A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005-2010
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Last Updated 06/10/010
In My Heart written and illustrated by Molly Bang. Little, Brown, 2006 (0-316-79617-4) $15.99
This exuberant story of parental love uses vivid images to show that
when a mom is away from her child, he is still there in her
heart--cozily tucked away inside her chest! As she goes to her job as a
vet, her young son eats his breakfast and changes his clothes in
that ample heart-shaped space. Bang's illustrations play merrily with
sizes, proportions and especially with decorated initials, showing the mom,
dad, child and family cat all
gloomily separated by a giant W that beings the sentence, "When we're
apart I miss you"; at the end of the book, descriptions of bedtime routines
start with a toothpaste A and a watery L. How the family was formed is
never mentioned in
this story, but the dark-skinned child with two blonde, Anglo
parents clearly did not arrive by the standard route;
the pictures showing the child snuggled inside the mother's
heart have an implicit message that you can carry someone in your
heart without ever having carried them in your body. (3-6)
How I Was Adopted by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins, 1995 (0688119298) $16.99; HarperTropy, 1999 (0-06-8817055-2) $6.99 pb
In this upbeat story, narratively aimed at children who were adopted, a young girl named Samantha talks about how much she loves her family and loves to hear her "very own story" about being adopted. "Do you know the story of how you were adopted?" she asks. It's all very positive, including the watercolor illustrations, which show lots of family fun and affection.
Still, something about this book bugs me: aside from acknowledging "I
grew in another woman's uterus," Samantha's adoption story is all about
her adoptive parents; it has nothing whatsoever to say about
the parents who gave her up. Perhaps this wouldn't seem so wrong if
the book was not so clearly intended to be "Samantha's story": the
thorough omission of her birth parents makes me wonder whose story
this really is. (4-8)
A New Barker in the House written and illustrated by Tomie DePaola. Putnam, 2002 (0-399-23865-4) $16.99
The Barker family acquires a new member in this cheerful, uncomplicated story.
Twins Moffie and Morgie are excited to learn their new brother, a
Spanish-speaking boy named Marcos, will be arriving soon, but they soon
learn that the three year old
they plan to take to school for show-and-tell has a personality all his own.
All ends happily as the twins discover how to play with a toddler, and the
children begin to learn each others' languages.
The dog-people Barkers--all terriers,
though Marcos is noticably darker than the others--have a somewhat bland,
standardized cuteness. (4-8)
Pinky and Rex and the New Baby by James Howe. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Avon Camelot, 1994 (0-380-72083-3) $3.99 pb
Some kids act up to get attention when there's a new baby in the house. But when Rex's family adopts a baby named Matthew, she has quite a different plan to avoid turning into "the Invisible Girl." Soon Rex is the world's best sister, always wearing an "I'm the big sister" t-shirt and a diaper on her shoulder, "just in case." And Pinky, Rex's best friend, is getting awfully lonely. Maybe it's time for him to remind Rex that there's more to her than just being Matthew's sister.
Written largely from Pinky's point of view, this is not a
comprehensive account of what it's like to have your family adopt a
baby, but a warm story about different kinds of relationships, with
believable characters and realistic family interactions. As in
previous books in the "Pinky and Rex" series, Howe demonstrates a deft
touch for dealing with complicated childhood emotions in simple, easy
to read language, while Sweet's expressive illustrations capture the
mood of the story. (6-9)
Over the Moon written and illustrated by Karen Katz. Henry Holt, 1997 (0-8050-5013-2); (0-8050-6707-8) $6.95 pb
Over the Moon is an excellent title for this story, which goes exuberantly over the top in expressing a couple's delight with their newly adopted baby. Folk art inspired pictures start by showing a baby sleeping in a billowy cloud over a colorful world. The baby is born, plopping down to earth on her cloud, handily already dressed in a diaper. Meanwhile, a woman and man are dreaming of the baby they've waited for, and soon they get the news that she's been born and they can come get her; they're so alive with happiness, the woman bursts out of the top of their car to wave her arms in the air as they drive to the airport. And when they arrive home, their family and neighbors dance gigs and do handstands with delight.
Despite the mythically illustrated beginning, the story does acknowledge
the baby's origins, as the new mom and dad tell her, "you grew like a flower
in another lady's tummy." I think that gives it an edge over the
similarly extravagantly upbeat Happy Adoption Day (see below). (3-6)
Horace written and illustrated by Holly Keller. Greenwillow, 1992 (0-688-09831-2) $16.99
Funny and charming pictures illustrate this story about a spotted
leopard who feels out of place in his adopted family of striped
tigers. When Horace runs away and finds a spotted family, he's happy
for a while, until he realizes he misses his parents. He returns home,
deciding that his parents didn't just choose him, he also chooses
them. A sweet and enjoyable book that offers an understanding,
reassuring look at how it can feel to be adopted by a family of a
different race. (3-7)
Little Miss Spider written and illustrated by David Kirk. Scholastic, 1999 (0-439-08389-3) $12.95
This short rhyming book tells the earliest story of Kirk's popular bug-eyed spider, from her first moment out of the egg. Perplexed by the absence of her mother, Miss Spider sets out in search of her, assisted by a kind beetle named Betty. When Miss Spider is tricked by a nasty spider of a different species, she winds up in the gaping maw of a baby bird, but is quickly rescued by Betty, who then offers her a home. Holding Betty fast, Miss Spider declares, "I looked for my mom, and I found you at last." Just to make sure the point gets across, the book ends with, "For finding your mother,/There's one certain test. You must look for the creature/Who loves you the best."
As with other "Miss Spider" books, there's a certain level of
creepiness here, with the illustration of Miss Spider seen
inside the hatchling's mouth a pretty horrifying sight, to say
nothing of the mean spider, whose meal leaves wings and staring eyes
left behind on the ground. But the mix of sentiment and horror seems
to appeal to kids, as do the rich, almost bulgy and brilliantly
colored oil paintings. (2-4)
The Day We Met You written and illustrated by Phoebe Koehler. Bradbury, 1990; Alladin, 1997 (0689809646) $5.99 pb
In this simply worded and illustrated story, an adoptive mother and
meeting their baby for the first time. Most of the book focuses on
concrete facts that are easy for young children to relate to: "We borrowed
a car seat so you could ride home safe. We bought bottles and formula so you
wouldn't be hungry." Only at the end does the story break into pure
emotion: "You felt like the sun shining inside us." The illustrations in
soft pastels are similarly undemanding, primarily depicting objects,
but their muted colors and shading also convey an atmosphere of tenderness.
Tell Me a Real Adoption Story by Betty Jean Lifton. Illustrated by Claire A. Novola. Knopf, 1993 (0-679-80629-6) OP
A little girl wants her mother to tell her an adoption story before bed. But not the one about a fisherman and his wife who found a baby on the riverbank, or the King and Queen who found one under an orange tree... she wants to hear a real adoption story. Her own.
Told entirely in dialogue between the mother and daughter, this book
travels from fairy tale to unpolished authenticity, as it becomes
clear that the daughter has an unmet need to know where she came from.
The accompanying illustrations are paintings in a somber, somewhat
formal style. It's probably not a universally enjoyable story, but
adoptive children may appreciate seeing their feelings validated.
A note to parents suggests ways the story can be modified to tell
their own child's story. (5-8)
Happy Adoption Day by John McCutcheon. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Little, Brown, 1996 (0-316-55455-3) $15.95; 2001 (0-316-60323-6) $5.95 pb
This illustrated version of McCutcheon's joyful song shows an Anglo couple happily preparing a nursery, flying over the ocean and bringing home a beaming, fat-cheeked Asian baby. While the text, which is written in the voice of the parents talking, assures the adopted child that "whatever you learn, whoever you know, you've still got a home in our hearts," the lively, childlike pictures show the new family sharing different activities, including an "Adoption Day" party shared with friends and family. Music for the song is included.
Although some of this book is charming, some elements of it made me
quite uncomfortable. For one thing, the text implies that the child's
life before being adopted is unimportant and should be forgotten. It
also speaks of the adoptive parents as having "a choice," which could
suggest the idea of children as a commodity. Perhaps most
discomforting is the almost worshipful attitude towards the adopted
child depicted by the illustrations, culminating in a picture which
actually shows rays of light shooting from the child's face. (I can't
help but wonder if there's a touch of sarcasm showing.) Overall, I
think this is a book intended for--and most appropriate for--a very
specific audience of adoptive families looking for a reassuring story,
rather than for those wanting a general interest book about adoption.
