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.