Vacation Reading

This post was started in the midst of my recent vacation, but then there were internet connection issues and piles of stuff to go through when I got back to Texas and, well, you know how it is. 

Part of my trip was spent at a friend’s house who is also a big kid lit fan.  She had stacks of books scattered throughout her adorable 1930s apartment (did I mention the doorknobs?  Quite possibly the cutest doorknobs ever!).  There are certain advantages to spending a few days with a fellow kidlit fan. 

#1–There are definitely more than a few conversations about books. 

#2–She has lots and lots of books, many of which are either on my mental or actual goodreads to-read list.  I think this has been the most I’ve read on a vacation in a very long time. 

The first night I was there, I picked up When the Sirens Wailed by Noel Streatfeild.  Streatfeild is best known for her Shoe books, but she wrote so much more.  I’ve now read most of her semi-autobiographical books, including A Vicarage Family and On TourWhen the Sirens Wailed is about three children who are evacuated during the Blitz in World War II.  Though it’s definitely not my favorite Streatfeild, there are many things that I loved about it.  First, and I think most importantly, this book is about a poor family.  They’re barely making it–a simple thing like figuring out what to put their few things in for the journey is a very big deal. A complete meal or some candy is also a very big deal.   And though its subtle, you kinda get the parent’s frustration at the government assuming that all families had suitcases for everyone.  There are plenty of little details about rationing and food.  And when the kids return to London, the terror during the bombing feels infinitely real.  Published decades after the war, this is one of the last books Streatfeild published.  According to the brief blurb at the back, this book is partially based on “the vivid memories of her own experiences in the Women’s Voluntary Service.”

As soon as I finished Sirens, I realized that Wendy just might have Return to Gone-Away, a book my library doesn’t have (shame on them!).  After some intense searching, I found it and gulped it down.  This has got to be one of the ultimate fantasy novels for folks who love old houses.  Treasures abound inside!  Kids get stuck in a dumbwaiter (just like Katie John–is there a book featuring an old house where kids don’t get stuck in the dumbwaiter?).  Major decorating decisions are made.  And practically speaking, enough antique furniture and jewels are found to finance the whole thing.  (Jealous!  All we found was a very scary tissue box cover and a fabulous 1948 phone book).

As someone who is regularly fighting to preserve the old and unique, books like this make me extremely happy.  Every single person is in love with the Villa Caprice.  They work really hard at it and live with the quirks.  It just makes me very satisfied.  How I wish I was reading this in the spring of 2009, as I was renovating my own house.  Or even better–that I had read it as a kid and these books had been a part of my life for decades.

My final book during my sojurn at Wendy’s was The Keeping Days by Norma Johnston.  I ended up with very mixed feelings.  I know it’s based on the author’s grandmother’s life, but at the same time, it feels way too modern.  It’s almost issue-y.  But it was refreshing to have another book about the past where everything isn’t perfect–there’s anger and frustration.  I get so tired of the “rosy glow” of history–the people who say “I wish I lived back then.”   And it always seems like a lot of these folks’ ideas about the past are based on books–you know, the ones that leave out the not so good stuff.

I rounded out my kidlit vacation reading with the second half of the Octavian Nothing opus by M. T. Anderson.  This is one of those books that takes a bit of effort to get into, but once you’re there. . .  These two novels are quite possibly some of the best modern historical fiction I’ve read in a very long time.  Anderson explores all the complexities of race and the American Revolution through the very real eyes of Octavian.  This isn’t one of my favorite eras of history, but I recommend these books without reservation.  Skip Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (also about slaves in the time of the Revolution) and focus your attention on the other Anderson.

I also scored more than a few books at various antique shops and used book stores throughout the midwest.  Methinks it’s time to revisit Beverly Cleary later this summer. . .

What are you reading on summer vacation?

My new favorite family, the Melendys

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I was not familiar with the Melendy family.  Sure, I had heard them mentioned by friends, and they sounded like a nice enough family.  But my life, I thought, was full.  Ooops.

The Saturdays (Melendy Family)For those that don’t know about the Melendys, they are the center of a series of four books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two.  Frankly, part of my intrigue was also based on the fact that Enright is a neice of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But though these books have been mentioned to me with loving affection for years, I just had never gotten around to reading them (curses to the too-long to-read list!) 

And then I finally read Gone-Away Lake and fell in love.  So, it seemed only natural to eventually get to the Melendy family.  I spent a good chunk of New Year’s Eve reading The Saturdays.  I was almost (but not really. . .) disappointed when my friend finally arrived that night.  I finished it the next day.  This past weekend, I dived into The Four-Story Mistake.  I am still waiting on the library to send me the last two.  A dear friend has also lent Doublefields, which is a memoir/short story combo.  So yes, Enright is about to become a much bigger part of this blog.

