The Pick of the Month

The editor’s choices for the most memorable books reviewed in Notes from the Windowsill.

The following reviews are reprinted with permission from Notes from the Windowsill, an electronic journal of book reviews. Copyright 1998 Wendy E. Betts. Reproduction for personal and non-profit use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail [email protected] with comments or questions.

To our readers: We guarantee that absolutely no payment is accepted, from any bookstore, publisher, author or any other agency, for inclusion of a review in Notes from the Windowsill or for any special notice given to any book.

December 1999, Volume 7 No. 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, dependant 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.

This companion volume to the HarperCollins deluxe edition of The Secret Garden also features Tasha Tudor’s delicate but evocative illustrations from the 1963 edition, including several color plates. * (7 & up/8 & up)

November 1999, Volume 7 No. 11

Love from Your Friend, Hannah by Mindy Warshaw Skolsky. DK Publishing, 1998; HarperTrophy, 1999 (0-06-440746-2) $5.95 pb

I hope it may be a sign of a change in the mood of children’s fiction, that the two happiest books I’ve read in ages are set in a poor urban neighborhood (Jonah the Whale by Susan Shreve) and during the Great Depression. If there’s one thing this book is not, it’s depressing; I smiled all the way through it.

Hannah Diamond is looking for someone to write to: her best friend Aggie has moved away and never answers any of her letters. But trying the “pen pals” box at school only gets her “two measly lines and an unfriendly P.S.” from a BOY. So Hannah decides to take her problem straight to the top, asking President Roosevelt to help her find a pen pal. It’s the beginning of some wonderful correspondences, as Hannah finds herself writing to the president, his wife and his secretary, as well as to her grandmother, a friendly drifter who stopped by her parent’s restaurant, and the recalcitrant Aggie. And by the end of the book she has found the pen pal she most wanted, a true friend, in a most unexpected place.

Writing about the world around her–her parent’s roadside diner, her secret spot on top of a mountain, her grandparent’s candy store–as well as her thoughts and feelings, Hannah creates a distinctive time and setting. It’s a world that has its share of troubles, but the mood of the times is optimistic–and we see the ultimate benefits of that optimism played out throughout the story.

Hannah’s letters, and their replies, also create relationships; even the characters who never write letters themselves, like Hannah’s mother and father, acquire clear personalities, seen through Hannah’s eyes. Hannah herself is the most vivid personality: her warmth, imagination and sincerity are unmistakable. Her reluctant pen pal Edward Winchley is a match for her, a wryly funny boy whose letters slowly reveal the sadness of his life. When Edward begins to change, in response to Hannah’s letters, we believe it, because we believe in both of them.

I can’t wait to read more books about Hannah. I wish she would write to me. * (8 & up)

October 1999, Volume 7 No. 10

Can’t Sleep written and illustrated by Chris Raschka. 1995; Orchard, 1999 (0-531-30201-6) $6.95 board book

For those lonely nights when everyone else has fallen asleep, and it seems like you’re the only person awake in the whole world, this tender book shows there will always be one friend around: “Now, when there is no sound/the moon can tell you feel frightened and are lonely./The moon will stay awake for you.” As a little dog’s family goes to bed one by one, leaving him awake and alone, the moon travels across the sky, turning herself to keep an eye on him and even kissing him good night. Sparely drawn illustrations help capture the forlorn feeling of hearing the last lights go out: as each family member falls asleep, his room fades into a blue background, leaving the little dog alone in his anxious square of bright yellow light. As he finally drifts off, comforted by the moon, each of the family bedrooms gradually becomes part of the starry night sky. Raschaka’s unusual pictures have the splotchy abruptness of a rough draft, but there’s nothing rough about this evocative design, or about the ingeniously drawn moon, whose face can be viewed in either of its traditional forms–a profile crescent or round full-face. With a gently syncopated text that accentuates the odd weightiness late night wakefulness gives to ordinary events, this book offers the best kind of reassurance: one based on understanding. * (2-6)

September 1999, Volume 7 No. 9

Not a Cooper Penny in Me House by Monica Gunning. Illustrated by Frane Lessac. 1993; Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 1999 (1-56397-793-1) $8.95 pb

The back of this book describes it as a collection of poems that give a glimpse of “some of the hardships and joys of a Caribbean childhood.” What interests me about that is that I saw very few hardships in the simple word pictures of this book–mostly joys. Even when Grandma sighs, “‘Chil, me stone broke. Not a copper penny in me house,'” things are still okay–because Maas Charles at the corner store “never says no./He knows everyone in the village by their first names.”

Rather than a book about hardships and joys, this seems to me to be a book about values and attitude. When there’s no soap in the house, it works fine to use velvet leaves. When it’s too hot to breathe inside, the children in the one room schoolhouse recite their lessons under the cool trees, hearing “twittering birds/recite theirs, too.”. And walking on the hard roads is no hardship to Nana, because it spares her most precious treasure: “Walking faster/she stubs her toe hard./Hugging her shoes/Nana says ‘Thank you, God,/ it wasn’t me Sunday shoes.'”

The illustrations also emphasize joyfulness, with plenty of vibrant colors and bold, active figures, in a traditional, primitive style. The cool blue of water contrasts with the hot yellow of the sandy shore in one scene, drawing us into the pleasure of a picnic by the seashore. Tropical flowers are everywhere; plants and color make seemingly bare homes inviting. This is a lovely look at a people making the most of everything they have–and showing that, despite poverty, they have a lot worth envying. (8-12)

August 1999, Volume 7 No. 8

The Good Liar by Gregory Maguire. Clarion, 1999 (0-395-90697-0) $15.00

After the German army occupied France in World War II, some of the French resisted and some became collaborators. But as Marcel Delarue remembers, “many more of the French people, my family among them, appeared merely to live out the war hoping to squeak through unnoticed and unharmed.” Growing up in a small village in occupied France, Marcel and his brothers Rene and Pierre are aware of some privations, but otherwise the war doesn’t interfere much with their childhood pursuits–especially their favorite game of seeing who can lie the most creatively and plausibly. When Marcel meets a friendly German soldier, who reminds him a little of his absent father, there doesn’t seem any real harm in spending time with him; he’s even proud of keeping such a big secret, a splendid “extended lie.” But things in his village aren’t exactly as Marcel thinks they are, and to his horror, he learns that his secret friendship could be a dangerous one.

Stories about childhoods lost through war aren’t new; what makes The Good Liar so interesting is that it shows the precise moment in which a child passes from ignorance to awareness, suddenly forced to comprehend “too much doom for a child to imagine.” Marcel is not exactly a hero, in the sense that, say, the characters in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars or Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic are, but in a way, that makes his story more meaningful; his newfound understanding, with its accompanying confusion and ambiguities, is a very believable and sympathetic portrait of what it’s like for ordinary kids to face terrors: “innocent, stupid, trusting, lying, needy, loving kids…. Like you.”

Through the simple device of having an adult Marcel write his story at the request of three contemporary schoolchildren, Maguire easily draws readers into this book, despite the foreign tone that might otherwise have made it less accessible. It reads like being told a story by a favorite uncle: somehow both romantically far away, and very close to home. * (9 & up)

July 1999, Volume 7 No. 7

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-82134-4) $16.95

Wittlinger’s Lombardo’s Law (reviewed volume 3, number 6d) was most memorable for lightly exploring a stereotype-defying teenage experience. Hard Love again looks at areas of teenage life which are generally either ignored or exploited by the mainstream, this time with far more depth and power.

“I am immune to emotion,” John writes at the beginning of his story. He’s had to be, since his parents’ divorce left him with a father who won’t talk to him and a mother who shies away from even accidentally touching him. But John’s not as immune as he thinks he is; his need to communicate comes out, albeit inadvertently, in his zine Bananafish, and he connects to others through their zines–especially Marisol, a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love,” whose writing makes him feel like “I’m looking down through layer after layer of her, until I’m looking more deeply inside this person I don’t even know than I’ve ever looked inside myself.”

After John tracks Marisol down–and manages to convince her that he’s not looking for a girlfriend–their friendship quickly becomes something important to both of them; she is perhaps as lonely and suspicious of human contact as he is. But as John’s protective shell against emotion begins to crack, he discovers that he wants more from Marisol than he realized… more than she will ever be able to give him.

Through John’s narrative, and the writing of the other zine creators he encounters–appropriately designed with distinctive fonts and graphics–Hard Love authentically captures the feel of the personal zine and the honesty, intelligence and unwitting innocence of the young people who write them. The characters are just as familiar and believable: John, who thinks he only writes his zine to be funny and is almost aghast when people find it poignant; Marisol, whose passionate belief in honesty doesn’t stop her from being very conscious of her ranking on the “exotic scale” and her role as a lesbian; Diana Tree, author of the zine No Regrets, whom Marisol writes off as a “granola-head,” but who has learned a lot about surviving pain. But the best thing about Hard Love is that it never treats zine writing as the latest sexy topic; like its subject, it feels sincere, touching, intelligent and hopeful. (YA) *

June 1999, Volume 7 No. 6

Looking Back: a Book of Memories by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1998 (0-395-89543-X) $16.00

I don’t remember ever enjoying an autobiography by a children’s writer when I was a kid. They were often in the third person, sometimes fictionalized, always distant. And strangely enough, the writers never seemed to talk about what most interested me: The relationship between their lives and their books.

Autobiographies have improved a lot since then, but this one takes the prize as the book I would probably most have liked then, as well as being a book I love now. It’s not the usual straightforward telling of events from childhood to adulthood; as Lowry writes, “It has no plot. It is about moment, memories, fragments, falsehoods and fantasies. It is about things that happened, which caused other things to happen, so that eventually stories emerged.”

Lowry, twice winner of the Newbery Medal for Number the Stars and The Giver (if I ruled the world, she would have won for Anastasia Krupnik), was lucky enough to be born into a family given to taking photographs. This book is based around those photographs, which are grouped together to suggest and illustrate stories from Lowry’s life. The groupings are used to great effect; in several, Lowry juxtaposes a picture of herself with one of her mother taken at the same age, and imagines the conversation they might have had, if they could only have met when they were both twelve, or both eighteen. Another collection shows three of the Lowry family babies, all “with our faces folded up and our hands making a little church steeple because we haven’t yet figured out how to wave or grab or poke or point.” Perhaps the most affecting grouping shows Lowry’s son Grey with his wife; the following year shows him with his barely toddling baby; the year after that shows his grave. Lowry again imagines talking to her dead mother, who had lost a daughter at almost the same age:

“‘What was it like for you?’ I ask her. `How could you bear it?’

‘It was a piece of my life ripped away,’ she replies. `But I still had a family left. So I put one foot in front of the other and went on.’

‘You looked ahead,’ I said, knowing that’s what I would have to do.

She nodded. And she smiled. ‘But I looked back all the time, too.’ she explained.”

Lowry introduces each grouping with an evocative title and a quote from one of her books, tying them together and showing how her own emotions were expressed in her stories. She also writes about the incidents in her books that came directly from her own life, like deciding to change her “stodgy, dull, and completely unromantic” name for a while, just as her character Enid Crowley in Taking Care of Terrific later would. Anyone who loves Lowry’s work will be intrigued by this look at the author’s heart. But even those who have never read another word by her could love this book, as an honest, poignant, wryly funny look back, on a thoroughly-lived life. * (8 & up)

May 1999, Volume 7 No. 5

Twelve Shots edited by Harry Mazer. Delacorte, 1997 (0-385-32238-0) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 1998 (0-440-22002-5) $4.99 pb

In the intense media blitz following the shootings at Columbine High School, something seems to have been forgotten: The combination of guns and kids is nothing new. The sobering statistics found at the back of this collection make that clear, and the stories in it perhaps help to explain why. This is not an anti-gun book per se, but an exploration, from many points of view, of the different meanings guns have for young people. Fear, power, safety, manhood… and above all, the potential for death, unavoidable whenever a gun is present.

Guns carry such heavy baggage that just the suggestion of them in a story brings emotion with it; in two of the most chilling stories in this book, Nancy Werlin’s superb “War Games,” and Rita Garcia-William’s shocking “Chalkman,” real guns never even actually appear. In Werlin’s story, toy guns symbolize a grim belief that the world is divided into the powerful and their victims. In Garcia-Williams’, the destruction guns bring is so much a part of everyday life for children, it has lost all power to scare, which may be the scariest thing of all.

As I read Walter Dean Myer’s novel Monster recently, I found myself wondering why he had stopped writing the fairly cheerful books about black teenagers, such as The Young Landlords, that I remember from my adolescence. He answers that question here: “The major difference between the Harlem of my youth and the Harlem of today are the lack of jobs and the availability of guns.” His story “Briefcase” stunningly reveals the explosiveness of that situation.

I was inevitably most struck by the frightening stories in this collection, but there are also stories here in which guns are more ambiguous–desirable as well as deadly, useful as well as hurtful. Some of these authors love guns; some can find humor around them. It all adds up to a deeply evocative, multi-faceted portrait of the effect of guns on the hearts and minds–and lives–of children. * (YA)

April 1999, Volume 7 No. 4

Half MagicMagic By the LakeKnight’s CastleThe Time Garden by Edward Eager. Illustrated by N.M. Bodecker. Harcourt Brace, 1954; 1957; 1956; 1958; 1999 (0-15-202069-1; 0-15-202077-2; 0-15-202074-8; 0-15-202075-6) $17.00; (0-15-202068-3; 0-15-202076-4; 0-15-202073-X; 0-15-202070-5) $6.00 pb

(reprinted in part from The WEB: Celebrating Children’s Literature)

I’ve never agreed with the argument that children only like books about people like themselves. What on earth is the point of reading if it never offers you anything new? But children do have a need to empathize with the characters they’re reading about, and when I was a child, that empathy was most strongly created by characters who also loved to read. Whenever I read about people who didn’t like books, I simply couldn’t understand why anyone would _bother_ to create them. Books about book lovers were always good–at least when they were created by a genuinely book-loving author–because no matter what else the book was about, I always had that bond with the characters.

No children’s book author could be as genuinely book-loving as Edward Eager, and he created the best book-loving families around. Instead of writing for the lowest common dominator of potential readers, Eager’s books were always written for the highest, with a beautiful faith that has been amply justified over the years. He wasn’t always a great writer–of his seven books, four are at least somewhat lackluster–but his books never pander. It makes for wonderful reading. Consider this passage from Half Magic:

“`This,’ said Katherine, `is what I would call a tulgey wood.’ `Don’t!’ cried Martha. `Suppose something came whiffling through it!'”

Of course it’s great fun to recognize the allusion, but even if you don’t, you can appreciate the atmosphere it creates. And that’s only one of the more obvious literary references. The books are scattered throughout with quotes, paraphrases, and allusions; he essentially created a whole childhood literary language, much as Wodehouse did in the “Jeeves” books.

Sharing this kind of language with Eager’s characters creates a bond of intimacy between the reader and the books; you feel as if you belonged with those children, that you would like to know them. And it also creates a bond between the characters themselves, which is them feature groups of children of different ages, sometimes from more than one family, and they are all perfectly happy to play together, because books give them a common culture. In Seven-Day Magic, the most deliberately literary of Eager’s books, a group of five children walk home from the library together and the youngest reads about Ozma’s birthday party from The Road to Oz, “the way she almost always did. The others never minded listening to this once again. It took them back to their own happy, carefree, innocent childhood.” This is a joke, of course, since the others aren’t that much older, but the real point is that they love it as much as she does. It’s not that age is never an issue–Martha, the youngest in Half Magic, sometimes whines and has to be put under the seat at the movies–but that they have so much in common, age is not the insurmountable burden it is often made out to be for children. As fantasy, most of Eager’s books are too derivative to surpass the works of the person he most strove to emulate–E. Nesbit–but as family stories, they are wonderfully comfortable and fun, because you feel like the children really care about each other and enjoy being together.

This intrinsic core of Eager’s work, a theme of children united by the love of books, imaginative play, and a mutual culture based on reading, is increasingly hard to find in modern books. So thank goodness his books are still around. This reprinting includes four related titles, which are linked to each other in an ingenious and delightful way that I won’t spoil by revealing here; although the quartet includes what is arguably his worst book (The Time Garden) as well as his best (Knight’s Castle), once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all. Longtime fans will be happy to see that N. M. Bodecker’s wry line drawings are still included; the series now has feisty new covers by Quentin Blake, a vast improvement over some very dull previous editions. * (8 & up)

March 1999, Volume 7 No. 3

War and the Pity of War edited by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Clarion, 1998 (0-395-84982-9) $20.00

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us/How difficult it is to remain just one person,/For our house is open, There are no keys in the doors.” This line by Czeslaw Milosz, quoted at the beginning of a poem called “The House that Fear Built,” sums up the impact of this gut-wrenching anthology of poems about war. Along with poems like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which celebrate war as a source of honor and glory, are poems from a far different perspective, written to express a feeling that “Neither race had won, nor could win. The War had won, and would go on winning.” (Edmund Blunden.) These intensely personal works, taken from many different cultures, reveal a commonality of bitterness, fear and loss that transcend time or situation.

