Book List Updates

Just a quick update that, lately, I’ve been updating my Book Lists, the section of the site where I keep lists of books with specific themes.

Since I’ve been getting into the fall spirit, I’ve been updating my list of Halloween books, and I’ve added two new lists because I’ve been hearing a lot about these aesthetics online:

Cottagecore Style Nostalgic Children’s Books

A list of vintage and nostalgic children’s books that fit the cottagecore aesthetic.

Dark and Light Academia Nostalgic Children’s Books

Nostalgic children’s books which fit the aesthetics of dark and light academia, focusing on a love of books, learning, knowledge, and self-discovery.

Not everyone will agree with how I’ve categorized some of the books on these lists, but some of it is a bit subjective. As always, this site is a work in progress, so there will be changes and additions to all of these lists later. Hope you enjoy!

Blackbeard’s Ghost

Blackbeard’s Ghost by Ben Stahl, 1965, 1976.

This is the novel that the live action Disney film Blackbeard’s Ghost from 1968 was based on. My copy is a later edition designed as a tie-in with the Disney movie, based on the cover, but it contains the text of the original story.

The story begins with a prologue that explains how Blackbeard the pirate evaded execution for piracy by offering to collect tolls from ships on behalf of the colonial governor, Governor Eden, in the town of Godolphin. However, instead of collecting tolls from the ships, he decided to use his position for his own benefit. Knowing that he would eventually need a source of stability on land instead of spending the rest of his life at sea, he looted wood from various ships and used it to build a tavern for himself called the Boar’s Head. He hired a woman rumored to be a witch, Aldetha, to tend the tavern for him. In the end, though, Blackbeard was killed by someone who wanted to collect the bounty on him for piracy. After his death, the poor woman who tended his tavern was burned at the stake for witchcraft.

(Note: The witch burning is historical inaccuracy because no witchcraft executions in North America involved burning, at least not in English-controlled parts of the American colonies. Accused witches in North America were typically hanged. None of this story is meant to be historically accurate, but I always feel compelled to point that out in stories that make that mistake. The town of Godolphin and the Boar’s Head Tavern are fictional. In real life, Blackbeard did receive a pardon from the real Governor Eden in Bath, North Carolina, and he was eventually killed in 1718 in a battle with Lieutenant Robert Maynard and his crew, as he did in this story. However, in the book, the tavern is now owned by a descendant of Maynard’s, and in real life, Maynard didn’t have any children.)

Most of the story takes place in the 20th century, when two 14-year-old boys, J.D. and Hank, talk about how the old Boar’s Head Tavern is about to be torn down because the former owner sold it, and there’s going to be a gas station built on the land instead. They think it’s a shame because they’ve heard ghost stories about the place and think the old tavern is fascinating. The boys go to watch the workmen tearing down the old tavern, but the workmen haven’t made any progress so far. Although they’d love to loot some of the expensive woods from the old tavern, they just can’t seem to dismantle the building. They’ve been able to dismantle some of the newer additions to the building, but somehow, they can’t seem to touch the original structure. The site has been plagued with mysterious accidents. Their equipment fails, heads fall off the ends of their hammers, and workmen keep getting injured in small accidents, not enough to seriously hurt anyone but enough to keep them away from their work for days at a time.

When J.D. and Hank see the workmen leaving the building in frustration soon after arriving, they decide to go inside and look around to satisfy their curiosity and see if there’s anything of value that they can salvage before the tavern is demolished. They don’t find much of value, but they do find their way into Blackbeard’s secret dungeon under the tavern. There, they find a piece of old parchment with a satanic curse written by Aldetha. (So, apparently, people were actually right about her being a witch. Plot twist!) Inspired by this creepy message from the past, the boys realize that they can make money from other kids by capitalizing on the ghost stories about the old tavern and holding seances to contact the spirits. They don’t really believe that seances are real, but they figure that, if they can get enough ghost-story fans to come to their seances, they can make a profit from this enterprise.

Of course, the boys’ seance awakens the ghost of Blackbeard. Blackbeard is invisible to everyone except for the boys, but he’s a solid ghost, who can manipulate physical objects. The boys quickly realize that Blackbeard can be a dangerous ghost, and he’s not at all happy when he finds out that a descendant of the man who killed him wants to have his tavern torn down.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. The Disney movie is available to buy or rent through YouTube or Amazon Prime. There is also a sequel to this book called The Secret of Red Skull, which involves spies and is also available online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

There is some humor in this book because only the boys are able to see and hear Blackbeard, but by the end of the story, adults become aware of Blackbeard’s ghost, too. The boys’ history teacher is helpful in finding a way to appease the ghost by helping him to negotiate to buy back his tavern using his hidden treasure. When it becomes obvious both to Maynard and the company he tried to sell the tavern to that it’s haunted, they’re willing to accept pirate gold in exchange. The company also sees that it can use the building for public relations purposes by sponsoring a pirate museum in the old tavern. It’s good news for the teacher, too, because he gets to be the director of the museum. There, he can show off his collection of pirate memorabilia and indulge his love of pirate history. The tavern continues to be haunted by the ghosts of Blackbeard and his witch friend, leaving the story open for the sequel.

As expected of Disney films, the Disney movie version of the story is quite different from the book. In the movie, the person who can see the ghost is a college track coach who is staying in the old inn, which is still being operated by elderly descendants of Blackbeard’s old crew. There is a track meet in the movie that never appeared in the book, and at the end of the movie, Blackbeard disappears, having been freed from his haunting by performing a good deed.

I prefer the concept of the boys being the ones who accidentally summoned Blackbeard’s ghost, but the boys got on my nerves at first. In the early part of the book, they bickered a lot and didn’t seem to like each other enough to be best friends, although they seemed to be friendlier with each other later, when they were both trying to figure out what to do about Blackbeard. I think the teacher character was my favorite. He takes the matter of the ghost in stride, coming up with a practical solution that helps everyone.

A Ghost of a Chance

A Ghost of a Chance by Joan Carris, 1992.

Punch (real name Philip) Wagner and his family are spending the summer by the sea in North Carolina, and his parents have let his friend Tom Ellis come with them. The 12-year-old boys are looking forward to exploring the area by themselves, but Punch’s father has arranged for the son of a friend of his to be their guide. At first, Punch isn’t thrilled about his father arranging for them to be led around by a boy they don’t know. Punch’s father has a very different personality from Punch. His father is a professor, very academic, so Punch doesn’t feel like he can take his father’s word that they’ll get along with this new boy. Punch and Tom particularly wanted their independence and a chance to make some plans of their own.

However, Punch is surprised to discover that his father’s old friend is a laid-back, jovial man who calls his father “old crawdad.” His son, Skeeter Grace, is a little younger than Punch and Tom, which makes Punch even less enthusiastic about having him as a guide. Skeeter Grace doesn’t seem to be any more excited about hanging out with Punch and Tom as they are with him, but the adults suggest that Skeeter take the other boys for a boat ride. Punch’s pretty older sister, Lila, says that she’d like to go with them. Punch warms up to Skeeter when he finds out that he participates in dolphin watches run by Duke University because he loves dolphins, although he considers Skeeter a bit of a know-it-all.

When Punch tries to ask Skeeter if he plans to work with the dolphin researchers when he grows up, Skeeter becomes oddly touchy. Punch mentions it to his father, and his father explains that nobody in Skeeter’s family has been to college before. His father is a carpenter, and it isn’t expected that Skeeter will attend college, either. Punch’s father points out that it must be difficult for Skeeter to want something that he doubts he’ll ever be able to get.

Punch is particularly interested in an old house nearby where Blackbeard once lived. He tries to persuade Skeeter to come with him and Tom to check it out, but Skeeter warns them not to go there. For one thing, that house is owned by somebody who wouldn’t like them trespassing, and for another, Skeeter is firmly convinced that the house is haunted by the ghost of Blackbeard. Lila says she doesn’t know why the boys are so interested in Blackbeard because he was a horrible person who killed people and “used women” (no details given, but you get the idea). Punch’s main interest is the stories about Blackbeard’s hidden treasure. He wants to be the one to find it.

The boys go by Blackbeard’s old house, now called Hammock House, and they’re started by the sound of something hitting the roof and dropping down to the ground. When Punch picks up the small object, he discovers that it’s a small plastic skull with glittering red eyes. It’s startling, but it doesn’t seem likely that a real pirate ghost would toss them a plastic skull. Tom thinks maybe it’s some kind of warning, but Punch thinks that Skeeter probably tossed the little toy skull in the air when they weren’t looking, just to scare them.

Punch eventually persuades Skeeter to help him and Tom search for the treasure by pointing out to him that he would be able to afford college if they found Blackbeard’s treasure. He sees how badly Skeeter wants to go to college when Skeeter jumps on the project, bringing along a metal detector and helping the other boys dig and do research. At first, Punch just thought of the project as a fun summer adventure, but when he realizes what a big difference it would make to Skeeter to really find the treasure, the hunt becomes much more serious. Punch knows that searching for the treasure is a long shot, and it would be disappointing if they never found anything. Since it will be several more years before Skeeter will be old enough for college, they don’t have to succeed this summer, and the boys discuss making it an annual project every summer.

To make the most of this summer, they want to spend some time camping out and searching for treasure. Punch’s mother is reluctant to let the boys do that until Lila says that she’ll go with them. Lila knows that the boys are searching for treasure, and she encourages them to get into the mindset of being pirates as much as possible.

While the boys are using a metal detector, they find an old metal box. The contents don’t look like pirate treasure, but they appear to be someone’s treasure. There’s an old Bible, some jewelry, and a couple of tarnished silver baby spoons. On one hand, the boys are pleased to have found something, but on the other, it’s not as grand as what they had hoped to find. Lila says that the jewelry could be valuable, and the boys think that the local historical society might be interested in the old Bible. Skeeter explains that there used to be an old whaling community in the area they’re searching, but it was often damaged by storms. He says people sometimes buried valuables, knowing that their homes could be damaged or destroyed by storms. He figures that the owner of this particular box could have been killed in one of the storms, which is why he never returned for his box. They find some other boxes that appear to have been lost in a shipwreck, including one with spices and one with bottles of alcohol, but none of them are what they’re really looking for.

More and more, Punch becomes convinced that the only place where they should be looking for Blackbeard’s treasure is around his old house. He finally persuades Tom and Skeeter to come with him and have a look.

However, the house doesn’t seem as empty as the boys assumed it would be. Punch’s dog seems afraid of the house, and they still don’t know where the little plastic skull came from. Then, the boys hear a frightening scream, like the screams of a girl who was supposedly murdered by Blackbeard years ago. Is the house really haunted?

My Reaction and Spoilers

For most of the book, the boys are doing things like watching the dolphins, camping out, and digging for treasure in various places. The question of whether or not Blackbeard’s old house is haunted is the main mystery of the story, but the story doesn’t really become about that until almost the end of the book. Punch has the little skull to puzzle over before that, but it isn’t until the boys return to Hammock House to look for buried treasure that they become truly concerned with the ghosts that seem to be haunting the place.

There is a logical explanation behind the hauntings, at least some of them, making this the kind of Scooby-Doo Pseudo-Ghost Story that I always liked as a kid. In a way, this story is also a kind of MacGuffin story. It’s not so much what the kids find as the adventures that they have during the search that are important. The boys’ fathers understand because they later confess that they also hunted for Blackbeard’s treasure when they were young. It seems that, even though Punch thinks of his professorial father as being very different from him, when he was young, he was much the same sort of boy that Punch is now. Skeeter’s dreams of studying marine biology also do not depend on finding Blackbeard’s treasure. When his father finds out that’s what Skeeter really wants to do, he’s supportive, and Punch’s father, as a professor, offers some useful advice about scholarships.

