Book Review: Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Something brought Wayside School up in conversation recently–I’ve forgotten what–and reminded me how much I enjoyed these very silly books when I was a kid.  So I put all three – Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School Is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger on reserve from the library.  The first two arrived quickly and I read them even more quickly–and they’re still very silly and fun.

Written by Louis Sachar (probably better known for Holes), the Wayside School books are about a school that was built sideways.  Instead of 30 classrooms one story high, the school is 30 stories high with one classroom per floor.  Also, there’s no 19th story.  The class on the 19th story is taught by Miss Zarves, and there’s no Miss Zarves either.  The books focus on the class at the top of the school, with each student getting their own chapter (more or less).

You can’t overthink the logic here.  Actually, you can’t apply logic at all, because it would just spoil the whole thing.  Mostly real world (ish), the books have occasional fantasy elements, including a teacher who turns students into apples.  Possibly my favorite story (in the second book), is when a student finds herself on the 19th story, trapped in Miss Zarves’ class. Continue reading “Book Review: Sideways Stories from Wayside School”

Movie Review: Christopher Robin

I missed Christopher Robin when it was in theatres last year, but I watched it just last week at home.  If I did end of the year ratings of the movies I watched, this would be a serious contender for best of the year!

The movie begins where the Winnie-the-Pooh books end–they overlap with the first scene of the movie and the last scene of The House at Pooh Corner.  I always thought this was one of the saddest scenes in literature, as Christopher Robin is growing up and going away, and has to say good-bye to Pooh and his other friends.  The scene is faithfully and beautifully reproduced.  Bring your tissues!  The movie then goes on, Christopher Robin grows up, and somewhere over the years he loses his way.  He becomes, to borrow a phrase from J. M. Barrie who also wrote of children growing up, a “man who doesn’t know any stories to tell his child.”  But then Winnie the Pooh comes out of a tree outside Christopher Robin’s house in London, and wants to bring him back to the Hundred Acre Wood.

I have a soft spot for the Winnie the Pooh characters, and this was a charming delight of a movie.  The characters are beautifully rendered, in terms of portrayal and the excellent CGI for the stuffed animals.  They truly feel like Milne’s characters brought to life, and the details are all spot-on.  I notice when movie adaptations get it wrong, and this one got it so very right.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Christopher Robin”

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”