Punctuation Ends Confusion!

Babble!: And How Punctuation Saved It – words by Caroline Adderson, pictures by Roman Muradov
Tundra Books, 2022

Babble! Is one of the most inventive illustrated children’s books that I’ve seen in a long time.  Begin with the somewhat improbable concept of making the meaning of punctuation both exciting and accessible to young readers. Then, add a fable-like tone that immediately brings to mind James Thurber at his best. Finally, add pictures that combine the wry essence of mid-century language textbooks with European traditions of comics and animation, and you have a quietly powerful lesson that respects the intelligence of children, and allows adults to join them.Is punctuation an appropriate topic for kids? Yes, it is! While there is a young readers’ edition of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, that useful volume simply does not serve the same purpose as Babble! Caroline Adderson (I’ve reviewed her other work here and here) and Roman Muradov have created a universe of symbols and turned them over to the quirky residents of a village.

These people have problems! Conflict is the norm and chaos reigns. Then, one day, a small child who “wore clothes that were older than she was” as well as a cloth bag around her neck filled with some mysterious and magical items arrives.  She brings the gift of punctuation, converting senseless babble into the art of communication.  Periods are tiny dots which you can carefully lift and examine.  Question marks are existential symbols: “Is this bear chasing me? Should I look back?”  Quotation marksgrant each speaker autonomy and demand responsibility: “They knew they were speaking when they spoke and that they were thinking when they thought.”

The book’s design by John Martz (himself the brilliant illustrator of Crocodile Hungry and How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps) combines carefully spaced text in black font with pink punctuation marks, along with pink and black illustrations offset by plenty of white space.  Reading the book is both relaxing and challenging. How is the reader expected to pronounce each symbol she encounters? Not all sentences demand that the reader articulate the name of the symbol: “Grab it!” a father calls to a girl flailing in the water. The baseball bat appearance of the exclamation point lands dramatically on several pages.  In other sequences, such as the gift of a period to stop speech in its tracks, the reader admires the tiny dot without a name: “The stranger let the mother hold the  .  on the tip of her finger.  The mother brought it very close to her eyes.” (image that tiny dot in red, as it is in the text.). How could something so small change everything?  Naturally, the superpower of a nano particle is a fact which children will trust and appreciate.

And who better than kids to understand the role of the exclamation point, shouting “Look at me!” in a well-deserved bid for attention. This gift deserves a party, and it gets one. A feast, a fountain, and kinetic activities celebrate the new reality, where residents can now speak, listen, shout, whisper, and both ask and answer questions.  Humor surfaces on every page, as when the humble comma gets to transform their town by assuring that “Soon we will eat Grandpa” becomes an invitation, not an act of barbarism.  Adderson and Muradov ensure that readers leave the book with a healthy respect for words and the tools they need to do their job. Babble!’s subtle mix of practical knowledge and poetic fancy will send readers back to the book many times, waiting for the girl to patiently make meaning out of chatter.

Curious George and Nostalgia for Dictionaries

Curious George’s Dictionary (From the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries) – illustrated in the style of H.A. Rey by Mary O’Keefe Young. Additional illustrations in the style of H.A. Rey by Anna Grossnickle, Greg Paprocki, Vipah International, and Martha Weston
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 2008

Children’s dictionaries in general are the subject for a separate post, but Curious George’s is a really good example of the genre.  The entire project of a print dictionary for kids is now an exercise in nostalgia.  Schools still have some potential use for them, but it is probably rare to acquire one for home use.  Before the digital era, students routinely learned how to use a print dictionary, including how to alphabetically locate entries using guide words at the top of the page.  This skill probably is no longer considered a productive use of limited class time.  On the other hand, if anyone still buys children’s dictionaries, illustrated picture book-types for the youngest readers may be more popular than the student homework tool for use with academic assignments.  I recommend this one!

The elephant in the room, to refer to one of George’s friends in this book, is the adaptation of the Reys’ work (Margaret and H.A.) as an industry, supplying the public with numerous story books outside of the original canon, as well as t.v. shows and toys.  I don’t have an issue with that, as long as the classic books remain the core of George’s readership (and see specific blogs here and here and here and here). I recognize that qualifier may be optimistic.  The imitation-of-Rey pictures are not bad. They are nice facsimiles of the inimitable character, appealing and pleasant.  I strongly prefer them, and the older animation based on them, to the PBS program. The latter show is wonderful, but I’m not sure why they did not preserve an homage to the Reys’ style; perhaps there were copyright issues.

This dictionary is great for toddlers through early elementary grades.  Each section begins with a brightly colored and patterned upper-and lower-case letter, as well as the letter highlighted in the context of the entire alphabet.  The introduction, “George Learns How to Use the Dictionary,” is a story in itself, as the man with the yellow hat teaches his little charge how to make use of the dictionary.  His method is encouraging and interactive: “Do you think we can find your favorite fruit?”  Across the bottom of each page in this short section there are additional pointers in blue and green font, including the fact that words spelled the same way may have different meanings.

Not all the words are nouns, by any means. On the “Ee” page, readers see George carrying two different objects in each hand, and learn that a mother and baby bunny wake up early. There are people, places, and concepts. The “Ll” pages place George in a library, show him asleep with light shining through the window, and indicate that there is only a little milk inside a glass. (It isn’t even half-full, but that certainly doesn’t imply that George is a pessimist.) Some of the pictures refer to events in the George books, such as the puzzle which turns out to put him in the hospital when he eats one of the pieces in Curious George Goes to the Hospital Those that are not connected to a George narrative could still have an implied story.  Why is he scratching his head on the “Ss” page?  Whose scarf is that? 

The pictures connected to the George books should send caregivers and teachers to their bookshelves, libraries, or stores to DECIDE which Curious George books to get.  Whether getting a job, undergoing a short hospital stay, or furthering research on space travel, George speaks to toddlers even without using words.

Bring Your Rabbit to School Day

Bear’s Big Day – written and illustrated by Salina Yoon
Bloomsbury’s Children’s Books 2016

There are countless books designed to help children overcome their fears about beginning school. Even some of the less stellar ones can be serviceable, and it’s hard to tell when any particular story will appeal to an anxious child.  Some of them have a particular angle, such as the special challenges of beginning school in a new country or culture, such as Anna Kim’s wonderful Danbi Leads the School Parade. Others use humor, but not all as inventively as Tara Lazar and Melissa Crowton in Your First Day at Circus School. Salina Yoon weighs in the on the truly difficult issue of whether or not it is a good idea for a young child to bring a transitional object, whether a teddy bear, doll, or in this case, Floppy Bunny.  Her answer is yes, and she makes a compelling case for allowing this source of comfort.

Even though Bear has a great morning eating pancakes with his parents, and agrees to leave Floppy Bunny at home, the pressures of beginning school are tougher than he had anticipated.  Yoon’s animals are recognizably members of their species, but also personified enough to satisfy children’s need to identify with them. The grey-furred Miss Fox, a kind teacher with glasses, plays a key role, as she empathizes with Bear’s difficulties. The key point is that some children easily adapt, but Bear is not what of them. 

Lunchtime is a trial for Bear.  The other students happily consume their meals, Panda using chopsticks and a beautifully arranged bento. (A bento is a Japanese lunchbox with compartments; it is also used in other parts of Asia.) Bear stares into space. His lunchbox, wryly decorated with Yoon’s character from her Penguin books, remains closed. Naptime is, naturally, the worst.  A sleepless Bear stares at the ceiling while his friends happily dream of ice cream, kites, and whatever appears in Lamb’s dreams. 

Miss Fox doesn’t only permit Bear to bring Floppy to school. She actively engages her anxious student in an art project that becomes a kind of compromise step towards independence.  At the same time, Bear learns that his classmates’ impressive adaptability had a similar key to success.  The endpapers of the book feature brightly colored backpacks, each as individual as the child who carries it to school.  Yoon’s combination of empathy, simplicity, and attention to the small details that occupy children’s minds, all add up to a happy conclusion.

How Many Pigs Does It Take to Make a Story?

