Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

MeMargaretAre You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, 1970.

This is one of the more controversial children’s books because parents raised concerns about the discussions of religion and puberty which are central to the story, and it has been banned or challenged in some libraries.  (Read to the end and see the spoilers before you decide if you agree with that.)

I wouldn’t recommend this book for young children because they wouldn’t understand the issues the story discusses, but it does speak to the concerns that pre-teen girls typically have about growing up, finding their place in the wider world, and fitting in with their friends as well as that haunting fear kids often have that they aren’t normal, compared to everyone else.  This isn’t a spoiler for the story (although there are plenty of those later on because I can’t really describe my thoughts about this book without them), but I just have to say that, in my experience, by the time people are done with college, maybe even by the time they’re done with high school, most of them come to realize that nobody out there is completely “normal.”  Some are just better at giving that impression.  Everyone out there has their quirks or issues, so if you think you’re a little odd in one way or another, or if you think your family is a little weird, you’re in pretty decent company.  Generally, it’s best not to worry too much about it and just get on with life.  In a way, I think that does fit in with the ending of the book.  But, I’ll talk a little more about my personal opinions about the controversial parts later.

When Margaret Simon is eleven years old, her parents decide to move from New York City to a suburb in New Jersey.  Margaret is accustomed to living in an apartment in a big city, and her new town and house seem a little odd to her.  She isn’t sure that she’s going to like her new home, and she knows that part of the reason why her mother wanted them to move was that she was worried that Margaret was becoming too close to her grandmother in New York and too easily influenced by her.

Margaret’s family is a little unusual in that her mother is Christian but her father is Jewish. (This is a little more unusual for when the book was first written than now because marriages of mixed religions are more common now than they were before, although they can still be complicated.)  The religious differences between her parents caused conflicts in their family even before Margaret was born.  Neither side of the family really approved of the match, so Margaret’s parents had to elope to get married.  Margaret’s mother’s parents disowned their daughter because of her marriage and haven’t seen or spoken to the couple in years or met their granddaughter.  However, Margaret’s father’s mother (his father is deceased) continues to spend time with the family, although she admits that it’s mostly for Margaret’s sake.  Margaret’s only close grandparent likes to spoil her and pays for her education at a private Jewish school, which is why her mother has become concerned that Margaret is influenced by her too much.  Margaret’s mother wants some separation so that she and Margaret can become closer as mother and daughter. The move and Margaret’s new friendships in New Jersey raise a number of troubling questions for Margaret about growing up, both physically and spiritually.

Because of the family religious conflicts, Margaret’s parents purposely raised her without a religion, telling her that she could choose for herself when she was old enough.  Until now, Margaret was not terribly concerned about it, but the move, the new friends she makes in New Jersey, and her increasing awareness of how religious differences have influenced her relationships with her family and other people cause her to question the choices she must make and what she really believes.  Throughout the book, she prays frequently in a casual, conversational fashion, telling God about the things that are happening in her life, the questions and problems she has, and what she really wants most.  Sometimes, she gets angry with God or disappointed when things don’t work out well, but the story makes it clear that her relationship with God is evolving, just as Margaret herself is changing as she grows up.  At one point, Margaret worries that, at age twelve, she is too old already to choose a religion and wishes that her parents had just given her one when she was little so she wouldn’t have this uncertainty.  However, growing up is a long process that Margaret is only beginning to appreciate.

The first new friend Margaret makes is a girl her age who lives next door, Nancy.  Nancy is eager to grow up and not at all shy about talking about things like boys, periods, bras, kissing, and even sex.  Sometimes, Nancy talks like she knows a lot about such things, although more mature people (and, eventually, Margaret) would realize that she doesn’t.  She introduces Margaret to two other girls, Gretchen and Janie, and the four of them form a kind of club that they call the Pre-Teen Sensations (PTS for short).  They give themselves secret names and hold meetings, talking about boys, people they know at school, and concerns that they have in their lives, especially related to growing up, periods, and sex (no one has any in the story, but the girls are fascinated by the idea).  One of the requirements of this club is that each of the girls has to wear a bra, and they feel each other’s backs at the beginning of each meeting to make sure.  Up until then, Margaret didn’t have a bra, so she has to buy her first one.  The girls worry about their breast size (none of them has much yet), and they try exercises to see if they can improve it (which is ridiculous, but it is the kind of thing that some pre-teen girls believe).  At the beginning, none of the girls has had their first period yet, and they’re looking forward to it with nervousness and anticipation, wondering what it’s going to be like.  They agree that whoever gets their period first has to tell the others about what it’s like.  Margaret nervously worries that she’ll be the last one to get hers or that she’ll turn out to be “weird” and never have one for some reason, although her mother assures her that it’s not likely and that it’s really just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Margaret has some awkwardness at her new school, getting to know new people, sometimes making mistakes in the ways she relates to others, and figuring out which boys she likes the best. (She doesn’t get a boyfriend, just crushes.)  Her new teacher is also a little awkward because he’s young and this is his first teaching assignment, and he seems self-conscious that male teachers aren’t as common as female teachers.  Even adults can worry about being accepted by others.  He seems to be a good teacher, however, and he asks the students questions about themselves in an effort to get to know them better.  He learns early on that Margaret doesn’t have a religion and that it bothers her.  When he tells the students to choose a topic for a year-long research project into something that they care about, he allows Margaret to choose the topic of religion.

