The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood

Ever wonder what it might be like to tread the boards with the Bard himself?

There’ve been a number of books imagining just that, ranging from brilliant to excruciating; this one’s a decent entry in the tween/teen group.

Widge, an orphan, has been apprenticed to one Timothy Bright, a physician–such as they were in Elizabethan England. Bright, who has developed a form of shorthand, teaches it to Widge (short for ‘pigwidgeon’) in order that Widge may take down his every word for the ages. As it turns out, Widge is snapped up by the master of an acting troupe nearby in Yorkshire, who sends him south to London to take down the script for Shakespeare’s latest play, Hamlet, without being caught. An accurate complete version of any of Shakespeare’s plays well ahead of the other imitators is worth a year’s take to the competing acting troupes, but in a day when few people could do more than write their own names, Widge’s ability to transcribe the play as it’s being performed is nothing less than miraculous.

Unfortunately, he gets caught up in the action on stage he’s viewing as an audience member when he first attends, and misses chunks of dialogue surrounding the climactic dueling scene…and when he sneaks back in backstage two days later to jot down the rest, he is not only caught by actors and crew waiting in the wings, but loses his precious shorthand copy of the play itself to a pickpocket.

He gets caught up more literally a couple of days later when he is brought before Hemings, Burbage and Shakespeare himself, and they decide to take him into their training program. At first dubious, Widge regards this new position as simply preferable to life with the frightening Falconer, assistant to their master, Bass. But Widge becomes drawn into the life of an apprentice actor to the point of sympathizing wholly with Shakespeare and the Globe troupe, and their constant danger of being pirated by just such as his new master, Bass…a former performer in the Globe troupe and now one of its keenest competitors. Widge gradually comes to regard the troupe as the family that he never had, as he begins to understand the love of performance that fires all the members’ blood as one man. (Yes, men. There’s a side plot of a girl with similar wishes who is unmasked and forced away to the more usual job as maid, though that ends happily with her emigration to France, where women were permitted on stage.)

On the whole it’s not brilliant writing, but certainly more plausible plotting than Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, at least if one skips lightly over stenography being used as an excuse to introduce the protagonist to the primary plot device. Cooper used two: a) a boy ostensibly from the late twentieth century coming down with bubonic plague, having not been in an area where it’s endemic during the incubation period and b) residents of Elizabethan-era London thinking Modern Nat’s South Carolina accent was temporally local to them.

I can see that some kids would find this attractive in its own right, but possibly more as something to be incorporated into a middle school segment on Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Blackwood touches on a range of issues of the time, without belaboring the point or digressing (aside from that shorthand kluge) too far into mere Device: apprenticeship to a profession, treatment of orphans, spoken accents, theater goers and stagecraft of the time, and so on.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Mount Eskel is an impoverished territory–not even a district–in the kingdom of Danland. The mountain’s sole claim to respect is the fact that it’s the kingdom’s only source of linder, a stone which resembles our world’s marble and which is used in much the same way. The linder quarries are the sole source of income for the villagers living on the mountain, though those too old, young or weak to work in the quarries stay home to raise goats, chickens and rabbits, and scrabble out a few poor garden plants in order to supplement the foodstuffs purchased from the traders who come once a year to trade for linder.

One day, a messenger arrives to inform the community of miners on the mountaintop of a prophecy which affects them: the king’s priests have foretold that the prince’s bride may be found on Mount Eskel…but seeing as how they’re all uncultured illiterate peasants, the court has arranged for all the eligible daughters–those between 13 and 18–to attend an academy set up especially for them. The tutor starts them with the basics of reading and ciphering, but quickly moves on to more advanced subjects–Danlander history, Commerce, Geography, Kings and Queens–and those necessary for ladies of the court: Diplomacy, Conversation, and Poise.

The girls learn a great deal, though it is not necessarily what Tutor Olana intended or what they expected. They learn how to work together (no mean girls by the end of the story!) in the face of pressure to conform and against someone who disdains you. “Commerce” is another subject, during which the girls learn the true price that linder garners in the lowlands and therefore just how badly the villagers are getting rooked by the traders. They work through Diplomacy and Poise, which combine to teach the girls how to negotiate with those traders to get a fairer price for their labors…and therefore render the village better able to purchase necessary supplies. (Miri negotiates, equally successfully, with Tutor Olana upon their return to school to allow them to resume their previous status as students and “bride candidates”.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they also come to realize that being married to the prince isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This does end with a mild twist ending, though a standard fairy tale trope: the prince’s one true love is indeed among the village girls, but as is the way of all proper prophecies, she was not one of the village girls. (Yes, that girl.) All it took was the realization that speaking up for yourself is the best way to bring the story to a satisfactory end for most involved. (Life isn’t perfect.)