Among that audience, its warmth and positive spirit will almost
certainly be welcome. (4-8)
Just Add One Chinese Sister by Patricia McMahon and Conor Clarke McCarthy. Illustrated by Karen A. Jerome. Boyds Mill, 2005 (1-56397-989-6) $16.95
This true story is actually two stories put together, one by each of its authors. In the first, a mother making a scrapbook of mementos tell her daughter, Claire Guan Yu, how she come to be a part of their family. The second story is the words of Claire's brother Conor, from both before and after she was adopted. I particularly liked the openness and directness of Conor, as he wonders, "Will she like me? Will she annoy me? Will I have to lock my room?" In the end, his questions aren't always answered the way he had hoped, but he does know the answer to the question, How do you become a brother? "Just add one Chinese sister."
This is an honest and tender look at a few of the complexities of
introducing a new person into a family. The sophisticated narrative
will probably work best for older readers, as will the luminous
Pablo's Tree by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Cecily Lang. Macmillan, 1994 (0-02-767401-0) $17.95
Pablo can't wait for his birthday visit to Lito's: every year,
his Abuelito decorates his birthday tree in a different way. This
year, the tree is covered with tiny colored bells and wind chimes, and
as Pablo and his grandfather sit under it together, they tell the
story of how Pablo's mother decided to adopt a baby and how eagerly
Lito waited for his new grandson, buying a tree and finding the perfect
place to plant it. Cut paper illustrations provide an uncomplicated
background for this affectionate story, showing lots of hugs and
holding. It's nice to see a story that shows adoptive parents aren't
always Anglo, or married, as well as one that celebrates the love of
a adoptive grandparent. (4-8)
The White Swan Express by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki. Illustrated by Meilo So. Clarion, 2002 (0-618-16453-7) $16.00
On one side of the world, four Chinese baby girls are snuggling, burping, smiling and yawning in their orphanage cribs. Meanwhile, in four different cities in the North America, four very different families awake to the same wonderful realization: that this is the day they will travel to China to meet their new daughters.
This joyfully touching story describes the international adoption process
in terms that are meaningful to both children and adults, showing the
immense amount of preparation made--"diapers and baby
carriers, knitted hats and blankets... bibs and baby food, and booties
and warm sweaters"--as well as the hopes and fears of the people who
will soon be new parents. So's watercolor illustrations have an
appropriately Chinese feel, while giving the families distinctly
Western personalities. (4 & up)
We Belong Together written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2007 (978-0-316-01668-1) $15.99
You can always count on Todd Parr books to show colorful families--blue, yellow and purple people especially. His bright primary colors, childlike chunky shapes and warm, positive messages always make for an appealing book. But perhaps because it tackles a more complex subject, I find this one falls just a tiny bit short.
The text follows a very readable format that combines repetition and variety. "We belong together because..." begins each segment, all of which depict a different adoptive family. The first section shows a child wishing for something, the second, adults with help to give, the third, a family sharing good times and love together. As always, Parr aims to be inclusive, with several single-parent families, a two-mom family, a two-dad family and a pair of (presumably) grandparents; I also like that older children are depicted, not just babies. None of the families has more than one child though, an odd omission.
Although I appreciate the effort to keep the book upbeat for very
young children--even the needy kids are mostly happily holding out
their arms, waiting to receive the love that will be along any
minute--I felt a little uncomfortable with how the adults were
depicted here. The need is always on the child's side: "you needed
someone to help you grow strong and healthy," "you wanted to learn,"
"you needed someone to kiss your boo-boos." The adults simply offer:
"I had help to give," "we had lots to teach you," "we had kisses to
give." It feels a little one-sided to me, as if the adoptive parents
are driven only by their generosity. But perhaps all is redeemed by
the poignant end results: "Now we can all hold hands," "Now, we all
have someone to make us laugh," "Now, we all have someone to kiss
goodnight." Ultimately the meaning is clear: everyone wins when
families find each together. (1-5)
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2005 (0-689-87845-1) $14.95
We've long needed a book like this, a warm, charming and true story about two boys who fall in love and start a family. The two boys are penguins, Roy and Silo, and they do everything the other penguins do: "They bowed to each other. And walked together. They sang to each other. And swam together. Wherever Roy went, Silo went too." When the two try to hatch a baby penguin, devotedly sitting on a rock to warm it, their keeper gives them an egg to foster. "Roy and Silo knew just what to do. They moved the egg to the center of their nest. Every day they turned it, so each side stayed warm." And one day, "out came their very own baby!" Named Tango, "because it takes two to make a Tango," the chick is the very first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies.
Written with a simple, accessible rhythm, and never didactic, this
makes the point that any loving parents can create a family with easy
grace. The light watercolor illustrations give lively expression
to the penguins' faces, without ever making them seem less than real.
* (4 & up)
Allison written and illustrated by Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (0-395-85895-X); 2004 (0-618-49537-1) $6.95 pb
After so many upbeat picture books about adoption, it's almost a relief to read this somber book, which explores some of the negative feelings that can be felt by adoptive children. When Allison receives a kimono from her grandmother, just like the one worn by her doll Mei Mei, she notices for the first time how different she looks from her mother and father. She is shocked to discover that she originally came from other parents, somewhere else. Allison takes out her anger and confusion on her parents, ignoring them and destroying precious toys from their childhood that they had given her. But when she finds a stray cat, she realizes that taking in someone who needs a family can be a wonderful thing.
Say illustrates this story with large, realistic painting that highlight
Allison's shifting emotions, but keep the mood of the story melancholy.
The text can be hard to follow and younger children may have trouble
understanding the subtexts. (4-8)
For Pete's Sake written and illustrated by Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt Brace, 1998 (0-15-200324-X) $15.00
In Hop Jump Walsh celebrated the joyful, pioneering spirit of the nonconformist, but this gentle little story looks at one of the more painful sides of being different. Pete the flamingo can't help feeling odd... he's green, when everyone he knows is pink (they tell him he's not ripe yet), he has four feet when everyone else has two (he's lucky to have two extra, they say), and he's the only one who doesn't have feathers ("The best feathers take the longest to grow.") Pete has a good time with his gang, but still, something's not right. Then one day some strangers come by the swamp--other flamingoes who also have four legs and sharp teeth and scales! "I'm different but the same," he joyfully tells his friends, who reply simply, "Well for Pete's sake, Pete... you always have been."
For Pete's Sake is reminiscent of Holly Keller's adoption story Horace (see above) in its simple, resonant acknowledgement of the fact that being different from everyone else feels isolating, even when love and support are plentiful. Readers looking for stories that relate to multiracial adoption may not approve of the flamingoes cavalier attitude towards Pete's problem, but actually the strong point of the book is that it's clear that they themselves have no idea why Pete is different and really couldn't care less... they just accept that he is "different but the same."
Walsh's uncrowded collage illustrations capture the playful
friendliness of the flamingoes and give a shy, yearning quality to
Pete--who, by the way, is an alligator. The bright liveliness of the
pictures, coupled with the casual prose, give the story an unforced
ease that other "message" books should envy. (3-8)
Youn Hee & Me by C.S. Adler. Harcourt Brace, 1995 (0-15-200073-9) $11.00; (0-15-200376-2) $5.00 pb
When eleven-year-old Caitlin discovers that her adopted brother Simon has a sister living in a Korean orphanage, it seems only natural that their family should adopt her too. After all, isn't Simon's sister automatically her sister? And it would be nice to have a sister to share her problems with, like not being any good at schoolwork and having a father who ignores her. But the Youn Hee who arrives isn't the sister of Caitlin's dreams: she's withdrawn, resentful about Simon's assimilation and disapproving of Caitlin's relaxed, impulsive, "disrespectful" ways. Caitlin begins to worry that instead of getting a new sister, she might lose her baby brother. If Youn Hee decides to go back to Korea, who will Simon choose?
This is a lightly written but thoughtful look at an increasingly
common form of cultural conflict. The portrait of Youn Hee is
sensitive and believable and her gradual capitulation to
Caitlin's family is mostly satisfying. I think Adler
erred, though, in making Caitlin the narrator of the story. The
reader's perspective is primarily limited to what little
Caitlin can understand about Youn Hee's feelings and
behavior: when Youn Hee tells her "I cannot be your sister
because of Simon. I can't explain it," Caitlin
isn't the only one who's frustrated. I also
found it annoying that Caitlin's naivete and
ethnocentricity are barely challenged, allowing Adler to give only
nominal attention to some very important issues; for example, when
another kid calls Simon a "slant-eyed yellow
shrimp," Youn Hee is very upset but Caitlin just tells her
"The names don't mean anything. . . pointing out
what's different about you's no big deal because
everybody's different in America." Easy for her
to say. But despite its limitations, Youn Hee & Me is a warm,
positive look at the formation of a new kind of family, in which
"we are different, like most people in a family are
different, but our hearts are bound up together." (8-12)
The Cuckoo Sister by Vivien Alcock. Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (0-395-81651-3) $4.95 trade pb
Kate had longed for Emma ever since she first heard about her: Kate's sister, two years older, snatched from her pram and never seen again. In Kate's daydreams, Emma would somehow come home and be the sister she's always wanted, the person who would make their family complete, fill the empty room and the empty chair at their table. But now a strange girl has appeared, with a letter for Kate's mother; a girl like no one Kate has ever known, wearing make-up and cheap, ugly clothes and speaking oddly--a girl from a part of town Kate isn't allowed to visit. And the letter she carries claims she is Emma.
Unable to find proof one way or another, or to locate the woman who wrote the letter, Kate's parents take the girl--Rosie--in, leaving Kate in a state of utter confusion. Is Rosie Emma, the sister she's dreamed about? Or is she a dangerous stranger, like the cuckoo birds who push fledglings out of their nests, who wants to take Kate's place and destroy her?
The conflicts felt by Kate, torn between jealousy
and longing, and Rosie, abandoned suddenly in a very different world,
are convincingly portrayed in this unusual and moving story. (9 & up)
Eight Cousins; Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. Little, Brown, 1874; 1996 (0-316-03086-4; 0-316-03089-9) trade pb
Unlike Alcott's best-known book, Little Women, which is about
four girls who are poor but happy, Eight Cousins is about
Rose, an orphaned girl who is rich but unhappy--until she meets her seven
exuberant boy cousins and her loving, unconventional Uncle Alex, who
process to turn her elegant, lady-like life upside down. Originally
written as a serial, it's an episodic story with some continuity
errors--but captivated readers have been cheerfully overlooking those
flaws for over a hundred years. The sequel, in which Rose grows up
and falls in love, is considerably dated, but still a must-read for
Alcott fans. Indeed, the age of the books is one of their greatest
attractions: they're such an unusual, fun, and unabashedly
sentimental glimpse at another world. These are elegant editions,
although sadly unillustrated. (9 & up)
Searching for Shona by Margaret J. Anderson. Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. (0-394-82587-X).
It is 1939; World War II is beginning. Terrified of being sent to live with strangers in Canada, Marjorie Malcolm-Scott impulsively trades places with Shona McInnes, who is being evacuated to the country. Both girls are orphans from Edinburgh but there the resemblance ends--Marjorie is shy, timid and lonely, longing for Shona's life in an orphanage with other children, while tough and fearless Shona envies Marjorie's nice clothes and fancy home. Trading places seems the obvious thing to do.
Marjorie begins to reget her impulsive act when she realizes that
taking on Shona's name does not make her Shona, able to cope bravely
with the difficult and frightening times ahead. She regrets it even
more when she finds she's been evacuated to the town Shona's mother
came from, where Shona had planned to go to learn about her family.
When Marjorie begins to discover the truth about Shona's family, she
knows she must find a way to tell her. But the war is lasting far
longer than anyone expected and Marjorie is not only learning about
Shona and her family...she is also finding a real family of her own,
and finding herself at last. A fascinating and revealing story about
identity. (8 & up)
Sharing Susan by Eve Bunting. HarperCollins, 1991; HarperTrophy, 1994 (0-06-440430-7) $3.95
Susan knows something is terribly wrong at home, but of all the possibilities she imagined--divorce, unemployment, illness--nothing could be as bad as the truth. Miles away, another girl named Marlene has been killed in a car accident, and her death has revealed that she was not her parents' biological child. Susan and Marlene were accidentally switched at the hospital--and now her birth parents want Susan. She is going to have to live, at least half-time, with these total strangers; and to make everything worse, she can't help but wonder if her own parents would rather have had Marlene instead of her. But as she gets to know her birth parents (her "very fat and very pretty" biological mother is an unusual and welcome portrayal of an attractive fat person, incidentally) she discovers that she feels somehow drawn to them. Although her first home will always be the most important to her, perhaps she does have enough love to go around.
There are several ways this kind of story could be written; Bunting
chose to downplay sensationalism and make it villain-free. Both sets
of parents are equally loving, considerate and reasonable, perhaps
straining credulity, but making the issue considerably less murky than
it could be. With the rights of the birth parents treated as a given,
the focus is on Susan's feelings as she tries to adjust:
her fears of losing her parents' love are shown with
sympathy and understanding. Solid, attractive characters and a tender
portrayal of parent-child relationships add to the general appeal of
the story. (8-12)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Illustrated by Tasha Tudor. HarperCollins, 1999 (0-397-30693-8) $16.95
One of the most beloved riches-to-rags stories ever written, this is a wonderful Victorian drama about triumphing over adversity. Sara Crewe, the cherished daughter of a wealthy British officer, comes from India to attend boarding school in London. Lavishly dressed and given every possible luxury, Sara should be spoiled and obnoxious, but to her, being treated like a little princess means trying to act like one as well: being kind, generous and polite. Then a terrible tragedy leaves Sara a friendless pauper, dependent on the school's greedy headmistress for a pitiful excuse for a home. But as she grows daily hungrier and more miserable, Sara tries to hold on to the values she has always believed in: "Whatever comes... cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside."
Touching, funny and magical moments abound in this story, but I think
a good part of what makes it a classic is that is such a perfect,
child-sized depiction of a battle between good and evil--with the good
and evil both so unusually interesting. Sara isn't a goody-two-shoes,
but a thoughtful and creative person who is genuinely interested in
the meaning of right and wrong; the fact that doing the right thing
doesn't always come easy to her makes her accomplishments all the more
admirable. The headmistress, Miss Minchin, is a fascinating and
inevitable enemy for her, because it essentially all that is most good
in Sara that makes Miss Minchin so cruel to her: she can't bear the
way that Sara's intelligence and generosity expose her own stupidity
and greed. Although the book's happy ending is most triumphant, it is
possible to feel that even if nothing had changed, Sara would still
have won, because nothing Miss Minchin did to her could "break her
spirit"--that is, destroy her inner integrity. * (7 & up)
Adopted Jane by Helen F. Daringer. Illustrated by Kate Seredy. Harcourt, Brace, 1947. Green Mansion, 2002 (0971461244) $12.95; Sensible Kate by Doris Gates. Viking, 1943. OP; Runaway Alice by Frances Salomon Murphy. OP
"Just to think of living like other girls in a real house with a family sent a shiver of delight down her back." --Adopted Jane
The term "orphan books" often evokes a Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist sort of story, with pitiful, starving children abused by cruel matrons. Less dramatic, but equally satisfying in their way, are the stories that were published in the forties and fifties: although the gruesome orphanages of the past have given way to respectable institutions, the longing for love, family and a "real home" is stronger than ever.
These books tend to follow a fairly regular pattern. A little girl, usually one who is considered plain and therefore unadoptable, gets a chance to live with a family, although some difficulty is often present from the start--in Runaway Alice the family wanted a boy; in Adopted Jane a younger girl. The girl adapts to her new surroundings and gradually learns to love her new family, but is constantly in fear of not being found good enough and being sent back. In the happy ending, she is officially adopted, able to fully enjoy the delights of her new life at last.
Perhaps the classic model for this type of book is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Yet these books differ from "Anne" in an interesting respect: the children in them are far more fearful. A recurring theme is that these children think they need to be helpful and obedient to be accepted by a family: they would never dare to be as adventurous and fanciful as Anne. "She'd try her very best to remember to be quiet and biddable," thinks Jane, whose attempts to be good make her so dull they almost ruin her chances for adoption. Kate doesn't even realize at first that her family wants to adopt her as their daughter not as a mother's helper. This, of course, makes it all the more satisfying when the girls are accepted for who they are and do find the family love they need--but it is sad, nonetheless. Although not lacking in spirit, these are children who don't expect life to be very good to them.
It's probably the Cinderella aspects of these stories that's so appealing, with the contrasts between misery and joy brought to a child-size level. In these books, our sympathy is won not because of gothic cruelty, but through more everyday problems: not fitting in, feeling misunderstood, loneliness. For Alice, "life at the State Home and School had been like a glass of tepid water, comfortable, harmless, but meaningless and aimless." "We have plenty to eat and good clothes to wear and we don't have to work any more than is good for children of our age,"says Jane. "And yet...there's a board fence, and we can't see over. I don't think people ought to be shut up behind board fences, even for their own good, do you?" And of course, "the worst thing is not having anybody belonging to you."
The rewards, also, are child-sized--not great wealth and palaces, but comfortable homes with loving people. Often there are new friends and wonderful new things to discover: the secret post office tree and sledding hill in Runaway Alice, or the fishing boats in Sensible Kate.
