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!