70s YA: Summer of Fear

Summer of Fear
Lois Duncan
First published 1976

My history with this book
I first read Summer of Fear when I was about 10. I remember really enjoying it. I read many  books by Lois Duncan from ages 10 to 13.

My thoughts
Summer of Fear is classic Lois Duncan. Duncan is a prolific writer of lots of different types of books, but she’s best known for her young adult novels, most of which were published in the 70s and 80s. Her most famous book is I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was the basis for the 90s horror comedy.

Duncan wrote YA novels of suspense, often with mild supernatural elements. Summer of Fear is the story of a teenage girl named Rachel whose life is turned upside down when her recently orphaned cousin Julia comes to live with Rachel’s family. Within days of her arrival, Julia seems to be taking everything from Rachel: her best friend, her boyfriend, her family’s love. No one else seems to notice that something about Julia is a little off, but Rachel becomes convinced that her cousin is a witch.

Re-reading Summer of Fear was fun, but it really made it clear to me that young adult books have changed a lot since the 1970s. I remember being blown away by the big twist ending when I first read this book. This time around, the twist seemed painfully obvious to me, with many years of reading mysteries and thrillers under my belt. Compared with more recent YA books I’ve read as an adult, Summer of Fear feels more appropriate for a slightly younger audience. The heroine may be a teenager, but the writing seems more appropriate for a pre-teen audience. I can imagine a 16-year-old being a bit bored by this book.

Summer of Fear gave me a lot of nostalgic pleasure, as it brought me back to a time when I was starting to read what seemed like much more grown-up books. While Summer of Fear may seem a little hokey to me now, it seemed terribly sophisticated when I was 10, and I liked being transported back to that time.

Does it hold up?
Mostly. There’s a very 70s feel to it, and Rachel and her boyfriend talk about going to see the new Dustin Hoffman film, which seems really dated.

Is there any objectionable content?
Nothing too terrible, but it was written in 1976, so there’s some sexism. In particular, Rachel’s parents leave her at home when they go to retrieve Julia after her parents are killed, and her mother says, “It will work best if you stay here and run the house for Peter and Bobby.” Peter is 18, so it seems ridiculous that Rachel should have to make sure he’s fed. But it’s 1976, so there you are.

Can you read it aloud?
No. The target age is past the reading aloud phase.
Would I want my kid to read it?
I wouldn’t push it on him, but I wouldn’t have any objection to him reading it.

The book is still in print and available in both print and ebook form.



Things Get Very Uncomfortable: The Secret Mountain

The Secret Mountain
Enid Blyton
First published in 1941

My history with this book
I loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child, and I remember this being one of my favorites, so much so that I sought out the same 70s paperback edition that I had once owned and ended up buying a much earlier hardcover edition as well. I didn’t remember much about the plot, beyond it being about a group of children who travel to Africa to rescue their missing parents and that it was very exciting.Secret Mountain new

My thoughts
Enid Blyton is a much-beloved British author of children’s book. She was incredibly prolific, writing over 700 books, and wildly popular (over 600 million books sold). She’s not as well known in the US, but her books are huge in the UK and many other parts of the world. I became a fan because I spent my childhood summers in the Irish countryside with my grandparents. The nearest town was quite small and didn’t have a lot of books available, but Enid Blyton’s books were always plentiful. My grandparents bought many Blyton books for me, and I borrowed others from my cousins. My time spent traipsing around the countryside with my cousins was not unlike the idyllic country adventures Blyton portrays in many of her books, so it makes sense that I loved these books at the time.

I’ve read a couple of Enid Blyton books since I started this project, and although they’re fairly simplistic, I enjoyed them, and I was looking forward to re-reading The Secret Mountain, which I recall liking very much as a child. So far, all of the books I’ve re-read have held up reasonably well. Sadly, The Secret Mountain does not.

It’s the story of four young children, Jack, Peggy, Mike, and Nora. I assumed the four were siblings, but later in the book, it’s mentioned in passing with not much of an explanation that Jack isn’t actually a sibling of the other three, but he lives with them. I assume this was explained in one of the earlier books (The Secret Mountain is the third book in a series, but like most of Blyton’s books, it’s not strictly necessary to read them in order). Their parents, Captain and Mrs. Arnold, are famous aviators. The book begins with the parents flying off to Africa for an adventure. Within a few days, the Arnolds have disappeared, and the children decide to go to Africa to search for them.

This would seem like a tall order for four young children (their ages aren’t specified, but they seem to be around 9 to 12), but the foursome just happen to be friends with Prince Paul of Baronia, a child who has a plane and two servants at his disposal. This book is total childhood wish fulfillment. The Arnold children are able to slip away from their guardian with no trouble, and Prince Paul has unlimited resources and servants who apparently must follow his every order, no matter how dangerous.