These books may have been very much of their time; certainly very few
have survived in print. In truth, most of them don't have
the depth or memorable qualities of more lasting books. But if you
can find them in a library or in a pile of old Scholastics, they are
still thoroughly cozy and comfortable reads. (8-12)
Jacob's Rescue by Malka Drucker and Michael Halperin. Bantam, 1993; Yearling, 1994 (0-4404-0965-9) $4.99 pb
Stories about Jewish children who were hidden during the Holocaust are generally triumphant, but the happy ending of this tale is distinctly bittersweet--perhaps because the story is true. Jacob, and later his brother David, are taken in by a Polish family, to become like their own sons. When the war is over, the reward for the family's bravery is to lose the children they've grown to love.
This story has so much inherent drama, it's a shame it isn't better
told. The narrative is simplistic, and the genuine tragedy of the
family division is ultimately glossed over. (10-12)
Out of the Blue Sarah Ellis. Simon & Schuster, 1994 (0-689-80025-8); Groundwood, 2001 (0-888-99236-X) $5.95 trade
The normal throes of adolescence are made even more difficult for
eleven-year-old Megan when her mother reveals that she had once given
up a baby for adoption--and Megan and her little sister have a
24-year-old half-sister. A sympathetically told story, with
interesting characters. (9-13)
The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Harcourt Brace, 1960; (0-15-298572-7); 2000 (0-15-202604-5) $17.00; (0-15-202610-X) $6.00 trade pb
For everyone who needs a copy of this book--that is, everyone who doesn't already have one--this is one of the nicest editions I've seen since the original. I still miss Ardizzone's cover, which is a real beauty, but this new one is a nice change from the more serious covers of recent editions, depicting the witch characters in lively, comic watercolors. And as always, the important thing is that the original illustrations are still included.
Although it's not a "picture book," The Witch Family served much the same function as one for me, because I learned from it how to make pictures that went with stories. I don't remember many picture books from my childhood; even when very young I was more likely to concentrate on words. The Witch Family sent me on a drawing/storytelling binge that made up for lost time.
It's easy now to see why this book inspired so much creativity: pictures and stories are very powerful in The Witch Family. The heroine, Amy, loves to draw and also loves to hear stories about "Old Witch"; one day the two passions inevitably combine, as Amy decides to draw Old Witch banished to a glass hill as punishment for her wickedness. From that point on, Old Witch is real, and really banished, and the rest of the book is about her attempts to break out of Amy's control; meanwhile, Amy's increasing sympathy for Old Witch's loneliness results in the formation of an entire witch family, including Amy's counterpart, Little Witch Girl. Ardizzone's delicate yet vigorous pen & ink illustrations stand in place of Amy's drawings, showing us exactly what she wanted to convey in each memorable scene.
What gives Amy authority over Old Witch is never completely clear. It isn't exactly that anything she draws comes true; the blend of fantasy with reality is more complicated that that, especially when Amy steps into Old Witch's world and finds she has very little power there. But pictures are part of how Amy controls her world--or uses her imagination, from a more realistic, though less interesting, point of view. Amy's pictures let her tap into a fantasy and become part of it--even to make up rules about it. What a powerful idea that is! What an incredible plug for pictures and stories!
I can't think of a better book to give or read to a child (or adult) that you want to become enamored with art and literature. But don't choose it because of that; choose it because it's just too wonderful to miss. * (6 & up)
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root. Henry Holt, 1917; 1999 (0-8050-6073-1) $17.95
First published in 1917, this is a warm and appealing story about an unhappy young girl whose life is transformed. Elizabeth Ann is a sad, sickly child, mainly because she lives a sad, sickly life with relatives who love her, yet stifle and overprotect her. Circumstances send her to live with a country family, who give her both love and security and the freedom to faces challenges and become a strong, self-reliant and happy person, newly named Betsy.
The book reflects two of the main interests of its author: the Montessori methods of childrearing and education, and the satisfactions of country living in Vermont. It's a very happy combination and the book is obviously a labor of love, rather than a deliberate attempt to proselytize. The Montessori method is never directly mentioned, just exemplified in the easygoing and comfortable ways of Betsy's Vermont relatives and country school, so the book never deems didactic or moralistic.
Perhaps one of the reasons Understood Betsy holds up so well after 82 years is that childhood and childrearing seem at least as complicated and confusing now as they did then. It's hard for adult readers not to sympathize with the loving attempts of Betsy's Aunt Frances to "understand her" through reading numerous child care books. It's even harder for readers of any age not to feel tremendous relief when Betsy becomes part of the secure but free life with the Putney's who would never dream of reading books about childrearing, because it's the simplest, most natural thing in the world to them.
That simple, easy atmosphere makes this an excellent "comfort" book. The sense of belonging, fitting naturally into a cozy niche, is very healing, as is the view of crises as a way of learning about your inner resources. It's impossible to read this book and not want to be Betsy, becoming daily happier and more self-reliant.
Understood Betsy is also a great book for reading aloud.
The sentences flow easily and there are many well-constructed emphases
which make reading aloud simple and fun. It's a wonderful choice for
parents with children ready to move beyond picture books. This new
edition features lively line drawings with an appropriately
old-fashioned feel. * (6 & up)
The Cuckoo's Child by Suzanne Freeman. Greenwillow, 1996 (0-688-14290-7) $15.00; Hyperion, 1996 (0-786-81243-5) $5.95
An outstanding debut from a new children's novelist, this is a vibrant, multifaceted and utterly authentic portrait of a girl's painful adjustment to a terrible loss. Brought up in a family of sophisticated intellectuals, Mia Veery has always wished for a normal, picture book sort of life. Most of all, she wants to live in America instead of Beirut. "I could name just what I was missing: sloppy joes and corn on the cob and going to watch Dumbo at the ten-cent matinees on Sundays." But then her wish comes true in the worst possible way: her parents are lost at sea, and Mia and her older half-sisters are sent to live with their aunt in Tennessee. When her sisters leave to visit their father, Mia's relationship with her family becomes increasingly wary and resentful, and her main contacts with her aunt are attempts to ruin her affair with a married man. Mia, the one who has always believed in labels and rules and order, now relies on rules and order to save her parents. If she does everything just so--doesn't take any clothes out of her suitcase, touches the faces on her aunt's clocks every night, refuses everything she most wants--her parents will return. As time goes on and nothing is heard about them, her compulsions become more and more frantic: "I had to do more, always more." For a while she finds comfort by insinuating herself into the clique of popular girls at Bible Camp, the "Devotions," who happily instruct her on what to wear, do and think. "Being with the Devotions could keep you safe; that was the best thing. . . I could blend right in with the Devotions, belong. We had power that way, just showing we belonged." But surprisingly, Mia finds that it's tiring "trying to be regular, to fit in" especially when "the things that made you happiest were the very same things that kept you from ever fitting in."
When Mia finally rejects the false security of trying to be like everyone else, she's left with the truth: that nothing she does can bring her parents back home. And she is finally able to stop pushing away the family she still has, the people who will always care about her.
The Cuckoo's Child is a rare, wonderful synthesis of character, plot
and narrative, each element working in perfect give and take with the
others. Childish, illogical, stubborn, even fierce, Mia is such a
completely real and understandable character that she holds our
interest even when at her most obnoxious. Her first-person narrative
never feels didactic, and her story seems fresh and original because
it's so full of discoveries--some harrowing, but all magical in their
rightness. * (9 & up)
Gypsy Girl by Rumer Godden. 1972; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440937-6) $5.95 pb
A renaming of The Diddakoi, a story about a defiant half-gypsy
slowly finding friends in a hostile community. Not quite as magical
for me as Godden's doll books, but an interesting, empathetic picture
of people facing culture clash.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. Macmillan, 1961; HarperCollins, 2002 (0-060-29193-1); HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-064040938-4) $5.99 trade pb
Dolls and children have this in common: dolls are not asked if they want to live somewhere, and "children are not asked either." So Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, two little Japanese dolls, are not asked if they want to live with strangers in frightening, unknown England--and neither is eight-year-old Nona Fell. Only half an orphan (with a father still alive in India,) and with a nice aunt and uncle to live with, Nona still feels as miserable as any homeless orphan could be. Her cousins--Anne, Tom and Belinda--laugh at her clothes and her sing-song voice, she doesn't like the strange food or understand their strange game, and she's always cold. "Nona is a good name for her," says Belinda. "all she does is say 'No' all the time."
Then the parcel arrives from San Francisco containing Miss Happiness and Miss Flower--as Anne is too old for dolls, one each for Belinda and Nona. Belinda isn't interested in the unusual dolls--"they're not even new"--but Nona almost immediately feels a kinship with these fellow strangers in a strange land. She feels the dolls' longing for familiar things ("As I have told you before, wishes are very powerful things, even dolls' wishes,") and their discomfort in Belinda's Western doll's-house. And scared, miserable little Nona sets out to make the dolls happy--even though it means braving loud streets, talking to frightening strangers and asking for help.
