Games From Long Ago

Historic Communities


Games From Long Ago by Bobbie Kalman, 1995.

GamesLongAgoForfeitsThis book is about games people would play in 19th century America.  There is a variety of different types of games, although the main focus is on parlor games.  Many of them have been passed on for generations by word of mouth and are still played today, such  as Charades and Blind Man’s Buff, although the book discusses games that are no longer common.

One important concept in 19th century games was the “forfeit”, where losing players would have to perform a kind of silly stunt. The other players might hold onto an object belonging to the losing player, holding it as hostage until they performed the stunt.  Forfeits were a common part of parlor games.

The book also talks about popular tabletop games such as dominoes, cards, tiddlywinks, and pick-up sticks.  Because dice were often associated with gambling, movements in board games were often determined by spinners or special numbered spinning tops called “teetotums,” which look something like dreidels but with more sides.  Board games for children were often educational, teaching them about subjects like history or geography or moral lessons, rewarding “good” decisions and penalizing “bad” ones (although, since movements in these games were determined by spinners, the players were at the mercy of the random chance as to which of these choices their playing pieces landed on, not making actual good and bad decisions by themselves).


There are also examples of games played at work parties, parties or “bees” organized around farm tasks such as barn-building or harvests.  These parties might include a hay maze (like a corn maze, but with hay sheaves), a game of Gossip (an early version of Telephone, played exactly the same way), or Bobbing for Apples.


There is a short section about games for specific holiday, although there are only three given.  Two of them are for Christmas (one of those is a basic version of Pinata called Bag and Stick), and one for Valentine’s Day.  There are also sections about outdoor games and sports.



Strega Nona


Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola, 1975.

Strega Nona is a witch who lives in a small town and uses her magic to help people in various ways, everything from small cures or love potions.  However, she runs into problems when she hires Big Anthony to help her around her house.  Big Anthony is helpful, but he doesn’t always pay attention or follow orders.


Strega Nona has a magical pot that makes pasta.  To get it to make a never-ending pot full of pasta, she recites a certain rhyme.  To get it to stop making pasta, she recites a different rhyme and blows three kisses to it.

Big Anthony is forbidden to use the pasta pot himself, but he can’t resist telling people in town about it.  At first, no one believes him because it sounds so strange.  Everything thinks he’s just making it up.  Big Anthony is offended that no one believes him, so one day, while Strega Nona is gone, he sets out to prove to everyone that this magical pot exists.

Big Anthony knows the rhyme to get the pot to start making pasta, and he uses it to make pasta for everyone in town so they will know that he was telling the truth.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t really know how to get it to stop because he didn’t know that Strega Nona blows kisses to the pot.  With the pot now sending a massive river of pasta through the town, what can Big Anthony do?

This is a Caldecott Honor Book.


The Five Chinese Brothers


The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese, 1938.

Although this picture book has faced some criticism for promoting Asian stereotypes, it has nostalgic appeal for some people and is still in print.  What I find interesting about it is that it is actually based on an old folktale, Ten Brothers.  Folktales of this type, where people with different types of super-human powers must help each other to overcome obstacles, can be found throughout the world.  Another story on this theme is How Six Made Their Way in the World.

In this story, there is a family in China with five brothers who look alike, except that each brother has a unique super power (listed by birth order):

  • One can swallow the entire sea, although only for a limited amount of time.
  • One has a neck as strong as iron.
  • One can stretch his legs extremely far.
  • One is impervious to fire.
  • One can hold his breath for an unlimited amount of time.

They live in a village by the sea and make at least part of their living by fishing.  One day, a young boy asks to go fishing with the brother who can swallow the sea (they don’t have names in the story, they’re just referred to by ability or birth order).  At first, the brother is reluctant to allow it, but when the boy begs, the brother agrees only on the condition that the boy obey him and return to his side as soon as he gives the signal.  The brother swallows the sea and allows the boy to collect as much fish as he likes from the empty sea bed.  However, the boy gets too wrapped up in all the amazing things he finds on the empty sea bed and ignores the brother’s frantic signals to return.


Finally, the brother cannot hold back the sea any longer and releases it.  The boy drowns, and the brother is arrested for the boy’s death.  The judge decrees that the brother will be executed by having his head cut off.  Before the execution, the brother has a last request: that he be allowed to return home to say good-bye to his mother.  The judge allows it, and the brother switches places with his brother who has a neck like iron.


Needless to say, the execution doesn’t go as planned, and everyone is astonished when the executioner cannot cut off the brother’s head.  The judge decrees that he will be executed by drowning instead.  However, he does grant the brother’s request to say good-bye to his mother once again, giving him the chance to switch places with another brother who can safely face the next ordeal.


The process continues through one form of execution and another as each of the brothers survives, using his own special power.  Finally, the judge decides that if the man (he doesn’t know there’s more than one, apparently) cannot be killed, he must be innocent and pardons him.


Meg Mackintosh and The Mystery at the Medieval Castle


Meg Mackintosh and The Mystery at the Medieval Castle by Lucinda Landon, 1989.

Meg is visiting Dundare Castle with her teacher and some other students.  Dundare Castle is a special museum where people can learn about life in Medieval times, although it used to be a private home.  The owner’s family came from Scotland, and they built their home to look like their ancestors’ castle there.  Eleanor, the owner, now calls herself the Duchess of Dundare, and with her staff, dresses up to recreate the lives of people from the 1300s.


One of the Duchess’s prized possessions is a silver chalice studded with jewels that has been in her family for generations.  She keeps it on display in the castle’s “abbey,” guarded by the actor playing the part of a knight, Knight Henry.  But, when Meg and her classmates get to the abbey, the chalice is gone, and Knight Henry is lying on the floor, unconscious!


Not long before they found Knight Henry, the kids had seen a robed figure run across the courtyard.  Monk William falls under suspicion, although the Duchess doesn’t really believe that he is guilty because he’s been with her family for a long time.  There are other possible suspects, and Meg believes that both the thief and the chalice are still in the castle.

As Meg interviews the other actors in the castle and explores every room, readers are invited to study the pictures and consider the evidence along with Meg.  All of the books in the series invite readers to study clues along with Meg and see if they can solve the mystery before she can.  At various points in the story, there are questions for the reader to consider, giving them the chance to pause and see if they’ve noticed what Meg has seen.


Meg Mackintosh and The Case of the Missing Babe Ruth Baseball


Meg Mackintosh and The Case of the Missing Babe Ruth Baseball by Lucinda Landon, 1986.

MMBaseballAlbumThis is the first book in the Meg Mackintosh series, and it was the first mystery story that I ever read, when I was about seven years old.  It started a life-long love of mysteries!

Meg’s grandfather shows Meg and her friend Liddy some old family photographs and tells them about the time when his cousin Alice took his prize possession: a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth.  Alice was a bossy girl who always liked to tease him, and so she created a kind of treasure hunt, challenging him to solve it in order to get the baseball back.  Unfortunately, he could never figure out the clues and still doesn’t know what happened to the baseball.

Meg’s brother, Peter, has a Detective Club, but he refuses to allow Meg to join, saying that she needs to prove that she can solve a mystery.  Seeing this as her chance, Meg decides that she’s going to solve this old puzzle and find the Babe Ruth baseball!  However, she also has competition from Peter, who thinks that he’s the better detective and tries to send Meg off in the wrong direction.

All of the books in the Meg series allow readers to try to solve the mysteries along with Meg, stopping periodically to ask them if they’ve noticed a clue that Meg has noticed or if they know what the significance of a clue is.  There are pictures to help, and readers are invited to stop and study the details before moving on.

When I was young and just learning what mysteries were, I was fascinated to discover that I already had all of the knowledge I needed to solve this mystery along with Meg because all of the clues to Alice’s treasure hunt had to do with nursery rhymes.


The Twin in the Tavern

TwinTavernThe Twin in the Tavern by Barbara Brooks Wallace, 1993.

Young Taddy has lived with his Aunt and Uncle Buntz in Virginia ever since he can remember. When they die during an epidemic, he is left completely alone and afraid that he will be sent away to a work house. Before his uncle dies, however, he tells Taddy something that gives him even more reason to be afraid. He tells Taddy that nothing is how it seems and that Taddy is not really their nephew. He says that Taddy will only learn the truth when he finds his twin, but he must beware because he is in danger. Unfortunately, he never says where Taddy’s twin is or what kind of danger he is in.

Before Taddy can decide what to do, a couple of thieves, Neezer and Lucky, come to rob the house because they heard that Mr. and Mrs. Buntz were dead. When they discover Taddy in the house, they bring him with them to Alexandria and make him work in their tavern. Taddy is only given scraps to eat and he must sleep under a table in the kitchen with another boy who works for Neezer called Beetle. However, by coincidence, Neezer and Lucky may have brought Taddy to the very place he needs to be to find the answers about his past and his true identity.

Danger seems to lurk around every corner in the city, and Taddy doesn’t know who to trust. Even when Neezer hires him out to work in the home of the wealthy Mrs. Mainyard and her two daughters, sinister characters surround him, from the suspicious Professor Greevy to the stern John Graves, who visits the family.  At one point, Taddy thinks that he’s found his twin, but the boy mysteriously vanishes. Will Taddy find his twin and the secret of his past, or will the danger that his uncle warned him about find him first?

This book was a BOOKLIST Editors Choice Book in 1993 and won the 1994 Edgar Allan Poe Award.

A Ghost in the House

GhostInTheHouseA Ghost in the House by Betty Ren Wright, 1991.

At first, Sarah Prescott enjoyed her family’s new house.  The house wasn’t really new.  Other members of Sarah’s family had lived there before, but it was the first place where Sarah hadn’t had to share a room with her younger brother.  Then, Sarah’s Great-Aunt Margaret came to live with them, and everything changed, in more ways than one.

Aunt Margaret is the one who actually owns the house where Sarah and her family are living.  She’s is elderly and sick and has been living in a nursing home.  The rent that Sarah’s parents pay her pays for her care at the nursing home.  However, Aunt Margaret has been doing a little better, and she would like to come and live with the family.  Having her move in with the family would not only be good for her but for them because Sarah’s father has been in and out of work, and Aunt Margaret wouldn’t charge them rent or at least not much if they all lived together and they helped to take care of her.  However, it would mean some sacrifice on Sarah’s part.

Aunt Margaret had once slept in the beautiful room that Sarah has been using, and Sarah must give it up for her now that she will be living with them.  It’s difficult for her to deal with, but Sarah is also restricted on when she can have friends over because Aunt Margaret needs her rest, and the family’s lack of money means that Sarah won’t be able to go to the concert that everyone at school as been talking about.  These family problems and teen angst could be bad enough, but from the moment that Aunt Margaret moves in, strange and frightening things start happening that only she and her aunt ever witness.

Whenever Sarah and Aunt Margaret are alone in the house, rooms get cold, and Sarah hears weird things like footsteps walking around when no one should be there and a girl’s voice singing that particularly unnerves her aunt.  Sometimes, Aunt Margaret’s things are moved around or broken, and there is something mysterious about an old painting that has been in the house for years.  Over time, Sarah begins to notice that the painting darkens, and sometimes she can see a man in the painting who wasn’t there before.  The presence of the painting also upsets Aunt Margaret, although she refuses to say why.  Although Aunt Margaret at first suspects that Sarah is the cause of some of the weird things that are happening, Aunt Margaret is the actual cause, and she is afraid to admit the dark secret from her past that has come back to haunt her.

A long time ago, when she was young, Aunt Margaret had a best friend called Anne, whose father painted the mysterious painting.  Anne had a very unhappy home life, and when the opportunity arose for Margaret’s family to adopt her, Margaret wasn’t sure if she wanted to share her home with her friend, although she cared for her a great deal.  Because of her hesitation, her parents decided not to adopt Anne.  In her old age, she admits that she was a spoiled girl.  Unfortunately, her friend went to live with other relatives and ended up dying in a fire, so Margaret never had a chance to make things right with her.  Although Anne’s death was a freak accident, Margaret felt guilty because Anne would have lived if her family had adopted her.  Anne’s father also blamed Margaret and her family for not doing more for his daughter, although it was his drunkenness and violence that ruined his home life and led him to give up his daughter in the first place.  Before he died, he threatened revenge against the family in some way.  Now, his vengeful spirit has found a way to use the old painting to reach Margaret once again, and unless Sarah can find a way to stop him, he will make sure that Margaret joins Anne in death . . . and possibly Sarah, too.  However, there is Anne’s spirit to consider.  In life, Anne was the only person who ever stood up to her father.  Would she be willing to do it one more time for Margaret’s sake?

Part of the story is about being willing to sacrifice for the ones you love.  Years ago, Margaret hesitated to give up some of her pampered life for her best friend, and she regretted it forever after.  Sarah also comes to see how her earlier worries about giving up her room and about sleepovers and concerts were petty when compared to helping a relative who loves her.  She also sees how it’s important to do the right thing when there’s time because sometimes there is no opportunity to do it later.

In a way, I felt like the problem was solved rather easily, but there were some pretty scary incidents in the story and a failed attempt to get rid of the painting that brought some suspense.

The Dollhouse Murders

dollhousemurdersThe Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, 1983.

Amy is upset because she constantly has to look after her sister Louann, who has developmental problems. Louann is only a year younger than Amy, but her condition makes her think and act like a small child all the time. Amy loves Louann, but having her around all the time makes it difficult for her do things on her own and to make friends.  It’s frustrating because the girls’ mother doesn’t seem to understand the pressure Amy feels.

One day, she has an argument with her mother about it and runs away to her aunt’s house. Aunt Clare normally lives in Chicago, but she has returned to her home town to sort out the things in her grandparents’ old house. Sympathizing with Amy, Aunt Clare offers Amy the chance to stay with her for a couple of weeks, without Louann.

Aunt Clare and her brother, Amy’s father, used to live with their grandparents when they were young, and Aunt Clare says that she has unhappy memories of that time.  While helping her aunt go through some of the old things in the house, Amy discovers that there is a dollhouse in the attic made to look exactly like the grandparents’ house and dolls which look like the grandparents, Clare, and her brother. Amy thinks the dollhouse is wonderful, but Aunt Clare seems to find it disturbing.

When Aunt Clare refuses to talk about her deceased grandparents, Amy looks at some old newspapers at the library to learn more about them. To her shock, she learns that they were murdered in the house and that the killer was never found. Soon, strange things begin happening with the dollhouse. The dolls move around on their own, and mysterious lights and crying noises can be heard. The dolls seem to be acting out the events of the night of the murder. After all this time, the dolls seem to be trying to tell them something, if they have the courage to listen.

Aside from revealing the murderer’s true identity, the dolls settle other troubling matters in Amy’s family.  For years, Aunt Clare has blamed herself for the way she behaved around the time her grandparents were killed.  She was afraid that something she did might have even led to their deaths.  But, none of it was really her fault, and her grandparents want her to know that she needn’t blame herself anymore.  Amy also comes to terms with her sister’s condition and values her even more highly when Louann’s lack of fear gives Amy the courage to see the dolls’ final message.  Amy’s family also makes changes to help Louann become a little more independent and to allow Amy a little more independence of her own.

The Egypt Game


The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1967.

EgyptGameGirlsApril Hall has come to live with her grandmother (the mother of her deceased father) because her actress mother is touring with a band as a singer.  April’s mother isn’t a big star, although April likes to brag about her and their Hollywood life.  Really, her mother is mostly a vocalist who occasionally gets parts as an extra, hoping for that big break.  April is sure that when her mother gets back from her tour, she will send for her, and they will live together in Hollywood again. Although, from the way her grandmother behaves, it seems as though April may have to prepare herself for living with her for the long term.  April resents her grandmother’s apparent belief that her mother has dumped her because she is unwilling or unable to take care of her.

April is homesick and misses her mother.  To hide her feelings, she tries to act grown-up and ultra-sophisticated, which makes most people regard her as a little weird.  In spite of that, she makes friends with a girl named Melanie, who lives in a nearby apartment and sees through April’s act to her insecurity and creative side.  April has never had many friends (partly because of her mother’s chaotic lifestyle), but Melanie appreciates April’s imagination.  The two girls realize that they both like playing games of pretend and they both have a fascination with Ancient Egypt.  They go to the library and read everything they can find about Egypt, and it sparks the best game from pretend they’ve ever played.  Along with a few other friends, they start pretending to be Ancient Egyptians, building their own Egyptian “temple” and holding rituals in the old junk yard behind a nearby antiques shop.

On Halloween night, the adults try to keep the children together in groups for safety, but the “Egyptians” sneak off alone to conduct one of their “rituals.”  It’s a dangerous thing to do because a child has been murdered in their area.  A young girl who was apparently abducted was later found dead, and people are frightened that other children could be in danger.  Fortunately, the only thing that happens on Halloween is that the Egyptians recruit a couple of new members when some boys from school find out what they’re doing.

However, the game starts taking on a life of its own when it seems that some other, unknown person has also joined in.  As part of their game, the children make up a new ritual and write messages to their “oracle,” asking questions that they want answered. To their surprise, someone starts writing replies.  Whoever is playing oracle and answering their questions, it doesn’t seem to be a child.


EgyptGameCostumesThe children are uneasy about this unexpected game player because frightening things are happening in their neighborhood.  The kids wonder if the mysterious messages could be from the crazed killer who murdered the young girl. People have been looking suspiciously at the loner who owns the antiques store, an older man who everyone calls the Professor.  However, the kids have become too enmeshed in the Egypt game to give it up in spite of their fears.

When April slips out one night to retrieve a text book she left in “Egypt,” she comes frighteningly close to being the killer’s next victim but is rescued with help from the unknown player of the Egypt game.

Although there are mysteries in the story (who killed the girl and who the unknown player of the Egypt game is), the development of the characters, especially April, is really at the heart of the story.  All through the story, what April wants most is for her mother to come for her and take her home again.  April fears that her mother doesn’t love her or want her, and at first, that keeps her from even trying to love the grandmother who took her in and really wants her.  However, she finds comfort when she realizes that she is creating a new life with her grandmother and friends, who really care about her.  Her mother does write to her later about coming to stay for a brief visit with her and her new husband (her acting manager, who she married on short notice without even telling April or inviting her to come to their wedding), but by then, April has started to feel at home in her new home and wants to share Christmas with the people who have been sharing in her life and adventures more than her mother has.  She never even tells her mother about her brush with death.


The characters in the book are diverse, representing different racial backgrounds, ages, and family situations.  Melanie and her younger brother are African American.  Melanie understands more about human nature and how the world works than April does, partly because her mother talks to her about people and explains things.  Melanie realizes from the way that April behaves and how she doesn’t understand certain things, like the fact that there disturbed, dangerous people in the world, that her mother never really talked to her much or explained things when they were living together.  Melanie helps to ground April’s more flighty, insecure personality.  She joins in her imagination games eagerly, but she also helps to bring April more into sync with reality and other people.

The first new player they add to the game, Elizabeth, is Asian and lives with her widowed mother an other siblings.  Like April, she is a little lonely and looking for new friends in her new home.  Each of the kids, like April, have their own inner lives and personalities.  The Egypt game binds them together and provides them with friendship and insights into their lives.

This is a Newbery Honor Book.  There is a sequel called The Gypsy Game.


The Ghost of Windy Hill


The Ghost of Windy Hill by Clyde Robert Bulla, 1968.

GhostWindyHillFamilyIt’s 1851, and Professor Carver of Boston is living in an apartment above a candle shop with his wife and two children, his son Jamie and daughter Lorna.  One day, a man named Mr. Giddings comes to see Professor Carver to request his help.  For years, he has wanted to buy a particular farm with a beautiful house called Windy Hill.  However, when he finally succeeded in buying the house and he and his wife went to live there, his wife became very upset.  She said that she felt strange in the house and that she had seen a ghost.  Now, she is too upset to return to Windy Hill.  Mr. Giddings has heard that Professor Carver once helped a friend get rid of a ghost haunting his house, and he asks the professor if he would be willing to do the same for him.

At first, Professor Carver is reluctant to agree to help.  He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and when he helped his other friend, he didn’t get rid of any ghosts.  His friend had only believed that his house was haunted, and after the professor and his family had stayed there for awhile without experiencing anything unusual, his friend relaxed and was reassured that the house was alright.  Mr. Giddings asks if the professor and his family would be willing to stay at Windy Hill for the rest of summer and see if they see anything unusual.  If they don’t, perhaps Mrs. Giddings will feel better about the house and be willing to return there.  Although the professor is still not that interested in the house, his family is, so he agrees to spend the rest of the summer there, about a month.  His family can escape the summer heat in the city, and he can work on his painting while someone else teaches his class.

GhostWindyHillLadyJamie and Lorna are thrilled by the house, which is much bigger than their apartment in town.  They can each have their own room, and there is an old tower in the house that was built by a former owner, who was always paranoid about Indian attacks (something which had never actually happened).  However, their new neighbors are kind of strange.  Stover, the handyman, warns them that the house is haunted and also tells them about another neighbor, Miss Miggie.  Miss Miggie is an old woman who wanders around, all dressed in white, and likes to spy on people.  There is also a boy named Bruno, who apparently can’t walk and often begs at the side of the road with his pet goat, and his father, Tench, who is often drunk and doesn’t want people to make friends with Bruno.

The kids make friends with both Bruno and Miss Miggie.  Bruno is unfriendly at first, but Lorna brings him cookies, and she and her brother tell him about life in the city.  Miss Miggie brings Lorna a bag of scrap cloth so that she can make a quilt.  Nothing strange has been happening in the house, so the family knows that they will be returning to the city soon, reassuring Mr. Giddings that the house isn’t haunted.

GhostWindyHillBoyThen, strange things do start happening in the house.  The quilt that Lorna has been making disappears and reappears in another room in the middle of the night.  At first, the family thinks maybe she was walking in her sleep because she had done it before, when she was younger.  However, there is someone who has been entering the house without the Carvers’ knowledge, and Jamie and Lorna set a trap that catches the mysterious “ghost.”

As Professor Carver suspected, there is no real ghost at Windy Hill, but this story has a double mystery.  First, there is the matter of the mysterious ghost, who is not there to scare the Carvers away but actually to make them stay.  Then, there is the question of what Mrs. Giddings saw that upset her so much, if anything.

The book is easy to read for younger readers and accompanied by black-and-white pictures.  My only complaint is that some of the pictures are a little dark, and the artist style makes them a little difficult to interpret.