One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping by Barry Denenberg

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was nervous going into this book thinking that I would hate it, since I’ve strongly disliked Denenberg’s other Dear America books. I was especially nervous because this was my favorite DA book growing up. I’m not fond of having childhood favorites dissolve into mediocrity as an adult, though I’ve accepted it (and even welcomed it) for some. And I knew going on that I likely wouldn’t enjoy the book as much I remember.

The main flaw with this book is really that it’s dreadfully unbalanced. There’s the powerful, gut-punch of the first part, detailing the German invasion of Austria and the subsequent degrading treatment of the Jews. Denenberg implies very strongly that something terrible happened to Julie’s mother, though whether he’s suggesting rape or something else is up in the air. He does a fantastic job of describing exactly how terrifying and horrifying a time it must have been; every page is filled with panic and desperation.

Then, once Julie gets to New York, everything sort of falls apart a little. Suddenly, everything is theater, theater, theater. The tonal dissonance is jarring. And, okay, I suppose Denenberg was trying to tame the book down from the first part, and trying to suit the book for its audience with a bit less focus on terrible things, but I would have liked a little more remembrance of Austria and everything that happened there than what we got. It’s like Denenberg forgot he was writing a WWII book and instead was writing about theater in NYC. (Although, to be fair, the book is set in 1938, before America entered the war.)

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping is no longer my favorite DA book. I think it’s the best one Denenberg has written so far, though, and certainly miles better than many of them. But the jarring change of tone between the first and second halves of the book and the lack of any good closure or discussion of what Julie went through in Austria are the biggest letdowns of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, anti-Semitism, death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2018 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.

Rating: 4/5        

I described the first Vanderbeeker book as akin to the vibe I get from Elizabeth Enright or Jean Birdsall’s books. The second Vanderbeeker book is almost as good as the first one. It actually does something very similar to The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which is sidelining one of the characters and spending more time on the others, but I felt as if both were done for very different reasons. Birdsall’s, I feel, was more specifically for character development, whereas Yan Glaser seems to have done it purely for realism (that doesn’t mean there wasn’t character development).

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read the first book in a while, but I didn’t find this book quite as charming as the first one. Maybe it’s because I spent the first third of the book trying to remember if Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet were in the first book. Maybe it’s because Yan Glaser pulls some awfully clumsy characterization halfway through. In any case, though it’s not as charming as the first, I still enjoyed it.

Yan Glaser continues to strike a good balance between sadness, closure, and growth. The kids are hit with the reality of life several times through the novel, but they never let it dim their spirits for too long. The variety of characters means that all sorts of different personalities are represented, as well as different family situations and choices. It’s also great that Glaser chose to not go with a shallow, stereotypical bully, and instead gave a more nuanced approach that showed how people can be mean in response to meanness.

The book is maybe a little too bright and sparkling in places, especially concerning the years-old seeds that spontaneously bloom at the end of the novel, but it does capture the sort of joy and charm that I feel Glaser is trying to go for.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was published in 1917.

Rating: 4/5

Understood Betsy is a little bit Anne of Green Gables, a little bit Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but with lots more charm and humor than the latter and less drama and poetic language than the former. It probably reminds me the most of a book like Thimble Summer or The Moffats. It’s the story of Elizabeth Ann and her journey from timid wallflower child to the Betsy of the title—brave, clever, and with lots of personality.

Apparently Fisher was a huge proponent of the Montessori style of teaching, and apparently that style of teaching is prevalent throughout the book, perhaps most significantly in the school scenes. The afterword points out many of the parts of the book that were inspired by Fisher’s time with Maria Montessori. However, none of that is important in understanding and enjoying the content.

The book is cute and there’s a lot that it has to say about how much influence adults have on children, in addition to the environment the child is in. Betsy is timid and scared when she arrives at the “dreaded” Putney cousins because her aunt is a timid and scared woman. After spending some time with the more easygoing, vibrant Putneys, she becomes more vibrant herself. And while there are some shenanigans, they are there purely to describe how Elizabeth Ann is becoming more “Betsy”—and more of a healthy child—because of her decisions.

If I had read this book a little earlier in my life, I can definitely see it being as memorable and beloved in my mind as Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. It’s a little dated and I raised my eyebrows a few times, but overall Understood Betsy is a charming children’s story with a good message and some pretty decent character development (and not just for Betsy).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Magical Mischief by Anna Dale

Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale, was published in 2010 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 3/5

If I had a favorite realistic fantasy trope, it would have to be something of the sort found in Magical Mischief: rogue magic inhabiting some place and the people who live/work there having to find a way to deal with it. In this book, the magic is in a bookshop, and the events that happen as Mr. Hardbattle (the owner) and his friends try and relocate the magic before he goes out of business are as wild as the magic itself.

