Sunday, December 6, 2015

It's About Time (1984) by Bernal C. Payne, Jr

Thanks to the popular Back To the Future movies, there was no shortage of time travel fantasy books in the 80s. This book's plot, where a pair of siblings travel back in time to the 50s and meet their parents as teenagers, is actually even closer to the first movie than other copycat books coat tailing on Back To the Future's popularity. However, since the first movie came out in 1985 and this book was first published in 1984, could the screenwriter actually have been inspired by this little known YA book? Judge for yourself.

The protagonist, sixteen year old Chris Davenport, begins the story by telling us all about his family. What they look like, his parents' occupations, how his father's parents died in a car accident when Chris was a baby and the fact that his parents met as teenagers. His reports are conversational in tone, as if we are there to see everything. 

Chris tells of how he and his sister Gail were rummaging around through their parents' old stuff in the attic on Christmas Eve 1983. They read their mother's old diary entry for the day when she had her first date with their father on Christmas Eve 1955. The two had bumped into each other while shopping and George (the father) invited Liz (the mother) to his family's home that night to decorate their Christmas tree.

Gail says how she wishes she knew more about their meeting and she can't just ask her parents about it because this wouldn't be much of a book that way. Chris tells her about an article he read in which a psychic was able to visit her dead husband by staring at an old photo of him and going back in time. So the two stare very hard at the Christmas Eve 1955 photo of their parents and wish themselves into the past.

Chris and Gail find themselves in their attic in 1955. In a too-good-to-be-true coincidence, the 1955 owners are in Florida on vacation. The twosome marvel at their retro surroundings and debate the merits of panicking (Chris) or going on to watch their parents' meeting (Gail). They decide to go exploring in the neighborhood. They look at the current newspaper and find that they've missed their wished-for date by only one day. It is December 23, 1955. They buy some burgers and fries with their modern money (wouldn't the money have a 1980s date on it?) for only a dollar and two cents.

Next the kids head over to the high school, where they see their teenage father, who went by the name Sonny, showing off in his red hot rod. A girl named Becky gets in the car with them, and they realize it is Gail's future English teacher. They overhear another girl call their father a fathead and turn to see that she is their mother. Liz drives off with another guy, whom Chris and Gail are also familiar with. It's a young version of their good family doctor friend who delivered Chris and Gail, Dr. John Bennett.

what Sonny's 1930 Plymouth hot rod might have looked like
It's a stereotypical 1950s afternoon. Everyone heads to the same hamburger joint after school. Sonny is heckled by two tough guys who want to drag race with him. One of them asks, "You callin' me chicken, Sonny boy?" when Sonny insults him and turns him down. Eventually Sonny and Wild Bill do race, and goody-goody Liz is the only one to not come out and congratulate Sonny when he wins. 

Chris and Gail then become curious to see their father's parents, the ones who died in an accident when they were babies. They walk to their father's old house and make up an excuse to talk to their grandparents, becoming emotional when they have to leave. 

Thinking about how worried their parents must be in 1983, the kids try to make it back to their own time. For some reason, the 1955 picture and Liz's diary time traveled with them - so there are two copies of Liz's diary in 1955? - but then they realize that they need a modern picture to get back to modern times. Luckily, like all teenage boys, Chris happens to have a current picture of his parents in his wallet. Unluckily, no amount of staring at the photograph spurs any time traveling. Chris decides that they just aren't ready mentally to return to their own time yet. The two decide to watch some television and try to sleep.

Next day, the two head down to the shopping center where their parents ran into each other and began dating. They see Sonny and Liz headed towards each other and Gail (why does the girl always have to screw things up?) accidentally runs into Sonny instead. Thus the conflict of the story is established. Were Chris and Gail ever born? They decide they must stay in 1955 and try to get their parents together some other way.

Predictably, Sonny goes off with Becky and Liz with John. After some spying, Chris and Gail find the whole gang down at the ice skating pond. Chris comes up with the idea of wrapping scarves around their faces so no one will remember their 1955 meeting with them in 1983. Which seems pretty conceited. I mean, who remembers some random kids they met a couple of times twenty eight years ago?

Gail meets Sonny's younger sister, her aunt Alice, and pumps her for information regarding Sonny, Liz and their respective dates. The author throws in a mild incest joke when Alice suggests that Sonny might ask Gail on a date. Gail declines. We do find out that Sonny is no more of a fan of Liz's than she is of him. Chris decides to get out on the ice and try to knock the two of them together. This maneuver doesn't spark a friendship, as Liz totally blames Sonny for the incident because he was showing off on the ice. Sonny accuses Liz and John of skating like senior citizens. Still, amid the argument there is an obvious spark between the two of them. 

Gail then says that they need God's help in this matter (it's not really a Christian novel) and they head toward their church. There's a different priest there than the one they're used to in the 80s, Father Dooley. While praying, Chris and Gail begin to disappear, which causes Gail to faint. Gail's fainting catches Father Dooley's attention and they privately tell him the whole story.

