It was interesting to stumble across a collection of articles and letters from Hornbook printed in 1972 and 1972 concerning Eleanor Cameron’s attack on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How things change in 30 years! as honestly? I think Roald Dahl’s books are being read far more today than Cameron’s1; Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Cameron’s best known book, is held by something like 100 libraries in Michigan–not bad for a nearly 60 year old children’s fantasy book…until you see that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory2 is held by upwards of 250 libraries in Michigan3.
As it happens, I do like both author’s works, though Cameron’s “Mushroom Planet” series never captured my imagination; odd, since I devoured pretty much every single other fantasy book out there as a kid.
My favorite is, to this day, Court of the Stone Children; this is one of the kids books to which I return repeatedly and for which I’ve been searching…still haven’t found a copy for myself4. Having reread it after a gap of a few years, I now notice possible discrepancies–Cameron mentions cable cars as a viable mode of transport being concurrent with electron microscopes used as part of collection conservatorship5–but I still enjoy the book a great deal.
Nina’s family has just moved from a small town up in the mountains of California to San Francisco, and Nina is still desperately homesick for the safety of small town friendships, being able to roam the ghost mining towns of the hills and the familiar past. She dreams of growing up to become “Something in a museum” (not remembering the proper term, curator, as her classmates tease her) She discovers a mystery in a small museum tucked away in Golden Gate Park (I think!): the museum is actually a reconstructed Napoleonic era French chateau, which has been brought over from France to preserve it, inadvertently bringing the house ghost along as well. The mystery involves the connection between the statues of children out in the courtyard (yes, that’s what the title refers to), and the ghost, who cannot rest until the mystery has been cleared up.
I’ve come to like A Room Made of Windows as an adult; not surprising, as I much preferred Madeleine L’Engle’s “Wrinkle in Time” trilogy as a child, but once grown came to appreciate Meet the Austins. It shares with The Court of the Stone Children a heroine who longs to live in the past, though there is no mystery and no history in this book; the past is her own when her father was still alive. Her mother and her brother and indeed many of the adults in her life keep trying to convince Julia that the past wasn’t as rosy as she remembers…but even if it were, there’s no way to get back there. We can all only go forward in time, and the future holds remarriage for her mother, and Julia’s eventual adulthood. As the book begins, the three of them are living in a little apartment added onto a bungalow in the Berkeley hills, the only thing the mother can afford as a single mother. The ‘room made of windows’ is Julia’s, a little niche intended to be a sun porch or sewing room, and she loves it and her new life in Berkeley despite her wish to have her father again.
Thirty-mumble years after I first read them both, I have to admit I read A Room Made of Windows almost as a period piece; it’s set (I think) in the 1920s, based on a throwaway line about the mother nearly dying of influenza in the breakout a few years previously. Based on Cameron’s birth year, I can’t help but wonder how much biography there is in these two books; neither heroine is exactly a Mary Sue, though, rest assured. As a kid, it was a bit perplexing to read of the siblings getting from Berkeley to San Francisco by taking a Southern Pacific train down to the ferry landing, then a ferry across the bay, then a trolley to the aunt’s house, as I thought the book was set “now” (i.e. in the early 70s) and that didn’t resemble anything like what I knew of the area. It wasn’t until I read the book decades later that I picked up on the clue of “influenza epidemic”. Having learned more about music and its performance in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate how little that’s changed; we may listen to CDs and MP3 downloads rather than records, but boy isn’t it still exciting to be sitting in a hushed and darkened concert hall just as the bows go up! (Julia’s next door neighbor is a piano player whose son is a concert pianist, and the neighbor takes her to the San Francisco Symphony when the son comes to perform. Much is Made of getting Julia dressed properly. This has changed, for better or worse, I don’t know…)
For Further Reading:
Eleanor Cameron vs. Roald Dahl
1this opinion based largely on holdings in MEL, the shared catalogue of libraries in Michigan
2the book she was &&&***&&&ing about
3again, this is only holdings in MEL; not all libraries in Michigan participate in the shared database….but I’d hazard a guess that pretty much every single library in Michigan owns this one.
4I may be a bit biased, because it’s set in San Francisco, where I grew up
5they weren’t; cable cars were on their way out by the earthquake/fire in 1906 while electron microscopes weren’t invented until ~1933.