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.

 

 

Sheila Is Pretty Great

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great
Judy Blume
First published 1972

My history with this book
I know I read this book as a kid, but I had no memory of it, so it apparently didn’t leave as much of an impression as my favorite Judy Blume books: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.

My thoughts
It’s funny that this book apparently didn’t leave much of an impression on me as a child, because I really enjoyed it as an adult. I recently read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for the first time, so I sheiladecided to read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which is about a minor character in the former book. My husband read both of these books as a kid, and he still remembers being blown away by an author writing related books from two totally different viewpoints. Sheila comes across as a very annoying character in Tales, and she’s something of a nemesis to the main character (who is painted in a negative light in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great).

Sheila Tubman lives in an apartment in Manhattan (in the same building as Peter, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) with her parents and her boy-crazy older sister Libby. Sheila wants to go to Disneyland for the summer, but her parents end up renting a house in Tarrytown instead. Sheila makes a new best friend, Mouse Ellis, and learns to face her many fears, the most serious of which are dogs and swimming. Sheila is forced to confront her fears during her time in Tarrytown, because their house comes with a dog and her mother insists that she take swimming lessons.

Sheila is a quite a character. She’s something of a legend in her own mind, but she’s also a very anxious child with a lot of fears. She hides her fears behind boasting and bravado, but her bluff ends up being called when she makes friends with the very clever Mouse. Sheila thinks she’s good at hiding her fears and presenting a confident, even brash persona. But Mouse figures her out.

“Sheila, if a person is scared of something, a person should just admit it. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “And if I was ever afraid of anything I’d be the first to admit it.”

Which is, of course, totally untrue, as Sheila lies constantly in an effort to hide her fears and whenever she doesn’t know how to do something. The lies are kind of hilarious: She used to be really good at yo-yo’s but she hasn’t played with one since she was two, she can’t go in the pool because she had a cold, she’s allergic to dogs and gets hives inside her body, she can run a newspaper single-handedly.

I found Sheila’s first night in the new house very funny. She’s having trouble sleeping, so she turns on the light, which leads to her seeing a spider on the ceiling, so she wakes up her father. The sense of weary resignation from her father’s gives one gets the feeling that this is not the first time this has happened. Later that same night, Sheila is awoken by a strange noise. This time, she wakes her mother, who is annoyed at first but then gets freaked out by the noise as well (which turns out to be the dog howling at the moon).

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great would be an excellent book to offer to a kid who has some fears. A parent could read along with their child, and use Sheila’s experiences as a good conversation starter.

Does it hold up?
Quite well. Judy Blume’s book are so universal, they don’t really seem dated. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the milkman still delivers milk in Tarrytown. I’m not sure when milk deliveries stopped being common, but I never knew of anyone who had milk delivered in the U.S. (milk delivery in rural Ireland was still common when I was a child).

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes

Is there any objectionable content?
No, except for some mild fat shaming of one of Sheila’s friends.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes.

Availability
It’s still in print and available in audio and ebook format.

80s Flashback: Stranger with My Face

Summer of Fear
Lois Duncan
First published 1981

My history with this book
I remember very clearly reading this book in seventh grade. My best friend also read it, and we had a lot of discussions about it. I recall it being quite suspenseful and scary.

My thoughts
I loved Stranger with My Face as a pre-teen, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it almost as much as an adult.

Our heroine Laurie has a storybook ideal teenage life. She lives with her artist mother, writer father, and younger brother and sister in a beautiful cliff-side house on an island off of Massachusetts. She’s dating the popular Gordon, which has made her part of her high school’s ruling clique. But her newfound status is threatened when she misses a party because she’s home sick and her friends claim they saw her on the beach that night. Laurie claims innocence, but her friends are suspicious, and soon she begins to feel like someone has been in her room and there are more incidents where people think they see Laurie when she couldn’t have been there.

Laurie soon realizes that there is indeed a stranger out there stranger-with-my-facewho looks just like her, a long-lost twin sister who wants her life. This book has lots of gothic elements: a long-lost evil twin, a supernatural twist (astral projection), and a scarred (literally) love interest. Duncan specialized in thrillers, and some of them had a supernatural bent, but of the ones I read as a kid, Stranger with My Face was definitely the scariest and creepiest.

I enjoyed many things about this book: the spookiness of the plot, the sense of atmosphere, the evil villain, and the romance between Laurie and the island’s outcast. I particularly liked that the ending doesn’t tie things up in a neat package. There’s an end to the story, and it’s not an unhappy one, but it’s not necessarily a happy one either. I don’t recall what I thought of the ending when I was a kid, but reading it now, I appreciated that Duncan didn’t go for a big showy happy ending. The uncertain ending feels unexpected for a book of this type.

