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. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Wonder Wheels (1979) by Lee Bennett Hopkins

couldn't find a cover image to steal for this one, so here's my copy
You can't get much more late 70's than Wonder Wheels. This book reads like an afterschool special that I could only imagine John Travolta starring in. I'm not well-versed enough in 70's starlets to cast the female lead unfortunately. Maybe one of the former Brady Bunch girls?

Mick is a good looking seventeen year old guy who lives with his parents in Newark, New Jersey. When he's not working at the local supermarket, Mick spends most of his free time at a skating rink called Wonder Wheels where he is what his friends call "magic on wheels". Mick is looking forward to auditioning for a skate competition being held at the rink. The twelve winners will have an opportunity to show off their skills at a show in a nearby theme park next summer. Mick looks forward to being able to leave his job at Foods-For-You if he wins. Mick talks to his friend J.P. about music for his routine. They discuss a fictional song and how it's not good for the spins Mick wants to do. Mick jokes about skating to Barbara Streisand's People, a song they are all sick of. Ro, Wonder Wheel's organ player, will occasionally play People just to mess with Mick and his friends.

Mick has begun to feel a sense of disillusionment because he doesn't know many people well in his life. He has a conversation with his father likening life to a carousel.
Mick's main competition for the audition is his friend Lisa, who is constantly coming on to him. Mick just doesn't like her enough to date her. While skating around the rink with Lisa one day, Mick sees a girl who does catch his eye. After the song, he goes over to meet her and offer to buy her a Coke. The girl says her name is Kitty, but is rather icy toward Mick. Undeterred, Mick asks if Kitty will skate the next Couples Only with him and she agrees. 
The story switches to Kitty's point of view and we get to see her crappy home life. Mom's a mentally abusive nut job, Dad's AWOL, little brother is angry and Grandma's stroke has altered her sense of reality. Kitty's mom freaks out when Mick calls. She tries to talk Kitty into seeing an older boy named Kenneth. Kitty's mother talks up Kenneth, calling him mature and responsible and bragging about the fact that he is about to become a deacon, but the thought of the boy "sent a shiver down Kitty's spine." Foreshadowing.
Mick tells his mother that he's really starting to fall for Kitty. Kitty warns Mick not to call her house because her mother is crazy. After weeks of seeing each other at Wonder Wheels, Mick and Kitty finally plan their first date.
Ro pulls Mick aside because she has some criticism for him...she thinks he should wear jockey shorts instead of boxers because you can see them sag under his pants. This is not important to the plot, just thought I'd mention it.
Kitty and Mick have their date, which entails sitting under a tree talking. Kitty tells Mick all about her home life, but she leaves out any mention of Kenneth. Kitty met Kenneth at a church picnic months ago, but right away he began asserting his authority over her. When Kitty accepted a date from another boy, Kenneth became so enraged that he twisted her arm and threatened to break it if she didn't cancel the date. Kitty avoided Kenneth after that incident and has been trying to completely eliminate him from her life.
Kitty can't wait until Wednesday (the next day they planned to meet at Wonder Wheels) to see Mick again, so she surprises him by showing up at Foods-For-You while he's working. "Hey, I wonder if anyone ever told someone something-something important-in the spaghetti section of a supermarket before." Kitty tells Mick she loves him (the "something important") and of course he reciprocates. Kitty somehow managed to get the whole day off from watching her grandmother and Mick invites her to his house for dinner.
During dinner, J.P. comes rushing over, excited about a new song he just heard that exists only in the world of Wonder Wheels. The song is called Calliope Girl. Everyone agrees that this is the perfect song for Mick's performance. 
A furious Kenneth meets Kitty at her bus stop on her way home from Mick's. Kitty's mother told him what she'd been up to and he demands an explanation. Kitty is frightened but she bravely informs Kenneth that he does not own her. Kenneth begs to differ, and says he'll prove it to her. He grabs Kitty's hand and burns it with his cigarette. Then he throws her out of the car and makes her walk home.
