Children's/Coming-of-Age, Norton, Mary

Review of The Borrowers by Mary Norton

When I was 6, my first-grade teacher read us The Borrowers. Unfortunately, I was a hyperactive child who simply couldn’t pay attention. I didn’t remember a single thing about the novel. In the past few years, I’ve been reading children’s books that I should have already been familiar with. I am happy to say that at the age of 29, I have finally read The Borrowers.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Borrowers by Mary Norton follows a family of tiny people who live – quasi-parasitically – off of humans (“human beans”). They “borrow” (or rather, steal) everything they need for survival: food scraps, thread for clothing, pins, etc. Our story, which is the first in a series, follows the Clock Borrowers. Homily, Pod, and their daughter Arrietty live under a grandfather clock in the household of Great-Aunt Sophy. Several times a week, Pod sneaks around the house, “borrowing” what his family needs and avoiding Sophy, her cook Mrs. Driver, her gardener Crampfurl, and an unnamed 10-year-old boy. Pod must avoid being seen by any “human bean”, otherwise he and his family will be forced to expatriate.

The frame narrative is of an aunt telling her niece about the stories that her brother used to tell her about the Borrowers. Mrs. May tells young Kate that her brother – the ten-year old boy – lived primarily in India, but after catching an illness, briefly returned to England to recover at his great-aunt’s house. This brother tragically died during World War I. The novel recounts what the boy claimed to have experienced in Great-Aunt Sophy’s home.

This book contains a surprising amount of specialized housekeeping vocabulary that readers of the 1950s may have been familiar with but that children (and adults) today have probably never encountered. Otherwise, the prose is straightforward. The Borrowers reminded me so much of The Indian in the Cupboard and The Castle in the Attic. All three books follow toy-sized protagonists. Although I didn’t feel that any single character stood out, all of them together brought the story to life. I found it to be a page-turner with an important – albeit subtle – moral.

Although I don’t plan to read the rest of the books in the series, I’m glad that I read The Borrowers. It’s interesting to see what children of the early 1950s read.

Favorite Quote

She learned a lot and some of the things she learned were hard to accept. She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people. “Nor for big people either,” she reminded the boy when she saw his secret smile.

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Lee, Harper

Go Set a Watchman and Prejudice

Image result for go set a watchmanWhat was it about?

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb County after living for years in New York. Her father Atticus is now in his 70s, and she is courted by her childhood friend Henry. Jean Louise is still rambunctious and independent, but it looks like her family has changed. One day she finds evidence that her father and uncle have been attending the Maycomb County citizen’s council. Atticus speaks out against the recent Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation. He only defended that black boy for professional reasons. The Supreme Court overstepped its boundaries. Atticus must continue to defend black people, otherwise the NAACP will.

Jean Louise is horrified. Her father had been her role model, but she had been deceived. He had deceived her. How can she ever love her father again? Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s controversial sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. For the first time, Jean Louise (and the reader) has to face the unpleasant truth about the character of a beloved lawyer and father.

What did I think of it?

I put off reading this book for a long time because of all the controversy surrounding the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. I also admired Atticus Finch like so many other Americans. But in the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the dark side of humanity (evil, prejudice, and guilt). I knew that I needed to read GSAW. 

Even though it was very poorly edited (I believe it was only a first draft), GSAW will probably be one of my favorite books of 2017. This is the only book that I have ever read that explores prejudice from the white perspective. Growing up, I was taught that racism was something that existed 50 years ago, but is no longer an institutional problem in America. We were so wrong. Like Jean Louise, we thought of Atticus as the exception to the rule – the white savior who represented the “good” white man. Unfortunately, this image of Atticus has prevented us from having a serious discussion about prejudice. GSAW is so hard to read because it is clear that Atticus is not an entirely bad person. As long as we assume that only “bad” people are capable of prejudice, institutional prejudice will continue to exist in America.

Atticus is an educated man. He justifies his prejudice with reasoned argumentation. Prejudice is so hard to combat because the person who is prejudiced thinks his/her beliefs are reasonable. The “white trash” image of prejudice is so convenient because it allows the rest of us to wash our hands of the problem. As long as we pretend that only “uneducated” people are capable of prejudice, we will keep pretending that America is colorblind, and people of color will continue to face oppression. Jean Louise might think she is innocent, but a closer look at her character reveals that she too is guilty of racism.

I may not be white, but facing my own personal prejudices in the past year has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. For very personal reasons, I am so glad I read GSAW. In general, I strongly believe that TKAM and GSAW should be read together.

Favorite Quote

“A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.”

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Modern Detour

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Hesse, Karen, Newbery Winners by Author

Review of Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

What was it about?

Billie Joe is growing up during the Depression and Dust Bowl period of the 30s in Oklahoma. Her mother has died, she suffers from horrible burns on her hands, and she can no longer relate to her father. In a series of poems written in blank verse Billie Joe describes her hobbies, family, and schooling from 1934 through 1935. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal in 1998.

What did I think of it?

It seems to me that the Association for Library Service to Children likes to award Newbery Medals to really depressing books written for middle grade students. Out of the Dust is one of those books. If it had not been written in blank verse the book would have been unsuitable for children. The subject matter is just too tragic. However, this work is a good introduction for children to an important period in American history. Because it is written in verse, middle grade students should not be too disturbed by the content. My only major criticism is that the narrative style did not really add much to the story. While a few poems left an impression on me, most of them weren’t very memorable. What Billie Joe was trying to communicate could have been communicated just as effectively if not more effectively in prose. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming read. I don’t know what other children’s books were published in 1997, but I didn’t think Out of the Dust was as good as some of the other award winners.

Favorite Poem

Breaking Drought

After seventy days
of wind and sun,
of wind and clouds,
of wind and sand,
after seventy days,
of wind and dust,
a little

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Review of Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

What was it about?

Helen McGill’s brother Andrew is at once a farmer and a famous author. Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend enough time caring for the farm, leaving most of the farm responsibilities as well as all of the housework to his sister. One day, while Andrew is out of town, Helen sees a wagon parked outside of the farmhouse. The wagon is filled with books, and the owner wants to sell it to Andrew for 400 dollars. Helen thinks Andrew owns enough books, and a wagon of books would only encourage him to neglect the farm more. After some negotiation, Helen offers to buy the wagon from the owner, Roger Mifflin. Mifflin has spent the last few years covering the region with his traveling bookshop Parnassus on Wheels. He intends to sell his business to someone who loves literature and who wants to share the love of reading with children and adults in the countryside. Helen accepts the challenge. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is a short but delightful adventure about books, friendship, and life.

What did I think of it?

There is no better place to buy a book like Parnassus on Wheels than from a book sale. And that is where I bought my copy. Parnassus on Wheels is a fun book to read on a sunny day. Books and authors are referenced throughout, and Helen is a compelling protagonist. There could have been more of a discussion about the merits of literacy, and the literary references could have been more elegantly and subtly woven into the tale, but I was still satisfied by the story. Sometimes you have to read something light and fun. Parnassus on Wheels was that book.

Favorite Quote

“What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.”

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Review of Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”


Children's/Coming-of-Age, Juster, Norton

Review of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

What was it about?

Milo is bored. He is no longer interested in the toys and books he owns. Suddenly, he notices a package in the corner of his room. As it is neither Christmas nor his birthday, Milo doesn’t know what the package is for, but he is curious to unwrap it. The package contains a turnpike tollbooth with instructions for constructing it. It also includes highway signs and coins for paying tolls. Milo gets inside a toy car, drives up to the tollbooth, and is transported to a world in which words are food, watchdogs keep time, and numbers are mined but real gems discarded. In this Kingdom of Wisdom, two brothers (King Azaz the unabridged and the Mathemagician) live on opposite sides of the kingdom because of their rivalry over whether words or numbers are more important. Unfortunately, the rivalry led to the banishment of their adopted sisters Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. With King Azaz’s support, Milo, the watchdog Tock, and a prideful insect named Humbug set off for the Castle in the Air to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and bring peace and harmony back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

What did I think of it?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is replete with wordplay, metaphors, and common expressions. I personally enjoy didactic tales for children wrapped up as fables/fantasy stories. The Phantom Tollbooth is of this tradition. It is witty, and insightful. Children can enjoy meeting the wacky monsters, and teenagers and adults can pick up on all the clever wordplay. Parts reminded me of La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce (Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song) by Erik Orsenna, which I read for one of my French classes last semester. Parts also reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer brought the story to life. They were an essential component of the story because they helped me imagine the creatures in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.

Favorite Quotes

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet.”


Children's/Coming-of-Age, Gray, Elizabeth Janet, Historical Fiction

Review of Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray

AdamOfTheRoad.JPGWhat was it about?

Adam attends a preparatory school, befriends a boy named Perkin, and secretly cares for a stray dog named Nick. But Adam is not like any other child at the school. He is the son of Roger Quartermayne, a well-known minstrel in the kingdom. Adam dreams of being like his father and living life on the road. But he never expected the journey to start so soon. All of a sudden, Adam is separated from Roger and Nick. Over the course of the story, Adam takes an unintended pilgrimage through thirteenth century England, meeting new places and new faces at every turn of the road. Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray is about one boy’s search for his father and a purpose in life.

What did I think of it?

Good historical fiction is hard to find. Many bestsellers are sensationalist but can hardly be considered historical. Adam of the Road is quite the opposite. The sights and sounds of thirteenth century England come alive in this children’s book; the time period is described in such a way that the reader feels fully immersed in the world. The writing is as simple and unassuming as Adam’s journey.

But despite the elegance of the narrative, the story lacks a plot or a purpose. I know that Adam of the Road is supposed to be more about the journey than the end goal, but the journey is quite underwhelming. The people Adam meets don’t really leave a lasting impression on him. To be perfectly honest, it was a boring story. I love a good character study, but Adam isn’t a very compelling character. It is never clear how the people he meets contribute to his personal growth.

Overall, I thought the book was OK. My expectations going into the book may have been too high, but I wasn’t really wowed by anything. Adam of the Road won the Newbery Medal in 1943. I can certainly understand why the Newbery committee thought this book was deserving of the medal. With respect to historical accuracy and plausibility, this is historical fiction at its finest. I just did not find it very memorable.

Favorite Quote

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Adventure, Children's/Coming-of-Age, George, Jean Craighead

Review of Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

What was it about?

The story begins with Miyax, an Alaskan Eskimo, who is attempting to join a wolf pack. She is stranded in the wilderness and depends on the wolves to find food. Amaroq is the leader of the pack. He is naturally the most majestic of the wolves and the one with whom Miyax establishes a spiritual connection. She names another wolf Kapu because he reminds her of her father Kapugen, the person who taught Miyax so much about the natural world.

She is running away from an oppressive and frightening past. In a letter addressed to Miyax, her Gussaq (means ‘White’ in Eskimo) pen pal Amy had offered her a place to stay in San Francisco. But she got lost in the Alaskan wilderness, and to survive, Miyax must turn to her Eskimo heritage for guidance.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George explores the boundaries that divide the tame from the wild, the traditional from the modern, and one culture from another.

What did I think of it?

I love wolves. This should come as no surprise since this is the second book I have read this year about wolves (the first was The Call of the Wild). There are, in fact, quite a lot of similarities between the two works even though the story lines are vastly different. In Julie of the Wolves, Miyax is the protagonist but the story is just as much about her as about the wolves she lives with. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is the protagonist, but once again, the humans are important players in the narrative. The tone as well as some of the themes of the two stories are also quite similar. (Both, for example, speak about “the call” of the wild.) I was surprised by the sometimes blunt realism in Julie of the Wolves. One scene in particular has placed this work on a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books in America. Jean Craighead George offers a pretty convincing tale about a runaway Eskimo girl living with wolves. While the author clearly loves the natural world, the story is (for the most part) grounded in reality. No culture is purely good or purely evil, and the wilderness is not an idyllic paradise. My only criticism is that at times, I found it hard to believe that it was possible for a person to develop such a tight friendship with wild and fully-grown wolves. George clearly had an understanding of the “language” of wolves, but Miyax makes a lot of physical contact with the animals and doesn’t ever get injured. Despite this minor criticism, I am definitely in agreement with the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal to Julie of the Wolves in 1973.

