celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2001 Wendy E. Betts. Reproduction for personal and non-commercial use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail with comments or questions.

All reviews by Wendy Betts unless otherwise noted. For info and archives, see

Click on the book covers for more publisher's information or to order from Powell's Books.

Vol. 9, No. 3, June 19, 2001

"Giggerty-geggerty, I can't wait!": long-awaited reprints

The Long Secret written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh. Harper & Row, 1965; Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-32784-6) $15.95

Many people have fond childhood memories of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, but I've found that fewer remember the sequel and even fewer remember it fondly. It seems to be considered as very inferior to the first--just a dumb mystery story. But The Long Secret has value in its own right and it's worth rediscovering.

It suffers, of course, in comparison to Harriet; almost anything would. Harriet the Spy is exceptionally good; I consider it the first and possibly still the only real novel for children. And The Long Secret commits a cardinal offense for a sequel: it uses the original character in a secondary role and in an unflattering way, promoting as lead one of the stranger and least sympathetic characters from the first book. It irritates readers to see Harriet as a loud and obnoxious person, after they invested so much emotional energy in her in the first book.

The real problem, though, is that Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret were just not written for the same age group. People tend to read sequels right away and for child readers, it just doesn't work here. The ages of the characters are the same--Harriet is eleven in both books and the main character of The Long Secret, Beth Ellen, is twelve--but the two books feel so different, I had to check to see that Harriet wasn't supposed to be nine or ten in the first book. Part of what makes The Long Secret so complex and interesting it that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what age it's meant for; I was fifteen, I think, before I first began to really appreciate it and I'd loved Harriet the Spy since I was eight or nine. There's some very broad satire in The Long Secret, which children can't be expected to understand; and there are issues of class which are difficult even for adults. There are also some complex philosophical theories presented. Still, the essential difference between the two books is that the main conflict in Harriet the Spy is clearly a child's conflict, although it's given much more weight and dignity than children's problems generally are (part of what makes it such an excellent book.) The conflict in The Long Secret, on the other hand, is the problem of not being able to be a child and that makes everything confusing.

Beth Ellen Hanson is not a typical person to have a "lost childhood." Her background is extremely wealthy and sheltered; she isn't forced to assume adult responsibilities in the usual sense. But a false emotional maturity has been forced upon her by her grandmother's insistence that she "be a lady," and by her extreme shyness. Beth Ellen has become a master of hiding what she feels, and no one really knows her; even the reader doesn't really know her until the end of the book. There are hints throughout: Beth Ellen's drawing are almost always of violent images, and she is very manipulative in the way she expressed negative feelings, by "going blank"--pretending she doesn't know what's going on--which is the only method she seems to have for dealing with irritation and anger.

Expressed over and over in the book is Beth Ellen's feeling that she is not allowed to be a child. One of the few things she actually likes about Harriet is that Harriet does let her feel like one: "She liked feeling like a child. Most of the time she felt like a troll." When the conflicts in Beth Ellen's life begin to escalate, she feels this even more strongly: "I never was a child and now I'm really not. I'm going from a troll to an old woman." Beth Ellen screams this line in one of the most startling scenes in the book, in which conflicts overwhelm her and she finally looses control.

In a sense, The Long Secret is a coming-of-age story, but with an unusual approach. Although Beth Ellen is becoming physically mature--she starts to menstruate in the course of the book, and has a crush on a man, which Harriet, a little younger, finds incomprehensible--her coming-of-age means being able to be the age she truly is, to be a child. Which also means, to be her own person, no longer stifled by her grandmother's lectures on being a lady or her controlling mother's attempts to force her into her own image.

Louise Fitzhugh was a pioneer is exploring, in children's book form, the terrible things adults do to children that have nothing to do with "child abuse" in the ways we usually think of it. She would explore this theme again, perhaps more successfully, in the book Nobody's Family is Going to Change. The Long Secret is flawed: it's uneven, the satire is sometimes overly broad, and its many different plot elements can be confusing; nevertheless it is a powerful book that will strike a chord in many people, if they can catch it at the right time.