Kitty tells her mother about what happened. Incredibly, Kitty's mother rationalizes the attack on her daughter as being typical male behavior. Is it a sign of this woman's mental problems, or were we really that stupid in 1979? Luke raped Laura on General Hospital the same year and everyone went on to ship them. Crazy. At least in this book, the abusive behavior is portrayed as being wrong and not at all romantic. Anyway, Kitty's mother continues to push the relationship. She blames Kenneth's anger on Kitty's spending so much time at the skating rink. She doesn't seem to be giving poor Kitty a choice not to date this guy.  
The next night at Wonder Wheels, Mick makes an innocent remark about Kitty's belonging to him and she becomes upset. She tells Mick she will discuss what's bothering her on Saturday. 
On her way home, Kenneth stops her again. This time he's in his car and demands that Kitty get in. He doesn't show any remorse for what happened before. Kitty says she'll talk to him over the phone, but she doesn't "want anymore scenes." He gets out and physically forces her into the car. Kitty hits him with her skate box, which really sends him over the edge. As they drive along away from Kitty's house, it occurs to her that Kenneth treats her much the same way her father treated her mother before he left.
Mick talks to his mother about Kitty again. He asks how you know when a relationship is right. His mother tells him he will probably feel this way about lots of girls and it will be different each time. She and Mick plan a party to celebrate his and Lisa's potential win at the auditions. They plan to invite all Mick's friends, including Kitty of course. Then Mick asks his mother's advice on the jockey shorts situation. As Mick and his mother discuss love, parties and underwear, it's really apparent how different his family is from Kitty's.
This pleasant conversation is interrupted by J.P., who rushes in the house in a panic, clutching a newspaper. Mick's first reaction is, "Don't tell me another president was shot." J.P hands over the newspaper and Mick reads an article about a "couple" (Kitty and Kenneth) who were found dead in Kenneth's car. The cause of death was determined as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
Mick talks to Kitty's little brother on the phone. Billy tells everything he knows, which only further clouds the picture because he reveals that Kitty hated Kenneth. Mick doesn't understand why she met him Wednesday night if she hated him.
Mick decides to attend Kitty's funeral alone. He even gets permission to view her body before the relatives arrive. Mick buys a single yellow rose and places it in Kitty's hands as he bids her a tearful farewell.
The day of the audition comes. Lots of people show up, but the Wonder Wheels manager gives Mick and Lisa the royal treatment. They each have their own dressing room and Ro even bought Mick a pair of jockeys (he forgot to get them) as a good luck present. Maybe Mick's underwear was more important to the story than I thought.
Mick introduces himself to a nine year old girl, a fellow competitor who is dy-no-mite on wheels. Mick thanks Lisa for helping him in the past few weeks since Kitty's death. Both Lisa and Mick wow the crowd with their routines and are called aside by the judges. Mick, Lisa and the little girl will all be performing at the theme park the next summer in a show called "America On Wheels."
Mick waves off congratulations and offers of celebratory pizza dinners. He wants some time alone at Wonder Wheels. Mick lies on the bench where he and Kitty often sat and remembers snippets of things she said to him during their time together.
How was this never made into a move? It had all the earmarks of a 70's hit. Death, drama, roller disco. Did it come a little too late, in 1979, when the country was beginning to get a little tired of such things? I would've liked a little more closure and perhaps some information on how Kitty's family dealt with her death, but Wonder Wheels is still a very touching story of first love and tragedy.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sixth Grade Secrets (1987) by Louis Sachar

Laura Sibbie's father made a deal with her when she was four years old. She wouldn't have to get a haircut as long as she never told another lie. Laura, who admires George Washington, is now in sixth grade and has kept up her part of the deal so far. Laura aspires to be the country's first female president. She's sure she'll be president someday, but she's worried that another woman will beat her to it first.
Laura and her friends Tiffany and Allison are shopping at a garage sale one day when Laura finds an old baseball cap with the words "Pig City" printed on it. She promptly buys the hat, and the girls have fun guessing what Pig City means. 
Laura wears the hat all the time and she and the two others create a secret club called (what else?) Pig City. Laura is president, of course. The club meets in a large shed/clubhouse in Laura's backyard, completely furnished by garage sale purchases. (It seems Laura is a bit spoiled, but prefers vintage items). Laura, Tiffany and Allison each bring something embarrassing to put up as collateral in the event that one of them should squeal about the club. Allison brings a naked baby picture, Tiffany a fake article from a carnival about how ticklish she is, and Laura presents a written declaration of love for their teacher, Mr. Doyle.
The girls invite Kristin, a girl with large red glasses, into the club next, but not before Laura narrowly misses having to copy a dictionary page for writing "Pigs Rule" on the blackboard. (Copying dictionary pages is Mr. Doyle's unique form of punishment). Gabriel, a boy who secretly likes Laura, overhears Kristin's invitation to the club and Laura's strange request that she bring an extra pair of underwear. (The underwear is Kristin's insurance that she won't tell about the club). 
Gabriel, hoping to get into Laura's good graces, writes her a letter telling her he knows about Pig City but promises not to tell anyone. Frizzy-haired Sheila, our villain, sits behind Gabriel and witnesses his note writing. Jealous of Laura's hair and Gabriel's crush on her, she changes the note to say that Laura has ugly hair and if she doesn't kiss Gabriel he will tell everyone. Laura reads the altered note and after debating what to do, writes Gabriel back a scathing note saying she will only kiss him to save Pig City. Mr. Doyle intercepts before Gabriel can read it, however, and both he and Laura have to copy dictionary pages for passing notes. In detention, Laura invites Gabriel to her house after dinner. Gabriel is thrilled, not realizing that Laura just wants to get kissing him over with.
Pig City invites another girl, Debbie, into the club. Debbie's initiation is to call up a nerdy boy, Howard, and tell him she loves him. Debbie disguises her voice and Laura tape records the whole thing. Debbie says in her normal voice at the end of the recording that she loves Howard and everyone laughs. I can't help but think that some parts of this book are kind of mean.
Gabriel is grounded because of his detention at school and isn't allowed to come over to Laura's house. Laura asks him over the phone if he'd like to join Pig City, as long as it meant she wouldn't have to "do anything else." Not understanding the last part, Gabriel quickly agrees. Laura is strangely disappointed that he gave up his demand for her to kiss him.
The girls add yet another member to their group, a shy girl named Yolanda. She is forced to choose a boy to write a love letter to. To everyone's surprise, she automatically chooses Jonathan, the most handsome boy in the class.
Laura broaches the subject of inviting boys to join Pig City with Tiffany and Allison. She suggests that they each choose one boy. At first the girls are hesitant, but Tiffany eventually chooses Nathan and Allison picks Aaron. Each girl seems to have a crush on their respective choices. As it was her plan all along, Laura names Gabriel as her choice. Tiffany and Allison are shocked because they thought Laura hated Gabriel, but it seems as though Laura is coming around.
The girls have trouble coming up with insurance for the boys, but finally settle on having Nathan write a nasty note to Mr. Doyle, making Aaron sing a silly song into a tape recorder, and forcing Gabriel to wear a dress. Nathan and Aaron dutifully perform their tasks and become members.
Laura has the dress and camera all ready when Gabriel comes over, but instead of telling him what his insurance really is, she tells him he has to kiss her. Gabriel jumps up, ready to complete his initiation, when Laura mentions the note he supposedly wrote her blackmailing her into kissing him. Gabriel is flabbergasted at this accusation and calls Laura a liar. Fighting words for her. Not having told Gabriel about the dress, Laura yells out in anger, "And you're too ugly to wear a dress!" Gabriel snaps back, "Yeah well, you're too ugly to wear a suit and tie!" Funny stuff.
Laura has been continuing to write messages on the blackboard all this time. Mr. Doyle has been keeping count of how many there are so when he catches the culprit they'll know how many dictionary pages are due. Gabriel enjoys watching Laura squirm as he almost tells on her time and again. And even though Gabriel has a reputation for not being a tattletale, Laura is frightened that he will tell about Pig City. One day Laura's daily message is changed to Pigs Stink. Everyone is a suspect, including Mr. Doyle. 
Yolanda tells her best friend Karen about Pig City and her love note to Jonathan is delivered to him in retaliation. Yolanda is devastated at first, but the citizens of Pig City later spy her and Jonathan walking together holding hands.
Tiffany tells Laura that she and Nathan kissed and Laura gets all bent out of shape because she's prettier than Tiffany and hasn't kissed a boy yet. Laura cheers up when she receives another phone call. This time the caller disguises their voice and says, "Monkey Town will turn Pig City into bacon and eggs!" Laura seems to be the kind of person who thrives on drama, so this kind of declaration is exciting for her. 