Too Many Pigs and One Big Bad Wolf – written by Davide Cali, illustrated by Marianna Balducci
Tundra Books, 2022

Children know what makes a good story; in Too Many Pigs and One Big Bad Wolf, Davide Cali and Marianna Balducci provide a funny and clever example of how to create an engaging tale.  The humor is accessible to kids without appealing to the lowest common denominator. The pictures (photos by Balducci and Fabio Gervasoni) are sharp and bright, and the book’s design by Kelly Hill constructs the perfect frame for the whole project. (The artwork is one of the featured at the Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibition of picture book illustration this year.)

The original, and terrifying, fairy tale about the three little pigs existed in many versions, but this one is only incidentally about a predator devouring smaller animals.  In fact, as the author and illustrator make clear, the events of a book alone do not necessarily add up to a good story. Using a wooden toy-like abacus featuring pig-shaped beads, Cali and Balducci calculate what exactly holds our interest as reader’s when we suspend disbelief and enter a fictional world.  If the story seems too abrupt, just adding random events will not work.  If the characters seem a bit similar, maybe giving them crazy names, one beginning with each letter of the alphabet, will improve the pace.  How about having the pigs form an improbably sounding soccer team? Once the laughter dies down, it becomes clear that the story still needs “a beginning and a middle and an end!”  The alternating black and red font highlights the fact that this is a dialogue between reader and creator. Even such fine points as punctuation and conjunctions play a part. Instead of using commas, the repetition of “and” and the exclamation point show that the stakes are high.  Children need the story to captivate and make sense at the same time!

Throwing in a little math and the fascination with leap years, the author tries another experiment. What if the fierce animal timed his attacks to once a month, choosing the weirdest month in the calendar? Each possibility reinforces the idea that mechanical pacing, wild variations, and ridiculous jokes do not add up to a great book. Yes, we all know that there are some highly successful children’s book authors whose careers defy that premise, but when we present young readers with outstanding work, they can discern the difference. 

A bowl of wooden pigs swimming in milk, with all the appeal of junky breakfast cereal, is an unforgettable image, especially with the hungry wolf posed above, spoon in hand, and ready to dive in.  But even this suggestion is not enough to tie the loose ends together, and readers commiserate with the exasperated text: “I can’t take this anymore!”  By the end, the “author” of this experiment has lost all credibility, but the real author, illustrator, and designer, have raised questions about the challenges of creation that children will think about for a long time.

Elizabeth R. for Kids

Queen Elizabeth II: A Little Golden Book Biography – written by Jen Arena, illustrated by Monique Dong
Golden Books, 2022

I’m a real Golden Book fans, if not exactly a Golden Books completist. I certainly don’t buy every new one, even every new biography, that is released, but if space on my shelves permitted, I might (I’ve written about some of my collection here and here).  With recent titles devoted to such eclectic subjects as Betty White,  Anthony Fauci, and Dolly Parton, it seems the selections are targeted as much to adults as to children. That’s a legitimate choice, and nostalgia is certainly part of the Golden Books brand. (If you haven’t read Leonard Marcus’s history of the series, it’s essential.)  Even before the sad loss of Queen Elizabeth on September 8 of this year, I had been interested in this new volume, which certainly holds interest for both adults and children.

Golden Books are short.  The facts contained about any subject in each one are, by definition, limited.  Queen Elizabeth II, by Jen Arena with illustrations by Monique Dong, is fascinating partly because of those choices.  The book opens with a picture of Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, skipping on a path accompanied by a couple of corgis. The image matches the text for compactness, providing key information both visually and in words.  “She was just like any kid, except for one thing – Elizabeth was a princess.”  The obvious appeal of this idea to young readers has a fairy-tale aspect.  Arena offers several examples of how alike, and yet different, Elizabeth is to the person holding this book in her hands.  She likes to play with toy horses. She is shy, but also organized. Her early home isn’t a palace, but it does have twenty-five bedrooms. She is close to her father, and is pictured with him next to his desk at work, but soon she has moved into Buckingham Palace.  Perhaps now the differences outweigh the similarities.

