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Just Like David by Marguerite de Angeli

Jan Bloom writes in her authors’ guide, Who Should We Then Read?:

“From her earliest days, Marguerite had a desire to draw and paint. When not yet two years old she experimented with some pastels she found next to a portrait her father was sketching. She knew she must not touch the face so she did a border around it, using every color in the box of pastels. Her parents were stern, but loving. She was scolded but not punished for her artistic expression.”

Marguerite was a professional singer before she married, but after her first three children were born, she began drawing, hoping to become an illustrator. The first drawing she sold was to a Sunday School publication. Her first book, fourteen years later, was Henner’s Lydia, about an Amish girl. Marguerite de Angeli won the Newbery Award for her story of a boy handicapped by polio during the Middle Ages, A Door in the Wall.

I found Just Like David on the shelf in one of the local thrift stores that I frequent, looking for bargain book treasures. I had never heard of this particular de Angeli title, but I knew from looking at the illustrations and sampling the story that it would be good. The book is 122 pages long with nice large print, hardcover and lots of pictures; it’s we would nowadays call a “beginning chapter book”. Just Like David tells the story of a five year old boy, Jeffrey, who wants to go to school like his older brother, David. But Jeffrey is not old enough to attend school in Pennsylvania where his family lives. However, when the family decides to move to Ohio for Father to take a new job, there’s a chance, just a little “if”, that Jeffrey might be able to go to school, too, just like David.

Most of the story is about the car trip from Pennsylvania to Ohio. It’s quite an adventure for Mother and Father and three small boys (baby Henry is two years old). That the journey takes place in another era (the book was published in 1951) is obvious from the details: no seatbelt, no carseat for Henry, tollgate tickets, and thermos bottles. Some of these details would need to be explained to present day readers or listeners, but it would be fun to read along until you came to an unfamiliar word or phrase and then discuss. Father explains many unfamiliar concepts to David and Jeffrey as they go on their long car trip and then later as they explore their new home and it environs: things like courthouses and county seats and turnpikes and Indian arrow heads and fossils and many other discoveries that the boys make along the way.

Similar to Ms. de Angeli’s other books, Just Like David is a gentle story about a child growing up in a loving family. It might be a little slow for today’s media-fed children, but if Mister Rogers and Carolyn Haywood and Laura Ingalls Wilder are about your speed, Just Like David might be just right, too.

I thought it was a delight, and I learned a new expression: “put your mouth!” I tried to look up this idiom, used several times in the book by Jeffrey, David and their family, on the internet, but I got some rather nasty results and nothing that defined the term as they used it. From context, I think it means something like “unbelievable” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Maybe it was something the de Angeli family said or an expression people in the midwest used back in the 1950’s. I rather like it and think I’ll try to revive the saying.

“I have eight of Mrs. de Angeli’s lovely books in my library now, and I’d be pleased as punch to have the rest of them!”
“Put your mouth!”

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t really want to summarize the plot of this novel because for me it wasn’t about the plot. In fact, as an older teen or an adult reads the book, he or she can pretty well predict what’s going to happen to fourteen year old Joan as she goes from life on the farm to the big city of Baltimore to escape her father and find a new life for herself in 1911. Her only real knowledge of life comes from a few chance remarks from her beloved teacher, Miss Chandler, and from the three novels that Miss Chandler gave her: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Just think what your ideas about how the world works would be if you had grown up rather isolated on a farm with an emotionally abusive father, a devoted but sickly mother, and those three novels to inform your views. I haven’t read Dombey and Son, but I can easily imagine the romantic excesses that Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe might lead one to commit. And Joan is just the sort of strong, passionate, naive girl to get her self into quite a bit of trouble, well-meaning but a bull in a china closet.

The Hired Girl is a diary novel; Ms. Schlitz allows us to see into the mind and motivations of a fourteen year old Catholic housemaid in a Jewish household in the early part of the twentieth century. And the author gets Joan’s voice just right. I really believed in this innocent but intelligent girl, hard-working, trying to become a “refined lady”, confident yet dangerously naive. She reminded me of Jo March, without the nervous energy of a March daughter, or Anne Shirley with a somewhat harder road to hoe. Joan, who calls herself “Janet” to disguise her identity, lucks out in that she gets a job with a kind, rich Jewish family, but she does not get a Matthew or a Marilla to adopt her and treat her as a daughter, although she almost gets a substitute father and mother in her employer and the elderly housekeeper that she works with. She also, like Anne, lets her passionate nature and impulsivity get her into a lot of scrapes, but Joan/Janet’s scrapes are quite a bit more serious and even dangerous than Anne’s ever were. (That’s why the book is for older teens, at least the age of the main character or older.)

And yet the book is funny. I laughed out loud sometimes at Joan’s artlessness and enthusiasm. And I became very anxious when I saw the direction in which her decisions were taking her. It’s a direction that the reader will know is bound to lead to disaster, even though Joan, caught up in imagining herself as the heroine of one of her favorite novels, is oblivious to the impending ruin that her innocence and ignorance are inviting. The juxtaposition of Joan’s rather immature but devoted Catholicism and the sophisticated, ingrained Judaism of her employer’s family was quite well-written and so intriguing. Not many writers can write religion and religious differences both convincingly and respectfully.

I can only imagine the skill and hard work that were required for Ms. Schlitz to pull this novel together, make its voice, that of a fourteen year old innocent, true and convincing, and still show the reader what is going on behind the scenes, in the minds and decisions of the other characters in the novel. I’d recommend The Hired Girl to mature teens and adults. Anyone who’s ready for Jane Eyre should be ready for this one, too, although I suppose an argument could be made that fourteen year old Joan wasn’t quite ready to really understand and interpret Jane Eyre in all its full meaning. It’s an interesting question. What novel(s) could Miss Chandler have given Joan that would have better prepared her for living as a hired girl in the city? (Not that Miss Chandler knew that Joan would be running away to the city.)

Maybe she should have read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, as a sort of cautionary tale. Or Madame Bovary. But maybe the lessons of those adult novels would have gone right over her head.

Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf

Alastair Roderick Craigellachie Dalhousie Gowan Donnybristle MacMac, aka Wee Gillis, doesn’t know which he wants to be: a Lowlander like his mother’s relations, calling cows, or a Highlander like his father’s relatives, stalking stags. He tries both out, but in the end he turns out to be something else entirely.

This picture book by Munro Leaf was published in 1938, two years after Leaf’s most famous picture book, The Story of Ferdinand. Both book share a common illustrator, Robert Lawson, and similar protagonists, seeking their identity. Ferdinand must decide what kind of bull he is, and Wee Gillis must choose how and where he will be a Scotsman. Lawson’s illustrations, black and white pen-and-ink, complement the story and its setting in Scotland with memorable, detailed facial features and clothing for Wee Gillis and all of his relatives.

Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson were in fact friends before Ferdinand was published in 1936, and Leaf actually wrote The Story of Ferdinand “on a whim in an afternoon in 1935, largely to provide his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson (then relatively unknown) a forum in which to showcase his talents.” Lawson went on to illustrate many more books, two others with Munro Leaf as author, The Story of Simpson and Sampson and an edition of Aesop’s Fables. Mr. Lawson also illustrated another book in 1938 that won a Newbery Honor in 1939, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.

The details are what make this picture book stand the test of time: a picture of Wee Gillis yelling through the fog, Wee Gillis’s absurdly long name, the alliterative fun of “calling cows” and “stalking stags”, and the tempestuous tantrum that Wee Gillis’s uncles throw when trying to persuade him to choose either the Highlands or the Lowlands for his home. And of course the theme/plot of finding a way to reconcile both halves of your heritage and still become uniquely yourself is always timely.

Read to your primary and preschool age children and then, listen to some bagpipe music together:

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

1944. Not all World War 2 stories, even those about prisoners, are about concentration camps and horror and death. Even those stories that exist in the shadow of death and destruction can be human and hopeful. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such hopeful war story about kindness and friendship.

Seven yer old Gerda’s father and brother have been “borrowed” by the German military to fight in the war. But the farm where Gerda and her mother and her four brothers and sisters live is necessary to the war effort, too. So the Nazi government sends three French prisoners of war to Gerda’s farm to help with the farm work.

The German families who were hosting the French prisoners were under strict orders not to treat them as family members or even as valued workers, but rather the prisoners were to be used as slave labor to support the German war effort and the feed the populace. However, Gerda’s mother tells her that the French men are only borrowed, that someday they will return to France, and in the meantime they are to be respected and well-treated. The growing friendship between little Gerda and the French prisoners demonstrates the possibility that even in a time of oppression, humanity can bloom.

The illustrations in this Canadian import are beautifully evocative of a rural island of peace in the midst of war. Renne Benoit, the illustrator, lives in Ontario, Canada, and the pictures remind me a little of photographs I have seen of the Canadian prairies, although the book is set in Germany. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are also quite similar in style to Renee Graef’s illustrations for the Little House picture books. If you like those pictures of cozy farm life, you’ll probably appreciate those found in The Year of Borrowed Men.

The story is based on the World War 2 experiences of the author’s mother. An afterword at the end of the book informs the reader that little Gerda, Ms. Barker’s mother, never saw her father and brother return from the war. She also never again saw the three Frenchmen who worked the farm after war was over, but she did remember the French “borrowed men” with fondness as “fruende” or “amis”.

I am pleased to add this picture book to the World War 2 section of my library as it gives a different perspective on the war and its many stories.

The Bomber’s Moon by Betty Vander Els

This fictional treatment of missionary children escaping World War II China reads almost like a memoir. In a brief search on the internet, I couldn’t find any information about the author, Betty Vander Els, but I would almost bet that this story is a fictionalized version of her own experiences or those of a very close friend. In the book in 1942 “Ruth”, about eleven years old, and her younger brother, Simeon, are sent away to an emergency boarding school for missionary kids so that they won’t end up in the concentration camp of Weihsien, captured by the approaching Japanese. However, their emergency school site is no safer from Japanese bombing raids than their homes were, and so the children are evacuated over the Himalayas to Calcutta.

The contrast between the children’s petty day-to-day concerns and the enormous events that are happening around them is one focus of this book. Ruth considers herself to be a naughty girl. She gets spanked (or strapped as the book calls it) a lot. But her infractions seem petty and inconsequential, too, for the most part: wandering away from the group, forgetting responsibilities, being disrespectful to teachers. Ruth’s concerns are to survive school and her nemesis, Miss Elson, and to take care of Simeon as her parents have charged her to do. The book paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like to see the war and its effects from a child’s point of view.

Ruth is a bit of an annoying child. She calls Simeon “dope” and “dummy” and “cowardly custard” and other such epithets frequently. She does forget to do her work, and she and her friend Anne play tricks on the teachers and band together to outwit the other children and get their own way. However, at the same time Ruth is quite concerned about taking care of Simeon, and she tries to teach him to be tough and to stand up to hardship. Simeon and his friend, Paul, are both daydreamers and and imaginers who run away, get lost, and find themselves in trouble with alarming frequency. And ever in the background and on the periphery of the children’s lives, there are Japanese bombers, American flyers, Chinese children, and Indian amahs. The setting is both exotic and dangerous, and Ruth and Simeon sashay through all the danger and foreign cultures with style and childlike confidence. In short, they act like children.

There’s a sequel (that I haven’t read) with the same characters called Leaving Point: “Home from boarding school to spend Christmas with their missionary parents, fourteen-year-old Ruth and her brothers find that the Communist Revolution has brought about many changes and new restrictions that complicate Ruth’s growing friendship with a young Chinese girl who may not be what she seems.” (Goodreads)

Silence Over Dunkerque by John Tunis

Mr. Tunis was known as “the inventor of the modern sports story.” He wrote numerous sports novels featuring young baseball players and young football players, but her did not consider himself a “children’s writer”, even though his publishers insisted on marketing his books to young people. Since there was no separate “young adult” publishing sector at the time that Tunis wrote his books, they were sold to children and teens and adults. The books mostly feature high school and college age, sometimes even older, protagonists.

In fact, Silence Over Dunkerque, is not a sports story and is mostly about Sergeant George Williams, member of the British Expeditionary Force and his escape from occupied France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since he has fourteen year old twin sons back home in England, Sergeant Williams is obviously older than the average Tunis protagonist, and though the story also features a fourteen year old French girl, Giselle, and also the twins to some extent, Sergeant Williams is the main character and the anchor for the story.

Silence Over Dunkerque was published in 1962, and it’s not quite as fast-paced as a more contemporary YA novel might be. Sergeant Williams is caught in the maelstrom of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and he has adventures—escape from the Germans, a failed attempt to evacuate from the beach, encountering Nazi patrols, the capture of a German parachuter—but these adventures are interspersed between times of waiting in long lines on the beach, hiding out in a French farmhouse, hiking across enemy territory, rowing tediously across the Channel.

And there’s a dog. Sergeant Williams befriends an abandoned dog in a small French village on his way to Dunkirk. The dog tenaciously follows Sergeant Williams through all his journey across France and even across the Channel, and Williams comes to appreciate the dog’s loyalty and protective instincts. The dog, the twins, Sergeant Williams’ wife searching for him on the beach at Dover day after day, Sergeant Williams’ companion in his adventures, Three Fingers Brown, all add to the human interest of a story that is essentially a humanization of an episode in World War II history: Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation.

World War II history buffs and general history buffs (like me) will enjoy the novel and appreciate the ebbs and flows of plot and action and the sturdy prose of a sportswriter turned novelist. Recommended.

If you’re interested in a list of other books and movies about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk, check out this post about Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

Jane Kitson Haverard, “Kit”, is the youngest child in a Quaker family in England in the late 1940’s, perhaps. Her mother has died before the opening of the novel, and her older cousin Laura Haverard is the mother-figure in her family, helping Jane’s professor father to raise and care for his family. The Lark in the Morn is a coming of age novel, a school story, and a book about finding your own identity and using your own talents.

This book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family novels or or other good family/boarding school novels published in the fifties or sixties. Kit doesn’t attend a boarding school, but her school life, family relationships, and vacation life are central to the novel and are chronicled in a lively and engaging manner. Kit is a likable protagonist, although confused about her own identity and giftedness. She struggles with peer pressure and with her guardian’s misunderstanding of Kit’s personality and gifts. She doesn’t know for most of the novel what she really wants to do with her life, nor does she realize her own interests and abilities until she is helped along the way by a number of mentors and adult friends. The real theme of the novel is this journey of self-discovery that Kit travels and her becoming her own person as she grows up and understands herself and her relation to the world and its many choices and possibilities.

So, it’s not a new theme for a middle grade novel, and it wasn’t fresh or novel even in 1948 when Vipont’s story was first published. Nevertheless, Kit is a fresh and vibrant young lady with a healthy outlook upon the world she lives in and a desire to be independent and self-actualizing without giving offense or hurting those who have raised her and given her nurture and a foundation, if not always understanding or encouragement in developing her talents. Kit finds the encouragement and the musical education she needs with other extended family members and from teachers at school.

Elfrida Vipont was a British author, schoolteacher, and member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). She began writing children’s books in the late 1930’s, specifically books with Quaker characters and some published for boys under the pseudonym of Charles Vipont. She won the Carnegie Medal in 1950 for Lark on the Wing, a sequel to Lark in the Morn. I hope to borrow or purchase a copy of the further adventures of Kit Haverard soon. There are supposed to be five books in the Lark series, but I can’t find a definitive list of the exact titles that make up the series. Goodreads lists the following books:

The Lark in the Morn (The Haverard Family, #1)
The Lark on the Wing (The Haverard Family, #2)
The Spring of the Year (The Haverard Family, #3)
Flowering Spring (The Haverard Family, #4)
The Pavilion (The Haverard Family, #5)

Ms. Vipont was a prolific author, publishing historical books about Quakerism, adventure stories for boys, the series of Lark books, other novel for girls, a well-known picture book called The Elephant and the Bad Baby, and biographies of several women authors such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. I look forward to enjoying more of her books, although they are somewhat difficult to find in the U.S.

The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Set in 1972, this novel for middle grade readers tells the story of Peter Lee, a Chinese-American boy who loves baseball, and his very traditional Taiwanese father, Chen Lee. These two are the characters around whom the narrative revolves as Peter and his “Ba” (what Peter calls his dad) come to understand and even appreciate one another through the medium and backdrop of baseball.

At the beginning of the story, Peter describes his dad as a “man of science and great believer in cleanliness and order.” Peter’s dad doesn’t seem to be very interested in baseball, nor does he take much interest in Peter’s ideas or feelings. Peter’s school work is the only thing that Ba notices about his son, and mostly he notices when Peter is not doing well in school. Peter’s mother, who has been the emotional glue that held this family together in the past, has reacted to a tragedy in the family by retreating into a world of watching television and sleeping. Whereas she and Peter used to share an interest in baseball, particularly the Pittsburgh Pirates, now “Mom” is cold and unresponsive. And Ba simply allows her to continue to sit and do nothing.

The book is a fascinating account of a family dealing with the depressive illness of one of its members, even though the words “clinical depression” are never used. Perhaps in this traditional Chinese family, in the early 1970’s, there is no concept of depression as a treatable mental illness. Nevertheless, at the end of the book Ba says something very wise and insightful about dealing with an ongoing family crisis or illness, any such calamity:

“I don’t know what to do next,” I say (Peter).

Ba lowers his head and clears his throat. “What you do is keep moving. Some days you will only do small things all day. You get up in the morning and you get dressed and you wash your face. You go to school. I go to work. We have baseball.”

So wise. There are other issues and conflicts and wise (and foolish) decisions in the book: girls playing Little League baseball, bullying, fathers and sons and over-zealous coaches, the meaning of playing baseball. But the growing relationship between Peter and Ba was what made the book come alive for me. The Way Home Looks Now is a good story, full of baseball metaphors (and I really like me some baseball metaphors), and it paints a fine picture of a boy coming to understand and appreciate his father’s love and concern that is expressed in a way that doesn’t look exactly the way an eleven or twelve year old boy might recognize or want it to look.

