Fog Magic

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer, 1943.

Greta loves fog and always has, although other people can’t understand it.  When she is ten years old, she begins to get the sense that there is something in the fog that she should find.  One day, when she goes looking for a lost cow from her family’s farm, she sees a house in the fog that isn’t there when the fog is gone.  Apparently, there used to be a house on that site, but it’s gone now.  Except when there’s fog.

From then on, Greta loves to walk in the fog.  When she does, she meets people from the past.  One day, she meets a woman named Laura Morrill, who recognizes her as being from the Addington family and says that her name must be Greta.  According to Laura, there’s always a Greta in every generation of Addingtons and that there’s always a child in every generation who has a great love of fog.  Greta’s ability to use the fog to travel back in time and see her town as it once was is apparently inherited.

Greta makes friends with Retha Morill, Laura’s daughter.  However, when Mrs. Morrill gives her a piece of pie to take home, it disappears, making Greta realize that she can’t bring things from the past to the present.  Retha’s parents seem to realize it, too.  When Retha offers her a little silver egg cup to take home, Mrs. Morrill suggests that perhaps it would be better for Greta to leave it at their house and use it when she comes.  Greta also has the feeling that, when the fog starts to lift, she needs to go home, and Mrs. Morrill agrees.

On another day, Greta and Retha spot an older girl in the woods.  Retha seems to know who she is and calls out to her, but she runs from them.  They try to catch up to her, but she gets away, and Retha is upset.  It turns out that the girl is named Ann, and she was falsely accused of theft.  When it was discovered that she hadn’t stolen anything, the townspeople had tried to find her, but she’s been hiding from them ever since, too afraid to come back.  At first, people had thought that maybe she had gone to another town to find work, but now that they know that she’s been living alone in the woods, they’re worried about her.  The story also upsets Greta because she has heard a local ghost story about a girl who haunts the woods after being falsely accused, and Greta takes that to mean that Ann will die.  The Morrills assure her that they will look out for Ann.

Greta is tempted to talk to Retha about her mysterious time traveling in the fog, but Retha stops her from talking about it.  Retha says that even her mother doesn’t want to talk about where Greta goes while she’s not with them, only saying that both men who go to sea and the women who wait for them on shore “have to learn to be content and at peace shut in by their horizon.”  To Greta, that means that she should be content with wherever she is while she’s there and with the fog that allows her to see her friends in the past.

The more Greta visits the Morrills, the more she gets caught up in the lives and troubles of the people living in the past.  At one point, Greta and Retha talk about some of the sad things that have happened to people the Morrills know, and Retha asks Greta if there is sorrow where she lives.  Greta has to admit that there is.  People generally do have their troubles, no matter when they live.  Retha says that her mother says that living and dying are both natural things, so there is no use being sad about them, except when the death is an unnatural one, like in a war.  There is no war going on in Retha’s time, but Greta lives during the time this book was written, in the middle of World War II.  Greta is aware of the war and says that sometimes people have to fight whether they want to or not, but Retha doesn’t think so.  Greta realizes that she can’t make Retha understand the circumstances of the world in the future.

However, as Greta’s twelfth birthday approaches, she has the feeling that things are changing.  Her birthday will be the last time that she can visit her fog friends, but they give her a special present to remember them by.  Greta’s father seems to know what Greta has been doing in the fog, and he reveals to her, without actually saying it, that he once did the same thing himself.  He says that when people grow up, they leave the things of childhood behind, but each of them is able to keep a special birthday gift from the past as a reminder that some things do last.

The ending of the story implies that, although Greta’s adventures in the fog were real, not purely imaginary, she has to give them up to make room for the new things that will enter her life as she grows up.  Her life lies in her present and future, so she can’t keep going back to the past.  However, her experiences with her friends in the past are part of what has made her more mature, and they will stay with her forever.

The idea of magic and magical adventures ending at a certain age, as the person begins to grow up, is a classic idea in children’s literature. Sometimes, in other books, it’s implied that the reason this happens is because the “magic” was all imaginary, and the child in the story grew out of that particular kind of imagining, but that isn’t the case in this story. The explanation in this book for why the magic has to end is simple but makes sense. The characters don’t really analyze the issue too deeply, simply taking it in stride. We never find out why this particular family seems to have this tradition of going back in time in the fog as children, and the characters seem to decide that there is no reason to find out why. Unlike in some modern books, there doesn’t seem to be any particular mission for Greta (or her father or any other generations before her) to fulfill in her time traveling. She is mostly an observer of the events in the past, not really participating in them directly or changing them in any way. She doesn’t even seem to influence the thoughts or attitudes of people in the past much. When she talks about the concept of war with Retha, she doesn’t try to change Retha’s mind about it or tell her about World War II and other future events because she realizes that each of them really belongs to two different times and sets of circumstances, and each of them needs to live in their own time, dealing with their own situations. It is their differing situations which give them their attitudes. The Morrills seem to be aware that Greta comes from the future, but they treat the subject carefully, never directly stating where she is from, just hinting at it. From they way they act, it seems as though they’ve met other members of Greta’s family before, but again, the ties between their two families (if any) are never explained, and none of them seems to want to delve too deeply into the matter. For the most part, they just seem to take the whole situation as being a natural part of life in their families and in the area where they live, something just to be enjoyed and not questioned. In fact, some of their attitudes seem to imply that they fear questioning too deeply, as if that in itself might end the magic too soon.

Although the story leaves the reasons behind the time traveling very open and unresolved (probably, other children in Greta’s family will be doing this in the future, also not really knowing why), it is really a very calm story. Not having a special mission to complete in the past leaves Greta free to simply enjoy the company of the people in the past, observing their lives without the stress of needing to solve their problems for them, and readers can similarly enjoy the ride without worrying that anything really bad will happen. You do end up being interested in what happens to some of the characters, like the woman who is in danger of losing her family’s home, but events unfold in the way Greta knows they will. She’s sad when she knows that certain people are going to die (not the woman whose home was in danger, that works out well) and there is nothing she can do about it, but it all seems to be part of the natural circle of life, something that matures Greta when she realizes it.

