Before there was J K Rowling or R L Stine, there was award winning children's author Barbara Brooks Wallace '45." . . . [She] has earned the NLAPW Children's Book Award and International Youth Library "Best of the Best" for Claudia (2001), the William Allen White Children's Book Award for Peppermints in the Parlor (1980) and two Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.
Bobbie studied international development at UCLA, not the most obvious major for a woman who was to become "one of America’s most beloved children’s mystery writers."
“I happened to be born in China,” she says, describing the first of [the] unexpected turns in her life. “My father, after graduating from UC Berkeley, became an actor with the Flying A film company in Santa Barbara, but then decided to sell oil for the lamps of China with SOCONY [Standard Oil Company of New York]. There, on a blind date, he met a nurse, my mother, who had left Russia at 16. At 17, she entered Harvard Medical School of China in Shanghai as a nurse probationer. They eloped in a sampan, . . . Later, in Soochow, they produced my sister, and a year after that, me.”
When things began to get dicey in China in the late 30s Bobbie came to the United States and lived in San Francisco. After graduating from UCLA and working for an advertising agency in Hollywood, Bobbie lived in San Francisco.
“I lived in a boarding house euphemistically called a ‘guest house,’” she says, “a shabby white-pillared mansion. Legend had it that it was once owned by an early fabled family in the sugar trade.”
Wallace’s readers now know the place as Sugar Hill Hall from Peppermints in the Parlor. . . . [which]has been in print continuously since its debut in 1980, was recorded as an audiobook by Angela Lansbury and inspired a musical produced by the Tapestry Theatre Company in Alexandria, Va.
Bobbie's mysteries are my favorites of all her books. She won Edgars for The Twin in the Tavernand Sparrows in the Scullery, and two others, Cousins in the Castle and Ghosts in the Gallery, were nominated for the award.
How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor (2007) 170 pages. Grades 3-7, ages 8-12. Starred review in School Library Journal
"The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car." As first lines go that one isn't bad.
In this poignant book, Georgina and her little brother, Toby, are reduced to living in their old Chevy after their father runs off and leaves them destitute. Their mother works two jobs to try to get together the money for a deposit so that they can find an apartment but between car trouble and getting fired from her job in a dry cleaners things aren't progressing very rapidly.
Georgina spots a poster for a lost dog, zooming in on the part that says "Reward $500." With that much money the family could move out of the smelly old car and into a real home, with beds and a bathroom, and Georgina could sleep at night and wash her hair and do her homework by a lamp instead of by the light of a flashlight.
And so she hatches a plot to steal a dog and collect the reward. Unfortunately she chooses a dog whose owner is not wealthy and it isn't long before Georgina is feeling sorry for the victim, sorry for the dog, and sorry for herself. Contributing to these conflicting emotions is a character who wanders into the story - her brother calls him a bum - who is rather like the man of wisdom in classic myth. He feeds the dog, repairs the car, and warns Georgina that the trail you leave behind is sometimes more important than the path ahead.
This book is unlikely to win the Newbery with competition like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the many other fine books published in the last year. But it's a book with a good deal to offer and I would recommend it to girls about eight to ten years old. In fact, I'm about to send a recommendation to my eight-year-old grand-niece that she look it up.
Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer (2007) 181 pages. Grade 7 and up.
When the Mock Newbery lists sprout like dandelions each year at this time, there are usually a handful of books that appear on more than one list and those are the books I read first.
Reaching for Sun is on only one of the half dozen lists I consulted, that of the State of Rhode Island Office of Library & Information Services. Newbery contenders often have something unusual about them and this one is unusual in that it's written in blank verse by the young narrator/protagonist. I chose it because I wanted to see how well the author had handled that challenge.
Well enough, I think. Aside from a few expected comparisons and lukewarm adjectives, the metaphors, often related to gardening, are fresh, including the title. A neighbor's yard has a "lawn buzzed down like a Marine recruit's cut." A hammock in the yard is "stretched over the unfurling face of hostas and fingers of ferns." The heroine says: "I want this summer to be a wildflower-seed mix. And me, surprised by what blooms."
In Reaching for Sun Josie, who has cerebral palsy, lives with her overworked mother and grandmother. She meets a nerdy new neighbor who teaches her about biology as she teaches him about growing flowers. The other kids at school (rich kids) persecute these two, who become friends. But when Josie's neighbor goes off to science camp for the summer she fears she has lost his friendship. The rest of the story is somewhat predictable and you can guess how it resolves.
I was disappointed with this book for reasons I can't articulate. I suggest you look at School Library Journal for an objective review of the Reaching for Sun. I give it a three lukewarm stars.
I realized a couple of weeks ago that I had never read Raold Dahl's children's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So I borrowed it from the library.
It has been languishing in my "To Read" pile while I've been reading a book about the sad state of book reviewing in America (blogging is the only place where there's life and hope in that field), War and Peace, a life of Phil Spector (don't ask), Clarence Thomas' memoir, and a book about the Nazis and "The final solution."