The one major flaw in this otherwise charming book is that it was simply too long, and after a time the characters and the plot started to grate on me, especially Miss Quint and the sideplot (but then actually the main plot?) of characters from books being wished into existence and the wreaking havoc in the real world. That plot went on forever, and Miss Quint, who is an adult, refusing to come clean and telling lie after lie to cover up her tracks got more and more annoying. There was also some pretty inconceivable events that happened and altogether I thought that plotline really dampened my enjoyment of the book.

I did like Susan’s plotline, though, and that was tied up with the annoying plotline, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the book had maybe been about fifty pages shorter, and hadn’t had that wild burglary angle complete with kidnapping and car chase because that’s when things really started getting unbelievable.

Basically, I really liked the first half of Magical Mischief, but the second half was a bit of a chore to read, so I finished the book with more of a negative feeling than a positive.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic  


Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, by Katelan Janke, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was going to start out this review completely differently, but then I flipped to the back of the book to find the author’s name and found something out completely stunning: Katelan Janke was in some sort of Dear America writing contest and won, so she got to turn her contest submission into a manuscript.

She was fifteen years old.

Like S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, Janke is proof that you can actually have novel-worthy writing at a young age. I did notice throughout the book that everything felt a bit too stale and that the writing didn’t seem as good as some of the other DA books. Well, now I know why, and I can’t really hold it against Janke.

Janke does an admirable job of showing both the Dust Bowl and the situation for the migrant workers in California, who were treated terribly and were all called “Okies” despite only some of them being from Oklahoma. She doesn’t do as good of a job explaining the reasons for the Dust Bowl, with only some vague references to plowing and farming, though it was described more in-depth in the Historical Notes in the back.

There is a little too much show and not enough tell, and everything is just a little too pat and ends a little too nicely, and overall there’s some really boring parts, but towards the end of the novel the book gets more interesting. Props to Janke—she’s the most inexperienced DA writer, and I thought this book was better than some of the other DA books written by more experienced writers. Once a lot of the rough patches are over, and you get more used to the style of writing, Survival in the Storm was far from the worst DA book I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall by Barry Denenberg

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5        

It’s not a good sign for my proclaimed favorite Dear America book (One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping) that I’ve strongly disliked all of Barry Denenberg’s DA entries so far (Denenberg wrote said favorite). It’s not the setting, or the topic, that I dislike so much. It’s that Denenberg has so far failed at making any of his characters interesting.

Bess has barely any voice or personality in this novel, and what we do see of her is contrasted awkwardly with what her sister says of her. In fact, most of Bess’s character is described through her sister’s eyes, and yet we see none of what her sister mentions in Bess’s diary entries. Bess spends more time talking about the people around her and what they are like than doing anything remotely involving connection with the reader. So, while the reader might get awfully attached to Eva, or even Amanda, Bess is left as merely the speaker through which all of this information is coming.

Also, Denenberg writes terrible epilogues, and I absolutely hated how he name-dropped his other Dear America entry, When Will This Cruel War Be Over?, in this one. You can tell he thought it was so clever and funny to do so, but it just seemed self-centered to me.

I’m not rating this a 1 because a lot of the information about the Perkins School for the Blind was pretty interesting. I do like how Dear America can sometimes focus on little things like a blind school in the immensity of American history and events. And setting it in the Great Depression helps communicate some of those issues, as well, though that’s merely a backdrop. So, no problems with the setting or the topic—just with Denenberg’s writing and characterization.

I’m now nervous that One Eye Laughing won’t be as good as I remember. Here’s hoping Denenberg has a few last surprises to give me before I give up on him completely.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Christmas After All by Kathryn Lasky

Christmas After All: The Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5        

Christmas After All would have been rated a 4 if it hadn’t been for the extremely cheesy ending. As a specifically Christmas-themed Dear America, I suppose I should have expected that Lasky would have gone for the same sort of theme as a Hallmark Christmas movie, but the inclusion of all that “Oh, it is a Christmas after all!” at the very end ruined the whole book for me a little.

It’s a shame because this DA book has one of the strongest voices. It reads far more like an actual girl writing in a diary than someone who is simply narrating a sequence of events, as has been the case for past novels. Perhaps the shorter period of time (most DA books take place over months—this one took place over days) and a more general historical event helped focus the whole novel on the character voice, as this was one of the most realistic I’ve read. I was actually quite shocked that Minnie came from Lasky, who I’ve criticized before for her writing in Guardians of Ga’Hoole. This writing was so unlike the Lasky that I’ve read; it was a very pleasant surprise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the very end. As I said, the voice is fantastic, and though Lasky doesn’t really communicate all that much about the Great Depression, it’s at least clear that it was a bad time for lots of people (which is really understating it, but that’s the general feeling in the book). And, thinking about it, that’s exactly how a child might think of it at the time, so perhaps it was the perfect way to discuss it! Everything, after all, is filtered through Minnie’s eyes, so we are seeing her impressions and descriptions, which may not mean they are strictly historical ones.

