Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi in the South Seas, by Astrid Lindgren, was published in 1959 by Viking. It is the sequel to Pippi Goes on Board.

Rating: 2/5

Pippi in the South Seas sounds distinctly different from the first two Pippi Longstocking books. At first I thought it was because of the small gap in years of publication between this book and the previous, but then I realized it may have to do with the translator. However, that would only affect language, not characterization, and I felt Pippi was a bit different in this book. Then again, I don’t think Lindgren was especially concerned with consistency.

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+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy (?)

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, was published in 2018 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Supernatural

Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Goes on Board, by Astrid Lindgren, was published in 1957 by Viking. It is the sequel to Pippi Longstocking.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Elizabeth I by Kathryn Lasky

Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Dear America spawned multiple spin-offs, but probably the most interesting ones are the Royal Diaries, which chronicles the lives of young future queens around the world. I won’t be doing these in chronological order, as I did with Dear America, or by any other ridiculous measure of reading (like by region or country or whatever), but simply in the order that’s listed on the Wikipedia page (and only the ones my library has).

The immediate thing I noticed while reading Elizabeth I is how much longer it was than a standard Dear America novel, as well as how much more time it covered (1544-1547). Lasky tried her best to make Elizabeth seem as much as a normal girl as possible, though in the interest of the series she had to work in all the political intrigue and medieval information that corresponded with the time period. That means, unfortunately, casting a rather poor light on Princess Mary (“Bloody Mary”) who is only ever depicted as vindictive and deceitful (done so that children can realize that she wasn’t a very great queen later on, I realize, but a bit heavy-handed for me, though admittedly I know almost nothing of that time period nor anything about Mary beyond details about her reign that are still taught). It also means having Elizabeth proclaim almost from the beginning of the novel that she would never marry.

I do like how Lasky wove in all the information of Henry VIII and his wives. She played around a little with how Elizabeth must have felt to have a father who killed her mother, and who then married twice afterwards. Lasky is, perhaps, too nice to Henry VIII, but it makes sense in the light of a child’s view of her father.

I think the Royal Diaries is a concept is much more interesting than the standard Dear America novels, and I love political intrigue, so I’m looking forward to seeing where things go. I also know that RD covers a much broader range of cultures and time periods, as they are not limited to simply America, so it will be interesting to see how that is handled.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Ellen Emerson White

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, by Ellen Emerson White, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? is the last Dear America book chronologically. It’s a shame the series stopped with the Vietnam War, since I’m sure there’s lots of other interesting events in the 70s-early 2000s that the series could have covered, but I suppose there was never really an opportunity.

Molly is perhaps one of the most opinionated and feisty protagonists, but it fits with the era. White manages to throw in at least some nuance to the Vietnam controversy, though I wish more mention had been made of the thousands of refugees the war created, and Molly communicates her confusion and uncertainty quite well, with being caught between pride that her brother is fighting for his country and her unease with America fighting the war. White also covers a lot of other issues, such as the many assassinations that took place during that time period, riots, second-wave feminism, and even baseball. It’s a nice cursory glimpse at the Vietnam period, though it’s much more concerned with the American view of the war during a small window of time as opposed to a broader overview of the entire war. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it prevented the book from getting too drawn out and sluggish.

My foray into the Dear America books has been interesting and very nostalgic. I won’t do a favorites or ranking for this series, but I must say, I wasn’t expecting so many of the books to be so boring and mediocre. I only had a few stand-out favorites, and a few hanging on merely for nostalgia’s sake. Now that this is done, I have to give myself another crazy reading goal! Such as…all of the Royal Diaries?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney

With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

Of the revamped Dear America books, this book is the best of them all, and definitely in what I would consider the top tier of all of them. With the Might of Angels is about desegregation/integration after Brown v. Board of Education and about the lead-up to the Civil Rights Movement. There’s also an extensive historical and author’s note at the end, where Pinkney addresses all the real things that happened, as well as what was fictional and what tweaks to time she made.

Part of what makes this book so great is not only the topic, but also the way Pinkney makes Dawnie’s voice shine through. My favorite DA books have always been those that remember that they’re not just recounting history, but making the narrator seem real, like this was a real person living in those times. And sometimes that means the narrator isn’t concerned at all times with the particular historical event the book is focused. Sometimes it means she’s thinking about pogo sticks, or how much she loves (and yet is annoyed by) her younger brother, or how she really wants to be a doctor when she grows up. It means sometimes she’s a bit whiny, sometimes a bit angry, sometimes a bit confused, and sometimes courageous and strong. And yes, Dawnie is all of those things.

The book is less brutal and hard-hitting than a book like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but Pinkney doesn’t pull any punches, either. Dawnie and her brother are called all manner of racial slurs. Goober is beaten up. The family receives prank telephone calls, gets bottles of milk thrown at their house, and finds a drowned raccoon in a barrel of milk on their porch as a response to the black community’s boycott of Sutton’s Dairy. Dawnie is belittled and overlooked at school. There’s mentions of lynching. Yet Pinkney manages to keep the book hopeful and light, despite the heavy material.

