The Mystery at Skeleton Point

The Boxcar Children

#91 The Mystery at Skeleton Point by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 2002.

Mr. Alden’s cousin Charlotte has recently bought a house and some land at Skeleton Point that is a local landmark.  The doctor who owned the old house collected skeletons.  He was a bone expert and taught aspiring doctors and veterinarians.  It’s a creepy place with a lot of local legends about a skeleton called the Walking Skeleton that came back to life and is trying to turn itself back into a person by stealing pieces from the statuary around the house.  The statues are damaged and missing pieces, although no one really knows why.

The locals have mixed feelings about Charlotte’s desire to donate all the skeletons to a medical school and to clean up the house and renovate it.  Some people don’t like the idea of a local landmark changing.  Greenie, a man who lives nearby, is also an expert on bones who studied with the doctor, and he is upset that the doctor didn’t leave Skeleton Point to him when he died, as he had promised that he would. 

The people Charlotte had hired to carry out the renovations argue with each other about how things should be done and are not happy that Charlotte has asked the Alden children to help out with the cleaning and documenting the statuary around house.  It seems like they’re trying to distract the Aldens and keep them away from the house.

Then, some of the statues around the house disappear.  Who is taking them and why?

The best part of the story for me was the setting. A house filled with skeletons is a bizarre and creepy idea. But, much of the mystery concerns the statues around the house instead of the skeletons, and honestly, although I had a strong feeling about who was taking the statues, there were times when I suspected other people and different motives for the thefts.

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

The Mystery in the Computer Game

The Boxcar Children

#78 The Mystery in the Computer Game by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 2000.

The Alden children love the computer game that they’ve been playing with their cousin.  The game is called Ring Master, and they have to help the characters in the game to solve puzzles in order to find the magical ring.  Solving puzzles is a specialty of the Aldens.

Then, they get the chance to be play testers for the sequel to Ring Master.  Their grandfather knows the owner of the company that makes the games.  The owner of the company invites the children to come to the company for a tour and even gives them a computer to use to play the test version of the new computer game.

Strangely, some of the people at the company seem upset at the Aldens getting the computer.  Andy, the one of one of the founding members of the company, insists on coming over to the Aldens’ house and working on the computer, giving it some updates.  However, after he leaves, the Aldens realize that some things about the game have suddenly changed.  A new character called Naje suddenly pops up, and she seems to be hanging around places in the game that remind them of places that remind them of real places around town.

The Aldens feel like they’re being given a message through the game, especially when they visit some of the places represented in the game and notice Jane, a member of the computer game company, hanging around these places.  What is Jane up to, and what is the game trying to tell them?

This story deals with corporate spies and the theft of intellectual property, but what makes it really interesting is the sort of treasure hunt-style way the puzzles in the computer game lead them to the culprit, and the identity of the mysterious person who is feeding the clues to them is part of the mystery.

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

The Green Toenails Gang

Olivia Sharp, Agent for Secrets

The Green Toenails Gang by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Mitchell Sharmat, 2005.

Olivia’s best friend, Taffy, who left San Francisco and moved to Carmel just before the beginning of the first book in the series, writes a letter to Olivia and invites her to come for a visit.  In her letter she mentions that there is a club in Carmel that she doesn’t want to join.  Olivia senses that Taffy is upset about something and decides to visit her for the weekend.

When Olivia visits Taffy, Taffy tries to persuade her at first that nothing is bothering her, but Olivia correctly guesses that the club she was talking about is one that refuses to let her in and that she’s upset about it.  Taffy calls the club “stupid,” and Olivia says that “lots of clubs are stupid. Like, if three people have green toenails they form a green toenails club and leave everybody else out.” (I like the way Olivia puts things.)  Taffy is inspired by what Olivia says, and she suggests that they should really form a green toenails club and exclude everyone, including the members of the other club.  Olivia thinks that the idea is interesting, but the problem is that there is only the two of them (three, if they can persuade Olivia’s chauffeur to join them) and that when Olivia goes back to San Francisco, Taffy will be the only member of her club in Carmel.

Olivia questions Taffy about the members of the other club and what they do.  Taffy says that a lot of it is secret, but the members are all girls her neighborhood, and they all wear shirts with their first initials on them.  Olivia and Taffy begin to spy on the girls to learn more about them and to see how they can help Taffy to fit in with their club.

When they see the girls riding bicycles, Olivia thinks that they must be a bicycle club.  She buys Taffy a bicycle and teaches her how to ride it.  Riding a bike works to get the other girls’ attention.  Olivia and Taffy ride their bikes past the other girls and stop to talk to them.  The other girls seem friendly enough, and they invite Taffy to go riding with them later.  However, to Olivia’s surprise, one of the club members calls her later and invites her to join the club, not Taffy.  The girl, Nettie, tells her that they aren’t really a bicycle club and that only members are allowed to know the true purpose of the club and the conditions for joining.  Olivia fits the conditions, but they’ll only explain it to her if she agrees to join.  Nettie also says that they all like Taffy but that they’re “not ready for her” and that they’ll be one step closer to inviting Taffy if Olivia joins.  What is this club really about, and how will Olivia joining help Taffy to join?

I guessed, even before Olivia did, that names are important in the club.  The girls were very interested when Olivia told them her name, and there is a reason why they all wear shirts with their first initials on them.  The five girls in the club are: Jasmine, Katrina, Leah, Millicent, and Nettie.  In order to get Taffy in, Olivia has to point out that Taffy’s last name is Plimpton.  (Get it?)  There, I was a little surprised because I had expected that the name Taffy would turn out to be a nickname and that Olivia would tell them that her real name is Patricia or something.  I had forgotten what Olivia said her last name was.

I thought that Olivia made some good points about the nature of clubs and exclusivity.  The reasons for a lot of exclusive groups are really silly and arbitrary because the main point of those group is just to be exclusive, not to fulfill any other purpose.  That this particular club rides bikes could have been their main purpose, and that would be a purpose that actually involves doing something, but their real requirement for joining is much more arbitrary and is mostly based on random chance, making it very difficult for them to ask new people to join even when they want to invite them.  Taffy would have had exactly the same problem if her name had been Abigail or Wendy.  I’m not really sure what they would have done if she had been Jessica or Linda.  Either they’d have to allow some duplication, or they might say that they couldn’t have her at all.

