The Borrowers by Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

The Borrowers

Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

It is said that there are people who were so frightened, that each generation grew smaller and smaller and became more and more hidden. They’re often found in quiet, old houses that are deep in the country. They became known as the “little people” and one nine-year-old boy actually met some of these people who he came to know as the Clocks: Pod, Homily, and Arrietty. They were real. Absolutely real. He swears by it, but he is just a little boy and quite prone to fantasy and make believe. Or is he?
Buckle up because Mary Norton gives readers plenty of action, adventure, and danger along with some rather devious villains (isn’t Crampfurl just the perfect name for a baddy?) and one unassuming and unsuspecting hero. For underneath the kitchen floor is a world that captures the imagination and delights the senses. A world where matchboxes are dressers, postage stamps are works of art, and blotting paper makes for a rather smart rug. It’s the world of the Borrowers and it’s been captivating readers since its publication in 1952.

It’s easy to see how The Borrowers has become a classic and why Norton followed this book with four successors. Although I liked its themes of family, friendship, and trust, I truly appreciated that Norton didn’t shy away from making her main characters flawed and, at times, unlikeable. Afterall, it was not their discovery by the “human beans” that led to their ultimate downfall, but rather it was their own pride and greed. Albert Einstein once said, “Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear, and greed.” Perhaps Homily Clock could have benefitted from these words.

The Borrowers has everything that a young reader would enjoy…except for the ambiguous ending. Just when you think Norton has everything buttoned up, she throws in one final sentence—just four little words—that turns the entire story on its ear. Now, if I had been a reader in 1952 and had just read the last page of this wonderful story, I might be a little miffed at our Mrs. Mary Norton for leaving me high and dry. Thankfully, this isn’t 1952 and I know that not one but FOUR sequels await me, which means that the dear Clocks were not only real, but that they did in fact survive their hopeless fate. But perhaps Norton predicted what her readers’ reaction would be and tried to offer them some bit of solace and hope when she had Mrs. Kay say to young Kate, “…stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.” Thankfully, the Clocks’ story does go on and it will continue to go on as long as there are readers who keep telling and sharing it.  

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

How did it all start?  Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers.  It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother.  Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right.  She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom.  Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce.  She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group.  So hungry for companionship and inclusion.  That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.”  Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.

Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader.  It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong.  R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally.  She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store.  In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda.  An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked.  Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.

The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since.  There is a very good reason for this.  Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace.  This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages.  It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness.  Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right.  Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret.  In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944.  Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Black Stallion by Walter Farley (J)

The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion

Walter Farley (Juvenile Fiction)

The tramp steamer Drake—loaded with coffee, rice, tea, oil seeds, and jute—was pushing its way from India and heading to New York City.  Aboard was young Alexander (Alec) Ramsay, who had just spent two months in India with his uncle.  Also on board was a wild black stallion picked up in an Arabian port.  Alec knew enough about horses to be intrigued by the magnificent beast, but also wary.  This was not an animal to be underestimated.  But one night, the Drake encountered a fierce storm which would ultimately spare only two passengers:  Alec and the stallion whom he called “the Black”.  Can these two possibly form an alliance in order to survive their harsh and uninhabited island home?

The Black Stallion, published in 1941, is the first of twenty books in The Black Stallion series written by Walter Farley.  The twenty-first book, The Young Black Stallion, was co-authored with Farley’s son, Steven, and published shortly after the author’s death.  At the time of the book’s publication, the news was dominated by the war in Europe and so this book not only served as a respite from the ensuing turmoil, but was also a reminder of the good still inherent in humans.  The Black Stallion is a wonderful story about the importance of trust, loyalty, and devotion to each other during the most trying of circumstances.  Today’s young readers may find this story’s text to be a bit hokey given its multiple uses of the words “gee” and “swell”, but this book is an excellent example of how far someone can go when they not only have faith in themselves, but they have the unified support of those closest to them.  Alec is surrounded by loving and encouraging adults who do not treat him as an idealistic child, but rather as a competent and trustworthy peer.  Modern juvenile fiction often pits the young protagonist against skeptical parents, jealous schoolmates, or crotchety neighbors—anything that presents an obstacle that our young hero or heroine must overcome.  The Black Stallion instead focuses on positive relationships and the rewards that come with perseverance and good old-fashioned hard work.

