80s Flashback: Little Sister

Little Sister (Sweet Dreams #5)
Yvonne Green
First published 1981

My history with this book
I read a lot of Sweet Dreams books when I was around 11 or 12, and the cover of this one looked very familiar, so I was sure I had read it. But I remembered nothing about it, and the plot didn’t come back to me when I read it (possibly because it’s a really unmemorable book).

My thoughts
I was pleasantly surprised that the first Sweet Dreams book I revisited wasn’t too bad (How Do You Say Goodbye), but unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Little Sister. It’s the story of Cindy Halley, an upper middle class white girl from the suburbs (80s teen romance series didn’t have a lot of racial or socioeconomic diversity, unless the white middle class suburban heroine was dating someone from the “wrong side of the tracks”). Cindy’s life is miserable because she’s just turned 16 and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. It’s not terribly img_3286surprising that Cindy is dateless and not as popular as her older sister, because Cindy has all the personality of dry toast. She spends the first few chapters of the book whining about her lack of dates, until popular senior Ron inexplicably becomes interested in her. Ron is a sort of magical unicorn, a star basketball player who’s also a talented actor, hard-working, and devoted to his family. He’s also lacking in a personality, which may be why he and Cindy are attracted to each other.

Once Cindy has a boyfriend, she spends the rest of the book terrified that Ron is going to fall in love with her sister Christine, because Ron and Christine are playing Romeo and Juliet in the sch0ol play. I was sort of hoping Ron would dump Cindy for Christine, because although Christine is awful, she’s more interesting than snoresville Cindy. Of course, Ron sticks with Cindy because the heroine of a Sweet Dreams romance never gets the short end of the stick.

Although it’s less than 150 pages, I struggled to finish Little Sister. Cindy and Ron are painfully dull, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about them. It’s also obvious to everyone but the terminally stupid Cindy that nothing going on with Ron and Christine, so there’s no real tension in the story.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Nope.

Is there any objectionable content?
Attitudes about dating feel a little dated, but there’s nothing terribly objectionable about this book (unless you object to being bored to tears).

Can you read it aloud?
Please don’t.

Availability
Little Sister is long out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

 

Anastasia Krupnik Is Very Groovy

Anastasia Krupnik
Lois Lowry
First published 1979

My history with this book
None. Lois Lowry is an award-winning author, and her Anastasia Krupnik series was first published when I was in the right age group to read it, but I wasn’t aware of this series until recently. I read Lowry’s The Giver a few years ago and liked it very much, so I decided to give Anastasia a try.

My thoughts
img_3062Anastasia Krupnik has a bit in common with the Ramona books and it also reminded me of some of Judy Blume’s work. Anastasia a smart, funny 10-year-old, who lives with her parents in an apartment in Boston (fitting into the 1970s trend of books about city kids who live in apartments, although it’s usually New York, so Boston is a nice change). Her father is a poet and English professor and her mother is an artist, so they’re slightly bohemian.

Anastasia faces some challenges in her life. Her parents announce that they’re expecting a baby boy, and she’s not thrilled about that. She has conflicted feelings about her grandmother, who’s suffering from dementia. She thinks she may be in love for the first time.

This is a sort of a slice of life book. There’s not a huge amount of plot, and it’s mostly about Anastasia coming to terms with the impending birth of her brother. I really enjoyed the book, and there are some very funny bits, like these two passages::

“Well,” said her father, “my vacation doesn’t start until day after tomorrow. But I only have to teach one class this morning. Do you want to come along?”

“Will it be boring?”

Her father adjusted his glasses so that he could look down his nose at her. “Boring? Dr. Krupnik’s English 202, required for English majors, eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry, three prelims, four papers, and a final exam, boring? He sighed. “Yes, it will probably be boring.”

And this one, where Anastasia’s father responds to a student he clearly finds very annoying:

“That’s very interesting, Miss Eisenstein,” said her father. But he said it with the same voice he used when Anastasia described in detail the plot of a television program. It meant he didn’t find it terribly interesting at all.

There’s a rather rough scene in the first chapter where Anastasia has to read a poem she’s written out loud in class. It’s a pretty amazing poem for a 10-year-old to have written, but Anastasia didn’t follow the teacher’s instructions to write a poem that rhymes, so she gets an F, which her teacher announces in front of the entire class. I was also a creative kid who didn’t always follow directions to the letter, so I sympathize with her.

img_3061Anastasia Krupnik feels a bit dated; there are a lot of things in it that are very 1970s. When Anastasia visits her father’s class, both her father and his students smoke. Anastasia asks her mother if she ever had a love affair before she got married, and her mother tells her all about a failed romance (not that this conversation couldn’t happen now, but something about it felt very 70s). Anastasia develops a crush on a boy who wears in a comb in his hair at all times and likes Roberta Flack. These details were nostalgic for me, but I wonder how they will register for a kid today.

The edition I read is apparently the original cover, and I like how much it references the book. There’s Anastasia, wearing her Amelia Earhart t-shirt and her big 70s glasses, writing in her special notebook, surrounded by lots of discarded poems. It’s very true to the book. And check out how groovy her parents look on the back cover. Her dad could be a minor character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure.

Is there any objectionable content?
No.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, although the chapters are a little long.

Availability
It’s still in print and available as an ebook.

 

 

Series Book Spotlight: The School at the Chalet

The School at the Chalet
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
First published 1925

My history with this book
As a child, I read a later book in the Chalet School series, The Princess of the Chalet School, which I acquired in Ireland. I loved it, but since the books weren’t easily available in the U.S., I hadn’t read any of the other books in the series.

My thoughts
The School at the Chalet is part a long tradition of British girls’ boarding school books. The series has 59 books, and they were published over a 45-year-period. Unlike many img_2963long-running series (such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), all of the books were written by the same author.

Twenty-four-year old Madge Bettany and her twin brother Dick are alone in the world with their 12-year-old sister Joey. Their parents are long dead, and their guardian recently died, leaving them without much money. Dick has a job in India, and Madge needs to find a job that will help her support Joey, whose health is delicate. Madge decides that she’ll start a school in the Tyrol in Austria, a place the siblings once visited. She rents a chalet and within no time, the school has numerous pupils, with several girls coming from the UK and several from the neighboring area. This required a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, at least by today’s standards, but I suppose that school accreditation and teacher training weren’t issues at the time.

The book tells the story of the school’s first term. The school quickly increases in size, and Joey’s health improves greatly in the mountain air. There are lots of hijinks and the occasional drama, including the students pulling a series of pranks. Much of the drama is caused by two difficult students, both of whom cause a lot of stress for Madge. We learn that both of these girls come from dysfunctional families, and although their behavior isn’t excused, Madge shows some understanding for the reasons behind it.

The School at the Chalet is a very old-fashioned book, but I found it enjoyable. It’s a bit like stepping back in time, to an era when anyone could start a school and, with a little British pluck, make a success of it. Much like Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s series, the girls struck me as very young, even though some of them are as old as 15 or 16. img_2965There’s something very innocent about this book. I always find it interesting to read books that are from a seemingly more innocent time. Of course, the 1920s were hardly innocent and there was a great deal of societal change happening, but in the world of the Chalet School, the ugliness of the real world never intrudes.

Most of the books were edited in the later (1960s/1970s) paperback editions. Some of the edits were fairly minor, but some of the books were heavily edited, and in a few cases, longer books were split into two. The version I read was the original text. The paperback version is heavily edited from the original. The series is chronological, so it helps to read them in order.

Does it hold up?
As I never read this one as a child, I can’t say, but I enjoyed it, although not quite as much as I remember enjoying The Princess of the Chalet School (which had a more exciting plot).

Would I want my kid to read it?
If he’s interested.

Is there any objectionable content?
The author exhibits a very specific prejudice toward certain types of German. Written not long after the end of World War I, there’s some anti-German sentiment, but it’s directed at North Germans (specifically the Prussians). The Austrians and Bavarians are said to be good people, but the Prussians (and particularly people from Berlin) are not.There’s also some sexism, as it’s assumed by many that Madge needs assistance from the men in her life (although she seems to do quite well running the school on her own).

Can you read it aloud?
It’s a bit long for reading aloud.

Availability
Currently out of print, but used copies are occasionally available. The series is popular with collectors, and early editions can be pricey. A small publishing house has reprinted the books, so new editions of the original text are available for some volumes, but even the new reprints are out of print for many titles. This is a series I try to collect, but finding them in the U.S. is difficult and can get expensive, since you usually have to buy from overseas. The paperback editions are more affordable, but may have significant revisions to the original text. Ebay and abe.com have been useful resources for me.

80s Flashback: Someone Is Out There

Someone Is Out There (Windswept #2)
Carole Standish
First published 1982

My history with this book
Someone Is Out There is one of many teen romances I read as a pre-teen. For some reason, this one seemed more memorable than most of the others I read and so I tracked down a copy.

My thoughts
I think the reason that Someone Is Out There stuck out to me is that in addition to the requisite romance, it’s also a mystery. The Windswept series featured romances of course, but the romance was always in the context of a slightly Gothic mystery, which gives the books more compelling plots than the usual 80s teen series fare.

Our heroine Marcie has big plans with her friends for her Christmas break, but because her grandmother has a broken leg and can’t travel, Marcie and her parents must travel to Cape Cod for the holidays. Shortly after her arrival, Marcie is drawn to a creepy shasomeone-is-out-thereck near the beach, where she meets a handsome young fisherman named Peter. Although Peter warns her away from the shack, Marcie is a budding Nancy Drew and she can’t leave well enough alone. Of course, Marcie is also drawn to Peter, who’s got just the sort of brooding mysterious demeanor that sets a teenage girl’s heart aflutter.

Marcie soon learns that the shack belonged to a murdered fisherman who was the business partner of Peter’s uncle, and that the uncle, and Peter by association, are suspects in the crime. Marcie can’t believe that a dreamy (albeit troubled) young man like Peter could possibly be guilty, so she’s determined to clear his (and his uncle’s) name.

I was pleasantly surprised by my re-read of Someone Is Out There. I wasn’t expecting much, and the first chapter, which was filled with clunky exposition and awkward prose, didn’t fill me with confidence. For example, this passage was painful:

She sat down on the edge of one of the twin couches that flanked the walls of in the William’s spacious living room, quite unaware of the lovely picture she made. She was wearing a plaid skirt in which green predominated, and her turtleneck sweater picked up the green tone. The color of the clothes made her eyes seem more green than hazel, and agitation brought a flush to her cheeks that was actually very becoming.

However, I ended up enjoying the book much more than I expected. The writing improved after the first chapter, and the author does a nice job of making the atmosphere of Cape Cod in the winter come alive for the reader. The mystery is a little weak, and I guessed the killer’s identity early on, mostly because there aren’t that many characters in the book. But also, I’m an adult who’s read hundreds of mysteries over the years, and I’m sure the mystery was much more mysterious to me when I was 12. Also, the climax of the mystery isn’t very suspenseful, since it happens mostly off the page after Marcie is knocked out.

I really love the cover. Marcie’s plaid coat, with its built-in scarf, is so 80s. Peter is lurking in the background wearing what appear to be a wool pea coat and high-heeled boots. Since he’s usually described in the book as wearing waterproof gear appropriate for life on a fishing boat, this outfit makes no sense, but I suppose the turtleneck and pea coat do have a sort of Cape Cod in winter vibe.

Does it hold up?
Yes, much better than I expected.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Eh, if he really wants to.

Is there any objectionable content?
No

Can you read it aloud?
Not really, but it might be hilarious if you tried.

