Tag: Juvenile Fic

by Nancy Caffrey

Twin siblings care for an older horse that was taken from an abusive owner. They’re from a very horsey family- I gather the book is part of a series about these kids because not much information or background is given there’s just a lot of things it’s assumed the reader will know. That the kids have a handful of show ponies, the parents are both competitive riders, etc. Anyway, the children are put in charge of this old horse. They name him Charlie and under a veterinarian’s guidance, carefully nurse him back to health- dosing him with medicine, gradually exercising him, until he’s able to be ridden. Then they find out he’s terrified of approaching a simple jump in an exercise ring, but later discover he’ll readily jump natural obstacles out on trail rides. They grow very fond of Charlie and imagine he must have a distinguished history (before the abusive owner).

Soon after there’s a prestigious Hunt Trial, that uses teams (I don’t know much about this kind of thing). One of the horses goes lame and they’d have to withdraw, but the team owner has heard about Charlie and he’s a perfect color match to the other horses (I guess this is important). The parents are reluctant because the competition is rigorous, but finally they agree, and then it turns out the rider doesn’t want to be on a strange horse, so they let one of the kids go! He’s supposed to stop if the horse shows signs of strain, but doesn’t want to disappoint the team so continues even though it’s too much. The horse finishes the competition but has overdone it, so then he has another long convalescent period. Meanwhile the old horse caught some attention in the Hunt Trial, and an older gentleman comes asking for him, claims to have known Charlie in the past. Now the kids will finally know some of the horse’s individual history, but this also means they have to decide: will they keep him, or give him back to the previous owner?

This is a really nice horse story, and the admirable illustrations by Paul Brown are so crisp and expressive. I enjoyed it very much, although it moves at such a quick pace. It’s well-told, but the author doesn’t linger long on any details. I would really like to read more of her books- she wrote quite a few about these kids and their various ponies- but they’re not easy to find! (or afford, being rare). Mine is an ex-library book with very worn edges, torn pages, scribbles in various places and dogeared corners- so would be considered a “reading copy” only- but still I felt a bit faint when I looked online and saw a few prices. Well, another author to keep my eye out for now, when I’m at secondhand shops, library sales and the like! Maybe another beat-up one will come my way someday. Worn out just like this old horse was, but still good for a read.

Rating: 3/5
95 pages, 1955

the Story of an Indian Pony

by Forrestine C. Hooker

From the viewpoint of a pony, this tells about the lives of Native Americans in the Comanche tribe, when white settlers were starting to encroach on their land. The young pony Star belongs to the daughter of the chief, and his mother likewise is the chief’s favorite pony. The ponies are well aware of their owners’ status, and feel keenly the importance of proving themselves brave and capable. When the story begins, the tribe is upset by approach of European settlers in a covered wagon caravan, protected by a troop of soldiers on white horses. Unsettling stories abound of how the white men not only kill their people and take captives, but also kill all the game, and they see firsthand how large numbers of bison are slaughtered and left to rot. Alarmed that their land is being ruined and overrun, they set out to fight, sweeping into the invader’s camp at night to take their horses, thus crippling their mobility. The pony Star is part of these engagements, sometimes well aware of what’s going on, other times confused and just trying to stay with his familiar people, or fellow ponies. He meets the soldiers’ horses that are mingled with the pony herd afterwards, and talks eagerly to them, hearing of strange things. Some of the Native ponies shun the white men’s horses, others are companionable realizing they have no conflict, even if their owners do. For the most part the horses don’t understand why the humans fight when the land seems big enough for all.

After the first bout of fighting, all is peaceful for a while and the story falls into describing daily life of the tribe. Then the chief has to go confront dangers again, leaving behind his daughter and the pony Star. The girl misses her father and wants to fight too, stoutly claiming that she can shoot arrows as well as any of the young men. She sneaks out in the middle of the night with Star to join the fighters, but gets lost and there’s several chapters of survival story as girl and pony traverse a desert region, return alone to find the camp deserted, fight off coyotes, and then track down the tribe at their new location. I found the ending a disappointment- it made it seem like there was now peace between the Comanches and the white men. The tribe was relocated close to a fort for protection, the people now happy they could trade for new goods, that their children would learn the same things as white children, etc. It seemed too simple and optimistic to me.