Olivia says, “I hate clubs. All those secret handshakes and pins and meetings and all that rot.” To Olivia, the whole thing is just silly, and she thinks that they should just be friends with people without all the silly secrecy and ritual.  I liked that stuff more when I was a kid myself, and I remember forming clubs with varying degrees of secrecy with kids in elementary school, but to tell the truth, none of them did very much or lasted very long because they had little other purpose to them besides just being a club and the routine of meetings with all the trappings that annoy Olivia take more effort to maintain than they’re worth. The best solution to having a lasting club would probably be to give the club a purposeful activity or set of activities that all of the members could enjoy and that would allow them to recruit new members easily.  If this club eventually focuses more activities like bicycling, it would be likely to last longer and leave them open to more members than they currently have whenever they want to add them.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Lancelot Closes at Five

The Lancelot Closes at Five by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, 1976.

“Camelot” is the name of a new housing development being built in Shady Landing, New York. In the beginning of the story, Camelot has only three model homes, demonstrating what the houses in this new neighborhood are going to look like. In keeping with the Arthurian theme, the three model homes are called “the Excalibur”, “the Lancelot”, and “the Guinevere.” Abby’s family decides that they will buy a house there on the Excalibur model because they are tired of their crowded apartment in Brooklyn and Abby’s parents think that buying a house sounds like a good investment for future.

The move isn’t easy for Abby and her family. Abby doesn’t like leaving her old friends behind. There are several things wrong with the new house, including windows that are nailed shut, doorknobs that fall off, and a flooded basement. Also, the people who live in the village of Shady Landing don’t like the newcomers because trees were cut down to build Camelot.

However, Abby soon finds a friend, Heather Hutchins, who likes to be called “Hutch.” Hutch also lives in the new Camelot neighborhood. Hutch’s family is very health-conscious, believing in all-natural foods, which is why Abby doesn’t usually like to eat at their house, and Hutch’s mother is a very competitive person.

Then, Hutch springs a surprise on Abby. Hutch tells Abby that she wants to run away from home. She doesn’t want to be gone for long, just about day during the Memorial Day weekend. She doesn’t want to go far, planning to spend a night in the Lancelot model home. But, she wants Abby to come with her so she won’t be alone.

At first, Abby is a little reluctant, but Hutch is very persuasive, the idea does seem like a fun adventure, and hiding out secretly so close to home doesn’t seem too dangerous. In fact, since the public is invited to come and walk through the model homes, it doesn’t even seem like trespassing. Abby agrees to do it. The girls’ plan is to tell their families that they’re spending the night with each other but conveniently not mention where so they’ll assume that they’re just having a normal sleepover at each other’s house. Then, they plan to visit the Lancelot and hide there until it closes and all the other people leave.

When she proposes her plan, Hutch doesn’t explain her motives for wanting to run away for a day, and Abby decides not to question her, thinking that Hutch will tell her when she’s ready. She does note that Hutch doesn’t seem to get along well with her mother. Hutch’s mother doesn’t seem to connect well with other people in general, being more focused on what she wants them to do than on just acknowledging them or building relationships with them. Worse still, Hutch’s mother is what Abby calls a “scorecard mother,” always comparing her child to everyone else’s child, constantly keeping track of where Hutch is ahead and where she’s behind. Hutch’s mother has overly high expectations of Hutch and pushes for perfection. Hutch’s mother sometimes quizzes Abby about what she does to help out at home and how each of the girls are doing in school so she can compare them. Abby sometimes feels like she’s in the uncomfortable position of defending Hutch to her own mother.

The Lancelot model home is decorated in a fakey pseudo-Medieval style, in keeping with the Camelot theme. When Abby and Hutch sneak in, they pretend to be part of a family group touring the house and then hide under a bed until everyone else leaves. Their plan works, but staying in the house isn’t quite what Abby imagined it would be. The furniture is uncomfortable because it’s made to be looked at and not actually used. Not all of the appliances even work, like the tv, because they’re just for show and not for using. For their “supper”, Hutch has brought candy bars and pastries, things which her mother normally forbids her to have because they aren’t natural and will rot her teeth. Abby still can’t have some of them because she has food allergies and braces, but Hutch brings pound cake for her.

Hutch finally admits to Abby that her main reason for wanting to have this adventure is just to have the chance to do something for no other reason than she just wants to do it. Abby is right about Hutch’s mother. Everything that she wants Hutch to do is centered around gaining something – recognition, awards, physical health benefits, learning things and getting a mental edge. Hutch just wanted the chance to do something without a particular motive other than just wanting to do it and the fun of planning it out and pulling it off by herself, with the help of her friend.

Unfortunately, Hutch gets carried away with the success of her plan and turns on the lights, which attracts the attention of a passing police car, although the police just try the doors, decide that the lights were left on by accident, and leave without finding the girls. Then, Hutch doesn’t want to go to sleep and stays up, eating candy bars in bed, just because she’s normally not allowed to do that. Abby is uncomfortable in the big, fancy bed that isn’t meant to be slept in and can’t sleep, so she leaves and goes home, making Hutch mad. Abby spends the rest of the night sleeping in her sleeping bag in her family’s basement (which is no longer flooded) so she won’t give away Hutch’s secret.

Later, Abby feels guilty about abandoning Hutch, so she sneaks out early in the morning to check on her. Hutch got out of the Lancelot without being noticed, but she’s still mad at Abby for leaving her when she was trying to do something that was important to her. However, there is worse to come. The police hadn’t forgotten about something strange happening at the model home that night, and now, there’s a rumor in the neighborhood that the house was “vandalized” during the night (meaning the mess that the girls left in the house from the food they ate, trying to sleep in the bed, and using the bathroom). Abby is naturally a more timid person than Hutch, and while she has started to appreciate Hutch’s attempts to help her be more bold and take more chances, it makes her nervous that she and Hutch are the “vandals” whose escapades have now made the local paper. Abby’s father, an author, is even attempting his own investigation into the matter.

