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”

Classic Review: Banner in the Sky

Somehow or other, rock-climbing has come up in a few different conversations recently.  I respect people who want to try that, but I’m not one of them.  But when I do find myself with any urge to climb a mountain, I have a favorite go-to book I pick up instead.


I want to begin this review by saying that I have never been mountain-climbing.  Nor do I ever plan to go.  The truth is, I don’t even like steep hills (which, believe me, can be a problem if you live in San Francisco).  I can walk very happily for miles on flat ground, but give me a hill and it’s all over.  But this is why I love books.  I love that they let me live lives I would never actually live, whether that involves casting magical spells, visiting a distant planet, or climbing a mountain.

That last brings me to Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman.  You’ll notice I have a picture of Third Man on the Mountain.  Walt Disney changed the title for his movie version, and then they reprinted the book with the new title.  I like Banner in the Sky better–for one thing, I’m not sure what Disney’s title is even supposed to mean!

With either title, the book is about Rudi Matt, and about the Citadel.  Rudi is a teenager living in a small village in the Alps in the 1800s, and he dreams of climbing the Citadel.  It’s the one unconquered peak, the one no man has ever reached the top of.  No one has tried for years, since the failed expedition that killed Rudi’s father.  Rudi’s mother has forbidden him to become a mountain climber (and I do understand her viewpoint!) but when an Englishman comes determined to lead an expedition up the unclimbable mountain, Rudi is determined to go.

The book is as much about Rudi’s growth as it is about the mountain.  He learns that there’s more to climbing a mountain than just scrambling over rocks, learns about things like trusting others and never leaving a comrade.  He learns to follow his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.  My best guess on Disney’s title is that Rudi becomes a man on the mountain, rather than a boy–but I can’t quite figure out how Disney calculates him as the third one.

This makes it all sound like it’s deep and reflective, and occasionally it is–but there’s also plenty of scrambling over rocks, and getting caught on ledges, and even an avalanche or two.  It’s an exciting story as well as a meaningful one.

It reminds me a little bit of stories about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.  Not because of the snow similarity, but because they’re both about men trying to achieve a feat that has been considered unachievable.  They’re about pursuing the impossible dream.  And while I personally don’t have any desire to climb a mountain or ski to the South Pole, when the story is told right, I can get very enthused about someone else’s dream.

Why does someone climb a mountain?  “Because it’s there” is always a good answer.  Because it’s there to be conquered.  For Rudi, it’s because he wants to take his climbing staff and his father’s red sweater, and plant them as a flag at the top of the Citadel–a banner in the sky.

Even though I need a good reason to climb a steep hill and can’t imagine climbing a mountain, Banner in the Sky makes me believe in Rudi’s dream, makes me see it as vital and important for him, and makes me want to see him succeed.

Book Review(s): Dead End in Norvelt and Shiloh

I’m making ever more headway on Newbery Medal reads (great options for audiobooks, which helps a lot!) and thought I’d hit two today.  Both stories about boys in small towns, so they kinda fit each other.  But the quality varied!…

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

In the tiny town of Norvelt, young Jack is looking forward to a summer of baseball, trips to the movies and other fun, until one bad decision and one wild injustice (more on that later) gets him grounded until school starts.  He’s only allowed out to help elderly Miss Volker write obituaries…which comes up surprisingly often as a string of old women start dying.

I wanted to like this more than I did.  An ordinary kid surrounded by slightly kooky characters in a small town sounds great!  Dollops of history as Miss Volker looks to the past to expound on ideals of freedom and community, plus a hint of a murder mystery.  What’s not to like?

Well, a few things.  I never loved Jack; I don’t know why, I just didn’t.  Usually I like kids who get a bad rap from adults, especially if they like to read, but somehow this one didn’t work for me.  Maybe Jack liked to read a little too much about bloody history, harder to relate to than a Star Wars fandom.  I hate (hate) to classify books as boy books or girl books, but this one did seem to be aimed at a certain age of boy, when blood and guts are so cool.  That wasn’t a big part of the story, but it was an element.  Personally, I could have lived without Jack’s perpetual bloody nose, or his love of war movies. Continue reading “Book Review(s): Dead End in Norvelt and Shiloh”

Book Review: The Door in the Wall

I picked out The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli from the list of Newbery Medal winners because I wasn’t sure if I had read it before or not. It turns out the answer is no, as all I could remember of the book I thought it might be was that it involved canal boats—which don’t appear here at all. But now I have another one to check off my list!

The door of the title is much more symbolic than literal—when life presents a wall, keep looking until you find a door. Ten-year-old Robin is facing a wall with a vengeance. The son of a knight during the reign of Richard II, Robin was always meant to follow his father’s footsteps—until he’s struck by an illness that leaves him unable to use his legs. His father is on campaign, his mother is away with the queen and so Robin is taken in by the nearby religious order.  He’s cared for by Brother Luke who also offers philosophy about doors and walls. Robin eventually goes to a new guardian, a friend of his father’s, but still must find his proper role in his changed life.

This is a rather charming picture of medieval England…which is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Because it’s pleasant to read, and I like charming books. But I strongly suspect that the Middle Ages were not actually a charming time period, especially if you had the misfortune to be crippled! Continue reading “Book Review: The Door in the Wall”

Book Review: The Grey King by Susan Cooper

Reading down my list of Newbery Medal winners, I liked the sound of The Grey King by Susan Cooper. If I had realized it was part (Book Four) of her Dark Is Rising series, I might not have. However, by the time I realized that I had the audiobook sitting in my car and nothing else to listen to, so away we went. And it wasn’t terrible. But I wouldn’t have given it any awards either.

I’d read The Dark Is Rising (which, oddly, is Book Two…) and I didn’t like it much. I didn’t hate it, but I found the conflict strangely dull and the climax totally flat. Which is kind of how The Grey King turned out too. I looked up plots of all the books, to make sure I actually could start in on Book Four, and I think I pretty much could…so in a way this was a lucky mistake, since I didn’t waste time on the others.

The book centers around Will Stanton, age 11 but also the youngest of the Old Ones, ancient magical beings locked in a struggle between the Light and the Dark. The Grey King opens with Will recovering from a serious illness, and so sent off to his uncle’s farm in Wales to recover. There, he realizes he is entering the territory of the Grey King, a powerful figure of the Dark. With the help of Bran, a local boy who may have his own mythical connections, Will goes on a quest to wake the Sleepers, fighting the Grey King and his pawn, bad-tempered farmer Caradog Pritchard. Continue reading “Book Review: The Grey King by Susan Cooper”

Book Review: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

I decided to begin my Newbery Medal Challenge with a favorite author and a book I probably should have read years ago: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.  This is one of those books I seem to have seen around for years–the cover feels extremely familiar–and it probably came up in oral book reports in elementary school.  But somehow I never read it, or even knew much about it.

The story turns out to be set in Copenhagen during World War II.  It follows 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family helps their friends the Rosens, including Annemarie’s best friend Ellen, to escape from Denmark when the occupying German soldiers begin rounding up the Jews.

I think I may have avoided this book because I had a vague idea it was sad.  Maybe I coupled it in my mind with The Diary of Anne Frank?  Well, if it’s not too much of a spoiler to say so, I was glad to find that this has a happier ending than Anne’s story.  Which is not to say there weren’t tense moments along the way!  There are, plenty, and the German soldiers are threatening and imposing, even without resorting to any atrocities Lowry could have included–in fact, there’s almost no violence (it is a kids book) but that doesn’t reduce the sense of danger any. Continue reading “Book Review: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry”