Raggedy Andy Stories

Raggedy Andy Stories by Johnny Gruelle, 1920.

This book is part of the original Raggedy Ann series by its creator, Johnny Gruelle. The first book in the series was just about Raggedy Ann, but this book introduces a boy doll named Raggedy Andy. The explanation behind Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (according to the book, not real life) is that the two dolls belonged to a pair of childhood friends. One girl owned Raggedy Ann, and the other girl owned Raggedy Andy. At the beginning of this book, Raggedy Andy arrives by mail to join Raggedy Ann and the other dolls in Marcella’s nursery, supposedly sent to the author by the daughter of the woman who owned Raggedy Andy.

Every night when the humans in the house go to sleep, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and the other dolls and toys come to life and have adventures. Each chapter in the book is its own short story. Some of the stories have morals to them about being generous and making others happy. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny also make appearances.

These stories can make good bedtime stories for young children because there is nothing at all stressful about them. The book makes it clear from the very beginning that dolls cannot be hurt, so whatever they go through in their adventures, no real harm is ever done.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Project Gutenberg (multiple formats) and Internet Archive (multiple copies – including an audiobook). The LibriVox audiobook is also available on YouTube.

Stories in the Book:

How Raggedy Andy Came

The package with Raggedy Andy arrives, and the author is sees that Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann are glad to see each other again. The dolls cannot talk to each other in front of humans, but the author senses that they have things to say to each other, so he leaves them alone together.

The Nursery Dance

Raggedy Andy is brought to Marcella’s nursery with Raggedy Ann and Marcella’s other toys. When Marcella plays with her toys, she talks for them, but the toys have private thoughts of their own that they can’t say in front of her. After Marcella goes to bed, the toys begin to move about on their own and talk to each other. Raggedy Ann introduces Raggedy Andy to the other toys. Raggedy Andy has been stored in a trunk for a long time. Although, he was friends with a family of mice during that time, he is glad to be among other toys again.

The Spinning Wheel

The dolls in the nursery have a pillow fight and get feathers all over the floor. They clean up the feathers, but one of Raggedy Andy’s arms fall off in the right. (This doesn’t really hurt him because, as the book explains, Santa Claus gives the toys he makes a special wish that prevents them from being hurt by anything.) Raggedy Andy says that his arm has been loose for a while. The dolls say that maybe Raggedy Ann could sew it back on, but they need to find a needle and thread first. The dolls go on a daring expedition to the sewing room to get them. As Raggedy Ann repairs Raggedy Andy’s arms, she tells the dolls about another time when she repaired Raggedy Andy’s arm.

The Taffy Pull

Raggedy Andy suggests to the other dolls that they have a taffy pull. At first, the others think it’s a new kind of game, but Raggedy Andy explains that it’s a way to make candy. This is a good time for them to do it because Marcella and her parents are away, visiting relatives, so there is no one home to notice the dolls using the kitchen.

(This story actually contains a pretty good description of making homemade taffy, although the dolls aren’t hurt by touching hot, sticky candy, and a human child would be.)

The Rabbit Chase

Marcella’s dog, Fido, knows that the dolls can talk and also talks to them. One night, Fido hears a strange scratching sound. He wants to bark at it, but the dolls don’t want him to bark because it will wake the humans. They let Fido outside so he can see what the sound is. It turns out to be a rabbit, and the rabbit tries to hide from Fido by running into the house and hiding in the nursery. Raggedy Ann tells Fido to leave the rabbit along and asks the rabbit why it was scratching at their house. The rabbit explains that he is an Easter Bunny, and he only came to leave a basket of Easter Eggs for the children of the house.

The New Tin Gutter

When the house gets a new tin gutter, the dolls have fun sliding down it until a couple of penny dolls get lost down a drain pipe. Then, Raggedy Andy gets stuck trying to rescue them! The other dolls don’t know how to get them out and are afraid that they are lost forever. Then, it starts to rain, and when Marcella’s father notices that the drain seems plugged, he calls some workmen to figure out why the drain won’t work. The adults assume that Marcella must have put Raggedy Andy down the drain pipe when she was playing.

Doctor Raggedy Andy

Marcella sometimes likes to pretend that her dolls are ill and gives them medicine made out of water and brown sugar. However, one day, she leaves the French doll lying in bed after giving her medicine, and the medicine hardens so that her open-and-close eyes are stuck closed. The other dolls try to figure out how to help her, but it’s Raggedy Andy who figures out what to do.

Raggedy Andy’s Smile

Raggedy Andy’s smile is wearing off because Marcella’s little brother fed him orange juice. (Little Dicky isn’t sorry that he did this because he is only two years old, and as the book notes, two-year-olds don’t have many sorrows.) Raggedy Andy still feels like the happy doll he is even with only half a smile left, but Raggedy Ann says maybe they should wash Raggedy Andy’s face. The others don’t think it will do much good. They go downstairs and are surprised to see a man there. Immediately, the dolls act like they can’t move because the don’t want the humans to know that they come to life. However, this isn’t an ordinary man. This is Santa Claus! Santa Claus fixes Raggedy Andy’s face and smile and also gives the other dolls new painted faces and repairs other problems the dolls have.

The Wooden Horse

The children of the house get a new wooden horse on wheels for Christmas with a wooden wagon hitched to it. The horse takes some time figuring out how to move because he wasn’t used to moving when he was on a shelf in a toy shop. When the horse figures out how to move, he gives rides to the other dolls and toys. The other dolls think that the horse has more fun than anybody because people who make others happy are happier themselves.

Making ‘Angels’ in the Snow

Raggedy Andy has been away from the other dolls for a while because he got wet and frozen playing with Marcella in the snow at her grandmother’s house and needed to dry out and warm up. The others ask him how it happened, and he tells them about going sledding with Marcella and making snow angels. Then, Marcella left him outside on her sled, so he got frozen. In spite of this, Raggedy Andy thinks that it was an exiting time!

The Singing Shell

Marcella brings home a seashell from her grandmother’s house. At first, the dolls aren’t sure what to think of it. When the dolls listen at the mouth of the shell, they hear a whispering sound. As they listen, the whispering tells them the story of the shell and how it came from the ocean. The shell was found by a diver, who sold it to Marcella’s grandmother when she was young. The shell also sings, and the dolls enjoy hearing it sing.

The Key to the Indian

The Key to the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks, 1998.

This is the final book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. At the end of the previous book, Omri’s father has learned the secret of Omri’s special cupboard and key, that it brings small plastic figures to life.

At the beginning of this book, Omri’s father suddenly announces to his family that he wants to take them on a camping trip. It seems like an impulsive decision because this isn’t something that the family usually does, and Omri figures that it must have something to do with the secret that the father and son now share concerning their small friends from the past.

After Omri’s father discovered his secret, the two of them had a serious talk, and Omri explained to him all about his past adventures and the very real consequences that they’ve had, both in the present and in the past. They need to consider carefully what they’re going to do because Little Bear has asked them for help with some trouble that his tribe in the past is having with the British. Knowing the history of the interactions between Europeans and Native Americans, both Omri and his father know that something serious is about to happen to Little Bear and his people, but how can they help? Omri explains to his father that they have the ability to go back into the past themselves, but in order to do that, they need to find something big enough to hold both of them, and someone else would have to turn the key for them to send them and bring them back.

Omri’s father later admits to him privately that he thought up the camping trip as a way for the two of them to disappear for a couple of days without anyone asking questions. Although he proposed the camping trip, he plans to arrange for him and Omri to have a private trip by themselves, discouraging the others from going along. Omri’s father also thinks that he’s figured out what they can use to send themselves back in time – the family car. It’s big enough to hold both of them, it locks with a key, and there’s even an LB in the license plate number, which they take as a hopeful sign. But then, Omri realizes that there’s a problem with that scheme. Even though the car locks with a key, it’s not the kind of lock that an old-fashioned skeleton key could open. They need a key with a different shape, something flatter. They decide that they need the help of Jessica Charlotte, who made the last key. Fortunately, Omri has a way to talk to her because he has the plastic figure of Jessica Charlotte.

When Omri brings Jessica Charlotte back, he finds that she has attempted to drown herself in a river (an event hinted at in the last book) because of her guilt at causing her sister’s husband’s death. Omri brings back a WWII Matron who has helped them before to treat Jessica Charlotte. When Jessica Charlotte recovers, she thinks at first that she must have died and that Omri is part of her afterlife. Omri assures her that it’s not the case, that she’s still alive. She is still lamenting over having caused Matt’s death and ruined her sister and niece’s lives, but Omri explains to her that he’s Lottie’s grandson. Jessica Charlotte feels better, hearing that Lottie grew up, married, and had children, so her life wasn’t completely ruined. Omri can’t bring himself to explain how Lottie was killed in a bombing during WWII, but he asks for her help to create a new key. Aunt Jessie, as she asks to be called, agrees to help Omri, and he and his father give her their car key to duplicate.

However, when Aunt Jessie returns with the key, they realize that they’ve miscalculated. When a person comes from the past with anything they make or bring with them, it’s always small, like the miniature people themselves. Aunt Jessie’s key is a duplicate of the key they gave her, but it’s small, too small to use in the car. Omri and his father aren’t sure how to get around this problem, so they decide to go on the camping trip with Omri’s brother Gillon, just camping like normal, while they think it over.