Soon almost everyone is helping Nona in her quest, with Tom actually building a Japanese doll's-house for her, and new friends contributing furnishings for it. But as Nona starts to come out of her shell and become part of the faily, Belinda feels more and more left out. And Belinda has a power over Nona that only she remembers: one of the dolls rightfully belongs to her. Can she actually be mean enough to destroy Nona's dream?
How Nona learns to belong in her new home, take care of her dolls and
even become friends with Belinda makes for a wonderfully satisfying
story, with the details of the building and furnishing of the Japanese
doll's-house a special delight. (Appendices describe in detail how
it can be done.) Gooden's unique style is especially effective in this
story, with unexpectedly inserted dialogue crisply establishing or
completing the mood of a passage. * (7 & up)
Little Plum by Rumer Godden. Illustrated by Jean Primrose. Viking, 1963.
There's a scene in Jean Little's Stand in the Wind in which Martha's sister tells her that she's like Belinda in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower--and Martha doesn't know whether to be pleased or insulted. "Belinda was rough and tough. She was brave, too, but she could be mean." But one thing you can say for Belinda--she never fails to be interesting, which is probably why Godden moved her to center stage in Little Plum She remains something of an anti-heroine though: vulnerable enough to be loveable, but definitely no Miss Nice Guy.
Unlike Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, the Japanese dolls who are lovingly mothered by Belinda's cousin Nona, Little Plum lives on a windowsill, unplayed-with and uncared-for. Her owner is Gem Tiffany Jones, the rich and pampered girl next door who is as stuck-up as her name--or so Belinda thinks. Belinda is forbidden from visiting next door without an invitation, but "there are ways and ways of being disobedient and I think Belinda knew them all." Using a tree to reach the windowsill, Belinda begins a campaign to tease snobby Gem through Little Plum, leaving doll-presents made by Nona along with nasty notes that accuse Gem of being an unfit parent to her doll. But Gem turns out to be an unexpectedly crafty enemy, and soon Belinda finds her pranks escalating into real trouble. Can Miss Happiness and Miss Flower once again show the way out?
Even better than the first book, this is a perceptive look at the
thoughtless cruelty of children and the often thin line between
and friends. Godden's captivating writing style and comforting
into the mind of dolls keep it feeling fun and cozy, while
"rough, tough" Belinda's grit and
determination adds excitement, as she doggedly continues her vendetta
despite parental warnings, recalcitrant tree branches and often
injuries--only to be stymied by the realization that she has actually
Gem. The progress of their relationship is believable and satisfying.
* (7 & up)
Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge. Coward, McCann & Geohegan, 1964; Penguin, 2001 (0-14-230026-8) $5.99 pb
Family stories which are also fantasies are quite common, but Linnets and Valerians is one of the odder hybrids: at once a family story, fantasy, mystery and romance, with intriguing dashes of religion, witchcraft, mythology and magic realism. The result is a mystical, enchanting story which is truly one of a kind.
The Linnets are a family of four children--Robert, Nan, Timothy and Betsy--who've been left with their grandmother while their father is away with his regiment. When their Grandmama, "a very autocratic old lady, a grandmother of the type that was be met with in 1912...but is now extinct," locks the children up as a punishment, they resourcefully escape and "borrow" a pony and cart, which takes them to the country home of a severe, elderly gentleman who claims to detest children--and who turns out to be their own uncle. The children--who fall immediately in love with his comfortable old house, his servant (the other-worldly Ezra Oake, who communes with bees), and even the gruff, elderly gentlemen himself--are only too happy when he offers to let them stay, even though the price is that they must be Educated. But though their new home is wonderful, the world outside it is strange and sometimes frightening: a world in which spells can work, a statue of Pan can come to life, and a cat can grow to the size of a tiger.
The inhabitants of this world are also strange and sometimes frightening. There's Lady Alicia Valerian, whose husband and son both disappeared thirty years ago, and who has lived in strict seclusion ever since. There's poor, mute Daft Davie, who retreated from the mockery of others to a cave on a mountain. And there's Emma Cobley and her throng, who somehow seem to be behind these tragedies. It is to up brave, quick-thinking Robert, loving Nan, sensitive Timothy and sturdy little Betsy to solve the mysteries that surround them and defeat the evil that's been poisoning so many lives.
Though it was written in 1964, Linnets and Valerians reads far more like a book from an earlier time, and not everyone will appreciate its sometimes mawkish portrait of adult-child relationships or its rather self-conscious lack of class-consciousness, reminiscent of E. Nesbit at her worst. But its magical quality also seems to belong to another era and I think perhaps the flaws and virtues are inextricably connected--you couldn't have one without the other. I, for one, am glad to accept it on its own terms and simply enjoy the beauty, humor and delight of this story. (8 & up)
Also available: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
Penguin, 2001 (0-14-230027-6) $5.99
Here's a Penny written and illustrated by Carolyn Haywood. Harcourt, 1944; Odyssey, 2005 (0-15-205227-5) $16.00; (0-15-205225-9) $5.95 trade; Penny and Peter written and illustrated by Carolyn Haywood. Harcourt, 1946; Odyssey, 2005 (0-15-205232-1) $16.00; (0-15-205226-7) $5.95 trade
Less well known than Haywood's "Betsy" series, these are another warm, simple look at some of the small dreams, adventures and foibles of young childhood. "Penny" is really a little boy named William--but when Mother and Daddy went to the hospital to look for a baby to adopt, they found him with hair the color of "a brand-new copper penny."
In the first book, Penny adopts a kitten--and another kitten adopts
he and his friend Patsy fool their own parents with identical
Halloween costumes; and he finds the older brother of his dreams. The
second book finds Penny and his new brother Peter sharing fishing,
painting, camping... and accidents. Haywood's carefully drawn
black & white illustrations add to the cozy, old-fashioned charm of
these stories. (6-10)
Torn Away by James Heneghan. Viking, 1994 (0-670-85180-9); Orca, 2003 (1551432633) $6.95 pb
An orphaned child of "freedom-fighters," Declan is literally dragged away from Belfast and shipped off to his uncle Matthew's home in British Columbia. Only thirteen, Declan is already a member of a children's terrorist group, "The Holy Terrors"; his only goal in life it to wage war against the Protestants he blames for the death of his family. But life in British Columbia is very different from life in Northern Ireland, especially in the loving, nurturing family he finds himself with. Matthew and Kate, who have already adopted an orphan girl and an abandoned boy with Down Syndrome, are obviously "fixers," and Declan is determined not to let them "fix" him. Which will prove more important to him: avenging his family's death, or staying with the new family that loves him?
This fast-paced story carries readers along through Declan's gradual
change and growth, immediately gripping us with a depiction of his
attempts to escape, then letting us feel how the beauty and caring of
his new environment begin to soothe his troubled spirit, even against
his will. It's an exciting and ultimately poignant exploration of the
destructiveness of revenge and the making of family bonds. (10-14)
The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Pantheon, 1965; Harpercollins, 1996 (0-062-05088-5) $16.99; (0-062-05904-1) $8.95 trade pb
A lonely hunter, an inquisitive mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a homeless baby boy... these are the strange elements that magically come together to make "the animal family" in this uniquely beautiful fable.
For years the hunter has lived all alone in a house by the ocean, falling asleep to the sound of the waves that remind him of his mother's singing. One day he hears a new song in the water; when he realizes that it's a mermaid, the hunter, who "had lived so long with animals that he himself was as patient as an animal," patiently sings back to her. Soon the hunter and the mermaid are learning each other's language. The mermaid is fascinated by everything to do with life on land: when the hunter brings her a bunch of red maple leaves she "carried it, and stroked it, and said to him lovingly, 'It's the best thing I've ever had in my life. Oh, you're so lucky to live on land! The land's so--so--'" And that fall the mermaid goes to live in the hunter's house and "from then on the sea people saw her only as a visitor from the land that was 'so--so' whatever it was."
After a long, happy time, the hunter begins to have a recurring dream. In it, he is a shadow of his father, the mermaid is a shadow of his mother--but where he "used to lie in the floor by the fire, there was nothing, not even a shadow; the place was empty." Their family needs a child. First the bear cub comes to them and next the little lynx. And finally, the lynx and the bear carry home a baby boy that they found lying in a washed up boat, with his dead mother. And as the boy grows up, playing with the bear and the lynx and listening to the mermaids stories, ("'The sea ones are always the best,' he says, 'The seas's so--so--'") soon it is as if their story about finding him asleep in a corner with the bear is just a game--because, "that was years before the bear came. We've had you always."
Written in exquisite, yet cozy prose, The Animal Family
describes, in entrancing detail, how five distinct, separate beings
can form a family: the hunter and the mermaid, "so different from
each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly
alike"; the animals--tame, but still with their instincts from the
wild; the little boy who is so "helpless and not finished yet," so
new. Each being has its own nature, yet the fascination they feel
with each other's differentness only helps them to love each other
more. * (6 & up)
The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell. Illustrated by Garth Williams. 1964; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-053302-1) $6.99 pb
When a mother makes a large gingerbread rabbit to surprise her
daughter, they are both in for a surprise: the rabbit comes to
life, discovers he was made to be eaten, and runs away into the nearby
forest. The naive and tasty bunny is almost fooled into a wily fox's
hole, but saved just in time by a real rabbit, who turns out to have
the perfect home for a parentless bunny. (Yes, believe it or not,
apparently rabbits can have fertility problems.) A whimsical
adventure with a note of tenderness, just right for reading aloud.
William's pen & ink drawings are full of character. (4-8)
A Message from the Match Girl by Janet Taylor Lisle. Orchard, 1994; Avon Camelot, 1997 (0-380-72518-5) $3.99 pb
The haunting emotional needs of adopted children are the heart of this lovely
little book, a delicate blend of reality and fantasy. After living
his whole life as an orphan, Walter Kew is becoming obsessed with the
thought of his dead mother, even feeling her presence near him. Part
of the problem is that he has been told virtually nothing about his
parents except that they're dead; as his friend Poco realizes, "He's
hungry for stories. You have to know where you came from, or you
can't go on. You have to have stories about yourself." Poco and her
friend Georgina are getting worried about Walter, but they are also
intrigued when he begins to find little "messages" near a statue of
Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Match Girl," signs that he is sure
are his mother's way of communicating with him from beyond the grave,
but that the girls suspect are coming from a real person.
Lisle brings just the right amount of mystery and uncertainty to this
story, keeping readers in the spell of Walter's beliefs even while
they're figuring out the reality behind the events. A beautifully
crafted ending lets the feeling of mystery continue while resolving
Walter's pain--showing that, in the end, Walter doesn't so much need
his birth mother as need to know that she had cared about him. * (8
Gossamer by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (978-0-618-68550-9) $16.00
In the comfortable home of an elderly woman, a small dream-giver known as Littlest One is learning her trade: how to collect the pieces of memory attached to possessions and turn them into dreams...
Meanwhile, something else of import is happening in that house: the arrival of John, a hostile, disturbed foster child. Although the woman is both nervous and somewhat naive--"What does an eight-year-old have to be angry about?" she wonders--she does her best to take care of John, helped, though of course she doesn't know it, by Littlest One and her teacher, who are trying to strengthen the boy with good dreams. Because a boy as wounded as this one is a prime target for the Sinisteed, dream givers who have become consumed by bad memories and now inflict punishing nightmares.
Short and spare, Gossamer lives up to its title, working less
as a chronicle of events than as a demonstration of the value of dreams
and memories, especially for those who are weakened by life, such as John
and his equally abused mother. The small, wonderful moments in life are
treasures here: cozy, domestic weapons against fear. I love the potent
vision of the creation of dreams as an artistic endeavor--"found art" at
its most meaningful. (9 & up)
Nobody's Daughter by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32106-6); Dell Yearling, 1996 (0-440-41160-2) $3.99 pb
Emily Lathrop Hasbruck has spent her short life being trained to be grateful for the roof over her head: the orphaned child of a "no-account" Hasbruck, she has no claim on anyone for a home. Living first on the Christian Charity of her great-aunt (which doesn't extend to providing for Emily in her will,) and next at an orphanage, Emily tries to be good and grateful, but she can't help wanting things: a real home, a piano to play, a future as more than a servant--and to be free from the taunts and bullying of the rich girls in town, who make the orphans--helps to retaliate against the children of the men whose charity they live on--their favorite prey. Emily holds on to one hope, that she'll be able to find the family who adopted her baby sister, who simply must honor the tie of blood and take her in too. But when the usual tormenting goes much too far one day, Emily's hope is shattered, leaving her with the realization that as an unwanted orphan she is truly entitled to nothing in this life--except ordinary justice.
A sobering portrait of what it can mean to be all alone in an
intolerant world, this is a painfully bleak novel. An aura of sadness
hangs over even the most cheerful scenes, foreshadowing the inevitable
heartwrenching climax that spells the end of Emily's hopes. Pfeffer
manages to scrape together a reasonably positive, yet still believable
ending, but the atmosphere of sadness lingers, mute testimony to the
true seriousness of the problem and the improbability of many happy
What My Sister Remembered by Marilyn Sachs. Dutton, 1992
Eleven-year-old Molly and her older sister Beth have been separated for eight years. After a horrible accident that killed their parents, Molly was adopted by her aunt, and she has mixed feelings of resentment and envy about her sister choosing to be adopted by the nurse who cared for her after the accident. Though Molly loves her mom and dad, there's no denying that Beth's life with a very wealthy family sounds pretty exciting.
But when Beth comes to visit, Molly is flumoxed by how odd--and often mean--she acts. Worst of all, Beth is nasty to Molly's mom, which seems worse than unfair. After all, Beth chose to leave. But there's a lot that Molly doesn't remember about what happened eight years ago... and a lot she doesn't understand.
This is an intriguing portrait of two sister with very different
personalities, in a very difficult situation. The issues that are
raised are fascinating. But, without giving too much away,
I must confess that as a parent and a godparent to several children,
literally turned my stomach. There's no way I can rationalize the
ultimate history that's revealed to seem anything but cruel and
This is not a criticism of the book per se, just my personal response.
But I would definitely not recommend it for children who have strong
negative feelings around having been "given up" for adoption. (8-12)
Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. (Original British Title: The Circus is Coming.)
It's interesting that of all of Streatfeild's wonderful books, the one that should win the Carnegie Medal is probably more concerned with class issues than any of her others. Like all of the books known in America as the "Shoes" series, Circus Shoes is about children learning unusual careers but it's also a story about the uselessness of class distinctions in a milieu where all that matters is hard work and talent.
Peter and Santa, an orphaned brother and sister, have been brought up since they were babies by their Aunt Rebecca. Once lady's maid to a duchess, Aunt Rebecca has acquired some rather extravagant ideas of how children should be raised--but since her standards far exceed her income, Peter and Santa have had a strange smattering of education from "tutors" rather than a decent ordinary school. They don't have much chance to make friends, and the dressy clothes they wear keeps them from playing anything but quiet, old-fashioned games. And they themselves have come to believe that they are somehow superior to other children, as "it is almost impossible to live with somebody who thinks you are too grand to know anybody, and not get a bit that way yourself." In short, "what with one thing and another, Peter and Santa were rather queer," and perhaps worst of all, they have no idea of it.
Then Aunt Rebecca dies, and the siblings, fearing separation, run away to their unknown Uncle Gus, an "artiste" in Cob's Circus. There, among adults who mock their pompous manners and children who despise their lack of circus skills, they painfully learn how useless their upbringing has made them in a hardworking community. But the more time they spend with the circus, the more they want to stay--especially when Santa begins to learn to tumble and Peter discovers a never-suspected talent with horses. Could it be that they have something to offer to the circus after all?
The level of humiliation Peter and Santa suffer throughout Circus
has always made it a little hard for me to take: almost everyone,
child, is awfully hard on them. Still, it has one of the most
plots and enjoyable settings of all of the "Shoes" books.
The two children, being totally ignorant, have numerous conversations
with the circus people, learning about the circus life, its history
and the fascinating psychology of its performers, both human and
animal. And, perhaps because of their very ineptitude and
vulnerability, Peter and Santa are easy to sympathize with and to
cheer on, as they finally, permanently "belong"
to the circus. (8 & up)
Thursday's Child by Noel Streatfeild. Random House, 1970; Dell, 1986 (0-440-48687-4) $3.50
Streatfeild's books overflow with orphans, but none fits the theme as well as this one--especially if you like your orphan stories Dickensian. Thursday's Child has it all: a horrible orphanage, a gang of children on the run and even a mystery with some missing heirs. In Streatfeild's sensible hands however, it also has an everyday believability that never becomes melodrama. Perhaps Streatfeild was influenced by her own creation, for Thursday's Child features her most memorable heroine, a strong-willed and spirited girl who would never let anyone turn her orphan story into a tragedy.
Also new at the orphanage are Peter and Horatio, two boys whose sister, Lavinia, is going to be a servant at a nearby manor. Margaret's immediate impulse to run away from the orphanage is curtailed by Lavinia's plea that she stay to keep an eye on the boys. (She is also furious at Matron's theft of her fine underclothes: "Whenever she thought of that lace-edged petticoat and those drawers she was so full of rage she felt she could not run away until in some way she had paid Matron back.") Then Peter, an inveterate bookworm, "borrows" some books and the panic-stricken Margaret can only think of one way to save him from prison--she and the two boys will run away together. Their escape leads them to backbreaking work on a canal boat, and to acting in a travelling theatre, with Margaret's strength and courage winning new friends for her everywhere.
