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Friday, April 1, 2016

4 Classic Middle Grades Books (Raskin, Cooper, Sorensen, Lawson) -- two good, two pretty bad

When I am at thrift stores, I often pick up classic Newbery Award-winners just to see how children's literature has changed.  Usually I end up very thankful for the wider range of stories we have access to today as opposed to those that were available in decades past.  So join we in a quick jaunt through the decades and by the end, I think you will be glad for the Children's Literature Renaissance we are currently living in.  Let's start with the 1940s.


Lawson, Robert (1944)  Rabbit Hill New York: Dell Yearling.



Opening lines:  All the hill was boiling with excitement.  On every side there rose a continual chattering and squeaking, whispering and whistling, as the Animals discussed the good news.  Through it all could be heard again and again the words, "New Folks coming."

Apparently in 1944 the notion of a good book for children involved talking animals, many of them comical, a plot so thin it can barely be detected, and above all no significant danger, themes, or issues.  There are a few high points in the book, including the description of the joy that a young rabbit takes in just running. but there are also several awkward parts that haven't translated to the modern world very well.  Apart from the slowness with which the story gets going, there is also the moment when one of the animals refers to one of the humans as a "fat colored woman".

So even though it won a Newbery, I would pass on this one.



Sorensen, Virginia (1957) Miracles on Maple Hill.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.



Opening Lines:  "Mother, say the scoot-thing again." Marly said.
     She slid forward in the car seat, talking right against her mother's neck, over her coat collar.  "Say it just the way your grandma said it."
     "Marly -- again?" Mother asked.  "And please don't breathe down my nexk, dear!"  She was driving, and the road was narrow and snowy and worrisome.

Perhaps prior to 1960 authors didn't believe students could  follow complicated plots or intrigue or really anything interesting.  This is not a bad book exactly, it just reads more like a narrative of a fairly interesting trip.  So Marly and her family leave the big city to visit this little house (which apparently they own) where her mother grew up.  The people there are friendly and folksy and help the family get settled in and the children learn the joys of maple surgaring time and life in the woods and stuff like that.  When their neighbor, Mr. Chris, has a heart attack, things look uncertain, but then everything is okay.  The best part of the book was that Marly's father, who had recently returned tot hem after doing time in a World War II POW camp changes from being angry and broken and self-centered into becoming a member of the community and a caring dad once more.

This one also has some dated elements that will strike the reader as odd.  Marly's brother Joe chastises her for having emotions at one point.  Later he starts to think well of her after she makes him pancakes when he is out on an adventure.  At another point one of the characters declares that the need for help in emptying maple sugaring buckets is so intense that perhaps even the girls can help carry buckets.

This might make a good read-aloud for third or fourth grade, particularly after recess.  There is not much that anyone would find offensive -- except maybe for a scene where her father burns in the wood stove the baby mice they found living in a drawer.



Raskin, Ellen (1974) Figgs and Phantoms  New York: Puffin.



Opening Lines:  The black-clad giant moved slowly, silently, like a grotesque late-afternoon chadow, past he shops on Hemlock Street.  Head erect, shaded eyes unseeing, the monstrous hovering creature seemed to defy nature as it balanced its teetering bulk on two small feet.

Although we think of the 60s as the age of psychedelia, it evidently took a while for it to filter down to children;s literature.  That is not to say that Ellen Raskin's Figgs and Phantoms  is a Kerouac-esque journey through a drug-addled mind, but it is certainly a rather odd little book  Mona is embarrassed by her family.  Her mom goes by Sister Figg-Newton and is a tap dancer and baton twirler.  Her Uncle Truman is a contortionist, Her aunt is a dog catcher.  And her Uncle Florence teams up with her to dress as a giant and scope out bookstores for good deals.  It seems that something is wrong with Uncle Florence, though.  He doesn't speak of dying, but of going off to someplace called "The Isle of Capri".  Mona wants to figure out what this heaven-like place is and how she can join him there.

Yup, that's the story.  Sounds about as complicated and confusing as Raskin's more well known Westing Game.  And it is.  It is a fascinating world to walk around in, but unlike other absurdest fictional worlds (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind), I found this one neither delightful nor funny.  Strong fifth or sixth grade readers might find it interesting, but I found its pseudo-spirituality and non-compelling plot didn't really grab me. I caught the many references to Pirates of Penzance but that didn't do much ofr me wither (and I doubt most of the student readers would catch those connections.





Finally we come to the 1990s and

Cooper, Susan (1999) King of Shadows  New York: Aladdin.

Image result for king of shadows

Opening lines;  Tag,  The little kids' game, plain ordinary tag, that's what they had us playing.  Even though some of us were younger than eleven, and the older ones were as big as men.


Young Nat Field loves escaping form his crummy life by doing theater.  He is excited that his summer theater group is going to be able to tour to London, but isn't looking forward to spending time with all the members of the troupe.  Some of them are bullies.  When he gets to London, Nat falls ill with what turns out to be the Plague and he finds himself transported in time back to Shakespeare's day where he ends up acting in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream and meeting Shakespeare himself.  Of course, in this new drama troupe, he finds some of the same struggles that he had in his modern troupe.  He also finds, in William Shakespeare, an adult mentor who seems to be standing in for the father that Nat has never known.

This is a well-done historical novel.  The references to Richard Burbage, and the moving of the Globe Theater and street life in London was wonderful.  It is a story that keeps the reader's interest and even has some emotional content in it.  The ending is very nicely done as well.

I highly recommend this one for fourth grade and up.  Susan Cooper is a strong writer and worth checking out.











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