There is some alcohol use in the book. There is a part of the story where the boys find a box with old liquor bottles and drink the contents, pretending like they’re pirates drinking rum. The boys get drunk and make themselves sick, and when Lila catches them, she lectures them about how they could have died. My first thought was that only an idiot drinks from random bottles that they just find. Even though they thought they were probably whiskey bottles, “probably” doesn’t seem good enough to just start drinking it. Also, Lila is right that they could have killed themselves from drinking too much. It is possible to die from alcohol poisoning by drinking way too much liquor of any kind all in one sitting, as kids they would be hit much harder than full-sized adults, and not having any prior experience with alcohol, they have no sense of their own limits. I’ve heard of college parties where people have died from alcohol overdose because they were new to drinking, didn’t know when they were going too far, and were in an environment where people were encouraging drinking to excess rather than learning restraint. What I’m saying is that the boys were in real danger because they were too young and inexperienced to understand the danger they were in. Fortunately, the boys learn their lesson without any lasting harm, and making themselves sick means that they’re unlikely to make the same mistake again.

The Secret of Skeleton Island

The Three Investigators

The Secret of Skeleton Island by Robert Arthur, 1966.

In the original editions of The Three Investigators, their cases were introduced by Alfred Hitchcock. Later editions of the books were rewritten to remove Alfred Hitchcock, but I’m using the version of this book that includes Alfred Hitchcock for my review.

At the beginning of the story, Alfred Hitchcock himself brings the boys a new mystery and an acting job. Of the three boys, only Jupiter has done any acting before. However, Alfred Hitchcock knows that Pete’s father is a movie technician and that he’s working on a new suspense film. When Hitchcock speaks to the boys, Pete’s father is helping to restore an old amusement park on an island off the southeast coast of the United States that will be used in the movie. The name of the island is Skeleton Island because it’s shaped like a skull, and other formations around it look like part of a skeleton. It was once a place where pirates hid out. Sometimes, people still find buried bones there, and the island is supposedly haunted. The problem is that someone has been stealing equipment from the movie company and sabotaging their boats. Hitchcock wants the boys to discover who is behind the theft and sabotage. As their cover for the investigation, the boys can take part in a short film being shot at the same location, about a group of boys searching for pirate treasure.

When the boys arrive at Skeleton Island, they hear about the Phantom of the Merry-Go-Round. Supposedly, years before, there was a girl who was riding the merry-go-round at the amusement park when there was a terrible storm. The girl, Sally, refused to get off the merry-go-round with everyone else, and she was killed when the merry-go-round was struck by lightning. Since then, the merry-go-round supposedly runs by itself, and Sally’s ghost rides it. The amusement park has been abandoned for years, but people still report seeing Sally’s ghost and the running merry-go-round.

The man who was supposed to bring the boys to the island, Sam, maroons them in the wrong place at night during a storm. They are rescued by Chris, a young diver who originally came from Greece, who was hoping to get work in the movie industry and is currently looking for treasure because he needs money to help his father. He says that he has sailed the area many times in his boat, and he tells the boys the legend of the pirate who was executed there, Captain One Ear. Nobody was able to find his treasure, and he went to his execution saying that Davy Jones had it. People have believed that the treasure is lost at sea, dumped overboard by Captain One Ear, and occasionally, a gold doubloon washes up on shore on the island, which seems to indicate that’s what happened. (ch 3)

As the boys approach the island with Chris, they see what looks like the lights of the merry-go-round with a pale figure among the horses. It looks like a girl in a white dress, and they hear the music of the merry-go-round. The Three Investigators want to go see the ghost and investigate, but Chris refuses. Instead, he takes the boys to the boarding house in town.

When the boys tell Pete’s father and the other movie people about their night’s adventures, they learn that Sam is known as a local prankster and troublemaker, and he’s been in trouble with the law before. Could he be behind the thefts, sabotage, and apparent hauntings? Some people suspect Chris because he’s a foreigner, local people don’t trust outsiders, and everyone knows that Chris needs money for his father, who has health problems. Maybe he could be stealing from the movie company to get money. On the other hand, the movie people are suspicious of some of the local fishermen. Some of the local people suspect that the movie people are secretly looking for pirate treasure instead of making a movie. Then, the boys learn about a robbery that took place in the area years before and are told that the robbers have recently been released from prison. It seems like there’s no end of suspicious people!

The Three Investigators think that the culprit behind everything is someone who was to drive away the movie company and keep people off the island. Who could that be, and what is there on the island that someone wants to protect?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction

I enjoyed this book because of its abundance of suspects! I kept changing my mind about what was really happening and who was behind it. Because there were several mysterious things happening at once – lost pirate treasure, ghost at a haunted amusement park, sabotage of the movie crew, old robbery with the money never found and the robbers recently released from prison, and suspicious locals suffering from a failing local economy – it occurred to me that there might even be multiple plots being staged by multiple people. There is one main scheme, and it is the one that I thought would be most likely, but there’s plenty of adventure and plot twists along the way. In the end, things are wrapped up neatly without any hanging plot threads.

Mystery of the Haunted Pool

Mystery of the Haunted Pool by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1960.

At the beginning of the story, Susan Price is traveling alone to visit her Aunt Edith. Her father is in the hospital, and her mother and brothers are tending to things at home. Her family wants her to make a good impression on Captain Daniel Teague, who lives in Aunt Edith’s town. Her father’s doctor has advised him to move to the country, where there is less air pollution, and the family would like to move to the small town along the Hudson River where Aunt Edith owns an antique store. However, the only available house that would be big enough for the family would be the Teague house, and Captain Dan hasn’t decided whether to rent or sell his house to them or not. Before Susan arrives, she isn’t sure what’s going on with Captain Dan and the arrangements regarding his house, but it turns out to be a complicated situation involving her aunt’s antique business, the Teague family history, and Captain Dan’s grandson, Gene.

When Susan’s bus reaches the bus stop, Aunt Edith isn’t there to meet her, so she walks to her aunt’s store. Aunt Edith apologizes for not meeting her. The reason why she didn’t is that a woman named Altoona was hanging around her shop, and she didn’t want to leave Altoona there alone. Lately, Altoona has been acting suspiciously, snooping around the shop as though she’s looking for something but doesn’t want anyone to know. Aunt Edith doesn’t know what Altoona is looking for, but it’s making her nervous. In particular, Altoona seems interested in a barrel of old books that Aunt Edith is selling on commission for Captain Dan, but Aunt Edith doesn’t want her looking through them until she’s had a chance to examine them herself.

Aunt Edith says that she’s known Altoona since they were children. Altoona was raised by her father and an older sister, both of whom were strict and unloving. Altoona led a very restricted life until her father and sister both drowned in a boating accident. Since then, Altoona has been indulging herself by spending her inheritance on antiques. However, rather than being a good customer of Aunt Edith’s, Altoona has turned into competition. She seems to delight in trying to beat Aunt Edith to some fascinating antique. Altoona seems to be on the trail of some new discovery, but Aunt Edith doesn’t want to give her the chance to poach something that might be right under her nose in her own shop.

Since Aunt Edith’s husband died years before, she’s been living in a back room of her shop. With her brother and his family wanting to move to the country, she’s planning on helping them get a house and living there with them. Aunt Edith has her eye on a particular house owned by Captain Daniel Teague, but he’s been reluctant to sell, which is why it would help if Susan made a good impression on him. Captain Dan has been living in a big old house with his grandson, Gene, but it’s an expensive house to maintain for just the two of them. He’s been considering renting it to Susan’s family with an option for them to purchase it later. However, he’s been dragging his feet on making a final decision because he wants to make sure that he approves of the Price family and that Aunt Edith won’t sell any of the antique furnishings from the house in her shop without permission. Also, Gene is upset at the idea of moving, and Captain Dan is concerned about Gene.

Aunt Edith explains that Gene is just a little older than Susan and that he was injured in an accident a couple of years before. He was hit by a car, and he’s been in and out of the hospital for treatment. Even now, his leg is stiff, and he has to wear a brace. Susan witnesses his frustration when she watches him trying to play basketball alone the first time she meets him. She can tell that he’s been trying really hard to overcome his disability, but things are still very hard for him. Susan is touched by Gene’s struggles and his stubborn efforts to succeed. She also discovers that he has strength and coordination in his arms, even though his left leg is very weak. When she asks Gene to teach her how to shoot baskets so she can impress one of her older brothers, she begins to realize that sometimes Gene tries too hard, and it makes his situation harder on him. When he gets tense, he has more trouble than when he’s relaxed.

Gene confesses to Susan that he feels guilty about being hit by the car, not only because he got hurt but because of what it’s done to his family. He admits that it was his fault for not looking more carefully before crossing a nearby highway. He feels terrible because his grandfather has spent most of his savings to pay for the hospital and doctors’ bills, and his mother had to get a job in New York City to pay the rest. Gene’s reluctance to move out of the family’s old home is that he knows how much his grandfather loves it, and he would feel even more terrible if his family lost the house because of his careless accident. The two of them seem to be getting along until Susan tries to climb a nearby rock, and Gene angrily tells her not to.

Captain Dan turns out to be a nice man. He’s called Captain because he used to be a river boat captain. He comes from a long line of sailors. When Susan tells him about meeting Gene and how Gene got angry at her for trying to climb a rock, Captain Dan tells her not to try too hard to accommodate Gene and his moods. He says that Gene’s biggest improvements have only come recently, when he started pushing Gene to work harder to improve. He thinks that Gene was a bit coddled up to that point and that he was too discouraged by the doctors’ predictions about what he wouldn’t be able to do anymore without really trying to test his limits and see what he could do for himself. In a way, Captain Dan is actually in favor of the Prices moving into their big family home because he knows that Susan has brothers. He thinks that having other boys around will be good for Gene, getting him to participate in more activities and push himself a little more.

One thing that’s making Captain Dan hesitate is the idea of having Aunt Edith in his house. He admits that he finds it difficult to say no to her when she wants something, and she’s been urging him to let her sell some of his old things in her shop. He’s concerned about what she might talk him into parting with next if she were living in his house. When Gene finds out that Aunt Edith talked his grandfather into parting with that barrel of old books, he gets angry again and talks back to his grandfather.

Susan is surprised at Gene’s rudeness and disrespect, but his grandfather says that part of that comes from Gene not liking himself much right now. Because Gene is unhappy with and disparaging of himself, he’s unhappy and disparaging with everyone. That’s part of why Captain Dan has been pushing Gene to improve himself, to give him more confidence and self-respect because he will see that he still has the ability to improve. Captain Dan also realizes that Gene has an intense attachment to their family home and family heirlooms because he takes more pride in their family’s history than in himself, thinking that he’ll never be able to be proud of himself now. Aunt Edith says that Gene’s father, a pilot who died in a crash, was also a decorated pilot during WWII. When Gene was younger, before he was injured, he was a much more active boy, and his father was proud of him for it. Aunt Edith thinks that Gene worries that his father would be ashamed if he saw his current condition.

Susan likes Captain Dan for his kindness and understanding of Gene. She’s not sure how much help her brothers would be with Gene, though. Her brother Adam, the closest in age to Gene, probably wouldn’t have much patience with a boy like him. That’s probably why Susan’s family decided that Susan would be the best person to break the ice with Captain Dan and Gene.

Susan tells Captain Dan that she saw Altoona watching the house when she came up to see him, and he says that he knows about Altoona’s obsession with antiques. He’s not sure what Altoona is looking for, but he thinks it must be some kind of antique. Mrs. Bancroft, Captain Dan’s housekeeper, says that the family has a secret. Aunt Edith says that rumor has been around their small town for years, but she doesn’t know what sort of secret it’s supposed to be, and with a town full of people who all know each other and each other’s family history, she can’t imagine what could still be secret about the Teague family.

Then, Susan finds an old ship’s log book in the bottom of the barrel of books that Aunt Edith got from Captain Dan. It’s the log book for the Flying Sarah, the ship that one of the Teague ancestors sailed. Aunt Edith returns the log book to Gene because she knows it must be a family heirloom, more valuable to the Teague family than anyone else. However, Gene is still sore about Aunt Edith having the barrel of books, and Susan catches him sneaking into the shop one night while Aunt Edith is out. He says that he wants one of the books, but he refuses to say which one he wants or why. Susan thinks that Gene knows more about his family’s secret than he’s telling and that his concern about the books has something to do with it. It seems like Gene may be on the trail of the same thing Altoona is searching for, but what is it? Captain Dan also seems to know, but he tells Gene in Susan’s presence that it doesn’t matter.

Susan gets a hint from Altoona when Altoona tells her that the old Teague house is haunted by the ghost of Sarah Teague, the wife of the captain who sailed the Flying Sarah, which was named for her. Altoona says that Sarah’s husband was murdered on the Flying Sarah and that Sarah took over the family’s shipping business after his death. Then, Sarah drowned in the little pool in the woods near their house. Altoona says that Sarah promised to come back and haunt the house if things didn’t go her way, but what does that mean?

Susan does some research in an old book about ships and discovers that the captain of the Flying Sarah had been carrying a valuable shipment of jewels for a friend when the ship was attacked by pirates. He died from the wounds he received from the pirates, and the pirates apparently took the jewels along with other valuable objects from the ship. After her husband’s death, Sarah Teague insisted on taking responsibility for the lost jewels and repaying the owner for their loss, which was financially crippling for the family. The book also repeats the story about Sarah Teague haunting the old family home. Soon after Susan and Aunt Edith move into the Teague house, someone break in during the night, apparently looking for something. Susan goes to look at the pool where Sarah drowned and thinks that she sees a strange face looking back at her from the water. What message from the past does Sarah Teague have for them, and what secret has the Teague family been hiding for generations?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

For much of the book, the exact nature of the Teague family secret is a mystery to Susan, although readers can probably make a pretty good guess at what Susan eventually finds. Part of the difficulty is that the Teagues themselves don’t seem to quite understand what they really have. They know part of the secret, but only part of it. When Susan discovers the rest, it changes things for Captain Dan and Gene. Susan’s brother, Adam, helps Susan with the mystery for part of the book, but Susan is the one who makes the final discovery.

Altoona is kind of a rival/antagonist for solving the mystery, but not an evil one. She appears to be going through a kind of finding herself phase since the deaths of her father and sister. Her family was repressive, so for the first time in her life, she is taking advantage of opportunities to get involved with community activities and indulge her own whims. She dresses in strange ways because she’s trying out all of the things her father and sister would have never allowed her to wear when she was younger. She volunteers at the local library, but she has trouble deciding which books to recommend to the children who visit the library because she’s never read many of them herself. When Susan suggests to her that she should read some of the children’s books herself so she’ll know what they’re like and what they’re about, Altoona balks at the idea of an adult reading children’s books at first. However, she decides that maybe Susan is right, and when she tries some of the children’s books that Susan recommends, she says that she likes them.

Altoona’s pursuit of the Teague family secrets isn’t malicious. It seems to come from her newfound sense of independence and adventure. Figuring out the old mysteries of the Teague family is a sort of personal challenge for her and something that has fascinated her for her entire life, a fascination that she is now free to indulge. She almost messes things up by taking something that doesn’t belong to her, but it turns out to be an innocent mistake because of something Gene did, and she makes things right in the end. Altoona also comes up with a solution to the Price family’s housing problem. She says that she’s always wanted to travel, and at Adam’s encouragement, she’s decided to take an extended international trip for a year or so. While she’s away, she rents her house to the Price family so the Teague family can have their house to themselves again.

The book mainly focuses on self-discovery for Gene as a side plot to the story. At the end of the book, Gene’s problems aren’t completely solved, but he has become more reconciled to his condition and has a better understanding of things he can and can’t do because of the children’s adventures. By learning to get along with Susan and Adam, Gene becomes more ready to face other people and their reactions to his disability. When things improve for him and his family, he also seems less inclined to keep beating himself up over his accident. Things aren’t perfect for him at the end, and he’s probably never going to have completely normal use of his bad leg again. Still, there are signs that he’s mending, both physically and emotionally, and that things will get easier for him.

I like books that mention other books. In this book, the barrel of books that Aunt Edith gets from Captain Dan includes classics, like Little Women and Treasure Island. There are also books by Washington Irving, Gene Stratton Porter (known for A Girl of the Limberlost), and Harold Bell Wright and some “novels about an imaginary kingdom called Graustark.” These are all real authors and books. Aunt Edith says that some of them aren’t old enough to be considered real antiques, but this book was written more than 60 years, so modern standards would be different. Part of the story also includes books that have hidden pictures drawn on the fore-edges of the pages, which can only be seen when the pages are held at an angle. This type of fore-edge drawing or painting is something that can be found in real antique books.

There’s a Body in the Brontosaurus Room!

Our Secret Gang

There’s a Body in the Brontosaurus Room! by Shannon Gilligan, 1992.

This is the last book in the Our Secret Gang series. This story takes place in a museum, and at the beginning of the book, there are maps of the interior of the museum, which help in keeping track of the action. Members of the detective gang in the story take turns narrating different books, and this one is narrated by Davey.

The fifth and sixth grade classes at the kids’ elementary school are having a camp-in at the Museum of Science in Boston. When the kids are getting on the school bus, Tim notices that a teacher is reading a copy of a newspaper with an article that says the police have received a tip that there will be a jewel robbery at the museum they’re visiting because there is a visiting exhibition of valuable gems. The kids think that they may have found the next case for their detective gang, and they’re glad that they brought some of their equipment with, like their walkie-talkies.

When they stop for dinner at a pizza place, they learn that students from Longmeadow Middle School will be joining them for the camp-in at the museum. By coincidence, Jeanine knows one of the boys from Longmeadow, Jeremy, because she takes horseback riding lessons from his mother. Jeremy ends up joining the others for dinner. Even though Davey rolls his eyes at his little sister’s jokes that Jeanine is his girlfriend, he feel unexpectedly jealous at the way Jeanine blushes around Jeremy.

While they’re having dinner, Tim notices a boy who is all by himself and crying. Jeremy says that he’s a new boy at his school named Matthew. Kids have been trying to make friends with Matthew, but Matthew never seems interested.

As they’re getting ready to leave, Jeanine makes plans to meet up with Jeremy and hang out at the museum. Davey gets angry because he wants the whole gang to investigate their possible mystery, and he doesn’t want Jeremy being forced on the group. Davey and Jeanine have an argument about his jealousy, and Jeanine separates from the group at the museum to hang out with Jeremy. Davey worries that this will split up Our Secret Gang or at least that they’ll lose Jeanine.

To make matters worse, Davey sees Mr. Berrar, the headmaster of the special school for science and mathematics that his parents and school principal wanted him to attend, at the museum because he is one of the museum trustees. Davey’s secret is that he is a genius at mathematics, and his parents and school principal wanted to send him to a special high school, skipping multiple grades, even though he didn’t feel ready to do that. Davey managed to persuade his parents that he would be happier remaining in a normal school with his friends, but he dreads other kids finding out and teasing him for being a nerd.

While Davey and the other kids are looking at the gem exhibit and talking about the security features they’ve noticed, still considering whether someone could be planning to rob the museum, Davey spots Jeremy in an area that’s marked “Private-Museum Staff Only.” What is he doing, sneaking around an off-limits area?

The rest of the detective gang, minus Jeanine, solves a small mystery for a girl from another school who lost her retainer, Lorraine. It only earns them $3 in detective fees, but Davey decides to hang out with Lorraine for a while and see if Jeanine gets jealous of them like he was of Jeanine and Jeremy, which she does. Davey thinks it’s only fair that Jeanine feel some of what he’s been feeling, and since she’s been giving him the cold shoulder and not helping with the detective activities of the group or joining her friends in looking at the exhibits, she deserves it.

Just as all the students are getting ready for bed, a girl starts screaming that there’s a body in the brontosaurus room! She says that it was lying right underneath the dinosaur, but when everyone rushes to look, it’s gone. Then, Matthew apparently has an attack of appendicitis and is taken away in an ambulance. Something about the ambulance strikes the kids have peculiar, but they have trouble thinking what it is at first. By the time they realize what was wrong, things have already started happening in the museum. The guards are missing, and security devices have been turned off. It seems that the robbery rumors were true. What can the kids do to stop it?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

I first read this book as a kid, and one of the things I liked about it most was the title. I still think about when I’m at a museum with dinosaur exhibits. I never went on one of those camp-ins at a museum when I was a kid, but it’s something that I would have liked, especially if there was a mystery involved!

The romantic bickering in the story is juvenile, but I remember similar incidents from when I was about the age of the kids in the story. Some adults still do things like the kids in the book do, like seeming to flirt with someone else to make a partner jealous and get their attention. It’s never a good idea. It just adds another person to an already-complicated and highly emotional situation without resolving whatever was behind the initial problem.

As an adult, I thought that Jeanine was a little thoughtless and rude for ditching her friends to hang out with a guy she seems to have a crush on. When you already have plans with a group of people, suddenly tossing them aside to make plans with someone else and ignore them is rude. However, Davey’s jealousy and possessiveness is also inappropriate, and his behavior is part of the reason why Jeanine broke off from her usual group instead of just having her other friend join them. If Davey had either allowed Jeanine’s friend to join their activities or simply told Jeanine that he was hurt that she seemed to be abandoning the group and their latest project to pay attention to this other guy, his behavior would have been more reasonable. Part of the problem with simply inviting a new member on short notice is the secret nature of the group. To invite Jeremy to join them, the whole group would really have to agree on it, and that’s difficult in the public setting of the story. I think Jeanine should be a little more aware of the awkwardness of the situation because she knows why their group and its activities are secret, but it still doesn’t excuse Davey’s behavior. A large part of the problem is that Davey hasn’t given much thought to his real feelings about Jeanine, and he’s having trouble coping with the realization that he feels more strongly about her than he’s been willing to admit. The two of them sort things out when they have an honest talk with each other about their feelings.

One of the things that I particularly remembered about this book was the controversy over whether the brontosaurus is really an apatosaurus. Some of the thinking about the brontosaurus has changed in recent years.

The Haunted Swamp

Our Secret Gang

The Haunted Swamp by Shannon Gilligan, 1991.

This is the second book in the Our Secret Gang series. Members of the detective gang in the story take turns narrating different books, and this one is narrated by Nancy. After having solved their first mystery in the previous book, the kids are organizing their detective club and discussing how to advertise their services. Then, Jason’s younger brothers and their friend, Kenny, bring them their next case.

Kenny tells them that he saw a ghost near the old, abandoned train yard. He says that he saw something white dart into the swamp near the train yard. He was riding the school bus at the time, and other kids on the bus saw it, too. Jason thinks that the kids probably just saw some swamp gas, but the rest of the gang decides to check it out anyway.

When they explore the area around the train yard, Nancy and Jason find someone’s camp site. Their first thought is that the “ghost” is just someone who’s been camping out in the area. However, when they bring their friends back to the camp site the next day, there is weirdly no sign of the camp fire they saw and no sign that anyone has been camping there recently. It seems weird that an entire camp site could vanish so completely in just a day. However, there is definitely someone hanging around the old train yard because someone lets the air out of the kids’ bike tires, and Nancy later realizes that the shades in the old station house where down, when they weren’t before.

Then, there an announcement at school that an elderly local man suffering from Alzheimer’s has disappeared, apparently wandered off. The fifth and sixth graders are recruited to help with the search for him. He is eventually found near the train yard, leading the kids to think that maybe the “ghost” was the old man, wandering around.

They soon realize that it wasn’t the old man when some of the kids see the ghost again after the old man is found and returned home. Is there someone else hiding out around the old train yard, or could it really be a ghost?

Meanwhile, Nancy has noticed that her parents are behaving oddly. They invite a woman Nancy has never met before to dinner, and they seem to be keeping secrets. Secrets are no stranger to Our Secret Gang because everyone in the club has a secret. Nancy’s is that she was adopted and very few people know. Could this mysterious stranger and her parents’ secrets have something to do with her adoption?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. In the back of the book, there are instructions for making plaster casts of footprints and how to analyze footprints, which the characters didn’t do themselves in the book. It’s more that books in this series include instructions for detective skill activities.

My Reaction

This mystery is the kind that I like to call Pseudo-Ghost Stories, mysteries of the Scooby-Doo variety, where there seem to be ghosts, but there are actually logical explanations for everything.

I first read this book when I was a kid, and I remember being intrigued by the secrets of the club members and Nancy’s sudden discovery that she was adopted. I think it’s common for kids to imagine what would happen if they suddenly made a discovery like that. Nancy’s discovery of her adoption happened when she and her parents first moved to the town of Millerton from Boston, so she’s know about it for a little while but not very long. When Nancy’s parents begin acting oddly and have a guest to their house who identifies herself as a nun and also seems to be a social worker, Nancy worries about what they’re keeping from her. I thought the answer was pretty obvious, and I don’t think that it stumped me for very long when I was kid, either, because Nancy even says at the beginning of the story that she’s always wanted a younger sibling.

I don’t think that her parents should have been so mysterious with her because their secret-keeping before about her adoption caused her some hard feelings, and I don’t think that there’s a good reason to keep her in the dark when they’re thinking of making a major change in their family. They say that it’s because they didn’t want her to get her hopes up because adoptions take a long time to arrange. It sounds like a realistic explanation; I just don’t think it’s the best idea. Nancy’s parents could have used the long process of the adoption of a younger sibling for Nancy to show Nancy what they went through when they adopted her and how much they wanted her because they were willing to go through the long process to get her, which could help her better understand her own past and what she means to her parents. In the end, Nancy does come to those realizations, and she also realizes that is a large part of the reason that her parents have been overprotective of her. She also realizes that the adoption of a new child will mean that her secret about her adoption will probably be revealed, but she decides that it’s okay. Her mother admits that her reluctance to reveal Nancy’s adoption had to do with her own unresolved feelings about her own adoption as a child, but she has been working through them.

As another small point that I found interesting in the story, when Nancy makes the flyers for their detective club, she uses press-type letters. I used to have some myself that I used for labeling things with my name. They’re also called dry transfers or rub-ons. They’re decals with pressure-sensitive adhesive on a piece of backing material. To apply them, you lay them face down on the object where you want them to be and rub the backing with something. The pressure activates the adhesive, and they stick.

Frindle

Frindle by Andrew Clements, 1996.

Nick is a creative boy in elementary school who is known for pulling elaborate stunts, like turning his classroom into a tropical paradise with fake trees and real sand. When he gets to fifth grade, he has Mrs. Granger as his language arts teacher. Mrs. Granger has a sense of humor about some things, but she also has some strict rules and is all business when it comes to her specialist subject. Her vocabulary lists for her students are extensive, and her favorite thing is the unabridged dictionary. Nick likes words and enjoys reading, but he finds the dictionary to be boring. When he sees a word he doesn’t know, he would rather ask someone else what it means than look it up in the dictionary.

In most classes, Nick is good at asking teachers questions to sidetrack them from assigning homework. The other kids know he does this, so they aren’t surprised when he asks Mrs. Granger about her big unabridged dictionary and where all the words in it come from. Unfortunately, for Nick, Mrs. Granger is also onto his trick, and rather than answering the question herself, she assigns Nick to look up the answer and tell the rest of the class what he’s learned the next day in addition to his usual homework assignment. Nick is upset because he usually doesn’t have much homework at all, and now, he has to do more.

When Nick gets home, he reads about dictionaries in his encyclopedia, but he’s not sure that he understand everything he’s read, and it all sounds terribly dull. Then, Nick gets one of his creative ideas that he thinks will make this boring assignment more fun. When it’s time for Nick to give his report, even he is surprised at how much he has to say about the dictionary. Mrs. Granger loves his report, although even she tries to cut Nick short when he goes on for too long. Although the other kids were initially bored, they begin to enjoy Nick’s report when they realize that he is actually using it to waste an entire class period. Eventually, Mrs. Granger tells Nick that he’s at a good stopping place in his report, and she praises him for all of his work. Nick, annoyed that she’s making him look like a teacher’s pet, decides to ask one more question. He says that he still doesn’t understands who decides what the meanings of words are, like who decided that the word “dog” refers to a dog. Mrs. Granger tells him that everyone who speaks English does. Words mean whatever the people who use them agree that they mean. People who speak other languages use different words to refer to the same animal, but those words are valid to them because they all agree on the meaning of the words.

Then, Mrs. Granger says something that really starts Nick thinking. She says that if everyone in their classroom decided that they wanted to call a dog by some other word, and they got other English-speaking people to agree on it, that word would come to mean “dog.” If enough people agreed to use their new word and agreed on its definition, the new word would be put into the dictionary. To answer Nick’s original question, people who speak a language determine the words of that language and whether they are included in the dictionary. Mrs. Granger adds that the dictionary is the work of many experts over many years, and there are good reasons why each of the words included in the dictionary are there. The dictionary contains the laws of the English language, and while those laws can change, it takes time.

Later, when Nick is walking home with his friend Janet, Janet finds a fancy pen. Nick thinks about what Mrs. Granger said about how people like him, who use a language everyday, decide what words mean. It reminds him how, when he was little, he used to use a baby word that his family understood meant “music.” He had to give up using that word when he went to preschool because nobody outside of his family understood that word, but Nick understands how the word had meaning in his family because they all understood what Nick meant when he used it. While he’s thinking about it, he bumps into Janet, who drops the pen. On impulse, when Nick gives the pen back to her, he decides to give the pen a new name. He calls it a “frindle.”

At first, Janet is confused about what Nick means by “frindle.” It’s the beginning of a new experiment for Nick. Out of curiosity, Nick tries to see if he can teach a saleslady at a local store that the word “frindle” means “pen.” He goes to the store and asks for a frindle, pointing to the pens. Then, he gets some of his friends to do the same thing. After several kids all ask the same lady for a “frindle”, she begins to respond to it by automatically reaching for a pen. Nick is excited because he has just created a new word. “Frindle” now means pen because he decided that it did, and he got other people to agree on the meaning. Nick is making language history!

To make sure his word becomes part of language, Nick gets his friends to use the word “frindle” instead of “pen” at school … in Mrs. Granger’s class. Mrs. Granger isn’t amused by the class’s excessive use of the word “frindle” for pen because she knows that this is another of Nick’s stunts, and it’s a distraction from school lessons. She tries to discourage Nick from promoting it at school, and Nick points out that he’s only doing what she said about how words are made. Mrs. Granger explains how words in language evolved from other words that also have meaning, but “frindle” doesn’t have that kind of evolution because Nick just made it up, based on nothing. Nick insists that “frindle” means something to him and his friends, and they’ve already sworn an oath to each other to keep using it.

To Nick’s surprise, Mrs. Granger responds by showing him a sealed envelope. She tells him that it’s a letter for him, but she doesn’t want him to read it now. The letter is for him after the question of “frindle” is resolved. For now, she just wants Nick to sign the envelope and date it so that he’ll know what she hasn’t switched envelopes or tampered with the letter in any way. Nick is confused, but he does sign the envelope, and Mrs. Granger mysteriously says, “And may the best word win.” It seems like Mrs. Granger is declaring a war of words, pen vs frindle, but are Nick and Mrs. Granger really on opposite sides?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

This is a fun and humorous story that does a great job of showing how languages evolve and the purpose and meaning of language. Nick and his friends unwittingly give themselves an education during the course of their stunt. The reason why Nick had to sign and date the envelope is that Mrs. Granger is also enjoying their experiment, and she has made a prediction about how it will all turn out. Anyone who has ever had to deal with a small child who has learned a bad word can guess what Mrs. Granger has realized and how her own actions are calculated to make sure she gets the result she really wants.

Something that not even Nick fully reckons with until his experiment is well underway is that, now that all of the kids at school know about “frindle”, he can’t stop them all from using the word, even if he wants to. Although Nick originally created the word, words in a language belong to everyone who uses them. This is both a thought-provoking book about the nature of words and language and a good story for stopping periodically and having kids make their own predictions about what will happen next.

Even kids have power because they are also language-users, and they have the ability to influence the language and understanding of everyone around them by the words they choose! Nick is very much an idea person, but after “frindle” starts getting so much national media attention, he starts to get intimidated by the level of power he has. He has become more conscious of the consequences of his ideas and how they can affect large numbers of people. For a time, he becomes more shy because of that realization, but Mrs. Granger gives him some encouragement. She tells him that he has many good ideas and that she’s sure he will go on to do great things with them. Nick regains his confidence and realizes that he can use his powers for good, supporting good causes.

Grover Goes to School

Grover Goes to School by Dan Elliott, illustrated by Normand Chartier, 1982.

This nostalgic picture book about a child’s first day of school features Grover, one of the characters from the Sesame Street tv show.

Grover is very exited about his first day at school. He’s ready and has everything he needs, but then, he starts to worry about whether the other kids at school will like him or not. His mother tells him that all he needs to do is be himself, but Grover decides he’s going to try hard to get everyone to like him.

Grover’s attempts to get the other kids to like him cause him to agree to do things that he doesn’t really want to do. When a boy named Truman likes Grover’s nice, new crayons and offers to trade him his old toy truck for the crayons, Grover doesn’t really want to make the trade, but he agrees because he wants Truman to like him.

Then, Grover offers to clean up while the other kids have snack time. Grover does a good job cleaning, but the others forget to save a cookie for him.

The day gets worse with Grover helping the others play jump rope when he doesn’t want to and feeling obligated to trade his lunch for food that he doesn’t want. Finally, Grover bursts into tears

Seeing Grover sad and upset, a girl named Molly asks him what’s wrong. Grover explains everything that’s been happening to her, and she says that she’ll play with him and cheer him up. Molly doesn’t know how to play jacks, which is Grover’s favorite game, but she says that she’d like to learn, and Grover enjoys teaching her.

When a boy named Bill offers to trade his old pencil box for Grover’s nice, new one, Grover decides to say no and keep the pencil box he loves. Grover worries that Bill might be mad at him, but he’s not. Instead, it turns out that Bill also likes jacks.

Making friends with Molly and Bill turns Grover’s day around, and by the time he comes home, he’s feeling much better about school.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

I loved this picture book when I was a kid! I used to watch Sesame Street as a young child, and I liked Grover, who is a shy monster kid who just wants to be friends with other people. In this book, he not only shows little kids how to get used to school on their first day but also teaches a lesson about trying too hard to get people to like you and what it means to be a real friend with someone. Grover realizes that he doesn’t have to do things he doesn’t want to do or give people things to buy their friendship. People still like him even if he sometimes tells them “no.” Like his mother says, he just needs to be himself, and he learns to make friends in ways that are comfortable to him, finding kids who genuinely care about others’ feelings and share common interests.

Two Wheels for Grover

Two Wheels for Grover by Dan Elliott, illustrated by Joe Mathieu, 1984.

Grover is happy about going to visit his aunt, uncle, and cousins in the country, but the visit becomes a little awkward when his cousin Rosie wants him to go bike riding with her. Grover doesn’t know how to ride a bike.

He points out to Rosie that he doesn’t have a bike to ride, but she offers to lend him one. Not wanting to admit that he can’t ride a bike and being too afraid to learn how, Grover keeps making excuses about why he can’t ride a bike.

There are still plenty of other fun things to do with his cousins, but the problem of not being able to ride a bike still bothers Grover. Rosie keeps trying to find ways around Grover’s excuses, and Grover keeps trying to find new ones. Secretly, he wishes that he could ride a bike with Rosie, but he is too afraid that he can’t. Grover’s older cousin Frank points out to him that he loves playing in the tree house now, even though he used to be afraid to climb up to it.

Grover eventually confides in Frank his worries about riding a bike, and Frank understands. Big Bird once tried to teach Grover to ride a bike, but he couldn’t do it then, and he doubts whether he can learn. Frank says that the problem is that Big Bird’s bike was too big for Grover, but he could learn to ride a smaller bike, like Frank’s old one.

Although Grover is still nervous, he lets Frank teach him to ride, and soon, he discovers that he can ride a bike!

Grover learns to ride a bike just in time for Rosie to come and tell them that someone is giving away kittens. Now, Grover can ride over with Rosie to get a kitten for himself!

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. It’s part of a series of picture books with the Sesame Street characters.

My Reaction:

This was a favorite book of mine when I was a kid, even though I found riding a bike much harder than Grover did. Some kids, like me, have more difficulty learning to balance than others, and it was often hard when other kids wanted me to come riding bikes with them when I couldn’t. Learning to ride a bike is one of those rites of passage that most people have during childhood, and it can be difficult for people who take longer to learn.

However, this book focuses on the rewards of perseverance. Just because Grover had trouble the first time he tried to learn to ride a bike doesn’t mean that he can’t do it. Frank understands that Grover is nervous about riding a bike, and it helps that he points out that there are other things that Grover has found difficult before that are now easy and fun for him, like climbing into the tree house. Learning new things can take time and multiple tries, but there are rewards for those who keep trying!