Availability
The Windswept books are out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

80s Flashback: How Do You Say Goodbye?

How Do You Say Goodbye? (Sweet Dreams #16)
Margaret Burman
First published 1982

My history with this book
This was one of several Sweet Dreams books I read as a pre-teen. I’ve found copies of a few titles I remember from the series, and I’m going to make my way through them over the coming months.

My thoughts
I read a lot of what I think of as generic teen romances from approximately age 11 to 13. Most of these books were in series put out by various publishers. The Sweet Dreams series was the longest-running of the various teen romance series, with a whopping 230 volumes published between 1981 and 1995. I think I stopped reading these types of books around 1984 or 1985.

From what I can remember of these books, they were usually about an ordinary teen girl, with supposedly normal teen problems. The plots often centered around a girl who was torn between two equally attractive guys. These books were total wish fulfillment for your average 12-year-old girl, who probably wasn’t dealing with the tragic issue of having two hot guys wanting to date her.

How Do You Say Goodbye is a very typical 80s teen romance. Our heroine is 15-year-old Lisa, who describes herself as follows:

I guess I’m what you’d call ordinary. Even my name, Lisa Kentwood, is ordinary. Some people say that I’m pretty because I’ve got this long strawberry blond hair that falls straight to my shoulders, but frankly, I think my looks are just ok.

Sweet Dreams heroines are always pretty, but never the most beautiful girl in the class, which I suppose serves to make them more relatable. Lisa’s main interest in life is baking, and she has a small business baking and selling elaborate desserts. Lisa’s biggest problem is that she can’t say no to anyone. She’s overcommitted in her baking because she never turns down an order. She’s dating her childhood friend, the nice img_2854but kind of dull, Lawrence, and although she likes him, he doesn’t exactly set her heart afire.Then she meets manic pixie dream boy Alex, and suddenly she’s dating two guys, because she’s unable to tell Lawrence that she doesn’t want to go steady with him. Of course, this blows up in her face. But in the end, everything works out fine. Lisa wins a major baking competition, Lawrence forgives her and ends up dating her best friend, and Alex also forgives her and wants to keep dating her.

When I read the description on the back of the book, it sounded vaguely familiar, but once I started reading the book, it really came back to me and I found myself remembering bits and pieces of the story, so this book must have had at least some impact on me as a kid.

The story felt a little dated, but not as bad as I expected. The constant references to “going steady” seem dated even for the 1980s, and I remember thinking when I first read it that going steady felt very 1950s. I wasn’t particularly interested in Lisa’s baking when I was a kid, but that plot detail held up pretty well, since we now live in a time when bakers get reality TV shows and our nation’s cupcake obsession is only just now waning. The most dated aspects are the hilarious descriptions of outfits. For her first date with Alex, Lisa wears a ruffled Victoria blouse, velvet pants, and a glittery belt. In another scene, she dons a pair of yellow satin pajamas tucked into knee-high boots.

Re-reading it gave me a certain nostalgic pleasure, and although it’s not exactly a classic of children’s literature, it’s not a bad book. I get the appeal of these books–there’s always a happy ending, the heroine always get her man, and being ordinary is rewarded. They’re aspirational, but in a “this could actually happen to me” sort of way. The sort of problems the heroines face are pretty mild; these are definitely not “issue” books. Of course, Alex is the sort of magical unicorn perfect teenage boy that doesn’t exist in actual high schools. Were he written today, the heroine might wonder if he actually liked girls, but in the world of 80s teen novels, everyone is straight* (and mostly white).

Although the heroines of these books are always in high school, the reading level feels more appropriate for junior high. Maybe I just have different expectations from reading a lot of very good young adult books published in recent years, but the writing in this one feels rather unsophisticated.

Does it hold up?
Better than I expected.

Is there any objectionable content?
No.

Can you read it aloud?
Not unless you really want to embarrass your kids.

Would I want my kid to read it?
If he really wanted to, but it’s not something I’d push on him.

Availability
It’s out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

*M.E. Kerr’s I’ll Love You When You’re More Like Me, which has an openly gay supporting character, is a notable exception.

 

Giving Enid Blyton Another Chance: The St. Clare’s Series

The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins
Enid Blyton
Originally published 1941 and  1942

My history with these books
As mentioned previously, I really loved Enid Blyton’s book as a child, but I hadn’t read the St. Clare’s series. After my unpleasant re-reading of The Secret Mountain, I was curious to see if I would have similar reactions to Blyton’s other books.

My thoughts
There are six books in the original St. Clare’s series, and three an additional books were added to the series in recent years (with a new author; Blyton was prolific, but not from beyond the grave). The books take place at a British boarding school for girls. I read the first two books in the series, The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins.

As is fairly obvious from the titles, the first two books focus on twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, who are starting at a new boarding school. The girls have recently left another, seemingly more posh school, and they’re not happy about having to attend St. Clare’s, which they see as beneath them. The twins are terrible snobs, and things don’t go very well for them at first at their img_2819new school. Their attitudes don’t endear the twins to their new classmates, and they find the schoolwork much harder than at their old school.

The girls eventually figure out that the school isn’t so bad, and once they stop being so awful, they quickly makes friends. In the second book, it’s a new term, they twins are quite popular, and we see them making friends (and enemies) with several new students in the school.

I enjoyed these books. They have a sort of old-fashioned, pip pip cheerio British quality, and I felt very nostalgic reading about a boarding school, which was always a favorite topic for me as a child. The editions I read are revised, so there wasn’t anything offensive in them (except for some cringe-inducing attitudes about class). I’m not sure whether the original versions had any offensive content.

Something that struck me as interesting is how young the girls seem. Isabel and Pat are said to be 14-and-a-half at the beginning of the first book, and the older students apparently range in age up to 18, but everyone seems much younger. If their age hadn’t been specified, I would have assumed the twins were 10 or 11. Teenage hormones don’t appear to be in evidence, and except for a brief mention of one girl having a pimple, there’s no signs of puberty. I suppose their teenage hormonal urges have been channeled into playing pranks on their teachers and torturing each other. The reading level of these books seems more appropriate for maybe age 9 to 12, so it’s fine that the girls seem younger.

As mentioned above, there are some class issues I found a bit hard to take. One example is the treatment of a character named Sheila. Everyone finds Sheila annoying because she “puts on airs.” They later learn that Sheila was born poor, but her family is now very wealthy, and she puts on airs because she’s insecure. Pat says, “But how awfully silly of Sheila to pretend like that! If she’d told us honestly that her people had made a lot of money, and how pleased she was to be able to come to St. Clare’s, we’d have understood and liked her for it. But all that silly conceit and pretence!”

So, poor Sheila’s only acceptable if she bows and scrapes and tells every0ne how lucky she is to be at St. Clare’s? Ugh.

I found the second book a bit less enjoyable than the first one. Most of the characters exhibit some form of mean girl behavior, and there’s a tacit acceptance of the attitude that it’s ok to be mean to certain people because they’re “sneaks.” There are two girls who both behave very badly, Margery and Erica. Margery is good at sports and is somehow seen as worthy despite being pretty awful, while Erica is loathed by her classmates and shunned for her bad behavior, which isn’t really that different from Margery’s. Both girls seems to be troubled, but Margery ends up winning acceptance, while Erica is banished. There’s an odd scene where the headmistress asks one of the other students for advice on how to deal with Erica and then takes the student’s advice to send Erica away.

But overall, I liked these books, and I will probably read the rest of the series at some point. I think reading Enid Blyton is always going to be somewhat problematic, but I’m glad this experience didn’t leave my jaw on the floor like re-reading The Secret Mountain did.

