Wednesday, March 4, 2015

As Promised, Girl Books

 My favorite gruff dad customer was looking for audiobook recommendations for his teenager daughter.

Gruff dad: "Anything good?"
Me: "Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire!"
Gruff dad: "Where is it?"
Me: "The library."

I suck at retail. I ended up selling him The Midnight Dress because I had it marked down to a dollar. It was too formulaic for me to get through, even with an Australian accent, but one dollar. Egg and Spoon is great though! I never read Wicked, although I might now, because Egg and Spoon is utterly brilliant until it splutters out at the end but we'll just ignore that bit and focus on its reveling in Russian fairy tales and the cross narratives of a peasant and a high-born girl who accidentally switch places when Katya's private train stops in Elena's starving village. One senses a Prince and the Pauper coming on until Elena's guardians immediately realize that they have the wrong girl. Elena's village is starving, her mother is dying, and her brother is recently conscripted, so Katya starts walking with every sensible expectation that she'll meet the train coming back for her, but Elena manages to conceal her identity long enough that the butler and governess are better off abetting her than revealing their sins to her short-sighted great aunt. Then there's Baba Yaga. And the tsar. Everything about Egg and Spoon is so delicious, so fantastical, and so magically realistic. It doesn't smell Russian, but that's a lot to ask for in a novel. It's Russian enough. Bleeding good. How it compares to Binny for Short is an open question because they're two completely different books, though they (and The War that Saved My Life) all three are age-appropriate early adolescent girl books in a genre of fantastic scope. And they're all three bloody marvelous. I can't believe it took me this long to read Binny for Short. I got it on the drop date, started it, set it down to savor, and waited over a year. The thing that really sparked my reading it is that the sequel's coming out this summer. Binny isn't Hilary McKay's strongest novel, but that's like saying that North America isn't God's strongest continent. It's amazing. McKay really rocks her minimalist approach to language here which is grand, but I do love it when she's effusive. The plot is that Binny's father died insolvent, and Binny had to give up her dog and is still grieving it, but then her terrible old great aunt who was instrumental in getting rid of the dog dies and leaves Binny her crumbling English seaside semi-detached house. Let's pause here to appreciate Hilary McKay's appreciation of the seaside, as other British authors, despite never being more than two hours from the sea, tend to forget they're on a big island. So Binny is a local in this seaside holiday town and the whole book is intercut with scenes from a harrowing afternoon trying to pull a fishing net off some rocks with her best enemy from next door. Of course, seventy-six years ago, British problems weren't limited to seaside proximity and dog grieving. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is amazing and she does World War II again, in England here. The War That Saved My Life has so much happening and it all ties so together into this compelling bundle of hope and triumph for one little girl that the best praise I can give it is to thoroughly retell the story: Ada is a club-footed ten-year-old who has never left the one room flat she lives in with her horrible mother and her six-year-old brother Jaimie. The story begins around the time Ada teaches herself to walk: she's been scooting around on her bottom her whole life. When he was a baby, Ada took care of Jamie, but now he's a kid out running around and she's alone all day. Ada went outside once, but her mother found out and beat her. So Ada teaches herself to walk all summer and Jamie hears that there's going to be a war on. All the children will be evacuated, but mum, useless slut, won't let Ada and Jamie go. Ada decides to evacuate without permission, and she and Jamie take the grueling slow walked on a club foot to the train station. Ada's never been out: she's never gone this far, never seen trees or toilets. At the small town train station where they disembark, the evacuees are parceled out to willing families and Ada and Jamie, filthy and smelly, are chosen by no one, but the posh lady who's in charge of the evacuation committee takes them in her car (first time) to the house of someone. The evacuation of the children of London, like the orphan train and other institutional child distribution schemes of the near past, depended on children being randomly handed out to anyone willing to take them and the results were thoroughly mixed. Ada and Jamie are brought to the home of Susan Smith, a depressed woman. Becky, who lived with her, died last fall and Susan hasn't done anything since then except sit in a chair and stare at her hands. It's never clear whether Susan and Becky had a Boston marriage