Molly: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp

Rating: 4/5

I think the Molly books are my favorite of the 6 collections I have (though I also really enjoyed Josefina’s books), due in part to the setting (WWII, my favorite historical fiction setting), the focus of each book (book 5 has the best glorification of summer camp and team games ever, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), and my childhood nostalgia. The Molly books were New and Updated and Cool when I got them, so I really treasured them as a child, and that stuck with me even now.

While exact details about World War II are scarce in the novel (there’s a couple of casual mentions of Hitler and the Blitz, with the most of those details being in book 4), there’s a great deal about the patriotic attitude in America at the time, with its rationing, victory gardens, war bonds & stamps, etc. Molly struggles to reconcile the Old Times (pre-war, pre-dad leaving to care for wounded soldiers in England) with the New Times (war, dad gone) and learns a few things about change along the way. While the books focus a little on family, there’s a great deal more about friendship. Each book reads much more like a “school story,” with some small amount of jealousy, cattiness, etc. and book 5 takes place entirely at a summer camp. Molly’s book seem different than the other girls simply because of how much of them take place outside her home with her friends, as opposed to the other books where a great deal of the time the characters were with their families. Also, the illustrations really pay tribute to 1940s’ fashion, so if you love that time period in fashion, the illustrations are great in that regard.

I don’t have much criticism against the series except for the overall concession that they’re tiny, simple books—they’re really great for a fast read, but they leave a lot to be desired for contemplation. They would be great read-aloud books for younger children. The historical notes in the back of the books are interesting, too, though sometimes they don’t match what happens in the book (the birthday book mentions the Blitz a fair bit, so you would expect the historical notes to mention it. Nope, they mention babies and growing up instead). In any case, Molly’s books, like the other American Girl books, are perfect for the times when you want a fast, short historical fiction book, or if you want a book to read aloud to small children (though boys likely wouldn’t be fans).

Info: Valerie Tripp; published 1986-1988 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Rating: 4/5

Paper Wishes takes place in 1942 and tells the story of a Japanese family who are taken from Bainbridge Island to Manzanar relocation camp due to Executive Order 9066. Manami, the daughter, tries to smuggle her dog along with her, but she is caught and forced to leave the dog behind. Because of that, and the trauma of leaving her home, she becomes withdrawn and silent. The story is about her life in Manzanar, how she expresses herself without her voice, and how she slowly overcomes her fears and sadness.

I wish I had stumbled across this book back when I read 3 or 4 Japanese internment books. This is my favorite of all of them, due in part to the sweet, simplistic nature of the story as a whole, and the overall gently optimistic, yet still realistic, tone of the book. The writing is interesting—not particularly sophisticated and a little repetitive, but in a lyrical way. Perfect for young readers, and enjoyable enough that older readers won’t find it too childish. Besides that, the story might be a little bit angsty (at one point Manami literally thinks everything that happened is her fault), but it’s not overblown or overdramatic. It’s a good capturing of childhood grief and trauma, and the ways families weather through—a beautiful story with a beautiful message.

Sepahban also does a good job with the historical aspect, detailing quite clearly what relocation/internment/detention camps were like. Not quite so clear was the explanation of the EO, and there’s no explanation given as to why Manami and her parents have to move, but not her brother and sister in Indiana (though her brother elects to come to them in the camp). It’s sort of mentioned in the historical note, but with language that younger children may not understand. Other than that, the historical material is very well-balanced for the audience and gives a lot of information, exactly what I love in historical fiction.

Paper Wishes is sweet, heartwarming, and ultimately hopeful despite the topic. There are parts that might be a little bit confusing, but overall Sepahban does a wonderful job using the story to show not just the historical context, but also overcoming grief.

Info: Lois Sepahban, published 2016 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Samantha: An American Girl

Rating: 3/5

Samantha was the American Girl doll I had, so I am the most familiar with her books. Every American Girl collection has seemed familiar to me, but this one was even more so. As a kid I remember really enjoying the pictures of Samantha and her friends with the humongous hair ribbons and neat dresses.

Each American Girl doll is centered around a particular time period in American history, and Samantha’s is centered around the Progressive Age and the time before World War I. The first, second, and last books deal with child factory workers, orphanages, and in general the difference between the upper and lower social classes. The fourth book mentions women’s suffrage and one of the main characters, Cornelia, is a suffragette. There’s also lots of little details about the etiquette and education of the time, as well as the life of an upper class child. Tripp even (perhaps unintentionally) directly compares Samantha’s life with Nellie’s in the last book.

