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

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf by Gerald Morris

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady.

Rating: 4/5

I am enjoying this series more and more with each book that I read. At first I wasn’t sure if Morris was trying to play Arthurian legend straight or be cheeky and humorous. Now, I think I’ve finally got a grasp of his tone, which is…both, really. It’s clear he loves Arthur, but it’s also clear he’s trying to make things enjoyable for his audience, especially those who may not be as familiar with Arthurian legend. The best thing is that all of these books are based off of real stories (usually Malory), explained by Morris in an author’s note at the end.

I don’t know the exact tale that Morris based this story off of, but the novel itself was delightful. There’s a fierce, yet still ladylike protagonist, a witty dwarf, a bumbling knight, and lots and lots of adventure. Plus, Terence makes a few appearances (and is responsible for maneuvering the characters into the places they’re supposed to be).

I figured out a majority of the plot twists before they were revealed, but I think Morris wasn’t as concerned with keeping things secret as he was with making sure his story was enjoyable. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t recognize the source material meant that I was able to simply enjoy this book as a story, not as an adaptation. Arthurian legend has never been my favorite, so I love that Morris has managed to make it palatable for me.

Romance played a central role in this book, much more so than the others, Perhaps because it’s the focal point of many medieval stories. Lynet is torn between the noble knight Beaumains and the sarcastic, gruff dwarf Roger, but it’s not nearly as love-triangle-y as I’m making it sound. It’s actually a very sweet, if predictable, romance.

The more I read these books, the more I want to read. That’s great praise for a series centered around one of my least favorite topics to read about, but Morris has a great way of making everything fun and interesting—and for filling in the gaps of Arthurian legend in a reasonable and sensible way.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

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

Out of the Embers by Amanda Cabot

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Out of the Embers, by Amanda Cabot, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 3/5

Out of the Embers tells the story of Evelyn Radcliffe, who, after the orphanage she worked in burned down, flees to Mesquite Springs with a young orphan girl she has befriended. There, she is inspired to start a restaurant where she runs into a number of the local community, including the rancher Wyatt Clark. As expected, the story is a romance, but there’s also a surprising amount of suspense and mystery as Evelyn seeks to escape from the mysterious person who murdered her parents and who burned down the orphanage.

My favorite parts of the book were the ones dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind the Watcher (what Evelyn dubbed the person she felt was watching her throughout her life after her parents were killed), Evelyn’s parents’ deaths, and the orphanage fire. Cabot integrates scarce viewpoints and tantalizing suggestions into the main story—just enough to keep readers curious and the novel suspenseful, but not enough to deflate the tension and make everything obvious. And the end result is pretty interesting and wraps up all three storylines nicely.

The parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy as much unfortunately were what most of the rest was dedicated to. I wasn’t fond of the love square present in the novel, and I’m not fond of “every man falls in love with the new girl” tropes at all, so having both of those present here was a little annoying. In addition, a lot of the dialogue between Wyatt and Evelyn was pretty cheesy and sappy, at least when they’re talking about their feelings. It just didn’t feel natural to me at all; it didn’t feel like anything someone would actually say to someone else.

I also was a little disgruntled that after this huge, tense buildup with Sam, Cabot basically deflated it all with one stroke, making it anticlimactic and a bit cheap. I suppose how she resolved it shows a measure of nuance, but I think the execution could have been a bit less jarring.

Out of the Embers breaks no molds and shatters no expectations for me. If you like the multitude of other Christian historical fiction novels out there, then you’ll like this. There’s decent suspense and mystery in it, though I found the romance clichéd and cheesy. The other plot besides the romance, however, elevated the book in my estimation of it. I deem it better than average, but not fantastic.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, was published in 1964 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child. I’m not really sure why; I just remember reading it over (and over) again. It’s interesting for me now to think about how many times I read favorite books over and over again when I was young. I don’t really consider myself a “rereader” as such, though I do have a few favorites that I love to return to. Anyway, for whatever reason, I read it quite frequently as a child.

Reading it now, I can see just how strange of a book Harriet the Spy is. It starts with Harriet and her friend Scout randomly going with her nurse Ole Golly to her mother’s house, who is described in unflattering terms as fat and dumb, and then continues with Harriet’s mean-spirited notes about friends and strangers. Harriet sneaks into people’s houses and peers through windows, all for the pleasure of spying. The entire book has a sort of jaunty, cavalier attitude throughout the entire thing that makes it incredibly difficult to transfer across times and cultures. Fitzhugh seems to be playing around quite a bit with perception and attitude and truth, perhaps even attempting to be satirical throughout, but Harriet’s fake apologies towards the end make a cohesive theme difficult to pull from the book. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that Harriet was really mean, or that her apology wasn’t sincere, so at least in that circumstance I don’t think the book is necessarily giving a bad message, but I think Fitzhugh is doing something more complex than her audience would ever be able to grasp.

That being said, I do appreciate Fitzhugh’s unapologetic, solid approach to showing what parents might do for a child who is having problems with change. I rarely read a children’s book with counseling in it, so to have that in this book was actually pretty bold and refreshing, I thought.

Harriet the Spy is a strange book, and one I think kids today might struggle to connect with due to its complex layers, aged language, and the really weird way the book starts. I don’t know if I enjoyed reading it again, but I certainly found it interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Harriet is bluntly honest, which is to say she’s mean; lots of “finks” thrown around; tons of off-hand references to alcoholism, absent parents, and other things that may go over a child’s head due to the 60s slang

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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 (?)