So, they head off to Africa, and that’s where things g0t problematic for me. The country is never named, and there’s no mention of the fact that Africa isn’t a country, but a continent with many countries and cultures. But this is a children’s book written in 1941, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect any nuance on this topic. All of the African characters are portrayed as rather simple or evil. Or in some case, simple AND evil. The general attitude toward the African characters feels paternal. It’s pretty creepy, but it’s also not totally unexpected in a book written by a British author in the waning days of the colonial era. The children are joined on their adventure by a young African boy, Mafumu. Mafumu is portrayed as very intelligent (he picks up a lot of English in just a few days with the children), and he’s invaluable to their search. But he’s also very credulous. He develops a bad case of hero worship for Jack after the British boy tries to defend Mafumu from his uncle who beats him at the drop of a hat. That episode leads to this passage:

Secret Mountain old“He says he will be your slave forever,” said Ranni with a grin. “He says he will leave his uncle and his tribe and come and follow the wonderful white boy all his life. He says you are a king of boys!”

Yes, really. My jaw dropped when I read this passage. I’ve come to expect some occasional racially insensitive language when I read older books, but this bit is beyond the pale. I didn’t remember this at all from reading the book as a child. I was probably 7 or 8 when I read The Secret Mountain. Did I not understand the implications of this quote? Did I even truly understand slavery at that age? Probably not. This book is seems to be intended for kids age 10 and up. I tended to read a few years ahead of my age, and I glossed over things I didn’t quite understand.

The Secret Mountain is the first book I’ve re-read for this project that I can’t recommend. If you’re ready to have discussions about slavery and other horrors of the world with your children, there are plenty of books with actual literary merit that would be a better place to start.

Many of Enid Blyton’s books are still in print, and the current editions have had some revisions to remove objectionable language. The Secret Mountain is currently out of print, but there have been recent editions. I don’t know the extent of the changes made to The Secret Mountain, but I would hope the above-mentioned passage has been cut or rewritten.

Does it hold up?
Sadly, no.

Is there any objectionable content?
See above.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Would I want my kid to read it?

The book is currently out of print, but there were many editions, and it’s not hard to find used copies.

The Joy of Beezus and Ramona

Beezus and Ramona
Copyright 1955
Still in print

My history with this book
My second grade teacher read Beezus and Ramona aloud to our class, and I remember liking it. I went on to read a number of other books by Beverly Cleary, including some of the other Ramona books.Beezus and Ramona

My thoughts
This book is delightful. It’s funny and charming, and I loved it. It’s the story of 9-year-old Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby and her adorable but also very annoying little sister, 4-year-old Ramona.

Cleary is a master at making her child characters sound realistic. Ramona is hilarious but also a total pain, and you really get Beezus’ annoyance with her. Beezus is a sweet kid, who struggles with the fact that sometimes she just can’t stand her little sister. Adults find Ramona adorable, and Beezus doesn’t get it.

There’s not a ton of plot, and it’s more a character study. Each chapter is an episode of Ramona being adorably/awful and Beezus patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) dealing with it. Ramona destroys a library book that Beezus checked out for her, disrupts Beezus’ art class, locks a dog in the bathroom, eats just one bite each out of a whole crate of apples, organizes an impromptu party, and nearly ruins Beezus’ birthday.

The apple chapter is particularly funny. Ramona takes just one bite of each apple because “the first bite tastes best,” and although Beezus is beyond annoyed, she has to admit that Ramona is actually right. With the help of her Aunt Beatrice, Beezus begins to understand that Ramona is acting out to get attention.

I love the contrast between the two sisters. Beezus is a nice, well-behaved child and very aware of what people think of her. Ramona is a total show-off. She loves attention, positive or negative, and she doesn’t care at all what people think of her. Some of that is being 4, but some of it is just her personality and that becomes even more apparent in the later books.

I was surprised by how contemporary this book felt. It was published in 1955, but it doesn’t feel dated at all. It holds up and feels modern in a way that many other books of its time don’t. The only scene that struck me as slightly odd is a scene where the mother and Beezus are washing their hair in the sink. I assume they don’t have a shower, which seems odd now, but was perhaps more common back then. It’s not important to the plot and I imagine kids might not even notice anything odd about it.

Does it hold up?

Is there any objectionable content?
Nope. The only mildly problematic thing is Beezus wondering why Ramona likes un-girly things like books about steam shovels, but Ramona is way too awesome to be constrained by traditional gender norms.

Can you read it aloud?
I would say yes since my first experience with the book was having it read to me in school. It’s a good length for reading aloud. It’s available as an audiobook and would be good for a road trip.

Do I want my kid to read it?
Yes! My husband and I both looking forward to reading this series with our son.

It’s still in print and there are ebook and audiobook versions available. It should also be widely available in libraries. My edition has really cute illustrations by Tracy Dockray.