Monday, December 29, 2014

You Shouldn't Have To Say Good-bye (1982) by Patricia Hermes

Sarah feels lucky to have such a fun, happy mother. Her best friend Robin's mother is suffering from clinical depression and rarely leaves the house. This causes Robin to act out by engaging in risky behavior like walking on a ridge on Sarah's roof and planning to perform a dangerous stunt at the school gymnastics show.
Sarah's luck soon runs out when her mother becomes ill with advanced melanoma. Both Sarah and her parents go through periods of anger and denial. There comes a time when Sarah's mother is sure she can beat the cancer and the family has a Christmas party for all their friends.
The good times can't last, however, and Sarah's mother is rushed back to the hospital. Sarah tunes out what is happening by ignoring the ringing phone and going to Robin's house while her mother is being admitted. While at her friend's house, Sarah learns that Robin's mother not only suffers from depression, but from agoraphobia and other fears as well. (She seems to have some anxiety that Sarah is there...This author was pretty cutting edge. Another one of her early books mentioned the "fainting game" that kids play to get high.)
Because of the uncertainty she feels about her own parents not attending the gymnastics show, Sarah plans her own risky stunt (jumping from the top of the ropes to the trampoline), but the girls cancel their plans when both sets of parents show up in the audience at the last minute.
The book reaches its tearful conclusion as Sarah's mother gets weaker and eventually dies on Christmas Eve. The dying scenes are quite emotional, with Sarah yelling in anger at what is happening and her parents equally upset. After her mother is gone, Sarah's father reveals that she had been writing in a diary for Sarah to read. An epilogue taking place a few months later finds Sarah reading the book and taking care of a new kitten.
Sarah's mother might have been a little more memorable had she not been quite so perfect, but the book was still pretty sad for a kids' book. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sixth-Grade Sleepover (1986) by Eve Bunting

Janey is both nervous and excited about her school reading club's upcoming co-ed sleepover. For one thing, she has been eyeing a boy in her class and the sleepover sounds like the perfect opportunity to get to know him better. The class cute girl, Sylvie, is also crushing on Blake, and without Janey there to make sure they don't get too close, she might lose her chance with him.
There's one thing stopping Janey from attending the sleepover: she's deathly afraid of the dark. Janey's fear started when she was a baby and had a sitter who would lock her in the closet when she was bad. Her parents tried sending her to a counselor, but it appears Janey wasn't ready to accept help and nothing changed.
After discussing the dilemma with her parents, it is decided that Janey's mother will call the school and suggest night lights be put up around the cafeteria where the sleepover will be taking place. However, after visiting the school at night, Janey decides the lights aren't enough and she'll just have to hide out in the restroom until morning.
It turns out that Janey isn't the only one with this plan. A strange new girl also takes refuge in a restroom stall and she and Janey bond over their respective problems. (Rosie can't read very well and just joined the club to make friends). The girls conclude that hiding from a bad situation can only make it worse. Janey hints that she'll take up counseling again and Rosie will get help with her reading. There is also some thing about the class rabbit, who was thought to be male, having bunnies in Janey's sleeping bag.
Throughout the book, there is an appreciative nod to the wonderfulness of reading. Several real titles are mentioned, the members of the Rabbit Reading Club appear to be the cool kids at school, the kids are in awe of their teachers because of their shared love of reading and books even help Janey get closer to Blake.    

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fifth Grade Magic (1982) by Beatrice Gormley

Gretchen is jealous of a long blond-haired classmate named Amy. Amy is Mrs. Sheppard's favorite student. She doesn't do stupid things like pass around a signed picture of the teacher drawn in an unflattering light.

Worst of all, Amy was chosen over Gretchen for the lead in Polly's Pies in Peril, the fifth grade spring play. No auditions were held for the play, so Gretchen didn't have the chance to show off the acting she'd been practicing with the other girls every day at recess.

