Mystery of the Inca Cave

Mystery of the Inca Cave by Lilla M. Waltch, 1968.

Thirteen-year-old Richard Granville has been living in Peru for the last two years. His family moved from California to a mining town in the Andes because his father is a manager for a mining company. Richard enjoys living in Peru because he’s developed an interest in archaeology and the history of the Incan civilization. Richard feels like the mountains are a connection to the distant past, and he loves the historical feel of the place. His parents don’t understand how he feels and would rather see him work harder at his schoolwork instead of spending all of his time exploring the mountains. Richard’s father tells him that he won’t become an archaeologist if he doesn’t apply himself to his studies, and his mother worries that something could happen to him in the mountains. They think he should finish school first and then decide if he wants to go into archaeology or not, but Richard’s mind is already made up, and he doesn’t want to waste this golden opportunity to do what he loves most right now. Richard feels hurt that his parents don’t really listen to him, don’t share his interests, and don’t appreciate the finds he’s already made.

Richard loves to explore the area with his friend, Todd Reilly, and see if they can find pieces of Incan relics. They’ve found some interesting bits of pottery and broken tools, but one day, they make a particularly exciting discovery – an ancient stone road mostly covered with grass. Although Richard knows that there are many other remains of Incan roads, this one is particularly tantalizing because it seems more hidden than most. Richard is fascinated with how neatly the stones of the road fit together so precisely without mortar, and he wonders where the road leads.

The boys explore the old road further, but they discover that at least part of the road was buried in a landslide. Todd doubts that they’ll ever be able to find where the road leads, but Richard wants to keep trying. When they return to the spot to try again, Richard spots the remains of an ancient building! Richard is sure that the building was once a chasqui station (also called tambos), which was a place where Incan messengers could stop, rest, and trade off with other messengers, who would continue to carry messages along the route, like the members of the Pony Express used to trade off with each other. Richard knows that stations like that were placed about 2.5 miles apart along roads, so there might be other stations located along this route.

The boys go a little further and find a stairway leading up the side of a cliff to a cave. On the stairs, Richard finds a small doll. The doll is puzzling because Richard isn’t sure if it’s an Incan relic that somehow managed to survive or if it’s a more modern doll made by the South American Indians in the area. He has trouble believing that any more modern person could have been at this spot recently because it’s pretty isolated and rough territory. It looks like other landslides could happen. He can’t tell his parents about his discovery because they probably wouldn’t let him return to the area to explore it further if they knew how dangerous it was, and he can’t bring himself to abandon the most exciting discovery he’s ever made.

On a trip to the marketplace, Richard and Todd spot a mine foreman, Jeb Harbison, yelling at a boy in Quechua. He stops as soon as he sees the other boys watching, and they wonder what that was about. Then, the boys spot a merchant selling dolls that are similar to the one they found at the ruins. They ask the merchant where the dolls came from and who made them, and he gives them the name of the doll maker, a woman named Deza. Todd thinks that the most likely explanation for the doll they found is that some young girl living in the area got a doll from the same doll maker, and she lost it while playing around the cave. However, Richard doesn’t think that’s likely because the cave is such an out-of-the-way place, not somewhere a young child could easily reach alone.

On another visit to the area of their discovery, the boys find a mine shaft that doesn’t belong to the company their fathers work for, even though it’s on land that they know the company owns. There are signs that someone is actively mining there, but who?

The boys also discover that the activity at the cave is connected to the mine when they see some men there, breaking up rocks and stuffing them inside of little dolls, like the one they found earlier. It seems like the miners are smuggling gold or other minerals in the dolls, but when the boys talk to Richard’s dad about what they’ve seen, the situation points to a possibly larger conspiracy.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. The book was originally titled Cave of the Incas.

My Reaction

The first thing that I liked about this book was the pieces of information about the ancient Incas. Our knowledge of ancient civilizations has increased since the 1960s, but the information in this book is still good. I liked the book’s descriptions of Inca building techniques, how they used closely-fitted stones instead of mortar, and how their system of messengers was organized. There are also points where the characters notice parallels between the way the ancient Incas lived and the way their descendants live, such as their system of cooperative farming.

However, this story is also about human relationships as well as adventure, mystery, and ancient civilizations. Through most of the book, Richard is troubled about his relationship with his parents, especially his father. His parents are frustrated with him because he is absorbed by his interest in archaeology and exploring the countryside and isn’t applying himself to his schoolwork. At the same time, Richard hates it that his parents don’t understand what interests him and only seem to want him to focus on what they want. They’re having a clash of priorities.

When I was a kid, I hated homework with a vengeance. That might be a surprising revelation about an adult who willingly does what are essentially book reports on a regular basis as a hobby. Reading is fun. Research produces interesting information. I like knowing things and writing to other people about them. Basically, I was always good at the skills necessary for homework, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem is that there were many other things I wanted to do, and homework got in the way. I didn’t always get to read about what I wanted to read about in school because someone else was always choosing the school material for me, and I frequently hated their choices. Even the arts and crafts weren’t always the ones I wanted to learn, and I was usually told what to make instead of getting to make what I wanted. Because I was a good student, I ended up in the honors classes, so I always had more homework to do than everyone else. I was proud that I was a good student, but at the same time, I also hated it because I found it stifling. I’ve always been interested in many different subjects and handicrafts, but all through my childhood, I felt like I could never just take up all the different projects I wanted to do because I had to do my never-ending supply of homework first. Everything I wanted to do always had to wait. Even after I graduated, it was difficult for me to shake off the feeling that I had to wait on things I wanted to do , which was also kind of irritating.

I could sympathize with Richard’s attitude toward his own studies. He knows what he really wants to do, and he finds it infuriating that his parents want him to put it off and finish his homework and his education first. There is something to be said for making the most of finding himself in the very place he wants to be with direct access to what he knows he wants to study seriously. The move to Peru was an enriching experience for Richard that gave him a direction and life ambition, and I think he would regret it forever if he didn’t use this opportunity to explore it as much as possible. At the same time, though, my adult self knows that there is truth to what Richard’s parents say about his explorations in the mountains. The mountains are dangerous, like Richard’s mother says, and even Richard knows it. Also, Richard’s father is correct that if Richard seriously wants to be a professional archaeologist, he’s going to have to finish his education.

Nobody in modern times becomes a serious, professional archaeologist without a college degree, and even archaeologists need to study things beyond their specialist field. Archaeology isn’t just wandering around, digging, and seeing what you find. You have to recognize what you find, study its context, understand its significance, and know how to treat it to preserve it. You can’t study past lives and interpret artifacts without having real life and world knowledge. Archaeology is also where science and history intersect. Archaeologists need to know mathematics, geology, and how humans are affected by climate (which can and does change over time, for various reasons) and access to resources. There are legal and ethical principles to archaeology that Richard will also have to understand. Archaeologists can also benefit from learning drawing and photography to record and interpret finds and perfecting their writing skills to present their findings to the world. Richard has made a good start in his field of interest, but to get serious about it, he will need more education and greater depth and breadth of knowledge.

As annoying and stifling as homework feels, the skills it imparts are necessary for doing many more interesting things. Getting through the studying phase can be a pain, but sometimes, you really have to lay a solid foundation before you can build something solid on it. I still think that my past school assignments could have been more interesting and less stressful if I’d had more flexibility about them and more time for personal projects in between. However, I have realized over the years that, once you’ve really learned something, you will use it, even if you only use it indirectly as part of something else. I don’t regret learning the things I learned because, as hard as it was along the way, I have used things I learned in more interesting ways later in life. I’ve also realized that, if I had spent less time and emotions complaining about how stifling my homework situations were, I also could have used the time I spent lamenting about homework and procrastinating about it to accomplish some of the other things that I complained that I never had enough time to do. Not all of them, but more than I did when I was too busy being upset and resentful about homework. That’s also a lesson that Richard learns in the story.

At one point, Richard talks to Todd about his relationship with his own father, and Todd says that they get along pretty well. Richard realizes that Todd and his father don’t fight over his studies because Todd is an easy-going type who doesn’t mind doing his homework much and takes care of things without making anybody nag him to do it. Todd just accepts that there are some things that just need to be done, so he doesn’t waste time complaining or procrastinating about them. That’s harder for Richard because he feels the strong pull of what he really wants to do.

Todd admits that he and his parents don’t always get along perfectly because he doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to do. There are times when he leaves messes or physically fights with his brother or talks back to his mother, and his parents get angry or irritated about it. When Richard asks Todd what he does in those instances, Todd says that, eventually, after the initial argument, he typically apologizes or cleans up his mess or does whatever he needs to do to fix the situation. Todd’s reasoning is that, while people aren’t perfect and don’t always do what they should, “when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” He accepts that, sometimes, he screws up and needs to do something to fix it without getting too overwrought about having been in the wrong. He sees it as just a normal part of life. When it happens, he can correct himself and move past it.

In the case of Richard and his father, each of them has to admit to being a little wrong and accept that the other is partly right. Both of them have to do some work to fix their relationship. Richard has to admit to his father that he does need to continue his education and apply himself to getting his work done. In return, his father needs to try harder to understand Richard’s interest in archaeology and allow him some time and opportunities to make the most of his time in Peru, getting the firsthand knowledge and experience he needs for the future he really wants and that won’t come from the standard classes he’s taking.