Margaret decides that her project for the year will be to learn about different religions and to finally choose one for herself.  Her focus is mainly on trying to decide between Judaism and Christianity because that’s what the two sides of her families are, that’s what most of the people her community are, and she says at one point that she doesn’t know anyone who is Muslim or Buddhist, so she can’t talk to them about their religions.   People in this community tend to belong either to the local YMCA or the Jewish community center, and Margaret thinks that if she figures out if she should be Christian or Jewish, she’ll be able to join one of those herself and fit in better.  Her friends help her in her project, some of them letting her come to church with them.  Each of the PTS girls is a different religion.  Janie is Jewish, and Nancy and Gretchen each attend a different Christian church.

Margaret’s friends aren’t particularly concerned about which choice Margaret will eventually make.  They find the story of her parents’ elopement romantic and are sympathetic to Margaret’s feelings.  However, Margaret notices that other people react differently to her project.  It seems like some of them view the idea of winning her to their side as some kind of personal victory for them, which hurts because she realizes that this is how her grandparents view her, even her beloved grandmother.  When her mother’s parents decide to visit them for the first time, there is an ugly scene where the family conflicts over religion come to a head, and Margaret feels so overwhelmed that she wants to give up on God and religion completely.  However, Margaret’s story isn’t over yet.  She’s really just started growing up, and whether she believes it or not at first, God hasn’t given up on her.  Getting what she wants most is really just a matter of time and patience.  Everyone grows up eventually.

So, what’s my overall opinion?  Generally favorable.  I read this book when I was about Margaret’s age and had the same concerns she did (or very similar, no two people are alike) and my friends and I were talking about the same kinds of things she and her friends were.  I think the key to this book is age-appropriateness.  Like I said, girls younger than about ten or eleven years old probably would not understand Margaret and her concerns because they just don’t share them.  It’s like Margaret and her friends themselves: they talk about the concerns that they all share, growing up and their new interests in boys and the idea of first periods.  If the reader isn’t a girl at that phase of her life, she just wouldn’t understand and connect with the story, and a few years later, those girls would likely move beyond all of that and on to other concerns (like whether or not they should go to college, what their major or career should be, etc. – life is full of things to figure out).  The things that seem so new and mysterious at age eleven, like real signs of growing up, later won’t matter so much because they’ve already lived it and found out that it’s not such a big deal.  Girls eager to get their first period or start shaving their legs at age twelve because they want to feel grown-up often start thinking of these things as hassles when they’re older and it’s all just become part of the routine of life.  They groan when a period starts on the day they want to go swimming or wear long pants on days when they’re too busy or just don’t want to bother shaving.  The novelty wears off, and you never look at it the same way again.  When older girls and women enjoy this book, it’s mainly as nostalgia for when they were Margaret’s age and still figuring things out.

The reason why this controversial story still remains popular even decades after its original publication is because it pretty accurately captures the thoughts and feelings of that pre-teen phase of life, when girls are just starting to grasp the complexities of life and the changes that lie ahead, alternately worrying about them and eager to get on with it and grow up.  It speaks to girls who are currently in that phase.  Reading it again as an adult, it reminds me of a time when I was in a similar place in life, although part of me now wishes that I could take young Margaret aside and tell her a few things that she eventually will come to realize:

  • That her friends are still finding their own way in life, just like she is, and even the ones who act like they know a whole lot really don’t (especially Nancy).
  • That growing up doesn’t end when you get your first period or even when you hit 18 or 21 because change is a life-long process and people mature at different rates, mentally as well as physically.
  • That many of the questions she’s struggling with are ones that everyone wonders about.  Some of them, like the religious issues and her own identity, are life-long struggles, even for people raised in more religiously-conventional households.  What human being can say that they thoroughly understand God and the mysterious ways in which He works?  It’s a worthwhile struggle, but not one that people resolve with complete certainty, certainly not by age twelve (Margaret’s age at the end of the book).  Margaret is far from being too old to consider these issues.  Philosophers and theologians have spent entire lifetimes on that subject.

But, even if I could say some of those things to young Margaret, they probably wouldn’t help completely because some things just have to be lived to be understood, which is the main reason why I would say banning the book is a mistake.  The issues Margaret deals with in the book are just common issues that come up in daily living, and the questions she asks about what she believes and what’s ahead for her are things that girls think about anyway and talk about with their friends, whether they read about them or not.  There’s no point in trying to get kids to stop thinking about these things because, at some point, they just have to because it’s a part of life, growing up, and the world around them.   Until they do consider some of these issues, it is difficult to move on to other, even more complex aspects of life, so I think it’s better to face them directly when the subjects come up instead of trying to dodge the subjects or put off thinking about them.

I think that Margaret’s elders were somewhat unhelpful in their approaches to Margaret’s religious life.  Her maternal grandparents are clearly selfish in their motives, caring only about winning the argument for their side, not really taking any interest in getting to know Margaret personally or caring about her feelings.  In fact, they only decide that they want to meet Margaret when they realize that she will be their only grandchild by blood, and even then, they make it clear that they expect the relationship to be on their terms alone.  Margaret’s paternal grandmother is better in her approach, nurturing Margaret from an early age in the hopes that she will grow up in the way she thinks best, but she endangers her relationship with her granddaughter when it seems like her previous nurturing and attention had the same selfish motive, wanting to win the argument in the same way that her other grandparents did.  Margaret wants them to like her for the person she is, not for what she might become or the ego boost they might get from her agreeing with their point of view.  Margaret’s parents are more interested in allowing her to develop her religious side on her own terms, loving her no matter what she chooses. However, Margaret might be correct in that they should have started discussing the issue honestly with her earlier in life, being a little too hands-off in order to avoid trying to win the argument or influence her too much one way or the other.

Even if the adults in Margaret’s life aren’t always the most helpful, children also learn the things that they don’t want to do from their elders.  Margaret at age twelve thinks that she’d like to raise any children she might have with a religion early in life so they won’t have to deal with the uncertainty and conflicts that she has, but she still has a lot of growing up to do, so anything can happen in her future.  Margaret’s future children (if any) will depend in equal measure on who Margaret’s eventual husband turns out to be and what he believes.  Life is a long journey, but Margaret seems headed for good things.

Many of Margaret’s growing-up issues will, like her first period, resolve themselves in time, and when she’s more experienced, part of her will look back and wonder why it all seemed so big and serious back then.  But, that’s just the phase of life she has to live through first.  Her religious issues will probably take a lot longer than physically growing up, but I think it’s important for readers to remember (as well as Margaret herself or anyone in a similar position) that Margaret is still young.  At the end of the story, Margaret still doesn’t know what religion she will choose (if any), but she’s still growing and changing, her life is changing, she’s becoming more aware of the larger world, and her mind may change many times with maturity and experience (like how many of us change majors about two or three times in college and then eventually end up in a completely different career).  Anything could happen in her life, and the range of possibilities in her life are part of the real magic of being young.  Because Margaret is a thoughtful person who seriously wants to understand the bigger issues in life, I think that she will probably be okay in the long run and that her personal relationship with God will continue to develop even if she finds it difficult to connect to an established religion.  That might not seem ideal to many people, but Margaret does the best she can with what she has in life, her circumstances and her understanding, and I think that’s a good sign.

Later editions of this book were revised to reflect new details of modern life, including how women and girls handle periods.  I’ve never actually seen the old belt-style of period pads that Margaret describes in the original version of the book, and later versions of the book describe the ones that are common today.

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Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

FourthGradeNothingTales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, 1972.

Fourth-grader Peter Hatcher is being driven crazy by his younger brother, Farley, who everyone calls Fudge because he hates his name.  People think that two-year-old Fudge (he turns three during the book) is cute, and his mother sometimes spoils him or gives in to his tantrums.  To Peter, Fudge is a little terror, and he feels like his parents don’t care as much about him as they do about Fudge.

Most of the book is kind of like a series of short stories about Fudge’s antics which take place over the course of several months.

When Fudge goes through a phase of refusing to eat unless he gets to eat on the floor under the table, like a dog, their mother allows Fudge to get away with it, even patting him like a dog.  Peter thinks that his mother would be better to let Fudge not eat until he gets hungry, and Fudge’s doctor gives her the same advice, but his mother lets Fudge’s behavior continue until their father gets tired of it and dumps a bowl of cereal on Fudge’s head, declaring, “Eat it or wear it!”

Fudge sometimes gets Peter into trouble, too.  Peter’s mother takes them to the park along with Peter’s friend Jimmy and Sheila, a girl they know from school who also lives in the same apartment building as Peter.  Their mother has to run back to the apartment for a moment, so Sheila volunteers to baby-sit Fudge.  Mrs. Hatcher only allows it on the condition that Peter help her.  Of course, Sheila, who is a pest, decides to chase Peter and tease him about having cooties, so no one is watching Fudge until he falls off the playground equipment and knocks out a couple of teeth.  Peter can’t help but notice that he gets more of the blame for that from his mother than Sheila does, even though she was supposed to be the main baby-sitter.

Fudge’s third birthday party is a disaster, with other little kids as messy and troublesome as Fudge himself.  He gets into Peter’s room and messes things up, including a project Peter was working on for school.  For many of Fudge’s antics, Peter is able to laugh about them in the end, but there is frequently frustration at his mother’s inability to stop Fudge from doing some of the things he does or her willingness to put up with them and her seeming favoritism at times for the cute younger sibling.

Then, Fudge does the worst thing he could possibly do and eats Peter’s pet turtle, Dribble, the one he won at his friend Jimmy’s birthday party.  Peter loved Dribble, talking to him throughout the book when he didn’t want to talk to his parents, and while everyone else is concerned for Fudge’s health and giving him presents for getting better, Peter is angry that his pet is now dead and no one seems to care about him . . . or about Peter himself.  Or so Peter thinks.

There is one more present from Peter’s parents and grandmother: a pet that Fudge would never be able to eat, and it’s for Peter alone.

Peter’s parents do care about him, even though they can get so caught up in Fudge’s antics and rescuing Fudge from them that it can be difficult to show it.  Most of the time, Peter is able to laugh with his parents at Fudge’s antics, which are pretty funny, but once in awhile, he also needs them to understand how the things that Fudge does affect him, too.

Reading it again as an adult, I sometimes find myself getting a little annoyed with the mother in the story.  Being a mother of a young child isn’t easy, but Mrs. Hatcher does take out her frustrations on Peter (something she even admits to at one point when he confronts her about blaming him for Fudge’s playground accident and she apologizes), and I take issue with some of her priorities and assumptions about Fudge’s behavior.  Sometimes, it seems like she doesn’t know her own child as well as his brother does and she doesn’t take take pragmatic steps in dealing with him and preventing problems before they start.  At times, I found myself thinking, “She’s making a mistake here.  Does she really not see this coming?”  Admittedly, I’ve read the book before, so I have an advantage, but putting a three-year-old into a suit he hates for his birthday party with other three-year-olds?  Seriously?  Suits are things adults are interested in, not three-year-olds, and many adults try to avoid wearing formal wear whenever they can.  She was trying to dress him up like a doll, not a real small child, and it was more for her sake than for his.  Sometimes, Mrs. Hatcher is reluctant to punish Fudge (admittedly, he is pretty young for most punishments), although she does spank him once when he ruins Peter’s school project, showing that she can stand up to him when it’s important.

Possibly, Peter was a different, calmer child when he was young, and Mrs. Hatcher sometimes expects Fudge to be the same way when he isn’t.  That might also explain the episode when Mr. Hatcher invites a business associate to stay with them for awhile, not considering that not everyone is used to putting up with a young child and some of the chaos that goes with it.

The age difference between Peter and Fudge is also important to the story.  Fudge looks up to Peter and wants to do a lot of the things he can do and have things like the stuff Peter has.  Having two kids with very different ages also makes family life a little harder because the children are in different phases of life and have different needs and interests.

The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo

GreenKangaroo

The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo by Judy Blume, 1981.

Freddy Dissel hates being the middle child in his family. Before his younger sister, Ellen, was born, he had his own room. Now, he has to share with his older brother, Mike. Mike gets new clothes, while Freddy has to wear Mike’s hand-me-downs. Mike and his friends won’t play with Freddy because he’s too little to play their games, and Freddy can’t play with Ellen because she’s too little for him. Freddy hates always being caught in the middle with nothing special to distinguish him from his siblings.

Then, Freddy finds out that there’s going to be a play at his school. Seeing it as his chance to do something special that his siblings haven’t done, he asks his teacher if he can be in it. At first, she tells him that the only kids in the play are older kids, around his brother’s age, but seeing his disappointment, she says that she’ll talk to the teacher in charge of the play, Ms. Matson, and see if there’s a part for him.

When Freddy gets his chance to try out for a part, he demonstrates to Ms. Matson that he can speak up loud and isn’t afraid to hop around on stage in front of everyone. He’s thrilled when she gives him the part of the green kangaroo. Now, his family and everyone else can see him do something that his brother and sister don’t get to do!

