The Ankle Grabber

The Ankle Grabber by Rose Impey, 1989.

This book is part of the Creepies series, where children have fun imagining monsters. The stories are about the power of imagination and the fun of being a little scared. Sometimes, even though the children know that they made up the monsters themselves, they also get a little scared. Books in this series can be good for talking to children about how their imaginations can run away with them and scare them, but I’d use caution when introducing them to very young children because they can make nervous children more nervous by feeding their imaginations. These books would probably be best for ages seven and up. Fortunately, even when the kids’ imaginations run away with them, the stories always end in reality, and the hero of this story is … Dad!

Every night, a little girl has her mother check her room for monsters, but no matter how well she searches for them, the girl is still terrified of the monster who lives in an invisible swamp under her bed. She calls this monster the Ankle Grabber because she believes that if she isn’t careful, the monster will reach out from under the bed and pull her down into the swamp.

But, as is inevitable when you’ve got a monster under your bed, the girl realizes that she has to go to the bathroom. Getting in and out of bed without being caught by the Ankle Grabber is a tricky proposition. The girl tries to get into and out of bed by jumping so that she can avoid the monster.

When she misses her jump back into bed and lands on the floor, her father comes in to see what’s wrong. Her father has scared off monsters for the little girl before, so he sticks his head under the bed to scare off the Ankle Grabber, too.

Nothing is so scary that Dad can’t make it better!

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

Cassie Bowen Takes Witch Lessons

Cassie Bowen Takes Witch Lessons by Anna Grossnickle Hines, 1985.

Cassie Bowen and Brenda Bolter have been friends for years, but lately, Brenda has been getting friendlier with Sylvia, another girl in their fourth grade class at school. Sylvia is a mean girl, and the favorite target of her meanness is Agatha Gifford, the new girl at school. Sylvia likes to call her “Saggy Aggy” and “Thrifty Gifford” because Agatha always comes to school wearing dresses that are too loose on her and Sylvia thinks that she probably got them at a thrift store. Most of the girls at school wear brand new jeans, not dresses. Agatha doesn’t bother to fight back when the other girls tease her, and Cassie doesn’t know what to say or do about it, even though the teasing makes her uncomfortable, too.

Even if the other girls are right about Agatha wearing used clothes, Cassie can understand. Cassie wears jeans like most of the other girls, but hers are actually hand-me-downs from an older cousin. (The story of my own youth, too. Thrift stores are the story of my present because I still don’t have much money, and anything I don’t spend on clothes is something I could potentially use to buy books, most of which will also be used because I like older books and because it maximizes my buying power. Life and budgets are about priorities.) Cassie’s mother hasn’t had money to buy new clothes since Cassie’s parents got divorced. The book is vague about what happened in Cassie’s family before the divorce, but Cassie’s father now lives in another state and doesn’t even write or communicate with the family, and he’s certainly not sending money. Cassie’s mother says that he’s got to sort out his life, and Cassie says that her father is kind of a “creep” now, but the book doesn’t go any deeper into it. It’s more important that Cassie’s family is now tight on money, and Cassie has mixed feelings about the divorce. On the one hand, she misses her father and wishes that the divorce had never happened, but on the other, she’s also angry with her father for his part in the divorce and the ways that he changed from the father she knew and loved before. Cassie’s mother says that everyone changes over time, and sometimes, when they change, they grow apart. Cassie will soon come to understand that better through her experiences with Brenda.

Cassie doesn’t like the ways that Brenda is changing, and she resents Brenda sharing the secret hideout they built with Sylvia without even talking it over with her. One day, when the girls are going to their secret fort, they pass the old house where Agatha lives with her grandmother. There are neighborhood rumors that Mrs. Gifford is actually a witch because her old house looks kind of creepy and she often does odd things, like talking to her plants. As the girls pass her house, they hear her talking to her flowers, and suddenly, Sylvia trips up Brenda so that she goes sprawling into the flower bed. As Mrs. Gifford laments about her flowers, Sylvia dramatically exclaims that they must pick some flowers and actually starts yanking more out of the bed until Mrs. Gifford angrily chases them off with a broom.

Cassie is appalled by the entire incident, although she admits that it was funny, watching Mrs. Gifford chase the other girls. Brenda is fascinated with Sylvia because of the daring way she likes to show off and grab attention, and it inspires her to do the same thing, finding ways to make fun of people or cause trouble. It upsets Cassie, who just wants Brenda to be the same Brenda she’s always known. Brenda also tells Cassie that Sylvia has amazing things in her room, like a collection of glass animal figurines. Sylvia even gives her one to keep. Also, Sylvia’s parents supposedly let her stay up as late as she wants, and she can usually get her way with them just by throwing a tantrum. Brenda thinks that all this is cool, which makes her different from the kids I knew growing up. Most self-respecting fourth graders were beyond tantrums and would have been called babies if they had admitted to having one at that age. Having great clothes and a lot of cool stuff in her room would have gone a long way, though.

When the children’s teacher, Mr. Gardner, assigns the kids partners to work on presenting a story to the rest of the class, Cassie hopes that she and Brenda will be partners so that things can be like they were before. However, Brenda and Sylvia end up being partners, and Cassie is assigned to Agatha. Cassie isn’t enthusiastic about it, and Agatha notices, but Cassie decides that she’s going to be as friendly as she can. She asks Agatha about which story she would like to present to the class because she doesn’t like reading that much, and Agatha says that she knows because she’s noticed that Cassie is better at math. Cassie is surprised that Agatha would know that, considering how new she is, and Agatha says that she envies her because she’s been having trouble with fractions. Agatha says that she really likes the story The Nightingale because it reminds her of a beautiful music box that her grandmother owns, and Cassie is fascinated.

One day, when Cassie’s brother is off playing baseball and Brenda and Sylvia are working on their project together, Cassie passes by Agatha’s house and is invited in. Cassie hesitates at first because the house is creepy, but she has to work on the project with Agatha, so she accepts. Agatha’s grandmother serves the girls rose hip tea and cookies. Cassie thinks that rose hip tea sounds weird at first, but it tastes nice. Mrs. Gifford is an eccentric lady, but rather sweet. She introduces Cassie to Roberto, her favorite plant. Part of the reason why she talks to plants is that she lived alone and was lonely before Agatha came to live with her. She is also a member of the same gardening club that Cassie’s mother belongs to. Cassie uses the cookies at tea to explain fractions to Agatha, and Mrs. Gifford shows Cassie her music box, which is beautiful. The music box is special to Mrs. Gifford because it was the last present her father gave her before his death, when she was about the age of the girls now. Cassie understands the feeling because she prizes the teddy bear that her father gave her before he went away.

The more Cassie learns about the Giffords, the less strange they seem, and she no longer believes that Mrs. Gifford is a witch. Agatha tells Cassie that she lives with her grandmother because her parents were killed in a car accident. The only other family she has is an older sister who is away at college, which is why Agatha can’t live with her. Cassie acknowledges that Agatha’s situation is worse than hers because, even though Cassie misses her father, she’s not an orphan. Agatha also explains that the reason why she wears those dresses to school is that her old school was a private church school, where all the girls were required to wear dresses. When Cassie explains to Agatha’s grandmother that there is no requirement about dresses at their school and that most of the girls wear jeans, Agatha’s grandmother is surprised and says that she didn’t realize, so she buys Agatha some new clothes, taking Cassie with them on their shopping trip.

The new clothes fit Agatha better, and Cassie hopes that they will help her fit in better at school, but Sylvia and Brenda won’t let up on the teasing. In fact, Sylvia seems irritated at Agatha dressing more normally and mocks her, saying, “What’s she trying to do? Act like a normal person?” Cassie tries to tell them that Agatha is normal, but they don’t believe her. Soon after, Brenda asks Cassie if she wants to hang out when she’s on her way to see Agatha again about their project. In an effort to get Brenda to ease up on Agatha, Cassie asks Brenda to come with her so that she can see for herself that Agatha and her grandmother are fine.

The Giffords are nice to Brenda, but during the visit, Mrs. Gifford’s special music box disappears. Agatha says that Brenda stole it, and Cassie gets offended by the accusation, saying that Agatha is making it up and telling her that she doesn’t want to be friends anymore out of loyalty to Brenda. Unfortunately … Agatha was right, and Cassie is shocked when she discovers the truth. Cassie retrieves the music box from Brenda, but with Brenda and Sylvia both angry at her for taking the music box back and Agatha and her grandmother probably mad at her for bringing Brenda to their house in the first place and siding with her over the theft, what is Cassie going to do?

I think the ending of the story is very realistic, although it does leave some things unresolved. Agatha does forgive Cassie for not believing her after Cassie returns the music box. Cassie doesn’t tattle on Brenda and Sylvia because they had accused her of being a tattletale earlier, but she does eventually tell her mother everything that has been happening with Sylvia and Brenda. Her mother reassures Cassie that she did the right thing, even if Brenda didn’t. She says that it sounds like Cassie is angry at Brenda for a lot of things besides this, and Cassie agrees that she doesn’t like it that Brenda is so mean sometimes. Cassie mother says that everyone changes, and sometimes, they change for the better and sometimes for the worse. Cassie doesn’t think she and Brenda will ever be friends again, and her mother says that someday Brenda will also get tired of Sylvia’s meanness, but even if she doesn’t, Cassie will find plenty of other friends. Cassie realizes that she and Agatha really do understand each other, and she’s glad when they make up. At school, Sylvia and Brenda both tease Cassie now, saying that she’s taking witch lessons from the Giffords. It hurts Cassie’s feelings to see her old friend turn against her, but she follows Agatha’s advice and ignores them.

Sylvia and Brenda are never punished for the things they’ve done, which is sadly the case for most of the little bullies I knew as a kid. However, it is nice that Cassie and Agatha realize that they are better friends for each other than either Brenda or Sylvia would have been. I noticed that there is also potential for them to be friends with other people in their class besides Brenda and Sylvia. When Cassie got to school at the end of the book, a girl named Stacy asked her if she wanted to play tether ball, which shows that other girls don’t think badly of her for hanging out with Agatha. I also wished that the book would show more of Pam, who had been Sylvia’s best friend at the beginning of the book before Sylvia and Brenda started hanging out. After being abandoned by Sylvia, perhaps she would also be open to making some new friends. Cassie and Agatha might have other options for making new friends.

There is no magic in the story or witchcraft of any kind. In fact, Brenda and Sylvia probably never really believed that Agatha or her grandmother are actually witches. It’s more that, for reasons of their own, Sylvia and Brenda were looking for someone to pick on, and the “witch” accusations were just their excuse. That’s why they were so irritated when Agatha started dressing like the other girls. If their excuse for bullying Agatha disappeared, they didn’t want to lose their ability to bully her. It was never about making Agatha dress or act like the other girls; it was always about Sylvia and Brenda’s need to have someone to victimize. The truth is that even if the Giffords had seemed less strange in the beginning, Sylvia and Brenda probably would either have picked on them anyway or maybe selected some other victim, perhaps going straight to Cassie as their first choice, because they were looking for a victim and would have found one eventually because that was always their goal.

The Vanishing Scarecrow

The Vanishing Scarecrow by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1971.

Joan Lang and her mother are moving from their town in Connecticut to Rainbow Island, where Joan’s Great Uncle Agate Benson owned his own amusement park. However, the move is sad because Great Uncle Agate’s death in a skiing accident has so closely followed Joan’s father’s death from a long illness. Joan and her mother knew that they were going to have to move to a smaller house because they could no longer afford their bigger one, and Uncle Agate’s sudden death means that they will inherit his house on Rainbow Island and the amusement park that goes with it. Joan and Uncle Agate had been writing letters to each other since her father’s death, and he made her feel less lonely, so Joan knows that she will miss him, but she is looking forward to seeing the amusement park that he had described to her.

However, the terms of Uncle Agate’s will are unusual, and his lawyer is vague on some aspects of them. What they know is that they must live at Rainbow Island and manage the amusement park for three years in order to gain full ownership. If they decide to leave before that time, Uncle Agate has another plan for the amusement park, but the lawyer refuses to tell them what it is immediately.

When they arrive at Rainbow Island, they meet Mrs. Fuller, who works at the amusement park’s gift shop and lives there with her two sons, Peter and Kent. Mrs. Fuller hopes that Kent and Joan will be friends because they’re close in age. Kent doesn’t seem particularly friendly at first, and when Joan confronts him about that, he says that he’s just trying to figure out what she and her mother are going to be like. Kent, like other people who live and work at Rainbow Island, was very attached to Uncle Agate. He appreciated his vision and imagination, and he misses him now that he’s gone. He has trouble believing that things will ever be like they were with Uncle Agate.

Mrs. Fuller and Kent both mention strange things that have been happening at the amusement park recently, including a scarecrow that frightened Mrs. Riddell, the wife of Wilson Riddell, who manages the park, but she says that she’d better let Mr. Riddell explain the situation. When Joan and her mother go to Uncle Agate old house to begin unpacking their things, Mr. Riddell comes to talk to them. He doesn’t seem particularly or welcoming, either. When Joan’s mother tries to ask him about the scarecrow incident, he explains that someone, possibly a teenage prankster, has been pulling tricks around the park lately. Earlier that day, someone ran right through the Riddell house, terrifying Mrs. Riddell. Mrs. Riddell is described as being a very nervous person who is somewhat unwell, so Mr. Riddell seems uncertain whether his wife actually saw a person dressed as a scarecrow, as she described, or if that was her imagination. Earlier, she also claimed to see a witch. The idea of someone in a scarecrow costume is plausible because the amusement park includes a field of scarecrows, and they do have a spare scarecrow costume that they’ve used in the past to make it look like one of the scarecrows has come to life, to give guests a bit of a thrill. However, the employee who normally wears the costume hasn’t worn it for some time, and it seems like the work of a prankster.

As Kent shows Joan around the amusement park, they meet up with Peter in the Wizard’s Fortress, where he points out that someone has been messing around with the dioramas of historical scenes, moving some of the little figures around to scenes where they don’t belong. In the dungeon of the fortress, Joan meets up with Mr. Riddell’s daughter, Sheri, who is also about her age. Sheri has found the costume the scarecrow was wearing under some straw. Joan isn’t sure that she trusts Sheri because of the strange way she acts and how she seems to be sneaking around, keeping secrets, and playing weird pranks and tricks.

Could Sheri have something to do with the mysterious scarecrow, or could it be Emery Holt, the man who did odd jobs for Uncle Agate and sometimes wore the scarecrow costume as an act in the park? Another suspect could be Jud Millikin, an escaped convict who used to live in the area and who still has family living nearby. Joan and her mother hear people whispering about him, wondering if he might have come back to see his sick daughter, although people say it isn’t likely that he’d show his face in town since the police are looking for him. But why would he want to sabotage the Rainbow Island amusement park? Joan considers that there might be an answer closer to home when she learns that the Riddells and the Fullers don’t really get along, and there seems to be a silent power struggle between them for control of the park. Either of the families might want the other to leave, plus Joan and her mother, so they can be in charge.

Joan finds a message and an audio recording left behind by Uncle Agate for her, in which he seems to have had a premonition of his impending death and saying that the reason why he wants Joan and her mother to manage the park with Mr. Riddell is that the park needs someone with a fresh imagination to keep creating new exhibits and keep the park interesting for new generations of children. Joan wants to find out who is sabotaging the park and to keep Uncle Agate’s vision for the park alive, but her mother isn’t so sure that the situation is going to work for them.

Joan does have a fantastic imagination. She loves writing and making up stories, and she finds the atmosphere of the amusement park inspiring. However, Joan’s mother worries sometimes that Joan lives too much in her stories and doesn’t face up to reality enough. When Joan accuses her of not liking her stories, her mother says it’s not that, it’s just that writers also need a grounding in real life and the real world, and that it’s not good to use fantasies as a way of ignoring real life. She says that Uncle Agate was like that. Uncle Agate and his sister were orphaned from a young age, and while his sister was adopted by a family, Uncle Agate remained in the orphanage for the rest of his youth. When he grew up, he became successful in the toy industry, which was how he gained enough money and expertise to start his amusement park. However, Joan’s mother believes that much of what he did with the park was trying to live out childhood fantasies from his deprived youth and forget the hard realities of it. Joan’s mother says that she finds the real world outside of the amusement park more compelling, and she doesn’t want Joan to live too much in fantasy.

Joan is attracted to fantasy, but she’s realistic enough to know that there won’t be any hope for the park until she learns the true identity of the mysterious scarecrow that is trying to sabotage it. In the recorded message he left for Joan, Uncle Agate refers to a “right place” where Joan will find instructions that will tell her what to do. As Joan explores the the amusement park, familiarizing herself with the attractions and exhibits, she searches for the place that Uncle Agate referred to. Along the way, she has frightening encounters with someone dressed as a witch and the dangerous scarecrow among the regular figures in the exhibits.

The atmosphere of the story is great, and the author does a good job of making everyone Joan meets look like a potential villain or accomplice. All through the book, I kept changing my mind about who the real scarecrow was, and there are red herrings in the form of other people dressing up in costumes. Joan is never sure who to trust. There is a major twist toward the end of the book that turns the entire situation on its head. The rest of the ending after the scarecrow’s identity was revealed seemed a little abrupt to me, but the story has a good overall message.

At the beginning of the story, Joan does actually look at the amusement park on Rainbow Island as a kind of fantastic sanctuary from her problems, where she can escape from the sad loss of her father and uncle and the problems she’s been having at school. However, she learns that the amusement park isn’t really a sanctuary because it has problems of its own and the people associated with it also have their problems. However, these are problems that Joan is more motivated to solve because they are more exciting than her problems back home and the stakes are high. Joan and her mother have a frank discussion about facing up to life’s problems, and Joan points out that her mother’s impulse to run away from the park isn’t that different from her reluctance to face up to her problems with her schoolwork. Joan’s mother doesn’t find the park as interesting as Joan does, so she’s not as interested in trying to save it as Joan is. It’s similar to the way that Joan was unmotivated to work harder at school because it bored her, it was less imaginative than the creative writing she likes to do, and she was preoccupied with other major changes in her life. Joan’s mother acknowledges the truth of that, that it’s easier to try to solve a problem when you’re more motivated to work on it, and the two of them agree that, whatever else they do with their lives, they can’t just abandon the park without trying to catch the saboteur. All of the characters in the story get new perspectives on their lives, seeing how the park and their problems fit into a much bigger picture of life. Joan comes to understand that there are some problems that she’ll still have to face up to, like her school problems, no matter what else happens, and she sees that understanding the real problems that real people have is what will give her characters and stories greater depth.

A Spell is Cast

A Spell is Cast by Eleanor Cameron, 1974.

This story is fascinating and magical, partly because of other the stories that it reminds me of and partly because, at various points in the story, I was pretty sure that I knew what kind of book it was going to be, but I was never more than partly correct.

When young Cory Winterslow arrives at the airport in California, she expects to be met by her Uncle Dirk. Uncle Dirk has sent her letters before and a picture of himself, but they’ve never actually met in person. Cory is supposed to be spending Easter vacation with her relatives, the Van Heusens, a wealthy family living on an estate called Tarnhelm. Her mother, Stephanie, sent a telegram to the Van Heusens to tell them when Cory would arrive on the plane from New York, where they’ve been living, but no one shows up to meet Cory at the airport. This seems almost like the beginning of a gothic novel, with a young heroine on her way to meet people she’s never met who turn out to not really be expecting her and aren’t what they appear to be, but that’s not really the case here.

Fortunately, a sympathetic older woman who was also on the plane, Mrs. Smallwood, talks to Cory, who explains the situation. Mrs. Smallwood knows the Van Heusens, and she calls both the house at Tarnhelm and Uncle Dirk’s office. Apparently, Uncle Dirk never mentioned to his secretary that he needed to meet anyone that day, and he’s away on business until late. Nobody is home at Tarnhelm, but Mrs. Smallwood is optimistic that it’s all just an oversight, and she says that she’ll give Cory a ride to the house. Cory is hesitant to accept a ride from a stranger because she and Mrs. Smallwood have only just met, but it’s raining and she doesn’t know what else to do, so she goes with her. This part seems a bit worrying, but you don’t have to worry because it’s not a kidnapping story.

On the way to Tarnhelm, Mrs. Smallwood points out local sights, and Cory asks her a bit about her relatives. Cory’s mother has always been reluctant to talk about her relatives in California. Mrs. Smallwood describes Uncle Dirk as a young man who never smiles and his mother, Cory’s grandmother, as a high society woman who sometimes acknowledges acquaintances in public and sometimes doesn’t, depending on her mood, something that often offends Mrs. Smallwood, as one of those acquaintances. They also pick up a boy called Peter Hawthorne, who was out walking in the rain and needed a ride. He introduces himself to Cory as the president of the Explorers Club. His description of Cory’s Uncle Dirk doesn’t sound very favorable, either. However, he mentions that the sign for the mansion at Tarnhelm has a unicorn on it, just like the unicorn on the pendant that Cory wears, which she thinks of as her “amulet”, and Cory takes that as a hopeful sign.

Unfortunately, the Smallwoods’ car runs out of gas, but since it’s not raining anymore, Peter offers to walk Cory the rest of the way to Tarnhelm. Then, it starts to rain again, so they take shelter in a cave that Peter knows. While they wait out the storm, Peter asks Cory more about herself. Cory explains that she usually refers to her mother as “Stephanie” because she’s actually adopted. She later reveals that she doesn’t know anything about her birth parents because Stephanie doesn’t like to talk about them, saying that it makes her sad. Stephanie is an actress, and they’ve had to move around sometimes. Because she’s had to switch schools several times, Cory hasn’t made many friends her own age. Cory doesn’t always go with Stephanie when she travels for work, often staying at home with housekeepers (which she calls “lady-helps”) so she can continue going to school. Stephanie isn’t married, so Cory doesn’t have a father to take care of her. The reason why she has come to stay with her relatives during this school break is that Stephanie needs to travel again for her work and couldn’t manage to find new help to stay with Cory. This is the first mention that Cory’s “mother” isn’t really her mother and these relatives that she’s going to visit aren’t blood relatives. This is central to the plot of the book, but there’s a twist coming, and it’s not the twist that I expected. I had theories about the identities of Cory’s biological parents at this point that turned out to be completely wrong.

When the rain lets up a bit, Peter takes Cory the rest of the way to the house, although they leave her luggage in the cave because it’s too hard to carry it over the muddy ground. When they arrive at the house, the housekeeper, Fergie, welcomes Cory. She says that everyone has been in a tizzy about her because Stephanie actually sent multiple telegrams with different sets of instructions for picking up Cory, so nobody knew when she was really arriving. Fergie and her husband, Andrew Ferguson, both work for the Van Heusens, and they make Cory feel welcome at Tarnhelm, fussing over her and giving her and Peter a hot dinner. However, they tell Cory not to mention the cave to her grandmother because she wouldn’t understand and she might be unhappy about Cory showing up at the house wet and muddy. Peter promises to bring Cory’s luggage up to the house later. If this were a gothic novel style of story, the servants would be strict, unhappy, uncaring or putting on a facade of caring while being just plain sinister, but the Fergusons are exactly as caring and friendly as they seem to be.