Does it hold up?
Much better than I expected.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure.

Is there any objectionable content?
Nothing terrible. There’s an adoption plotline that feels quite dated, but probably wasn’t unusual for the time the book was written. There’s also some vague Native American mysticism related to the astral projection plotline that I assume doesn’t have much to do with any actual Native American traditions. The mother of Laurie’s friend Helen says some awful things about their friend Jeff, who has terrible facial scars, but Helen shuts her mother down, and Laurie and her family embrace Jeff and don’t care about his appearance.

Can you read it aloud?
No, it’s too long and the target age is too old.

Availability
It’s still in print, but the current version has been revised slightly by the author. I read the original text, so I’m not sure how extensive the revisions are. I believe they are fairly minor. It’s not hard to find used copies of the original text. The cheesy cover pictured here is the paperback edition I read as a kid.

 

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.

A 70s Time Capsule: Freaky Friday

Freaky Friday
Mary Rodgers
First published 1972

My history with this book
I loved Freaky Friday as a kid, and I read it multiple times. I remember thinking it was very funny, so I was curious to see if the humor would hold up.

My thoughts
I had a lot of fun re-reading Freaky Friday, and I still found it very funny, but the book feels a bit dated to me, because it’s very much a 70s time capsule. I was a kid in the 70s, so this was a nostalgia trip for me, but there are a few elements that might seem odd to a kid in 2016. The 70s aren’t quite far enough in the past to make this feel like historical fiction, and the dated bits may need some explaining.

In case you’ve not familiar with the book (or the two film versions), Freaky Friday is the story of a sullen 13-year-old named Annabel, who wakes up one morning in her mother’s body. Although she’s thrilled at first by all the freedom, the day quickly turns into a series of hilarious misadventures, and Annabel learns that life isn’t necessarily easier for her mom.

This book is genuinely funny, and parts of it made me laugh as an adult in a way that I don’t think I got as a kid. For example, Annabel’s idea of a typical day for her mother is convincing her father to take her (as her mother) out for dinner and an R-rated movie, trying on dressy clothes, and watching TV. Of course, the day actually involves Annabel being condescended to by her father, being harangued by the family’s racist cleaning lady, and being judged by everyone she meets for wearing a velvet pantsuit.

There are so many things in this book that are very 70s. Annabel is a liberal, socially conscious kid, and she makes a lot of references to “women’s liberation” and “male chauvinist pigs,” both terms I remember from my youth, but which may takes some explaining today. Annabel picks up the phone (a landline of course) at one point and refers to crossed wires, another relic of the past. When Annabel (as her mother) goes to a meeting to discuss the problems she’s having at school, the principal smokes during the meeting. Annabel mentions a classroom “rap session,” and her crush talks about beautiful “chicks.”

Of course, Annabel learns some valuable lessons: thatimg_2956 being a grown-up doesn’t necessarily make life easier, that her little brother isn’t nearly as annoying as she thinks, and that she’s the cause of a lot of chaos in her life.

There was one scene that really bothered me. In it, Annabel’s father, thinking she is her mother, speaks very condescendingly to her. He had given her (the mother) $50 the day before and when she can’t account for every penny spent, he treats her like a child. It’s ¬†an unpleasant scene, and I wish Annabel had called her father out for being a “male chauvinist pig.” Instead, although she feels momentarily bad for her mother, she wonders why her mother isn’t nicer to “such a cute man.” I don’t recall this scene bothering me as a child, but as an adult, it was weird. (Also, the mother has to ask her husband for cash for her daily expenses? Ugh. That felt very retro.)

Does it hold up?
Pretty well, despite the super-70s groovyness.

Is there any objectionable content?
There are two instances of offensive racial terms, but in both cases, Annabel is quick to point out that this is inappropriate. In her mother’s body, she takes the family’s racist cleaning lady to task and fires her.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but the target age might be past the reading aloud stage.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure.

Availability
Still in print, but not available in ebook form. I like my old 70s paperback with the Edward Gorey cover.

Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes
Noel Streatfeild
First published 1957

My history with this book
Dancing Shoes was one of my favorite books as a child and I was interested to see how it would hold up.

My thoughts
Re-reading Dancing Shoes was sort of like seeing an old friend after many years and falling right back into a comfortable rapport. It was a wonderful experience, and it made me want to buy a lot of copies and start handing them out to every child I know. Dancing Shoes has two classic children’s book tropes: orphans sent to live with people who don’t particularly want them, and good characters triumphing over adversity (and an appropriate comeuppance for the villains of the tale).

Noel Streatfield wrote many beloved children’s books, including several with “Shoes” in the title. They’re not a series, but many of her books deal with children in the performing arts. Dancing Shoes is about a troupe of child dancers. Cora Wintle, a failed dancer/actress, runs a school for aspiring dancers in London. They’re called Wintle’s Little Wonders, and troupes of them perform in stage shows around the UK. Cora has a daughter, the beautiful and talented, but absolutely awful, Dulcie. Cora is the ultimate stage mother, pushing her child to fulfill Cora’s failed dreams of stardom. Of course, Dulcie doesn’t need much pushing, and she’s a spoiled little monster.

Dulcie is Cora’s main focus, so she’s not thrilled to learn that her husband’s sister-in-law has died, leaving two young daughters, Rachel and Hillary, orphaned (their father died some years earlier). Initially, Cora plans to take in only Rachel, since Hillary is adopted. Cora says:

It’s so tiresome, but it looks as if we may have to bring Rachel here. We have no responsibility for Hillary; she is an adopted child. I shall arrange to have her sent to a home. [Cora is the worst.]

However, once she realizes that Hillary has dancing talent, Cora decides that she’ll make a perfect Little Wonder, so both girls go to live at the dancing school with their Aunt, Uncle Tom, cousin Dulcie, and Pursie, the kind older woman who serves asimg_2931 housekeeper for the school.

I loved performing and I took dancing lessons as a child, so the story of performing kids was right up my alley. Also, I was a quiet, thoughtful child, and I’m sure I identified with Rachel, a quiet, thoughtful child who is often misunderstood. Her aunt is a woman of little perception, and she mistakes Rachel’s deep grief for coldness and jealousy toward Hillary.

In some ways, it’s a bleak life for Rachel. She’s forced to study dancing, with the objective of becoming a Wintle’s Little Wonder, although she has no talent and is totally unsuited for the dancing life. But there are some bright spots. Although Rachel and Hillary are very different in personality, they remain close. Cora’s husband, Uncle Tom, is a very kind man who actually takes the time to try to understand Rachel, and their relationship is lovely. Unfortunately, he’s very much under his wife’s thumb, and he can’t or won’t help Rachel with her dancing issues. (As an adult, I couldn’t help but wonder how Cora and Tom ever got together in the first place, as they seem to have nothing in common.) Pursie looks after Rachel and Hillary and gives them the love they’ve lacked since their mother’s death. Their tutor, Mrs. Storm, is also very kind, and she recognizes Rachel’s talents and best qualities and does her best for her pupil, defending her to Cora.

Rachel and her mother were convinced that Hillary, who is a talented dancer, must be trained as a ballerina, and Rachel becomes obsessed with making sure that Hillary is able to pursue ballet as a career, although Hillary herself doesn’t want it. Of course, Wintle’s Little Wonders don’t focus on ballet, but rather tap, acrobatics, and musical comedy, so Rachel spends a lot of time worrying about her sister learning the wrong kind of dance. Hillary is actually quite lazy, and doesn’t have the interest or temperament to be a ballerina, but Rachel ignores this and tries everything, including bribery, to get her to continue with ballet, even though Hillary prefers the Wintle’s sort of dancing and just wants to be a member of the troupe. But this obsession is just a way for Rachel to process her grief over her mother’s death, and as she finally begins to heal, she comes to accept that Hillary will never be a ballerina.

I found the descriptions of the dancing troupe and the theatrical life quite vivid, and as Streatfeild was a former actress, there’s a ring of authenticity to the world. Many of the shows that the troupe performs in are pantomimes, a particularly British form of entertainment, so that may seem a bit foreign to today’s readers.

The ending of this book is absolutely perfect (I won’t give any details to avoid spoilers), but virtue is rewarded and the villains are knocked down a few pegs. I loved the ending when I was a kid, and I still find it enormously satisfying as an adult.

Does it hold up?
Very well.

Is there any objectionable content?
The attitudes toward adoption seem very dated. On the other hand, Rachel and Hillary never treat each other as anything less than sisters, and Uncle Tom welcomes Hillary as his niece, so it’s really only the dreadful Cora who acts as if Hillary is less than a true relation. There’s one passing reference to a “Negro” band. The context isn’t offensive, but the term is still jarring.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s a bit long for reading aloud, but most of the chapters are fairly short, so it might work

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes.

Availability
It’s available in print and as an audiobook.