This is one of those books I would have probably loved as a child- but I’m just too critical a reader as an adult. Not sure how accurate the cultural depictions of the Comanches are (they call themselves Quahada), but I feel like some of the animal behavior is off the mark. I liked reading about the wildlife the tribe lived among- the pronghorn antelope, the horned toads and birds. The chief’s daughter had a pet fawn and a captive bison calf. But did coyotes really hunt their prey in packs hundreds strong? Even as an exaggeration that seems extreme. The ponies all lie down on the ground to sleep at night, and when threatened the horses, antelope and deer all made circles to protect their young in the center- like musk-oxen. I’ve never read elsewhere of horses doing this. Don’t they usually just flee. I could be wrong though! but it was little things like this that kind of threw off the reading experience for me. That and the slightly stilted prose- I’m not sure if because it was written for children, or because the author was imitating how the Native Americans spoke English. And as always, I don’t mind when animals talk in stories, but it does annoy me when their understanding goes beyond reasonable. This one was uneven in that regard. Sometimes it made sense what the horses could comprehend, other times it didn’t.

Rating: 2/5
166 pages, 1964

by Patricia Cecil Hass

Found this one at random in a thrift store. It was an entertaining read for one afternoon- I’m sure kids would enjoy this adventure story from a different era, when kids ran about exploring freely, but for me as an adult reading, there were just a few too many plot holes. It’s about two kids who visit a relative that has a peanut farm on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’ve made friends with a local boy, from a poor family that lives more or less off the land nearby. Eager to learn about the swamp from him, they plan to go camping. Just before setting out, hear from other locals about a ghost in the swamp. The children scoff at the idea of a ghost and are determined to find what it is- certain it must be an unknown animal. They find a stray horse, and also the game warden tracking something with dogs. So of course their focus switches from just camping out, to catching the horse, evading the dogs, and then fighting off and escaping a fire in the swamp, when one kid gets injured and nearly trapped. The horse saves the day (not of his own accord).

Actually, I liked how realistic the horse was, when so many other things were dubious. At the start of the kids’ outing, I was reminded of Two Little Savages, but this book has far less detail on survival skills- they do make a fire, catch and cook fish, gather berries to eat, etc- but I was baffled at how they strung hammocks to sleep up high in a tree, somehow it skipped the specifics of that. They also have wildlife encounters- a bobcat, a snake, then later a black bear- it was astonishing how easily these kids fought off the bear with sharpened sticks. And the confrontation with the fire was something else, too- even though the horse was kind of used to them at that point, I doubt it would have really trusted them enough to get so close to the flames. Willing to overlook that for the sake of an exciting kid’s story, though. What puzzled me more, was the secrecy- the kids were so convinced they had to hide the horse from the game warden- what did they think would happen when they got it to the farm? Of course they want to avoid finding the horse’s real owner (it’s obviously a valuable animal) but then very conveniently for a happy ending, it turns out the owner is tired of her horse running away, and perfectly happy to let them keep it at the peanut farm. Yay.

I have to mention a good part of this story is the kids’ interactions- mild squabbling between the brother and sister, the quiet local boy admiring their easy way of talking while they in turn admire his knowledge of the swamp and skills there. The brother is interested in bird-watching and thinks he sees an ivory-billed woodpecker (extinct). The local kid has two nearly-invalid parents he supports at home in the swamp, stubbornly refusing assistance. I kind of wondered if there’s a later book that continues some of those threads.

Rating: 2/5
187, 1973

by Amy Timberlake

Badger likes living alone. He likes the quiet in his study, surrounding himself with tools and specimens, immersed in the study of rocks. But then a skunk shows up on his doorstep- a chatty, energetic skunk who insists he’s Badger’s new roommate. Badger doesn’t want a roommate. He feels compelled to be polite, but also tries to make Skunk realize he’s not really welcome- at first subtly, then not so. (Though he does find he likes Skunk’s cooking, but not the cleaning up afterwards!) Things are just awkward at first: Skunk attempting to get along, be comfortable, and welcome his chicken friends to visit. Badger gets irritated at constant interruptions to his work, and he doesn’t really like chickens. Can’t even understand what they’re saying. And there’s far too many of them. Eventually Badger overreacts to something, Skunk gets his feelings hurt and leaves, and Badger is relieved at first- but then realizes he misses his companion. He has to find Skunk, which gets him out of the house exploring the little town (he’d kind of been a reclusive with his rock interest). And then figure out how to apologize, and if he can make amends.

Cute book, although some parts were- odd. I did not at all get the Quantum Leap stuff, and the ukulele seemed out of place, too. I kept waiting for some explanation or backstory, nope. Maybe it will be clear in the next book (Egg Marks the Spot). I did really like the funny little bookstore! Nice that the story gave me some surprises. Before I had this one in hand, I thought it was a picture book- no, it’s a short chapter book. Along the lines of The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, or The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank Stockton.

Illustrations by Jon Klassen. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
124 pages, 2020

by Elizabeth Hall and Scott O'Dell

Note: there are probably some SPOILERS below.

A wild dolphin named Coral leaves her pod with her younger brother to seek their missing older brother and find a safe place for the dolphins to live away from threatening orcas. On the journey they encounter many natural dangers- orcas, sharks, bad weather- and also those from mankind: fishing nets and whaling boats. They befriend a whale who warns them about humans, and rescue another dolphin (different species) from a drift net, before running into serious trouble: getting caught by humans. Long before this point in the story I was dragging my way through the pages, but I was curious to see how it would depict the dolphins’ encounter with humans, so I kept going. It was frustrating.

Initially the dolphins are kept in a facility that trains them to perform for shows- first they don’t get it, then they go along, then some of them start to enjoy it and become complacent about their capitivity. One of them gets ill and is removed from the pool, causing that dolphin’s mate to become depressed and then resentful towards the humans. Then the dolphins are tested to see if they can use their sonar while blindfolded, and the one narrating the story, Coral, is moved to an ocean pen. She follows a small boat her trainer goes out to sea in, and is taught to use her retrieval skills for saving divers (or people lost at sea?) Even though she could easily run away while working in the open ocean, or jump out of the pen, she stays because feels attached to her human trainer and caretaker. The story even depicts her feeling jealous and aggressive towards a woman the trainer interacts with. There’s a very interesting scene where she starts carrying the human trainer further and further out into the ocean, turning what was a game into a frightening experience, as she wants him to stay in the water with her forever, and forgets he can’t breathe without his diving equipment. In the end, some of the other dolphins at the facility escape during a storm, and encourage her to leave the pen and join the wild pod back in the ocean- reminding her that her place is with them, not the humans.

Overall this book didn’t really work for me. What could be better than a look inside the lives of wild dolphins, brought to entertainment venues and scientific experiments? I am not sure if it’s that the older me gets bored with the dry, simplistic writing style typical of Scott O’Dell (which makes sense for an animal’s inner voice, and of course the book is aimed at younger readers too), or that because it’s is co-authored, it all comes across as slightly awkward. Part of this was how the dolphins communicated- sometimes in short but complete sentences, sometimes with single words and an explanation for how much else was conveyed via sonar pictures or dolphin noises. It just didn’t feel smooth. Also the amount the dolphins could understand about what the humans were doing, and even their gradual understanding of words, went far beyond what I think they’d be capable of, even in the realm of a talking animal story. Information they apparently picked up from listening to humans talk, made no sense compared to how much they comprehended in other scenes. I found the inconsistency distracting and my interest degraded quickly. I ended up skimming most of the book to see how it ended, without enjoying it a whole lot.

However, that all said, I still think this would be a good read for middle-grade kids who are interested in dolphins and won’t notice the things that bothered me. It shows very clearly how the dolphins live in close family groups, the threats they face in nature, the stresses they experience when living in captivity, training methods that have been used with them, discoveries made about their abilities, their playfulness, creativity and intelligence, and more. I admire that it tried to do so from the animal’s point of view, I just don’t think it worked very well.