Christmas After All is a perfectly themed Dear America book, with a memorable voice and good historical detail interwoven. The Christmas theme does come across way too strongly at the end, which ruined the book for me a little, as I prefer strong finishes and this finish felt trite and cliché. I’m also really disappointed in the epilogue and historical notes because I’m a nerd and I care about those things. It’s one of the more unique DA books, though, so it’s a stand-out regardless.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Color Me Dark by Patricia C. McKissack

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Patricia C. McKissack tackles so much in Color Me Dark: Jim Crow laws, the KKK, the Great Migration, race riots, class disputes, and Chicago’s infamous “Red Summer.” There’s also a fair amount of city vs. country and North vs. South tension, as well.

McKissack gives a great job of showing all different types of people in this book. We have, of course, the protagonist, Nellie Lee, who is determined to show the world that her skin color doesn’t matter. There’s her sister, Erma Jean, who has her own obstacles to overcome when she hears the story of how her Uncle Pace died tragically after returning home from WWI. There’s the parents, who have to navigate the business world of Chicago where the only way to succeed seems to be to pay other people to give you what you want. My favorite part was that all of these people were truly different types of people. The rich people weren’t all greedy, the white people weren’t all racist (okay, well, only a couple that are named, but the rest were all historical characters). There were black people with differing social classes and racial opinions. This was one of the most well-developed, nuanced cast of characters that I’ve seen in a while.

McKissack also shows how, even though people like Uncle Meese and, in the end, the Love family, were prosperous and succeeded, they still were seen as inferior by other people. Unfortunately, most of that information comes in the epilogue and in the historical notes. Honestly, I think she could have made the point even stronger in the story as a whole, but what she does have is still great even so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Little House of Their Own by Celia Wilkins

A Little House of Their Own, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2005 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little City by the Lake.

Rating: 4/5        

The last Caroline book is also the most heartwarming, describing the (possibly fictional) events leading up to Caroline and Charles getting married, prefacing the events of Little House in the Big Woods. The sweet, sedate romance that unfolds is appropriate for a children’s book, and Wilkins manages to convey both the wildness and wanderlust of Charles Ingalls and the groundedness of Caroline. Charles’s voice sounds, at times, straight out of the original Little House series, as does Caroline’s.

When not describing the budding romance between the two, the book concerns itself with Caroline’s school teaching days. It’s not overly exciting, but Wilkins does a good job of staying true to the picture of Caroline that we receive in Little House, as well as provides for some explanation of her ways in those books. The Caroline of this series seems slightly spunkier than the one in Little House, but this last book does show her gentleness that is so prominent in her daughter’s books.

This has always been my favorite book simply because of the sweet romance, but it’s not the most interesting. I think On Top of Concord Hill wins that award, as the romance featured in that book is of a much more interesting kind (plus a few more exciting things happen). However, A Little House of Their Own is the perfect finale for the series, as well as a perfect setup for the Little House books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Like the Willow Tree has a fairly unique (and odd) setting/focus. Most Dear America books focus on events, like the Great Depression or World War I, or periods of time (factory work, immigration, etc.). This book has a brief mention of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and even briefer mentions of WWI, but the main focus is a on a group of people, not an event: the Shakers.

No, not the Quakers. The Shakers, thus called because they used to “shake” and dance during worship, are a sect of Christianity founded around 1747. Today, there are only two Shakers remaining (and at Sabbathday Lake, the setting of the book).

It’s like Lowry was enthralled by the Shaker life (as evident in the Historical Note) and wanted to write a book about it, so she contacted Scholastic and asked, and Scholastic said, “Okay, but you have to throw in something else relevant so it seems like a normal Dear America book” and Lowry went with the Spanish flu.

I did learn lots of interesting things about Shakers (like how many inventions they were responsible for: the clothespin, a type of washing machine, and the circular saw, to name a few), and this book is a really good way to learn about a little known religious sect, but since no other DA book focuses so strongly on a group of people (I am not counting any of the Native American books, since those were about events/periods in that culture’s history with information about the group intertwined. This book focuses on the group, and has events intertwined), it just seems odd and out of place.

Plus, the story itself wasn’t that interesting. Lydia is merely a mouthpiece for and an observer of Shaker ways, so she assimilates quickly and spends the rest of the book describing and thinking about Shaker life. Again, if you want to know about Shakers, then Like the Willow Tree is great for that. But if you want a good story, with interesting characters, then maybe look elsewhere.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction