Monday, December 26, 2016

Skating Shoes (Book Review)

Title: Skating Shoes (UK title: White Boots)
Author: Noel Streatfeild
IllustratorRichard Floethe
Publication: Random House, Hardcover, 1951 (currently available in pb)
Genre: Juvenile fiction Setting: London
Description: Harriet Johnson has been ill and her doctor is concerned about her slow recovery so recommends ice skating. The Johnson family is delightful but impoverished: father George makes an inadequate living running a London shop in which he sells random produce etc. sent up from the country by his brother, mother Olivia manages meals for six out of the merchandise no one will purchase, and Harriet’s brothers immediately come up with a plan to subsidize her skating. Once at the rink, Harriet is befriended by talented Lalla Moore, who literally pulls her onto the ice when she is in awe at just glimpsing a rink for the first time. Raised by an affluent aunt, Lalla has been groomed since age 3 to become an ice skating champion. Their unexpected friendship will change the lives of both families.

Audience: Readers about 8-11 and adults who love Streatfeild.
My Impression: One of my all time favorite books, and a top three Streatfield, along with Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes. Although perhaps best known for her young characters who aspire to performing arts careers, Streatfeild is also gifted at portraying normal family life: Lalla, who was quick, soon picked up Casino and found it the most exciting game….Certainly she had never seen a family card game with everybody trying to do down the rest of the family, and roaring with laughter when they succeeded. Streatfield also makes it clear that frugal tea with the Johnsons is more fun than the cake with pink sugar and chocolate biscuits served in lonely splendor at Lalla’s home. On the other hand, part of the appeal of this book is learning what it takes to become a skating champion and witnessing Harriet’s skating development.

The supporting characters, as in all Streatfeild books, are warm and appealing, from Lalla’s Nana who does not approve of “making a show” of Lalla and encourages the friendship with Harriet and her family; the governess, Miss Goldthorpe, who invites Harriet to join Lalla’s lessons; and Max, the moody skating instructor, who is frustrated by Lalla’s lack of attention to the compulsory figures then required of skaters. Most vivid of all are the descriptions of George Johnson’s shop. His brother eats “the best of everything he grew, caught, or shot” and sends up to London dozens of near-rotten eggs, hundreds of cabbages, and possibly edible toadstools that are difficult to sell. Unlike many poor but honest families in English fiction, the Johnsons really are scraping the bottom of the barrel. No loyal retainer manages the kitchen, and they don’t have two shillings to spare for renting skates (Toby, the quantitative brother, immediately wonders how much skates would cost to buy and whether that would be more economical). 

I always think about this beloved book on Boxing Day because that is how I learned about this British holiday. Harriet’s brother Alec gets a paper route with Pulton’s News Agents to pay for her skate rental. It pays 14 shillings a week (sigh for the long lost days of a morning and evening newspaper delivery) and when he gets paid Mr. Pulton says, “Twelve shillings for your sister’s skates, and two shillings for your dreams.” Alec is invited to stop by Mr. Pulton’s flat, above the newspaper shop on the day after Christmas, which American readers learn is Boxing Day, and offered plum cake and ginger-wine (I assume this is the ginger beer also drunk by the Swallows and Amazons). Mr. Pulton listens to Alec’s ambitions for a market garden and gives him a leather cash box for his savings. His quiet support keeps Alec determined to save even when he is tempted to buy other necessities. Unlike some books where there is comeuppance for a talented but conceited character and success for the underdog, both Lalla and Harriet are likeable in different ways. Lalla is spoiled and lacks Harriet’s consistent work ethic but despite her upbringing she is generous (except in chapter 13) and capable of real friendship. Harriet’s improvement as a skater is fun for the reader, whether a skating fan or not.
About the Author: Noel Streatfeild was the daughter of an English minister and her book, A Vicarage Family, is the first of three that are more or less autobiographical.   She attended the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and acted professionally for several years before beginning to write.  Ballet Shoes was the beginning of the "career novel" for children, and in the US many of her later books were retitled with "Shoes" to increase sales.   White Boots became Skating Shoes, which makes much more sense than Family Shoes (The Bell Family) and Party Shoes (Party Frock).

Source: For years I checked this out of the Newton Library with the original US cover shown above. I now own a hardcover and the Puffin paperback also displayed.  Highly recommended and Happy Boxing Day!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White (Book Review)

Title: Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White
Author: Melissa Sweet with Afterword by Martha White
Publication: 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover
Genre: Juvenile Nonfiction
Description: This is an illustrated biography of the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, created by a gifted artist of mixed media. It starts with his childhood and provides a vivid depiction of young Elwyn’s, later called Andy, childhood in NYC and first exposure to Maine. His love of country life in Maine gave him deep pleasure and enabled him to craft stories about anthropomorphic characters that have entertained generations of children.

Audience: The book is written with simplicity that makes it suitable for middle schoolers researching an author but with enough dimension to appeal to adults interested in E. B. White.

My Impressions: I don’t recall what review inspired me to put this book on reserve at the library but when I picked it up and saw it was a juvenile biography, I almost didn’t bother to read it. That would have been a big mistake, as it was one of the most charming books I have read in some time. I was not previously familiar with Melissa Sweet who is a well known picture book illustrator and Caldecott honoree, but I was entranced by her multimedia approach – taking actual memorabilia from E. B.’s life and creating replicas of other pivotal moments in his life, while using quotes from E.B’s own writing throughout. It clearly made White’s surviving family members happy to have a biographer who loves Maine and nature as much as E.B. himself.
This is a gem of a book which reveals E. B.’s humor and modesty, love of his family (the letter he wrote when he learned his wife was pregnant is especially poignant), and the development of his career. Established as a writer for adults, E. B. wrote an essay on children’s books that caught the eye of Dr. Seuss himself, resulting in the encouragement E. B. needed to begin work on Charlotte’s Web, which became his first bestseller (and my favorite). Sweet includes a picture of a manual typewriter and information for young readers who only know computers, understanding that most people interested in an author want to envision him or her in the process of writing. I especially enjoyed learning about the early days of the New Yorker, which would not have interested me as a child, and Ursula Nordstrom’s inspired choice of Garth Williams to illustrate Charlotte’s Web as his first children’s book (coincidentally, a biography of Williams also was published in 2016).

After I finished this review, I found an interview with Sweet on NPR's All Things Considered.

Source: I got this book from the Boston Public Library. Highly recommended. Some book!

Images copyright to HMH, 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Home Dec In-a-Sec...Not

About 18 months ago, I suddenly realized my dining room did not have curtains, only tired shades the previous owners had left behind.  I shopped for some time but it was impossible to find anything that seemed right.  Although I had not done much sewing recently, I found a pattern for valences that seemed simple and estimated two hours.   I chose the style in the bottom left:
The pattern was much more complicated than I expected.   I brought it with me to two of my favorite fabric stores for help figuring out how much fabric I needed and even these experts were perplexed!  I also emailed McCall's customer service for assistance and they explained which instructions to use (they also said the two hours applied to sewing time, not cutting, layout, or agonizing over the instructions).  As my brother would say, "Learning a lot about McCall's..."
I am sure I had spent at least 10 hours reading the pattern before I even found blue paisley I liked.  I bought the entire length of fabric because I knew that matching the paisley would be difficult (and it was).  Every time I was developing momentum, someone would come to visit and I would remove everything from the dining room table - the only surface big enough for all the fabric!   And then there was the day I reached page 8 and read:

Using a hack saw, cut metal bar to Width Between Brackets measurements minus 1"

Don't you think it's just a little passive aggressive to lure me into a deux heures pattern and just assume I own a hacksaw?   For the record, I do not, and I think there should have been a hacksaw warning on the package.   Reading that instruction still makes me laugh.  It took several months to find a plausible metal bar and to get someone to cut it, then to choose new curtain rods (when the first set were not sturdy enough) which the same guy mounted for me.  Try explaining to men in a hardware store what a valence is and why you need a specially cut metal bar!  And by now we are up to dozens of hours.  The windows are slightly different sizes which added to the complexity and the feeling I was doing everything twice and not making progress. But that scallopy look was tricky...
Still, all's well that ends well!  I added the last blue ties tonight and both valences were done, about a year after I bought the pattern!
What do you think?