It turns out that something magic happened to the car key while it was in the past with Aunt Jessie. When Omri’s father turns the key in the car, Omri suddenly finds himself in the past, but not the past he was hoping to visit. Because they brought some things that belonged to his Great-Grandfather Matt with them on the camping trip, Omri suddenly finds himself in India, during the time that Matt was living there. Omri is inside a puppet in a marketplace, and his great-grandfather buys him. Also, to Omri’s shock, Gillon is also inside a puppet that his grandfather has.

Their mother eventually rescues them by opening the car and turning the key. She was alarmed because it seemed like her husband and sons all passed out in the car. Omri and his father don’t have a real explanation for her, not wanting to explain that the car key is now magic. (She decides that there must have been an exhaust leak, and they were all overcome by fumes.) Gillon was knocked unconscious when his puppet was dropped on its head, and his mother takes him to the hospital, using her spare car key. (When Gillon recovers, he thinks it was just a weird dream he had because of the car fumes.) Meanwhile, Omri and his father talk about the situation, and Omri’s father reveals that, while the boys were taken to India, he ended up in Little Bear’s time because he was carrying some wampum belonging to Little Bear.

So, know they know that it’s possible for them to use their car key to go back in time, but if they try it a second time, who will turn the key for them to bring them back at the appropriate time? The only other person who can come with them on their “camping trip” who knows their secret and can be trusted to help them is Omri’s friend, Patrick. However, Patrick isn’t happy that he’s only there to help Omri and his father go back in time and that he won’t be going himself. He does agree to help them, but unfortunately, he has plans of his own while Omri and his father are occupied elsewhere.

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

My Reaction:

Although Omri’s father wonders at first whether it’s a good idea to try to help Little Bear because of the risk of changing the past and affecting the future, Omri has learned that it’s not quite as simple as that. During his previous adventures, he has felt an irresistible pull to use the cupboard and the key, even when he wasn’t always sure it was a good idea, and there are indications that Omri’s interactions with people in other time periods seem fated to happen. He did save Jessica Charlotte’s life when she tried to drown herself, and other things Omri has done seem to fit with wider events.

When Omri and his father are figuring out how to help Little Bear with his problems with the British in his time, they do some research about Little Bear’s time and talk about the ways that 18th century British people treated Native Americans. Knowing what Little Bear is likely to face, they feel like they have a responsibility to help him as best they can. When Little Bear explains in more detail what his people have been suffering at the hands of the British and other settlers, Omri feels guilty, knowing that he’s also British, while at the same time knowing that he was not responsible for things that happened before he was born. This is something that people still struggle with today, hearing about difficult periods of history and knowing that their ancestors (or at least other members of their society, if not literally their direct ancestors) played a role in making life difficult for others, setting up situations where real people suffered or were killed. The best Omri can do is to help Little Bear make the best possible decisions to ensure the survival of his people. Of course, being able to help with that much is part of the time traveling fantasy of this story. Real people can’t actually go back in time and intervene to influence others and change the course of history.

The books in this series aren’t for young children, and as the series progresses, they get more serious in subject matter. There is discussion of suicide, not just with Jessica Charlotte’s attempt to drown herself but when Little Bear explains that his first wife killed herself after being raped by white men. There is violence in the story when the Native American village is attacked and people are shot. Overall, the story is pretty straight-forward in the way in confronts the dark sides of history. Omri and his father advise Little Bear to take his clan to a place where they know that they will be relatively safe and among other Iroquois, but they know and admit to Little Bear that even that won’t solve all of their problems and that there will be other hardships in the future. It’s an imperfect solution to a massive problem, but Omri senses that it is best choice that they could make and that Little Bear and his family will live the safest possible life because of the decision they made, and their descendants will survive.

Omri and his father struggle with knowing that things are going to be hard for Little Bear’s people no matter what choices they make. There is no magical solution to everyone’s problems in the story, and the book doesn’t offer a firm moral or solution to Omri’s guilty feelings when he sees firsthand how badly Native Americans were treated (a form of “white guilt“, although the book doesn’t use that term). Overall, I would say that the book confronts the dark parts of history and human guilt on a very individual level. Omri and his father can’t solve the large issues completely because they can’t control them. They can’t control the past, and they can’t control other people, even the people who come through the cupboard as miniature ones, like living toys. Everyone is an individual with their own choices to make, and every choice, even the wrong ones, changes the course of history.

After Omri saves Jessica Charlotte’s life, she realizes that what she thought was a dream before she stole her sister’s earrings was real, that she saw and spoke to Omri, and that he could have warned her about what would happen if she went through with her theft, how Matt would have died and how everyone’s lives would be changed for the worse. However, Omri did choose not to warn her because not everything was changed for the worse. After Lottie’s father died and her family lost their money, Lottie still grew up, fell in love, got married, and had a daughter. It’s true that she did die young in World War II, while her daughter was still an infant, and changing the theft of the earrings might have changed that in some way, but not without changing other things. Omri has discovered that changing things about the past, even seemingly small things, can change larger parts of history, and his psychic gift seems to guide him toward making only choices that help the flow of history instead of working against it. If he had prevented the theft of the earrings, his great-grandfather might have lived longer and so might Lottie, but if that happened, would Lottie have ever met the man she eventually married and had Omri’s mother? Omri’s father wouldn’t be happy without his wife and sons, and if Omri never existed, would some of the other things he did that impacted history have happened? Also, if Lottie hadn’t died in the bombing during WWII, would someone else have been where she happened to be and died in her place? The bomb that killed her would have fallen anyway because that was part of someone else’s choices, a person who never enters this story and whose decisions can’t be controlled. Time and history and the ripple effects caused by individual choices are complex. Omri has his psychic gift to guide him, and even his father, who admits that he never used to believe anything he couldn’t see for himself, comes to trust it.

People without this sort of magical gift have only themselves to rely on to make the best choices they can to make the world as good as possible, even in the face of others’ bad decisions. I think that a large part of the choices that Omri makes in the story and dealing with “white guilt” in real life come down to the combination of frustration and the acceptance of choices made by other people who can’t be controlled. Modern people might hate what happened in the past and feel badly if people related to them were part of it, but we don’t have the option to change things that have already happened. There comes a point where you have to accept the knowledge that you can’t control others, no matter how much you might want to make better choices on their behalf. The only person you can control is yourself.

I’m a white person, descended from colonial settlers in America, and I don’t actually see “white guilt” as a negative thing. I see it as a human thing. If you can feel real emotion at someone else’s plight, a wish that bad things didn’t really happen, or a feeling that they shouldn’t have happened, it means that you’re a real, thinking, feeling human being with a sense of right and wrong, and there’s nothing bad about that at all. Feelings are just tools, to give us hints of what we need to do or how we need to behave in our lives. Feelings aren’t always completely accurate, but sometimes, they give us hints of things that need to be fixed or clues that whatever we did before didn’t really work. I think what upsets and confuses other white people about “white guilt” is the conflict between loving ancestors and wanting to be proud of them and admitting that some of them had a real dark side and did some pretty awful things. Some people have trouble dealing with that, thinking that it’s impossible to feel two things at once, loving someone and being angry with them for things that they’ve done, but it really is. Feelings are complex, as complex as people are, and I think it’s as possible for a person to both like and hate another person for the things they’ve done as it is to both like a sweater for the way it looks but not want to wear it because it’s itchy and uncomfortable. I think that’s about the best advice that I can actually offer to other white people trying to make sense of that feeling. Sure, that sweater looks pretty impressive. It has a nice color and a cheerful pattern, and you might think it would look impressive on you if you wore it, but honestly, it’s better if you just leave it on the mannequin. It’s overpriced, out of style, and won’t look at all impressive when it makes you constantly want to scratch all of the places where it itches. Let it go.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer

The frustrating thing about feelings about the past and about other people’s lives is that we can’t fix those particular things. In real life, we can’t go back in time, and we can’t even “fix” other people in our own time because that’s something they have to do themselves. You can suggest things to other people, but there’s always a point where they have to make the decisions themselves. But, the good news is that, if you can’t control other people, nobody can completely control you! The way I see it, the most useful thing about this “white guilt” is remembering that this is something we don’t want. Maybe there’s something charming about the rosy, nostalgic view of the past, but honestly, you wouldn’t be happy living there, and if you actually had to live with your ancestors, you’d probably discover that you wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and maybe wouldn’t even get along at all. So, why would you want to try to carry their old baggage with you into your life and spend your life and your precious time constantly trying to explain or excuse their bad choices? You’ve got your own to life. Give credit where credit is due for both the good and the bad things, and let our ancestors’ records speak for themselves. You won’t accomplish anything for twisting your feelings into knots for trying to protect the feelings of the dead and justify their actions. They don’t even feel anything anymore. They are dead. Let them rest. We don’t want to add to bad things that have been done in the past and to keep having things in our lives to feel guilty about, and that’s okay because there are new choices to be made every single day. Put your focus there. You have a present to live and a future to plan. Knowing about the past is interesting and informative, but the past isn’t where we really live. Admire it like a nice sweater on a mannequin, take note of the price tag, and move on. We don’t have to make the same old choices that have made people, including ourselves, unhappy just because that’s the way things have been before or because we feel like we have something to prove about our ancestors. They had their chance to make the choices in their time, for good or bad (and frequently, some of each, but you can’t help that), and now, it’s our turn to make the choices because this is our time.

