Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Anne of Green Gables



***Warning: Full-on fangirl ridiculousness below***

Alright, this one's a biggie. Remember my Ramona post, where I explained that two books series and one book were very influential in my life?  Well, today, you get another piece of that puzzle because today is the day I profess my profound love for Anne of Green Gables.

How can I properly express how much I love this book? How about if I told you that this book and its sequels were responsible for fostering certain aspects of my personality as a girl that are still some of my distinct personality traits today? Or that I still use Anne of Green Gables terms in my adult vocabulary like referring to (special) people as "kindred spirits"? Or that one of my closest adult friendships was solidified one late chatty night in college when we both realized we felt the same way about the books?  Or that I may or may not have subconsciously chosen my wedding venue because the place has green . . . ahem . . . gables. 

I know, it seems silly to still care about books you read as a kid (er...have you ever met/read me before?), but let me further explain. Growing up I often felt like the odd one out in my family because I was the only left side of the brain type in my family of seven. Consider the professions they are all in now--medicine, accounting, finance, engineering. Most definitely right-brainers. There just wasn't a lot of  flowery talk or elaborate imaginations in my house growing up. I suspected I was different at a young age, but didn't know how to express that difference because I didn't really have any examples of people like me around me.  When I first read Anne at 9 years old, I was struck by her behavior. Here she was looking at things the way I looked at things. The difference was she expressed herself in ways that I was too shy to express myself in--and she was universally adored for it. And that helped me to start acting more like me. So you see, this book played a very important role at a very critical point of development in my life, so I can't really let it go. It's pretty much a part of me. This is the power of literature, people.

Now for the story. We meet Anne at a train station on Prince Edward Island, Canada (P.E.I.), a freckle-faced, red-headed orphan girl who is waiting to be picked up by her new adoptive parents. She gets picked up by quiet, shy and elderly Matthew Cuthbert. He and his tough sister, Marilla, whom he lives with, have decided to adopt a boy as a way to get some help around the farm since they are getting older. Matthew, unable to break the news to Anne that she was a mistake, and having no other choice really, takes Anne home with him to Green Gables. On the ride there, Matthew, who is completely afraid of the female kind minus his sister, is entranced by Anne and her babbling about and the audience becomes entranced too.In the end, grumpy Marilla begrudgingly agrees to keep Anne, despite the fact she is unusual; chatty and dramatic--all things Marilla does not appreciate.And that is start of the beautiful Green Gables family unit of Marilla, Matthew and Anne. And also the start of the shaking up of the old-school and conservative Cuthberts, and really the entire town of Avonlea, as a result of the arrival of this spirited ginger.

Anne has a lot of distinct characters traits. First, her red hair and freckles, which she loathes deeply. Which brings us to another character trait--she's actually very vain and cares a lot of about beauty and clothes and fanciness of names (she wishes her name was Cordelia and not just plain Anne). She's not spoiled because she actually never had any of these things, but she's always imagined them in her mind and hoped so hard that one day she'll be able to acquire these things, even if only for a fleeting moment. Her prior life of having-not makes her delight in simple things like a church picnic, having a best friend, the spring coming out, the green of the trees. the sparkle of water. Which was a good reminder that I should appreciate the beauty of my surroundings rather than spend time longing for the new iPhone 5s. Aren't you glad we live in a world where there are Octobers? Why yes I am, Anne!

Anne is very kind and super smart. She often puts her foot in her mouth because she says what's on her mind. Anne is also the whimsy queen. She is always involved in some elaborate imagination game in her mind--sometimes so deeply that it derails her less whimsical activities like washing dishes. She likes to rename things so they sound more wonderful like Dryad's Bubble, Lovers Lane and the Lake of Shining Waters. She can out-whimsy even the best of them, even those of us who have whimsy-based blogs and woodland wedding themes.

The book takes place over the course of a few years, starting when Anne is 11 and ending when Anne is done with high school and getting ready to go to college. She starts off as a bubbly melodramatic little chatterbox and eventually grows up into a lovely young woman (who still has whimsy). Over the course of these years, Anne has many misadventures. Some of my favorites include:

  • Breaking a chalk slate over dreamy Gilbert Blythe's head because he called her "Carrots" (how dare he).
  • Being dared by bitchy Josie Pye to walk on the roof, falling off the roof and spraining her ankle, but in doing so, having one of her dreams come true -- she faints!
  • Pretending to be dead on a floating raft (recreating a romantic Tennyson poem obviously), and then of course becoming stuck on the raft, and getting saved by current archnemesis/future love, Gilbert Blythe, much to Anne's discontent.
  • Telling off town gossip Mrs. Lynde the first time she meets her, and then miraculously winning back her affection.
  • Accidentally jumping and scaring the bejeezus out of a sleeping old lady, Diana's cranky great aunt Josephine, who of course ends up adoring Anne.
  • Accidentally dying her hair green because she hates her red hair so much.
  • Accidentally getting bff Diana Barry drunk on raspberry cordial (my favorite part) and their friendship being forbidden by Diana's mother.
  • Winning over the severe and strict Mrs. Barry once again when Anne uses her wits to save Diana's sister Minnie May from death from illness when her parents are away.
  • Sweet Matthew surprising her by buying a dress with  puffed sleeves for her birthday (Best.Scene.Ever.)
  • Every time she horrifies Marilla by her behavior but then ends up making Marilla love her more, much to Marilla's own surprise. 