The ending of the collection is, perhaps, a bit too rosy and happy, but I didn’t mind it as a child (in fact, I loved it). Samantha is one of the more headstrong characters, which I don’t normally like, but the only book that got a little annoying was the 5th book. And, even though the series had 3 different authors, it wasn’t particularly noticeable in terms of Samantha’s characterization (though she does go from a bit of a tomboy in the first book to more of a headstrong, rash personality). Overall, though I didn’t enjoy the series as much as Josefina’s, and it’s not as impactful as Addy’s, it was still pretty informative and interesting (plus, the illustrations always make things better!).

Info: Susan Adler (books 1 &2), Maxine Schur (book 3), Valerie Tripp (books 4-6); published 1986-1988 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed this adorable book about a scrawny little runt of a kitten named Jacob Tibbs and his adventures on board a merchant ship. From storms to a mutiny to a deserted island, Jacob learns what it means to be a good seacat and, more importantly, what it means to have a family.

This book is pretty simplistic, but it’s also suspenseful in parts as well as heartwarming overall. While the main character is a cat, it doesn’t read at all like other animal books might (like The Tale of Despereaux), and Jacob fits right in even with the other human characters. And while there are other animals in this book, this is not a book where the animals talk to each other as if they were human. It is one of the more realistic animal books I’ve read, in that Jacob thinks and acts like as much of a cat as an anthropomorphized main character can.

Besides the adventures Jacob has, the book also does a good job of explaining a little bit about merchant ships and the like. This is a book where the context really shines, explaining everything without reading like a textbook or like there’s too much information being given. There are a lot of little details, and I think even younger readers could grasp a lot of the context because Busby does such a good job with it.

All in all, I really enjoyed this simple little book about a cat. It was heartwarming, endearing, and tense in some places, and though the plot was obvious if I think about it, I didn’t really notice while I was reading it. The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs was a beautiful, pleasurable book to read, one of the little stand-outs I’ve read recently.

Info: Cylin Busby; published 2016 by Knopf.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

Addy: An American Girl by Connie Rose Porter

Rating: 4/5

Addy’s books are usually the ones that come to my mind when I think of tough topics dealt with in American Girl (Samantha’s are usually the second due to child labor in factories). In the first book alone, Addy witnesses whippings and is whipped, is forced to eat worms, and experiences a harrowing escape at night where she and her mother almost drown (oh, and her father and brother are taken away, and she and her mother have to leave her baby sister behind). And, even when she gets to Philadelphia, there are multiple conversations that she, her mother, and her friends have about how even though they are free, they aren’t free and people still hate them. In fact, the latter is one of the unifying themes throughout the entire collection.

However, because it’s a children’s book, Porter does pour on the good feelings and happy endings. Addy is a resourceful, cheerful, and persevering girl who never gives up hope, even as she wonders why the drug store clerk is mean to her, or why she can’t ride on certain streetcars. There are lots of great messages about friendship, family, and self-sacrifice, as Addy gives up multiple things she loves in order to help other slaves escape to freedom, and learns that the mean girl in school isn’t really all that different from herself. Porter does a good job of balancing the good, the bad, and the still-to-improve. The historical notes at the end are also quite good. Of all the American Girl books, I think Addy’s is probably the most powerful and the most relevant for today.

Info: Connie Rose Porter; published 1993-1994 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: Racism, segregation

Recommended Age Range: 7+

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Rating: 4/5

When I read this book, and some of its sequels, as a child, I didn’t really have any idea what exactly Aiken had done in terms of worldbuilding. And while this first book is much more involved with two little girls, and it’s not until the sequels that other bits about the England of these books is revealed, there’s still one vitally important thing in this book that clearly indicates that this isn’t a work of historical fiction, but of alternative history (which I’m deeming, for the simple genre labels of this blog, as fantasy).

The wolves.

Wolves in England died out a long time ago. According to Wikipedia, they became extinct (or at least very rare) during the reign of Henry VII (which was late AD 1400 to early AD 1500). So to have a book that’s clearly dated to the turn of the 20th century in England have wolves in it is immediately strange and reveals the fact that this book is an alternative history. Of course, when I read this as a kid, I had no idea, so the effect was lost on me.

