The Street Dancers by Elizabeth Starr Hill

I picked this up on a whim from the local Bargain Books years ago, and had forgotten I had it. Readable, to be sure! Though I’m reminded of the wheezy old joke about a kid who belonged to the circus who wanted to run away and join a normal home: Fitzi’s parents live a hand-to-mouth existence as mimes, working in plays and on television when they’re lucky, street buskers when they’re not so lucky….and all too often, there’s no work at all. Treats from Zabar’s when they’re flush, and tuna/coleslaw when they’re not, and never the certainty of whether they’ll be up or down for a day, a week, a month. Fitzi herself has always been part of this life, doing commercials, busking with her parents as one of the “Wolper Windups”. But now she’s hit the point that she wants a normal life. A life like that of the kids she sees outside at recess in the nearby public school. Though she enjoys spending time with her actor grandfather, and loves her parents, she wants out of the theatrical life.

As the story opens, they’re sub-leasing a third-floor walkup apartment in a slightly grubby building while a family of acquaintances is out on tour. It means a room for Fitzi, and even an avocado tree to water and love, but…. You knew there was going to be a but, right? As the book begins, her grandfather has a stroke, and cannot return to his life and job and home after he’s released from hospital. Fitzi’s aunt (mother’s sister) and her husband would like to take Clement in to their respectable home and stable life in Metuchen, but Clement prefers to stay with the Wolpers, close to the environment he’s known for most of his adult life. Used to fluency in movement and speech, Clement is frustrated by his new disability and dependency, and the slowness of his recovery. Fitzi, herself increasingly frustrated with the life she’s hitherto enjoyed, mostly, clashes with her grandfather. Though she finds friendship with a neighbor who goes to school with one of Fitzi’s friends now retired from show business, Fitzi’s increasingly embarrassed by her parents, to the point of fleeing in tears when her parents try to give her a treat by showing up, in costume and makeup, to the friend’s party at school. As this is an after-school special sort of book—though a well-written one!—Fitzi does get her wish, but realizes in the end that the lives of those “normal” kids does not always match the fantasy life she’s built up around the dollhouse her grandfather splurged on as a birthday gift for his beloved granddaughter. We find out near the end of the book that Karen’s family, idolized as ideal by Fitzi, is about to break up; the father’s been having an affair for some time.

As the book ends, Clement is back in hospital, after suffering another stroke while Fitzi’s parents are performing in a matinee. It is she who had to get help, and wait with him in the hospital while Pip tried to get hold of the Wolpers at the theater.

The Street Dancers is more than slightly bittersweet: you (tweens) aren’t the only ones who are lonely, the only ones who have doubts, fears and regrets or who have gone through what you’re going through, and perhaps most dismaying of all, all these doubts and fears do NOT end with some magical transformation into An Adult.The author makes clear that Fitzi’s parents have worries of their own, but love the life enough to continue, despite the financial concerns and uncertainty. And like all afterschool specials, the lesson to take away is: make the best of what you can but where love is, happiness can be found. What to read next? I’d suggest something by Barthe deClements, perhaps, or Judy Blume; both authors are a bit dated, true, but then if the child liked this, now twenty-five years old, chances are they’d like other books rom that timeframe.

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Secret of the Old Post Box by Dorothy Sterling

Short plot summary, as this is another of those history or social lessons thinly veiled as bits of fluff that Scholastic so loved to reprint…and indeed, I found this as a Scholastic reprint a couple of years ago. Pat’s moved from New York City to a small town, and one summer morning her mother shoves her out to take up a neighbor boy on his offer of a game of baseball. Things aren’t exactly going swimmingly–three brothers, clearly proto-thugs, are angry about a GIRL playing with them, though it turns out there’s an underlying cause. They used to live in the Revolutionary War-era house nearby. This is brought to a head when Pat slams a line drive through one of the windows of the house.

They explore, and find papers that suggest there’s a treasure hidden in the house. They search and, because this is a feel-good afternoon-special sort of book, they find it. But because this is also a veiled history lesson, it’s not the treasure the kids were expecting (cash, jewels, something like that) and they can’t understand why the adults all get so excited about what they DO find.

Like Julia Sauer’s Fog Magic, I can’t really imagine this being read by modern kids in the intended age range. Literary styles have changed too much. not to mention the ways in which educational information is woven into the text. Basically, this is a thinly veiled lesson in Revolutionary War-era history. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would someone else who cut their teeth on Scholastic reprints appreciate this? Possibly. Would I consider giving it to a kid? No, but I certainly wouldn’t wrest it from their grasp.

Dated, absolutely. A girl putting on pedal-pushers to play baseball? Oh, Please! Didactic? That too. Stopping in the middle of the action to explain about George Washington and his network of Revolutionary Spies? YAWN!

But on the other hand…and this is important to me. That girl IS playing baseball. With boys. Not very well, perhaps. But at no point did the author stop to say “because Pat was a girl”. Rather it’s more likely that this is because she’s played baseball only in her school’s gym, having just moved out from New York City to the suburbs; this is the first time she’s played proper baseball out in a field.

Not to mention the fact that the girl in question then wallops out a home run…which leads to the primary action of the book: discovering the treasure in the Revolutionary War-era home, which belongs to three of the four boys with whom she’s playing.

Or rather belonged, before the family lost it because they couldn’t pay the taxes, much less keep up the house in the way it needed to be–the furnace was, apparently, installed some time shortly after the Civil War, almost a century before this book was set.

(Rest assured, baseball has very little to do with the book. It’s about family pride, and settling in to a new neighborhood, and learning a bit about history while we’re at it. This is just what struck me about my copy of it.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Warning: spoiler down at the bottom. The perhaps-necessary prefatory explanation: the book was written in 1958 and it’s set in England. Greater London, in the direction of Cambridge and Fen Country (but then the southeastern third of England is Greater London, and was even then.)

For my own records as much as telling anyone else about the plot: Tom is being sent away from home for some weeks, while his brother gets over measles. The two boys had been looking forward to spending a delightful summer together building a tree house in the old apple tree in the bottom of their admittedly small town garden. Now Tom is stuck moping around his aunt and uncle’s completely gardenless city flat, quarantined until he’s gotten through the incubation period for measles himself.

Bored out of his skull after only a few days of confinement indoors, he lies awake, insomniac, night after night, until the fateful night when the grandfather clock downstairs strikes thirteen. He creeps downstairs to find out what’s up, and opens the door that leads out into the yard so the moonlight will fall on the clock face so he can read it…

…but outside he sees not the manky little scrap of sickly grass and paved yard, with dustbins, which his aunt and uncle have told him is there, but rather a huge garden. The sort found surrounding manor houses of a century long gone, even at the time the book was written. Rows of columnar yew trees divide the kitchen gardens from the flower walk from the croquet court from the greenhouse conservatory; this much he can see from his cursory stroll through the garden that moonlit midnight.

Over the next few days, or rather nights, he explores the garden further. There are children living here, three boys all older than he, and a forlorn girl cousin his age, always tagging along behind the boys, who prefer not to play with her for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’ and ‘she’s younger than we are’.

His visit is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks, when his brother’s recovered from the measles and it’s clear that Tom himself isn’t going to come down with them, but Tom begs to remain. Nonplussed, his parents and aunt and uncle agree; he’s told only Peter of what’s going on, so only the two brothers understand why Tom wishes to remain. Over the course of the next few weeks, Tom and Hatty become close friends, though he is only a ghost to her, only nebulously present; walking through doors just gives him a funny feeling in his tum and he’s forced to instruct Hatty from the sidelines on how to make a toy bow because he can’t hold the knife to cut the branch or tie the string.

Though for Tom, the visits are nightly, on Hatty’s end they’re sporadic; Tom only comes every few weeks or months. Over the course of the book, we see Hatty growing up, and on Tom’s last visit, it’s clear that she’s on the verge of marrying the young man who’s been courting her.

‘Invisible friend’, dreams, or actual visits? We’ll never know.

A bit dated now–the book was written in 1958–so modern kids might be left wondering about things like the protagonist being sent away because his brother has measles. Otherwise it’s a fun book for dreamy readers. Astute readers will figure out the connection between the girl in the garden and Tom’s modern-day life, but it’s fun nevertheless. If you liked books like Magic Elizabeth or Octagon Magic, this is probably for you, especially if you’re a dreamy boy who wants to read books about boys.