In a picture of Elizabeth’s radio speech to children, the author specifically refers to Hitler by name. I don’t have an editorial criticism of this, but I think that parents and educators will want to decide whether to introduce this villain to children of the Golden Book age range, as young as toddlers, or early primary grades.  They will ask who he is and that will involve a discussion you might want to postpone until later.  On the other hand, the inclusion of Elizabeth’s wartime service as a driver and mechanic is wholly appropriate. Many news articles about her described her choice to engage in this service. (My favorite newsreel clip shows her fixing sparkplugs. Her parents seem both amazed and delighted at this process.)

There are descriptions and pictures of the Queen in her coronation robes and crown, and scenes from her family life and official events, including a carriage ride with Nelson Mandela. The latter event pointedly states that she opposed apartheid in South Africa.  When the book arrives at 1992, the year which the Queen characterized as her “annus horribilis,” the author again makes some interesting choices.  “Being queen wasn’t always easy,” she writes, although the picture shows a smiling woman in front of her Christmas tree.  Arena is rather frank for a Golden Book, alluding to the failure of Charles and Diana’s blighted marriage, and to the fire in Windsor Castle. The book ends of a jubilant note, with the very recent Platinum Jubilee.  But the most poignant and also most accessible lesson of the book is its concluding statements, that the Queen put hard work and service “above everything.” Granted any cynicism some readers may have about the nature of “hard work” given those lavish surroundings and multiple bedrooms, the book provides enough realism and historical context to make the late Queen’s legacy meaningful to kids on either side of the pond.

Elephants and Penguins Never Forget

Penguin and Penelope – written and illustrated by Salina Yoon
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

Salina Yoon’s illustrations use simple lines and bright coloring to draw children into her stories.  Her endearing animals draw children into narratives that both entertain and reassure. Penguin and Penelope is the latest in a series about the adventures of a bird so accepting he can make friends with a pinecone, but here his best friend is an elephant.  The idea of different species, or even kingdoms, being drawn to one another is obviously appealing (as in, for example the Little Elliot series by Mike Curato, Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, everything involving Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington).  Here the friends may be mismatched in size, but well-suited together in warmth and empathy.

Penguin looks much like a real penguin, although he is wearing an orange scarf, while Penelope the elephant is a somewhat fanciful purple.  She may be distantly related to Elliot, because she is also hesitant to try new things and seems insecure.  Luckily, Penguin is there to help. He rescues her from a mud puddle, feeds, and bathes her. Her facial expressions evolve from fearful to happy. Every step of their journey together has an obstacle, but also a solution, even if the temporary one of a brief rest.

Penguin is really in charge: “Wherever Penguin went, Penelope followed.” Yet the relationship still seems equitable, because Penguin never tries to make Penelope conscious that she depends on him.  Penelope may be timid, but she is also imaginative and open to new experiences. Initially afraid of the water, she ultimately concludes that “It was like magic.”

The two-page spread of Penguin and Penelope undersea is a joyful statement. In fact, both animals do swim; both this point in common and their obvious differences stand out from the picture.  When they arrive on dry land, Penguin rides on Penelope’s back, a subtle suggestion that the elephant is also able to play a helping role.  As they arrive at the herd’s home, background colors of brown and gold indicate a different habitat, one where Penelope belongs.

Just as in real life, the friends can still cross boundaries.  A dreaming Penelope has “…a hole in her heart that was the size of a penguin,” a truly sad and apt metaphor for missing someone close to you. In Salina Yoon’s world, kindness and love lead to happy resolutions, and both family and friends can fill the empty space that children sometimes encounter.

Cuteness Contest: Who Will Win?

We Adopted a Baby Chick – written and illustrated by Lori Joy Smith
Tundra Books, 2022

If you think it’s not a contest, ask Albert, the sheep was adopted in Lori Jay Smith’s, We Adopted a Baby Lamb. Just as he has become comfortable in his loving family of Mom, Dad, Sosi, Ila, and their four pets, a spoiler appears in the form of Tina, a baby chick.  Acutely aware that maximum cuteness has a shelf life (“I used to be tiny once too, but not anymore.”), Albert is frustrated by his displacement.  This natural feeling of insecurity is the book’s focus, but Smith refrains from soothing moralisms about parents loving each offspring equally. Instead, she builds a totally child-friendly story where any metaphors are subtle.