It’s not revealed until later books why wolves are present in England again, but as I mentioned, Aiken isn’t super concerned with developing her alternative history until the later books. This book is about Bonnie Green and her cousin, Sylvia, who become victims of a terrible plot set in motion by Miss Slighcarp, Bonnie’s governess hired by her father while he and her mother go on a sea voyage. Basically, Miss Slighcarp hatches a plan to take control of Bonnie’s father’s wealth and power, and bundles Bonnie and Sylvia off to an orphanage, where they have to escape with a combination of plucky determination and the help of Simon, the goose boy.

There are lots of things about this book that are really hard to swallow, like the believability of Miss Slighcarp getting sole command over an estate (usually the realm of the owner’s steward, not the governess), and it’s clear that Aiken is exaggerating lots of things in order to make her story entertaining. But it works because the reader will be swept up in Bonnie and Sylvia’s attempts to foil the evil Miss Slighcarp’s plan. This book is like Dickens-lite, with courageous heroes who overcome cruel adults, no food, and wicked plots. And the voice of each character shines out immediately—stubborn Bonnie, gentle Sylvia, and wise Simon.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase doesn’t do a lot to show the full extent of the alternative history Aiken has created, and compared to the other books in the series it seems like an outlier, but it has lots of charm and is very unique despite its familiar plot tropes. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Aiken’s England in the next books.

Info: Joan Aiken; published 1962 by Delacorte

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Kaiulani: The People’s Princess by Ellen Emerson White

Rating: 3/5                     

This entry in the Royal Diaries tells the story of the last princess of Hawaii, Kaiulani, and the last years of the monarchy in Hawaii. The book mostly covers the years she is in Britain at school, though it also covers her time in Hawaii right before that (and her friendship with Robert Louis Stephenson) and when she travels to the US to appeal to the president at the time, Cleveland, to prevent the annexation of Hawaii.

I’ve been critical of books in this series that didn’t do enough about the politics of the era. This book covers this area in spades, detailing the weakening power of the monarchy in Hawaii, the plot to transfer power to the Americans, and the eventual abdication of Queen Liliuokalani and annexation of Hawaii to the US. It also describes the ins-and-outs of the Hawaiian Royal Family and really captures the voice of Kaiulani, who is intelligent and charismatic. White also conveys the fragility of the royal line, which sadly ends with Kaiulani’s early death in 1889 at the age of 23.

The reason I didn’t rate this any higher is really only because it didn’t wow me. I think White did a fantastic job of detailing the era of the time, and communicating a good depiction of Kaiulani. She also does a great job of communicating the controversy and conflict at the heart of the US’s attempts to annex Hawaii. And I love that White kept in Kaiulani’s Christianity and didn’t simply ignore it. But this book wasn’t so memorable to me that I thought a higher rating would be appropriate. It is, I think, the best of the Royal Diaries books so far, so perhaps my rating should reflect that, but I also feel as if I have to go with my gut, and my gut was impressed, but not fascinated.

Info: Ellen Emerson White; published 2001 by Scholastic.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Kirsten: An American Girl by Janet Beeler Shaw

Rating: 2/5

It was a bit of a let-down to go from the enjoyable Josefina books to Kirsten’s collection. Kirsten’s books deal with immigration (the first one), to learning how to speak English and dealing with Indian neighbors (the second one), to snippets of farm life (all the rest). And so, while the first two books are interesting, the last four are pretty boring. I’ve always described these first 6 American Girl collections as hardhitting at times, and though the first book deals with death by cholera, the rest of Kirsten’s books don’t really fit that. It’s probably why I almost always think of her books last when I think of what I read as a child.

One thing I did really enjoy was the beauty of the edition I was reading. Once upon a time (in 2001), each original American Girl collection was published as a hardbound, gilt-edged, beautiful book with a transparent dust jacket. These are apparently “Limited Edition” and I own two: Kirsten’s and Addy’s. So I did get pleasure just from being able to read from such a gorgeous edition, though this edition limited the historical notes to once at the end, rather than one after each book, which was disappointing.

I am struggling a bit to come up with more of a substantial review, but I simply found Kirsten’s stories so uninteresting that I don’t really have much to say. I did a lot of eyebrow raising in the second book, where Kirsten befriends an Indian girl, though I did enjoy Kirsten’s portrayal as someone who is easily intimidated with learning new and difficult things, but presses on and overcomes them. In the later books, she very quickly becomes a rash, bold child who makes bad decisions frequently, like the time she got chased by a bear because she didn’t tell anyone about the honey tree she found, or the time she set her family’s cabin on fire because she brought a raccoon into the house despite her mother’s warnings. But she always manages to turn it around in the end because otherwise what sort of books would these be?