At first Father Dooley thinks they are pulling a practical joke on him, possibly orchestrated by Sonny. Not even the 1983 Polaroid budges his stance. Then Chris shows him his digital watch with built-in calculator that he purchased at Target. Father Dooley begins asking a lot of questions about the future. He is flabbergasted that Ronald Reagan is president in 1983 and horrified to realize that he himself is long dead. The priest is still set on the whole thing being an elaborate prank, causing Gail to wail that their 1983 priest would have believed them. Father Dooley is in shock, because Father Ryan has just landed a job in the parish and no one knew about him yet. He tells the kids to come back the next day. Chris decides that their parents' must have been thinking negative thoughts about each other to cause their disappearing act, and changed their mind to bring them back again. (And Chris is always right, if you haven't noticed. He's a boy.)

Back at the house, the kids notice that both their mom's diary and the 1955 photo have gone blank. They attend mass the next day and notice Sonny and Liz casting furtive glances at each other all during the service. They meet up with Father Dooley again, who gives them another round of questions about the world of 1983. Finally he admits that he believes their story and agrees to help them.

Father Dooley's plan is to invite both Sonny and Liz to participate in putting on a Christmas charity dinner for some old folks. Other teenagers join the group, including Chris and Gail (so that Chris can continue narrating the story). One girl openly flirts with Sonny, but he mostly ignores her. Liz snips at Sonny about his hot rod. When it's time to load the food in the vehicles, Father Dooley's car breaks down, throwing a wrench in the plan to force Sonny and Liz to carpool together alone. Chris and Gail tag along with them, again so that Chris can continue to tell his point of view of the story.

Sonny and Liz argue and Sonny misses a stop sign and gets pulled over by a cop. For some reason, Liz abruptly has a change of heart and explains that she was browbeating Sonny at the time of the incident. The cop lets him off and Sonny and Liz warm to each other. 

Everyone arrives at the nursing home in good spirits, but then Becky shows up to spoil things. Becky quickly assesses the situation and decides she doesn't stand much of a chance. She tells everyone how Sonny will not be graduating this year because he is flunking too many classes. This is actually good news for Chris and Gail, as their mother is a grade below their father and will have him to herself, without Becky, for a year. Becky finally storms out and slinks down on a chair in despair, making sure that Sonny can see her.

Liz offers to tutor Sonny (whom she calls George) in his problem subjects. She also admits to liking him. Before Sonny can respond, a woman from the nursing home comes up and begs Liz to play for them on the piano. Just when it looks like Chris and Gail are out of the woods, they spy Sonny leaving with Becky. When Liz sees this, she begins beating out angry songs...but then Sonny comes back alone in his father's car. It turned out he didn't want to take finicky Liz home in his hot rod for fear of another verbal spanking. 

Chris and Gail say goodbye to Father Dooley. They go back to the house, having decided it was time to go back to 1983. Before they leave, they notice that the 1955 photograph is no longer blank. It is a picture of teenage Sonny and Liz standing in front of a mantel with a winking Father Dooley. When they arrive home, they find that no time had passed.

Further Book Notes:

  • The Davenports are a little too perfect to be believable. Chris raves about how good-looking his middle aged parents are, cares about his family history and never fights with his sister.
  • Seriously, they never fight. It almost feels incestuous, especially when Chris narrates stuff like, "She slid her big green eyes over in my direction." I dunno. Just sounds unnatural to me. 
  • The way in which Chris and Gail time travel is pretty lame. Wishing on a picture? No time machines or magic portals? No mad scientists or deLoreans? It's too easy. Even Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time had to try several times before his astral projection worked.
  • The author (and not coincidentally, Chris) seems fascinated with classic cars. There are pages of descriptions of the cars that were driven in 1955, many from the 30s and 40s.
  • Chris is sure that none of the teenagers in 1955 have ever even heard of or care about drugs. That sounds like how most of us look at the past through rose-colored glasses most of the time. Though I can't imagine anyone in 2015 claiming that no one in 1987 did drugs, so maybe it's true. The author does seem to have a keen understanding of the time period.
  • Not only are the 1950s idealized, but the 1980s are made out to seem a lot more dangerous than they were. "These people could walk outside at night without any fear of being mugged before they got to the end of the block." Somehow I made it from 1980 to the present day without ever being mugged. I'm also sure there was plenty of crime back in the 1950s, just as there has been since the beginning of time.
  • Gail is only one year younger than Chris, and it comes off kind of sexist that she seems so much less intelligent and more dependent than he does. (Getting in the way of their parents' meeting, fainting, looking to Chris to come up with all the ideas, etc.) 
  • The dialogue throughout the book is fairly realistic-sounding without going over the top with it, e.g. there's no "Sit on it!" or "Hot dog, daddio!" every other line just to show how endearing the 50s were.  
  • Teenage Liz is rather unlikable. She is described as thinking she is above everyone else and takes every opportunity to cut Sonny down. When she and Sonny finally get together, you get the feeling she will keep his balls stored in her purse and that he will have to change quite a bit to keep her. Of what little we get to see of 1983 Liz, there is nothing to show that she still has this personality or what happened to change it. 
  • While doing a little research on the book, I found a post by someone claiming to have had Bernal C. Payne, Jr as their fifth grade teacher. (The back book flap does say that he was a teacher.) The person said that Mr. Payne was convinced that Steven Spielberg had ripped him off with BTTF and had looked into a lawsuit that apparently never went anywhere. Though the similarities are not as compelling as Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time and the movie The Village (now THAT was a disgustingly obvious rip-off), I guess I could see where he might have had a case.  
  • The author didn't write any more books of this nature. It's too bad, too. I know I snarked on this novel a little, but it really was a fun, fast read. How about a sequel featuring Chris's children (assuming he didn't marry Gail) and what they think of the 80s? Or maybe 1983 Chris and Gail could time travel to 2015?

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Secret Summer of L.E.B. (1974) by Barbara Brooks Wallace

Lizabeth Bracken is quiet and introspective and thoughtful. She is also a follower. It is her good fortune to fall in with the V.I.Gs and Bs (Very Important Girls and Boys), the cool group of sixth graders at her school. The V.I.Gs and Bs are very much like you would expect them to be, always acting above the more socially challenged of their peers. The gang has decided to put on a 1920s themed musical act for the school's annual variety show. All the students are supposed to participate and everyone wonders what class outcast C.D. (Creepy Douglas) could possibly contribute.

discovering the house
Meanwhile, Lizabeth is disappointed that her family will not be visiting her grandfather's old summer house over the upcoming summer vacation. Lizabeth loves anything retro and was looking forward to basking in turn of the century nostalgia in the old house. While fuming over this turn of events on her way home from school, Lizabeth comes across a vacant Victorian era house. Following a squirrel she sees outside the house, Lizabeth eventually breaks in and surveys the dusty furnished rooms. She decides to fix up the house on her own and keep it as her secret. There is no one she can tell about her new discovery who would appreciate it as much as she does. Certainly not her best friend Sharon from the V.I.G.s. Sharon had laughed when Lizabeth mentioned the summer house.

Lizabeth goes to Woolworth's, a staple for 1970s book characters, and buys cleaning equipment, an ugly neon picture, and some fabric samples. She sneaks back into the house and finds...C.D., the boy in her class whom everyone hates. C.D. immediately acts apologetic for his presence in the house, though he has every bit of right to be there as Lizabeth, which is none. We learn that C.D., like most bullied kids who don't go on to blow up the school, is pretty awesome. He is kind and considerate to Lizabeth, who gives him very little reason to be so. Lizabeth doesn't want a thing to do with C.D. and makes this clear through her actions. Eventually, though, Lizabeth relents and they go exploring the house together. Lizabeth worries about facing C.D. at school the next day.

She need not have worried, though. C.D. goes out of his way to avoid Lizabeth so she won't have to decide whether to continue ignoring him or not. This shows that, like most bullied kids, C.D. also has very little self-esteem. This leads me to wondering about what makes some kids outcasts. With some it's little more than a lack of hygiene. Others are too shy, too loud, have something physically or mentally that sets them apart. But most are awesome, though they don't realize it. Okay, back to the book.

Lizabeth finally slips C.D. a note, signed Nutsy the squirrel, asking him to come back to the house, which he hasn't done since his run-in with her. The next time Lizabeth comes to the house, C.D. is there. He tells her she can call him Loren, which is his middle name. Lizabeth says this is a good name, but I think if this had been a modern book, Loren/Lauren for a boy would sound too feminine and be another reason to make fun of him. Loren and Lizabeth agree to fix up the upstairs living room (so the younger neighborhood kids won't see in the window and interfere). Loren suggests that Lizabeth keep their friendship a secret so she won't become a target of the other kids, and she reluctantly agrees.    

ready for the performance
The VIGs, also known as The Pop-Pop Girls, put on their homemade flapper dresses to perform in the school variety show. (Would 1970s kids really have been into this stuff?) Before they go on stage, the VIBs make fun of Loren, who is acting as stage crew, one taking a wet paintbrush to the back of his sweatshirt. You probably already saw something like this happening. And predictably, Lizabeth says nothing to defend him.  

At the house, Lizabeth asks to meet Loren's grandmother, whom he has lived with since his parents died in an accident. Loren complies, but acts strangely. Mimi, Loren's grandmother, turns out to be a super perceptive person and soon wheedles out of Loren that he is keeping a secret from Lizabeth. He confesses that his Mimi actually owns the house and that he didn't want to tell Lizabeth because he knew she wouldn't come back to a house owned by Creepy Douglas. She quickly forgives him and they resume decorating the room.

kids egging Loren's house
In an unfortunate coincidence, Loren's birthday falls on the same day at Sharon's, Lizabeth's snooty friend from the V.I.G.s. Lizabeth chooses to spend the day with Sharon fixing up her basement for Sharon's birthday party and plans to celebrate Loren's birthday the next day. During Sharon's party, the kids decide to take an outing and egg Loren's house. Lizabeth balks at the idea, but doesn't reveal her friendship with the boy. Sharon insists that Lizabeth come along, though Lizabeth gets lucky when they run out of eggs so she never has to throw one.

Loren doesn't show up at the house the next day. Lizabeth assumes it's because he's mad about the eggs, but actually Mimi has had a stroke. Lizabeth tells Sharon, who has been coming to Lizabeth's apartment pool to swim, that she'll be babysitting all day every day so that she can spend more time with Loren until Mimi gets better. Loren reveals that he and Mimi will be moving to his aunt's and uncle's apartment in New York because Mimi needs constant care. Lizabeth is devastated at this news, and Loren seems way too upset to be leaving a place where all his peers treat him like crap. When Sharon calls, having found out Lizabeth hasn't been babysitting, Lizabeth hurts Sharon by saying they were never best friends in the first place.

Lizabeth and Sharon
Loren and Lizabeth have a going away party in the house. Lizabeth confesses that she and Sharon have fought because of her friendship with Loren. Loren encourages Lizabeth to make up with Sharon, but not to tell her about him for fear the other kids will gang up on her.  Loren explains how he became "Creepy Douglas." His parents died when he was in the fourth grade and a well meaning teacher gave him extra attention, which made the other kids jealous. Three boys started bullying Loren on a daily basis and when they found out he never fights back, the other kids joined in on the tormenting.  

At Loren's urging, Lizabeth goes immediately over to Sharon's house while he waits at the house. Sharon accepts Lizabeth's apology and confesses that she only laughed about the summer house because she lives in an old house and doesn't consider it anything special. Sharon tells Lizabeth that she envies her for several reasons. Right when Lizabeth is about to leave to go back to Loren, she invites Sharon to come with her and meet him.

And so the story ends. Sad for Lizabeth, because she lost a great friendship and is stuck with a sub-par one she isn't that excited about. But happy for Loren, whom it is assumed will fare better at his new school in New York.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Amazing Bone (1976) by William Steig

I probably won't be featuring many picture books like this. For one, I enjoy the books for older children better and for two, I just don't have the capabilities to do the pictures justice. Nevertheless, I found a box of old books that I forgot I had (in addition to the 200+ other old children's books already in my possession), so I figured why not take a trip down preschool memory lane?

Pearl, a seemingly adolescent pig, dawdles on her way home from school, dreaming about what occupation she might have some day.

While resting in the woods and reflecting on how wonderful life is, Pearl suddenly hears a voice talking to her. It turns out to be coming from a bone on the ground. The bone can imitate any sound. When Pearl questions how this can be, the bone delivers the line I most remember from this book: "I don't know. I didn't make the world."

The bone explains that he used to belong to a witch until she accidentally dropped him. The bone is happy to have "young and lively" Pearl come along to rescue him from his loneliness. Their happiness is short-lived, however, because three masked muggers come along, demanding Pearl's purse in which she has placed the bone. Yeah, they're pointing guns and knives at her in a book for three year olds. Oh the 70s. The bone makes a sound like a lion and the three robbers flee the scene.

As Pearl and the bone laugh off this incident, a fox comes along. He examines Pearl and decides she is just what he wants...for his dinner, that is. The bone makes more scary noises but the fox is not so easily frightened. The fox steals the bone and leads Pearl back to his house. Pearl pitifully asks for the bone back...until she has to die. The fox is annoyed at himself for being so soft-hearted, but relents. The fox proclaims that he can't help but be evil, for he didn't make the world. Don't worry, this little catch phrase is not really repeated over and over like in most books for little children.

Pearl is locked in a room and begins to mourn her short life, about to be relinquished. "I was just beginning to live. I don't want it to end." I think I need a drink. The bone makes comforting but not very helpful remarks. Pearl can hear the fox sharpening knives in the kitchen, preparing for her murder. Man, I don't remember this book being this violent and depressing. 

Right at the point where this begins to look more like an episode of Dateline NBC than a Reading Rainbow book, the bone randomly shouts out some nonsense words, causing the fox to shrink to the size of a mouse. The bone guesses that he must have picked up some magic from living with the witch. Pearl reunites with her parents and keeps the bone from then on. Don't daydream, kids.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Just Between Us (1980) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I had a more detailed recap of this book about half written when it disappeared from my computer. What follows is what I best remember writing. 

I don't know if anyone is reading and appreciating this little blog, but I just moved and don't have internet access yet, so I've been doing a lot of reading. Here is my first post in quite a while.

Cass has a problem, other than being rather unfortunate-looking according to the cover. She doesn't know how to keep a secret. She doesn't even know when not to tell something private unless the teller specifically tells her not to. The story opens with Cass's best friend Jenny angry at Cass for telling the class loudmouth, Laura, about Jenny's new training bra. Cass confides in her new friend Robin that she desperately needs to change.

Cass's mother, a psychology student, decides to try some behavior modification on Cass to include in her term paper. She will tell Cass a variety of information each morning. One piece of information will be a secret that Cass will need to keep, and she'll have to use her own power of discernment to decide what is the secret. For each secret kept, Cass earns a dollar.

Robin decides to take a chance and prove how much she trusts Cass and her desire to become a better secret-keeper. Robin tells Cass her deepest, darkest secret: Robin's mother was married before and Robin is the result of her mother's first marriage. Kind of a disappointing secret, but I guess it was a bigger deal in 1980. Cass vows to keep this secret forever.

Cass struggles through her mother's experiment. One day she tries simply not talking to avoid spilling secrets. She finally resorts to coughing violently whenever she is about to reveal something she shouldn't. 

Jenny grows more and more jealous of Cass and Robin's friendship. Jenny is dealing with her parents' nasty divorce, and the ordeal has made her act out in ways that have cost her friends. Jenny tells the girls that her mother says they are low on money because her father has a new girlfriend with expensive tastes. Jenny wants to have a party and get a new bike for her birthday, but her mother insists that because of her father, this cannot be. Robin suggests that Jenny call her father and talk it over with him. Jenny follows Robins advice and ends up losing her temper and angering her father. Looking for an excuse to be mad at Robin, Jenny vows to seek revenge.

Coincidentally, the class is having a lesson on genetics. Jenny notes that Robin and her parents look nothing alike and begins to put two and two together. Jenny tells Cass that she has a plan to get back at Robin by telling everyone in school that Robin is adopted. Again, this might not seem like a big deal, but I grew up in the 80s with an adopted brother and he did get picked on now and then for it. He was told to tell people that he was hand-chosen by his parents while the parents had to take what they could get with a biological child. Anyway, Cass can't warn Robin about Jenny's plan because it is a *secret.* Cass's mother takes Cass to her behavioral psychology class and Cass gives a talk about the experiment. Still, all she can think about are her problems with her friends.

Jenny becomes borderline possessive of Cass, constantly calling and demanding to know where she is. Finally Cass threatens to tell Laura that Jenny is a bed-wetter if she goes through with her plan. Jenny breaks down in tears, admitting that she doesn't want to be mean anymore. Cass applies her mother's behavior therapy on both Jenny and Robin (Robin throws her clothes around). If Jenny and Robin improve with their respective problems, Cass promises to take them all out for hamburgers and sodas with her reward money. Jenny slips up a few times but in the end she succeeds and the girls enjoy a ridiculous amount of food and drink for only ten dollars.

This book was a little different in that Cass was not a bright, precocious character like her YA heroine counterparts. Frankly, she seemed a little slow at times, which was a refreshing change of pace. Things might have been wrapped up a little too neatly in the end, but I liked how the writer explored Jenny's motivation for her behavior and didn't just treat her as a bad friend to be thrown away.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Stage Fright (1984) by Ann M. Martin

Stage Fright is the story of a very shy nine year old girl who is forced to perform in a school play.
the birthday party
We open at cousin Carol's birthday party. Carol, along with outgoing Wendy, are Sara's only two friends. She is lucky enough to have them both live within walking distance from her house. The birthday party magician is asking for a volunteer from the audience and Sara is frightened that she will be chosen. The magician picks Wendy, as she was volunteering the most enthusiastically. Sara sits in her seat in the back row and wishes she could be more like her friend. Later, the girls all get a fortune and Sara's says she will meet a handsome stranger. Sara is terrified to read hers aloud, thinking she will be teased. Wendy guesses what's wrong and cleverly diverts attention away from Sara. 
Sara and her parents
Sara, like many introverted people, is a big cat lover, which makes me like her all the more. She has two cats, Star and Lucy, who are like part of the family. Sara's mother desperately wants Sara to be less timid and degrades her verbally when she is unable to. When Sara gets home from the party, her mother begins to drill her about party games and if she had a good time. Sara confesses that she didn't participate in any of the party games. Sara's father, who understands what it's like to be shy, argues with her mother that she's being too hard on Sara. Sara's mother says that this behavior isn't normal, which really strikes a chord with Sara.
passing out the plays
Sara has had a good school year. She likes her teacher and she has Wendy in her class to help and sometimes downright enable her anxieties. Sara's world turns on edge when her teacher, Mrs. Fischer, announces that the class will perform a skit at a school wide end of the year production. Mrs. Fischer gives the class three plays to choose from for homework. Sara picks the shortest one with the smallest parts.
writing The Saga of Barbie and Ken
More changes are in store when Wendy announces that there is a strong possibility she will be moving this summer. This news hits Sara harder than the play, but the girls change gears quickly, as kids will, and work on their poem for The Guinness Book of World Records. The poem is a fanfic about the lives of Barbie and Ken, and the girls hope it will be the longest poem ever written by kids.
at Wendy's house
Sara is relieved when her choice of play "Uncle Elmer's Fabulous Idea" wins the vote in the classroom. Still not happy though, Sara talks to her teacher privately about letting her out of the play. Mrs. Fischer is sympathetic, but is also determined to let each of her students have the experience of performing and won't back down. Sara reluctantly joins Wendy and Carol at Wendy's house to rehearse for the auditions the next day. Sara finds reading the script is kind of fun, but she has a thing about counting how many eyes will be watching her, and in the classroom there will be 42 watching her stumble through her lines.
the shy kids auditioning

The day of the auditions comes. Wendy auditions for every large part, including Uncle Elmer. At the end of auditions, Mrs. Fischer calls up all the kids who haven't tried out for a part yet. Of course, these are all the shy kids. They are to read for the smallest parts, that of the townspeople. Sara does a terrible job, partially on purpose, as a last ditch effort to get out of the play. She notices the girl next to her, Jennifer, is actually crying. Sara squeezes Jennifer's hand as the teacher subtly lets Jennifer out of auditioning.