While Gretchen is in her room crying over this turn of events, she remembers something Mrs. Sheppard always says about a fairy godmother not magically appearing to solve all your problems. Gretchen spontaneously calls out for her godmother, and a child sized fairy dressed in a too large uniform appears. After the obligatory initial shock, Gretchen explains her situation and asks Errora for help. The first order of business is to cut off Amy's hair. This, Errora says, will break the spell the girl has over the teacher and secure Gretchen the lead role in the play. The next day at school, Amy's hair is so short that she resembles class clown Dennis Boyd. Mrs. Sheppard is weirdly disapproving of the haircut, but she doesn't take away Amy's part in the play.
Errora's next attempt at getting Gretchen into the play is a little more invasive. She suggests that the girls switch bodies, a la Freaky Friday. The only problem is Amy doesn't know what's going on and her outbursts about being Amy trapped inside Gretchen's body have everyone thinking she's gone crazy. Also, Gretchen can't abide Amy's overbearing stage mother, who forces her daughter to audition for underwear commercials. Gretchen quickly rushes back home to reverse the spell.
Errora's last magic trick is to give poor Amy the chicken pox (Gretchen is her understudy). Unfortunately, Gretchen used her class photo for the spell and Errora got Amy and Dennis mixed up. Dennis, who didn't want to be in the play at all, had been assigned the role of the villan. With Dennis out sick, Mrs. Sheppard is forced to beg Gretchen to take over his part. Gretchen is hesitant at first because she'd really had her heart set on the lead, but she ends up doing a great job. In a clever twist, Errora turns out to be a child fairy who snuck out with her aunt's "injuctulator" (magic making device). This was one of my favorite books as a child. There is a sequel focusing on Amy (who turns out to be a very nice girl) called More Fifth Grade Magic.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ready or Not (1953) by Mary Stolz + Giveaway

Mary Stolz was quite a prolific author back in the day, though she never reached the popularity level of Judy Blume or Norma Klein. In this, one of her earlier books, Stolz explores what it's like to be young, poor and in love.

Morgan (named after Morgan la Fay, but still seems like a modern name for 1953) is sixteen years old and lives with her widowed father and younger brother and sister in a cramped NYC apartment. The family moves every year or so when the father is able to find cheaper digs to better support his children. When her mother died three years ago, Morgan took over her role and runs the house as meticulously as she can on such a tight budget.

When Morgan's nine year old brother Ned asks to have dinner unsupervised at his college age friend's home, Morgan agrees, but only after a brief meeting with said friend. Don't tell me these were the good old days, people. This was after the Albert Fish murders. But I'll cut Morgan some slack since she is young and na├»ve. Morgan is unimpressed with Tom (Ned's friend) at first, although she notes that he is handsome. She has always had fantasies about a fictional boy named Colin sweeping her off her feet. She is also concerned that Tom is patronizing the family by befriending a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

However, one day Tom's mother invites Morgan and her siblings over for doughnuts and it is love at second sight for Morgan. We learn that Tom, besides his habit of befriending little boys in parks, is a guy who cares deeply about issues such as war and the unfairness between social classes. Morgan, while intelligent, is more of a simple-minded kind of gal who's main concerns are what she's going to make her family for dinner and what movie she'll see with her friends.

Morgan and Tom's relationship progresses despite their differences. You'd think that, given the year the book was published, their courting would be very chaste, but the subject of waiting for sex until marriage is actually dealt with briefly. I'm not sure if the author intended the romance to be the most important part of this book, though, because there's not much to it. Morgan displays some unwarranted insecurities a few times and then Tom goes away to camp (presumably as a counselor) while Morgan gets a job in a cafeteria. They write letters, but because Tom will be going to college and then into the Army, their future together isn't set in stone.

While the novel is chiefly about Morgan, we also get peeks into the other characters' minds. We explore the problems of Morgan's father, a subway employee who would rather be a poet and Verna, Morgan's friend who must deal with an emotionally abusive father. A lot of time is also spent on younger sister Julie's growing pains. (Dark and brooding Julie, if she had been a few years older, would have been a better match for Tom than Morgan, in my opinion).

I'm offering the book I just recapped plus another surprise juvenile vintage book as a giveaway. All you have to do is be the first to email me ( with your name and shipping address. Don't be shy. This blog doesn't get very many visitors currently, so odds are you'll win! I have too many books as it is, so if this giveaway gets any response there will be a few more in the future.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Too Much Trouble aka Tink in a Tangle (1984) by Dorothy Haas

Tink is a creative kid who is always getting ideas, most of which only come to trouble. She blames this on her red hair. Her mother is a beautician and is also the reason I have known from a young age that pink is death on red heads. An elderly neighbor refers to Tink as the "Daughter of the Harvest Moon." Tink finds a old book that tells of superstitions to bring luck and other things. For example, seeing twins is supposed to bring good fortune. Tink decides to combat her red hair curse by practicing what she reads in the book.

One of Tink's ideas is to make a home beauty salon for her friends while her mother is away at work. An annoying girl named Jane Ellen invites herself in on the fun and Tink accidentally gives her a very bad, very real haircut. Jane Ellen hardly reacts gracefully to the mishap. She accuses Tink of wanting to make Jane's hair ugly like hers. However, Tink's mother teaches Tink to be the bigger person and makes Tink invite Jane Ellen to McDonald's as an apology. This results in Jane Ellen thinking she and Tink are best friends. More bad luck.
Tink reads that dancing with a broom will bring good luck. She chooses the largest broom she can think of: the janitor's broom at school. She gets in trouble again. Tink has all her friends use some of the suggestions in the book and they all have bad outcomes. Tink's self worth begins to suffer as she reviews all the trouble she has caused. In the end, the principal and Tink's mother reaffirm her belief in herself and reassure her that they appreciate her just the way she is. Tink is signed up for dance lessons, where she is required to wear pink leotards and dance slippers. She also gets to see the harvest moon.
Stay tuned, because in my next post I'll be featuring a free giveaway of two of my old books. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Fatso Jean, the Ice Cream Queen (1990) by Maryann Macdonald

There were plenty of children's book in the 50s and 60s designed to make fat kids feel bad about themselves. Here is a later such book. The author actually refers to Jean as "Fatso Jean," the name the nine year old earned in the ice cream truck line one day. A boy named Frankie makes up a song about how she loves ice cream and would burst a seam if she breathed.
Jean doesn't wear cute clothes like the skinny kids because all the clothes in the "Largette Shop" are ugly and navy blue. Her family tries to intervene and suggest activities, but Fatso Jean is lazy and would rather lie around waiting on the ice cream man.
Because of the other kids' bullying, Jean decides to go on a crash diet. Her eventual success with this approach is hindered by her low self-esteem, in this book called her 'Inside Voice.' Jean finally breaks her fast and gains back the weight.
An elderly neighbor gives Jean a huge pink bike that belonged to his daughter in the 50's. Jean doesn't ride very well, so she practices in a vacant lot with her mother. She then asks Mr. Greenbaum if she can paint the bike white so it won't be so embarrassing to ride in front of the other kids. Enter the Mean Team - Frankie, Elliott and Crystal. After calling her fat and laughing at her bike, they invite her along to Flagpole Hill, where the more advanced riders practice tricks. Of course, Jean crashes and wrecks her bike.
Jean's next endeavor is to practice diving until she's as good as Crystal. This doesn't work out either. She does find out that a mentally challenged boy she knows needs money to make it to the Special Olympics. Jean makes a brief try at baseball, but the Mean Team shows up again with another one of their rhythmical insults.
This turns Jean to ice cream again. While in the grocery store buying supplies, she runs in to Jimmy, the boy in need of funds for the Special Olympics.
Jean perfects her ice cream recipes, but her parents finally tell her she has to stop. Jean takes the remaining ice cream over to Mr. Greenbaum's and comes up with a plan...make the ice cream over at his house and sell it with the profits going toward Jean's tuition at Kamp Klutzo, a fat camp she reads about in the newspaper.
Jean uses the name the kids used to taunt her with, "Fatso Jean the Ice Cream Queen," as her business name, and begins selling the ice cream without her parents' knowledge. While out selling one day, she discovers Jimmy, who has a new job cleaning up the park, has been giving Frankie money in exchange for help with his batting. Jean tries to defend Jimmy because he needs the money for the Special Olympics, but the author makes it look like Jean is in the wrong for trying to keep Jimmy from being taken advantage of and that he is giving his money away out of pride.
Jean decides to try to double her sales to cover the cost for Jimmy's needs and her Kamp Klutzo deposit. I find it a little unrealistic that several businesses would allow a nine year old to cater their events, but that's what happens. Jean explains to her parents that she and Mr. Greenbaum are conducting "secret experiments" together which they take to mean she has a new healthy hobby. Then, just as things are going well, Jean and her ice cream wagon are hit by the Mean Team on their bikes while trying to save them from being hit by the ice cream truck.
Jean lands in the hospital with a broken arm, dashing all dreams of Kamp Klutzo. The Mean Team come to visit and apologize for hitting her. "Maybe the Mean Team wasn't that mean after all. Crystal and Elliott, anyway. Maybe she had never given them much of a chance." Uh, yes they are. They bullied her consistently throughout the book. Crystal offers to help make ice cream and Elliot says he'll make the deliveries. Jean says he'll have to paint "Fatso Jean" on his bike. "But you're not really that fat anymore," Elliott objects. "It was true. Her legs didn't look like tree trunks anymore. Her stomach didn't stick out like a watermelon." Now that Jean isn't fat anymore, it's okay for the Mean Team to be nice to her. Everyone is surprised that Jean was working to help Jimmy. Because she was fat, they all assumed she was greedy (which she was really supposed to be in the beginning of the I'm not sure. Having an emotional eating problem isn't the same as being selfish). Frankie invites Jean to be on his baseball team.
While it's nice to see a story about a child losing weight by playing (instead of being put on an exercise regime), there are still so many things wrong with this book. As a kid, I remember thinking how terrible and awesome the Mean Team were and how lucky Jean was to get into their good graces at the end. I would've had Jean make some new friends and gain some confidence in herself as a person as she was losing weight. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Sundae With Judy (1949) by Frieda Friedman