(The spoiler? “Hatty”, the girl Tom keeps meeting in the garden, turns out to be the child version of the grumpy cantankerous old landlady, out of whose presence he’s been kept for the entire visit (even after he was out of quarantine).

Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough

Hello, children. All tucked in for the night? I’ve a lovely bedtime story for you. Too bad the storms have taken out the power lines and brought down the phone lines, but then I find that the flicker of a single candle’s light is so much more conducive to letting one’s imagination roam free.

What’s that you say? Someone’s coming up the stairs? Nonsense. It’s just the wind blowing across the marshes. This house always creaks, in calm and in storm…let me lock the door, just to make you more comfortable. Here, let me tuck up your comforter a bit higher, for protection against the phantoms of the night…er, drafts.

All set? Then let me begin. Barraclough’s novel Long Lankin is based on a ballad by the same name, in which a departing husband warns his wife to beware Long Lankin, who lives in the (depending on which version you’re singing) hay, moss, moors or marsh, and to fasten the doors and windows firmly against Lankin while the husband’s away…of course Lankin gets in anyway, or we wouldn’t have much of a ballad or story. He kills the baby, with the assistance of the erstwhile nurse. Lankin is hung, the nurse burned. There’s some question in regards the original ballad as to whether Lankin’s a living human being, or something more supernatural. Barraclough chooses option B.

Barraclough follows this basic trope and elaborates on it, in the process channeling every single nocturnal phantasm of my childhood; I challenge anyone to read this book on a dark and stormy night while alone in a house apart from any other human dwelling. Heck, I had trouble reading it myself in broad daylight—but then it’s hard to see the text when you’re hiding behind the sofa from the book.

The year is 1958, and Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to live with their (great)Aunt Ida, in a small village caught between the tidal marshes and the deserted moors. (Yep. Exactly what you’re thinking.) Ida clearly does not want them, though she doesn’t specify why; the children simply assume it’s because she’s a crotchety, eccentric old lady who prefers to live alone. Ida insists on a number of peculiar restrictions: keep all the doors locked and the windows nailed shut, don’t go down to the near-derelict old church, don’t go near the creek or the tidal flats and so on. The children do their best, but soon rebel against remaining in the musty stuffy overheated house.

Needless to say, the kids disobey her the first chance they get, as who wouldn’t given the lack of explanations. Needless to say, the kids trigger the supernatural events of the book thereby. We progress from Mimi restarting wetting the bed because she’s too afraid to pass the creepy portrait hanging over the bathroom door to sightings of figures from nightmare associated with the derelict church and barred lychgate…to Lankin himself pursuing the four children and Aunt Ida through a long-forgotten crypt. We do find out more about who Lankin and the other ghosts are and their connection to the children narrating the story through the children’s research…but I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. Just remember to read this during the bright daylight.

The story is told in first person narrative, shifting primarily between Cora and Roger, with occasional forays into Ida’s perspective, and those of the historical figures. It might help if readers are familiar with the Long Lankin ballad, and American readers with English1 history of the past four hundred years, but not obligatory.

Steeleye Span’s version of the ballad, reasonably accurate.
Things I’ve learned from British folksongs, for those of us who can stand a joke.

1Hush now. That’s where the story takes place.

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

Poor Barnaby! Not just because he’s born with the tendency1 to float up and away, free of Earth’s gravity. Not because this means he must struggle to stay down on the planet’s surface as the normally weighted people do, but rather because his parents find it deeply humiliating to have a child who cannot keep his feet on the ground. (His siblings don’t have a problem with it.) As his parents are relentlessly normal, Barnaby spends his infancy and toddlerhood kept strictly at home; it is not until he reaches Australia’s mandatory minimum school age that his parents reluctantly allow him to mingle with non-immediate family members, and even then, they’re careful to select a school which none of their acquaintances’ children attend, one which can control the children attending…a reform school in short.

One day his mother can take no more embarrassment over the “public censure” she’s sure her son’s “disability” is causing the family; she takes poor Barnaby out for a walk and when he isn’t looking, slits open the backpack full of sand he’s wearing in order to keep him grounded. Inevitably, poor Barnaby drifts away as the sand drains out of his pack…and here we begin the more than slightly “Perils of Pauline” portion of Barnaby’s life.

As he rises this first time, he fortuitously bumps his head on the basket of a pair of adventuresses who ran off together to a Brazilian coffee plantation after their families declared them to be ‘abnormal’; they loved coffee and they loved each other, but periodically they set off in their hot air balloon for a bit of a vacation, and it is during one of these jaunts that they meet Barnaby. They take him to their plantation for a week, then put him on the train to Rio de Janeiro, where he is to fly back to Sydney and his family.

Unfortunately, he forgets to set his alarm, oversleeps, and wakes up in New York, at the end of the line. Here, someone steals his weights and he floats off into the sky…only to bump (literally) into the cage of someone washing the windows of the Chrysler Building. This kind young man dresses Barnaby’s bruised forehead in his own apartment then sends him off to the airport…but forgets to give him cab fare in addition to arranging the flight. Pushed out of the cab by the irate driver upon discovering that his “fare” hasn’t the necessary fare, Barnaby drifts upward and away, only to be rescued at the tip of a whip of a ringmaster looking to expand his freak show.

And so on. Eventually he does make it home, to his family in Sydney, only to realize that he would much prefer to be floating away into the sky to take his chances with the people he meets there.

It’s an interesting tale of accepting yourself and the difference between us all, of finding your “family” in the sense of the people who will love and support you rather than your biological family. As for the writing style, at various points the text reminded me of Roald Dahl, in the horridness of the adults, and at others, of Lemony Snicket, in the more than slightly purple prose and improbable situations. (Floating off into space, only to bump your head on the cage of a window washer?) As I suspect with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, many readers will have issues with this book, for a variety of reasons. For starters, Barnaby sounds both younger and older than his eight years, though in this case, his isolation from the outside world would plausibly result in his naivete. The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket may be a little easier to accept because it’s so clearly a fantasy parable while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a real setting.

1I hesitate to say “ability” as he has no control over it

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Brat is on her own; she cannot remember her parents, and no one cares for her. She sleeps in the village dung heap as it’s by far the warmest option, and not so very much worse smelling than the rest of the village. The village midwife takes her in as a skivvy, to sweep and damp and tamp the cottage floor, scatter fleabane about to keep, yes, fleas at bay, and run the occasional errand. Though the cottage floor is not near so warm and soft as the dung heap, being provided food, however inadequate, gives Brat the time and energy to notice the world around her, and wonder if she might dream of becoming more than a beggar brat.

As Brat begins to settle in, she takes note of the midwife’s practices, the herbs to bring on milk, stop or intensify contractions, the charms to ease a woman’s labor and the general techniques Jane Sharp uses. Daring even to give herself a name, Alyce, she begins to think she’s earned a place in the village; a comb and a bath, an intact dress and nearly enough to eat, and she’s on her way. Not only does she befriend a cat, but arranges a position for a little boy of six, at first only called Dung but later Edward for the king, at the local manor house. Gaining confidence from aiding the local cowherd’s boy to deliver his favorite cow of her twin calves, Alyce, as we now must call her, dares help a local woman give birth after the midwife leave to deliver a likelier baby. She succeeds here—the baby is named Alyce Little—but flees aghast when she subsequently takes it upon herself to deliver another woman, but fails to deliver a difficult pregnancy.

She takes refuge in a nearby tavern-inn, using the work habits she’s learned with the midwife to earn her keep and then some. Even the local absent-minded scholar, staying at the inn for a quiet place to study, notes her keen wit and begins “teaching the cat to read”; needless to say, Alyce eavesdrops and learns her own letters easily enough. After Alyce helps a guest at the inn, thought to have a stomach worm, deliver a baby, Jane Sharp tracks her down. While she does not force the girl to come back, she makes it quite clear through an indirect conversation with the absent-minded scholar that she does not consider Alyce to be the incompetent dung-beetle the girl herself thought she was, but rather a girl who foolishly gave up after her first setback—determination is the key. Alyce comes back; at first Jane seems to send her away, but Alyce returns, saying “It is I, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away.”

