived it herself. Good stuff.

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