As you've probably guessed, Gabriel formed a rival club called Monkey Town with the leftover kids who weren't invited to join Pig City. This includes Howard, Karen, Yolanda, Jonathan, and even Sheila. Monkey Town writes a "Monkeys Rule" type message on the blackboard, which Laura changes to "Monkeys are Mustard"...they're yellow, they're cowards, get it? Each Pig City member finds a hard boiled egg in their desk. The monkeys sing a song about how they are the best and Pig City is nothing but bacon and eggs. More shenanigans ensue, culminating in Pig City turning every Monkey Town member's desk upside down and writing (upside down) "Monkeys Kiss Donkeys" on the board.
I like this cover too, even though it is a newer one.

Monkey Town gets back at them by spraying them with Laura's mother's sprinkler while they are having a meeting in the clubhouse. This event causes Laura to uncharacteristically admit it's time for Pig City to surrender. However, Laura has no intention of surrendering. Her plan is to divide and conquer the citizens of Monkey Town. She starts by sending a fake letter of surrender to Jonathan. She feigns surprise that Jonathan isn't the president of Monkey Town when he tells her it's actually Gabriel (Laura already knows this). She builds Jonathan's ego by telling him it's ridiculous that Gabriel is president instead of him and that he should form his own club.
When this gets back to Gabriel, he isn't fooled and calls Laura a liar again. Laura's plan does seem to work on Jonathan, who leaves Pig City to form a club called Eagle's Nest. Poor Howard is ousted from Monkey Town for being unable to choose which side he is loyal to.
Sheila becomes obsessed with cutting off Laura's hair. This is thanks in part to the new Pig City song, which Kristin wrote. (To the tune of Yankee Doodle: "Laura Sibbie went to class, Her hair was long and pretty, Stuck a feather in her cap, And called it Pig City.") The other members of Monkey Town think Sheila is taking this too far and Gabriel says the hair cutting idea "isn't nice."
Pig City comes over to Gabriel's house and Laura shows him the original note she received in the beginning of the book to prove she isn't a liar. This solves nothing, as Gabriel is sure she is the one who changed the message. Then Pig City clobbers Gabriel with two large jars of mustard.
Gabriel skips school one day and sneaks into Laura's clubhouse to steal the box with all the embarrassing things in it that were collected for collateral for the club. Gabriel makes Laura eat a raw egg in order to get the treasures back.
Mr. Doyle tricks Laura into admitting that she was the one writing the messages on the blackboard throughout the story. He pretends he suspects the class goody-goody, Linzy, of writing the messages and Laura feels guilty and admits that she was the one doing it. She must copy seventeen dictionary pages before she is allowed to graduate. All of Pig City is aghast at Mr. Doyle's clever but questionable method. They compare Laura's nobleness to George Washington and MLK and they all promise to copy her dictionary pages for her.
That is until Gabriel breaks his word and brings Pig City's treasure box to school and shows everyone. Aaron's song is blared from Gabriel's stereo, Kristin's panties are thrown around, and everyone tries to tickle Tiffany. They immediately turn on Laura. She feels awful and calls herself Richard Nixon. Mr. Doyle collects the items and calls each student up to his desk in turn. He is so flattered by Laura's declaration of love that he offers to drop her dictionary page count down to seven. Laura refuses, stating that she doesn't love Mr. Doyle anymore.
Sheila gets Howard to get Gabriel's signature on a piece of paper. She follows Laura home from school and hides behind a brick wall Laura is sitting on. Sheila whacks off Laura's long hair and leaves a note with Gabriel's signature with a note saying "Pigs are bald."
Sheila and Howard laughingly tell Gabriel what happened. Sheila even brings up Gabriel's first note to Laura and tells him how she reworded it. Though most of the plot twists in this book are extremely clever, this part seems a little convenient. Anyway, Gabriel punches both Howard and Sheila.
Laura's parents take her to an expensive beauty salon where she gets a fancy perm. The description of Laura's new hairstyle sounds very 80's and not very flattering, though I think we are supposed to think it is pretty. Laura isn't impressed with it either. She goes through an emotional transformation of sorts, realizing that all her games and silliness were just as bad as telling lies. "George Washington wouldn't have made someone give him her underpants!"
Gabriel comes over with flowers to apologize to Laura and explain everything that had happened. All the kids except Sheila and Howard have a dictionary page copying party and complete Laura's seventeen pages. Laura and Gabriel finally get together. On the last day of sixth grade, Mr. Doyle gives Laura the Pig City salute. 
Laura is such a strong, unforgettable character and Gabriel is a worthy match for her. This book has so many laugh out loud moments and is a fun, fast read as everyone tries to outsmart each other. The characters might have been a little more fleshed out, but with such a large cast of characters that might have been too confusing. Louis Sachar is also the author of the Sideways Stories From Wayside School books, and the same whacky humor he used in them is prevalent in this book. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Afternoon of the Elves (1989) by Janet Taylor Lisle

Sara-Kate is the tough-talking older girl who lives in the run down house behind Hillary's. Hillary is shocked when Sara-Kate extends an invitation to play in her trash-strewn backyard. She is even more surprised when Sara-Kate shows her the tiny elf village that exists in one part of the yard. Hillary's parents don't approve of their daughter playing with a girl from such a shabby background and her other friends are sure that Sara-Kate, who has a reputation for bad behavior, is creating the village herself. But as more features are added to the elf colony (a swimming pool, a Ferris wheel), Hillary feels compelled to keep visiting.
The girls slowly begin to develop a friendship, though it is based entirely on the supposed existence of the elves. Sara-Kate doesn't mention anything about herself or her family and never invites Hillary into her house. Hillary notices little things about Sara-Kate's life that don't add up, however, like how she doesn't seem to own a jacket on the coldest days and the fact that she is forced to run errands for her mother that are usually reserved for grown ups. Hillary catches a glimpse of Sara-Kate's mother in a window once, and the image of the pale, thin woman's face frightens her.
Hillary's mother hints that she'd like Hillary to spend less time in Sara-Kate's yard. Hillary complies with this, and it's not long after that Sara-Kate seems to disappear. She's absent from school and isn't in her usual spot by the elf village when Hillary comes over. The elves' homes and playground fall apart in the absence of the girls' constant attention.
Sara-Kate's house seems unoccupied and Hillary works up the courage to go inside. She is astounded by how bare and trashy the inside of the house is. She continues her perusal of the house by going upstairs because in her childish mind, the elves abandoned their outdoor colony and came to live in Sara-Kate's house. The house appears to be shut down with the electricity and heat turned off, and Hillary can't imagine a person living in this condition. But in an upstairs room, expecting to catch an elf, Hillary instead walks in on Sara-Kate sitting in a rocking chair holding her mother. Sara-Kate threatens Hillary's life, commanding that she tell no one what she has seen.
Out of a misguided sense of loyalty, Hillary honors this request. Two weeks pass by and Sara-Kate is seen only once, by Hillary's father as he's driving home late one night. The night Hillary's father tells her about this incident, she sneaks out and sees Sara-Kate tinkering with the elf village. The girl claims she was away and has temporarily come home.
Hillary begins imagining that Sara-Kate is one of the elves herself. One day Sara-Kate asks Hillary to find some money without telling anyone and to buy some food for her ill mother because they are out of everything. Hillary steals money from her mother and sneaks off to the grocery store. When she comes back, she and Sara-Kate dine on baloney sandwiches and Sara-Kate confesses what the reader has probably already guessed - that she basically runs the household because her mother is sick and often not in her right mind.
Suddenly, Hillary's mother arrives at Sara-Kate's door looking for her daughter. She sees the horrible condition of the living room and demands to meet Sara-Kate's mother. Like any responsible adult, she turns the matter over to the authorities. As the weeks go by, gossip about Sara-Kate and her mother swirls through the neighborhood, only fueled by the not-always-accurate local news reports of the story. Hillary's mother questions whether Sara-Kate really cared about Hillary or if it was a friendship of convenience for her. This issue is never really resolved and we don't find out the full story about what happened to Sara-Kate.
This is not only a story about a girl who is being neglected, but is also about a child's loss of innocence. As the book reaches its conclusion, Hillary must let go of her childish fantasies and realize that what she had seen as magic was in reality a very ugly situation.