At the very end of the book, one of the saddest things to ever happen in all of cihldren's literature occurs-- Matthew dies. It was horribly sad even this twentieth time reading the book. Let's just say I put the book down for two days because I knew what was about to happen and I just didn't want it to happen. I can't even talk about it here because it is just the worst, saddest thing ever. 

I am so in love with this book!! I don't see how it doesn't make every person who reads it feel all whirly and magically inside (not apologizing for my ridiculousness). My adult reading was pretty on par with all of my previous readings of the book. But I guess I did have some adult thoughts like thinking that possibly Matthew was so scared of women and wanted to live a life of solitude because he was gay man living on a tiny Canadian island at the turn of the last century. Just a theory. Also, I was surprised how vain Anne was, especially in the very beginning. I kind of wanted to shake her and say "Just because you have red hair doesn't mean the world is foreclosed to you! You CAN wear pink! Just ask Christina Hendricks." I also caught myself thinking that it must be rather tiresome when someone screws something up and when you ask her how it happened, her answer is always I forgot what I was doing because I was imagining. Ah!  I hate that I just said that. I take it back! I take it back!

One of the great things about Anne of Green Gables is that the movie based on the book is also amazing. 


Even though I haven't seen this movie in what's gotta be 15 years, when I read Anne this time around, I still imagined her looking like Anne did in the movie. In addition to the movie (which had two sequels as well), there was also the series Avonlea that originally ran on PBS and then the Disney Channel, which wasn't about Anne Shirley but about Sara Stanley and the people of Avonlea. A show totally made in kindred spirit fashion.

One day I hope to make it to PEI, maybe with my own daughter, who (fingers and toes crossed) is a kindred spirit herself.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Five Things I've Learned Since Starting This Blog


Hi friends!  It's been a while, but now I'm back and ready to transport you to the pastel times of our youth on a weekly basis! Since you last heard from me, quite a lot has happened. I finished grad school and  moved to Seattle with my now fiance (!). I also have a new job -- I am going to be working as a literary agent at Martin Literary Management specializing in, what else but . . . children's books!  As you can imagine, my excitement level about my new life situation is preeetttty high. I still can't believe I somehow managed to trade in my business suited, Redweld folder-filled, stress-bellied lawyer job for one where I get to do things like go see the One Direction movie "for research." Life is good. Extremely grateful.

To get me back into Tween at 28, I reread all of my previous posts. In doing so, I realized I have actually learned a lot from this experience rereading the books that meant so much to me as a kid. Because everybody loves lists (as Buzzfeed has proven), here are the top five things I learned writing this blog so far: 

5. Should I find myself in a survive-in-the-wild situation, I most certainly would be dead inside of a week.    

I've read several adventures of tween survivalists and the ones who fared the best in the wild were ones who had a toughness and a grit that are just way beyond me. I know that once faced with difficult circumstances, a person can unexpectedly rise to meet a challenge, but I just don't think I have the ability to beat a wolverine bloody with caribou antlers like Julie of the Wolves. Or swim in treacherous dead body water to retrieve a survival pack like Hatchet's Brian. Or tame a murderous wolf to be my pet like Karana on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The lesson here? I need to avoid all potential get-left-alone-in-the-wilderness situations.

4. I owe the evolution of my personality to certain book heroines of my youth.

As a kid (and as an adult), the quality I respected most in my favorite heroines was gumption. Also known as spunk. Also known as moxie. When I was young, I really wanted to have gumption, spunk and/or moxie but I was a painfully shy child. I wanted so much to be like Ramona Quimby or Anne of Green Gables or Anastasia Krupnik or even Kristy Thomas from The Babysitters Club, that I pushed myself to be braver, more audible and free-spirited. Eventually, I think these qualities caught on and were less forced. Today, I would say I have gumption lite -- I'm still evolving!

3. Sometimes childhood books are better left un-reread.

I can't even tell you how many hours of my youth I spent reading The Boxcar Children, Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club books. I couldn't get enough! But wow, these books are pretty intolerable as an adult. Across the board, they now seem pretty silly, lack depth, have dumb plots or are just boring. Not quite as I remembered. And then there were those other books that ended up actually being so inappropriately racist (I'm look at you Pippi Longstocking and The Cricket in Times Square) or where the heroine is actually  a psychopath by my adult estimation (Harriet the Spy). Sad realizations, but I guess the cost of doing Tween at 28 business.

2. But other times, rereading a childhood book is amazing.

Rereading these books was often a very transportive experience. I was taken back in time and thought about memories, thoughts and emotions I literally hadn't thought about in two decades-- quite amazing! I also thought it was wonderful when I could reaffirm the magic of a book like The Egypt Game when reading it as an adult, the books is still  just so good. Or when I read a book that I didn't really care for as a kid, but as an adult, I see it in whole new, positive light and find it awesome--like Hatchet. For all of these books, the experience rereading them was deeply satisfying. 

1. I'm marrying Encyclopedia Brown. 

When I was about eight to ten, I had a crush on Encyclopedia Brown. Something about that fictional, sleuthing know-it-all really did it for me. I think I liked that he was smart, confident, was respected and got sh/t done. Which are just the reasons why I am attracted to my fiance. Could it be that Encyclopedia Brown established this paragon of a man that I've just spent my young adult life trying to find a man who live up to him? Or is it just those were qualities that I inherently appreciated, even as a child, and continued to appreciate them in my adulthood? Let's go with the latter because it seems less ridiculous. But if my fiance starts sleuthing, and I start getting hot and heavy--then we know the real answer. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Matilda



This week, I read one of Roald Dahl's greatests (shamelessly pushing the boundaries of pluralization here), Matilda. When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was it. You bragged about how many of his books you read, you bought Matilda the day it came out (because RD was publishing new books into the 90s!), and if you had read Boy which was really an adult autobiography about his life as a kid, you were really hot sh!t. 
 
I was one of those kids that bought Matilda right away and read it with fervor as if it were 2005 and the book was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I remember being delighted with the same shock that I had with a lot of RD’s other books—I was shocked by the fact that almost all of the adults were all terrible human beings, the children were the wise, noble ones, and there was an alarming amount of violence and trickery going on between adults and kids. Roald Dahl's books all took place in sordid yet hilarious worlds where kids and kind people were always triumphant in the end. And since at the time I was both of those things, I would feel triumphant too. 

So let’s start at the beginning: Matilda Wormwood is a five year old girl who is a child prodigy. She teaches herself to read at the age of three! Side Bar: I wikipedia-ed "child prodigy" just for fun and Taylor Swift is formally listed as a child prodigy in the arts. Now, everyone knows I'm a Tay fan, even after the media has spun her into being this sort of terrifying stalker/maneater Amazon woman. And there is no doubt she was a talented songwriter at a young age--but I feel like the term “child prodigy” is reserved more for the likes of those kids who finish college at age 10. Like Doogie Howser or that chess kid, Bobby Fisher. Or Matilda. Side bar #2: That kid who plays Luke in Modern Family in real life is a member a Mensa and already graduated high school at the age of 12. Mind blown?!

Okay, back to Matil--so she is a child prodigy but this goes completely unnoticed and unappreciated by her highly neglectful parents. For some reason, her terrible parents hate her and think her dimwitted brother is a gem. It’s all very Dursley-esque, except with even less justification. Matilda’s dad is a slimy carsalesman who cheats people, her mom is a housewife who doesn't do anything except play Bingo, not cook and get fat. The first part of the book is dedicated to showing how Matilda empowers herself by seeking revenge on her parents for their terrible behavior towards her. She successfully Superglues her dad’s head to his hat and tricks her family into thinking there is a ghost in the house by stuffing a talking parrot in the chimney (such an obvious plan). It’s all great fun because these parents wholeheartedly deserve this treatment and you are totally rooting and fistpumping for Matilda. 

 A child prodigy of the Doogie variety

When Matilda starts grade school, her genius is finally discovered and appreciated by her first teacher, the adorable and sweet Miss Honey. Miss Honey tries to make the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, aware that they have a truly exceptional student on their hands, but the only problem is Miss Trunchbull is the worst person in the world. And also the meanest. And also the scariest. I imagine her having the build of Coach Bieste from Glee with the meanness of a combination of Cruella de Vil, Regina George, and those horrible fleshy monster orcs from Lord of the Rings. Everyone is terrified of Trunchbull because she is a complete tyrant who is totally unpredictable. When I was a kid, I was so afraid of her. As an adult, I found myself wondering, why is everyone standing idly by as she partakes in highly criminal activities?! Just one whistleblower would have led to this woman being locked up forever!  Here are some of the things she did/crimes she committed:
  • locked students up in a closet that is lined with shards of glass and nails for hours [kidnapping, torture]
  • launched a child through a window for eating licorice during class [assault, attempted murder]
  • grabbed a child by the pigtails and launched her across a field for wearing said pigtails [assault, attempted murder (and general discrimination)]
 
  • turned a kid into human foie gras by making him eat every piece of an enormous chocolate cake in front of the entire school as punishment for stealing a sliver her own cake [child abuse, torture]
  • smashed a plate over the head of the abovementioned boy for successfully accomplishing the cake eating [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid by his hair for forgetting his times tables [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid his ears for misspelling "what" [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid by his legs for forgetting his times tables [assault, child abuse]
 
 I mean, this woman was clearly a sociopath! 

It turns out that Matilda's beloved Miss Honey was actually raised by Miss Trunchbull. We learn this one day after school when Miss Honey invites Matilda to her house for tea. Matilda learns that Miss Honey lives in a little cottage in the woods--which sounds like a fairy tale -- but inside, Matilda finds out that Miss Honey sleeps on the floor, has only wooden crates for furniture, and her kitchen contains no granite countertops or stainless steel appliances, instead, it has only a camping stove and a wood plank (This would be the “fixer upper” option on House Hunters). Miss Honey was the child of wealthy, loving parents, but then her mother died and her aunt moved in --Miss Trunchbull. Her father died under mysterious circumstances which we can only assume was the work of the psycho Trunchbull. Poor Miss Honey was raised in a horrible manner by the Trunch and when she finally grew up, Trunch told her she owed her so much money for raising her, so she took reign over Mr. Honey’s house and took Miss Honey's wages from her except for a tiny amount. Somehow, Miss Honey found a way to rent her little shanty cottage, and that was a large victory for her. 

It is around the time of this big reveal that we find out Matilda can focus her thoughts to move things with her mind. She first does this accidentally in class when she splashes Trunchbull in the face with water. Once she realizes she can harness this power, Matilda decides she will use it to get rid of Trunchbull for good and help Miss Honey return to her rightful home.When the Trunch is next terrorizing her kindergarten class, Matilda focuses her mind to pick up a piece of chalk and write a threatening message from Mr. Honey to the Trunch from beyond the grave. Trunchbull goes white in the face and flees the school and her house and is never heard from again. Within days, the will left by Miss Honey's father that has been mysteriously missing for years is finally found, and the house and the remaining fortune is transferred to Miss Honey (where were the lawyers on this one years ago?). Success!

At this same time, it turns out that the Wormwoods are fleeing the country because Mr. Wormwood's crimes have been discovered. Miss Honey asks to keep Matilda and the reponse from her charming parents is pretty much "yea, whatever.' So in the end, Matilda and Miss Honey move into the big house together and presumably live happily ever after.  

This book was still as funny and and shocking and delightfully British as ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think worthy of mention is the movie that came out in 1996 featuring that lispy girl from Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street, Mara Wilson.


Whatever happened to this cute, lispy girl?  Last year, her personal blog post went viral re: what the hell she's been up to since 1996.  FYI, it's not acting. She quit. And she now looks like this:

"She's not as good. She always skips parts, and she never does the voices. She smells funny, too."

And on a final note, how weird of a name is Roald? Did Mr. And Mrs. Dahl mean to name him Ronald and just happen to forget an "n" in the birth certificate? It's not really a name so much as a funnily spelled verb.  Like if you named your kid Wokd or Leffd. Something to think about.



Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Egypt Game


I have no idea if anyone else read The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder as a kid, but I loved this book. I'm going to say right off of the bat--I still love this book. I think this is my fourth or fifth time reading it, the last time was probably around twelve years ago. This time around, I was so engrossed in The Egypt Game that I stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it like it was Mockingjay or Gone Girl or something. And mind you, I already knew exactly what happens. It's a great book.

I say I don't know if anyone else read this book because we weren't assigned it in school, and I don't remember talking about it with anyone else. And because I considered The Egypt Game sacred, it was on the "Do Not Lend" list in my personal library, so I didn't let my friends in on the secret of how good it was. But I assume that kids other than me read it because it was a Newbery Honor book and that means it had to have populated most elementary school bookshelves. How did I come upon The Egypt Game?  It was a successful roll-of-the-dice choice made after carefully perusing an inky Scholastic.book mailer.

The Egypt Game begins when 11-year-old April moves to a unviersity town in California (I think it's Berkeley) with her grandmother. April is going through a tough time--she was just involuntraily excommunicated from her home in L.A. where her mother is some kind of B-list singer/wanna be actress/terrible parent. April does not care much for her grandmother, mostly because she is upset about her mom ditching her, and to help deal with everything, she acts out by dressing like an insane person--by wearing her hair in an attempted glamorous updo, fluttery fake eyelashes, and a fur stole. She also decides to only talk about the fabulous parties she attended in Hollywood--as an 11-year-old.

April's new home is a dingy Spanish-style apartment complex called the Casa Rosada. Despite her appearance, April is somehow befriended by Melanie, another 11-year-old resident of Casa Rosada. Melanie is a kind, more serious girl who is able to connect with April after getting over the shock of her ridiculous outfits and outlandish stories, because they both realize they love to read and play imagination games. April has a wild imagination, and when she accidentally comes upon Melanie's collection of magazine cut-outs of people who represent the families she invents stories about in her head, April recognizes Melanie as a kindred spirit. Melanie is always accompanied by her tagalong brother of few words, Marshall, who is four years old, and who is similarly always escorted by his giant stuffed octopus named Security.

So Melanie and April have hit it off, and they come to a fenced in storage yard behind a local antique store which is owned by the neighborhood creepy, grumpy old man known as The Professor. In the storage yard, the girls find a cracked bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian goddess, and a lightbulb goes off for April--and thus begins one of the most elaborate games ever played.  April is a high drama kind of girl so she loves anything about high drama Egypt and she decides that they should turn this storage yard into Egypt. The girls transform a lean-to shed in the yard into a sacred temple, with the help of the bust, a bird bath and other handmade or found relics. These girls are committed to this game--they do tons of research at the library, and meticulously log the rituals they come up with. They speak in tongues, repeatedly kneel with flair for the gods, flail their arms in honorific dances, and learn hieroglyphics.  Sometimes they are high priestesses who capture and kidnap the young pharoah Marshamosis (Marshall), sometimes they are high priestesses who rescue him--or both.  The best part about the Egypt Game is that it is a complete secret to everyone outside of the storage yard. Or so they think. Only Marshall notices that there is someone watching them from a window a lot of the time.  But Marshall is the silent type, so he keeps it to himself.

The Egypt Game eventually grows to include nine-year-old Elizabeth, another new resident of Casa Rosada. She is a Chinese girl who looks like Nefertiti from the side, an attribute that earns her both entrance into the game and the name Neferbeth. In an unlikely turn of events, the game also grows to include two of April and Melanie's icky male classmates from school, Toby Alvillar and Ken Kamata, who come upon Egypt while trying to prank the girls, and the girls barter their inclusion in the game for their silence. Toby is the cool class clown, and he is really into the Egypt Game from the start, while Ken is more of a reluctant member. He participates in the rituals but when they get a little too legit for him (chanting, flailing, dancing), his cheeks burn in embarrassment and he can only rub his head and say, "Sheesh." I love Ken Kamata.

So the Egypt Game is amazing and I could have read a book just about this sustained imagination game and all of its details and these great kids. But then there are two significant turn of events in the book. The first one is crazy--there is a murder in the community. Of a child. And it's the second murder of a child in the community in a year. Which means the killer lives amongst them. And he hasn't been caught. Unexpected and crazy, right?  As a kid, this was an absolutely thrilling, grisly twist.  At first, the Egypt Game is halted because all the parents of the neighborhood rightfully forbid their kids to be outside while the killer is still on the loose.  But as time goes by, the kids gradually are allowed to play outside again and Egypt is revisited.  At this point, some of the more elaborate rituals take place--the Egyptians have a week-long Ceremony of the Dead for Elizabeth's pet parakeet Pete, which includes Pete's mummification. The kids also partake in an Oracle ceremony where they ask the oracle (a stuffed owl) questions.  The kids are all spooked when the questions are actually answered by hand.  At first, the "Oracle" turns out to be Toby who is just trying to amp up the authenticity of the game, but then Security the octopus gets lost and when Marshall's question of where is he is answered by the Oracle--and it wasn't Toby--the kids get really spooked and decide to cool it a little bit with the Egypt Game, which has now turned eerie.

After this, one night, April is babysitting Marshall and she realizes she left her math book in Egypt. She goes back to Egypt with Marshall, and while there, a pair of strong, violent arms pull April from the fence entrance of Egypt. Marshall sees what happens and is shocked but frozen in fear and cannot shout for help.  At this point, a window is broken, and an unfamiliar voice calls out for help. The arms drop April and the man--the murderer--runs away. April narrowly escapes being the next murder victim. Later, Marshall IDs the man as the stockboy from the local general store frequented by the kids and the murders are solved. The "help" shouter turns out to be the previous #1 suspect--the not-so-creepy-anymore Professor.  Who also turns out to be the one who had been watching the kids in Egypt, and the one who had answered as the Oracle when Security was missing. The Professor turns out to be quite lovely--and explains that he became so grumpy after his wife died tragically, but these kids helped to turn his life around. His shop picks up business since he is now the neighborhood hero. Lovely! April ends up feeling close to her grandmother and realizing she belongs in this town, and not in LA with her hack of a mom. Also lovely! The Professor ends up locking up the storage yard, but he gives each member of the Egypt Game a key.  April and Melanie are thrilled they can keep using the yard, but disappointed that the Egypt Game seems to have lost its luster now that the secret is out and all that has happened.  The book ends with April asking Melanie, "What do you know about gypsies?"

How good is that plot??  On top of being really interesting and educational, there is this thriller aspect to the book as well as an eerie mystery.  Also, all of these kids come from different ethnic backgrounds. Melanie and Marshall are black, Elizabeth is Chinese, Ken is Japanese and Toby is probably Latin--and it was no big deal. Considering this book was written in 1967, during the height of the civil rights moment, this is significant and makes a great tacit lesson. 

I loved this book so much as a kid because I felt like Melanie and April were my kindred spirits.  As a child, I too was really into elaborate imagination games. For example, there was The Best Game I Ever Played. I started off with the goal of creating a Lego town using every single block of my brothers' extensive Lego collection. I built 15 Lego houses in our basement playroom and assigned each Lego man, woman and child to a family and to a house--even the pirate Lego men (they had recently moved from the Middle East). I was so satisfied, I couldn't stop there, so I pulled out our Playmobil people created a town using various receptacles as houses. The town was on the stairs because these were mountain people. And nearby, I created a town of  Fisher Price Little People, whom already had prefabricated homes, as well as a zoo and and auto shop that I repurposed as homes.  Every family had a back story and I played as long and as hard as I could because I knew that this glorious set up would only last a short time, considering I lived with four wrecking balls for siblings.  My brothers and sister were so awed by what I had created that the unheard of occurred -- they let it stand for three days.  I also remember being very satisfied with an imagination game where I was the only child crew member on Christopher Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, on the way to discover America.  Yea--friends came later in life. As a kid, my respect for the Egypt Game was immense and I really, really connected with this story and these girls.

In prepping to write this post, I looked up Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Zilpha is an amazing name by the way--it sounds like the name of a gypsy pirate wench or a glam forest witch--both awesome).  I was shocked to learn that she was till alive and that she has this cheeky website that says she has written 46 books and is working on her 47th!  And most delightfully, I saw that in 1997--thirty years after writing The Egypt Game--she wrote a sequel called The Gypsy Game which you best believe I immediately purchased off of Amazon Prime! I couldn't be more excited if they told me Sex and the City was going to have a tween spin off prequel series. . . oh, wait, that's true too?  Aaaah, 2013 rules!!!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Borrowers

So what's the deal with the obsession with mini people?  Think about it, when we were kids in the 90s, mini people stories were present in every kind of media. In books, there was the mini Indian and mini cowboy plot of The Indian in the Cupboard. And although Stuart Little was a mouse, he was essentially a mini person in lifestyle and behavior--and he did go on a date with an actual mini person. In movies, there was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids where Rick Moranis shrunk his kids. And on TV, we watched David the Gnome on Nickelodeon, and do you guys remember that show The Littles?--I had to go back deep in the vault for that one.

A Saturday morning cartoon staple

So why do people love mini people? I can't help but think there is some weird narcissism involved in this one--that we think mini versions of us are just adorable and fascinating and we just love to watch and read about them. How cute is it that a mini version of us would have to sleep in a matchbox?  How adorable is it that a mini version of us could live in a dollhouse? Aww--look at that mini version of me using a button as a plate!  Self-love = mini people love--that's got to be it, right?

So why am I going on about this?  Because this week, I read one of the original mini people classics, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, written in 1953 and read by me in 1993.


The Borrowers are mini people who live in big people houses and survive by "borrowing" things from "human beans," whom Borrowers view as existing only to serve little people and provide them a means of subsistence. The Borrowers at issue in this story are the Clock family, aptly named because they live under the clock in a large human home. The Clocks are comprised of the dad and main borrower of things, Pod, mom and housewife, Homily, and plucky daughter (is there any other kind in tween lit?), Arrietty.  Unfortunately for the Clocks, they are the last Borrowers standing in this particular home, which was once rife with Borrowers also literally named after the location of their home--the Overmantels who lived on the mantel, the Harpsichords who lived over by the harp, the Sinks, the Rain-Pipes, you get it. It's not totally clear why the other families had to leave and whether they are still alive--there is an ominous legend about cousin Eggletina who once went out borrowing and never came back.

In the beginning of the novel, Arrietty's life is pretty limited--she is never allowed out of her home under the floorboards beneath the clock. She has never been outside, but longs to go outside and see the green garden that she gazes at through her grating.  But then the worst thing that could happen to a Borrower happens to Pod--he gets 'seen.  He was spotted by the sickly boy who has come unexpectedly to stay in the house. The Clocks use this opportunity to tell Arrietty about the dangers of borrowing, the inconveniences presented by human beans and things like cats, and the reality of their dying breed of mini-people.  In a surprising move, Homily, a hyper-emotional, overbearing and generally silly mini-woman, suggests that Arrietty should be allowed to go out borrowing with her father.  The logic is that they don't have anyone other Borrowers to count on, and it would be helpful if Arrietty could learn the family trade--a logic I agree with. Pod agrees and takes her with him one day.

Just your typical mini family

Arrietty turns out the be the worst Borrower ever and a serious liability when she gets seen on her very first outing by the boy--and even worse, she talks to the boy. This mini-chica was a little too brazen and thoughtless for me--wasn't she listening during the story of Eggletina? But this boy turns out to be a good egg and Arrietty forms a friendship with him (you never find out his name). The Boy helps to widen her world, and even makes her realize that humans are probably not meant to be the slaves of mini-people. The Boy even passes along a letter to her aunt and uncle who presumably live by the "badger set" in the field--whatever that is.  (Uncle Hendreary writes back!  He ominously writes--"Tell Lupy [his wife] to come home," meaning that he curiously thinks his wife is back in the house with the Clocks. This situation wasn't really adequately addressed in this book, but it set up a nice cliff hanger that I assume is addressed in one of the four sequels.)

  BFF

Arriety's parents eventually find out about her inadvisable friendship, and are rightfully horrified and consider emigrating from the house, but then the Boy proves to be their friend, and in exchange for Arriety reading to him, he brings the Clock family things around the big house that they can use for their home under the floorboards--he pretty much loots the unused dollhouse upstairs in order to provide the Clocks with fine Victorian furniture that makes their matchbox drawers look pretty budget. This situation suits the Clocks just fine, particularly Homily, who always felt she was meant for such refinement. As all stories with sudden and overabundant materialism go, the Clocks eventually get too greedy and as a result, are caught by the house's cook, Mrs. Driver, a real gremlin of a woman.  Mrs. Driver opens up the floor board, uncovers the Clock home and calls in the police, the exterminator and locks the boy in his room. The Clocks flee for real this time, and the story is very much to be continued in the next few books.

As a kid, and as an adult too, I liked the world of the Borrowers--their home made of elaborate tunnels, that Arriety's room was a cigar box, and how the Clocks used strips of sentences in books as striped wallpaper, chess pieces as statues, and sliced chestnuts like a turkey. I do think I better appreciated Arietty's boldness as a kid and felt like she was just doing what a kid's got to do. But as an adult, I kept thinking -- Girl, have some respect for the Borrower process!  All this pluck is going to get you and your family into trouble!  And it did. Now they gotta go and live in the badger set--like mini-people peasants.

There are two movie versions of the Borrowers that I have seen. The first came out in 1997, and I don't really remember it all that much. When I took a look at a picture from the movie, I was delighted to find not one but two surprises. Take a look at this pic of the Clock family from the movie:


If you ask yourself, is that a young Draco Malfoy dressed as the supplementary member of the Clock family?  The answer is yes.  You may also ask yourself, is that Professor Slughorn who is dressed as the patriarch of the Clock family?  The answer is also yes. Hogwarts was a better place for them.

The other movie is an anime movie called The Secret World of Arriety that came out last year, featuring the voices of a pre-divorce (sigh) Will Arnett as Pod and Amy Poehler as Homily.


This movie was visually spectacular, but a little bit of a snoozer--particularly because Arnett spoke in this weirdly measured voice the whole time--but maybe that was to honor the anime style, I'm not sure.

Overall, The Borrowers was a good read, and it fed my narcissistic love of mini-mes quite nicely.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Island of the Blue Dolphins


This week, I read what has got to be the book most hated by 90s tweens--survivalist tale Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.  For some reason, kids hate this book even though adults love it -- it won the Newbery medal and is universally assigned in elementary schools. I would like to be able to say that my taste for high literature started early and I recognized this book as that when I first read it in the fourth grade--but I didn't. I hated it too and this book actually marked the very first time I did not read an assigned book through to its end. Which made me feel both great shame and great thrill.

The book takes place on a small island off the coast of California called San Nicholas Island.  We meet Karana, the main character, a 24 year old woman, who is a part of a small tribe of indigenous people who live on the island. One day, a ship commanded by a sinister Russian guy and operated by a team of Aleuts (Alaskan indigenous people) come to the island to hunt otter. In exchange, they offer to give Karana's tribe some of their spoils.  Of course this doesn't happen and a battle breaks out--many of Karana's people are murdered, including her father who is the chief, and most of the men. The tribe struggles to survive with so few members so the new chief goes to sea to find help. Help comes in the form of a ship filled with white men who are going to take the remaining tribespeople to a different place where they will presumably thrive. Karana gets on the ship okay and the ship starts off, but then she sees her little brother, Ramo, has been accidentally left on the island.  She dives off the ship and into the water to meet her brother on the shore. They watch the ship sail away, which would have made me profoundly pissed at my brother, but Karana takes it in stride. However, within a few days, Ramo is killed by a pack of nasty wild dogs that live on the island i.e. he was eaten by them (which shocked me), leaving Karana utterly alone on the small island.

The rest of the book deals with Karana's trials and tribulations coming to terms with her situation, battling the elements, the animals and creating a home for herself--like most survivalist tales.  Some highlights include taming the leader of the wild dog pack to be her pet, building a lovely home for herself using whale ribs to serve as a protective fence, taming some birds to serve as secondary pets, and briefly striking up a secret friendship with the girlfriend of one of the evil Aleuts who returned a year later for more otter.  In the end, after several years living alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, a ship comes to take her away to civilization. 


This was all based on the true story of Juana Maria, a woman who was similarly left behind on San Nicholas Island in 1835 and survived on her own for nineteen years!  Miss Juana Maria was recently in the news because some archaelogists went to San Nicholas Island and located the cave that she mostly lived in.  This LA Times article (thanks to Emily for telling me about it) is actually really interesting and provides some good background info about this poor woman, including the fact that seven weeks after she finally made it to civilization, she died of dysentery apparently because she was stuffing herself with all the good mainland people food...which her stomach was not prepared to handle after decades of seal meat and fish. How terrible is that?

So why do kids hate this book?  Here are some of my theories:
  1. Karana is 24.  To a 10 year old, she might as well be 54. When you live a life where you mostly think in single digit numbers, being 24 is unimaginable and difficult to relate to.
  2. Karana's narration is very formal.  Maybe because she was supposed to be translated from her native tongue to English, Karana's narrative style is very formal.  It's not at all told in kid-friendly language and I think kids find it boring as a result.
  3. Speaking of boring, a lot of this book of boring. There is a lot of action in the beginning of the book--the arrival of a strange ship, the tension between the natives and the visitors, a full blown battle, death, struggle, rescue, jumping from a friggin ship and then the brutal death of Karana's brother. That all happens in the first third of the book and in the last two-thirds, the action significantly slows down when Karana is left by herself. The beginning of the book promised too much action and as a result, the rest seems super slow in comparison--even though it is the most important part of the novel. 
  4. There is no dialogue. I realize this is not really anyone's fault, and it is just part of the story that this woman left behind doesn't have doesn't anybody to talk to. But if Tom Hanks could have conversations with Wilson the ball, then I feel like Karana could have had an inanimate pal she could converse with to help move along the story...like a rock or a seal skull.
  5. It's really depressing. Seriously being forced to live all by herself for years--that is horrifyingly sad. And there is little pay off at the end because the book ends pretty abruptly and doesn't reveal any of the happy parts of her rescue (although I guess it was better that Scott O'Dell left out the even more horrific fact about her rescue-related death)
So how did I feel about this book as an adult?  Well, first of all, I made it through the entire thing, which is a good sign. I would say that I liked the book and that I felt more sympathy for Karana because we are more similar in age, and I kept thinking about what I would do if I were in her position. But I still thought the book was pretty slow and crazy depressing.

Okay, now we have to take the tally on how Karana would do against the other tween book survivalists in a Hunger Games-style battle to the death. As previously discussed, the Boxcar Children would all be eviscerated before they even reached the cornucopia (and therefore not get any billing in the movie), Brian Robeson from Hatchet would last longer, but I think ultimately, either Julie of the Wolves or Karana would get him or he would eat some poisonous berries by accident and cripple himself. Now both Karana and Julie of the Wolves are tough chicas...Julie has murdered things with antlers and her bare hands and seems more ruthless--I mean she chose to stay in the wild when offered an alternative.  But on the other hand, Karana outdoes Julie in that she makes the king of the wolf pack her pet, while Julie only makes the king of the wolf pack her friend...I think this whole thing will really depend on who will get the wolves on their side,which might be Karana. Ah, but who am I kidding, Julie of the Wolves is a straight bad ass and would take all of these kids.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH


Now, I know you all saw the movie The Secret of the NIMH at least one of the times it played on replay on Saturday afternoons in the 90s.



But I bet not all of you read the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH that the movie was based on. Being the diligent little book nerdette that I was, I both saw the movie and read this book in the third grade. I remember thinking that this book was sad. Other than that, I haven't given this tale about a widowed mouse trying to save her kids with the help of some rats much thought until I read it again this week. And oh my god was this book good!!! Seriously, it was riveting. I read it straight through--all 223 pages--in one sitting. Granted, I was on a four hour flight trapped by my sleeping seatmates in my window seat, but I couldn't even stop reading when Step Up Revolution started playing on the little screen above me. And God knows I love a good break into random group dance movie.

Just like in Stuart Little, Ralph S. Mouse, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Abel's Island, Ben and Me, and the more recent, The Tale of Desperaux, Mrs. Frisby and the Secret of the NIMH features a mouse protagonist, Mrs. Frisby. I'm not sure when it was or who decided that the rodent that most inspires murderous behavior in humans would also make a sweet and beloved archetypal character, but this little rodent is very pervasive in tween lit. Mrs. Frisby, in addition to being a field mouse (note she is called Mrs. Brisby in the movie version to avoid any trademark issues with Frisbee--fun fact brought to you by Wikipedia), is a great mom. She is the mom to four little mice, including the sickly little Timothy.  The Frisbys have a winter home and summer home (how luxurious). The winter home is located in a warm little concrete block that is in a field outside of a farm. Every year, the Frisbys relocate to the mouse Hamptons before the farmer comes out to plow the fields to avoid themselves getting plowed over.  This year, there is a problem--Timothy becomes terribly sick and he is too weak to venture outside and would surely not survive the journey to the summer estate by the stream, but the family will surely get killed by the plow if they stay.  Quite a predicament. Mrs. Frisby, being a widow and a resourceful she-mouse turns to animal friends to figure out what to do.

I like the first half of this book because it reminded me of books like Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia in that Mrs. Frisby encounters great, epic characters as she tries to resolve her problem. First, Mrs. Frisby travels across the farm to meet her dead husband's old friend, Mr. Ages, an old mouse who also moonlights as the local shaman/pharmacist who provides Mrs. F with the meds to heal Timothy. Next, Mrs. F meets a crow named Jeremy, whom she kindly saves from getting eaten by the wretched farm cat, Dragon. Being a thankful (albeit bird-brained, heh heh) crow, Jeremy later serves as Mrs. Frisby's personal jet. It is this crow who takes her to see the famous wise owl, who Mrs. F is terrified of because owls are known mouse-eaters, but she is desperate. Once the owl finds out that her husband was Jonathan Frisby (which surprises Mrs. F), he tells her what to do -- go and see the rats. He tells her nothing more, and Mrs. Frisby is reluctant to go--rats and mice may be a part of the same genus, but they don't really mingle well. But Mrs. F, again fueled by desperation, goes alone to the rose bush where the rats are known to have a burrow.

At this point, the story switches over from this Alice in Wonderland-character encounter type story to the story of the rats which is totally different. And awesome. For whatever reason, I had no significant memory of the rat-based plot line. Maybe it was my inner mama that just made me remember the parts about ailing children and motherly panic and plight, but this rat plot line is really the heart of the story. At first, the rats disregard Mrs. F, but then they find out that she is the wife of the late Mr. Frisby, and accept her without question. Which is another hint to Mrs. F that Mr. F may have had this secret life--but not the Anthony Weiner or Jim McGreevey kind--a good secret life. Mrs. Frisby meets the rat leader and her husband's former friend, Nicodemus. She sees the inside of the rat lair and it is incredible--there is running water, electricity, elevators, storage rooms, carpeted floors, even an elaborate library filled with books and plush seating.

It turns out these rats are no ordinary rats. Old Nicodemus starts telling Mrs. Frisby their story--which takes several chapters. At first, the rats of NIMH were regular old rats who terrorized a farmer's market at night.  But then twenty of these rats were captured and brought to the scientific laboratory called NIMH. These rats were imprisoned at NIMH for over three years where they were subject to injections and scientific trials and experiments. Which if you think about in human terms, that kind of thing is the subject of some seriously horrifying horror movies (which I only know from watching movie trailers--all I can handle). This part of the story made me kind of squeamish. The scientists of NIMH inject the rats with a smart juice and test their intelligence by making them identify shapes and colors and having them run through mazes. The rats eventually get so smart that they learn to read--which is the key to their future (a nice allegory).  Led by Nicodemus (who clearly goes on to become Splinter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the rats eventually escape--along with two mice also subject to similar but weaker injections at the lab--Mr. Ages and Mr. Frisby! The rats and the two mice find their way to this farm where they build their amazing compound. The rats have great respect for Mr. Frisby because he served as a loyal aid when they needed a rodent small enough to drug Dragon the farm cat when they had to steal things like Christmas lights and metal pipes. The rats of NIMH are super smart--apparently smarter than humans, only limited by their stature and body construction. The secret of the NIMH is that they have a two year plan in place to become a self-sustaining society. At the time they meet Mrs. Frisby, the rats are just about ready to relocate to a secret valley where they can plant their own crops, make their own community, prosper and eventually take over the world. Which is ultimately a very horrifying thought, but the rats of NIMH were really quite charming and polite so I looked past it.

The rats do help Mrs. Frisby--they move her concrete block home to a place that is not subject to the destruction of the plow, so Timothy can wait out his illness before they make their summer move. Mrs. Frisby also helps the rats when she take over as the Dragon-drugger.  Although she briefly gets caught, she overhears the human family of the farm talk about how the NIMH laboratory has gotten a hint that their mutant rats were at the farm and they were coming after them. This hint proves important because the rats--all but two--are able to leave the rose bush and move on to the valley before NIMH got a hold of them. The story ends with Mrs. Frisby safely leading her family to their home in an oak tree by the stream.  She tells her children the story of their father and the rats--since they are spawn of the genetically-altered Mr. Frisby and will likely find themselves different from other mice--she thought they deserved to know.  They go to bed wondering if they will ever see the rats of NIMH ever again. 

Good story, right?! The second best rat P.R. stunt after Ratatouille. It has everything--a story of a mother desperate to save her children, a story about the coming together of a community of animals and also a wild tale  about ultra-smart friendly mutant rats and their potential world domination. It's both boy and girl-friendly--my boyfriend Mike was not a huge reader as a kid and this was his favorite book. I highly recommend this for an adult read!