Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Looking over the books I've read in the past few weeks, I find they have three key things in common:

__ They're all middle grade novels, for kids ages 8-12;

__ They all feature strong girl protagonists.

__ They're all sequels of popular, award-winning books;

Oh, and they have one more thing in common: they're all well-written, engrossing books that I will recommend without reservation to young readers at my library.

Here's a brief look at each of these new literary gems:

Like many of my young library patrons, I have greatly enjoyed this series by Jeanne Birdsall since the first book, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2005. Since then, Birdsall has continued the tale of this appealing family in  The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Through the books, we've watched each of the four Penderwick sisters grow older (and usually wiser) as they've coped with the remarriage of their widowed father, a new stepbrother and baby sister, major changes in the life of their very best friend Jeffrey, and various school crises and romantic entanglements.

In this newest installment, Birdsall particularly focuses on Batty, the youngest of the original Penderwick quartet who has literally found her voice as she discovers that she has a real talent for singing. So she plans a special surprise event for her family on her upcoming birthday when oldest Penderwick sister Rosalind will be home from college. Of course, unexpected things happen and Batty finds herself in the midst of emotional trauma sparked by an overheard conversation.

While the Penderwicks are definitely a middle-class family, the sisters' triumphs and travails are universal in nature. Young readers will readily identify with Batty's continued grief at the death of her beloved dog Hound, her thrill at finding her talent for singing, and her up-and-down relations with her siblings, including stepbrother Ben and new sister Lydia. Birdsall effortlessly combines drama and humor to make this book -- and indeed all of the books in the series -- one that readers likely will want to read and re-read, just so they can be immersed in the world of this far-from-perfect but still wonderful family.

I first discovered the unforgettable Gaither sisters -- Delphine, Vonetta and Fern -- in 2010 when author Rita Williams-Garcia published One Crazy Summer. In their first book, set in summer of 1968, the sisters are sent by their father from their home in Brooklyn to Oakland, California, where their mother Cecile now lives. Cecile abandoned her family after Fern's birth, but the girls' father has decided that the time had come for his daughters to become better acquainted with their mother. Far from a warm and fuzzy figure, Cecile appears more interested in her poetry than her girls, sending them to a Black Panther-run summer camp and otherwise generally leaving them to fend for themselves.

The girls' story continues in P.S. Be Eleven, a title that refers to a phrase repeatedly used by Cecile in letters to Delphine. The girls are now back home in Brooklyn but Delphine continues to feel the burden of being the eldest sister -- hence Cecile's reminder to "be eleven." After the freedom of their summer in Oakland, the Gaither girls, are still spouting Black Panther slogans, but feeling increasingly penned in by Big Ma, their strict grandmother. They're also worried about their father's new-found love life and their troubled Uncle Darnell, who is just back from Vietnam. And they're desperate to attend the Jackson Five's big New York City concert, if they only can save enough money. As in One Crazy Summer, Williams-Garcia effortlessly recreates telling details from the late sixties while offering a story whose themes -- forgiveness, sibling rivalry, etc. -- transcend any particular time period.

Now, Williams-Garcia has published a third book featuring the Gaither sisters. Titled Gone Crazy in Alabama, the book tells what happens when the girls head down South to spend the summer of 1969 with Big Ma, who moved back home to live with her mother, Ma Charles, after her son remarried. The contrast with their summer in Oakland couldn't be stronger; instead of Black Power slogans, they find the Ku Klux Klan. But the real heart of this book focuses on the long-time rift between Ma Charles and her sister Great-Aunt Trotter, who lives just across the creek. As the Gaither girls delve more deeply into the decades-long feud between Ma Charles and Great-Aunt Trotter, they find their own sibling bonds beginning to fray until a near-tragedy underlines what they mean to each other.

Thanks to Williams-Garcia's strong characters and sure hand with a plot, readers don't have to be familiar with One Crazy Summer or P.S. Be Eleven to enjoy Gone Crazy in Alabama. But those readers -- like me -- who have reveled in the first two books will be grateful for this third, and apparently final, glimpse into the lives of the Gaither sisters.