For those of us who prefer the sort of fairy tale fantasy in which character, education, bravery and athleticism are instilled in, or are considered important in our female protagonists: bear with the story. It doesn’t get off to a promising start: training girls to become simpering dolls to be paraded in front of a prince who hasn’t the gumption to speak up for himself? (shudders) Trust me. Keep reading. I don’t promise you’ll like the book, but the girls in the school have some very important epiphanies as the story unfolds. More importantly, the ending doesn’t match the beginning: while in the beginning, the the message seems to be ‘marriage to the prince will make girls happy’, in the end, this is not inverted exactly, but rather the more appropriate message ‘marriage to your one true love will make you happy, but shoehorning yourself into an unsuitable role will never bring fulfillment.” Something like that, anyway.

Second-hand Family by Richard Parker

Giles Willis, an orphan who’s been alternating between the orphanage and foster homes several times in the past year, is being taken to yet another foster home: the Maxwells in the inauspiciously named mining town of Haleshangar, not too far from the orphanage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his past recent experience, he’s not too sanguine about this one. His first encounter with the neighborhood and the family would seem to prove him rather than the social worker right. The daughter is surly and recalcitrant, initially not letting them into the house. The father, an ill-looking frail man, seems mild-mannered enough, but does not engage (with) Giles. The older brother slams through, not speaking to the rest of the family, and disappears upstairs to listen to ‘mod’ music. The mother is willing to converse with Mr. Judd, the social worker, but makes it clear she’s appreciative of the money, and calls Giles a “poor lad”. To cap things off, the family housekeeping is abysmal—there are papers strewn everywhere and an old teacup tipped over on the floor, with a mummified stain which was once a puddle of tea—and Giles will have to sleep not just in Martin’s room, but in Martin’s bed. (Don’t worry, this was a kids’ book written in the mid-sixties: nothing untoward happens, other than Martin smoking up a storm and practicing with his British-invasion style grunge band at all hours.)

Despite all this, Giles begins to settle in, and despite all the “wrong foot” encounters of that first day, begins to adjust well. He comes to like his new school. He learns to sleep through the band’s practice sessions. He even convinces the school to allow Martin’s band, the Minors, play in the school auditorium…and it is just at this point that Mr. Maxwell’s tuberculosis flares up and he requires, at first, semi-isolation to protect him from a secondary infection, with the strong possibility of another hospitalization. The administration of The Home decide to pull Giles from the Maxwells’ house, until Mr. Maxwell has returned home. Giles is heart-broken, and ends up sneaking back to the school to attend the Minors’ concert. Several disconsolate days moping about the Home later, however, the family comes to collect him: Mr. Maxwell’s been successfully treated with a new medicine for TB, so they can foster him again. Over the next few weeks, he settles into the family, complete with getting chewed out for leaving dirty laundry stuffed down behind the bed and the Minors dragging him along to a recording session for luck. Once and for all, a permanent home!

This is very much a period piece. The currency’s changed. Fish-and-chip shops can’t wrap orders in newspaper any more, the music popular in this book would be regarded as “grandpappy’s” music by today’s teenagers, and so on. I expect the rules for fostering kids in the U.K. have changed somewhat. I can’t imagine tinned salmon being all that exciting a treat for tea these days, or rather it wouldn’t be for American kids; canned tuna fish is a standard sandwich filling along with peanut butter, but it’s hardly exciting. Two generations of kids later, I’d almost have to suggest that it be read now as a description of a time gone by, when tuberculosis was a problem far more serious than it is today, and speedier transport means its possible to get fresh (non-frozen, un-tinned) salmon. Fun, though. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to kids who like books written in prior generations; it’s still enjoyable to read, though hardly cutting edge, especially for kids who’ve had familial issues–there are many ways to construct a loving family, and they don’t all involve genetically related persons.

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

Steven is a pretty normal eighth grader with a pretty normal life, at least as the book starts. He has a talent for playing drums, enough that he’s gotten into the All-City Jazz Band the school system organized for kids with musical abilities. He’s started noticing girls, although he’s had a crush on Renee Jordan, the hottest girl in the eighth grade, since they were both in third grade together. He has an annoying little brother, Jeffrey, who’s always pestering Steven to play kiddie games and getting into Steven’s stuff (this is where the “Dangerous Pie”) comes in.

The day that changes Steven’s life begins typically: Jeffrey pesters Steven to make “moatmeal” while Steven’s trying to practice drumming–at three Jeffrey is too young to reach the microwave, much less be allowed to use it. Finally, Steven agrees, but when he’s stepped away from his little brother for a moment to take the ‘moatmeal’ out of the microwave, Jeffrey falls off the stool upon which he was sitting and gets a nosebleed. Not just any nosebleed: this one Will. Not. Stop. His parents panic and rush Jeffrey to the emergency room, leaving Steven home to wonder just how much trouble he’ll get into for letting his baby brother get a nosebleed bad enough to warrant a trip to the ER.

It turns out Jeffrey has leukemia, and an appallingly advanced case for parents who think they’ve been paying attention to their children’s emotional and physical needs. Jeffrey had been complaining about his “parts hurting” for some time, but neither the parents or Steven had thought this anything other than a quirk of vocabulary and description from an imaginative little boy who claimed he didn’t close his eyes when he slept, despite Steven producing film of Jeffrey, asleep, with his eyes firmly closed. (This was explained away as a very slow blink.) The parents plunge into the course of treatment with their son; bills mount, the mother seems to spend more time at the hospital with Jeffrey than she does at home with the family as a whole, the father withdraws into work in part to pay bills and in part because he’s not sure how to express his own feelings in the matter, and needless to say, Jeffrey himself struggles with both the physical side effects of the treatment itself, and the emotional disruptions hospital stays and the potential outcome of his leukemia.

Steven, who really does care for his little brother despite all the usual squabbles and pestering, is distraught, but has no idea how to express this to his own parents, much less anyone at school. His schoolwork suffers, and it isn’t until the teachers have a conference with Steven to discuss this perplexing drop in the work of a student who’s been otherwise good (though not brilliant) in school, that they find out why his behavior has so changed. While his schoolmates and teachers finding out about the upheaval in Steven’s home life is a relief, not to mention the more pragmatic plan they work out to ensure Steven catches up in his work, the ghastly horrid gooey sympathetic looks Steven gets from everyone at school are almost as oppressive as his worry about his little brother.

The book’s denouement is a benefit concert put on by the school’s band to help pay the family’s medical bills; Steven’s best friend, Annette, who has been sidelined from her piano practice as a result of smashing her arm, dragoons Cutest Girl Ever Renee into helping publicize the concert.

The fact that there’s a sequel to this book centering on Jeffrey’s own year in eighth grade should give readers a clue about whether Jeffrey lives or dies at the end of this book, but I don’t think that’s really the point of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. Rather, as with Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, it’s more about the process by which children and adolescents learn to handle potentially fatal illnesses in a family member, and in this case, how to express love for a pesky sibling. Steven and Jeffrey plague each other just as much as normal kids do, but in the end, they learn to say “I love you.” to one another, and not only mean it but not be embarrassed to say so in public. This book will probably appeal to kids who don’t like fantasy; unlike A Monster Calls, it’s very much set in the real world, without any fantasy elements whatsoever (not even the occasional daydream about what Steven would like to do with Renee.) It does include details of the treatment Jeffrey goes through, which A Monster Calls didn’t much mention, so might also be better for kids who’ve got questions about what cancer treatment entails.

Oh–the Dangerous Pie. This is one of Jeffrey’s experiments: he ‘cooks’ coffee grounds, raw eggs complete with smashed shells, Coke, uncooked bacon and three Matchbox cars, stirred thoroughly with Steven’s favorite drumsticks.

Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn

As sweet a book as Burns’ The Summerfolk, though with a slightly different message: in this case, it struck me as being more along the lines of “accept your family’s eccentricities” than “get to know strangers before judging them”.

Andrew Henry likes to build things1. His mother does not like the helicopter in the kitchen. His father does not like the eagle’s cage in the living room. His sisters do not like the merry-go-round hitched up to the sewing machine. His brothers do not like the system of pulleys in their bedroom. One day, Andrew Henry becomes fed up with his two older sisters, who spend their spare time primping in front of the mirror, and his two younger brothers, who like toy cars and coloring books, his father, who is too tired to play in the evenings, and his mother, who is too busy in the kitchen to pay much attention at all.

He marches off across Burdock’s pasture, over Blackbriar Hill, across Worzibsky’s Swamp and through the deep woods, to a meadow of his own, a perfect meadow with a sparkling stream, sunlight, a straight pine and no family. He builds himself a perfect little house. Shortly thereafter, several other kids from his town, all about his age, all fed up with their parents and their siblings, show up and Andrew Henry builds them all equally appropriate houses: Alice Burdock gets a birdwatcher’s dream treehouse; George Turner, a house on a bridge over the stream for his boats and his fishing lines; Joe Polasky, a dugout for his burrowing pets; Jane O’Malley and Margot LaPorte, a castle with a drawbridge and plenty of room for dressup.

The parents and siblings search frantically for four days, at which point the Turners’ dog bolts, with a mournful howl, in the direction he has seen his Boy travel. The families left behind race after the dog, and everyone is reunited in the meadow. The parents miss their children, and the children have enjoyed their freedom, but are ready to come home. In the end, the Turners together figure out how to put Andrew Henry’s penchant for building things to good use, though his extravagant contraption in the basement proves only mostly useful.

As with The Summerfolk, Burn wrote and illustrated this book while living on Waldron Island, an island part of the geographic San Juans, but not part of the tourist destination or of the power grid. Both books show what must have been an influence of the author’s community on her writing; the books were written in the 1960s, and while Waldron has moved forward in time somewhat, so far as I know it is still off the grid. Visitors might well see something similar to the very real meadow which inspired Burn to write this book, though the children upon which she based this book have long since grown up.

1Rube Goldbergesque or Heath Robinsonish, depending on your side of the Atlantic, as filtered through the skills of a 10 year old boy

Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio by Marguerite Henry

Horses? check. Hard-luck struggles and heartbreak? check. Scary horse race? Definitely there.

Just a pause for a bit of background for those who haven’t read the book: Siena is basically seventeen neighborhoods in search of a city, and tends to be a bit more demonstrative in its contentions between factions than the coolly Anglo parts of the United States. Every year, the city holds two Palios1 in which ten of the seventeen contradas enter a horse–the “track” is too narrowly angular for seventeen horses to run safely at the same time and even then the ten entrants often do crash anyway. Unlike the calmer events held at Ascot and Churchill Downs, there are no groomed turf or dirt tracks, no smooth curves or rounded railings in the Palio’s course: the horses go charging through what are basically the cobbled streets of a medieval city. Another excitement (at least according to Marguerite Henry) is that unlike English and American flat racing today, where the winning horse and rider must cross the finish line in approximately the same configuration as the one in which they began the race in order to win, in the Palio it is the first horse to cross the finish line which wins for its contrada. Whether or not the rider also crosses the finish line, either in conjunction with his mount or under his own power, has no bearing on which contrada wins the race.

Giorgio is the son of a poor farmer in the Maremma, a poor (both financially and culturally) part of Italy known more for its swamps and its rednecks than its pasta and artwork. Babbo works his farm in hopes of paying off the mortgage years in the future, Mamma stays home caring for the younger children and cooking what she can with the little money the family has–a real treat for the family is rubbing slices of homemade bread against the cured sausage for flavoring as the meat must be saved for supper. Even at twelve, Giorgio has a gift for horses: he woos an overburdened underfed donkey into trotting merrily along to market with only a pocketful of grain, a bit of padding and a lot of kindness, and the blind mare Bianca trusts him as she does no one else, going surefooted for him and him alone.

After hearing of the Palio of Siena–part race, part reenactment of past battles–Giorgio dreams only of riding in that race. He begins by racing the other boys on countrybred hacks, then attracts the notice of Ramalli, a Sienese man who hires Giorgio to ride Ramalli’s horses in provincial races. Giorgio’s skill prompts Ramalli to bring him to Siena, the better to train his horses full time. The dream of the Palio proves elusive; Giorgio is small and delicate, ideal for a jockey now in America perhaps but at the time, earns him only mockery as the larger stronger tougher jockeys are preferred for the wilder Palio. Eventually, he gains both the dream of riding in the Palio and the love of a racehorse, the titular Gaudenzia. The heartbreak comes when he must ride against his beloved Gaudenzia in the climactic race; her jockey falls off going around the nastiest of the curves leaving Giorgio the option of losing, for Gaudenzia is faster than his own mount, or disqualify her by knocking off her spennacheria, an emblem fixed on her forehead. He attempts the latter, but fails.

While Born to Trot had some of the same elements, largely heartbreak and training horses for racing, Gaudenzia is distinctly different: it’s set in Italy in the 1950s, alien territory for a lot of American kids at the time (I think?). Poverty-stricken rural areas and urbane cities are nothing new, but Henry works in a considerable amount of the foreign flavor of the country–quite literally in many scenes, as Giorgio, a teenaged boy, eats his way through a number of Italian meals the likes of which probably wouldn’t have been familiar to a lot of American kids in 1960. Not entirely foreign–the United States has a large Italian population–but as strange to most kids at the time as sushi or stirfry would have been.

I’ll admit that, as an adult, this is one of my favorite Marguerite Henry books. There are others which may be better known, such as King of the Wind and Justin Morgan Had a Horse, but this shares with Misty of Chincoteague (and a couple of her other books) the advantage of the author meeting the primary players themselves: the jockey/trainer Giorgio and his family, the contrada members and ‘barbero’ owners, and most important of all (especially if you’re a little girl who adores horsies), Gaudenzia herself. The Palio of Siena (there are others throughout Italy) is thrillingly terrifying to read about–ten horses go charging around the central Piazza in Sienna with nothing more than a few mattresses stuck on the pointy parts and their own agility to protect them from accidents. None of this soft groomed turf and smooth railings.

On the down side, the characters all seem to be speaking in stilted English. I understand that Henry would write in English–that is, after all, her own native language and that of many of her presumed readers. I also understand that she would want to indicate in some way that the characters are not speaking English…but the characters in White Horse of Lipizza don’t read like they’ve stepped straight out of a bad World War II propaganda film, and although there is a difference between the Moroccans, the French and the English in King of the Wind, the dialogue seems to flow more smoothly.

1prior to 1716, or thereabouts, there was only one with occasional extra celebratory races.

Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder will be of interest primarily to those of us who’ve cut our broadcast television teeth on the “Little House” series starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, and perhaps read only the “Little House” series of books which Laura wrote some fifty years after the time which she describes.

For those paying attention neither to my own book blog or to literary works in general from the past eighty years: Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote a series of autobiographical works of fiction describing her own childhood in what was then the American West. The fictional series begins when Laura is a child of approximately five or six, living in the Big Woods near Pepin, Minnesota, and as the books progress, the family ebbs and flows farther west until they settle in De Smet, South Dakota, when Laura is approximately thirteen. The books as published do not match exactly the Ingalls’ family experience, although they provide an interesting fictional perspective on life in the United States between (approximately) 1870 and 1885; they end with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo leaving readers to wonder “What happened next?”

Zochert’s work will probably serve best as an adjunct for fans of Wilder’s original series to those books; he follows fairly closely Laura’s early life, which was covered in her books; he continues to the end of her life, but the remaining seventy years of her life comprise only about one quarter of Zochert’s book, whereas Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder follows more the process by which Laura came to write the books about her childhood. Zochert spins a tale only slightly less romantic and more based on factual research about Laura’s life than Laura herself wrote about her childhood; while I appreciate the research he did tease out from the thin threads of the census and the legal records, Zochert’s biography is only a little less flossy than Jean Nathan’s of Dare Wright. If one bases one’s assesment purely on the book’s cover, this would be a romance novel complete with bodice-torn heroine panting for her hero. I suspect that Laura would have been scandalized to see this book’s cover, though she did have a durable relationship with her husband.

Thirty-five years on, I suspect that writing styles and research techniques have changed sufficiently that this would not serve as a neutrally written, authorially distanced biography. There are more recent biographies of Laura, and ones which cover her adult married life at that, for those of us who want to know “What happened after the books ended?” While I suspect that Laura is a more enjoyable read than Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, allowing for literary changes in the intervening decades, I suspect Zochert’s interpolating between the lines of what is known renders it somewhat less factual. There’s only so much one can extrapolate from census records and legal documents, alas, and, as I mentioned with Dare Wright’s biography, the vast majority of us leave little in the way of documentation and information behind for potential biographers, as the vast majority of us are of precious little interest to anyone but our direct descendants.