 There’s no Dear America book on the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but With the Might of Angels does a whole lot to cover many of those topics. It shows all the immorality and hate implicit in the time period, but without making it too dark for children. That being said, there’s plenty in this book to unpack, and it’s likely not suitable for children too young to understand or at least discuss everything going on in this book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Racial slurs.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, was published in 1950 by Viking.

Rating: 3/5

Ah, Pippi Longstocking. Another of my childhood books that I read over and over to the point of memorizing. These books sat next to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family books. Even now, years since I’ve picked up the book, I still remember reading it, and all the inflections I put in all the character’s voices.

Pippi Longstocking was first published in Sweden, which explains why at one point Lindgren (or the translator?) describes someone speaking in Swedish as well as all the names and sometimes odd references. It’s the story of an incorrigible nine-year-old who lives by herself (with a monkey and a horse), but who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself due to her immense wealth and strength. With a pirating background and loads of practicality and literalness, Pippi makes a scene wherever she goes—and still somehow manages to avoid major adult interference.

Lindgren writes Pippi in such a way that children will be sure to love the books, though adult readers might find her a bit wearing. She’s so…present in every scene, and all the characters fade into the background, even her friends Tommy and Annika. Though Lindgren makes it so that Pippi comes out on top nearly every time, there are at least some hints where you can see Pippi’s lack of education and discipline showing through in a more negative light, such as when she disrupts a tea party with her terrible manners and constant interruptions to tell stories about her or her family’s life (which she admits she makes up). She’s cheeky and incorrigible and exactly the sort of messy children’s protagonist that children love (I did). As an adult, though, I found her a bit taxing and annoying.

Pippi Longstocking is a book that didn’t hold its charm for me as an adult, but I still had an enjoyable nostalgic read of it and I’m looking forward to seeing if the book where Pippi, Tommy, and Annika go to an island where her father has been crowned king of cannibals is as cringe-worthy as I think it will be.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy (?)

My Secret War by Mary Pope Osborne

My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, by Mary Pope Osborne, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America has a LOT of WWII stories. And with the exception of One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping, they all take place around the same time frame and detail the beginning of the US’s entrance into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. An important piece of history, definitely, but after reading it four times, it starts wearing a bit thin.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

Whittington by Alan Armstrong

Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, was published in 2005 by Random House.

Rating: 2/5

I thought at first that Whittington would be some sort of retelling of “Dick Whittington and His Cat.” The cover art of the version I had strongly suggested that, as does, of course, the title. And it is—kind of. But it’s really about the descendant of Whittington’s cat going to a farm and interacting with the farm animals there while telling the story of Whittington to the animals and to the grandchildren of the owner of the farm, one of whom is struggling in school.

It’s a little bit of a weird book. Or perhaps the fact that I wasn’t expecting it to be mostly about farm animals threw me off. The story of Whittington is woven into the story of the everyday life of the animals pretty neatly, but there’s still really odd chapters every now and then that don’t seem to fit, whether it’s a random story about a horse, a dog, or even the humans. Even Ben’s struggle with reading seems a bit out of place at times. And I didn’t remember enough of “Dick Whittington and His Cat” to know if this book was a retelling, an alternate version, or something else entirely.

I think maybe if I hadn’t been so thrown by the content, and if I hadn’t been reading other books that were more interesting to me, I might have enjoyed Whittington a little bit more. Unfortunately, I found it a little boring, random and sporadic in pacing and story, and not appealing enough to hold my interest for long.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic, Fantasy

The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis,by Kirby Larson, was published in 2010 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I think I’ve actually read The Fences Between Us before, though I barely remember it. I knew going in that it was about Pearl Harbor/Japanese internment, and I was curious, after reading a few books about that subject last year, how Larson’s account would hold up to those.

I really enjoyed the perspective given of a pastor’s kid whose father’s decisions profoundly affect her life. The characters in the book are based off of real people, so while Piper is completely fictional, her father was inspired by Pastor Emery Andrews, who moved to a Japanese detention camp to follow his congregation. A lot of books I’ve read that have Christian characters make them very flat, even stereotypical, so this book was a nice breath of fresh air. One thing I can’t fault the Dear America books on is their portrayal of religion; it’s always been interwoven (with some emphasizing more than others), not ignored as with other books.

I think Larson handled the topic very well, though I think the book itself goes on for far too long. To her credit, Larson includes everything from Pearl Harbor to the tension between Japanese Americans and their neighbors to Executive Order 9066 to the actual move Piper and her father make, all of which is important and necessary…but that’s a whole lot to cram into a book, not to mention all the extra things she includes, like Piper’s first boyfriend and her activities at school. The book, therefore, is hefty and starts to really show its length towards the middle/end.

The Fences Between Us is good, and definitely one of the better revamped Dear America books. However, it’s so long that it starts to drag and I started losing interest when things continued at a slow pace.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction