I’ve been continuing to read Challenge books faster than I review them, especially Newbery Medal winners (they tend to be short, and they’re so good for audiobooks!) I thought I’d try to give just a few thoughts on some recent reads.
Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer (1937)
Ten year old Lucinda finds herself with a sudden new freedom when her wealthy parents go to Italy and leave her with a teacher to care for her. She straps on roller skates and goes exploring through 1890s New York, making friends of all she meets, whether they’re “suitable” or not.
There’s a lot that’s charming here, with a nice message against snobbishness and for finding friends in unexpected places. It feels a bit like the Betsy-Tacy books, set in a similar time period with a plucky girl lead. And yet, there’s also a darker undertone that sits oddly with the rest of the book. There are two real tragedies in here, and also the hint that Lucinda turned her back in some way on what she learned (and who she was) during this one unusual year. The tragedies and the turning away could be connected (and probably should be), and yet that’s never really drawn out and feels more like a discordant note.
It’s a charming read, but I feel like there should have been something more here…
It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville (1964)
Another young person in New York story, this time a teenage boy named Dave in the 1960s who adopts a cat, and goes exploring (by Subway rather than roller skates). It reminded me of any number of “child in New York” stories, and was a pleasant one of its type. I would have liked more with the cat (named Cat), but on the other hand I enjoyed the machinations Dave goes through to keep seeing a girl he kinda likes, without having to deal with the awkwardness of calling her on the phone. This is basically a fairly gentle coming of age story with likable people exploring through a likable city.
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1923)
I was somewhat surprised that I couldn’t remember ever reading this and wondered if that could be right. But having read it now, it didn’t seem familiar. It’s the story of the great naturalist Dr. John Dolittle who has learned the language of animals. He and his young apprentice set off on a sea voyage, winding up on a floating island in the South Atlantic.
A few things struck me here. One is that this book is SO British. Even though it won an award as a contribution to American literature! But Hugh Lofting was British, and had only moved to the United States some four years before publishing this book. Dr. Dolittle is also British and the book has the very distinct feel of a charming British classic children’s book. Another thing is that Dr. Dolittle’s ability to talk to animals is not about magic, but the result of study and learning, which is rather fun and not quite what I expected.
The other primary thing that struck me is not so good–this was written in 1923 and shows its age in the plot developments once they reach that island. It becomes the classic and unfortunate story of the white man who comes to the natives’ home, is better than them at everything (or at least what matters) and so they declare him king, and he sets about Westernizing them. I wouldn’t say that this book does much overt insulting or stereotyping of the natives, but the plot is still what it is…and that’s unfortunate in an otherwise delightful story.
Criss-Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (2006)
A coming of age story of sorts for a group of young people in a small town, as they pursue dreams and explore first love–mostly of the unrequited kind. I had a terrible time following this book. There are about five major characters (depending where you draw the line), and I could not keep them straight for much of the book. It didn’t help that this was on audiobook so I couldn’t easily flip back to compare names–but I’ve listened to many, many other audiobooks (including numerous Agatha Christie, famous for numerous characters) without this kind of problem.
Until the last few chapters I was ready to write this off entirely as just plain muddled. But then there was a quite short passage near the end, when one of the female leads reflects on love. Falling into it, falling out of it, and fearing that maybe no one will ever fall in love with her. And I thought–I bet this is a widespread, near-universal emotion, and yet, when does it ever come up in stories? I like a good love story, but I always get a little excited about that rarer breed of story, characters who don’t find love, either by choice or circumstance.
So this was still a muddled book. But it did have a spark in it that made me think, and that was a nice contrast to the common run of YA books, where every character of importance is paired off with their One True Love by age sixteen, with no angst or anxiety about it at all.
This still doesn’t catch me up on Newbery reviews, so there may be more to come… 🙂