One of the fun things that I liked about the book were some of the unusual first names of the characters, like Retha, Eldred (Retha’s father), and Ardis (Mrs. Stanton).

The book is a Newbery Honor Book. It is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The House Without a Christmas Tree

The House without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock, 1974.

Addie Mills starts the story reminiscing about a special Christmas that she had when she was young and living in a small town in Nebraska with her father and grandmother in the year 1946. The story talks about the things that she did with her friends while they were getting ready for Christmas and buying presents for each other and such, but it mostly centers on how badly Addie wants a Christmas tree.

Addie is ten years old, and she can’t remember ever having a Christmas tree in the house. Apparently, the last time there was a tree in the house was when Addie’s mother was still alive, when Addie was a baby. Addie tries to talk to her father about it, but he just gets angry. Addie’s father doesn’t want a Christmas tree because it reminds him of Addie’s mother, and he still misses her.

Addie feels self-conscious because other families have Christmas trees, and she schemes to find a way to get one. When Addie wins a tree in a guessing contest at school, beating a girl from a needier family, Addie’s father gets angry and makes a scene, which makes Addie feel terrible. She gives the tree to the other family, and worries that her father doesn’t really love her.  Seeing Addie’s desperation, Addie’s grandmother lectures Addie’s father, saying that his grief over his dead wife is keeping him from being happy and is making his daughter miserable too.  In the end, Addie’s father sees the importance of the tree to Addie and decides that it’s time the family had one again.

I like the story because the characters are very realistic. Addie and her father, like real people, often find it difficult to communicate and understand each other, but in the end, family love wins over the situation. Addie does get the tree she’s been longing for, and for the first time, her father talks to her about her mother.

This book is a little unusual in that the movie version came first, and then the book was written.  Sometimes, you can find the movie or clips of it on YouTube.  The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.  There are also other books in the Addie Mills series.

Changes for Molly

American Girls

MollyChanges

Changes for Molly by Valerie Tripp, 1988.

MollyChangesLetterMolly’s family has wonderful news!  Molly’s father is coming home from the war to take charge of a veterans’ hospital right in their home town!  Everyone in the McIntire is happy, but Molly has one worry: In her father’s letter, he talked about how much her brothers and sister have grown and changed since he’s been away, but not her.  Molly still feels like plain old Molly, and she thinks that her father will look at her like she’s still a dumb little kid.  What can she do to show her father that she’s grown in the last two years, like her siblings have?

One thing she can do is get the role of Miss Victory in her dance school’s performance.  She’s favored to get the party anyway because she dances it so well.  But, with her plain, old, straight braids, Molly thinks that she looks too plain and little-kid like to get the part.  What she wants more than anything is to have curls.  Miss Victory’s pretty crown would look great on a girl with a head full of curls.

MollyChangesPinCurlsHer friends try to help her by buying a box of hair permanent and offering to help her use it, but it soon becomes obvious that they really don’t know what they’re doing.  Fortunately, Molly’s older sister, Jill, catches them before their experiment goes too far and talks them out of it.  Molly’s older sister likes to trade hair tips with her friend, Dolores, and she’s more experienced with doing hair.  She says that if curls are important to Molly, she’ll help her to set her hair in pin curls until it looks the way she wants.

As Jill helps Molly with her hair, Molly talks to her about how grown up she is and how she still feels like such a kid who hasn’t changed much since their father went away.  Jill says that she doesn’t think that it’s true.  Jill is five years older than Molly, and she tells her that growing up is something that takes time.  A ten-year-old like Molly just isn’t going to be the same as a fifteen-year-old like Jill, and she shouldn’t try to be.  Jill says that the war and their father’s absence has made them all grow up a little faster than they would have otherwise.  They’ve had to become more mature, more accustomed to making little sacrifices and making do.  In a way, Jill envies Molly for having some of her childhood left to spend with their father when he comes home.  Jill has already left a lot of hers behind.  But, she says that even if Molly doesn’t look very different on the outside, she’s changed somewhat on the inside.  She’s developed a more mature outlook on the world.  She’s become more aware of some of realities of life and what’s important (at one point in the story, she and her friends talk about the people they know who have returned from the war permanently injured and some, like their teacher’s fiancé, who were killed and will never come back), and she’s starting thinking about other people more (Jill reminds Molly of how understanding and generous she became when Emily was staying with them).  Molly just wishes that she would look more mature on the outside, too.  More than anything, she hopes that her father will arrive home in time to see her as a beautiful Miss Victory!

Molly gets part of her wish in getting the role of Miss Victory, but it seems like everything is ruined when she comes down with a bad ear infection and won’t be able to be in the performance at all.  Her father’s arrival home is also delayed, so Molly is stuck at home alone while everyone else is at the performance.  But, just when Molly is feeling horrible and gloomy, what seems like a disappointment turns into something good when she is the first person to welcome her father home, a father who is glad to see her looking just the way he remembered her, braids and all!

In the back of the book, there is a section of historical information about the end of World War II and what happened when soldiers began returning home.

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Molly’s Surprise

American Girls

MollySuprise

Molly’s Surprise by Valerie Tripp, 1986.

MollySurpriseFamilyChristmas hasn’t been the same in the McIntire house since Molly’s father went overseas as a doctor during World War II.  As Molly writes her father a letter before Christmas, she and her mother and siblings talk about whether or not he might send them presents.  Molly is sure that he’ll send something and adds a “thank you” to the letter she’s writing, but her older sister, Jill, is less sure and worries that he’ll feel bad if Molly thanks him for presents that he was unable to send.  The boys talk about whether or not any presents that he might send could be shot down before reaching them, and Brad, the youngest child in the family worries about whether Santa might get shot down, too.  The children’s mother reassures them, but it’s just another sign of how the war has changed the feeling of Christmas.

MollySurpriseTreeBuyingJill tries to be realistic and tells Molly that she should be, too.  Jill thinks that there probably won’t be many presents this year, and what they get will be mostly practical things, handmade gifts, or hand-me-downs because of war rationing and the family’s need to be frugal.  Everyone is determined to be practical and patriotic, but Molly finds all this “realistic” talk depressing.  When her father was home, Christmas was always a time of surprises, and she likes to believe that, somehow, he will still find a way to surprise them.

When the children’s grandparents call and say that they won’t be able to come after all because of car trouble, and they won’t be able to bring them a Christmas tree as promised.  The kids are depressed, but Molly says that they’ll just have to do as their mother told her earlier and rely on themselves to make their own Christmas surprises this year.  Jill, Ricky, and Molly pool their money and go out to buy a tree.  As in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the only tree they can afford is small and scrawny, but it’s better than no tree at all.

MollySurprisePackageOnce they get the tree decorated, it looks much better.  As they decorate the tree, Jill admits that some of her attitudes about how this Christmas should be different and more simple from others is because she really misses their father, and when everything looks the same as it did before he left, it just reminds her of how much she misses him.  Molly also admits that she doesn’t really care what presents their father sends; she’s only worried that, if a package doesn’t arrive, it might mean that something bad had happened to him.  All of the kids want the reassurance that their father is still okay.

The next day, when the children go out to play in the snow, they find the package from their father that they’ve been waiting for!  However, there is a note on the package that says, “KEEP HIDDEN UNTIL CHRISTMAS DAY!”  Probably, their father wanted their mother to hide the package from the children, but since Molly and Jill are the first to find it, they decide to do the hiding themselves, putting the box in the storage room above the garage.  Jill thinks they should tell their mother about it, but Molly persuades her to wait because she doesn’t want to ruin their father’s surprise.

MollySurpriseRadioOn Christmas Eve, the girls retrieve the box and put it under the tree after everyone else is asleep.  However, that’s not the end of the Christmas surprises.  Their father has one more special surprise for them . . .

There is a section in the back of the book with historical information about Christmas during World War II.  Many families couldn’t be together during the war because families members were overseas and because many civilians limited their traveling during the war in order to save gasoline.  In fact, speed limits were greatly reduced in order to save gas – the “Victory Speed Limit” restricted people to driving no faster than 35 mph.  Public transit, like trains and buses, was often needed to transport soldiers, so civilians avoided traveling as much as possible.

MollySurpriseHistorical

People also had to get creative about Christmas treats because some essential ingredients, like butter and sugar, were rationed.  People also made their own decorations.  The selection of toys was somewhat limited because factories had been converted to making war materials, and many families gave their children practical gifts. However, there were still toys available, and people managed to give their children a few special surprises.

Happy Birthday, Molly

American Girls

MollyBirthday

Happy Birthday, Molly! By Valerie Tripp, 1987.

MollyBirthdayEmilyMolly is excited because she has just learned that an English girl will be coming to stay with her family for a while.  The girl, Emily, is one of the child evacuees from London.  Really, she’s supposed to be staying with her aunt, who also lives in Molly’s town, but her aunt is in the hospital with pneumonia and won’t be able to take her for another couple of weeks.  In the meantime, Molly and her friends are eager to meet her, imagining her to be something like the English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

The girls have a fascination for England after all the things they’ve seen in movies and newsreels.  Recently, they saw a newsreel about bomb shelters in England.  Inspired by what they’ve seen, the girls make a pretend bomb shelter under an old table and enjoy pretending that they are like the people in the newsreel.  Molly’s brother, Ricky, says that it isn’t very realistic, and the girls say that they’ll have to ask Emily when she comes.

MollyBirthdayBlackOutHowever, Emily turns out to be very shy and quiet.  She’s pale and skinny and hardly talks at first.  When the girls show her their “bomb shelter”, she doesn’t want to play in it.  Molly thinks that maybe Emily doesn’t like them, but her mother reminds her that, in World War II England, bomb shelters aren’t places to play.  Emily is the same age as Molly, and the war has been going on since she was a little kid.  Molly’s mother points out that Emily probably doesn’t remember much about life before the war.  Emily is accustomed to bombings and danger all around her, and Molly’s mother compares her to a flower “who’s not sure it’s spring yet.  It will take some time for her to realize it’s safe to come out now.”

Emily goes to Molly’s school, and their classmates are fascinated with her.  This fascination makes Emily even more shy than she would be otherwise as kids try to imitate her accent and ask her questions about what it’s like to see buildings bombed.  To the America kids, the war seems exciting, and they want to know what it’s like to see it up close, but Emily dodges their questions.

Molly finally comes to understand why Emily is so evasive when their town has a blackout drill.  When the drill starts, a siren sounds, and everyone has to go down into their basements until they get the signal that it’s all clear.  Molly is surprised to see that Emily is actually frightened by the drill, but everyone assures her that it’s just for practice, not because Illinois is actually going to be bombed.  In Molly’s family, it’s almost like a game, but Emily has memories of real bombings during the Blitz.  As they sit in the basement during the drill, Emily explains it to Molly: the fear, the explosions, destroyed buildings, people getting hurt or killed.  Molly and her friends thought it was exciting to hear about the war in newsreels, but living it is an entirely different thing.  The drill and everyone’s questions about what bombings are like bring back bad memories for Emily.

As Molly comes to understand Emily’s feelings more, Emily opens up to her.  The girls discover that they share a fascination with Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose.  They start playing a game where they pretend to be the princesses, dressing alike in blue skirts and sweaters.  Because the princesses have pet dogs, the girls also pretend that they have dogs, using jump ropes as leashes for their imaginary pets.

MollyBirthdayPrincessesMolly’s birthday is approaching, and she offers to let Emily share in her party and help plan it.  She’s curious about what people in England do on their birthdays, and the idea of an English tea party sounds great to her friends.  However, Molly doesn’t like the way that Emily describes English birthdays, and the types of sandwiches that the English tea with tea don’t sound very good.  Worst of all, Emily says that, at her last birthday before the war rationing started, she had a lemon tart instead of a cake.  Molly can’t imagine her birthday without a birthday cake.  Mrs. Gilford, the housekeeper, has been saving up rationed goods for her cake this year, and it’s what she’s been looking forward to the most!

Sharing things with Emily becomes more of a trial for Molly, and when the girls argue about their countries’ contributions to the war effort, they get into a fight and Molly starts thinking that she doesn’t even want Emily at her birthday party.  However, Molly’s mother points out to the girls that the war effort is a team effort.  A couple of special birthday surprises help the girls to make up, including something extra special that helps Emily to heal further from the trauma of the war.

In the Molly, An American Girl movie, Emily plays a larger role than she did in the books.  This is the only book in the series where Emily appears.  Her story was changed somewhat for the movie, too.  In the movie, she says that her mother was killed in a bombing.  In the book, her parents are both still alive, and it was her dog who was killed.  Molly doesn’t learn that until the end of the book when her family gives the girls a pair of puppies as a present, and Emily tells her about her pet dog who died.

In the back of the book, there’s a section with historical information about what it was like to grow up in the 1940s.  It explains how women used to stay in the hospital for about a week after giving birth, and sometimes, they could hire a practical nurse to help them at home as well.  Canned baby food was a new invention, and vaccines helped to prevent disease.  Back then, people still got smallpox shots because the disease hadn’t been eradicated, but there was still nothing to prevent chicken pox or measles, so children with those diseases had to be kept at home with warning signs out front to tell people to stay away from the quarantined house.  (Note: My father was born in 1944, the year that this series takes place, and he said that throughout his early childhood, parents who knew of a child who had chicken pox would deliberately take their children to visit and get the disease.  It wasn’t that they really wanted their children to get sick, but since there was no way to prevent the disease at the time, they had to accept that it was inevitable that their child would catch it eventually, and chicken pox is somewhat peculiar in that there is a kind of age window in which the disease isn’t likely to be too bad.  If you waited too long, and the child got older or even to adulthood without getting it, it was bound to be much worse when they eventually caught it.  So, if your child was about the right age for getting it, in early childhood but no longer a baby, people thought it was best to get it over with so they could benefit from the lifetime immunity afterward.  This remained true even up through the 1980s, my early childhood, which is why I have a permanent scar on my face from the disease.  Now, there are vaccines to prevent it, although I understand that some people still have chicken pox parties in places where the vaccine isn’t readily available. If you have the option, go for the vaccine.  Preventing chicken pox also prevents shingles.)

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The historical section also talks about child evacuees, like Emily, and what teenagers did during the 1940s.  It was around this time that people began looking at the teenage years as being a distinct phase of life, and businesses began specifically catering to teenagers.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

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The Unbreakable Code

UnbreakableCode

The Unbreakable Code by Sara Hoagland Hunter, illustrated by Julia Miner, 1996.

A young boy, John, is upset because his mother has recently remarried, to a man from Minnesota.  Now, John is faced with the prospect of moving to Minnesota, and he doesn’t want to go.  He would much rather stay with his grandfather on his farm on the Navajo Reservation.  His grandfather points out that he’ll return in the summer, but that hardly seems good enough.  Then, his grandfather tells him that he’ll be okay because “You have an unbreakable code.”

UnbreakableCodeJohnGrandfather

John asks what his grandfather means by that, and he says that the Navajo language is the unbreakable code.  John worries that he’ll forget how to speak Navajo, but his grandfather says that he never did even though he had to attend a government boarding school at a young age and that the language saved his life during World War II.  John’s grandfather was a code talker.

John’s grandfather tells John the story of how he became a Code Talker, starting with when he was at boarding school.  The purpose of the government “Indian Schools” was to assimilate Native Americans into white American culture.  They were known for forcing their students to abandon traditional clothing, cut their hair, take English names, and speak only English.  John’s grandfather describes having to chew on soap whenever he was caught speaking Navajo.  He was only allowed to return home during the summer to help his family with their sheep and crops.

UnbreakableCodeBoardingSchool

Then, when he was in his teens, during World War II, he heard an announcement on the radio that the Marines were looking for young Navajo men who could speak both English and Navajo.  Seeing it has a chance to escape, he ran away from school and enlisted.  After life at a harsh boarding school, the military marches and drills were no problem, and all of the Navajos already had wilderness survival skills.

After they had completed basic training, they were told that they were needed for a secret mission in the Pacific.  The Japanese had intercepted American radio transmissions and broken the codes they were using.   The Marines wanted Navajo speakers because the language was almost unknown outside of the United States, not many non-Navajos had ever learned it, and at that point in its history, the language had not been recorded in writing, so there was no way that the Japanese could research it and learn it.  The Marines and code talkers developed a system of code words in Navajo and military terms to use, so it wasn’t as simple as just speaking the language plainly.  The system was highly effective.

UnbreakableCodeTalker

John’s grandfather goes on to tell John about how bloody the war was and how his life was constantly at risk.  Once, another American soldier even mistook him for a Japanese spy because he didn’t know what language he was speaking.  Fortunately, one of his friends intervened and saved his life.

UnbreakableCodeWar

The code was never broken during the war, and John’s grandfather eventually made it home safely.  However, the code talkers were not hailed as heroes because, for many years, the government wanted to keep the code a secret.  No one was allowed to talk about it.  John’s grandfather was glad to return to a peaceful life on his farm.

UnbreakableCodeReturnHome

His grandfather’s story gives John the courage that he needs to face moving to a new place.  After all, his grandfather had been to far more frightening places and faced them with courage.  Knowing his family’s history gives John a new sense of his own identity and the knowledge that his identity and language will remain with him wherever he goes.