Sara goes home and talks to Star and Lucy about how she purposely did a terrible job. Her mother overhears and tells her how ashamed she is and sends Sara to her room (though she is always complaining about Sara spending too much time in her room). Sara's parents fight some more as her father points out how nonsensical it is that Sara's mother not only wants her to conquer her fear, but demands that she do well and enjoy it.
Mrs. Fischer announces her casting decisions and Sara is shocked that she wasn't assigned the part of a townsperson. Instead she got the role of Uncle Elmer's niece Nellie, a slightly larger part with five lines. The class rehearses in small groups and Jennifer cries again. Sara tries giving Jennifer pep talks, which seem to help. Sara slowly improves too.
Katie spying
Sara, Wendy and Carol finish 350 stanzas of "The Saga of Barbie and Ken". The girls are preparing to send off the poem to actor Sir Alec Guinness when Wendy catches her sister Katie (of Martin's subsequent book Me and Katie (the Pest)) spying at the door. This segues into Wendy talking about how bad things have been at her house while her father is looking for a job in the area so the family won't have to move.
getting ready for dress rehearsal
The class holds a dress rehearsal for the play. Sara and Jennifer sit in the audience before their turns come and give each other moral support. When the time comes for Sara to say her lines, she accidentally knocks over a chair prop and injures one of her cast mates. Sara is so upset she runs home even before the rehearsal is over. (Remember when kids came and went as they pleased in books?)
Sir Alec Guinness of Star Wars

Sara goes home and cries in her bed. Her mother comes in and acts all butt hurt when Sara would rather talk to her father. After they talk about the rehearsal, Sara mentions the epic poem the girls sent to the actor Alec Guinness. Her father sets her straight on their mistake, and Sara scrambles to write another letter to Alec asking him to send back the poem.
white magic
Jennifer shyly invites Sara over to swim in her new swimming pool. Sara accepts, and congratulates herself on making a new friend. The library book with all the stars' addresses in it (probably weed worthy material today) was checked out, so the girls will have to wait on sending the letter to Sir Alec. Wendy says her father is interviewing for one last job, and if he doesn't get this one the family will have to move. The girls adorably perform a little "white magic" for good luck, holding up seven fingers and chanting "Mr. White will get the job" with their eyes closed.
It turns out Katie had copied the address down while spying on her sister one day, so the library book isn't needed after all. Wendy cops an attitude and Sara uncharacteristically tells her off. Sara says she should start sticking up for herself since Wendy won't be around anymore to do it for her. This makes all three girls emotional. Wendy says melodramatically that she wanted the publication of "Barbie and Ken" to be a tribute to their friendship. Kind of sad when you know that even when it reaches the right destination, there's no way it'll be included in the book.
When Wendy's father gets home, they all ponce on him, wanting to know if he got the job. As someone who has been on her share of failed job interviews, coming home to your kids and their friends asking you if you have the job because their lives depend on it has just got to break your heart even more. But Mr. White doesn't know the verdict yet, as often happens...usually when the answer is no. 
the play...I swear one day I'll get a scanner
The night before the play, Sara's mom criticizes her some more, this time about her summer plans (learning how to knit) and her lack of friends (her cousin and a girl who's moving away). Sara comes up with a plan for standing up to her mother without coming off as sassy. Channeling her inner actress, she rehearses in her mind the scene before she acts it out. Sara basically gives her mother a well-deserved guilt trip and triumphantly heads out the door to school.
alternative cover
Even Wendy is nervous the night of the play, partly because she hasn't heard any news from her father yet. Sara takes a peek at the audience and estimates there are around 640 eyes out there. She has a panic attack and nearly throws up. She resolves to tell Mrs. Fischer she wants out of the play, but then she sees Jennifer crying and realizes they need to stick together. Sara says her lines too softly and quickly, just like she had during rehearsals. She looks out into the audience for her mother, expecting her to look disappointed. She is smiling, though. Sara's guilt trip really worked. Sara knows she did a bad job, but she also knows she did her best. She looks forward to spending the summer with Jennifer and Carol (if Wendy has to move).
Wendy's father announces that he didn't get the job he was going for, but his current boss is gong to let him stay where he is. Sara and her mother have a talk. Sara admits she really hated being in the play, but it wasn't as bad as she thought. Her mother says she doesn't push her "just to be mean" (she does it partially to be mean?), but because Sara won't always be able to avoid parties and plays and such, which, to her credit, is true.
Wendy with the letter
We end with Wendy coming over to Sara's with the news that Sir Alec Guinness sent back the saga after having read it. In a letter accompanying the returned poem, he compliments their writing and apologizes that he doesn't have anything to do with the Guinness Book. Sara and Wendy go off to find Carol and Jennifer to add more stanzas to the saga.

I always liked Ann M. Martin's stand alone books better than her Babysitter's Club series, though Bummer Summer and With You and Without You were probably my favorites. As a formerly painfully shy kid, I could really relate to Sara (except I loved when we put on programs). I liked that she learned that when something is troubling you, sometimes you can feel better when you help out someone who might be a little worse off than yourself. I also appreciate the fact that we understand that Sara will never be the next Shirley Temple. She doesn't do great in the play, but she got through it, which is sometimes the best you can hope for.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Captain Hook, That's Me (1982) by Ada B. Litchfield

again, I couldn't find a cover image of this book to steal, so here's my copy
Judy Johnson was born without a left hand, possibly due to medication her mother took while pregnant. Judy wears a hook to help her do a variety of things. She doesn't consider herself handicapped, and has a positive, can-do attitude. 
Judy tells us about all the things she can do with one hand, which include racing, singing, reading and roller skating.
Judy has a friend, Harry, who affectionately refers to her as "Captain Hook." He protects Judy from the taunts of the other kids who call her less flattering names like "Lobster Claw." The kids at school are used to Judy's disability and treat her like anyone else.
Judy confesses that having a hook is sometimes painful and her mother has to help her with it every morning. There are also things Judy would like to do that she can't. Her main dream is to play the piano like her sister Bunny.
Then one day Dad announces he has a new job and the family will be moving to another town. Judy flies into a rage and tears up her room. Her little brother comes in for his nightly bedtime story and Judy throws the book on the floor. (Fun fact: the illustrator, Sonia O. Lisker, also drew the pictures for a book called I Used To. If you squint you can see that this is the book Judy threw down).

Judy's mother comes in. "My mother is a pretty special person. But she gets angry if she catches me feeling sorry for myself." Judy's mother often reminds her that when she's done growing, she will get a prosthetic hand that will be much easier to deal with. But now, she makes Judy apologize to her brother and read him as many stories as he wants.
As all kids in books do, Judy quickly makes a new friend at her new school. She gets irritated when Tina butters her roll for her, but Tina doesn't stare at her and neither do the other kids. Judy surmises that the teacher told them not to.
Judy's teacher brings out musical instruments for the class to play. At first it looks like she intentionally left Judy out. Just as Judy is fighting back tears, the teacher brings out a special instrument, the marimba, for Judy to play. Judy is uncertain that she will be able to master the complicated instrument at first, but the teacher reads out the notes, and before she knows it, Judy is playing Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Judy no longer cares that she can't play the piano and resolves to be the best marimba player in the world.
This book feels at least ten years older than it is. Was it really a common thing in the 80's to make a kid wear a hook? Regardless, Judy is an inspirational character and I like the way her mother refused to allow her to feel sorry for herself. 

Stardust (1993) by Alane Ferguson

Stardust is about a child actress who is booted from her family sitcom series when a younger, cuter child is brought in. By 1993, the popularity of network family sitcoms was already on its way out, but there were still many on the air. Including "Family Matters". Remember Judy, the youngest daughter on that show, and how she mysteriously vanished, never to be mentioned again? I wonder if the author of Stardust was influenced by this event. 
Judy wouldn't necessarily have had to have been the inspiration for Stardust, however. The concept of a TV show adding in a cute new kid to save a sitcom on its last legs was a well known phenomenon. This post is hereby dedicated to child stars who, while they might not have been ousted from their show like Judy was, had their role significantly reduced thanks to a new, younger cast member.
We open with our star, Haley Loring, trying to dodge autograph seekers. She is rather short with the mother and son who want her to sign her name as "Samantha Love," the name of her character on her long running sitcom, "Family Love". Haley has good reason to be in a bad mood, though. Once an adorable little girl, Haley has gone through a growth spurt recently and has begun to enter an awkward phase. She just had a meeting with her agent where she learned that Samantha Love was being sent off to boarding school. Written off the show. Not only that, but her agent thinks eleven year old Haley is over the hill and, with no acting job prospects in sight, dumps her as a client. " 'Why don't you just graciously accept that your time has passed and move on?' " Haley's parents are upset because Haley has become the family meal ticket.

More changes are in store for Haley when her parents announce that they are moving from Los Angeles to a town called Garland where her father has a job lined up. Devastated at this news, Haley suggests looking for a new agent. But when she looks into her mother's eyes, she guesses that they already looked for her another agent and no one wanted her. Haley goes to her room and cries into her large white stuffed gorilla (see cover). 

Haley is terrified as she enters the doors of Garland Elementary School. She is insecure about people disliking her for herself, which is a lot different than disliking a fictional character. Haley's mom takes her to the school office to register, and right away Haley makes some mistakes that reveal she has not had a typical upbringing. She calls the secretary by her first name and asks the principal for a cup of coffee. The principal, a fan of "Family Love", asks Haley to say Samantha's catch phrase ("what's your prob-lem?"). As the principal laughs at Samantha's lines, Haley decides that she will ease her fear by acting as her character instead of being herself. 
Haley goes into her classroom where her teacher, Mrs. Walters, fangirls over her for a while and has the class ask Haley questions about her life as an actress. Haley answers the questions as Samantha would have, with quick one-liners. Every kid in the class seems in awe of Haley except for Andy, straight A student and teacher's pet. When the teacher leaves the room to run an errand, she leaves Andy in charge of asking questions from the textbook. Haley cracks some more jokes and Andy insults her. Haley's reply? "What's your prob-lem?"
After school, a bunch of girls (all who have the early 90's puffed hair sprayed bangs) crowd around Haley. Haley lets them believe she chose to live in Garland in order to take an "artistic break" and will resume her Hollywood career. Then she runs into Andy on his way home from school. Haley turns on her charm and tries to win him over, but Andy isn't having it. He calls her obnoxious and storms off. Haley is shaken by this and worries that eventually everyone will react to her like Andy and won't care that she was a star. 