Speaking of bad decisions, Patrick almost gets Boone and Ruby killed because of his recklessness when he brings them back while Omri and his father were with Little Bear, which he did just because he was bored and felt left out of their magical adventure, which wasn’t really pleasant and fun for them anyway. Boone and Ruby both make it clear how they feel about that, and Omri also makes it clear that this is the end of the magic for him and Patrick. Boone and Little Bear have their own lives to live, and Omri’s gift tells him that it’s time to let them get on with living their lives without interference. Omri still has the cupboard and the key, but he no longer feels the pull he felt before to use them because he has played his part in history and in the lives of his little friends, and there is nothing more he needs to do. He doesn’t feel the need to lock these things away as he did before because he already knows that he will never feel the urge to use them again. When something’s over and the moment has passed, you just know.

Before the end of the story, Omri’s mother admits to him that she knows all about the little figures and that the cupboard brought them to life, although she never actually saw any of them herself. She has also inherited the family gift and is aware of what the cupboard does, even though she has not used it herself. All along, she’s been pretending that she didn’t know what was going on, although she really did. She’s a little sorry that she didn’t see the little people herself, but she knew that not interfering was the right thing to do. She thinks that letting the magic go and not using the cupboard again are the right decisions, and she doesn’t want Omri or his father to tell Omri’s bothers about the magic because, if they do, it will never end, and it’s really time for it to all end. This really is the final book in the series.

The Mystery of the Cupboard

The Mystery of the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, 1993.

This is the fourth book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. It’s also the longest book in the series and the one that reveals the most about the history of the magical key and cupboard and how their secrets tie into the secrets in Omri’s own family. It was my favorite book in the series when I was a kid!

Omri’s parents have surprised him by telling him that they’re planning on moving to a new house again. Omri wasn’t exactly happy with their last move, and his room and other parts of their new house were damaged after his last adventure with time travel, when his friend Patrick brought back a tornado with him. However, now that the house has been repaired and he’s settled in, Omri doesn’t like the idea of having to pack up and leave and get used to a new place again. His parents want to move to the country, but it’s not even the area where Patrick now lives. Instead, they’re planning to move to a house that his mother has just inherited.

The house Omri’s mother has inherited belonged to an older cousin of hers she never actually knew. He didn’t leave his house specifically to her; it’s just that he died and left no will, and Omri’s mother happens to be the nearest living relative his lawyers could find. When they finally see the house and find out how much land is attached to it, it turns out to be much better than Omri expected.

There are just two things that concern Omri. The first is the package that he asked his father to store at a bank for him – the magical cupboard and key. Although Omri asked his father to put them in a bank deposit box to keep them safe and prevent himself from being tempted to use them again because it’s too dangerous, he doesn’t like the idea of them being too far away from where he’s living. His father promises to have them transferred to a bank near their new home. The second thing that worries him is that his cat mysteriously disappears soon after they move into the new house. (The cat is okay, she just sneaked away to have kittens.) His parents say that she’s just roaming her new territory and might be a little angry for being moved from her old home and that she’ll come back to Omri once she’s settled in, he still worries about her.

One night, he think he hears his cat crying and goes looking for her. He doesn’t see her, but he stumbles on something that was hidden in some old thatch that fell of the roof of the house. It turns out to be a metal box and a notebook belonging to someone named Jessica Charlotte Driscoll, written in 1950. Omri doesn’t know who she is, but the notebook is a story of her life, in which she describes incredible things happening to her which her family doesn’t believe. Omri wonders if she could be a relative of his, and the name Charlotte reminds him of his grandmother, Lottie. He never knew his grandmother and his mother doesn’t even remember her mother because she died in a bombing during WWII, when she was very young. The woman who wrote the notebook couldn’t have actually been his grandmother because she would have been dead for several years by 1950, but perhaps it was a family name.

Omri questions his mother about the cousin who owned the house and her family’s history. Jessica Charlotte turns out to be the sister of Omri’s great-grandmother, his mother’s great-aunt. Great Aunt Jessica Charlotte was the younger sister of his mother’s grandmother. After her mother was killed in the war, Omri’s mother was raised by her grandmother. Omri’s mother had asked her about her younger sister when she was a girl, but her grandmother didn’t like to talk about her. Apparently, Jessica Charlotte had been an actress with a somewhat scandalous past. However, the cousin who used to own this house was Jessica Charlotte’s son, Frederick. Frederick never married, and although Omri’s mother thought that Jessica Charlotte had lived abroad somewhere, it’s possible that she lived at this house for a time.

Much of the story is told through entries in Jessica Charlotte’s notebook. When Omri begins to read the notebook, written toward the end of Jessica Charlotte’s life, he learns, to his shock, that Jessica Charlotte was the original owner of the magic cupboard and that she had her own Little People who visited her from other times and were her friends. After Omri reads that, he questions Gillon, the brother who gave him the cupboard, and he admits that he didn’t really find it in an alley, like he said. He actually found it in the basement of their old house with a bunch of other junk. He just didn’t have the money to buy Omri a birthday present at the time, and Omri had kind of a fascination for secret drawers and boxes, so Gillon thought that he might have some fun with the old cupboard, and he made up the story about mysteriously finding it to make it more interesting. (I suspect that the author was just retconning this part to make it agree with the idea that the cupboard was passed down through Omri’s family, but I like the way this comes out, so I’m okay with that.)

The notebook further explains that Jessica Charlotte had been envious of her older sister because she was prettier, luckier, and often seemed favored by everyone. However, in mocking the young men who came to court her older sister, Jessica Charlotte discovered that she had a talent for mimicry, which led her to become an actress, although her family thought that it was a disreputable profession and disapproved. Jessica Charlotte also discovered that she was psychic and sometimes had visions of the future. She eventually left home and became an actress. Her sister, Maria, still visited her secretly sometimes, against their parents’ wishes.

After awhile, Jessica Charlotte became pregnant with Frederick, which was when she first came to the old house where Omri’s family now lives. She didn’t have any money and couldn’t work while pregnant, and because she was unmarried, she would have been considered shameful if people knew. At that time, the house was a farmhouse belonging to a relative of Frederick’s father. By that point, Jessica Charlotte realized that her boyfriend wasn’t a good person and wasn’t going to be a good father to their son, but he did arrange for this relative of his to help her through her pregnancy. Frederick was born in the house, and because he was illegitimate and sensed his mother’s complicated feelings about him and the circumstances of his birth, he and his mother were never as close as they really should have been.

Meanwhile, Maria got married and had a daughter, Lottie, who was Omri’s grandmother, the one who was killed in the war. Jessica Charlotte says that she did something that wronged Maria and Lottie, and Omri stops reading the diary for a time, but he decides that he really has to continue and know the full story.

Over the years, Jessica Charlotte lived a hard life, supporting Frederick through a mixture of acting and other odd jobs, including fortune telling because of her psychic abilities (although she never used her gift to see into the future for herself or anyone close to her because she was afraid she might see something bad happen to them and be unable to stop it). Meanwhile, Maria was living a very comfortable life with her husband and daughter. Even after their parents died, Maria still had Jessica Charlotte visit secretly because of her tainted reputation, and she never wanted to meet Frederick or talk about him because his birth was the cause of her sister’s scandal. Still, Jessica Charlotte continued to see her sister and became fond of Lottie.

However, Maria was basically a pampered snob who didn’t understand her sister’s life and hardships and also had a streak of self-centeredness. One day, when Lottie was a young child, Maria said that when Lottie was older, she didn’t want her to see so much of her aunt, implying that Jessica Charlotte would be a bad influence on her. Jessica Charlotte was deeply offended by that, but she was also fearful about losing the last family members who were still speaking to her. She had lost so many of her other relationships that she still felt the need to be close to Maria and Lottie as much as she could and visit their pampered and comfortable little world, enjoying occasional tastes of their happier and more comfortable lives.

Yet, Jessica Charlotte’s jealousy for Maria’s pampered life and anger at her callousness continued to eat at her. One day, when Maria was showing her all of her nice jewelry, Jessica Charlotte got the urge to steal a beautiful pair of earrings. First, Maria was being, at the very least, thoughtless and callous for showing off all of her nice jewelry to her much poorer sister, who could never have things like that herself. Maria not only had no concept about what her sister’s life was like outside of her occasional visits, but she purposely never asked her about how she was doing, how her son was doing, or even where they were living, how they were getting by, if they needed anything, or if she could help them in any way. She didn’t know because she didn’t want to know any of these things, and the fact that she didn’t want to know any of that indicates that she knew enough to understand that their circumstances weren’t pleasant. To show off all of her pretty things like that just seems like rubbing it in. Second, Jessica Charlotte had been in need for so long that she saw all of the pretty jewels as symbols of Maria’s comfortable life, something she hungered for herself. The pair of earrings weren’t something that Jessica Charlotte wanted just for the sake of having them but because of what they represented to her, the life that she couldn’t share in and which she knew that Maria would soon shut her out of when she declared that her visits with her young niece would have to stop soon.

