The book starts with a few adventures in Sweden, but then goes into the main part of the book, which is the journey to Pippi’s father’s island monarchy. This book has the most unbelievable plot incentive in order to get Tommy and Annika to Kurrekurredutt Island, where their mother just cavalierly lets them go, in the middle of the school year, to a remote island for months without any way of knowing when they’d be back (or if they even survived the journey). Okay, yes, yes, children’s book and all that, and certainly when I read this as a child I didn’t even think about things like this.
Anyway, at the island, Pippi and friends have their usual adventures, this time involving pirates/bandits and tropical island activities, and there’s a sweet little scene at the end of the book where the trio return after Christmas and Pippi holds a little Christmas celebration for them anyway.
These books completely lost their shine reading them again as an adult, but I did really enjoy them as a child, and many of the things that disgruntled me now I completely missed or ignored then, so I would say these books are successful children’s books, just not successful enjoyable-for-adults-too books.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy (?)
The Book of Boy is odd. It reminded me a little bit of The Inquisitor’s Tale, which was also an odd book that I didn’t enjoy. The book starts out innocently enough, with a peasant/servant boy with a humpback, who is only known as “Boy,” falling in with a hermit/pilgrim/stranger who is determined to get his hands on the seven relics of Saint Peter. Then, about halfway through the book, it takes a dive into the strange and supernatural. Let’s just say there is an angel, the key to Hell, a traveler from Hell, and a whole bunch of medieval Catholicism.
So, basically, for the first half of the book, I was mildly enjoying the journey, interested in the medieval aspect and eager to see how Murdock would show some of the more controversial events and ideas. Then, out of nowhere, the book turned heavily supernatural, and then from there on it read like a fantasy novel. It’s a little bit like Murdock decided to turn the medieval beliefs dial up to eleven, but I don’t think it was dealt with at all well. It didn’t come quite out of left field, as there was some indication that things would go in that direction, but overall the whole aspect was puzzling and I’m really not sure why Murdock decided to take it in that direction.
The Book of Boy seems a little experimental in nature, and by its Newbery Honor it was well-received by many. However, I thought the supernatural aspect was odd and ruined the book for me, and the medieval aspect, while informative, was also a little one-sided, as it showcased all the corruption and zealousness of the era with no nuance. I’m also not too fond of the medieval setting in general, so perhaps it was a lost cause from the beginning.
Most of the time, books I grew up reading I enjoy again while reading as an adult. The Pippi Longstocking books are turning into one of the exceptions, I think. It’s not that they’re bad; it’s just that I spend half the time wincing and half the time rolling my eyes at Pippi’s antics.
Pippi Goes on Board has a slightly more tolerable Pippi in terms of manners around adults than Pippi Longstocking did, but Lindgren chose instead to focus on “Pippi solves every one’s problems” for every chapter, so (almost) every chapter has Pippi saving the day in some form or fashion. In addition, Pippi continues her tall tales of the countries and islands and people she’s seen, whereupon most of the wincing will occur, as Lindgren peppers her speech with references to the “Hottentots” and to various made-up tribes. Things are made more wince-worthy when Pippi’s father returns, who has been crowned king of a cannibal tribe just as she has always said, and parades around in his cannibal/jungle gear. To be clear, nothing is bad in terms of language—just really ignorant (as one might expect from a book from the 50s, honestly).
However, that being said, Lindgren does a lot to show off the caring side of Pippi, especially when it comes to Tommy and Annika. From the tree that “grows soda” (re: Pippi puts it there) to buying mounds of candy for everyone to comforting Tommy and Annika when they really think they’re shipwrecked forever to foregoing sailing off with her father because she can’t bear to see them sad, Pippi shows that she’s not all rough around the edges.
Plus, there’s a truly delightful illustration where she’s standing fiercely tall with a pistol in hand, glaring at imaginary cannibals.
I’m truly afraid the last Pippi book will be even more wince-worthy than Pippi Goes on Board, as 50s Europe (remember, the book was written in Sweden, though 50s America probably was similar) clearly echoes lots of ideas that modern times have sought so hard to remove or change completely. At least these books are a good lesson in how people in strange cultures/lands were talked about.
My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, by Mary Pope Osborne, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.
My Secret War tries to be different from the others by detailing, perhaps the best out of all the WWII DA books, the fervor and excitement to help the war effort. Rationing, children’s clubs, spying, secret codes, and anonymous tips are all covered in this novel. There’s even a brief mention of Madeline’s mother working at a factory to help in the absence of the men who usually worked there. We also get a little bit of author’s indulgence through the inclusion of a true story of Nazi saboteurs who landed on Long Island and were caught—how they were caught, in this novel, is what I’m referring to as the author’s indulgence. Harmless, but it did warrant an eyeroll from me.
Unfortunately, My Secret War suffers from being the last of a long line (or so it feels) of WWII books, and since it doesn’t cover a more specific look at WWII, as One Eye or The Fences Between Us did, I was simply in a rush to finish it because I felt as if I’d read it already. Honestly, I’m really glad DA is jumping forward a few years because though I love WWII as a setting for historical fiction, I’m tired of reading about the same thing for the last few books.
Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
I feel like it’s a bit of a running joke by now, my dislike of Denenberg’s Dear America books. They’re just so shallow and bland compared to some of the others. Early Sunday Morning is too short, doesn’t delve deeply enough into the aftermath of Pearl Harbor (for my tastes, but even so, I think Denenberg was a bit tame considering everything he talked about in One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping), and has a main character that’s a little too self-centered.
Bad things aside, I did actually enjoy the voice/tone of the book. It reminded me of the voice in Lasky’s Christmas After All, which was delightful. That voice did grate on me after a while (after Pearl Harbor, when Amber is just like “Poor me” all the time), but the set-up to Pearl Harbor was interesting (though far too long) even if the conclusion came too quickly.
Early Sunday Morning is good for a brief look at the Pearl Harbor event, but there are other books—like Under the Blood-Red Sun—that deal with the topic so much better. I always try to go into Denenberg’s DA books with a blank slate, but every time either I fail or he continuously disappoints. Luckily, the books are marketed to children, not me, and this book fits the bill for a simple glance at a major event in America’s history that is appropriate for children.
I devoured Haddix’s works as a middle-schooler; she and Caroline B. Cooney defined my reading as a 12-year-old. However, now that I’ve read a couple of books by her as an adult, I find her novels very underwhelming.
Full Ride is okay—much better than either The Always Waror Under Their Skin, but not as nostalgic as Just Ella—though the book is probably about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. There is just so much of Becca having inner monologues all the time about her feelings. And crying. And running. And internally yelling at her criminal father.
The plot was decent, though it seemed highly farfetched in several areas. Not even the author’s note where Haddix talks about how carefully she researched helped. I guess it’s because the whole plot revolves around con artists, so it’s harder to swallow because some areas are just so ridiculous that you can’t help thinking that something is fishy. And, unfortunately, sometimes things seem so ridiculous because the characters do ridiculous things or react in strange ways or interact in scenarios that seem unrealistic.
The best part of this book is probably the friendship between Becca and the group of high-achieving budding scholars. That was the most realistic aspect, and the interactions seemed natural. Everything was a lot less stilted and dramatic when those characters were together, so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that part the most.
There are a lot of authors that I read in my childhood that I adore, but Haddix is not one of them anymore. I’ve so far thought of her books as no more than mediocre. I’m tempted to read Cooney to see if I feel the same about her. Sometimes there are just certain authors that you grow out of, I suppose!
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.
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.
Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.
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
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.
The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’sbooks. It’s a non-serious fantasy about a rebellious princess (*shudder*) who, knowing better than all the adults around her (of course), sets off to complete the quest her father put in place for eligible suitors, thereby “winning her own hand” a la Merida from Brave.
It’s a good thing I recognized this as non-serious,
fun fantasy early on, otherwise I would’ve spent the whole book wondering how
the logistics of everything worked out. There’s no sense of scale, politics, or
even world mechanics, and everything that happens just seems a little too
unbelievable to be convincing that it would actually happen. It really starts
to delve into melodramatic territory with the “angry parents” side plot.
I can see why a lot of people like this book. Meg is a
rebellious, unconventional princess (a very popular trope) who goes against the
status quo, befriends the lower class, and somehow knows a ton about the
workings of society outside the castle despite never going out much. She’s oh-so
understanding and friendly and remarkably capable despite, again, lack of
knowledge and training. She knows better than anyone else what the correct way
of things should be. Unluckily for me, I absolutely hate that type of
character, especially combined with the overused rebellious princess trope.
For non-serious fantasy directed at a middle-grade
audience, I suppose it’s a fine book. Again, many people would probably applaud
the protagonist (especially considering the audience and everyone’s constant
wish for strong female leads [or, at least, what they think a strong female
lead should be]). Yet I found the whole book unbelievable, Meg annoying, and
the jokes not funny. Coombs took one step too far and turned her non-serious
novel into camp.
I’ve discovered why I’ve struggled to get through
these books—there’s very little action. Perhaps that’s why The Crow, the book with the most action, was my favorite. The Singing is, as all the books are,
far too long, and there’s too much talking and introspection and not enough
danger and suspense. Even the final “showdown” at the end with Sharma was
Maerad also develops far too much power too quickly.
There is not a very good balance to her growth in magic; she goes from somehow
defeating a giant Elemental (within the range of what we know about her
strength) to a glowing person who leaks magic and can destroy bad guys with a
single breath, after merely sitting for ten minutes and thinking—or something.
I’m not sure what was happening because my eyes were glazing over.
I honestly think if the books were much shorter, and
if there were only three books instead of four, the whole effect would have
been much better. But there are whole chapters of this book that are
unnecessary, or scenes that go on for far too long, and after a while Croggon’s
writing style really starts grating. And it’s clear she doesn’t know how to
write action, so she limits it as much as she can, which is why so much of the
final confrontation is inward rather than outward—but because everything is
delivered in the same exact tone, there’s no suspense or tension to the scene.
There’s practically no struggle, either.
Hem remains the only interesting character; Maerad is
too flat and boring, especially in this book. The problem with making your
character super-powerful is that it also makes them super-boring without
conflict or struggle to make them interesting. Hem, who was more normal, seemed
more alive than Maerad, who spent most of the last half of the book in a daze that
wasn’t really all that important to developing any part of her character.
Singing, and the Pellinor series in general, tries so hard to
deliver on epic fantasy, but falls short in terms of pacing, action,
characterization, and intrigue. There’s no politics, barely any struggle, and
there wasn’t enough editing done to help mitigate that. I’m a bit sorry I spent
so much time on these books, honestly, but what’s done is done, and now I know
that I can’t stand them (except for The
Crow. That one was okay).