From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), by E.L. Konigsburg

Feeling put-upon and ignored as the eldest sibling, Claudia takes her younger brother with her and runs away. Not liking hardship, they run to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, rather than to the woods, as Jamie first assumes. There, they encounter a statue attributed to Michelangelo, and Claudia becomes captivated, needing to discover the truth about the statue for herself.

While a little slow-paced, this novel is superb in not stretching the possibilities in two young children who have run away from home. What they do could have happened; thus, the reader is able to engage completely with the mystery and the stresses the children encounter. The ending is hidden from the reader until the end, then well resolved.

I was not so very entranced with the novel, which (despite my personal opinion) is heralded as one of the true classics of American children’s literature. It won the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature in 1968 and, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “in 2012 it was ranked number seven among all-time children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.” But then, I didn’t like Norton Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), either, despite the language play that normally would appeal. But there you have it: It’s not you; it’s me.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

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Pollyanna (1913), by Eleanor H. Porter

porter-pollyannaThrough the glory that is e-books, I have finally read the 1913 classic novel for girls, Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; I’m so glad I didn’t pay money for it. Pollyanna was so popular for so long that even those who have no idea of the plot of the novel understand the ethos: like France Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), Pollyanna is the predominant literary example of excessively joyous innocence triumphing over the bitterness created by the adult world.

Upon the death of her father, orphaned Pollyanna travels to live with her mother’s sister, Aunt Polly. There are strong echoes of Anne (of Green Gables) in Pollyanna’s verbosity and exuberance when she is greeted at the station, as well as in the situation she finds herself in. Aunt Polly, like Marilla Cuthbert, doesn’t really want a child living with her; Old Tom, the handyman, plays the role of Matthew Cuthbert in his sympathy with the orphaned Pollyanna. While Pollyanna shares some of Anne’s liveliness, her character is far too saccharine to be believable; this, of course, is why the epithet “Pollyanna” is often given to do-gooders and those who push forward their own seemingly altruistic agendas regardless of the reality surrounding them.

The narrative element that underpins Pollyanna is Pollyanna’s “just being glad game,” taught to her by her father. Pollyanna’s childish logic are almost reductio ad absurdum; examples abound, one being when she is punished by Aunt Polly with only bread and milk for dinner, yet gushes: “I’m really glad about it, Aunt Polly. I like bread and milk, and Nancy too. … I’ve had such a lively time here so far. Your house is beautiful! And I know I am going to like living with you.” We do on occasion see Pollyanna’s tears—she has after all just lost her beloved father, and is being treated unfairly—but her ability to suppress her sorrow in public and private is sufficiently uncanny to be troubling. Her character is drawn such that we do not see the struggles she might have in keeping a brave face against Aunt Polly’s unnecessarily harsh attitudes.

Incomprehensibly, Pollyanna’s excessive cheerfulness melts the bitterness of old Mrs. Snow, the crotchety John Pendleson, and eventually even her Aunt Polly. Aunt Polly’s transformation is made complete when—through fate in the form of a crippling accident that begins to test even Pollyanna’s emotional fortitude—she is reunited with the lover from her youth. Maybe if the writing were stronger, or the characters more richly constructed, or the plot less predicatble and contrived, it would be a better vehicle for Porter’s moral instruction. As it is, rather than feeling uplifted by Pollyanna’s cheerfulness, we end up saying, with Aunt Polly: “Glad! … will you please stop using that word!”

Perhaps it is because we have Anne of Green Gables (1908) as such a solid part of our Canadian children’s literature heritage, but I can’t help feeling that Pollyanna is little more than a poor imitation of a real children’s classic.