The Fergusons are Scottish and a bit superstitious. At dinner, they notice that Cory is left-handed, “cawry-fisted”, as they call it. Peter is intrigued that “cawry” sounds like “Cory”, and the Fergusons say that there’s a superstition that left-handed people are enchanted or bewitched. However, the Fergusons don’t think it’s a bad thing that Cory is left-handed and possibly bewitched; it’s just more of an interesting idea to them. This story isn’t as supernatural as I originally expected.

The Fergusons tell Cory that her grandmother and uncle are good, kind people, but they aren’t used to children and are fussy about some things. Uncle Dirk is known to be moody, and Cory’s grandmother likes things quiet and orderly. Cory starts to think that she might be happier with just the Fergusons, although she is still curious about her relatives. She hopes that they will like her and, maybe if they like her enough, they’ll let her stay longer so she can go to Peter’s school and join his Explorers Club because she badly wants friends. Issues about how to make friends adds an element of teen drama to the story, but there’s more going on here than that.

The house is beautiful and charming, and Fergie gives Cory Stephanie’s old room, which Cory loves. It has beautiful, old-fashioned furniture and its own fireplace! She also shows Cory a collection of carved wooden masks hanging on the walls of the hallways that her Uncle Dirk made. Uncle Dirk is an architect, but he’s also been a wood carver. In Stephanie’s room, there is even a mask of Stephanie’s face, which Cory recognizes. During the night, she half wakes up and is aware of her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in her room, whispering about her, saying that she looks rather plain and something about somebody “getting used to” something. They don’t deny this conversion later when Cory asks them about it, and there is less sinister significance to it than it seems at first.

The next morning, Cory meets her grandmother and Uncle Dirk at breakfast. They greet her politely, but her grandmother says that she wants to have a word with Peter about how he should have taken her to his house until the rain stopped, not make her walk through the mud to Tarnhelm, ruining her shoes. Cory asks her not to say anything to Peter because she really wants to join the Explorers, and they wouldn’t let her in if they thought that she was afraid of a little mud. However, her grandmother reminds her that she’s only there for a short visit and she doesn’t want her getting hurt or doing anything dangerous. Uncle Dirk is more sympathetic and offers to teach her to swim.

Mrs. Van Heusen brings up the subject of Stephanie, and during the conversion, she lets slip that Stephanie has never legally adopted Cory. Now, we’re getting to a major plot point of the story! Stephanie is consumed by her acting work and not good with paperwork, and Mrs. Van Heusen thinks it’s about time that she took care of the issue of Cory’s legal adoption. The news comes as a shock to Cory, who thinks that, not being legally adopted, she doesn’t really belong to the family at Tarnhelm. Both her grandmother and Uncle Dirk hurriedly reassure her that she is family to them and belongs at Tarnhelm and that the official paperwork doesn’t really make a difference to them. There is no danger in the story of Cory being rejected by this family, and they don’t have any objection to her visit or Stephanie’s guardianship of her. However, this is one of the early indications that Stephanie is not as attentive as a guardian as she should be and that there are aspects of Cory’s life and well-being that are being neglected. Cory is starting to develop a new awareness of these issues.

Cory asks her grandmother and Uncle Dirk about her birth parents because Stephanie has never explained who they were or what happened to them, and her grandmother says that it’s only right that she knows and that Stephanie really should have told her before. Uncle Dirk explains to Cory that her parents’ names were Lawrence and Coralie Winterslow, and that they were friends of Stephanie’s when they were young, before they were even married, and they all liked to go skiing together. They lived in England for awhile after they were married, and Cory was actually born in London. Then, they were killed in a skiing accident in Switzerland. Stephanie had been with them on that skiing trip, and before Cory’s mother died from her injuries, she asked Stephanie to take three-year-old Cory because she had no living relatives on her father’s side and she didn’t want to leave her child with her own relatives, for some reason. Cory is glad to know the story of her parents but sad at the same time and worried about not being legally adopted. Fergie suggests to her that she write to Stephanie about it and see what she says.

Later, Cory also asks Uncle Dirk about the unicorn on the sign at Tarnhelm and about her own silver unicorn pendant. Uncle Dirk tells her that he has a fascination for British history and heraldry, which is why he carved the unicorn as the symbol of Tarnhelm. He also says that the pendant used to belong to Cory’s mother and that her father had a matching unicorn tie pin, although he doesn’t know what happened to it after his death. Cory wishes that she’d thought to ask Stephanie about it in her letter.

All of this explanation about Cory’s parents’ history sounds pretty straight-forward, although sad. However, the story doesn’t end there. Everyone has a history, and there are things about her Uncle Dirk that Cory doesn’t know yet as well as the reasons why Stephanie has never complete Cory’s adoption papers.

Cory becomes sick and feverish, spending a few days in bed. During this time, she has strange dreams, but not all of them are actually dreams. She remembers dreaming about a room with a chess set that has carved unicorns instead of horses as the knight pieces. Later, when Uncle Dirk plays chess with her, with a normal chess set, she mentions this dream, and both Uncle Dirk and her grandmother act strangely about it. Eventually, Cory comes to realize that her “dream” wasn’t just a dream, that she actually did get out of bed and wander around while she was feverish, but it takes some time before the full meaning of the chess set becomes clear to her.

Various people comment to Cory about Uncle Dirk’s moods and personality, hinting at past problems he’s had. Cory’s grandmother makes a comment to Cory about Uncle Dirk harming himself more than anyone else, except perhaps for one person, hinting at relationship troubles in Uncle Dirk’s past that contribute to his dark moods. Nosy Mrs. Smallwood also refers to the strange behavior of the Van Heusen family, often rude and unfriendly. While Mrs. Smallwood is a busy-body with issues of her own, she is correct in noticing the casual harm that various members of the Van Heusen family have done to people around them. It’s never intentional and they rarely notice the consequences of what they do, but that’s part of the problem because they are often selfish, thoughtless, and out-of-touch with other people’s feelings and the effects of their actions on others. Even Uncle Dirk acknowledges that members of the family are often hard on each other even when they care about one another. However, the Van Heusens aren’t all bad, and some of them have changed somewhat over time. Mr. Smallwood, who is a more optimistic and level-headed person than his wife, tells Cory that his wife likes to live in the past, and while Uncle Dirk was a rather thoughtless young man who wouldn’t have made a good husband, he’s grown up since then and has become friendlier and more thoughtful toward others, in spite of his occasional dark moods. But, since Uncle Dirk has never been married, what did Mr. Smallwood mean about him not making a good husband?