Rating: 2/5
144 pages, 1995

by Raina Telgemeier

Very fun book- even though it also deals with some tough stuff about growing up. Based on the author’s childhood. Most of the story is about a long roadtrip she took with her family, how the sisters constantly annoyed each other. Then there’s bits of the past- showing how eager she was for a baby sister when she was little, and how differently that turned out (babies are no fun, toddlers are frustrating and annoying, they have different interests as they get older, etc). I was really amused by their various efforts to keep small pets- when I was a kid, we went through several goldfish that lived in a bowl, too (but no, they’re not ‘delicate’, it’s an very unsuitable habitat, ugh). I could really relate to all the ups and downs of getting along (or not, more often) with siblings- both from when I was young, and from seeing how my own kids interact. Long road trips trying to stave off boredom and irritating each other unintentionally- yeah, been there too. Even the places they visited on their trip were really familiar to me (Utah, Arizona, Colorado) and the little camping episodes too. In the end, the sisters find a reason to pull together and realize their family has bigger problems than their little squabbles. This is another one I will eagerly hand to my daughter (she recently read and really liked Be Prepared).

Borrowed from the public library. Can’t believe I never read any Raina Telgemeier before- I am immediately off to check what others my library has to offer.

Rating: 4/5
203 pages, 2014

by Vera Brosgol

Vera’s family are Russian immigrants. She feels that her family is poor compared to her friends at school. They all go away to summer camps but she’s never been. Until she finds out there’s a more affordable one for Russian Orthodox families- where the kids are encouraged to speak Russian all day long, learning some of their culture and history alongside the usual camp skills to earn badges, etc. Vera’s so excited to go, whereas her little brother drags his feet. Camp isn’t as she expected, though. She’s put in a tent with two older girls who are unfriendly. Not knowing all the camp traditions and etiquette (other kids have been coming here for years), she makes a few blunders. Tries to make friends by giving away drawings, but finds out later that those friends aren’t the kind you would want. There’s competitions between the boys’ and girls’ side of the camp. Bonfires, hikes in the woods, swimming in the lake. Uncomfortable with bugs, the horrors of the outhouse (and frightful stories made up about it), and shocking things the older girls reveal to her about going through puberty. Vera’s so desperate to be liked, I really felt for her. In the end, she does make a friend- and rescues a lost pet- and it’s her brother who dreads staying at camp longer, while she’s excited for one more week. This was pretty great. Although I can’t imagine sharing it with my ten-year-old, who fears things like the outhouse even more than Vera. Based partly on the author’s experience as a child.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Waking Brain Cells
A Backward Story
anyone else?

by Margarita Engle

Set in Cuba several generations ago, in a large family on a farm. Sometimes times are hard, or violence threatens- roving bandits threaten to steal their livestock or kidnap children for ransom. Yet they find brightness in the lovely flowers and growing things, and there’s a beautiful tradition of storytelling and writing poetry- when a young man wants to court a girl, he writes poems in her ‘album’ book. The whole story is told in verse. I don’t read many books written in poetry, so it’s nicely refreshing. From the viewpoint of young Josefa, called Fefa by her family, who struggles to read. The doctor says she has “word blindness” and will never learn. Other children- including her many siblings- tease her and assume she’s slow or unintelligent. She despairs that nobody will ever write a poem for her (eventually one person does, a grown man- is he teasing or does he have bad intentions? not clear, but it sure makes Fefa feel uncomfortable). Her mother gives her a blank book to practice writing in, and encourages her to keep trying. She gets frustrated with lack of progress though, feeling that words are elusive, wriggling and sliding like living things to evade her understanding. Then there’s a party and her older brother dances with his firearm- which accidentally goes off. Forced to rest and recuperate (lucky to be alive), he spends time patiently helping Fefa with her reading. Slowly her focus starts to show results. And when somebody breaks into their house and leaves a threatening note, Fefa’s acquired attention for detail helps them catch the perpetrator. This book had so many lovely surprises for me, images painted in the mind with words. Gave me a sprinkled depiction of Cuban culture- roasted pig feasts, caiman hunts, wide embracing families. I don’t know why I expected something a little different from the cover- something magical perhaps- but what I got was delightful. It’s based on family history of the author’s grandmother as a child, who struggled with dyslexia.

Rating: 3/5
130 pages, 2012

by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Lovely book I remember so well from my childhood. Although the characters aren’t so lovely themselves at first! but that’s part of the charm, seeing how they grow and change. Orphaned Mary Lennox is downright unpleasant when she arrives in England from India, where her parents had died of cholera. She’s to stay with her distant uncle in a huge old house full of unused rooms. He travels a lot and she’s pretty much left to her own devices. Bored and lonely, she wanders the grounds where she finds a gruff older gardener working. Mary discovers that there’s a locked garden somewhere on the grounds, and curiosity drives her to locate it, and find a way to get inside. She wants to know if anything is left alive, since the garden was locked up for ten years. Partly guided by a friendly robin, she does find the garden and its door- and then keeps it a secret as she works to bring it back to life herself- weeding and coaxing the flowers to grow. Of course she can’t hide it forever. Soon she makes friends with the housemaid’s boy Dickon, and lets him in on her secret. Later she makes a shocking discovery (at least, it shocked me as a child) that she has an invalid cousin, who keeps to his room in another part of the house. The boy is just as spoiled as she was upon arrival to the house, but now she wants to help him grow healthier and enjoy life- by showing him the garden. Together the children conspire to keep their use of the garden hidden from adults- while being out in the fresh air, exercising and enjoying other’s company seems to help the sickly cousin Colin grow stronger. Mary is convinced that the garden is magic- that being among the beautiful growing things helped her, and now it’s helping Colin.

It’s hard to argue with that. A lot of the story has some obvious metaphors- as spring unfolds with the growth of plants, Mary gradually blossoms into a lively, kind child (though she still has her moments of sour temper). It seems the author’s message was that attitude can have a huge influence on how one feels, even affected your health- but I think that’s only to a point. Maybe she carries this idea a little too far- especially in Colin’s case. Everyone around him believed he was a sickly baby who grew into a sickly child who might never live. So he believed it himself. Until Mary startled him out of feeling sorry for himself and took him out in to the garden. Nature the great healer. I liked better the beginning of the story when Mary was attempting to clear things in the garden and help the plants even though she knew so little about it, rather than the end when some of the characters got a bit preachy. But overall it’s still a wonderful story.

I wanted to read this one again because I watched a recent movie version of it with my ten-year-old. I expected some parts to be different from the book, but I was a little disappointed how different they were. For starters, there’s no dog in the original story. The movie left out the old gardener entirely, and he was one of my favorite characters! I was dismayed at how much the movie emphasized the idea of magic, rather than just wholesome living and positive attitudes, working their cure on Mary and Colin. And the garden was oddly full of tropical plants, not at all like I’d pictured it from the book. I recognize that nowadays people have issues with racist attitudes the book showed- particularly towards people of color, and the servants, and even maybe the Yorkshire accent is offensive? those things didn’t bother me at all on a re-read, I suppose nostalgia let me breeze over them too easily. For all that, I still much prefer the original book to what this movie portrayed. However I found in poking around online there’s quite a few older film versions, some look interesting and closer to what I felt was the original feel of the book. I might try and find a few!

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 1911

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
Dear Author
Mr. Leeper’s Bookshelf
anyone else?

Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol II

by Diana Wynne Jones

This one was fun, although it took me a while to get into it. I think because it was covering the thoughts and journal entries and doings of so many different characters in brief snippets, I had trouble keeping them straight or caring who was who and doing what at first. The journal entries were curious because half of them written nonsense and one kid wrote in code, as they knew the teachers would read it. It’s set in a gloomy boarding school, on a world parallel to Earth but where magic exists, and witches are heavily persecuted. So much that anyone accused is in fear of their life, and words like magic are used as swears. When the book opens one teacher has received an anonymous note accusing another student of being a witch. He’s sure some of them are, because quite a few students were orphaned when a parent was burned at the stake, for being that. There follows a lot of ins and outs as various students try to figure out who might be a witch, who did the accusing, are some of the teachers witches too? it seems so. There’s all the usual school scuffles, vying for popularity, trying to avoid detention, pulling pranks on each other, etc- but with the added quirk of magic thrown in. Because yes, some of the kids can do magic- but several of them don’t realize it until later on- and it’s quite delightful to see them all come together in the end and realize who has been doing what, and why. Chrestomanci makes a significant appearance in this one, coming in near the end to help set things straight- but not without the kids getting roundly chastised for causing trouble- and I appreciated that this book had an explanation for Chrestomanci’s role because I had forgotten the details of that when I was reading Magicians of Caprona. Laughed out loud quite a few times while reading this, which is great.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
275

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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