Another of the sequels I recently read, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, also is historical fiction. And just as Williams-Garcia masterfully wove the late 1960's into the world of her characters, author Jacqueline Kelly spotlights what it was like to be a girl who loves science at the dawn of the 20th century. First introduced in the Newbery Honor-winning book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, "Callie Vee," as she is known, finds herself increasingly at odds with her parents' expectations for her. Girls like Callie were expected to learn household arts to prepare themselves for their future role as wives and mothers. Working as a scientist, as 13-year-old Callie hopes to do, was totally outside the realm of possibility.

While Callie's chafing against her expected future role was a theme of the first book, it becomes the overarching focus in The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate as Callie continues to grow in both her scientific knowledge and her understanding that females were considered second class citizens. Callie had hoped that the documented scientific discovery she had made with her grandfather might have convinced her parents to allow her to follow her dream of being a scientist. But her hopes seem to be in vain as Callie becomes ever more aware that even her own father sees her as less important than her brothers.

Meanwhile, Callie's family has taken in her cousin Agatha after Agatha's home was destroyed by the now-legendary Galveston hurricane. Callie finds it hard to share her room with her older cousin, who is both prickly and secretive, but who is held up as a model young lady by Callie's mother. The Galveston storm has brought another person into Callie's life -- a veterinarian named Dr. Pritzker who allows Callie to first watch, and then assist, at much of his work, unknown to her parents. It is Dr. Pritzker, along with her grandfather, who nurture Callie's affinity for observing and studying the natural world.

As in the first book, Callie's relations with her six brothers, especially her animal-crazed younger brother Travis, are nicely woven into the plot and provide moments of both humor and drama. But it is Callie herself who will set readers to cheering. She's a wonderful blend of impetuous and compassionate, the kind of person who makes life interesting -- in fact, just the kind of person you'd welcome as a friend. I was sad when this book ended (rather hastily, I thought), and I'm hoping that Kelly hasn't yet finished telling the story of Callie Vee -- I want to see what happens in the next chapter of her life. I just have a feeling that Callie might yet fulfill her dream of being a scientist.

Last, but not least, in this look at sequels is Completely Clementine, the seventh and final book in the popular series by Sara Pennypacker. For me, Clementine is made out of the same cloth as author Beverly Clearly's inimitable Ramona Quimby, and that's high praise indeed. Both of these memorable characters are endearingly imperfect, and it's that very imperfection that makes them so attractive to young readers.

In previous volumes of the Clementine series, we've learned that our red-headed heroine lives in Boston with her parents, that she has a younger brother (whose real name we never learn -- Clementine calls him by various vegetable names), and that she has trouble staying OUT of trouble. In this final book, the impulsive Clementine decides that she's just not ready to move on to the next chapter of her life. For example, Clementine, who has become a vegetarian, is just not ready to forgive her father for eating meat, and has stopped talking to him. Instead she draws him pictures of unhappy animals.

Clementine also isn't ready to finish third grade. She adores her third grade teacher, Mr. D'Matz, and basically refuses to acknowledge that she is ready to move onto fourth grade -- and a new teacher. Mr. D'Matz does his best to persuade Clementine that she has learned enough, both educationally and emotionally, to move on but she remains stubbornly unconvinced.

There's an additional complication, which is the "nesting" behavior of Clementine's mother, who is about to have a new baby. Take these strands and connect them with lots of humor, and you've got a slam-dunk end of a great series. And don't forget about the amazing pen-and-ink illustrations by the superbly-talented Marla Frazee. As artist Louis Darling did for Ramona, Frazee highlights Clementine's magnetic personality with humor and humanity, and her art is an integral part of this series.

I'll miss reading new adventures of Clementine, but Completely Clementine is a great way to wrap up a series that I know I will continue recommending to young readers at my library for years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment