Button Soup

Button Soup by Walt Disney Productions, 1975.

This is a retelling of a traditional folktale, sometimes called Button Soup and sometimes Stone Soup. The basic story is the same, but sometimes, it uses a stone and sometimes a button. All of the characters in this particular version of the story are represented by Disney characters.

Scrooge McDuck’s niece, Daisy, is coming to visit him. The Sheriff welcomes her when her stagecoach comes into town, but seeing how tired and hungry she is, he warns her that she’s not going to find much comfort at her uncle’s house because Scrooge is stingy. However, Daisy says that she is sure she can handle Uncle Scrooge.

When she gets to Scrooge’s house, he’s not happy to see what he has unexpected company and tries to deny that he has any food to share. Daisy knows that Scrooge isn’t really that poor, so she takes out a big pot and begins making soup. Scrooge asks her what she’s planning to cook without food, and Daisy claims that she can make a whole pot of soup with just one button.

Scrooge is curious to see what Daisy’s button soup is like, so when she asks him for a little salt and pepper, he gives it to her. Then, she says that she once made the soup with an old soup bone, and Scrooge gives her a soup bone, too.

Each time that Daisy suggests another ingredient, Scrooge rushes to get it for her, eager to see what Daisy will do with the soup, which smells better and better as they go. (The pictures also show just how much food Scrooge is hiding. In reality, most of that would spoil before he could use it all, since he’s only feeding himself.)

When the soup is ready, Daisy points out that there is more than they’ll ever eat, so they should invite some other people to share it. Scrooge wants to save the soup in jars instead, but Daisy points out that it’s easy to make more because they did it with just one button.

They end up inviting the whole town to share the soup, and Scrooge is pleased that he has such a clever niece.

This book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive along with other versions of the story.

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.

Amelia Bedelia Helps Out

Amelia Bedelia Helps Out by Peggy Parish, 1979.

Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are loaning their maid/housekeeper, Amelia Bedelia, to a friend, Miss Emma to help her with a few things around her house.  Amelia Bedelia also has her niece, Effie Lou, with her to give her a hand.  Effie Lou doesn’t quite know what her aunt does for a living, but although Effie Lou’s first instincts seem to do the normal thing with the instructions that Miss Emma gives them, Amelia Bedelia quickly “corrects” her niece to do things in her quirky, literal-minded way.  For example, when Miss Emma tells them to weed the garden, Effie Lou starts to pull the weeds, but Amelia Bedelia convinces her that they are supposed to add more since Miss Emma didn’t say “unweed” the garden.

From there, Amelia Bedelia interprets Miss Emma’s order to “stake” the beans in the garden as tying bits of steak to them.  They also give the chickens Miss Emma’s quilting scraps instead of food scraps and sew grass seeds onto thread instead of “sowing” them into the ground.

Is Amelia Bedelia a bad influence on her niece?  Maybe, but once again, her baking skills come to the rescue.  Miss Emma asks her to bake a “tea cake” for some guests who will be coming over. 

Now, depending on where you live, “tea cake” actually can mean different things.  Sometimes, it’s just a small cake that’s served with tea, and other times, it’s a special kind of cookie or biscuit (the distinction is regional).  The way Amelia Bedelia interprets it is a cake that actually includes tea as an ingredient.  Surprisingly, though, everyone loves it, even more than the nut cake she also baked.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Jane-Emily

JaneEmily

Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, 1969.

Louisa is a young woman around the turn of the century.  She is only 18 years old and unmarried, but she is in love with a young man named Martin.  However, her parents think that she is becoming too serious about Martin too soon, so they insist that she spend the summer taking her young niece, Jane, to visit her other grandmother.  Jane has lived with her maternal grandparents, Louisa’s parents, since the death of her parents.  Louisa loves her niece, but she resents her parents changing her summer plans in order to keep her away from her boyfriend.

However, this is not just a love story but a ghost story.  Jane’s parents were killed in a strange buggy accident, which is why she lives with her grandparents and young aunt.  Her other grandmother has lived alone since the death of her son (Jane’s father) and her husband, some years earlier.  She had another child, a daughter named Emily, but Emily died young many years ago of a sudden illness.

As Louisa soon learns, Emily was a pretty and clever but seriously disturbed child.  Her father idolized her, coming to love her even more than he loved his wife.  He thought she was absolutely the most perfect child in the world and could never forbid her anything.  He gave her everything she ever asked for and refused to allow his wife to discipline her for any reason, even when she needed it.  It would be enough to spoil any child, but Emily was extremely callous, cold, and manipulating by nature.  Her father’s catering to her only fed her selfishness and ruthlessness.

Emily was known to resort to extreme measures to get her way, and in the end, it led to her death.  She fell in love with the son of the local doctor, deciding (without his consent) that they would get married one day.  However, he didn’t really care for her at all, seeing her extreme selfishness.  In a bid to get his attention and sympathy, Emily decided to make herself ill.  One cold night, she soaked her nightgown in water and deliberately sat by an open window.  Unfortunately, it worked too well, and she became so ill that she died.

However, Emily’s selfishness and determination to get her way seem to have lasted beyond the grave, and young Jane’s presence in her old house, in the very room that used to be Emily’s, seems to have awakened Emily’s wrathful spirit.  Jane becomes fascinated with the reflecting globe in the garden, which Emily declared was hers alone and that no one else could ever look into it.  Jane claims that she can see Emily’s face in the globe, but people don’t believe her at first. Jane bears a close resemblance to Emily, although the two of them are very different in character.  Jane seems to develop an unhealthy obsession with her dead aunt, and she seems to know things that only Emily could have told her.  Emily seems to be slowly taking over Jane.

Jane’s grandmother confides that she has believed that Emily caused the sudden deaths of her husband and son because they both died under unexplained circumstances and Emily could never let go of anything or anyone she thought belonged to her.  Now that Emily seems to be showing an interest in Jane, her grandmother begins to fear for her.

Meanwhile, Louisa is falling in love with Adam, the young man Emily had planned to marry and who is now a doctor himself.  Adam also loves her, wanting her to marry him.  However, Louisa has become convinced of Emily’s evil presence and the threat that she poses to young Jane.  When Emily forces Jane to go out in a freezing rain, making her become ill in the way she did before she died, Louisa must help Jane to fight for her life.

Emily’s presence centers around the gazing globe in the garden, and the only person who can end her evil influence and save Jane is her grandmother, who finally finds the courage to stand up to her daughter and tell her that there are some things that she can’t have.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

Parts of the story feel a bit preachy on the subject of parents who spoil their children, but Emily and her family are presented as an extreme case of that.  At times, characters wonder what Emily would have been like if her father hadn’t constantly catered to her every whim and had given her the discipline she needed.  They all agree that she would have lived a longer life, as would other members of her family.  However, Emily was already a naturally selfish person and apparently incapable of empathy.  Her father’s worship of her was seriously unhealthy and, in a way, a reflection of his own selfishness; Emily represented all the qualities that he loved in her mother but she was a creation of his (well, you know, 50%, genetically speaking), making her infinitely more perfect and more worthy of his love than his own wife.  One of the other characters comments that his wife was the real victim in the end because her husband blamed her for their daughter’s early death (which was definitely Emily’s fault alone) and subjected her to years of guilt over it, rejecting all the love they had once had for each other.

The story ends happily but on a somewhat ambiguous note because Louisa realizes that there are many things that she doesn’t understand, and although Emily seems like she’s finally gone, the memory of her will haunt them all.

Mystery Behind Dark Windows

MysteryDarkWindowsMystery Behind Dark Windows by Mary C. Jane, 1962.

Recent years have brought misfortune to the formerly wealthy Pride family.  First, Tony and Ellie’s father was killed while on a business trip on behalf of the family’s mill.  Then, the workers in the mill went on strike, and the children’s grandfather died.  Their Aunt Rachel blames the strikers for putting stress on her father while he was still grieving for his son, thereby causing his death.  Because of that and because she doesn’t believe that she can handle the running of the mill herself, she has closed down the mill, putting all of the workers out of a job.

The townspeople of Darkwater Falls struggle to get by without the mill and are angry with the remaining members of the Pride family for the lay-offs, but Aunt Rachel thinks that their suffering is earned and so does nothing to help.  If Aunt Rachel would be willing to sell the mill to someone who would put it back into good use and employ people, the community’s problems would be solved, but Aunt Rachel can’t bring herself to do that, in spite of the offers she’s received and the urging of the family lawyer, Mr. Ralph Joslin.  She has high hopes that Tony might revive the mill one day when he’s grown up, and in the meantime, she wants to punish the strikers with unemployment and underemployment.  However, Aunt Rachel, absorbed in her personal pride and bad feelings, is ignoring some serious issues.  The taxes on the disused mill are costing the family dearly, the equipment is rusting, and Tony isn’t even sure that he wants to go into the family business.  Tony and Ellie are unhappy with their family’s situation, their aunt’s bitterness, and the way many of the townspeople now look at them, but they’re not sure what to do about it.

MysteryDarkWindowsMillSearchThen, one night, Ellie goes out to look for her aunt’s missing cat and hears someone in the old, supposedly empty mill.  When she tries to tell Tony, he doesn’t take her seriously, but Ellie knows what she heard.  Ellie later goes back to the mill to take another look at the place, and she sees Jeff, a boy from Tony’s high school, hanging around.  Later, she confides what she’s heard and seen in Hank, an old friend who lives on the other side of the river, and Violet, another girl from her class whose family has suffered since the closure of the mill.  The two of them start helping Ellie to investigate.

Some people in town have become concerned about children in the area getting into trouble, and they think that maybe some of the local youths have formed a gang.  Ellie worries about Tony, who has started sneaking out of the house at night to hang out with friends.  Is he now part of a gang?  Are he and his friends the ones who were sneaking around the old mill? Or could it be some of the disgruntled townsfolk, bitter about the mill remaining empty and not providing much-needed jobs?

While the kids have a look inside the mill, they discover that someone has been using the place as a hideout.  A fire at the mill reveals a number of secrets and sheds light on a town and a family caught in a cycle of bitter feelings and revenge.  Aunt Rachel is stunned when some of the townspeople accuse her of setting the fire herself in order to get insurance money for the mill.  The fire was clearly arson, and since Aunt Rachel has gone out of her way to make life difficult for people in town, many of them would be ready to believe just about anything of her.  It’s up to the young people to put the pieces together and reveal the true arsonist before the mill, the town, and the Pride family are completely destroyed.

Many of Aunt Rachel’s decisions are guided by a mixture of grief and anger, but she is also stubborn and prideful.  The Pride family was aptly named.  Although they have suffered misfortune, their privileged position as the (former) main employer of the community has given Aunt Rachel the sense that she and others in her family could do no wrong.  Aunt Rachel is absorbed in herself, her own feelings (which she places above others), and the past to the point where she feels justified in deliberately causing harm to her community and the people in it, failing to see the consequences of her actions, even the effects that her attitude has on the orphaned young niece and nephew in her charge.  Ellie feels like they don’t have a real family because her aunt’s bitter feelings prevent her and her brother from getting close to their aunt.  Her aunt’s actions have also made it difficult for her and Tony to get along well with other members of the community, further isolating them from comfort in their own grief.

In a way, the fire brings Aunt Rachel back to reality, forcing her to see the consequences of her actions (and inaction).  It comes as something of a shock to her that, while she felt fully justified in her bad feelings for the town, they are also fully justified in feeling badly about her.  Somehow, it never occurred to her how someone, doing the things she’s been doing and saying the things she’s been saying, would look to the people she deliberately set out to hurt.  For most of the story, the only feelings that were real to Aunt Rachel were her own.  Even when she thought about how people hated her, she didn’t think that what they thought would matter until she began to see how it was affecting Ellie and Tony as well as the other children in town.  Ellie can see that many things would have been resolved sooner if both her aunt and her brother could open up and discuss things honestly, both within the family and with other people.  Although neither of them set the fire, their secretiveness and self-absorption at first create the impression that they did.  Ellie’s eventual outburst at her aunt and the real guilty person force both of them to acknowledge the reality of their actions and motives.

I was somewhat fascinated by the motives of the arsonist, who understands the effects that Aunt Rachel’s bitterness and revenge have been having on the young people in town, even her own nephew, better than she does.  This person was wrong in the path he tried to take to fix the situation, but he does correctly see that unemployed men not only lack the money they need to properly take care of their families but may also set a bad example for boys and young men, either through the habits and attitudes that they let themselves fall into or by becoming too absorbed in their difficulties to see what’s happening to their own children.  I also agree with his assertion that those responsible for putting people out of their jobs bear some responsibility for the results of their actions, something which resonates in today’s economy, where many people are still unemployed or underemployed.  The Pride family’s previous high standing in the community was directly because of their ability to employ people and improve the lives of others.  When they began making life hard for others and refused to use their ability to help people, they lost that standing.  Aunt Rachel was just the last to realize it, which was part of the reason why she was surprised to discover just how badly the town thought of her.  She didn’t have a good reputation because she had done nothing to earn one, no matter what her family used to do.  She was no longer using their powers for good, so she turned herself into a villain.  However, it’s important to point out that the arsonist isn’t really in the right himself because, as Ellie points out, the spirit behind his actions isn’t much different from her aunt’s.

Ellie is correct in pointing out that both her aunt and the arsonist were wrong, not just because of what they did, but because of the feelings and motives behind it.  In their own way, each of them set out to deliberately hurt others because they had each been hurt.  Which of them was hurt first or hurt worse ultimately doesn’t matter.  Their mutual desire for vengeance against each other not only hurt the people around them but kept each of them from doing what they needed to do in order to heal their own wounds.  That is also a message that resonates today, in these times of political division, with two large parts of society trying to one-up each other and even actively harm one another, largely because they can’t stand the idea of someone wanting something or believing something that they don’t.  Whatever the circumstances, when people focus on winning on their own terms, no matter what the cost, everyone loses in the end.

Toward the end of the story, as Aunt Rachel and the arsonist begin making grudging apologies to one another and reluctant steps to fix things, Ellie decides that grudging and reluctant aren’t good enough and finally gets up the nerve to tell them what she really thinks, what they most need to hear:

“Just selling the mill won’t make things better . . . It’s the way [they] feel about it that’s wrong. That’s what made them act the way they did in the first place. They just wanted to get even with people, and hurt people, because they’d been hurt themselves. And they feel the same way still. You can see they do.”

How much can people help what they feel? It partly depends on what people choose to do about their feelings.  Actions guide feelings, and feelings guide actions.  Aunt Rachel and the arsonist indulged their bad feelings, nursing them, amplifying them, and making them their first priorities, the guiding force of their actions.  As long as they keep doing that, Ellie knows that the problems aren’t really over, and everyone will remain trapped in this bad cycle.  Ellie’s honest outburst finally breaks through to both of them, showing them what they really look like to others and making them reconsider their feelings and priorities.

One of my favorite characters in this story was Mr. Joslin, the lawyer.  Although he looks a little suspicious himself for a time, he is actually a good man, who looks after the family’s interests and genuinely cares about them as well as about the town.  He is the one who convinces Tony to be honest with his aunt about the friends he hangs out with and helps persuade Aunt Rachel to see things from others’ point of view.  He loves Aunt Rachel, in spite of her faults, and is honest with her about those faults, telling her what she needs to hear.  Of all the characters, with the exception of Ellie, he seems to have the most insight into other people’s feelings and situations.  He supports what Ellie says, quoting Lord Bacon, “A man who studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”

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

A Ghost in the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Dollhouse Murders

dollhousemurdersThe Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

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

There was a movie version of this book made in 1992 (Sometimes called Secrets in the Attic), but it’s difficult to find copies of it now.  Sometimes, the movie or clips of it appear on YouTube.  Apart from that, it’s very difficult to see it.

Kat the Time Explorer

KatTimeExplorer

Kat the Time Explorer by Emma Bradford, 1998.

KatTimeExplorerTrain.jpgTen-year-old Kat is going to be living with her Aunt Jessie for the next year.  Her parents are botanists, and they are spending a year in South America, studying rain forest plants.  Aunt Jessie lives in a house in the same town as Kat and her parents so, by staying with her, Kat can continue going to the same school and see her friends.

Like Kat’s parents, Aunt Jessie is also a scientist and teaches physics at the same college where her parents teach when they’re not doing research abroad.  She inherited her house from their Great-Uncle Malcolm, who was an inventor.  Malcolm never invented anything that made much money or got much attention, but Jessie has been going through his things and discovered something interesting among his unfinished projects: a time machine.  The time machine seems to be nearly complete, although Jessie isn’t quite sure how to operate it or what should power it.  There is a drawing of a strange medallion in Malcolm’s notes, and Jessie found one with the same markings among Malcolm’s belongings, but it’s unclear whether this medallion is supposed to play any role in the time machine’s function or if it’s completely unrelated.

Then, Kat discovers another medallion in Malcolm’s old room, one with identical markings but made out of a different type of metal.  There is a space on the time machine for each of the medallions to fit.  When Kat experiments with how the medallions can fit into the machine, she activates it, transporting herself and Jessie back in time to England in 1851.

They find themselves on a train with other travelers heading to The Great Exhibition in London where people from around the world will be displaying new developments in industry and technology.  No one notices Jessie and Kat’s sudden arrival because the train is packed with people and the time machine has somehow altered their clothing and other small objects in their possession to ones that are appropriate to the period.  They also seem to be able to understand people speaking other languages neither of them knew before.  The time machine itself is packed into an ordinary-looking bag.  The two of them decide that they can’t use the time machine on the train where everyone will see them, and besides, they are both curious about the time they find themselves in.  After a temporary mix-up where they are separated at the train station, they find each other again and manage to locate a woman who will rent a room to them for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, when they start unpacking in their room, they discover that their bag was accidentally switched at the station for an identical one.  They no longer have the time machine and can’t get home!  Inside the bag they have, they find articles of men’s clothing, a small spring of some kind, an incomplete sketch of some kind of invention, a ticket to the Exhibition, and a letter written to someone named Edward from his brother Sidney about the Exhibition and the invention they plan to demonstrate there.  The brothers are very concerned about the success of their demonstration and are depending on results to make some money and save their family’s estate.  With those clues, Jessie and Kat must track down these inventors and find their time machine, saving not only themselves from being stuck in the past but the future of the two brothers!

There is an educational section in the back that explains about the Victorian Era and the Great Exposition.  It also discusses Victorian manners and tea parties.  There are tips for making little sandwiches of the kind people would eat at tea parties.

This book is part of the Stardust Classics series.