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.

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