GreenKangarooTryOut

Even though he does get a little stage fright right before the performance, working through it and playing his role as the green kangaroo gives Freddy new confidence. From then on, he’s not just Freddy the middle child but Freddy, the one and only green kangaroo!

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash

JimmysBoa

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Trinka Hakes Noble, pictures by Steven Kellogg, 1980.

The fun thing about this story is the backward way that the girl begins telling it, somewhat resembling The House that Jack Built, or better yet, the old No News Joke. The joke is really closer to the format of the story, with someone explaining the least eventful thing that happened as though it were the most important when it was just the end result of everything else.

A young girl (unnamed) arrives home, and her mother asks her how she liked her class trip to a farm that day. She says that it was boring until the cow started crying. When the mother asks her why the cow was crying, she says that the farmer wasn’t paying attention to where he was driving his tractor and knocked a haystack over on the cow.

As the mother continues to ask her daughter questions about what happened, backtracking through events, the real story begins to reveal itself:

The girl’s friend, Jimmy, had a pet boa constrictor, and he brought it along on the field trip so it could meet all the farm animals.

JimmysBoaFieldTrip

However, the chickens became frightened, and one of them laid an egg on one of their classmates. She thought that someone else threw it at her, so she threw another egg at him, which hit yet another student.

JimmysBoaEggs

From there, it turned into one big food fight, with students throwing eggs at each other, and when they ran out of eggs, they threw corn at each other. The corn was for the pigs to eat, so the pigs wandered onto the school bus and started eating the children’s lunches. From there, chaos ensued until the farmer’s wife suddenly screamed, and the children’s teacher hustled the children onto the school bus to go home.

JimmyBoaLeaving

The children never knew exactly why the farmer’s wife screamed (although the reason is actually in the title to the book), but two things quickly became evident: Jimmy accidentally left his boa constrictor behind on the farm, but he has acquired a pet pig because there was still one left on the bus.

This summary doesn’t quite do the story justice because the backwards way the story starts out is part of the fun. The pictures in the book are hilarious, and the boa constrictor is shown at the end to have become a beloved pet of the farmer and his wife, even making friends with the chickens.

This is a Reading Rainbow Book.

The Purple Coat

PurpleCoat

The Purple Coat by Amy Hest, 1986.

Every year in the fall, Gabrielle and her mother travel to the city to visit her grandfather’s tailor shop. While her mother shops at other stores, Gabby and her grandfather have lunch together (Gabby always eats the same kind of sandwich), and her grandfather makes her a new coat. Gabby always gets the same kind of coat, and it’s always navy blue.

PurpleCoatTailorShop

However, this year, Gabby wants something different. She wants a purple coat! She also wants it in a different style than her other coats, and she wants it to have a hood. At first, her mother and grandfather can’t believe that she really wants something so different from what she usually gets, and they point out that navy coats are classic, but Gabby is insistent.

PurpleCoatRequest

Gabby worries that her mother won’t let her get the coat that she really wants, but her grandfather remembers that when her mother was little, she once wanted something really unusual herself: a tangerine-colored dress. Sometimes, people do want to do different things, just to have a change and try something new. He also thinks of a way to give Gabby what she wants while allowing her to go back to her classic navy when she feels like it. Gabby’s new coat is reversible!

This is a Reading Rainbow book!

Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

NelsonFieldDay

Miss Nelson Has a Field Day by Harry Allard and James Marshall, 1985.

Everyone at school is disappointed in the school’s football team.  Even the team itself thinks that they’ll never have a chance at winning, so they don’t bother to practice.  They refuse to listen to their coach and spend all of their time goofing off.  Finally, the coach starts to crack mentally from the strain, and Miss Nelson decides that something needs to be done.

NelsonFieldDayTeam

Some of the kids mention that if Viola Swamp, the  meanest substitute teacher ever, were there, she’d know how to deal with the team.  Not knowing how to contact The Swamp, the principal tries to turn himself into Viola Swamp, but his outfit is just goofy . . . then the “real” Viola Swamp shows up to coach the team.  As usual, she takes no nonsense from anyone.

NelsonFieldDayFake

NelsonFieldDayCoachSwamp

The Swamp undeniably gets results, however, the principal has started to wonder who Miss Swamp is and how she always knows when to show up.  Unlike in previous books in the series, Miss Nelson is teaching her class as usual while Coach Swamp is out on the field with the team.  Since the previous books pretty well established that Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp are the same person, how is this possible?

NelsonFieldDayTwoPlaces

The story doesn’t contradict the other books, and Miss Nelson is still Viola Swamp, but there is one more surprising thing about Miss Nelson that nobody knows which can allow her to appear to be in two places at once.

NelsonFieldDayVictory

Miss Nelson is Back

NelsonBack

Miss Nelson is Back by Harry Allard and James Marshall, 1982.

Miss Nelson, a teacher, tells her class that she will have to be away for awhile, having her tonsils removed, so someone else will be teaching their class.  At first, the kids think that they’ll be able to get away with a lot while Miss Nelson is away, but an older kid warns them that their substitute will probably turn out to be Viola Swamp, the meanest substitute ever.

NelsonBackWarning

The kids are nervous until they find out that Mr. Blandsworth, the school principal, will be their substitute himself.  The worst thing about Mr. Blandsworth is that he’s boring, and he tends to treat them like they’re little kids.  They put up with it for awhile, but then, they realize that they can get rid of Mr. Blandsworth by convincing him that Miss Nelson has come back to school.

NelsonBackPrincipal

They put together their own Miss Nelson costume, with some of the kids sitting on each other’s shoulder’s to appear taller in the outfit.  It’s cheesy, but it convinces the principal.  But, the kids take it even farther than that.  Now that there’s no substitute teacher, they can do whatever they want!  Their “Miss Nelson” takes the class on an impromptu field trip to the movies and the ice cream parlor, and no one stops them because they’re with their “teacher.”

NelsonBackFieldTrip

Unfortunately, they make the mistake of walking past Miss Nelson’s house, and she discovers what they’ve been doing.  She arranges for Miss Viola Swamp to come and teach the class a real lesson.

NelsonBackReveal

As usual for the series, they never explicitly state that Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp are the same person, but it’s heavily implied in the text (such as Viola Swamp’s scratchy voice from Miss Nelson having her tonsils out) and shown in clues in the pictures.

NelsonBackSwamp

Miss Nelson is Missing

NelsonMissing

Miss Nelson is Missing! By Harry Allard and James Marshall, 1977.

The kids in Miss Nelson’s class at school are terrible! No matter how nice she is to them, they always act up and refuse to do their work. Miss Nelson knows that this can’t continue.

NelsonMissingClass

Then, one day, Miss Nelson doesn’t show up for class. The kids have a substitute teacher, the terrible Miss Viola Swamp. Miss Swamp is super strict. She makes the kids work harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives, and she doesn’t put up with any nonsense.

NelsonMissingMissSwamp

NelsonMissingSwampWork

Miss Swamp is so mean that the kids really start to miss nice Miss Nelson. What happened to her? The kids try to find their nice teacher so they can get rid of the mean substitute. They try to go to the police to report her as a missing person and go to her house to see if she’s there, but the only person they can find is Miss Swamp. They imagine all sorts of terrible things that could have happened to Miss Nelson.

Then, just as they’re sure that they’ll never see Miss Nelson again, suddenly she’s back. Miss Nelson never says exactly where she’s been, but the kids are so glad to see her that they behave much better.

NelsonMissingReturn

The big joke of the book, and all the others in this series, is that Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp are the same person. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that because, even though the story never explicitly says that they are the same person, it’s heavily implied, especially at the end of the book. The fun is that the kids in Miss Nelson’s class never guess, leaving readers to enjoy the joke along with Miss Nelson.

NelsonMissingSecret

Some people like to take advantage of people who are “too nice”, but just because a person prefers to be nice doesn’t mean that they’re weak, stupid, or incapable of being tough when they need to be. Miss Nelson just found a creative way to be as tough and mean as she needed to be to get the kids in her class to behave without ruining her own reputation as a nice person.  “Viola Swamp” will always be there whenever Miss Nelson needs her again.  This is the first book in a series.

Janie’s Private Eyes

JaniesPrivateEyesJanie’s Private Eyes by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1989.

This is part of the Stanley Family mysteries series.

Janie Stanley has decided to open her own detective agency, The J.V. Stanley Agency, Incorporated, Private Eyes, with the help of her younger siblings and some other friends.  Eight-year-old Janie has had many different aspirations in her young life, from being a Shakespearean actress to being a vampire, so her older brother, David, doesn’t take her detective games too seriously at first.

However, at Mr. and Mrs. Stanley’s New Year’s Eve party, Janie’s “investigations” come to everyone’s attention when she borrows David’s tape recorder to make audio recordings of guests talking and plays them on the stereo that has been hooked up to speakers to play music for the party.  Gossipy Mrs. Dorfman recognizes her own voice, saying uncomplimentary things about her hosts and the other guests, and leaves in a huff of embarrassment.  When Janie’s father confronts her over the incident, Janie says that she was trying to find evidence on a murderer.  When her father and David question her further, she says that old Mr. Rupert, the deceased father of the Mr. Rupert who owns the local grocery store in Steven’s Corners, was murdered.

When old Mr. Rupert died around Thanksgiving, all the kids in the area were sad.  He was always nice to kids when they were in the grocery store and would sometimes give them candy for free.  They called him Grandpa Rupert.  But, Grandpa Rupert’s death was a heart attack, natural causes.  When David asks Janie what makes her think it was murder, she says that she suspects his son and his wife because they inherited the grocery store.  David says that he doesn’t think that Al Rupert would have killed his father.  Janie also says that she heard that there was no autopsy after the death, and she thinks that’s suspicious.  David says that it was well-known that Grandpa Rupert had heart trouble, so a heart attack wasn’t unexpected.  Janie also says that Huy, the younger brother of her friend, Thuy Tran, saw the mailman talking to Grandpa Rupert just before he died, but David doesn’t see why that’s so suspicious.  Eventually, David and her father talk Janie out of her murder investigation idea, but it turns out that the “murder” wasn’t the only investigation that Janie has undertaken.

Dogs in the area have been disappearing, and the Tran family has come under suspicion.  The Trans haven’t been living in the United States for very long.  Originally, they came from Vietnam.  The reason why people are looking at them suspiciously is because dogs started disappearing around the time the Trans moved to the area.  Janie knows that the Tran family isn’t guilty of dognapping, but proving it is another matter.  After the trouble at the New Year’s Eve party, she asks David and Amanda to help her investigate.  At first, they don’t want to, but David does have to do a journalism project for school with a partner, Pete Garvey.  Pete Garvey is the school bully who also has a crush on Amanda (which is established in a previous book in the series), but he likes the idea of interviewing people about their missing dogs.

However, even though David, Amanda, and Pete Garvey begin talking to people about the missing dogs, Janie and the other members of her detective agency are still on the case!  David has great misgiving about Janie’s involvement.  Then, suddenly, Pete doesn’t want to work on the project anymore and starts behaving suspiciously.  What does he know that no one else does?

Blair’s Nightmare

BlairsNightmareBlair’s Nightmare by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1984.

Now that school has started in the small town of Steven’s Corners, the Stanley family kids are dealing with the problems that kids have, handling teachers, friends, and the local bullies.  David has become the new favorite target of Pete Garvey, the bully in his grade in school. (At one point, he compares managing his time around Garvey to that old riddle about crossing a river where the boatman (a teacher, in this case) can’t leave one of the things he’s transporting alone with the other because one of them will eat the other – David sees himself as the prey and Garvey as the predator. Only, David, the prey, has to be the one to manage the maneuvering because the boatmen/teachers don’t.)  Blair, David’s younger brother, also seems to be suffering from school stress, reverting to an old habit of walking in his sleep at night.  Blair keeps saying that he’s getting up to see a nice dog who visits at night, but everyone thinks that he’s just dreaming while sleepwalking.  David thinks that having a dog actually sounds nice and is hoping that he can somehow convince his dad of that, too.

Mrs. Bowen, Blair’s teacher, isn’t amused by his stories about the dog or some of the other things Blair has been saying at school, like his friend “Harriette”, whom no one else has been able to see but apparently lives in the Stanleys’ house (see The Headless Cupid).  She thinks that Blair is “out of touch with reality,” and that his family should work on teaching him the difference between reality and fantasy.

In the middle of all this, things have been disappearing around Steven’s Corners, and people think that it might be the work of escaped prisoners.  The police have been looking for some escaped prisoners in the area, although they haven’t found anything, and the prisoners might not really be around.  David thinks that the things that have disappeared don’t really sound like the kinds of things that prison escapees would steal.  He thinks it’s more likely that Garvey and his trouble-making friends took them.

Then, David starts hearing that, for some reason, the sheriff’s dog has become afraid of going near the woods.  When they brought him out there to sniff for the escapees, he suddenly smelled something that seemed to make him very afraid, and now he shakes when they try to take him back to the area.  Janie, David’s younger sister, has also become very interested in the story of the escapees and seems to be trying to start her own investigation into the matter.

Part of the story has to do with the differences between perception and reality.  Amanda, David’s stepsister, proves to be an unexpected help in dealing with Garvey, taking it upon herself to punch him in the face when he tries to pick a fight with David.  However, it makes David embarrassed that Amanda feels like she has to stand up for him, and it’s further complicated by the fact that Amanda and Garvey seem to have a mutual crush on each other.  Life is full of mixed emotions, and David begins to discover that people’s personalities are more complicated than he once thought.  Some of Garvey’s bullying and trouble-making is really a bid for attention.  Garvey later admits that he didn’t really have intentions of beating David up; he was mostly hanging around David as an excuse to see Amanda and maybe do something that would get her attention.  However, learning that being mean and threatening isn’t the best way to get the kind of attention he wants from people isn’t a bad lesson.