Abby is not only worried about repairing her friendship with Hutch but not getting found out for what they did. Then, one of the boys at school starts bragging, claiming that he and his friend were the ones who snuck into the Lancelot to hang out that night. He’s not the only one trying to claim credit for the stunt, either. Abby hopes that the whole thing will just die down and be forgotten, but Hutch doesn’t feel the same way. Even though she originally set out to do something just on a whim without looking for recognition, the idea that someone else might claim recognition for what she did galls her. What will happen when Hutch tries to reveal her role in masterminding the night in the Lancelot?

I purposely sought this book out online because I never owned a copy and I remembered it from when I was in elementary school, but the funny thing is that I don’t remember ever hearing the entire story when I was a kid. I think that my class might have just read a selection from the book, maybe as part of one of those story collections that has excerpts from books to demonstrate certain concepts and give samples of stories. I can’t quite remember now. All I remembered was that the main escapade was just a part of the story that took place at the beginning of the book, and the rest was about what happened because of the girls’ secret nighttime excursion. It makes the book a bit different from other children’s books about kids running away and hiding in usual locations, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where most of the book takes place during the kids’ adventure and the kids’ parents are barely seen. In this book, the girls are mostly at their own homes, and the parents have prominent roles.

Runaways generally have two motives – getting away from something or going in search of something, and when you really think about it, they frequently have both. Hutch’s adventure is both about escaping from her mother’s oppressive rules and emphasis on perfection as well as undertaking something unusual and pulling it off for the sense of personal achievement. However, even though Hutch at first insists that she wanted to do it just for the sake of doing something that she wants, with no expectation of recognition or reward, it turns out that isn’t completely true. Part of the reason why she wanted Abby along was to get a sense of recognition from her for the accomplishment as well as her company. Her bad feelings toward Abby for abandoning their adventure and going home were partly because Abby didn’t value that type of uncomfortable adventure as much as she did and didn’t fully acknowledge the cleverness of her plan. Even if it started out as just a fun escapade, undertaken as a brief chance to break a few rules in secret, Hutch badly craves acknowledgement, just not in the form of the constant comparisons he mother makes between her and other people. What Hutch really needs is just to be acknowledged for being herself and to feel valued, no matter how she compares to others. In her attempt to make things right with Hutch again, Abby does something that she never thought that she would ever be bold enough to do: give Hutch’s mother a piece of her mind.

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

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid is bored with her dull suburban life in Connecticut with her parents and her brothers. Her life also often seems unfair, like she has more responsibilities than her brothers do and she has more chores than her others friends. Basically, Claudia is bored and feeling unsatisfied with her life. She wants to get away from it all and have a little adventure … although not too much adventure because Claudia isn’t the overly-adventurous type.

Claudia is cautious and methodical. When she plans to run away from home, she carefully plans every step and invites her more adventurous nine-year-old brother Jamie to go with her, both for the companionship and because he is a tightwad and has the cash necessary to fund their adventure. Although Claudia and Jamie bicker as siblings, they’re closer to each other than to either of their other brothers. Jamie eagerly accepts Claudia’s proposition to run away, although at first, he’s a little disappointed when he finds out where they’re going.

Claudia plans for them to run away to New York City because, as she puts it, it’s “a good place to get lost.” The city is so big, Claudia is sure that two runaway children will be easily overlooked. She’s also found a great place for them to stay during their adventure: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia loves comfort, convenience, and beauty, and the museum can offer all of that without the fees of staying in a hotel. There are exhibits of furniture, which provide them with a bed to sleep in, and interesting exhibits to keep them entertained and educated, and all they have to do is evade the security guards. At first, Jamie thinks that sounds a little too tame, but their adventure soon proves to be exciting and challenging, with enough mystery to satisfy both of them.

Claudia and Jamie develop routines for sneaking around the museum, evading the guards, hiding the backpacks and instrument cases that hold their clothes, and raiding the coins in the fountain for extra money. One day, while they’re hiding in the restrooms and waiting for the museum staff to leave, the staff set up a new exhibit for an angel sculpture sold to the museum by the wealthy and mysterious widow Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who is actually the person narrating Claudia and Jamie’s story in a letter to her lawyer.

Claudia develops a fascination for the angel and a desire to learn the truth about the theory that the statue was made by Michelangelo. Between the two children, Claudia is the more imaginative and romantic, but Jamie’s logical mind and zest for adventure serve them well as they delve deeper into the mystery. They do learn something important at the museum, but to get the full truth, they have to leave their planned hiding place in the museum and go see Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself.

Mrs. Frankweiler is a delightfully eccentric student of human nature, who is fascinated by the young runaways who come to her for answers to a mystery hundreds of years old. In exchange for the details of their exploits, Mrs. Frankweiler gives the children a chance to locate the answers they’re seeking in her strange, mixed-up files. In the process, the children learn a secret that gives both of them the sense of being part of something secret and exciting and much bigger than their ordinary, hum-drum lives that they were originally looking for when they ran away from home.

During the course of the adventure, Claudia and Jamie become closer to each other than they were before they ran away from home. They learn a little more about each other and themselves, and neither of them is quite the same as they were before they started, which is at the heart of Claudia’s reasons for wanting to run away from home in the first place. The language and descriptions in the book are colorful, which is part of the reason why this book is popular to read in schools.

There are two movies made of this story. One is a made-for-tv movie version from 1995, although it changed some of the details from the original story. In the movie, there is a scene with Jamie getting sick and Claudia worrying about him and taking care of him that never happened in the original book. Also, in the movie, Claudia stops Jamie from taking the coins from the fountain when they had no qualms about raiding the fountain for money in the book. At the end of the book, the children don’t tell their parents where they were hiding when they return home, but in the movie, the parents do find out. There is also an older movie from 1973 which is sometimes called The Hideaways.