On the grounds of the Van Heusens’ estate, Cory spots what looks like the foundations of a house that was started to be built but never completed. Peter says that he and the other Explorers sometimes play around these foundations. Cory wonders who was planning to build a house there and why they never finished it. Uncle Dirk gets angry when he catches Cory and Peter snooping around the tower at Tarnhelm, where he keeps some of his old wood-carving things and where Peter finds some mysterious poetry.

Peter later takes Cory to visit Laurel Woodford, a young woman Cory met on the beach earlier, who helped Cory find her necklace when she lost it. Laurel is a weaver. Laurel lives by herself, but she says that she isn’t lonely because she has plenty of things to do that keep her busy. However, there is a kind of sadness about Laurel, and she has secrets of her own. She knows the Van Heusen family herself, and it wasn’t a happy experience.

Slowly, without Cory really doing any intentional investigating, the pieces of the past start coming together – Uncle Dirk, a marriage that didn’t take place, a house that wasn’t completed … and two identical unicorn pendants.

The story is haunting and magical, but not because of an real spells or magic. The only ghosts are the ghosts of the past. The book reminds me of a couple of other books that I’ve read, but explaining which ones involves some spoilers. I don’t mind giving spoilers for this story because I haven’t found a copy of this book that’s available to read online, and it’s something of a collector’s item now, with copies typically costing at least $20 and frequently more, although it’s sometimes possible to find one for less.

My Thoughts and A Few Spoilers

One of the interesting things about this book is that it reminds me of other books that I’ve read and liked. Some children’s book are mentioned in the course of the story because Cory likes to read, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and The Story of the Amulet, but these aren’t the books that the story reminds me of.

Throughout the book, the Fergusons use various Scottish words and phrases, sometimes singing old songs or quoting from poems. Mrs. Van Heusen says that she particularly likes the Fergusons because her family was also from Scotland, and they remind her of her youth, which is a comfort to her. The Scottish element and the young orphan learning to make friends and become close to a new family remind me of Mystery on the Isle of Skye, although that book was actually set in Scotland. The books also have a similar feel in the way they approach the element of mystery in the story and the element of “magic” and “spells” that aren’t really magic spells. Both books have an enchanting quality to them, but it’s because of the atmosphere of the stories, not because there’s any actual magic.

During the course of the story, Cory learns more about what it takes to make friends. Peter realizes that Cory isn’t particularly good at making friends and confronts her about the reasons why. It’s partly because Cory has had to change school multiple times, but Peter has also noticed that Cory always waits for other people to approach her with offers of friendship and invitations to join in. If they don’t, she just feels hurt and left out instead of voicing her desires to join in. Even when she gets an invitation, her impulse is to reject it if she thinks it was only offered out of pity. Peter finds it annoying that Cory seems to need people to practically beg her to be their friend and join in activities. It reminds Cory of advice that Stephanie has tried to offer her before that she should just join in and not worry or assume that people don’t want her around. Even Fergie told her that if she wants to make friends, she’ll have to drop her pride, meaning that she’ll have to learn to make the first move and approach other people instead of waiting for them to come to her. This criticism is partly true, but Cory’s experience of life is that many of the things she wants also depend on the decisions of other people, and Peter comes to rethink some of what he said when some of his friends are less than accepting of Cory. It isn’t nice to be welcomed into a place where you aren’t really made to feel welcome and accepted. This is also a fitting description of Cory’s life with Stephanie, being largely raised by her hired help.

When Cory finally receives Stephanie’s reply to her letter, Stephanie’s selfishness and detachment from Cory’s life become increasingly apparent. Cory shares the letter with her grandmother and Fergie and outright asks her grandmother if she can stay in California. Her grandmother asks her if she won’t miss Stephanie because Stephanie is the only mother she’s known since she was little, but Cory says she won’t because Stephanie is gone so much and busy with her acting, leaving her with hired help. Fergie, while being hired help herself, is more maternal and says that situation is unacceptable, but Cory’s grandmother says that she’s not sure that she’s up to raising another child, that she’s old and wants her peace and quiet now. Even while Cory’s grandmother knows that her daughter is self-centered, she has a kind of self-centeredness of her own. When her grandmother gets dramatic about the worry Cory puts her through when she’s running around the caves with her friends, Cory realizes that Stephanie has been imitating her during her dramatic acts.

Cory beings to get the answers about her past and Uncle Dirk’s when Peter shares some treasure with her that he and other members of the Explorers have found and are hiding in a cave on the Van Heusens’ property. This treasure is part of the reason why some of the other Explorers have been less than welcoming to Cory, not wanting to share it and their secret hiding place with her, especially because they’re worried that she’ll give their secrets away to the Van Heusens, and then, they’ll lose their treasure and their secret hiding place. However, among their treasures is a carved wooden box that Peter found, and it looks like Uncle Dirk’s carving work. Cory points out that the carved wooden box probably belongs to Uncle Dirk, and since it was on the Van Heusen land, he probably hid it in the cave himself. Peter, as the finder of the box lets Cory have it to return to Uncle Dirk.

In the box, Cory finds four colorful feathers, four pretty seashells, a poem about an angry quarrel signed with the initials “L.W.”, a carved wooden bracelet, a woman’s scarf, and a small silver pendant that is identical to the one that Cory wears. However, the back of this particular unicorn has a rough spot where it used to be mounted on something else, and Cory realizes that this is the one from the tie pin that Uncle Dirk told her about, turned into a necklace. From these pieces, Cory begins to realize that the contents of the box are Laurel’s – her initials on the poem and a necklace made for her that Cory thinks must have come from her father, and if that’s true, Laurel must be some kind of relation to her. She also explores the room off the tower in Tarnhelm that contains the amazing chess set with the unicorn knights, and now that she’s no longer sick, she sees that the room also holds other furniture that Uncle Dirk made. Uncle Dirk was the person who started to have the house built, and he was making furniture to go in the house, but for some reason, he stopped and stored the furniture away because there was no new house to put it in. There are also carved masks of Laurel in the room.

Early in the morning, Cory decides to go see Laurel about what she’s found, knowing that if she waits, she’ll miss her because she’s about to leave on a trip. When Cory shows her the box that she’s found and asks her about the unicorn pendant and whether or not they’re related, Laurel tells her that they’re not related but that the unicorn did come from her father’s tie pin. Like my earlier theories, Cory’s theories about Laurel are partly right and partly wrong. After Cory’s parents died, Stephanie sorted through their belongings. She gave the little unicorn necklace to Cory, and she gave Cory’s father’s tie pin to her brother, Dirk. After Dirk got the unicorn tie pin, he had it made into a necklace for Laurel.

Laurel explains that, about seven years earlier, she and Dirk got engaged while they were still in college. However, Dirk was very spoiled by his mother after his sister left home and went to New York to do her acting. He was a very talented wood-carver and looked at himself as an artist who would never have to earn a living because his mother was very wealthy, and she encouraged him in his art. Dirk wanted to drop out of college and just spend his time doing wood carving, without caring much whether he ever made any money at it. Laurel argued with him about it because she didn’t like the idea of living on Mrs. Van Heusen’s money, and she broke off the engagement. Looking back on it, Laurel regrets doing that. She finished college and could have worked to support herself and Dirk independently, just as she’s been supporting herself these last several years, ironically with an art of her own, and with Dirk’s talent at carving, he might have ended up making money at his art anyway, doing something he really loved to do. It was all about pride. Laurel was too proud to rely on Mrs. Van Heusen, who was happy to support her son’s art, and Dirk was both proud and spoiled and wanted everything his own way on his say-so without working things out with Laurel. Dirk was being a little selfish, but Laurel comes to realize that she was a bit selfish too because she refused to acknowledge how important Dirk’s art was to him and wanted him to be something else. At one point, Laurel wanted to make up with Dirk and talk things out, but he ignored her and refused to talk to her. She got so mad that she left the box of treasures in the cave where she and Dirk used to play as children and threw the engagement ring in the ocean. Since that time, she and Dirk haven’t been able to talk to each other, even though they both wanted to. Dirk gave up the woodcarving that he loved because it was a painful reminder of the reason why he and Laurel broke up. Instead, he went back to college and became an architect so he would have a profession of his own. However, he is given to dark moods because he misses both Laurel and his woodcarving and doesn’t know what to do about it.

The situation gets straightened out when Dirk, realizing that Cory is missing from the house and that fog is coming in, goes to Laurel’s house to make sure that Cory is safe with her. The three of them talk things over, and Dirk asks Cory to give him some time to talk to Laurel alone. Dirk and Laurel make up, and Laurel agrees to marry Dirk as they planned, on the condition that they both adopt Cory because she’s come to love Cory as a niece. Cory is overjoyed to hear the news, and Dirk plans to begin construction on the house that they’d started years before.

The story of the lovers parted by a quarrel and the unicorns that bind them together reminded me of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.

There is a scene when Stephanie shows up to claim Cory and take her back to New York, but the family talk it out with her. Stephanie admits that she took Cory partly because that was her promise to her old friend and partly out of guilt because the skiing trip where Cory’s parents were killed had been her idea. Mrs. Van Heusen tells her not to blame herself because she couldn’t have known what was going to happen and Cory’s parents chose to come on the trip with her. Stephanie further admits that she didn’t legally adopt Cory because she was aware that her lifestyle wasn’t particularly suited to bringing up a child, although she’s done her best, and because she knew that Cory did have other relatives. She doesn’t quite admit that she was hoping that one of these other relatives might take her someday, but she gives that impression. Cory’s relatives on her mother’s side haven’t tried to claim her because her grandmother on that side of the family was too old to look after her and her aunt already had a large family and not much money. Stephanie loves Cory, even though she doesn’t really know how to raise a child and has found it difficult to care for her, and feels betrayed at first when Cory says that she’d rather stay with Dirk and Laurel. However, Stephanie later apologizes to Cory for making a scene about it because it really would be better for everyone if Cory stayed in California, where she would have a stable life and Stephanie wouldn’t have to worry about her. Stephanie returns to New York on her own and Cory tells Peter that she’s going to stay in California. Peter and the other Explorers welcome her into their club. Now that she knows that she’s going to be staying, everyone feels more like she truly belongs.

Ramona Forever

Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary, 1984.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramona and Her Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramona the Brave

Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Snoop in Your Sister's Diary

How to Snoop in Your Sister’s Diary by Janet Adele Bloss, 1989.

Lately, Haley has been jealous because her older sister, Lauren, has a new boyfriend and is spending all of her time with him. Haley feels neglected because Lauren doesn’t want to spend time with her any more. Haley resents the new boyfriend and worries about what Lauren and her boyfriend are doing together, so she begins regularly snoops in her sister’s diary to learn the details of Lauren’s relationship with her boyfriend.

However, Haley soon reads something shocking in her sister’s diary. Lauren might be about to do something disturbing and dangerous. But, what can Haley do about it when she wasn’t even supposed to know anything about it? If she reveals what she knows, Lauren will know about her snooping.

It turns out that Lauren already knows about the snooping and is angry with Haley about violating her privacy. Lauren isn’t actually doing anything wrong or even thinking about doing something wrong. She only wrote the shocking section in her diary to scare Haley, sort of like proving the old saying about how people who eavesdrop might hear things that they wish they wouldn’t (although the original saying is about how eavesdroppers might hear bad things about themselves). When Haley finally goes to plead with Lauren not to do what she thinks Lauren is about to do, Lauren reveals the truth, and the girls have an honest talk about what’s really been happening between them.

Personally, I didn’t think that the characters in the book acted in a very realistic manner. The main character didn’t react to certain situations in the way I would have expected, given her age. This is one of those stories which depends on characters holding things back and not communicating with each other openly for much of the story because, if they did, the story would have been resolved right away.

Amber Brown Goes Fourth

Amber Brown Goes Fourth by Paula Danziger, 1995.

Amber Brown Goes Fourth leaning against a tree

Big changes are happening in the life of Amber Brown. She’s back from her trip to England, during which she got chicken pox, and she’s about to start fourth grade. However, her best friend, Justin, has moved away, so she’s going to have to face the start of the new school year without him. Amber worries about whether she’ll be able to find a new best friend. Meanwhile, she’s also still adjusting to her parents’ divorce and her father’s move to Paris, France, and her mother has recently started dating a man named Max. Amber’s mother wants Amber to meet Max, but Amber doesn’t feel ready for that and is still quietly hoping that maybe her father will come back and her parents will reconcile.

Amber’s friend problems seem be solved when Brandi sits next to her in their new class. Brandi has changed since the last school year and is no longer best friends with snobby Hannah. Being friends with Brandi also forces Amber to make some changes. Brandi is quick to tell her on the first day that she isn’t Justin and that Amber can’t expect her to do the things that Justin would have done. Brandi is less excited about being friends with Amber than Amber is about making friends with her.

Amber worries that she doesn’t know how to make friends and especially that she doesn’t know how to make a best friend. She and Justin got to know each other when they were little kids, and Amber didn’t even have to try to make him her friend. However, that turns out to be the key to making friends with Brandi – not trying so hard and letting their friendship develop naturally.

When Amber and Brandi both have to go to the school’s afterschool program because their mothers work, they get to know each other better. Brandi hasn’t actually lived in Amber’s town for very long, having moved there to only about a year before, and when she moved, she also left behind her best friend and had trouble making a new one. When Brandi joined Amber’s class the year before, almost everyone already had a best friend and didn’t seem interested in making time for a new one, which is why she tried being friends with nasty Hannah. However, Hannah turns out to be mean to everyone, even the person trying to be her best friend, which is why Brandi stopped trying to be Hannah’s friend. Brandi has actually wanted to be friends with Amber for some time, but Amber was always too occupied with Justin, and after Justin left, Brandi was afraid that Amber was just looking for a Justin replacement and wouldn’t like her for who she really is. Amber tells her that she really does like her for being Brandi.

Amber comes to realize that it’s actually a good thing that Brandi isn’t exactly like Justin. She still keeps in touch with Justin by mail, but it’s also fun doing things with Brandi that she would never have done with Justin. Brandi teaches Amber to blow bubble gum bubbles with her nose. Because Brandi is a girl, Amber and Brandi can also do girl things together, like braiding each other’s hair. Brandi also likes to read more than Justin does, and the girls start talking about books with each other. Amber learns that not all changes are bad or difficult and that letting new people into her life brings interesting variety.

By the end of the book, she also comes to understand more about why her mother values her new relationship with Max. Justin’s mother was Amber’s mother’s best friend, and when Justin’s family moved away, Amber’s mother lost her best friend, too. That, combined with her loneliness since her divorce, led Amber’s mother to seek out new relationships, which is how she met Max and became fond of him. Max is apparently a nice man, and he even goes to the trouble of seeking out a particular mermaid toy for Amber because Amber’s mother told him that Amber really wanted one. At the end of the book, Amber still isn’t sure that she’s ready to meet Max because she feels like she needs some time to adjust to the other changes in her life first, but she begins to feel a little more open to the idea of change and letting new people into her life.

The book is very realistic about the gradual changes that Amber goes through as she starts fourth grade and learns how to make a new friend. Not everything in her life is completely resolved, like her feelings about her parents’ divorce and her mother’s new boyfriend, but Amber is making progress and growing up a little.

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

The 13th Clue

The 13th Clue by Ann Jonas, 1988.

This picture book is almost entirely pictures. The pictures present clues to a treasure hunt and reveal the true story of the book.

The book begins with a diary entry. At first, we don’t know who is writing it, but this person writes about what a bad day it’s been. We know that the person must be a kid because they mention school, and I guessed that it was the person’s birthday because people sang to them at school. But, she thinks that others have forgotten her birthday. The diary entry breaks off when the person notices a light going on in the house when, supposedly, no one else is home.

From this point on, until the very end of the book, the text is presented in the form of clues for our birthday kid (who turns out to be a girl, as shown in shadows and a reflection in water in later illustrations) to follow that lead to the place where her friends are waiting to give her a surprise party. Readers can figure out the clues along with the girl, some of which are easier and more direct than others.

I love puzzle books, and I thought that it was interesting how we don’t even know who the main character of the book is, only finding that out as the book continues. I liked the challenge of figuring out the clues as the book went along, although none of them were particularly difficult. They aren’t written in any kind of code, just kind of hidden in plain sight, most of them using objects that are part of the rest of the scene. Some of the letters of words are jumbled and have to be unscrambled. I’m sure it would seem harder to children.

This is a pretty easy book, but not one that would be suitable to read to children who can’t read themselves. There are no solutions provided to the puzzles, but that’s okay because, first of all, they aren’t very hard, and second, there are no opportunities for the reader to make choices based on the puzzles, so there is nothing for the reader to get wrong. The end of the story is obvious. Most of the fun is just studying the pictures to see the cute ways her friends decided to hide their “secret” messages. The hardest message to spot is the one written in the hillside.

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