Basically, I found Kirsten’s stories to be the least enjoyable so far. They’re not particularly memorable, either historically or otherwise, and they lack the complex issues and historical depth of many of the other collections. 

Info: Janet Beeler Shaw; published 1986-1988 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Josefina: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp

Rating: 3/5

Though I think Felicity is perhaps more cohesive and better overall as a series, I thoroughly enjoyed the more sentimental Josefina books. Just like with Felicity’s collection, each book is themed, and all six of them together take place over about a year of Josefina’s life.

Though there isn’t a “difficult” subject like in most of the other original American Girl stories (Josefina and her sisters do mourn the loss of their mother, but that happened before the book began), this series does tackle lots of Mexican culture in its page, and does a lot in the historical notes in telling about New Mexico and the people that live there. There’s even a glossary of Spanish terms in the back of each book. Though New Mexico was not part of the US at the time these books took place, I kinda like that they ran with the “before New Mexico was part of the USA” idea rather than having it take place after it had become a state. It allows for a little bit more historical information to be added.

Though I liked most of Josefina’s books more, I still think Felicity is a better series because of the two Josefina books I didn’t particularly like, which were the 4th and the 5th. The 4th is the birthday story and the main conflict is a rattlesnake bite, but the entire time I was reading it, I thought, “Is this really what being bitten by a rattlesnake is like?” The 5th book deals with americanos (American traders) and trust and is a little bit of an outlier in the series, not really fitting well with the other books despite being about an event that’s spoken of by the characters in previous books. However, I did like this book for the introduction it gave us to the sixth book, which has a super cute romantic plot that I thoroughly enjoyed (and is really why I prefer Josefina’s books to Felicity’s).

Also, the illustrations are great, and have I mentioned how much I love color illustrations in books?

Info: Valerie Tripp; published 1997-1998 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Felicity: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp

Rating: 3/5

In my mind, none of the recent American Girl books can hold a candle to the 5 (6 if you count Josefina, who came along later) original story collections. Though I’m relying on my Child Brain here, I do remember the stories dealing with some pretty difficult topics, such as slavery, immigration, and child labor. They also do a fairly decent job of teaching about different historical time periods, thanks to some beautiful illustrations and some historical notes. The more recent American Girl books seem childish and simplistic, though I’ll admit I haven’t read them and am solely going off of summaries and descriptions. As an adult, I’m most interested to see how well these books hold up to an adult’s eyes, and if some of the collections are really as hardhitting and difficult as I remember them being.

Since the “books” are so short (approx. 60 pages each), I couldn’t warrant reviewing each one separately, so I’ll be reviewing the 6 story collections I have (the original 5 American Girls, plus Josefina). If you’re not familiar with American Girl stories, they’re all formatted very similarly and each numbered book in each series has the same title and theme. For example, the first book is always “Meet ______,” the second book is always about school, the third book is always about Christmas, etc. There’s also beautiful color illustrations in each book, which I always adore.

Felicity: An American Girl tackles the time right before the Revolutionary War, and the books cover the growing tension between Patriot and Tories, the tax on tea and the Boston Tea Party, and the attempt to steal the militia’s gunpowder from Williamsburg. Outside of that, the books also briefly touch on apprenticeship, the lack of medical knowledge, and what schooling was like for young women. Oh, and there’s a great deal about horses, and lots about friendship. The last book also tackles forgiveness and being kind to people who haven’t been so kind to you.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing and how Tripp managed to convey historical detail without sacrificing accuracy (as in, the annoying trope of having characters explain what things are even though they should know what it is being that they live in that time period). These were clearly researched and, though the historical notes often explained topics that were not touched on in the book, covered a comprehensive amount. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the Pleasant Company was, is, or has always been owned by (or published the books through) Scholastic, publishers of Dear America. (Though perhaps they were their own company while these books were published.)

I definitely enjoyed the books that dealt more with the Revolutionary War aspect than the others, though none of them were bad. Occasionally Tripp had to stretch the bounds of reality a little bit to get Felicity where she needed to go, as there were many occasions when Felicity was like, “I’m going to do this!” and the older boy and even the adults were like, “Sure, go ahead,” when in reality, most likely the boy would have been sent. But I really liked how Tripp managed to show how friendship and love goes beyond political boundaries, a message sorely needed today.

Info: Valerie Tripp; published 1991-1992 by the Pleasant Company.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Warnings: None

Recommended Age Range: 7+