Favorite Quote

“Julie is gone,” she said. “I am Miyax now.” 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Children's/Coming-of-Age, Ende, Michael

Review of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

What was it about?

Ten year old Bastian Balthazar Bux runs away from a gang of bullies from school and finds shelter in an old bookstore. There, he meets a bookseller named Carl Conrad Coreander who, instead of comforting the child, hurls insulting remarks at Bastian. But Carl is suddenly interrupted by a phone call. During the time the bookseller spends answering the call, Bastian steals a book titled The Neverending Story (I underline the title of the book Bastian reads to distinguish it from the title of the book we are reading). Because classes have already begun for the day, the boy decides to play hooky. He hides himself in the school attic and begins reading the book he stole.

The Neverending Story is not like any other fantasy book Bastian has ever read. Not only are the creatures extremely bizarre, Bastian soon discovers that he has an important role to play in the story. The Nothing is destroying Fantastica and is somehow responsible for the mysterious illness of the Childlike Empress. A child warrior with greenish skin and purple hair named Atreyu has been chosen by the empress to defeat the Nothing, but he is only given a magical medallion, the Auryn, for protection. Atreyu is ordered to leave his weapons behind. They will not help him in his quest.

Along the way, Atreyu’s horse dies in the Swamps of Sadness and is replaced by a luckdragon named Falkor. Falkor and Atreyu try to find a cure for the Childlike Empress’ illness but to no avail. The child warrior returns to the empress and admits his failure, but the empress has not given up hope. She knows of one who can save Fantastica, and he is the reader of The Neverending Story. The only person who can save Fantastica is Bastian Balthazar Bux, but unless he gives the empress a new name, the Nothing will annihilate the world. Will Bastian accept the mission?

What did I think of it?

Most people, I suspect, have never read The Neverending Story (translated from German by Ralph Manheim) but have at least seen the film adaptation. As a child, I really enjoyed watching the movie. Falkor is such a beautiful creature.

How can a child not like a movie with a creature that looks like this? I recently learned that two sequels were also made, but everyone I’ve talked to agrees that they are terrible. Michael Ende, the author of The Neverending Story, actually disliked all the films. He felt that the filmmakers had altered the message of his book. As I have not seen any of the sequels, I cannot  comment on Ende’s criticism, but I certainly expected a different kind of story when I picked up the book. The first third of The Neverending Story is fast-paced and covers the material portrayed in the first movie. Bastian learns of his mission. But the rest of the book is quite different from the beginning in tone as well as in pacing. Suddenly, The Neverending Story ceases to be a lighthearted action story and becomes darker and much more philosophical in nature. Once Bastian arrives in Fantastica, the action slows down and much emphasis is placed on the boy’s interior transformation. The creatures are just as bizarre, but they serve an important purpose in the story. At the heart of The Neverending Story is the question, “What sort of a leader will Bastian be?” Are there limitations to what Bastian can do? The way this book was constructed reminds me so much of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). The first part is very childlike and whimsical. The final parts deal with more mature themes. I loved The Neverending Story. Good children’s literature, I believe, is loved by children and better appreciated by adults. A children’s fantasy book becomes a classic if it does more than tell a fun story. Michael Ende approached his books the way C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien approached their works. Ende’s objection to being called a children’s author reminds me a lot of Tolkien’s comments about children’s literature in his essay On Fairy Stories.

In 1985, Michael Ende wrote, “One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the nursery door. The critics will never forgive you such. The great Rudyard Kipling is one to have suffered this. I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.”

The comparison to Rudyard Kipling is quite accurate. The Neverending Story (1975) is very much like the children’s books of early 20th century authors. It deals with themes of power, wisdom, and loss. I recommend this book to people young and old. It is excellent!

Favorite Quotes

“Every real story is a never ending story.”

“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.”