Monday, July 13, 2015

Hijinks Ahoy!

 Nothing but madcap hijinks here, like the things Ruthie gets up to because she's the only girl out of five brothers, and the only kid in third grade. Ruthie's Gift, by our beloved national treasure Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, is her first book and reads like it, but it's good solid kids' history for third graders. Ruthie's family is adequately prosperous for rural Indiana a century ago but there's still not enough cash in the household to buy Ruthie the doll she longs for from the Sears catalogue. Ruthie's mother wants her to have the doll; she wasn't prepared for five boys either. New people move in down the road and Ruthie is now not only in a third grade of three people!, but Mallie and Hallie are her new best friends. Hijinks ahoy! Falling off a gravestone, kittens, pneumonia, being the angel in the Christmas play. Hallie and Mallie's socks are so worn they're DIY chunky knit tubes from the ankle down. When the school nurse comes to measure all the schoolchildren, Ruthie wears her boots sockless and distracts her classmates from noticing Hallie and Mallie's poor-people foot coverings. When the US enters World War I, the thing the adults have been worried about all book, the oldest brother goes away to do war work in a munitions factory, and presumably earning more cash than Ruthie's parents have ever seen in their lives, he buys Ruthie the catalogue doll. It's Ruthie's Gift, but so are selflessness and tenacity. This would be a fab book for third graders but I won't go around thrusting it on people as I do with KBB's other works.

Now we turn to the queen of wholesome hijinks, Enid Blyton. I found myself fudging a recommendation of one of Mrs. Blyton's the other day and decided to remedy that by audiobook, as I was in need of a short listen after three months with Lyndon Johnson's early life (more on that later). In Look Out, Secret Seven! the Secret Seven dedicates themselves to solving two mysteries: who has been destroying birds' nests in the wood and who stole the old general's medals? Colin visits the old general to investigate and learns that the thief broke a pane of glass so small that Colin himself can't get his hand through the hole to spring the general's door latch. Meanwhile, other Secret Seven-ers run off some boys who are harassing birds and meet a changeable fellow who tells them of a dark night where he saw a man sneakily put a box in a hole in a tree trunk, which our man, with his abnormally large hands, was unable to retrieve. I thought the culprit was a monkey because: hands smaller than a child's + nest destruction + stealing shiny objects + 1950s British children = monkey. But the Secret Seven stakes out the wood at night and finds their man arguing with a sinister, tiny-handed man. A monkey would have been stupid, but better than children defeating criminals with abnormally variant hand sizes. Mrs. Blyton also squishes a surprising amount of blatant sexism into a female-authored book less than two hours long. The only fun thing is Mrs. Blyton's habit of exhorting the Secret Seven in the present tense at the cliffhangers. I'm disappointed in you, Mrs. Blyton!

In grown-up hijinks, Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Resume Age 0-22 by MariNaomi is a graphic novel that's hampered by its own format. MariNaomi profiles every boy she ever liked, held hands with, smooched, blew, or boinked until her first long term relationship with all its threesomes, and then she profiles all her special guest stars. It probably seemed like a good idea and a clever format; but the "one boyfriend at a time" structure ruins the story. All seven guys she's sleeping with show up to her seventeenth birthday party at the same time and instead of telling the hilarious story, it gets a casual mention eight times, because she hides out in the kitchen with a new gentleman friend. There's also a period where her main squeeze is in jail but she's sleeping with other people and it's hard to get a handle on who overlapped with whom. An unpolished style of illustration adds nothing. You'd think that if you slept with everybody all through high school, high school would have been more interesting, but Kiss and Tell proves that's not the case.

And if you're fed up with hijinks, may I recommend In the Closed Room by Frances Hodgson Burnett? The children here get up to no hijinks and no shenanigans. Do you know what these children do? THEY DIE. Maybe banging everyone isn't the best choice for ninth graders, but FHB certainly makes the case that dying beautifully is a good choice for third graders. I'm reading Good Girl Messages, where the author, obviously unitiated to the FHB planet, freaks out because of the amount of beautifully dead children In the Closed Room. She compares it to Kate Douglas Wiggins' The Birds' Christmas Carol and Beth in Little Women, which are all problematic if you don't want little girls to think that the most charming thing they can do is die charmingly, but they at least pony up only one dead girl apiece, while FHB gives us three. Written in 1904, a decade after her son Lionel died of consumption, FHB was still trying to reconcile his passing, and her grief lucratively dovetailed with the Victorian death obsession. That said, it's problematically good and hella FHBtacular. Her usual tropes: birds, gardens, falling awake, working class people who don't understand their sainted betters, and children's wholesome play are there. In the Closed Rooms amazingly captures the spontaneous joy of childhood play 'tho it would be more heartening if Judith's playmate wasn't a DEAD GIRL. Basically, Judith's earthy, working-class parents are flabbergasted by their otherworldly daughter, who resembles Aunt Hester who died spontaneously and beautifully at fifteen. They become caretakers of a house that was abandoned quickly by a family grieving the sudden, beautiful death of their child, whom Judith meets in the closed room and plays with joyously and constantly until she dies beautifully and skips through the garden hand in hand with her friend to meet Aunt Hester.

Next up, absolutely no epic heroes at all whatsoever.

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