Like the recent reprint of Harriet the Spy, this is the "classic edition," redesigned, but with the original cover illustration by the author.

Also available: Sport by Louise Fitzhugh. Delacorte, 1979; 2001 (0-385-32785-4) $15.95

This book focuses on Harriet's close friend Sport, with Harriet only in a very minor role. Sport is used to looking after his impoverished writer dad and having to be the one who watches the family budget, but just when a kind new stepmother and a fabulous inheritance finally give him a chance to relax and enjoy being a kid, his socialite mother decides it's time to take him--and his inheritance--back into her life.

Sport was Fitzhugh's last book, published posthumously, and it has a distinctly unfinished feeling to it. The last chapters in particular seem rushed and the ending is very abrupt. Oddly enough, considering it was published fourteen years after Harriet, it also is the most dated of Fitzhugh's books, mainly because she wanted to have her characters swear a lot, but didn't have either the nerve or the permission to really do it. This comes off as particularly odd and ironic considering Fitzhugh's upfrontness about racism; after chapters and chapters of kids saying "blank" and "fizz," it's startling to run into "nigger." I have never found Sport a very interesting book and it's frustrating that its theme never had a chance to really develop and gel, but as always, Fitzhugh's take on the inner life of children shows insight, eloquence and humor.

Take Note: books of special interest to children's book enthusiasts

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Full-Color Collectors Edition" by C. S. Lewis. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-440943-0; 0-06-440942-2; 0-06-440940-6; 0-06-440944-9; 0-06-440946-5; 0-06-44-945-7; 0-06-440941-4) $7.95 each pb

I grew up with the small paperback edition of the "Narnia" books and was naturally excited when I learned that the "decorations" in those books were actually taken from more complete illustrations in the hardcover editions. But for some reason, I never warmed to those illustrations, when I finally got a set that had them. This edition, which for the first time has color illustrations by the original illustrator, is considerably more captivating; the pictures just do more for me in color. Two caveats: this edition, like other recent editions, uses the "new" numbering system which puts The Magicians Nephew as the first book (the only benefit I can see being that it now takes two books longer to get to the dull Prince Caspian) and it also has a few text changes to match the original British editions, including one fairly significant and detrimental change to the end of chapter twelve of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I'm keeping this set for its beauty, but hanging on to my old set as well, since this is one instance in which a rewrite for American audiences actually improved a book.

Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon. Illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-07908) $16.99

Farjeon's classic fairy tale from Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field, now available in picture book format, with delicate, pastoral illustrations in muted water colors.

Reprints: News

Mr. Gumpy's Outing written and illustrated by John Burningham. 1970; Henry Holt, 2001 (0-8050-6629-2) $6.95

First board book edition of the Kate Greenaway Medal/Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner.

New Books: Reviews

Dumpy La Rue by Elizabeth Winthrop. Illustrated by Betsy Levin. Henry Holt, 2001 (0-8050-6385-4) $15.95

Dumpy La Rue is a pig who wants to dance, and despite when anyone says, he's going to do it! And when he gets going, this "porker with passion" soon has the whole barnyard wanting to join in. A snappy, syncopated rhyming text and genuine feeling make this picture book rise about others in its genre, and the watercolor illustrations give both humor and grace to the joyfully dancing animals.

A Poke in the I edited by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-0661-8) $15.99

Concrete poems--poems in which design or typeface are used to add meaning to the actual words--are, in a sense, already illustrated, but this picture book collection shows that a little more certainly doesn't hurt. Jazzy collages add colorful backgrounds to the poems, sometimes just providing an extra flavor, other times really expanding on the original: "Tennis Anyone?," for example, a poem which requires reading back and forth across two pages, is much stronger with the addition of of Raschka's turning heads, and "Joy Sonnet in a Random Universe" really cries out for its accompanying dancer. Very clever and lots of fun.