Jessica Charlotte planned out the theft in advance, making a duplicate key for her sister’s jewelry box and thinking that her sister would just assume that she’d mislaid that one pair of earrings somewhere. Unfortunately, when Maria noticed that the earrings were gone, she thought Lottie had done something with them, and when she kept insisting that Lottie tell her where they were, Lottie got upset and ran out of the house into the street. Matt, Maria’s husband and Lottie’s father, chased after her and was hit by a cab and killed. Jessica Charlotte felt terrible when she heard the news because she hadn’t meant for anyone to get hurt, but there was nothing she could do to take it all back.

Omri knows how Maria and Lottie’s lives went after that point because of what his mother told him about their family history. After Matt died, Maria and Lottie didn’t have very much money to live on, just a little pension, and then their house was burgled, and many of Maria’s nice things were stolen, including the rest of her jewelry, so she couldn’t sell them for extra money. Maria had to move to smaller, cheaper lodgings and get a job for the first time in her life in order to support herself and her daughter, living a life closer to what her sister had been doing. When Lottie was grown and married, she and her husband helped to support her mother, but after they were killed in WWII, Maria took in Lottie’s daughter (Omri’s mother) and had to keep working in order to raise her. Although they were now living in more equal circumstances, the two sisters did not become close again because of Jessica Charlotte’s guilt about what she’d done. Jessica Charlotte ended up buying the old house in the country where her son had been born and told her sister that she was going to live abroad, never telling her exactly where. She had not expected to see Maria again anyway since Maria was planning to cut her out of her daughter’s life before Jessica Charlotte stole the earrings, and after Matt died, Jessica Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to face Maria. Jessica Charlotte lived in the country house until her death in 1950.

When Jessica Charlotte became too weak to write any longer, shortly before her death, she had Frederick finish the story in the notebook. Aside from the difficult feelings between Frederick and his mother because of the circumstances of his birth and the rough and poor childhood he endured, Frederick also says that the two of them don’t really get along because they are very different types of people. When he was grown, Frederick went into business as a metal smith, eventually owning his own factory that made toy soldiers and other metal toys. During WWII, the government had him convert his toy factory to manufacture munitions. He wasn’t happy about it, but it did make him fairly well-off. After the war, Frederick had hoped to go back to making metal toys, but plastic was coming into vogue as the material of choice for toys, and Frederick couldn’t stand the stuff. He thought that the newer plastic toys were cheap and shoddy compared to his detailed works of art in metal. (It was kind of true.) There were basically two choices before Frederick: convert to making the cheap plastic toys he hated or switch to making different types of metal products. He switched to making metal boxes and cabinets.

Frederick never really believed in his mother’s supposed psychic powers, but when he was upset about plastic ruining his metal toy business, he admits that he let his mother talk him into participating in a silly ritual. He was so angry and upset that his emotions were ruining his health, so his mother told him to build something to put his feelings into and shut them away. Frederick built Omri’s magical metal cupboard. When he was finished making it, his mother had him visualize cleansing himself of all of his anger and hatred of plastic and shutting that feeling away in the cupboard. To his surprise, his mother shut and locked the cupboard with a different key from the one that he’d made to put in the cupboard’s lock (her key to her sister’s jewelry box). He thought that this ritual was kind of crazy at first, but he did feel better after he did it. He felt weak for a time, but then he recovered. He still didn’t like plastic, but not to the point where it harmed his health anymore.

Jessica Charlotte had said her son had also inherited her psychic “gift”, even though he didn’t believe in it. Apparently, his strong feelings about plastic produced a kind of magic spell or curse that affected the key and the cupboard and created the effect of bringing plastic toys to life. Jessica Charlotte discovered this herself because her son had given her a set of plastic figures in order to demonstrate to her how these little figures were inferior to his metal ones. Jessica Charlotte put them in the cupboard and brought them to life, and these little friends of hers brought her some happiness in her final days. Frederick thought that her mother was imagining that she was talking to fairies or something and never found out about his mother’s little friends or the magic of the cupboard.

When Jessica Charlotte realized that she was dying, she used the cupboard to send her little friends back to their own time periods, except for one little maid named Jenny, who refused to go back because she’d had a terrible life in her own time. Instead of making her go back, Jessica Charlotte confided in one of the workmen fixing the thatch on her roof and gave Jenny to him. This man, Tom, was lonely because his wife left him for someone else, so Jenny was good company for him for many years, until one day, she simply turned back to plastic suddenly. When Omri finds Tom as an old man and introduces himself as Jessica Charlotte’s distant nephew, Tom explains all of this to him, saying that all he can think of is that Jenny’s physical body must have died in her own time after having been in an apparent coma for years. He buried her little plastic figure respectfully. Tom is also the one who sent the cupboard and key to Maria after Jessica Charlotte died along with a note dictated to him by Jessica Charlotte, hinting at the nature of the cupboard and key and tacitly admitting to the theft of the earrings, so Maria knew the truth of the theft before her own death.

Omri comes to realize that the metal box that Jessica Charlotte left behind, and which was sealed with wax, must contain her collection of little figures. When his friend, Patrick, comes to visit him at his new house, Omri explains the whole situation to him, and Patrick suggests that Omri’s magic key will probably open this metal box, too. Of course, he also points out that if Omri opens the box with that special key, it will bring the figures inside to life, just as it has with the cupboard and Omri’s old trunk. Omri sees Jessica Charlotte’s old figurines as a way of finishing her story and feels compelled to bring them back to life one last time, although he knows that bringing figures to life always comes with complications, and he will have no way of knowing who or what the figures are until the box is open.

When Omri gets the chance to talk to Jessica Charlotte’s little friends, he not only learns more about his great-great-aunt’s past and the history of the cupboard but also sees an opportunity to change the past of his mother and great-grandmother by preventing the robbery that made them poor. But, if he meddles in the past, what will that mean for his future?

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

My Reaction:

This is my favorite book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. I suspect that the author of the series didn’t originally have an explanation for why the cupboard and key were magic, but that’s just a guess on my part. The explanation behind the magic in this book makes sense, and those parts that didn’t quite mesh with the earlier books (like Omri’s brother’s original explanation of finding the cupboard in an alley) were briefly explained. Sometimes, when book or movie series try to explain something magical or a mysterious secret they’ve left hanging, it turns into a let-down because the explanation feels rushed or implausible or fits clumsily into the earlier parts of the story, but this one was pretty smooth, intriguing, and also opened up some new story possibilities.

In previous books, Omri and Patrick both did impulsive things with the cupboard that put their small friends, themselves, and other people in danger, but in this book, both of the boys seem to have matured. Although Patrick thinks of Jessica Charlotte as a bad person and a thief for stealing her sister’s earrings, Omri tries to explain to him that she was a much more complex and conflicted person than that. Yes, Jessica Charlotte was a thief, but her motives were beyond mere greed, and it wasn’t long before she regretted what she’d done and the lasting hurt that she’d caused her family. In considering Jessica Charlotte’s theft and the theft that the burglar who was one of Jessica Charlotte’s little friends later committed against Maria, partly out of personal greed and partly as retribution against Maria on Jessica Charlotte’s behalf, Omri and his mother both come to terms with their family’s history. Patrick, who in previous books had been the more impulsive one when he and Omri interacted with the little people from the past, acts as a restraining influence in this book when Omri is tempted to change his family’s past for the better by preventing the thefts that left his great-grandmother without money. Patrick is the one who makes it clear to Omri that, just as Jessica Charlotte’s theft of a single pair of earrings radically changed the lives of her sister and niece, if Omri tries to stop those events from happening, he might change his family’s past so much that he might accidentally prevent himself or even his own mother from being born in the first place. After Omri tells the thief to give back the jewel box he stole, Omri worries that he’s gone too far, but it turns out that one request was actually fated to happen, just as it turns out that Jessica Charlotte later realized that she had met Omri briefly in what she thought was a dream when he brought her plastic figure to life. Not all of Omri’s “meddling” with the past was really meddling but was actually part of what was fated to happen and has already had an effect on the past even before he knew it.

At the end of this book, something that Omri has alternately dreaded and wanted to happen: his father discovers the secret of the cupboard and meets Omri’s small friends. In books, there is usually this assumption that if parents ever find out about their children’s magical adventures, they will end because the parents will put a stop to them or somehow, the magic will be ruined. However, in this case, the magic is not ruined, and there is one more book in this series where both Omri and his father take part in the magic.

The Secret of the Indian

The Secret of the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks, 1989.

This is the third book in the Indian in the Cupboard series.

This book immediately picks up where the last book in the series left off, with Omri injured after witnessing the battle in Little Bear’s time and he and Patrick and their small army having just fended off the gang of local hoodlums who had tried to break into Omri’s house and rob it. Omri’s parents return home from the party they had attended and are appalled to see Omri hurt, although the story of the burglary covers up the real reason for Omri’s injuries, which the boys don’t think they can tell Omri’s parents. Omri still can’t adequately explain how part of his head got burned, but he makes up a story about him and Patrick trying to light a bonfire and accidentally getting burned. His parents are occupied, alternately angry with the babysitter who was supposed to come and didn’t and with themselves for leaving before they were sure that she had arrived. The police come to question the boys and inform the parents that the reason why the babysitter didn’t come was that she was mugged that night. Omri knows who the thieves are, but hesitates to turn them in.