Here are just a few of the things I love about these books:

1.  The kids feel infinitely real.  I have known kids like Oliver.  And Mona and Rush and Randy.

2.  Everybody needs a Cuffy in their life.  My grandmother lived with us throughout my childhood, and she and Cuffy definitely share some similiarities.

3.  Their adventures!!  Randy discovers that an “old Elephant” actually has a story worth hearing–and is a good friend to have.  Oliver runs away to the circus (sorta).   They put on shows!

4.  They have fabulous homes.  First, a brownstone with an amazing attic.  Then, the Four-Story Mistake, complete with a secret room.  They summer at a light house.

5.  The books are downright funny.  And charming.  And the writing is simply luminous.

There’s so much more, but I have a feeling I’ll be referring to these books often.

From a history perspective, they’re set right in the midst of WWII.  Even better, they were published during the war, so Enright isn’t writing with the gift of hindsight.  In The Saturdays (published in 1941), Hitler is definitely on their minds and they’re definitely aware of what’s going on in the world.  At one point, Randy asks Cuffy: “What was it like when the world was peaceful, Cuffy?’ ‘Ah,’ said Cuffy, coming up again.  ‘It seemed like a lovely world; anyway on top where it showed.  But it didn’t last long.”

The Four-Story MistakeBy The Four-Story Mistake (published 1942), the war is, as expected, a much bigger part of their lives.  The kids decide to put on a play to raise money for war bonds.  Mona has a complete plan of things they can do to help–save paper and metal, practice first aid (this part made me giggle a bit), knit, and buy Defense Bonds.  Of course, with not much allowance, they have to do something extra special to raise the money.  Even after the Big Show (which is a delightful success!), the bond issue comes up again and again as the kids end up with extra jobs–and the cash to buy more bonds.

But what’s so wonderful about all of this (from the history nerd perspective) is that there is no explanatory note about what a war bond is at the back of the book.  There are no extra insertions of the authorial voice to explain what’s going on.  This was a current book, and the first crop of readers knew exactly what was going on.  And yes, the cynic in me thinks that perhaps “The Show” chapter was put in there to be inspirational for young readers during the war.  However, the me that in the crush phase of a new literary relationship is pretty sure that’s not the case at all.  But even if it was, it’s done so well and so smoothly that it’s not the slightest bit jarring or preachy.  These books are wonderful examples of those books that are published as contemporary and survive to become historical.

The Life of a Book

Last night, I was reminded of that other kind of history that books can hold.  I was reading The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.  Not exactly a kidlit history book, even though it is set in the Depression (yeah!) and features another awesome old house (double yeah!  I seem to have this talent lately of finding lots of books featuring amazing old houses full of wonderful things to discover.  Which makes my history nerd self extremely jealous).

Anyway, I turned a page and there was the very yellow, folded up piece of paper stuck in the middle of the book.  At first, I thought there was some defect with the book–half a page gone or some other tragedy.  My copy is a 1970s Scholastic version, so it’s not like that paper is acid-free.  However, it was no defect–it was a folded up piece of paper.

I gently unfolded it–it’s the original Scholastic order form, carefully filled out by one Myra Brown.  Velvet Room was the only book that she ordered that month.  Other books featured included It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, Jenny, Things to Make and Do, The Story of John Paul Jones, The Witch Tales and Little House in the Big Woods

Seeing that little slip of paper brought back all kinds of memories of those lovely leaflets with all the reading possibilities.  It was via this service that I first discovered Anne.  I really wanted to read A Little Princess because of the Shirley Temple movie, and the two books were being sold together.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  I still have both books, though my Anne is in much sadder shape than Little Princess.

But I also wondered a bit about Myra.  Was she already a fan of Snyder?  What made her pick this book?  And did she love it?  What made her keep the order form?  Frankly, I’m amazed it was in there–that is one organized kid!

Every now and then, I find pretty amazing things tucked inside some of my old books.  My first edition copy of Anne of Green Gables has some reviews pasted inside the front covers.  For me, inscriptions add value to the books (though I know most book collectors only care when it’s the author writing in the book!), and I’m always wondering about those previous readers.  Did they not like it?  Were they forced to weed their collection?  How did it end up in my hands?

What have you found in some of your old books?  And what fond memories do you have of the Scholastic Book Club?

Falling in love with bricks and mortar

In need of a break from my self-imposed “Non-fiction November,” I grabbed Katie John by Mary Calhoun as my before bed book.  It’s one of those books I’ve heard about for years, but never read.  At a recent gathering of fellow book-lovers, someone just handed me Katie and said “You need to read this.”  So I grabbed it (free book?  Score!) and put it on the shelf. 

For those that are unfamiliar with the book, it’s about a 10 year old girl, Katie John, who is forced to move to a small town in Missouri.  Her great-aunt has died, and the parents have to fix up and sell the house.  Katie is stubborn and head strong, and prone to getting in trouble.  As I read, I didn’t really fall in love with Katie.  She was just too much–somehow she didn’t seem as real as some of those other children we know and love in kidlit.  But I kept reading because I had fallen head over heels in love with the house–a big, rambling 1870s (or late 1860s, it wasn’t clear) house on a bluff.  Full of things that 20th (or 21st) century children just don’t understand. 

Katie doesn’t love the house at first.  In the first paragraph, she asks herself:  Does it really look as horrible as it had when they arrived last night?  Oh, worse, Katie John groaned.  But then, she meets a neighbor girl and discovers there is a good chance the house is haunted.  What kid doesn’t love a good ghost?  As they investigate the “haunted” room, Katie John discovers a small hole in the wall, through which she can hear her parents’ voices.  Being Katie John, she sticks her finger in the hole–and gets stuck.  Her dad teases her: ‘Stop wiggling,’ he told her mildly.  ‘The old house likes you.  It was trying to get a good hold on you.’  Katie laughed as her sore finger slipped out of the hole, but she set her chin.  ‘Well, it hasn’t got me yet.’

As the summer continues, Katie continues to explore the town and the house.  She rides in the dumb-waiter (and gets stuck–she gets stuck a lot!).  She finds old trunks in the attic and tries on her Great-Aunt Emily’s wedding dress.  When I was 12, we inherited my great-grandmother’s 1896 wedding dress.  I was so excited about wearing it but discovered that there was no way it would fit–the men’s suit fit me quite nicely though.  So I must admit, I was a bit jealous of Katie John. 

And then the house is threatened.  Someone plans to buy it and chop it into apartments.  But Katie John has just realized that she loves this house.

Lovingly, Katie looked at all the signs of the Clark family, gleaming in soft lamplight or shadowy in corners–the polished dark woods, the vases and china collected over the years, Great-grandfather’s paintings on the walls, Great-Aunt Emily’s crocheted doilies on Katie’s reading chair.  Her fingers smoothed the yellow wood of the door frame.  The good house that Great-grandfather built.  The good home.

Suddenly Katie John knew why Aunt Emily had never left this house, had never gone away for new adventure when it was clear that she wouldn’t marry.

Because this was home.

As simple as that.  Because this was where she belonged.

The next thought came as surely as summer followed spring: This is where I belong, too.

Katie figures out a plan (one her parents had also thought of) to take in boarders.  She even secures the first tenant–her teacher. (Though wouldn’t having your teacher live in the same house be every kid’s worst nightmare?)  But such a plan will only work if Katie helps with the housework–and because Katie loves the house so, she’s willing to change her 10 year old ways and help out.  Up until the last chapter, I wasn’t sure I would read the rest of the books in the series, but the plans for the house make it irresistable.

The dedication of this book, For my mother and father, who still live in the old house made me suspect that this was another case of kidlit history.  However, as I kept reading, I got confused.  Published in 1960, the story seems to take place in the 1950s.  This is very broad dating, based on a few phrases like “built after the Civil War” and “90 years ago”  But there were very few other period details to firmly place it one decade over another.  She does mention reading a “new Moffatt book,” and the first one published was in 1941.  She also mentions earning money to see the movie of Little Women.  There was a 1933 and 1949 version (and the book did indicate this was an old movie, not often in theaters).   But with the timing of the publication, it just couldn’t me as autobiographical as I had hoped.

When I started digging around on the internet, I didn’t find much.  But I did find one brief phrase on the website of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota that indicates Katie John is indeed based on her childhood in the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River: “developed from happy childhood memories of her great-grandfather’s big brick house on a bluff above the Mississippi River.”  My guess is that Calhoun, who was born in 1926, wanted the book to be as contemporary as possible, even though it was based on her childhood that occurred years earlier.  Therefore, there are fewer period details, making her childhood a bit more timeless.

So does this book qualify as kidlit history?  After all, how much are we learning about history if there aren’t many period details?  Personally, I think the house makes it history.  It’s a wonderful way to introduce children to the magic of old houses and the technology that made them work.  After reading this, what kid isn’t going to go looking for speaking tubes or dumb-waiter?  For the historic preservationists amongst us, it’s also a great example of saving something that seems obsolete and turning it into something special–adaptive reuse at its finest!  So maybe we won’t learn as much about childhood during this hazy era, but it is another way to begin developing a love of history.

The sparest of spare rooms

For the first time in my adult life, overnight guests can sleep somewhere besides the couch.  As a fairly new homeowner, I have a spare room!  With an extra bed!  However, as a fairly new homeowner, the bed is a hand-me-down and the mattress has certainly seen better days.  Buying a new mattress has been on the to-do list for months, but various financial setbacks have pushed it on down the list.  But I’ve had overnight guests anyway. . . and then I end up feeling bad because I know their bed is not comfortable.

I have finally starting digging out of my financial hole, so I’m thinking there might be mattress shopping this weekend.  As I was plotting out where to go, budget, and what to do about bedding (my comforter from college currently resides on the bed–and it’s not terrible, but it’s no longer me), I had a kidlit flash: Anne being told that she could sleep in a spare room. 

I’m sure you all remember the scene (and if you don’t, then you need to read Anne of Green Gables.  Go do it right now–I’ll still be here when you get back).  Anne is invited to attend a concert with Diana and spend the night.  As Anne is desperately trying to persuade Marilla she says: There’s just one more thing, Marilla. . . Mrs. Barry told Diana that we might sleep in the spare-room bed.  Think of the honour of your little Anne being put in the spare room bed.  This wasparerooms a very big deal.

And then, a classic Anne scrape (where it’s not really her fault, but really, could it have happened to anyone else?):  The two white-clad figures flew down the long room, through the spare-room door, and bounded on the bed at the same moment.  And then–something–moved beneath them, there was a gasp and a cry–and somebody said in muffled accents:

‘Mericful goodness!’

Anne and Diana were never able to tell just how they got off that bed and out of the room.

It is Aunt Josephine, a rich aunt, who has quite a temper.  Later, Anne apologizes in a way only she can, concluding with: And then we couldn’t sleep in the spare room after being promised.  I suppose you are used to sleeping in spare rooms.  But just imagine what you would feel like if you were a little orphan girl who had never had such an honor.  Anne and Aunt Josephine discover they are kindred spirits, and Aunt Josephine promises Anne: when you come to town you’re to visit me and I’ll put you in my very sparest spare-room bed to sleep.

When I first read this as a kid, the magic of the spare room really made an impression on me.  I had grown up in a house with a spare room.  Usually, when we traveled somewhere as a family, my parents were in a spare room (as the kid, I rarely was!).  A spare room was not unusual at all in my life, but it certainly was to Anne–which I think is part of the reason the scene stuck in my mind (that and the image of them jumping into bed with Aunt Josephine!).

In thinking about the homes we have at the Village, we really only have one house that features a “spare room.”  In one of our log houses, I always talk to kids about the idea that everyone lived in one big room–there were no separate rooms for children.  But there weren’t any separate rooms for guests either!  Even when the family moved on up (we have both their first Texas home–a one room log house and their second–which is much, much larger!), there was no spare room for guests.  Oh, we have a trundle bed underneath one of the beds, but not a whole room. 

Though I am by no means an expert on houses in the 19th century, it seems that spare rooms developed after two things happened.  1.  The frontier was settled, so supplies were more plentiful.  And the cost of construction went down.  2.  People had to be rich enough to be able to afford to have a spare room.  For decades, it was something only the rich could afford–and then, eventually, even the middle class could aspire to a spare room.  I wish I knew, when people were making choices about their houses, what the trends were.  A formal parlor or a spare room?  A dining room?  Some other special room?  What were the priorities?  Thinking of the two houses at the Village that are from around the turn of the century, both have dining rooms, a formal parlor, and a family parlor.  But only one has a spare room–and it’s not even the “richer” family.  But based on one little museum, I hate to make dramatic assumptions.

Anne was an orphan–she was poor and had been working in poor, crowded houses.  At the orphanage, her bed was one of many in a giant room.  So her thrill at being allowed in a spare room makes a lot more sense.  When she first arrives at Green Gables, the spare room is deemed to be too good for her.  Sleeping in a spare room was a sign that she had arrived–she was no longer thought of as an orphan first, but as a friend and honored guest.

And soon, my honored guests will be a bit more comfortable in my spare room.  Now, if I could just figure out what kind of bedding I want. . .

What have been your experiences with spare rooms?  And were they colored at all by Anne’s thrill?