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, 2001 (0-688-18019-1) $15.95

A melting-pot of genes have done well by T.J. Jones: he's smart, good-looking and athletic. But though he loves sports, his school's debasing attitude towards them is enough to keep him away from anything organized: "they pray before games and cajole you to play out of obligation, and fans scream obscenities at one another from the stands." The symbol of it all, "the Shroud of Turin for Cutter High athletes," is the letter jacket, and T.J. prides himself on not having earned one. But when a teacher asks him to put together a swim team from scratch, T.J. realizes that this could be a chance to put letter jackets on the backs of some very unexpected students: "a group of real outsiders, a group Cutter High School has offered very little to." For one of the few "people 'of color' in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show," the chance to help other outsiders is not to be missed, no matter how strenuous--or dangerous--the opposition.

In many ways, this is the mixture as before from Crutcher; the sharp, cocky narrative voice and give-'em-hell progressive attitudes are pretty familiar. Unfortunately, so is a tendency to pile on the drama. It starts to seem that everybody in the book has been through some kind of wringer, each worse than the last; horror piles upon horror until it's hard to care much anymore. And this is at the expense of the basic story, which is a damn good story and deserves more attention. I would hate to accuse a terrific writer like Crutcher of pandering, but I miss his focus on the internal drama of sports and relationships, which seem to be getting lost in violent movie-of-the-week subplots.

Incidentally, I have no trouble at all accusing the designers of the book of pandering: the cover, showing a distinctly white boy running in an athletic jacket, could not be less reflective of what the book is actually about if it showed two little girls having a tea-party.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Catkin by Antonia Barber. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-485-7) $16.95; 2000 (1-56402-976-X) $6.99 pb

An original tale that draws not only on traditional folk tale motifs, but also on universal conflicts and emotions, Catkin is a stirring story about love, righteousness and justice. Catkin is a small orange cat, favorite companion--and protector--of a little girl. When his carelessness leaves her unwatched and she is stolen by "the Little People," Catkin makes the dangerous journey to their kingdom, to try and win her back through cunning. The rulers of the fairies, who have grown to love their little captive dearly, almost defeat Catkin by forcing him to choose between his own freedom and that of the child. But when he chooses to save the child, even the fairies aren't immune to the power of his sacrifice.

In most traditional lore, fairies are supposed to be cold-blooded, incapable of the powerful love and grief portrayed in this tale. Whether it is done intentionally or not is unclear, but their unusual emotional role in this story has a startling effect: it inevitably brings to mind several causes celebres of our time. This however, is a healing version of those sad stories, told without malice for either side and with an ending many would like to see: the fairies agree to abide by the judgement of a wise woman, who returns the child to her parents but decrees that she and Catkin will spend part of the year in the kingdom of the Little People.

LynchÕs sumptuous, realistic paintings give both the necessary mystery and humanity to the fairies and create a Catkin so soft and lifelike, you want to pick him off the page and hug him.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1; The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 2 by Diana Wynne Jones. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-447268-X; 0-06-447269-8) $6.95 each pb

The Chrestomanci books, sparkling alternate world fantasies peopled with very real kids, are some of Jones' most accessible and enjoyable books; all four were reprinted a few years ago, but this two volume set is clearly designed to entice a recently discovered adult market, with tasteful, albeit unrevealing covers.

Volume 1 is the place to start, opening with what may be the best Jones book of all, Charmed Life. In an England in which girls still wear petticoats, only rich people have cars, and magic users are accredited, Eric Chant, known for some reason as Cat, and his older sister Gwendolen are orphaned in a boating accident. (Gwendolen, being a witch, couldn't drown, and Cat held on to her.) With no other family left, Cat clings to Gwendolen and allows her to run his life. But when the two are sent to live at famous Chrestomanci Castle, their usual images of themselves are severely shaken up. Gwendolen insists on challenging Chrestomanci, the person in charge of regulating magic use in their world, with upsetting spells, while Cat finds that his unthinking submissiveness to her is ruining possible friendships and getting him in hotter and hotter water. But even Cat doesn't know what Gwendolen has up her sleeve, or how important it will be for him to choose the right side in her war against Chrestomanci Castle.