Next day, Mrs. Walters announces an upcoming Halloween dance. So that the unpopular kids won't be left out, the class will draw names to see who they will go with. This seems a little unreal, school administration coupling up sixth graders? Why do they even have to have dates? The boys choose names, but the girls don't get to find out who they got until Friday, because the teacher is having them ask the girls formally. At lunch, Cherry, a popular girl who has befriended Haley, finds out from someone that she got Andy's nerdy friend Bruce as a date. Conversation swirls around the table, and Haley, no longer the center of attention, feels left out. She quickly uses her acting skills to show the girls how to play being sick, suggesting Cherry use this tactic to get out of going with Bruce. 
Haley's mom (whom she calls Jane) has made a new friend she desperately wants to impress. The friend invites Haley and her parents over for dinner, and it turns out her son is Andy. Andy's mother embarrasses him by telling Haley how Andy has always been a huge fan of hers. Haley watches with wonder as Andy is made to set the table and do other chores around the house. She is aghast when her mother, who it seems is trying to emulate Andy's mother, strongly suggests that Haley help Andy. When they are alone, Haley accuses Andy of being too much of a goody-goody. She laughingly calls him a pod person, after some movie on the Late Late Show. To prove her wrong, Andy suggests they try a trick that Samantha Love pulled on "Family Love."

The trick entails putting a fishing pole in a window and strumming a violin bow across the line. The effect is supposed to be that the room fills up with eerie music. Sounds iffy, right? It doesn't work, and Haley remembers that on the show they used sound effects to make it work. Somehow this all gets Andy and Haley to talking about things that are real and fake. Haley admits she prefers the world of fantasy because she knows what's going to happen in the end. Haley enjoys the fact that Andy talks to her as herself, not as Samantha Love. On the way home, Haley finds out from her parents that the trick did work.  
Haley tells Andy the good news at school the next day. Andy gives Haley a card with a poem in it that tells (predictably) that Andy drew Haley's name to go to the dance with. At lunch with the other girls, Haley pretends to be upset that she has to go with Andy because that's what Samantha Love would have done. (Andy isn't the most popular kid in the class). Without consulting Haley, Cherry and Grace hatch a plan that the three of them will all pretend to have the flu. Haley reluctantly agrees. Haley avoids Andy and then argues with herself in the restroom mirror about what a jerk she is. You would tend to agree with Haley about her being a jerk, but then the author gently reminds us that this is a young girl who has recently been rejected by everything important to her and has lost everything.
Haley meets up with Andy after school to discuss their Halloween costumes (another stipulation of going to the dance). Andy doesn't mention how Haley treated him at school, so Haley decides to continue being Samantha at school and Haley the rest of the time. Haley and Andy spend more time together after school deciding on costumes, and Haley finally comes to the decision that she will go to the dance with Andy instead of playing sick with the girls. Bruce is upset when he hears that his date Cherry and two other girls are planning to catch the flu to get out of going to the dance. Andy guesses that Haley is one of those girls. Haley tries to use her acting skills to worm her way out of the conversation, but she is unable to lie to Andy. Haley makes matters worse by slipping into the Samantha Love character and insulting Andy with her snappy one-liners. Andy tells her she can go to the dance by herself and storms off.

Haley cries to her mother that they should sue Andy for breach of contract, but her mother is getting ready to go out on a job interview that Andy's mother set up for her and doesn't have time for Haley's dramatics. Haley tries to demand that her mother stay home with her, but it seems that Haley's mother has experienced some character development since the beginning of the book. Feeling abandoned, Haley cries into her stuffed gorilla again. 
Cherry catches Haley in the empty classroom with Andy's dance invitation and yanks it away from her to make fun of Andy's poem. Haley tries to get it back and Cherry accuses her of being in love with Andy. The girls fight, pelting each other with the teacher's Halloween decorations. Other kids come in, including Andy, and join in on the pandemonium.
Andy and Haley are grounded at home for the first time, but for some reason they aren't barred from the Halloween dance. Haley, Andy and Bruce all go together because Cherry really did get sick. Haley makes plans to go trick or treating the next night with a group of kids in her class, including Andy. The story ends with a little girl asking "Samantha" to give her an autograph, and Haley explaining that she used to be Samantha, but is now Haley.
This book had an unique premise and a good start, but I thought it relied too much on Haley's having a boyfriend (especially considering she is only eleven). It's well, a little sitcom-y. I guess that is the kind of thing kids like, though, and now we know a little more about how the Judy Winslows of the world feel. Let's hope Haley didn't grow up to perform in any adult movies.