Even though this is a picture book, it isn’t really a book for very young children.  There are descriptions of the blood and violence of the war that would be more appropriate for older children.  There is a brief note from the author at the beginning of the book that explains a little about World War II and code talkers, and at the end of the book, there are charts that demonstrate how the code worked.  This book is an a good way to introduce students to the topic of code talkers if they have never heard of them before.

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In modern times, there is a written form for the Navajo language, and since I grew up in Arizona, the colleges I attended had classes in Navajo for those who wanted to study the language.  I used to see the books for the classes in the school book stores, although I never studied Navajo myself.  I met one of the code talkers once when he came to speak at our school.  I believe that there are a few who are still alive at the time of this writing.

This book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Molly Learns a Lesson

MollyLesson

Molly Learns a Lesson by Valerie Tripp, 1986.

MollyLessonHideoutIn 1944, everyone is concerned with finding ways to help the war effort.  In Molly’s third grade class at school, her teacher announces that their class is invited to participate in the Lend-a-Hand contest.  The class will be divided in half, and each half will compete against the other to find the best way to help the war effort.  The class decides to make the contest boys against girls, and Molly immediately starts trying to figure out a spectacular idea that will impress everyone.  Unfortunately, one of the other girls says that the girls in class should knit socks for soldiers, and the teacher accepts that as the goal for the girls’ team, before Molly can say anything.

MollyLessonCollectingMolly is appalled at the idea of knitting socks.  It’s partly that she had wanted to be the one to come up with the best idea, and it’s also partly because she has tried knitting before, and she knows that socks are difficult, time-consuming projects, especially for beginning knitters.  Molly is sure that the other girls are going to find it too difficult and that, in the end, they’ll have nothing to show for their project.  Her friend Susan doesn’t think that the project sounds so bad, but Linda also dreads the idea of knitting because she’s not very good at it.  Talking it over in their secret hideout in the storage area of Molly’s garage, the three girls decide that they’ll work on a secret project by themselves, something that will save the day when the other girls’ project falls through.

At first, the idea of doing something in secret sounds exciting.  However, coming up with a good secret project and seeing it through turn out to be more difficult than they expected.  All they can think of to do is to collect bottle tops for scrap metal, and as they go door to door in the rain, asking for them, they learn that most people have already given theirs to the Boy Scouts who were collecting scrap metal.  Tired, wet, and discouraged, the Molly and her friends decide to look in on the other girls and see what progress they’re making.

MollyLessonBlanketThe other girls are certainly a lot more comfortable, knitting inside.  However, as Molly predicted, they are finding their project harder than they thought it would be.  None of them has completed an entire sock yet; all they really have are the square shapes at the top of the sock, and they’re getting discouraged.  That’s when Molly gets a better idea: why not take the squares they’ve made and turn them into a blanket?  Simple squares are much easier to make than socks, they can make a lot of them quickly with everyone helping, and the girls who can’t knit well can sew the squares together.  A blanket is still a good war effort project because Molly’s father has told her that the hospital where he works is always in need of blankets for the wounded soldiers.  With this new idea, the other girls become much more excited, and they make more progress.

The theme of this story is that working together and sharing ideas benefits everyone more than working alone or trying to be too competitive.  Molly’s first ideas weren’t very good by themselves, and neither was the sock-knitting idea.  However, when Molly and her friends join the other girls, Molly finds a way to help them build on the idea that they already had (knitting) and take it in a better direction.  Molly and her friends also explain to the other girls about the bottle tops they were trying to collect, and some of them think of other places where Molly and her friends didn’t go for their collecting.  All of the girls working together manage to finish the blanket and collect 100 bottle tops in a single day, surprising and pleasing their teacher.

In the back of the book, there is a section with historical information about what it was like to go to school in America during World War II.  Discipline was more strict than it was in schools during the late 20th century, and there was also more separation between boys and girls.  Sometimes, boys and girls going to the same school and attending the same classes played on completely separate playgrounds, and sometimes, they even had to enter and exit the school through different doors (this is something that was also mentioned in the book Cheaper By the Dozen, which takes place during the late 1910s/early 1920s).  Teachers emphasized patriotism and taught the children about the war, why soldiers were fighting, and what life was like in other countries that were involved in the war.  It was common for schools to have drives to collect scrap metal or other materials to help the war effort.  Special projects like knitting clothing or blankets for soldiers were also popular.

MollyLessonHistory

Meet Molly

Molly, An American Girl

MeetMolly

Meet Molly by Valerie Tripp, 1986.

MeetMollyThreatMolly McIntire misses her father, who is a doctor stationed in England during World War II.  Things haven’t been the same in her family since he left.  Treats are more rare because of the sugar rationing, and she now has to eat yucky vegetables from her family’s victory garden all the time, under the watchful eyes of the family’s housekeeper.  Her mother, while generally understanding, is frequently occupied with her work with the Red Cross.  Molly’s older sister, Jill, tries to act grown-up, and Molly thinks that her brothers are pests, especially Ricky, who is fond of teasing.  However, when Molly and her friends tease Ricky about his crush on a friend of Jill’s, it touches off a war of practical jokes in their house.

MeetMollyHalloweenTrickHalloween is coming, and she wants to come up with great costume ideas for herself and her two best friends, Linda and Susan.  Her first thought is that she’d like to be Cinderella, but her friends are understandably reluctant to be the “ugly” stepsisters, and Molly has to admit that she wouldn’t really like that role, either.  Also, Molly doesn’t have a fancy dress, and her mother is too busy to make one and also doesn’t think that they should waste rationed cloth on costumes.  Instead, she suggests that the girls make grass skirts out of paper and go as hula dancers.  The girls like the idea, but Halloween doesn’t go as planned.

Everyone loves the girls’ costumes, and they collect a good number of treats in spite of the war rationing, but Ricky takes his revenge for their earlier teasing by spraying them with water and ruining their costumes and all of their treats.  When the girls get home, and Mrs. McIntire finds out what happened, she punishes Ricky by making him give the girls the treats that he’s collected, except for one, which she allows him to keep.  However, to the girls, this seems like light punishment, and they’re offended that he got off so lightly.

MeetMollyRevengeBecause he laughed at the girls, saying that he could see their underwear after he sprayed them with water and ruined their skirts, the girls decide to play a trick that will give Ricky his just desserts.  The next time that Jill’s friend comes to visit, the girls arrange to have Jill and her friend standing underneath Ricky’s bedroom window when they start throwing all of his underwear out the window, right in front of Ricky.  Ricky screams at the girls that “this is war!” just as their mother arrives home.

Their mother makes it clear that war is a serious thing, not a joke.  There is a real war on, and their childish pranks are wasting time and resources (like the food that Ricky ruined on Halloween – sugar is rationed, and some of their neighbors had gone to a lot of trouble to save their rations to give the kids a few treats).  She also points out that this is how real wars start, with “meanness, anger, and revenge.”  Faced with the reality of what they were doing, Molly and Ricky apologize to each other and clean up the messes that they each made under their mother’s direction.

In the back of the book, there is a section of historical information about what life was like for civilians in America during World War II.  People with relatives overseas worried about them, but people in service had to be careful about what they said in letters home, in case those letters were intercepted by enemy forces.  Some of the luxury goods that people were accustomed to having became more scarce, although the rationing wasn’t as bad in the United States as it was in Europe (this is covered more in a later book in the series) because certain types of materials had to be saved for the war effort (like the metals used to make cans for food, which is why victory gardens were important) and because factories that ordinarily made civilian goods were converted to make equipment for the armed forces.  For example, they mention that car factories were making things like tanks and airplanes and clothing factories were making tents and uniforms.  People referred to the efforts that civilians were making to save needed materials for the war as “fighting on the home front,” reminding themselves and others that the small sacrifices that they made each day, like driving their cars less to save gas or raising food for their families, helped to make a big difference for a larger cause.

Pippi Longstocking

PippiLongstocking

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, 1950.

Pippi Longstocking is an iconic figure in children’s literature, a little red-haired girl with amazing strength (she can lift a horse all by herself) and a quick wit, who can “always come out on top” in any situation and is frequently doing exciting (and hilarious) things without adult supervision. The books in her series were originally from Sweden, with the first one written in 1945, but I’m reading a later English translation.

In the first book, she comes to live by herself in a house, which she calls Villa Villekulla, in a small town in Sweden when her father, a ship’s captain, is washed overboard at sea.  Although others fear that he is dead, Pippi thinks it more likely that he was washed up on an island of cannibals, where he will soon be making himself their king.  (Of course, Pippi turns out to be right, but that’s getting ahead of the story.) Her mother died when she was a baby, so Pippi now lives all by herself, except for her pet monkey and horse. She pays for the things she needs with money from the suitcase of gold coins that her father left for her and spends her time doing just as she pleases.

PippiLongstockingBulliesTommy and Annika, the children who live next door to Ville Villekulla, are perfectly ordinary, basically obedient children, who live normal lives with their parents. When Pippi moves in next door, their lives get a lot more exciting. The first time they meet her, she’s walking backward down the street. When they ask her why she’s doing that, she says that everyone walks that way in Egypt. Tommy and Annika quickly realize that she’s making that up, and Pippi admits it, but she’s such an interesting person that they accept her invitation to join her for breakfast. They’re amazed when they find out that Pippi has no parents, only a monkey and a horse living with her, and are entertained by the tall tales that she tells.

When they go back to see her the next day, Pippi tells them that she’s a “thing-finder” and invites them to come and look for things with her. Basically, Pippi is a kind of scavenger, looking for valuable things, or things that might be useful, or (which is more likely) just any old random junk that she might happen across. Pippi does find some random junk, although she makes sure that Tommy and Annika find better things (probably by hiding them herself).

PippiLongstockingSchoolThen, the children see a group of bullies beating up another boy and decide to intervene. The meanest of the bullies, Bengt, starts picking on Pippi, but picking on a girl with super strength isn’t the wisest move. She picks him up easily and drapes him over a tree branch. Then, she takes care of his friends, too.

Word quickly spreads through town about this strange girl. Some of the adults become concerned that such a young girl seems to be living on her own. A couple of policemen come to the Ville Villekulla one day to take Pippi to a children’s home, but she saucily tells them that she already has a children’s home because she’s a child and she’s at home. Then, she tricks them into playing a bizarre game of tag that ends with them being stuck on the roof of the house. The policemen decide that perhaps Pippi can take care of herself after all and give up.

PippiLongstockingPicnicTommy and Annika try to persuade Pippi to come to school with them, but that doesn’t work out, either. Pippi, completely unfamiliar with the routine of school, thinks that the teacher is weirdly obsessed with numbers because she keeps demanding that her students give her the answers to math problems that Pippi thinks she should be able to solve on her own. The teacher concludes that school may not be for Pippi, at least not at this point in her life.

Tommy and Annika delight in the wild things that Pippi does, like facing off with a bull while they’re on a picnic, accepting a challenge to fight a strongman at the circus, and throwing a party with a couple of burglars.  When they invite Pippi to their mother’s coffee party, and their mother’s friends begin talking about their servants and how hard it is to find good help, Pippi (having already devastated the buffet of desserts and made a mess in general) jumps in with a series of tall tales about a servant that her grandparents had, interrupting everyone else.  Tommy and Annika’s mother finally decides that she’s had enough and sends Pippi away.  Pippi does leave, but still continuing the story about the servant on the way out, yelling out the punchline from down the street.

PippiLongstockingRescueHowever, Pippi becomes a local hero when she saves some children from a fire after the fireman decide that they can’t reach them themselves.

I have to admit that, as a character, Pippi sometimes annoys me with her obvious lies and some of the stuff she does. She openly admits that she lies after telling some of her tall tales, but it’s the parts where she admonishes her listeners not to be so gullible that get to me. You can tell that her listeners aren’t really fooled at all; they’re just trying to be polite by not calling her a liar directly, and then she insults them for it. Maybe it’s Pippi who’s really the gullible one, thinking that she’s fooling people when she isn’t really.  Admittedly, Pippi’s wild stories are sometimes amusing.  I liked the one where she claimed that the reason why other people don’t believe in ghosts is that all of the ghosts in the world live in her attic and play nine-pins with their heads.  (When Tommy and Annika go up there to see them, there aren’t any, of course, and Pippi says that they must be away at a conference for ghosts and goblins.)  I just don’t like it that Pippi seems to be deliberately trying to make people look dumb when she’s the one saying all the stupid stuff and it’s really obvious that people know it. I also don’t like the part where she makes such a mess at the coffee party because she seems to be trying to be a messy pain on purpose.  She insists that it’s just because she doesn’t know how to behave, but I get the sense that it’s just an excuse and that Pippi just likes to pretend to be more ignorant than she is, pushing limits just because she likes to and because she usually gets away with it.  I didn’t think it was very funny.  But, Tommy and Annika seem to just appreciate Pippi’s imagination, enjoying Pippi’s antics, which bring excitement and chaos to a world controlled by sensible adults (which can be boring to kids) and accepting Pippi’s stories for the tall tales they are, playing along with her.

Pippi herself is really a tall tale, with her super strength, her father the cannibal king, and her ability to turn pretty much any situation her to advantage.  Part of her ability to “come out on top” is due to her super strength and part of it is that Pippi approaches situations from the attitude that she’s already won and isn’t answerable to anyone but herself.  This approach doesn’t always work in real life (I can’t recommend trying it on any of your teachers, or worse still, your boss – not everyone is easily impressed, especially the people who pay your salary), and nobody in real life has Pippi’s super strength to back it up, but the adults in the story frequently let Pippi win because they decide that fighting with her just isn’t worth it.  Kids delight in Pippi’s ability to get the better of the adults, who usually have all the control, and in Pippi’s freedom to do what she wants in all situations.

One thing that might surprise American children reading this story is that the children in the story drink coffee. Tommy and Annika say that they are usually only allowed to drink it at parties, although Pippi has it more often. It isn’t very common for American children to drink coffee in general because it’s usually considered more of an adult’s drink and because of concerns about the effects of too much caffeine on young children. Children in Scandinavia tend to drink coffee at a younger age than kids in the United States.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick

BedKnobBroomstickBed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton, 1943, 1947.

This book is actually two books in one.  The title Bed-Knob and Broomstick is the one used for editions that include both the first book, The Magic Bed-Knob, and the sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks.  Together, these two books were the basis for the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although the plot of the movie is considerably different from the two books. Because the movie is based on both of the books at once and because I read the combined edition, I’ll explain the plots of both of the books in one post.

There are two major differences between the movie and books that change many other things about the plot. The first one is that there is no mention of World War II in the books. Miss Price was not studying magic to help the war effort, and the children were only in the countryside for vacation, not because they were evacuated there. Also, in the books, Emelius Jones (Emelius Brown in the movie) was a man they met when they traveled through time, not a man living in London during their own time.  He was not involved in Miss Price learning magic, although the two of them do end up together in the end.

At the beginning of the first book, the three Wilson children – Carey (who is described as being “about your age”), Charles (“a little younger”), and Paul (six years old) – are spending the summer with their Aunt Beatrice in Bedfordshire. There is never any mention of the children’s father in the books. Probably, their father is dead, although he might have left the family and went to live elsewhere or may be fighting overseas, although there is no mention of that in the book, making me think that it is probably not the case. The children apparently live with only their mother in London, and because she works, she always needs to find somewhere for them to stay during the summer, when they’re out of school. (This is a major point in both of the books.)  While the children stay with Aunt Beatrice, they enjoy playing in the countryside, and one day, they happen to meet Miss Price, who they find with an injured ankle.

Miss Price is a respectable spinster from the village who gives piano lessons and is often seen riding around on her bicycle.  When they find her hurt, Carey says that they should get a doctor for her, but Miss Price insists that she doesn’t want one. Instead, she just asks the children to help her get home. As she starts to lean on Carey and Charles, Paul picks up a broom nearby. The older children thought it was just an old garden broom, but Paul calmly says that it belongs to Miss Price because it’s what she rides around on. The others are shocked, but Paul simply says that that he’s seen her improve in her flying, so Miss Price knows that he’s seen her riding her broom more than once. Miss Price is worried that everyone in the village will know now that she’s a witch, but Paul hadn’t even told his brother and sister what he’d seen.

The children help Miss Price get home, and they allow their aunt to think that Miss Price simply fell off of her bicycle. When the children are able to speak to Miss Price privately, they ask her directly if she’s a witch, and she admits that she’s studying to be one. She says that she’s had some talent for magic since she was young, but she never really had the time to develop it. The children are convinced that, while Miss Price might be a witch, she’s not a wicked one, and she says that’s true, that she started too late in life to be that way and that wickedness doesn’t come naturally to her. However, she’s still worried that the children might tell people about her magic.

Carey is the one who suggests that Miss Price give them a magical object as part of their pledge of secrecy (unlike in the movie, where it was Charlie’s idea), with the idea that, if they ever told anyone that she’s a witch, the magic would stop. Charles suggests that Miss Price could give them a magic ring that would summon a slave to do their bidding, but she says that she couldn’t manage that and that she has a better idea. Miss Price asks the children if they have anything on them they can twist, like a ring or a bracelet. The only thing they have is a bed-knob that Paul twisted off the end of his bed (basically, because he discovered that he could).

Miss Price says that the bed-knob will do nicely, and she casts a spell on it that will allow the children to travel to the destination of their choice when they put it back on the bed and give it a twist. If they turn it in one direction, they can travel in the present time, but turning it the other way can send them to the past. Also, because Paul was the one who had the bed-knob, he’s the only one who can make it work. Miss Price isn’t troubled by Paul’s young age because she thinks that it’s best to learn magic young, although she warns the children to be careful.

Because it’s Paul’s bed-knob, Carey and Charles give him first choice of where to go, but they think the places he wants to go sound mundane. He wants to either see a museum exhibit that the others saw without him once or to go home and see their mother in London. Carey and Charles try to persuade him to go someplace more exciting, but Paul insists that he wants to go home.

The bed whisks the children home to London, but when they get there, their mother isn’t home. Apparently, their mother has gone away for the weekend herself, and the children find themselves alone on their bed, in front of their house, on a foggy night. A policeman bumps into them, and when he demands to know who they are and where the bed came from, he doesn’t think it’s funny when they say, “Bedfordshire.” He takes them to the police station to spend the rest of the night. Fortunately, they find a way to get back to the bed and use the spell to return to their aunt’s house before they’re missed in the morning. It’s not quite the adventure that the children had been hoping for when they started out, but it’s just the beginning of their amazing summer!

However, magic turns out to be more dangerous than they thought. Their next adventure takes them to an island with cannibals (yeah, one of those scenes, sigh – I think that the island of talking animals in the movie was more fun), and they narrowly escape after Miss Price has a duel of magic with a witch doctor. Their magical adventures create problems that the children can’t explain to their aunt without giving away Miss Price’s secret. Eventually, their messes and wild stories cause their aunt to send them home to their mother. Miss Price considers that magic might cause more problems than it solves and tells the children that she’s thinking of giving it up for awhile. However, Paul keeps the bed-knob in the hopes that their adventures aren’t done yet.

BedKnobBroomstickChildren

In Bonfires and Broomsticks, two years have passed since the children’s first adventures, and Aunt Beatrice has died. Carey and Charles, worried that Paul would talk too much about their magical adventures, tried to convince Paul that it was all just a dream, although they weren’t very successful.

Then, the children see an advertisement in the newspaper that Miss Price is offering to board a couple of schoolchildren in her house for the summer for a fee. The children’s mother works, and she always has to find somewhere for the children to spend the summer, when they’re not in school. They still have the bed-knob, so they tell their mother that they want to visit Miss Price, hoping they can have more adventures with her. At first, their mother doesn’t understand why they would want to visit Miss Price so badly, but since she seems like a nice, respectable woman and an old friend of Aunt Beatrice’s, she agrees.

Miss Price is happy to have the children stay for the summer, but they are disappointed when they learn that she was really serious about giving up magic. The children discover that Miss Price bought the old bed that they had used for their previous adventures at the estate sale after their aunt’s death. She’s been sleeping on it in her own room. They want to try the bed-knob on the bed, but Miss Price takes it from them. She tries to make their summer vacation a normal vacation with normal activities, like picnics and croquet.

But, even Miss Price can’t resist the opportunity to try the bed-knob one last time. One morning, Carey and Charles discover that Paul and Miss Price have traveled somewhere on the bed without them. When the two of them confront Paul about it, he says that they only went to a nearby town, just to see if the spell on the knob still worked. Carey and Charles understand, but Carey thinks that if they got to use the bed once more, she and Charles should have one more turn. She especially wants to try going into the past, which was something they hadn’t had a chance to try last time. Miss Price is reluctant, but finally agrees after Carey pressures her about it.

The children travel to London of 1666 (ending up there accidentally, when they were aiming for the Elizabethan era), where a man named Emelius Jones has been living as a necromancer. When he was young, he studied magic under a mentor who, as he was dying, finally told him that everything he learned was fakery. It was all an act that he used to get money from gullible people, although it paid very well. The old man leaves Emelius his business, but Emelius is always nervous, worrying both because someone might discover that it’s all a fake and because others might believe that it’s real and that he should be hung as a witch. The only reason why he stays with it is because he has no other business to follow.

The children meet Emelius after ending up lost and stopping at his house for directions. The children can see how nervous and unhappy Emelius is, and they ask him about himself, discovering that his home town is actually close to where they’re staying with Miss Price. They reveal to him that they are from the future and invite him to come home with them for a visit.

Miss Price isn’t happy to see that they’ve brought someone back from the past with them, but she ends up liking Emelius. Before sending him home, they learn that Emelius’s aunt, who lived near to where Miss Price now lives, died the same day that Emelius left London in the past, which is coincidentally shortly before the great fire that destroyed a good part of the city. They know that Emelius’s London lodgings will likely be destroyed in the fire as well, but at least he can move into the house that he will inherit from his aunt.

However, after they send him back to his own time, the children and Miss Price learn that Emelius never made it to his aunt’s house because he was executed for practicing witchcraft. Unable to leave poor Emelius to such a terrible fate, they come up with a plan to rescue him.

Changing Emelius’s past also changes Miss Price’s future. Neither of them has ever married, and both of them have been lonely, and they come to the conclusion that the two of them were meant to be together. In deciding that they will live their lives together on Emelius’s aunt’s farm in the past, they put an end to the magical traveling bed. Only Paul can make the magic bed-knob work, and once he sends them into the past (not going with them), they can never return. But, Carey has one final vision of the two of them, being happy together, so she knows that they will be alright.

Overall, I preferred the movie to the original books.  I think the war-based plot was better than the children’s random travels to cannibal-filled islands (I never liked those in children’s stories anyway) and other places.  At one point in the books, Carey did speculate about the use of magic in war, but rejected the idea because the notion of someone with the ability to conjure a dragon that could breathe mustard gas or who could turn whole armies into mice was just too horrible.  The spell that Miss Price used against the Nazis in the movie was part of their plan to rescue Emelius in the second book, but I think the movie’s ending was much more exciting.

The combined book edition is available online through Internet Archive.