David also learns that Amanda’s feelings toward him are more complicated than he originally thought.  Amanda and David fight a lot, and David thinks that she still doesn’t like having step-siblings, but she says that the reason she punched Garvey was that she suddenly realized that she couldn’t let anyone treat her brother badly.  It surprises her as much as David that, somewhere during their past couple of years of living together as siblings, having adventures, and having fights and arguments, she has come to think of him as her brother.  She shrugs it off as a sign that people just change over time.  She also tells him not to worry about their parents getting divorced when her mother, Molly, argues with David’s father about Blair’s sleepwalking and “dream” dog.  She says that their arguments are nothing like the ones that Molly used to have with her father and that it’s just human for people to fight once in a while.

As you might have guessed, there is also a lot more to Blair’s “sleepwalking” and his dog than his teacher suspects.  One night, while Garvey is over with David and Amanda, they learn how very real (not to mention extremely huge) Blair’s dog is.  For a time, all the kids in the family keep the dog a secret because they’re worried that their father will just send the dog to the pound.  All the while, David’s father and stepmother argue about whether discouraging Blair’s “fantasies” is healthy for him or not.  Molly doesn’t think it’s bad for a six-year-old child to daydream and have imaginary friends, but Blair’s father thinks that they should do as Blair’s teacher says and punishes the other children by revoking their allowance whenever they talk about Blair’s dog.  They have no idea that they’re actually the ones who have the least sense of what the true reality of the children’s situation actually is, and the children find themselves having to accept their punishments without argument in order to keep the secret, seeing it as a noble sacrifice for the safety of their dog.

Eventually, the secret does come out after the dog, now called Nightmare, helps to save the children when they finally encounter the escapees.  (You just knew they were hiding somewhere nearby, didn’t you?)  Nightmare’s backstory is rather sad and involves animal abuse.  His former owner actually tried to kill him, and he is injured.  When the kids’ parents finally learn the full truth, David’s father tries to insist that his rule about no new pets applies until Molly says that having Nightmare around would actually make her feel safer.

Personally, I think that the father could have been a little more apologetic.  He admits that the children were “not guilty” and that they can have their allowances back, but I would have liked to hear him actually say that he was “wrong”, using that word, and maybe add the word “sorry” to it.  It feels like the father is still dodging the reality of his own actions himself, especially considering that the lessons that he was basically instilling in the children were that the “truth” is whatever the people with authority and the ability to punish you decide it is; if that doesn’t happen to be the real truth, you’re not allowed to speak up and say so or argue with them to have some compassion; and if you need to handle real-life problems that they’re denying exist, you have to do so in secret, behind the backs of authority, which is basically there to be part of the problem, not a source of help or solutions.  Real life might sometimes work that way, but I don’t think it’s good to teach children that it’s the way things are supposed to be and that it’s the way they should behave themselves when they become the adults.  Lots of things could have been cleared up much faster if the father had allowed open discussion or asked further questions or even done a little investigating on his own to figure things out.  Parents not listening is a plot device used in a lot of children’s mysteries to set things up for the children to do their own investigating, but it always pains me a little because I’m the type to ask more questions.  I like to be sure of my ground before I stand on it, and I don’t leave things alone if I think there’s a real problem.  It also seems oddly out of character for the father of this story, considering that, in the first book, they established that he had never had a problem in the past with the kids keeping little animals that they found, like lizards and snakes.  So, why wouldn’t he even entertain the notion that Blair might have really found a dog and started feeding it at night?  If it had been me, given the kids’ history with animals and doing things in secret, I would have checked on what was really happening at night, just to be sure.

The matter of “Harriette”, who is a carry-over from the first book in the series (and may possibly be a ghost), is never cleared up.  Blair says that Harriette helped lead him to Nightmare and told him that everything would be all right.  The books in the series imply that Blair is psychic and that he can communicate with a girl who used to live in their house years ago, but it’s never established for certain.  At the end of the story, David, who has been been considering the issue of perceptions vs. reality decides that who or what “Harriette” is – ghost or just Blair’s imaginary friend – may also be just a matter of perception, and that it is probably best left that way.  Other than Blair’s occasional comments about Harriette, her presence is not felt by anyone else in the family, and there are no unexplained supernatural happenings in this story.  There are, however, some dated references to ’80s celebrities, like Magnum and Burt Reynolds.