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).

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.

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman

Our story begins in Boston in 1849, where our protagonist, Jack Flagg, and his two younger sisters, Constance and Sarah, have been raised by their maiden aunt, Arabella, since their parents’ death. Unfortunately, Arabella has used up the last of her own family fortune and is on the verge of needing to sell their family mansion. Jack, a bold boy of twelve, determines to save the family finances by running off to the gold fields of California, of which news has recently reached our fair city1.

The family butler, Praiseworthy2, accompanies Jack to the gold fields, though they are forced to stow away on the Lady Wilma after their passage fare is stolen. Upon revealing themselves to the captain, they’re promptly set to shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers…but since they’re sailing through the frigid North Atlantic, this is hardly the punishment it appears to be. Praiseworthy proves himself equally resourceful during that voyage and in the gold fields. Becalmed in the tropical doldrums, and the ship’s running low on water? How to water the grapevine cuttings one passenger’s staked his hopes on…buy the potatoes on which another passenger has staked his fortune! Stuck with a barrel full of neck ties in a community where grubby denim and worn flannel is the norm? Sell it to lovelorn miners when the first lady in deity knows how long shows up…and so on.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, they make their way to the gold mining region and start working on amassing the fortune necessary to Save The Family Domicile. They do, earning both nicknames and a reputation for clever athletic prowess along with their rather heavy fortune in gold nuggets and dust…which is lost when they go overboard after their ship explodes. All proves well in the end, as Arabella, Constance and Sarah have themselves come to San Francisco, after realizing that they too would just as soon be having adventures in the woolly gold fields, and Praiseworthy and Arabella realize that true love has bridged the divide between mistress and butler.

While it is fun to read on its own—that’s what I did, although in fairness, I was a child attending elementary school in San Francisco at the time I read it—I can see this being included as part of the curriculum for grade school kids studying the Gold Rush specifically, and nineteenth century history generally. It’s not detailed enough, much less accurate enough, to serve as primary material any more than Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I could for the American Revolution. All three would do a great deal to humanize the time period, however; I think they’re rattling good adventure stories that might well prompt kids to voluntarily read more on the subject. Robbers, vandals, brigands and highwaymen, adventurers, roisterers, gruff men but kind, this is definitely a Guy Book for kids who aren’t quite ready to move on to Gary Paulsen. Certainly, Fleischman has a couple of other kids’ books set at about the same time that might also be fun to read—Mr. Midnight and Company, Jingo Django and Humbug Mountain—though they don’t have quite the same historical flavor as this one. Not that that’s necessarily a problem.

1with a nod to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers
2isn’t that a grand foreshadowing name, now?

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin

Well, my opinion of those authors who churn out endless installments in serial books for kids just went up a notch; A Corner of the Universe is one of the better books I’ve read in the past few years…and I don’t like much.

It’s the summer of 1960, between one school year and the next, between the turmoil of the Korean War and the social upheaval of the Sixties. Hattie Owen is twelve, a bit too grown to properly be a child, but not quite old enough to be truly mature; certainly, she’s not yet allowed to eat in the family’s parlor after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago involving a deviled egg. Her parents run a respectable boarding house in one of the huge rambly old Victorian mansions from an era in which people had huge families; some of the residents have been there since before Hattie was forn. Hattie’s looking forward to another summer just like all the previous ones, in a small town that never changes except with the seasons—snow in winter, heat in summer and the immutable streets and inhabitants…

…well, you knew that wasn’t going to last, or there wouldn’t be much of a book.

Except…of course there’s an except. Hattie’s got an uncle whose existence was kept secret from her, more or less; he was institutionalized shortly after she was born and while they’ve met when she was a toddler, she does not remember him. The ‘school’ is closing, and so “Uncle Adam” must come home and live with his parents until they find another facility. Martin does not specify what precisely Adam has—either schizophrenia or autism—and to a large extent that doesn’t matter. He is different from everyone else, acts differently, cannot control his emotions and reactions as everyone else, including Hattie, can.

Needless to say, the summer is complicated just by Adam’s physical issues; he can’t be left alone, but is an adult with all that entails—he develops a crush on one of the boarding house residents and is devastated when he discovers her in bed with her lover. He wants to befriend Hattie, but not only do the other kids in town act like Mean Girls, his awkward attempt at a birthday party just for her goes badly awry. In the end, he commits suicide, unable to face going back into another institution or living in the, to him, bewildering outside run by behaviors he cannot possibly understand.

The language herein is not complex; it’s clearly written at a tween level, but the ideas are heartbreaking. It’s rare that I cry for a book written for this age group…but I did. I’m sure there are other books for kids which introduce mental illness in age-appropriate ways; this one struck me for its presentation of the uncle as a human being…who’s ill. Not a monster. Not demonized. Not pitying, or romanticized. There isn’t a lot of historical detail about how mental illness was treated at the time, but perhaps not necessary in a book of this level; I don’t think that’s the point in any case.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”

The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.

The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.

Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!

What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.

1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.