With its fascinating period settings and sometimes hair-raising
is probably Streatfeild's most exciting
story, its drama comfortably leavened by her observations of the
details of everyday life. And to the delicious appeal of the classic
orphan story, it adds a wonderful freedom: although her friends have
a traditional happy ending in which they are reunited with their
long-lost relatives, Margaret chooses
not to join them, but to continue on on her own.
Streatfeild's genius is that we believe in Margaret as a
ten-year-old child--and we also believe she
can do it. (Although very different in style, in a sense
is a precursor to Homecoming (see below),
another orphan book that dares to suggest that
children may sometimes manage better on their own.) It's
the combination of believable childish thoughts and behavior with
vitality and resourcefulness that make
such a delightful book: fun as it is to weep over
orphans, it's even better to cheer them on. * (8 & up)
The Midnight Train Home by Erika Tamar. Knopf, 2000; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41670-1) $4.99 pb
The plight of children on "orphan trains" of the early Twentieth Century is the basis for this uneven but engaging historical fiction.. The book falls into roughly three sections: the first introduces the heartbreaking plight of Deirdre and her two brothers, whose impoverished mother has given up and sent them to be adopted out west. As they soon discover, the odds that they will be able to stay together are slim, and they might not even be adopted into caring families, but chosen to be farmhands and servants. The story is quite harrowing, not just for the tragedy of the main characters but for those of minor characters Aloyious and Connor, unattractive orphans whose chances of finding loving homes are bleak. As Deidre reflects, "children had no power, they had to go where they were taken and stay where they were sat, and no one asked them anything. They had no more control over what happened to them then puffballs blown along by the wind." Tamar sets the tone for the book here with solid background detail that never seems overly rich or overly explained.
The promising beginning is not entirely realized in the rest of the
story; the second half, in which Deidre is adopted by an uncaring
"do-gooder family" plods on pointlessly and miserably for far too
long. By contrast, the third section, in which Deidre runs off to
join a travelling vaudeville troupe and discovers a new family and her
own "star quality," goes by much too fast; I wanted to know so much
more about these characters and their lives. But overall this book is
both entertaining and hopeful, as Deidre realizes that sometimes she
can choose instead of letting herself get blown about by the
wind." (8 & up)
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 2003 (0-399-23115-3) $15.99; Speak, 2005 (0-142-40149-8) $5.99 pb
"Write fast, Lonnie" says his poetry teacher, and Lonnie is trying to, trying to get all his words out before Miss Edna's "Be quiet!" makes all the ideas in his head go out like a candle. There's a lot of ideas to get out, a lot of feelings, and a lot of story, and gradually Lonnie's poems reveal them: a boy who loves poetry and basketball and likes a girl names LaTenya; who lives in a foster home with Miss Edna because his parents both died in a fire; whose beloved little sister Lili now has a "new mama" who "didn't want no boys."
Woodson accomplishes so much in this short book, it's hard to know where to begin. Along with experimenting with poetic forms, Lonnie's words incorporate images, descriptions, memories, to make a few words do a lot of work, as in this end of a poem about learning that his classmate Eric is in the hospital, with a disease that's "common among African-Americans":
"The last time Miss Edna came home and found me crying she said Think about all the stuff you love, Lonnie. Let those things fill your head. Popsicle Icicle Bicycle Sickle cell. Popsicle Icicle Bicycle Sickle cell."
Through Lonnie's poems, we get to know everyone in his life:
his inspiring but often ineffectual teacher, his tough and caring
foster mom, the "dogs" he can share basketball with, but not poetry,
and the parents who gave him a childhood filled with love, a legacy
that lives on in his ability to write and to love the new people
who claim his as family. A powerful and beautiful story, with an
exceptional voice. * (8 & up)
Store-Bought Baby by Sandra Belton. Greenwillow, 2006 (978-0-06-085086-9) $15.99
For Leah, the most awful part of a truly awful day--her brother's wake--is hearing a neighbor speculate that maybe it wasn't so hard for her parents to lose their son--not as hard as it would have been to lose Leah. Because she is their "natural" child, and he was only their legal one. Leah wants to choke the stupid woman: "Nobody in this house ever made a deal about Luce being adopted. Especially not Mama or Dad. Luce's real parents." Still, as Leah struggles to cope with her loss, she finds herself becoming obsessed with the idea of finding Luce's birth parents, for reasons she can't even begin to understand or explain.
This is a sad, yet warm story, with some fresh insights about the role
adoption can play in the formation of a family. Perhaps its greatest
success is how clearly Luce, present only in loving memory, comes to
life. It's also an interesting example of "color-blind" writing;
although Leah and her family are clearly black, race is never
The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004 (1-55041-908-0) $16.95
Life at the Heaven Shop, her father's coffin business, is hardly luxurious, but as a school prefect and an actor on a radio drama, Binti feels pretty special. Then her father dies, one more casualty of an AIDS epidemic her country of Malawi has no resources to fight. Taken in--just barely--by relatives, Binti and her siblings are stripped of everything they own and treated as untouchables, tainted by association.
When her sister runs off, Binti runs away too, to her grandmother's home in Mulanje. The life she finds there will be harder than any she's ever known... and far more rewarding.
This story paints a devastating portrait, not only of one family's tragedy, but of the ignorance and desperation that are destroying an entire people. Although it's simply worded, readers will need no embellishment to be swept away by sadness and pity. The work of those fighting to care for and educate their people is also depicted, giving the book the closest it can get to a happy ending, as Binti goes forward with her life, knowing that "tomorrow, they would all make it through another day." (11-14)
An author's note includes information on AIDS and the epidemic in Sub-Saharan
Africa. Royalities from The Heaven Shop will be donated to
Adam & Eve and Pinch Me by Julie Johnson. Little, Brown, 1994; Tundra, 2003 (0-8877-648-X) $9.95 trade
"If I've learned one thing in my life it's this: if you don't want your heart broken, don't let on you have one" Sara Moone tells her computer, the only thing she will allow herself to have a relationship with. Shuffled from one foster home to another--"what do you do with something you don't want? Throw it out, of course,"--Sara has cut herself off from any positive feelings, living only for her sixteenth birthday, when she will be free to live on her own, completely alone. But as she types in the story of her latest foster home, with a kindhearted farm couple and two other foster kids, Sara's sharp, immediate narrative begins to show signs of thaw within her. Then a new threat to her safe isolation appears: her birth mother, who once gave her up and now wants her back. No longer able to convince herself that she doesn't feel anything, Sara must try to figure out which feelings to listen to.
Told in a caustic yet passionate voice that betrays the pain and
longing underlying Sara's hard facade, this is a beautifully realized
story. The small-town atmosphere and the characters of Sara's foster
parents are lovingly drawn, with an initial mockery that gradually
changes to interest and respect, as Sara begins to see beyond their
seemingly stereotypes behaviors. Sara herself is a terrific
character--sometimes hilarious, sometimes infuriating, but never
boring. Her journey from mistrustful stray to loving family member is
a tender, life-affirming triumph. * (12 & up)
Someone to Love by Frances Lantz. Avon, 1997 (0-380-97477-0) $14.00; 1998 (0-380-77590-5) $3.99 pb
Narrated by fifteen-year-old Sara, in the form of letters to the unborn "mystery baby" her parents plan to adopt, this is a compelling story about family ties being created--and tested. Sara, who is continually chafed by her parents' restrictive and materialistic lifestyle, has mixed feelings about her potential sibling, seeing it mostly as an ally against her parents, but also fearful that it will take all of their love. Then she meets Iris, the girl who will be the baby's birthmother--and who seems to be Sara's most rebellious, romantic fantasy come true. "All Mom and Dad saw then they looked at Iris was a statistic--another unwed, pregnant teenager. They didn't see what I saw--a wild girl on a motorcycle, living life on her own terms, experiencing things her small-town parents couldn't even imagine." Deciding that, "together, I think we've both got a chance to break free," Sara encourages Iris to plan on being part of the baby's life, despite her parents' fears and commands. But when her interference brings the situation to a crisis point, she discovers that she understood almost nothing about Iris's life--or Iris.
Someone to Love is an interesting example of the use of an
narrator"; Sara doesn't lie, but her naivete and prejudices keep her
from facing facts that she unconsciously reveals to the readers. It's
not as strong a narrative as it could be, partly because of the flip,
overtly superficial style common to first person young adult novels
and partly because it doesn't create strong characterizations: the
other characters remain pretty much the one-dimensional people that
Sara perceives them to be. But despite some flaws, this story is
carried by its originality and its sheer drama, which touches on some
very basic and powerful emotions.