The book is a Newbery Award winner, and it is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive (many copies).

Ramona Forever

Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary, 1984.

Ramona is in third grade now, and there are new changes coming in her life. At the beginning of the book, she and her sister Beezus still go to Howie’s house every day after school so Howie’s grandmother can look after them because both of their parents work, although lately Beezus has been finding other places to go after school, like her friend’s house and the library. That’s how Ramona knows from Howie that his rich Uncle Hobart, who has a job in the oil industry, will be coming to visit soon from Saudi Arabia. Ramona mentions it one night at dinner when her Aunt Beatrice is visiting. Aunt Beatrice says that she remembers Hobart from when they were kids and went to the same school, but she hasn’t seen him in years.

When Uncle Hobart comes, he brings a couple of small camel saddles for Howie and Willa Jean to play with. He also gives Howie a unicycle and Willa Jean a small accordion. When he meets Ramona, he embarrasses her by calling her Howie’s girlfriend and singing a verse from an old song about a woman named Ramona, and Ramona takes an instant dislike to him. She flat out tells him that she doesn’t like adults who tease (Neither do I, and I’m in my 30’s.), and he promises to reform, although Ramona thinks that he’s still joking around and isn’t satisfied.

Uncle Hobart takes Howie outside to learn to ride the unicycle, and Willa Jean and Ramona try the accordion. When neither of them can figure out how to use it, little Willa Jean gets frustrated and sits on it, breaking it. Howie’s grandmother, Mrs. Kemp, gets angry at the girls, and Ramona thinks that the accordion was a dumb present to give to a little girl who wouldn’t be able to use it properly for years. Mrs. Kemp tries to shame Ramona to Uncle Hobart, blaming her for the incident. (As if Ramona was the babysitter instead of Mrs. Kemp, who incidentally, is being paid by Ramona’s parents to watch her as well as watching her own grandchildren. Ramona didn’t think of this, but I certainly did.) Ramona never really liked being watched by Mrs. Kemp, but the blaming and shaming makes her realize that Mrs. Kemp actually doesn’t like her and wants to make her feel bad, which is a disturbing feeling from someone who is supposed to be taking care of her. Ramona decides right then that Mrs. Kemp will never look after her again.

When the family talks about the situation at dinner that night, Beezus supports Ramona’s assertion that Mrs. Kemp doesn’t like them, saying that’s the reason why she’s been trying to find other places to go after school. Ramona’s mother asks her if she ever thought that maybe Mrs. Kemp would rather not be a babysitter at all, for either her grandchildren or Ramona, but women of her generation were only brought up to take care of their homes and children, and that’s all she knows how to do, whether she likes it or not.

Personally, I think this is true, but also irrelevant. Mrs. Kemp has a job to do, one that she’s being paid for, and if she’s taking the money, she also needs to take responsibility. Mrs. Kemp blames Ramona for not watching Willa Jean when that was her job, not Ramona’s, and Mrs. Kemp also has a responsibility to Ramona herself because that’s what she’s being paid for. Ramona is Mrs. Kemp’s babysitting charge. She’s a child, the child of paying customers who are specifically paying Mrs. Kemp for childcare. Ramona is not Mrs. Kemp’s personal servant or the babysitter for her granddaughter. Ramona is especially not Mrs. Kemp’s personal therapist or caregiver, who needs to help her manage her emotions or life decisions. Ramona is a child who is only with Mrs. Kemp for the purpose of being cared for by her, so let’s keep it straight who has a responsibility to whom in this situation. Besides not liking adults who tease like bratty children, I also don’t like adults who try to make kids be responsible for things that they should be responsible for themselves. Seeing Mrs. Kemp accepting money in exchange for irresponsibility and a bad attitude about her own general life choices that she takes out on her childcare charges is that much worse. Mrs. Quimby’s insights, while probably true, are also completely unhelpful to the situation. Mrs. Kemp is what she is, and what she is does not make her a good caregiver. Ramona and Beezus are correct to call her on it. Mrs. Quimby is concerned about hurting Mrs. Kemp’s feelings, but I think that should be the least of her concerns in this situation since Mrs. Kemp doesn’t seem to care about the children’s feelings and she’s in a position of trust over them. She is demonstrably not doing the very thing she is supposed to do, which care for the children she is paid to provide with childcare. You have one job, Mrs. Kemp, just one job! Mrs. Kemp is an adult, more than old enough to know better about how to behave and take responsibility for herself and the young children in her care, and she should choose to act like it or be prepared to face the consequences, not continue to get paid and thanked for work she’s not even willing to do, making her young charges miserable every single day. She’s taking advantage of the Quimbys’ desperation for child care, and that’s not right. I wished Mrs. Quimby would step up and support her daughters’ efforts to stand up for their well-being instead of enabling Mrs. Kemp’s bad behavior and making excuses for it, as if it were somehow Ramona’s fault that Mrs. Kemp doesn’t like being a babysitter and that eight-year-old Ramona actually has the power to solve Mrs. Kemp’s life problems. I can only suppose that the reason why Mrs. Quimby doesn’t is that she just doesn’t know where else to find someone willing to watch the girls after school.

Mr. Quimby asks Ramona what she thinks she should do about the situation, and Ramona hates being asked that because she wanted help from the grown-ups, not the responsibility of figuring out the problem with her adult caregiver by herself. Again, I really have to side with Ramona here. It’s not her job to be the adult in this situation, and the older I get, the less patience I have for irresponsible adults. I hated them when I was a kid Ramona’s age (and I ran into plenty of them, too), and I don’t feel any better about them 30 years later. If you want the authority of saying that you’re an adult, you have to take the responsibilities that come with that authority, taking the adult actions and making the adult decisions, not expecting the kids to do your job for you. That’s my attitude. I honestly don’t know what response Mr. Quimby was even looking for from Ramona, either. What can Ramona do if Mrs. Kemp is unhappy about her life choices and doesn’t treat her well because she doesn’t want to be her babysitter? Get some books on psychology from the library and turn into a therapist or career counselor at the age of eight to help Mrs. Kemp work through her emotional issues? Invent a magic potion that will age her to 58 so she can be Mrs. Kemp’s new best friend and they can go out for champagne brunches together instead of Mrs. Kemp babysitting her? What solution are you imagining here, Mr. Quimby? Ramona is an eight-year-old, and what what she thought she should do about this bad situation was talk to her parents, who hired Mrs. Kemp to take care of her in the first place, and get their help. How was she supposed to know that you didn’t want to help her, either? If I were one of the parents in this situation, I’d say that I understood the problem and that I’d think over some other after school possibilities for the girls, maybe look into some temporary care for the girls, possibly in the form of some kind of after school lessons in art or music or sports, paid for with the money that I would have given Mrs. Kemp for babysitting, especially since I already know that the Quimbys are already considering some coming changes for their family that will change their childcare situation. Of course, all of this is setting the stage for what happens next in the story.

Ramona asks if she can just stay home alone after school because some kids do, but her parents don’t like that idea. Beezus says that she could stay with Ramona because she’s in middle school and old enough to babysit. Ramona worries a little that Beezus will be bossy and that they’ll fight with no adults around, but Mr. and Mrs. Quimby agree to let the girls try it for a week while Uncle Hobart is visiting so Mrs. Kemp can spend more time with her son. If the arrangement works and the girls behave themselves, they can keep doing it after Uncle Hobart leaves.

Ramona asks Beezus why she’s so willing to look after her after school, and Beezus explains that things haven’t been to pleasant at her friends’ houses lately. Mary Jane needs to spend a lot of time practicing her piano lessons, and she got into a fight with Pamela because Pamela was acting like a snob and giving her a hard time about her dad’s work situation. Mr. Quimby has had a series of different jobs, and now, he is working only part time and going back to college to train to become an art teacher. Pamela has been bragging to Beezus that her father has a real job and that Mr. Quimby should “stop fooling around and really go to work.” (This is one of those snide kids’ comments that you can tell really came from Pamela’s parents and that she’s just repeating what they say to sound big. Pamela’s parents have probably been bad-mouthing the Quimbys behind their backs to talk themselves up because their employment has been more stable and some people need to look down on someone in order to feel good about themselves. I’ve seen that type before, too. By this point in the story, I had the feeling that the Quimbys seem to know a lot of people who are real jerks in one way or another, and I think it’s time that they made some new friends.) Beezus can’t take it anymore, so she’s stopped speaking to Pamela, which is about all you can do in a situation like that.

Beezus worries about their family’s future because she’s heard that schools are laying off teachers, and she fears that her father might not find a job when he’s done with his degree. She also think that their mother is probably pregnant because of the way that Aunt Bea keeps asking her how she’s feeling and a few months ago, she seemed to be suffering from morning sickness. If that’s true, she probably won’t be able to work much longer because she’ll have to take time off to have the baby and look after it. It make things difficult when the family is already concerned about money, although Beezus says that she wouldn’t mind helping to look after a baby because she likes babies. Ramona worries about the new baby and why their parents would want another child when they already have her and her sister, and she doesn’t like that the adults seem to be keeping important secrets.

The girls try to be extra good and responsible when they’re home alone together so they’ll be allowed to continue staying home alone, but they get into a fight one day when Howie comes over and offers to let Ramona ride his bike because he’s going to practice riding his unicycle. Beezus is afraid that Ramona will get hurt riding the bike and she’ll be considered responsible, but Ramona wants to go ahead and do it anyway because she’s been waiting for Howie to agree to loan her his bike. Ramona likes riding the bike, but she does fall off and scrape her elbow. Beezus refuses to help Ramona clean up afterward because Ramona insulted her before she went bike riding, and Ramona is angry with Beezus. In spite of that, the girls decide not to tell their parents about what happened because they don’t want to go back to Mrs. Kemp and their father specifically tells them not do anything to worry their mother, another sign that she’s probably expecting a baby.

Then, one day after school, the girls discover that their cat, Picky-picky has died, probably of old age. At first, they don’t know what to do, but remembering that they’re not supposed to upset their mother, they decide to bury the cat themselves. The girls are upset, but they manage to bury the cat, and they also make up with each other after their earlier fight. When their parents come home and find out about the cat, they feel badly that the girls had to handle the situation on their own. Mrs. Quimby says that, after they handled this difficult situation, she knows that they can be trusted on their own and that there’s no need for them to go back to Mrs. Kemp.

The girls’ mother finally admits that she’s going to have a baby, and the family begins talking about the new changes that they’ll have to make when the baby comes. The girls wonder who will have to share a room with the new baby, and they come up with ideas for names. Ramona worries about being a middle child now and not the youngest, but her mother reassures her that she still loves her. The Quimbys also consider that they may have to move in order for Mr. Quimby to find a teaching job, although Beezus and Ramona don’t like the idea of moving.

However, there are still more changes to come. Aunt Bea and Uncle Hobart announce that they are getting married! Ramona still doesn’t like Uncle Hobart and doesn’t really want him for an uncle, and after they’re married, they’re planning to move to Alaska because Uncle Hobart will be working in the oil industry there.

Changes aren’t always easy, but the girls enjoy taking part in their aunt’s wedding, and at the end of the book, their mother has the new baby, who turns out to be a girl. They call her Roberta, for a twist on her father’s name. Ramona begins to feel happy and comfortable with the changes in her life because she realizes that she’s growing up.

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

Ramona and Her Father

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary, 1975, 1977.

It’s September, and second-grader Ramona Quimby is already making out her Christmas list. However, Christmas this year might not be what Ramona expects. Her father comes home and explains that he’s been laid off from his job because a larger company bought the company he worked for and laid off the extra workers. Mrs. Quimby has a part time job, but it doesn’t pay much. Everyone in the Quimby family soon becomes worried about money.

Mrs. Quimby finds another job that’s full time, but Mr. Quimby still struggles to find work. Ramona doesn’t like to see her father so worried and stressed, and she tries to think of some way she could also earn money. When her father comments about how much money a boy on a television advertisement must have made, Ramona sets herself to memorizing various advertising phrases and repeating them, hoping to be discovered and hired to make an ad herself. Unfortunately, things that people say on ads don’t work in real-world settings, especially when you tell your teacher that her wrinkled stockings look like elephant skin.

The family has to eat food that they don’t particularly like in order to save money, and they start buying cheaper cat food for their cat. Picky-picky refuses to eat the cheap cat food, and before Halloween, he eats part of the girls’ jack o’lantern in desperation. Beezus, upset at the idea that their cat is apparently starving and desperate, angrily asks her father why they can’t afford Picky-picky’s usual cat food when they seem to have enough money for his cigarettes. (It’s a valid question. During my first semester of college, I totaled up a classmate’s expenses on cigarettes and realized that what she spent on them for a year was about the same as full-time student tuition at our community college, by early 2000s standards.) Her father tells her that’s none of her business, and Beezus retorts that it is her business. Cigarettes are harmful, and Mr. Quimby is spending money on them that the family desperately needs.

Ramona is worried because this is the first time that she’s heard that cigarettes are bad, although Beezus says that she learned it in school. Ramona tries to ask her father if what Beezus said is true, and he just says that he expects to be an old man someday, the kind that tells reporters on his hundredth birthday that he owes his longevity to cigarettes and whisky. This joke doesn’t reassure Ramona. Ramona decides that she’s going to get her father to stop smoking.

Ramona gets Beezus to help her make anti-smoking signs. At first, their father tries to ignore the signs, and then he starts getting annoyed with them. Ramona worries that she’s been mean to her father and upset him too much, but he later admits that she was right and that he’s going to try to quit smoking. Ramona takes him at his word and throws his cigarettes away, although he said that he would rather have cut down gradually. Still, his wife and daughters are happy about him quitting. For awhile, Mr. Quimby is edgy and irritable as he tries to get used to not smoking as well as still looking for a job.

As Christmas approaches, the girls’ Sunday school begins preparing to put on a Nativity play. Beezus gets cast as Mary, which pleases her because Henry Huggins is going to play Joseph. Ramona is so excited about the play that she wants a creative role for herself, and after the shepherds are cast, she says that she wants to be a sheep to go with the shepherds. The Sunday school teacher says that sounds like a good idea, but they’ve never had any sheep in the play before and don’t have a costume for her. Ramona says that her mother could make her one, and other children also say they want to be sheep.

However, as Beezus points out, now that their mother is working full time, she doesn’t really have time to sew a costume. Their mother also says that they can’t afford to buy new cloth for a costume, and the best she can do is an old white bathrobe that she might be able to alter into costume. Ramona’s father snaps at her that she’s been inconsiderate for expecting her to do something like this without asking first. Ramona feels badly and overhears her father calling her a spoiled brat. With his irritability, he’s been picking at her for various things, and one day, Ramona argues with him when she comes home from school and smells cigarette smoke.

Ramona’s father reassures her that he hasn’t purchased any new cigarettes. He just found an old one in a pocket that he forgot that he had and decided to smoke it to see if it would help him feel better. The two of them have a heart-to-heart talk about Ramona worrying about why they can’t be a happy family. Ramona’s father tells her that their family is happy. It’s just that no family is perfect and nobody’s life is perfect, and everyone goes through hard times now and then. The people in Ramona’s family still love each other and do their best for each other even when things are hard and they don’t always get along.

Things improve for the Quimbys as Christmas approaches. Mr. Quimby finally finds a new job. Ramona almost backs out of the Nativity play because her mother didn’t have time to make her a full costume, and she feels silly with what she’s wearing, but she changes her mind with the help of three older girls who were recruited to replace the Three Wise Men who backed out of the play.

One thing that kind of surprised me in the story was that Ramona’s parents seemed mildly scandalized when Ramona and Howie sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Beezus, who learned the song at summer camp and taught it to Ramona says that the neighbors will probably think they’re beer guzzlers after hearing Ramona and Howie sing it all up and down the street. It struck me as weird because I remember that everyone knew that song when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, and nobody thought anything of it. I certainly never heard of anyone being scandalized by it. It’s just a silly counting song, and nobody really thought that any kid singing it had ever had beer. In fact, it was a common song for parents to get their kids to sing on long car trips because it takes a long time to finish, and during that time, the kids aren’t complaining or asking, “Are we there yet?”

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

Ramona the Brave

Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, 1975.

Six-year-old Ramona Quimby thinks of herself as brave. Now that she’s going into the first grade, she’s no longer just a little kid. She even stood up to some boys on the playground who were making fun of her older sister, Beatrice, for being called “Beezus.”

However, Ramona soon discovers that not every sees her the way she sees herself. Beezus is embarrassed at the way her little sister told off those boys and is sure that they’re now going to make a much bigger deal of the incident at school because of it. Beezus says that she’s sick of her silly nickname, which rhymes with “Jesus” and just wants to be called “Beatrice.” Ramona agrees with her, both because she feels bad that she accidentally embarrassed her sister and because it’s her fault that Beezus got her nickname. When she was smaller, Ramona couldn’t pronounce the name “Beatrice” very well and ended up saying “Beezus” instead, and the mispronunciation stuck. Ramona is trying hard to be a big kid now, and she doesn’t like to remember that she used to not even be able to say her own sister’s name. Ramona agrees to call her sister Beatrice in public and to only use the Beezus nickname at home.

Ramona wants to be taken seriously, and she hates it when her mother is amused by some of the silly things she does. (I know the feeling, and so do many other people!) The last thing she wants is to just be a silly little kid that people laugh at, and nobody seems to understand how she feels. She especially hates it when her sister keeps calling her a pest.

Fortunately, their mother understands that part of the problem is that the girls are getting bigger, and they’re starting to feel cramped sharing a room with each other. Mr. and Mrs. Quimby have decided to add an extra room onto the house so the girls won’t have to share anymore, and Mrs. Quimby is going to take a part-time job to help pay for it. Before the girls can start arguing about who gets the new room, Mrs. Quimby tells them that it’s already decided that they will take turns, trading off rooms every six months and that Ramona will have the first turn in the new room.