This is the first book that really got me interested in older books, though at the time I purchased it at a used book store, it was only about 40 years old. Not that vintage. The book is written in an endearingly optimistic tone, almost as if it's a modern book looking back on the 1940s. Daddy leaves his money out on his newsstand for people to make their own change when he takes a break for dinner. Judy is endlessly cheerful. The Marshalls look out for their neighbors. Yet the book also deals with serious issues like prejudice and poverty.
Judy Marshall lives in New York City and her father owns an ice cream/general store. She loves to help out even though her older sister Elaine taunts her about her plumpness when she samples the goodies.
A new girl, Mayling Lee, moves into the neighborhood. Judy marvels at the fact that the girl is Chinese and instantly invites her to join The Saturday Club, a group of her friends who meet up every Saturday. Judy is also excited that Mayling owns a piano, something Judy longs to have someday. To Judy's amazement, Mayling offers to give Judy free piano lessons. Mayling is also kind enough to buy a sundae for Butch, a dirty little boy who stops by the shop every day for a free piece of candy.
At the next meeting of The Saturday Club, Judy broaches the idea of having Mayling as a member. The girls seem agreeable to the idea until club president Margaret objects. Judy resigns, and the other club members except Margaret follow suit, saying maybe they could form a new club.
Next, a young man, who turns out to be their neighbor Mrs. Kersten's nephew, moves into his aunt's apartment. He takes an interest in Elaine. Judy sees Tom at the Automat and they eat together. Judy comes up with the idea of Tom working at the ice cream parlor while the Marshalls are eating dinner. Elaine is jealous when she hears about Judy and Tom having this talk. Elaine, if he's interested in an eleven year old you shouldn't want him anyway!
Judy and Mayling visit Butch's family because the boy hasn't been seen in school or the ice cream shop in several days. They learn from Mr. Fenton that the family just had a new baby, Mr. Fenton lost the job and has a leg injury. Later on, Judy has an idea to help raise money for the family's rent. All the kids will get together and put on a show! Sounds like one of those old movies. Judy and Mayling plan to play the piano, a girl from The Saturday Club will toe dance. There will also be a harmonica player, a comedian, and a pair of African American twins from school who sing on the radio will perform. During their rehearsal, Mayling's mother notices that Judy's skill level during her performance is not up to the other children's. She gently suggests that Judy be the master of ceremonies instead. Judy is very hurt by this because her dream is to be a concert pianist, but she agrees to take the job. 
The show is a hit and brings in more than enough money for rent, and some job offers for Mr. Fenton. Judy does a wonderful job as master of ceremonies and even gets a used piano out of the deal. In the end, there is a photo in the newspaper of all the kids together. Judy's mother remarks that this is how things in the United States should be, with people of all colors and from all backgrounds and religions working together. I'm sure this kind of statement wasn't popular with everyone at the time.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Popular Girls Club (1972) by Phyllis Krasilovsky

This is one of those books where the narrator remains nameless. This book is about a girl whose friends mysteriously stop speaking to her and exclude her from their new club.

It's not as though other girls don't try to befriend her. A nerdy girl named Clara invites her over to make leaf placemats, but the narrator is worried that she'll never get into the club if she hangs out with "Dr. Cyclops." The protagonist's own prejudices are apparent pretty early on.

Also, she bonds with a very shy girl named Amy over cookies in the cafeteria. But when Amy works up the courage to invite the protag home to help bake some, she turns her down. The girl bemoans the loss of her friends, even though she has to admit they could be mean and shallow at times. She tries to contact her best friend of the group, Rosemary, but the group is always together and make fun of her when she tries to ask why they are acting this way.

Look at that groovy room! The illustrations really add to the story, even though the way the book is set up is a little young for the intended audience. Anyway, the girl reflects on how other girls were jealous of her group of friends and worries that she really does smell like they are now saying. We learn that the girls didn't like anyone to be too different from them because "it would be like planting a cactus in the middle of a row of tulips." All the girls belonged to the same church and wouldn't think of inviting the two black kids at school along. Her parents begin to get worried about her and buy her a kitten to keep her company. Then the popular girls plan a Halloween party and of course, don't invite the protagonist. It's especially hurtful not to get an invitation because it's the first boy/girl party the group has had. The protagonist meets up with Amy on Halloween and the two see that the party really isn't all that it was cracked up to be. The girl finally relents and becomes friends with both Amy and Clara. Rosemary calls to apologize and the Popular Girls Club (they don't actually call themselves that) breaks up. We never really find out why they were so cruel to her, except that one of the girls might have been out to take her best friend.

I've been thinking about writing Amazon reviews instead of this blog so more people will see it and because most of the reviews of old books over there are like, "I was 8 when I read this book," and don't actually tell anything about the book. Or maybe I will do both. Until next time...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Trouble With Wednesdays (1986) by Laura Nathanson

Becky's biggest problems at the beginning of this book are her messed up teeth and her lazy parents who expect her to do all of the cooking and cleaning. Her top two eye teeth are longer than they should be, causing a mean girl at school to call her a vampire. However, things are going to get so much worse.
Becky's orthodontist is her father's cousin, who is seeing her at a discounted rate. (There is a thing about Becky finding out at the end that she hadn't been going there for free, but it really doesn't make what he does any more horrifying so I wish this part had been left out.) Right away, Dr. Rolfman behaves inappropriately with Becky, feeling her up in the dentist chair. On subsequent visits (not sure why she would have to go every week for a retainer, but she does), he gets even bolder, rubbing up against her before she can escape out the door. Becky immediately confides in her parents what has happened, but they do nothing. Her mother tries to reassure her that the end result of getting straight teeth will be worth it while her father plays dumb. In one frustrating scene, the dentist molests Becky right in front of her mother. The reader logically thinks she is about to be rescued, but the mother turns her head to what is happening. This is a calculated move by Dr. Rolfman to show Becky that no one will help her.
Becky becomes extremely depressed and withdrawn. She stops caring about her appearance and avoids her best friend. Finally she runs into her teacher on the way home from a particularly traumatizing appointment. Ms. Markham guesses right away what is going on and contacts authorities.
The story ends on what is probably an unrealistically happy note. In the epilogue, which takes place nearly a year later, Becky's parents have put down the liquor and pills and have become loving and attentive toward their daughter. Becky switches to her friend Hilary's dentist with apparently no post traumatic stress so she will even be able to get her straight teeth. Dr. Rolfman is put in a mental institution near his grown children. As typically happens, he had had a history of being inappropriate with young girls before Becky. Even though the story wraps everything up too neatly, as with Don't Hurt Laurie by Willo Davis Roberts, you are glad to overlook it because the likeable protagonist has been through so much that you want a happy ending for her.
Through all of this there are some classroom scenes with Becky's sixth grade gifted and talented group. The dialogue doesn't ring as true here as it does in other parts of the book. Still, the author had potential and it's unfortunate that she apparently didn't go on to write any other books. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Law of Gravity (1978) by Johanna Hurwitz

This small book, also known as What Goes Up Must Come Down, is one of the first efforts by prolific children's author Johanna Hurwitz. Margot Green is given a summer assignment by her fifth grade teacher to create a project based on something she learns about during the break. Margot is anticipating a boring summer anyway and feels left out that her father is leaving for a chamber concert tour and her friends are off to camp and the beach. Margot decides to make the most of her project and decides it will entail devising a way to get her obese, agoraphobic mother to leave their Manhattan walk-up apartment building.
Nine years ago when the family moved into the building and Margot's mother had to walk up four double flights of stairs, she decided she would rather just stay inside than to exert herself so much going up and down. She hasn't been outside the building since. That's a pretty simple explanation, and it seems to me there would be more psychological factors to make someone stay indoors so long. Mrs. Green was an aspiring opera singer before she had Margot, and even with her current isolation has friends and seems happy tending to her roof garden and watching the boats go by on the Hudson River through the window.
Just a warning: I'm using a webcam so my pics of the illustrations won't be very good.
Margot thinks her mother's do-it-yourself, stay-at-home ways are behind the times and against women's lib. She decides to go to the library to read up on the subject in hopes of convincing her mother to get a job outside the home. "Time magazine wasn't too helpful. I kept getting distracted by reviews of R-rated movies and milestones in other people's lives." A boy comes up to her and introduces himself as Bernie. He loves to read and visit places all over the city. He invites Margot to a Marx brothers movie. The Marx brothers must have enjoyed a revival in the 70's because I see quite a few references to them in books of the time.  
Once home, Margot tries to entice her mother to rekindle her music career, but Mrs. Green sticks to her guns and insists she is happy with her life just the way it is. Margot spends more time with Bernie. He persuades her to learn to ride a bike and when she succeeds, he congratulates her for disproving Newton's Law of Gravity: what goes up must come down. Of course, this makes Margot think of her mother and whether she will ever come down.
When Bernie finally meets Margot's mother, he tactfully tells Margot in private that maybe the reason for her self-imposed isolation is that she doesn't want anyone to see how large she is. Plan B becomes getting Mrs. Green on a diet, but when Margot refuses to do the grocery shopping, we discover that there are plenty of stores in New York City that deliver.
Bernie suggests leaving Mrs. Green alone and finding another project, but Margot is stubborn. They make a list of reasons that might make it mandatory to come downstairs. Margot decides to work on getting a little brother or sister, but her mother is firm that she doesn't want any more children. Margot even brings home a child to babysit to temp her mother, but it ends up being a terrible time with her mother doing all the work.
As a last ditch effort, inspired by the book The Mixed Up Files of Basil E Frankweiler, Margot decides to run away and hide in the library. Consumed with worry, Mrs. Green finally comes downstairs when Margot is brought home.
Margot's father returns home and they go on a walk together. He explains that people are different and she shouldn't place her own beliefs and expectations on her mother. Then he says he and his wife have been discussing the issue, and reveals that the family may move to Long Island to a ranch house...that way Mrs. Green will be downstairs all the time. This conversation is a refreshing surprise. There are no easy answers, no guarantees that Margot's mom will ever change her ways. The dialogue for the kids is stiff in some places, but this is something the author got better with over time. It's an unusual topic for the intended age, but it is handled in such an easy, realistic way that it still works.     

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rewind To Yesterday (1988) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Rewind To Yesterday is one of those books which can probably never be reprinted due to the sheer timeliness of it. Just look at that font on the cover for starters. Likely inspired by the popularity of the Back To the Future movies, three kids are transported back in time by the family's new VCR. Yes, the VCR.
Adventurous Kelly is the first to discover this quirk in the machine. Unable to sleep one night, she decides to fiddle around with the new VCR and finds out that holding down the rewind button without a tape inside will send you back in time up to 24 hours. Kelly feels a huge responsibility to science and humanity after making her discovery, and after a test run (she time travels to the school cafeteria), she enlists the help of her more cautious best friend Miri.
Miri is totally unbelieving at first (as she should be), but her own time travel experience convinces her. Kelly's twin brother Scott is spying on the girls as Miri dematerializes to a few hours in the past and wants in on the action too.  
Scott brings new ideas to the table on how to handle the situation, not in a boys-are-than-girls way because Kelly is portrayed as having quite the scientific mind, but just because two heads are better than one. The more down to earth Miri mainly just whines and suggests telling an adult. The only grown up the trio can see telling at this point is Miri's grandfather, a kind old man who runs a novelty store.
Scott thinks they should try to sell the VCR to the Pentagon, and has a strange conversation with his father to gage his reaction in which the latter claims, without knowing about the time travel element, that he wouldn't sell the VCR for a million dollars and gets angry that Scott should think otherwise. The dad comes off a little weird at times. Scott breaks a dish and is sent to his room for cursing. He takes his first time travel trip trying to fix things but only makes the situation worse.
The point of view switches from Kelly to Scott to Miri as she finally convinces them to let her tell Pop about the VCR. Pop is a hardworking man who thinks computers and other technology becoming more apart of everyday life might not be such a bad thing. However open-minded he might be, though, Pop is understandably skeptical about the time travel story. On the way home from a baseball game while thinking how she's had enough of the VCR and wants nothing more to do with it, Miri notices police outside Pop's store and learns he has been shot during a robbery attempt. It's up to Miri to go back in time and save her grandfather's life.
This is a fun story to read for an adult old enough to remember when VCRs were new and seemed almost magical. I always liked books that dealt with time travel, and thanks to Back To the Future, there were no shortage of them during this era. I don't know if many of today's kids would be interested in a book so firmly rooted in the 80's, however.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Not Even Mrs. Mazursky (1984) by Jane Sutton

Our narrator, a wise-cracking nine year old named Stella, starts off this short novel by telling us how awful her current fourth grade teacher is compared to her last year's teacher. Rashoon (Stella refuses to call her "Mrs.") is a scowling, unpleasant person who all the kids hate while Mrs. Mazursky jokes with her students and volunteers to stay after school for tutoring or just to talk.
Stella has other problems besides Rashoon. Her two best friends, popular Debbie and dorky Rachel, can't stand each other. (This is resolved rather predictably with Stella realizing that Rachel is her true friend, not Debbie.) Her mother can't seem to control her impulse spending and her absent-minded father seems barely there most of the time. The family problems are treated with a light-heartedness that shouldn't scare away young readers. This author is great at portraying kids as they really are, but the parents could've stood to be a little more adult.   
One day, Rashoon goes one too far when she makes Stella stand in the hallway until she apologizes for disrupting the class. There is a blue table at the back of the classroom, and Rashoon has a habit of telling troublemakers that if they don't want to work, they can go sit at that table so as not to disturb the rest of the class. This time Stella called her bluff and went to the table. This kind of situation sounds so believable. The teacher is wrong, but yet not in a way that is abusive or unrealistic, and you really feel frustrated for Stella as she is forced to come back in and apologize so she can have lunch.
Soon after, Mrs. Mazursky is invited over for dinner at Stella's house. You can see how much Stella idolizes this teacher as she rushes to clean her room and put on a pretty dress. She's so nervous that she ends up making a mess of things. More problems arise when it is announced that the third and fourth graders will be having a baseball tournament. Again, all Stella can think about is impressing Mrs. Mazursky, even though she won't be on her team. She even has her older brother coach her with her catching, which she isn't very good at.
The day of the tournament arrives, and of course, it all comes down to a game between Mrs. Mazursky's class and Mrs. Rashoon's. Mrs. Mazursky, it seems, is either a sports fanatic or fiercely competitive. The change in her behavior is rather abrupt and I'm not sure why she is getting away with this, but just go with it. She takes out a bull horn and yells insults at the children on the other team. Even Stella disapproves of this behavior. Remember how Stella practiced her catching? You guessed it, it's up to Stella to either catch the ball or lose the game for her team. Right when Stella is about to catch the ball, Mrs. Mazursky pulls out her bull horn and yells for her to drop the ball...which she does.  
Stella is heartbroken, of course, and her parents actually snap out of their own worlds enough to comfort her. I have to wonder if the reason Mrs. Mazursky meant so much to Stella is that she didn't have enough parental support at home, but I doubt that's where the author was going with it. At school, Mrs. Mazursky tries to apologize, but Stella is still too hurt to talk to her. Stella makes a list of ways to be perfect, and realizes that it's impossible, even for someone so nearly perfect like Mrs. Mazursky. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Night Without Stars (1983) by James Howe

Eleven year old Maria is terrified at the prospect of her upcoming operation to correct a congenital heart defect. Maria's surgery is actually to simply patch a hole in her heart that never properly closed, but her neighborhood friends regale her with horror stories of possibly receiving a criminal's heart or that of a non-Catholic. Her parents assure her that if she is a big girl and trusts in God, all will be fine. Maria isn't convinced.
At the hospital she meets Donald, a boy suffering from third degree burns all over his face and much of his body. Unlike good-natured Maria, Donald is bitter and angry towards everyone he meets. You can hardly blame him. Not only is it extremely hard to go through life looking different (at first Maria thinks he is wearing a monster mask), but we soon find out that the fire was possibly started by his neglectful and abusive parents and that he now resides in foster care. We learn that Donald is a gifted poet, and there are a few other glimpses that show us that deep down, he's just a normal 11 year old boy. 
Maria wrestles with the fact that it is difficult to be friends with Donald, especially as she makes other friends in the hospital who are cruel to him. She also questions why God would allow this to happen to a kid, but her awesome big brother Carlo, who bears a resemblance to John Travolta, tells her that maybe it is Maria's friendship and other good things that are proof of God in Donald's life.
Of course, Maria eventually has to leave the hospital (I always thought it was strange that she left before Donald - he was having an operation on his skin), and Donald is pissed. Maria lives in Queens, New York and Donald lives in a small town a couple of hours away, and Donald appears to be convinced they'll never see each other again.
Maria reunites with her neighborhood friends, who give her a hard time about Donald being her boyfriend (he's not) and about his scars. After not hearing from him for a couple of weeks, Maria finally receives a letter from Donald, in which he has enclosed a poem called A Night Without Stars about the night they became friends. The book ends with Carlo taking Maria for a ride in his new car. Where does she want to go? he asked. To see Donald. The last lines of the book are "One journey ended. Another begun." I always hoped that this meant that they got...together when they were older, but who knows. 


I'm just starting up this blog which will be similar to others who review old children's books. I have to say that I was never really into the Babysitter's Club or Sweet Valley Twins so there won't be many of those reviewed here. I have a bookshelf full of these old books. I find it very comforting to reread an old favorite. So I figured why not start a blog to maybe bring back some fond memories for someone else or just to give props to authors who never got the credit they deserved? Here are a few I might be discussing in the future:

Fifth Grade Magic by Beatrice Gormley
A Night Without Stars by James Howe
Stage Fright by Ann M. Martin
Up in Seth's Room by Norma Fox Mazer
Dream Sister by Alexandra Whitaker

Those are just a few I grabbed at random off a bookshelf. There will be many more!