Saturday, October 14, 2017

Lois Lenski, Storycatcher (Book Review)

Title: Lois Lenski, Storycatcher
Author: Bobbie Malone
Publication: University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, 2016
Genre: Biography/Children's Literature
Plot: Many 20th century children – including, surprisingly, Oprah – grew up with Lois Lenski (1893-1974) as author and illustrator, and as a writer she expanded the experience of American children by writing regional fiction which depicted the ordinary lives of children from diverse backgrounds throughout the country. In this goal, she was supported by her editors and also by children who read her books and wrote to her, inviting her to come visit their communities so they could share their stories. Lenski won the renowned Newbery Medal in 1946 for Strawberry Girl and probably should have won it for Indian Captive in 1942 (both Indian Captive and Little Town on the Prairie were runners up to The Matchlock Gun (seriously)).

Lenski was a minister’s daughter from Ohio, who pleased her parents by studying education at Ohio State but took as many art classes as possible, then moved to New York after graduation in 1915 for additional art training, against her father’s wishes. She juggled classes with freelance work for several years, meeting her eventual husband when he taught an evening class she enrolled in with several friends. However, her first really successful literary project took place during a year in London when she was invited to illustrate a book called The Green-Faced Toad. Her career took off after that and never stopped, always characterized by hard work and dedication until poor health slowed her down. Malone implies that the marriage was not successful but it continued until the death of Lenski's husband 14 years before her own.
As Lisa von Drasek (wife of my former Penguin colleague Paul) observes in a review for the Children's Literature Association Quarterly: Malone captures the times and places of Lenski's life, describing the fashions of the Roaring Twenties, the effects of the Great Depression on her marriage, and how the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s informed her series of regional books. Lenski's story is also one of American feminism, a strong current running through the decades of her life that includes her struggles as the financial support of her family. Malone judiciously quotes from Lenski's letters, journals, and memoirs as well as the words of her contemporary admirers and reviewers….

Audience: Fans of children’s literature, including Betsy-Tacy; those interested in illustrators and, of course, fans of Lois Lenski herself.

My Impressions: I enjoyed this carefully researched and somewhat intense biography about Lenski, and learned a lot about her dedication to her craft and commitment to children and diversity. She was way ahead of her time as this lack of diversity is still a problem in publishing although, I believe, is a situation perpetuated not only by publishers but by teachers, librarians, and parents. However, as a child I was oblivious to diversity (or lack thereof) in fiction, and I found Lois Lenski when I brought home Betsy-Tacy and Tib from the Boys and Girls Branch of the Newton Free Library. Later, my mother gave me Judy’s Journey one Christmas, which I think was the memorable book in which the heroine’s dresses are made out of used flour sacks. I read several of Lenski’s other books but never became more than a casual fan of her writing although love her illustrations.
Lois at work

Although Bobbie Malone is very passionate about her subject, she is a historian and does not seem very knowledgeable about children’s literature outside of Lenski (for example, referring to Pulitzer prizewinning Laura E. Richards as ‘Linda” – both Lenski and Maud Hart Lovelace almost certainly read Richards’ novels, Captain January and others, as well as her verse). I enjoyed reading about Malone and her country music historian husband’s explorations to various libraries throughout the US with Lenski papers and/or collected materials. Although she met with numerous of Lenski’s friends and families, Malone’s failure to devote significant space to Lenski’s illustrations of the first four Betsy-Tacy books is a big disappointment. Not only could it have enriched the book by adding a lively element to a fairly earnest work but it would have increased her potential sales as we Betsy-Tacy fans are good book buyers.
 
When Maud Hart Lovelace’s editor, Elizabeth Riley, attended the Betsy-Tacy Convention in 1997, we peppered her with questions. Meeting Miss Riley was a highlight of the convention, and I wish I had come with a long list of questions or tried to meet her later in New York before she died. Riley had created Thomas Y. Crowell’s children’s department which came to include not just Betsy-Tacy, but also the Beany Malone books, historical fiction by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing, Ann Petry (author of Tituba of Salem Village, which I read in grade school), The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (who worked in publicity at Crowell and later volunteered at the NYPL on West 53rd – I think I spoke to her there once without realizing), and many others.

I seem to recall that we asked more questions about Vera Neville, the other Betsy-Tacy illustrator, about whom less was known, but I remember Miss Riley telling us how Lois insisted on traveling to Mankato to see the places Maud so lovingly described and, for example, how she determined she was to reproduce the exact stove Maud remembered. Elizabeth said the two women were very close in age and had a lot in common, that Lois had a very strong work ethic, and was very busy, so not always available as an illustrator.

Source: After reading a review of this book, I requested that the Newton Public Library purchase it, which the Reference Supervisor did, also putting it on reserve for me. Recommended.

Illustrations copyright to various publishers.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The 13th is Magic! (Book Review)

Author: Joan Howard
Illustrator: Adrienne Adams
Publication: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Hardcover, 1950
Genre: Juvenile Fantasy
Description: New York is a magic city where almost everything can happen - especially if you live on the 13th floor of an apartment building on Central Park West.  Now of course, as most people are superstitious there is no real 13th floor in hotels or apartment houses, and the one where Ronnie and Gillian live, although it is right about the 12th, is called the 14th.  It is not until the day they find the black cat Merlin that they discover the magical 13th floor where the hall wallpaper is a pattern of bats, owns and broomsticks, with borders made of old charms and incantations. In the various apartments on this floor live a remarkable group of characters that the children meet and then see more of in the adventures that follow on the 13th day of every month.

Like all New York children, Ronnie and Gillian play in Central Park, ride on the Staten Island ferry, and visit the fascinating shops near Broadway.  But not all children are lucky enough to have a little box of daylight savings time to open in a fog, and not all New York children can whistle up a snowstorm that falls only on Central Park while the rest of the city is bathed in dazzling sunlight, or ride with the Comet cleaners through the sky.

Their mother could not understand why such extraordinary things happened only to the Saunders children, and not to other families.

“Perhaps they do, my dear,” their father told her.  “Perhaps they do and the other people just aren’t telling.”

Audience: The dust jacket (from which the above description comes) says ages 6-10 but I love this book nearly as much as an adult as I did when I checked it out frequently from my elementary school library!

My Impressions:  As a little girl growing up in Boston, my knowledge of New York came from this book and The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I never dreamed I would one day live there myself. From my home in the suburbs, I was intrigued by apartment living, a talking cat adopting two children, and the mysterious missing 13th floors.  Surprisingly, this reread revealed that Ronnie and Gillian’s apartment was on Central Park West which was actually one of my addresses (although my building was physically on West 97th, this is what is called a vanity address) although in my mind I had pictured their building on the Upper East Side.   I loved the adventures that took place on the 13th of each month and the quirky characters, especially Mr. Weatherbee, formerly of the Weather Bureau, and Mrs. Wallaby-Jones, whose tail reveals she is a kangaroo!  Of course, I especially liked the fact that a cat could bring magic to an ordinary family.  I might not live in a magic apartment building but I certainly had a cat!
As an adult, I have several times recommended this book for reprint to editors seeking hidden gems of the past.  It is very hard for the book's diehard fans to find an affordable copy - AbeBooks currently has one at $665!.   Adrienne Adams, the talented illustrator, also has admirers. Unfortunately, I am afraid a chapter involving the children’s Indian head pennies all turning into half-naked Indians who say, “Howgh!” would disqualify this book from reprint, which is a shame as it is otherwise very charming.  It was quite popular in its day, with at least 9 printings.  I wish that Joan Howard aka Patricia Gordon aka Patricia Prud'Hommeaux were still alive so she could tweak that chapter to make it acceptable to a 21st century audience. I did find some grandchildren. Maybe I will make another attempt.

By the way, "fascinating shops near Broadway"? Hardly. That is not the only dated reference in this book but the charm of the characters and setting outweigh these flaws.
Mrs. Wallaby-Jones joined the children in Central Park
Source: The John Ward School copy is long gone (I hope it is being cherished somewhere and was not tossed) but I was lucky enough to get the book from Eastern Connecticut State College via InterLibrary Loan.  I once read the sequel, The Summer is Magic, which is less known but nearly as hard to obtain.

Images copyright to Adrienne Adams/Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, Co.

Monday, October 2, 2017

13 Minutes (Book Review and Casting)

Title: 13 Minutes
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Publication: Flatiron Books, Hardcover, October 2017
Genre: YA suspense
Plot: Natasha doesn't remember how she ended up in the icy water that night, but she does know this - it wasn't an accident, and she wasn't suicidal. Her two closest friends are acting strangely, and Natasha turns to Becca, the best friend she dumped years before when she got popular, to help her figure out what happened.  Natasha's sure that her friends love her. But does that mean they didn't try to kill her?

13 Minutes is a young adult thriller from internationally bestselling author Sarah Pinborough.

Audience: Fans of Lauren Oliver and Gayle Forman

My Impressions: This is a deliberately paced psychological novel of suspense set among a group of spiteful teens that was a great introduction to a new (to me) author. Much of the story is told from Becca’s point of view: the friend who was dropped by Natasha, and although still bitter by the years-ago betrayal, is flattered when Natasha asks her to help find out how she came so close to dying. The two girls used to be good at chess – now they are playing a complicated game with a killer. The author introduces numerous red herrings, and the pace of the book picks up as Becca begins to guess what really happened. The police detective assigned to the case is fairly useless and (hello, conflict of interest!) starts dating someone who is involved in the case himself.

Unlike most of the books I have read in this genre, 13 Minutes is set in England. Unsurprisingly, mean girls are the same in every country but I was struck in this book how unpleasant every character is and it seemed as if they used much cruder language than American girls of that age.  Unlike American teens, they spend a lot of time on Facebook (which advanced the plot but may not be realistic), and they certainly don’t study much – math and art come into play more than any other subject, and after school drama. Although we have probably all been in the same situation – being dumped by someone we thought was a close friend, it is hard to like Becca. She is rude to her parents, cruel to her only friend, smokes and uses drugs, and not only dates the creepiest guy but also is desperate to keep him (cringe, cringe when they break up and she acts pathetic). I wished the author had made her more likeable. No one in this book knows the old saying that to have a friend you have to be a friend. Natasha, the Queen Bee, is the most interesting and developed character, but so mean the reader is tempted to wish one of the attempts on her life would be successful. An entertaining read with a dramatic ending.

Dream Casting: How would you cast the movie? I came up with some possibilities but you need to work with me a little to imagine them all the right age…

Natasha (as a brunette) - Nina Dobrev from Vampire Diaries
Becca – Aubrey Plaza from Parks & Recreation
Hayley - Dianna Agron from Glee
Jenny – Julianne Hough from Dancing with the Stars
Hannah – Liza Weil from Gilmore Girls and How to Get Away with Murder
Aiden – Cole Sprouse from Riverdale
Jamie McMahon – Scott Cohen from Gilmore Girls
Inspector Caitlin Bennett - Jennifer Anniston
Dr. Annabel Harvey – Laura Innes from ER

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher and the Fantastic Flying Book Club for review purposes. Please visit the other stops on the tour at one of the links below to enter a contest to win an ARC (I could not make the rafflecopter work - my apologies):
September 27th
The Unofficial Addiction Book Fan Club & Pink Polka Dot Books - Welcome Post

September 28th
Confessions of a YA Reader - Review
Rurouni Jenni Reads - Review
Ginger Mom & the Kindle Quest - Review

September 29th
Smada's Book Smack - Review
everywhere and nowhere - Review
Tara's Book Addiction - Review
My Thoughts Literally- Review

September 30th
A Dream Within A Dream - Review
Here's to Happy Endings - Review
The Petite Book Blogger - Review

October 1st
Reading Wonderland - Review + Favourite Quotes
Never Too Many To Read - Review
Donnie Darko Girl - Review

October 2nd
The Bibliophile Confessions - Review + Favourite Quotes
Stephanie's Book Reviews - Review
Hauntedbybooks13 - Review

October 3rd
The Candid Cover - Review + Playlist + Dream Cast
Supercalireader - Review