Start with the title.  Instead of a suggesting insecurity, it states what happened. They adopted a baby chick.  Predictably, that chick is adorable, while Albert has grown bigger and clumsy enough to have broken his own horn.  Once Tina grows into a chicken, you might think the pressure would be off Albert, but his subjective feelings of being ousted remain. 

Understandably, Tina’s move into the barn with him only emphasizes that he is not the only farm animal to earn the family’s affection. Even their dog, who used to be his friend, seems to have abandoned him.  Soon, Albert is deeply convinced that every creature he knows, including the birds who are not even officially pets, prefers Tina.  Once she won the cuteness contest, in Albert’s eyes, life will never be fair again.

In pictures a bit reminiscent of Lauren Child’s but much sweeter, Smith creates a believable family, from the hipster dad to the nurturing sisters, Only the introduction of an external danger could change this idyllic scene, one so nearly perfect that no one will, except a child who has experienced the same emotions, will believe that Albert is neglected. 

Albert gets to be a superhero! Children who have followed Albert’s dilemma will not see him returned to preeminence in the family. His new self-image is the reward, as he acknowledges Tina’s appeal: “Everyone likes to be around her.”  Smith’s ability to both challenge and reward expectations makes this appealing and utterly unpretentious book a valuable new take on being the cutest in the family, and then graduating to a different role.  Whoever came first, the chicken, the egg, or the lamb, no longer matters.

Seeing is Believing, Sometimes

The Invisible – written by Alcides Villaça, illustrated by Andrés Sandoval, translated from the Portuguese by Flávia Rocha in collaboration with Endi Bogue Hartigan
Tapioca Stories, 2020

It’s difficult to do justice to this innovative new picture book by Alcides Villaça and Andrés Sandoval.  Not only does it, like many works from Tapioca Stories, defy the age recommendations of the genre, but it is technically innovative.  Using red overlay pages that obscure parts of the images, The Invisible embodies its central question. What does it mean to see and be seen? Children and adults will both feel immersed in this exploration, where everyday reality and dreams of freedom interact.

To a child, the idea of being able to escape the constraints of world controlled by adults seems fantastic, in every sense of the word. The boy in the book doesn’t merely contemplate this superpower; he experiments with it.  Red overlays cause the red components of images to seemingly disappear, so that the act of reading itself becomes a kind superpower.  (In fact, we always like to convince children that it actually is!) The pictures remind me both of Chagall’s people not always bound to earth, and of Maira Kalman’s affectionate and funny portraits and city scenes.  But Sandoval’s style is definitely his own. 

Villaça’s words also bridge generations. They are simple and clear for children, aphoristic for adults.  “To not be seen at home…/To not be seen at school, not on the street, not anywhere” is a child’s dream come true, but also a reflection on the possibility of eluding any limitation in life. For adults, that could be work, relationships, or self-image.  Being invisible isn’t purely a negative state because it confers the ability to do magic, as when the boy imagines he can make a broom dance.  There are shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but also an allusion to how modest a child’s expectation of power might be.  Making a broom dance, kissing a girl on the cheek, singing in Grandma’s ear: these are not world-changing gestures, but they matter.

Each expression of the boy’s thoughts is independent, but also part of a sequence.  As he contemplates the idea of being invisible, he begins to question if its excitement might wear off. After all, “If someone is never seen, do they even know they exist?”  Villaça manages to convey a child thinking aloud, not an adult philosophizing. A child narrator is never unmediated, because an adult has written the book. In The Invisible, we know that the author is there, and is himself invisible.  But his creation is as tangible as a child wishing he could erase the teacher’s lesson, or attend a soccer game. Villaça and Sandoval celebrate both being invisible and making oneself known. After all, as the boy puts it, “I’m not supposed to be some kind of flying ghost.”  No one is, as this wonderful book communicates with such distinction.