The unlikely relationship between Alec and the Black garnered much awe and attention from all who witnessed it.  One such observation came from a ship’s captain and his first-mate, Pat.  After the captain marveled at how gentle the Black was in the presence of Alec, Pat replied, “Yes, sir,” he said, “one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.  I wonder where it’ll take them?”  Lucky for us, it took them on many, many unforgettable adventures that would span twenty-one books and an incredible forty-eight years.  Enjoy.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (J)

Alices Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Juvenile Fiction)

Lewis Carroll

Alice was bored.  She had peeked into what her sister was reading, but it held no pictures or interesting conversations.  What is the use of a book without pictures?  So, she began contemplating whether making a daisy-chain would be worth the effort on such a dreadfully hot day when a white rabbit suddenly passed by her.  Not just any rabbit, but a talking rabbit…with a pocket watch.  Perhaps this day wouldn’t be so boring after all.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a wonderful way to introduce your young reader to the joys of classic literature.  From Alice (“Curiouser and curiouser.”), to the White Rabbit (“Oh dear! Oh dear!  I shall be late!”), to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”), this story brims with so many colorful and memorable characters, that it simply begs to be shared and read out loud.  I highly recommend reading the version that contains the original illustrations by John Tenniel.  His beautiful drawings capture the true essence and spirit of Carroll’s tale and allow the reader to become fully absorbed in the wonderful world which is Wonderland.

Aside from being a fanciful story about a young girl’s dream, there is a deeper message that Carroll lovingly bestows upon his reader.  Once you realize that Lewis Carroll is actually the pseudonym of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Anglican deacon, it’s not so hard to recognize or appreciate it.  When the Duchess was taking Alice to meet the Mock Turtle, she said to the girl, “Be what you would seem to be.”  Many characters in Carroll’s classic are, in fact, not what they seem to be.  We find out that the Queen isn’t as bloodthirsty as she appears and that there is an understandable reason for the Hatter’s madness.  Even the Duchess’s child undergoes its own formidable transformation.  Closely resembling the Latin phrase Esse quam videri meaning, “To be, rather than to seem”, Carroll reminds us all—through a curious girl, a tardy hare, and a grinning feline—that it is far better to be the person you really are than to be the person others think you to be.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 11/15/2018

*Book cover image attributed to http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com

 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (J)

A Little Princess

A Little Princess  

Frances Hodgson Burnett (Juvenile Fiction)

Sara Crewe is seven and always dreaming and thinking odd things.  But ever since arriving in London from India with her father, Captain Ralph Crewe, all she thinks about is “the place”—Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.  Her father’s affluence instantly propels Sara to star status within the school, but misfortune soon causes her to be penniless and at the mercy of jealous students, spiteful cooks, and a vindictive and cold-hearted headmistress.  Once an heiress and now a pauper, Sara relies on the friendship of a young servant, two foolish schoolgirls, and a rather amicable rat to help her cope with her new station in life.

Burnett delivers a charming and tender Cinderella-like story where our heroine is suddenly ripped from a life of comfort, joy, and love and thrown into a merciless world of coldness, hunger, and cruelty.  Unlike Cinderella, Sara is merely a child and the pain and suffering inflicted upon her is especially difficult to bear.  It also earns her tormentor, Miss Minchin, a dubious place amongst literature’s most despised and detested villains.

With A Little Princess, Burnett gives us a story about humility, grace, courage, hope, generosity, and kindness.  She also gives us a girl who is a beloved daughter, a show pupil, an adopted mother, a storyteller, a benefactor, a scullery maid, and a friend.  But most of all, Sara Crewe is, and always will be in the hearts of readers, a little princess.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org