31 March 2016

Books Completed Since March 1

The bad thing about being sick for a while is...being sick. The good thing is you get to read a lot. The bad thing is that there are many books to review and little time. So excuse the brevity for some of these.

book icon  Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, Charlotte Higgins
Great Britain has been invaded so many times that layer upon layer of different cultures have been spread upon the British countryside. Here author Higgins takes us on a tour of one of the oldest ones: the Romans who came to "Britannia" in the early years of the Common Era. Traveling in a rattly old camper van, Higgins and her partner travel from Kent and Essex, where the earliest Romans landed, to "Londinium" and then west into Wales, to Bath and its healthful waters first utilized by Romans, north to Hadrian's Wall (and the Antonine Wall, a Roman construction I'd never heard of), and up into Scotland, and finally to the east, investigating what is left of what were sizable settlements and forts.

I love archaeology, so having a book that combined ruins, Romans, and Britain was like tossing me in a museum and telling me to enjoy. Indeed I did! The writing was brisk and talked about the everyday life of the Roman inhabitants as well as political goings-on behind the scenes, as well as the landscapes settled by the invaders. The book is enhanced with line drawings of maps illustrating the sites she visits, and if you are interested in Roman exploration and settlement or Great Britain's past, this archaeological history should be your cup of British tea.

book icon  Absolutely Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy's world has finally fallen into place. Her dad is leaving his Army career and the family has already moved to Austin, Texas, where he's accepted a job as a wrestling coach and now twelve-year-old Truly can pal around with her favorite cousin Mackenzie. Then disaster strikes: her father is caught in a bomb blast. He comes home alive, but minus one arm, his usually happy demeanor now sad and grim. He turns down the coach job, but is talked into moving the family to tiny, rural Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, to take over his parents' failing bookshop, which he will run with his nonconformist sister. Truly is unhappy over the move and losing her best friend/cousin, but most of all feeling she has "lost" her loving dad. Then, in cleaning up the store, Truly finds what may be a rare copy of Charlotte's Web. Is this a chance to help save Lovejoy's Books? But what's with the mysterious note inside?

I loved this book, top to toe: Truly herself, already almost six feet tall and awkward; her stoic father and hopeful mother, her four siblings (even the lisping one isn't over the top, as so many cute kids are), her offbeat aunt Truly, and the friends, both schoolmates and adults, Truly makes in Pumpkin Falls. Much of the "mystery" is more self-discovery, but I loved the combination of ex-military family with a problem, books, winter in New Hampshire, town traditions, even Truly's fascination with birds and how the family updates the bookstore.

The cover notes that this is "A Pumpkin Falls Mystery." I hope that means there will be further opportunities to visit the Lovejoys.

book icon  The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Kathryn Aalto
Imagine a chill, rainy March day. Then open up this book, which is a color-photograph-and-Ernest-Shepard-drawing combination with delicious descriptions of A.A. Milne's (and Christopher Robin's) life and the landscapes they explored. The sun comes out, not outside, but in your heart.

If you love nature, especially the English countryside, you will absolutely love this book, even if you have never read a word of Winnie-the-Pooh in your life. Any reference you need to the countryside being mentioned in the Pooh books are already mentioned in the text, and you can compare Ernest Shepard's whimsical watercolors to the real countryside, which he studied before illustrating the books, just as Garth Williams did before providing the illustrations for the "Little House" books. The pages are thick and glossy, showing off the beautiful photographs and prints to good effect. In the text, you learn of Milne's idyllic, vanished childhood, something children today can only dream about, and the ecology of each of the sites that served as inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood.

It's not quite as good as a tramp through Christopher Robin's real enchanted world, but it will do for someone an ocean and a climate away. Relaxing your blood pressure has never been so wonderful.

book icon  The Ghost Wind Stallion: A Kaya Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
This is the best book of the new crop of three American Girl mysteries—but not as a mystery.

Kaya's blind sister Speaking Rain chafes at her disability. She is tired of having to be led around and treated as if she is going to break. Plus she's begun having dreams in which a beautiful silver horse comes to her. Kaya is troubled by her sister's restlessness, and by the visit of her newly widowed aunt, who seems to have taken an instant dislike to her. Then, while she and Speaking Rain are investigating the horse herd, they see what appears to be a fabled Ghost Wind stallion, descendants of Russian horses that washed ashore from a wreck in the Pacific. It is the horse Speaking Rain has been dreaming about, and she believes that he has come to her to be hers and set her free.

