Saturday, May 11, 2013

More vintage illustrated novels for and about young people...

Here are a few poetic short novels for young readers that I picked up recently because I loved the illustrations.  I purchased each of these books for a dollar at a used bookstore in Portland, Maine.   All three turned out to be amazing reads.  It seems I can never get enough of youth novels published in the 1960s and 1970s!

The Horned Helmet by Henry Treece  (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1963

This is the first book I’ve read by Treece and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more.  He was a prolific novelsit who wrote approximately 40 novels from 1952-1966.  Prior to this Treece was a new romantic poet.   His work was more widely published in Britain than the US, making his work particularly difficult to come across.

The Horned Helmet takes place at the end of the Viking Period.  It is a piece of historical fiction written in a  modern manner and based on the Jomsvikings.  This is a fast-paced and moving coming of age story told in short chapters.  Beorn, an Icelandic boy has already witnessed cruelty as a young boy when the story begins.  His mother has died, and his father has drowned himself in the sea.  Beorn is to be a slave, but escapes and is befriended by a fierce warrior.  Starkad, a viking, takes Beorn above his ship, The Reindeer.  He experiences the cruelty of their raids, how to fight, kill and accept their hard-dealing ways.  After sharing a story with Starkad about an icelandic man who robbed a king’s grave, Starkad is inspired to do the same on a dangerous raid.  Bringing Beorn along with him, they retrieve a powerful sword and a horned helmet.  But they are captured and their companion Gauk in beheaded.  Starkad becomes like a father figure to Beorn.  When Starkad is crippled by the ship, Beorn saves his life.  After Starkad marries, Beorn heads back to a life of violence.  However, the Viking age is coming to an end and it won’t be long until Beorn throws in his horned helmet for a more noble way of life.

I don’t usually read historical fiction, but found myself entranced by this world and this pinnacle time of change in history.   I loved both the savagery and sense of humor in these characters.  You can be sure that I’ll write about Treece again because I was so intrigued by this book.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves  (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1967
Here is another UK paperback published by Penguin Books with magnificent black and white illustrations by Charles Keeping.  Keeping illustrated a number of books for Puffin in the late 1960’s and all of his work is brilliant.

This is an amazing retelling of a Brothers Grimm story.  The description in this book states that this book is “suitable for all readers who find themselves too old for the simple versions of fairy tales they used to love”.  I would say that is a fair description as this seems a bit too sinister a tale for children.   A 25 year old down on his luck soldier encounters a witch.  He tries to do her a favor and ends up in the bottom of a well, left to die.  With all hope abandoned, the soldier lights a pipe while waiting to die.  A crazy tiny man appears out of the smoke and grants the soldier any wish he desires.  To amuse himself, the soldier requests that the princess come at night to do his housework.  The King eventually finds the soldier and puts him on trial.  Before the soldier is to be killed, the phantom manikin appears and slays the king's men.  The soldier chooses to be King even though he knows he will probably make a poor leader.  I loved the dark, nihilistic tone of this magical story!

Marra’s World by Elizabeth Coatsworth (Illustrated by Krystyna Turska) 1975

Coatsworth is a well-known children’s author from Maine and this might be her least well known book.  From what little I know of her work, I believe this one is darker in tone than what she is more famous for.  It is a realistic story about a quiet outsider girl who lives on an island off of Maine.   She is shown little love from her father, her mother is gone and her grandmother is cruel to her.  The other girls in school treat her as if she is invisible.  When Marra finally makes a friend with a new girl named Alison, the two explore nature together and find beauty in the quiet world.  A boat trip on a foggy day leads to a poetic moment where Marra may or may not have an encounter with the spirit of her mother.  This is a moody piece that reads more like a character study or a short story than a novel.   Nevertheless, I enjoyed a peek inside this strange, cold world.

I also recently reread the following book, a favorite from my childhood:

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (Illustrated by Jill Bennett) 1975

This is Dahl’s most realistic and least whimsical of the books that he wrote for children.  It is the story of a loving father and son.  Danny’s father owns a filling station out in the country and they live in a tiny caravan.  Instead of going to school, Danny’s father teaches him how to be an expert mechanic.  Danny’s father has a secret.  When he goes out late one night and does not return, Danny gets behind the wheel of one of the cars he has prepared and goes searching for his father.  He finds him in a pit in the woods.  It is revealed that Danny’s father is a poacher.  After rescuing his dad, Danny comes up with the most brilliant plan ever for poaching all the pheasants from the rich old Mr. Hazell.  I love the subtle rebelliousness in this book and the portrait of a loving and unconventional family.  The illustrations by Jill Bennett are perfectly integrated into the story and are far more detailed than Dahl’s more persistent collaborations with Quentin Blake.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mary Downing Hahn

Mary Downing Hahn is a writer like Betsy Byars in that her books, unlike others I've written about on this blog, are never difficult to come by.  Both authors are mostly known for their pre-teen fiction.  I work in a library and often pick up short novels by these two when I'm at a loss as to what to read next.  Surprisingly, I am never disappointed. Where Byars has a reputation for her mysteries, Hahn is recognized for her ghost stories. Yet with both these authors, it is the books they write about outsiders and social issues that have the strongest appeal to me.

A former librarian, Hahn had her first book published when she was 41.  She has stayed steadily prolific since then, with over 30 titles to her name.  And she is still at it!  The reason I am even including her as a "discard treasure" is  because of a few of the non "spooky" books that she has written that deal with family and social issues.  These titles may be of interest to fans of writers like Norma Klein or Barbara Wersba because she focuses in on young people who, for a number of reasons, are the odd one out.   I'm also looking forward to reading her newest book, Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls, which is based on the murder of two teenage girls she knew in the 1950's.