I needed a break. And I got a delightful one. What a scrumptious book this is. One of my godchildren has been telling me to read Dahl for ten years or more -- I should have listened to him. If the fog and the overcast skies and the cold and the falling leaves have you down, this is just the pick-me-up you need.
The Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett is the all-time great fantasy book for little girls. Big girls, too. It's a classic riches to rags to riches story and like The Count of Monte Cristo, the all-time great revenge novel, it never ceases to satisfy.
Our heroine is placed in a girl's school by her father, a very rich British civil servant in India. Then he dies and she is thought to be penniless and is treated badly. But no, it turns out, she is really fabulously wealthy and her father's best friend has been wearing himself to a frazzle trying to find her.
Found she is and the book ends with her happily ensconced in the home of this man whom she had never met before her father died. And disturbingly, she doesn't seem to miss her father all that much now that she has another rich man to buy clothes and dolls for her.
Well, we won't dwell on that part of the story. The rest of it is pure and delightful fantasy. A mysterious Indian servant turns her gloomy garret into a little nest with rugs and a fire and a folding camp chair. Lovely clothes arrive mysteriously in the mail. And there's a rambunctious monkey who plays a significant part in the plot. I've always liked that monkey.
Burnett also wrote what may be my favorite children's book, The Secret Garden.
There's no explanation for it. My love of Nancy Drew mysteries is irrational. But there you have it.
I've read this one, The Mystery at Lilac Inn (1930) numerous times. I knew a third of the way through the first time who done it, so it's not the mystery. It's certainly not the racism, sexism, and ethnicism. (There are slovenly Italians and Irish in most of these books.)
It must be the roadster, her frocks, the fact that she wears a hat and gloves whenever she leaves the house. The plucky girl falls back on her extremely influential father only rarely, but of course it's nice to know there's untold wealth and political power there if you need it. Part of the charm is that my book is the original 1930s edition.
I'm tearing myself away from Jo's Boys to write these comments on Little Women, one of the books I've read for the Classics Challenge. You will know how much I enjoyed it when I tell you I didn't pause for a moment when I read the last page to move right along to Little Men. And when I finished that yesterday I started Jo's Boys at once. What's more I requested Eight Cousins from the library and will pick it up tomorrow.
This love of mine for Louisa May Alcott is interesting because there's no getting away from the fact that her children's books are sentimental, didactic, unrealistically peopled with saintly adults and easily molded good-at-heart children, and are ridiculously over pious.
None of that matters. I repeatedly gulp down these stories with gusto, crying and laughing at the appropriate places, and wish there were more. I think I'm like those goslings who upon hatching fix on the first creature they see, whether it's their mother or an adult male biologist. I fixed on Alcott at an early age and I shall follow wherever she leads.
It's definitely time for me to read a biography of LMA and probably past time to read some of her non-children's writing. I have a hankering to see what those sensational thrillers of hers are like. Excuse me while I nip over to Amazon.com and see what's on offer.
A huge controversy has arisen over a single word in this year's Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. You can find the whole thing discussed in Publisher's Weeklyand in this morning's front page New York Times story about the word that has the children's book world in a tizzy. (It's the number one most emailed story from the online Times at the moment.)
The word is "scrotum." Early in the book Lucky hears a recovering alcoholic tell the story of how he hit bottom when a rattlesnake bit his dog on the scrotum. The man vowed if the dog lived he would give up drinking. The dog lived and the character is now a sober and useful citizen who relies on his "Higher Power."
Lucky wonders about what the word means and thinks it sounds like "something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much." Without that word the anecdote would not be the funny and perceptive introduction that it is to Hard Pan, CA, pop 43 and Lucky's life there.
Would these library folks who object to "scrotum" prefer one of the slang terms for that body part that children hear in the movies, on TV, and from their friends? Do they think the 11-year-olds of American can't handle reading it? Are these adults so immature they are embarrassed to explain it? Don't these people have anything else to do than to create trouble where there is none?
For my review of this book, go to 6 February, "The Higher Power of Lucky"
This year's winner of the Newbery medal is The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. I read it last night in one gulp and re-read it today more slowly.
It's a quirky book, with a leading lady of great charm, Lucky Trimble. This 10-year old, not allowed to wear makeup, carries mineral oil around to put on her eyebrows to make them shine. I wish I'd thought of that.
Lucky lives in Hard Pan, population 43, in the high desert of California with her guardian, Brigitte, who came from France to care for her after her mother died. Fearing that Brigitte is going to go back to France, Lucky makes a bid for attention by running away.
But of course problems ensue. A sandstorm that she thought was going to help her makes it difficult to know where she's going. Her dog, HMS Beagle, makes an unwelcome discovery that complicates her escapade.
I loved this story and admired the budding scientist, Lucky, her knot-tying friend Lincoln, and five-year old Miles, who lives on cookies, makes very strange noises, and asks everyone to read his favorite book to him again and again.
But I wonder if the intended audience for this book, children in grades four to six, will find it as captivating as adults do. Will boys want to read a book with a girl as the main character? I wish I knew a 10-year-old boy who could review it for me.