Mona Hasan Spells It Out for All of Us

The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan – Salma Hussain
Tundra Books, 2022

Mona Hasan’s diary may be secret, but Salma Hussain’s novel should not be.  This book, for middle-grade, young adult, and adult readers, surprised me on every page. When I started to read it, I expected another entry in the burgeoning field of novels about smart, imaginative girls struggling to find their place in a specific world.  Sometimes they find the process more painful, while other heroines are optimistic and full of joy. They are from many different cultures, races, religions, and nationalities, and these differences differentiate them from one another, with more or less nuance.  The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan begins with this template, but its originality and authenticity place it in a different category. It is a truly sophisticated work of literature that transcends its category. 

Mona lives in Dubai during the 1991 Gulf War when the book begins. Her parents are originally from India and Pakistan. She has a younger sister, Tutoo, who is the cause of annoyance and also the object of her protective love.  Mona attends a progressive school for Muslim students; its headmaster tries valiantly to promote equality for girls while not falling afoul of conservative religious standards. Mona’s mother is a frustrated feminist, and her kindhearted father goes to work in his financial job every day with paradoxical goals. Affluence is important to him, and yet, he is as unfulfilled as his wife: When Tutoo asks him why he is paid so much ‘to look at numbers all day,” replies, “No one would do this job otherwise.”  Mona is caught in a vortex of hypocrisy. No wonder she confesses all her doubts, confusion, and anger to her diary.  But she is also sharp, clever, bold, and ironic.  She has a strong sense of class consciousness, an acute awareness of prejudice, and a conviction in her unique strengths.

Describing the plot of Hussain’s book doesn’t do it justice. Her language, sometimes mildly funny and lighthearted in other books of this genre, is explosively honest. Mona’s New Year’s resolutions include both “I will save a life from danger!” and “I will occasionally make my own lunches for school.” Aware of her record of academic excellence, Mona sometimes spells out words, as well as the concepts that drive her life: Her parents will hear “gushing accolades —–a-c-c-o-l-a-d-e-s” from the teachers who are fortunate to instruct her.  When a word, such as “SLUTS,” is unfamiliar to her, she concludes that it must be misspelled.  Will her pride and confidence lead to eventual disgrace? Actually, no. Mona will never suffer the consequences of uppity women and girls that she reads about in other books, such as Jane Eyre, even within a culture which bombards her with oppressive messages about her gender.  In fact, she will take what she finds best about that culture and include it in the formation of her character. Her thought processes about both choosing to wear a head covering and later rejecting one are typical of Mona’s sense of empowerment, not thoughtless rebellion.

Mona refers to books several times, including to the popular series of British novels beginning with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾.  Although she never mentions Judy Blume’s pathbreaking Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret , it is inevitable to compare Mona’s urgent appeals to Allah to Margaret’s poignant conversations with God, about everything from puberty to her confusions about her religious identity.  Mona’s exasperation is more pointed than Margaret’s. When her father asks Mona to help her mother more in the kitchen, she naturally asks him why he cannot pitch in.  His reaction to this idea as “ridiculous,” because he is a man leads Mona to ask Allah, “Isn’t it this world that You’ve created, that is completely ridiculous?”

Mona is not just an angry iconoclast. Her father is not a parody of male foolishness. Her mother is not hopelessly subjugated. No one in the novel conforms to facile stereotypes.  Yes, at one point Mona concludes that both her parents are “feeble,” but she eventually comes to understand, and even appreciate, the forces that have made them who they are.  When the family emigrates to Canada, Mona’s father suffers displacement and loss of status, and her mother continues to experience depression. They both adapt to change.  Hasan’s characters develop within a believable range, while still challenging the reader’s expected trajectory for their lives.  Watching the movie Aliens with her sister, Mona instructs Tutoo in the inspirational value of its tough female protagonist, “I pointed at the screen. ‘Look closely. We don’t have to play nice. Look at where anger can take us.’”  Anger, courage, self-awareness, and love all stand out in this remarkable book.

Claudia Meets a Kind-of Mean Girl

Claudia and the New Girl: The Baby-Sitters Club – by Ann M. Martin,
Scholastic Press, 1988

I recently read a fascinating collection of essays by and for adult fans of the Baby-Sitters Club books. (We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork from Grown-up Readers, Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, eds., Chicago Review Press, 2021).  There’s a lot about gender, and some essays, inevitably, will appeal to some readers more than others.  Claudia Kishi appears in several of them, as a relatively unusual Asian American character in a children’s book of that era. 

Reading Claudia and the New Girl did not bring new respect for Ann M. Martin or Claudia, because I already had tremendous respect for both the real author and her fictional creation. But the book, from a series which includes something for almost everybody, made an impression from the first chapter. Martin brings in literary allusions, specifically about the Newbery Award for excellence in children’s books, in the context of Claudia’s challenges with academic subjects.  There is also a scary new girl in Stoneybrook who just might break up the Club. (There is also a graphic novel version, but I’m focusing on the original book.)

The first chapter sets up Claudia’s conflict.  (The second chapter, as always, reviews the Club’s genesis and its rules. It seems that some veteran readers skip this repetitious section, but I feel as if you have to read in each time to preserve the structure and renew your interest, and just prove your loyalty to the series.) Claudia is a “reluctant reader,” to use the educational euphemism, except for Nancy Drew novels. Her enthusiastic English teacher, Mrs. Hall, has designed a curriculum around novels that won the Newbery Medal. It’s a bit arbitrary, since some of those winners are not great, while other outstanding books never win the award. Claudia admits to having read only one winner, Sarah Plain and Tall, which, unlike its heroine, is short (58 pages.). Even though Claudia doesn’t like to read, she has revealed that one criterion for including a book in the curriculum has become brevity, a concession to lack of patience with big books. There are also references to The Westing Game, The Yearling, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

Then Ann M. Martin, who obviously loves books, has Claudia mention the fact that E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler features a heroine named Claudia (Kincaid).  Words from the novel show up on a spelling test, Claudia’s nemesis. Later in the book, when Claudia finally tackles Konigsburg’s Newbery winner (one of two, plus one Newbery Honor), she is uncharacteristically drawn into the story:

          I read until 5:15. The story wasn’t bad. After all, there was a girl named Claudia in it.

          Furthermore, this Claudia felt that she was a victim of injustice. When I looked up

          “injustice” and found out what it meant, I was pretty interested. I often think things

          in my life are unjust, particularly where school or my genius sister Janine is concerned.

Once again, Martin has managed what made her series an incredible success. She doesn’t patronize Claudia. She doesn’t minimize her problems. She allows her to sound like an actual kid.  She is attracted to the idea of “injustice” but not overwhelmed by it.  The book is, in her considered opinion, not bad.

Much of the rest of the book involves Claudia’s tortured relationship with the new girl, Ashley Wyeth.  Ashley dresses in hippie clothes, familiar to Claudia from “this bizarre movie called Woodstock.” Just like the image on the lovably garish cover (of the original edition), Ashley favors hiking boots, silver bangle bracelets, and long skirts. Claudia isn’t exactly making fun of her style; she wouldn’t do that. She is noting the discrepancy between who Ashley aspires to be and who she really is.  The girls of the Baby-Sitters Club are nothing if not sincere. Ashley is, as Holden Caulfield might say, something of a phony.

Of course, it’s not her fault.  Claudia gradually comes to understand how and why Ashley is manipulating her, and why she, Claudia, is vulnerable to praise from a girl who is a great artist, at least in her own estimation. Actually, she is good in other people’s estimation, too. When she wins an award for her sculpture of a hydrant, I felt disappointed. Why? Can’t people who aren’t nice create good works of art? I guess I learned that, along with Claudia.

By the end of the book, Claudia is back in the club, and all the girls feel secure to welcome Ashley, to their circle, if only to a limited degree.  She never breaks down, realizes the error of her ways, or becomes a baby-sitter.  It’s a wonderful, and almost inexhaustible, series.