Christmas in Ireland, c.1970

Rumer Godden’s novel, The Diddakoi, features a half-Romany (gypsy) and half-Irish orphan girl named Kizzy who after her grandmother’s death must come to live with the “gorgios”, or non-gypsies. One of those gorgios is Admiral Twiss:

“Admiral Twiss . . . made models, chiefly of ships, sometimes sail, sometimes steam; he never spoke to the village children, nor they to him—they were afraid of the eyebrows and moustache—but he made a model church, big enough for each child to creep into, and every Christmas stood it at the House gates. The church was lit up so that its stained-glass windows shone, every tiny piece perfect, and from inside came music, carols that Kizzy liked to think were tiny people singing—Prudence would have told her at once it was a tape—and at midday and midnight, bells would ring a miniature carillon.
In the wagon Kizzy could hear them and knew it was Christmas. Admiral Twiss, too, always sent Kizzy’s Gran a cockerel for Christmas, some oranges and dates, and a bag of oats for Joe. Sometimes Kizzy thought the oranges and dates were for her; sometimes she thought the Admiral did not know she existed.”

This one is another of my book-buying finds. I knew the author from her adult novels, In This House of Brede and Black Narcissus and also her doll stories for children. This story, of a child who experiences prejudice and bullying but manages to learn to trust the trustworthy adults in her life and with their help overcome the racist attitudes of her peers, looks to be a winner.

Christmas in Cornwall, 1789

From Winston Graham’s second Poldark novel, Demelza:

“It was a fine night and an hour before Sawle Church choir had been up to the door singing carols. Demelza had never had much to do with religion but she still said the prayers her mother taught her, adding a postscript of her own to keep them abreast of the times; and at Christmas she had always felt an inward impulse to go to church. Something in the ancient wisdom of the story and the fey beauty of the carols tugged at her emotions; and with a suitable invitation she would have been willing to join the choir. She specially wanted to help them this evening, hearing their depleted voices struggling through ‘Remember, O thou Man’. But even her enjoyment of the two carols was a little spoiled by anxiety as to how she had best behave when they knocked on the door. She sent Jane Gimlett for the cakes she had made that afternoon and took down a couple of bottles of canary wine from Ross’s cupboard.

**********
Demelza nervously gave them all a drink and took one herself; she would almost sooner have entertained Sir Hugh Bodrogan than these humble choristers; at least she knew where where she was with him. She pressed cakes upon them and refilled their glasses and when they rose to go she gave them a handful of silver—about nine shillings in all—and the carolers crowded out into the misty moonlit night, flushed and merry and opulent. There they gathered round the lantern and gave her one more carol for luck before filing off up the valley towards Grambler.”

Christmas in Toronto, Canada, c.1937

Jane of Lantern Hill is one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lesser-known stories. (Ms. Montgomery is, of course, the author of the Anne of Green Gables books as wells the series about Emily of New Moon.) Jane of Lantern Hill tells the story of a girl, Victoria Jane Stuart, who finds out at the age of ten that her father is not dead as she had presumed, and soon after that Jane is compelled to go and visit for the summer with the father she never knew on Prince Edward Island.

This Christmas passage comes from late in the story when Jane is back in Toronto but has grown to know and love her estranged father very much:

The week before Christmas Jane bought the materials for a fruit-cake out of the money dad had given her and compounded it in the kitchen. Then she expressed it to dad.She did not ask anyone’s permission for all this—just went ahead and did it. Mary held her tongue and grandmother knew nothing about it. But Jane would have sent it just the same if she had.
One thing made Christmas Day memorable for Jane that year. Just after breakfast Frank came in to say that long distance was calling Miss Victoria. Jane went to the hall with a puzzled look . . . who on earth could be calling her on long distance? She lifted the receiver to her ear.
“Lantern Hill calling Superior Jane! Merry Christmas and thanks for that cake,” said dad’s voice as distinctly as if he were in the same room.
“Dad!” Jane gasped. “Where are you?”
“Here at Lantern Hill. This is my Christmas present to you, Janelet. Three minutes over a thousand miles.”
Probably no two people ever crammed more into three minutes. When Jane went back to the dining room, her cheeks were crimson and her eyes glowed like jewels.

I do think that perhaps this L.M. Montgomery book, one I don’t remember ever reading, will be my first read of 2018. Skimming it was a delight, and I’m fairly sure that reading the story properly will be quite a good way to start the new year.

I wish my copy were this Virago edition. I love the cover on edition pictured above.

Christmas in Sweden, c.1930

Flicka Ricka Dicka and Their New Skates by Maj Lindman

What a lovely Christmas gift this book, with its accompanying set of triplet paper dolls, would be for a doll-playing or ice skating little girl. Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka are Swedish triplets from the 1930’s who each receive a pair of “shiny skates on white shoes” for Christmas. The three blonde Scandinavians go to visit their Uncle Jon and Aunt Lisa after Christmas, and as they are out skating on the pond they make a new friend and have a rather breath-taking adventure.

This new edition of an old storybook, published by Albert Whitman & Company, comes with the afore-mentioned paper dolls. (DO NOT buy paperback editions of these books. The paperbacks are poorly constructed, and the pages fall out with only a little wear.) The illustrations, and the paper dolls, are beautiful, and the story is old-fashioned and charming, with just a hint of danger to spice it up. I loved these books when I was a kid of a girl, and I love them now.

The other books in the series are:
Flicka Ricka Dicka and the Three Kittens
Flicka Ricka Dicka and the New Dotted Dresses
Flicka Ricka Dicka Bake a Cake

Flicka Ricka Dicka and the Little Dog
Flicka Ricka Dicka and the Strawberries
Flicka Ricka Dicka Go to Market
Flicka Ricka Dicka and the Big Red Hen
Flicka Ricka Dicka and Their New Friend
Flicka Ricka Dicka and the Girl Next Door

The ones in italics are the ones I have in my library. I wish I had all of the others—and all of the Snipp Snapp Snurr books, too:

Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Red Shoes
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Big Surprise
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Reindeer
Snipp Snapp Snurr Learn to Swim

Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Buttered Bread
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Gingerbread
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Yellow Sled
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Seven Dogs

Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Big Farm
Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Magic Horse

There’s something about twins and triplets that just intrigued me as a child, and these books still suck me into the small, simple world of a trio of Swedish sisters (or brothers) growing up in the rural halcyon days of the early twentieth century. If it’s idealized, then perhaps we can use a little of the ideal from time to time.

A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman

Two worlds. The first world is our world, and various historical events and places make an appearance in this magical realism/fantasy/folktale story about escape from persecution and horror and about forgiveness and peace-making. The second world is only accessible through a crack in the sea that only opens at unexpected times to people with unexpected gifts, like the gift of talking to fish or that of walking on the bottom of the sea.

Three stories. The first story is about Pip, the boy in the second world who can talk to fish. And the second is about Venus and Swimmer, two young people captured in Africa in 1781 and taken on a doomed slave ship, and how they escape. The third is about Thanh and his sister Sang, boat people from South Vietnam whose escape from their own war-torn country goes terribly wrong when they meet with storms and pirates and near-starvation.

A Crack in the Sea is also another story about the power of stories. Although I believe in the “power of stories”, that particular meme is getting a little shopworn. Nevertheless, this novel has some new things to say about tenacity and communication as avenues to restoration and forgiveness. And the author manages to bring the three separate stories together to make a complete picture in a way that was surprising and satisfying.

The question, of course, is what do all of these characters and situations have to do with one another? And indeed, it’s not really clear until near the end of the book’s 350 pages what the relationship is, but trust in the author and the book is part of the journey. If you are interested in reading more fantasy featuring diverse characters, people of color, brother/sister relationships, and peace-making themes, A Crack in the Sea is the book for you.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Bravelands #1: Broken Pride by Erin Hunter

Grass-eaters, meat-eaters, scavengers, predators and prey—all live together in the grassy savannah lands of Africa, more or less peacefully, following the ancient code of Bravelands. The primary rule of the Code: Kill only to survive. But things are changing in Bravelands, first among the lions where Gallantpride, headed by the male lion Gallant, is stolen by treachery and becomes Titanpride, ruled by an autocratic and cruel dictator. Then, things begin to go wrong among the baboons and among the great elephants, too.

“Windrider paused as the clamor rose around her. She swiveled her head. ‘Do you smell it, Blackwing? Do you taste it?’
‘The scent in the sky?’ He nodded once.
‘Do you know what it is?’ she asked him. ‘Something we have not tasted for our lifetimes, Blackwing, for though it is slow and constant, it happens so slowly it can’t be noticed.’
He tilted his head. ‘And now?’
‘Now it comes fast; fast enough to be dangerous. Change, Blackwing. What you smell on the Bravelands sky is—change.'”

I’ve never read any of Erin Hunter’s* Warriors series about clans of wild cats.Nor have I read her Survivors series of novels, which focus on the lives of wild dogs. She also has a third series, Seekers, about bears in the wild. I’m not really an animal person, although I have enjoyed the occasional animal book. Nevertheless, I would recommend Bravelands, at least the first book, Broken Pride, to all my friends and fellow readers who are animal lovers—and to those who love books set in Africa.

The animals in this book are somewhat anthropomorphized; they talk to one another, they plot, they plan. But the Code of Bravelands is similar to the unwritten “code” of wild animals everywhere. Predators kill only to eat. Animals, particularly male lions, fight to establish dominance. But there is no sin, no arrogant pride, no violence for the sake of violence. However, in this book, unlike on the real savannah of Africa, the animals take on some human characteristics. The title “broken pride” has a double meaning as the young lion cub, Fearless, sees his pride of lions scattered and has his own pride and self-respect also broken.

The balance of Bravelands has been disturbed, and only the combination of a lion cub, a young elephant, and a baboon can set it right. Maybe. If only they can figure out what has happened to make such horrible change come and what they can do to make things right. As I said, I haven’t read Erin Hunter’s other, very popular, books, but I thought this one was every bit as good as Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The writing is adequate, and sometimes exceptional, as the author describes the beauty and danger of sub-Saharan Africa. (No human characters are in the book, and the place name “Africa” is never used.) And the characters and plot are memorable and engaging.

Bravelands #2: Code of Honor comes out in February, 2018 and takes up where Broken Pride leaves off. And, fair warning, I can see why Ms. Hunter’s books are known as a series, rather than individual books. The ending to Broken Pride is a cliffhanger, leaving the reader thirsty for more.

*It turns out that “Erin Hunter” is a pseudonym for six people: Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Tui T. Sutherland, Gillian Phillips, and Inbali Iserles, as well as editor Victoria Holmes. They write these books in the series that I mentioned as a group—somehow.

Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight

I finally read this justly famous and best-selling dog story, and the first surprise was the title. It’s not “Lassie, come home!”, a plea or a command for Lassie to return to home and hearth, as I always thought it was. Instead, “Lassie Come-Home” is a nickname for the faithful collie who does return home, through many miles and obstacles, from the highlands of Scotland all the way back to the Yorkshire country family in the south of England who were her original masters. Lassie is a “come-home dog” in the Yorkshire vernacular.

Perhaps Lassie Come-Home is the template for many books that came after: The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron, and other stories of faithful dogs and other animals finding their way home after a series of adventures and difficulties. Or maybe the plot mirrors Black Beauty and other earlier books that show faithful animals making their way back home to the owners they love. Lassie’s journey home is certainly an adventurous one.

The author note in the back of my book says:

“Lassie first appeared in a short story published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The story was so popular that Mr. Knight expanded it into a full-length book, which was published in 1940 and instantly became a best-seller. In 1942 the MGM movie based on the book launched the career of Elizabeth Taylor.”

All those survivors of economic depression and war-weary readers and movie-goers most likely needed a hopeful story about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, the kind of victory through suffering that is depicted in Lassie Come-Home. The story itself is pretty incredible: a dog somehow finds his way home form Scotland to Yorkshire, 400 miles as the crow flies or over 1000 miles with the obstacles such as lakes and rivers that Lassie has to skirt around or find a way over.

Eric Knight was born in England (in the Yorkshire country that her writes about), came to the United States as a teenager, and died in an airplane crash while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—but not before giving us this classic dog story. It’s well-written, hopeful, and —-spoiler here—the dog doesn’t die!

If you like Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary . . .

For the month of July, I’m planning a series of posts about readalikes: what to read (or what to suggest to your favorite child reader) when you’ve read all of your favorite author’s books or all of the books of a certain genre that you know of, and you don’t know what to read next.

Ramona Quimby wannabes are easy to find, but some are better than others. These are some that I have in my library, and I can recommend:

The Bantry Bay series by Hilda van Stockum. These are about an Irish family, but they have the same kind of family adventures and endearing mishaps as an American family like the Quimbys. Pegeen is especially fun, telling about an orphan girl who comes to live with the O’Sullivan family. Pegeen is a spirited young lady who manages to get herself into all sorts of trouble just by being herself… kind of like Ramona.
The Cottage at Bantry Bay.
Francie on the Run.
Pegeen.

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. I really like Clementine. Like Ramona, she’s lovable, but prone to misunderstandings and trouble. Books, so far, in this series are:
Clementine.
The Talented Clementine.
Clementine’s Letter.
Clementine, Friend of the Week.
Clementine and the Family Meeting.
Clementine and the Spring Trip.
Completely Clementine.

Clarice Bean books by Lauren Child. Clarice Bean is a bad speller, a good friend, and a fan of the fictional detective, Ruby Redfort. Clarice’s adventures at school and at home make for funny and entertaining reading. The three Clarice Bean books that I am familiar with are:
Utterly me, Clarice Bean.
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble.
Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now.

There seem to be more books in the series, and Lauren Child has written a spin-off series of Ruby Redfort detective novels.

Betsy books by Carolyn Haywood. Ms. Haywood wrote forty-seven books for children; twelve of them are the “Betsy books”, about a little girl growing up in a 1950’s neighborhood in a typical U.S. city. Ms. Haywood herself grew up and lived as an adult in Philadelphia, and she said that the children in her books were modeled on the children in her own Philadelphia neighborhood. Like the Ramona books, Betsy books feature children in school and at home engaging in everyday family activities with a lot of humor and affection. The titles are:
B Is for Betsy
Betsy and Billy
Back to School With Betsy
Betsy and the Boys
Betsy’s Busy Summer
Betsy’s Little Star
Betsy and the Circus
Betsy and Mr. Kilpatrick
Betsy’s Play School
Betsy’s Winterhouse
Merry Christmas from Betsy
Snowbound with Betsy

Some standalone books that might appeal to Ramona fans are:
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.
Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning by Danette Haworth.
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm.
A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban.

Up Periscope by Robb White

According to Jan Bloom’s Who Should We Then Read, Volume 2, author Robb White’s books are “high action, well-written adventure yarns peopled with realistically drawn, likable characters in plausible yet exciting situations.” This particular yarn is a World War II submarine adventure that takes place in the South Pacific. Kenneth Braden, lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Naval Reserve, volunteers for an unnamed job while he’s in Underwater Demolition School, and he soon finds himself in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, talking to an admiral about doing something “hard, lonely, and dangerous” somewhere in the Pacific. Ken can take the job or back out. Of course, he decides to go for it.

I won’t spoil the story by telling what Ken’s job entails, but it does involve a great deal of time on a submarine. Both Ken and the readers of the novel learn a lot about submarines by the time the story is over. I knew almost nothing about submarines and submarine warfare when I started reading, and now I know . . . a little, not because there’s only a little information in the book, but mostly because I could only take in and assimilate so much. Readers who are really interested in submarine warfare will find the story absorbing and informative, and I assume the details are accurate since Mr. White served in the U.S. Navy himself during World War II. Suffice it to say I enjoyed this action tale, and World War II buffs or submarine aficionados will enjoy it even more than I did.

Apparently, the book was popular in its time, or else Robb White had connections in Hollywood. The novel was published in 1956, and it was made into a movie, starring James Garner, in 1959. White’s memoir, Our Virgin Island, about the Pacific island he and his wife bought for $60.00 and lived on before the war, was filmed as Virgin Island in 1958. The movie starred John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee. (White did write for Hollywood, so I guess he had connections.)

The author is just about as fascinating as his novel. He was born in the Philippines, a missionary kid. He learned to sail at an early age, graduated from the Naval Academy, and loved the sea. But he also wanted to be a writer, and he wrote magazine articles, screenplays, three memoirs, and more than twenty novels. His novels were mostly marketed to what we would now call the young adult market, but Up Periscope at least is not about teens, but rather adult men, fighting in an adult war. The only reason it might be considered a “children’s” or “young adult” novel as far as I can see is that there is a distinct lack of bad language and sexual content, a welcome relief from modern young adult novels. I counted only one “damn”, and on the flip side, several instances in which the men pray in a very natural, fox-hole way for God to save them from impending death. There is some war nastiness and violence, but that’s to be expected in a war novel. I think anyone over the age of twelve or thirteen could appreciate this thrilling story of espionage and submarine derring-do.

Only a couple of Robb White’s books remain in print; the rest are available at wildly varying prices from Amazon or other used book sellers. On the basis of just having read this one (and Jan Bloom’s recommendation) I would recommend his novels for your World War II-obsessed readers, and I would be quite interested in reading Mr. White’s three memoirs: Privateer’s Bay, Our Virgin Island, and Two on the Isle.

A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest by J.A. Myhre

Ten year old Mu has lived with the family of his great-uncle, the mukumu (a African traditional priest who can cast curses and give protection from them), for as long as he can remember. Mu is treated more as a servant than as a member of the family, but at least he gets to go to school for half a day. Then one day on the way to school, Mu makes a friend, and everything in his life changes as his talking chameleon friend chooses Mu and calls him on a mysterious quest.

“The Myhres, Scott and Jennifer, are missionary physicians who joined Serge (then World Harvest Mission) in 1991, and have worked in East Africa since 1993: 17 years in Bundibugyo, Uganda; five years in Kijabe, Kenya; and now partnering with a busy Kenyan government hospital in Naivasha.”

Author J.A. Myhre is the “Jennifer” of the missionary couple, and she wrote this story as a Christmas present for her four children. Ms. Myhre is obviously well-versed in the flora, fauna, and culture of east Africa as a result of her many years spent living in that part of the world. As Mu travels through the savannah and up the mountains, following the chameleon’s instructions, mostly, the reader gets a wonderful introduction to the geography and culture of east Africa, embedded in an adventure story that is sure to thrill and intrigue. Mu rides an elephant; he sleeps in a warthog’s den; and he escapes from the evil rebel soldiers who try to use him as a child soldier. However, Mu is not without his own evil and cowardice, and he finds himself forced to make choices that are all too disastrous in their consequences.

The talking chameleon and other talking and helpful animals in the story give the tale a hint of “magical realism”, and the ending is pure fantasy. However, for the most part Mu’s story is all too realistic and somewhat sad. Hope is found in Mu’s animal guides and in his calling to an important quest. The book isn’t preachy at all, but it does give a lot of food for thought and discussion as Mu travels through the countryside. What will Mu do when he has the opportunity to rescue a friend, but at the risk of his own life? What will he do when his captors demand that he prove himself to be a man by killing yet another friend? The violence and evil aren’t graphic or gratuitous, but the story is also not without disturbing scenes. If your child isn’t ready to read about animal deaths and human cruelty, condemned and later redeemed but definitely a significant part of the story, then you might want to wait on this one.

I’m really looking forward to Ms. Myhre’s second and third books in this African series, the Rwendigo Tales:

A Bird, a Girl, and Rescue, Book #2
A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star, Book #3 (to be released in September, 2017)

If you want to know more about the Doctors Myhre and their work, now in Uganda, here’s a link to their blog.