Watching the workmen make a hole in the wall of their house and build the new room is fascinating, although Ramona doesn’t have the patience for planning, methodical work, and learning how different tools are supposed to be used, like her friend Howie. Ramona prefers playing their made-up game of Brick Factory, where she and Howie smash old, broken bricks with rocks. Ramona takes the opportunity to put her special initial, a Q with cat ears and whiskers, into the wet concrete for the floor of the room, and she can’t resist the opportunity to jump through the new hole in the wall of their house. The workmen cover the hole with a sheet of plastic when they go home for the day, but the girls think it’s kind of spooky having a hole in the wall of their house. They imagine that something horrible could sneak in through the hole, like a ghost, maybe one that looks like a gorilla. Ramona can’t wait to tell the other kids all about it when she starts first grade!

Unfortunately, the new school year doesn’t start out the way Ramona hopes. Instead of everyone being excited about her news and how she watched the workmen chop a hole in the side of her house, everyone laughs because the teacher had just made a joke about her being Ramona Kitty Cat because she drew the cat ears and whiskers onto the Q on her name tag the way she always does. Ramona hates being laughed at and made to feel like a fool. Worse still, her friend Howie doesn’t defend her because Ramona said that they “chopped” a hole instead of “prying” it open with crowbars. Because of Ramona’s technical inaccuracy, Howie makes her sound like she was lying about the whole thing!

Then, when the kids make paper bag owls for Parents’ Night, Susan copies Ramona’s design, and the teacher, Mrs. Griggs, praises Susan to the whole class for coming up with the idea of having the eyes looking to the side. She doesn’t even notice Ramona’s owl. Ramona, afraid that everyone else will think that she’s the copycat because of Mrs. Grigg’s public praise of Susan’s owl, just like they all thought she was a liar and laughed at her before because of what Mrs. Griggs and Howie said on the first day of school, crumples her owl up and throws it away before anyone can see it. But, that doesn’t help relieve Ramona’s feelings at the injustice of the situation. She’s owl-less because of Susan stealing her idea. In a fit of temper, she crumples up Susan’s owl, too, and runs away when Susan tells on her even though Mrs. Griggs repeatedly says that she doesn’t like tattletales. (Honestly, I’ve never understood why adults tell kids that. It just encourages kids to behave badly and label others as “tattletale” when they complain, even when the complaint is just. It just gives bullies more power to act with impunity. I also think kids should be encouraged to talk about things, especially some of the more difficult things to talk about, and the whole “I don’t want to hear from tattletales” shuts down conversations before they even start. I’ve guessed that it has something to do with not wanting to take the time to deal with a lot of petty complaints, but at least hear someone out before you decide what they’re going to tell you and how important it is!) Even when Ramona explains the situation to her mother, she can tell that her mother doesn’t fully understand how she feels, and she is forced to apologize to Susan. Mrs. Griggs makes it all the more embarrassing by forcing Ramona to apologize in front of the whole class. Ramona knows that Mrs. Griggs doesn’t understand her and is sure that Mrs. Griggs hates her.

Ramona’s new room isn’t much of a comfort, either. She finds it a bit spooky, and when she’s alone in it, her imagination runs wild, like it did the night that she and her sister were imagining what kind of ghost could get in through the hole in the wall. Ramona certainly doesn’t feel very brave and grown-up about having a room to herself, but she refuses to admit it because she doesn’t want anyone to think that she’s a baby for being scared.

Things come to a head when Mrs. Griggs sends home a progress report that says that Ramona needs to use more self-control and keep her eyes on her own work. Ramona knows that it’s totally unfair because she’s been very self-controlled since the owl incident, in spite of Mrs. Griggs’s inconsiderate lack of understanding, and the only reason why she sometimes looks at the paper of the boy next to her is that he’s been seriously struggling with his work, and she’s been trying to help him. When Ramona is so fed up that she tells her family that she needs to say a bad word and the worst word she can think of to say is “guts”, everyone laughs at her, and Ramona bursts into tears, unable to take it anymore.

Tears and anger serve a purpose, though. Sometimes, an outburst is the only way to make someone understand, and understanding is what Ramona most needs. The family has an honest discussion about Ramona’s feelings, and Beezus tells her that she understands what it’s like to be little and laughed at for doing or saying something silly, reminding her mother about the times when she laughed about things she did, back when Ramona was too little to remember it. Beezus says that her mother’s laughter hurt her feelings when she was Ramona’s age, too, and Mrs. Quimby apologizes. Beezus also says that she never liked Mrs. Griggs very much when she was her teacher, either. Ramona asks if she could switch to the other first grade class at school, but her mother is reluctant to arrange it because her schoolwork has improved and because some of Mrs. Griggs’s criticism was correct and that Ramona does need to improve on her self-control. Mrs. Quimby also says that she wants Ramona to learn to understand and work with different types of people. Mrs. Griggs might not be her kind of person, and she might not always understand Ramona, but Ramona isn’t always easy to understand.

Personally, I didn’t think that last comment was a very good way to put it. One of the great things about the Ramona books is that Ramona’s feelings are easy to understand and identify with. Beezus certainly understood what Ramona meant about what it’s like to be laughed at for just being a kid. It’s something many of us experienced when we were kids, and we identify with how Ramona feels about it. (Didn’t Ramona’s mother ever go through this herself, or does she just not think about it? I kind of wondered when she didn’t seem to understand what her daughters were talking about at first.) I think it would have been better to put more of the emphasis on the idea that different types of people need to learn to respect each other and get along even when they don’t fully understand each other. Other people aren’t always easy to understand, but that’s not because Ramona herself is difficult to understand. Ramona’s feelings aren’t any less understandable than Mrs. Griggs’s, it’s more that not all people have the same capacity for understanding others because they don’t have as much empathy as others or the imagination to consider circumstances they haven’t personally been in themselves or are too focused on their own priorities and don’t have the time or patience for understanding. Adults often don’t consider things from a child’s point of view because their adult priorities in their busy adult lives take precedence, they discount the validity of what children think and feel because children are less experienced in life and sometimes express themselves clumsily, and they don’t slow down and take a step back or a second look or listen when they should. But, they could show a little more consideration for the child’s feelings even they don’t fully understand them. My own first grade experience wasn’t any better than Ramona’s, and I had my own “Mrs. Griggs.” Adults forget that kids can feel and experience things beyond their ability to fully explain them to others. One of the difficulties of being young, at least for me, was not having the vocabulary necessary to make myself understood or ask all the questions that I wanted to ask, and I often had to deal with adults who were short on patience. I can see that Ramona also struggles with finding the right words to express what she’s feeling or what’s really happening, like when she used the word “chopped” instead of “pried” to describe how the workmen opened a hole in the side of her house. I think that learning words and new ways to communicate with different people is an important part of the story.

Fortunately, Ramona’s father is right that the bad things will blow over, and Ramona’s situation improves. Some of the other kids in class become sympathetic to Ramona because they recognize that Mrs. Griggs shouldn’t have made her apology to Susan an embarrassing public apology. Ramona, although frequently bored in class, learns to read better, and she enjoys reading, finding that she can read more interesting stories when she knows more difficult words. She also meets her older sister’s teacher, and he calls her Ramona Q instead of Ramona Kitty Cat, like Mrs. Griggs did, making Ramona realize that there’s life beyond first grade and that better, more sympathetic teachers are waiting for her. She also becomes less afraid of her new room.

A scary encounter with a dog on the way to school that causes Ramona to lose one of her shoes also brings some unexpected sympathy and understanding from Mrs. Griggs. Ramona comes to understand that Mrs. Griggs is trying to be helpful when she offers her one of the old boots from the lost and found to replace the shoe she lost, that Mrs. Griggs simply doesn’t understand Ramona’s feelings about those old boots (they’re old, dirty, and kind of yucky), and that she isn’t likely to understand because she has her own priorities. Instead of getting mad at Mrs. Griggs for her lack of understanding, this realization causes Ramona to come up with her own creative solution to the problem. Ramona gains a better image of herself because of her creative problem solving and her bravery in a difficult situation. Mrs. Griggs also begins to show signs of understanding that Ramona is a creative person who needs a little room to demonstrate her creativity.

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

The Encyclopedia of Immaturity

The Encyclopedia of Immaturity by the Editors of Klutz Press, 2007.

This book is part of the classic children’s hobby and activity series from Klutz Press. It’s a collection of pranks, stunts, and fun things to do. There is too much in this book to describe everything in detail, so I’ll just explain some general themes and highlights.

The stunts and activities are in no particular order, and the book isn’t divided into any special sections. Most of activity or stunts just takes up a page or two of explanation, but some are longer, about three or four pages. None of them are very long.

Some of the activities are classic kids’ activities or pranks, like skipping stones, hanging a spoon from your nose, and Peep jousting (a more modern classic – the book points out that you can do it with regular marshmallows, too, but I like Peeps for the imagery). I remember the one about how to blow a bubble gum bubble from your nose instead of your mouth (found on p. 271) being mentioned in Amber Brown Goes Fourth, when Amber’s new friend, Brandi, teaches her how to do it.

There are also some more difficult tricks to master, like how to do an ollie on a skateboard and how to do a wheelie on a bike. (At least, I consider things like that difficult because I’ve never been able to master them.) I also don’t know how to whistle with my fingers, although the book shows multiple ways to do it.

Some of the pages are designed to be cut out and made into things, like the page that provides a pattern for a paper fortune teller and the page where you cut a square of paper so that it’s possible for a person to go through it.

Some of the activities in the book were also in previous Klutz books, like juggling and how to use trick photography to take pictures that make people look like they’re small enough to pick up. I also remember the backseat rituals for long car trips being part of the Klutz Kids Travel book.

My two favorite sections in the book are the part about how to be a headless person for Halloween and how to sneak around. I never dressed as a headless person as a kid, but I like the idea, and might still do it. I did a lot of sneaking around as a kid because I always loved hide and seek.

There’s quite a variety of activities in this book, including some indoor activities and outdoor activities, and things that can be done on car trips. Some of these activities look kind of gross to me (and still would have when I was a kid because I wasn’t one of the kids who was into gross outs), like how to make fake dog barf, but there’s such a wide selection of activities, I’d say that there’s plenty here for anybody to find fun things to do!

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies), along with the sequel to the book, The Encyclopedia of Immaturity, Volume 2.

The Klutz Book of Card Games

The Klutz Book of Card Games for Sharks & Others by the Editors of Klutz Press, 1990.

This book is part of the classic children’s hobby and activity series from Klutz Press. Originally, this book came with a deck of cards, which was attached to the book at the hole in the upper left corner.

The book begins with a brief history of playing cards. The exact origins of playing cards are unknown, but the book describes some notable events in card game history, including the fact that people throughout history have often disapproved of playing cards, identifying them as signs of sloth or believing them to be associated with the devil (probably for their connection with gambling, although the book doesn’t get that specific). The book says that the modern form of the standard 52-card deck with 4 suits of 13 cards solidified around the late 1400s in Europe.

The book then gives instructions for playing various card games, including various types of solitaire and two-player games as well as games for larger groups. The book has the rules for different versions of Poker and Rummy and some childhood classics like War, I Doubt It, Crazy Eights, and Old Maid. For games that involve gambling concepts, like Poker or Michigan, they recommend using M&Ms.

Besides giving the rules for the games, each section also includes a few words about the history of games or some interesting thoughts or facts about them or tips for playing. Many of the thoughts (and some of the history facts) about games are joking, like the tip for Egyptian War, “This game is traditionally played on lunch or picnic tables, when you’re supposed to be taking your tray back.”

At the end of the book, there are instructions for two magic tricks with cards and for building a house of cards.

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