Does it hold up?
Yes, but there are aspects that will seem dated to kids. For example, the twins have a friend named Lucy, whose family loses all their money. Since they can no longer afford to pay her tuition, Lucy plans to leave school and go to work as a secretary. It’s odd enough that she can legally leave school that young, but the idea that anyone would hire a 14-year-old who hasn’t finished high school seems nuts to a modern reader.

Is there any objectionable content?
Just the aforementioned class issues.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, the books are not too long, and the chapters are all 10 pages or less.

Would I want my kid to read it?
I wouldn’t have any objections.

Availability
The revised editions are still in print, and although not published in the US, they’re easy enough to find online (I bought the whole set, including the three new books on ebay). Older editions are harder to find, but I’ve seen used copies of the 70s paperbacks show up on ebay. The revised versions have very cute covers.

Series Book Spotlight: Trixie Belden: The Secret of the Mansion

The Secret of the Mansion (Trixie Belden #1)
by Julie Campbell
First published 1948

My history with this book
I was a big Trixie Belden fan as a child, and I owned 8 or 9 of the books, but I don’t think I ever read The Secret of the Mansion, which is the first book in the series. I didn’t own a copy of it as a child (I’ve since remedied that), and the story didn’t seem at all familiar to me as I read it.

My thoughts
Trixie Belden was one of my favorite series as a child. Trixie is sort of the anti-Nancy Drew. She’s 13 and definitely imperfect. She lives on a farm in with her parents, two older brothers, and a bratty little brother. She has lots of chores (which she usually doesn’t want to do), she’s bright and inquisitive, and she’s also sometimes rash and impulsive.

When the book opens, Trixie is on summer break, and she’s bored to tears. Her older brothers are away working as camp counselors, and she doesn’t see her school friends much during the summer since the farm is far from town. Things start to look up when a new family moves into the estate next door. The new neighbors are a very wealthy couple with a daughter named Honey who is Trixie’s age. Trixie befriends Honey, and together, they investigate the supposedly empty run-down mansion of their neighbor, a miser who’s been hospitalized with a serious illness.

Trixie is an imperfect heroine. She’s bright and well-meaning, but she often says or does the wrong thing. When she first meets Honey, she finds the other girl stuck up and she often thinks of Honey as a “sissy” and “fraidy cat,” because Honey is more cautious (i.e., sensible) than Trixie. Honey is still recovering from a serious illness and her overprotective mother hasn’t let her do much, so she’s not as physically adept as Trixie. But Honey ends up beimg_3179ing an excellent counterbalance to Trixie’s impulsive nature, and the friendship they form is one of my favorite things about this series.

There’s something idyllically simple about these books. Trixie is 13, but her biggest problems are trying to earn enough money to buy herself a horse and having to do chores and babysit her little brother. She seems a little younger than what I think of as a typical 13-year-old, but I suppose that’s a reflection of the time the books were written. There are some serious issues dealt with in the book. Trixie and Honey befriend Jim, an orphan who’s run away from his abusive stepfather. (The book is rather matter of fact about the fact that Jim is regularly beaten by his stepfather.) Honey seems to suffer from pretty severe anxiety, as a result of her illness and overprotection from her parents. In the beginning of the book, she has terrible nightmares and is afraid of almost everything. Trixie views the elderly miser in the run-down mansion as a mean old crank, but she then learns that a terrible tragedy in his life made him into a miserable person.

I really enjoyed The Secret of the Mansion, and it made me remember why I liked this series so much. I’m not sure if the quality holds up throughout the series. Julie Campbell wrote the first six books, and the remaining 33 were written by a series of ghost writers under the name Kathryn Kenny. I liked all the books I read as child, and I’m curious to see how they hold up now.

Does it hold up?
Yes, pretty well.

Is there any objectionable content?
I was taken aback when Trixie thinks of Honey as a “sissy,” but that’s the only objectionable language I noticed in the book.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s probably a bit too long.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes.

Availability
The Secret of the Mansion is out of print, but still available in a Random House edition published in the past 10 years or so. Used copies aren’t hard to find, and it’s also available as an ebook.