The most attractive features of Jones' alternate universe fantasies--memorable characters, a cozy combination of fantasy with reality, and a pace that is somehow excitingly fast and intriguingly leisurely at the same time--combine perfectly in this story. As always, Jones refuses to make things easy for her readers, and the fantasy is half mystery, laden with obscurities that will go unexplained until the end, when all the pieces will fit together in a most satisfying way. That satisfaction is part of the (ahem) charm of this book, but it's the genuineness of the characters and relationships that really keeps me reading to that amazing end. This is not just a sophisticated puzzle, but a fascinating, living world where readers will feel right at home.

Charmed Life is followed by The Lives of Christopher Chant, another complex story which provides some interesting insight into the background and character of Chrestomanci.

Volume 2 features two books which aren't really about Chrestomanci but feature him in his role as magic regulator. Set in an alternate Italy, The Magicians of Caprona shows what might have happened if Romeo and Juliet had been from magic-using families; its theme of underdogs discovering their powerful magic abilities is a familiar one, less interestingly expressed than in several of Jones' other books, but the somewhat offbeat "local color" is a lot of fun. Witch Weekis a classic mix of fantasy and school story. Class 6B seems like a fairly ordinary boarding school class, divided into fairly ordinary types of children: the powerful popular kids, who always come out on top, their nondescript followers, and the loners and outcasts, who are the inevitable target of the others. Or as outsider Nan Pilgrim puts it: "Girls are divided into real girls (Theresa Mullett) and imitations (Estelle Green). And Me." But at least one of the kids in 6B isn't so typical after all: someone in the class is a witch. And even though witchcraft is punishable by death, bizarre things keep happening which just might change the status quo at Larwood House forever. Like the other Chrestomanci books, Witch Week uses sympathetic characters and familiar situations as an anchor for the always-complicated and often confusing magical goings-on. Enjoyable as a humorous fantasy, Witch Week also has something to say about the tyranny of school life and what it can do to people forced to play out roles they haven't chosen.

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.

Don't Think Twice was a Notes from the Windowsill "Pick of the Month."

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. Henry Holt, 1999; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-440-22904-9) $5.50 pb

The Vietnam war, women's liberation, first love and the arrival in town of Zachary Beaver, "the fattest boy in the world," make life in a small town where "nothing ever happens" unexpectedly tumultuous for Toby and his best friend Cal. Winner of the National Book Award.

"Leftovers": new editions of books originally reviewed in Notes from the Windowsill

Don't Need Friends by Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Doubleday, 1999 (0-385-32643-2) $15.95; Dragonfly, 2001 (0-440-41532-2) $6.99 pb

This isn't precisely a Christmas story, but it has a melancholy, sentimental quality--and a redemptive ending--that make it seem very appropriate for the holidays. Rat lives in a junkyard with his best friend Possum, until one day Possum has to move; the sad and lonely rat decides he's better off alone. "Don't need friends, don't need 'em at all," he grumbles, rejecting any animal that tries to be neighborly. When an equally grouchy dog moves into the junkyard, he and Rat quickly establish their mutual dislike, regularly reminding each other, "don't even think of coming over here!" But when the bitter winter sets in, Rat can't help but notice that Dog is too sick to look for food. And when he finds the greatest treasure he could have imagined"--a foot-long salami sandwich--he realizes that it's really big enough for two. "Don't need friends, don't need 'em at all," grumbles Rat, but you don't have to be friends to share a sandwich...

Crimi's tart dialogue and Munsinger's expressive watercolors vividly establish the forlorn setting and characters of this story; so vividly in fact, that readers may be really troubled by it, despite the many comical scenes and happy ending. It could be a good opening to talk to children about others who have to make their homes where they can find them. (4-8)

Back to the Notes from the Windowsill Home Page.