Recommended for lovers of baseball and for boys and girls with fathers, which should include most everyone.

Two for Typhoid Mary

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow.

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

Gail Jarrow’s book on Typhoid Mary was well-written and informative, but I didn’t care for the tabloid style of the page layout, typography, and artwork. Tastes may vary, and kids may lap it up or at least be drawn to the yellow chapter titles on black background pages and the all-caps section headings.

I learned a lot from the book. For example, did you know that typhoid fever and typhus are two very different diseases with differing symptoms and disease-spread mechanisms? I think I used to know that, but I had forgotten. And I didn’t know that Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary” spent the rest of her life (mostly), after she was traced and found, on North Brother Island, living alone and convinced that she was not a carrier of typhoid germs and had never harmed anyone. I also didn’t know that only a very few people who have typhoid fever become lifelong carriers. Apparently the germs remain inside these particularly susceptible people (perhaps multiplying on gallstones in the gallbladder) for years and years and are excreted in their feces and sometimes urine to infect others. Most people are no longer carriers a few weeks or perhaps months after their encounter with typhoid fever germs.

The other book Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti had the better layout and narrative flow. However, I learned more from Jarrow’s book. And there’s a feminist slant to Bartoletti’s book that does a disservice to accurate historical analysis. The book indicates that Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) is good and justified in her belief that she is not a carrier, even though she was wrong and infected others. It’s implied that the male public health officer who forced Mary Mallon into quarantine was a bad guy, prejudiced and arrogant. (Maybe he was something of an intellectual snob.) However, the female Dr. Josephine Baker, also instrumental in finding and confining Ms. Mallon, was a heroine in Ms. Bartlett’s book.

Either of these titles, or one of the other multitude of books about Typhoid Mary and the spread of typhoid fever and the civil rights questions involved in the confinement of Mary Mallon, would lead to some good discussion and historical study among middle school and high school students. Also, comparison and contrast to the current handling of the AIDS epidemic and the Ebola virus would be appropriate and and ripe for analysis and even debate.

The Tune Is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace

In the several boxes of discarded books from a local private school library that a friend rescued on their way to the dumpster, I discovered some real gems—in more ways than one. The Tune Is in the Tree is one of Maud Hart Lovelace’s other novels, not about Betsy Ray and her friends Tacy and Tib. However, in the book Betsy’s Wedding, Betsy says, “I think I’ll write a story about a little girl going to live with the birds.” It’s not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps The Tune Is in the Tree is Betsy’s story, fleshed out by Ms. Lovelace herself, especially since Ms. Lovelace wrote that The Tune Is in the Tree is “just the sort of a story Betsy used to tell to Tacy.”

In this 177-page fantasy, Annie Jo, who lives with her parents Jo and Annie, gets left alone by mistake, and Mr. and Mrs. Robin feel compelled to take her into their nest until her mother and father return home. For that plan to work, Annie Jo must become a lot smaller, and she needs a pair of wings, both of which are provided for by courtesy of Miss Ruby Hummingbird, who happens to be have a little Magic. After Annie Jo shrinks and gets her wings, she learns all about the birds of the meadow and forest, including the Thrush family, Mr. and Mrs Catbird, the Misses Oriole, and the Perfidious Mrs. Cowbird who causes trouble all over by laying her eggs in other birds’ nests.

This jewel is such a lovely and funny story, and the illustrations by Eloise Wilkin are a perfect match to the story. The book was first published in 1950, in the middle of the time period during which Ms. Lovelace was busily writing and having published the Betsy-Tacy books. I like to think of Ms. Lovelace taking a break from the adventures of Betsy and her friends to write this homage to the world of birds. The child who is interested in bird-lore could learn a lot from reading or listening to The Tune Is in the Tree. The birds in the story are fantasy birds who talk and practice their concerts and even bake cookies (the Ovenbird family). However, the birds actually do embody some of the characteristics of real birds. Thrushes do make beautiful music. Ovenbirds do have nests shape like little ovens, hence the name. And the Perfidious Cowbird really does lay its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Then, there’s the poetry, both the poetry of Ms. Lovelace’s luscious prose and the poetry she makes reference to in the course of the story. Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, and John Keats are all invoked as the birds keep their libraries in the Brook which “reads aloud all day.”

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
~As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Unfortunately, The Tune Is in the Tree is a book not to be found in either trees or brooks. I looked it up on Amazon, and used copies are priced at anywhere between $200 and $800. I don’t plan to sell my newly discovered treasure, but patrons of my library can borrow it and enjoy a wonderful tale.