Karen Cushman’s written several books about girls in Medieval England: Catherine, called Birdy, Matilda Bone, and others. The language and setting is such that squeamish parents might want to reserve Cushman’s books for older kids, and indeed they might be good for teenaged reluctant readers, or those who think that history is dull lists of names and dates as dry as the desert. If you’re a curious tween with parents who understand the value of challenging reading, however, don’t let that previous statement stop you; all Cushman’s books are rattling good fun, about strong-willed girls, or those who learn to value themselves and the merits of determination and education. If you’ve read all these books, and are looking for something to read next, try Jane Yolen’s historical novels, or E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver…or indeed any of Konigsberg’s other books. They’re not all historical, but again interesting stories about girls who learn to be bold and sure of themselves.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

What happened in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957? Right, the Little Rock Nine. Now, how many people know what happened during the 1958-59 school year? (Unless you’re from Little Rock, a student of twentieth century American history, or just pay a lot of attention to the news at the time) Don’t worry, I didn’t either.

Just to be absolutely clear, The Lions of Little Rock is a novel through and through; while Levine did weave in a great many facts about what happened the academic year after the Little Rock high school was forced to integrate, the primary characters themselves are entirely fictional. The community’s reaction, however, is reasonably accurate, as were the actions of the Little Rock school board and city government, along with the Arkansas state government.

The Lions of Little Rock begins in the summer of 1958, just before school is set to begin. Marlee (named for Marlene Dietrich) is about to enter seventh grade; she loves math, despite the general consensus at the time that girls can’t do math or science…and she doesn’t talk. Well, not much anyway, and then only to people with whom she’s comfortable. Hardly anyone at school! Seventh grade means starting at a new school, which means breaking in a new set of teachers (and a few classmates) to the idea that she doesn’t want to talk. Until she meets Lisa.

Lisa is bold, outspoken and intelligent, capable of putting down even the school’s Resident Mean Girl, who regards herself as Marlee’s only friend, with a trenchant phrase. Lisa and Marlee become fast friends, although Marlee’s perplexed that Lisa never invites her over to visit. The two work together on a history project during which process Lisa works on Marlee’s reluctance to speak in public, on the theory that if she doesn’t speak, everyone else will assume that Lisa did all the work; they practice in the Little Rock zoo, rehearsing various parts of their project in front of various animals, though the lions are Marlee’s favorite. Partway through the fall term, Lisa disappears; the official story is that she’s ill, but the rumor that she’s actually black, enrolled in a white school1 under false pretences, quickly proves true.

The two girls remain friends, and continue to sneak off to various places—the quarry, the zoo—where they can meet unnoticed by their parents, who’ve forbidden the relationship to continue. These meetings are few and far between; even Lisa warms up only slowly to Marlee’s overtures, as she cannot believe that Marlee would be any different from all the other whitegirls, so snide about the Negroes2 that they cannot even comprehend using a brush that a Negro had used for fear of contracting lice. Perplexed as to how to proceed but unwilling to give up on the first friendship of her own choosing, Marlee turns to the family’s black maid, Betty Jean, though even there, Betty Jean makes the same suggestion as Lisa’s and Marlee’s parents: drop the friendship, it cannot work. Alas.

Things improve somewhat after Marlee tries to thwart the bombing of Lisa’s family. Their house is still badly damaged by the two sticks of dynamite she had to leave behind in the bomber’s trunk, but this at least reveals the bomber’s identity when she speaks up, and produces the evidence of her snapped-off letter opener blade in his trunk, where she was trapped. The book ends on a rueful note: things are going to get better eventually, but the children of this generation shouldn’t hold their breath for anything in the immediate future.

Overall, this reminded me of Anna Jean Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August in its acknowledgement that the process of truly integrating our society is a long and rocky one, and the author permits no sugar coating of dewy-eyed innocence on the part of the whites about the true nature of the situation. There is a certain degree of “out of the mouths of babes”, although even Marlee acknowledges that this is the way the world wags, at least in 1958 in Little Rock. There’s a touching scene in the black movie theater, when Marlee arrives unbeknownst to Lisa; it is only when her family’s (black) maid speaks up for Marlee that she is allowed to remain.

1at this point, it was only the high school which was integrated, though only nominally and even that was something of a moot point, as the School Board had chosen to close it rather than comply with the Federal order to integrate.
2the term used at the time! not mine.