First, Omri needs to deal with Little Bear and his band of warriors. Some of them were killed in the battle, and others are injured. Patrick and Omri bring the Matron who treated Little Bear before to life to help them, but although she does her best, she says that her skills aren’t adequate to help them all and that they need a real surgeon. The Matron is sharp and tells the boys that it’s useless to insist that this is all just a dream because she knows that, strange as this situation is, it’s all real and that the death and pain she’s witnessed around her are real. The boys explain to her about the key and cupboard that bring plastic figures to life, and she asks them if they can get a doctor. It’s Sunday, so the boys can’t just go buy one, but the Matron came from a set owned by Patrick’s cousin, Tamsin, and there were other medical professional figures in it. When Patrick’s other cousin, Tamsin’s twin, Emma, comes to Omri’s house to see Patrick, Omri is forced to let her in on the secret and recruit her to help him.

Meanwhile, Patrick has gone back in time with Boone the cowboy. In Boone’s time, Patrick is tiny, the size of the figures in his own time. Unfortunately, Patrick made a terrible mistake by going back to Boone’s time with Boone as a plastic figure. That meant that Boone became a real person in the chest, trapped under Patrick’s body and almost smothered to death and needs to be treated by the Matron in order to survive.

In Boone’s time, tiny Patrick ends up in the company of Ruby Lou, a woman who likes Boone. Patrick knows that Boone is unconscious in the desert and helps Ruby Lou to find him. The doctor in their time doesn’t know what’s wrong with Boone and can’t figure out why he’s unconscious, suggesting only that they let him rest for the present and recover. Ruby Lou presses Patrick for answers, and he explains everything to her about how they travel through time using the magic key and how Boone has just left his full-size body behind to go into the future in the form of a little figurine. It’s an incredible story, but Ruby Lou believes him and expresses concern about getting Boone back safely. But soon, they’re all in trouble when there’s cyclone threatening.

Also meanwhile, Mr. Johnson, the headmaster of Omri’s school, has learned about Omri’s story that won the contest. Back in the first book of this series, Mr. Johnson actually saw Little Bear. At the time, he thought that he was hallucinating, but Omri’s supposedly fictional story has now convinced him that he really saw what he saw. He demands that Omri tell him the truth about his “Red Indian.” (Omri corrects him, saying that it isn’t right to say “Red Indian” and that they prefer to be called “American Indian” or “native American”, but Mr. Johnson angrily insists that he’s always said “Red Indian” and will continue to do so, establishing him as an unsympathetic villain in the story.) Mr. Johnson is relieved to know that he wasn’t hallucinating before, but since Omri is reluctant to explain anything, he decides to call Omri’s mother. When she answers, she demands that Omri tell her where Patrick is because his mother is frantically looking for him.

Of course, Omri knows that Patrick is still in the trunk in his room, in a coma-like state because he’s still in the past and there are living miniature people in his room who will also be discovered if people start searching. Can Omri fix everything in time to rescue Patrick and his little friends and prevent their secret from being exposed?

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

My Reaction

Although the story takes place immediately after the previous one left off, the rules of the magic in this world have changed a little. Before, when a person from Omri and Patrick’s time went back to the past, they kind of became part of the scenery. This time, when Patrick visits the Old West, he is there as a tiny person, although no figurines of the boys exist in the past. What this book does emphasize is that the magic key does change real people from modern times into little people into people in another time and real people from other times into tiny people in modern times. At this point in the series, it’s all still mysterious why the key is magic and why the little cupboard in particular only seems to affect plastic items and people. Some of those explanations come in the next book.

I did like the parts where other people, including Patrick’s cousin Emma and Mr. Johnson in the present and Ruby Lou in the past, catch on what’s happening with Omri and Patrick and their plastic figures. In so many children’s books, the magic absolutely depends on secrecy. In this series, Patrick and Omri both know that they don’t want most people to know their secret because they don’t want people either interfering or thinking that they’re crazy. With Patrick disappearing mysteriously and other things happening because of their interactions with the little people from the past, it makes sense that people would start noticing that the boys have become involved in something really strange, even thought some of them don’t know what it is. However, the magic still works for them even when other people find out and the people who could pose a threat to their activities either never find out the truth or are distracted or apparently discredited.

At the end of this book, Omri becomes more serious about the risks of the cupboard and decides that he wants the key put away, to be give to his future children in the event of his death. However, there are other books in this series to come, so they do use the key again.

The Return of the Indian

The Return of the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks, 1986.

This is the second book in the Indian in the Cupboard series.

Omri’s family has moved to a new house, but Omri doesn’t like it. The new house is bigger than the old one, but the neighborhood around it is a bit run-down and shabby. Most of the kids in the area go to the state school (public school in the US), but Omri attends a private school, and his school uniform makes him stand out from the other kids. The other kids in the neighborhood view him as an outsider and like to push him around, especially the group of bigger boys who like to hang out near the arcade. Omri is a little afraid of the local bullies, but he doesn’t like to show it. Instead, he remembers how brave his small American Indian friend, the one who came to life from his plastic figurine, was with him, even though Omri was many times bigger than he was. Still, Little Bear was a real warrior, who knew how to fight. Ormi wishes that he could fight like an American Indian or maybe a cowboy, like Boone. If he could do that, he wouldn’t have any reason to fear the local bullies.

Patrick, Omri’s best friend, is also living in a new house in the country and is now going to a different school because his parents have divorced. (The story indicates that Patrick’s father was abusive, hitting his wife and children.) When the two of them meet again, Patrick denies remembering their plastic figures that came to life. That bothers Omri, although he thinks that Patrick really does remember but doesn’t want to admit it because talking about things like that would make him seem weird when he’s trying to fit in with his new home.

Then, Omri wins a writing contest for a story that he wrote about his plastic Indian. He’s thrilled, although he also feels a little guilty because the contest was supposed to be for fiction, and his magical adventures with Little Bear were real. Although, his story is his own work, even if he didn’t exactly make up Little Bear.

Ever since his adventures with Little Bear the previous year, Omri has asked his mother to keep the key to the cupboard “safe” for him. Really, he has wanted to remove the temptation to bring Little Bear to life again. After their previous adventures, they had all decided that it would be better for Little Bear and Boone to remain in their own lives in the past. Yet, having won this contest, Omri has the sudden desire to see Little Bear again and tell him all about it. His mother usually wears the key as a pendant around her neck, and one day, when she takes it off, Omri decides that he’s going to use it.

However, when he brings Little Bear and his wife, Bright Stars, back to life from plastic, he finds that time has moved forward for Little Bear, just has it has for him. Little Bear is badly injured, having been shot by a soldier. Bright Stars begs Omri for help. Since Omri once brought a WWI medic to life to help with a wound before, he tries it again. Unfortunately, this time, all Omri gets is an empty pile of the medic’s clothes. Shocked, Omri realizes that this is a sign that the medic was killed in action. Time moved forward for him since their last encounter, and the medic, Tommy, who was a real person in the past, was killed during the war.

Still desperate to help Little Bear, Omri rushes to see Patrick at his aunt’s house and explains the situation. At first Patrick tries to pretend that the figures coming to life was just their imaginations, but when Omri impresses on him that Little Bear is in trouble and needs help, Patrick takes him seriously and comes up with a solution. One of his cousins got a set of plastic figures for her birthday, and they all have different professions. Among them, there is a nurse and two doctors. If they borrow one of those figures, they will have medical help. The cousin finds them messing with her toys and fights with them, so they have to rush off in a hurry, taking the nurse figure instead of one of the doctors, but she’s better than nothing.

After the nurse, known only as Matron, gets over the shock of finding herself very small, Omri explains Little Bear’s condition to her. She’s reluctant to try to operate on him herself because she’s not a surgeon, but since there is no one else to help, she does so anyway. Omri gives her Tommy’s medical bag so she’ll have the implements she needs. She manages to help Little Bear, and Little Bear recovers.

Although Patrick says that his mother got rid of most of his plastic figures when he stopped playing with them, he still has the cowboy, Boone, because he was special. Patrick uses the cupboard to bring him back to life, and they explain to him about Little Bear. When Little Bear is well enough to talk, he explains that his village was attacked by French soldiers, and many of his people are dead. Boone spots Omri’s collection of plastic figures, with soldiers from different periods and suggests sending them back with Little Bear to fight the French. Patrick is all for it, but Omri points out that there are problems with that. All of those figures aren’t just toy soldiers; they represent real people from history. They all come from different periods of history, and they all have their own goals and personalities. They would all be shocked at finding themselves in an unexpected place and a completely different time period than their own, and there’s no telling how these armed people might react. What would a Medieval knight, who might be on his way to the Crusades, understand about American Indians from the 18th century, and why would he be willing to fight on their behalf? Which side would a member of the French Legion pick? They wouldn’t be able to even speak to all of Omri soldiers because they come from different countries and speak different languages, and even if they choose modern British soldiers using modern weaponry, what would that mean for history? They don’t belong in the 18th century, and because they’re real people, they would be killing other real people and might get killed themselves.

Patrick thinks that Omri thinks too much, but Ormi knows that Patrick is too impulsive. Patrick does impulsively bring some modern soldiers to life, and they almost shoot everyone because they’re in the middle of a battle. Patrick quickly turns them back to toys and apologizes. Then Omri has another idea: they can’t explain to people from other time periods that Little Bear needs their help to fight in the French and Indian Wars, but they could appeal to other American Indians. Finding allies for Little Bear is fine, as long as they’re the kind of allies who could reasonably appear in Little Bear’s time and understand and be willing to aid him.

There are complications in this plan when Little Bear says that he wants modern weapons his people can use and a modern soldier to teach them how to use them. Omri has misgivings about this but gives in to Little Bear’s request. While Little Bear goes back to his time with his new allies and weapons, the boys worry about what’s happening in the battle and Bright Stars, who is still in their care, gives birth to Little Bear’s son. Boone suggests to Omri that, if he’s concerned about how the battle is going, there might be a way to go back in time and see it.

Ormi has an old wooden chest in his room, and Boone suggests that he could see if the key fits the box and use it to send himself back to Little Bear’s time. Not only does Omri help Little Bear and the others, but this odd army also helps Omri when the local bullies try to rob his house in the middle of the night.

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

My Reaction:

I read the first book in this series when I was in elementary school as part of a class assignment. There are parts of this series I like, but parts I don’t.

I like the way Omri thinks about the little people from his cupboard. He remembers that all of the plastic figures are only plastic when they’re toys, but as soon as they come to life, they are real people, pulled out of their own lives and into his, and they have a responsibility to them. He feels terrible when he realizes that his old friend, the WWI medic called Tommy, died during the war because he wasn’t just a toy, he was a real person who helped them when they needed him, and Omri realizes that he probably died not long after they returned him to his own time. Patrick is less thoughtful, but he does wonder if their interaction with him played a part in his death, and Omri thinks it probably didn’t because his full-sized body must have remained in the past and would have died anyway. When they last talked to him, Tommy said that he’d heard the sounds of an attack, and that could have been the attack that killed him. When Omri sends Little Bear back with his new allies and weapons, Omri feels guilty because he realizes that he’s basically playing God, sending real people to kill other real people in past, but he goes through with it because he feels committed to it at that point, having assembled and armed this fighting force and promised it to Little Bear.

I didn’t like some of the stereotypical stuff about cowboys and American Indians. This is one of those books where they try to write characters speaking with an accent, and that always feels awkward to read, and I’m not sure that everything Omri says about American Indians is true. At first, Omri says that American Indians gave birth alone, so he’s not too worried about Bright Stars. When I read that, I wasn’t sure if any American Indian tribes had that as a custom, so I looked it up. Apparently, there is some basis for that happening, although sometimes women would also help each other, and since most of the white people who said that Native Americans gave birth alone were men and wouldn’t have been involved in assisting the birth anyway, they may not have been fully aware of who else would have been involved. When Bright Stars starts giving birth, Omri remembers hearing that, when women give birth for the first time, it can take a long time for the baby to arrive, and he wonders if that’s true of American Indians as well as white women. That question made me cringe a little. As an adult white woman, I would assume it probably is because there many aspects of the human condition that are just universal, but again, Omri’s a boy who doesn’t have any relevant life experience experience, and even I can’t swear what Native American births are like, so I suppose I can’t fault him for wondering.

This is the book that establishes that the key used with the cupboard is magic by itself. It seems to fit in any lock and can send people back in time. When they’re sent back from the present day, Omri observes that the person sent to the past is cold and motionless in the chest, which scares him. Also, the boys observe that when they go to the past, they seem to be part of the scenery, part of the paintings on the side of Little Bear’s teepee, unable to speech or move by themselves, just watching what happens. It’s odd, but in stories where there’s magic, there are still rules, and as the boys experiment more with the key, part of the rules start becoming more clear to the readers.

The Indian in the Cupboard

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, 1980.

Omri thinks that he’s starting to get tired of collecting and playing with plastic figures when his friend Patrick gives him a plastic American Indian figure that he doesn’t want anymore for his birthday. At first, Omri doesn’t think much of the Indian figure because it’s just a used plastic figure that doesn’t match any other figure sets he has, so he’s not sure how he can use it in his games. Then, his brother Gillon gives Omri a wooden cupboard that he rescued from an alley. Omri likes the cupboard, and his mother lets him have an old key that happens to fit the cupboard so he can lock it. His mother says that the key used to belong to her grandmother’s jewelry box, which fell apart years ago. As Omri tries to decide what he wants to keep in the cupboard, his mother suggests putting his American Indian figure in it because she found it in the pocket of his other pants. Omri puts the toy in the cupboard and locks it. Later, he hears sounds coming from the cupboard, and when he opens it, he discovers that his toy Indian figure has come to life!

Omri is startled to see that the Indian has come to life, and the tiny Indian is afraid of him. The Indian pricks him with his tiny knife and threatens to hurt him if he comes closer. The Indian insists that he’s not small, it’s Omri who is big. When Omri’s mother comes into the room, Omri quickly shuts and locks the cupboard so his mother won’t see that his toy has come to life. Later, when he opens the cupboard again, the Indian is just a plastic toy again. Omri is sure that he didn’t imagine the figure coming to life, but he’s not sure why that happened or why it’s just a toy again now.

Then, that night, after Omri locks the Indian in the cupboard again, he comes to life once more. This time, when Omri opens the cupboard and talks to the Indian, he asks the Indian what happened. The Indian replies that nothing happened, he just went to sleep. Then, he asks Omri for food and a blanket. Omri asks the Indian more about himself and learns that the Indian is named Little Bear and is the son of an Iroquois chief. He offers Little Bear a plastic teepee from his collection of toys to sleep in, but Little Bear recognizes that it’s not a real teepee and besides, Iroquois sleep in longhouses, not teepees. Omri can’t provide a longhouse, so he makes a better-looking teepee out of sticks and a piece of felt, so it’s at least not plastic. Little Bear accepts it.

Omri begins to realize that either his new cupboard or the key that he’s been using with it or both are magical and can bring toy figures to life. He begins doing experiments to see how it works and what else he can make real. The plastic teepee becomes a real one after being locked in the cupboard, but a metal toy car doesn’t change at all, making Omri realize that, for some reason, the cupboard only works with plastic toys.

Omri tells Little Bear that he’s in England now, not America, and Omri discovers that Little Bear approves of the English because the Iroquois fought with the English against the French and the Algonquins. Omri asks Little Bear if he also fought, and Little Bear brags about what a fighter he is and how many scalps he’s taken, but adds that they were French and not English. It sounds kind of stereotypical, but the author is referring to real battles that took place during the 17th century and 18th century around the Great Lakes area, during the French and Iroquois Wars and the French and Indian War, giving Little Bear a rough time period and location. This is meaningful not only for historical reasons, but also because it indicates that Little Bear isn’t just a toy with no personality or history. As far as Little Bear is concerned, he’s a real person with a past and memories and a life beyond being Omri’s toy. In fact, he doesn’t really know anything about being a toy sometimes in Omri’s time period. Omri also realizes that Little Bear’s history makes him a real person, somehow pulled more than 200 years into the future in miniature form, instead of just a toy brought to life.

Still, Omri delights in having adventures with Little Bear, introducing him to things Little Bear otherwise wouldn’t have. When Little Bear says that he’s never hidden a horse before because the Iroquois don’t have them in his time, Omri brings one of his plastic horses to life so Little Bear can ride. When Little Bear gets hurt, Omri brings a WWI medic from his set of toy soldiers to life so he can treat the wound. The medic, Tommy Atkins, is alarmed when he sees Omri and confused when he’s asked to treat an American Indian, but he does so anyway, deciding that it’s all just a dream. Omri lets him think so and then puts him back in the cupboard to send him home.

Omri does some research about Iroquois to learn more about Little Bear and his history. Patrick wonders about Omri’s obsession with the little toy figure he gave him, but Omri is reluctant to tell him. Then, when Omri buys another Indian figure, an old Indian chief, and brings it to life, the poor old man goes into shock at the site of Omri and dies. Omri feels terrible about causing the old man’s death, coming to recognize that the old man was also a real person, sometime and somewhere, and he wouldn’t have died if Omri hadn’t put him in the cupboard and brought him into his time as a miniature person. Then, Patrick gives Omri a plastic cowboy figure. Omri doesn’t want it because he doesn’t want the cowboy to come to life and hurt or kill Little Bear. Patrick is impatient, saying that’s how the game of cowboys and Indians goes and that’s what people do with figurines of cowboys and Indians, have them fight. That’s when Omri realizes that he needs to explain to Patrick that it’s more than just a game and there are real people involved.

Patrick is stunned when Omri shows him Little Bear, and when Omri tells him about the dead chief, he comes to realize that this game is serious. In spite of that, Patrick asks Omri to let him bring just one figure to life. At first, Omri tries to prevent Patrick from bringing another figure to life because the situation is already complicated enough, but Patrick does so anyway when Omri leaves him alone in his room … and the figure that Patrick picks is the cowboy.

Having an American Indian and a cowboy both in Omri’s room, even in miniature form is just as much trouble as Omri feared it would be. The two of them pose a very real threat to each other, and Omri tries to do his best to help them get along with each other. To make things more complicated, Little Bear says that he wants a wife, and the boys take him to the store to pick out a female American Indian from the plastic figures. The school principal sees the figures, but fortunately, decides that he’s just unwell and hallucinating. Meanwhile, Omri has to impress on Patrick that their little people are actually people and not toys simply to be played with. Of course, there’s only one way to ensure that their new little friends will be able to safely continue their lives: send them home!

Personally, I would have ended the game and sent Little Bear home as soon as I realized that he could die, like the chief in the story, but the boys keep their miniature living people for much longer. In fact, this is the first book in a series, and the boys have further adventures with Little Bear, Boone the cowboy, and other figures/people.

This book was commonly used in schools when I was a kid, and it might still be. When I was a kid, my teacher didn’t go into detail about Little Bear’s time period or explain about the context of his life and the conflicts with the French and Algonquin that he described. Now, as an adult, I have more context for understanding what he’s talking about. I also appreciate the author of the book pointing out that different types of Native Americans lived in different types of homes in the past, something that Omri didn’t understand at first, and I liked that Omri started doing his own research to better understand the Iroquois. The book never gives an exact date to Boone the cowboy or Little Bear’s time periods, but by context, Boone has to be more than 100 years younger than Little Bear, from sometime in the late 19th century. I appreciate having some historical details added to a fantasy story about toys coming to life, but the book isn’t very specific, focusing more on the complications involved in keeping miniature people from the past alive and secret in Omri’s bedroom.

There is also a movie version of this book. The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

The Official Koosh Book

The Official Koosh Book by John Cassidy and Koosh ball inventor Scott Stillinger, 1989.

This book is part of the classic children’s hobby and activity series from Klutz Press. Originally, this book came with three mini Koosh balls, which were attached to the book at the holes on the left side of the book. I can’t remember now whether I actually got my set of mini Koosh balls with this book or if I bought them separately because my book was used. I’ve had this book for a long time, and my favorite activity in the book is juggling, a favorite staple activity of the Klutz series as well as a personal favorite of mine.

My copy of the book isn’t a first edition, and the introduction explains some changes that had taken place since the book was first written. John Cassidy of Klutz Press partnered with the inventor of the Koosh ball, Scott Stillinger, to write the book to explain various ways kids could use Koosh balls and games people could play with them when the toy was a new product. Since the book was first written, Koosh balls had become much more popular, and new varieties of Koosh balls were created, including the Mini Kooshes that came with the book.

Koosh balls are rubber balls covered with rubber filaments that are something like short spaghetti, making them feel soft, even if you get hit in the head with them while learning how to juggle. (I speak from experience.) This soft, painless-when-hit-with-one quality of Koosh balls was completely intentional on the part of the creator. It’s also the reason why they’re still a popular toy and the basis for many of the Koosh games in the book.

Many of the games in this book make use of the fact that it doesn’t hurt to be hit with a Koosh ball to give battle games like Dodge Ball and Bombardment a new twist. As the book says, “Dodge Koosh also fulfills the basic human need to bonk others of our same species.” I get that feeling some days, but when it’s done with Koosh balls, it’s pretty harmless.

Because Kooshes are soft, you can even play games indoors that usually wouldn’t work indoors because of the damage that could be done to things and people.

The book also suggests using Koosh balls for variations on Footbag (or Hacky Sack) or Horseshoes. Koosh balls work for these types of games because they don’t roll like regular balls. Because Koosh balls are made of rubber, they can also be used in a swimming pool.

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

Juggling for the Complete Klutz

Juggling for the Complete Klutz by John Cassidy, 1977.

This is the book that started the Klutz Press publishing company as well as the book that inspired the name that I often use online, Jestress. The term “jestress” (which even I have never been sure is proper English) refers to a female jester. Back when I was in high school, I learned how to juggle from this book. In fact, I became obsessed with juggling and jesters (I often become obsessed about odd and random topics), and I started giving myself that nickname. (I’m not the only one who uses that handle, so not every “Jestress” on the Internet is another incarnation of me, but I have used it in several other settings.) However, the Klutz books in general were a regular feature of my youth, as they have been for many people from about the 1980s onward.

Klutz Press began as a small outfit, and the very first book they offered was this guide for learning how to juggle. The author of the book used to teach English, and as the intro to the book explains, he started teaching his students how to juggle as a fun exercise in class. John Cassidy learned how to juggle in college and used it to entertain guests on rafting trips. The author and his friends printed up more copies of his guide to juggling and began selling them. Their company branched out from there.

By the time I bought my copy of the book in the 1990’s, it came with 3 cube-shaped bean bags to use for juggling. The hole in the upper left corner of the book is where the bag holding the bean bags was originally attached. The bean bags are one of the best features of the book. They are weighed well for juggling, which makes them easier to control than other small juggling balls I’ve tried. A friend of mine got a later edition of the food from the 2000s, and the bean bags are a little different – the cloth is more velvety, and they have a different feel to them, like they’re slightly lighter. I prefer the ones I own.

The very first step for learning to juggle in the book is to master “The Drop” – throw all of the bean bags in the air and just let them fall to the ground without trying to catch them. The goal of mastering this is to get used to the idea of dropping things because it’s going to happen a lot while you’re learning. The cube shape of the provided bean bags helps to keep them from rolling too far when you drop them, which happens a lot when you’re learning to juggle. When I was in high school, I started teaching a friend to juggle, and we both agreed that the learning process actually gave our leg muscles a good workout; you really feel them when you have to bend over that many times to pick up dropped bean bags. (The book mentions this later in the section called “Special Problems”, but we considered this a bonus. It’s like doing a bunch of toe touches with more exciting moments in between when you’re throwing stuff in the air.)

From there, the book guides you through mastering the scooping motion of juggling tosses and how not to panic when you realize that the hand that is going to catch a tossed bean bag is already holding one. Successful juggling is largely a matter of timing, maintaining even motions, and eventually, letting muscle memory take over. You toss one ball (or bean bag), and then you toss the next one with the other hand when the first one reaches the top of its arc, freeing that hand for catching. Then, you keep doing that, over and over, to keep all of the juggling balls in motion.

It might feel impossible at first, when you’re still dropping everything, but speaking as someone who learned how to do this about 20 years ago, muscle memory is very strong, and if you build the right habits and keep at it consistently, you will not only eventually master it, but it will feel as natural as riding a bicycle. I don’t even have to look at my juggling balls or my hands while I’m juggling, and I can comfortably carry on a conversation with someone else while juggling, because my hands know what to do with minimal instruction from my brain.

The book has tips for getting around difficulties in learning to juggle, and when you’re feeling more confident, instructions for going even beyond basic juggling. The book explains different types of juggling cycles, how to juggle four or five balls, how to juggle other items besides balls and bean bags, and how to juggle with a partner. The section about clubs is particularly interesting because it not only describes the techniques of club juggling but how to make your own set of juggling clubs from plastic bottles and wooden sticks or dowels.

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

Games People Play: China

Games People Play: China by Kim Dramer, 1997.

This book is part of a series about games played around the world. The series also covers sports and other, related activities. This book is specifically about the traditional games and sports of China.

China’s history goes back thousands of years, and so does the history of games and toys enjoyed there by generations of children. The book begins with a brief history of China. This book was written in the 1990s, and it contains a brief description of China’s one-child policy, which controlled the sizes of Chinese families and impacted the way in which children were raised. It also explains some important Chinese festivals, such as the Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival, and Dragon Boat Festival. It explains the origins of these festivals and how people celebrate, including the roles of children in the celebrations.

I most enjoyed the sections about board games. Some of the oldest board games in the world come from China. Some of these games are also played in Japan under different names. For example, the game Weiqi is known as Go in Japan, and this is the name that is also most familiar to Americans. Chinese Chess uses different pieces from the international form of chess. The book mentions Chinese Checkers also, but it doesn’t explain that it was not actually invented in China, even though it is played there today. (The “Chinese” in the title was a marketing gimmick in the United States, to make the game seem more exotic. It’s actually a German variation of the American game Halma, which was based on an older English game called Hoppers.) Majiang (called Mah-Jongg in the United States) is another well-known Chinese game. Sometimes, in the United States, people play it as a solitaire game on their computes, but the real-life board game is a multiplayer game with several variations.

When I was in school, I had a teacher who was fond of tangrams, which is a kind of puzzle game that involves using a set of basic shapes to produce different forms or pictures of objects. The book demonstrates how to make a tangram set and how to use it.

The earliest kites made in China were made for serious, religious purposes, sending prayers, signs, or messages to the heavens. Later, the Chinese also used them to give military signals. Later, paper kites became a popular form of amusement and folk art. They can be made in many different forms. Some of them even make musical sounds, caused by the wind passing over holes placed in the bamboo frame of the kite.

The Chinese also use puppets in different styles. The history of puppet theater also goes back thousands of years, and puppets made for puppet theaters can be very elaborate. Sometimes, plays are performed with shadow puppets controlled by sticks and sometimes with marionettes or hand puppets. The appearance of a puppet and provide clues to the puppet’s character. For example, puppets with red faces represent brave characters while ones with white faces may be cunning and treacherous and ones with black faces are loyal.

Popular sports in China include soccer (called “football” everywhere but in North America) and badminton. China is also famous for its martial arts and some spectacular forms of acrobatics.

The American Boy’s Handy Book

The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Beard, 1882.

This is a Victorian activity book for boys, focusing particularly on outdoor seasonal activities. It was not the first book of its kind during the Victorian era, but the author explains in the preface that he wanted to create a book of sports, games, and activities that would be better than the ones that he knew from his own youth, with instructions that were well-written, complete, and easy to follow, particularly written for American boys, without some of the foreign phrases found in other books or tips that would be impossible for them to use, like recommendations for shops in London that sell equipment for the various activities and pastimes.

The book is now public domain and available to read for free online through Internet Archive.

Historical Background

Daniel Beard wasn’t just an author who had an interest in providing useful guides to fun activities for American boys; he was also a social reformer who was one of the founding members of the Boy Scouts of America. Before the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, there were other, smaller scouting organizations throughout the United States, and Daniel Beard had founded one of these groups in 1905, which he called the Sons of Daniel Boone. This group later went through a couple of name changes before Beard joined the Boy Scouts of America and merged his group with theirs.

The Beard family in general believed in the benefits of exercise, appreciation of the natural world, and healthy outdoor activities for youth people, both male and female. Daniel’s sisters, Lina and Adelia, would later be founding members of the Camp Fire Girls, the first major scouting organization for girls in America, during the 1910s, a cause which Beard also supported. (Camp Fire Girls was founded before the founding of the Girl Scouts. It had the opportunity to merge with the Girl Scouts at one point but didn’t. Today, it is now a co-ed scouting organization simply called Camp Fire.) A few years after the publication of The American Boy’s Handy Book, Lina and Adelia published their own book of activities specifically for American girls called The American Girl’s Handy Book, which had somewhat of an outdoor focus but not as much as The American Boy’s Handy Book or some of the other books that they would later write. These were not the only books that the Beards published, and they would later go on to write more books about activities and wilderness skills for boys and girls.

Contents of the Book

The activities in this book are organized by season, which makes sense because of the largely outdoor focus of the activities. Within each section, there are more specialized sections, focusing on particular pastimes in each season. The American Girl’s Handy Book follows the same seasonal organization, but The American Boy’s Handy Book doesn’t mention holidays as much as The American Girl’s Handy Book. There is only one holiday section in this entire book, and the holiday is the Fourth of July. Later editions of the book also have some extra notes and projects in the back.

My copy of the book has a foreword written in modern times, part of which notes that some of the activities in the book are not really recommended for modern children because they are not suitable for kids living in urban or suburban environments and because some of them are outright dangerous and involve fire. At least, children should not attempt these activities without close supervision and help. Some 19th century people managed to play with fire and not hurt themselves, partly because more of them lived in the countryside, away from houses that could be set on fire, and like the author of this book, also lived in places in the Midwest and East Coast that see a lot of rain, keeping plants and fields from drying out and becoming more flammable, and could also be near lakes, ponds, and rivers. However, not everyone lives in those types of places these days. (If you want an indication of what could possibly go wrong with trying some of the more flammable activities in the book, consider what’s happened with some of the more flammable or explosive gender reveal parties in modern times. Consider your environment before deciding whether these activities are feasible.) Also, not everyone from the 19th century or 20th century pulled off these activities unscathed, and it’s the ones who did get hurt or caused serious damage that make the concern. The writer of the foreword describes how a 19th century boy lost a leg attempting the fire balloon activity with his friends years before this book was published. (The fire got out of control, and his leg was badly burned when he tried to put the fire out.) That being said, there are many interesting activities in this book that are perfectly harmless and fire-free and that kids from any era can try, even those who don’t live in the countryside.

Spring

The spring section is mainly about making and flying kites and going fishing. The kites section explains how to make different types of kites in different shapes, like people, frogs, butterflies, fish, turtles, and dragons. One of these designs, called The Moving Star, involves attaching a lit lantern to the tail of a long kite. This kite is meant to be flown at night, so the light will bob in the air. It’s an interesting concept, although the instructions mention that certain types of lanterns are likely to just set fire to the kite. (I think I know how the author knows this.) The book provides instructions for making a custom lantern that will work better. This custom lantern featured a candle that is stuck between nails that are supposed to hold it in place, and it is supposed to be covered with red tissue paper (which is also sure to catch fire if that candle gets loose and falls over while it’s flying around). I’ll admit that the effect is probably neat, if you can pull it off without setting fire to something, but setting something on fire seems to be a likely outcome. This is one of the activities which wouldn’t work well for modern kids, especially if they live in places with highly flammable brush or dead grass and weeds or in the middle of areas with a lot of houses or apartments that would be set on fire if the flying lantern gets out of control (which is, apparently, a distinct possibility). Of course, thanks to modern technology, a battery-operated light could be an option.

There is also a section about war kites, which can be used for kite fighting.

The rest of the spring section is about different methods of fishing, how to make fishing tackle, and how to keep aquariums.

Summer

The summer section has more variety, although many of the activities are ones that modern boys can’t do if they live in an urban or suburban environment. There is more information about fishing in this section and how to make and sail different types of boats. I thought that the water telescope, which can be used to look at things under water, was really interesting. The book provides two sets of instructions for making a water telescope, one wooden and one metal.

There is also information about different types of knots and how to tie them, blowing soap bubbles with a clay bubble pipe, and how to camp outside without a tent. The section about soap bubbles mentions “an aged negro down in Kentucky” whom the author knew as a child called “Old Uncle Cassius.” Uncle Cassius used to smoke a corn cob pipe, and he liked to amuse the children by blowing soap bubbles. The reason why the author brings up the subject of Uncle Cassius is that he had a particular trick where he would blow smoke-filled bubbles by filling his mouth from smoke from his own pipe before blowing some through the bubble pipe. The term “negro” is a bit archaic now, and I wouldn’t recommend smoking in general, but the author’s memories of Uncle Cassius seem to be fond ones, which is nice. The book doesn’t say whether or not Cassius was a slave, but the author was born in 1850, so my guess is that Cassius was either a slave or had been one earlier in life.

The section about soap bubbles also describes how children can use the gas from the gas lighting in their homes to blow bubbles, another activity that modern children can’t do.

As I mentioned before, fire is important to certain activities in this book. For Fourth of July, there are instructions for making a special kind of balloon that rises with heat produced by fire. They’re sort of like sky lanterns, made of paper. However, instead of having a place to set a small candle, these balloons have a “wick-ball”, which is a ball of rolled-up wick string, the kind used in an oil lamp, which is then soaked with alcohol and set on fire. The author notes that other people who make this type of balloon use small sponges instead, but he doesn’t think they’re as good because they don’t burn long, and as they burn out, the balloon comes back down, near where it started. He prefers to make a wick-ball so that it will continue burning and float out of sight. (I can’t help but notice that the sponge balloons, not burning for long and coming down nearby would also probably be easier to control and monitor for fire risk than the wick-ball balloons, which will float off to God-only-knows-where and get caught on who-knows-what before fully burning out.) The author says that he used to experiment with these as a child and has notes about which shapes are unsafe. Generally, it’s best to make them large and round, without a long neck at the opening. (As I said, the modern foreword in my copy notes that these types of balloons are actually dangerous and that kids have been injured trying to use them. This is why you don’t tend to see this type of activity suggested in modern children’s hobby books. Try it only at your own risk and remember that you’re responsible for any fires you start in the process. If you live in an urban setting or an area with a high risk of wildfires, don’t do it at all.)

There is quite a lot of information about activities involving real birds, like collecting bird nests and raising wild birds. (The modern view is that wild animals should be left wild and not kept as pets.)

There are also instructions for different types of hunting and how to make hunting weapons, including blow guns. In Meet Samantha from the Samantha, An American Girl series, she mentions that she read the instructions for how to make a boomerang in The American Boy’s Handy Book and that she wants to make and sell boomerangs to raise money to buy a new doll until her grandmother talks her out of it because that isn’t a proper activity for young girls. This is the part of the book where the boomerang instructions are, p. 190. Meet Samantha doesn’t say why Samantha was reading The American Boy’s Handy Book instead of The American Girl’s Handy Book in 1904, but that passage is mainly there to show the difference between what were considered acceptable activities for girls vs. acceptable activities for boys.

Autumn

The autumn section is much shorter than the previous two sections. It has information about trapping animals and practicing taxidermy. There is also a section about how to keep and train a pet dog. (Remember, that’s a commitment for life, not just for autumn.)

The part that I liked the best was the section about how to be a “decorative artist.” It teaches boys about photographic paper, how to make shadow pictures, and how to enlarge and reduce images.

Winter

The winter section has both indoor and outdoor activities, and the outdoor activities are designed for places with snow. (The author was born in the Midwest and lived on the East Coast of the United States, so these are the environments he considers for his outdoor activities.) He describes snowball fights, snow forts and houses, snow statuary, different types of sleds and sleighs, snow-shoes, and how to fish in winter.

For the indoor activities, there are instructions for making puppets and a script for a puppet show version of Puss-in-Boots. There are also tips for making costumes for people, so children could perform their own theatricals.

I particularly liked the sections about how to make and use magic lanterns and how to make different types of whirligig toys. The magic lantern was a kind of early slide projector. The whirligigs were homemade toys that would spin.