The three books I've chosen to write about here are Daphne's Book (1983), Tallahassee Higgins (1987), and The Wind Blows Backward (1993).  All three of these books take place in Maryland (close to where Hahn lives).  They all feature teen (or pre-teen) characters that have suffered in some ways from parental death or neglect.  The parents that are alive and present in these books, are interesting, independent women.  These are some of the characteristics that make up these excellent dramas.  Also, like Kin Platt, even though these books are for kids, they are not sugar-coated.  Hahn writes about kids in horrible situations but does not feel the need to moralize with happy endings.

Daphne's Book is originally from '83. The edition I read was a paperback reprint from 2008. It's a timeless story but also feels very much set in the 1980's. The succinct story would've been perfect material for an Afterschool Special. 

Jessica lives with her single mother who works as a librarian. The mother is an independent woman who takes care of Jessica and her older brother. The other character, Daphne, has more serious problems than Jessica. Her father died in Vietnam and her mother was killed in a car wreck.

Jessica is twelve years old. Her best friend Tracy is now starting to hang out with a different crowd. Tracy's new friends are two typical popular mean girls who talk about nothing but how they look and boys. They also make fun of the strange new girl in their class, Daphne.

When their English teacher, Mr. O'Brien, assigns the girls to work in groups for a picture book contest, Jessica hopes she will be paired with Tracy. Instead, she gets paired with Daphne. Mr. O'Brien claims that it is because Jessica is the best writer in the class and Daphne is the best artist. Still, Jessica is distraught over being paired with the "weird" girl. She is embarrassed and believes this pairing will further estrange her from Tracy.

When Jessica finally meets up with Daphne to work on their project, she finds that there is a lot to like about this girl. Daphne visits Jessica's house with her little sister Hope. They engage in a game based on Jessica's dollhouse and the toy mice that inhabit it. This becomes the basis for the picture book that they create.

Soon Jessica finds out that there is more to Daphne's strange behavior than she imagined. It turns out that she lives in an old decrepit house on the outskirts of her town. Both of her parents are dead. Her grandmother lives there, but scary Mrs Woodleigh is quickly losing her mind. She believes her son, the kids parents, will soon come back to take care of everything. Unfortunately, he was killed years ago in Vietnam. The house is in a shambles, the electricity is turned off and she makes the kids collect bottles for redemption money. The food that they purchase with their scant money goes to feeding the cats. She also forbids the kids to go to school. Daphne obeys, in fear of being sent to an orphanage.

Because Daphne believes that she has found a friend in Jessica, she shares her family's story with her. Jessica, in return, promises to keep it a secret. Their school teacher, for example, believes that Daphne is out with Mono. No one knows of Daphne's true situation besides Jessica. Jessica visits Daphne after school and on the weekends to bring her school assignments and to talk. When Daphne gets lonely and desperate, she sneaks away to McDonald's in order to call Jessica from a payphone (there is no phone in her home). Jessica develops a bond with Daphne, but is still unsure of how to act with her when Tracy's friends are around. They still make fun of Daphne.

Eventually, the situation becomes so dire, that Jessica can not hold in her secret any longer. She tells her mother. But when her mother decides to help, Jessica wonders if she has betrayed her new best friend.

This is my favorite of Hahn's books that I've read so far.  The characters of Jessica, Daphne and Jessica's mother are fully developed and intriguing.

In Tallahassee Higgins, Tallahassee is a resilient little girl with a free-spirited mother. Her mom, who she calls Liz, suffers from depression, and Tallahassee, however young, is often there to cheer her mother up.  But when her waitress mother meets one of many boyfriends, she decides to run away from Florida to California to follow her pie in the sky dream of becoming an actress.  Instead of bringing Tallahassee with her, she sends him to live with her estranged brother and his wife in Maryland.

Tallahassee believes that her stay with her aunt and uncle is temporary.  She waits for the day that her mother will send for her and she can take a bus out to meet her in California.  But in California, Liz is working in a restaurant again and is not any closer to becoming an actress.  She doesn't even call Tallahassee. 

In Maryland, Tallahassee manages to make a new friend, but she finds living with her aunt difficult.  She also finds out who her real father is (her mother never told her).  While her father died in Vietnam, her grandmother is still alive and actually lives across the street.  This woman is totally unaware that her son even ever had a daughter in the first place.

I loved this simple story that deals with a kid dealing with neglect.  The character reminded me a bit of one of my favorite TV movies "The Neon Ceiling" which I've mentioned previously in my blog.  The tone of this book and the age of the characters again brings to mind some of Betsy Byars' more somber efforts such as her excellent books The Pinballs, The Cartoonist or The TV Kid.

In The Wind Blows Backward, Lauren is a shy teenager who falls for Spencer, a former "King of the Jocks" who has lately been going over the edge.  Their romance develops quickly and Lauren soon becomes dependent on Spencer despite the warnings from her friends.  What Lauren discovers is that Spencer was a witness to his father's suicide as a child.  This had made him reckless.  He rebels against everyone, buys a motorcycle and secretly plans on running away with Lauren from DC to California.

When Spencer eventually ends up in critical condition in the hospital, Lauren must decide if their romance is worth holding on to.  This book is clearly for an older audience than Hahn's previous books but she handles this more mature with the same delicacy that has categorized her earlier work.
I'd recommend this book if you enjoyed Kin Platt's Flames Going Out or Bonham's Gimme an H.E.L.P.

The title of the book comes from a line in a children's picture book.  It's a book that Lauren and Spencer share before they sleep together.  In a way, the book is symbolic of the loss of innocence that comes with young adulthood.  Similarly, in Daphne's Book, the act of two girls making a book together runs parallel to a traumatic event which changes both their lives.