There is little mystery in the book (except for the disappearance of Tall Branch's horse), but the strength of this one is Speaking Rain's determination, Kaya's willingness to help her, and the bond between the two girls. Tall Branch's emotions after her husband's death and attitude toward Kaya is also handled sensitively. A great story about how people with disabilities often feel shunted off to the side and wish just to "fit in."

book icon  The Glowing Heart: A Josefina Mystery, Valerie Tripp
It's Three Kings Day at the Montoya family rancho, and they've welcomed guests, included Don Javier, an old beau of Tia Dolores, who is now Josefina's stepmother. He has brought Tia Dolores a beautiful ruby ring which is an inheritance from her aunt. Also visiting is Senor Fernando, a man who is considering buying a horse from Josefina's father. During the festivities, the ruby ring disappears. Could Don Javier be the culprit? Senor Fernando? Or is it the strange man Josefina has seen hanging around near their hacienda? And why does Tia Dolores seem so dispirited? Can it be she regrets coming to the rancho and marrying Mr. Montoya?

I can't believe Valerie Tripp wrote this. It's so very obvious who the culprit is (think the Lost in Space episode "The Golden Man") and what happened to the ruby. And, maybe it's because I'm an adult, I also figured out why Tia Dolores was so unhappy from page 20. Just because the readers are kids doesn't mean you need to give them a storyline with cliched aspects. Disappointing.

book icon  The Finders-Keepers Rule: A Maryellen Mystery, Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Of the three new American girl mysteries, this is the best mystery: Maryellen and her buddy Davy are walking on the beach when they find a barnacle-encrusted ring buried in the sand. Maryellen thinks it might be treasure from a ship that sank on the Florida coast, her mind full of pirates after seeing Walt Disney's new movie, Treasure Island. But the kids are really surprised when people start trying to get their hands on the ring.

This is actually a better Maryellen story than the original two books. Greene paints the idyllic 50s childhood in bright colors: trips to the beach with no helicopter parents, enjoying time with your best friend, and a reasonably complicated mystery for the kids to solve with a little frisson of danger that isn't too scary for the intended audience. The colorful Daytona Beach scene of the 1950s is also well portrayed, and the story touches on the serious subject of the ownership of artifacts. Not only is a Disney movie mentioned, but it could even be an old-fashioned Disney kids' mystery film like The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. Glad to find a Maryellen story I finally enjoyed.

book icon  My Very Good, Very Bad Dog, ed. by Amy Neumark
You know the drill: it's a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. There are funny stories and sad ones; stories of companionship, love, rescue, and memories. It's neither better nor worse than any of the other compilations. If you love heartwarming dog stories, this is for you.

book icon  The Perils of Sherlock Holmes, Loren D. Estleman
This is a collection of short stories by Estleman, most crossovers with historical characters like Sir Richard Burton, Doc Holliday, and author Sax Rohmer, plus there is another story where Holmes is consulted by an earl who turns out to be "Tiny Tim"othy Cratchit. Plus there's an essay about the essential presence of Watson. The stories are interesting, but nothing spectacular.

book icon  The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson
At last Anderson (and Harper & Row) have wrung their last out of LIW.

Seriously. He admits it in the introduction

I don't mean to be so flip. There is some meat to this newest collection of Wilder letters, including some of the letters she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane shared about the editing of the "Little House" books. Sadly, Rose burned most of the letters, especially all those from the 1940s, so we will never know the full editorial partnership she shared with her mother. There is a really good, impassioned letter of Laura's insisting that The Long Winter be confined to the Ingalls and Wilders with a few supporting characters rather than a full pallet of townspeople as Rose wanted in order to give full import of the isolation families faced during that hard winter of 1880-1881, which showed she did have the flair for storytelling that some literary scholars have denied her. But most of the letters are banal little responses to schoolchildren, with a few lovely gems.

The trouble is, I've read so many books about Wilder, including the recently published Pioneer Girl, that I've already seen many of these "surprise bits" (like the fact that a young couple and their baby lived with the family during the long winter), so the revelations aren't. It's also sad to read Wilder's last letters with her longing for her late husband clear even in the few paragraphs, and it's also obvious that the sisters did not remain very close after Ma and Pa and Mary died.

I've been a Laura "junkie" since I first saw the television series and wanted to know "the real story," so I'm glad I picked this up, but if you have less of an attachment to her, I would invest in one of the biographies instead.

book icon  Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth
This is a thick collection of White's letters from schoolboy missives written to his brothers and parents all the way through a final letter to his stepson in the mid-70s. The most fascinating are those written from a cross country trip he took with a friend when he was in his late teens. They bought an old car and drove cross-country, stopping to get work as they needed money; White learned that he really didn't want to have anything to do with advertising very early. Later his letters chronicle his employment with the "New Yorker," his courtship and marriage to Katharine Angell, and the family's move out to the Maine farm.

This book is worth it solely for this memo.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Circus Island, Jerry West
One of the most fun children's series of the 1950s was this multiple-book collection about the Hollister family: Dad owns a store called The Trading Post and, of course, Mom stays at home supervising her active brood: the two elder, more responsible children Pete and Pam, then mischievous Ricky and sparkling Holly, and finally little Sue, who's only four, plus Zip the collie and White Nose and her kittens (which stay kittens for the duration of the books) and the pet donkey, Domingo. Their young parents were always happy to get involved in the kids' activities, and this time Dad Hollister precipitates the adventure when he takes the family down to Florida for winter vacation to a place called Circus Island, where a wintering show called the Sunshine Circus appears to be plagued with bad luck. Before they leave, Zip is injured after a dog show, having chased after a kidnapped poodle. The children find that whomever stole the poodle appears to be heading south toward Circus Island as well!

These are great, simple, fun books with easy vocabularies. The kids are loved and cared for, but never stifled by overprotective parents. They have adventures, use their minds to solve puzzles, and enjoy themselves enormously while helping others. No rude jokes in sight and the action is always lively. There are some mild 1950s female stereotypes, but the Hollister girls are just as active as the boys, so even if they are pigeonholed a little, you have no doubt Pam can grow up to be a businesswoman just as easily as a mother, and Holly could become a veterinarian as well as a nurse.

book icon  Wait for Signs, Craig Johnson
This is a collection of Walt Longmire short stories, some with a Christmas theme, that Johnson has written over the years for his fans, ranging from the ultimately funny "Old Indian Trick" to the adventure "Messenger," in which Walt, Vic, and Henry try to rescue an owl from its precarious nest in a Porta-Potty. Walt is also mistaken for the Messiah, takes a cue from his cameo appearance in A Christmas Carol, and shares a bittersweet Thanksgiving Day at the Red Pony, and there's even an adventure with a renegade sheep.

Obviously these stories would be most liked by fans of the Longmire mysteries, but they are equally good as stand-alone character studies.

book icon  360 Degrees Longitude: One Family's Journey Around the World, John Higham
From when their two children were small, John and September Higham promised that once the kids were old enough, the family would take a year off and bicycle around the world. When Katrina turned eleven and Jordan turned eight, the Highams kept that promise.

Well, sort of. They did travel around the world, but the tandem bicycle idea had to be abandoned in Switzerland in the first few weeks of the trip after Katrina broke her leg while using a climbing wall. Higham ended up carrying her around Europe for many weeks until her leg healed, and then eventually the tandem bike idea was abandoned. In the meantime, the Highams learned to get along with many modern conveniences and having wild adventures, including driving over a flooded dry salt lake and hiking the entire Inca trail. They encounter bureaucrats, lifesavers, the frantic traffic of Cambodia, altitude sickness, and other adventures. The kids, of course, finally rebel at museums, yet find something to take to heart in each place, whether it be kinship with the children of Hiroshima or the victims of Auschwitz.

I enjoyed this book, but I wish Higham would have concentrated more on what they saw and not his funny little foibles along the way. Sometimes it's almost too lighthearted, a circumnavigation in the style of Cheaper by the Dozen. I would have liked more beautiful or awesome moments. Still, it's a quick-moving, fun narrative.

book icon  Re-read: The Horsemasters, Don Stanford
A comfort read if there every was one. College-age Dinah Wilcox wants to go to the same expensive college as her best friend Bee-Bye Simms, but knows her parents' budget won't extend that far. She has talked the Dean of the college into letting her work her way through college as an Assistant Riding Mistress (I guess it's one of those toney schools that has horseback riding) if she gets a Preliminary Instructor's Certificate from the British Horse Society, using a gift of a thousand dollars from her grandmother to attend the "Horsemasters" class. This is the story of how Dinah goes from being a mediocre rider to an excellent one over the course of a summer, studying with fourteen other boys and girls from all nations in a course that includes dressage, jumping, cross-country, elementary veterinary medicine, and the innumerable other pieces of knowledge that separate a horse rider from a horse owner.

The majority of horse-crazy adolescent girls grow up in a pink cloud of fantasy about horses, imagining an hour of horse cleaning and grooming and then endless hours of riding over rainbow-stretched misty fields. This book shows you not only how difficult it is to properly care for a horse, but does it in such a fine state of storytelling that you learn many things without even trying (what's "lampas," a mouth infection, for instance; how to treat colic; how hard it is to keep a horse in top condition) while having fun with the fourteen characters, including Enzo, the flirty Italian boy; Jill, the Scots girl who'll give up anything but her bacon; Adrienne, a rich Swiss girl who's never done such hard work in her life, Roger, a farm boy; and our dogged heroine Dinah, who doesn't think she'll ever catch up with the rest of the students, not to mention the adults: Mercy Hale, the hard-as-nails "Head Girl" and Major Brooke and Lieutenant Pinski, the riding instructors. (There is a wonderful scene in the riding school with Lieutenant Pinski!)

You will gallop through this book as fast as Dinah on her horse Cornish Pastie...I promise!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Doctor's Life and Times, James Goss & Steve Tribe
This is a nifty coffee-table type scrapbook/fact book about the complete series as it existed up to the 50th anniversary episode, from Hartnell to Smith, divided by Doctor. For each reincarnation, there's a "scrapbook" devoted to that Doctor, with publicity photos and behind the scenes snaps along with a narrative written for each Doctor: Susan's diary and the Doctor's diary for the first Doctor; an interview with Jackie Tyler for the Ninth; a dialog between the Doctor and the Master for the Third, etc. Following each scrapbook section are that are short commentaries by the people involved  with that Doctor, from William Russell, Waris Hussein, and Carole Ann Ford to Karen Gillan, Jenna Coleman, and Arthur Darvill; from original producer Verity Lambert all the way to Steven Moffat. Who fans will enjoy.

book icon  Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey
We were away for the weekend and the hotel we stayed at has a bookcase with books you could borrow to read and then return to any hotel in that chain. They had, believe it or not, two copies of this book. It's a nice, easy to read history of handwriting, the first portion taking us back to rune inscriptions, wax tablets and cuneiform, hieroglyphics and papyrus, and then Roman lettering and its different forms (uncial, Carolinian, etc.), but the main focus of the book is on the different styles of handwriting that spanned the history of the United States, from the ornate Spencerian script to the swirling cursive of the Palmer method to the simplified cursive of the 1950s and thus to the present. Very lively and enjoyable, although I could have done without the chapter on graphologists and their feuds.

book icon  A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry
This is one of Lowry's early classics, the story of Meg Chalmers, a girl who thinks herself an ugly duckling compared against her prettier sister Molly. Meg, a budding photographer, is just coming into her own at school with some courses she will love when her parents move the family to the country so her professor father can finish his book. At school Molly immediately charms everyone and Meg feels left out in the cold until she befriends her elderly bachelor neighbor who is also into photography and his two tenants, a "hippie" couple who don't appear to be married. But as her friendships develop, her tenuous relationship with her sister actually starts to fail further as Molly's strange "winter nosebleeds" become worse and she is often tired or in pain from headaches. It is only when Molly wakes Meg up one night, drenched in blood, that Meg realizes that there is something far more wrong with her sister than she expected.

This is a sad story about a serious subject, but well told, the first in a spate of serious books that came out in the late 70s about seriously ill young people and how they and their families coped with that illness. It was also Lowry's first book and based on a true experience. I wasn't sure I wanted to read this, but Lowry grabbed me from the first paragraph with eyeglassed, bookworm Meg and her feelings of inadequacy, and I ended up really enjoying it.

book icon  The Dust Bowl, Albert Marrin
This is an outstanding older-child's picture book about the Dust Bowl that starts with a history of the Great Plains and why the climate was not conducive for farming, yet it was settled and farmed anyway. Good rains in the early part of the 20th century lulled the settlers into thinking the rich soil would always provide bumper crops and prices would always be high. However, because they used the farming methods more suited to wetter climes, with fine harrowing of the soil, the constant high winds and the drought of the 1930s blew the topsoil away, creating "black blizzards" and giving both adults and children "dust pneumonia."

Many of the classic "Dust Bowl" photographs of Dorothea Lange are here, including the iconic "Migrant Mother" (another side of the story of that photograph is told), and an excellent narrative conveys the entire span of the story, including the prospect for future dust bowls in China and India. Because of photographs of children in distress, this is not recommended for younger kids.

book icon  Lanterns and Lances, James Thurber
If you're just starting on reading James Thurber, I suggest you start with his early and classic writing: buy a copy of The Thurber Carnival, which includes a selection of the cartoons, all of My Life and Hard Times, and then a great selection of his classics, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat." If you're an old-time radio fan, look for The Beast in Me and Other Animals, which contains Thurber's humorous study of radio "daytime dramas," "Soapland."

This collection is from Thurber's later period. It's not that he "lost it," but his essays and humor are increasingly dark as his blindness and aging cynicism caught up with him. There's still much to like here: "How to Get Through the Day," for example, a commentary about a Thurber favorite Henry James (which unfortunately digresses into a criticism of television Westerns), and a diatribe on the creeping "You Know" in speech. Several of the essays, "The Tyranny of Trivia" and "The Watchers of the Night," involve insomnia and the word games played to work through it. Cocktail parties and inane conversations at such also occupy several of the pieces. If it all seems a bit dry and cynical, go find the stories from his prime instead.

book icon  Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler
This was my Lenten reading, the story of Feiler's journey through the Holy Land as it says in the subtitle states "A Journal by Land Through the Five Books of Moses." A journey by automobile and by camel, by foot and by other means of transportation, with his scholar and guide Avner Goren, a Jewish scholar and teacher.

I loved this book because it made me feel as if I were truly there exploring the route with Feiler and Goren: the crowded cities, the bedouin tents, the endless sand, the towering cliffs of Petra, the shores of the Red Sea. Feiler talks to Christians on pilgrimage, Jewish scholars and everyday Muslims, city dwellers and what is left of nomadic peoples—all of them with one thing in common: they have felt the call of the spiritual in the desert. The narrative is well-paced and even when descriptive doesn't get bogged down in itself; I particularly enjoyed Feiler's poetic descriptions.

book icon  Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, published by Paul Hamlyn Ltd.
When I was about ten or so, I found a thin, large format book on a remainder pile (I recall it being in Woolworth's). The cover was gone and we got it for a few dollars. This was my beloved Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, an illustrated anthology of fiction and essays by Paul Hamlyn Ltd. I loved that book to death and only later found out what the cover looked like.

What should I find in a used bookstore a few weeks back but the companion book Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, which is a collection of essays ("The Horse in History," "The Horse in Art," "The Horse in Sport," etc.),  interrupted by a few cartoons and fiction, plus black and white and color illustrations, including, I was delighted to discover, two photographs of "Nautical," a temperamental but famous jumping horse once profiled in one of my favorite Walt Disney short subjects, "The Horse With the Flying Tail." Once again, no cover, but who cared? (This is the cover.)

There is a Cats, Cats, Cats, Cats, too, but if I go as long between finding it as I did this one, I fear I won't be here to do so. :-) (Oh, gosh, there's a Birds, Birds, Birds, Birds, too...)

book icon  Murder on the Last Frontier, Cathy Pegau
Charlotte Brody has left the stifling society of 1919 Yonkers behind her to join her brother Michael in Cordova, Alaska, America's "last frontier," where he is practicing medicine. A suffragette and journalist, Charlotte hopes to get a new start as well as write some provacative prose for "The Modern Woman's Review." As soon as she arrives in town, though, she discovers that not only has her brother been harboring a secret, but that human nature is not very different in this small town: soon a brutal murder occurs.

I am on the fence about this book, but realize I will probably buy the next one. I still like the characters, and a "modern girl" in still-frontier Alaska is very appealing. The rough-and-tumble of an Alaskan town post-WWI is well described. Trouble is, Charlotte is almost too headstrong. She wears her heart (and her suspicions) on her sleeve and deliberately endangers herself and others in the process. For someone who has been working for a while as a reporter, she is regrettably blunt and has no "reporter savvy." Plus big portions of the mystery are practically broadcast. When a certain event happens, for instance, you immediately realize Charlotte's other reason for coming to Cordova. The culprit is pretty obvious as the plot jogs along, and the romantic storyline developed way too quickly for my taste.

My biggest irritation with this book is the modernisms that creep into the narrative. "Pants"? "Lifestyle"? And in the preview of the sequel, a referral to an "op-ed" piece? Really? Plus some of the dialog is clunky; when Michael and Charlotte have a heart-to-heart near the end, lines include "I think we've learned valuable lessons here" and "We can help each other find peace now." Oh, good grief. I don't expect this to be written with quaint postwar prose, but the modern vocabulary really tosses one out of the story.

But...Alaska. Female journalist. One who opposes the Volstead Act to boot. I'll buy the next, but I hope Pegau tightens up her writing. Please?

book icon  Freedom Just Around the Corner, Walter A. McDougall
This history of the colonial and then pre-James Polk United States is billed as a history of "the brave, brilliant, and flawed people who made America great...native-born and immigrant: German, Latin, African, and British; farmers, engineers, planters and merchants; Protestants, Freemasons, Catholics, and Jews...and the American scofflaws, speculators, rogues, and demagogues." And that's when it's at its best, talking about those little people who made up the US: teamsters, the rare woman planters like Caty Greene, pioneers, those who bucked the system and moved west, the Native Americans, etc. But, of course, to do a proper history, one has to get through the political machinations as well, and there you will find this volume harking back to a normal social studies book. So I pretty much read through it in fits and starts, dozing over the politics until they got back to the individual experiences of the individuals. There are some great pieces on Catherine "Caty" Green, the unconventional widow of General Nathaniel Greene, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the southern planters vs. the northern farmers, etc. Plus McDougall profiles each of the states that entered the union following the revolution through 1848.

10 March 2016

Starting Fresh

I've been on a bit of an E.B. White kick since I read the Essays last year, so I picked up Letters of E.B. White for a song (well, really for $4) on Amazon Marketplace, and am having fun reading through it. I found this delightful rebuke to New Yorker editor William Shawn over an edit done to one of White's pieces, and had such a good howl over it that I had to share.

February 1945
[Interoffice Memo]


In the comment on Life’s storage wall, I wrote: “...a pretty good case can be made out for setting fire to it and starting fresh.” Some studious person, alone with his God in the deep of night, came upon the word “fresh” and saw how easily it could be changed to the word “afresh,” a simple matter of affixing an “a.” So the phrase became “starting afresh” and acquired refinement, and a sort of grammatical excellence.

I still think people say “start fresh.” I shall continue to write “start fresh,” to say “start fresh,” and, in circumstances which require a restart, I shall actually start fresh. I don’t ever intend to start afresh. Anybody who prefers to start afresh is at liberty to do so, but I don’t recommend it.

An afresh starter is likely to be a person who wants to get agoing. He doesn’t just want to get going, he wants to get agoing. An afresh started is also likely to be a person who feels acold when he steps out of the tub.

Some of my best friends lie abed and run amuck, but they do not start afresh. Never do. However, if there is to be a growing tendency in the New Yorker office to improve words by affixing an “a,” I shall try to adjust myself to this amusing situation. Characters in my stories will henceforth go afishing, and they will read Afield & Astream. They will not be typical people, they will all be atypical. Some of them, perhaps all of them, will be asexual, even amoral.

E.B. White

03 March 2016

Speaking With Forked Tongue

I'm aware that may be insulting, but it burns me to see that a large publisher is being insulting, and I am being insulting to them.

I've made no secret that I love many children's books as much as I love adult books and that I still buy the American Girl books. I've no interest in the dolls, other to see how they look compared to the character in the book; I've never been a dolls person. To me they're boring; to other little girls they are their best friend, and I hope those girls never lose the affection they had for that best friend.

I love the books because of the history angle. When Pleasant Company (and there really was a Pleasant, a Pleasant Rowland who originally conceived of the books and the dolls as a way to show girls that history wasn't some dry-as-dirt school thing and that they had a lot more in common with historical girls than they thought) founded the "original three" line, Felicity (Revolutionary War), Samantha (Victorian), and Molly (WWII), the idea took off. A pioneer Swedish girl appeared, Kirsten, and an African-American girl escaped from slavery, Addy. Since have come Marie-Grace and Cecile from seventeenth century New Orleans, Kaya of the Nez Perce tribe, Josefina of the New Mexican trading era, Kit the Depression-era girl, Rebecca the Jewish immigrant, Julie the hippie-era girl, Caroline from the War of 1812, and now the newest, Maryellen Larkin of 1950s Florida and Melody Ellison in 1960s Detroit.

When Mattel took over Pleasant Company's stock, they stated they would hold to the standards of the original three. The original books were published in a set of six that conformed to a pattern: an introductory story, a school story, a Christmas story, a spring (usually birthday) story, a summer story, and a winter story. (As the girls diversified, this did change. Kaya, the Nez Perce girl, did not observe these particular milestones, and Rebecca did not celebrate Christmas. The paired characters, Marie-Grace and Cecile, also had their books set up a bit differently, and that broke the original standard.) Each of the books were illustrated, and if something was mentioned in a story, like Felicity's pattens or Samantha's reticule, there might be a little illustration of it on that page to show you what it looked like. In the back of the book would be a six page illustrated section called "Inside [Girl's Name] World," which would talk about a particular theme from the book (child labor, surviving the Depression, scrap drives, Native American customs, etc.). They were lovely, and explained what might be some confusing concepts to modern kids, like why Aunt Cornelia was considered strange for riding a bicycle or why Julie couldn't play basketball or why a hope chest would be something valuable to a pioneer woman.

And so it went along for a while...until just recently. The doll business was still booming—or so it seems when they show those glitzy promos for the American Girl Place stores—but the books seem to suddenly have become an unappreciated cousin. The expensive dolls and their equally expensive accessories seem to be the reason-du-jour now, the novels just a sideline. This is very apparent after the recent "Beforever" rebranding.

Beside the fact that "BeForever" isn't even a word, it's just some sort of trademark they can put on the books, and it means absolutely...what? The books say "The adventurous characters you'll meet in the BeForever will spark your curiosity about the past..." blah, blah, blah, ending with "Read their stories, explore their worlds, join their adventures. Your friendship with them will BeForever." Really? Ick. Canned speech that was previously provided by a colorful, exciting cover, a good description on the back, sparkling illustrations inside, and that wonderful six-page historical recap at the end. I guess they had to provide the parroted introduction because there are no more sparkling illos. The wonderful illustrated historical tags are gone, too. The six books have been compacted into two text-only paperbacks, each with its own measly two-page text about the historical aspects. The older-line girls' stories are being reprinted in these bastardized editions while the new girls premiere in them. What a shameful comedown from the wonderfully done originals. I am especially incensed that the Melody Ellison series had to be abridged this way. I was kind of bored with Maryellen Larkin, but Melody has a rich family heritage and so much going on in her Civil Rights era setting that this one cried out for the six books with the six-page historical coda, so much going on that children today do not know about, and all we get is two pages of "yeah, black people were really put down back then and, oh, yeah, you could make it as a Motown singer if you were good enough." Talk about a comedown.

What's worse, Mattel hasn't even bothered to stick to the historical accuracy they stated they would adhere to. American Girl used to have a "History Mystery" line, where unique girl characters from different eras of American history would solve mysteries: a young woman in old New Orleans, a girl during the Alaskan gold rush, a scrap-drive hunting girl and her siblings coming upon mysterious lights, etc. One of the books, the World War I era The Night Flyers won an Edgar award for best children's mystery. Mattel, unfortunately, dropped these in favor of the established American Girl characters solving mysteries. Some of these have not been bad, but the quality is not that of the original "History Mysteries," and the new "BeForever" line of them seems to be worst of all. I got the latest batch this morning: one about Maryellen, one about Josefina, one about Kaya. I didn't think I'd ever see another Kaya story; Mattel doesn't seem to put much stock in their minority characters. The mysteries are usually about the white kids, Samantha, Kit, Molly, Caroline.

One of the copious notes that was provided about Kaya's stories was that you would never see her smile or open her mouth showing her teeth in the illustrations for her books. In Nez Perce society this was apparently considered extremely rude. So look at Kaya's face on the front of her new book, The Ghost Wind Stallion. Not sure if she's smiling, but she certainly is showing a lot of teeth. So they couldn't even be bothered to stick with that piece of historical integrity. Way to go, Mattel. Keep cheapening the books while getting all that nice plastic [credit cards] for those nice plastic dolls. Nice way to teach kids that books Just Aren't Important.