Through their adventures in the course of the story, Richard and his father come to a better understanding of each other and have an honest conversation about how to manage the conflicts in their relationship. Richard’s father admits that he needs to stop looking at his son as being just a younger version of himself and to see Richard for the independent person he is, with his own interests and goals in life. Meanwhile, Richard connects somewhat to his father’s interests through their investigation of the illegal mining operation he and Todd discovered.

This mystery story is a little unusual for children’s books, where kids often investigate mysteries on their own, having adventures without the adults, because Richard’s father joins the boys in their investigations and he stands up for them and what they’ve discovered when their discovery is challenged. The shared adventure becomes a bonding experience for Richard and his dad. At the end of the story, Richard’s father helps Richard connect with a museum curator, who helps the whole family to see the true value and significance of Richard’s archaeological finds. The curator also emphasizes to Richard that, while he has the potential to excel in his chosen field, he’s going to have to study and move on to higher education to get where he wants to go. Richard agrees, now having a greater understanding of its importance and satisfied that his parents understand the direction he’s chosen for his life.

The Thief Lord

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, 2000.

Prosper and Bo (short for Boniface) are orphans, running away from their caregiver. They were living with their aunt, a wealthy woman who likes little Bo and treats him like a little doll but doesn’t like Prosper because he is too old to treat like a toy. When the aunt starts considering sending Prosper away to boarding school, they run away to Venice to hide. There, they meet up with a band of orphans who live in an old movie theater. The other orphans/homeless children are Riccio, Mosca, and Hornet. Each of them is running from something in their past, and lacking adults to take care of them, has made their home in the theater, stealing and picking pockets to survive. The Thief Lord, the leader of this group, is the mysterious Scipio, a boy with his own secrets.

Many of the adults in this book are varying degrees of unhelpful and threatening as the children struggle to take care of themselves and their own lives. The boys’ aunt hires a detective to find them, and he does eventually figure out where they are living. Scipio turns out to be the son of the wealthy man who actually owns the disused theater. However, in spite of his father’s wealth, he does not have a happy home life. His father ignores and neglects him because he is too obsessed with his business concerns. At one point, the boy’s beloved cat is very sick, and Scipio fears that she might die, but his father brusquely tells him that he has no time to take it to a vet, and he’ll just buy him another one. (Don’t worry, the cat gets saved.)

One of the thefts that Scipio has the children attempt is the theft of a lion’s wing owned by a woman named Ida Spavento. A man known as the Conte, a customer of the man who buys the band’s stolen goods, specifically requested this item, although the children do not initially know why. Ida catches them in the act and tells them that the wing was once part of a magical merry-go-round that can change the ages of the people who ride it, making older people younger and younger people older. When Ida learns that the children received a request to steal the lion’s wing, she allows them to have it on the condition that she is allowed to come with them to see who hired them.

The Conte and his sister have discovered the merry-go-round and need the missing wing to complete it. Once the wing is restored, the merry-go-round turns them into young children. When Scipio sees that the merry-go-round really changes a person’s age, he insists on riding it himself. After a ride on the merry-go-round, Scipio becomes a young adult, able to live independently from his hard-hearted father and take care of his beloved cat. Barbarossa, the man who fences their stolen goods, also rides the merry-go-round and becomes a little boy again, far more adorable than the man he used to be. However, he accidentally breaks the merry-go-round so that the magic no longer works.

With the exception of Ida and the detective, Victor, the other adults in the story are irresponsible and self-centered, really more like children than the children. When the merry-go-round changes the ages of some of the characters, the changes end up suiting their personalities. Scipio was always more mature, and his new status as an adult reflects that. He ends up becoming an assistant to the detective in his agency, who understands the whole situation. Ida adopts Prosper, Bo, and Hornet and takes care of them. Prosper and Bo’s aunt is charmed by the now adorable Barbarossa and takes him in. Barbarossa, who is as shifty as a child as he was as an adult, is more than happy to let the aunt pamper him and fuss over him because he knows that he’ll get to enjoy her money in the process. The end does reveal that the aunt catches Barbarossa stealing from her and sends him to boarding school for some discipline, but he bullies and dominates the other boys into doing his bidding and even stealing for him, becoming the new Thief Lord.

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

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi, 1981.

One summer, Toby and his twin sister Becky see the police go to their local library. To the children’s surprise, Mrs. Brattle, the librarian, phones their house and asks Becky to come down to the library and bring one of her parents.  The children’s parents aren’t home, so Becky and Toby go.  Mrs. Brattle doesn’t seem to want to say much over the phone, only that The Wizard of Oz was stolen, and they need to talk to Becky.

As Becky and Toby walk down to the library from their house, which isn’t far, Becky says that shortly before school let out for the summer, Becky’s teacher for sixth grade next fall handed out a summer reading assignment.  The kids have to write two book reports over the summer, and the books can’t be mysteries, fantasies, or romantic adventures.  Miss McPhearson, the sixth grade teacher, believes in only factual books.  However, Becky decided that the best thing to do was to get the book reports over as soon as possible, so she went to the library.  (Toby wasn’t involved because he has a different teacher.)  While she was there, she decided that she’d check out The Wizard of Oz for Toby, knowing that he likes fantasy books, but she was told that it was already checked out.  Mrs. Brattle told her that there would be a book sale at the library tomorrow and that she had a copy of The Wizard of Oz that Becky could buy for five cents, but since the librarian wouldn’t sell her the book that day and Becky didn’t want to make a special trip to the library the next day, she turned down the offer.

When they come to the library, the policeman accuses Becky of stealing the copy of The Wizard of Oz that the librarian showed her as well as some other children’s books.  According to the librarian, the books were actually valuable collector’s copies, worth thousands of dollars.  Becky asks the librarian why she offered to sell her one for nickel if they were so valuable and Mrs. Brattle says that it was a mistake.  The policeman says that if Becky has the books, she can return them now, and there will be no problem, but Becky is insulted and insists that she didn’t take them.  In the face of Becky’s denial, the policeman says that there isn’t much that he can do because there is only the librarian’s word that the books were valuable, and she doesn’t deny that she earlier tried to sell them for five cents each.  Missing children’s books worth less than a dollar isn’t exactly a police problem.  (I’d like to say here that I was very glad that the policeman took that attitude. I hate those children’s books where adults not only falsely accuse children of doing things that they didn’t do but also make petty incidents seem like major crimes. The policeman is correct that there is no proof that the books were as valuable as the librarian says and that this evaluation of their worth comes only after their sudden disappearance and after she was offering to sell them very cheaply.)

Even though the matter seems to be dropped for the moment, it bothers Becky that the librarian still thinks that she might have taken the books.  She suggests to Toby that they could investigate and try to find out what really happened to the books.  The first thing that they decide to do is to look for the original owner of the books.  After inspecting other children’s books at the sale and looking at the names in the front covers, they decide that Gertrude Tobias is the most likely former owner because many of the other books at the sale belonged to her.  Unfortunately, Gertrude Tobias died a few months ago.  However, it turns out that her niece is Miss McPhearson.  Becky hurriedly finishes her book reports so that she and her brother will have an excuse to visit Miss McPhearson and ask her about the books.

When they ask Miss McPhearson about her aunt, she calls her aunt a “foolish woman” who “didn’t know any better.”  However, she refuses to explain any further what she means, and the children see her crying before they leave.

When the children speak to Mrs. Chesterton, they get a very different picture of Miss McPhearson’s aunt.  When Gertrude Tobias was a young woman, she was wealthy could have gotten married if she wanted to, but most of the young men didn’t like women who seemed too smart, and Miss Tobias prided herself on her intelligence and cleverness.  She resented the idea that adults seemed to want women to play dumb to get a husband, so she refused to get married and spent most of her time in the company of children.  Mrs. Chesterton remembers her saying, “Children like me smart. Grown-ups want me stupid.”  She liked to read children’s books, and she often volunteered to read books to children at the library.  The children liked her and often confided in her, just like she was their aunt.  She spent a lot of her money buying children’s books for her collection.  Mrs. Chesterton says that Miss Tobias and her niece never really got along well and that Miss McPhearson used to tease her aunt about her love of children’s books.  However, Miss Tobias was rich, and Miss McPhearson didn’t have much money at all.  Miss Tobias told her that she would leave her all of her “treasure.”  When she died, it turned out that she had left her niece five children’s books – the five that are now missing.  The others were willed to the library.

At first, the picture seems like it’s becoming more clear: Miss Tobias had one last joke on her niece by giving her valuable children’s books that Miss McPhearson thought were worthless simply because they were children’s books, and the person who took them recognized what they were worth.  However, the situation is actually more complicated than that.  A series of strange break-ins have been occurring around town. Nothing else has been taken, but someone is clearly searching for something.  Miss Tobias was clever, and her books have an even deeper meaning than most people have realized.  To learn Miss Tobias’ secret, Toby and Becky have to learn the secrets of the books themselves.

I really loved the puzzle in this book! There were parts that I got before the kids did and parts that they realized before I did. It isn’t a kind of puzzle that readers call fully solve before the characters in the book because it requires knowledge of their home town to get the full answer.

As an unmarried, childless adult who also enjoys children’s books, I could kind of sympathize with Miss Tobias. Children’s books, like some adults, are often very clever but go unappreciated by people who underrate them for what they appear to be. For example, Through the Looking Glass, which was one of the books featured in the story, involves a game of chess. The author, Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), was a mathematician. His books are full of word games and logic puzzles, and the chess game described in Through the Looking Glass is an actual chess game that can be played with real pieces on a real board with a definite ending square, where Alice the pawn becomes Alice the queen (one of the clues to solving the final mystery in this book). To many adults who only know the basic story of Alice, it might just seem like a silly, nonsense children’s story, but they miss the real, clever puzzles planted in the story, just like Miss McPhearson did with her aunt’s legacy.

In the end of the story, Miss McPhearson never learns the truth about her aunt’s legacy, just as her aunt knew she would miss it. Toby and Becky come to an understanding with the real thief about Miss Tobias’ treasure that allows the library to benefit from the legacy, which is something that Miss Tobias would have appreciated. Miss McPhearson decides to give up teaching and leaves town to find another job, working with computers, a very “adult” field indeed. It’s only a pity that she wasn’t mature enough to behave nicely with her aunt and not tease her, so that her aunt would be more generous with her. People who play childish games are sometimes surprised when they meet a better game player.

Like Miss Tobias, I have little patience for people who try too hard to be “adult” or are too concerned with whether certain things are right for adults to do, especially when they show their immature sides in other ways. In the story, Miss McPhearson makes a point of being “adult” in all situations, but she wasn’t above childishly taunting an older woman about her hobbies and still expecting that woman to leave her all of her money. It reminds me of the kids I knew in elementary school who liked to act really grown up at age ten. Kids go through a phase where they start talking about doing grown-up things like having first boyfriends and girlfriends and wearing makeup and watching adult tv shows and listening to adult music, but in between doing all of that, they still act like childish brats because what they’re doing is trying on the trappings of adulthood without the real substance. Until they get some real maturity and better behavior, they’re just kids playing dress-up. Sometimes, I think that some people never quite leave that phase, which is how I view the character of Miss McPhearson.

I think of this every time I hear some adult my age or older talking about how real adults drink alcohol or real women wear high heels and lipstick. To hear them talk, there are quite a lot of rules to being grown up that very few people I know actually follow. Alcohol is expensive, plenty of people abstain for health or religious reasons, and driving drunk certainly isn’t mature behavior. High heels damage your feet the more you wear them, and I’ve forgotten how much makeup I’ve thrown away because, most days, I’m just too busy to even think about putting it on, and they eventually dry out and get gross. To my way of thinking, if you really are an adult and you know who and what you are, you have nothing to prove. If you aren’t mature as a person, things like high heels and lipstick aren’t going to help you, and alcohol just lowers your inhibitions and makes the immaturity more obvious. Maturity is a way of looking at things, assessing situations, and acting accordingly. It can be difficult to define, but you know it when you see someone living it, not just looking the part. Real adults don’t need to “act” like adults at all times because they aren’t “acting,” they’re just being themselves, confident that they are mature enough to handle what life throws at them along the way.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Cookie Tree

CookieTree

The Cookie Tree by Jay Williams, 1967.

Owlgate is a very orderly little village.  Everything has a purpose and a place, and nothing unexpected happens . . . until the day the cookie tree appears in the middle of town.  The tree is silver and gold and has chocolate cookies.

CookieTreeOwlgate

A girl named Meg notices it first, but her parents refuse to allow her to pick a cookie from the tree because they’re worried about where it came from. For all they know, the cookies could be poisonous!  Meg’s father gets the mayor to come look at the tree.

CookieTreeTownspeople

Eventually, everyone in town comes out to see the tree.  The miller thinks that the whole thing is probably a big joke, but most of the other adults are worried because it’s weird.  Some of them think maybe it’s some kind of bad omen.  Little Meg’s theory is that a magician sent it as a present for the village, just to give them cookies.  However, the adults reject that explanation, saying that it doesn’t make sense and they don’t any reason see why a magician would send them a cookie tree.

The mayor consults with the Village Councillors, but they don’t accomplish much other than to establish that there are indeed chocolate cookies growing on the tree when one of them samples a cookie.  The adults argue back and forth about what to do about the tree, but by the time they come up with a plan, the tree has vanished!

CookieTreeDebate

While the adults’ backs were turned, the children of the village ate all the cookies, and once the cookies were gone, the tree disappeared.  Apparently, Meg’s theory about the magician sending the tree just to give them cookies was correct.

One of the things that people sometimes praise children for doing is seeing things for what they are. Adults have a tendency to over-analyze things, looking for hidden meanings that may or may not exist. Sometimes, things really are just what they appear to be, and over-analyzing just confuses the issue. It can be like that with children’s books. Adults worry about every little thing in stories and possible messages being sent to children, but when people start over-analyzing stories, they can find themselves making up hidden messages and reading things into stories that aren’t really there.  Sometimes, stories and other things are just for fun, and you might as well simply enjoy them for what they are!

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Emil and the Detectives

Emil

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, translated by May Massee, 1929, 1930.

EmilHimselfThis book was originally written in German.  It was written in Germany during the period between the two World Wars.  The date of the story itself is never specified, but it may actually be earlier than when it was written, prior to World War I.  There is a sequel to the book that I haven’t read where Emil’s vacation ends early because he hears that war has broken out, an incident based on the author’s own boyhood experiences at the start of World War I.

The Emil books have an interesting history because of the time period when they were written.  This video explains how the book came to be written, the time period when it was written, and its cultural impact.  By the time the Nazis came to power, Emil and the Detectives had become popular and, as a harmless children’s book, was saved from Nazi book burnings.  The sequel story, Emil and the Three Twins, wasn’t so lucky, which is why it isn’t as well-known as the first Emil book, although it is available today.  The author, Erich Kastner, was known to be a pacifist and opposed to the Nazi government, which was why many of his works were burned during the Nazi regime and publishers were forbidden to publish new books from him.  (This video explains more about the book burnings and Kastner’s burned works.)  Although his political stance interfered with his writing, and he was questioned by the Gestapo several times, he chose to remain in Germany for the duration of the war.  Another of his children’s books, Lisa and Lottie, which was the basis for the Parent Trap movies by Disney, was written after World War II ended.

EmilTrainAt the beginning of this story, it explains that Emil Tischbein’s father died when he was very young and that his mother works hard as a hairdresser to support the two of them. When she can, she saves a little money for Emil’s grandmother as well. When the story begins, Emil is preparing for a train trip to Berlin to visit his relatives. Emil will be traveling by himself and will meet his relatives near the station when he arrives. His mother gives him some money to take to his grandmother and warns him to be careful. Emil pins the money inside his pocket for security.

On the train, Emil talks to the people who share his train compartment. One of them, who calls himself Herr Grundeis, tells him tall tales about what Berlin is like and gives him a piece of chocolate, which is apparently drugged. Emil falls asleep on the train, and when he wakes up, he realizes that he’s been robbed!

EmilGustavDetermined to get the money for his grandmother back, Emil searches for Herr Grundeis and spots him getting off the train. It’s too soon for Emil’s stop, but he follows Grundeis off the train anyway, tracking him to a café.

While Emil is trying to decide how to handle the situation, another boy who carries a horn that he likes to honk, Gustav, spots him watching Grundeis. Gustav asks Emil what he’s doing, and Emil explains the situation. Emil isn’t sure how to get the money back from Grundeis. At first, he’s afraid to tell the police what happened because of a prank he and some friends pulled at home. He worries that perhaps the police have found out about the prank and that they won’t take him seriously. Gustav is sympathetic to Emil and tells him that he can get together some friends to help.

EmilPonyChocolateGustav recruits a bunch of other boys from the neighborhood, and they continue tailing Grundeis through the city to his hotel. The boys call another friend at home, who keeps track of their progress and gives them reports about what others have said.  Emil gets one of the other boys to tell his relatives that he has been delayed on important business, causing his cousin, Pony Hutchen, to come and tell him that everyone is worried and that he’s going to be in big trouble with his relatives if he doesn’t show up soon.  However, they still have the problem of deciding how to confront Grundeis and get him to return the money.  In this case, the detectives don’t need to solve the mystery of who the thief is.  The real problem is how to prove it.

This book is known around the world and has been made into movies several times, including a Disney version in 1964.  The Disney version still takes place in Germany, but for some reason, Emil’s train trip is changed to a bus trip, and the criminal’s plot is much more elaborate.  It’s available on dvd, and you can see the trailer on YouTube.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

Overall, I liked the story, although I found the book difficult to read because the wording sounded strange and awkward in many places.  I think this is probably because of the translation between German and English.  I have the feeling that the translator was trying to be too literal in the translation instead of focusing on translating for meaning and tone.  Unfortunately, I can’t read German, so I can’t say what the original version was like.

EmilReportersThere was a note in the beginning of my copy of the book that says that many of the character names in the book are actually jokes on the part of the author. It’s not as obvious in English because the forms of the names sound reasonable for German names, but anyone who knows German would spot that they aren’t real names. For example, Emil’s last name is Tischbein, which means “table-leg,” and the thief’s alias, Grundeis, means “ground-ice.”

In the end, the boys use their numbers (they have about a hundred child detective recruits by the end of the story) to corner the thief in a bank, and when they confront him in front of the bank personnel, they manage to prove that Emil is the owner of the money using the pin holes in the bills, where Emil had pinned it to his jacket.  The author of the book also appears briefly in the story as a journalist who interviews Emil and his friends for a newspaper story about how they caught the thief. (I think he’s the one standing at the back of the group of reporters in the picture because the man’s hair looks like Kastner’s, combed back.)

Like in another of Kastner’s books, Lisa and Lottie, there is the theme of a child who behaves well because of the family’s poor circumstances.  Emil, like Lottie, is being raised by a single mother who has to work hard to support the two of them. Both Emil and Lottie understand that if they behave badly and get into trouble, it would create more hardships for their mothers.  They basically live hand-to-mouth, and the children understand that their mothers cannot take time away from work to deal with their discipline problems.  Each of them has had to shoulder some of the household burdens from an early age, and it has made them more serious and also a little closer to their mothers than many of the other children from more affluent families. Aside from Emil’s prank at home (which causes him some worry), he is obedient to his mother and also very concerned about her welfare.

Magic Elizabeth

MagicElizabeth

Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, 1966.

Young Sally’s parents are away on a business trip, so she’s been staying with Mrs. Chipley, but now Mrs. Chipley has a family emergency to tend to. Mrs. Chipley’s daughter is ill, and Mrs. Chipley needs to go and help her with her children. While Mrs. Chipley is gone, there is only one other person for Sally to stay with: her Aunt Sarah, an elderly woman who Sally doesn’t really know. Aunt Sarah moved to California when Sally was just a baby, and the only reason why she has returned is that she has decided to sell her old house.

MagicElizabethArrival

Sally is a rather shy girl. She’s uneasy around Aunt Sarah, who is obviously unaccustomed to spending time with children, and Aunt Sarah’s creepy cat, Shadow. The house is old, chilly, and filled with strange things. However, Sally is enchanted with the bedroom that Aunt Sarah gives her and the portrait of a girl and her doll that hangs on the wall. The girl looks very much like Sally herself, and Aunt Sarah tells her that the girl was also called Sally and lived in that bedroom as a child, many years ago.

MagicElizabethKitchen

Fascinated by this earlier Sally and her beautiful doll, modern Sally decides to try to find the doll. Although her aunt tells her that she shouldn’t go poking around in the attic, Sally can’t help herself. She finds a trunk with Sally’s name on it full of girls’ clothes, just the right size for modern Sally to wear. There is a doll in the trunk also, but it’s not the same doll as the one in the portrait. When Sally reads the diary in the old trunk she learns the reason why. The doll in the picture, Elizabeth, was lost many years ago, when the earlier Sally was still young. As modern Sally plays dress up with the earlier Sally’s old clothes and studies herself in the mirror, she finds herself taken back in time, seeing the house through earlier Sally’s eyes. In the past, it was a busy and happy household with parents, an elderly aunt, earlier Sally, Sally’s little brother, and Sally’s pet cats.

A short time later, Aunt Sarah wakes modern Sally on the floor of the attic, and they assume that it was all a dream, but this look into the past changes Sally’s feelings about the house and her aunt’s cat, who suddenly seems friendlier and reminds her of the mother cat she saw in the past. Aunt Sarah also seems a little less stern as they discuss earlier Sally and her lost doll. Aunt Sarah says that no one ever saw the doll again after it disappeared on Christmas Eve all those years ago.  Earlier Sally had put the doll on top of the Christmas tree, like an angel, and after the family finished singing Christmas carols, the doll was gone.  They could never figure out what happened to her.  Modern Sally thinks that sounds very sad and wants to investigate the mystery of the missing doll, although Aunt Sarah isn’t very enthusiastic. She says that if the doll could be found, it would have been found long ago, and the earlier Sally has long since grown up and no longer needs it. Although, oddly, Aunt Sarah remarks that the earlier Sally had always thought that Elizabeth was “a little bit magic.”

Modern Sally continues to look for the doll anyway and also continues having moments when she sees the past as the earlier Sally did many years ago, especially when she looks into the mirror in the attic. One day, she invites a neighbor girl named Emily over, and while the two of them are looking around the attic, Emily finds Elizabeth’s old doll bonnet. The girls are excited because they now know for certain that Elizabeth is still in the house, waiting to be found. The girls are running out of time to find her. If Aunt Sarah agrees to sell the house, it will be torn down to build apartments. But, Sally falls ill with the flu, and it isn’t until Shadow gives her an important clue that Sally realizes where Elizabeth must be.

This book is currently out of print, but it’s one that I’d dearly love to see in print once more!  It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Adults reading this story will probably realize before the children do (spoiler) that Aunt Sarah herself was the earlier Sally, the one who lost her favorite doll many years ago. “Sally” is a nickname for Sarah, like “Molly” can be for Mary and “Peggy” can be for Margaret, although any of those names can also be used by itself.  (In the Middle Ages, it was common for popular names to get different variations of nicknames by changing one sound in the original name and then changing one more sound in the first nickname to get another one, and sometimes even moving on to change one more sound to get yet another nickname that was very changed from the first. Those nicknames that look significantly different from their original names are a holdover from that practice, having lasted even into modern times.  John/Jack works on the same principle.  Fun fact!)  When Aunt Sarah grew up, she stopped using her childhood nickname, but the name was passed on to modern Sally.

At first, modern Sally sees her stern aunt as being witch-like, all dressed in black and fussy, but gradually, the memories of the past, her new relationship with young Sally, and the finding of her slightly-magical doll soften her. There are hints of Aunt Sarah’s youth in the attic, although Sally at first dismisses thoughts that some of the lovely things there could have belonged to her cranky old aunt because she has trouble thinking of her aunt as once having been young, pretty, and sweet. However, part of the theme of the story is that everyone was young once. Aunt Sarah is is bent and achy from arthritis, giving her the witch-like appearance and making her short-tempered at times. She also hasn’t been around children much for years, and part of her fussiness comes from forgetting what it was like to be young herself. Modern Sally, with her resemblance to her elderly aunt, and Elizabeth the doll both work their magic on her, reminding her what it was like to be a young girl and helping to revive a more youthful spirit in her.

I was happy that (further spoiler) Aunt Sarah decides not to sell the house after all, not just because she and Sally will get to spend more time together, but because old houses like that are rare these days. I like the idea that the old family heirlooms in the house will now be preserved, like the sleigh out in the old barn and the melodeon, a type of small organ.  I liked the way the book described the melodeon making musical sounds as people walk past it because of the way the floor boards move.  I also loved the description of the gas plant that Sally sees in earlier Sally’s memories.  If you’d like to see what a gas plant looks like when it’s lit, have a look at this video on YouTube.MagicElizabethMelodeon

The Best Halloween Ever

BestHalloweenEverThe Best Halloween Ever by Barbara Robinson, 2004.

Every year on Halloween, the Herdmans, who are the wildest, most awful kids in town, run amuck, vandalizing things, stealing, and bullying other kids out of their Halloween candy.  This year, the mayor has decided that he’s had enough of the chaos they cause, so he’s just going to cancel Halloween all together.  Although he doesn’t specifically name the Herdmans as the source of all the Halloween destruction, everyone in town knows that they are.  So, to the shock and dismay of all the other kids, there will be no trick-or-treating this year.

Instead, there will a safe, well-supervised (boring), school Halloween party.  The principal, who always hated Halloween anyway, isn’t happy about it, but admits that it would be better to have a party for the kids at school, with their parents present and helping out, than having them run wild in the streets with the Herdmans on the loose.  But, as every kid knows, running wild in the streets is really the heart of Halloween.  They long for the freedom of roaming the streets without adult supervision, for collecting candy to sort and trade (and, admittedly, lose to the Herdmans eventually), for staying up late, and for the surprises and magic of a real Halloween.

There isn’t going to be anything surprising or magical or even really scary about Halloween at the school.  All the kids already know that the monsters are just their parents and teachers in costume.  The only real benefit that they see to the event is that the Herdmans won’t be there because they say it sounds too boring.  But, with the Herdmans, nothing is ever what anyone would expect, and they not only show up but find a way to turn the event into something that brings back some of the surprises and real Halloween spirit that were missing from a party that was too well-organized and predictable.

Although the Herdmans are a large part of the reason why Halloween is difficult for everyone and the adults try so hard to control it, they manage to redeem themselves a little in the eyes of the other children by taking the events of the night out of the adults’ hands.  Before the other kids know it, strange things start happening at the party with a cat on the loose, worms in the witches’ brew, and children starting to disappear.  As the kids puzzle about these things and wonder where some of the other kids went, things start getting scarier (like they should on Halloween), and they find themselves following mysterious figures through the school in the middle of a black-out with a special surprise waiting for them . . .

I don’t think that this book was quite as good as the others in the series, but it was still fun.  Beth, the narrator, is correct in saying that the well-supervised Halloween party was really more for the adults than the kids.  To the adults, Halloween is kind of a bother, and sometimes, they act like all the kids, not just the Herdmans, get in their way even as they plan the school Halloween party.  At one point, Beth’s mother reminds Alice’s mother that the whole idea of the party is to do something for the children, not the adults.

The adults are so worried about keeping things orderly, safe, and convenient that they become too controlling.  Even on normal Halloweens, some of them have a tendency to overrule the kids on what they want to wear as costumes, with parents often insisting on costumes that are the least amount of bother for them to help with.  Louella’s mother insists that Louella be a pilgrim year after year just because she won a free costume once, even though Louella hates it. Really, what most of the kids like about Halloween is that it is usually a night for them, not the adults.  The kids chafe as the adults insist that they go to their orderly Halloween party and like it.  In real life, most adults know that forced fun isn’t really fun at all.

In the end, the Herdmans return all the candy that they had taken from the other kids over the last Halloweens.  Although the other kids find the Herdmans’ secret candy stash a treasure trove, much of the candy is stale.  They can eat some of it (which grosses me out, considering how old it probably is), and they have fun sorting and counting the rest.  But, the best treat for the kids was adding a sense of unpredictability and suspense to the night to bring back the real Halloween feeling.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.