Book Review: The Story of Mankind

I recently confronted the juggernaut of Newbery Medals, the very first winner from 1922 and a seriously massive piece of nonfiction: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon.  I actually got this out from the library months ago, was decidedly taken aback by how thick it was, and returned it unread for a later day.  This time I bought the audiobook on Audible (14 hours!)–and to my pleasant surprise, found it a quite engaging read.

The Story of Mankind promises to tell the history of the human race, starting from the formation of the Earth (literally), on up through the present day…of 1922, of course, just a few years beyond the Great War.  Along the way we go through the dinosaurs, primeval man, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation.  It’s not so much the story of mankind as it is the story of European male-kind, but I will say that for a 1922 book, it made some efforts to be broad-minded.

As long as this was, I found it engaging and interesting throughout.  Targeting children, the history is not too dense, for good or ill.  It made it easy to follow and simple to read (er, listen to) but don’t expect too much detail or advanced analysis.  I liked that it made an effort to pull the long centuries of history together into a coherent story, tracing the line from different eras and different countries to show how parts of history normally told separately connect to each other. Continue reading “Book Review: The Story of Mankind”

Book Review: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years

I recently put several more Newbery Medal winners on reserve at the library at once—basically, searching for the ones whose names I could remember, since I didn’t have my list with me!  One of those was Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, because that second part sounded so intriguing.

It turns out that Hitty is a doll.  First carved in Maine in, I think, the early 1800s, Hitty passes through a number of different families and goes on a series of adventures, including sailing the high seas, becoming a castaway and traveling to India.  Over her century of life, up to the 1920s, she belongs to people at every stage of society, experiencing many different owners and many different kinds of life.

This book achieved a nice trick, sending Hitty through some very exciting experiences, while making their occurrence plausible.  The life of a doll could be a rather staid one, but there’s nothing dull about Hitty’s life—and while the excitement may be extreme, each development follows reasonably and believably. Continue reading “Book Review: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years”

Classic Review: Merlin Dreams

I’ve been thinking vaguely of rereading this one soon, and rereading my review has convinced me of it!  A fun note I’m not sure I knew when I wrote this–the author Peter Dickinson was married to Robin McKinley, a long-time favorite author of mine.  I love connections like that!


There’s an old legend that Merlin never died–that he’s imprisoned beneath a stone somewhere on the moor, sleeping through the centuries.  And while he sleeps, what might he dream?

This is the frame-story for Peter Dickinson’s wonderful book, Merlin Dreams.  He tells eight stories, eight dreams of Merlin beneath his stone.  Between each story Merlin half-wakes, remembers his life or senses what goes on above him, then drifts back into sleep…and has another dream.

I’m fascinated by the frame story, and the short stories are excellent too.  Several have a vaguely Arthurian flare, although I don’t think any retell an actual legend.  But there are dashing (and not so dashing) knights, brave damsels and many unexpected heroes.  There’s a king, fallen from honor and strength who needs a little girl to show him the way back.  Another little girl befriends a unicorn in the woods, only to be threatened by men who want to exploit the opportunity to hunt a unicorn.  Two stories feature tricksters who put on shows for country folk they hold in contempt, only to be undone by their own tricks.  There’s a young prince who fights a dragon, and another, particularly ugly young man, who fights a sorceress.  And woven throughout, Merlin remembers his own life, and strange fragments of other scenes and stories. Continue reading “Classic Review: Merlin Dreams”

Classic Review: I Want to Go Home!

I just wrote about re-reading books on Friday, so it seems appropriate to highlight again the book I’ve re-read more than any other.  When I wrote this review, I guessed I’d read it fifteen times, but I think that’s a conservative estimate.  Why so many times?  It still makes me laugh!


I’m a big believer in re-reading books, and I don’t think there’s any book I’ve read more times than I Want To Go Home by Gordon Korman.  My guess is I’ve read it fifteen times–I lost count at twelve.  Most of those times were also before the age of twelve, but I’ve reread it in recent years too, and even after all those times, it still makes me laugh.

I’ve reviewed some of Korman’s other books, about the deep metaphor of a garbage bag and a hilarious series about a boys school.  This one is another of his best.  This is a story about a summer camp for boys, held on Algonkian Island.  The story centers on Rudy Miller, who hates camp.  He’s a loner, perpetually bored, and has no interest in participating in the many sports played at camp.  His only interest is escaping–which, when you’re on an island, requires considerable planning.  Rudy does become friends with Mike Webster, a comparatively normal boy who doesn’t enjoy camp either.  Rudy has a dry wit, and is creative and intelligent–mostly using those skills to think up wild schemes for escape, dragging Mike along with him. Continue reading “Classic Review: I Want to Go Home!”

Classic Review: Smile!

On Friday I posted about authors I feel like I’ve met–but there is one other author that’s true about too, in a very different way.  Geraldine McCaughrean wrote one of my all-time favorites, The White Darkness, as well as the rare excellent sequel to a class novel, Peter Pan in Scarlet.  She also wrote Smile! a book I reviewed long ago…but I didn’t share the story of how I ended up reading it.

I wrote a letter to McCaughrean telling her about how much I loved The White Darkness, and she wrote a wonderful letter back.  It turns out that’s one of her favorites of her books and she loves when people write her about it.  I mentioned my review of the book and she checked it out, finding also my rather rhapsodic comments on Richard Morant as the voice of Titus.  So along with a letter, McCaughrean sent me a cassette tape of the audiobook of Smile! which was also read by Morant.

McCaughrean has ever since been on my list of coolest authors ever!  I still haven’t met her, but I’d love to, and I almost feel like I have, in a way.

Smile! turned out to be delightful too…as I reviewed some time ago.


How often do you really think about a photograph?  You’ll look at photos in a whole new way if you read Smile! by Geraldine McCaughrean–or, as I did, listen to the audiobook.

Smile! is about Flash, a photographer whose small plane crashes in a remote area.  He manages to save only one camera–a simple Polaroid, with ten shots.  Flash is taken in by a primitive village, which has rarely had contact with the outside world.  As he speaks to the villagers, he realizes that none of them have ever seen a photograph.  Accepted by the villagers as “the magician who fell from the sky,” Flash must decide what to spend his ten photographs on–what sights will he preserve for the villagers? Continue reading “Classic Review: Smile!”

Classic Review: Abel’s Island

Today a look back at a long-time, if quiet, favorite.  This isn’t a book that shows up on my favorite lists usually, but it stuck with me more than most…and it’s my go-to when discussing whether deep and complex subjects can be appropriately portrayed in children’s stories!


It’s funny the books that stay with you.  I remember around about third grade (maybe, I don’t remember that part for sure) we had to do a certain number of book reports during the school year, maybe per month.  I don’t remember if I found that challenging, but I doubt it.  🙂  I also don’t remember any of the books I did for this, except one: Abel’s Island by William Steig.  For whatever reason, that one stuck.

Although I don’t think it was until I reread it recently that I made the connection–William Steig!  The one who did a bunch of picture books!  You know, Doctor De Soto and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (and he also has the happy good fortune of being alphabetically near James Stevenson, my favorite picture book author).  Yet another advantage of revisiting childhood favorites. Continue reading “Classic Review: Abel’s Island”

Book Review: The Doll People

I happened across The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin in my library’s audiobook section and thought it looked to be some light entertainment.  It was–and it wasn’t.  Rarely have I been so completely and clearly of two minds about a book!

The Doll People is about a family of dolls, particularly little girl Annabelle Doll, who are all alive unbeknownst to their humans (of course).  A family heirloom, the Doll family and their elegant house have been passed through several generations of daughters.  Two plot threads dominate the book: Annabelle’s decision to search for her Auntie Sarah Doll, who went missing forty-five years ago, and the arrival of a new, modern family of dolls who do things differently–but may provide a new friend for Annabelle.

When I read kids books now, I often have a sense of seeing something I might not have as a kid myself…but not usually to the extent that I did here.  I feel like I read this book on two completely separate levels.  On a kid’s level, it’s a light, entertaining read.  Annabelle is a likable heroine who goes through some character growth becoming more daring (and dragging her reluctant family along).  There are a few expeditions and adventures, threats from the family cat and the danger of being caught by humans, and the fun of making a new friend.  And of course, there’s the magical idea of a whole world going on when the humans turn their backs.

And then there was the other level.  Reading this as an adult, some aspects of the book became deeply horrifying.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Doll People”