The narratives are often in the first or second person, grabbing readers and drawing them into the harsh realities they describe; some of the simplest are the most effective: “So many times I’ve seen hand-to-hand combat./Once for real, and a thousand times in dreams./Whoever says that war is not horrible,/Knows nothing about war.” (Yuliya Drunina, translated by Albert C. Todd.)

This collection is an eye-opener for readers who think that protests against war are a fairly recent thing, and that all American wars before Korea were “good” wars. Although the introduction focuses on World War I as the impetus for a new kind of war poetry, the book includes poems that show that ambiguity about war was expressed much earlier: Stephen Crane’s words in 1899, “Do not weep/War is kind,” are filled with irony, and a Chinese poem from 800-600 B.C. bemoans “How few of us are left, how few!/Why do we not go back?”

A bleak design of bold-faced words, occasionally interrupted by an even bleaker scratchboard drawing, give this book a feeling of purposefulness that belies the inclusion of some positive, even jolly ballads. It is “the pity of war” that we are meant to remember–and we do. *

February 1999, Volume 7 No. 2

The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32560-6) $15.95

Acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend Emily, but still under a heavy burden of guilt, seventeen-year-old David Yaffe is sent to live with relatives to “get back on track” to normal life. It’s hardly a normal household though: since the suicide of their eldest daughter, his aunt and uncle only speak to each other through their eleven year old daughter Lily, and Lily obviously relishes the situation and resents any interference. Something else is odd about the house, too: strange noises and shadows haunt his room, almost like a reminder of some female presence.

David’s stay becomes more and more uncomfortable, as his aunt and uncle begin to thaw towards one another, setting off a vengeful, destructive fury in Lily. David is the only one who sees anything wrong, perhaps because only he really knows what children are capable of. “Greg and Emily and I had been kids too. Being under eighteen didn’t mean you were innocent. Or harmless.” As he begins to recognize the strange psychological kinship he has with his young cousin, David also realizes that the presence in his room is trying to give him a message: “help Lily.” He is the only one who can understand Lily–but can he save her?

A compelling mix of problem novel and thriller, The Killer’s Cousini explores a frightening truth: that when it comes to certain deeds, guilt or innocence are not only very indistinct concepts, but are almost irrelevant. Even the most unintended action can put a person across a line he never dreamed he could cross–and once that line is crossed, innocence is not enough. But as Werlin shows, in an ending that offers poignant surprises, even those trapped forever on the other side can find inner strength and hope for redemption. This is a powerfully touching and thought-provoking novel, hard to put down and impossible to forget. (YA)

January 1999, Volume 7 No. 1

The Scrambled States of America written and illustrated by Laurie Keller. Henry Holt, 1998 (0-8050-5802-8) $16.95

Probably the most outrageous introduction to geography ever devised, this story makes the states of America pretty hard to forget. It all starts when Kansas gets bored of sitting in the middle of the country all the time: “We never GO anywhere. We never DO anything, and we NEVER meet any NEW states.” So Kansas and his best friend Nebraska hold a party for all the states, a wonderful evening of singing, dancing and regional delicacies like Georgia Peach Pie, California Fruit Salad and New York Cheesecake. All the states have a great time–Nevada and Mississippi even fall in love–so they’re thrilled when Idaho suggest switching around so they can all see a new part of the country. But soon problems develop: Florida freezes in the North while Minnesota gets a terrible sunburn, and all the states that took California’s place are kept up at night by an annoying rumbling sound. (Only Nevada and Mississippi–soon to become MRS.issippi–are happy.) So soon the States are on their way back home, biking, driving or flying back to their rightful places; Colorado hikes, while New York, of course, takes a taxi.

Absurd ideas never stop coming in this book, with each personification of the different states sillier than the last. Through numerous little asides, each goofily smiling, cartoonish state takes on a distinctive shape and likely personality. (Although the California Cheese Advisory Board wouldn’t be too thrilled with the lactose intolerant California.) By the time we see listings of each “character” at the end, along with a few state facts, they feel like old friends. The last oddball scene shows features from different states visiting each other: my favorite is the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota touring the Grand Canyon. This imaginative tour de force demands to be looked at over and over again, and readers will find they can’t help but learn from it. * (5 & up)