The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-37823-5) $16.00; 2006 (978-0618-73748-2) $6.95 pb
On a quest to revenge herself against the knight who killed her
mother, thirteen-year-old Sarah gets caught up in another quest: to
rescue King Arthur's stolen queen. Along the way she learns to let
her bitter heart open to friendship and caring once again. Sixth in a
series of retold Arthurian tales, this fast-paced book will be a
little hard to follow for those who haven't read the previous titles,
but the intriguing heroine and premise make it worthwhile, as does the
unexpectedly droll humor found in the whims of courtly life. (13 & up)
Breathe My Name R.A. Nelson. Razorbill, 2007 (978-1-59514-094-4) $16.99o
Frances has been adopted into a loving family, but she's still
haunted by a terrible past. When she learns that her birth mother
has been released from the mental insitutions she's been in for the
past eleven years, Frances is forced to confront her fears, leading
to an event-filled roadtrip with her new boyfriend Nix. This
is a beautifully crafted story that keeps a shocking plot from
sememing sensationalistic, except for one unfortuate plot turn into
lurid melodrama. The romance is sweet and funny and their trip
is filled with atmospheric detail.
Don't Think Twice by Ruth Pennebaker. Henry Holt, 1996; 2001 (0-8050-6729-9) $8.95 pb
I've gotten increasingly tired of bleak, gloomy young adult novels in recent years, to the point that a downbeat opening paragraph is often enough to make me toss a book in disgust. Don't Think Twice, a novel about a bitter, desolate teenager waiting out her pregnancy in a home for unwed mothers, starts off downbeat and pretty much keeps going. What saves it is its truth.
Seventeen-year-old Anne narrates her story with unabashed self-pity and a biting, often mean humor, making the other girls at the home the targets of her anger. It sounds awful, but though Anne's griping does start to get tiresome towards the end, the overall effect of this story is somehow very freeing. The truth is that Anne does have every reason in the world to feel lousy and there's little that can change that, short of an implausible deus ex machina ending. It can be satisfying to read a book that simply acknowledges that sometimes life is hard and there's not a lot you can do about it, except try to grow from the experience.
It also helps that Pennebaker set her story in the sixties, which left her free not to worry about what messages she might be sending to today's teens. In one of the book's most satisfying scenes, the girls in the home have a party, get drunk, and make nasty toasts to the boys and men who got them pregnant and then deserted them, a scene that would be discomforting in a book set in the present, but which works perfectly in this context.
Although much of the story is dark, the friendships Anne makes in the
home offer a note of hope, as does the connection she finally achieves
with the baby she had tried so hard to ignore. In the end, we can see
that she's a much stronger person than she was before, and can hope
that she will be able to make a happier life for herself. (13 & up)
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt. Random House, 2006 (0-385-90940-3)
Simone's ordinary life of high school, family, friends, and trying to
find a boyfriend grows increasingly complex after she meets her
birthmother for the first time and becomes aware of her Jewish
A well-balanced mix of joy and sadness, this book also offers
appealing family and friend relationships, a feeling for the beauty of
Jewish ritual and identity, and a strong sense of emotional truth.
River Rats by Caroline Stevermer. Jane Yolen Books, 1992; (0-15-200895-0); Magic Carpet, 2005 (0-15-205534-1) $6.95 pb
Swallows and Amazons meets Peter Pan meets "The Road
Warrior" in this intriguing, post-Apocalyptic adventure. In a
futuristic world of pollution, disease, and abandoned cities peopled
by renegade "wild boys," the orphan kids aboard the paddle boat
"River Rat" survive through hard work, quick thinking and sticking
together. (12 & up)
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Atheneum, 1981 (0-689-30833-7) $15.95; Simon Pulse, 2002 (0-689-85132-4) $5.99 trade
Inexplicably deserted by their mother in a parking lot, the four Tillerman children--Dicey, James, Maybeth and Sammy--seem to have no choice but to continue their trip to Great-aunt Cilla's house on their own. "Dump it all on Dicey, that was what Momma did, she always did, because Dicey was the determined sort." And thirteen-year-old Dicey is indeed determined to keep her now parentless family together and get them safely to Bridgeport, even though it means walking hours each day, living on what they can catch or earn and avoiding hostile adults who might try to separate them.
After the long, arduous trip, arriving at Aunt Cilla's should be the happy ending to the story. But although their aunt's daughter does take the children in, the price of her generosity--having to be always quiet, good and grateful--is too great. Dicey has learned from their journey that her family's needs are both fewer and greater than she thought: "She no longer hoped for a home. Now she wanted only a place where the Tillermans could be themselves and do what was good for them." And so the family sets out again, to find a place where they can be together and be themselves.
Homecoming is far too complex to be summed up as merely an "orphan story," but it could be considered as the apotheosis of the genre, synthesizing the standard elements into a strong, rich exploration of how family bonds, independence and individuality fit into the search-for-a-home framework. The emotional need itself is essentially the same--for a family and a home which don't crush the spirit or the heart--but Homecoming is one of the few books that truly articulates that need: "Adopted Jane" and "Sensible Kate" (see above) only think they have to be extra good to keep their homes; Dicey knows it. More importantly, she rejects it, as much as she can. Voigt gives her child characters an unusual, almost overwhelming power to make their own decisions. Dicey does not run away in a spirit of rebellion or desperation: she is seeking a better option for their lives, working with what she has, even knowing that if they have to go back to Aunt Cilla's, they will. Interestingly, although the second half of the book contains the single most frightening incident, it is not nearly as tense to read as the first--we have learned to trust Dicey to look after her family, just as she has learned to trust herself.
Homecoming is the first book in a family saga, which
includes Dicey's Song, Sons from Afar,
Seventeen Against the Dealer and tangentially,
A Solitary Blue,Come a Stranger and
The Runner. Dicey's Song
was the big award winner, but I find Homecoming
to be the most polished as literature and the most
emotionally rewarding as story. (10 & up)
A Chance Child by Jill Paton Walsh. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978; Sunburst, 1991 (0-374-41174-3) $7.95 trade pb
The theme of almost all orphan stories is a child's journey from loneliness and want to an ideal, true home--and often, the stronger the need, the harder the journey. This unforgettable book finds a new depth in that old theme, telling the story of a boy so far away from a home that he has to find it not just in another place, but in another time.
"The cut goes on, or back, from here," said the man. "I'll go back," said Creep. But he will never know how true his words were. For Creep, an unwanted and severely abused child, has lived all his short life locked in a closet, and when he escapes and drifts away down a canal he has no way of knowing that he is drifting into the past--or that his brother Christopher is searching desperately for him in the present.
The world Creep finds--in which children work long hours at hard, dangerous labor--makes as much sense to him as any he's known. It is also a world in which his weak legs and lack of family make him no worse off than many others. Joining forces with a runaway named Tom and a horribly scarred girl called Blackie, he is at first only partially there: adults can rarely see him, and he is never hungry. But once Creep truly becomes part of the past he is able to carve out a life for himself--as good a life as any poor child could manage. And it is there, in the past, that Christopher will finally find him: in the eye-witness testimonies of the people who lived in that difficult, tumultuous time.
With vivid detail and sharply-defined characterizations, Walsh flawlessly evokes the world of poor children during the Industrial Revolution, as well as that of lower-class English children today. The contrast is pointed: although many things have changed, life is still very hard for any child who grows up without love or respect. As might be expected, the ending of A Chance Child is not the unmitigated joy of the traditional orphan story, but a poignantly bittersweet triumph, both for Creep, who found love and happiness amid hardship and trouble, and for Christopher, who loses his beloved brother, yet rejoices that the unwanted child did at last find a home. * (10 & up)
Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep. HarperCollins, 1977; 2001 (0-06-440336-X) $6.95 pb
Casey Young, a twelve-year old Chinese-American girl, has always felt more American than Chinese. Traveling around with her father (a compulsive gambler trying to make it big), she's met people of every race and color and never felt out of place--until her father is injured and she's sent to live with her grandmother in San Francisco's Chinatown. Everything about Chinatown in 1965 is strange to Casey and everyone seems to despise her for her different background and her ignorance. Ironically, Casey's first real encounter with prejudice comes from people of her own race.
When Casey's grandmother, Paw Paw, tells her a family legend about an owl who lived as a woman, Casey sees it as a metaphor for feeling like an outsider, and for the first time she feels a connection to the heritage of her ancestors. As she learns to respect and love her grandmother, her sense of belonging grows; after a lifetime spent traveling, she has finally found a place where she can put down roots.
More than just a book about ethnicity, Child of the Owl is a story about why people belong together: the ties of love, and loyalty, and shared background. (10 & up)
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