or were just super BFFs, but they were at Cambridge together and Susan's grieving and wants no filthy children a bossy rich lady is forcing on her. As the the bossy woman drives away, Susan sighs and looks the children over and takes them upstairs for their first full bath. Ada would resist, but there's a pony in the yard. A pony! She saw a girl ride a pony once and she knows she can ride this one. The tragedy of the children's deprivation is mind-boggling as Susan takes them through the concept of sheets and underwear, to the doctor who can't understand why Ada doesn't have crutches, to illiteracy, to fruit, to "Ada's not allowed outside." She is now, but it takes a while to manage her fear. There's a lot of Ada and Jamie cowering while Susan screams, "I'm not going to hit you! I'm angry, but I'm not going to hit you!" The horse is named Butter and Ada can ride it as much as she likes. She meets the posh lady's daughter, and her stable manager, who teaches Ada proper horse things. Lots of London evacuees go back; their families miss them and their host families make sure they know they're second class children. Then the war gets real. An airfield goes up next door and Jamie knows the pilots and the planes. London's going to be bombed, then it is bombed, the bombs keep coming. German planes crash in the fields. So do British ones. The men go away and Ada helps some afternoons on her crutches at the stable. She's still a nightmare kid. There are no easy, middle class reformations here. Ada spends Christmas Eve screaming until Susan wraps her in a blanket and sits on her because it seems to soothe. Susan's trying to get hold of Ada's mum the whole time, because with her permission, Ada could have an operation on her club foot, but when Ada and Jamie's mother turns up, things get worse. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. For all the pain that KBB can bring to a middle grade novel, she makes it work, and it's worth it. But back to a kinder, gentler Britain and a kinder, gentler world, the kind where someone, probably Missie, left Magic Bunny: Chocolate Wishes by Sue Bentley on my hold shelf and I read it while I had the flu because it wasn't as heavy as my other books. Magic Bunny: Chocolate Wishes is a companion to the Magic Puppy, Magic Kitten, and Magic Pony books and turned out to be the third in the Magic Bunny series. Normally, I wouldn't read the third book in a series first off, but I feel confident that I was able to piece together the happenings in Moonglow Meadow from the introduction. Dark rabbits live in the uninhabitable waste next to MM, and they want to overrun MM and steal it from the white rabbits. This all sounds terribly racist, but black rabbits would be even worse. Presumably, we can't just call them evil rabbits, because, at the end of the series, all the rabbits, dark and white, will reconcile and make friends. But, for now, the dark rabbits, want to take over Moonglow Meadow by stealing the white rabbits' magic key. So, naturally, Arrow the magic rabbit with a key around his neck teleports to England where he meets a girl named Dawn who just had her first sad and lonely day at a new school. Like Binny, Dawn had a dog she loved but her parents were hit by the recession and had to move to an apartment complex that banned pets. The dog lives with her aunt now, so that's okay, but Arrow convinces Dawn to sneak him into the apartment and protect him from the dark rabbits. Because that's where a magic bunny with a magic key is safest: in an eight-year-old's bedroom. It's Easter week, and Chocolate Wishes might refer to the one time that Dawn eats a candy egg, but that's never clear. Dawn does some stupid stuff, like sneaking Arrow to her aunt's and into school. Dawn's new desk is next to a girl named Emma who loves awkward practical jokes that make people uncomfortable, and Dawn and Emma's burgeoning friendship is a thing once Emma finds out that Dawn hasn't a secret bunny. Emma has a rabbit, Blackberry, who is well cared for but lives in a shed. As a rabbit alarmist, I didn't like Dawn's keeping Arrow a secret from her parents. Kids could try that, and if the rabbit wasn't discovered immediately, which is likely, things could end extremely badly for the rabbit. Really, rabbits aren't great pets for kids and they hate being held, although reading Magic Bunny would lead you to assume the opposite. Someone in the online rabbit community was just telling the story of a kid who pulled off a rabbit's tail because the rabbit was trying to get away and the kid didn't want it to. Imagine the panic you would need to be in to run away and leave your arm behind: that's where this rabbit was. Magic Bunny does nothing for proper rabbit care, but, as a bland early chapter book it was thoroughly adequate. And, finally, I re-read The Ordinary Princess while I had the flu too, and it was great and wonderful and when I was seven I loved it and I still do.

Next up: Some good and not so good things.

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